14 December 2009

The Moon And Sixpence

Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 215
Publishers: Vintage Classics
First published in the year: 1919

A Moon and Sixpence is a story that Maugham wrote inspired from post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin's tumultuous life. There was a sense of notoriety around Gauguin because he left his regular job and deserted his wife and children just like that! He rejected European civilization calling it 'artificial and conventional' and moved to the island of Tahiti where he created paintings that went on to become masterpieces after his death.

He was drawn to primitivism as an art form and his paintings -- characterised by bold experimentation of colours and geometric designs -- changed the course of modern paintings and after his death, Gauguin became one of the most influential artists of his times. (his painting below)

Having only recently read Maugham's Ten Novels and Their Authors and The Painted Veil, I for many reasons felt he was combining the themes of both these books in A Moon And Sixpence. In Ten Novels.... Maugham describes with great fascination the life of famous authors and what went into the making of their classic novels. It is with the same sense of curiosity and ear for scandal that he approaches the life of Gauguin. The other important theme in the book - much like The Painted Veil – is marriage and entrapment. Maugham is decidedly cynical about the institution and every couple he describes in A Moon And Sixpence has a secret sorrow and is caught in a trap of undefined misery. This is a constant theme with most of Maugham's works where a marital union never really reaches fruition because one of the partners feels dissatisfied.

The first few pages of the novel are a bit difficult to get by,
as they are somewhat turgid. But once the story begins and takes a sharp turn with the disappearance of Charles Strickland (modelled on Gauguin), you are gripped by the narrative. His desertion of his comely wife and adorable kids is shocking to everyone who know him. The story is described by Maugham himself, who much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is the sincere, wise but detached narrator-character in the book. He is not an active participant in the tumultuous lives of the people around him but he is a trusted confidante and each character reveals their innermost feelings to him.

The story takes you through Strickland's unconventional life – he is brusque, loutish, cruel and eccentric to a maniacal level. Having foregone his cushy life, he lives in the most wretched conditions, striving to paint and give vent to the artist in him. He borrows money constantly as if it wer his right. In spite of his brutal ways he still finds enough people to care for his undiscovered genius. One of them is the goofy Dirk Stroeve, an inferior painter, who can recogonise superior art. He provides home and shelter to Strickland when the latter takes violently ill. But his compassion means nothing to Strickland who makes no effort to resist Dirk's wife, Blanche when she falls for his roguish charm. What others think of him means nothing to Strickland and he doesn't bat an eyelid when Blanche dies.

His happiest and saddest days are in the gorgeous island of Tahiti – where he is somewhat at peace with himself. While everywhere else his behaviour is considered deviant, in Tahiti, odd balls are accepted for what they are since there are many around. Tahiti also brings a painful end to his life when he is struck by leprosy. The book says that Strickland created dazzlingly beautiful paintings on the walls of the house he lived in. But when he was about to die, he asked his wife, Ata (who he married there) to burn it all down.

It's hard to say how much of the novel is entirely based on Gauguin's life, and Maugham has said, he took the basic framework of the painter's life and worked around it. Maugham's book materialised when the author went to Tahiti and spoke to people about Gauguin.
As it stands, Strickland is so abominable, cruel and so wholly negative that it's a bit difficult to accept him as a real character. Also, his life prior to being a painter is never clear. Maugham could have at least given some indication of his artistic bent of mind but he's portrayed exactly as the opposite. His sudden transformation as an artiste is not convincing. Even Gauguin in his life as a stockbroker, is understood to have painted on and off, so it's surprising why Maughan could not incorporate that aspect into the story. This is a jarring point in the novel, one that threatens to ruin the experience of the book.

Yet, the novel offers an incisive, penetrating view into what possibly goes into the making of an artist, his unique temperament and his unrelenting search for inspiration. Still, Strickland cannot be a representative for all artists since Maugham's portrayal of him is deliberately sketchy and overly negative. It's like knowing only one part of a story.
Amidst the outrageous and tragic events that unfold, what keeps the narrative rooted and real is Maugham's sane, controlled presence. His vivid description of characters, his acuity in identifying their nature and compulsions, his ability to spell out universal human truths, makes the novel a compelling read.

The book, like most of Maugham's other works teems with quotable quotes. This is what he says of women and the perverse thrill they derive from suffering. "A women can forgive a man for teh harm he does her, but can never forgive him for the sacrifises he makes on her account"

On his inability to be angry with Strickland for too long, Maugham says, "It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogethr dislike anyone who make me laugh."

Apart from this, there are countless reflections on art and life - which are all profounding inspiring.

06 December 2009

Shashi Tharoor's Bookless In Baghdad

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Year Of Publishing: 2005
Price: 325
Publishers: Penguin

Shashi Tharoor in his present role as Minister may have come under sharp attack for a variety of reasons. When he recently put himself up at a five star suite for months on end because the government bungalow was not ready, many thought it was unbecoming of a public representative. I felt the same. The intellectual elitism and the accompanying lifestyle that perfectly complimented him all these years while he worked for the United Nations started to stick out like a sore thumb in his new role.

However, what emerges clearly from reading Bookless In Baghdad is Tharoor's acute literary bent of mind. One is aware that he has constantly stolen time from his busy schedules to write all his books – most of which have won rave reviews. And Bookless... which is a rare and exceptional collection of his literary columns over the years, doubly confirms his deep passion for books. He himself mentions it more than a dozen times saying his literary pursuits are as important to him as his (erstwhile) role at the UN. He couldn't possibly give up or live without either. In any case a true literary enthusiast can be sniffed out only by another – that unique breed that can't pass a bookstore without entering it. The kind who are thrilled by a clever turn of phrase, or a refreshing epigram. That is certainly true of Tharoor.

Spread over 40 essays, Bookless In Baghdad offers Tharoor's excellent commentary on all matters literary. He talks about the authors he loves and dislikes, offering delightful anecdotes. He expounds on topics like literary criticism and reviewing patterns. Also, for those who have read his earlier books like Riot, Show Business and The Great Indian Novel, there's a great deal about them here, where Tharoor explains the themes he tried to tackle and even puts up a spirited defense for one of his books that was not well-reviewed in India.

One of the things to admire about Tharoor's writing, besides his immaculate language, is his ability to make a definite point at the end of every essay in the most lucid manner. And even if the book focusses on writing and books, it is underlined by Tharoor's serious concerns about society, culture and politics.

The author acquaints his readers with the utter joy he derived from reading books all through his childhood. He started very early. At 3 years he was reading Noddy and soon moved on to other stories by Enid Blyton. He says he preferred British books to American ones in his growing up days. “We had access to Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, but there seemed to be something brash and spurious about them. British books, we were brought up to believe, set the real standard,”

The other great British passion for Tharoor is P G Wodehouse for whom his admiration and warmth brims over. He analyses Wodehouse's popularity in India when elsewhere in the English speaking world, he is no longer much read. Is it because of a lingering nostalgia for the Raj? Tharoor doesn't believe so. He says it is precisely the lack of politics in Wodehouse's writing, one based in an idyllic world...a never-never land with stock figures, almost theatrical archetypes that charms and attracts Indians to his books.

The other very interesting essay is his observations on R K Narayan. Tharoor does not hold back from expressing his utter disappointment with Narayan's prose, calling it 'flat and monotonous' among many other things.
“Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language – a writerly concern - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns.” he writes.

That is no malice in Tharoor's observations, merely candour and straight-talk.

There is an essay on Winston Churchill, where Tharoor calls him an 'overweening imperialist” whose fame primarily rests on his bombastic speeches – revisionists since then have called it 'sublime nonsense'
Then there is a sharp criticism of the late Nirad Chaudhari for his nauseating allegiance to the British, while looking down upon his own people.

Tharoor pays rich tribute to authors like Pablo Naruda, the Russian author Pushkin and V S Naipaul. But his most passionate and heart-felt essays are those about Salman Rushdie, who he respectfully addresses as “the head of my profession”
He expresses his deep anguish about the fatwa on the writer who he says revitalised and stretched the boundaries of the possible in Enligh literature. “Mention Rushdie, and some see a stirring symbol of the cause of freedom of expression in the face of intolerant dogma, others, particularly the Islamic word, find a blasphemous crusader for secularist social subversions. Neither image may be inaccurate, but reducing him to this emblematic figure has only served to obscure his true literary contribution”
He also regrets him being reduced to “a haunted symbol of Western literary freedom under assault from Oriental despotism”

From the 'illiterate' reader of America, to the French who know how to honour their literary geniuses, Tharoor offers a complete world-view of the literary scene.

But the most touching chapter is the title one, where he describes his visit to Baghdad and a book bazaar where a cornucopia of books were laid out for sale. Crippled with US sanctions and with their greatly diminished currency, many Iraqi families were selling off their precious books. Many things come to light in this chapter. For one, the Iraqis are a highly literate population and lovers of books. There is something very poignant about this essay, where Tharoor had gone as representative of the UN, but the book lover in him was clearly moved by what he saw.

