Of Poignant Writing and Ethical Dilemmas

Book Review: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Some books reach you entirely unexpectedly. Typically, I remember who recommended me books. Typically I don’t casually put a book on my reading list. But for life of me, I cannot remember where I picked up this recommendation. My best guess is, it was someone on twitter, with generic recommendation. Anyways, long story short, I picked it up a few months back, and have been moving through it leisurely, intentionally, savoring the not-so-short stories one or two at a time, to avoid saturation, which is a real risk with this collection. And it’s easily the best book of stories I’ve ever read.

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A disclaimer here. I’m not that much into short stories (or not-so-short one’s for that matter). So one will have to take this contextually. But at the same time, I must add that I don’t read a lot of short stories because they don’t engage me much. However, only couple of stories into Binocular Vision, I was craving for more. And I was wondering why I had never heard of Edith Pearlman. Or to borrow words from Ann Patchett’s glowing introduction to the volume:

“To that great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material let me add this one: why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”

Or as famous as she should be, given the quality of the writing. Maybe I’m just trying to cover up my inadequacies by asking why I hadn’t heard of her. And I’ve no pretensions of being a great reader who knows every good writer that is there. Still someone so good …

Binocular Vision has a lot of recurring themes. Many of the characters are displaced Jews. Many children are precocious, on the spectrum, geniuses with language. Many women characters are emphatic, strong, independent. There are themes of love (or “ordinary loves”), loss, loneliness, displacement/re-settlement, and understanding, and remembering. The stories are set in different times, sometimes covering different generations. There are stories of old people, of young people who cannot fit in, of children’s eye view of the world around them. But the most striking thing about the collection is how ordinary the people with these extraordinary stories are. There are no hero figures to look up to with awe. There are no easy answers. There are not too many resolutions even, just as there really never are in life — too many I mean. And maybe that’s why, the stories are as much a slice of life as you could ever hope to get from a piece of fiction.

Another thing that one can’t miss about the collection is how precise her language is, and how rich and yet not ostentatious her vocabulary is. It’s just that there is the right word used when it needs to be used. Not to impress. Just because it is there. It has to be there. I can’t remember another book that I read recently where I had to lookup the dictionary so much, and yet didn’t get a feeling of it being anything other than strictly necessary. The language is both precise and poetic at the same time:

There were black-bellied hibachis on some of the porches. It was the era of hibachis. It was the era of consciousness-raising. The previous year our third grade had been told that women could be anything they wanted to be. We were puzzled by this triumphant disclosure; nobody at home had hinted otherwise. It was the year of war protests and assassinations. Hubert Humphrey kissed his own face on a hotel TV screen. There were breakthroughs in cancer therapy.

It’s writing like this that makes me aware of my inadequacies, because, even to tell you about her writing,  I need to borrow her words.

One of her characters, Val, is a governess, and there is a dialog when in a new family the kids ask her to tell them a story:

“You do tell stories; your résumé said so.”

“Well … mine aren’t exactly stories.”

“What, then?”

“Interactive dilemmas. Together we invent situations that require resolution. Then we invent some resolutions. Then we choose among them, or don’t.”

Or earlier in the same story, has this expression : “Case Histories of Ethical Dilemmas”.

What better description of Edith Pearlman can I give? One has to borrow from masters where it suits us.

Finally, among these case histories of ethical dilemmas, how does one pick up favorites? There are just too many to talk about. The very first story, Inbound, sets the tone for what’s to come — a story of a precocious child who gets lost on the streets during a vacation. Then there are three stories, starting with “If Love Were All”, featuring the same central character, in different places during the world war II. They could have become a novella on their own. But Ms. Pearlman is not interested in any of that, and the third of the series, The Coat, leaves you flummoxed. Then there is “Home Schooling”, a poignant tale that the poignant quote above is taken from. And there is playful but touching “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag”, and finally Vallies, about Val and her stories of ethical dilemmas, that comes a complete circle.

This is a rich, engaging, beautifully written, book of stories. Why it should not be read is one question I have no answer for.


