28 February 2009

Past Perfect: A Passage To India

From Darkness to Light

Author: E M Forster
Published In: 1924

Many critics believe that without A Passage To India, E M Forster wouldn't have perhaps been the author of eminence he is today. This novel, based in India during the British rule, is easily one of the most definitive works that documents the period and offers more than a glympse into the prevailing colonial attitudes.
Not that Howards End and A Room With A View do not contain merits but A Passage To India - by having a dark. impenetrable core (the caves) - right in the middle of the book --- breaks away from Forster's otherwise Edwardian conventionality and takes on modernist hues. It's a mature breakaway for the author and what we have here is a mytho poetic novel that unravels a wealth of meaning.

My first interest in E M Forster's works came while watching A Room With A View,  Ismail Merchant's  brilliant literary adaptation of Forster's novel. Later when I read the book, I found it quite disengaging. I felt the film was far more entertaining.  Being always interested in Raj literature, I took up The Passage To India, considered by most as the definitive book on British India . I savoured the book - loving how Forster creates the mood and setting. A certain mysticism pervades the novel, as each character battles with their two worlds - internal and external. The incident of the Caves is the culmination point where things come to a head.

When Adela Quested and her would-be-mother-in-law Mrs Moore arrive to India, they express their wish to see 'the real India'. Compared to the snobbery around - among the British class about the natives (Indians) - Adela and Mrs Moore seem much more open and courteous towards their Indian acquaintances. Dr Aziz, one of the major characters in the novel appears in many ways an embodiment of Forster's impression of India --- a kind of 'muddle' yet affectionate and emotional. His judgments are not always based on facts, as he tends to follow his heart too much. He overreacts and his feelings swing in extremes - from childlike joy to undiluted anger and hate.

The other character, Mr Feilding is portrayed as the rationalist - a friend to both Aziz and the two women. All four of them are happy with each others acquaintance and it's one of these days that Aziz proposes a trip to the Marabar caves. When they agree, Aziz makes a lot of preparations for the journey. But things turn disastrous. When Mrs Moore comes out of the Cave, she feels dizzy and disturbed. But Adela's reaction is extreme. She comes out shouting and later accuses Dr Aziz of sexually molesting her. The Britishers stand by Adela, using the opportunity to tighten the screw on the natives.

However, as days progress, Adela isn't sure anymore whether she was really molested or whether she just imagined it. Mrs Moore is convinced that it was all in Adela’s mind. Dr Aziz is let off by the court to loud cheers by fellow Indians. The British community feels humiliated and targets Adela for 'changing her mind'
The third act, mostly constitutes the central characters drifting away and then crossing each other's paths after many years. This part does not flow seamlessly with the rest of the story but if seen like an epilogue, it works in portraying how the British-Indian equation was writ with misunderstanding, mistrust and miscommunication.

So, what exactly happened in the caves? Forster never tells you and even when he was asked about it in interviews, he only said, "I don't know!"
But the author's rich setting and characters do reveal a lot, in terms of what could have possibly happened. One of the central clues is Mrs Moore's character, who is going through a period of disenchantment with humanity itself. She has intuitive powers and feels a certain spiritual decay that disturbs her. She possibly expected to find peace in the caves but instead is horrified at the feeling of 'nothingness' it suggests. Adela, on the other hand, only has a certain superficial rationality to her and her sexual feelings are also repressed (in Jungian terms, her animus is more pronounced), which is why the caves probably brought her at the end of her conscious state -ie towards the unconscious (mind you, the cave can also be viewed as a primal womb - a darkness before existence as much as nothingness after existence) and that makes her unstable.
In general, two of these characters, in particular move in an out of their consciousness and unconsciousness.
Adela's fear could have also emerged out her distrust for Aziz and all Indians, a feeling which may not seem obvious on the surface.
So essentially, Forster starts off by creating a rich period drama about British India and the relationships that crumble under the weight of their cultural phobia.

For this and more reasons, A Passage To India is an illuminating read and opens up a treasure of meanings.

23 February 2009

The Summer Of Cool

Colony capers

Author: Suchitra Krishnamoorthy
Pages: 205
Publishers: Puffin
Published in : 2009
Genre: Teen fiction

After proving herself as a decent actress (Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, My Wife's Murder) a pop singer, and even a painter, Suchitra Krishnamoorthi gives us a glimpse of her talent as a writer with her just released debut book, The Summer Of Cool. And she does well!

It's a breezy 200 odd pager about teenagers and their eventful summer in the upper middle class neighbourhood of Swapnalok Society. The book wastes no time in introducing the denizins of this nestled housing complex, each character and home delineated with their own peculiar traits and quirks. So there are the exiting Malhotras, also teased by the kids as 'Underwear aunty and uncle' because they have a habit of hanging their undergarments in full view in their balcony. Then there's the hyper Sita Maami - whose cola water recipe is a hit at all the colony get-togethers. The excitement grows a little more with the entry of a charming, bachlor in their midst Varun Vadola.