The author's sharp wit comes in full force when he defends his second book, Show Business, which many believed was a comedown for him since it wasn't as ambitious as his first, The Great Indian Novel. Tharoor uses the opportunity to talk about reviews and critical assessment, all of which makes for great reading.

This is a must read for those who love books, authors and all things literary. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge, insight and ideas here.

- Sandhya Iyer

05 December 2009

Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy

Author: Hanif Kureishi
Year of Publishing: 1998
Pages: 155

Hanif Kureishi is known for his controversial, soul-baring and highly sexed up prose. The way Kureishi sees it, life is the proverbial Wasteland, everything is ‘fu*ked up and there is no way out.

Kureishi started out by writing pornography. He went on to write novels. His relatives and people close to him constantly complained how personal details of their life cropped up in his stark novels. His book, Intimacy was especially embroiled in controversy, because it was intensely personal and the events that happen in the book are supposedly what Kureishi went through himself.

Intimacy is about a man on the verge of leaving his wife of ten years and two adorable sons. His idea is to slink away quietly in the darkness of the night and never come back. In the very first page, the protagonist (Jay) makes his intentions clear. The whole book is in fact a long emotional outpouring of male angst and the unbearable loneliness and emptiness that has crept into his marriage and life. Jay's emotional response is to bid goodbye to this meaningless existence where he feels claustrophobic, unloved. His wife Susan, by Jay's own assessment is a dexterous woman, who can cope well with things. Her range of feeling is narrow and hence she can keep things simple. Like most busy mothers, robust practicality overrides other concerns for Susan and her toughened stance on daily matters stands in contrast with the protagonist’s lax, carefree, desultory mind that wants to escape the grind of domesticity and its accompanying rigours.

There are deeply affecting thoughts and incisive enquiry into the human heart with passages such as these, "Susan often accuses me of lack of application. It was what my teachers said, that I didn't concentrate. But I was concentrating. I believe the mind is always conentrating - on something that interests it. Skirts and jokes and cricket and pop, in my case. Despite ourselves, we know what we like, and our errors and distracted excursions are illuminations. Perhaps only the unsought is worthwhile..."

In most of the book, the protagonist is making a case for why he should leave his marriage. His cynical mind argues the futility of a social bond in which no love exists any more. The thought of his sons holds him back, but he convinces himself that they will be fine.
He compares his life with two of his friends, Alex – a committed married man, who has learnt to live with the occasional unhappiness in his domestic life. He’s proud that he’s sticking by one woman and advices Jay to do the same.
At the other end of the spectrum is his friend Victor, who has left his wife and is currently enjoying his promiscuous life as a bachelor.
Jay's mind is also occupied with thoughts of Nina, an attractive, young girl who he has been dating. But now he doesn't know where he stands with her either.

The author Hanif Kureishi has been a student of philosophy in London and expectedly he takes the opportunity to dwell on the institution of marriage and how ultimately it becomes an entrapment, extracting a heavy price through the denial of personal hope and dreams.

Kureishi is most assuredly cynical about his marriage and the institution in general, but he's also conscious of the larger human condition where loneliness is inevitable. Even if he were to leave his wife, would the love he finds outside last at all? "Suppose it is like an illness that you give to everyone you meet," he asks.

The book teems with quotes on marriage, desire and life in general. Talking about his parents' relationship, the protagonist says, "Both he and mother were frustrated, neither being able to find a way to get what they wanted, whatever that was. Nevertheless they were loyal and faithful to one another. Disloyal and unfaithful to themselves."

His protagonist's act is clearly irresponsible, but there is a touch of poignancy in his need to be accepted and loved. He says he will not leave, if only his wife were to touch him in bed tonight and make him feel wanted.

Writers always express best that which is close to their heart. Intimacy could only have been written by a man who felt all those emotions and who lived through a period of moral, social and personal dilemma.
At less than 150 pages, the book is an intimate and personal exploration into a man's mind, torn between conflicting feelings. The book was possibly written at one go in a stream -of-consciousness narrative, wherein thoughts travel back and forth in time.
The book puts forth questions but attempts to provide no real answers. It's one person's point of view from a singular prism, which means it eschews the larger issues in marriage. This book confirms your worst fears about marital bonds but there is no larger exploration of the institution in today's context.

Men might relate to the book more, most women will despise it. Intimacy is like reading only one half of a more complicated story. But for what it is, the novella gives you a penetrating, insightful view into the male psyche and to that extent, it is a worthy read.

PS: The book was adapted into a film by Patrice Chereau, titled, Intimacy

15 November 2009

Two States - The story of my marriage

Knotty affairs

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Price: Rs 99
Year of Publishing: 2009
Publishers: Rupa
Pages: 269

Like all his last three works, Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre and 3 Mistakes of My Life, his latest, 2 States - The Story Of My Marriage, also leaves you with mixed feelings.

Chetan Bhagat's simple theme, rooted in middle class sensibilities and the ordinariness of life will once again appeal to his fans --- a sizeable class of emerging mid-brow readers. But let's be clear that it is the author's funny bone that saves the day for him again. His nonchalant wit gives a point to his observations and lends a perky liveliness to an otherwise not-so-great book.

Even if one were to lower the literary bar considerably, it's hard to ignore the numerous banal and trite elements here. Chetan's construction of dialogues at many places (especially involving women) is cringe-worthy, as are many of the situational turns that he introduces in the book. His sense of drama comes straight out of trashy Bollywood potboilers. Some scenes are so hackneyed and over-the-top, it could make Ekta Kapoor seem restrained! Chetan actually has a dowry scene where a bride's father keeps his pagdi at the in-laws' feet. In any case, the story has a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge flavour to it. But since this is partly an autobiographical story, we'll give that to him. It's derived from Chetan's own experiences when he married his wife, Anusha (pic below).

2 States begins where Five Point Someone ends. After his (mis) adventures at the IIT – where he loves and loses the professor’s daughter – Krish goes to IIMA to pursue his management studies. He falls in love with Ananya, a bright Tamilian Brahmin girl, who seems on a rampage to break every shackle imposed by her conservative upbringing.
She drinks once in a while, has no qualms with pre marital sex or even living in with Krish. But once marriage plans come into the equation, both realise they have an arduous task before them.
Krish’s Punjabi mother won’t let "some Madrasis" trap her son, (the Tamilians are referred as ‘those black people’ by various North Indian characters a douzen times! There’s no malise in Chetan’s description, but it does start to jar after a point), while Ananya’s parents are stuck up on their Tam Bram 'we are so educated and cultured' credentials. How both sides eventually come around and accept the match is what 2 States is all about.

The story is clearly dated, because, the events are inspired from Chetan’s own love story and this was a decade ago! Much like in Five Point Someone, the tackling of the campus romance between Krish and Ananya is pedestrian here too. The exchanges are drab and the female character, in particular, behaves with a strange aggressiveness that is altogether unappealing. There are a few snatches of humour here and there, but not enough for you to be reassured about the rest of the pages ahead.

But in a pleasant surprise, the book comes into its own when Krish applies and gets a job in Chennai. Suddenly, he’s thrown into a new place and has to use his time and charm to get to know Ananya’s parents and make them like him. Chetan’s humour gets unleashed in full force, as he talks about various aspects about Tamilians he finds puzzling. He finds it curious how everyone here wants to be up at the break of dawn. He notices their sparse, functional homes – contrasting with the obscenely lavish and ostentatious homes of the Punjabis. He refers to the Tamil snacks as ‘spirals’, observes the funeral-like silence when they have their lunch or dinner. In the description of his boss - Bala, Chetan sharply brings out the propensity for sycophancy found among people of the community. But he also sensibly subverts this aspect with the character of Ananya’s father, who grudges the fact that his work doesn’t get him the appreciation he deserves, because he does not speak up. Chetan alludes here to the excessive sense of decorum and protocol ingrained in many South Indians.
The author’s penchant for humour makes these portions immensely readable and to his credit, even though he points at several of the community's idiosyncrasies, it’s done out of a genuine feeling of bemusement rather than to poke fun.
In fact, the author is far more brutal with his description of the Punjabis – with their love for showing off, their lack of subtly, their pretentious living.

When it comes to observations of these two communities, Chetan displays his natural flair as a writer. However, his characterization and plot development are less than impressive. The parts where Krish tries to win over Ananya’s parents are interesting, but it spirals downwards when the girl comes visiting Delhi and stays in his house. This is the weakest section of the book. Then the whole chapter where both sets of parents meet at Goa is downright bizarre. Also, some of the exchanges between the parents are so rude and direct, it’s a little hard to believe that people would converse this way in real life.