There are tons of quote-worthy quotes, that one could fill up a book, but here are a few, just for you to get the flavor:

  • Whenever she was bent over her work, her shoulder-length hair, abundant but limp, separated of its own accord and fell on either side of her neck. We settled down on our chairs with sandwiches and books, our presence unacknowledged. We understood that absorption, not indifference, made her ignore us, just as we understood that our father’s sudden explosions were disease, not rage.
  • She meant to slip away as she often did at parties, fearful that she was restraining people ambitious to be elsewhere.
  • Every death foretold your own—there would be something to learn.
  • Those mothers of ours, full of understanding for their patients, were helpless when their own offspring gave them trouble. Then they became frantic kid sisters, reaching for the phone.
  • “Hypocrisy is the first step toward sincerity,” Milo had written
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The Importance of Zadie Smith

I fell in love with Zadie Smith, the writer, with her very first book that I read. It was On Beauty. A book which in all fairness wasn’t an original story, as it was loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I didn’t know it back then. And when I finally read that one, I still loved On Beauty more. Since then she’s one of the few writers I have been stalking [1], literally, I mean. I mean, not literally. Literarily. But there is no such word. Long story short, I was eagerly waiting to lay my hands on Smith’s latest book, as soon as it was announced, having already consumed all her previous novels, and an excellent essay collection “Changing My Mind”.

The novel Swing Time takes its title from an eponymous 1936 musical. At the heart of the novel though, are, like any Zadie Smith novel, relationships. This time, between two girls growing up in the London’s housing project, the unnamed narrator, and her friend Tracey; and then as their paths diverge, between the narrator and Aimee, an older singer/celebrity.

The two girls, who have come together thanks to their love for dancing, aren’t really rivals in that department because while Tracey has natural talent for dancing, and looks like is destined for big things, the narrator has doesn’t have any gift, rather is born with a flat foot, and at the very start, the dance teacher has gently but unequivocally made it clear what she cannot achieve with it. But while the friendship flourishes based on this common love, it’s not a relationship between equals, and the narrator is under the spell of a confident and willful Tracey.

In fact this power equation doesn’t change even with Aimee, for whom the narrator starts working for as an assistant, after  a rather disastrous first  meeting. Ironically she is chosen to work for Aimee for speaking her own mind, not caring for her celebrity status.

The story moves from London, to US, to Africa and is structurally Smith’s most complex plot till date, as we move between different timelines, and different geographies, having to hop on and off different trains, rather suddenly, yet smoothly. In terms of characterization, Aimee comes up as a bit of caricature, or a collage of different contemporary artists, and their eccentricities. And the novel suffers in terms of Smith’s primary competency of sketching the characters through their interactions with each other, one on one, mostly, in those parts with Aimee in the picture. But then again, large part of this timeline is with Aimee only as a ghost figure, as the narrator explores life in a small African village while setting up and monitoring a school for young girls, a pet project of Aimee for a brief time.

Arguably, Smith has achieved so much with two of her first three novels — a brilliant debut in White Teeth, and a rich and complex On Beauty — that she is always going to be judged for what she didn’t write. And somewhere, she seems conscious of it in both NW, and Swing Time, trying to do more than the kind of storytelling that her first three books do so well. But I for one am not complaining. Because to an extent this started at On Beauty itself. Only it does the tightrope walking between story telling and philosophizing/cultural-dissection so well that it seems easy enough to repeat, especially for some like her. But of course, it’s enormously difficult. Especially with weight of expectations on a relatively young shoulders. And yet Zadie Smith does it well, again and again.

On the backdrop of the not-so-linear stories of Swing Time, are nuanced explorations into various tricky human subjects – racism, identity, privilege, ambition, friendship, philanthropy and cultural appropriation, dysfunctional homes and virtual homelessness, hurt and shame … To even conceive of an edifice that could hold all this together is a itself a challenge beyond many. That Zadie Smith does take that challenge, again and again, is why she is such an important writer to have among us.


