07 January 2016

Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto

Author: Rudyard Griffiths
Year of publishing:2009

Like most book lovers, I enjoy the idea of discovering a country, its national character, its quirks through the written word. Some of the first questions that come to my mind when I think of a new country are - what accords it its unique identity; what are its most distinguishing features; what are its beliefs that it carries forward? With most countries, this question of identity is not problematic. Most have enough distinguishing characteristics and national symbols to set them apart. Think Chinese, and you imagine a rather competitive, cut-throat, high-achieving population. Not to forget Chinese food, and cheaply produced assembly products that are flooding the world market. Think Japanese, and you conjure up images of their traditional art and crafts, philosophies, and their meticulousness, You think America, and a dazzling collage of brands and names come to mind.

 Part of Canada's problem of self-perception is having America as its neighbour - an enterprising, saucy, on-the-face giant nation that not only manages to completely overshadow its more mild-mannered neighbour to its North but also makes Canada appear anemic and too "boringly nice."

When I moved to Canada a couple of years ago, I will admit, I did not know very much about it apart from the fact that it is a cold country. I knew it to be prosperous, I knew it to be home to many Punjabis and Sikhs (thanks to Bollywood), and I knew Canada had been extremely generous with its immigration and refugee policies. The country had generously absorbed several waves of refugee influx in the last many decades and had emerged triumphant in being able to offer a safe haven to these newcomers. The country is now home to many wonderful writers, one of them being Shyam Selvadurai who fled his home country, Sri Lanka in the 80s during the Tamil-Sinhala riots.
Yet, this unique destiny that Canada has charted for itself by being home to a record number of immigrants, many of them now visible minority, is changing the composition of the country in irrevocable ways, Much of this immigration is of course in high-density cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. In Toronto, a stunning 40 percent of the population is visible minority (mostly from China, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan).

There is no question that Canada needs immigrants. For a by and large sparsely populated country, that distinguishes itself through its welfare policies -free education and health for all-  it becomes imperative that enough taxes are collected to fund these schemes. Canada wants to use immigration to maintain its ratio of four workers for every one retiree.

But this ever-changing composition of the country - Trudeau's new policy is to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees - can pose several challenges towards preserving the core values and identity of any country. These waves of mass immigration have the potential to completely change the complexion of a country, and without the strong trunk of national identity and social capital, Canada may not necessarily be able to hold all its boughs and twigs together. This is the quandary that author Rudyard Griffiths lucidly discusses in his important book, Who We Are.

I have personally been struggling to understand aspects that define Canada, and while their immigration policy is a stand-out, they do not have many other national symbols or distinguishing features to make it a talking point. Canada, which was largely created on the historical plank of Anti-Americanism, seems to have decided to be unlike Americans, in order to stand apart. So from a very early time, even before the immigration of the present kind, what you got was a rather dispassionate, mild-mannered, cultured group of folks, whose ancestry and loyalty remained with either England or America (for those newcomers who joined later).

Griffiths argues that Canada's loss of political clout on the international stage, its seeming neutrality, its non-aligned nature, it's inability to be seen as a leader is the result of policies of the last several decades, and a result of moving away from Canada's founding principles and values. But his greatest fear is the country growing lack of social cohesion and social capital born out an apathy for advancing the country's history and civic traditions. Societies with diverse and disparate population are historically prone to strife, he says. And without social solidarity and a sense of understanding of who we are, Griffiths believes that "any prolonged national crisis can severely strain the country's institutions and loyalty to each other."

Griffiths feels that without an appreciation of our past and the struggles of previous generations to forge an inspiring civic identity, capable of bridging our ethnic, regional and linguistic differences in common purpose, Canada would face uphill challenges in its attempt to stay united. Yet, he also understands that there is a significant group of people who believe that Canada's "fuzzy and indeterminate nature of what it means to be Canadian" actually works to the country's advantage. The book quotes John Ibbitson who says that Canada would exemplify what can be achieved when "chauvinism gives way to accommodation, when an obsession with shared race, shared blood, shared history are transcended by an infinity of permutations."
According to Pico Iyer, Canada has distinguished itself from America and the rest of Europe by not being bent on asserting a common identity to which all citizens must subscribe. Many commentators likewise believe that for highly pluralistic societies, a strong national identity can be an impediment.

"And this is not just the view of an academic fringe," Griffiths says. "One in three Canadians surveyed felt a 'lack of strong national identity' makes Canada successful.
This post-national vision, he feels can cause "disastrous realignment of our public institutions, civic values, and personal convictions."

There was a considerable furor over writer Yann Martel's statement when he described Canada as "The greatest hotel on Earth: it welcomes people from everywhere."  Martel's comment was meant as a compliment and was in response to a question about why Canada has some of the best writers in the world. But most people thought the metaphor of a hotel to be a "disheartening and dangerous" formulation. A hotel is a symbol of impermanence; you pay bills, follow the rules, but hold no allegiance to it.

Griffiths believes that the metaphor is a damning indictment of what Canada has become - a country of civic slackers that is fast losing its reserves of social capital. He says people have been choosing highly individualized definitions of identity and showing "cavalier disregard" towards the politics of their country. The voting levels are lower than ever; volunteering in truly important and relevant areas are dwindling. Things like volunteering in a church, joining a professional group, becoming a member of a political party - elements that help build an informal network between people - is completely missing, he opines.  It doesn't surprise him that Toronto lays claim to being the city with the most Facebook members worldwide; a by-product of its low overall levels of social capital.

Canada, and especially a city like Toronto has failed to become a melting pot of cultures like Mumbai or New York. People feel more comfortable with members of their own ethnic groups. Call it distrust, or a lack of interest in pursuing friendships with people who don't speak the same idiom; who share a vastly different cultural value-system, Canadians simply do not mingle to a great extent.