The book bounces back in the final section, where Krish goes though a depression and in an unexpected turn of events, things falls in place. The part where Krish's boisterous extended family come to attend his wedding in Chennai and are shocked that they have to be ready by six in the morning for the rituals is genuinely funny. "Is this a marriage or torture?" someone asks.

The biggest plus for the book is the choice of narrator – which happens to be Chetan himself as Krish. He comes across as level-headed, sharp-witted and genuinely nice so that even when the action starts to slacken, you remain interested in the twists and turns of his life.

Finally, as I mentioned, it’s 50-50 deal. Lots of laughs and light moments, but enough that is puerile and commonplace as well.
So where does one place this one among his earlier works? This too has many of the weaknesses of the other books, but it's probably more palatable than his last two works in terms of plot, because this is a straight-forward, episodic book.
It’s quick to read, which should mean something at a time when people run out of patience and time so quickly. And yes, full marks for the humour.

- Sandhya Iyer

11 November 2009

Megastar - Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N T Rama Rao

Author: S V Srinivas
Pages: 240 Add Image
Price: 695
Publishers: Oxford

Film studies, as an area of interest to many of us, is not really a well-explored field in India. In spite of the fact that the country produces the largest number of films in the world, the various critical aspects vis a vis, its changing forms, trends, socio-cultural impact have rarely been written about at any great length academically.
Which is why, one ought to welcome any book that attempts to understand cinema in its larger context. S. V Srinivas chooses an extremely interesting, relevant and hitherto unexplored aspect of southern cinema - the mass film, the fan culture and its intimacy to politics.

It's intriguing how every big politician in the South - from N T Rama Rao to M G R from Jayalalitha to Rajkumar in Karnataka to now Chiranjeevi have played a definite role in mass mobilisation achieved through their screen images. This is the overarching theme of Srinivas' book and he goes about explaining this complex phenomenon by understanding the role of fan clubs, the mass film movement and the various elements facilitating the genre to achieve this.
What is unfortunate though is that even though the book delves into an interesting area of study, it does so in a drab, academic fashion.
It requires the reader to summon up a great level of concentration and patience to actually get by this. It's jargon-heavy, technical and approached with a tone of high seriousness, that sucks out a lot of the fun in reading it.
Also, the book tends to give you important pointers about various aspects of the subject, but there's also a certain lack of focus, which means there is too much repetition and you don't get an adequate sense of what the author intends to say finally.
Yet, for a book that solely focuses on Telugu cinema and its socio-political impact, it's obvious there will be a good deal of observations and insights about the industry in it. The author does not explain why such mass adulation is mostly a South phenomenon. My own understanding is that regional cinema is developed in the Southern states more than any other part of the country. The influence of Bollywood is limited here, unlike in other states.
Screen idols, I would imagine, are always born out of a certain sense of identification that the audience feels with the actor - the son of the soil factor. Thereby this sense of intimacy and bonding with a star is achievable only in the regional context mostly. The rare exception to this rule in Hindi is Amitabh Bachchan, but otherwise, the appeal of celebrities has been restricted to adding glamour to political campaigns.
This aspect is not really explored in the book, but Srinivas does point at a peculiar aspect of how a fan looks at his idol - his affinity to the star could be based on class/caste (though most fan clubs deny this!) which is where the question of identification comes in. So the star is viewed as “one among them - but also someone who is superior to them”, as he's blessed with special abilities. Another aspect about fans is their sense of “entailment” wherein they have definite expectations from the star and his films. This often led to what the author calls as a 'blockage” for the star-actor who could not explore new forms of narratives. For one, he could not die on screen at all!

The books speaks a great deal about the prevailing “mass film” and how it is structured entirely around the superstar to evoke a response from its target audience. The author says the “foundationally populist” nature of this cinema ensures that the narrative moves ahead according to the audiences' expectations. Using various films of Chiranjeevi, the author delves into different factors that go into making a mass film. Most of the actors earlier films, he says, established him as a subaltern, threating the prevailing feudal order. This phase also saw the rise of the 'rowdy' in the mass film, where “the ordinariness (of character) and distinction (of star) are intertwined.” Using the example of films like Gharana Mogudu (Mannan in Tamil and Laadla in Hindi), the author analyses the inherent politics of these films and the conflicts they seek to resolve. The subaltern taming the haughty, upper class heroine and so on.
(Interestingly, I noticed Hindi cinema's definite influence on Southern films and vice versa. I got to understand that Chiranjeevi is called 'Vijay' in some of his films in the 80s– Bachchan's screen name in maximum films. Similarly, the whole feudal culture/ authoritative patriarch figure seen in Hindi is mostly derived from the South films).

The author also talks at length about one of Chiranjeevi's most controversial film, Alluda Majaka, that came under a lot of flak for having several obscene sequences. Srinivas first delves into what constitutes obscenity and concludes how it “exists because it recogonises our worst fears” --- in the sense that someone else is enjoying what is so obviously offensive and embarrassing to a particular class of people. He also adds that a lot of the masses who enjoyed the obscenity did so because they saw nothing in it to hurt their sensibilities. The film was also important for the mass mobilisation it brought about. When several organisations asked for the film to be banned, the actor's fan associations organised themselves for the first time to aggressively stand up for him.

Alluda Majaka, and the events around it set the stage for Chiranjeevi's future moves in politics. The actor's career plummeted in the mid-90s, and when he came back with his film Hitler, he had also changed his image. What you had now was the tragic, authoritative figure of the patriarch, who resolved not just familial issues but also those concerning the state. Many of the actor's films around this time, says the author, addressed a mass of people within the film itself.

The book touches upon a great many points and these are divided into many more sub heads. The authorial voice does not guide you well enough through the complex tapestry of themes that are brought forth. The language is excellent though academic and goes about its business in a matter-of-fact manner. For a book on cinema and mass films, one could have done with more anecdotes and preferably a racy style of writing.

-Sandhya Iyer

29 October 2009

'He's Just Not THAT Into You'

I happened to read this while casually browsing at a book store, and found it uproariously funny.

It's typically about women's love problems (there are always so many of them no) answered in the most atypical, and succinct manner by two people called Greg Behrendt (he's the deal here!) and Liz Tuccillo. You have women coming up with all kinds of questions relating to men whom they are interested in and Greg answers it with characteristic sauciness and wit. So a woman asks, “I've been overweight lately, so my BF tends to ignore, ill-treat me... What should I do?” So the answer reads, “Girl, the only weight you need to get rid of is that 150 pounds of lump staying with you” or something to that effect.

Yet, too much of brutal honestly does not work, especially if you are pinning hopes on a guy to reciprocate, because this book dissuades all such women. Greg's take is that any man who wants a woman badly will never let her down. He won't do the disappearing act, he won't miss her calls, he won't ignore her, he will introduce her to his friend....all that and more. So a guy who defaults in any of this is simply not THAT into you.

He is merciless with some of the questions and rips apart any illusions you may have of your man...sometimes taking it too far. This could be a problem, because obviously there aren't any perfect guys out there. But the book believes they exist!

It's a wicked, fun read, even if it makes the women look quite desperate and silly. One of the females even asks Greg with some irritation why he didn't consider writing a similar book titled, 'She's just not that into you' that would make the men seem equally foolish.
But Greg rules out any suggestion of chauvinism by saying such a book for men wouldn't sell even 8 copies. Not because men don't fall as violently in love or don't go through heartbreaks. But simply because men have other ways of dealing with love failures. They'd simply hit the bar, he says.

25 October 2009

Rohinton Mistry's Tales From Firozsha Baag

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Published in : 1987
Pages: 303

Neighbourhood nuggets

This was my first introduction to an author who made it to the elite club of NRI writers in the 80s--- all of whom made a definite impression in the world of literature and gave Indian Writing in English the prestige it enjoys today.
Rohinton Mistry is primarily known for two of his works, Such a Long Journey and Family Matters. Yet, I'm glad I was introduced to his writing with Tales From Firozsha Baag - a book of short stories where Mistry recounts life in a middle class Parsi colony in Bombay in the 80s. Reading it makes you believe many of these experiences are the author's own childhood memories, as many of the stories relate to young boys and their growing up days. The author describes inhabitants of Firozsha Baag in splendid details, letting us into their various quirks and living patterns.

There are eleven stories in the book, each one highlights one character or a family in the colony, but essentially all the stories are intertwined. So most of them make a passing appearance in every story. This is precisely what lends a lot of charm and uniqueness to the book. There is such a lived-in feeling about the setting that you almost get the wafting smell the fish fry that is cooked in these homes.

The author does not spend too much time with any character or any one particular story, so as a reader you are not really invested in any one person. In that sense, the book is episodic, offering a slice of life. In this Bombay apartment, there are several colourful characters – and many of the anecdotes and incidents that the author narrates would be familiar to anyone who has lived in a co-operative society.