[1] The term “stalking” in this context is not mine, but a friend on twitter used it to denote my excessive obsession with David Foster Wallace. When I complimented him for that term, he said it was used by his friend who happened to be a self-confessed DFW stalker. Incidentally the other writers (apart from Zadie Smith and DFW) I’ve been stalking are: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Alexander McCall Smith, Hermann Hesse, and Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

Review: Litanies of Dutch Battery

The first thing you notice about the book is this weird title. What does it even mean? And as you start with the book, trying to get a grip on random set of things happening, you realize that Dutch Battery is actually a place (also known as Lantham Bathery). And as Madhavan takes us on a whirlwind tour, anchored at this (imaginary: wikipedia entry tell me) island — which is a, and I understand it’s a cliche but, microcosm of India, in one sense, and yet very very individual/eccentric place with a personality of its own — it’s like a Jigsaw puzzle taking shape, with colors and contours forming abruptly, shapes materializing out of nowhere, and you start to have some bearing on the place — just as it happens in real life, as you spend time with a place, with its people.

img_20151218_220411But the anchor point, imaginary as it may be, is vividly painted, and soon, you’re there, in the middle of it all — the tiny little dreams, the puny little political battles, the local Church and the communists trying to establish themselves, the grand political figures from distant lands, the crazy fears, the biryani feasts, and hundred little stories. While “Dutch Battery” tends to stay local, its aims are much grander, as Madhavan tries to weave in the history of Kerala, from the time of Vasco da Gama, to the battles fought on the shores of Kochi, to the post-independent scene, when Communism started to take a hold there. In many ways, the book reminds of Marquez’ classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, as it goes about telling intimate histories of a region, while creating quirky characters, with difficult names.

The narrator herself, named Edwina Theresa Irene Maria Anne Margarita Jessica, and it could have been longer, if not for the Priest being impatient about his need to wash his hands (off? a not-so-subtle allusion to …), an OCD of sorts, is the keeper of all these stories — some she witnessed, right from the time in her mother’s womb, to before and after. Jessica is herself a quirky character, and so is everyone around her, it seems like, including her grandfather who (spoiler!) materializes suddenly, after being assumed dead, lost at sea with a capsized boat, blinded and old, but sharp of mind and memories.

Mixed with a dose of history, is a delightful telling of the lives of common people, their cinema obsessions, their longings for an operatic drama form called chavittunatakam, their love for Kundan Saigal’s songs, their fear of smallpox vaccine …

Few writings are so evocative, so enthralling, and completely satisfying. This is an English translation of the Malyalam book Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal. A disclosure: I know the translator, Rajesh Rajamohan, as he and I were a part of a group of bloggers who shared a few “blog-homes”, so as to say. Although, to be fair, I don’t believe that would have had any impact on this review, the only thing it counts for is that I picked up the book to read, in the first place. The rest, I’d say, is my objective assessment, as objective as such things could be.

Highly recommended, to anyone who loves good writing.


PS: Oh yes, how could I forget: humor! There is an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the narration that is so difficult to get right — but done absolutely right here.

 

 

 

Rosshalde: Portrait of the Artist as not-so-young Man

July 2016 was a rare month when I read two (great) German authors side-by-side. One was Mann, who’s Magic Mountain (his first for me) I read (or rather heard) in parallel with one of my all time favorite authors, Hesse. There is a temptation to compare them which I’m going to entirely forgo, because it’s a futile exercise.

9782253013570-us-300I picked up Rosshalde five years back when I was in San Jose, California, on a work trip. I had managed to steal some time to visit a lovely bookshop: Recycle Bookstore. Now, any amount of time is less in this den, with its cute black cats, and its bookshelves stacked all the way to top with all sort of used and new books, and its super friendly staff/owners. But there on one of the shelves, this one peeked at me, and I bagged it without a second thought.

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For five years, then, it sat on my bookshelf. Unbelievable, given it’s a Hesse, but then I guess the time was not right. Or ripe. In fact, in this time I  read two more of Hesse. Then suddenly, few weeks back, I picked it up. These days, I consume books mostly in the audiobook format as that goes very well with compulsions of life — commute, walks, chores. So the time for reading paper books is really hard to find, and that’s so unjust when books like these that need to be read, and digested, and returned to.

Rosshalde is probably not as celebrated as some of Hesse’s other works. No one had recommended it to me. I picked it up without any prior “ideas” about it. Maybe that’s why it worked. But really, if you ask me, it worked for me because this one reminded me of his another not-so-celebrated book: Peter Camenzind (which I reviewed quite some time back), which, like James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man, deals with the “making” of the artist, really, not the craft, but the “mind” behind the craft, as it takes shape. Rosshalde, is like a sequel to that — the mid-life crisis of an artist, who struggles to come to terms with the mundane existence beyond the successful career.

