13 December 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed

Haven't we all at some point typed  an intimate question on Google search for user responses.  This mini research offers you perspective and the assurance that you are not alone in it.  It also gives you some validation for your point of view.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in writing, 'Committed' was clearly going through a similar anxiety. Her last book, 'Eat Pray And Love' had yet to become a best-seller, and the 38-year-old was in a hopeless, new predicament. To marry or not to marry.
It is through this confusion that her memoir was born.  Not convinced about marriage, and yet seeing no way out of it, Gilbert goes on a journey of exploration into the institution of marriage.  In her travels to places, she chats up people from communities who lead lives and hold opinions very unlike her own. She scans through books on marriage, goes through handy research on the topic, all the while drawing parallels with her own life;  an impulsive first marriage, a string of failed relationships and now a dilemma about marrying again. What you get in the end is a book that is both absorbing and insightful.
Gilbert's scepticism about marriage is genuine and you can literally feel her grappling for answers and reassurance through the 280 odd pages of this long book.
She is happy to be with her current boyfriend, Filipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship and even more happier about their arrangement. Neither wants marriage, as both are happy leading their separate lives in different continents, and meeting each other every month. Both have been scarred by earlier divorces. Gilbert is particularly worried about being financially vulnerable if she opts for marriage. As a single woman who makes her own money, she is extra cautious this time. Most importantly, Gilbert is unsure about herself, given her predilection for disastrous romantic entanglements.
She loves the companionship and affection in her current relationship. Both see their bond as a permanent thing and yet Gilbert is not enamoured enough by it to consider marriage. She has no desire for kids, and as a woman living in a Western world, singlehood is no big deal. So why marry at all, she asks.

The plan get upturned when Felipe's constant travel to US evokes suspicion and he faces threat of being deported. They must either marry and stay in US or then be singles, but face other relationship challenges. They decide to get married but Gilbert is filled with doubts.
While reading this book, I kept getting the feeling that Gilbert is just not that into her boyfriend. I may be wrong here, but many times in the course of the book I felt Gilbert was trying to justify her soon-to-happen marriage, in the hope of seeing  her relationship as viable. She gives many reasons for her anxiousness, and even admits that she is not madly in love with Felipe and thank god for that, she says. She is balanced and alert this time, which is perhaps why she fine combs every aspect of the relationship. But at the end of it, I wasn't sure if that sort of moderate approach also works with everyone.  Gilbert is right that infatuation does not last. Certainly the hormonal rush and exhilaration brought are bound to subside, and one ought to be realistic about it. Familiarity, at its worst, breeds contempt, and at its best cultivates affection.  But when one enters a union like marriage, conviction is a must.
Falling in love does not always imply recklessness. Yes, one tends to overlook a few things perhaps, but one still looks out for many enduring qualities (Pride and Prejudice?). This then translates into attraction and when couples instinctively feel it's the right relationship for them, they take the plunge quite happily.  The important thing is belief that it will work. Of course nothing can be said about the future, but to my mind there is nothing riskier than treating marriage like a 'sentence' which is the word Gilbert uses for her relationship. She is filled with doubts and most will agree that it happens when you are simply not sure if he's your man. It's not the marriage at all.
Anyway, so thus she begins her research project on marriage, its history, its cultural meaning and significance that differ from community to community. She also looks at marriage of the past and present, comparing her perspective with that of her mother. She looks at the roots of marriage, and is surprised that an institution which is considered sacrosanct today, was something which custodians of religion were opposed to. They wanted people to reject it and adopt celibacy. That never happened of course, and no matter what stand the State or religious body took, men and women always have felt a natural inclination to come together and marry. Which establishes that men and women have always held the desire to get married.
 Gilbert's narration is seamless as she talks about her own relationships and attempts to seek answers on larger questions about marriage. One chapter that is especially illuminating is Marriage And Infatuation. There is the oft repeated view that while marriages in the past endured many a storm,  they now fall apart for the flimsiest of reasons.
Gilbert using research findings and expert opinions brings forth some perceptive ideas. In most cultures, she says, women rarely questioned marriage. They accepted their fate and role. But with industrialization and the breaking up of the joint family system, the 'individual' suddenly came into focus and his/her private desires took precedence. Now, couples didn't necessarily marry because the spouse was 'beneficial' to the family as a whole or a convenient arrangement to all, but because they fell in love. Gilbert rightly points out that when a marriage is based on love and not on a collective arrangement, it has more chances to fail - precisely because love, she says, is a very fragile emotion. What if you fall out of love? Which is why modern couples are divorcing more than ever before, and she says the institution itself is under tremendous pressure.
Yet, Gilbert says she wouldn't trade her life as a modern, educated, self-aware American woman of today with any woman in a previous time and culture who had a conditioned idea of marriage. Nor does she believe that people must not marry for love. But she points out that one must be equipped with sufficient tools to deal with practical and emotional problems before they get into it.
That is precisely what Gilbert decides to do this time with her beau. She says she is thankfully not infatuated this time. She loves the narcotic high of love, but is happy not to go through it again. She is on as more emotionally secure and saner ground this time, and both, she and Felipe discuss in some detail about dodging the potential landmines in their future marital relationship.
I really liked a chapter where Gilbert talks about the possibility of one's perfectly nice spouse falling for someone else.  "History teaches us that just about anybody is capable of just about anything when it comes to the realm of love and desire. Circumstances arises in all our lives that challenge our most stubborn loyalties. Maybe this is what we fear most when we enter into marriage. - that "circumstances," in the form of some uncontrollable outside passion, will someday break the bond."
One might think that this is an unavoidable situation, but Gilbert finds that it is not so! Regretting that she did not have this wisdom when she got married at 25, she notes how couples can drastically reduce such a risk of infatuation by containing the situation early on.  One makes friends with a member of the opposite sex, and it is all harmless for a while. But somewhere an intimacy creeps in and one reveals more than one ought to and this is by default becomes a breach of marital trust. Soon, this gets emotionally complicated.  Gilbert feels that with some clear-sightedness and responsible behaviour, this risk can be drastically minimised.
She takes you through the bumps and jerks in her own relationship with Felipe, describing moments that infuriate and frustrate her. Yet, she offers a reason for sticking it out in a relationship. "He was a good man, in the end."
There might be a few readers (read men) who will chuck this book in irritation, unable to understand Gilbert's complex, over-analysing mind.
But most women will like the book and will appreciate the candour and honesty . The writing is fluid and extremely readable. Gilbert is witty, entertaining and wields a formidable pen.  And yes it is time well-spent.

04 October 2011

R K Narayan's The Dark Room and The World Of Nagaraj

Very few readers will dispute the talent that R K Narayan was. He was the first Indian writer in English to acquire such a name for himself both among native as well as foreigner readers.
V. S Naipaul has written how his image of India was entirely shaped by reading R K Narayan's books and all that happens in Malgudi, the fictional small-town in South India that the author set his stories in. His tales came with a parochial delight, yet encompassed a world of human emotions and characters. This was enchanting as much as it was universal in appeal.
Still, every now and then one hears of a not-so-flattering comment about Narayan's prose. At times it cannot be completely dismissed as it comes from say a Shashi Tharoor who in his wonderful book on his literary passions, Bookless In Baghdad writes candidly about Narayan's weaknesses calling his style 'flat and monotonous'
Tharoor writes, "Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language – a writerly concern - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns."

Narayan's writing had its flaws, and within his own ouevre some were more successfully executed than the others .  The Dark Room (1938) and The World Of Nagaraj (1990) are an example of that. Both have plots that draw you in, but each vastly differ in the manner in which they are written. The Dark Room has a poignant theme, but Narayan struggles with the writing and is unable to etch out the deeper nunances inherent in the story. Tharoor's criticism is quite right here.
 Nagaraj...on the other hand is the work of an accomplished genius. It's not the plot, but the character that drives the story and here Narayan shows tremendous writerly gifts.

