Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Social wishers

The challenge used to be in making the effort to remember birthdays. Earlier, you had to make a note of it in a diary or embed it in memory. And you only reserved this privilege for the important few. Now, people know it’s your birthday because Facebook tells them. You can write a wish without having to look at the date. Coz, hey, Facebook will prompt you next year as well. With minimal effort, you can hammer out a few words and then get on with checking someone’s vacation photos, or comment on someone’s status.
Here's Absolute Lee on Facebook birthday wishes (and the changing nature of birthday-wishing in general). I once wrote a rant on the subject too. This year I went to Settings a few days before my b-day and changed the date, to avoid a repeat of last year's creepy outpouring of good wishes, mostly from people I don't know. (Since I use Facebook mostly to link to my writings/spread info about the books and not for personal stuff, I accept friend requests from pretty much anyone.) As I've grown older and greyer I've become a little more tolerant of birthday wishes in general, but I draw the line at being wished in a manner that reminds me of the spam ads in my Gmail inbox.

Orhan Pamuk on readers and writers

[Did this review for The Hindu earlier this year]

In one of the essays that make up The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk mentions that after reading memoirs and conversing with other novelists, he came to realise that “compared to other writers, I put more effort into planning before I put pen to paper...I take somewhat greater care to divide a book into sections and structure it”.

This tone of this revelation is not self-congratulatory – it’s the tone of critical analysis, based on the understanding that there are different approaches to writing, each with its own strengths and limitations. If Pamuk takes some pride in his meticulousness, there are also times when he appears to express a melancholy envy for authors who are less self-conscious and to whom writing comes more easily.

The Nobel laureate’s repeated use of the words “naive” and “sentimental” in this book derives from Friedrich Schiller’s 18th century essay “Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung”, which distinguished between two types of poets: the “naive” ones who write spontaneously and unselfconsciously, almost as if they are being dictated to by an unseen power; and the “sentimental” ones who are painfully self-aware, reflective, questioning everything around them, including the artifice of their own writing. Novelists can be similarly classified, Pamuk proposes.

But it would be a mistake to think of this divide as a clear-cut one: the creative process is a mysterious and multilayered thing, in which “deliberate effort” and “natural, unforced talent” constantly overlap with and inform each other. For instance, if you read Pamuk’s own novels, you’ll probably agree that much of his work has a formal, cerebral quality that can have a distancing effect (an early book, The New Life, is a good example of this). But in the best of his writing – Snow and My Name is Red come immediately to mind – this quality coexists with an easy knack for humour, fluid use of language and a sense that the author succeeded in fully immersing himself in the world of his creating.

Of course, a novel hardly exists in isolation; it acquires a new life when readers respond to it, and readers can be categorised as naive and sentimental too. Extreme examples of the former are the literal-minded sorts who always read a text as an autobiography or as a disguised chronicle of the author’s experiences; on the other hand, there are completely sentimental-reflective readers who think all texts are constructs and fictions. “I must warn you to keep away from [both types of] people, because they are immune to the joys of reading novels,” writes Pamuk, tongue firmly in cheek. But somewhere between these two extremes lies the ideal reader, and as you turn the pages of
The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist you begin to think that Pamuk himself must be very close to being one such.

Among the many pleasures of reading a good novelist’s reflections on his art is the pleasure of discovering that this writer is himself a passionate and opinionated reader, and that he responds to certain books and authors in the same way as “ordinary” readers do.
Pamuk's descriptions of the effect that his favourite novels have had on him – “sometimes twilight would pervade and cover everything, the whole universe would become a single emotion and a single style” – are eloquent and moving. He uses great works of literature like Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick to illustrate important aspects of the reading and writing process (everyone, from Homer through Cervantes to Naipaul, is grist to his mill) and reflects on the novelist’s use of the tools available to him – character, plot, time and objects. What operations does the mind perform while we read, he asks. How do novels provide a rich second life for their readers? He also writes – somewhat enigmatically, not always with clarity – about the “secret centre” that a great novel should have, which the reader should – consciously or unconsciously – be seeking.

In such passages, some of Pamuk’s reflections can be arcane, especially if your level of engagement with literature isn’t as intense as his. But it’s a measure of the scope of this book that it allows this highbrow writer to show a charmingly down-to-earth side – when, for example, he compares the experience of following a soccer game on radio to reading a novel and transforming the writer’s words into mental pictures; or when he remarks that a reader like him has no hope of finding any kind of accessible meaning in James Joyce’s notoriously difficult novel Finnegan’s Wake.

Speaking of the artistic calling that he almost took up before becoming a full-time writer, Pamuk admits, “I have always felt more childlike and naive when I paint, and more adult and sentimental when I write novels.” It was as if – he says in a very revealing passage – he wrote novels only with his intellect, but produced paintings solely with his talent. However, he also reflects that with age and experience, he may have found “the equilibrium between the naive novelist and the sentimental novelist within me”. His best novels are certainly a testament to this, and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist is a good companion piece to them, a window into the mind of a very special writer and reader.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tennis, then and now

With the US Open beginning this week, the latest issue of Forbes India has an essay I've written about men's tennis - it's a comparison of the major rivalries at the seminal 1981 US Open (Bjorn Borg's final Slam) with the ones that we see today, 30 years later, as well as a comment on how sporting narratives get written, fandom then and now, and the mythologising of top players. I've also touched on Steve Tignor's fine book High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry.

