23 December 2010

Why Mythology lives on

Mythology has always been a fascinating treasure for our filmmakers to delve into. What’s the lasting appeal of our epics, will mythology be relevant to our cinema in the future, too?

With Raajneeti and Raavan this year — films that are adapted from our great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively — one would think there’s a certain revival of interest in mythological themes. However, fact is that Indian cinema has always drawn from the deep well of these influential epics. Every character and story within these epics have been so entrenched in our psyche and collective consciousness, that they have invariably come to determine our ideas of culture and morality. And the fact that our epics are such a compelling artistic and creative tour de force have made them timeless in their appeal and relevance. Not to add, they remain the ultimate source material for our arts, especially cinema.

Straight from epics

Naturally then, when Indian cinema took its first baby steps, it was mythological subjects that became the obvious choices for filmmakers. Dadasaheb Phalke’s most well-known films included Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) — all derived from our great epics. And this was the trend across the country, with almost every film made down South, through the ’30s being a mythological one — Sakkubai, Sita Vanavasam, Krishna Tulabharam in Tamil cinema, to name just a few. These were all straight-forward representations of the epic tales and the fact that the audience were well-versed with the stories allowed them to make an immediate connection with the films. Hence, the transition to cinema proved to be an easy and pleasant one, where the content was familiar, even if the medium was a new one.
“Indians have a deep connect with their mythological texts. It’s an umbilical cord,” says writer and director Vinay Shukla. “There are so many strands in the Mahabharata that a filmmaker can base every story on the epic if he wanted, and yet never run out of material.”

The myth continues

With time, as cinema started evolving, filmmakers began experimenting with their stories, making it more contemporary. However, they seldom moved away from the templates and archetypes created by mythology. So the hero was mostly a representation of the ideal man Ram or the manipulative Krishna. The inspiration for the heroine came directly from the image of Ram’s dutiful wife, Sita — an embodiment of purity, compassion and sacrifice.
Even in the ’70s, when the anti-establishment wave took over, and youths were disenchanted with the old ‘ideals’, people got a new anti-hero after their own heart. Amitabh Bachchan’s characters in Trishul and Deewar, the illegitimate son and the underdog respectively, can easily be compared to that of Karna in Mahabharata, the illegitimate son of Kunti, who rebels and succeeds against all odds. Not only was such a character completely resonant with the mood of the nation, it also fired the imagination like none other. “Everyone has fantasies of being this abandoned child. It’s a universal fantasy, which is why Karna’s situation strikes such a deep chord,” says Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Raajneeti, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Ghulam. “The don and his loyal henchman seen in countless films invariably draw their energy from the Ram and Hanuman relationship. Similarly, all our old villains have the same motivation that drove Raavan. It was revenge and lust. So he abducts the heroine to teach the hero a lesson and eventually falls in love/lust with her.”

A timeless treasure trove

“I have no doubt that our mythology is timeless in essence. Our epics are an external and dramatic representation of an inner life. Since human nature does not change, our epics will remain as compelling and influential as ever,” says Rajabali.
Almost everyone agrees that mythology has a treasure trove of stories and if they are are well-woven into contemporary settings, they will always find a resonance. “I would recommend every student and filmmaker to read the epics to simply understand how to tell stories and what these stories actually reveal. It helps one to see the entire range of depths and the layering of characters. They are simple, but never simplistic. For example, take the episode of Hanuman entering Lanka to retrieve Sita. Here is a man who is completely devoted to Ram and yet when he enters Raavan’s palace, he is struck by his glory and exclaims, ‘this man is fit to rule this world!’ This is the conflict which even Valmiki mentions in the original Ramayan. So our epics keep throwing cues at us, telling us not to look at things in a very simple way,” views Rajabali.
In spite of other narrative influences coming in, filmmakers believe that mythology can still be a great source of stories for films. “Mani Ratnam’s Roja is actually a simple tale of Savitri wanting her husband’s life back from Yama. And Mani does it very cleverly, so that the reference is never overt. I think South Indians perhaps have an advantage because mythology is very deeply ingrained in them. They can easily take the emotions from the epic stories and present them in the modern context,” says Shukla.
Rajabali too agrees that a lot more of mythology can flow into our films. “Unfortunately, the literary aspect of our films has not been explored enough. You need a literary tradition. Our earlier writers were all authors. Today, we don’t see that,” he says.

Mythology, a gimmick?

Author of several mythological books, Devdutt Patanaik believes our films, which directly try to adapt the epics or borrow recognisable elements from them, present very primitive versions. “They are cosmetically fantastic and alluring, but their soul is missing. They present to you a cosmetic archetype. So any person who is manipulative is Krishna, but then what about Shakuni? Earlier scholars who researched the Mahabharata and Ramayan tried to explore and impart the wisdom in it. That is not the intention of the films that one sees. Most of them only play with popular perception. They will glamourise the villain (Raavan) because the dark side is always interesting. But I doubt it is done with any understanding of the story. So I will say, they are great cosmetically, but on the soul level, there is a complete disconnect. A good katha should shake you up from your complacency and uplift you. Do you see that happening with any of these films?,” he asks.
Rajabali has a contrary view and argues, “I don’t see anything uplifting about Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, these epics make me ponderous and reflective. Both these texts end in tragedy. In Ramayana, you see Ram being the best king and having the ideal kingdom and yet, his life ends in pain. It is a way of telling us how life is very difficult and is ultimately very painful.”

The future of mythology

Since epics are living texts, the understanding is that they can be re-interpreted in a million ways, and they will still find a resonance among the future generations. Ultimately, whether one sees our epics as cautionary tales or inspirational parables, it is evident that their greatness lies in their narrative craftsmanship, emotional depth, and profound understanding of the human nature, something which every artiste can take inspiration from.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives sums it up best in a chapter about the Pabuji epic in Rajasthan and oral traditions, when he says. “Myths pick up the pieces when philosophy throws up its hands. Great myths help to think through the unthinkable and make sense by analogy.”

21 December 2010

Women Unbound, Leading Ladies - Writing on women by women and interview with Sudha Menon

It's not hard to see that women are increasingly dotting the professional arena, and even dominating the scene in specific industries. Every subsequent day is seeing their number rise at the work place, and in a few years, women are tipped to take over plum positions in all fields, including those that have been traditionally viewed to be male bastions. This changing gender dynamics on the work-front will unquestionably alter and challenge the working space in the years to come. Which is why, the timing of two recent books, Women Unbound (Penguin) by Gita Aravamudan and Leading Ladies (42 Bookz Galazy) by Sudha Menon couldn't have been better. Both expectedly 'celebrate women' and acknowledge the rapid strides they are making in their professions, and how this is impacting family and social life. Admirably, both books focus intently on the professional journey and achievements of women, not allowing their personalities to be overly defined by their private lives.

While Aravamudan focusses on the whole class of working women trying to gather an aggregate of how things stand today, Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies profiles the country’s long-standing women achievers, seeing what makes them tick.

Both books have been penned by ex journalists. While Sudha I recogonise as a sassy journalist on the Pune reporting scene, Aravamudan has also worked as a journo in Bangalore. Both women take a mature and balanced approach towards the topic, trying to understand the role of women today and the realms of the possible. However like it happens often with print journalists who turn to non-fiction, the writing assumes an impersonal, third-person staidness. From time to time both of these give you the feeling of reading a newspaper cover story or magazine with the ‘he says’ ‘she says’ approach. Their authorial voice is a timid one having for years seen things from a generalized, neutral stand point. This is a disadvantage because non-fiction frequently relies on effervescent writing to offset the seriousness brought about by the theme at hand.
Both books  run out of steam after making a few points and then get  terribly repetitive.