The Dark Room is about a dominant, excessively critical and self-centered husband, Ramani living with his wife Savitri and three children. The first scene sees him criticising everything that his wife serves him on the table. He curses the cook and freely taunts his wife. At work, he takes more than a little fancy to a junior called Shanta Bai. She is pretty and recently separated from her husband. Ramani is taken in by her charms and goes out of his way to help her out, including vacating a spare room in the office and even making his wife give away some of their furniture to make Shanta comfortable. On the way from his golf club, he regularly starts spending time at her room, and sits entranced listening to her.

When Savitri hears of it she is unable to bear the humiliation . She confronts her husband who dismisses her objections. Desolate at being taken so entirely for granted she raises her voice and then is determined to leave the house. She wants to take the kids along, but Ramani stops her harshly. “Don't touch them or talk to them. Go yourself, if you want. They are my children," he shouts.

The blatant disregard shown by her callous husband causes such depression in her heart that she wanders alone in the street and even plunges herself in the river. But overcome by fear, she shouts out for help. A blacksmith by day and burglar by night saves her. He brings along his wife, Ponni who tries to befriend Savitri. She offers her shelter and food. But such a madness seizes Savitri that she refuses to eat anything not earned by herself. She is disgusted at being at the mercy of the men in her life – father, brother, husband. She gets so obstinate about not taking any more charity from anyone that she starts working at a temple as a cleaner for a cantankerous priest. But in a day she realises the impracticality of her choice and returns home, though a part of her is dead now. Ramani is relieved to find her back, less for her sake, and more to keep up social pretenses.

 Narayan's sympathies are with Savitri though he resists from make a grand feminist statement. She leaves the house for valid reasons, but reconciles and comes back. Narayan, above all, much in the vein of say a Jane Austen was a realist and understood the limitations of people in their context and worlds. Narayan's characters rebel against a traditional and regressive society. Earlier in Bachelor Of Arts, the young protagonist is sickened at his inability to get the girl he wants and turns a monk for a while. But quickly realising the narrowness of his world, comes back into the mainstream.

In The Dark Room, Narayan quite clearly feels a deep anguish at the wife being treated shabbily and leaves no opportunity to portray the ugliness and selfishness of the husband's character.

The book is less of a novel and more of a novella. Narayan is effective in his portrayal of Ramani, a vain, sarcastic, self-serving man. Also, the part where Savitri leaves and encounters a different world is poignant, but the book as a whole has a few weaknesses. It is not as lush in its narrative, the story runs rather quickly, and doesn't delve too much into the complexities. Ramani's fling with his junior is awkwardly handled, perhaps because Narayan was writing about an episode he may not have experienced or seen first hand. The 'other' woman's character also remains shadowy.

None of those problems are there in The World Of Nagaraj, which is an unqualified classic. It could be because it was written in Narayan's later years, and the narrative has a fluency and depth that is quite amazing.
Since I read both books back-to-back, I felt an instant difference reading ...Nagaraj. One's reading pace is automatically slowed, as you try to absorb the atmospherics and the dense description of the leading character. The book is about a simple-minded, pleasant man, living with his wife, Sita and mother in a rather grand ancestral house called Kabir Street. He loves day-dreaming and talks a great deal to himself. His life's ambition is to be a thesis on sage Narada. Humble and affable, Nagaraj has no worries until his nephew Krishnaji, referred to as 'Tim' comes to stay with him. Narayan - through a series of flashbacks gives a vivid picture of the family characters. Gopi, the elder brother is aggressive and dominating. Until their father is alive and they all stayed together, Gopi took the best room, where he and his wife would stay locked in. The wife would cook savouries in limited portions and take them directly to their room. When the will is read out, Gopi asks for the farm house and lands in the village. This suits Nagaraj who prefers having the house in Malgudi.

Sharp-tongued and abrasive, Gopi looks at his younger brother as a bit of a fool, and openly insults him for his dull replies. Nagaraj being supremely unassertive, takes many of his brother's put-downs as a joke, trying to maintain a semblance of cheerful normalcy.

The entire book brings out the predicament of a man who cannot stand up for himself and confront situations. There is a scene in the novel where Tim and his wife have come to permanently stay in Nagaraj's house. This is the time when the latter has finally decided to get serious about his theses on Narada but Tim's wife is in the habit of playing the harmonium in the mornings and this is a source of intense irritation to Nagaraj. His impulse once prompts him to bang against her door and ask her to shut up. But he weakly smiles and walks away when she actually opens the door.

Narayan's point seems to be that it is human nature to take for a ride, and be insensitive to the needs of those who don't stand up for themselves. A complete lack of ego or pride is viewed as a grave weakness by others and the obvious response is to take the person for granted. Nagaraj's nervous reactions are both amusing and frustrating to watch. You want him to give up his meekness and take on his supercilious brother for once. The ending is poignant, and perhaps even sadder than The Dark Room.

But both novels leave you with a feeling of exultation as they give a wonderful psychological insight into human character and throb with a natural goodness so unique to R K Narayan's works.

17 July 2011

Priya - Namita Gokhale

Author: Namita Gokhale
Pages: 195
Price: 350
Publishers: Penguin

This is the first book I took up to review by Namita Gokhale, better recogonised as the co-director of the highly popular Jaipur lit fest. She's written 10 books already - which I had no idea about.

You see the book’s inane title and cover design and wonder if the rest of the book is going to be as unimaginative. Its tag line below further reads -'In Incredible Indyaa' - an obvious smart-alecky attempt taking a dig at the socialite obsession with numerology. The author tries hard to satarise a certain class of people with their pretentions and superficial airs -the irony though is that the novel itself feels impossibly artificial and snooty.

The characters are not fleshed out and come across as obnoxious caricatures. Also, the author's own personality seems to pervade heavily on the way these people speak. The result is not pleasant. The men don't sound like men. For example, the 45 something protagonist’s teenager son speaks dialogues such as these, “ Honest! That’s what her feminist-sheminist mother said. And her father got really upset, he even tried phoning Pitaji. He didn’t get through - all the PAs and secretaries saw to that. And then I sort of surrendered, and agreed to marry Monalisa. Her parents got uber excited. I think they had dreams of Band Baja Ghodi and Disco Bhangra and all that! Or Some Bengali fancy-dress tamasha”

Gokhale's latest is a sequel of sorts to the her earlier novel titled Paro, about a free-spirited, promiscuous woman. Priya has a presence in that book too. She is the more timid, staid one. She grows up as a middle-class girl in Mumbai, marries Suresh Kaushal, who in an unexpected windfall turns into a successful minister at the centre. This change in fortune is quite sudden and Priya’s lifestyle transforms overnight. She suddenly finds herself in the midst of political and Page 3 glitterati and has new 'challenges' to face every day.
She has twin sons, Luv and Kush. Luv is more artistically inclined while Kush is the more pragmatic one with aspirations of following his father’s political footsteps.

But these characters are etched with no subtlety at all. What should have been conveyed in the narration with crafty irony is done blatantly with tasteless dialogues. For example, the author wants to assert Kush’s clinical approach to things. So when he gets a marriage proposal he meets the girl and discusses her on the breakfast table next day with his parents. He announces,“I’ve assessed the Sethia chick...It’s like a merger or an amalgamation. One has to study the fundamentals."
This is plain nasty writing and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone talking like that. The approach may be a reflection of Delhi’s opportunistic and mercenary culture, but the dialogues do the narration in completely.