 

Deriving from his life, to what extent I am not sure, Hesse paints for us the canvas of the bleak emotional life of a great artist trapped in unhappy relationships, trying to break free, but held back by his only emotional bond — with his younger child. This simple story is deceptively deep, and warrants a great deal of rumination. Johann Veraguth, the protagonist, is a painter who has achieved success, and fame, but is estranged from his wife, and his elder son, and resigned to a loveless, dry life, with only his work to escape to. When his friend Otto visits, he seems suddenly alive, again. We’re reminded that he is capable of human relationships, and simple pleasures of life. But even that lightness of being is temporary, and as the surface is scratched, oozes out the pus, baring for his friend the empty inner life of the great artist. And it’s this exploration that makes Rosshalde so poignant, as he tries to take control of his life again, but not everything goes according to plan. Rosshalde is filled with pathos, of pain, longing, tragedy, but, also of acceptance, and redemption.

This one does strike a deep melancholic chord.

 

 

 

 

Numero Zero: End of Conspiracies

“Everything always fits with everything else,” says Braggadocio, an outlandish conspiracy theorist, and a fellow journalist of the novel’s narrator and central character, a self-declared loser, ghost writer of third-rate novels, Colonna, “you just have to know how to read the coffee grounds”

Eco, the wicked story teller with seemingly inexhaustible source of conspiracy theories, I seem to recall, had declared the Prague Cemetery as his final fictional work. I guess, the temptation of conspiracies is too much even for someone so well versed with them.

“There are many small conspiracies, and most of them are exposed,” Prof. Eco says in an interview after writing The Prague Cemetery. “But the paranoia of the universal conspiracy is more powerful because it is everlasting. You can never discover it because you don’t know who is there. It is a psychological temptation of our species”

In Numero Uno, while still continuing his long lasting love affair with conspiracies, Eco also goes a step further. He creates a conspiracy that’s sounds like the most outlandish conspiracy, when it’s probably not even a conspiracy.

As Braggadocio again — while defending a charge of looking for conspiracies where none exists — says:

Look at the court cases, it is all there, provided you’re able to find your way around the archives. The trouble is, facts get lost between one piece of news and another.

But a little bit of context first. Numero Uno is about a private newspaper that Colona, Braggadocio, and Colona’s love interest Maia, are working for, for one Mr. Simei. The newspaper, named Domani (Tomorrow), is not meant to be widely circulated, and will have “zero” editions (0/1, 0/2 …) to be published over a year, with news that’s based on facts, but with a handsome spin doctoring. Domani, then, is a newspaper that could have been: a conspiracy of a newspaper (again, as Braggadocio says somewhere else in the novel: “The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up.”), meant to scare someone in power to get an entry for someone into some elite circle of power. Colona has been trusted with this information, and asked to be the editor, while Braggadocio, with a keen eye for conspiracy has half guessed it, with Maia and others completely unaware of it.

numero_zeroWhile working for stories for the paper, Braggadocio approaches Colona with the story of an elaborate conspiracy, folding piecemeal, involving a right-wing secret terror group/army, and an alternate end for Mussolini, among other things.

Much of Eco’s fictional work centers around losers being obsessed with crackpot/conspiracy theories of one kind or another, and losing track of reality. What rare female characters are there in his novels, typically see through this muddle, but the men are not ready to let go their obsession, even when sensible alternative explanations are put forward, sometimes at terrible cost to themselves, and others. In that sense, Numero Uno is no different, either.

But while Belbo of Foucalt’s Pendulum finally sees the truth when it’s too late, here, there is a sweet twist at the end. Maybe because, Prof. Eco really is tired of writing novels, and wants stop with an end to all controversies (Indeed, the Novel, short in length, does seem hurried and abrupt in the end, and could have been much more riveting, and substantive, had Eco been Eco of few years back. Still, it has its moments, and a typical Eco charm in parts. Also given that it’s his shortest novel, it’s not anywhere near as taxing as his earlier works, so ROI is probably not bad, for the effort. That said, give me Foucalt’s Pendulum any day over this). In the words of Maia, then:

“This truth will make every other revelation seem like a lie. […] As of tomorrow, you can go around saying that the pope slits the throats of babies and eats them, or that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the one who put the bomb on the Munich train, and people will say, ‘Oh, really? Interesting,’ and they’ll turn around and get on with what they were doing”

When a conspiracy turns out to be true, the truth can become a conspiracy. And people stop caring about either, if they ever did care. In that, somewhat carelessly tossed, stratagem lies the redemption of Numero Uno, despite being less than impressive by Eco’s standard.