The place has its share of one-upmanship, jibes and politics and their earnest Secretary, Mrs Subramanium always seems to have her hands full with demands of getting leaking bathroom repaired, not allowing dogs in the lift...and so on.

Suchitra is very successful in creating this setting - and all those who have lived in co-operative societies at any point of time will appreciate the author's skill at evoking many a familiar image. Most importantly, Suchitra knows how to keep the proceedings interesting, introducing new characters and plot points.

Swapnalok Society has many families who would make for an entertaining story by themselves but the author chooses the troubled Varma family, with its two lovely daughters - Chitangana, the doe-eyed, and feisty eight-year-old and her more compliant elder sis, Smita. Both are extremely smart and imaginative kids, except that their lives haven't been the same ever since their father, Siddharth left them. Their mother has been a wreck, shutting herself from the world and venting her anger at her daughters. Chitrangana finds herself constantly at the firing end, given her curiosity about her dad’s disappearance from their life. Her agile, innocent mind is baffled at how her mom “treats their father as a ghost who doesn’t exist”

Things become more interesting with the entry of their Amamma (mother’s mom), with a morbid fear of strangers. The slinging matches get worse, until Chitrangana decides to find her father and set their crumbling house in order. Feeling suppressed at home, she starts to talk to the cloth doll, named Seema that her sister gifted her on her birthday. And in Chitrangana’s inventive head, she hears the doll replying to all her queries. Heeding her doll’s advice (which is really her heart dictating), she goes on a brief search for her father. The episode is painful but it proves necessary for many of the central characters and their lives.

Suchitra does a nice desi Enid Blyton here, sketching the lives of unban Indian kids quite accurately (this could be largely aided by the fact that she is mother to a teenage daughter in real life)

However, for a setting that is so nuanced and characters so well-developed, the central plot and resolution are quite basic and even simplistic. From a very rooted and realistic setting, Suchitra broadens the scope of her story, with Chitrangana going in search of her father. This is where the author loses some of the grip over the story and is forced to introduce elements like coincidences and so on.

There is fair share of suspense that the author manages to create, but the ending is probably not befitting a story that starts off so well.

All the same, the book won't insult your intellegence either. Don't look for a very complex plot, and The Summer Of Cool works out to be a crisp, page-turner that keeps you quite hooked.

Interview The Write Move

Suchitra Krishnamoorthy gives us an insight into her new book, The Summer Of Cool, telling us, among other things, why she keeps her writing so racy. Also, she’s all set to turn her latest book into a series.

1) It looks like the theme for the book was drawn from your own childhood experiences...

Yup. I grew up in a very interactive multicultural co-operative housing society in Mumbai and the ambience of the Swapnalok Society Series is drawn from there. Even many of the characters...

2. Was The Summer of Cool always supposed to be your first book or were you looking at some other subjects too?

I toyed with a couple of ideas and then went with this one. It had been playing in my head for a while and I needed to do something about it. Once I had the first draft I sent it to a friend of a friend, who happened to be Commissioning editor at Penguin. She loved it and that’s how the whole thing fell into place.

3. You have a teenage daughter, Kaveri. Are some of the episodes in the book drawn from what you see of her and her peers?
My daughter has just turned eight. She is way too young but a lot of the language I have used is from observing her and her friends and also my nieces.

4. Did you use anyone as your sounding-board while writing the book?
Yes, Mahesh Dattani. He is a kind of creative mentor to me and gave me able guidance.

5. One of your central characters, that of Chitrangana and Smita's mother, is an extremely troubled yet poignant character. Was there any particular reason for portraying her as a wreck?

Nobody is bad. There are circumstances that cause people to behave in a particular way. It’s what I wanted to explore.

6. I read somewhere that you finished writing the book in six weeks flat?

The first draft was written in six weeks yes. I had the basic plot ready and the rest emerged as I wrote. Even the end was something that emerged as I was writing.

7. Was there any point in the book where you couldn't decide which way your story should move or how a particular character needs to be approached. For example, the character of Sandy Khan is left quite ambiguous? Was that deliberate?

Sandy Khan is ambiguous because he is seen in this story from the point of view of Chitrangana. He is a hazy figure in her life and she lives in his shadow in spite of his absence. Wait till you read the next book in the series-things will become clearer.

8. You've kept the book extremely racy, introducing fresh characters and situations all the while. Is that how you wanted your book to be and are you conscious of not rambling when you are writing?
I am a very restless person, and it rare for something to hold my attention unless its riveting and I am emotionally hooked. My writing therefore emerges out of a need to keep myself engaged as well.