Griffiths believes this is a dangerous situation and in the "not-so-distant future we could wake up to find that we are strangers in a strange land, with little in common."
He also says that the time to be aloof is over for Canada, both domestically and on the world stage, as the coming decades will pose plenty of challenges that can potentially test the country and its people.
Without having a sense of nationhood, without being aware of the country's history, its values, its traditions; without strengthening citizenship rules, without creating equal opportunities for immigrants; without immigrants knowing about the country's core civic values and without them following it; without demanding more from its people in terms of national service --- Canada could well find it difficult to sustain itself as one nation. Griffiths devotes considerable space to Quebec and its demand for separate nationhood that was met some years ago. The author says he was distressed to find most people being sanguine about the demand and quite willing to give what was asked. He feels this ran contrary to the essence on which the nation was build - a bilingual, bi-cultural country, that put common values and core principles ahead of any sectarian, ethnic considerations.

Apart from climate change, an aging population is a big worry for Canada. The country runs on welfare schemes and to keep those going would need replenishing its workforce. Griffiths takes a generous, pragmatic view about immigration, and believes it is essential to the country's progress. Yet, the fact is that Canadians earn fully one-third more money than newcomers in the same age and with the same educational qualifications; as many as one in four immigrants are also close to the poverty line. Many foreign degrees are not recognised in Canada; most newcomers do not find jobs in their own fields and have to start afresh or choose a completely different line of work that leads to them earning far less than they could. Housing and child-care are prohibitively expensive, and newcomers bear most of its brunt. Away from loving family members, in a relatively dull, cold country with not many prospects or income is making many immigrants re-consider their choice of Canada. Also, their native countries like China and India are progressing steadily, which makes immigrants start comparing benefits. This is a worry, says Griffiths. Immigration numbers are already going down, and might further dip if enough opportunities are not created for them to integrate into the society and work-force, he says.
 One of the book's fascinating chapters is on Canada's history that talks about the country's earliest settlers who were British (Tories). They were joined by the Loyalists (followers of the Queen) who had to flee America during the American Revolution. They were welcomed to Canada. However, when many poor Americans started coming to Canada, there was resistance, and soon the unequal treatment gave rise to political conflict. It took the wisdom and political sagacity of Robert  Baldwin and La Fontaine to rise above the country's ethnic, sectarian character, and create common laws and common public institutions that emphasized a system of fairness and justice. Canada was a proud, high-achieving nation through the 50s and 60s and was an important player on the world scene. However, much of that eminence the country earned was frittered away, as biculturalism gave way to multiculturalism. It was thought best not to assert the country's history or heroes for fear of making newcomers feel disconnected. This timid and too much political correctness has led to a near complete erosion of Canadian idea of history and values, notes Griffiths.

How come America with its diversity maintains its civic touchstones that help its citizens define who they are as a country? Griffiths is right that the average American takes far more interest in the country's politics and civic life than Canadians do, The average Canadian is disinterested, if not completely apathetic to politics. This, Griffiths believes, must change.

He comes up with several solutions to set the wheel moving in the right direction. A tougher citizenship exam that tests immigrants on Candian history and politics is one of his suggestions. He also recommends having a similar civic literacy test for all students in the country.

After presenting a rather pessimistic view of Canada, Grffiths changes gears to see the brighter side of the country and believes it can expect a more committed approach from both native Canadians and immigrants. In spite of its issues, the author believes Canada has many things going for it. The country is by and large considered far more immigrant-friendly than America and Australia. It is essentially a very prosperous country on account of its rich minerals and natural resources. The biggest advantage is that Canadians today enjoy a reassuring geographical distance from the globe's trouble spots. Griffiths view is that Canada must value itself, and rethink its policies on dual citizenship, that allows people minimum responsibility and maximum benefits. He also puts forth the idea of a national civic service that requires one-quarter of 400,000 Canadians (to be selected by lottery), who turn 18 each year to undertake a mandatory eight-month service for the country. The government, in turn, could give these students a generous subsidy on their higher education.

Griffiths' solutions are reasonable, but the crisis points that he foresees for the country and its future are far more realistic. He is right that mass immigration is going to change the complexity of the country in unimaginable ways. He is right about climate, and its geographical impact to a country that is already one of the coldest in the world. He is right about the class divide that is entering a country which has so far striven to be egalitarian in its approach, and successfully so! He is right that Canada is losing its sense of identity,  and is unable to preserve or celebrate national symbols.

Part of the problem, I believe is that Canadians are a gentle, modest lot, who think it is bad manners to assert one particular identity or culture onto another. Yet, this has led to the country's core vanishing, and this should be distressing to not just native Canadians, but even newcomers who would be far more reassured in a culture that takes pride in its history and culture.

Griffiths considers Canada to be ambitious, a risk-taker, with the ability to go contrary to popular notions. "The Canadian way" is important to Canada in all its decisions. The author believes its immigration policy is its greatest experiment and serves as a model for many other countries. Yet, within that broader idea, there are undoubtedly several pesky issues that need to tackle for the country to preserve its special place in the world.

05 October 2015

The Hungry Ghosts; interview with Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai's novel, released in 2014, The Hungry Ghosts, marks a gigantic leap in his craft and writing. The author who garnered international acclaim with his first novel, Funny Boy, and went on to become an icon for the Sri Lankan literary world, has authored a story about haunting recollections from his childhood and young adult life. The novel is bewitching, going back and forth, travelling different time zones between Sri Lanka and Toronto. It gives an accurate portrayal of immigrant life for South Asians in Toronto, which to my mind, makes this a valuable work of contemporary fiction. It has the same heart-wrenching passion of his previous novels, but clearly, the author's understanding of his craft, and his felicity with language have scaled up to extraordinary extent, making The Hungry Ghosts a tour de force.

I find it propitious that he lives in Toronto, which is also my home now. I took the opportunity to do a short interview with him, and was glad to get an insight about his writing.

1. You moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto due to circumstances back home. You've lived in Toronto for many years now. How do think Canada has influenced your work as a writer? What would you say is the upside and downside of living in a foreign land, and how has it defined your career as an author. Toronto, while a safe and multi-cultured place, is often looked upon as restrained and staid. There is diversity, but perhaps less originality and idiosyncrasy.  I see some of that dreariness reflected in The Hungry Ghosts as well. Would you say, Canada's political positioning and national temperament make it greatly liveable but less inspiring in terms of writing? Feel free to vehemently disagree with me.