 

Of Slowness, in the Fast World

When someone says about a book or movie that it was too slow, I’m tempted to ask: compared to what? Is there a gold standard of pace for a book, or a movie?

“It is too slow” could well be a judgement on the one passing that judgement. It could just hint at our inability to concentrate, of our lack of patience, our fast shrinking attention spans. Stories have their own pace. Not all can be rushed. Fast paced isn’t necessarily good. Not all subjects can be handled at fast paced. Not many, even. Quickies may have their use, but to recall a controversial ad, asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is never instant).

No I don’t endorse slowness for the sake of it (although, neither do I criticize it). I’m not saying everything slow is wonderful. But what I am doing is questioning our collective clamoring for everything fast paced. We are, it seems, too bored of nuances. We have no interest in stories that one can’t “tell (it) and get over with, already”.

Long back, the Pune Times supplement of Times of India used to carry a small column by someone (okay hint, he was a bong), I’ve entirely forgotten about, but who I used to enjoy reading, once in a while. Incidentally, it wasn’t slow (who has time and space for slow column in, essentially, an ad supplement). And there is one particular piece of his that I still remember, or in any case the gist of it. He talked about how he noticed a road one fine day, in a way he hadn’t noticed before.

Our lives, rushed and busy as they are, don’t leave us with enough time, it seems, to notice the scenery. So much so that, you could be driving on the most beautiful road, with your spouse, out to celebrate your first anniversary, and all that, and a slow driver in front, slowing you down would make you angry.

Move on, already.

We can’t live in a moment. When a beautiful moment is being extended by traffic, we see traffic, not the moment.

Milan Kundera in his comparatively less well known book, Slowness, serenades with this theme: slowness and memory. He deliberates on the issues of slowness, and speed, coincidentally, using the metaphor of driving.

[T]he man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is ousted time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy[…]

Speed is a form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.  As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life.  This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.

Have we, then, delegated the faculty of speed to a machine: the big bad machine that we’re part of, the modern living — career, and the monotony of fast-paced living? Kundera laments the loss of slowness:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those  vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?  Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor:  “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s windows is not  bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do,  which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated,  bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

When we read a slow book, do we have nothing (better) to do? Do we perceive the slowness because we have lost the art of gazing at God’s window?

And more in the context of the current post:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

This whole chain of thought started because of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. As I deliberated whether to pick it up, I chanced upon a review on goodreads. The reviewer said she was contemplating dropping the book just thirty odd pages into it because the narration was “unbearably slow” (her words, not mine). She ended up giving the book five stars and a stellar review. 

While reading it, myself, I kept on recalling Kundera’s words about speed and memory. Remains of the Day is a recollection of a bygone era. And how do you make someone remember a lost era, really remember, and cherish, and let it live as a ghost that much longer, unless one slows it down to a whisper, or its equivalent in speed. When a child throws a tantrum, we tell him/her that when you shout, you get attention of everyone for a moment, but no one remembers what you said, because it will be lost before you could even speak. When you whisper, by contrast, you may not get the attention of everyone, but those who will listen to you will listen to you with rapt attention till you’ve said what you wanted to.

When you tell a story slowly, unfold it gently, let it seep in into the very being of the listener, let it hang in the air, for the air is heavier than the pace of the narration, when you let it germinate in the mind of the reader … well, it seems you could lose a lot of readers. But whoever hangs around past those thirty odd pages, you’ve got them hooked. Invested in your painstakingly painted world. Spellbound. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

Ishiguro has managed that with The Remains of the Day. Maybe, like the bygone era that it depicts, where life wasn’t so fast, after all, was destined to be relegated to such memories, and that too, meant only for “those few amblers of yesteryear, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars”, as Kundera puts it.

