Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman

What else could a “helpless”, “hopeless”, and a “desperate” Victorian do? Religion was failing him, and science was unabashedly branding him as a descendent of the ape. He no longer had the defending luxury of tradition and Biblical scripture to count upon; Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest mocked and conflicted with the story of the Creation related in the Bible. Religion as an institution was beginning to lose its social and spiritual value. In the wake of evolution, geology, and an utterly questionable religion, the average educated Victorian resigned to a compromise with these opposing tendencies, keeping intact his faith in ‘duty’ and ‘convention’ as an agreeable conformity. While one might assume that such a resignation to compromise would render him meek and pitiable, however, that “compromising-Victorian” turned out to be a snob, and a thorough hypocrite, who denied all self-knowledge, and lived like a hostage within the self-built walls of history, religion, social position, and duty. However, beneath all that hypocrisy and snobbery that permeated every social aspect of the age, there lurked a strange sadness and misery in the bedroom of the Victorian, even between husband and wife the intimacy was largely governed by the iron laws of convention. A Victorian would understand ‘love’, but ‘intimacy’ would still be a strange word to him.

In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles slips back into 1867 and recreates the Victorian England in all its sartorial, behavioral, and verbal hues. His motive is not merely to travel back to the nineteenth century but rather to sneak into those spaces of the bygone era that were considered sinful and therefore largely omitted in Victorian fiction; it is a kind of voyeurism seen at its clearest and most notorious. However, having said that, ‘voyeur’ is still a misnomer for Fowles, for he easily assumes the role of a chatty, digressing, and a preaching nineteenth century novelist, who is more likely to evoke a strong reminiscence of Henry Fielding rather than any of the other Victorian novelists. The book is remarkable in its apt portrayal of the dark Victorian nights; the ‘bedroom’ of the gentleman, where the human impulse to sin crashes against the Victorian’s unyielding sense of ‘duty’, and the consequent ambivalences, tensions, and claustrophobia that best describe the tortured relationship of the Victorian male and female. Drawing exclusively from Tennyson, Hardy, and Arnold, Fowles creates an engaging parody of Victorian fiction, by assuming and mocking at the god-like stance of the Victorian novelist, digressing guiltlessly, and roping in subplots involving faithless servants, whose actions very often alter the fates of the major characters.

At the heart of the novel is the odd love story of two people, whose insight and imagination is more suited to current times than the age in which they’re so appropriately misplaced. The crisis of the novel eventually stems from this inappropriateness of the characters, whose sense of freedom is pitted against the cant and tyranny of the Victorian society. Charles Smithson, the protagonist of the novel is fashioned as a myth of rational thinking, for he’s a paleontologist, but is nevertheless tethered to old conventions of ‘duty’, which Fowles attributes to a “pot”: ‘Duty is but a pot. It holds whatever is put in it, from the greatest evil to the greatest good.’ Torn between liberty and restraint, Charles becomes a fitting portrait of a schizophrenic Victorian, not exactly in the medical sense of the term, but an individual caught in two minds, with one part of him hating to choose, and the other part feeling intolerably excited by the proximity of the moment of choice. Charles is engaged to Ernestina, the petty, one-dimensional daughter of a rich London merchant, but he is inexplicably drawn towards the quiet, intense, and baffling, Sarah Woodruff, the ‘woman’ of the title. The result, then, is a momentous clash between Charles’ Victorian compulsions to propriety and his heart’s innate desire for ‘freedom’, that finds its ideal place in the wildness of Sarah Woodruff.

Having made his decision, Charles asks Dr Grogan, “Would you have had me live a lifetime of pretence? Is our age not full enough as it is of a mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, an adulation of all that is false in our natures? Would you have me add to that?” To this Grogan replies, “I would have had you think twice before you embroiled that innocent girl in your pursuit of self-knowledge.” Charles answers more to himself than to Grogan, “But once that knowledge is granted to us, can we escape its dictates? However, repugnant their consequences?”

Freedom, is then what the book aims at, it is the only motive that sustains Fowles’ writing throughout the course of the novel. Unlike the Victorians, Fowles attributes the desire for freedom not as a means of escape from the tyranny of the social order but a return to a more natural order, where the individual is strengthened by his inner convictions, and self-fulfillment no longer remains a myth, and therefore ceases to be a situation of panic and terror.

“Come clean, come clean”, Sarah implores Charles, but by the time Charles chooses to actually “come clean”, Fowles acknowledges that he has absolutely lost control on his characters and allows them to choose their own finales. Although, such an explanation satisfies the multiple endings of the novel and gives the reader a taste of the novelist’s own right to a creative freedom, it nevertheless leaves the reader dissatisfied and one closes the book feeling immensely cheated and fooled by a writer, who would rather spend time lecturing on the decline of passion for freedom in the twentieth century, rather than finding logical conclusions to the miserable fates of his characters.