9.What are the books you enjoy reading and is there any book that has impressed you lately?
I read a lot. Am currently reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

10. What more can we expect from you as a writer in the time to come?
The Summer Of Cool will be a series. I guess you can expect a substantial body of work from me as a writer. But don’t ask me what I’ll write about next because I really don’t know. I will wait for inspiration to strike and Ganesha to guide my pen.

-Sandhya Iyer

05 February 2009

A House for Mr Biswas

Heartbreak House

Author: V S Naipaul
Pages: 563
Year of Publishing: 1961

Having read V S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (a epic travelogue for its sheer scope and detailing) and An Area of Darkness (a scathing description of post-Independence India), one knows that whether one chooses to agree or not with his provocative, highly opinionated views, one knows Naipaul is anything but  dull, and that keeps you hooked.

For a long time now one has been hearing about A House for Mr Biswas being undoubtedly his best work. Also, since I had only read his non-fictional works, there was a certain curiosity to read his fiction work.  Yet, A House For Mr Biswas is not wholly fiction and borrows a lot from Naipaul’s own life.

The central character of Mr Biswas is based on the life of Naipaul's father, and the novel tracks his life from birth to death. Right since he is born he is considered a bad omen for the family. By a quirk of fate the prediction does come true with Biswas’ father getting drowned while trying to save him. The family goes through very trying times, even as his mother Bipti appears totally detached and keeps whining all the time. Biswas is often sent to his wealthy aunt’s place, where he does odd jobs for the family. Biswas loves the ambiance there and dreams of being able to afford the same lifestyle someday.  His mother tries to keep finding schemes to get him 'settled' – one as an apprentice to a mean-minded Pundit (this whole episode is hilarious as much as it is ironic) – ends up frustrating Mr Biswas even further.

That's when Biswas' life takes another dramatic turn. A harmless bit of flirting with his employer's daughter plunges him straight into marriage. Biswas is not prepared, but his in-laws, the affectionate yet firm Mrs Tulsi and her commanding son-in-law, insist on the match. This, even though Biswas is penniless.

He moves in with the Tulsis – a queer, noisy extended family where the Tulsi daughters are welcomed to stay with their husbands and children. Since most of the son-in-laws are not very well-to-do, they are employed either in one of the family’s shops or fields.

Mr Biswas is enraged seeing that he has to follow the rules set by his wife’s family. He abhors the tasteless food they serve. He helplessly cribs that it ruins his stomach, and in general leaves no opportunity to deride them or pick up fights with the elders. The family is more often than not patient with him, trying to buy peace by giving him a fresh opportunity. Many a times, Mr Biswas gets so outraged by the family that he moves out, only to face hardships outside and return back defeated. He finds scant support from his wife who is practical about their financial condition and stays put at her mothers’ place with her kids.

The only time Mr Biswas’ life looks up is when he lands a job as a journo at the Sentinel. Tired of the Tulsis, he attempts to build a house of his own at least on two occasions. But always short of cash and saddled with a million troubles always, he ends up making a mish-mash of it each time and lands right back with the Tulsis.

However, Mr Biswas does manage a house of his own towards the end and nothing gives him more happiness than to live in a place where he doesn’t have to be indebted to the Tulsis. Strangely, Biswas finds more peace and cheer in the last few years of his life (with his son Anand and Savi) than he ever gets in his lifetime.

The novel is a marvel in character creation and Naipaul’s ability to penetrate through human psyche and proclivity with such searing candor makes A House For Mr Biswas an immensely rich work. The description of the Tusli family with its varied and colourful characters is especially ingenious.

Also, the novel can be read on a number of levels. Even without any special emphasis on its historical context, it still holds true as a novel about frustration and tragic vulnerability that lies at the core of all human existence.

The subtext is never overt, but it’s possible to read the Tulsi House as a symbol of colonialism. Trinidad was under British rule and Naipaul could possibly be driving home the point about how restrictive and controlled such living could be. Mr Biswas’ constant failure with every new endeavour hints towards the ill-preparedness of the Trinidadian populace when left on their own. Without adequate training or experience, Biswas is always clueless.

Yet, reading A House For Mr Biswas can be exhausting, for the tedium it brings at several points. The novel is too long, too repetitive. The same things keep happening to Mr Biswas all through the novel. In addition to that, the overly descriptive style of the book tends to tire you out.
But then again, there's another way of looking at the novel. The book moves at snail's pace , but so does Mr Biswas' own life that refuses to take off. Somewhere in the tedium felt by the reader lies Mr Biswas' own frustration at seeing his life languishing.
Naipaul's subject matter is grim but the author's trademark dark humour and ironic wit ensures that A House for Mr Biswas remains as entertaining, as it is enriching.

-Sandhya Iyer