You have the husband Suresh having extra-marital affairs. Priya herself has an old flame whom she goes gallivanting with. There’s a Page 3 social climber type thrown in who talks about Botox and refers to Priya as Mrs Menopause. There is a ridiculous story about Luv and his love entanglements. Then just like that Kush turns out to be gay as well, and Priya is most sanguine about it. All this is laughably amateurish.

The novel's narration is in Priya's voice, but her character never really emerges in any sense. You never enter her head. Also, there are too many purple patches with needless adjectives thrown in. The author has the annoying habit of inserting all kind of Hindi words like ajeeb and adla badla as well. There's only one time when I thought a Hindi expression is well-used. 'Yaari-type hug' - I thought that captures a scene in an instant.

However, the entire book has a vein of artificiality running through it with shrill coincidences and poor plot-construct and characterisation.

The book has a few lines that are well written here and there - somewhere Suresh talks about India being a serpent with its hood being in the 21st century and tail still being in the dark ages. Also, some of the author's comments on Delhi's opportunistic culture and its obsession for private shorthand is interesting. The book is ambitious to the extent that Gokhale tries to etch out a novel driven entirely by atmospherics. Unfortunately, she's not upto the task.

06 July 2011

The theme of retribution in Delhi Belly

The fact that this Akshat Varma penned script, stylishly directed by Abhinay Deo is a tightly-woven, smartly executed one is something all reviews have agreed. Varma – probably on account of having studied script-writing abroad – follows one of the essential rules of filmmaking – not to waste details. Every scene and reference in small or big ways adds to the development of the film – sooner or later. The story by itself is not novel, but it is this adherence to a simple scripting rule that makes this mad-cap, irreverent flick seem instantly fresh and unusual from the run-of-the-mill Hindi-film experience.

But I come to a different point about Delhi Belly. This is not a film that is particularly bothered about appearing intellectual and profound – it is happy to be a dark, wicked comic thriller. And yet, I felt the film is very strong on subliminals. It’s not like the writer is necessarily aiming for it, but I detected a strong theme of retribution in Varma’s work.

Retribution is the idea of justice. You are punished for what you do wrong and rewarded what you do right. The three guys in the film (Imran, Vir, Kunal) stay in a dump, leading the most wretched, lazy, indifferent life. This is not uncommon with bachelors, but the writer recogonises that his protagonists need to wake up and gives them the jolt of their life. The film picks them up and throws them in the deep end of the sea, and challenges them to find a way out now. The fact that Varma has some affection for his protagonists goes without saying. These are well-meaning, decent chaps. But he raises a storm – makes everything go wrong for them – until they take stock of their life – a coming-of-age of sorts. They are rewarded in the end. Imran gets the girl he wants, and the three of them get to keep the pickings.

This is the overarching retribution theme, but it works in every aspect of the film’s development. The writer takes no high moral ground anywhere, but there a subtle sense of poetic justice embedded into his script. Portly Nitin freely ogles at an actress, takes her photos from ‘those’ angles. His next stop is to a brothel where he could be a regular. The boob-press scene shows he enjoys some familiarity around. Today he is on business. His intent? To take pictures of his landlord (for all outward appearances a working-class, respectable man) in compromising positions with a prostitute. Nitin finds a simple blackmail the best immediate option for their rent woes. The writer sets up these things in such a way that you can’t help feel that Nitin is probably getting his just desserts. He suffers a horrible stomach upset that embarrasses him throughout the film. Nitin’s ordeal might be funny to the audience, but it’s never once a laughing matter to anyone in the film itself. His smug expression at the start of the film is soon replaced by a helpless, jolted one.

The writer derives fun out of Nitin’s uncomfortable state, and also from the landlord’s, who gets a caustic tongue-lashing from his police inspector bro. Both get away in the end, because of a certain good act by them. Nitin stands by Tashi in his hour of need, and is clever – so he deserves the money he gets. Comically, the landlord – having no clue that Nitin is behind the blackmailing – like a helpful neighbour takes him to the clinic for his check-up. Naturally, this goodness melts Nitin’s heart, and once his own troubles are over, he wastes no time in sending the landlord an anonymous letter asking him to forget about the photos. “Lead a happy life’ it says. This is one of the most heart-warming scenes in the film, because this is the first kindly emotion the writer allows you to feel in this otherwise chaotic, crazed, messed up world.

The retribution theme takes full force with the character of Vir Das (Arup) who is ditched by his girl friend. Cinematically, he is allowed a grand revenge with Jaa Chudail, even though the story cannot follow the girl in question.
Sonia (Shenaz Treasurywala ) pays for her dumbness with humiliation at the hands of the gangster (Raaz). But to Akshat’s credit – and this would have seemed very sexist and unacceptable otherwise – he is not entirely callous with her character. Rightly, she slaps Tashi hard, in full view of others for ditching her. In the last scene Nitin wonders whether he can start dating her if Taashi is not seeing her anymore. “She’s hot!’ he says. So Sonia’s feminine graces are allowed to be kept.

The jeweller loses his money because he was a cheat. The most splendid character of the film Vijay Raaz – who the writer etches with great delight – has to die for not letting off his protagonist after he recovers his diamonds. But he’s not casually disposed off like a cheap villain. There is a cinematic grandness to his death as the shot hits his forehead and the blood drops in slow motion. Here was no ordinary man, the writer seems to say.

21 June 2011

Chinese Whiskers

Friends, this is a piece I did for Biblio, a one of its kind literary magazine in India - published from Delhi. I consider it a fairly important and essential platform for the intellectual exchange of ideas and information. I have attached its link. Readers can log in to the site and read

Author: Pallavi Aiyar
Publishers: Haerper Collins
Pages: 221
Price: 399

In one of her many interviews, author Pallavi Aiyar expresses her exasperation over too much “arm-chair analysis” that happens around the Indo- China relationship. To get a credible perspective on our Asian counterpart, she believes one must see things “ground up” rather than “top down” by observing the quotidian lives of its people. And Aiyar finds herself in a good position to do that, having stayed in Beijing for six years, first as an English teacher and then as a correspondent for The Hindu and The Indian Express. Like many expats in recent times, she has made use of this valuable experience to write two books on China, a society shrouded in ancient mysteries. This harmless cultural impulse apart, what has been worrying though is the Communist regime’s rigid monitoring and gagging of information, coinciding with the country’s dizzying success on the world economic stage. China elicits more interest now than ever before, and the fact that precious little fiction comes out of the country for the mainstream English reader, makes Chinese Whiskers all the more timely and interesting.


16 June 2011

A longish essay on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic 1852 novel is best remembered for its emotional, conscientious appeal for the abolishment of slavery. The author, though White herself, had seen the lives of slaves from close quarters and could give a fairly accurate version of the atrocities that were heaped on them. The book's powerful, hard-hitting narrative had the desired effect and within 5 months of its publication nearly half a million copies were sold. The book became extremely controversial. By this time slavery no longer existed in North America. But it thrived in the South where slaves were an economic necessity, as they were needed in the fields. The Southerners put up a fierce resistance against attempts to change existing laws, leading to the Civil war in 1860s. The North won, and America was finally declared free of slavery.

Beecher's novel came a decade before the civil war took place and continued to have immeasurable influence on the political and social narrative on slavery. The Southerners expectedly slammed Uncle Tom's Cabin terming it exaggerated and even untruthful. However, the horrors that were captured in the novel and the psychology of human violence it brought out so incisively made a deep impression upon its readers. Over the years Beecher's novel grew so famous that it's characters - Uncle Tom, Eva, Simon Legree, Topsy became American by words. The novel was adapted for the stage many times and several film adaptations of it were made in the silent era. This did some disservice to the book "as many of these were garish dramatisations, emphasing the most melodramatic, seemingly improbable incidents in the novel", says Alfred Kazin in his introduction to the classic. For the later generation the novel turned into a caricature. "The characters had become such worn-out symbols that without knowing the book, people who mockingly used these symbols thought the book beneath their notice," he writes.