My Verdict: In the light of Darwin and Evolution, the novel best describes the complexion and character of the Victorian age, but it fails as a process, for all that talk about ‘freedom’ which eventually renders the novel, open-ended, seems to me, puerile, if not overtly devastating.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"It irk'd him to be here, he could not rest"

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. I had nothing new to offer; I had almost quit reading fiction. I read occasionally when the fit ceased me, but there were very few that I managed to finish off during those sporadic moments when you care nothing beyond the adventure held between the covers of a book. It so happened, that my growing interest and love for poetry was slowly but steadily taking me away from the world of prose fiction to that inevitably dicey and romantic world of verses. As I continued to spend tons and tons of my private hours reading Wordsworth and the Romantics, Tennyson and Eliot, Kamala Das and Jayanta Mahapatra, Eunice de Souza and Emily Dickinson, the charms of reading fiction grew thinner and thinner till the books I possessed became curiosities in a museum, that one ‘must not touch’. Nevertheless, I continued to buy fiction to feed the frail vanity of a reluctant reader. During one of those odd night hours when I did return to fiction, books that I’d already read continued to seduce me, and I would invariably find myself with Hardy (for he’s my favorite author) for a night or two or perhaps even a week. But seduction, darling, lasts as long as an ice cube and the inevitable need of the human mind to find new combinations of delight and cerebral orgasms seldom leaves the reader with one excellent man’s writing for too long. The Wessex tales therefore were locked up and they’ve now become an interdicted treasure.

So with Hardy and the classics being reserved for quiet summer afternoons I tried some binge reading. de Souza’s Dangerlok and Winterson’s Written on the Body formed a major part of the whole “binge-reading” plan, out of which only the former could be completed obviously because of its sheer slimness. As it turned out “binge-reading” did not quite hit my taste and Winterson too was reserved for another day. But “binge-reading” seemed to have whetted my appetite for more and some fiction had to be read, for poetry had left me with an almost bad heart. I wasn’t too keen on picking up anything new since that would include the added burden of worrying about the composition and not to mention the initial threat of being blown away by contemporaneity and losing all reverence to the dead (read classics). So I settled with an old favorite, Arun Joshi, the man who wrote The Strange Case of Billy Biswas.

It was somewhere around this time of the year in 2008, whiling away some good hours of my time amidst the shelves of my college library I found Billy carelessly stuffed in the American section screaming the name of an Indian writer never heard before. Call it serendipity or kismet, the paperback was of the first edition! It had a green binding (read cello tape) and the frontispiece had pictures that looked like water-color paintings of a man with sunglasses and a bright kerchief round his neck (which was also probably green), and two women, one on the left and the other on the right. The dusky one, though clad in a sari was bare shouldered and there was most likely a flower in her hair which was most certainly tied into a bun. The other woman too was clad in a sari but unlike the former was not bare shouldered and her hair was fashioned into French bouffant, or so it seemed. I don’t remember if there was a blurb, for I certainly would have remembered reading it. It looked like a cheap fiction in all aspects and assuming it to be some sort of a passionate love triangle, (for I was still high on Wuthering Heights) I got it issued.

For two years since then, darling readers, all my expeditions to streets and shops and fairs where books are sold, have always been in the hope of finding an auld neglected edition of Billy Biswas, for the book had long been out of print. The Alchemist philosophy eventually worked and Orient Paperbacks in its endeavor to revive some of the lost classics of South Asian Literature put Joshi into print again in 2009 and I finally got my copy of The Strange Case of Billy Biswas in February 2010, courtesy Flipkart. And after three years, I slipped into my favorite chair to read my favorite book at my favorite hour of the night, to bring back the same relish that I once had for fiction writing.

There is primarily one reason that explains my obsession with this book. There was “something” in the narrative that had struck a chord with me although I did not know what it was when I had read it for the first time. This time however, I could feel the weight of that “something” pressing on me right from the start, and like reading poetry, I was magically persuaded to believe that this too shall leave me with a bad heart. But a bad heart is much better than a broken heart. A bad heart is empty, it waits for nothing, it expects nothing, and like all doors, it locks one in and locks the world outside too. That “something” was ‘Silence’, and it is in silence that all bad hearts take refuge in. The narrative operates on two levels of acoustics, one being the eerie silence that accompanies every word, and the other being the pale sound of a storm buzzing somewhere so far, that although one fails to hear it, one does not fail to feel the power of it. There are real storms too. Storms that make Billy say, “Things might have been different, Romi, if that wretched storm had not come up when it did. You see what I mean, don’t you?”

