17 November 2007

Saawariya through White Nights

Literary Blues

Having read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights, I thought seeing Saawariya from a literary perspective might be an addition to the varied reviews we've had on the film.
I’ve noted below a few points that occurred to me when I saw the film earlier this week.

It’s not difficult to see why Bhansali was enamoured by Dostoevesky and White Nights. Given that the latter’s writings are generally characterized by an emotional frenzy, a nervous excitability where words seem to tumble on to each other, Bhansali possibly felt a kindred spirit with the Russian litterateur.
Additionally, White Nights deals, at least partially with the theme of love and separation ie virah, the filmmaker’s favourite rasa (among the nav-rasas), one that runs prominently in at least two of the filmmaker’s previous works.

The filmmaker has doggedly stuck to Dostoevsky’s vision, though one must hastily add that the latter’s preoccupations are much larger than what Bhansali can manage to convey cinematically.
Which is why, if the film disappoints in the end, it is less to do with the director’s abilities (or lack of it) and more to do a making a questionable literary choice for screen adaptation.

Gulabo (a superlative Rani Mukherjee), as the frisky and warm-hearted prostitute and Miss Lolipop (Zohra Sehgal), as the forlorn landlady are two stock characters which are Bhansali’s own creations ---- they aren’t present in the original. But both these characters work faithfully at projecting further Dostoevsky’s profound theme of the alienation of the human soul and the yearning for love. So in that sense, Bhansali does not stray while attempting to flesh out White Nights, a novella which doesn't try to offer much in terms of story and primarily works on a certain abstract level only.

Dostoevsky’s idea through the story is a deeply affecting one, one that alludes to the loneliness of mankind--- the horrific silences that descend upon us once noises around die down, the romantic spirit’s desperate urge to find love and then to hold on to it, even if it is an illusion. Or weaving dreams around it and then desperately hoping it will turn true.

The author’s setting is a simple one, entirely a two-character narrative with the boy and girl sitting together and pouring out their feelings in the comfort of a night and a stranger. The recounting comes close to being a stream-of-consciousness one, managing to wrench out a great deal of emotional intensity as it proceeds.
Dostoevsky’s story is anything by a plot-driven one. What he conveys among other things is an idea of chronic romanticism, and this he does effectively within a small literary scale. The narrative itself is quite verbose, the sentences are long-winding and there’s hardly any action happening here. It touches some very high emotional peaks but there very few external conflicts.

This is where Bhansali’s problem lies. A short story, by its very nature has a distinct trajectory, one that can be quite unidimensional without too many plot points. Also, my understanding is that not all short stories can be treated in a stand-alone manner, because most of them are just nuggets intricately tied to the author’s extended theme spread across his works.

This is fine when one is making a film like The Blue Umbrella (derived from Ruskin Bond’s short story),which is mounted on a relatively smaller scale. (In any case, The Blue Umbrella covers a larger physical spectrum than Saawariya.)
But here, the story is so thinly laid, it is almost slight, but that doesn’t stop Bhansali from giving his film a grand operatic treatment or creating enough room for himself to satiate his artistic indulges.
The problem here is that the film severely lacks in action and mere artistic showmanship was never going to enable it to touch the pathos or emotional intensity of White Nights. Taking an idea is one thing but adapting a literary piece of work without grasping the limitations it poses for a cinematic adaptation, is quite another.
For example Metro deals with almost the same ideas in many ways but it handles the theme in its own contemporary manner, which is why it succeeds inin engaging an audience.

Yet, Saawariya is worth a watch, given that Bhansali makes it a visually sumptuous experience and his handling of the story (whatever its worth), is mature. There are some huge pluses to take home from the film. Ranbir is quite candidly, the find of the decade. Along with Rani Mukherjee, Ranbir delivers a knock-out performance in a film that offers him very little support in terms of script. Sonam is one of the prettiest girls I’ve seen on screen in a while now but she does have a long way to go as an actress.
Rani is, well, Rani. The screenplay throbs back to life each time she appears. And was it just me, but I thought she greatly resembled Sharmila Tagore here.

Finally Saawariya is a film, which I suspect, will age quite well inspite of its languorous pace and a non-existent plot (Some portions are a big yawn!)
Also, there is something in Ranbir’s character that captures beautifully the spirit of Dostoevsky and for that alone, Saawariya, is watchable.

30 October 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

When sparks fly

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction Price: 295
Published in : 2007

Price: 295

I've been trying to read some good Pakistani writing in English for a while now. And I'm glad I made an introduction with Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who earlier wrote Moth Smoke, a novel, which Rahul Bose is now adapting into a film.

Lately, there has been a flowering of young Pakistani writers like Hamid and Kamila Shamsie (Cartography, Salt And Saffron), and in many ways, this is the first literary stirring that the country is witnessing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist looks at the increasingly volatile and precariously balanced relationship between the West (United States) and East (South Asian Muslim countries), and how without a certain sense empathy, this equation will steadily spiral downwards.

Interestingly, Hamid’s point here is that a feeling of fundamentalism can arise in the unlikeliest of people, when they feel pushed to a corner.

The novel’s protagonist, Changez is a Princeton graduate, has led a charmed life back in Pakistan and is all set for a enviable career in New York.
He bags a job with one of the premium companies of the city, Underwood Samson and in a short while, is recogonised as one of the firm’s brightest young talents.

If he thought life couldn't get better, he’s proved wrong. Soon enough, he falls in love with Erica, a rich, pretty and artistically inclined American girl. But this relationship is fraught with troubles. Though there is a great deal of affection and even curiosity between Changez and Erica about their respective backgrounds, theirs remains a largely unfulfilling bond. Erica cannot get over Chris, her boyfriend who died some years back and thereby, can never fully 'open up' (sexually too) with Changez. In a moment of frustration and even resentment, the latter asks her to imagine him as Chris and make love.

This is when you realize that Hamid’s constructed an allegory here. Erica stands for America (Erica), and symbolises the deep infactuation Changez feels for her on certain levels. His own company is called Underwood Sampsons, standing for US, a highly competitive firm with a narrow focus on its own progress.

Erica's inability to accept Changez, unless he 'becomes' Chris, quite clearly, hints at the country's unwillingness to accept the former’s identity for what it primarily is.

Till this point, Changez largely shares a love-hate equation with the US. He loves being a New Yorker, both his high-flying job and girlfriend fill his heart with a sense of pride. However, at the same time, Hamid's protagonist is no pushover. Clearly, Changez has a mind of his own and feels a deep sense of attachment to his motherland (Pakistan). The fact that bright minds like him have to desert their own country, to fill the coffers of an already overdeveloped, supercilious country, leaves him frustrated.

This realisation further dawns upon him when 9/11 occurs and Changez feels a strange sense of thrill at 'someone bringing America to its knees'. From there on, life is never the same and his disenchantment with America is complete.