Will only be able to put the piece on the blog after 10 days (and it will also be on the Forbes India website then), but if you're interested in reading it now do pick up the magazine.

(Also coming up soon: a piece about Rafael Nadal's new autobiography)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shades of Ray: the restored Jalsaghar

One of my Bengali friends tells me that when he watches a Satyajit Ray film on DVD with his non-Bengali wife, it takes them twice the movie’s running time to get through it. “I have to hit Pause every two minutes just to explain the finer points of a dialogue that was mangled by the subtitles.”

Wretched subtitling on home-grown DVDs is one among many reasons to welcome the fine new Criterion release of Ray’s 1958 classic Jalsaghar (The Music Room), about a music-loving zamindar living his last days alone in his decrepit palace as the world changes around him. Another reason is the film’s tremendous visual and aural beauty, something I could fully appreciate only when I saw it on this restored print – much superior to the faded, scratch-ridden TV version that assailed my senses a few years ago.

Right from the opening-credits shot of an ominously swaying chandelier (which will be an important part of the film’s mise-en-scene), Ray’s distinct visual sense and Subrata Mitra’s camerawork draw us into a world of grandeur lost and briefly regained. There are many exquisite shots, such as the one of the protagonist, Biswambhar Roy, gazing into an unpolished mirror, wiping the dust away with a puzzled expression, almost as if wondering if the great days of his past were an elaborate dream. Or the plaintive shot of him leaning on his stick, watching a lonely elephant in the distance. The new transfer makes these images vivid, perhaps bringing them close to the images Ray had in his head when he set about conceptualising the film. And the audio restoration is just as important, for Jalsaghar’s background score is by Ustad Vilayat Khan, and the film contains performances by such classical-music doyens as Begum Akhtar and Wahid Khan as well as a brief appearance by Bismillah Khan. A story about a magnificent, all-consuming obsession for music deserves nothing less.

This is a film about hubris and decay - classic themes of great drama - and about a society in transition, but at a more intimate level it’s the story of an individual falling into madness. Ray’s attitude towards the feudal system was not an approving one, and you can’t imagine him being over-sympathetic towards his tragic lead character - in fact, he had some reservations about Vilayat Khan’s score because it seemed to romanticise the zamindar. But Biswambhar Roy isn’t merely a representation of an archaic, hyper-privileged way of life that is now crumbling into the sand like Ozymandias’s statue: he is also a melancholy old man who has lost his family, most of his possessions and his status, and who is watching the only world he ever knew becoming irrelevant. Whatever you think of the class he belongs to, you can’t help feel for him on some level, and Chhabi Biswas’s magnificent performance, along with the film's use of music (and our perception that this haughty landlord was a genuine patron of art and artistes) makes us emotionally ambivalent towards Roy.

This friction propels the film. On one of the extras on the DVD package, director Mira Nair observes that given her own utter lack of interest in royalty, it’s remarkable how much she felt for the central character. I know what she means.

Jalsaghar is also a key work in the context of Ray’s career: made shortly after the first two entries in the Apu trilogy, it came at an early stage in the forming of his reputation, both in and outside India. At that time, based on Pather Panchali and Aparajito, it was possible to pigeonhole him as a director who would operate in the mode of documentary-like minimalism; an objective chronicler rather than a stylist. (Hard as it is to imagine, during the earliest days of his career, some Western critics assumed that he came from a rural, uneducated background and that Pather Panchali, with its village setting, was an autobiographical work! Even today, some movie buffs are largely unaware of the rich vein of fantasy in his family background, and of his children’s films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Sonar Kella.)

But it’s clear that from the start, Ray intended Jalsaghar to be a film of visual flourishes. In an essay in Our Films, Their Films, he admitted that having won an award at Cannes shortly before making this movie, he allowed himself the indulgence of a crane for overhead shots (an accident with the bulky equipment would lead to the death of a coolie, causing Ray immense regret; clearly, he lacked Werner Herzog’s stoicism when it came to the casualties of filmmaking!). There are carefully composed shots which draw attention to themselves – the chandelier reflected in a glass, a spider scuttling across a portrait, a view of a stormy sky seen through the windows of the music room – as well as zooms and tracks that stress the contrast between the zamindar’s past glory and the delusions that now crowd his mind. One constantly gets the impression of a director trying to use the camera in inventive ways.

Perhaps this might explain why Jalsaghar was a bit of a puzzle to its initial audiences (who had formed their own ideas about the “type” of director Ray was going to be) and why it took relatively long to be rediscovered and appreciated. But happily it’s here to stay now, and I think it’s close to the first rung of his work.

