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

The Problems with Dangal

It’s probably useless to attempt to review Dangal. Everyone knows what it’s about. It’s doing well. It’s a movie that I enjoyed watching. It’s a good movie. But I’d like to add — and this might be necessary, because the momentum like that sometimes makes people believe that a movie is lot more that it is — it’s not great, or near perfect, as some reviewers may like you to believe. Not that it has to be. Not that it was even intended to be. Which is fine, really. Neither were Lagaan, or Titanic, or Three Idiots, or umpteen other celebrated movies in Bollywood/Hollywood.

Dangal has a few things going for it, yes. Good acting (nope, not great, good). Decent story-line. Excellent pace. A dose of desh-prem. A somewhat progressive take on gender equality (although not, if you look closely, and we will). Decent music. Shot well, especially the wrestling training and matches — it all looks very real.

But once the euphoria is over, a few hours after the credits roll up, one starts to ruminate (can there be a better word to describe it — because it’s exactly what bovine species does with food, eat first, chew later) over the film, and those things that jarred when you were watching it, but you couldn’t put your finger on (or even wanted to, then), start raising their not-so-pretty heads.

So here are some problems with Dangal:

The generic biopic problem of Bollywood

Bollywood is terrible when it comes to biopics. It trades nuances for punches, and uncomfortable facts for pulp. Unfortunately, Dangal doesn’t buck that trend (I have not seen Mary Kom, so not sure if it does). While it makes for an overall interesting viewing, I think a more nuanced portrayal might have made it a more honest, and generally a better movie.

Weak Characterization

Except for Mahavir Singh Phogat’s character, most other characters are placeholders to bend against his will as required. Even the two girls, who end up winning International Golds are basically puppets at the hands of Mahavir, all through the movie. Its only two times that Geeta is seen showing some agency. Out of this, when she chooses to  reject her father’s authority on life and coaching, she is a spectacular failure. Predictably, it’s when she chooses to take advice from her father in the crowd as opposed to her coach, does she do well. The father is always right. The international level (caricature of an) coach is always wrong. There is no scope for nuances or gray shades.

Gender equality without agency

Yes, the movie has an  explicit message of treating your daughters no less than sons, and Mahavir seems to mouth the same near the end, mansplaining it to the girls. But even that is almost accidental. One is supposed to feel for Mahavir early on when he is cursed with a daughter after daughter. It’s only when he realizes that they can fulfill his dream, that Mahavir actually starts looking at them as, well, to put it mildly surrogates for boys. In fact no women in the film has any agency (and when they seem to have it, they’re wrong — like Geeta’s friend at the institute who spoils her). The girls have to do what Mahavir tells them. The mother has zero say in the business.

Melodrama

Another obsession of Bollywood that Dangal doesn’t manage to free itself from is the ubiquitous melodrama. Some of the scenes are absolutely ridiculous. Like Mahavir showing the album of the girl’s prize money and pleading with the officials at National Institute of Sports when they are about to expel the girls. What the coach does near the end is so atrociously melodramatic. Or the scene where Geeta calls her father on insistence of Babita, after realizing that it’s not working out for her. Nowhere is there a visible effort to make it subtle, more nuanced. Nowhere is the conflict genuine, and answers complicated.

Implications on Parenting

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We live in crazy times where as it is parents are pushing their kids to the limits — for their own good, obviously, if you ask them. What the film seems to be glorifying Mahavir’s bullheaded pursuit of vicarious excellence (a friend of the girls says she’d rather have a father like Mahavir, when the girls are complaining of their plight, because at least he treats them as someone who could be something, but it’s a very specific something that he wants — more for himself — and it’s not negotiable, and in that sense the girls are as much instruments in the hands of a single person, as the friend is in the hands of a patriarchal system). There are no seeds of doubt sown anywhere. Excellence comes at a cost, and the cost has to be paid by the children, because a parent knows the best. I’m so worried that a lot of Indian parents will just take the movie as a validation of their, sometimes excessive, pushing of children towards a statistically unlikely glory in real life.