It is Billy’s restlessness that makes him so enduring and separates what looks real from what isn’t. The narrative proceeds in a magic space in which one lives for a moment, holding one’s breath in some measure of wonder while being fully aware of the wretched silence that seems to be catching up with a primitive pace, ready to devour Billy into the dark mazes of the unexplained. The novel ends in a kind of waste dumbness and one closes the book with a pitiful hangover of silence and a faint reminiscence of Bilasia’s anklets echoing in the hills of Satpura.

My Verdict: You can avoid it for its sheer brilliance.

P.S: The writing looks obsessively sentimental but that’s exactly how I feel for certain books and that’s the only honest way in which I can write. Reserving my thoughts on Joshi’s The Foreigner for some other day, until then, happy reading!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The White Tiger

There is no excusing this, and no resisting it either, after all it won the Booker you see! In fact, ‘The Man Booker Prize Winner’ tag would alone carry this book forward, and record sales, for we Indians are suckers for recognitions and accolades (just look at Slumdog Millionaire), and the book- reading lot would seldom go to a store and pick up books based on the merit of their blurbs, the publications, or the flash of seconds when some books talk back to you. We probably lack the courage of picking up random books. We would rather stay with the mediocre, and keep discussing the mediocre over and over again, than acknowledge the presence of things lying at the extremes of that mediocre!

Now, the reasons attributed to its success at the Booker were that The White Tiger is “compelling, angry, and darkly humorous” and that it is a book about “real India”. I simply prefer to call it cold; because of thousands who have admired it, it would be extremely difficult to find one who might have heartily chuckled at it; although, there are moments in the book that would induce a response similar to a smirk, but certainly not a response that is synonymous with humor. This write-up is probably on ‘Why, The White Tiger should not have won the booker?’

To begin with, I had absolutely no problem with his protagonist but the point of view had to be shifted from Balram to Adiga himself. Sorry Mr.Adiga, but Balram simply could not pull ‘your’ full weight in the book! I thought it was absurd to make Balram the narrator, as he himself says that he was dragged out of school when they were just beginning on the English alphabet, therefore his story in a language foreign to his thoughts is quite unacceptable. Of course, there is some sort of justification provided in this regard (“Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.”) but when you begin to plumb the book as a product it simply refuses to click! On another spectrum, however, I guess the whole method of the point of view that I am talking about was quite a thought-out ploy by Adiga to take no responsibility for some of the things that Balram says in the book; you know how easy it is to discard allegations by saying “oh, it is the character that speaks, not me!” There are moments when you feel like knowing what’s going on inside the mind of the rich man but all you get to hear are the ravings of Balram, but the quibble in itself is not considerable.

Now, all the other talk about the depiction of the “real India” could be quite irritating, let alone illumining. In “real India”, all interests, real or imaginary, all topics that should expand the mind of man, and connect him to a thread of general existence, are crushed in the absorbing consideration of food to be obtained for the family. What an irony, the world finds it singular to India; at least that’s how Indian writers have depicted it over the ages, but why single out India when all over the world, beyond the price of bread, all other news is senseless and impertinent! Oh, that may be because our government is not sophisticated enough to issue food-stamps I guess! It’s a pity how people generalize “reality”, but as some stories are said to be too good to be true, it may with equal truth be asserted of this bi-verbal allusion, that it is too good to be natural! No matter how hard we try India would still remain a country of dirt and squalor courtesy books like the one in question.

The White Tiger is a thematically impressive novel, but is ultimately disappointing. Even the prose fails to compensate the other drawbacks, and in the end you perpetually catch yourself wondering, “Gosh, how could this one ever win the Booker?” The book is good as a ‘process’, but unfortunately it fails as a ‘product.’(Of course that’s strictly for me)

My Verdict:: Some books have a knack of putting upon us gifts of no real value or the intention of engaging us in a substantial gratitude; we obviously, thank them for nothing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Encore & Other Thoughts

I thought books in a great measure had lost their power over me, and I could never revive the same interest in them as formerly. The reason being the obvious that after we’ve spent enough time pursuing our passions or hobbies, whatever you call it, their charm on us begins to wear thin for a while, but the dying embers still remain, and when a chance wind blows over them, they put us by our best thoughts! Isn’t it true that we ‘perceive’ when a thing is good, rather than ‘feel’ it?

At times the existence of this blog, where I write only about books, depresses me a lot for it presents a picture that is indifferent, mute, and lost in itself, seldom caring about the external world. Books are a world in themselves, it is true; but they are not the only world. My parents have never read books, or for that matter their parents as well, but they are refined and cultured too. And in the house opposite the window where I write this there are laborers, who like the huge mass of mankind eat and drink, and sleep…..I mean why they should even care what Dickens or Hardy wrote. They move on hardly caring or rather ignorant of all those finely writ theories, philosophies and distinctions that have made ‘us’ lie prostrate on the feet of bards and writers, and what do they know or care about what I am writing about them or what men have written about other men? They are survivors, who care nothing about our scribbling; they are the ones who show there’s life and hope outside of books!

