19 July 2010

The Counsel Of Strangers

Author: Gouri Dange
Price: 250
Publishers: OMO

Pune, which cannot yet boast of any English-language writer of repute, might just be on the threshold of getting one. Gouri Dange, who many in the city know as a witty columnist and counsellor, makes an assured second splash into the pool of Indian fiction with the launch of her new book, The Counsel Of Strangers. I will admit I was overall underwhelmed with her debut effort, 3 Zakia Mansion - a dark portrait of a Muslim woman and a long-drawn struggle with her nasty in-laws. I found it morose and melodramatic, even though I was blown by the emotional power in the third act of the book. Nevertheless, it clearly established the author's proficiency with her craft and language. And with The Counsel Of Strangers, she opts for a less tricky subject than 3 Zakia Mansion. The Counsel Of Strangers is really a book of short stories (more on that later). But the result is far more promising and overall, this makes for a thoroughly riveting read.

The book is about six distressed strangers, who dawdle away from a wedding that is taking place at a resort, to spend some private moments with themselves.
Each one is going through a transitional phase and looking for solutions. The darkness and the comfort of strangers allows them to talk about their lives. The first story is about a 60 plus retired man, who is spending time with his daughter and son-in-law in California. He's not unhappy, but there is a sense of loneliness creeping in. "You'll know when you get there... that uncomfortable feeling of being treated dutifully, but with little interest," he says. He meets a smart, 50 year old woman with whom he establishes a friendly, warm relationship. She is separated from her husband, he is widowed. When they speak to their respective children about this 'special person' , they are appalled and disgusted. This story, along with almost all the other ones, point towards the 'pigeon-holing' of people into specific roles and expectations.

The second story is about a young boy, Karthik, whose life gets greatly altered after his parents go through a bad experience on account of his elder brother, Vishwas. Karthik is tired of living a censored life, with his paranoid family watching out minutely for any tell-tale signs of 'weirdness' in his behaviour. A bit long-drawn story, but engaging nevertheless.

My absolutely favourite story is Anandi-Mohini. Personal and revelatory, it intimately tracks the journey of a strong-minded woman, as she comes to terms with the breakdown of her 14 year old marriage. That follows another unwittingly funny episode involving a prospective husband. There is plenty of pathos in the story, and it's clear that much of it is very close to the author's heart. But the story also sparkles with charm and ironic wit, because after the initial shock and sadness, the character is able to see her situation with bemused detachment and the ludicrousness of it all.

There's an especially telling part where she describes the aftermath of her divorce. Her friends – well-meaning and otherwise - come up with various reasons on why the marriage failed. For a while, her self-esteem suffers, until she sees the absurdity. “And these are just some of the many theories of friends and passing strangers as they drove gaping, slowly, past the accident site of our marriage. It takes a while for you to gain the wisdom to discount all of this as their projections of their reality, and not your truth at all.”

The other really wonderful story is of a Christian nurse, who wants to give up her profession after serving patients and looking after sick bodies for years. Now a plump, middle-aged woman, she wants to go back to her home-town in Kerala and live with her family. But here too, she is expected to take on the role of the nurturer.

The last story is about a professor mother who finds it embarrassing that her only son should get into Bollywood script-writing after studying at Haward. Her intellectual snobbery, as others call it, prevents her from accepting her son's choice of career.

The stories are all very readable, and even when some of the situations give a sense of deja vu, the author's quirky narration, keeps you engaged. I personally enjoyed the story of the nurse and Anandi-Mohini the most, but Gouri brings her sensitivity and sharp understanding of human nature to every situation and character. The book - through its characters - suggests how life is in a constant state of flux and in spite of its corrosive nature, holds the seeds of regeneration and hope.

There's something to be said about the style and tone of the narrative. The word 'contemporary' is generally bandied around too much. But The Counsel of Strangers is genuinely 'today's book' and talks to 'today's people' - and by that I don't mean the new generation only. The book covers stories of people from various age groups (thank god!), and the scenarios and concerns are all relevant and relatable. The words she uses (free use of all Indian languages, short forms, blog terminologies... ), the clever phrases, the references to films and books - all bring a chuckle and a nod of familiarity. In that sense, the book gains tremendously from having such a receptive writer.