So yes, Dangal has its moments. It’s fun. It’s even temporarily uplifting. But as the hangover recedes, I could not help but feel sad at an opportunity lost, of a honest, nuanced biopic. Then again, 100s Cr club membership requires you to abandon nuances. Not even Amir Khan will that price (no don’t tell me Taare Zameen Par was nuanced).

La La Land: The Glorious Mess We Make

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins on a freeway, in the middle of a massive traffic jam, and suddenly people are out on the road dancing. A few minutes later, the song over, everyone’s back into their cars, frustrated/honking, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a car behind Mia’s (Emma Stone), honking at her as the jam opens up, but she’s busy reading her audition script, and they give each other middle fingers, as they go there own way.

For the next two hours or so, La La Land takes us back and forth into those two worlds — of dreams and reality, effortlessly moving from one to the other, blurring the borders. It’s been described as a musical, and it is, in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Chazelle who gave us a extremely tightly woven Whiplash has taken all sort of liberties here. Songs linger a bit longer than one is used to. Closeups last longer than is strictly necessary, but richly paid off, thanks to the two lead performers. Side cast is side cast, with no effort made to develop any other character, and it really doesn’t matter (just like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation needed no one around them, really).

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The story is simple love story between two struggling artists — Mia an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop (yes, very cliched but works), and Sebastian, an aspiring Jazz pianist — both trying to find out if they have it in them. As they inevitably fall in love, it all merges, professional dreams and life. They change each other, grow with each other, just to find that all of that comes with a bill (or a check, as the Americans would say).

Dialogues are absorbing, so are the lyrics. The colors are terrific. You savor frame after frame, assuming this can’t be bettered, but just as the two characters keep on saying about view of a lovely valley, “I have seen better”, another frame comes and proves it possible. Cinematography is exquisite, continuing with the recent Hollywood trend of using movies as a way to express love of a city (like Begin Again’s love affair with New York). And the chemistry is intoxicating.

Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I don’t think so.

In a scene early on Mia tells Sebastian, “I hate Jazz”, hoping to get that out of the door, because she knows what it means to Sebastian, a Jazz purist of sorts (she doesn’t know it, but earlier on, when his sister suggests him to meet a girl, he asks if she like Jazz, and when the answer is negative, he goes: “but what will we talk about”?)

“What do you mean you hate Jazz?”, he wants to know, and proceeds to initiate her (and the audience, in case they share the feeling) into it. He doesn’t, as she is expecting, fly off the handle, but just wouldn’t accept the it’s true (how could she?) But as he tells her about it, he also tells her regretfully that his beloved Jazz is dying, “but not on my watch”, he boasts. What Jazz is to Sebastian, the musical seems to be for Chazelle – a dying art form that he wouldn’t let die on his watch (even Sebastian’s words for to Mia when she wonders if it’s just a pipe dream she’s chasing – “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise,  and it’s very exciting”, seem to be said to himself, as much as to Mia) .

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La La Land is about Jazz, about magic of films, about arts, drama, and such dreams of the ones stepped in in performance arts, but what it is really about is underlined by Mia, in one of her auditions, when given a free hand, as she breaks into a song, that goes:

Here’s to the ones who dream,
foolish as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that ache.
Here’s to the mess we make.

That in nutshell, is La La Land — a story of dreams, and costs we pay to achieve them.

“Where are we”, Mia asks Sebastian,  later on.

The emphasis is on we, not where. There are  no easy answers here. Even as La La Land keeps on giving us glimpses of dreams, it stays rooted to reality. And in that sense, it isn’t a musical of 40s or 50s. Just like Whiplash, where excellence is never detached from the price of achieving it, there are no easy resolutions here either. But by the time the end credits roll, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glorious mess we make, those of us who dream.