Gita Aravamudan’s Women Unbound has interviews with women across the board - media personalities, IT professionals, BPO employees and one even with item girl Rakhi Sawant. There is novelty in the first few chapters as the author gives an introduction about the history of the ‘working women’ and tracing how and when things started changing. Some of the women she interviews are interesting. Like there’s one with NDTV journo Radhika Bordia and her reporting on hard news. Radhika rules out being differentiated on account of gender and says those days are long over. Yet, women are not singularly judged on their capabilities still. She notes how women on television have an advantage if they look good. This was something Radhika had to reluctantly come to terms with. “The visual media has become like the film industry. The male anchors are getting older, and the women are getting younger. But it’s not just the TV industry. It’s everywhere. All career women feel the pressure to look good."
There are some observations that stay with you. Like the author finds how even though women are found in plenty at the entry level of an organization, their number drastically reduces in the middle management level – this is because most women tend to take a break after marriage or pregnancy and find it difficult to get back into the groove. Working around the family and yet the same time having a full fledged career remains the single most important challenge before women. What the book brings out, however, is that many women are fiercely dedicated towards their work and given the right support system can really do wonders.
But the idea of a woman being defined by her professional life and career will only happen with time. In the book Gita narrates how many bosses at the time of recession were tilted in favour of  their male employees and when left with little option laid off the women, citing that men needed their jobs for their families. Obviously having a job may still not be viewed as a necessary part of a woman’s identity. But it’s very clear that the winds of change are blowing fast.
The book tries to cover just about every working woman it can find, so it feels like a great amount is crammed in. It gets repetitive and the only way one will not mind it so much is if one doesn’t read it at stretch.

The same condition needs to be applied to Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies as well because the pattern in each story starts to get familiar and tedious. The book looks closely at the lives of well-known personalities like Anu Agha, Naina Kidwai, Lila Poonawala, Mallika Sarabhai. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Shikha Sharma, Kiran Muzumdar, Priya Paul and Amrita Patel that the book covers. Many of them have been extensively written about and quoted in the press, so straight away, the subject loses some of its novelty. 
Anu Agha is terrific and inspirational as ever as she reflects on her life where she suffered the worst knocks possible, including the death of her young son in an accident soon after the death of her husband. The tragedies made her philosophical, but not bitter, and she picked herself up in the larger interest of her company, Thermax. Today, Anu is putting her weight behind some of the most constructive social activities in the city. And her advice for professionals is especially valuable. “The balance between ordinary and extraordinary self is a key aspect. When you are full of your achievements and have a bloated ego, it is vital to remember that you are pretty ordinary. And when you are taking it easy and not pushing yourself, it is essential to remind yourself that you are extraordinary."

The one element common to all the success stories is that most of these women were ambitious from the very beginning, having an excellent academic track record and a focussed, single-minded approach to their careers. Most of them had extremely supportive parents who had big dreams for them. Importantly, the one aspect that comes across is the strong value system ingrained in them, where they were able to look at the collective good of people. Not surprisingly each one has been a terrific team player continuing to encourage and inspire others.

They all entered their fields in the 70s when most companies did not even hire women as a policy. But these achievers attest to the fact that there was no great gender bias once they got reasonably settled into their field of work. Invariably each one of them had the backing of a male mentor who proved decisive in their career growth.

It's also vital to consider that these high achievers suffered some form of personal loss or the other, and it brought in its wake a great deal of pain and anguish. But importantly, they showed the courage to rise above it and recogonise the larger roles they could play in their professional sphere. Kalpana Morparia, CEO J P Morgan says she found it difficult to recoincile with her childless state and until very long considered herself to be failure. That's when she resolved to flip that loss on its head and use it to her advantage instead, wherein she single-mindedly applied herself to her career.
There are many such inspirations to be drawn from.

But one thing to consider about the women featured is that most of them have been heirs to big business empires or had influential parents who guided them correctly and funded their education abroad. Not that their achievements are less commendable, but the stories may not resonate as well as one would have liked. Just to make sure all fields get a representation, there's PT Usha and Shubha Mudgal added to the mix. One gets the feeling that the author could have been far more eclectic in her choices of women. As it stands, the narrative gets into a familiar loop with familiar themes and words floating around. Each story should have been more distinctive in order to engage the reader fully.

The book nevertheless is sincere in intent, and its approach of citing specific examples where these women applied their talent and innovation will go some way in showing how much women can be productive in the professional and public arena.

'Women bring an emotional quotient to their dealings'

Journalist Sudha Menon's book Leading Ladies profiles 15 successful Indian women who've made a real difference in the professional world, and through them tries to understand the realms of the possible

The idea for Leading Ladies, a non-fictional book featuring some of the country's most successful women in varied fields, lingered with Sudha long before she actually got down to writing it. As a business journalist, she had followed the corporate world from close quarters and it inspired her to see so many 'can-do' career women with stunning success stories. “I was keen to find out what made them tick,” says Sudha about the book-idea that had been “rattling in her head” for a while.

It wasn't easy to give up a secure full time journalism job that she had been pursuing for the last 20 years. “But there was a restlessness in me. I had grown up in a house where there were books everywhere. I had finished reading all the Russian classics by the time I was eight or nine. I loved words. In that sense, though I enjoyed my work as a business journalist too, it was all facts and figures which does tend to get repetitive after a while. And since this topic inspired me for a book, I resolved that I would have to take the plunge,” she says. It of course meant altering her approach and style and fully donning the writer's cap. “As a journalist you are objective and cut and dry. This was a different project altogether where I wanted these highly talented women to open up their hearts to me. I wanted to tap into their real selves, and know more about them than what one has read in countless magazines,” she says.

Sudha listed down 100 super-successful women but soon realised she would not be able to do them justice in one book. Finally, she settled on 15 names, and some care was taken to include women from the arts fields as well. But primarily, the book concerns itself with women business executives and entrepreneurs. This makes her list far less eclectic, but Sudha says she was hesitant to include women from fields she didn't have an assured knowledge of. Leading Ladies has many of the names one would expect. It has Thermax ex chairperson and social worker Anu Agha, social activist, her daughter and current head, Meher Pudumjee, classical danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, Naina Kidwai, and Lila Poonawala. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Kalpana Morparia, Shikha Sharma, Shireen Mistry (Teach For India campaign), Vinita Bali, Kiran Muzumdar, Mallika Srinivasan. Priya Paul, and Amrita Patel that the book covers. From the sports world, it has P T Usha and from the music world, classical singer, Subha Mudgal. Their obvious professional success apart, most of these women have leveraged their positions to make a real difference in their respective fields. Almost all of them have either begun or nurtured organisations that contribute to the larger good of their community.

Most of the women Sudha featured were only known to her through their work, but her process of finding out more through her book, proved to be a personal journey of self-discovery as well. “I had a lot of self-confidence issues. I feared I wouldn't be able to capture all the aspects about these women. But each time I met them, their confidence and energy started to rub off on me. They were generous with their time and I noticed they bring a certain emotional quotient to their dealings, a heart into an other hard-nosed world that makes them sensitive and effective leaders,” she says.

Since much has already been covered in the mainstream media about these women, Sudha deliberately chose not to create biographies and instead pitch it as an inspirational book. “When you feel low, you can just leaf through it and it has enough to give you hope and uplift your spirits.”
Sudha is already planning for a Vol 2 which will feature women from a variety of fields. Besides that, she is also going to release her fiction work soon. “Yes, the writing bug has bitten me now,” she smiles.