Criticisms? I couldn't buy for a minute people confiding such personal stories before strangers. The author inserts a few sentences about a beer being passed or food being ordered in between each story, so as to keep reminding the reader that there is a common setting, but it appears too forced. Also, earlier there was Chitra Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing, where the characters get stuck in a building after a terrible earthquake and reveal stories about their lives to temporarily forget about their impending fates. I found that setting eked together with as much awkwardness. This template obviously comes from Canterbury Tales, but the vital difference is that in Chaucer's 14th century book of verses, the characters are traveling companions who are asked to tell a story - any story. It could be about their lives, but there's no way to know. Now, that is more plausible situation I would think.
In The Counsel Of Strangers, there characters could well be contemplating about their lives at the airport lounge and it wouldn't have mattered.

The other niggling problem I found is that the authorial voice is quite strong here, in the sense that the author's penchant for irreverence and sharp wit shadows every character and situation, expect maybe that of the Nurse. And this feeling is heightened because every character narrates in first person. While this ensures that the whole book is kept interesting, it hurts the characterisation. Gouri Dange beautifully inhabits the minds of a few characters, but the result is slightly awkward in the case of the old man, where it appears like the author is speaking on his behalf.

Yet, The Counsel Of Strangers works wonderfully enough for what it is. It sparkles with insight and intelligence and makes for a very entertaining read. The book abounds in such original and piquant metaphors, and the writing in general is so adept, it should comfortably establish Gouri Dange among the A-list Indian authors in the country.

-Sandhya Iyer

PS: The full form for 'OMO books' under which Gouri has published The Counsel Of Strangers, is 'On My Own' The author chose to self-publish after being distressed with the 'step-motherly' treatment accorded to lesser-known authors by major punblishing houses. Hence the wry and clever name - OMO!

06 July 2010

Balancing Act by Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy

Author: Meera Goldbole Krishnamurthy
Pages: 236
Publishers: Zubaan, Penguin
Price: 250

Motherhood is easily one of the most beautiful and transformational experiences for a woman. Everything else takes a backseat as she lets herself be consumed by its infinite pains and pleasures. Her career, which perhaps defined her identity and image until then, suddenly seems like a lame reason to step out and leave one's gurgling, stumbling bundle of joy. Every idea of feminism and self-identity is submerged under the deep sea of love that flows from her heart, as the life-giving, nurturer in her takes over completely.

Balancing Act captures this deep bond that a young mother forms with her two tiny tots. She's a harried but happy mother, who glows around the sacred and smug circle of her domestic life. Changing diapers, tucking in the kids in their beds with comforters, making star-shaped pastas and filling up juices in their fancy water-bottles , painting glittering nail polish on their tiny feet, playing with toy cars - it's a never-ending cycle of duties, which she performs with sacrosanct diligence and delight.

She feels privileged to be a mother. To an outsider, Tara Mistri touching 40 has a comfortable life, where she's a stay-at-home mom, with a supportive husband, Roshan who earns well, and travels often. Yet, she's disturbed when she sees herself being referred to as a 'housewife' at socials dos. People are baffled to learn that she does not work inspite of her high educational qualifications and professional achievements. She rues the fact that motherhood is no more a justifiable reason to stay at home, not just in America -where she lives - but even among her friends and relatives in India. Having been out of touch with the professional world for long, she feels constantly on the edge. Unsure and confused, Tara feels she may have been more suited to her grandma's times where it was natural for women to do nothing besides raising up children and minding the home. In today's changed times, when motherhood is just one of the different wonder caps that a woman dons, suddenly she seems like a mis-fit and traditionalist.

Tara had studied architecture and is deeply influenced by the thoughts of Louis Kahn, who built the Salk Institute for Biological Research in California. She stays at a stone's throw from the place, and sub-consciously wants to replicate the same perfection of the structure in her own life. Tara's pet peeve is a spirit Yakshi – her alter ego – who keeps prodding her to get back to work. Tara sends her resume to a few firms and even attends a couple of interviews. This is more to assure herself that she still has what it takes to make the cut than anything else. To add to her trouble, her attractive bachlorette friend Sophie comes to stay with them. Tara's hubby is drawn to her and finds in her happy demeanor a welcome contrast to his own wife.