Now, reader, do not let those contradictions and petty details interrupt the calm current of your reflections on books, for confused souls like me would always disharmonize your thoughts and would make you wonder with silly eyes at a far more sillier world! All I wanted to say is that, I was in such a mood before I revived my not-so-auld passion for reading, and my auld delight in books. No wonder old habits die hard!

So, dear reader, whenever you feel that the idle vein is returning upon you, and you sense that you’re no longer interested in books, I suggest that you take a break from the “words” of contemporary literature, and visit the finely spun sentences of the great Victorians. And, as I had said somewhere that antiquity when revived after ages it acquires a queer grace of novelty and believe me that’s a welcome relief from the dark humour of present day compositions!

For reasons unknown I had a strong itch to return to works that I had already read, in spite of the unread section lying as an unscaled mountain but Henchard simply seemed irresistible! Once seduced, there is a newly acquired confidence and security in the second seduction, as you are assured that you will get what is expected. In other words the satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. On reading a book for the second time you not only have the pleasure of imagination and a heightened appreciation for the writer (in my case it is Hardy), but you also have the added pleasure of memories. Memories that make you re-live the same feelings and associations which you had during your first read, and which you are sure that you can never have again in any other way. Boy! It’s like falling in love with the same person all over again!

Periods of such inadvertent swerves saw me applying my knuckles on the doors of Catherine & Heathcliff, and of course the o’Hara babe! It was like visiting the times when early youth fluttered (and Kishore sings pehle bhi main tujhe baahon mein leke jhooma kiya aur jhooma kiya……), a silly romantic pleasure that thrills you, bringing back to mind images of the day when you had got it, the place where you sat to read it, the feeling of the air, and all your early impressions with them. Boy, that’s heavy! No wonder, I am being carried away, but that’s exactly how they impinge on you. At some point of time I even convinced myself that these characters, this countryside, and these feelings that came across me as I retraced the stories and devoured every page are much better than any modern novel that I had ever read. Boy, what an ecstasy it was when I hung I silence over pages where Hardy talks about the “bees and butterflies” of Casterbridge, or when Henchard meets Susan after eighteen years and simply chooses to say, “I don’t drink…….you hear Susan?- I don’t drink now-I haven’t since that night.”; and boy, what language of thought can ever describe the scene where Elizabeth-Jane discovers the dead body of a goldfinch, and if that’s not enough Hardy comes up with Henchard’s will, and then there’s nothing but silence……….a ghostly silence that engulfs all!

Man, Hardy thou maketh tragedy sweet!

If Casterbridge was silently witnessing the irony of fate then Wuthering Heights filled itself with sound. Every scene coming with its concomitant of a storm or rushing wind. A constant sound that seemed to me more important than words and thoughts. The novel is great, but I cannot remember anything in it apart from Heathcliff and Catherine; people who set the ball rolling with their separation and then close it with their union in death!

In most ways I was sorry to get to the end of them but I wouldn’t mind treading these lanes once again in the near future.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Risqué Robbins

It has been a long time since, and my memory usually waxes dim on such subjects, or I would have whole heartedly wished to convey some notion of the manner in which Harold Robbins finds a place on my book shelf. There are two actually; Goodbye Janette, and The Carpetbaggers. These two I think dropped right from heaven, for I don’t remember buying them (that is ever since I started buying books) and for all my expeditions into streets where books are found I’ve never come across a Robbins work! My brother, a healthy contributor to the shelf is equally clueless, and so are mom and dad who do not believe in the concept of reading anyway. Nobody knows whom the books belong to; they are my family’s conundrum I guess, and the legacy is sure to stay unless some insane stroke of fate brings the real owner wandering to our doorstep! But, life isn’t celluloid, and therefore there’s hardly a chance of these ragged veterans getting back to their actual owner.

I believe I was still in my ‘Nancy Drew’ stage, probably in the eighth standard when I happened to flip through the pages of Goodbye, Janette. In many ways it was my first read, however I didn’t manage to complete it, for the sheer lack of patience and my arrant inability to come to terms with that thing called, sexuality. I realized it was one of those books which people call “dirty”, and I would be lying if I say that I did not want to continue, for at that impressionable age, with the hormones running amuck and the mind curious enough to de-cloud the myths about sex, made me flip more number of pages. The more I flipped, the more bedazzled I got, until better sense prevailed and made me drop the book out of sheer exhaustion. Unknowingly, I had become a reader of porn, although that word was quite elusive to me at that time.