So in the first chapter, Auspicious Occasion, you are acquainted with the cranky, supercilious Rustamji, who won’t relent to contribute for the painting of the building. The chairman Nariman Hansotia decides to teach him a lesson by getting the workers to paint the rest of the building, leaving out the exterior of Rustamji’s flat alone.

One Sunday introduces you to other occupants of the colony. One of them is Najamai, who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in the colony. Another fine story is The Collectors, that describes the reclusive, shy Jahangir who would rather sit alone with his books on the steps than join the colony’s rowdy boys gang headed by the notorious Pesi. Mistry describes Pesi’s character with great flair and irony.

Another very interesting story is Squatter that talks about a boy from the colony, who goes to Canada and dreams of becoming a foreign citizen in every sense. Except that there is one small problem. He finds it impossible to perform his ablutions in the western manner in a commode. He has to squat on it, treating it like an Indian toilet, which frustrates him no end. It’s funny yet a poignant story of a man who cannot leave behind the baggage of who he really is. The author does not hesitate from sharing extremely intimate details or habits of his characters. And he has a definite penchant for scatological humour, as can be observed from many of the stories.

Exercises is about Jahangir and how he gets caught between the love for a girl in his college and his parent’s objection to the match (for no apparent reason as such).

Rohinton Mistry not only excels in giving the reader a perfect sense of the place and its characters, he describes them pithily with language that is accessible yet immensely rich. Take for example, these lines in Exercises, where he describes Jahangir’s situation at home over the girl he is dating.
“Dinner passed without any real unpleasantry. But not for many nights after that. The dinner-table talk grew sharper as the days passed. At first words were chosen carefully in an effort to preserve a semblance of democratic discussion. Soon, however, the tensions outgrew all such efforts, and a nightly routine of debilitating sarcasm established itself.”

Most of the stories give an acute sense of the increasing gap between the old and the emerging new world. That is essentially the theme of the book. As the younger generation grows older, seeks greener pastures, you see the established order being eroded slowly, thereby causing confusion and conflict. Jahangir’s parents are upset when he chooses his own partner. This is less to do with the girl and more to do with the older generation’s puzzlement over their children charting their own paths. Bombay itself becomes a character in the book, because the city has always struggled to keep its identity and old world charm alive amidst pursuit for progress. Not to forget, Bombay is home to the largest number of Parsis in the world!

All of the author’s stories are about the nostalgia associated with the past and the celebration of the future. Many of the piquant observations of on quotidian life and characters make Tales From Firozsha Baag a highly enjoyable read.

-Sandhya Iyer

13 October 2009

Book review: Purple Hibiscus

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pages: 303
Published in the year: 2004

The one thing to do before reading Nigerian literature is to take up Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart,  the most definitive book on the country's culture and history.  Prior to Achebe's book, there was no real documentation of Nigerian history ie pre British rule. There was a whole existing culture - very unique and traditional - which swiftly underwent a transformation after the colonial rule. The subsequent generations in the country grew up mostly as Christians (after converting), with little or no memory of their forefathers.

This history is essential to the understanding of Nigerian literature, and proves immensely helpful in the reading of say, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works, which are closely allied to the past and present concerns of the country. In many ways, Adichie is constantly referred as as the literary daughter of Achebe and rightfully so. Hers has been one of the most assured, passionate voices for Nigeria and its people and all her three books so far, Purple Hibiscus, Half Of a Yellow Sun and her last collection of short stories, That Thing Around Your Neck has forcefully put forth several aspects of the country.

My introduction to Adichie happened with Half Of a Yellow Sun, a deeply affecting piece of work that is set during the civil war (Biafra) that happened in Nigeria in the 60s.
Emotionally provocative and deeply political, the book recounts a watershed period in Nigerian history. Adichie's other two books also vividly capture various important aspects of the Nigerians, for example, That Thing Around Your Neck talks about immigration and life for Nigerians in America (many of them went to the US when life in their country became particularly difficult). Purple Hibiscus also hints at many of these problems, but neither of them comes close to Half Of A Yellow Sun in terms of its stunning emotional and physical expanse and dramatic impact. Which is why if you end up reading this one before the others, you might feel slightly underwhelmed. That is what happened with me, but still Adichie's remains a very important voice.

Purple Hibiscus is a novel that talks of religious intolerance and the coming of age of the shy, tongue-tied 15 year old Kambili. She stays with her brother Jaja, mother and father, Eugene. The latter is an extremely wealthy man, but also highly domineering and fanatical about his Christian faith. When the novel begins, you see him obsessing over different practices and rituals associated with the Church. He's affectionate to his children, but also expects them to comply to a tyrannical set of rules. They are supposed to stand first in class without fail, they are not allowed to close their room for any privacy (fearing they might masturbate), they cannot meet their grandfather often because he has not converted to Christianity and still follows the traditional Igbo ways.
Any failure to adhere to these rules results in the most inhuman punishment. On one occasion, Eugene puts Kambili in a tub and pours scalding hot water over her feet. At another time, he flings the Bible on his wife's stomach. The family lives in dread of the patriarch but they also realize he's an important man and a loving husband and father when his command is closely adhered to.

The political scene in Nigeria --- always very volatile with a culture of military coups – goes through another period of upheaval in the 90s and comes to affect all the characters in the story. Eugene also runs a newspaper – among his other factories – that is known for its courageous news reporting. Under the new regime, his editor's life is threatened and slowly, Eugene too starts to feel the heat. On their aunt Ifeoma's persistent request, Jaja and Kambili are allowed to spend some days at her place, along with her children. Ifeoma is a strong, well-meaning, warm person. A lecturer at the Universitiy, she is single-handledly bringing up her kids after her husband's death. Her brother Eugune refuses to be generous with her, because she won't comply with many of his conditions related to religion. She also despises the way he treats their father who lives in relative penury.

It is in this scenerio that Adichi traces the emotional journey of Kambili, from whose point of view the story is told. Eugene – in an exaggerated sense – depicts a generation that wants to completely erase their past history and what their forefathers stood for. As one knows, the British made a deep impression on the local populace and slowly a large percentage of people converted to Christianity.
But Eugene's character appears particularly unattractive, because the root of his fanaticism is not very clear in the novel. If there indeed was such a class that carried its obsession to this degree, then it probably needed some more explanation. Most of what Eugene does appears irrational and eccentric. The character of Kambili, on the other hand, is too passive for you to ever get invested in her.

Many episodes in the novel are not convincingly done. Eugene repeatedly sending his children to his sister's place in spite of being angry with her or Kambili's relationship with her sulky cousin who suddenly warms up to her in the end or even the last chapter involving Eugene's death, all seem a bit puzzling. Also, incidents leading to Jaja's prison episode do not ring very true. Moreover, Kambili's attraction for the young Father Amanda and their constant need to be in each other's company is awkward and forced.

Yet, there are strengths too. Aunt Ifeoma's warmth and integrity as a person shines through and many of the episodes involving her with the children in her cozy little home are affecting. I also quite like the title, which alludes to a rare colour of the Hibiscus flower in Nigeria and the glint of rebellion it symbolizes for the author.

There are also many issues relating to the Nigerian society that comes to the fore through various instances. The rising cost of food grains, fruits, fuel under the military rule causes great distress to its middle class populace. People are stranded since their cars won't move without fuel. The Gas cylinder is a luxury and Aunt Ifeoma is thereby forced to use it judiciously. It's a time when resentment against the military regime has started to grow. Many start considering a new life in the US, albeit with fear of racism in a new country.

The book also gives vivid details of jail life in Nigeria – this became a full length short story in Adichie's third book.

Purple Hibiscus offers telling glimpses of Nigerian life. It's a short book (300 pages) and even though it gets over in quick time and has its moments, it isn't compelling as a whole. But Adichie reveals her controlled yet dramatic style of storytelling. And to think she wrote this book when she was barely 27.

-Sandhya Iyer

10 October 2009

Somerset Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors

Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 340
Published in the year: 1954

The one aspect, among many others, that draws one to Somerset Maugham's writing is the elegant simplicity and clear-headedness in them.

He can be a very compassionate writer, as The Painted Veil reveals. And with Ten Novels And Their Authors, it is his analytical abilities as a scholar and critic that come to the fore
This particular book is especially illuminating, as Maugham expounds on the various aspect of fiction writing, giving a fairly detailed analysis of the books and authors he admires. Literary criticism, no matter how challenging and exhilirating both for the writer and reader, often makes for heavy reading. Maugham achieves that rare feat in that he writes a book as engaging as a novel and yet offers you wonderfully original and insightful views on each author's work and craft, linking them closely to their personal lives.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, 2 chapters offer invaluable observations and insights on fiction writing. The 10 chapters are about different authors, where one of their major novels is chosen and discussed by Maugham.