All these mental conflicts that the protagonist suffers touch a realistic chord. However, the parts involving Tara and her husband seem superficially tackled. The episode related to her hubby getting drawn to Sophie does say something about the plight of neglected husbands, as mothers get preoccupied with kids. But this too isn't treated with any particular depth and the scene where Tara confronts her friend at the dining table, 'What are you doing with my husband@" seems overly dramatic and awkward given the otherwise subtle and fairly nuanced tone of the book.

Tara - as protagonist is not a very likable personality – as is the case with most women who turn motherhood into an obsession. In the end, there are no definite solutions because the issues are vague and complex. The only thing that the novel perhaps suggests is that a perfect balance can never really be achieved and it need not become a cause for so much heartburn. Each phase can be enjoyed for what it is.

Meera's writing is lyrical, artistic and quirky. The world she creates is so vivid, you can almost smell the baby powders, lotions and milk. The use of architectural terms in the novel - with many quotes and theories – adds much novelty to the narrative as well.

All round a good debut that succeeds without trying too hard.

-Sandhya Iyer


1) Were you always interested in writing, or did you take it up because you wanted to express your thoughts on something that was close to your heart?

Architecture, painting, sculpture, making quilts, writing -- all these creative arts which I have explored have a common language with many overlaps. I have always loved books and the places they can take you. Over the years, I found myself interested more in the theory and critique of architecture than the practice of it. That being said, I don’t think you can become a writer (or anything, for that matter) overnight, to paraphrase one of Louis Kahn's architectural teachings. Before embarking on this journey, I participated in several writing programs and workshops at UC San Diego, Stanford, and the University of Iowa. Each medium has it's own specific art and craft, but I hope that some of my artistic sensibilities have crept into my writing, which was the vehicle for this particular story.

2) I'm sure most people have asked you this. How autobiographical is the book, and what parts of it do you relate to most?

Tara and I have many similarities, it's true. We’re both architects, have two children, and are married to husbands with demanding careers – but so are many women out there. The details may differ, but in spirit, our stories would be the same. I think one always starts with what one knows, but the beauty of fiction is that it can transcend the personal to become universal. Fiction is most convincing when it could be real, even though it is not. There is always a danger though, in assuming that a first work is more autobiographical than it really is! I relate to all my characters and all their dilemmas, because to write fiction, you need to inhabit it in such a way that it becomes real to you and consequently, to the reader as well.

3) Given that you are a mother, how difficult was it to take time off and put together the book. How long did it take you?

I started writing this book as a series of vignettes nearly ten years ago when my own children were very young and I had short, staccato time spans in which to write. Over the years, there were innumerable drafts and many formats that I discarded, adapted, and re-worked. The book took this form only when the idea of using the Salk Institute and the life and work of Louis Kahn as the structure for the novel came to me after a critique at the La Jolla Writer's Conference in 2004. And when the Yakshi showed up from the netherworld to question Tara’s every move, I knew we were in for a good ride!
When the children were older, for two years in San Diego, I set myself a strict writing schedule, Monday to Friday 9 am to 2:45 pm when I would stop to go pick them up from school. That was when I completed the first draft of the manuscript. And then there were always the late nights, when I work best...fortunately, I'm not much of a sleeper! The much harder part was finding the psychic space in which Tara and her world would exist. That's the toughest part about writing fiction - to be able to remove yourself from this world to bring to life another - without constant interruptions.

4) Her act of making bricks and writing words on it and leaving at differen doorsteps and random places is perhaps her own way of igniting a silent revolution for in the interest of women like her. Was this a literal act by Tara where she drops off the bricks or was it in her mind? And what kind of bricks are these? i'm sorry if I missed out some reference...