PS: A note on the lead actors. Emma Stone, who impressed in Birdman is  fabulous here. Mia is meant for her. Ryan Gosling is more than competent — given the meatier role. And the music is fabulous, Jazz and all – what lovely theme that by Justin Hurwitz, something right up there with the best. What more can one ask of a movie? I watched it in a theater with 15 odd people, mostly bored, and disappointed. Maybe for those of us who have grown up on the Bollywood flavor of magic, this is underwhelming. But if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone, do watch this love affair with dreams. Maybe, it’ll rekindle some lost one of yours too.

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: Dear Zindagi

When I watched Gauri Shinde’s debut movie, English Vinglish, I had zero expectations from it. To be fair, I was in fact afraid I’d be bored. But I was rather charmed in the end. It had its moments. And I could keep my cynicism aside for those two and something hours. With Dear Zindagi, I was already sold, because I do like Alia. Especially after Highway (and that forgettable Two States, in which she managed to shine through the unadulterated crap somehow).  And Gauri Shinde had done enough in her earlier movie to merit a watch.

Did I like it? Yes. Was it a great film, no. I don’t think I was expecting great. But what works here, are a couple of very good performances. Alia just seems effortless as Kaira, totally owning the character, to use a contemporary phrase. SRK as Dr. Khan is closer to Kabir Khan of Chak De than his usual over-the-top character portrayals. Yes, he cannot entirely let go some of the exaggerated head nods and the likes, but I’d rather see SRK like this than when he is running that stupid rat race with Sallu and co.

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The story is quite straightforward. Kaira, a cinematographer, is living the coveted modern life, unmarried, with career aspirations, affairs, and partying. Her relationship status, in Facebook style, would be “it’s complicated”, as she’s involved with her co-worker Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), even as she is dating someone else — the relationship does not survive, and as she doesn’t want to take the other affair to a more serious track, Rahuvendra decides to move on (in a rather strange, unconvincing manner, for the convenience of the plot), just after she has to move back to her parent’s house in Goa for a month thanks to her landlord evicting her on short notice. It’s there, post the breakup (that really wasn’t, because there was no real relationship, just a possibility), that she has to confront the demons in her past/mind, as she , something the hatke psychologist Jug — Jahangir Khan — helps  her identifying, and coming to terms with.

Shot beautifully, with teasing glimpses of South Bombay and quite an eyeful of Goa, the story unfolds at a nice languid pace. Alia is as perfect casting choice for Kaira as could be. Significant part of the movie is in the counseling sessions (indoor and outdoor) with Jug, and those are its better moments (yes it’s a significant violation of “show don’t tell”, but still). The biggest success of Dear Zindagi for me is that it even attempted to chew into this territory, and did a decent enough job with it. Besides, the drama genre in Bollywood is typically filled with melodrama, and there is no space for a more nuanced dialog, which is abundant here. Kaira’s character seems very real and very contemporary. And there is no KJo style gloss to smooth out every hint of texture. Okay, not a lot, just some.

Of course Gauri Shinde is no Anurag Kashyap/Tigmanshu Dhulia. The script is rather weak. Last 20 mins or so really adds nothing, even undoes an otherwise mostly-relate-able/believable narrative. The side characters are quite of the cardboard variety, serving a purpose, or just about it. For those used to better “serious” (not necessarily in content, but intent) cinema, even from Indian directors (Kashyap/Bharadwaj/…) it does seem a little hollow or scratching the surface, while those used to Sallu style instant gratification (I’m assuming, because I frankly don’t understand that shit at all) will find it a little of a drab drag. But between the two ends lies a not-so-narrow niche where some directors seem to be making a play (Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, to name a few), with varied results. And Gauri Shinde surely has the eye on that niche, with two of her films, and deservedly, I’d say.

The thing is, this could have been something really really good with some tight editing, some more depth, a little less pulp. But as it stands, it’s still quite good — worth a watch with all its shortcomings.

What works: lead performances (specifically Alia), cinematography, feel-good, flow, little touches here and there, subject.