There are many Canadas in The Hungry Ghosts, there is the ghastly suburb in which Shivan and his family find themselves but there is also vibrant downtown Toronto and Vancouver which is portrayed as a haven, a golden place, where Shivan because of his past cannot find peace. I don't see Canada as dreary or as foreign. For me it is home and Toronto is a vibrant place to live, while at the same time being safe and stable. This stability has greatly helped me as a writer coming from a very unstable place. Here in Toronto, I can let down my guard and be who I am and write what I want. Because I spend 4-5 months in Sri Lanka each year, it is no longer some lost magical place but a place lived in with its own tedium and pleasures. 

2.  Did you always wish to be an author, or were there other interests you were dabbling with as well?  Was it Funny Boy's wide acclaim that propelled you into being a full time author? Now, with Cinnamon Gardens and The Hungry Ghosts, you are firmly placed as one of South Asia's best known authors.  This perhaps means that you can devote every minute towards honing your craft. This, if I may say as a long-time reader of your works, was evident with The Hungry Ghosts which has the fineness and assuredness that comes to writers at their peak. How are you enjoying this phase, and what are your creative struggles? What are the aspects you enjoy most about being a writer? Also do shed some light on the authors and books you read.

I was happy that Funny Boy allowed me to keep writing on a more full time basis but my decision to keep writing was not based on its success. In other words, if it had been published by a small press and sold very little I would still have kept writing. Yet, like most artists through the ages, I must do other things to survive such as teaching. So I can only write 1/2 to 3/4 time. Thank you for your nice words on Hungry Ghosts but alas, I am not enjoying this phase but rather trying to take on more and more challenges as a writer. The enjoyment lies in constantly pushing for a higher level. This is what I enjoy about being a writer. I read widely and voraciously and love many authors. At this stage in the game, a writer tends to be drawn to writers whose work is nothing like theirs out of curiosity and admiration for something different. I don't have therefore a favourite author. I will read anything written by Jumpha Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Margaret Drabble and a few other writers.  

3.  The uneasy struggle with the self, the fear of rejection and prejudice - mirrored by Sri Lanka's bloody ethnic strife - is a powerful theme. But how essential do you think is the homosexual instinct to the core of your being as a writer. In Funny Boy, Arjie's struggle with his sexuality masterfully parallel the ethnic conflict and malevolence he sees in the adult world. Your subsequent novels (Cinnamon Gardens, Swimming In the Monsoon Sea and The Hungry Ghosts) also carry a definite theme of homosexuality.  But it's not altogether hard to envision these last three books when taken out of the prism of sexuality.  In The Hungry Ghosts especially, there is such wealth of memory and ideas, that the novel could stand on its own, without the protagonist's sexuality being brought in question.  (I found myself comparing it to Of Human Bondage.) Would you agree at all to that? Or would you say homosexual love is the chief driver of your stories. I ask this, because my favourite author, Somerset Maugham, who was said to be bisexual, never so much as dropped a hint about it in his works. The times he lived in didn't allow it perhaps, but when asked if his stories are autobiographical, he said, "The characters are not me, the emotions are all mine though," or something to that effect.  Do you see yourself attempting that?  Also, do you believe, taking sexuality out of the equation lends more universality to a story?

To me being Gay is normal, it is the world that sees it as abnormal and this is the way I have approached my work. I like having gay characters because I like working with them and I feel it is important to create visibility. I can identify with straight characters so I work on the assumption that the straight reader will be able to identify with my gay characters and that the work will be "universal" in its themes of family, displacement, search for self, search for love etc. What drives the story is not sexuality but ideas and themes and a desire to capture a certain experience.  

4. I can't help but ask you to tell us a little about your new book. Also, you mentioned about your teaching. How rewarding is that experience?

 I don't talk about any work in progress as it seems to kill it. I do love teaching and next to writing it is my favourite occupation. 

11 March 2015

The Weight Loss Club

The Weight Loss Club
The Curious Experiments of Nancy Housing Cooperative
Author:  Devapriya Roy
Published in: 2013
Publisher: Rupa
Price: Rs 250

Devapriya Roy’s novel proves once again why books and literature continue to offer women the most satisfying expression to their lives.

After thoroughly enjoying her first book, ‘The Vague Woman’s Handbook’, I took up her second, ‘The Weight Loss Club’, with a certain assuredness in the young author’s talent. Also, since Devapriya Roy tends to draw a lot from her own personality and interests, which I relate to, I knew I was in for a good time. The author is a bibliophile and much of the things that happen in her fictional universe mirror her real-life passion for books.  Her lead characters have academic careers, revel in their intellectual pursuits, and have a singular love for books.  Like all book lovers who love leisure and have a special fondness for cafes, bakeries and tea time in general, Devapriya’s books abound in lush descriptions of food, which are guaranteed to make you head to the kitchen while reading the book.
Being a researcher herself, she has a curious mind, and many subjects find expression through the novel’s varied and interesting characters.

The novel has several strengths. For a woman of 30, and a lovely looking one at that, Devapriya has an enviable grasp on the workings and dynamics of human relationships. More importantly, she articulates these thoughts with linguistic grace and humour. Importantly, the book shows the courage to confront many intimate feelings that women tend to experience in their emotionally charged lives. Devapriya is particularly on surer territory when she’s talking about women. Her best creation in the book is the character of Monalisa Das, whose only description can be that she is the mother of two boys. Her mind is all at sea, as she plots and plans to see her sons succeed. All her energies are focussed on seeing her sons embark on a picture perfect career.  This desperation to not slip up and her refusal to let go is aptly reflected in her maniacal daily routine of cleaning and scrubbing her house till it sparkles. Devapriya, who is otherwise quite compassionate with her characters, reserves her most bitingly ironic commentary for hyperventilating mothers obsessing over their sons.

There’s not much here by way of plot. The setting is a housing society, teeming with a varied lot of inhabitants. Every household has its hitch. There is the inevitable scenario of the tipping-on-the-wrong side-of- marriageable-age daughter, Aparajita (Apu). Notwithstanding her Ph.D, her mother, Mrs Mukherjee is worried about Apu’s weight issues, and is determined to find her a worthy match. This is where the novel tackles the traditional Indian mindset versus the new, emerging attitude of the young.

The Sahai household typifies the traditional Indian joint family, with its high-handed mother-in-law and well-meaning but absentee husband.  Meera, the bahu, battling postpartum depression, is barely able to cope up with the mom-in-law, when the whole extended family descends on her.