- Sandhya Iyer

19 December 2010

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

Author: Siddharth Dhanvant Shaghvi
Pages: 348
Published in: 2010

Somewhere towards the middle of Siddharth Shanghvi's overwritten second novel, one of his characters bitches about a fictitious Indian author saying so and so's book is self-conscious, lurid and seems "like a creative writing workshop on an overdrive."
Surprising that such a sentence would land up in Shanghvi’s own book, lyrically titled, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, because nothing can more aptly describe his own florid language.
Even someone who might usually appreciate the high-flown language found in classics, will find the writing here overly decorative and cumbersome. The first few pages are especially hard to get by as the showiness and smug nonchalance of the writing starts to revolt you.

It's not like Shanghvi cannot write. He has a falicity with words, and has perhaps used up half the dictionary, but this excessiveness serves an early blow to the narrative because you're so turned off.

Firstly, the creative writer in Shanghvi is painfully self-indulgent.
He writers: “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy. The same evening, on the bust to Samar’s house, Karan saw the prairie-blue sly darken , opalescent grey turning to leaden silver”

Even banal sentences are stilted.

“In front of the portal, under a big rain tree, liveried chauffeurs traded flashes of filthy gossip about their bosses, and the tipsy memsahibs, smelling of their husbands abandonment, waited for valets to pull up their fancy cars.”

The metaphors are frequently tasteless and meant to shock: “Priya had a crusty librarian’s voice, one that could only be relieved with a dildo”
The sexed up language by itself is not a problem, but the phrases seem to appear out of nowhere

All this should be enough to dump the book, right? To be fair, the novel does gather some steam and good-will by the end of the second chapter. You start to invest in some of the characters, the language begins to compliment the narrative rather than stick out like a sore thumb, and this is where you can appreciate the author’s ability to enter the inner most recesses of his character’s hearts and articulate their emotions so well. Many passages are moving and insightful, as much as they are lyrical and apt.
The title suggests the book would be about Bombay – all that is stands for, what it has lost and so on. But no among of evoking places and people of the city brings about a resonance.

However, as a story about three people, Samar, Karan and Rhea – on different journeys, all of whom violently fall in love for different reasons and are torn apart by their own confused states and stations in life, the novel holds quite well. The Rhea-Karan relationship rings true, and some of the scenes involving this tortured, tumultuous married women- single man affair is genuinely captivating.
Shanghvi successfully brings out the many shades of love, its changeability and conflicts to the fore. And he anchors this around the Jessica Lal murder case, where the central characters are directly and indirectly involved in it.
Shanghvi’s strength lies in characterization and he etches out a human drama looking at all sides of story and the compulsions that drive its numerous players.
The resolution is not as powerful and the characters start getting hazier by the end, so your interest in them steadily starts to wane.
The book then is a mixed bag – many lows, many highs.

Brief chat with Siddharth Shanghvi

The author was in the city last week at Crossword to release the paperback edition of the novel and I did take the opportunity to ask him about some adverse reactions his book generated when it released earlier this year. "Not some, there were many negative reviews," he corrects, as he picks up another book to sign. Did it bother him? The author merely gesticulates that he didn't care. His life and education in England could have also influenced to the way he wrote, he admits.

At the event were also present Childrens' author Sonja Chanradhud and Anjali Joseph, author of the recent Saraswati Park. The Lost Flemingoes of Bombay uses several real-life incidences and people as fictionalised parallels. The Jessica Lal murder case is at its core. Joseph's question was related to 'transmuting' real life into art. She observed how fiction has always been considered a 'precious zone' and our real lives are not supposed to be the stuff of art. Shanghvi answered that he chose the subject because it was the only reality he could understand. "I needed to understand this climate that allows a politician's son to get away with killing someone for a banal reason like turning down someone's demand for a drink. The upside is that with enough amount of noise and media working with you, you can make a difference," says the author, who contributed to the case by the way of newspaper columns he wrote around that time.
The other aspect about the novel is its undercurrent of sexuality. "I was offered a scholarship abroad to study Sex. My parents objected, and I didn't end up going. But it gets sublimated in my novels. I believe sexuality has a profound impact on how you negotiate your roles in the world," he explains.
Shanghvi has written two novels, the earlier one being The Last Song of Dusk, but the author is ready to give up writing. "Something organic and magical seems to get lost for me in the process of exhibiting. I will continue with what I do, but the instrument will change. But it would really depend on the story and my mood," he says with an air of nonchalance.

18 December 2010

Author: RamchandraGuha
Pages: 537
Price: 799
Year of Publishing: 2010

Historian, author and columnist Ramchandra Guha’s recently published book, Makers of Modern India is a sincere effort at profiling some of India’s most prolific thinkers and doers, whose ideas have had a defining influence in the shaping of our republic. The book – through speeches, articles and essays by these great personalities – tracks Indian’s political, social and cultural history over the last two centuries, giving the reader a comprehensive idea of how the country has come to evolve.
In a detailed introduction, Guha talks about how political activism has mostly gone hand in hand with theoretical reflection in our country, and most of its greatest thinkers have all been in the thick of political action. This is of course not unique to India. But one of the reasons that makes the compilation of such a book a worthwhile exercise is because many of those ideas remain relevant to present day India, says Guha.
Among the 19 individuals chosen by the author, there are the obvious names of course. But on first glance, there are several others who seem to be missing from the list. In the introduction, the author explains his choices clearly. Two iconic leaders of Indian national struggle, Vallabhhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose are not included, and Guha says this was owning to the paucity of original ideas contained in their published works and because both were ‘out and out doers’. The others missing are either because their ‘influenced has passed’ with age or because their ideas didn’t extend far beyond a certain class. The Indian Marxist finds no representation and Guha explains why -- their work has been derivative and no novel contributions have been made to the ideas of Mao and Lenin.
So the men and women who Guha handpicks are not all of the same stature, and some of them are little known, but altogether, the book covers a great deal and thoroughly represents India through its many stages and movements. While the book comprehensively looks into and dedicates several pages to its two greatest national leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, it also brings to focus thinkers like Hamid Dalwai, Tarabai Shinde and some others who got unjustly forgotten.
Guha introduces every personality at the beginning of a chapter, before reproducing excerpts of their speeches and essays. Many of the themes do find a resonance to the times we live in. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s explosive speeches talk about why it is imperative for Indian Muslims to have a separate Pakistan. “Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature….they have different epics, different heroes and different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other and likewise, their victories and defeats overlap.”
Some of the most insightful thoughts come from C Rajagopalachari, first attorney general of India and CM of Tamil Nadu. His essays talk about the acute need for a strong Opposition to make parliamentary democracy effective. This was the time when Congress party was enjoying an unrivalled reign in the 50s and 60s. He also debates with much acuity on why English, and not Hindi, must be the national language.
All these themes are bound to touch a chord among today’s readers. At 537 pages, the book is a valuable addition to the repertoire of non-fiction writing in India.

13 December 2010

Leela - A Patchwork Life

Pages: 180
Price: Rs 450
Publishers: Penguin Vikings

The faintest memory one has of Leela Naidu is that of Anuradha, the haunting, virginal beauty in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960s film with Balraj Sahni. There were a few more fleeting appearances from her on the screen, but by and large, she remained a figure known only to a close circle of friends in Mumbai, where she stayed till her death earlier this year.