Erica is afflicted with a mental illness and slowly fades away (literally) from his life. This is a period when Changez also develops a certain rebellious streak, refusing to either cut off his beard or focus on his job. News of America's attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistan's closest neighbour fills his heart with resentment and from there on, it's only a matter of time before he loses his job.
Once back in Pakistan, Changez becomes a professor at a University, 'who makes it his mission on the campus to advocate Pakistan's disengagement with America'

Though the book does not, in any way, glorify fundamentalism, it subtly points at how sparks of fundamentalism can be ignited in the most placid looking people and circumstances. Hamid succeeds in making his central character-Changez engaging from the word go and it helps that this book is a rather compact, slim one, without too much rambling.

But, while Hamid's attempt at constructing an allegorical narrative is interesting, it is hardly intrusive enough to lend the story any kind of depth. If anything, it slackens its dramatic pace, making it both tedious and essayist.
On the other hand, Changez's professional life has been treated with great flair and understanding.
There are great stories to be written on the increasing east-west gulf and the growing feelings of mistrust between both continents. The Reluctant Fundamentalist only skims the surface, but nevertheless Hamid does enough to prove that he's a writer to watch out for.

24 October 2007

Romancing With Life, an autobiography

A Guide to self-love

Author: Dev Anand
Pages: 417
Publisher: Penguin
Published in: 2007

Love or hate this book by Dev Anand but if there's one thing going for it, it is the fact that, unlike most autobiographies that are ghost-written, this one is, without a shred of doubt, penned by the man himself.
How else do you explain the fact that the book has the exact trajectory for his career-- from delightful to delusional?
The fun part of this book is that it doesn't necessarily require you to read it in sequence. I for one, was quickly drawn to pages in the middle where he talks about how he fell in love his protegee Zeenat Aman and was jealous when Raj Kapoor 'made advances' and took her on for Satyam Shivam Sundaram. He says, "A hint of suspicion crossed my mind. A couple of days earlier, a rumour had been floating around that Zeenat had gone to Raj's studio for a screen test for the main role in his movie. The hearsay now started ringing true. My heart was bleeding."
Another part that I noticed while I was browsing it and stayed to read, was the phone call that the actor made to writer R K Narayan, requesting the rights to make The Guide, which eventually ofcourse, turned out to be one of the highlights in the actor's career.

Clearly, the first 200 pages or so of this book are extremely readable and abound in many interesting anecdotes. From his intense love story with Suraiya to his enchanting bicycle rides with Guru Dutt in the serene lanes of Pune (then Poona), from his guilt at driving rashily and hurting co-star Geeta Bali to his child-like excitement at creating avant garde cinema with his charismatic elder brother, Chetan Anand....all of it points towards a man deeply romantic, eternally optimistic, with an insatiable desire to be loved and lusted after.

In many ways, Dev Anand's nervous energy and creative longing to break free from established cinematic norms perfectly reflected the zeitgeist of the 50s and 60s, a period that was looking pregnant with possibilities.

That he had an exaggerated sense of himself and his works even at the height of his stardom is quite obvious. But to give him his due, his passion for cinema mixed a perilous streak for taking risks is what gave him an edge as an actor and producer. Additionally, Dev Anand was blessed to have two phenomenally talented filmmakers as his brothers.

Understandably, Dev Anand talks with great enthusiasm and pride about his milestone, Guide, a film which, he says, everyone thought would come to a big naught. But the actor chose to go ahead in a reckless spirit of creative revelation and the results were there to see.

Undoubtedly, these were the best years of the actor's career and somehow, the honeymoon for the book pretty ends here too.
Yes, it's passable till the point the actor talks about Zeenat, Tina Munim ('naughty, mischievous and frivolous')and his ventures like Hare Rama Hare Krishna (inspired from the hippie culture he saw in Nepal), Ishq Ishq Ishq ('my biggest disaster...but an inspiring, exhilarating experience'). Here, I must add that the actor's penchant for travel allows him to come up with some inspired pieces of writing now and then.
While it's amply clear that Dev Anand's career was fast fading even as a filmmaker by the 80s, the actor isn't willing to entertain these thoughts, in the firm belief that he is still considered God by fans.
Given that the actor is a true blue Libran, a perennial optimistic, who has preferred to see the brighter side of life, this could be viewed in a more compassionate light.
And mind you, it is this very trait that allowed him to tide over several disappointments. Even in the chapter where he describes his searing hurt at Zeenat opting for Raj Kapoor, there is no element of malaise and the actor always ends it on a positive note.
Dev Anand chooses to gloss over his failures and over highlight the achievements, but that is exactly how the actor has led his life.

However, even with this consideration, it's difficult not to be amused by some of the claims he makes. He calls his film, Awwal Number with Aamir Khan as 'ahead of its times' and that it 'found a resonance later in Lagaan'!
Similarly, he's taken in by a supposed comment by someone that India should have chosen his film Censor, as it's entry for the Oscars. He also prefers to defend all his duds (even horrible ones like Gangster and Main Sola Baras Ki), using the convenient excuse that the quality of a film has nothing to do with its boxoffice fate.

But these irritations are minor when you compare it to the actor's incorrigible obsession with nymphets. Without any exaggeration, every second page has a description of a nameless woman who delighted him in some part of the world. He even tries to do a Mills & Boons writing a sexual encounter with a young woman.

Disappointingly, the actor prefers to focus on the likes of his discoveries(?) like Mint and some others of her like, rather than talk a little more about his leading co-stars like Hema Malini, Asha Parekh, Sadhana etc.
There are no great revelations here (In fact, Dev Anand doesn't even reveal his age anytime in the book once he turns 31!) but the autobiography does well to provide a portrait of a man, hopelessly in love with himself and derived his strength from it.
The book is recommended for the wonderful references it brings forth, right from politics to world cinema. The last few pages are especially painful and a film buff is most likely to scoff at it.
Yet, it has its moments, particularly parts that depict the efflorescence of one of Hindi cinema’s most charming actors.

13 October 2007

Stars From Another Sky

Bombay Dreams

Author: Saadat Hasan Manto
Pages: 215
Genre: Film writing

Just a few days ago, I read Ismat Chughtai's Lifting of The Veil, a book of short stories, wherein she had dedicated one entire chapter to her contemporary writer-friend, Saadat Hasan Manto. Both were the wild kids of Urdu literature and between them, they shared a unique love-hate relationship.

Whenever they met, along with Ismat's writer-husband Shahid Latif, there were heated intellectual debates between the two, often leading to brief periods of resentment. However, they also established a certain bond, courtesy the common heartache they suffered on account of several legal cases they were saddled with(both were accused of obscenity in their works).However, once Manto left for Pakistan after the Partition, bad days fell upon him and he was reduced to penury. Ismat writes how Manto kept writing to her for help but after a while, she thought it best to avoid him.

It was around this period that Manto wrote Stars Of Another Sky, a chronicle of the best days of his life, when he was a vital part of the Bombay film industry, which was just about beginning to take shape. This was as early as 1940, and several Urdu writers were being approached to write scripts for Hindi films. Manto was in no time sucked into the dazzling world of cinema. He got close to a number of stars and directors, worked on several scripts, then took up job at All India Radio, Delhi and even turned film journalist for a few years.