Then there is Treeza, who cannot summon up any will to clean her house, cook or even take a bath. Her husband, John is worried about his wife’s state, while their maid, Anwara is struck by the sloth on display.  But you soon learn that Treeza is no Madame Bovari. This is one of the more intense tracks, and the author manages to treat it with sensitivity and insight.
The book is at its most interesting when the narration revolves around these stories. There are other characters and their stories as well, but not all are equally interesting. I found myself skipping pages too.  But what one finds interesting could depend on what one relates to at a certain point.

 There are several plot points within each story, which hold quite well, but the central plot line involves a modern-day guru Sandhya, who begins residing in the colony. Soon, she becomes privy to the problems of the inhabitants and heals them in her own unique way. Devapriya in her useful epilogue mentions how the Bhrahmacharini character was inspired by a book called ‘The Path of Practice’ by Maya Tiwari to which she keeps returning again and again to dip into its wisdom. There are other authors on healing and spirituality whom she mentions. The insight in ‘The Weight Loss Club’ no doubt gives it heft and purpose. However, the plot itself, involving the guru with a back story, does not seamlessly blend with the story. The track appears forced, and is also unduly long.

Yet, the novel is a delicious slice-of-life book with lush characterisation, setting and atmospherics. The book speaks beautifully to the modern Indian woman, bringing many untold emotions to the fore. Female bonding was the subject of Devapriya’s first book, and the theme runs through this one as well. In the author’s world, female friendships are not just supplementary, but essential and hugely rewarding.

In a character-driven book, the author’s biggest strength is her writing. Devoid of clichés or artifice, Devapriya masterfully brings scenes to life. Small, trivial things become interesting in her hands as she crafts a delightful crochet of ideas. Indulge by all means!

28 February 2015

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Penguin Books
Year of Publishing: 2005

When a writer is part of two worlds – Sri Lanka and Canada – with a readership in both countries, his instinct often is to combine these worlds so as to help his readers relate better. That seems to be one of the ideas behind his third novel, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’  - a forgettable title that I’m never able to remember without looking at the cover again. 

Shyam Selvadurai, who is now a citizen of Canada, and has been residing in Toronto for years, is a Sri Lankan by birth. He was among the thousands of refugees who fled his home country during the Tamil-Sinhalese riots in the 80s. His first book, ‘Funny Boy’ was an exceptional one in many ways. Sparkling with compassion, the novel instantly brought Selvadurai in the limelight.  The fact that he is now long settled in Canada has enabled his wonderful work to be appreciated by the western world as well.
 The book’s 14-year-old protagonist, Amrith comes face to face with his Canadian cousin, Niresh after years of not knowing him. This introduction of a foreigner into an affluent Sri Lankan family of affable parents and plucky teenagers turns the story into a cultural exchange of sorts.

Young Amrith who is at the threshold of puberty has much to be content about, but many things to mull over as well. His parents are no more, and he has no blood relatives to call his own. However, he has a solid support system and protective guardians in the form of Aunt Bundle and Uncle Lucky. The couple has two girls, Maya and Selvi, who treat Amrith as one of their own, even if the three are bickering for most part.

As children experience so often when they step into young adulthood, a strange sense of loneliness takes over, a self-consciousness creeps in, and new emotions find home in the heart.  The only interesting aspect of Amrith’s life at this time is a play he’s participating in. Being a boys’ school, the female parts are also essayed by the boys. Instinctively, Amrith is drawn to the female roles. In this case, he sets his mind on playing Desdemona from Othello.  The Shakespearean drama about intense jealousy and injustice serves as a backdrop to Amrith’s story, as he is faced with uncomfortable truths about himself.  His cousin's sudden entry into his life literally throws him into a deluge of discovery about his sexual orientation. Till now, Amrith only has a small idea about what such a thing means. He knows ‘such people’ are made fun of, and he dreads what its consequences could be.

The novel’s pace is languorous, in tandem with Amrith’s own uneventful life.  But Selvadurai has a gift for description and his prose is unfailingly elegant.  Also, the world the author recreates – upper-class Sri Lankan society of the 80s is charming and a precious piece of period history.
Selvadurai also manages to effectively capture the anguish of a young boy, as he comes face to face with his real sexual desires. The discovery saddens him, as he realises that nothing would go back to being the same again. This aspect of homosexual love is autobiographical and expectedly, the author beautifully brings forth the character’s inner struggle.

Yet, the novel is not a patch on ‘Funny Boy’ or even ‘Cinnamon Gardens’.  The earlier novels were far more accomplished in their writing and plot. A reason why this novel feels a bit watered down is also because it borrows many themes from the previous two books. Homosexual love is a recurring theme, so is the period setting and other elements like bickering cousins etc.  Selvadurai also gets bolder and incorporates several homoerotic scenes. This takes the novel precariously close to being an out and out candidate for queer literature. Now, this is a trap Selvadurai might well want to avoid. The universality of the story and emotions in the author's books succeed as long as the visceral aspects of homosexuality don't take over.

Many dialogues and scenes are awkward, even mawkish. With ‘Funny Boy’ every emotion carried a ring of sincerity. That aspect is not consistent in his third novel.
Yet, even when not at his absolute best, Selvadurai is never dismissable. He seems to enjoy the domestic atmospherics around the upper classes - a bit like Edwardian writer Edith Wharton or even Jane Austen, and it’s hard not get sucked into a world he so lovingly creates. Many descriptions are the work of a miniaturist.

But put together, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’ is only a little above a workaday novel.

21 March 2013

Their Language Of Love

Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499

Year of Publishing: 2013

It was despair and unhappiness that drove Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa to be a writer. Afflicted with polio as a child, she battled intense and soul-crushing periods of loneliness.

'Earth-1947', the acclaimed Deepa Mehta film which was adapted from her best-selling novel, 'Ice Candy Man', gives a fairly accurate portrait of the author's childhood consciousness. Her personal trauma, both the handicap and a failed first marriage, was what drove her to write. She said in an interview, "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written....Just the act of writing removed much unhappiness."