The first chapter, 'The Art of Fiction' discusses various elements of fiction writing - all greatly readable (for me, that has come to be the hallmark of Maugham's works --- he's also that rare writer who does not ramble. This quality helps in an endevour such as this where one needs to be genuinely curious about another author's life and works. Maugham proves to be astute and all his elaborations make a definite point)

This chapters discuss some very important aspects of writing. Why does a reader feel tempted to skip lines or pages from a book? According to Maugham, the responsibility to engage a reader lies with the writer. He daringly points out how even some classic novels are unnecessarily long. He mentions Don Quixote in this regard and says that even if some chapters were to be edited out of the book, it would cause no serious loss to the reader in his/her enjoyment of it.

Then he discusses the advantages and disadvantages of narrative choices. Should it be written from the standpoint of omniscience or in the first person? The assessment shows that it must be done according to the subject at hand.

Maugham's other significant point is on what constitutes a good novel.
There are many aspects that he talks about , but the central one is that of achieving verisimilitude. "A story should be persuable. The episodes should have probability and should not only develop the theme, but grow out of the story"

He then goes on to talk about each author in considerable detail, paying special attention to personality traits and episodes in the writer's life which may have had a part to play in the fiction he/she went on to produce.

He observes how Charles Dickens could never really sketch out a gentleman very well, because he'd never seen many of those kind in his childhood.
Similarly Emily Bronte's "strange, mysterious, shadowy" character permeates through Wuthering Heights. Says Maugham of her, "Emily Bronte disliked men and without exception, was not even ordinarily polite to her father's curates."
She was clearly anti-people and avoided proximity, which could be one of the reasons why she chooses Mrs Dean to be the narrator of Wutherings Heights. Says Maugham, "I think it would have shocked her harsh, uncompromising virtue to tell the outrageous story as a creation of her own. This technique of having the housekeeper tell the story enables her to hide herself behind, as it were a double mask.”

Leo Tolstoy, he describes as "irritable, contradictory and arrogantly indifferent to other people's feelings" even though to Maugham there can never be a greater novel than War And Peace.

He talks of French writer Stendhal's pompous manners and utter desperation to appeal to the fairer sex. “His passions were cerebral and to possess a woman was chiefly a satisfaction to his vanity"

Many authors, like Gustav Flaubert and Balzac had complicated love lives and all of that Maugham describes without the slightest bit of hesitation. They all come across as complex characters, with very many issues relating to money, their lovers and family life. Maugham tends to concentrate a tad too much on each author's sordid personal life, which can be distracting. But
the book's prime appeal is Maugham's rich and masterful observations on the works of these great authors.
Like what he says of Henry Fielding, who started out as a playwright before turning to fiction. According to Maugham, this was a great advantage because "by then the author has learnt to be brief, he has learnt the value of rapid incident"

He has very many interesting things to say about Jane Austen as well, whose Pride And Prejudice he regards as a greatly entertaining and charming novel. According to him, Austen was the most consistent among her contemporaries. "Most novelists have their ups and downs. Miss Austen is the only exception I know to prove the rule that only the mediocre maintain an equal level. She is never more than a little below her best"

He may take from one hand what he gives her from the other, yet, Maugham's appreciation for Austen is genuine. He says of her works, "Her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and a prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same story in all her books. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. She never tried to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things, she could never have heard."

Among all the authors he talks about, he calls Balzac 'an absolute genius'
"His greatness lies not in a single work, but in the formidable mass of his production he was able to give a vivid and exciting impression of the multifariousness of life, its cross-purposes and confusions. I believe he was the first novelist to dwell on the paramount importance of economics in everybody's life. He would not have thought it enough to say that money is the root of all evil; he thought the desire for money, the appetite for money, was the mainspring of human action" Yet, his criticism of Balzac is that "he never learned the art of saying only what has to be said and not what needn't be said"

Maugham doesn't give a very flattering account of Stendhal's life and says that his works were almost destined to remain under oblivion. However, by a stroke of rare luck, certain intellectuals discovered merit in his writings and they spread the word around. Fortunately, these men became famous enough for their word to be taken seriously. In that respect Stendhal is that rare writer who was rescued from obscurity in which he languished during his lifetime. Maugham praises Stendhal's book, Le Rouge Et Le Noir for his psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives and the freshness and originality of his opinions.

Maugham while talking about Moby Dick and Melville has something to say about the novel being viewed by several people as an allegory. “Allegories are awkward animals to handle. You can take them by their head or by the tail and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is plausible."

In the concluding chapter, Maugham points out how none of these writers who produced these unforgettable works were particularly intellectual. He believes it was their unique personalities and their emotional instincts/responses that made them so successful at what they did.

Maugham’s most emphatically stated point in the book is that a novelists’ job is to entertain beyond everything else. That is his foremost duty to his reader, he says.

It would be impossible to talk about everything that is part of the book, but suffice it to say that Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors offers a wealth of information and is studded with such illuminating commentary, so as to make this literary criticism of the highest order.

-Sandhya Iyer

05 September 2009

Warming up to Wodehouse

It's been ages since I picked up a P G Wodehouse book to read. It must be in school that I read Thank You Jeeves and I remember it wasn't the easiest reads then. First of all, it's British humour and many of the similes can seem alien, so it was a mini-struggle to get through it. I did finish it, but didn't pick up another one, until very recently. Call it a childhood mental block.

Nevertheless, I've been wanting to include some light reading every now and then between serious reviewing - that includes reading Harry Potter -Book 4 by the way. So I attempted Wodehouse this weekend and read 'Very Good Jeeves' . I must say I found it immensely enjoyable - though I still think a certain concentration is required, because every line has a hidden detail that leads to the comic plot.

That said, Wodehouse is incredibly light in content, one that harkens back to the aristocratic excess and leisure of the Edwardian society...where characters don't have to worry beyond choosing between muffins or cucumber sandwiches for breakfast and splitting hair over which scenic spot to spend their summer vacations at. The charm lies precisely in the fact that this world is so far removed from our stressed times. And yes, there is the word-play, vocabulary and delightful turn of phrases that should warm any literary enthusiast's heart.

01 September 2009

Arzee - The Dwarf

Author: Chandrahas Choudhury
Pages: 184
Publishers: Harper CollinsPublished year: 2009
Price: 325

The title of the book intrigues you at a certain level. But then you wonder if you're going to find enough in the story to empathise with the life of a dwarf man.

But within the very first page of the book itself it is evident that Arzee - the dwarf is also a metaphor for the feeling of smallness and inadequacy that resides in all of us.

"He'd been too predictable earlier, too submissive, a soft touch. Each day in the world was a battle against the might and will of myraid forces, so then why shouldn't he change tracks and direction as it suited him? A man couldn't just be as he was, as he felt he should be - this world wasn't a place for feeling!"

This is Arzee's internal monologue, as he puts up a daily struggle to dignify his existence. His small, diminutive body is a perennial cause of resentment to him and the only way he imagines he can feel better is by having as normal a life as possible - a job and an adoring wife to sleep beside him.

When the novel starts, Arzee is in an elated state of mind. The head projectionist at the Noor cinema, Phiroze has called it a day, so Arzee quickly assumes that the post will now come to him. Not being used to such windfalls, he cannot contain his happiness and starts dreaming of a hiked salary and a quick marriage possibly. He even boasts of it to his friends and pities their stagnant lives.

But as it turns out, Arzee is informed that the old theatre so far sustaining on re-runs would be shut down in a few days. To make matters worse, he’s also supposed to cough up some ten thousand rupees to a group of cricket bookies. Since he sneaked away without paying the full amount when he lost, the agency sets Deepak on him - a scamp - who unleashes mild terror on Arzee from time to time. Deepak is probably one the novel's most entertaining characters. On the surface, he is a bully, trying hard to show how macho he is. His views are mostly shallow, which he spouts with a great dismissive, supercilious air. And yet, there is enough charm in his character and a suggestion that he may not be altogether a bad person. This becomes clear when you see him later behaving every bit like a home bird around his home and wife.

"I....I has it last week, Deepkbhai. I would've gone to the office and paid up, but you'd said I was to pay up to you as soon as I had the money.'
'I never knew you were so obedient. Okay, we'll excuse you for that. I've come now. Where is it?'

Interestingly, the novel alludes to the power dynamics among people, where people behave according to their stations in life. While Arzee is all meek and deferential towards Deepak, he treats his subordinates at Noor in the most shabby and inconsiderate manner. The suggestion is that the one with power will always trample over the less fortunate, so you know that it is really a cycle of which Arzee is only a part of. Again, the closing down of Noor - once a flourishing theatre and now pushed to the fringes of Mumbai - is a symbol of this strong versus weak conflict.

