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