It must be her debilitating personal grief that lets her see the world in its peculiar grotesque forms. And yet, the author's brutal wit and ability to see people as creatures of circumstances, capable of much charm and goodness, acts as an antidote to the otherwise grim world she portrays.

The tide changed, and the author found her peace finally.

"Now that I am pretty reconciled to my life and am happy, I don't feel the urge to write." she said a couple of years ago. Perhaps that is why Bapsi Sidhwa relies on past memories, desultory meetings with random people, leftover episodes that she could not accommodate in her earlier books, to make a collection of eight short stories in her latest.

'The Language of Love' while extremely readable is not freshly inspired. These are no stellar stories, and if you've read the author before, there isn't anything spectacularly new. In fact, on first reading, you feel impatient with stories high on embroidery and garnish, and low on plot. Much of it meanders and there is a lack of a tight structure.

The raciest in the collection is 'Breaking It Up, about a mother who travels to the US to persuade her daughter to give up on her idea of marrying her non-Parsi boyfriend. The story is entertaining and gives a portrait of the community's customs and quirks. The other one is 'The Trouble Easers' , which Sidhwa borrows from the famous Zoroastrian Gujarati tale about a woodcutter and his fortune. Both stories move with vigour.

'Their Language of Love' recounts a fairly convention story of a young Indian bride who is getting acquainted with a new country (US) and a new life partner.
None of these are very ambitious. The others are languorous and essentially stories of atmosphere. Being a novelist primarily, Sidhwa tends to linger on, and describe settings in the greatest detail.

This can get tedious in the beginning, as your mind is trained to look for a plot point in a short story. But once you realise that the atmospherics and descriptions are 'the' point, you allow yourself to soak in the elaborate and luxuriant period sets that Sidhwa tenderly etches out with consummate skill.

'Ruth and The Hijackers' and 'Ruth and the Afghan' intersect with some characters slipping in and out. Ruth is an American housewife whose husband, Rick works for the South Asian division of a company and is required to travel to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The couple's house is in Lahore, and Ruth while affectionate towards her absentee husband, has a proclivity to fall for handsome and elite Pakistani men of her circles.

The setting is of the 80s, a period where a casual visit to Kabul is possible for a foreigner. Here, Ruth and Rick befriend an Afghan, a top ranking official in the government. They are quite charmed by what they see around. The ruling party is pro Soviet Russia and America is starting to get increasingly paranoid about the latter's expansionist motives. This is the time of US support to the mujahideens (not Talibans, as misunderstood), routed through Pakistan. It ultimately led to a bloody war that destroyed peace in Afghanistan forever. This is a period rarely documented in fiction and though Sidhwa's stories are personal, they are studded with many historical details.

'Defend Yourself Against Me' is a leftover piece from 'Ice Candy Man', and considers how youngsters approach their acrimonious past.
'Sehra-bai', about an ailing elderly Parsi woman is that rare story in the collection that is a triumph of characterisation.

'Their Language of Love' is not Bapsi Sidhwa's best, but it is still greatly readable, as is the case with seasoned writers. Even when they aren't in their most inspired phase, they produce work that can make the cut.

30 January 2013

Maugham and India

Maugham was a great traveller, who considered journeying as indispensable to his career as an author. Most of his inspiration came to him from his travels and Maugham ended up visiting a great many countries in course of his life. The local flavour delighted him and gave him material to write. Like 'Don Fernando', which he wrote on his travels to Spain. The entire book covers Maugham's inimitable observation on Spanish culture, art and literature and makes for a fascinating read.

His travels to China and Malay, which were British colonies then, threw up interesting settings and cross-cultural domestic scenarios that made for some unforgettable stories.

It's a pity that Maugham did not write a book on India and explore the extraordinarily lush social and political time of the British Raj. Though E. M Forster wrote a great book in 'Passage To India',  there is no doubt that pre-independence India would have laid before Maugham a fascinating array of themes that he would have absolutely loved to work with. Unfortunately for him and his readers, for the longest time, Maugham held the regretful presumption that Rudyard Kipling had already written in his numerous books all that had to be said about India. This of course was not true, and though Kipling is certainly well- known among the reading class in India, his works aren't considered the most popular or estimable. 

Maugham visited India in the winter months of 1938 and immediately realised it was a mistake not to come here early.  In a letter sent to E. M. Foster from Calcutta, Maugham is said to have written, 
"(I) only regret that the shadow of Kipling lurking over the country in my imagination prevented me from coming twenty years ago." (source: Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham). 
He came down South, visited Cochin and The Lotus Club, started by Gertrude Bristow, wife of Robert Bristow, among other places. Robert Bistow was a chief engineer who at that time was working on building a massive port in the city. The story is that Gertrude wasn't given membership to the Cochin Club, an exclusive all-White club where aristocrats hobnobbed. That prompted the Bristows to build their own club, which they did with the help of the King of Cochin. This was also the country's first anti-racial club which was open to Indians. Maugham visited this club, and also the Trivandrum library. He was joined on this trip by well-known lawyer and administrator C P Ramaswamy Iyer. At this time, CP had been law minister of the executive council of the Viceroy Of India from 1931 to 1936 and when Maugham met him he was the Diwan of Travancore. Both became friends during this trip with Maugham supplying a eulogy for the book, C. P. by his contemporaries.

Maugham wrote of CP, "He had the geniality of the politician who for years has gone out of his way to be cordial with everyone he meets. He talked very good English, fluently, with a copious choice of words, and he put what he had to say plainly, and with logical sequence. He had a resonant voice and an easy manner. He did not agree with a good deal that I said and corrected me with decision, but with courtesy that took it for granted I was too intelligent to be affronted by contradiction."
Maugham e
ven created a character called Ramasamy Iyer in his novel, 'The Narrow Corner.'
CP (centre) British officials

T'puram library

Maugham was also pleased to see so many of his books at the Trivandrum library. 
In the course of his three-month sojourn to India, he also made a trip to Ramanasramam in Madras. The journey was a tiring one and when Maugham met Ramana Maharshi, the saint, the author fainted. This accident, wrote Maugham, was purely due to the fact that he was fatigued and moreover had a tendency to faint. But the version from the worshipers present was different, and they immediately announced that the famous English writer on seeing the Maharshi had gone into the trance-like state of samadhi. Maugham laughed the episode off in his essay The Saint that he wrote years later. He wasn't critical of India or this experience but being a rationalist to the core, his tone of bemusement is evident in the narration.