However, after partition, he preferred to live in Pakistan, a decision he probably came to regret. Tired of being saddled with court cases, Manto decided to write a 'clean' book where in he would recount his experiences about the Bombay film industry, a world which he not only deeply cared about and also something he couldn't get out of his system till his dying day.

Whatever troubles Manto was going through, his writings continued to throb with life the minute he put pen to paper and recollected those glorious days he spent in Mumbai. In fact, the very first line of this book will give you a sense of what a wonderfully impish, chalu writer Manto was.

He says, "When Najmul Hassan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil." Of course, for those wondering what eventually came of this girl crooning 'mein ban ki chidiya bun bun boolun re' to Ashok Kumar, well, she was persuaded to come back to her husband Himanshu Rai, owner of Bombay Talkies. This is one of the several hundred anecdotes that this book covers with irony and a dash of humour.

Of course, unlike Ismat, who I felt could get extremely pedestrian in thoughts and quite pitiless in her portrayals, Manto has a certain good-natured charm and kindness about him. Which is why, even when he's being brutally honest about someone, it rarely comes across as purely vindictive or petty. Manto talks with great affection about his friend Ashok Kumar, who he describes as 'an evergreen hero who treated all the women falling over him with the greatest indifference’. Says Manto, "Temperamentally, he was a rustic. His living style and his food habits also had a touch of rusticity. Devika Rani tried to have an affair with him but he rebuffed her rather brusquely."

The film names that crop up here are Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Eighty Days, Sikander, Ujala, Mehal, Begam etc that were made under the few banners and studios that existed. When differences cropped up, practically every major employee from Bombay Talkies walked out to form the Filmistan Studios. But clearly, as a writer, Manto was more fascinated by the numerous love intrigues that seemed to be teeming the film world of the 40s.

The most hilarious one is relating to the incorrigible lady seducer
Rafiq Ghaznavi, a well-known musician of the time who held a disdain towards domesticated, straight women and a great fetish for the wild and the wanton types.

Another hugely entertaining chapter involves the gifted dancer SitaraDevi and her ravenous sexual exploits with her leading men. She came to marry one of her heroes Al Nazir and for a few years, their sizzling bedtime chemistry kept the relationship steady. Manto describes their insatiable sexual appetite with obvious relish and guess who was secretly privy to some of these vigourous love sessions–none other than Nazir's nephew, K Asif, who not only went on to marry Sitara Devi but who came to be recogonised for his masterpiece Mughal-e-Azam.

The other interesting bit is about his sour sweet meetings with Nargis, who wasn't too accessible to Manto, a relatively less successful film writer. According to Manto, it was only Nargis' innocence, sincerity and artlessness that took her through, otherwise he describes her as a very average performer. There are stories about Nur Jahan, whose mellifluous voice generated the craziest of fans all around the country. There's an interesting episode Manto describes where at a function, he compares the shockingly dressed Nur Jahan to the Marathi actress Shobhna Samarth who he says had 'superb manners'
But he also concludes her story saying what a happy marriage she had with two lovely sons.
There's a chapter on actor Shyam as well, one of Manto's closest friends who actually cared to send him some money to Pakistan, when bad times fell on the latter.

Manto, on several occasions has been accused of obscenity and propagating sexist views but in this particular book, I didn't see any of those signs. If anything, I felt he had largely progressive ideas about women working in films. It was indeed a time when girls from 'good, cultured families' wouldn't dream of joining films. And it's also true that many of the leading ladies of the time were either courtesans themselves or had a family background. For example, Nargis' mother was a renowned courtesan, Nur Jahan's sister and brother ran a brothel, Paro Devi was a courtesan....so on and so forth. But Manto preferred to view them as professionals and saw nothing wrong with their chosen field of work. Similar, he takes a hard stand against a friend who left his wife because she couldn't give him a child.

Since all these pieces were written as separate articles also, they do appear slightly disjointed and there are quite a few repetitions as well.
But ultimately, this is a highly entertaining, heart-felt read about an era of cinema one knows little about.
-Sandhya Iyer

10 October 2007

An Outline Of The Republic

View from the precipice

Author: Siddhartha Deb
Price: Rs 495
Pages: 320
Genre: Political thriller

'I was going the wrong way, he had said, and the road seemed to offer little to challenge his view'...these are the random thoughts that enter Amrit, a young journalist's head, as he makes a precarious journey through borderline North Eastern states in India. And for many reasons, as a reader, one feels the same sense of futility with the story that Amrit is trying to chase.

Based somewhere in the early 90s, (as the portable typewriter that he carries around would suggest,)Amrit, a correspondent of a Calcutta-based newspaper called Sentinel, is urged to go to the unexplored borderline states and look out for 'light' stories. Nothing beyond adventure travel, folk and festivals, his editor warns.

But Amrit, disappointed by his own idleness, looks at it as an opportunity to explore a world caught in turmoil. He's spurred on further when his German acquaintance, Herman shows interest in a picture about an Indian woman, tied and captured by two masked men from an insurgent group called MORLS. The men announce that they would be shooting the woman as punitive action for acting in a porn film.

Herman sees potential in the story that could be then forwarded to the German magazines he knows of. He expects a story that would be emblematic 'of the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph'

It wouldn't need even a journalist's instinct to see this as a pretty weak premise. There's a terrible lack of conviction to the story that Amrit is following and at many points, the events around him appear more relevant than the story itself. Which means the author's attempt to weave in an interesting political thriller, with various characters providing leads to the story, fails to engage. And it doesn't help that the narrator, fighting his own past demons, remains mostly a detached, cynical narrator, barely interested in the people he meets.

Where the novel scores heavily is in its topographical descriptions that provides glimpses (the images come in flashes) into this fragmented, peripheral world that is ' just too far way' for anyone to be concerned with. The apathy, in turn, means a life of constant dread, despair and disillusionment for the people of this otherwise, lush hinterland.
There are several disconcerting accounts here....
Like one gets to know how most of these parts being severely low on voltage manage to generate only dim yellow lights, which feels like ‘the onset of a fever, a sickness….
Similarly, the desperate state of unemployment around these regions strikes you when you see young, educated people masking themselves, while driving rickshaws. As explained, it is an attempt to keep one’s identity hidden and suggests a search for a better life.
There are more such striking moments in this otherwise languorously paced novel.
To summarize, An Outline of a Republic (also called Surface) is not a wholly engaging read but that is, I suspect, mostly to do with certain creative choices made here. Otherwise, Siddhartha Deb strikes you as nothing but an astute, insightful and talented writer. The fact that Deb grew up in a lower middle class family in the North-East allows him to go through his subject with a certain amount of assurance and control.
Yet, for most part, this elegant novel remains too elusive and unsentimental to touch at the heart of the matter.

-Sandhya Iyer

02 October 2007

Lady Susan: Jane Austen's first attempt at writing

Coquette Caper

Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1871 (written much earlier)
Pages: 80 pages

One of Jane Austen's earliest works, this novel, written in an epistolary form, didn't get published as late as 1871.
Clearly, Austen was trying to find her feet in the literary world and chose a form that was relatively easier to write.

The story has Lady Susan as its central character, a natural born coquette, who has an easy way with men of all ages. Widowed lately and economically weakened, Lady Susan uses her eloquent charms and grace to entice men, more as amusement and a reiteration of her power over men than anything else.