P.S. This will sound whimsical, but Jalsaghar’s opening-credit sequence, with the camera moving ever closer towards that chandelier, and Vilayat Khan’s score becoming increasingly urgent, reminds me – of all things – of the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween, with the glowing pumpkin pulling us towards it. Yes, I know I have a weird mind. But just wait till I write that thesis about how both the chandelier and the pumpkin are deceptive facades, eventually revealed to be hollow, and symbolic of the inner emptiness of the central characters...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eena Meena Deeka, a patchwork on Hindi-film comedy

Literature on popular Indian films is still so scanty and unorganised, one tends to be grateful for any book that puts some information together, however patchily. And so, the first thing to be said about Sanjit Narwekar’s Eena Meena Deeka: The Story of Hindi Film Comedy is that it contains some decent trivia, especially from the earliest days of Hindi cinema. Even the keenest movie buffs have little or no firsthand knowledge of such comic pioneers as Dixit and Ghory (“the Indian Laurel and Hardy”), Noor Mohammad Charlie(!), Bhudo Advani and V H Desai, which means that the first few chapters of this book have some value as research; literary merit isn't too relevant.

Some of the chapters about specific personalities work fairly well as short profile-essays. In “The Reluctant Comedian”, Narwekar reminds us that Kishore Kumar’s multiple talents sometimes made it difficult for him to concentrate on any one skill, and that comedy was a genre he stumbled into while yearning to become a playback singer. “Play it Again, Johnny!” begins with an anecdote about a bus conductor-cum-raconteur named Badruddin Jalaluddin Qazi who so impressed one of his passengers (the actor Balraj Sahni) that he was invited to join films and given the name Johnny Walker. And “The King of Comedy” examines the phenomenon of Mehmood, who became such a show-stealer that regular leading men were reluctant to appear in films with him.

There are flashes of insight in all these sections (and no shortage of movie stills), but there is hardly any fleshed-out analysis. For example, I wish a little more space had been given to one of the paradoxes of Kishore Kumar’s career – that although he was one of our best-loved movie personalities, there were few takers for some of his most ambitious jaunts into full-blown absurdist comedy (as in the 1974 film Badhti ka Naam Daadhi). Instead, Narwekar hurriedly describes Kumar’s impromptu solution to a continuity problem (he inserted a shot of himself sitting in the director’s chair and telling viewers “I decree that this scene will now continue with different costumes”) and concludes that the idea proved to be “too zany for the conventional audience”. (This same assertion is repeated two paragraphs later.)

In any case, the book’s dominant mode is that of the paragraph-length mini-review: short write-ups on comedy films (or films that can loosely be classified thus, such as the lighter work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chaterji) with plot synopses and a few superficial observations. Little attempt is made to analyse the use and impact of comedy in these works, there are
factual errors (the song used in Jaane bhi do Yaaro is not “Saare Jahan se Accha”, it’s “Hum Honge Kaamyaab”), and the careers of outstanding actors like Deven Verma and Utpal Dutt are summarised in a few sentences.

I suppose the thing to be said in Narwekar’s defence is that he’s taken on a giant canvas: to do justice to eight decades of Hindi-movie comedy (along with the hundreds of major and minor talents who worked in the genre), this would probably have had to be a multi-volume series, with more than one author. As it stands, it’s a just-about-adequate reference work.

[Did a version of this for my weekly books column]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mini-review: The Devotion of Suspect X

[From my weekly books column]

As a reviewer one has to constantly keep an eye out for the “major” homegrown releases – the Big Books, the potential trend-setters and so on – which means much of my reading is regimented. Serendipitous discoveries are few and far between; only rarely does one have the time, mental space or motivation to start reading a new novel that one has never heard of. And when this does happen, the book must be instantly gripping, otherwise it’s off to the sky-high “never to be read” pile.

Keigo Higashino’s Yogisha X No Kenshin, recently translated into English as The Devotion of Suspect X, didn’t made it to that dusty stack – it’s one of the most successful thrillers published in Japan in the past few years, and I can see why. The story begins on a serene note – with a reticent, middle-aged math teacher named Ishigami showing romantic interest in his neighbour Yasuko – but it escalates, almost before you realise it, into a clever psychological murder mystery.

This isn’t a whodunit, though. The murder – committed mainly in self-defence – occurs within the first 30 pages, and the buildup and the actual killing are dispassionately described. The suspense comes from the cover-up and the investigation that follows. The reader is simultaneously made aware of the detectives’ progress on the case and the relentless plotting of Ishigami, who is trying to protect Yasuko and her young daughter Misato. When a physicist named Yukawa becomes involved, a cat-and-mouse game between two very intelligent men ensues – and their battle of wits leads up to a twist that took me unawares. What appears at first to have been a fairly straightforward, even mundane, exercise in alibi-creation soon turns out to be something much more complicated.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a page-turner that can be read in a couple of quick sittings, but it’s also a character study – a selective one, it must be said, for Yasuko and Misato are genre stereotypes, almost ciphers. In the writing, I occasionally sensed a tension between the need to tell a fast-paced, conversation-driven story and the desire to give these women a little more depth. But there’s no such faltering when it comes to Ishigami. Impassive genius, master strategist, melancholy lover, protagonist and antagonist at once (depending on whose eyes you see him through), he isn’t someone you’ll forget in a hurry.