Louis Kahn asked the seminal question, “What do you want be, brick?” He was suggesting that in order to respect the true nature of a material, you must use it so that it retains its individuality but expresses its essence. For example, you would not use bricks in the same way as you would use concrete. Similarly, Tara is trying to define her true nature, separate from what society or feminism or her friends tell her, and I thought it would be interesting to take that literally, but also to an extreme level by giving her a darker side and having her engage in a social experiment where she challenges the politically acceptable and speaks for the unspoken through her known medium, the vocabulary of architecture.
And bricks are such potent symbols anyway: they build, they can destroy, and bricks, if they are Legos, almost define childhood, don’t they? So the metaphor of the brick was the perfect vehicle for building, designing, and addressing the question of Tara "rebuilding" herself. Just as architecture needs to be in the public realm, motherhood too is a part of the social fabric. So Tara had to make her statements, to practice her personal architecture, so to speak, in the public realm.

5) Most women find it tough to pursue careers for a few years after child--birth. But sooner than later, they want to get back to work. Things are seldom easy for them when they want to make a comeback. They seem to come with a 'baggage' which the professional world does not view kindly. Not many women have the luxury of family support or servants. How do you think this uneasy equation can be better dealt with, if at all?

You are absolutely right about this perception of the "baggage" of motherhood in the professional world. I believe that motherhood is and always has been a joyful act, a creative and large journey, which is not to say that it is without frustrations, of course, but we seem afraid these days to speak of the joys. May be because motherhood – and by extension, the “housewife” – has acquired such negative connotations, been devalued and degraded as the lesser choice. We feminist-mothers, what I call the “femimoms,” need to reclaim the unabashed and unapologetic nature of motherhood. I think if we embrace motherhood as another equally vital part of being a woman, it may help to balance the equation with a career a little more easily. That being said, I am not really sure a true balance is possible, because in every choice, something is gained, but always, something is lost. You really cannot have it all, that's how life is. So the title Balancing Act then, can be parsed many ways. The balance could just be an act.

6) You have pointed at how women tend to neglect husbands once the children come into the picture... but the other truth is also that husbands do not take on too many responsibilites towards raising children - which is one of the reasons women feel burdened tremendously. So while women perform all their traditional duties of child rairing etc, they are also expected to be 'wonder women' where they must ideally juggle a job efficiently etc.

Tara feels guilty to step out even for a little while, she feels grateful to be accepted back in the 'sacred circle' . While you correctly point out the feeling of guilt a mother faces, as an author - I got the feeling- that you were stacking up the odds against your protagonist and not giving her much respite. This, along with her husband getting attracted to her friend.....doesn't this reinforce stereotypes, and the inhuman levels of perfection expected from mothers?

Many things that happen in Tara's life are of that particular moment in time, born of that phase of her life. There is that first year just after a child is born where husbands do tend to get a bit neglected, because caring for an infant is so "here and now". But things change again after the child is weaned and again when they go to school and so on. All human relationships are constantly evolving, dynamic. You are right that in the story, though Roshan is well intentioned, he does not really take on the burdens of parenting and in that sense that is very much the core of the modern dilemma -- there's no "villain, as such. While men today are so much more sensitive and attuned to the family than their fathers or grandfathers were, it is still the women who bear the primary responsibility of caring for the home and family (be it children or the elderly). It seems to me that this is reality and it's not about stereotypes, it's just representing what's reality for most families out there, whether in the US or India or almost anywhere. Perhaps this expectation that mothers be superhuman has always been there, but it certainly seems more angst inducing in a generation where women have the choice to choose which way to direct their lives. I sometimes wonder what Tara is going to do a few years from where we leave her in the book!

7) What's coming up next for you? Was this book easiler because it appears to be semi-autobiographical? Do you see yourself writing on other themes as well, since you are obviously a gifted writer?

Thank you for the kind words. As a writer, it is gratifying to know that you have connected with a reader. This book took me either nine years or four years to write, depending on which way you count it. And either way, that's a long time! In fact, this was a very difficult one to write I think, partly because it was the first and also because it took a long time to do adequate research on the life and words of Louis Kahn and make the fact and fiction all fit together in the structure of the story. But the learning curve on writing and publishing a novel is a steep one and I expect (hope!) that the next one will not take as long. There are so many more stories to be told. I am working on my next novel now, which is quite different in terms of story and theme, but will still be rooted in architecture, which I find is a deep and rich territory for understanding much else in life.