The fact that Susan manages to entrap the best of men, inspite of not being in the bloom of youth, surprises everyone around her, except herself.
Among the three men who fall in love with her, one is her sister-in-law's brother, Reginald, a handsome young man, who though initially wary of her reputation, gets so utterly charmed when he meets her, that in due course even proposes marriage -much to the dismay and shock of his family.
Her second lover and probably the only one for whom she betrays some true feelings is Mr Manwaring, a much married man who is deeply enamoured by lady Susan.
The third one is Sir James, who is so much in love with her, that he's even ready to marry Lady Susan's daughter, Fredrika, on her command.

Like all other Austen novels, this one too casts an ironic look at nineteenth century England, with its ingrained hypocrisy. And even though Lady Susan is the author's primary object of satire, all the other characters are satarised in at least a small measure. Catherine Vernon, who is dead against her brother Reginald marrying Lady Susan, is quick to note that she mustn't antogonize the latter too much, amidst the possibility of the latter becoming her sister-in-law.
Again, Lady Susan's trusted friend, Mrs Johnson is quick to politely sever ties with the former when she sees herself getting into the least bit of trouble.

However, it must be said that the limitations of the form prevents the story from gaining any sort of real depth and even the characters remain far from being well-etched. For a lead character, Lady Susan has been portrayed as incredibly unidimensional and flat. Austen is guilty of treating her in a charmless way and it's never quite clear how she manages to trap every man she meets.

Though the central character, quite obviously, Austen is trying to bring out the amorous, illicit, amoral world that lurks beneath the surface respectability and propriety that is projected.

While the book is obviously not one of Austen's best, it doesn't fail to demonstrate her trademark wit, irony and delightful play of sentences.

Sample this:

"Oh, how delightful it was to watch the variations of his countenance while I spoke! to see the struggle between returning tenderness and the remains of displeasure."

"I do not wish to work on your fears, but on your sense and affection."

"But a state of dependence on the caprice of Sir Reginald will not suit the freedom of my spirit"

This should give an indication of why an Austen novel is an irresistible read, in any form
-Sandhya Iyer

26 September 2007

Lifting the Veil

Author: Ismat Chughtai
Publishers: Penguin
Publishing Date: 2001
Price: Rs 250
Pages: 261

Genre: Short stories

'In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It's my belief that experiences can never be obscene, if they are based on authentic realities of life'

These are the first few lines that introduces readers to enfant terrible of the Urdu writing world, Ismat Chughtai and it's hard not to marvel at the original thought process here. However, this also means that Ismat's stories sometimes tend to get too direct, tasteless and pedestrian in both words and thoughts.

In what can be described as a superb introduction (I couldn't site the author’s name here) to this book, the reader is acquainted with the sort of person Ismat was, which in a large way influenced her writing style and choice of subjects. As the book describes, Ismat was a born rebel, who wouldn't accept great works of literature or theories without scrutiny. Highly individualistic, Ismat believed that a healthy skepticism was the first essential condition to arrive at the truth.

Which is exactly why, when she started writing (1945 onwards), she managed to break several existing moulds of writing, thereby shocking the daylights of out conservatives.
The short story that brought her into mainstream writing was Lihaaf (The Quilt), which spoke about lesbianism for the first time. There was a huge uproar and even the post-D H Lawrence British were displeased and Ismat found herself saddled with legal cases for promoting 'obscenity'
The story itself talks about Begam Jaan, who is left lonely and sad at home, by her husband who keeps himself engaged with 'young, slender-waisted' students --(there's a homosexual hint here too).
Finally, Begam Jaan's waning spirits are lifted when she finds a 'partner' in her maid, Rabbu.
Ismat's choice of narrator here is a child, who is witness to not just the ongoing scenes between the women but is also close to being 'molested' by Begam Jaan on one occasion.
Lihaaf is probably one of Ismat's most well-known stories, also one of her her most critiqued ones. Feminists were quick to lap it up, hailing it as one of the primary works in Urdu literature that recognizes female sexual desire and portrays it both convincingly and courageously.

While this is not hard to agree with, I'm not convinced that the story really does any service to the cause of 'alternative sexuality'.
Ismat, using a child as a narrator, views lesbianism both with a certain amount of horror and cruel humour. Also the imagery below supports this argument.

"The quilt crept into my brain and began to grow larger. I stretched my leg nervously to the other side of the bed, groped for the switch and turned the lights on. The elephant somersaulted inside the quilt, which deflated immediately. During the somersault, a corner of the quit rose by almost a foot'
'Good God!' I gasped and sunk deeper into my bed.

Considering the common theme that runs in most of Ismat's stories, it's clear that she sympathises with the sexual repression of women in a middle-class hypocritical society. Viewed under this light, Lihaaf is ultimately a sad story about the desperation that comes over a lonely, sexually deprived woman.

The best stories in this book are The Invalid (a superb narrative that casts a wonderfully incisive look into the psyche of a patient), Tiny's Granny (heart-wrenching), Gainda (on the sexual urge in a child), Homemaker/Gharwali (entertaining, dealing with 'sexual erasure' that is expected from 'clean' middle-class women)

Then, there are two other stories, mostly autobiographical; My Friend My Enemy, which speaks about her love-hate, high-strung relationship with writer-friend Manto and In The Name Of Those Married Women, which deals with her legal troubles involving The Quilt.
These are again great stories, recounted with her trademark bluntness and sharp wit.

Two other autobiographical stories are Hell-bound and Childhood. The former is a hard-hitting, pitiless portrayal of her writer-brother, Azim and while, it is probably one of the most engaging and impactful stories in the book, I also found it a bit tasteless in its ruthless dissection of a man long dead.

"Childhood" is mediocre writing, wherein Ismat chronicles her life as a child and the tough times she spent with her mother.
Now, Ismat's writings are never particularly reflective but this is an utterly charmless story, with poorly fleshed out characters an clichés galore. There are quite a few other stories as well here, which can easily be skipped.

The fact that Ismat belonged to the realist tradition of writers meant that she never adopted any complicated narrative style. In fact, her writing is clearly derived from the oral tradition of storytelling.
With her racy, uninhabited and spontaneous style of writing, she assures that all her stories move at break-neck speed. But her stubborn refusal to adopt certain modernist narrative techniques also means that many of her stories appear extremely formulaic. Also, the bigger trouble is that one never really gets into the psyche of her characters.

Ultimately, Ismat's biggest achievement will remain that she brought out repressed female sexual desire from the curtains of middle-class morality. Her boldness proved to a boon to several other women writers, who were able to free themselves of the existing taboos in literature and give wings to their feelings.

-Sandhya Iyer

13 September 2007

The Hungry Tide

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Pages: 403
Year of Publication: 2004
Publishers: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 250

Element encounter

The entire action of the novel takes place in India's Sundarbans. The jacket of the book tells you about the setting, ‘Between the sea and the plain of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed braved the man-eating tigers and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the mud’
However, the picture changed towards the start of the last century, when a visionary Scotsman bought a few of these fragmented islands from the British to form a utopian settlement, where people irrespective of race, caste, culture could live together.