[Also see this post on a fine thriller series from Japan, Koji Suzuki’s Ring cycle]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forfeit the eel, O Effete Hitler (and other muddled notes on the tree of life)

Shortly after watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I discovered that the film’s title can be rearranged to spell “O I left the reef”, “I tether elf foe”, “File other feet”, "O I feel the fret", “Felt heifer toe” and “Feel it thereof”, among other phrases. (Go on, add your own.) All these anagrams are thematically consistent with the film’s content - and how could they not be, given that The Tree of Life encompasses EVERYTHING?

I’m a Malick fan with high tolerance for the massive self-indulgence of his cinema (two earlier posts here and here), but I thought this film was portentous and overblown even by his usual standards. Main gripe: the randomness inherent in taking vignettes from the lives of a specific 1950s American family and placing them against a canvas that tries to accommodate the history of the Universe as well as key questions about existence and consciousness. While the ambition is admirable, a two-hour-long film is scarcely enough to deal with such a subject on the scale that Malick wants to deal with it. (Quite possibly, even a 12-billion-year-long film wouldn’t be enough. Even if we’re living inside it.)
Jim Emerson once pointed out that some movies work better when seen in private, because they are too personal to share with an audience. If you watch a film you feel strongly about alongside a bunch of indifferent or critical viewers, it’s a bit like “having other people in the most private recesses of your consciousness, making fun of your dreams as you're dreaming them”.

Malick's films fit this thesis well, and I may have liked Tree of Life better if I had seen it in solitude. But a south Delhi multiplex hall is about as far as you can get from the private viewing experience; within the first 20 minutes, I realised this was going to be an effort to sit through. And though I was irritated by the viewers who knew nothing about Malick and had come to see “a Brad Pitt movie”, I could also feel some sympathy for them.

One such lady was sitting behind me with a companion (whose sex I’m unsure about because he/she didn’t say a word; or maybe the lady was talking to herself throughout). She tried to follow the anti-narrative but eventually took to shifting about in her seat, sighing loudly and flapping her hands like one of those poor tortured trees in Malick’s last film The New World. During the lengthy passage that deals with nothing less than the birth of our solar system, the dawn of single-celled life in the primeval soup, and the gradual appearance of “higher” forms (eventually resulting in the multiplex audiences of today), she said: “I think they must be showing what happens to that guy after his death.”

Not a terrible interpretation really, when you consider how abstract the sequence is (especially for those who haven’t brushed up on their evolutionary biology), and how seemingly unconnected to the 1950s family story. The problem is, she went on saying it even after the dinosaurs appeared. (The Afterlife is Jurassic Park? Who knew.)

And so it went until the lights came on, whereupon some people hooted loudly and others stumbled out of the hall wailing.

Personally I was disappointed too. On one level it’s pleasing that a respected filmmaker – with resources and big-name actors willing to perform cartwheels for him – is going all out to realise a deeply personal, audience-alienating vision. But in this case I didn’t think the vision was worth the effort, the money and the time.

So, zero stars. (And you know I don’t believe in giving marks or stars to a film.) That’s right, a big round zero. Not even a consolatory half a star for nobleness of intention or grandeur of vision.

But would I pay multiplex-ticket money to see The Tree of Life a second time? Yes – in a heartbeat. (Only if I’m assured an empty hall, or at least one with where I wouldn’t be able to hear any boos or chuckles.)

P.S. I don’t spend a lot of time reading film reviews these days, but I made an exception for Tree of Life, because it’s interesting to observe the different ways in which good writers react to Malick’s cinema (and my own responses to those writers are always pleasingly muddled). Of the reviews I’ve read, the one I most agreed with overall was this negative one by Stephanie Zacharek (“Malick’s slavish attention to detail is more a kind of ADD distractibility, where every flickering butterfly passing by, every dust mote dancing in the sun, is supposedly loaded with so much meaning that in the end, nothing has any weight”). At the same time, unlike Zacharek, I admire Malick’s refusal to take an anthropic view of life. (I was
puzzled by the critics who complained that The Thin Red Line wasn’t so much a World War II movie as a film about a beautiful island and its flora and fauna, where a few human beings just happened to be busy killing each other. Surely that was a large part of the point.)

Meanwhile, Peter Bradshaw goes magnificently, shamelessly over the top about The Tree of Life in this review, and I liked the fact that Roger Ebert looked at the film largely through the prism of his own childhood memories of growing up in a 1950s Middle America very similar to the one depicted here. (I can completely see why someone with a life trajectory similar to that of the Sean Penn character might have intensely personal feelings about this film.)