Leela - A Patchwork Life is an autobiographical book, that captures some of highlights of her life - and there were many. She died before the book was published a few months back. She was 69. The multi-lingual, multi-cultural Leela was one of the most well-traveled, well-read people of her times, and French launguage in particular was ingrained into her system.

Born to an physicist Indian father and a French-journalist mother, Leela was thrown in the company of illustrious men and women very early on. Hindi films were incidental to her life. She acted in a few films, got married into a rich industrial family (Oberois), delivered twins, got divorced, married poet/writer Dom Moraes and stayed together for 25 years, until they separated. However, none of the personal tragedies in her life find a place in the book. In her prologue, she enumerates the incidences in just one sentence, but it unmistakably carries the weight of memory. 'I do not see what use it would be to recount my 'trials and tribulations', except to add to yet another narrative of feminine pain to the ones that are already extant."

If that was all there was to Leela's life - which she anyway didn't wish to talk about -- the exercise would seem pointless. If the book is still so readable it's because the memoir teems with wonderful anecdotes from a bygone era, where she came in close contact with some great luminaries of her time. Her parents were fairly influential in their fields, and Leela was privi to many of these personalities visiting her home from time to time. She remembers filmmaker Roberto Rossellini loving her mom's cooking and when Leela goes to Paris for a certain medical reason, she has his wife and legendary actress Ingrid Bergman for company. In one of the most interesting chapters of her life, she forms a close association with new wave director Jean Renoir, who teaches her some vital aspects of acting. In one of the episodes, she describes how Renoir got her to read a particular scene and led her through a series of exercises in what he described as the 'ifness' of the play. What if the character was such and such? The text was merely to be the framework and each interpretation could bring something new to that framework...

Obviously, her exposure to world cinema and her interactions with the masters had a bearing when she acted in films later on. In what is perhaps the most interesting segment of the book, Leela describes her working relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory who made The Householder with her and Sashi Kapoor. Someone senior sees the clippings of the film and praises Leela for her good use of her toes in a scene where she is angry and on a hunger-strike. Leela had not noticed it at all. "I believe that if you know what one part of your body is doing, or you're planning what your eyebrows are going to do, you're not acting, you're modelling," she views.

Once Leela approaches her teens, her luminous beauty is noticed by all. Raj Kapoor who she is told has the 'regretable tendency of falling in love with his leading ladies', is struck by her good looks and offers her a four year contract. Leela says she was never very keen on films. Yet, she accepts Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha and describes the experience as pleasant. She seems to have shared a bitter-sweet equation with co-star Balraj Sahni. She says he lend his gravitas to many films that didn't deserve it, and then goes on to tell us that for all his gentlemanliness, Sahni was not above 'trying his luck with her' The other high point was when Vogue mazagine listed as one of the five most beautiful woman in the world.

Leela's inherent delicacy of speech and elegance prevents her from ever turning vitriolic towards any known figure, but she nevertheless gets across her point, either saying it plainly or then employing clever sarcasm. The latter she uses for her husband Dom Moraes (not being able to resist calling him 'morose'), who was also her childhood friend. Leela talks about how she was his unpaid secretary for years, taking down notes for him and interpreting his 'mumbling questions' as he interviewed high-profile personalities all around the globe. One of them happened to be Indira Gandhi, who kept giving them monosyllabic answers.

The first half of the book is made interesting only because of some the famous interactions she had, otherwise Leela's language often tends to get stilted and there is the appearance of some dainty posturing as well. One theme that is repeated episode after episode is Leela's good Samaritan acts. So either she is fighting for the rights of the 'extras' on the film sets, or taking up some racism issue. Leela's concerns may well be genuine, and that is plausible given how she went on to make documentaries on a variety of socially relevant subjects later on, but her self-projection as a do-gooder gets tedious to read after a point. Leela presents herself in no better than in the best light possible always, which makes the memoir seem quite imbalanced.

But the book grows on you and Leela has many valuable insights to share along the way. Her observations of Indian film units - make-up men keeping their shoes in the same trunk which contains the cosmetics - or Leela finding her expensive clothes being returned in shabby condition after use - point at their callous disregard for others. "The film industry and I never understood each other," she writes finally.

The writing has its moments, and at 180 pages, the  book never overstays its welcome. The book was narrated orally to writer Jerry Pinto. People who know Pinto believe that there is a definite shadow of him in the writing. It seems very likely he anchored the material. But what you get in the end is an engaging book that takes you back in time and entrances you with the scents and smells of an antiquated time.

08 December 2010

Somerset Maugham A Writer's Notebook

Most of us who grow up with the vague idea of becoming writers sometime in the future or at least putting what one reads to good use professionally will admit to have maintained a note book. I, for one, have. And since I rarely revisit a book for a second time, and since my own retention powers are so woefully limited, I rely either on making markings -underlining the text or then often diligently jotting it down in pretty notebooks. If employed with discretion and intelligence, as Maugham would say, the habit is not without profit.

Somerset Maugham's The Writer's Notebook is a collection of his thoughts, observations, ideas that he gathered along his prolific writing career that lasted over 50 years. The author kept a notebook and would scribble away anything that caught his fancy as he travelled far and wide and met a great deal of characters (one calls them 'characters' and not 'people' because Maugham always saw them as such and was otherwise quite a loner in real life.) It's a practise he started when he was all of 19, and kept updating it till he was well over 70 years. Maugham explains that it was not vanity that prompted him to publish his private notebook, instead it was born out of the thought that he himself would have been thrilled if a well-known writer had came out with such an edition while he was embarking on a writing career.

But when Maugham actually made the notes, it was with the idea of putting the material to future use. So what you find are several brief descriptions of characters and places, and reflections on life, art and human character. I must confess I didn't read everything in the book and though I glanced every single page, I rested my eyes and got immersed only on topics that I was inclined to read about. It's rightly a book that is usually found as a supplementary part of Maugham's stunning autobiography, The Summing Up, because there is an expected resonance in both works.

The parts which caught my eye were about Russian literature, which Maugham doesn't have very complimentary things to say about. Because the collective body of Russian literature is so small, Russians know it with a great thoroughness, he piquently observes. Maugham is a bit bewildered at its over-estimation all over Europe, and believes Russian literature to suffer severely in the area of characterisation. He notes that even someone like Dostoevsky -who has other strengths - has all his characters as 'all of one piece' and as personifications. He says, "It is humour which discerns the infinite diversity of human beings, and if Russian novels offer only a restricted variety of types it is perhaps because they are singularly lacking in humour. In Russian literature you will look in vain for wit and repartee, badinage, the rapier thrust of sarcasm, the intellectual refreshment of the epigram, or the lighthearted jest. Its irony is coarse and obvious."

The other insight is on 'irrationality' in characterisation. Maugham says that though man is fundamentally not a rational animal, he/she feels dissatisfied when the persons of a story do not act from motives that we accept as sufficient. He references Othello in this regard, terming how all of Shakespere's characters in this play were highly irrational. Critics have of course tried to justify their motives, but Maugham sees it as a futile exercise. "The critics would have done better to accept the play as a grand example of the fundamental irrationality of man."

There are other observations of the 'value' of art, the purpose of life and many such philosophical musings. The book in many ways points at the evolving of a writer, through his insatiable need to travel, meet new people, be exposed to new sensations and finally give expression to it in his books. Insightful, stimulating and bristling with original ideas, The Writer's Notebook is a terrific treasure trove that takes you into the rich and ever-curious mind of Maugham who considered every thing he saw as material for his writings. His invention, imagination and sense of narrative drama did the rest!