When Maugham wrote The Razor's Edge, he recreated this setting in India as the place where his character, Larry goes on a spiritual journey.  Some have conjectured that Larry's character, who Maugham said was a real-life person for whom he had immense adoration and respect, was someone the author met at the ashram. This has no evidence, and it is in fact erroneous to even call The Razor's Edge as Maugham's Indian novel.  Some have interestingly compared it to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray And Love where the author travels to an ashram in India.  Only a small part of The Razor's Edge qualifies for this juxtaposition. 

Maugham visited Bombay (now Mumbai) and had a brief meeting with none other than the young Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become the first prime minister of India. This fact is revealed through Nehru's letters that he wrote to his daughter Indira (Gandhi). While Maugham's biographers like Selina Hastings have done an adequate job of covering Maugham's India visit, not one of them has mentioned this particular meeting between Maugham and Nehru. 

Up North, Maugham did not miss seeing the great Taj Mahal at Agra and was overcome by its beauty. In his book, The Writer's Notebook which carries the many scribbles he made as a writer, he says, "I can understand that when people say that something takes their breath away, it is not an idle metaphor. I really did feel shortness of breath."

Maugham was treated with a great deal of courtesy by all the royals he visited. Every effort was made to make his stay enjoyable.  There's one story of Maugham inquiring about R. K. Narayan - a new Indian writer then, who later went on to become a legendary one. Narayan's novels were being read in England, and Maugham had been impressed by one of his books called The English Teacher.  Maugham expressed a wish to see Narayan when he went to Mysore, but astonishingly, no local person knew that such a writer existed in their midst.  Maugham later wrote a glowing letter to R K Narayan, that the latter's biographer, Ranga Rao quotes, "Your story (The English Teacher) is charming and moving and curious, but what I think chiefly delighted me was the description of the home life with all the telling details that you have given. You cannot imagine how fascinating that is to the European reader. The portrait of Susila is very graceful and touching, and very, very human."

It's not surprising that Maugham found so much to like about  The English Teacher. The story is about a newly-wed couple, their blissful early years, and a bitter-sweet lover's tiff that brings them even closer. But the union is not to be, as Susila is struck by illness and dies. Maugham, who has always been intrigued by domestic relationships of man and woman, would have undoubtedly found much to delight in Nayaran's novel. 

Considering Maugham's fascination for India, it is a dear loss to us that he could not return to the country to write a full-fledged novel. Maugham of course had plans to come back. However, second world war struck and the plans had to be abandoned.

24 January 2013

Conversations with Mani Ratnam

Pages: 305, Price: 799
Author: Baradwaj Rangan
Knowing how reticent filmmaker Mani Ratnam can be, one has to congratulate writer and reviewer Baradwaj Rangan who gets the maker to articulate so well in his book, 'Conversations with Mani Ratnam' that released last month.
Rangan is an erudite film critic whose reviews stand apart from the rest as cerebral and nuanced pieces . Not everyone finds his writing style accessible, and yet, his is an opinion always worth having.

The writer originally had plans of going ahead with a standard narrative style with quotes from the maker. But after their initial few exchanges, both decided to opt for a Q&A format. This could have been dicey if the filmmaker had not opened up in the manner that he does. But as it turns out, Ratnam seems to have accorded due importance to the project and was closely involved with it.
Expectedly, Rangan is the right man for the job. It's easy to see that he is an ardent admirer of Ratnam's cinema. In an age where good Indian films are a rare occurrence, and thinking filmmakers a disappearing breed, Ratnam stands out as an auteur whom a  reviewer like Rangan would quite naturally engage with.
Mani Ratnam during the conversation seems at times impatient with Rangan for reading too much into individual scenes and situations in his films, and you smile knowingly. However, as you read further, you realise that much of what you see in his cinema is indeed well-thought out, with sub-text and so on. So him chiding Rangan for it seems amusing.
The two get on quite well, though Rangan's reverential tone is clear. At some places the director gets defensive about a certain point of criticism even if Rangan words it most tactfully. Then the atmosphere gets a bit heated up, with the filmmaker getting slightly cutting in his remarks. But for most part, Mani seems like a sharp, astute man, sometimes sarcastic but with a rough affection that is somehow touching. Much like how he depicts his male characters even when they are in love.

Rangan too plays his part admirably. He is unfailingly respectful but never desists from his line of questioning when he can help it. He persists with some points to seek answers even when Mani appears to snub it in the first attempt.
Many illuminating points come up in the book for the reader. Like why he takes the action to Delhi in 'Mauna Ragam'. It is because, he replies,  the new place - cold, strange and alien - enables in externalising the heroine's feelings about her marriage.
In 'Ravanan' - the beautifully surrealistic scene of Aishwarya falling from the cliff - works sublimely to show Vikram falling fatally in love with her.
The book talks a great deal about the craft of filmmaking, which will be of much interest to film students or even movie buffs who watch cinema with some intensity. But not everyone will summon up enough patience to go through the whole book. Divided into several parts, each section talks about one major film. This is a good move. Though the content overlaps and this could not have been helped in a free-wheeling conversation, it allows the reader to skip a certain film he hasn't seen.
I was also not particularly interested in detailed analysis of films that I didn't think very highly of. And since a great many of Mani's films do tend to be emotionally less satisfying in the end, where something somewhere seems to go wrong, the superb parts never adding up to a fulfilling whole, I must confess to getting a little exhausted with  the exercise.
Still, this is a valuable endeavour and these conversations from an intellectually gifted filmmaker like Ratnam with undeniable prowess in his field is something worth preserving.

29 December 2012

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham

Among all his works, Christmas Holiday published in 1939, counts as Maugham's most political novel. It still has all the central themes of love and coming-of-age which the author engaged with, but certainly, here, Maugham was keener to make a political point.