And from Andrew O’Hehir’s ambivalent piece in Salon, a good summation:
We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that define our lives, connected at every point – a tree we plant, an animal we feed, the earth we dig in, the thoughts we think – to something much larger we can't really understand. Trying to get at some of that in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that cost many millions of dollars to make, and is partly an autobiographical family story and partly an indecipherable spiritual allegory – well, that's nuts. Right now I suspect that "The Tree of Life" is pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance. But even if that's true it's a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Artists of a frozen world - on Anita Desai's new stories

[Did this for The Hindu Literary Review]

The title story of Anita Desai’s new book – a collection of three novellas – is about an introverted man named Ravi who goes to the city as a youngster, fails to adjust to life there, and returns to his Mussoorie home after his mother’s death. Back in the hills and now unmoored – but inspired by the outdoors, which he loves – he discovers a measure of peace as well as an outlet for artistic self-expression. Then this tranquil story takes an ambiguous turn: just as Ravi’s work is on the verge of being discovered, perhaps appreciated, he disappears into the shadows.

It’s a compelling portrait of the artist as hermit – someone who can be true to himself only by staying hidden from sight. But Ravi isn’t the only reclusive artist – or aspiring artist – in this triad of stories. 

In “Translator Translated”, a college lecturer named Prema attempts to bring the work of an unassuming Oriya writer to a larger readership, by translating them into English. But our perception of this well-intentioned, almost altruistic project changes when we learn that Prema is a failed writer herself and that her translations of Suvarna Devi’s work might be a pretext for realising her own suppressed ambitions. And while the unnamed narrator of “The Museum of Final Journeys” is no artist – he’s a sub-divisional officer, posted in a desolate circuit house – he has a love for books (“I had secretly hoped to become a writer,” he tells us, the “secretly” implying that this was never a realistic option) and a restlessness that one associates with creativity. However, when circumstances lead him to an immense “museum” of treasures from around the world, housed in a decrepit jungle mansion, he finds himself unable to deal with the enormity of what he is seeing, or to take responsibility for it.

In different ways, then, these novellas are about works of art that are unacknowledged or not meant for public exhibition, and eventually destined to fade into time's recesses. There are small connections – as well as telling contrasts – between the characters, and the elegant stillness of Desai’s writing helps stress these links. If Ravi retreats like a scared animal when someone comes too close, Suvarna Devi is described as “a creature who had been startled out of her forest hiding, one of those well-camouflaged birds that will dart under the bushes on being surprised”. Faced with a less-than-inspiring novel (and with her own need to be more than “just” a translator), Prema “suffered from a sense that she was struggling, like a drowning fly, to raise herself up from the dull, turgid prose before her and somehow recover the art of flying”. This in turn is reminiscent of the subdivisional officer feeling claustrophobic in his new posting, and of Ravi suffocating in the city ("in order to survive he needed to be at altitude, a Himalayan altitude, so he might breathe”).

It can be a mistake to look too closely for thematic recurrences in an author’s work – one might fall into the trap of examining each new work according to pre-set ideas. But Desai’s best writing – as in the novels Baumgartner’s Bombay, In Custody and Clear Light of Day – has always tapped the currents passing beneath uneventful or circumscribed lives. These concerns are on view throughout The Artist of Disappearance, particularly in her description of socially awkward people like the shy boy bullied in school, or the woman who runs into an old classmate (much more popular and successful than herself) and marvels that the other woman’s memories of their teachers are so happy when hers are just the opposite. The prose is characteristically vivid – notably in a lengthy description of rooms packed to overflowing – and when Desai allows herself an indulgence, it’s done with discernment: for example, “Translator Translated” is told mostly in the third person, but a couple of passages are narrated in Prema’s own voice – including a key moment where she exceeds her brief by taking liberties with Suvarna Devi’s text. The device suggests Prema’s transition from merely being a character in a story to taking over the writing of it.

These short novellas are about things of immense value (not just monetary value) that are in danger of being lost forever – whether it’s the delicate artistry of a lonesome man in the hills, the short stories of a writer who works in a marginalised language, the never-published stories of another writer who could have done with a lucky break, or a palace full of wondrous antiques that will probably rot to pieces. They ask the question, “If no one sees a piece of art, does it still exist or have any meaning?” And they get their power from Desai’s ability to depict lives and objects in stasis, as in this description of old clocks in a chamber: “No sand seeped through the hourglasses, water had long since evaporated from the clepsydras, bells were stilled, cuckoos silenced, dancing figures paralysed. Time halted, waiting for a magician to start it again.”


[An old post about Anita Desai's work - and a conversation with her - here]

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Does He Know a Mother's Heart? Arun Shourie on the suffering of innocents

[Did a version of this for The Sunday Guardian]

In his many roles – as economist, politician, author and newspaper editor – Arun Shourie has been a high-profile figure for decades, but one important aspect of his life has been comparatively shielded from the public gaze. For thirty-four years, Shourie and his wife Anita have been parents to a child suffering from cerebral palsy. Their son Aditya cannot stand or use his right arm; his vision is impaired and he speaks haltingly; he has the mind of a child. Looking after him has been a major preoccupation of Shourie’s life, and the passage of time has not been kind: new complications – including Anita Shourie’s own painful bout with Parkinson’s disease – have continually arisen over the years.

Now in his 70th year, and faced with such questions as “Who will lift Adit out of bed as I weaken with age?” and “Who will look after him when we are gone?”, Shourie has written arguably his most personal book – an attempt to understand and deal with the phenomenon of suffering by examining religious texts as well as modern knowledge. Long-winded and repetitive but also candid and moving, Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? is a difficult book to review; it evokes admiration, sympathy and exasperation in almost equal measure.