Yet, it's impossible to deny the novel's historical significance. It remains the single-most enduring novel written on slavery. Over the years the Blacks have come to view the book with with mixed feeling. The novel unquestionably aided in the abolition of slavery but many also saw the portrayal of Blacks as objectionable for a variety of reasons. Author and critic Charles Johnson's introduction for one of the newer editions is especially useful in understanding the Black point of view to the novel. Johnson -though he finds the novel untidy, full of contrivances, improbable situations and mawkish sentimentality, applauds it for its stupendous characters and narrative power. He states that much need not be made about these faults because this was the structure prevalent in the nineteenth century. Also, Uncle Tom's Cabin came at a time when fiction was being published in serialized form in newspapers, which meant there was the natural tendency to stretch a story too long. Beecher's novel came in 45 weekly instalments which explains its immoderate length. "What Uncle Tom's Cabin lacks in concinnity it more than makes up for by being fully imagined and deeply felt," says Johnson.

He sees the novel as a staggering success in terms of story-telling but firmly objects to the way Blacks have been portrayed, calling it 'ineluctably racist' "Stowe's interpretation of the 'nature' of Negros is her novel's most central and self-destructive flaw. It simple replaces one racist stereotype with another that is equally condescending and unacceptable." He goes on to say that this is typically the problem with most white Americans who will understand the racial and cultural "other" only 'in their own terms'

Johnson is especially displeased that the author tags Blacks with adjectives like 'patient, timid and unenterprising' Also, he believes Beecher overdoes her sympathy by showing all Blacks as innocent and good. Even Topsy who is a wild, irreligious child is someone who monkeys around and amuses people. So essentially, the argument becomes that Blacks ought to be freed because they are harmless and pet-like. It totally deflects from the simple ethical question of human freedom and dignity. These points are extremely valid. He even quotes Charles Dickens who was disturbed by Beecher's attempt at portraying Blacks in an over-the-top positive light. "I think this extreme championship is likely to repel some useful sympathy and support."

Similarly, while the Southern's felt that Beecher had fabricated the truth, Johnson on the other hand believes that her book only "touches upon the iceberg of two hundred years of depravity and cruelly inflicted on Africans"

Beyond these points of debate, let's also look at what the books actually aims to do. Without much doubt Beecher's social and moral concerns overpowered her artistic ambitions. The issue of slavery was foremost on the author's mind. And yet, she has a terrific sense of drama, and some of her characterisation is as good as it gets in classic literature. Yet, there are also painfully exaggerated figures she creates in the lead characters of Uncle Tom and Eva - the angelical do-gooders as symbols of Christ. Both epitomise Christian ideals of forbearance and sacrifice, and belong to the Black and White sides respectively. This choice of characterisation was most probably derived from the fact that Beecher was herself brought up on tales of Christian charity and brotherhood. Her faith was strong and her attempt was clearly to evoke the image of Christ amidst the cruelties she saw around her.
Where Beecher is really in top form is in her slow peeling of the evil characters. She demonstrates an immense and awe-inspiring talent in the description of Marie Clare and Simon Legree.

Now for the gist of the novel. The action starts at the Shelbys, a kindly family who treat their slaves well. However, when Mr Shelby's fortunes take a beating he is forced to sell off his loyal slave of many years, the middle-aged and diligent, Uncle Tom. He also plans to give away one of their female slave Eliza's son. When Eliza hears that her child would be taken away from her, a strange motherly power possesses her and she makes a great escape. Tom - the ever tolerant man meekly follows his new master, Mr Haley, leaving his wife and children behind. Tom is industrious and god-loving and doesn't face too many problems. But his stay with Haley is short-lived, as a young man of fortune and family, St Clare absorbs him into his large, picturesque household in New Orleans. St Clare buys Tom at a princely sum, since his little daughter Eva takes a great liking to him. Eva is portrayed as a little angel who cannot see anyone suffering around her and is always compassionate to everyone. She holds no prejudice of colour or class.

Her mother Marie is the polar opposite. She is hypochondriac and a nag. The author says describing her, "Marie had never possessed much capability of affection, or much sensibility, and the little that she had, was merged into a most intense and unconscious selfishness; a selfishness more hopeless, from it quiet obtuseness, its utter ignorance of any claims but her own. From her infancy she had been surrounded by servants, who lived only to study her caprices; the idea that they had feeling or rights had never dawned upon her even in distant perspective."

Marie intensely resents the fact that her husband is excessively lenient with their servants. She finds it absurd that he never whips them. Things seem to go along nicely for Tom for a while. But then almost suddenly Eva takes ill and dies. St Clare is a broken man but as kind as ever. He is keen to give Tom his freedom, but just days before the formalities can get completed, he too dies. Now at the mercy of their heartless mistress the servants start to get nervous about their altered circumstances. On one occasion Marie even sends one of her slave girls to a flogging house. Clare's middle-aged cousin, Miss Ophelia pleads the girl's case with Marie, but she obtusely holds on to her own position.

Marie sells off some of the slave, including Tom. This proves to be the third and final destination for Tom. His master Simon Legree is a ruthless, sadistic tyrant. Yet, he means to be decent with Tom as he sees potential in him and wants to promote him as an overseer. Legree, however, is uncomfortable seeing the pious side of Tom. His inhuman and immoral acts fill his heart with a dread of the unknown, and he gets determined to break his will. He asks Tom to flog a woman. When he refuses, he unleashes the worst torture on him. Finally, Tom dies at the hands of Legree's men, much like Christ.

The story is deeply moving and its emotional sweep is tremendous. Harriet Beecher Stowe's prose is compassionate and courageous, and it's not difficult to see that such a novel -with its particular nuances and shades - could only be written by a woman. Happy domestic scenes clearly delight the author and to her mind nothing can be more tyrannical than forcibly breaking up a family. This is the refrain throughout the novel. Slaves were allowed to marry but these marriages were not legally recognised and their owners very often would sell one half of the couple to anyone they wished. This inhuman aspect of slavery moved Beecher the most and she recounts countless episodes that show husband-wife and mother-child being cruelly separated. The author was evidently appealing to the sympathetic heart of White American wives and mothers, who would be able to feel the full impact of such an act.

The novel's other important theme is the psychology of violence. When irresponsible and uncontrolled power is placed with someone, human beings are capable of unleashing the most perverse violence on each other. This is what is revealed in the case of both Legree and Marie.
While the author portrays the 'good' in its purest form, reaching almost unrealistic levels, she is more interesting when she tackles evil in people. Ever the evangelist, she likes to believe that people can have a change of heart. Many characters in the book do go through that feeling.
The novel’s other strength is that it wonderfully penetrates into the psyche of women and captures how their minds operate. There is always a fair bit of guile and tact that women employ to negotiate their way around, and this the author astutely brings out.
All of this makes Uncle Tom’s Cabin as much of an artistic success as much as it one of the most significant social novels in all of literature.


09 June 2011

First Day First Show:Anupama Chopra

Author: Anupama Chopra
Pages: 376
Publisher: Penguin
Price: 499

It didn't seem like the wisest thing to do when a 20 something Anupama Chopra set her mind to write on Bollywood. Her intellectually inclined family was taken aback by her decision. Even more bemused was the India Today editor Arun Poorie who took her interview. "So you came back from America with a journalism degree to write about Bollywood?' he asked incredulously, giving her the job anyway. Through the 90s and mid-2000s, she wrote extensively on Hindi cinema, covering various aspects of Bombay’s dream factory. In the course of this time, she also wrote two books, one on the epochal Sholay and the other, her all time favourite film, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Currently, as the consulting entertainment editor for an English television news channel, she does weekly interviews and reviews. Her latest book First Day First Show is a compilation of her numerous articles -- comprising interviews, quotable quotes and pithy observations, that give a panoromic view of Bollywood in the last two decades. The concentration is essentially on the 90s though.