Written just before the outbreak of World War 2, the entire novel can be seen as an allegory of the situation that was unfolding in Europe, post the Russian revolution. The novel gives you an overview of the history of the time, and acquaints you with some people that this troubled age could well have produced. The action of the novel is Paris, which is one of the cities where many White Russians immigrated. Like all immigrants, they had left behind their property and wealth under the Bolshevik regime. Many of them belonged to affluent families but were now penniless, desperate for work. The second generation Russians in Paris now had only a faint idea of their motherland, and were holding on to any crumbs of nostalgia.

The French population viewed the ever increasing Russian émigré with distrust, and slowly with lack of opportunities, the Russians were pushed into fringes of society doing lowly jobs.  The novel's young protagonist, Lydia is representative of this class.  A White Russian, she works for a dressmaker for a while but when she is introduced in the book she has become a prostitute called Princess Olga (because the idea of going to bed with a Russian queen is appealing to men) . She is disturbed and  over-worked. She has individuality and a naive intelligence to make conversation that is unaffected and straight from the heart.

The novel  however moves by way of Charley Mason, the 24 year old male protagonist of the novel who has arrived to Paris on a short Christmas holiday. The trip is a gift from his father and by extension his loving family in England.  A good many pages at the start of the novel are devoted to an elaborate description about the Masons. The family which came up through modest means, now finds itself in its most prosperous phase. Charley has parents who are interested in art and culture and have taken pains to inculcate in their children a taste for the finer things in life. Their dining tables are well-laden with expensive silver and healthy, nutritious food. The comfortable rooms, with well-appointed fire places and cushy beds, the drawing rooms, with paintings of the great masters displayed on the walls, have an effect of a decorous, well-ordered home that envelops its family of four in a smug blanket of security and warmth. It is in this home that Charley grew up. An exemplary English boy, well-bred and genuinely nice, Charley is attracted to alternative cultures and there is some charm for the risqué in him. His friendship with Simon, a childhood friend, who is drastically unlike him, explains this. Simon talks and talks, much of it to use Maugham's phrase is 'confused eloquence' His ideas are grand, confusing, bizarre, mean, contradictory. But Charley is enamoured by his quixotic appeal.

Charley wants to have a good time, and a visit to a brothel is in order. Simon has a familiarity with the place, more as a journalist and less because he is a regular. He brings together Charley and Lydia, and thus begins the story.

The book works on parallel narratives from here. One is Charley and Lydia's own interaction in a hotel. Both spend a good part of a week together which passes in a surreal round of sleep, breakfast and then lunch and again sleep.

Between the course of this, a fascinating story is revealed of Lydia's past.  A prostitute narrating a sob story to a client is a clichéd situation and Maugham makes this observation himself through Charley, suspecting that most of these tales are untrue. Yet,  Maugham creates a mood of thrill and suspense and allows Lydia to tells her story, not telling us whether to believe her or not. This works well because the novel here takes the form of a murder mystery (the influence of the many detective books Maugham read would surely have come in handy).

The story itself is riveting, and makes up for almost 2/3rd of the novel. You get to know a bit of Lydia's background, and then comes the big soul-crushing romance in her life. She falls for a handsome French man, Robert Berger. He is charming, jolly and belongs to a respectable family. Yet, he himself has the temperament of a rake and would ideally like to drop all pretentions of  decent, upright living.  He loves Lydia, but she considers him so above her own station that she is cautious not to suppose he would marry her. But he does propose, and Lydia is delirious with joy.
"She had never known such happiness; indeed, she could hardly bring herself to believe it: at that moment her heart overflowed with gratitude to life. She would have liked to sit there, nestling in his arms, for ever, at that moment she would have liked to die. But she bestirred herself."
Her passion corresponds with Maugham's idea of love and the height of sacrifice a human being is capable of in this state.

This is really the centrepiece of the novel. But Maugham also allows the story to be a political one.  Charley listens to Simon talking about revolutions and how potentially he was preparing for one in England also. This denotes the totalitarian ideology among fringe elements that were forming. There is destitution all around and Maugham's  idea here is that England could no longer be insulated from the happenings in rest of Europe. There are many scenes where Maugham forwards this idea of the immense disquietude and turmoil that was eating at the roots of society, which would eventually raise its ugly head and destroy any illusion of calm and beauty.

When Charley talks about his family back home, it is with a great affection. Lydia can see it is a life of dignity and grace, something she cannot have. And yet, she has faced enough set backs to be unsure if these things really last.

"If Lydia saw how much of their good nature, their kindliness, their unpleasing self-complacency depended on the long-established and well-ordered prosperity of the country that had given them birth; if she had an inkling that, like children building castles on the sea sand, they might at any moment be swept away by a tidal wave, she allowed no sign of it to appear on her face.”

Charley himself is only too conscious of this inequality between him and Lydia, and feels a sense of shame.  " He felt awkward and big, and his radiant health, his sense of well-being, the high spirits that bubbled inside him, seemed to himself in an odd way an offence. He was like a rich man vulgarly displaying his wealth to a poor relation"

 Maugham portrays Charley's parents with a good deal of sarcasm, and scoffs at their pretentions about knowing art. He sees them as decent folk but views their preoccupation with art as phoney and nothing but the idle pursuit of the rich. In contrast, Lydia's instinctive comments about a painting at a gallery she and Charles visit, is sincere and heart-felt.

What strikes most about Christmas Holiday is the phenomenal writing. Maugham is always an elegant writer, but one is amazed by the sheer power of the pen in this novel.

The characters all come alive beautifully, and Maugham has delineated them with a great deal of affection. Charley is generous and kind, even if a little condescending. His good-heartedness towards Lydia is more than anything else a prevailed man's largesse towards the poor. And yet, Charley is a wonderfully likeable fellow and not insensible to the unfairness of the world. He is the most humane, unprejudiced and compassionate person to be confronted with the sadness of another world.

Lydia again is etched with sympathy, and a tenderness that is appealing.

Maugham's depiction of Madame Berger's character ie Robert's mother is masterful. You get a complete sense of her personality - she fights for her son as only a mother can.

Robert is a regular guy for all purposes but with an unconventional crime fetish deeply imbedded in his system.  His motives are unusual and unpardonable, but Maugham who knew the vagaries of human character so well, is sympathetic.

His tone of partiality is clear in the compelling court scenes, where Robert is given a lawyer who is beyond extraordinary.  The description of the lawyer, Lemoine is merely a page, but it is so thrilling, it takes your breath away.