When he (briefly) recounts Aditya’s life and struggles, Shourie’s writing is so raw and vulnerable that you almost want to look away. I was particularly affected by his remark that his son’s condition helps him keep his own life in perspective. “I am dismissed from The Indian Express? But he hasn’t had and isn’t going to have a job at all. Another award? A new post? Another book published? That none of these is of the slightest significance to Adit keeps the head from swelling.”

The prose here – unstructured, with half-sentences and ellipses – reflects the inner state of a tormented father. It reads like the transcription of an impromptu, hesitant talk Shourie is making to a small group of acquaintances; the need to tell the story, as directly and honestly as possible, supersedes the need to be “writerly”. (The sub-head for the section where he describes meeting his wife and the early years of their marriage is simply “Anita Comes”. The next section, about the birth of their child, is sub-headed “Adit Comes”.)

But soon the book moves into the terrain of laborious scriptural analysis, with Shourie quoting entire passages from the books of the Abrahamic religions – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran. He analyses the stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Lot and his unfortunate daughters, of the resurrected Lazarus, and points out numerous contradictions and logical fallacies. He comments on the most readily identifiable traits of the Biblical Creator: vindictive jealousy and insecurity (the biggest “sin” of all being the worship of any other God). And he discusses the many casuistries and self-deceptions of the religious stance, such as hailing the survivor of a natural calamity as “God-blessed” when, by exactly the same reasoning, God has whimsically murdered hundreds of others.

Like other sceptical readers before him, Shourie is essentially noting that entire chunks of these “revealed” books read exactly like things that would be written by self-serving men when they want to exercise power through fear. (It seems to have worked well enough if you consider the countless examples of religious hegemony and persecution throughout recorded history.)

But then, the texts of the monotheistic religions are soft targets anyway: only the most blinkered fundamentalist would deny the existence of numerous passages that are embarrassing when read in the light of our modern ideas about (for example) individual freedoms or gender equality. Things get a little more interesting when Shourie turns his gaze on Hinduism, a religion that doesn’t have a book of rigid “fundamentals”. But here too, he reminds us, there are concepts – like karma and divine chastisement – that can create a fatalistic apathy to suffering and prevent people from dealing with the here and now.

A quote from Mahatma Gandhi opens this section. On being told that the shastras endorsed Untouchability (a horrific practice that he fought all his life), Gandhi replied that a shastra contrary to reason ought to be burnt. “I have so much faith in the correctness of the position I have taken up that, if my taking up that position results in weakening Hinduism, I cannot help it and I must not care.”

These are wise words, worthy of one of the great men of his age (and they were given even more lucid form, decades later, by the Dalai Lama’s observation that “if the new discoveries of science contradict what some ancient scripture says, the scripture must make way”). But some of Gandhi’s other pronouncements on the subject of divinity show how religion can muddy the minds of even clear-sighted and well-intentioned people. When an earthquake devastated Bihar in 1934, he famously attributed the disaster to divine punishment for Untouchability. Later, he maintained the ludicrous position that if the Jews of Europe showed faith in non-violence – and placed themselves
completely in the hands of God – it would eventually lead to the melting of Hitler’s heart. (And if this didn’t immediately happen and they ended up in the gas chambers, well, it would eventually happen and the benefits would be borne by subsequent generations.)

As Shourie rightly points out, Gandhi’s absolute faith in non-violence (even in a context where it would certainly not have worked) rested on his religious faith that God would eventually come to the aid of the pure-hearted. This roundabout line of reasoning has the effect of placing responsibility on the victims of injustice: if you’re suffering, it can only mean you did something to deserve it. Perhaps the sins of a previous life are still being accounted for, or perhaps your prayers aren’t strong enough yet. God is always fair and just – He has to be – so the problem must be with you.

By this point, Shourie has made a case for religion’s inability to meaningfully deal with the suffering of innocents, but the analysis continues. He explores the teachings of such mystics as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Raman Maharshi. He turns to a more general discussion of rationalist thought – such as what neuroscience reveals about the complex workings of the human brain – and suggests prescriptive “exercises” that don’t rely on the props of inerrant scriptures and godmen. And finally, he returns to his stricken son as the ultimate teacher, who has taught him more about life’s challenges than any book could have.

If all this makes Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? sound like a meandering, episodic work, it is. It tries to be too many things at once – personal epiphany, theological history, philosophical treatise – and achieves some success in each of these areas, but at the cost of conciseness. Shourie often makes the same points over and over again, and his relating of old stories – such as the parable of Gautami and the snake – is unnecessarily stretched out. As a reviewer trying to be attentive to economy of expression, I can’t unreservedly endorse this book. But there’s no question that Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? is also a transparently honest and probing work, with much food for thought for anyone who wants to grapple with the big questions of existence. For all its unevenness, it contains more practical wisdom, compassion – and a lot more humility – than some of those old bestsellers that have been marketed for centuries with the daunting blurb “This is the Word of God.”