Chandrahas Chaudhury's debut novel is a wrenching affirmation of the pain and tribulation that the modern man endures….the deception of the mind and the power and perils of imagination. The author - himself a reviewer for Mint magazine - heartbreakingly captures the mind of this being - where each one lives in his/her imaginations to shield himself/herself from the cruel blows of reality. One is disoriented when one is forced to confront the real world and finds oneself at the brink of disaster and desperation. But some hope comes by and the imagination takes flight once again.

Arzee- The Dwarf is a powerful book about our confused lives today, and how we unknot its maze going through a series of highs and lows. Chandrahas' language is fluent, devoid of any frill. It is unwaveringly direct and searingly honesty. It’s easy to note that the author has a great penchant for similes which he uses to good effect. To sum up, Arzee- The Dwarf is a wonderful debut that will hopefully be much talked about in the days to come.

Interview with
Chandrahas Choudhury
1. For a while now, you've been a reviewer with several leading publications. How did that experience impact your learning as a novelist? What were the aspects of writing that you picked up in the course of reviewing? Typically dos and don't..

I don’t think of reviewing as a very unusual activity. You might say that all writers take notes in the books that they read; the only difference with me is that I write them up into an essay. But of course, my reviewing has been of great use to my education, especially since the papers I write for are very generous and allow me, for the most part, to write about what I want. So I try and read the books that I think I will enjoy and learn something from. Reviewing also keeps the mind sharp, as you’re always thinking about what works for a book and what doesn’t. It gives you the opportunity of a close engagement with the craft and technique of some of the best writers working in the world today. And often the life of a writer has many empty hours, and all these can’t be spent in composition – it would be too exhausting. Reading and reviewing are the glue that binds all the things in my life together. Lastly, I don't have to tell your audience about the many pleasures of getting lovely books for free, and before anyone else has had a chance to look at them!

2. Arzee – in spite of his peculiarity - a dwarf man – can actually be anyone and that is clear within the first page of the book itself. The way I read it, his diminutive body is a metaphor for the feeling of 'smallness' in all of us. So why the emphasis on Arzee being a dwarf in the title? Was it only to evoke curiosity?
I tried to make the predicament of Arzee both specific and universal – or, to extend from your own question, both particular and metaphorical. I tried to instantly give the reader access to Arzee’s mind, so that he or she can see the world from Arzee’s point of view. The use of the word “dwarf” in the title has a specific reason. It’s because the world itself sees Arzee as “Arzee the dwarf”. In a way his dwarfhood is like his surname, and always follows his name wherever he goes. Arzee can never be separated from his bodily condition when it comes to the gaze of society, and so “Arzee the dwarf” is in a way a description of his problem with the world. Even if Arzee tries to forget his condition, the world – for example the figures of Deepak and Mehndi in the book – and always reminding him of it.

3. To me, the most interesting character of the novel was Deepak. You portray him as supercilious and cheeky and yet he's not entirely inhuman as we get to know him. On one level I gather, he is part of the cycle of power dynamics that exists between human beings ie Arzee is deferential towards Deepak but treats his subordinates at Noor shabbily. What other factors link Deepak to the story? Also, am curious to know how you view this character yourself.
You’re quite right in your reading. Deepak also presides over one of the comic strands of the story, as he’s always cutting off Arzee’s thoughts and trying to mock Arzee’s self-pity. Arzee reveals quite a lot of himself in his long conversations with Deepak, and this is useful to the reader. Deepak is indeed part of a whole chain of power dynamics – he is always condescending when speaking with Arzee, but he is very deferential to his bosses. At the same time, Arzee is so lonely that he comes to think of Deepak as a kind of friend, despite Deepak’s sarcasm. Finally, in the scene at Deepak’s house we see that Deepak himself is vulnerable to grief and hurt, which one would not suspect from his tough-guy exterior. So Deepak fulfils many functions in the story. I think one of the qualities of a good novelist is how much attention you pay to your minor characters.

4. Is Phiroz's daughter's blindness a reminder to the Arzees of the world that people live pleasantly enough with bigger handicaps or is there more to it?

There’s more to it. The scene is also about the human need for contact, and indeed our ability to establish a permanent human connection through an encounter no more than ten or fifteen minutes long. The fact that Shireen never appears before Arzee only adds to the mystery of the scene. And Shireen’s blindness also goes a long way towards explaining why Phiroz behaves the way he does.

5. Would like to know your literary preferences and the authors who have inspired you.

These are a few of my favourite fiction writers: Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vikram Chandra, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Dickens, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sankar, Orhan Pamuk, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany. But I read a lot across fiction, poetry, history, politics, religion, and philosophy – broadly all the humanities.

6. Your debut effort has come in for much praise. What's coming up next?

An anthology of Indian short stories about place and landscape, called India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion, which is edited by me. That’s coming out next year. And after that another novel on which I’m going to start work soon. There may even be a book of poems.

7. Also if you can briefly comment on the direction Indian Writing In English is taking and the trends you foresee?

I think that Indian writing in English today is in a good place. As a reviewer I read something almost every month that seems to me to be high-quality work. I think the current generation of writers in English have shed a lot of the hang-ups and anxieties that haunted the work of an earlier generation. We’re more confident about our voice and more willing to find our own forms. At the same time, I also read a lot of really shallow, linguistically inert fiction that seems to have been written to a formula, and my days are ruined by these wretched books. In a capitalistic age a lot of novels seem to want to be nothing more than be easily consumable products. So I’d say there’s both good news and bad news to report.

23 August 2009

Past perfect: George Eliot's Silas Marner, the weaver of Raveloe

Author: George Eliot
Pages: 212
Written in: 1860-61

Lost and found

Every now and then, when I feel underwhelmed with contemporary works - some of it either because it's too sparse or simply lacking in quality -- I'm gripped by the urge to take up a classic. It allows me to soak my mind in the elegance of the English language...long-winding sentences that bristle with beauty, offering timeless insight into the human condition.
So last weekend I found myself scanning my bookshelf, seeing if there were any classics that I'd left unread and could take up. A quick search got me to Silas Marner - a book my grandfather gave me years ago from his collection.
Right away I must say the book lags behind in scope compared to Eliots' other novels, not quite posessing the wrenching emotional depth of A Mill On The Floss nor the narrative sweep of a Middlemarch, but it comes with a virtuosity and tenderness that makes it greatly readable. Importantly, Silar Marner shows the remedial influence of pure, natural relationships and the power of love when life has otherwise been unfair.

The book recounts the tale of a man - once full of affection and faith - forced to shun society when he's wrongly accused of theft. Silas re-settles in a countryside called Raveloe, where he gains the reputation of being cranky and mad, because he won't allow let anyone get close to him. His past life makes him so bitter that he lives the life of a recluse for years, mechanically carrying on with his work. His only source of pleasure is to gaze at the gleaming gold coins that he gets for his weaving work. He hordes it, and clings on to it dearly. All his repressed emotions are transferred towards the protection of his coins. Naturally then, he's grief-stricken and devastated when the gold gets stolen one day.
And yet, this loss of gold brings about a physical change in Silas. Earlier, he would close his doors and shun society in fear that someone would steal his gold. Now, he has nothing to hide. But emotionally, Silas is distraught at the loss. Which is why he leaps with joy when he sees gold hidden in the frost one Christmas night. But it isn't the gold he thinks it is. They are the golden locks of a two year old girl abandoned at his door. This treasure proves to be priceless, as a major transformation comes about in Silas as he brings up the girl, Eddie. Their relationship is touching, as Silas' frosty exterior melts away, revealing his tender fibres he'd kept locked in his heart for so long.
The other two important characters in the book are that of the well-heeled, Godfrey Cas and his wife Nancy. Their relationship as a married couple is one of deep affection and trust, even if they have many a crisis to overcome. Of course, they have a connection to Eddie.

There are some problems with Silas Marner. You're never sure why Godfrey Case marries a woman called Molly before Nancy. This part is very sketchy. Also, there are some chapters that are meant to give the reader a sense of the social scape in the country side. These parts tend to meander not adding anything substantial to the narrative. I'm guilty of skipping some of these portions.

As I said, the book is probably not in the league of Eliot's other two classics, but it's a neat story and can be an excellent introduction to the author. More importantly, my desire to read something of genuine value and pleasure was completely satiated.

19 August 2009

Review: The Story Of A Widow

Author: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Pages: 249
Price: 495
Publishers: Picador
Published In : 2008

It was with some enthusiasm that I picked up this book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. There were positive reviews, and the author has his work as translator for the acclaimed The Adventures Of Amir Hamza of Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami behind him. But this turned to be a very drab, vacious book on many fronts.