In her Prologue, Anupama tells us how she started working in a period when the mainstream press rarely took film journalists seriously, and movies were primarily the domain of popular magazines like Stardust, Filmfare and Cineblitz. Some of these were PR driven, while most others contained salacious gossip and spicy interviews. The language had plenty of spunk and chutzpah. However, these were entirely star-driven magazines with no place for serious film appreciation. This was also a time when the industry was anarchic in its working patterns. Stars would be hopping sets like headless chickens, doing 20-25 films at one time. The distributor lobby - which would push for randomly inserting action sequences or a sexy item number - made the movie business cruder than ever. Formulas ruled, and much of the scripts were frame-by-frame copies of Hollywood blockbusters. To compound matters, the industry’s murky links with the underworld were surfacing.

To be conscious of this context and yet write lucidly and responsibly was a challenge by itself, and this is where Anupama succeeds. There is no trace of condescension or cynicism in her writing. Her passion for Hindi cinema brims forth, even as she takes an objective view of the industry with its chaos and contradictions. Her pieces are intelligent, not overly academic or pedantic.
These columns, most of them written for India Today in the last decade and a half run you through the various phases of the industry. And you have to agree with her when she says that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, the 90s for a while saw a phase where double-meaning, ribald songs ruled the roost. From cholis to khatiyas, each producer was trying to outdo the other. There was a public outcry finally, a few vulgar films flopped, and the ‘smut bubble’ as the author calls it, finally burst.

She rightly observes that melody moves in circles and that the vulgar wave was perhaps inevitable. It’s like how Amitabh Bachchan came and edged out the soft, romantic songs typified in Rajesh Khanna’s films, she says. “In 1990, the super success of Nadeem-Shravan’s Aashique ushered in the year of ghazal-type romantic music as in Saajan, Dil, Phool Aur Kaante and Deewana. 'There was so much sweetness,' says (lyricist) Sameer, ‘that the audience got diabetes.’ Aakhen put a foot in the double-meaning door and ‘Choli’ opened the floodgates.”
One sees a similar trend in music now, with the likes of Dev D’s Emotional Atyachar and Delhi Belly’s D K Bose flaunting a devil-may-care attitude with their irreverent tone and impudent lyrics. The intent in some ways is again to break away from set pattern, and its target audience – youth – are lapping it up.

Anupama covers the careers and personalities of all the key players of this time - Madhuri Dixit, Shah Rukh Khan, Govinda, Aamir Khan, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor, Amitabh, Aishwarya Rai – and brings a rare acuity to her observations. She says about Madhuri’s astonishing ascent to the top. “So what is the Madhuri phenomenon all about? It’s about dancing, for one. No other actress can match her suggestive, come hither mobility. In the profusion of bare midriffs and wiggling hips, her sexuality stands apart, marked by apparent innocence...She doesn’t ooze sex, she suggests it. With no overt come-on, she is the ultimate Indian male fantasy – a desi, middle-class Madonna,” she writes.

Among the most interesting articles is the one on the Bhatts, who were the most prolific makers through the 90s. The piece on script-writer Honey Irani is hilarious as well. There are also a few articles on Govinda, who seems to be a favourite of the author. She describes a particularly amusing incident of her trying to pin down the Hero No 1 for an interview. She narrates how he and his family were unfailingly polite. Govinda himself kept referring to her as ‘Bhabhiji’ after Anupama’s marriage to filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, but constantly failed to keep his appointments.

One of the best chapter here is an extract from her book on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, where she interprets the film is some detail, bringing in several fresh insights. Talking about the character of Raj, she writes, “He is the perfect blend of the modern and the traditional. He is progressive in certain situations and rigidly conservative in others. He plays by the rules but he also tweaks them. When Simran decides to keep karva chaut, Raj supports her. Karva chaut is a largely north Indian ritual in which married Hindu women keep a day-long fast, abstaining from food and water for the prosperity and longevity of their husbands. Feminists have long railed against this gendered practice, but the ritual continues to be immensely popular. Aditya (Chopra) who grew up watching his mother do karva chauth, puts a modern twist to it. Simran, the bride-to-be, decides to fast for her future husband. In her mind, of course, it is Raj and not Kuljeet. Raj doesn’t take the ritual too seriously – when Simran complains of hunger pangs, he tries to sneak her a laddoo. But as a token of love and solidarity, Raj also fasts...”

Anupama rightly points out how the DDLJ world is a largely male-driven one, where women have little power. She also makes a mention of one of the most terrific scenes in the film, involving Simran’s mother Lajjo who speaks about the continued sacrifices expected out of women. “The film most definitely recogonises this inequality between men and women, but affirms the status quo. Like Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! it establishes the importance of family over individual.”
The book also carries many of the author’s reviews of past and recent films.
Anupama’s writing is precise, with unmistakable irony and style. Shah Rukh Khan in his Forward of the book also makes a mention of it. "I may or may not agree with her view but I know it is honest. I like the simplicity of her writing. I like that it is never over-elaborate," he says.

The actor in his forward also mentions how Anupama is objective because she is an 'outsider' who became an 'insider' - much like SRK himself. SRK further recounts some interesting aspects of his journey to superstardom, and especially talks about his early days.

Since much of the contents of the book are from contemporary film history, it's not terribly revelatory in any sense. But Anupama's polished yet empathetic approach is what makes her writing stand apart. For that reason, this book is a worthy endeavour.

27 May 2011

City Of Djinns

Author: William Dalrymple
Pages: 339
Published in the year: 1994
Publishers: Penguin
Genre: Non-fiction/ Memoir

For Dalrymple, who has come to acquire the status of a formidable travel writer today, it was City Of Djinns that marked the beginning of his fascination with Mughal history. For the book, part travelogue and memoir, the author spent nearly a year in Delhi unravelling the city's archaeological riches. What looked like a fling with India soon turned into a lasting romance, and the Scottish author followed it up with two more books on related themes that became the centrepiece of his literary career - White Mughals and The Last Mughal. While the former is about the early relationship between the English and native Indians, The Last Mughal largely is based on events around the 1857 revolt and the ouster of Delhi’s last king, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Both the above books were born out of City of Djinns. Dalrymple had visited Delhi when he was all of seventeen and was instantly under its spell. "It was so totally unlike anything I had seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horror, it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter...Moreover - I soon discovered - possessed a bottomless seam of stories, tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend," he says in his introduction.

The whole city, then, seemed to be an endless and fascinating journey of discovery to the author, who had already by then acquired a reputation as a stunning travel writer with his first book In Xanadu. Still only 25, Dalrymple brought with him a sense of adventure and a charming wide-eyed curiosity to Delhi that he put together in this elegant, lush memoir. Besides uncovering grand, epic stories around the city, the book is punctuated with delightful daily-life anecdotes that Dalrymple narrates with a mix of bemused exasperation and empathy. Many interesting character dot his domestic world. His land lady Mrs Puri, who likes to govern things with an iron hand, and his cab driver, Balvinder, a loutish, pan-chewing Punjabi fellow - are coloured with vivid, ironic strokes. Charmingly, Dalrymple was also newly married around this time, and provides a very flattering portrayal of his artist-wife Olivia, who has done the illustrations for the book. The maps and monuments she draws are really pretty, though much of the sketches have a distinct exotic, western gaze - man smoking hookah, an old cobbler, qawwali singers, a eunuch and so one.