"I wish you could have seen the skill with which he treated his hostile witnesses, the sauvity with which he inveigled them into contradicting themselves, the scorn with which he exposed their baseness, the ridicule with which he treated their pretentions. He could be winningly persuasive and brutally harsh...."

"He spoke generally in an easy, conversational tone, but enriched by his lovely voice and with a beautiful choice of words; you felt everything he said could have gone straight down in a book without alteration"

His talent has a devastating impact on the public prosecutor who came across as cheaply melodramatic.

 "It was grand to see the way Lemoine treated him. he paid him extravagant compliments, but charged with such corrosive irony that, for all his conceit, the public prosecutor couldn't help seeing he was being made a fool of. Lemoine was so malicious but with such perfect courtesy and with such a condescending urbanity, that you could see in the eyes of the presiding judge a twinkle of appreciation."

Passages of such brilliance dot Christmas Holiday, and it is extraordinary how the book manages to touch upon so many issues in the span of 200 odd pages. The book is full of quotable quotes and stunning insights on life. Quite easily a masterpiece. 

14 December 2012

Real-life stories need fictional plausibility too

Realism in movies or books is a confusing term. One wonders if it means to portray life as it is - in its bare, unpolished form?  Often you see a film that completely defies logic but is sold to you as a 'real life story'.  One is confused as an audience what to make of this. 

Some of Maugham's literary ideas here come to our aid. The author saw no reason why implausibility in story should be condoned even if it was taken from real life.   Maugham in his book of essays 'The Vagrant Mood' commented about many crime thrillers that were directly lifted from real life stories. But some of these cases were rather far-fetched and hence  offered no reading satisfaction. "That something has occurred in real life does not make it a fitting subject for fiction. Life is full of improbabilities which fiction does not admit of." 
Life may be stranger than fiction, but even the world's greatest fantasies need a grain of truth in them to succeed.

In 'Ten Novels...' also he had similar views about Stendhal's novel - 'Le Rouge et le Noir'.
He found the book to be extraordinary overall, but felt disappointed with the climax. Stendhal had written the novel inspired by a news report.  Maugham was wonderfully impressed with the author's acuity and psychological insight into his lead character. But the climax he felt was a terrible let down.  He remarked that he couldn't think of a worse ending. This happened apparently because Stendhal chose to give the same ending that happened in the actual case, from which he was inspired. This required Stendhal to make his central character behave in a way that was foolish and out of character.  It was a grave flaw in an otherwise great book, says Maugham.

What could have prompted Stendhal to dilute such an enthralling character?
Maugham felt that  "the facts from which Stendhal was inspired exercised a hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose".  He felt himself under compulsion to pursue the story, against all credibility, to its wretched end.  This, Maugham felt is a wrong approach for fiction.

"By God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call, the mystery that governs men's lives, is a poor story-teller, and it is the business , and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact."

Clearly, Maugham here implies that art, to qualify as one, must be able to rise above its bare facts and say something universal about human nature and life. The individual's life story, however exceptional, would have to be plausible enough for the reader or audience to picture themselves in the character's position and feel his/her emotion. When the character acts too unreasonably, the audience detaches itself and the sympathy is over. Art is not life itself. It cherry picks from life what it thinks is beautiful and arresting. Art's ultimate goal is to engage and entertain.

Facts and real-life are an artist's raw material, not art itself is Maugham's point. There is a wonderful piece, 'The Rolling Stone' in 'On a Chinese Screen' by Maugham where during his travels, he was told of a man who had a remarkable career. He had been to different lands, lived with the most unlikeliest of people, and on the whole boasted of extraordinary experience. When Maugham saw him, he was a little surprised because the man's face was so blank and indistinctive. The man indeed had travelled to all the places and partaken in all the experiences he was credited with.  As a job,  he was offered the chance to write about his journeys in an English language paper in China. The man's difficulty was now to choose from the fullness of his experience. He wrote many articles, and though they were not unreadable, Maugham felt they were merely observations. "But he had seen everything haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores," he said.

"They were a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his...his collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender."

Maugham in this piece also points out how in writing, the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.  

Maugham himself was inspired by stories of real people. He did not adapt what was humdrum and routine -which he admitted was how most people live. When he heard a story, he obviously looked for some singularity of characters or circumstances. Something that stoked his interest. Naturally then, most of his short stories  are very dramatic, with shocking outcomes. But there is a structure and plot. And the characters are all believable. So even if Maugham was inspired by real-life, he only took what was useful to him in telling his story and conveying the inevitable truth in it.

This weaknesses of getting carried away with one's real-life impression was something Maugham too suffered in two of his novels in my opinion. This did weaken the respective plots of the novels, both considered his best works, Cakes  & Ale and The Razor's Edge. That both are extraordinary in their own ways is nothing to debate.  However, both have a central character (Rosie in 'Cakes And Ale', and Larry in 'The Razor's Edge) who is shadowy and vague.  Maugham is terribly fond of these two people, whom he knew as acquaintances in real life.  His characters are normally treated with sharp irony but Maugham in these cases was somewhat reluctant to fictionalise these characters and pointedly analyse their motivations.  Especially Larry in 'The Razor's Edge' gets extreme leeway, and there are long, meandering passages of his monologues. At one time it gets confusing and you wonder if it is Maugham or Larry speaking. The novels gets painfully tangential in these parts. As a reader you struggle to get a grasp of Larry's mind. He is too detached and confused a figure to ever completely draw in the reader's sympathies. Larry and Philip in Of Human Bondage are comparable. The latter is Maugham alter-ego.  There, Philip's struggle and wretchedness is wonderfully conveyed, mainly because it was written in first person. They were Maugham's own emotions.  The author was essentially describing his own life, and though in 'Of Human Bondage' too there are episodes (the Mildred one) which astound you, and there are parts which stretch one's logic somewhat, Philip's character on the whole is plausible. Larry was someone Maugham related with, but he was still another person, and Maugham did struggle to translate his personality on to the pages, especially since he was predisposed to only believing the best of him.
But on the whole, Maugham always did a stellar job of adapting from life and presenting his stories convincingly.  Few authors lay as much emphasis on creating credible stories and characters as much as him.