20 November 2010

Chetan's next book in Diwali 2011

Chetan Bhagat who lent his support for the recently held literary fest in Mumbai-Pune announces his next book, besides talking about the mass market and the
3 Idiots controversy

As India's bestselling writer walks towards the venue for Literary Live! on the final day of the event at Lavasa, a township on the outskirts of Pune, we see a slim and trim Chetan. The author had mentioned last year that being a youth icon he couldn't afford to be unfit, and he seems to have duly worked on that. "Have I really lose weight," he asks the journos present, as we walk towards the greenroom before he can begin his eagerly awaited session.

This IIT-IIM graduate, featured by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the field of books, has been significantly responsible for the rise of the mass fiction market in India. Chetan understands his contribution in getting young India to read, and thereby facilitating such literary events to get a receptive audience. "Otherwise literary festivals so far were only about writers discussing their works among themselves. That's not a convention. You need readers to participate," he says.

The success of his bestsellers, Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre, among others, were mainly responsible for opening the floodgates for the mass fiction market. However, this has also led to cheap imitations where a lot of trashy writing gets published. While one ought to be happy about the genre of Indian Writing In English finally expanding across segments and being more inclusive than ever, but without adequate filtration, isn't there a fear that it could bring down the overall standard of IWE? Chetan agrees that the market is getting flooded with all kinds of books, but he's not too worried. "Finally only the quality books will get sold, the others will dissapear," he says.

Earlier this year, Chetan took on the makers of 3 Idiots over credit issues, and got the better share of public sympathy and support. He's happy that the incident proved to be a watershed one, with Bollywood getting more conscious about giving due credit to its writers. "So many people within the industry called me and said they supported me. You can't cheat people in today's times. Whether it's a politician or anyone, if you are in the wrong, you will get caught and have to go!" he says.
Yet, Chetan wants to put the incident behind him and concentrate on other things. "Yes, my 5th book will come out next Diwali," he says, not willing to give away anything more on it.
Here's wishing him all the luck!

17 November 2010

The Kite Runner on stage

The stage adaptation of The Kite Runner that was presented by a New York-based theatre group proved too loud and mocking to capture the essence of Khaled Hosseni's celebrated story about friendship and betrayal

The idea of using popular literature as material for stage seems like a win-win situation. For a majority of those who aren't into reading, a theatrical adaptation of a book gives them easy access to a story that is worth knowing about. Similary, for theatre groups, the exercise is a worthwhile one, since there is always a ready audience waiting to see on stage a story they're already familiar with.

That has been the idea for New York-based theatre group, Literature To Live, and its 89 year old founder Wynn Handman, who started the institution 48 years ago. In the last 15 years or so, the group has been focussing on literature-based theatre in their 'Voices worth hearing' programme and have adapted about 15 books for the stage. The intention, says Chris Snock - teacher and organiser at the institute, is to get those who aren't big readers interested in literature. "A lot of our stage activities are for New York city school kids," he says. And Khaled Hosseni's bestselling novel, The Kite Runner was an obvious choice in this regard. This novel about life in Aghanistan and a tragic tale of love and betrayal, brutality and redemption has been a massive hit all around the world, and to US especially, after 9/11 and Taliban, it opened up a window to this part of the world. Says Chris, "Americans realised that Afghanistan has had a rich culture that dates back to 550 BC, which has been way longer than the five years of Taliban rule they know about."

At the start of the presentation, Chris was especially heartened that many in the audiences had read Hosseni's novel.
The performance was introduced as a particularly challenging one, where one single actor would be bringing to life the novel, enacting 10 different characters. The adaptation limited itself to the first half of the novel, about the childhood friendship between Amir and Hasaan, their ironic fates and the one act of betrayal that changes their lives. This is really the pivot in a novel that starts to get progressively melodramatic and contrived. But NYC-based actor Sohrab Wadia hits a rather discordant note as he attempts to bring the novel alive. For starters, Sohrab's exaggerated body language, tonal quality and overall presence just don't belong by a long stretch to the Afghan world. There's so much of the accented, yuppie New Yorker in him as an actor, that he never truly inhabits Hosseni's world. Also for some inexplicable reason, the writers and Sohrab together treat all the characters with half-mocking jollity which doesn't fit well with some of the emotional scenes. The script is relentlessly verbose, but Sohrab has great felicity with the language and has no trouble mouthing all the lines at one go. While he's not really able to enact Amir or Hassan satisfactorily, he's more convincing as Amir's father and in some of the other older parts.

The audience of course seemed satisfied with the performance, but when we asked Snock about the selection of actor, he admitted there were limitations. "We do the best we can in finding actors who can carry the spirit of the book. I do agree that Sohrab's own personality pervades heavily on the stage, but we've not had a problem with that whenever we've preformed in America. Perhaps, since the novel belongs to to the Asian world, the audience here will have a sharper eye about these nuances," he noted.

Sohrab, while talking to the audiences noted how he their intention was to be minimalistic and hence no props or lights were used. "Our founder Wynn Handman would not even let me use my hands too much and wanted me to keep it in my pockets, so as that audiences could be completely focused on the emotions," he said.

Undoubtedly, the stage can be a great vehicle to bring great literature to audience, to even enhance and illuminate the experience of the written word. Contrarily, it can also prove ineffectual or even injurious to the original work. Let's hope the good overrules the bad in this wonderful bridging of mediums.

16 November 2010

Literature Live! - the new lit fest in Mumbai

Following on the footsteps of the Jaipur lit fest, journalist-columnist Anil Dharker organised a four day event, called Literature Live in Mumbai that saw a decent turn out. The event didn't see the big players, but the fest is a great beginning towards wooing young Indian readers and infusing energy into the literary world as a whole

Bachi Karkaria, Anuvab Pal and Anil Dharker

For a long time, literary events have been indentified as elusive clubs, with only writers and a known circle of wine clinking literati participating in it. The reading public for Indian Writing in English and the Queen's language in general has always been a fairly niche one, making the prospect of literary conventions not entirely viable. However, things appear to be changing in the last decade or so, with the rise of the Indian mass market, and consequently the opening up of the desi publishing industry.
The Jaipur literary fest, held in the winter of January every year, started out tentatively, but has come into its own and is now attracting heavy-weight writers from all around the globe. It is within this context that Anil Dharker conceived and conceptualised Literary Live!, a four day lit event that was held in NCPA -Mumbai and Lavasa, Pune. "I always felt the city (Mumbai) needed a literary fest. We have a film festival (MAMI), we have various theatre festivals. What we lacked was a literary fest. We have a Marathi lit fest, but Mumbai is too cosmopolitan a city for it not to have a festival in English writing. The idea was to bring in national and international players and have them interact with our people and expose them to our readership," he says.
Prominent members of the local literati who took part in the event included poet Keki Daruwala, journalist and novelist Manu Joseph, poet and novelist Eunice D’Souza, writer Amish Tripathi and blogger Anupam Mukerji, popularly known as Fake IPL Player. There was also best-selling writer Chetan Bhagat, columnist Bachi Karkaria and screen-writer Anuvab Pal, who were part of the Pune sessions. A New York based theatre group presented a stage adaptation of Khaled Hoseni's The Kite Runner, performed by actor Sohrab Wadia. UK-based Matthew Sharp's unique story-telling on the cello also riveted audiences. The topics for discussion ranged from 'E-literature – here today, gone tomorrow' as well as thoughts on evolving cities and the future ahead for Mumbai. Here in Pune, Bachi Karkarai and Anuvab Pal spoke on aspects of Humour and kept the audiences in splits throughout. Bachi observed how many have asked her that her allusions and puns are difficult to follow and why she doesn't make it simple so everyone can understand. “I have thought about. But the joy it gives me when someone comes up to me and says they understood a particular reference or allusion, is tremendous. I want to keep the qualitative edge in my writing, even if the band of people reading my articles may be small,” she observed.