Considering the sheer scope that this theme allows in terms of enumerating the legends, folk-lore, history and geological wonders, it's no surprise that it caught the author's interest.
Also, it enables Ghosh to highlight the raging social debate about forest conservation vis a vis human settlement.
The story follows Indian-born American marine biologist, Piyali Roy, who is in search of rare river dolphins. During this adventure, she encounters two  different men. Kanai - a smug, urbane Delhi entrepreneur and Fokir, an illiterate but a proud local man of Lusibari.
While Piya is in Sudarbans for her project, Kanai is at the islands at the behest of his aunt, Nirmala.
Their paths cross and it is through their interwoven lives that Ghosh looks at the various elements of his theme. Piya, through her conscientious drive to unravel the hidden wonders of nature, is instantly attracted to Fokir's animal instinct and raw charm. Kanai, on the other hand, leaves her cold. Piya is not impressed with Kania’s superciliousness, and between the two men, finds herself constantly  leaning towards the natural, unalloyed world that Fokir represents.
Ghosh brings in the debate about human settlements in forested lands through Piya and Kanai.

Given the vagaries of nature in this place, with its unrelenting storms, changing tides and thriving wild life, Piya believes God probably intended it that way and any human intrusion that harms it must be disallowed.
On the other hand, Kanai supports the theory of human beings getting preference over animals. But again, Piya argues that this kind of short shrift shown to lesser beings will never end, whether they are animals or human beings.
The face-off between Fokir and Kanai that happens during their boat trip, is rightly then the sign of the growing hostility between the ‘civilised world’ and rustics. Here, Fokir’s fear of the outsiders (Kania) can be alternatively read as nature’s resistance to people like Kanai who ‘intrude’ upon its territory.

There’s another story that runs parallel to this one. Kanai reads out notes from his uncles' diary which allows the author to introduce the readers to a different time period in Sundarban’s history, it’s myths, legends, compulsions etc...
Ghosh's novel is textured and effortlessly transports you into the land he describes. Every swish of the wind and swirl of the water are beautifully captured.

The novel does become tedious in the middle with scholarly details of every kind infused in the pages. If pitched as a travelogue this imight have been excusable but otherwise most will just be sifting through these pages.

 Ghosh puts his interest as an anthropologist above the story, which brings the action to a complete standstill at one point. 

As for the characters, Ghosh approaches some of them with great understanding –Piya’s character is beautifully etched but there are others like Nilima, whose character slips into melodrama. Also, the manner in which Kanai is established as a cad in the novel is also a bit tastelesly done.

Ghosh, while offering no real answers through his novel vis a vis the larger issues at hand, does offer an engrossing work of literature about a lesser known world.

23 August 2007


Author: Nikita Lalwani
Published in:2007
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 272
Price: 395
Genre: Fiction

With quite an uninspiring title and zero buzz around it, it wasn't likely that I'd have picked this book up anytime soon. But given that it's in this year's Booker long list (whatever that's worth), and considering my growing fondness for Indian literature, I gave it a shot in the dark.

For most part, the novel’s central theme is a brutal examination of how bright, young minds can emotionally collapse, under the weight of exacting parental pressure and isolation. That the story is set in London in the 80s is relevant to the extent that the family here is among the first generation NRIs, who believe their children, being born in a western world, have a greatly enhanced and realistic chance of making it big. It's another thing that the period feel didn't come across too well for me.

The fact that the intellectually inclined Mahesh grasps the potential of his 10-year-old daughter, Rumi, as a maths protégée and prods her to ‘focus’ at every point, appeals at a certain level. But as he takes over her life completely, breaking up her every free minute into exacting schedules, lowering the room temperature to keep her ‘alert’ and constantly keeping her mind engaged in equations, you know there’s something eerily wrong. Mahesh and Rumi’s relationship has its tender moments but when fatherly hands are raised to desperate wails on one occasion, something snaps here permanently.

While psychotic levels of academic excellence is demanded from Rumi, unfortunately, that's not her only point of crisis. An adherence to strict Indian values is another burden she has to carry.
Rumi’s mother Shreene, while apathetic to the constant number churning in the house, is portrayed as so backward that she comes across as one of the most despicable characters in the book. There’s a scene where 15-year-old Rumi, walks up to her mother firmly telling her that it’s time that she got a bra! Shreene’s reaction to this ‘suggestive’ request is one of shock and disdain! Obviously, the author's choice of period offers such scenes a semblance of rationality but thereby Lalwani ends up putting Rumi through situations that expect inhuman levels of stoicism from her.

Rumi's relief comes when she can finally leave home as a Maths protégée to Oxford at 15! There's a brilliant scene here where she starts making different faces at the mirror, spouting the most obscene expletives. This is her first moment of freedom! It's especially touching to see her unleash her suppressed sexuality through free physical expression of it whenever she gets a chance, only to be misunderstood and spurned by different guys. Also, Rumi's addiction of cumin seeds, indicates her severe depression and rage.

Figures don't make sense to Rumi anymore and she struggles through her Oxford lectures, until she decides to completely release herself from the web of numbers.

The book scores heavily on originality. But more importantly, it possesses a rare emotional power that makes it both a heartbreaking and deeply affective read on several counts. Also, it's quite a mad story really.
Of course, this is not to say that Nikita Lalwani's debut novel is perfect. Besides some of the conversational pieces that have been very ordinarily handled (yet, there are some brilliant ones too), I also had issues with such a lopsided narrative, that offers absolutely no respite to its young protagonist.

The story remains uniformly engaging, with grim family showdowns, and a certain element of suspense running throughout, qualities probably derived from her work as a producer of documentaries for BBC.

All in all, this is a prominent debut by a writer this year and I for one, would be interested in Nikita Lalwani's next offering.

20 August 2007

The Namesake

In nameless conflict

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Price: 395
Pages: 291
Published in: 2003
Publishers: Harper Collins

It would only be fair to mention here that I saw Mira Nair's adaptation of the book before I actually got down to reading this novel recently. Having loved the film, I was keen to see how Lahiri had approached her characters and where its cinematic version stood in comparison.

I'll say two things. First, I feel this is one of the few times when the film more than does justice to the book and second, that the book itself is a deeply involving and affecting experience. In fact, so compassionate and compelling is the writer's understanding of her characters and their complexes, that the novel stays uniformly engaging till the very last page. Also, it helps that this is an extremely easy read and I for one, found myself going through it at a ravenous pace.

Jhumpa Lahiri, being an NRI herself, is adequately at home in tackling the theme of re-location and search for identity. As a reader, one gets instantly drawn into the lives of young Ashima and Ashoke, who are a bundle of nerves in an alien country, far from adoring relatives and friends in Calcutta. The writer's description of how the couple grapples with the ways of a new world yet tightly holding on to their roots is deeply moving and rings true at every point.

When a letter from their grandmother in India, enclosing the name for their first born doesn't arrive in time, Ashoke instinctively and naively (as their son says later in life) names him Gogol- a name, derived from the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, with whom the latter feels a deep connection. The name comes to embarrass their son as he grows older and is a reminder of his confused being -it's not even a proper Bengali name, he protests!