Such a reading led to discussions with girl friends and the usual fuss about all matters relating to sex. Gosh, it looks so puerile now. But, what are you smirking at; you too have been there and done that! A dozen thumbs soiled the pages, following my publicity of its content, and a large number of people became porn readers as well!

But, I should hold my thoughts there and warn you from drawing conclusions based on the above statements! Now, Robbins isn’t appreciated much in the literary circles for his often graphic sexual detail, but boy, it’s amazing and almost unbelievable that he could actually write a book like, A Stone for Danny Fisher. For one, the book is absolutely “clean”, and not once does it come across as risqué, and boy, did Segal write Acts of Faith after reading Danny Fisher, coz it was out and out Segal-isque, and it had these deja-vu moments reminding me of Daniel Luria and all those Jewish traditions that one comes across in Segal’s Acts of Faith. I know Segal fans would probably kill me for such an analogy, but sorry guys, can’t help this time around!

Never in my wildest dreams did I think of Robbins of all to generate such magnitude of emotions. But isn’t it always good to be pleasantly surprised once in a while, as these final words of Danny Fisher:

I was not a great man whose history has been recorded for children to study in school. No bells will ring for me, no flags descend upon their mast……….for I was an ordinary man, my son, one of many, with ordinary hopes, with ordinary dreams and ordinary fears. I was the ordinary man about whom songs are never written, stories are never told, and legends are never remembered.

My Verdict: As readers we have a strong itch to show off all the great men whose works we have ever read. We even have our own individual lists of writers whom we consider to be great, and at times we are over-possessed with a sadistic pleasure of putting that which flutters the brain idly for a moment and then is heard no more in competition with some of the greatest works of art. And that is exactly where we fail as readers, for each writer has a unique ability and in the end everything boils down to the fact that, “different people have different ways of telling stories”, and it never serves good to reject someone based on first impressions!

Boy, I’m blessed with a soul so democratic!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Triad & Other Stories

Even a careful eye would have missed it coz it refused to reveal itself; it was meant only for those eyes which had the patience and the ability to sit down alone and struggle with the writer, for the best way to know what a book contains is by reading it. Oblivious of its co-habitation with some of the greatest names in English Literature, it lay lambent, confident of its existence amongst such talismanic works of art. It was an old book redolent with the smell of antiquity and every time I opened it, the spine cracked, putting its health in jeopardy! I believe I was the first person to take it out of the library! And I had a tough time reading it, not because of its theme or manner of presentation but due to the constant feeding to the brain to handle the book “carefully”! Every turning of a leaf seemed like a requiem, almost as if it were accusing me of killing it!

It isn’t a classic (not in all senses though) and certainly not a book to be read in present times, and I wonder how many might have read it even in its own times. The book is a paradox, not because of its content, but due to its inappropriate timing. For, what may appear to readers of one generation as winning genius of the author, another generation may discard it as a thing of antiquity, or may seem to the next as a heavy dose of patriotism! Worse luck, Kanthapura would find itself on a sticky wicket in every age!! But, the vogue of an author is directly proportional to the taste of the age, and even classics are exposed to fluctuations in fashion, Kanthapura is no exception to this law!

R K Narayan & Mulk Raj Anand

Now, Raja Rao along with R K Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand formed the ‘Triad’ or the ‘Big Three’ of Indian fiction in English. But, unlike the other two, Raja Rao seems to be a little classic, and I whole-heartedly echo the New York Times Book Review, which says, “It has all the content of an ancient Indian classic, combined with a sharp, satirical wit and a clear understanding of the present…Raja Rao is perhaps the most brilliant and certainly the most interesting writer of modern India.”

If you’ve read the Triad, then you’ll probably acquiesce, when I say that Rao is a little classical in his story telling. As far as, style is concerned, though his graces are not those most in favor at the moment, but the triumphs of his style are clear to all who understand the “art of writing”. It is a very bookish style, a kind of mannered-manner I suppose! He himself says in the foreword that,
“We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colorful as the Irish or the American…………the tempo of the Indian life must be infused into our English expression, even as the tempo of American or Irish life has gone into the making of theirs. We, in India, think quickly, we talk quickly, and when we move we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on……………episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story telling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story.”

And it was actually these lines which made me read the book,
“it may have been told of an evening, when as the dusk falls and through the sudden quiet, lights leap up in house after house, and stretching her bedding on the veranda, a grandmother might have told you, newcomer, the sad tale of her village.”