Anuvab Pal with Chetan Bhagat

The idea of the festival seemed not to keep it limited strictly to books and authors but to broadbase and bead together pieces of theatre and music into this literary necklace. A fair bit of social commentary was also part of the mix. This perhaps works well to initiate youngsters and first-timers into such a programme.
The big names in the literary world couldn't make it, but Dharker is happy that the first steps have been taken. Finding finances to put together a literature fest, a field that is largely viewed as too academic and elitist, was expectedly not very easy. "I would have loved to have V S Naipaul and Amitav Ghosh, but for all that money is required. The Jaipur festival too had a slow start, but in six years, it's grown. I began by forming a team. But when the finances weren't coming, I almost gave up on the project 2-3 times. But there is an obstinate streak in me which I didn't know existed until now, 'he smiles, adding, "Then some of the organisations we had approached for sponsorship agreed, and slowly things started to roll. Now, I don't see an issue with budgets in the coming years. Many cities and institutions have approached us to hold literary fests of these kind. So the foundation has been laid."

But Dharker doesn't want this to be a one off event, rather a movement that carries on year long. It would be interesting to see how literary conscious India gets in the time to come and that will ultimate determine the future of these fests.

11 November 2010

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father

First Published in 1995
Pages: 442
Genre: Memoir

It was when Barack Obama became the first Black President of the Harvard New Review, a legal periodical in the 90s, that he took his first step towards a possible career in politics. There was a burst of publicity around the event, and a publisher offered him an advance to pen down a book on his life. The excitement was mostly to do with 'America's hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front'. "...a morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made' - Obama notes in his introduction to the book which was re-published during his Presidential run for the General elections.

Obama was merely 33 years old when he wrote the book, a heartfelt memoir about a bright, young boy and his difficult initiation into a fractured world. Born as a black American, with a white mother, the young Barack is uncomfortable about confronting questions about his mixed identity.  To his sense of justice and fairness, the whole system of segregating people on the basis of skin colour is inexplicable and confusing. He is in denial about it for a long time, and cannot believe his identity as a Black American should prove to be an impediment in any way. When he sees instances of racism, both implicit and explicit, Obama grows pale and uneasy. All around him, he sees the other Blacks resigned to their fate, assured that nothing really will change for them and that they are all doomed to fail.

Though more privileged than the average Blacks, he still struggles with his identity - not knowing where he really belongs. It is at this point that Obama takes up work as a community man in poor black colonies. His decision is as much an evidence of his idealism, as much as a certain faith that change will always come to those willing to work towards it. Along with this dynamism, Obama also starts seeing within this task the complex fabric of a racist society and its disconcerting truths. Obama admits about being disturbed and in denial about his Black roots, seeing all that it implied. But he ultimately makes that difficult journey to Kenya -his father's home - to reconnect and uncover for himself the other half of his identity. The exercise is humbling and emotional for Obama, but he does get the closure he seeks.

The book is divided into three parts - one, about his 'Origins', then 'Chicago' which is about the work he carried out as a community man and 'Kenya' - where he visits his black relatives after his father's death.

The parts where Obama talks about his parents, his mother's second marriage to an Indonesian student, Loco and their relocation to Indonesia are all extremely engaging and the author displays a refreshing candour in these parts. Obama's descriptions reveal his warm affection for his mother, grandparents and step-father Loco, even if he doesn't shy away to mention their quirks and difficult traits. Family tensions, awkward growing up years,  all find a place in this memoir.
As he steps into adulthood, the questions of race, identity, and his future preoccupy his mind. For most part, he comes across as a loner, quite self-contained, not given to exaggerated emotions. Which is why when Barack finally cries over his father's grave or talks emotionally about his mother, you know the feeling is a deeply felt one.  But when he writes about other characters (friends, colleagues and relatives), there is a mild condescension in his tone sometimes, though Obama always avoids pointed criticism.

The book comes alive when Obama talks about his family. The portions in the middle where he describes his grassroots work are however quite tedious to read with many long-winding episodes and forgettable characters.  Even with the benefit of hindsight -where we know what Obama become - these parts are extremely dull and I ended up skipping many pages.

On racism, rather than specifically blaming the Whites, Obama chooses to view the situation as a human tragedy, where a community - after years of subjugation and abuse - had lost belief in its ability to make any real difference. Obama is at his most eloquent and effective as he describes the tortured minds of the Blacks, their desperation to escape from the quagmire of poverty, and their mixed feelings about those among them, like Obama, rising in the ranks.

 The book is sincere, but if this weren't written by Barack Obama, it might not have amounted to as much. There's nothing terribly new in the book and even as a coming-of-age story, there are only sporadic episodes that truly capture your attention. Obama, of course, has the skill of a writer. The book is painfully arid in parts, but overall Obama has the gift of narration and his sense for drama is revealed in the manner in which he crafts the story about his father, keeping the mystery around him till the end, leading to a powerful climax.

And of course, the book demonstrates most of the qualities one has come to associate with the President - graceful, eloquent with a generosity of perception but also somewhat emotionally detached.

-Sandhya Iyer

29 October 2010

Somerset Maugham's Theatre and Being Julia

Somerset Maugham before he turned into a full fledged novelist was an illustrious playwright. And even though he never got too involved in the workings of the theatre world of his time, he remained a close observer. And it is much of this he saw staying in the wings that made its way into the novel he wrote later in 1937.
Theatre or/and its 2004 literary adaptation, Being Julia (directed by director István Szabó), is the story of an exquisitely talented and alluring stage actress Julia Lambert and her trysts with various men.

So consumed is Julia with her aura as an actress, and such is her versatility at playing different parts, that she never stops being a performer even when she is not on stage. As she embarks on a spectacular career, Julia gets enamoured by her good-looking and industrious co-actor, Michael. They are a happily married couple for a while, but soon Michael's vanity and business-minded approach to everything starts to bore Julia. She is a mega successful actress on the London stage, and by 40, she has all that an actress can possibly aspire for - plenty of money, a fleet of admirers, a husband who looks after her career interests, and a teenage son whom she is content to see on and off.

Yet, Julia is a restless soul, always looking for short-term romantic adventures that will uplift her soul and send her heart into raptures. She's also acutely self-centered with a constant need for assurance about her desirability. Vain to an extreme degree, Julia has a compulsive need to feel loved, adored and highly valued by all. She returns all this attention with a charming superficiality, but with no great sentiment towards anyone. In fact, in Julia's mind, the lines between the stage and real have long blurred and she no longer can recogonise who she really is. Like her son Roger tells her once, "You don't know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting, It's second nature to you. You act when there's a party here. You act to the servants, you act to Father, you act to me. To me, you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother, You don't exist, you're only the innumerable parts you've played...."

It is this struggle with conflicting identities and a fickle, restless but sparkling mind that prompts her to be on the look-out for instant gratification. Between flirting and keeping her wealthy, erudite lover, Charles guessing about her affections for him, she also meanwhile falls headlong in love with an American boy, Tom several years her junior. His smooth, handsome face and body evokes a great passion in her. Tom, on his part, is kicked about being seen with a celebrity and joins her to all her high profile parties. But soon, he gets attracted to a younger, upcoming actress, Avice Crichton and cold shoulders Julia. Infuriated and upset, Julia goes through a slump, only to recoup and assert her glorious celebrityhood.