P.S. Reading Shourie’s meticulous analyses of passages from the Old Testament and other old texts, I was reminded of a popular wisecrack: “The people who take religion most seriously are atheists.”

That sounds flippant or even arrogant, but it’s worth thinking about. In essence, it can mean this: believers don’t have to be closely familiar with the books of their (much less anyone else’s) religion; all that’s really needed is for them to cling to the things that were put in their heads in childhood, by people whose every word they were taught to respect. (Note: I’m not suggesting that ALL religious people are like this.) But to be an atheist in a world dominated by religious faith (and I’m talking here about a serious atheist, not someone who adopts the position just to look radical or "cool"), you must by definition have the questioning spirit, the willingness to read and think about various arguments and positions, and come to your own conclusions.

In any case it’s widely held that one of the “virtues” of Faith – and its biggest demonstration – is that you don’t ask too many questions. And so, the conscientious sceptic can spend a lifetime grappling with the many conundrums of existence (e.g. how is the suffering of innocents compatible with a benevolent and all-powerful God?), but the truly religious mind doesn’t have to worry about any of this at all: any question, no matter how reasonable or incisive, can be dismissed with a simple “God’s ways are inscrutable” or “Our minds aren’t evolved enough to understand His higher purpose” or “All will be made clear at the End of Days”. It’s a win-win position; little wonder the majority of humankind clings to it.

[A few old posts on related subjects: "Down with atheist values"; "Our common mortality..." and Tales from the crematorium. Also see this post by Great Bong, and the comments discussion]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Deathless in wartime: fantasy and reality in The Tiger's Wife

[Did a shorter version of this review for The Hindu]

Around sixty pages into Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, a young doctor in a Balkan village in the 1950s encounters a Deathless Man. Gavran Gaile is sitting up in his coffin, two bullet-holes in the back of his head, somewhat thirsty but not much worse for wear, and the terrified villagers think he’s a vampire. But he isn’t, he patiently explains to the doctor – it’s just that he cannot die. Before departing in the night, he even offers some proof.

When they next chance to meet, more than 15 years later, Gavran will tell the doctor about the reason for his unusual condition. And there will be one final encounter, at a time when the doctor is very old and nearing his own death.

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of literary realism, but by the time I had finished Obreht’s book I was no longer sure there was anything supernatural about the story. For one thing, the Deathless Man interludes come to us second-hand; the book’s narrator Natalia, the doctor’s granddaughter, has heard these stories from him, and there’s no particular reason for the reader to take them at face value. They can be read as allegory, or even as wish-fulfilment (the three meetings take place at key stages in the doctor’s life when the spectre of death is all around him).

But there’s another sense in which fantasy and hard reality become indistinguishable in this story: The Tiger’s Wife is set in a region with such a war-fractured history – countries break up, then reorganise themselves with new borders and new names – that real life quickly acquires a surreal tinge. In times of war, we are reminded, all recognisable rules and patterns vanish; anything is believable. Armed with makeshift axes, little children play games of “Us vs the Ottomans”. A cannon-ball wedged into the wall of a monastery, with the plaster and paint creating a spidery pattern around it, is something you look at, shrug and walk on. A tiger sauntering through the ruins of a city can seem like nothing out of the ordinary – even if you don’t know that the animal escaped when a nearby zoo wall was destroyed by a stray bomb. Young people even twist the situation to their advantage. “When your parents said get your ass to school, it was all right to say there’s a war on and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented them from staving your head in.” Making up stories – about yourself and about others – is one way of coping.

The book’s anchoring narrative has Natalia, a doctor herself, travelling with a friend named Zora to a seaside village across a freshly created border; they are visiting an orphanage to provide inoculations, and her description of the journey suggests how war has ravaged not just the land but also individual psyches.
We had an old map, which we kept in the car years after it had become completely inaccurate. We had used the map on every road trip we had ever taken, and it showed in the marker scribbling all over it: the crossed-out areas we were supposed to avoid on our way to some medical conference or other, the stick man holding crudely drawn skis on a mountain resort we had loved that was no longer a part of our country.
Natalia herself is part of a post-war generation for whom every major adult choice is “based on circumstances that were no longer part of our daily lives [...] Major decisions trended toward the assumption that the war and its immediate effects would always be around.” Shifting definitions of “us” and “them” will run through her story. “Twelve years ago, before the war,” she writes, “the people of Brejevina had been our people.” But now she and Zora are in this village to sanitize children orphaned by their own soldiers.

Early in the journey, Natalia receives news of her grandfather’s death, and this provides the pretext for two narratives that punctuate the present-day story. The first is about the Deathless Man. The other, gleaned from an old man living in her grandfather’s village, is a tale from his boyhood days – the story of a tiger that made its way to the village, and of the bond it may have formed with a deaf-mute girl who became ostracised by the other villagers. Other stories about other people – with names out of fairy-tale and myth, such as Darius the Bear and Luka the butcher – coalesce around these three main narratives, and the one minor flaw of the book, I felt, was that Obreht occasionally gets carried away with these side-characters. That apart, her storytelling is riveting.