Those who don’t mind “gazing at God’s windows”. Those with nothing better to do.

Et tu, Atticus?

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been in news, mostly for non-literary reasons. There is the controversy around it being just a rejected first draft of what finally became her only published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is a controversy about the way HarperCollins got the rights to the book (if it is not a draft of TKMB, that is). And so on. I was in two minds about reading the book, given that it could well have been an exploitation of an author who is not in a state to make the decision, but I knew that I was going to read it eventually. I did it way before eventually.

I’m now ambivalent about what I think about it! Or maybe not.

While TKMB is a simple, morality tale, with clearly defined hero, with Go Set a Watchman we get the grey shades of reality. In a sense that’s to be expected. The former is first person narration of Scout, a young girl learning right and wrongs from her perfect father, the latter is the reality couple of decades down the line, told in third person, with the girl a young women now, living in a big city (New York), and in a position to be much more objective about her hometown, and her family.

Spoilers ahead!! Although they’re really not spoilers if you have been reading at all. Everyone knows the central revelation of Go Set a Watchman. But let me retract a bit.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about moral authority. In it I mentioned that Atticus Finch is my idea (or rather, an ideal) of the model parent, a moral authority figure. I’m sure I was not the first one to say that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the last one, if this book wasn’t published, that is …

This is what I said about Atticus:

Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow.

Nearly two thirds into Go Set a Watchman, there is nothing to contradict that. Then comes the shocker. Atticus, the same Atticus who epitomized “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in TKMB, is a closet racist, a white supremacist.

Listen, Scout, you’re upset by having seen me doing something you think is wrong, but I’m trying to make you understand my position. Desperately trying. This is merely for your own information, that’s all: so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestion.

Or

“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”  [..]

“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Of course, there are different ways to look at this.

One: the two Atticus are different characters. After all, these are two different books. The outcome of trial of Tom Robinson, for instance, is different in two books. This also seems to go with the theory that this one is just a draft that eventually became TKMB.

Two: Some events in two decades changed Atticus. Although the novel doesn’t give us enough to understand such a drastic transition. Which gives us:

Three: Atticus was a closet racist all along, and fought for Tom’s rights because of his ideas of justice wouldn’t allow an innocent man to be hanged/punished for something he didn’t do.

It’s this three, which is most troubling to accept for fans for TKMB, going by the reactions and reviews. How could Atticus, the paragon of virtue, of justice, deny a whole race something while he’s ready to put his career on line to save one from what is just an end result of a systemic injustice propagated in the name of the same beliefs (of superiority of one race)?

A big part of growing up is about coming to terms with the idea of many in one. One doesn’t need to look beyond our own forefathers, to understand that it’s possible to be extremely just in one sphere, and to be unjust (through their actions/beliefs) in another. So in that sense it’s hardly a surprise. And yet it’s a letdown of sorts.

What is disappointing about Go Set a Watchman, is its ending, which didn’t seem to live up to the conflict. Scout is almost apologetic of having judged her father, after a less than convincing post-facto defense by his brother, Dr. Jack Finch. Yes, I’ll come to that. Because that’s the real point of this post — a natural followup to that post on moral authority.

The question is, what happens when you grow up with an infallible moral authority figure, to learn one day that it was based on a projection/part information, or a lie, or a contradiction? Scout says it better than I could:

I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it

The truth is, looking up to an unfailing moral authority can stunt your growth (and this is exactly the logic used by Dr. Jack Finch to convince Scout that this was necessary to cut the moral umbilical chord that was binding her to her father, but it doesn’t cut …) as an independent, moral authority. And in that sense, it’s better to have the moral authority in your life to be imperfect, for even you to see, as you grow up, that this is not all. That your conscience is your own, in the end. And you need to work to that, all your life.

Final verdict on the book: a nice read as a companion to TKMB, but nothing you’d regret not reading. On some levels, it is more nuanced than a morality tale that TKMB is, but it has neither it’s energy, or it’s lyrical flow. It seems like the first draft refurbished into a novel for a quick buck. But it’s still an interesting read, more for ruminating on the lines of this post. I’m not complaining. Although I’d give it maybe 2 out of 5 on pure literary merit.

