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.