When one reads about a book set in a particular country or culture, one likes to get a sense of the place and its people. This one is based in Karachi and should have captured the essence of the Pakistani living and its inhabitants in a more textured, nuanced manner. But all Farooqi does is to give you a story that is too generic, plastic and facile.

The concept is interesting enough - that of a 50 plus widow who looks at marrying again and experiencing a sexual, marital happiness that she missed with her deceased husband who was too controlling and finicky. Not a bad plot. But the whole drama appears staged and unconvincing.

Mona, a 50 plus widow, attractive and comely, is quite content with her single status again after her husband's death. Her two daughters, the empathetic Ambar and surly Tanya are married, so the mother has enough time on her hands - something she never had earlier. Her husband has left her enough money and she has an efficient staff to take care of her spacious house. Her decorous social life is restricted to visits to her neighbour - the elderly Mrs Baig and her sister Hina and her husband Jafar.

The author gives us a rather telling glimpse into Mona's life with her husband Ahmad - who while he was a responsible man was unduly meticulous about finances and cared very little for his wife's feelings. She rightly believes she missed out a lot in life just being the ever dutiful wife and mother. So when Salamat Ali, a widower settles as a tenant in Mrs Baig's house, Mona shows him a passing interest.
Salamat we're told is a man of 50, but his habit of ogling at Mona using his binoculars or thrusting film tickets into her hand make him look like a lout, a sadakchhap. This appears odd to say the least. But more excruciatingly portrayed is Mona's extended family, a mob of despicable, gossip-mongers. Her sister Hina is somewhat considerate but that too in an overbearing and officious way which irritates Mona.

There is a tone of artificiality that runs through the whole narrative and neither the characters not their actions have adequate depth or nuance. The relatives goad Mona into marrying Salamat and then want her to divorce him at the first opportunity of him being proved a scamster.
The author makes a farce out of Mona's life in the end. He seems to conspire to keep her in a tremulous state all through. Still, she's the best written character of the lot. You get a sense of her dissatisfied marriage and her desire to be with a man who can value her.
It seems strange  though how she agrees to marry Salamat as she's never convinced about the man. Mona is not in love with him nor does she find him particularly attractive in any sense. The author gives Salamat Ali the air of a slimy fellow very early on, hence there are no surprises when Mona's world gets thrown into a disarray soon. To add to this Salamat is a very badly written character.
 At the end of it, one wonders what the point of the book is – that attractive widows must be on their guard against opportunistic, vile men?

15 August 2009

Ruskin Bond's Notes from a Small Room

Author: Ruskin Bond
Pages: 171
Publishers: Penguin
Publishing date: 2009
Price: 225

A room with a view

Moments of inspiration come to all of us. These are times when our imagination takes flight and there's an urge to pen down a few lines. It happens to me during the monsoons - seeing how lovely everything starts looking. The rains are infinitely romantic and there's a regenerating beauty to the season that is quite hard to describe.
It is with this sense of endless wonder and child-like joy that Ruskin Bond writes from his small room about all things that make an impression on him. And with his ardor for nature, even an ant's movement doesn't escape his sensitive eye.
The book - most of it are entries from his diary- is an ode to all things close and dear to him, wherein Ruskin Bond describes the mountain steam lined by white blossoms with as much tenderness as the potted geranium plant in his house. His joy at seeing seedlings break out from mother earth in the monsoons is only equaled by the wonder he feels watching the variety of insects emerging after a hot summer.
Most of the descriptions are about nature but Ruskin Bond’s affection extends to many other things, of which he makes some poignant notes. My favourite chapters (if they can be called that, because most of them are no more than 2 pages) all relate to the author’s description of his personal life – his childhood, some tender moments with his father, his struggle to become a writer. Another touching episode relates to his type writer, which he couldn’t afford entirely and his clerk/housekeeper buys it for him.
Then there are some reflections on books, the way only a bibliophile would do it; talking about how books and their curative properties, the charm of pocket-books and what it means to be a bibliophile.

Most of these entries are random writings, penned down over the years by the author and hunted down to make a compilation. The result is a charming little book, with some of Ruskin Bond’s most simple and instinctive reflections. He tells you that his writing has not changed much, "That's because I haven't changed myself" he says. And that is true in some ways, as it's hard to tell which of these articles were written 20 or 30 years ago. They all carry Ruskin's trademark simplicity, a naivete but a refreshing candour. Above all, writing that reflects a rare humaneness and passion for life the way God created it.
There is no great philosophy or profoundity that Ruskin Bond tries to achieve in his writing (and he says so himself in one of his chapters). When a bright young thing asks him for his philosophy in life, he is unsure what to say even at 75. At first depressed at not being able to come with an answer, he later reminisces, "I realised no philosophy would be of any use to a man so susceptible to changes in light and shade, sunshine and shadow. I was a pagan, pure and simple, a sensualist; sensitive to touch and colour and fragrance and odour and sounds of every description; a creature of instinct, of spontaneous attractions, given to illogical fancies and attachments. As a guide, philosopher and friend, I am of no use to anyone, least of all to myself."

For me, the book is probably not as memorable as Ruskin’s others works like Binya’s Blue Umbrella or some other stories I read in his Childrens Omnibus. But it has a nestling beauty that comes with all things that are private and pretty- a favourite bylane, the fragrance of a flower or the arresting beauty of the morning sun rise

PS: There are almost 40 entries – with lyrical titles like ‘catch a moon bean’ ‘trees from a window’ ‘monsoon medley’ 'a lime tree in the hills' that instantly draw you in with its imagery.

12 August 2009

Neil Simon's Plaza Suite - a play I adore

One play that I'm particularly fond of happens to be Plaza Suite, written by American writer Neil Simon in his collection of plays called A Visitor From Forest Hills. I remember being delighted by its succint humour achieved entirely through witty exchange of dialogues, gentle irony and deliciously etched out characters.
The play entirely hinges on dialogues between two of its central characters, the middle-aged husband and wife couple of Norma and Roy Hubley. Both are anxious as their only daughter Mimsie is getting married. We're told about Roy - a successful business who possibly is aggressive and ruthless in his professional deals but is nervous as hell when it comes to the business of marrying his daughter. Norma, his wife, is more soft-spoken, keen to keep up appearances and maintain her image.

So when Mimsie suddenly locks herself up in the bathroom minutes before her wedding, all hell breaks loose. When the play starts, you see Norma begging her daughter to come out. Unable to persuade her, she calls up her husband who is downstaires in the midst of preparations. He freaks out when he hears what his wife has to say, and both - start from requesting Mimsie to come out, then go on to intimidating her, then blackmailing her and then again begging. Beyond the fact that both are obviously worried for their daughter, they have their own specific reasons to be annoyed. Norma - earlier so thrilled by the preparations - is scared that a canceled wedding will cause her embarrassment. Roy - on his part - has spent a great deal on the marriage and like most men would is fretting about the costs. So after itemizing the large sums of money he's spent on heaps of food, liquor and musicians, he yells to her, "Mimsey, this is your father. I want you and your four hundred dollar wedding dress out of there in five seconds!"

Roy - a bit hyper and blunt - unleashes his anger on his wife blaming her for what their daughter has done. "You must have said something..." he yells. Norma is equally mad with her husband and keeps warning him to keep his volume low. Both argue a great deal - hurting each other a fair bit in the bargain, blaming the other for being a bad parent and generally being at cross purposes throughout. And yet, for all of Roy's temper and Norma's superficial concerns( she's sulking over her ripped stockings throughout), their relationship is not without some contemptous affection for one another.

The play is racy, light-hearted, fun-- with great many quotes and crisp exchanges. Yes, there is an underlying thought. Mimsie locks herself up precisely because she is scared of becoming like her parents. But the play is not a sermon on marriage and is more a frolicsome take on different personality-types.
-Sandhya Iyer

04 August 2009

Book review: English, August

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Pages: 288
Year Of Publishing : 1988
Price: 295

To be or not to be

I know English, August came a long time ago, and though I remember catching glimpses of the film and being intrigued by it, I never got around to reading the book. I finally did read it and was amazed at how fresh and timeless this Upamanyu Chatterjee book still feels. The book was written in the late 80s and recounts the author's stint as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer in a small district called Madna. At that time, the book got a great cult following, not just for the story, but the way it was recounted –with generous use of cuss words, sexually explicit passages and all of that. I dare say, this remains as sharp a read as it possibly was then.