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PS: The cover of the book throws a curious coincidence. The titles of the two books are of similar form (To/Go Kill/Set A Mockingbird/Watchman). Hinting at the first draft published at book theory, again. For all you know, it’s settled now, already.

PS2: I wonder what would have Gregory Peck done if he had to act in the movie on Watchman? Would he, like Jody Foster in Hannibal case, have refused to portray an Atticus 2.0 which completely wiped out the 1.0 version in couple of paragraphs?

The Destination, Take 2

Long back, I translated a poem by Marathi poet, Borkar. At that time, I didn’t have the original text with me. I translated through memory. Finally, I found the paper on which my cousin had written it down for me in his beautiful handwriting. For those who can read devnagari script, here is the original.

I’m not attempting to mend the translation; mainly because I’ll have to rewrite it completely. And now the bluff is called. I can see clearly my own mess. Thankfully, those who understand Marathi, can at least enjoy the poem now that I’ve posted the original text.

On Brown, White, and Rushdie

Sometime back, Venkat (better known as VGR), one of the early day Sulekhaites, wrote a blog at Sulekha, discussing the problem Indian writers (writing) in English have to face. The blog: Writing English While Brown was an interesting read, even though I disagreed with much of its central thesis and opinions.

Consistently, and quite apart from my own skills or lack thereof, I find that one of the hardest things about writing is being Indian. Like black Americans have their little joke about ‘Driving While Black’, Indians, given our peculiar relationship to the English language, might well say, ‘Writing English While Brown.’

No matter what you write – you with your very Indian names, that is – your Indianness will be part of the piece, he insists, in introduction.

The problem is this. How do you write a piece in such a way that when it is read, with your Indian name attached, it leads
to a coherent aesthetic experience for the reader?

The lack of coherence could come, I presume, from the expectations that an Indian name creates about the writing, and what the writing actually is. I don’t think Venkat would disagree with my presumption though. It’s mostly what he’s said all through in the blog.

Anyways, the two ends of the spectrum of responses, according to Venkat, are:

Some combine an incredible naivete with a lack of self-awareness and cheerfully write pastiches of their favorite English authors (say Muthuswamy Chandrasekharan writing a Ludlumish thriller with a hero named Jack Bauer, with no sensitivity to the fact that his name changes the reading of the story). Others are painfully oversensitive and self-conscious to the point that they invest all their creative effort into countering the Writing English While Brown effect, to the point where it ruins the actual intent of the piece.

And then he insists:

Somewhere in between is a happy medium where you can Write English While Brown and be aesthetically successful with respect to your intent (not necessarily commercially). We just haven’t discovered it yet.

Hmmmm. Then he goes on to exhaustively (almost) list the range of responses. I ended up commenting to the blog, which you can read here, if you’re terribly interested (which I assume you aren’t and hence I’m not embedding the comment here).

I forgot all that for a while. Then couple of weeks back, I picked up Vikram Seth’s Equal Music. And right away, I remembered that blog again! Vikram Seth has created all Caucasian characters, living in England, making Western classical music, with totally British problems, if one can call it that. Yes, remind me to put up my (yet unwritten) review, as I would anyways, but that’s not the point. In Venkat’s list this probably No. 9 response: Global Warriorization — something which he doesn’t think Fiction writers (IWEs) have tried (with any success, that is). Did it bother me? Vikram Seth, with clearly Indian name writing about characters who’re do not share a trace of Indian ancestry? Clearly, it did not. If I hadn’t read Venkat’s blog, I’d have not even thought about it. Would it have bothered the Brits? The Americans, for whom Briton is probably as alien as India, the French, the Germans (if select few of the latter two can read English at all)?

Then today, I came across this old little interview of Salman Rushdie from Salon.

When asked if he, “ever worr[ies] that using so many culturally specific references will leave many readers unable to understand what [he is] trying to say?”, Rushdie answers in his characteristic style:

No. I use them as flavoring. I mean, I can read books from America and I don’t always get the slang. American writers always assume that the whole world speaks American, but actually the whole world does not speak American. And American Jewish writers put lots of Yiddish in their books and sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying. I’ve read books by writers like Philip Roth with people getting hit in the kishkes and I think, “What?!”