Gogol's agony is not so much about being born to Indian parents, as much as being saddled with a name that seems to convey nothing, in a way accentuating his feeling of "not really belonging to anything"
After much internal struggle, he changes his name to a more acceptable Indian name, Nikhil and feels it would enable him to face the world more confidently.

In all this, Gogol has started seeing the narrowness of the world that his parents inhabit, their fear of adventure, their lack of 'openness' --qualities which are in complete contrast to some other Amercian couples he's come to know --in this case his girlfriend, Maxine's parents, who live life king size on their own terms. Gogol sees before him a whole new way of living, which he starts aspiring for.

The fact that he is no longer 'Gogol'- the name his parents gave him---enables him to distance himself from them more easily than he ever did in the past.
The writer captures all these parts brilliantly and it's fairly easy to relate with Gogol's confusion and predicament.
Nevertheless, a total surrender to an Americanized life, nullifying any attachment to his roots, is also not acceptable to him, as we see later.

But for me personally, the best part of the novel was Gogol's marriage to his childhood family friend Maushami Muzumdar. The latter is far from a conventional Bengali girl and Gogol is attracted to her individualitic streak and high living. In many ways, Maushami bridges a certain important gap in his mind and presents to him the best of both worlds --- she's Bengali like him, so in a strange way that's a comforting feeling. At the same time, she displays the same excessive, broadminded living of the Americans.

However, the fact that this relationship collapses and leaves no mark in their individual lives whatsoever, is also a telling statement about how, ultimately, coming from a similar background provides no guarantee for marital success. On the other hand, his sister Sonia's marriage to an American proves to be quite blissful.
The ending, which shows Gogol browsing through the pages of the book on Nikolai Gogol that his father had presented to him before he died, does appear a bit simplistic in its symbolism. Is he finally coming to terms with his dual identity? Is he finally growing to be comfortable in his own skin? These are answers to questions that can only be guessed.

08 August 2007

Cinnamon Gardens

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Peguin: Peguin
Price: Rs 325
Pages: 389
Genre: Fiction

 Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy remains my most favourite book, and it naturally stoked an interest in me to read his second book, Cinnamon Gardens. Which I did recently. It did not disappoint me, but it lacks the spontaneous and emotional appeal of Funny Boy.

But I love the period that Selvadurai chooses for his second. The book is set in a rich suburb of Sri Lanka in the 1920s. The country is still under British rule, but stirrings for independence have begun. The author captures a lot of the politics of the period, but he is essentially interested in creating a novel of manners.  So greatly influenced is Selvadurai by Jane Austen, that he not only borrows  the central theme of Pride And Prejudice but also makes the novel resemble an 18th century British family drama.

Selvadurai has done his research on this Sri Lankan period and specifically about families who stayed in Cinnamon Gardens (a locality that actually existed) to 'get a sense of what went on beneath the polished veneer'

The novel has two parallel threads, one is about Annalukshmi, a 20 something feisty, independent girl who resists the idea of conventional marriage. 
Her sisters (Kumudini and Manohari) don’t share her ‘odd’ ideas. There's a high-strung, critical aunt by the name of Phelomena who constantly adds fuel to fire. Her mother Louisa, herself a victim of a tumultuous marriage tries hard to protect the interests of her daughters even as she has to constantly worry about getting them the ‘right’ husbands.

 A Victorian propriety runs through the proceedings.  Here reputation is a fragile commodity and even mild gossip can harm matrimonial prospects.

The other parallel story is about Balendran (Bala), the son of a wealthy patriarch, Mudaliar. The latter is a self-important, hypocritical sort of man, who believes in exerting his power and having his way each time. His elder son Arul rebels against his double standards and marries a low cast girl, resulting in him being banished by the father. Mudaliar’s second son, Balendran is much more plaint and remains loyal and abiding, much to chagrin of his wife Sonia.
In his days as a student in London, Bala carried on a relationship which his partner Richard. When it was discovered, all hell broke loose and Mudaliar made sure the 'filth' ended.

Both stories move in an alternating fashion and it's interesting to read about the Sri Lankan politics of the time. The elite Cylonese claimed right of self-rule from the British, even though they were opposed to universal franchise, that would allow women and low castes the right to vote. Similarly, the Tamil Cylonese among the elite were worried that they had a disadvantage with numbers and if they went for public voting, their powers would be largely reduced. Naturally, men like Mudaliar wanted the Britishers to rule, giving Tamils like him all the patronage they needed.

The two stories are not naturally connected and the gay love story doesn’t fit in at all. Also, it’s not quite clear what the novel is trying to say. I mean, with Funny Boy, every character held an important thread to tie the novel thematically. Here you're not so sure.

Yet, the novel stays engaging enough and Selvadurai's greatest quality is the ease and elegance of his prose.


31 July 2007

Beastly tales from here & there

Author: Vikram Seth
Pages: 124
Price: 250
Genre: Verse
Publication :Penguin India
Publishing Date: 1992 (first)

Fun with fables

I've never been much into verse, if you exclude that brilliant satire by Alaxander Pope, The Rape Of The Lock or Milton's Paradise Lost.
Barring these classic works, I haven't really bothered with verse, especially when it comes to modern writers. Which is why, this quite simply escaped me and in any case, I'm yet to really sink my teeth into any of Vikram Seth's works.
But a very heavy recommendation by a friend, who insisted that there was possibly no better writer of verse in India than Seth prompted me to check it out.

The book is a compilation of ten fables, retold and reinterpreted in the author's own inimitable style, lending it a lot wit and some clever twists. While two of the stories come from India, there are other fables taken from China, Ukraine and Greece. (The fact that Vikram Seth learnt Chinese poetry during his stay in the country might have had some bearing here).

Quite obviously, as Seth himself says, his decision to write this Jungle book fable was an impulsive one, prompted by a hot, sleepy day. He says."I decided to write a summer story involving mangoes and a river. By the time I had finished writing 'The Crocodile And the Monkey', another story and other animals had begun stirring in my mind. And so it went on until all ten of these beastly tales were born"

Among all the stories, at least four of them are extremely entertaining and Seth's rhyming scheme is a delight. I especially enjoyed The Hare And The Tortoise, which the author writes with much chutzpah and there's a nice little twist in the end.

Sample this:

"After the announcer’s gun
Had pronounced that he had won,
And the cheering if the crowd
Died at last, the tortoise bowed,
Clasped the cup with quiet pride,
And sat down, self-satisfied.
And he thought:: That silly hare!

So much for her charm and
So much for her idle boast.
In her cup I’ll raise a toast
To hard work and regularity.
Silly creature! Such vulgarity!
Now she’ll learn that sure and slow
Is the only way to go---
That you can’t rise to the top
With a skip, a jump, a hop

But it was in fact the hare,

With a calm insouciant air
Like an unrepentant bounder,
Who allured the pressmen round her.
“Oh Miss Hare, you’re so appealing
When you’re sweating,” said one, squealing.
“You have tendered gold and booty
To the shrine of sleep and beauty,”

Or check out his verse in The Elephant and the Tragopan, where the animals describe mankind :

He grasps our substance as of right
To quench and spur his appetite,
Nor will he grant us truce or grace
To rest secure in any place.”