In Julia, Maugham creates a memorable and life and blood female character, who is as despicable as she is delightful, as artificial as she is alluring and as capricious as she is charming. It's easy to read her as scheming and manipulative, but that would be a surface reading of this extremely complex woman. Her airy superficiality and self-absorption make her difficult to like, and yet, Maugham does not condemn her. He writes her part with stunning constancy and depth, and even though he depicts what is truly pathetic about her state, one guesses Maugham is quite taken in by her spirit and allure to let her slip into being anything dismal. He allows her a grand comeback,from the brink of despair.

When a novel is an exploration into the psyche of a singular character, with no real hook, it can become difficult to adapt on screen. But Being Julia turns out to be a beguiling film, all thanks to a glorious performance from Annette Bening, who keeps you riveted to her from start to finish. She is beyond beautiful, and in spite of the narrative being condensed to suit the film format, Bening captures Julia perfectly, and one dare says, makes her perhaps more scintillating than she was in the novel even. But not everything else in the film is perfect. The Tom-Julia affair lacks the adequate chemistry in the film. Shaun Evans, as the American cad is only half convincing, and many of the scenes between him and Bening seem awkward. Ditto with Jeremy Irons, who plays Julia's practical-minded husband, Michael. The book recogonises him as vain and boring, but Maugham infuses in him a masculine charm that is entirely missing in the film. But apart from that, the film takes all the best scenes and dialogues and does a neat job of it. The novel reads the character of Avice Crichton - the struggling new actress on the block - rather differently from how the film uses her. The character is far from comical in the novel, and is quite an undistinguished character, except for the fact that Tom likes her and thinks of her as a perfectly honorable choice for him, which Julia is not! The problem is the film treats Crichton as a buffoonish wannabe, and hence Tom's affection and so called 'respect' for her does not ring true. Yet, the climax in the film, and the scenes leading upto it, are all entertaining and Bening makes it every bit worthwhile.

16 September 2010

Thoughts on Of Human Bondage

Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915) - his most intimate and autobiographical novel - was written by the author over the course of a few years and was a cathartic, purging exercise for him. Many tend to believe that the novel revolves primarily around a masochistic relationship that the protagonist has with a woman. However, Of Human Bondage is much more than that, and it's not until very later in the novel that the above episode actually takes place.

The novel is one of Maugham's longest (almost 700 pages) and captures the many shades of his life: an uneasy childhood, frustration at struggling to find the right calling and then finally, falling into an abusive relationship that almost leads to his ruin. While not all the episodes are autobiographical, the emotions are all his. Maugham was at the height of his popularity as a playwright when he set out to write this novel. His career as a novelist had taken a backseat and not even Maugham though he would digress from writing plays. But he did. Of Human Bondage wrenches out a story of deeply fractured emotions and inner conflicts experienced by an artist and an emotional man, which Maugham felt compelled to write about. He wanted to get it out of his system. He often said that he wrote because he couldn't help it. Which is what makes the novel one of the most intimate and searingly honest books ever written.
Maugham never really went back to the stage. Now that he was affluent, he returned to his first love - writing novels, short stories and essays, where he could be himself.

When the novel was first published  it was met with a certain ambiguity among critics. For a while it looked like the novel would be doomed to obscurity. Then writer Theodore Dreiser  wrote a stunningly positive review of the novel and suddenly it stoked a good deal of critical and public interest. Dreiser said, "Here is a novel of the utmost importance. It is a beacon of light by which the wanderer may be guided. . . . One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones."

Over the years, Of Human Bondage has gone on to become Maugham's most famous novels. The first part of the book is almost entirely autobiographical and is engrossing from the word go.

Maugham had a difficult childhood after losing his mother when he was a little boy and being sent to his childless uncle and aunt.  Likewise in the novel the protagonist, Philip Carey finds himself desolate staying with his uncle, a vicar who is overly religious and cautious with money. The aunt who has never known a life beyond meekly serving her callous husband is well-meaning and affectionate towards Philip. Given his circumstances, Philip is prepared to be a good Christian and follow the path prescribed by the Lord.

However his first exposure to the outside world as a boarding student is an especially painful one.  Philip has a club foot and limp, and when children studying with him cruelly tease him, it makes a permanent scar on his young heart.  Philip grows up insecure and conscious. To him, his club foot is a reminder of his inadequacy and he blushes every time someone makes a reference to it. There's a heart-wrenching scene where Philip - with his absolute belief in God - fervently prays one night that he should be rid off his club foot and be made normal the next day. As it turns out nothing happens and therein are sowed the first seeds of Philip's disenchantment with religion.

The next big hurdle for him is to find his calling. His uncle and aunt want him to either enter the Church or take up something conventional. Philip tries accounting for a few months but he finds it torturous. He has a talent for sketches and when a few people praise him, he is spurred on and decides to go to Paris and become a painter. His uncle is outraged and strongly protests, but after a few acrimonious exchanges, Philip has his way. This is quite autobiographical. Maugham has said about himself that though he was shy and a silent child, he was also cunning and finally always got what he wanted.

 Maugham's description of his growing up years is compassionate yet ironic, not only in the description of other characters, but also Philip, who is his alter-ego. As is the case often, Philip in the bloom of youth, full of hope for the future tends to look upon his middle-aged uncle and aunt with a smug condescension and believes that theirs was a wasted life. At this point, Philip has grand plans for himself and intends to attain greatness. When he reaches Paris, he is initially thrilled to live among artists listening to various theories all day. It makes him a more open person and many of his moral shackles loosen up. But he is still unable to settle down as a painter. His works are considered intelligent, but nothing extraordinary. As a senior painter tells him, 'It is cruel to discover ones mediocrity too late in life'.

Philip's funds start running out and he is nowhere in sight of earning through his art. Here, the life of his acquaintance, Fanny Price holds an uncomfortable mirror to what his own life could degenerate to. Fanny is a zealous artist but with zero talent. Ultimately she dies of poverty. This works as a catalyst in hastening Philip's decision to give up art and try something else. He is again lost and tortured.

Quotes Maugham,"It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded."

Philip decides to take up medicine and it is while studying that he encounters a waitress called Mildred. Her contemptuous look haunts him ,and he desires to possess her. She agrees to go out with him and soon Philip finds himself madly in love. She is vulgar, commonplace and not at all good-looking yet Philip cannot get rid off his obsession. He spends freely on her  though he has very little money. She does not love him and at various points goes off with other men who in turn leave her in the lurch. Philip still craves for her and does everything she might want,  including providing for her child (another man's) when she is in dire straits. Ultimately this relationship brings Philip to the point of utter despair.

He is left penniless and has to take up work as a common worker in a shop. At this point, another revelation comes upon Phillip. Following the death of both his uncle and aunt, he realizes that life is ultimately meaningless and we make our own little designs to keep ourselves happy for as long as we live. Every little episode is merely a curve in the design of life. This idea unburdens him and he feels elated again.

This learning curve ultimately comes to its logical conclusion when Philip settles to marry Sally, the daughter of a poor worker whose family was exceptionally kind to him when he had no one to go to.