That’s what I love about Rushdie (and probably that’s exactly what I hate about him, too), his spunk.

It’s fun to read things when you don’t know all the words. Even children love it. One of the things any great children’s writer will tell you is that children like it if in books designed for their age group there is a vocabulary just slightly bigger than theirs. So they come up against weird words, and the weird words excite them. If you describe a small girl in a story as “loquacious,” it works so much better than “talkative.” And then some little girl will read the book and her sister will be shooting her mouth off and she will say to her sister, “Don’t be so loquacious.” It is a whole new weapon in her arsenal.

Too bad Venkat dismisses Rushdie, who dared to write in an English that was anathema to the brown writers (more than it would have been to the whites, even) as escapist: write about anything other than the real world, or about the real world mired in so much of the fantastic that only a literature PhD can figure it out. But then, he’s entitled to his opinion.

I guess Rushdie will just sigh, after all he had taken bull by the horns, long back, in Midnight’s Children. And called the bull a bull.

Literary questions

It’s no secret that Amitav Ghosh is one of my favorite writers (not just Indian favorite writer). So on a Sunday morning I checked the Hindu Literary Review (which is another favorite of mine) and there was this Ghosh interview, I had to read it. The interview probably deserves a blog on its own, but what got me more interested is a reference about “Anxiety of Authenticity”. So I dig it up, and there it was: Vikram Chandra’s piece entitled, The Cult of Authenticity.

Some time back I wrote a blog, The Unintentional Exoticising, that tried to do a Devil’s advocate, or rather sympathized with another Devil’s advocate. At that time I wasn’t aware of this Vikram Chandra piece, or I wouldn’t have bothered writing that blog. True, the piece is slightly (?) long and repetitive and even polemic in nature — the last kind of inevitable after the barrages from the other side, yet it is a much needed voice from that side — the voice that we need hear a tad more often, to compensate for the noises from the other side of the other side.

Chandra talks about this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” predicament of the Anglo-Indian writers, a vernacular as pure Vs english as impure generalization, identities of cosmopolitan Indian writers, futility of notions of Indianness and authenticity and so on. The issues of “intent” are covert, but they interest me, always:

It apparently never occurs to Dr. Mukherjee that style is something that one feels in the pit of the stomach, that Narayan may be interested in a minimalistic representation because it grows from the marrow of his Malgudi bones, that perhaps when Narayan sits down at his desk with his pen and his paper, he is not thinking of his pan-Indian or international audience, not any more than Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver were thinking of their audiences in Ghaziabad and Vishakapatnam when they chiselled their laconic turns of phrase. But no, in this understanding of the universe, to write in English is to be transparently vulnerable to the demands of the market, any market. And conversely, to write in anything but English is to be preternaturally chaste and upright.

It’s a pity that the essay is so long that one is prone to jump forward just when he actually delivers the punch.

All art is born at this crossroads of ambition and integrity, between the fierce callings of fame and the hungers of the belly and the desires of one’s children and the necessities of art and truth. Michelangelo knew this, and Ghalib knew this. There is no writer in India, or in the world, no artist anywhere who is free of this eternal chakravyuha, this whirling circle that is life itself.

And while he’s at it, he even questions the questioners motives:

… the most vociferously anti-Western crusaders I meet are inevitably the ones who are most hybrid. It is these comfortably situated citizens, these Resident Non-Indians, who, beset by a consciousness of their own isolation from “Real India,” feel an overpowering nostalgia for an Indianness that never was, for a mythical, paradisaical lost garden of cultural and spiritual unity…

Intent again, albeit through a excerpt by Jorge Luis Borges, who ends up dismissing intent as insignificant in the larger scheme of things:

I believe, moreover, that all the foregoing discussions of the aims of literary creation are based on the error of supposing that intentions and plans matter much…. Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good or adequate writers.

And Chandra chips in with this fabulous one-liner:

To be self-consciously anti-exotic is also to be trapped, to be censored.

In the end Chandra asks, “How should a writer work, in these circumstances?” and comes up with his own answer: ignore criticism, beware of praise, write freely, don’t think about either audience or critics, be local and global at the same time, be fearless, and most of all covet the goddess, of good writing. The answer couldn’t have been more difficult.