The author slowly peels the many layers of Delhi, by tracing the antecedents of the city’s famous monuments. It opens up a long and bloody history of conquerors and blood-shed, of periods of glory and despondency, of exile and re-settlement. Darlymple’s journey touches upon the after effects of the Indo-Pak partition on its inhabitants, the Sikh revolt in the 80s. From contemporary history, he goes back to the Raj, and extensively covers the period which saw a rapid change in the British attitude to the natives. All this happened within a century. The Whites who came either as part of the East India Company or as scholars, were reverential to the Mughals. They imbibed the Orient culture, married Indian women.... But as the power of the East India company grew and the British conclusively established their rule in most of India, the equations drastically altered, and the natives were all shunned. The Anglo-Indians, in fact, suffered the worst blow, as they found no acceptance on either side. Dalrymple speaks to a few Anglo-Indians who survived that period, and their inputs are quite telling. Most of them consider themselves as full—blown British. One such old couple is Marion and Jeo Fowler, who describe with delight one of their brief visits to England. They talk about the great food, the picturesque landscaps and the sense of equality that prevails there. There is a hint of regret at not being able to live in a place they believe to be their right. “It was that Mrs Thatcher. She never liked Anglo-Indians. She made it very hard for us. All her rules and regulations,” they bemoan.

From the British era, the book travels back to the luxuriant Shah Jahan period, where a bloody battle for succession broke out between his two sons Dara Shikoh and Aurangazeb. It was also a period where the Mughals were at the zenith of glory and wealth. Yet, the author observes that this outward refinement in art and etiquette was a cover for some of the most crude and heinous of crimes committed.
Delving deeper into Delhi’s history, the author gives vivid portrayals of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim, Moroccan traveller, who wrote about his journeys and Tughluk Khan, one of the most barbaric rulers of the 14th century.

Clearly, Dalrymple summons up tremendous amounts of patience, as he painstakingly gets to the bottom of the city’s historical treasures. The entire endeavour brims with passion, and equally impressive is the maturity and restraint that Dalrymple brings to his excellent writing.
The author is seldom critical, except when he talks about the neglect by the Indian authorities of important archaeological sites or his harrowing experience at the customs. At other times, he prefers letting his ironic narration do the talking.
It need not be added then that any reader of City Of Djinns will view Delhi is a completely new light.

20 May 2011

Tagore's Naukadubi

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Starring: Jishu Sengupta,Raima Sen, Riya Sen, Prosenjit,
Stars: ***

In times when intelligent and original stories are so hard to come by, one naturally looks towards literary adaptations with some interest. Because even if they often disappoint in their final execution, they still come with a semblance of a plot. And if the adaptation is of a book written by Rabindranath Tagore, one is even more thrilled at the prospect. Tagore's reputation largely rests on his poems and short stories, but he was also a farily successful novelist. His Choker Bali was an artistic tour de force and was earlier made into a film by director Rituparno Ghosh. This time Ghosh chooses Tagore's other famous novel, Naukadubi that was written at the turn of the 20th century. Great changes were happening in Bengal, as in the rest of the country at this time. And much of this got reflected in Tagore's works.

Naukadubi has been dubbed in Hindi as Kashmakash, produced by Subhash Ghai to coincide with Tagore's 150 anniversary. Somehow, even though any endeavour that brings classic literature to the fore needs to be applauded, and Naukadubi has some definite strengths, it is a film that is closely tied to the context of its times. Chastity is an important concern in the film, so is parental influence. These elements are the chief drivers of the plot, and these may not necessarily find a resonance with today's audience, unless they can see it as art belonging to a particular social milieu.

And yet, it does raise some profound and timeless questions. It looks at our deeply engrained sense of tradition and morality and what happens when it is in conflict with the dictates of the heart. Each character goes through this conundrum, and deal with it according to their individual situations in life.

There is of course beauty and lyricism that come from the fact that Tagore was essentially a poet at heart. Novel-writing demands a certain analytical and realistic approach, but being a lyricist, he applied his grand imagination to real settings. Naukadubi is an example of a dramatic, incredible story, that almost seems like it was written with the intent of shaking up a complacent and custom-driven Bengali society. Though a popular fictional story, its critical reception has not been the most flattering over the years. Yet, it's not hard to see it as quite bold and progressive for its times.

Ramesh (Jishu Sengupta), is a scholarly young man in Kolkata in love with the beautiful and intellectually-driven Hemalini (Raima Sen). They intend to get married, but Ramesh is suddenly instructed to come back to his village by his father. When he arrives, he learns that his father has fixed his marriage with a poor widow's daughter. Ramesh's first reaction is to flatly refuse, but on seeing the widow, his heart softens and he agrees to marry. On the wedding day, their boat gets wrecked. On the shores, he sees a bride, Kamala (Riya Sen) lying unconscious. He naturally supposes her to be his wife, and they start to live together. He fights hard to forget his paramour and is gentle and affectionate towards Kamala. But he slowly learns that she is not his wife at all and there has been a misunderstanding. On Hemalini's part, she tries to get over Ramesh and starts to imagine a life with a country doctor (Prosenjit) whom she meets. Kamala too finds herself on the crossroads.

The theme is clearly about nature versus custom. Each of the characters is forced to momentarily bent to accepted tradition, but ultimately a satisfactory resolution is found. The boat-wreck in some ways could be a metaphor for nature asserting itself and ending what it deems as unnatural.

Hemalini and Kamala are two women who belong to opposite ends of the social spectrum. Hemalini has the previlege of wealth, education and an indulgent father - a desi Emma or sorts - while Kamala considers herself unfortunate and is subservient. Both experience the same kind of emotions, but their social background ultimately determines how they react to their situation.

The period details, decor and costume make for sumptuous viewing. And the music is simply marvelous. Here's a link to Manwa from the film, one of the most gorgeous songs in recent times (http://www.video.mobitowns.com/manwa-kashmakash-2011.html)

On the downside, Tagore's story uses too many coincidences at every point. The situation under which Ramesh agrees to marry also lacks conviction. Prosenjit's character is the most underdeveloped of the four. However, director Rituparno Ghosh seems to have done exceptionally well with the content at hand. There is tremendous grace to this film, and Raima Sen has never looked more ethereal. Though the emotional complexities don't emerge very well (and this could be a weakness in the original story), there is something deeply humane and dignified about its characters.

14 May 2011

Gained in translation

In a pleasant new development in the last few years, the Marathi section at Pune's book stores has been teeming with translations of international bestsellers and Indian-English fiction and non-fiction works.

As you browse through the well-stacked book shelves in the Marathi section, your eye immediately catches the translation of Margaret Mitchell’s epic hit Gone With The Wind. You are amused at the thought of Rhett Butler saying his famous last words to Scarlet O Hara in Marathi, but you hold that thought and continue to scan through the dozens of new translated titles around. There’s Greg Mortenson's Three Cups Of Tea, Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Khaled Hosseni’s The Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns, Rhonda Byrne's Secret, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss among many others. The absolute favourites in the pack are Chetan Bhagat, the Chicken Soup for the soul series, Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer and Sydney Sheldon.

Non-fiction and self-help books - being factual and universal -- are especially hot picks in their translated versions. Barack Obama’s autobiographies, Kiran Bedi’s I Dare, Narayan Murthy’s A Better India, A Better World, A R Rahman’s biography, Tushar Gandhi’s Let’s Kill Gandhi, Harsha Bhogale's Out Of The Box, Shobhaa De’s Spouse – are all popular. As you glance some more, you see an entire shelf dedicated to self-help/inspirational books. Several copies of Rujuta Diwekar’s new book, Women & the Weight Loss Tamasha in Marathi have freshly arrived. The other top sellers are Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Rashmi Bansal’s Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

There's been a 100 per cent jump in sales of translated works in Marathi at Crossword ICC Towers. "Where earlier we used to have 10-15 books, now we have almost 150 of them," says its manager Girdhar Agarwal. He attributes this somewhat to the highly literate class of Maharashtrian and Puneites in particular.