Born and bred in metros like Calcutta and Delhi, the book's 24 year old protagonist, Agastya Sen feels completely disoriented to be posted in an underdeveloped, far-flung place in Central India. The abysmal living conditions unsettle him. And with his habit of smoking marijuana and being stoned most of the time, Agastya finds himself in a perpetual state of daze, even as he listlessly goes about with his job. He's struck by the laidback attitude of the administrative community, trying to battle with the trying conditions of the place. The collector -Mr Srivastava leading a relatively lavish lifestyle - keeps the social scene quite vibrant. Work takes a back seat for everyone and Agastya, caught in lethargy and inertia, is happy to get away with doing little or nothing. Most of the time his head is spinning, as he wonders what a guy like him could be doing in a place like Madna. But such is the heaviness he feels all round him, that he cannot gather the will to pull himself together.
It’s a vicious circle and the author brilliantly and skillfully describes page after page Agastya’s growing sense of boredom, frustration and farcical existence.

“God, he was fucked – weak, feverish, aching, in a claustrophobic room, being ravaged by mosquitoes, with no electricity, with no sleep, in a place he disliked, totally alone, with a job that didn’t interest him, in murderous weather, and now feeling madly sexually aroused. His stomach contracted with his laughter. He wanted to rebel. He said loudly, ‘I’m going to get well, shave my head, put on a jock strap and jog my way out of here’

It’s really one person’s account as he goes by his life aimlessly, but Upamanyu Chatterjee infuses his story with such varied and colourful episodes, dots it with so many nuanced characters, creates such a perfect sense of the place, that you are effortlessly drawn into a narrative that stays vibrant in spite of the essential static life of Agastya. And all this is recounted with a brazen sense of abandon and wry humour that it makes you chuckle and smile.

More admirably, the author brings a rare emotional nakedness and searing honesty to his protagonist’s internal monologues and observations, not felt by me since James Joyce’s A Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man. There are several brilliant passages that bare the protagonist’s inner most feelings but I continued to be amazed by Upamanyu Chatterjee’s power of perception and his ability to wrench out those thoughts so well.

“The noise of the jeep made sustained conversation impossible foe which Agastya was happy. He could slide down in his seat till his neck rested against its back and, without chafing, allow his mind its restlessness. In a jeep, he would smile and argue with himself, you can do nothing about your mind or your future, not until the journey is over. In a moving jeep he was not vexed by the onus of thought....

Since one assumes that the author has brought a great deal of his own personal experiences during his posting in the book and Agastya seems to be his alter ego, one wonders why he didn’t use the first person. Not that it makes a big difference but one would think of it as a natural option to take, considering that the narration is entirely from the protagonist’s point of view. Maybe a second reading will throw some light on that.

To sum up, the book feels as fresh to read today as ever. Easily, this has to be one of the most brilliantly written and genuinely edgy reads for me.

-Sandhya Iyer

02 August 2009

The Painted Veil

The Home-coming

: W. Somerset Maugham

Pages: 213
Publishers: Random House
Year Of Publishing: 1925

What do you do when you can't get over a lover who is clearly not worth it, has let you down and has behaved callously? Alternatively, can virtue alone in a husband compensate for passion? Is it duty towards others rather than a self-serving desire that lends our lives dignity and strength? These are some of the profound questions that Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil raises. Set in the late 19th century, the novel's action takes place in both England and primarily China -which the British had invaded at the time.

Kitty, as a beautiful, young girl is used to a lot of attention since childhood. Along with her pushy mother, everyone imagines that Kitty would get herself a great match in marriage. However, things don't go as expected, and she doesn't find any of her suitors good enough. She gets desperate when her younger sister -- never considered a looker -- gets married to a prosperous Duke! Panic-stricken, Kitty hastily agrees to marry Walter - a staid and simple bacteriologist who falls madly in love with her. She accompanies him to China and tries to adjust to her new role as his wife.

Kitty -  frivolous and a bit shallow - quickly starts to feel bored with Walter.  Yearning for romance, she's exasperated with his silences and general indifference to everything around him. This is when she meets Charles Townshend, a charming, high-ranking government officer. Charles is everything that Walter is not, and Kitty finds him completely irresistible. Both quickly get into an extra-martial affair.

When Walter finds out, he is overcome with anger. Kitty - though disturbed by the discovery - considers it a blessing as she might now be able to divorce her husband and marry Charles.  Walter announces his decision to go to cholera affected town, Mei-Tan Fu to control the epidemic and he wants Kitty to come along. The latter is shocked. "I'm not going, Walter. It's monstrous to even ask," she says. But Walter's mind is made. He won't let her divorce him and will instead press charges of adultery on her and Charles. He gives her a chance though. If Charles can divorce his wife Dorothy and marry her, then he will let her go.

Kitty runs to Charles with the total belief that he would marry her, but is stunned to find that he isn't willing to sacrifice anything for her sake. He gently but firmly refuses to divorce his wife. Despondent and depressed, Kitty has no option but to join Walter. She's terrified at the prospect of going to a cholera-ridden town and when she reaches the place, her worst fears come true. She sees death all around her, the heat gets to her and she's left with very little company as Walter refuses to speak to her. Kitty is still desperately in love with her former lover, Charles. She makes every attempt in her mind to hate him, contorting his features and imagining him to be an ugly man. In her mind, she fully understands that Charles is nothing but a cad who cares for no one else but himself. And yet, because she is unable to get over him, her heart sinks with a feeling of despair.

Their kindly neighbour, Waddington, astutely gauges that something is wrong with the couple and becomes a good friend to Kitty. To escape her boredom, she visits the Convent, run by French nuns and is amazed at their sense of duty and commitment. Besides giving shelter to orphans and educating them, the convent is also in the midst of treating cholera patients. Her own husband single-mindedly works at improving the situation at the place and becomes somewhat of a hero for the women and children at the Convent.

The book is about Kitty's journey – from being a flighty girl fed on fantasy to someone who comes face to face with the real world. Her unbridled passion for Charles and her wistful state seem trivial when compared to the deaths she sees around her. She's already started to see herself as worthless when compared to the people around her –all of whom take pride in their duty towards others.


Kitty starts to understand her husband better but she still can't love him. She is exasperated thinking of how Walter continues to punish her when there are so many graver things before them. "Does he have no sense of proportion,” she wonders.
So finally when Walter succumbs to cholera and dies, she feels a tinge of sadness but is also relieved.

Kitty by now has had her spiritual awakening. Her revelation comes about in the last scene of the novel during her conversation with her father. Her mother has just died and the father takes this as an opportunity to announce that he is moving to another city on account of a promotion. For long, the father was neglected by the mother and daughters and Kitty comes to realize that he actually hated them. But when Kitty pleads with him to take her, he can't refuse. This is where she realizes how people constantly put their duty above their own feelings and this was what she was never able to do.

Maugham portrays Kitty's character with a rare sensitivity. She's weak-willed and naive but she knows it. She desperately holds on to her romantic notions and when they are all shattered, her recovery from it is rather painful. But in the end, the hurt cleanses and makes her look at life with mature, empathetic eyes.

Somerset Maugham's writing is simple, elegant with several deeply moving and profound passages. When Kitty in her distressed state converses with the Mother Supreme at the convent, the latter calmly tells her, "You know, my dear child, that one cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one's soul'
Fortunately, Kitty gets close to finding her peace by the end of story.
-Sandhya Iyer

PS: It's wonderful how one discovers certain gems in literature through movies. I happened to see the literary adaptation by John Curran - made in 2006 - over the weekend and was deeply moved by the experience. Obviously then, I wasted no time in buying Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil to see how differently the filmmakers had interpreted the story. There are many changes, but both the book and the film are exquisite works in themselves. And I'm glad I saw the film first because the book offered me a kind of back story to all the characters and made it a much more fulfilling experience.

Movie verses the book

There are several changes that have been introduced in the film. While Maugham's book is mainly about Kitty and her journey towards self-discovery, the film is about both Walter and Kitty and how these two people with nothing in common live together. In the book, Walter's character is an important one but not as much as it is in the film. In the movie, Walter - played brilliantly by Edward Norton - has a definite and smoldering presence.

The film essentially focusses on these two people - their hurried marriage, betrayal and then a vengeful revenge that Walter unleashes on Kitty. The very first scene makes it clear that Walter - who we know was very much in love with his wife - is in an unforgiving, determined mode. Kitty, on her part, is too depressed to have parted on a sour note with her lover Charles. The dreary life she sees ahead fills her heart with horror. It seems impossible that these two people should ever make a connection with each other again, but they do. Unlike the book, where Kitty - even though she starts understanding her husband better - never really accepts Walter, the film gives more screen -time and space to the relationship to develop.

One of the best portions of the film is when Kitty goes to meet Charles Townsend in his office. The book describes this scene with splendid irony. Charles is reintroduced in the book when Kitty reluctantly agrees to stay at his place after Walter's death for a few days. This is done at the behest of Charles's wife, Dorothy. He once again tries to seduce her with gentle, loving words. Her physical desire for Charles gets the better of her, and they make love. But Kitty quickly recovers. She sees him for what he is. Vain, manipulative and self-seeking. She realizes how hollow his words are. She takes a stand, decides to move out of the city and start life afresh.