Two other wonderfully told stories are, The Frog And The Nightingale and the first one, The Crocodile And the Monkey. I didn't care much for many of the other fables in the middle portion, which I thought were sort of violent and also repetitive. Make no mistake, this is not necessarily a lighthearted, feel-good read. Some of its stories are very much in the vein of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which we know was a hard-hitting political allegory.

Of course, there are fables here which offer plenty of personal lessons. If The Crocodile And The Monkey talks about the ugliness of greed, The Frog And The Nightingale (a personal favourite from the book) is a particularly moving story about a nightingale, who loses her voice and her audience, by heeding to the selfish frog's advice.
Vikram Seth displays mastery in poetry and this is especially a good book to read out aloud to children or anyone, so that the lyrical and rhyming quality of the words are effectively brought out.
So great repeat value.
Keep this for one of those rainy days (literally! if you must!). :-)
-Sandhya Iyer

27 July 2007

The Last Mughal

Author: William Dalrymple
Publishers: Penguin Viking
Published In: 2006
Price: Rs 695

Pages: 586
Genre: Historical
BY Sandhya Iyer

Last glow of light

Being fairly intrigued by Mughal history, Dalrymple has always been one author whose books I’ve wanted to read. I missed out on his White Mughals but got an opportunity to read The Last Mughal and must say, it turned out to be every bit the rich, luxuriant and fascinating experience I imagined it to be.

I must confess here that I have no problems with a Westerner writing about Indian history --- I say it because this seems to be everyone's pet peeve against Dalrymple-Now, as long as the author approaches his subject with honesty and doesn't adopt a patronizing tone, as the likes of V. S Naipaul, E M Forster so often do, it's really fine by me. And as I see it, this author is not really guilty of any of the above charges.

Having read the book, I will say that this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, informative and entertaining works on Mughal history. No other book probably has approached the 1857 revolt and the disastrous impact it had on a culturally thriving Delhi, the way Dalrymple has in The Last Mughal.

Besides the fact that it extensively covers and nostalgically looks back on the wonderful city that Delhi was in the 1850s and 60s under the rule of its benign, tolerant and pluralistic Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, it gives in-depth sketches of the prevailing British officers of the time. Importantly, it directs our attention to several of our presend-day issues and
attitudes, a direct result of our legacy.

That there's a wealth of historical information to be derived out of this book is a given, but truly astonishing is also Dalrymple's ability to weave in so many cobwebs of events and characters with such clarity.
Not to add, his meticulous, hypnotic attention to detail, with some of the passages sparkling like pure gems -----muc
h like the Mughal arts he describes in his book.

The story begins in the early 1850s, a time when Delhi's political fortunes had started to plummet. The Britishers were fast spreading their tentacles and tightening their hold over the Mughals. The bonhomie that existed between the Bitishers and Muslims in the city was starting to wane and Victoria's men were under no obligation to please the Emperor any more. In fact, the king, Zafar Bahadur was rendered powerless now.
Yet, for all its political decline, "the city's reputation as a centre of learning, culture and spirituality had rarely been higher".

The peace gets disrupted when rebel sepoys from Meerut (mainly) and some other regiments request Zafar to support them in their fight against the Britishers. As history tells us and the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey showed, there was discontent brewing among sepoys of North-west provinces. Dalrymple records this in detail and abundantly agrees that Victorian Evangelicals had indeed been speeding up their plans to convert Hindus and Muslims.

While the sepoys were disgruntled about their low salaries among many other things, it was the issue of religion that really sparked off the revolt.
Now, coming to a point I've always reiterated ---- Mangal Pandey was no icon of the 1857 revolt and the book not only succinctly states that, it adequately proves it.

"For a century, this fact has been partially obscured by nationalist historians for whom the idea of Hindu sepoys flocking to Delhi to revive the Mughal Empire was more or less anathema"

"Since the time of V. D Savarkar's book, The Indian War Of Independence 1857, the March outbreak in Barrackpore has been seen as the crucial event of the Mutiny and Mangal Pandey Pandey its central icon. This is a position that was further cemented by the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey. Yet, in many ways Pandey was almost irrelevant to the outbreak, which took place two months later in Meerut in May"

"If Mangal Pandey was the sepoy's inspiration, they certainly did not articulate it, nor did they rush towards Barrackpore or Calcutta."

Zafar, already in his 80s, clearly had no real say in whether to support the sepoys against the Britishers or not.
But in the end, he lend his tacit support to the rebels and what followed was one of the bloodiest massacres witnessed in Delhi, with Englishmen being pulled out of their homes and killed mercilessly by the sepoys and jehadis.

Retribution follows and the Britishers swear to take revenge and destroy everything the city stands for.
At least two chapters of the book describe in minute detail the progression of the war --- For a long time, the sepoys succeed in restricting the Britishers to a Ridge. The fact that the sepoys outnumbered the British force by a great number was also putting pressure on the Englishmen. But going by Dalrymple's version of the war, the sepoys were courageous, but they made several tactical errors. The Britishers soon get the better of them and invaded the city again.
The sepoys, in a desperate bid, ask Zafar to lead them in a final assault. Left with no choice, the king agrees but is soon fraught with a sense of fear, and retreats. “Zafar’s catastrophic failure of nerve was the decisive moment that marked the beginning of the end of the rebellion,” writes the author.

What follows is one of the most vengeful attacks by the Britishers on the jehadis and locals. Every man is shot dead and the women and children are forced to leave the city. Dalrymple infuses several ‘real-life conversations’ made by Englishmen in the narrative by way of letters they wrote to their wives, father to a daughter etc.. describing the turn of events throughout the book.
One such letter says about Delhi, “The town now presents an awful spectacle
The city that was at the height of its cultural vitality, with arts, literature and poets such as Ghalib and Zauq, was in perfect shambles now.
The book also acquaints us with how senior British officers had almost made up their minds to demolish every standing edifice in the city, including architectural wonders like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid but were prevented by an influential officer in the nick of time.
However, this still was an event, which changed destinies forever.
For one, Mughal arts “never really regained their full vitality and artistic prestige even after independence
More significantly, as the author points out, after the revolt, “The Indian Muslim became almost a subhuman creature for the British, tagged along Irish Catholics or the ‘Wandering Jew’
Correspondingly and gravely, “this profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslims and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic
Quite rightly, the seeds of suspicion that got sowed then, came to show its ugly face with the 1947 Hindu-Muslim Partition.

But the book’s most decisive statement is about how from pre 1857 and after to even today, Islamic Fundamentalism and Western imperialism have closely, and dangerously intertwined.
Again Western countries blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked –as they interpret it-by mindless fanatics.”
No need to mention 9/11, is there? Most certainly, there's an urgent need to learn from history and not repeat it.

20 July 2007

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Harper Collins
Prize: Rs 250
Date of Publishing: 2006
Genre: War drama

‘I wrote this book because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today’ says 29 year-old Adichie, about what prompted her to write about one of Nigeria’s most bloody civil wars that happened in the late 60s.