My Verdict: Incorporation of the oral tradition into modern fiction makes it an excellent read, and I say, it’s a must for all those who wonder about the miracle of India’s struggle to freedom! Happy reading!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost In Translation

Its one of those books which allures you because of the writer’s reputation; charms you enough to take it home; makes you sit with it for a certain number of pages when the charm slowly loosens its effects on you, and you no longer remain a captive either to the story or your continued reverence for the writer. Nothing can make you move forward except an imbecile love for literature and the sheer thrill of holding a book, every word of which was read by you, the reader. Mind you, I’m talking about actual readers and not visualizers who get an effect by cataloguing details and whisking the pages over irritably, and say “I’ve read that book.” These people tend to move round books instead of through them. Books have to be read and it is the only way of discovering what they contain. Please do not eat them, just read (worse luck, for it takes a long time) them.

Now coming back, I’ve absolutely no clue as to what went wrong with Chokher Bali. It has the color, gesture and outline in people and things, the usual stock-in-trade of any novelist, yet it somehow fails to click. I think it got lost in translation. O, yea I would rather learn Bengali, and read it in its original tongue than in its Anglican form! For translated works suffer a degree of descent in the mind after which the magic of the original verse disappears; and that rare quality by which- no one can tell how- some words stir the mind in a manner that is on the same level as music is to speech, and color is to painting, no longer effects the actual purpose. I hope you get my point?

Translation is an art in itself, and good translations demand certain amount of skill and creativity on the part of the translator. In most cases the translators come from a different age than that of the original writer, have different temperaments and aims, but they all intend to tell a story, and are in the process of creation. Now, as a reader if you happen to know both the languages in which the book exists, you’ll probably be able to give a better understanding of this problem. One look at the conversations and you’ll know that the writer has originally thought in some other language and has merely put his thoughts in a language foreign to his thoughts.

And, in case you are wondering what Chokher Bali means, well, it means a “mote in the eye”.

My Verdict:: it will make you abandon it in the middle, courtesy its slow movement but your love for Tagore will ensure that you’ve flipped the last page and have read the final words.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Catcher In The Rye

I always thought chocolate had a drawback, albeit the brain sees it as happy food, producing those tingling sensations with every bite, ah! Chocolate is always a pleasure isn’t it? But the one drawback to it is its color. Charming to the taste it is dull to the eye. One would never eat it if one did not know from experience that it tastes better than it looks. Now, I would not have picked, The Catcher in the Rye, if I had not heard about it a zillion times. For one, the frontispiece looks as naked as a guttersnipe and the edition that I bought even lacked a blurb, and honestly I wouldn’t have purchased any other in such dishabille. Its strange to say, but the exterior hardly raised a sweet emotion or a tickling sense of property in me, the owner.

But lo! Magnificence lay inside! It would’ve been mere foppery to trick it out in some gay apparel. Boy! What a goddamn book that was! It killed me. And, as Caulfield puts it, “what really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of your and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Only, if it could be really possible!

I remember hearing about it for the first time in the movie Jerry Maguire, in a passing monologue, probably just before Tom Cruise sets out to write his “mission statement”. Then blogs happened and every profile seemed to mention this queer-sounding book in the ‘best reads’ category. A sudden irritability begun creeping within, which could only be quieted by “reading” the goddamn book! And its always healthy to read the work of art itself than reading a whole lot of stuff ‘about’ the work of art! And, read I did!! However, it would be false to admit that the book had a “great” impression on me, and it’s not Salinger’s fault that I did not profit more. The book, Wikipedia says, is banned in lot of countries for the over usage of the word, “goddamn”. This can be imputed to the reader’s imperfect acquaintance with many of the words that Holden uses, but the same objection makes it a presumption in the reader to suppose that he can admire him as well. I won’t say that I loved Holden, but I certainly didn’t hate him either.
Raging a psychological war against the phonies, Holden was more pleasant to some persons for the few faults and weaknesses that he had. He did not daunt me, nor threw me to a distance, by his formidable virtues for he had none, however he delivered more than one expects from a sixteen year old. A hero of a different order; I thought that he was funny, in spite of the over whelming evidence in the contrary, courtesy a lousy vocabulary, which stands a better chance of creeping into your own lexis, boy, beware! I’m saying a lot of “goddamn” and “boy” these days, but its good that Holden dislikes saying “fuck”.

“But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how phoebe ( his sister ) and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them-all cockeyed, naturally-what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.”

The owner of a queer faculty, Holden’s mind appeared to be rather suggestive than comprehensive. He had no pretence to much clearness or precision in his ideas, or in his manner of expressing them. To confess fairly his intellectual wardrobe had few whole pieces in it. It was content with fragments and scattered pieces of truth. Boy! What a hero for a novel! But, it takes guts of the highest order to create a character like Holden, and Salinger should be appreciated for this novelty. And do not attempt to battle your wits regarding the name of the book coz that is what Holden aspires to become in the near future,

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-nobody big, I mean-except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff-I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

My Verdict:: Some readers can be thrilled, and others choked off, coz it demands an additional adjustment because of the perplexity of its method and theme. Some readers will adjust with delight, and others will refuse with indignation. Even if you refuse that would not imply your poverty of imagination, but only a disinclination to meet certain demands that the book expects from its readers.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Amir v/s Roark

“For you, a thousand times over.”