You don’t need in-depth knowledge of Balkan politics to understand this book – there’s something deliberately abstract about the narrative, with Natalia’s frequent references to “the City” (possibly Belgrade) where she grew up. (In any case, the characters themselves are often more disoriented than any reader can be.) This could be a portrait of just about any war-torn region, its people searching desperately for meaning in meaninglessness, turning to faith and superstition – even deciding that the cause of their family’s misfortune is that a long-dead relative wasn’t buried in the customary way and that his body must be dug up and subjected to the proper rites.

The Tiger’s Wife works on different levels. Some passages have the surface appeal of magic realism, but it can also be read as a fragmented biography of a man whose name we never learn. What do the story of the “tiger’s wife” and the story of the deathless man add up to tell us about Natalia’s grandfather? What effect did they have on the building of his character and the more practical aspects of his daily life, such as his marriage to a woman from a different religion (whose family still lives on the other side of the border)? Or could they be red herrings, with the "real" story occupying the gap between the hyper-dramatic narratives?
Ultimately, this book is also an exploration of mortality and of how storytelling itself can make people immortal – how legends come into being, how old family yarns become embellished as the decades go by. Consider this passage about a young man with possibly homosexual leanings. “He was too eager to strip naked and bathe with other young men in the mountain lake above the pasture – although no one will ever accuse the other young men of his generation of being too eager to bathe with him. This may be because the young men of Luka’s generation are the fathers of the men telling these stories.” In two sentences, Obreht makes a pointed comment on the reductive, self-serving ways in which personal histories get written, and on the many undocumented things that might so easily slip through the cracks – especially when chronicling lives that were lived in “interesting times”.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Short take: Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me

[From my Sunday Guardian books column]

Much has been made of the sixtieth anniversary of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most popular novels ever written in the voice of an angst-ridden protagonist (the adolescent Holden Caulfield). But there’s another subversive American novel with an even more disturbed narrator, which was published around the same time: Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

Though acknowledged as a classic of crime fiction – and venerated by many of us who love the genre – Thompson’s novel isn’t as well-known in the wider literary universe as The Catcher in the Rye is. (Salinger’s book, once the subject of controversies and banned in many schools and colleges, today occupies a firm position in the literary mainstream. Oh yes, it does. Don’t pout so, you disaffected little adolescent – it’s no longer glamorous or radical to identify with Holden, it’s a cliché.) I’m not saying Killer is as good as Catcher, though the two works are sufficiently different for comparisons to be avoidable. What it is, though, is a very unnerving fictional self-portrait. The voice is that of Lou Ford, the deputy sheriff of a Texas town ambitiously named Central City. He appears to be nothing more than a kindly law-enforcement officer – with an annoying habit of tossing off platitudes like "if we didn’t have the rain we wouldn’t have the rainbows" - but soon we discover a not so pleasant side to him.

In the context of the literature and cinema of the time, Lou is closely related to such anti-heroes as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Bruno Anthony; perhaps even the likeable Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. But I can’t stop thinking of him as a kindred spirit to Holden Caulfield – it’s one of those ideas that take root in your mind and refuse to leave. “I hadn’t had the sickness in almost 15 years,” Lou tells us early on, “Not since I was fourteen.” Reading this, and discovering the nature of his “sickness”, how it regains hold of his mind and what it leads him to do, I was reminded of the famous penultimate chapter of The Catcher in the Rye – Holden’s description of his own nervous breakdown as he watches his little sister riding a carousel in the rain. With a few minor changes in personal circumstances, it’s possible to speculate that Holden could grow up to become someone like Lou.

Like Salinger’s teen hero, Lou is sensitive and introspective. He’s a reader too: alone in his father’s old office, he trawls the pages of psychiatric literature – the works of Jung, Meyer, Krafft-Ebing – and thinks he understands the roots of his own condition. In fact, one of the characteristics of his narrative is its bland matter-of-factness. He doesn’t set himself up as an enigma; he takes the reader into confidence, invites us into his world. Tilting at the pretensions of literary fiction, he says:

In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babbling… I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – the reviewers eat it up. But the way I see it, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy. I’ll tell you everything.”

But despite this apparent candour, we don’t learn everything about Lou; by the end of the book we aren’t really close to scratching his surface. (After all, as he says to a doomed prisoner on another occasion, “How can a man ever really know anything?”)

For all the placidity, even languor of its narrative, The Killer Inside Me constantly plays on the reader's expectations of Lou's sickness exploding to the surface. And sure enough, it contains two passages of such ferocious violence – both aimed at women – that Michael Winterbottom’s recent movie version (made in a much more permissive time) was accused of being misogynistic, when it was merely being faithful to a book where the bad guy is a man. Thompson would go on to do more accomplished work (his Pop. 1280 can be seen as an expansion on the themes of The Killer Inside Me), but this creepy, insidious novel occupies its own special niche in crime writing.

[Here's a recent post on another early 50s crime classic, A Kiss Before Dying. And two posts on early Stanley Kubrick films that were largely scripted by Jim Thompson: Paths of Glory and The Killing]