Of Human Bondage tackles several themes and is an extremely rich and layered exploration into the human psyche (though it is unduly long and some episodes are extremely stretched out). Its greatness lies in the fact that even if the story is close to Maugham's life, the emotions are all tragically universal and gently touch upon deep-seated complexes we all suffer from. 

Many believe Philip's club foot could be a reference to the author's stammering. But many others believe it is an allusion to his homosexuality which he could not reveal given the time and age when such a thing was looked upon with derision. In fact, his masochistic relationship with Mildred many feel, alludes to a certain homosexual partner the author had. There could be some credence to this given that Mildred is described like a man with no attractive feminine features. She is bare-chested. Yet, this is merely in the realm of speculation and I wouldn't be too bothered about it, except that the incident comes quite abruptly in the book. 

What makes me suspect that it could be a slice from Maugham's own life is the surreal nature of the affair. Reality is very often much stranger than fiction.  Fiction is often far more predictable when compared to the complexities of the real world.

It's never easy to understand why Philip would fall for a woman without a single redeemable quality. Also, up to this point, Philip never comes across as someone who is wholly deprived of female attention.  In fact, he rejects a few women. His attraction for Mildred is sudden and unexplained. And yet, broadly, it suggests how human complexity can manifest itself in strange ways, and Philip is certainly a complexed man.

His relationship with Mildred underlines Philip's inner need to be humiliated and abused. His feeling of inadequacy - apart from his club foot - compounded by his non-success as a painter and general sense of despair - perhaps make him crave for a relationship where he can suffer. In fact, on various occasions, Philip brings this suffering upon himself. He knows Mildred's character and yet he introduces her to a handsome friend of his and soon enough they end up in an affair. Philip even pays for them to go on a vacation. His addiction to the affair continues, and only acute poverty forces him to get over this destructive relationship. In the middle, he even rejects a perfectly healthy relationship with another woman, Norah and goes back to Mildred. As a reader the Philip-Mildred relationship might seem puzzling, but if you've ever obsessed for someone who didn't return the favour  or blew hot and cold, it might not be so difficult to identify with Philip's servile state.

"He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other."

The other possible reason why Philip clings to Mildred and suffers her could be to feed his own flagging self-esteem by being in a relationship with a woman so lacking in class and character. In an odd way, her deep flaws and ugly behaviour make him feel better about himself.  He remains with her not because he has affection or respect for her but because of the inherent volatality and emotional violence of the relationship that his masochistic heart seeks. I tend to believe this theory because Maugham has captured with devastating accuracy this very emotional trait of human beings in some of his short stories.

One of the main themes of the novel is about the damning nature of love. In many ways, it advances Maugham's ideas on love, namely how one partner loves and the other lets themselves to be loved. "And the important thing was to love rather than be loved" In a twisted way, every character in the novel is consumed with a feeling to love, and are callous to those who love them.

Maugham opting to go for a conventional ending for his protagonist might appear contrived, but it also signifies the emotional maturity of Philip who this time round does not refuse Sally (like he did with Norah), even though he does not love her. He realizes by now the temporariness of life and how it wouldn't be so bad to make a design of being married with children. Once the limitations of life itself become clear to Philip he takes a more charitable view of himself and what he aims from his future.

As lucid as ever with its controlled irony and sardonic observations on life, Of Human Bondage rightfully deserves its place among the best in literature, though I would hesitate to rate it as Maugham's absolute best. Sure, there is immense emotional power in the writing and great philosophical insight, but that is true of much of his other works as well. But nevertheless, this is a creative tour de force.

07 September 2010

Review: The Crimson Throne

Author: Sudhir Kakar
Publishers: Penguin
Published in: 2010

Sudhir Kakar's semi-fictional period novel, The Crimson Throne takes a fascinating event in Mughal history, and intimately looks at it from the perspective of two foreign narrators - the italian Niccolao Manucci and Frenchman Francois Bernier - both of whom were real-life figures who were in fact part of this mid-17 century Moghal setting. The event in question is the war of succession between Shah Jahan's two sons - the liberal minded, Sufi-inspired Dara Shukoh and the fanatical Aurangzeb. Dara was the clear favourite of his father and everyone expects him to be the heir apparent. However, various elements conspire against him, and as one knows it was Aurangzeb who ultimately became Emperor.

The entire novel is divided between the observations made by the two foreigners, and as a reader, you share their sense of wonderment, amusement and outrage at different points. This is a time when India was divided into different kingdoms, and the Mughals were absolutely at the pinnacle of their reign. The threat of British invasion was a far-fetched thought and most foreigners viewed India as a distant, exotic land where there was plenty to see and experience. Among the two, Manucci is intrigued by the tales he hears of India and makes the journey from Venice to Goa. He hears that European healers are privileged over the local hakims in Moghal courts and is eager to learn the secrets to some rare potions. By sheer luck and good graces - as he admits himself - Manucci is able to entrench himself in the Dara Shukoh camp. He narrates with passion and poignancy his visits to the harems, where beautiful women (the concubines of the Moghal nobels) are a frustrated bunch with little or no sex (because there are so many in number!). Eunachs are used to guard the harems and very harsh punishments are heaped on women involved in any sexual misconduct. Manucci - being a healer- is one of the rarest of rare men allowed entry into the harem. He describes how he would often feel a soft kiss planted on his palms, as he went to check the pulse of an unwell woman from behind a veil.

Bernier is a scholar, and perhaps more rigid. He is distant and slightly contemptuous in his descriptions of Indians. But he gets close to Shah Jahan's foreign minister Danishmand Khan, the man who proves decisive in the end.
For most part of the book, it is impossible to see the two narrators as separate voices. Their distinct personalities don't emerge until much, much later, but thankfully, the central story does not suffer because ultimately the subject is focussed on the Moghals. From the ostentatious lifestyle led by the Moghal nobels (some rubbed the precious rose water on their horses everyday, the footwear of the nobels were studded with gems and precious stones, the most obscenely lavish parties were thrown and there was no limit to the number of women that the Omrah's kept adding to their harem) to the Hindu-Islam divide, there is much that is observed and astutely noted down by the two narrators. The Hindus were called idolators, and they were considered inferior in status to the Muslims. A Muslim of the lowest rank would not fathom getting his daughters married even to a high-class Hindu. On the other hand, there were several instances of Rajput kings giving away their daughters to Moghal kings - one is instantly reminded of the Jodha- Akbar situation.

It is only when Shah Jahan's health starts deteriorating and murmurs for a new heir begin that the narrative voices start to take on divergent paths. Manucci brings out the various qualities of Dara Shukoh, and the fact that he came closest to his grandfather Akbar in his religious tolerance and aesthetic liberality. On the other hand, Bernier takes a slightly opposing position and points out how Dara was an extremely irascible and tactless person, and was unpopular among those who thought Islamism would come under threat if he took over the reigns. Also, Bernier describes how Dara was an extremely superstitious person, and would not move a finger without his astrologers guiding him. Similarly, you get a twin perspective of Aurangazeb. Manucci sees Aurangazeb as a cruel dictator and religious fanatic, who uprooted every hurdle in his path without the least compunction.

Bernier, on the other hand, prefers to look at Aurangzeb's stead-fastness and ability not to get ruffled easily. Also, his ambition as we see, is less for self-aggrandisement and more because he’s a staunch upholder of Islam.
The writing style is lucid, and the ornate sentences go well with the mood and setting of the novel.  Sudhir Kakar's novel essentially proves useful in seeing from close quarters a significant time in Moghal history and how its course radically changed. The Crimson Throne is studded with several period details, and for that reason and more, is an engaging read.