Surely there is a great depth of pathos in those unaffected words, and in the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them. Its after a long time, probably since The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, and Tuesdays with Morrie, that a book has managed to leave me crushed in the end; it’s the ‘survivor’s guilt’ perhaps. But, as the book puts it, zendagi migzara, life goes on.

Its amazing how the world goes gaga over one orange haired guy (read, Roark), worships him coz he is perfection well defined, but no matter what the world seems to hold view, Roark will perhaps smash and distort but he will seldom illumine, at least not me. Fine, I accept his philosophy, or rather Miss Rand’s, but it still remains an ordinary world of fiction and it never reaches back. Of course comparison between these two books is extremely far flung, and one that seems deliberate (maybe it is), moreover, this blogger would rather genuflect before Amir, than a Roark. Girls like Roark. Sorry! They lurve him! Thank the universe, he doesn’t exist outside the front and back covers of the book, and even if he did, I doubt how many of the girls, who lurve him (ahem), would notice him, and even if they did, it would be interesting to see, how many would continue to lurve him, post sessions of cold gazes, and the irony of being with a man who doesn’t even acknowledge your presence. If you still lurve him, you must be Jesus!!

There’s a thing called prophetic fiction, and many would attest that The Fountainhead is a perfect example of the said category, but then there’s also a term called ‘preaching’, can you alienate that from The Fountainhead? The Roarks, the Francons, or the Wynands hardly ask us to share anything deeper than their experiences, and there’s a more chance of you empathizing with Keating than Roark himself!! I’ve no clue what your definition of a great novel is, but for me, it has to be in a region where it could be joined by the rest of humanity, and therefore, Amir is- all of us; for all his imperfections, cowardice, errors, and sufferings. He conveyed to me a sensation that is partly physical- the sensation of sinking deep into water, and seeing my mistakes floating far above me on its surface, tiny, remote, yet mine. Maybe its my curious attitude of not accepting people who never make mistakes; I respect imperfection to a large extent!

My Verdict on The Kite Runner:: It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward, and Amir in spite of all his internal looseness is too tight with a philosophy that leads to a reflections on life and things. There is something in words that is alien to its simplicity. Read it to explore life through the body.

Now Playing:: 18 till I die……………..Bryan Adams

Friday, August 22, 2008


When i complete a book, it is days before i can shake off the characters, their idiosyncrasies, their habitat………a curious feeling that trails me everywhere, till I pick up another book and lose my mind between the front and back covers. There was something in the “ Magic Realism ” of Salman Rushdie that kinda seduced me to bed Shame, all over again.

The thing that struck me when i read it for the first time was undoubtedly the turbulent political history of our neighboring country; so full of conspiracies and power packed drama, and especially with our own past so intricately associated with their’s that the interest for each other’s histories is almost mutual. Drama, however much we despise it, does have the uncanny ability to sharpen our perception of the world, gives us some sense and understanding of who we are, makes us actors of a different kind and glorifies each passing day.

In Shame, drama; camouflaged in the realms of fantasy and imagination of Rushdie, adds those special effects, making the “ real ” appear almost metaphorical. It is a novel about Pakistan and the people who ruled Pakistan, largely focusing on the shifting relationship between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, under the appellation of Iskander Harappa and Raza Hyder. But for a reader, who is no way connected with the sub-continent, the novel will appear to him as a rich treat of fantasia…………with the introductions of a beast, ghost, at times; god as well, and of course the three witches ( so reminiscent of the three witches in Macbeth ), who share the symptoms of pregnancy, and boy, they are mothers of our hero; Omar Khayyam Shakil.

But I wonder what made the writer call Omar the hero of the novel; the action hardly takes place when this squabby being is around, except towards the end, but people seem to die and fall in love when he isn’t around; he’s more like a catalyst or maybe he’s a hero of a different kind!! Ok I wont divulge too many details, in case you are planning to read it, and I totally recommend it.

My Verdict:: Fantasy and imagination will never grow stale and they will occur naturally to writers of a certain temperament, but the fact that their number is fast declining is a matter of much concern. Three cheers to Rushdie. Boy, Indian writers absolutely rock!!

Loved this political satire:

How does a dictator fall? There is an old saw which states, with absurd optimism, that it is in the nature of tyrannies to end. One might as well say that it is also in their nature to begin, to continue, to dig themselves in, and, often, to be preserved by greater powers than their own.”

“ Well, well, I mustn’t forget I’m only telling a fairy story. My dictator will be toppled by goblinish, faery means. ‘ Makes it pretty easy for you,’ is the obvious criticism; and I agree, I agree. But add, even if it does sound a little peevish: ‘ You try and get rid of a dictator sometime.’”