48-year-old Sneha Latkar is one such reader, who says she has a working knowledge of English, but prefers the Marathi translation as she doesn't have to struggle with the meanings and can get a complete sense of the book. "I read one entire volume of Sidney Sheldon in a matter of days. It was so gripping," she says. "I find the standard of translation very good. I’m engaged by the story, which is what matters," she adds.

We did a check ourselves and while the translation is satisfactory, and a perfectly acceptable alternative to the original, cultural contexts do colour the text somewhat. For example, Rhett Butler’s last words –‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ expectedly sounds awkward and lame in Marathi. The dialogues in the novel suffer, but the description as a whole captures the essence quite well. From the little I saw, there was a minor gaffe in the Obama autobiography as well. But these are niggles.

Readers seem to be happy and the sales indicate that clearly. City-based Mehta Publishers, who have been at the forefront of these translations state that there has been a huge jump in the last 3 years. Its CEO Sunil Mehta tells us that he has to acquire rights from the original writer, before translating it. "For example, Dan Brown sells very well, but I have to pay him considerably for it – say 700-800 dollars," he says. As for translation techniques, he explains that the effort is always to remain as faithful as possible to the original. "We try to retain everything, even if there is erotic content. We tone it down, but we keep it," he says. As for the future, he believes, it is tough to predict trends in the book world. "But I think the next ten years will only see this market growing," he says.

Best-sellers in Marathi

1) Sidney Sheldon

2) Jeffrey Archer

3) Chetan Bhagat

4) Dan Brown

5) Rujuta Diwekar

02 May 2011

The Vague Woman's Handbook by Devapriya Roy

Author: Devapriya Roy
Pages: 343 pages
Price: 199
Publishers: Harper Collins
Year of Publishing: 2011

Devapriya Roy's effervescent debut novel that has so much going for it is far less about vague women and odd balls than the title suggests. The protagonists meant to be vague but charming, are in fact your everyday urbane, working woman -- clueless about directions, messing up their credit bills, obsessing about losing weight and resolutely planning to turn into a new leaf every day.

The narrative is really about two literary buffs and the quirks that come with that territory. The fact that they have careers centered around books is not an incidental detail by any means, because many of their oddities, characteristics, motivations, responses are all acutely driven by their literary bent of mind. Practically every other page has a reference to a book or an author or a quotation. The setting itself is an imagined place called Academy of Literatures in Delhi where talk revolves around authors, lit events and conferences between cups of tea and chocolate cakes. So there's a 'meta' element here, a book world within a book, which should delight some of the more avid, serious readers of English literature.

The other interesting aspect here is the older women-younger women friendship that is quite a common occurance actually between females who share a certain emotional /or intellectual wavelength, though it's generally taken to be an anomaly. It hardly gets spoken about, and much less has been covered in popular fiction, which is why, Devapriya's narrative feels relatable and fresh.

Without much doubt, this is an immensely enjoyable novel, with its sumptuous descriptions and iridescent wit spread over 343 pages. There's a certain heartiness in the writing, a bounce and zing, that keeps the narrative tip toeing with nimble ease. The chick-lit elements are all there of course, but it manages to acquire an edge that should make it perfectly readable for everyone.

The novel is then about two women, each at a different stage in life, finding a kindred spirit in their literary pursuits and complimentary natures. Sharmila aka Mil, a 22 year old has just married her college sweetheart, Abhimanyu Mishra, a handsome, scholarly young man, with a penchant for somewhat obscure academic interests. Mil is a literature student, with all kinds of delicious hopes that ride with such a career path. Maybe a course in Cambridge, conferences abroad...

The other protagonist is Indira, 50ish, a senior government officer at the Academy of Literatures and a single mom to a teenage son and daughter. Indira is unassertive and tends to take an ostrich-like approach to many of her problems. She mismanages her finances and frequently finds herself in a maze of bank debts. On the other hand, Mil - while blissfully married - is frustrated with their meagre and irregular earnings and more particularly, her estrangement with her parents back in Calcutta over her marriage. She’s also ambitious and doesn't want her career to slip amidst all the heart-burn. Nothing really dramatic happens in the novel, and yet their daily struggle with its little ups and downs -that seems monumental and irresolvable on a given day- keeps you hooked.

Like most first novels, this one too seems heavily autobiographical and Devapriya essentially enumerates her sensations and emotions to different things around her. It works because Devapriya has great flair and style and she gets into the workings of a woman's mind quite wonderfully.
The below paragraph occurs when Abhimanyu and Mil have an feisty argument over finances and the attitude of their respective parents.

"The fact that Abhi was pointedly left out of the phone calls bothered Mil immensely. But when he brought it up, it made her furious. The mind is a complex zone - one loves and hates and defends the same people interchangeably all the time. You feel X about Y. But to Z you cannot reveal that you feel X; on the contrary, in front of Z, you highlight the feelings of X1 for B."

Don't look for anything terribly deep in the novel though. This is clearly a feel-good book above everything else, which gets into fairy-tale mode every now and then. The author realises she's created a near perfect couple in Mil and Abhimanyu and tries stacking the odds against them by adding a spot of grey. But it's mostly full of cutsie scenes and can't escape the clichés of young romance.
Yet, the narrative stays gripping, because the plot points are all interesting. The Mil-Abhimanyu quarrel over his finances, ending with the couple making up feels extremely tender. The chapter where Mil meets her fashionable mother-in-law is another high-point in the book.

Indira is a well-etched character, though her marital history is left somewhat vague and inconclusive. Mil at 22 seems a bit too young to be inhabiting the character the author creates for her.

But these are niggles really, and this is a jaunty ride that stays perfectly on course, teeming with piquant details. Devapriya, herself an MA and Mphil from JNU is a huge literary buff and that passion comes gleaming through the book.


All of 26 years, Devapriya Roy speaks about her debut book and her next ambitious venture with her writer-husband called The Heat And Dust Project, a book on travels across India

1) This is a question which perhaps all writers hate to answer. But it's hard to imagine any first book that is not autobiographical. The Vague Women's Handbook distinctly seems to mirror experiences close to you. Isn't it? What kind of challenges did you encounter in this process, where you had to fictionalise many autobiographical details. What approach did you take, where you possibly had some real-life person in mind, but were obliged to protect the source? Also, do you believe all fiction is mostly autobiographical, one way or the other?

Milan Kundera once said that characters are not born, like people, of a woman, but of a “possibility”. I find this a very helpful insight. When I became best-friends with the fabulous Gitanjali Chatterjee who happened to be a fair number of years – 28 to be precise – older than me, it was out of that possibility that the Vague Woman’s Handbook happened. Mil is not me and Indira is not Gitanjali, but the essence of their friendship is a lot like what we share. And this is not uncommon either. My mother had gone back to graduate school when I was about 17, and did her M Tech with young people who were a little older than I was. She had become very close to one of the girls she studied with. My publisher Karthika said that at one point when she was in university, she had this friend she spoke about a lot at home –so her mother invited the friend over. Subsequently, her mum said in great surprise, “But your friend’s my age!”
There are several elements that I “borrow” from my life and the lives of several who have had the misfortune to come in borrowing distance of me! I got married to Saurav absurdly early, like Mil did. But what’s funny is that this is a kind of family tradition – my parents did too, and my grandparents. So the economic realities of a young marriage is something that I had always thought was worth writing about – especially in an age as consumerist as ours is, when one is bombarded with images of glossy homes, designer honeymoons and event-managed weddings all the time. But the drama of estrangement was a borrowed one; however, in India, one still doesn’t have to look too far to find stories of parental disapproval. As for the credit card related escapades, let us say, I have had slight experience in the department but am a very respectable law-abiding citizen now, who is courted by a number of banks!

