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No.3 of #52Stories: My Sister Rosa

24 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Books | No Comments

52 Stories 2017I had wanted to read Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa right from the time I’d heard about it and read a preview chapter. A book about a 10-year-old psychopath who everyone believes is the cutest and most precocious thing on earth, but who is actually a dangerous and intelligent human being, without a conscience. What’s not to like?! Here’s a teaser from the review:

What makes Rosa even more dangerous is that she has already figured out how to pass for “normal”. And in her young life she has already left a wake of destruction that everyone around her seems completely blind to. Only Che knows—and he has been watching and documenting Rosa for years—that the things that happen around her have all been carefully orchestrated and manipulated by her. Worse, her psychopathic behaviour is escalating, and that terrifies Che, because he knows that next time someone is going to die.

Read the full review here

Well, what do you think?

~PD

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No.2 of #52Stories: A tale of many stories

19 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Workshops | 1 Comment

52 Stories 2017Between September 2016 and January 2017, Devika Rangachari and I conducted a series of 15 sessions on creative writing at Amity International School, Saket, New Delhi, under our Royal Blue banner. The participants were 50-odd students of class VIII, approximately 13 years old, selected by the school to be part of the programme. The aim was to guide them in the basic craft of writing fiction and select the best stories written by the children to be published in an anthology (by the publishing wing of Amity).

While we’ve been conducting one-off creative writing sessions, this was the first long-term programme we’ve worked on (and we certainly hope it won’t be the last). Sharing the “secrets” of cobbling together a good story is always a fun experience, and having an enthusiastic audience always helps. Out of the original 50, about 25 or 30 eventually went on to finish the workshop (though, it must be said, some were erratic as other school activities coincided with our sessions), and 21 stories were selected for the anthology. According to the students’ feedback, they enjoyed the workshop and most of them did say it helped them write better. One or two also professed to developing an interest in reading fiction.

As for us, we learnt quite a bit too, and noticed some interesting things:

  1. Teenagers are quite amenable to being pushed into writing provided you make it interesting for them. However, they seem to respond more to a carrot-and-stick method than an open-ended, write-if-you-want to directive. Our rigid school system is to blame for this, as it seems to train them to deliver only if there’s a punishment or reward at the end of the assignment.
  2. Of the 50 students who were crammed into this session, perhaps 10 or 20 were really interested in writing. In an ideal system, this should have been a voluntary workshop. Also, even though we were the ones to put a cap of 50, the sessions worked much better when there were fewer kids as they were more interactive (and the students too said the same in their feedback).
  3. There was a bizarre preoccupation with death! A significant number of the stories submitted and read out over the course of the workshop had to do with death, dying, killing, suicide. Is it because, at 13, dying doesn’t seem as real because, well, you’re only 13? Many of the stories were also about being alone, being left alone, not having any family or losing/finding one’s family. That was more understandable.
  4. Most of the stories, with the exception of one or two, featured Western (American) settings and characters. It was interesting, because this is something that I did too when writing as a teen (only, my settings and protagonists were British as that was the fiction I’d grown up reading). This underlines the importance of representation of one’s own culture, environment or whatever you want to call it. These kids have grown up reading, and are reading, books based in the West, and seem to be unable to imagine stories based in their realities. Somewhere in their heads (as it was in mine when I was 13), to be in a story, you have to belong to that world, an imaginary, aspirational one they have imagined from the stories they have been reading. It is by no means a bad thing to set your story in a different culture or have characters who are not like you, but when that setting becomes the same, monolithic one, and the characters sound eerily unreal, it deserves some attention. (Discussing this will have to be a whole new post, though.)
  5. Even though Indian students are trained to respond like trained dogs—they’ll do something if not doing it means there will be a punishment—it doesn’t mean they’re above a bit of cheating to get there. Quite a few of the submitted stories were printed straight from the Web. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that it is easier for us to check for plaigairism than it is for them to find, download and print stories. In their defence, after a long lecture on how copyright violation is a crime for which one can go to jail, most of them did withdraw their stories.
  6. A surprising number of stories featured older protagonists, that is, these 13-year-olds were writing as adults, with what they thought were adult voices.
  7. And finally, the language skills of these class VIII students were appalling. With the exception of about three or four, not one could write a grammatically correct sentence. This was surprising as quite a few of them read. What was equally surprising was that the school didn’t seem particularly concerned about this in general.

It would be really interesting to examine if these observations were peculiar to this bunch of students or if they are a general statement on the middle-class, English-educated 13-year-olds in Delhi. I suppose we may find out eventually.

~PD

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No. 1 of #52Stories: Limbo

16 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Gaming, Reviews | No Comments

52 Stories 2017You know that feeling of being in a dream, where the world feels a bit out of focus, where everything is just a little out of reach, and where you have a sense of knowing that you have to go on but no idea why? Well, Limbo is sort of like that. I would go so far as to say that it’s a work of art, one whose its strength lies in its simplicity.

The surreal world of Limbo

Limbo dates back to 2010, developed by the independent Danish studio Playdead (who have since brought out another, very similar game called INSIDE in 2016). It is a puzzle platformer, but nothing like you’ve ever seen before. In Limbo the player controls the protagonist, a little boy who wakes up on the floor of a forest. You don’t have any information about who he is or what he is supposed to do; you can’t even point and click at things. All you have are the arrow and alt keys to make him move, jump and interact with his environment, that is, push and pull.

The gameplay takes place in the aforementioned forest, a vile, menacing space. The forest is full of dark shadows and blurry shapes. As the boy goes deeper into this nebulous, murky world, he confronts untold dangers and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But he must keep going—who knows where and why. This incongruity of a seemingly innocent little boy along among the concealed dangers of this surreal world is what gives Limbo its edge and you, the player, a chill down your spine.

The surreal world of Limbo

The artwork is hauntingly engaging—silhouettes in shades of grey, used beautifully to convey a sense of depth. The cute-creepy little protagonist is but a solid featureless figure with two bright spots as eyes. The foreground in which the action takes place is also in dark silhouette, and lighter greys are used to convey depth and layers, while light streams in to create soft shadows and highlight dust motes, and underline that sense of dreaminess. But the softness of the environment is skin deep, for you don’t need to go too far to find the menace in Limbo. You must steel yourself to watch the little boy fall, and by that I mean die, and die in gruesome ways. There’s no blood, no mourning. He just gets up and tries again.

Death is serious in Limbo. Timing and the environment are all you have to bridge unpassable terrain, to keep going, to defeat the vile creatures that bar your way, and to bypass the deadly traps that will sever your protagonist’s limbs. Yes, the deaths can be grisly—you watch the kid getting snapped in two, decapitated, skwered by the legs of a giant spider; you watch him go limp when he falls into water, you watch his body crumple when he falls from a height. You don’t need graphic imagery to recoil when steel traps squelchily snap the little body into pieces or when all sounds stop as water engulfs the boy and he stops moving.

Gameplay-wise, there’s a fair bit of trial and error to get past certain sections, made a little bit harder because you know that every failure means you have to watch the grim death scene again. And, of course, the puzzles do get harder as you go on. Thanks to the short chapters, there are frequent autosaves, meaning that you don’t always have to redo a really complex bit that you just about managed after many tries.

Since I have yet to get to the end of Limbo, I don’t yet know what the story will unfold. It’s already one of my favourite games of the year and it’s still the first half of January.

~PD

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