( Boy, I can almost see him smirking at his own statement!! )

Now playing:: I breathe again…………Adam Rickitt

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Biryani Writer

We are Indians and we all like our ghar ki daal. But our predilection for mom-made food does not necessarily make us eschew the ocassional biryani. Infact we prefer having biryani most of the times!! Now, Chetan Bhagat enjoys a similar biryani status amidst book lovers, though most of the readers will deny accepting any such theory. These are the people who accuse his books to be way too entertaining, hokey,etc etc. Now, what else is the primary function of a book or are people too scared to get entertained?? Ironically these are the people who also figure among the first buyers of his books!! ' Reading ' first to ' criticise ' first........that sure is a deadly combination!!

At times according to our age, mood, and experience, and at times in the different hours of the same day, we prefer one writer, one book to another. And the best part about Chetan's books is that he saves the reader from the sheer pain of thinking, and the reader does not have to pay the price of losing him/her in another man's mind. Maybe thats the reason why he is so in vogue. However, one might question his writing skills which hardly match international standards, but then he caters to the needs of the domestic readers, the majority of which are not book readers anyway. Its always better to begin with Chetan than opting for say a Nabokov work.

Even the great Narayan was criticised for writing " pedestrian " work, so its not much of a surprise if Chetan generates much of flak; simplicity is never accepted easily anyways. And with the ever increasing inflation, one should be a fool to complain about the price of his books. My cousin ( another love-hate reader ) says there's nothing to learn from his books. Of course his books are not beautiful waters of learning when on plunging you emerge as a scholar. They are like watching a good movie; total paisa vasool. And no harm ever came in getting entertained. Why is it so difficult for people to understand that different people have different ways of telling stories??

This is what my cousin ( Akash ) had to say about Chetan's latest book, The 3 Mistakes of my Life:

Akash: " You know what are the three mistakes of his life?"

  1. Studying at the IIT

  2. Being an IIM pass out, and the most horrible one

  3. Writing a book

We enjoyed a good laugh at this one, but then people will always envy them, who they wanted to be, but could not!!

My verdict on this book: a total entertainer, you wont demand your time back. We like having our biryani remember!!

Now Playing:: Aane wala pal.......................Kishore

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Mayor of Casterbridge

" ......................that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."

Hardy, probably justifies the pessimism of his novel with that argument, which concludes, ' The Mayor of Casterbridge ', aptly subtitled as, ' A Story of a Man of Character '. It hardly wastes our mind on too many things; for whatever too much expands the mind weakens it................its the story of one man, Henchard, who is almost a natural force, at the mercy of his instincts and emotions, and lacking all objective understanding of the workings of the external world. The book hardly gives a sentimental largeness to the rendering of Henchard's life but on the contrary compels us to believe that, its quite easy to become an angel, but its quite a big task to survive as a mere human and to be guided by our pride, passion, and a kind of reasoning which streams not from the mind but from the heart itself!! Henchard's life is probably a classic epitome of the price one pays to act like a human being under a set of circumstances.............. the course of action projected by the original " selling " of his wife, which is determined in its later stages in the form of Nature, civilization, and human character which seem to be working against each other. And that probably gives it the shape of a genuine tragedy.

The novel is not wholly Henchard's story either. The other characters Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane, and Lucetta-play significant parts in this battle between man and Nature, man and man, and between man and his own instincts. Henchard who remains a marauder all his life, in the end succumbs to the assault on his emotions by the other characters, and there's hardly a point in the story where any of the characters appear to dwell in the wrong side, except for Henchard while selling his wife. Therefore its probably not possible to rule out the role of circumstances in deciding the course of events.

Henchard's shifting relationship with Elizabeth-Jane, whom he first believes to be his daughter, then learns she is not, then wishes she were and claims that she is, until at last with the dramatic entry of Newson ( her real father ), which leads to Jane's rejection of Henchard and stripping him from all kind of relationship satus. The effect of such a rejection was to disqualify Henchard from humanity itself and he finally dies wretchedly in a hut on Egdon Heath.I dnt think Hardy wanted to convey anything through this fictional representation of his tragic vision of life, except to depict the arrant helplessness of human beings before anything thats " fated "!!

Cant help but conclude by quoting Shaw over here:

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that's the essence of inhumanity."

A highly recommended book, for its language, the beautiful setting of the fictional Casterbridge, the never ending warfare between man and his emotions, and a pure and unadulterated depiction of man as he is!!

Certainly worthy of reading a second time on quiet evenings, especially with Kishore playing in the wont demand your time back, thats my verdict!!

Now Playing:: Veena ( instrumental ).................Talvin Singh