It’s true that most first novels are autobiographical; but the challenge I think is in converting autobiographical or personal impulses into the story of the characters, when it becomes something else. I’ve had emails from several readers who have loved the book, and asked me how on earth have I written about them! Because, said one girl from Bombay, she is Mil and her fiancĂ© is very Abhi-ish. There is an Indira Sen in Calcutta whose friends have written to me saying that they are in shock that there can be more of her! It’s like a giant circle of intertextuality, inter-experientiality, sisterhood and meaning-making.

2) Tell us something about your narrative strategy. Did you give the first person v/s third person choice any thought, or this was always how you wanted it to be?

Oh, you’re absolutely right – I did think of the first person narrative in the beginning. In fact, that seems to be the favourite choice for a lot of chick lit. But then, finally, I didn’t find it working too well for the story I was attempting to tell. This book explores the relationship between Indira and Mil more, but as often through suggestions and gestures – how gradually the nuances in their language change as the friendship deepens – than words. Thus I settled for a third person narrative that would do greater justice to this aspect, but an over-the-shoulder one, which, thus, is empathetic to Mil and Indira and records much of their musing, from their point of view. I thought that the third person narrative offered a unique coupling of the coming-close and moving-away strategy; I did not want the narrative to completely become an I-centric thing which can tend to get rather shallow and self-absorbed though arguably funnier.

3) I know the plot needed Mil and Abhimanyu to be very young - because that is afterall the central reason for their estrangement with the parents - but i got the feeling that Mil at 22 sounded like a 26-27 year old, especially scenes where she admonishes Indira etc. Were there any doubts in your mind about Mil's age and whether she could be expected to pull off some of the things in the story without it seeming like a stretch?

I know exactly what you mean – but that is precisely my point. Mil does these things consciously because she is painfully young-but-trying-to-appear grown up. When we see Mil as she is, we find her hysteria and meltdowns and vagueness in general believable because she is too young to handle what life has thrown up. But when we see her with Indira, and she is being all pert and theoretically superior and full of lectures, she is being a grown-up the way children sometimes do, donning the clothes and shoes of elders . That is the beauty of Mil and Indira’s relationship – Indira allows Mil to do her grown-up act with the affection of the sensitive towards the young, of not disrupting their little drama. And that is why Mil is able to flower in Indira’s presence. This is the chief thing that the parents have a problem with – Mil and Abhi’s extreme youth; so sub-consciously Mil is reacting to that. Again, the self-assuredness of Mil (her confidence that the credit card things will sort themselves out, the seminar paper will get selected, and so on) is what 22 year olds still have, though by the time they grow older, true maturity ought to distill it out of them.

4) Tell us something about your next book - The Heat and Dust project that you are doing with your husband, Saurav Jha. What writing approach are you taking with that, and how has the experience been so far?

It is a travelogue – a funny hysterical sort of a travelogue about journeying through India on a very very tight budget (500 a day for bed and board), but it would also engage with various books on India that have been authored by mostly foreign writers in English – from Naipaul to Patrick French and Dalrymple – which attempt to make sense of India. But in addition to being by Indians, it is also meant for Indians – especially, young Indians, if they would care to read it.
Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries might be called one of the big inspirations (Lol!). Without the motorcycle, that is.
 Cliched though it sounds, we were excruciatingly tired of the rhythms of the desk-jobs and the expectations that middle class “respectable” life throws on people. There was a lot of unresolved angst about modern-day life and its imperatives for our generation that impelled us to take this journey. We hoped that meaning and clarity might emerge through this mammoth undertaking as it sometimes does. The traffic, the desk jobs, the housework, the long queues, the grocery shopping, the cleaning (and the non-cleaning) of quarters. But it was hardly easy to actually bring everything together and take the jump from fantasizing about this idea to actually doing it. Putting all our meager savings into this journey – and what it represented – meant an extraordinary amount of pressure too! Because this is our life, and giving up jobs and what they represent, is hardly as romantic as it might seem initially.
 At another level, we were also tired of hearing studio experts debating the changing nature of our country, given that many of these studio experts belong to the highest echelons of society and, if you forgive our frankness, are often divorced from ground level truths. We wanted to see the land for ourselves, meet those of our brother and sister Indians we might ordinarily not have met, chat with them, swap stories.  
We combined these two things into this insane but hopeful “project”. That's how it came about.
This book is a lot about our generation as also inheritances from our predecessors.
So, we wanted to turn around the concept of meaning-making too! Usually, a book is written in solitude and only engages with the reader once it has been published. However, given the technologies available today it seemed possible that this act of writing, apparently one given to grave solitariness, could be turned on its head into a much more meaningful collaborative process wherein the readers are involved right from the beginning. That is how the idea of the dynamic book as it were was born. We created the facebook page on our travels titled – ‘the heat and dust project: a book in motion’ – where we give out funny stories, pictures and confessions while the journey is on. It received a warm welcome from the facebooking community which also chipped in with suggestions of its own and the group has grown to almost two thousand members in a very short span.

5) If you can list down some of the authors and books that have influenced your writing....

I read just about anything I can lay my hands on so this is a tough one.
But one writer who has been an indirect influence on The Vague Woman’s Handbook is Alexander McCall Smith who writes with such humour, gentleness and wisdom, and whose female protagonists – and the men in their lives – I am in love with. While the voice of Vague Woman is very much in contrast to McCall Smith’s – because it is hysterical and reflects an Indian idiom – I do think he was a kind of an influence in shaping the book.

The Diary of Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding and Confessions of a Shopaholic are two other books that I enjoyed greatly – modern women’s fiction, as they are, with a self-reflexive voice that questions even as it surrenders to misadventures.
 A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf would probably be the one book that I’d risk my life to save from a burning library!

6) What has been the general response to The Vague Woman's Handbook? Were you tentative to begin with as a writer? And post its publishing, what are your feelings about being an author and how do you intend going forward with this? Are you also pursuing anything else besides writing?

Luckily, I’ve had emails from readers, from all over the country, saying they loved Mil and Indira. I’m all inspired to pen the further misadventures of the vague women – there is definitely going to be a sequel.
There has also been a lot of support for my vague theory! The book is, after all, not only a celebration of vagueness – but also in defence of it. Most modern women are over-worked and carry to-do lists in their heads that span things they have to do for work, home, children, families – and in India, even for second cousins twice removed. The amount of pressure on them often forces them to be in-control. Being a vague woman is thus also a sort of protest against this system that requires lives to be so planned and organized; and it is only when one allows the mind – and the contours of life – to wander, to be vague, that creativity finds its expression.
Incidentally, just recently I found out about this minor movement within Western philosophy: a movement to reinstate the vague, which had been pioneered by the philosopher William Archer. He had meant it to be in the realm of scientific thinking but I think it might be good to reinstate the vague in many aspects of the smug lives the middle and upper classes live.

I consider myself ‘an obsessive reader with a slight writing problem’ – and hardly a writer, with just one book. When I was working on The Handbook – and Saurav will tell you there are at least 50 versions and drafts – I did not take myself too seriously. I wrote as and when, now and then and on the move.
Nowadays there are a lot of writers who spend far less time writing and far more time (and money) promoting their books and marketing themselves. In fact, they’ve made it difficult for old-fashioned authors – who wrote in quiet corners and let the book do the talking – to even exist! Ultimately, I guess, to each his own. I have a very very long way to go – and so I must concentrate on the sheer art of writing, hone it and sharpen my voice continuously.
Saurav and I are very excited about The Heat and Dust Project – and at the moment we’re working on it.
And as for other things, I’m a freelance book editor and am also doing a PhD from JNU in Theatre and Performance Studies.