The Biafran civil war, a terrible blot on Nigerian history and humanity has not surprisingly found voice in almost all major literary works produced in the country so far. Adichie was not born when the war happened but says that she grew up in its shadows and could never forget how she lost several of her family members to a situation, which was entirely man-made. This naturally, allows the author to recount incidents with unusual fervour, giving graphic images of the horrors that descended on Biafrans, following the breakout of military action.

What was this civil was about? While the Housa Muslim tribe populated Northern Nigeria, the South consisted of the Igbo, a Christian race. Ever since the country got freedom in 1960, there was deep resentment brewing between the Housa and other tribes who believed that the Igbos held all the prime positions in the country. A military coup by an Igbo colonel follows a counter coup by the Northern army, supported by the West. Soon, Igbo soldiers are brutally murdered all over the northern territory. Col Ojukwu, puts forth the idea of a separate Igbo state called Baifra and takes control of all the oil rich territories. The Nigerian government is not willing to take the rebellion lying down and what follows is a deadly war, which tests its victims in a shockingly inhuman way.
Even as the Nigerian army captures one Biafran region after another, the Igbo population is pushed into a corner, literally and all food links are blocked, leading to intense starvation with people scrambling for food. So while people in other parts of Nigeria worry about silk laces and their golf sessions, the other part hopelessly scrambles for food.
This is the story Adichie narrates in her book and she does it through the lives of four people living in Nigeria. The author’s central characters are twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a rich businessman. However, none of them are especially interested in their father’s wealth and choose their own paths. While Olanna starts living in with prof Odenigbo, her anti-colonial, ‘revolutionary boyfriend’ ---as the brazen Kainene prefers to call him, the latter herself dates Richard, a bashful British expatriate, who is sympathetic to the Biafra cause.
To give a glimpse of the colonial Nigeria that still existed, the author introduces us to Ugwu, a teenager, who is brought from his village to be a housekeeper to ‘master’ Odenigbo.
The book starts in the early 60’s, a comparably idyllic time when Odenigbo’s friends come over each evening and engage in heated, intellectual debates. In the dim-lit room, amidst the clinging of beer bottles and exotic, herbal stews, it’s a time, when the generation’s finest brains are working out Nigeria’s future. The coup throws the characters apart. Ollana and Odenigbo first move into a humble three-room house, quite content as long as they know they are part of the Biafra cause. But as the Nigerian army closes in, the couple, with a child (Odenigbo’s illegitimate one) in tow and Ugwu, find it find it impossible to retain even a semblance of dignity to their lives.
To the author’s credit, she weaves this long forgotten human-interest story, with a sultry, lush family tale, about love, betrayal and redemption. In fact, Adichie is clearly at her best here.
In the end, while it is important to realize the sheer magnitude of disaster that was brought down upon unsuspecting souls---this is an eerie reality we live in even today---what is also heartening is that people actually survived through it all. Olanna's character is especially remarkable, as someone who keeps the family standing even amidst insurmountable problems. With time, Odenigbo loses his revolutionary zeal and resigns himself to his fate. Ugwu, who is always a support to Olanna, is taken away forcefully to join the Biafran war. Unable to bear the stench of the toilets, Olanna is forced to bath out in the open. When a man terms her 'shameless', she screams back asking him why he wasn't supporting the Biafran forces, rather than staring at women bathing. In her steely determination, she's something of a Scarlet O Hara, only, more compassionate.
When the war recedes and the links are opened, the Biafrans are 'officially' assimilated as 'brothers and sisters' into Nigeria, but not without enduring some amount of humiliation.

The book is spectacular, epic-like in scale and monumental in design. Yes, there are portions, which go on and on…..yes, there is an attempt to have graphical images…..yes, the book is controversial and political, which could be viewed as a shameless Booker bid.
Adichie in her skill as a writer and her social consciousness is rightfully considered the literary daughter of Chinua Achebe and the future of African literature. Incidentally, this book has just won her the Orange Book Prize and looks like a hot contender for Booker as well

The book's last section, PS, has a fairly detailed interview with Adichie and other info about her favourite authors and works.

11 July 2007

Men In White

In Crackling Form

Author: Mukul Kesavan
Pages: 278
Publishers: Penguin
Price: Rs 395
Publishing Date: 2007

It’s hardly arguable that the frenzy around cricket has significantly died down in the last few years. Our team's timid performance in the recent World Cup only sealed its fate further.
Quite naturally, everything cricket-centric has lost some of its sheen. Which is why, I wondered if a book on cricket is such a good marketable idea.
Obviously I was wrong, because Men In White makes for fantastic reading, much like a compilation of crisp Sunday newspaper columns that one devours with joy. Given that its author Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia and blogs passionately on cricinfo.com, makes this book a fascinating blend of piquant cricketing insights along with sharp observations on the game’s social impact over the last few decades.
Without a shred of doubt, this is a book meant for avid cricket buffs but such is the elegance in Kesavan’s writing, that even semi-cricket buffs would consider this pretty much ‘unputdownable’.
The cause is further helped because the author is never overindulgent in his writing and barring a few chapters, the rest of the book is racy, informative and sparkles with delightful one-liners. This is especially true when he describes yesteryear and modern day cricketers. While he talks of Vinod Kambli as 'the definitive example of the corrosive triumph of style over substance’, he defends Saurav Ganguly’s attitude towards arrogant teams like Australia with the following, “Ganguly had neither Imran’s authoritative hauteur, nor Ranatunga’s smiling, beatific ruthlessness, but his talent for in-your-face insolence served India well through his captaincy."
Among the senior cricketers, Kesevan’s absolute favourite is quite apparently Sunil Gavaskar, whom he describes as the man ‘who supplied Indian batting with a backbone’ and ‘Never does he look clumsy or crude as Tendulkar so often does...’
Another interesting section is on Azharuddin, where he talks of how this young Muslim lad from Hyderabad lost his eminence, no thanks to his commitment to flamboyant aggression. “From the movie mannerisms young Indian men affect--- Azhar made an unusual move for a cricketer: he bid to live that life. It is the difference between imitating the flash street-cool of the Rangeela character and actually wanting to be Aamir Khan. In India, there’s just one model for metropolitan bon vivant: the Bollywood star, so Azhar married an actress and began living like a hero.”

This is, of course, just one chapter of the book. Kesavan talks with great passion about the elegance of West Indies cricket through the 60s and 70s and how Indian cricket fans like him worshipped their players. On the other hand, Australians, as world champions, brought certain coarseness to the game, he says. You can respect their commitment to win but you cannot love them. With West Indies, you could do that.

From why the format of Indian first class cricket needs to be abolished to why there’s no place for the cricket referee in the game to how one day cricket is getting painfully boring…Kesavan provides his pithy comments and possible solutions for each of the above…and there’s lot more.

The fact that Kesavan is a huge fan of the game naturally prompts plenty of nostalgia to creep in but it’s the sort of stuff cricket buffs will sniff out in a jiffy. For the others, there’s cricket commentary at its very best.

-Sandhya Iyer