What doesn’t: over-closure (I’d say just stop 25 minutes to the stop line and you’ve got a much better movie), weak supporting characters (and hence performances),  a bit shallow (the side effect of feel-good at all costs), the script could have been tighter, a bit preachy. Music is utilitarian, nothing I’d listen to again.

Overall: 3.5/5.


PS: The featured image is a still from the film, and not my own photograph as usually is (with the exception when I borrow one from Atul Sabnis).

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.

 

 

 

Day Breaks, and Norah Jones Shines Again

I loved Norah Jones’ fabulous debut album “Come Away with Me”, with her unreal composure (for a debutant, that is) and intoxicating tone. I’ve listened to it countless number of times. Then came Feels like Home, which mostly felt like Come Away with Me. And I was already wondering if that’s pretty much the last of hers that I’d listen to. Still I checked out Not too Late. Nope. It was too late for me, and so I didn’t follow her for a decade, and more. I haven’t even heard her “country/pop” albums in those years, not even a track.

norahjonesdaybreaksLately, I started my trial of Apple Music which is finally available in India, and today, it suggested her latest album, with a positive blurb, and I thought, what the heck. Little was I expecting to be stunned!

With Day Breaks, Norah Jones seems to be finally delivering on the promise she made with her debut album. What we have here, is a strange concoction of original singles, that do remind — but not in a “repetitive” sense — of the singles from her early days, and some covers, from big names like Ellington, Horace Silver, Neil Young. Also, added to the fleet are names like Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, as needed. The whole album has a polished, mature feel to it, as you would expect from a now veteran, and with the exception of “Tragedy”, almost everything else resonated with me.

The opening track, Burn, sets tone for a “different”, but same Jones, as she experiments with a very different rhythm, while sticking to her guns — her fabulous voice, and piano underscoring, rather than overriding. The fourth and fifth tracks (It’s a Wonderful Time for Love/And Then There Was You) are vintage Jones. And it’s here that the Album starts to break free, living up to its name. The title track that follows ventures into a more energized zone. A little heavy ensemble gives it a gravitas that’s not what one’s used to, with Jones.

Peace, a cover of Horace Silver standard (which I must confess, with shame, I hadn’t heard before, for all my Jazz explorations over last few years),  is remarkable, to say the least — with a beautiful synergy between Jones voice and piano, and Wayne Shorter’s solos. And it just gets better and better from there, with a playful “Once I Had a Laugh”, with Jones now venturing into a classic vocal Jazz era, and returning to a soulful Carry On after a track — which seems like the right ending note. This track, above all, shows Jones’ almost casual mastery, and poise that comes after one and half decade of journey.

But Jones had other ideas. And she ends it on a glorious cover of Duke’s “African Flower” that I for one am going to go back to, along with many others in the album. Again, it’s Wayne Shorter adding a lot of meat with his exquisite playing, and is given a well-deserved long runway, with Jones taking a back seat, adding some flourishes with piano.

Recommended. Especially if you were enthralled by her earlier works, the way I was.

 

 

 

The Anatomy of Pain

Thoughts on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Before starting this post, I was thinking of calling it a review. But how does one review raw, visceral pain, and cold and deep wisdom at the end of it? Make no mistake about it, this is not a book. This is a slap. Directed at America, or the white-America to be precise, but it’s just coincidental that that is the target, because it could easily be a book about so many peoples, by so many peoples.

Typically, I’m almost prudish when it comes to handling books. And if there is one rule I never break, it’s “do not write/mark” rule. But two pages into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and I broke it. It ironic, because the book talks about violence against black bodies, among other things, and here I was, black pencil in hands, marking furiously over the white paper, underlining black characters, a sort of violence against a body of book. And yet, curiously, it didn’t feel like violence. It seemed like remembering, or rather a battle against forgetting — a great sin that the author talks about.

img_20160910_201919_hdrBetween the World and Me is a black American’s heartfelt letter to his son, about growing up as a black in white America. No I’m not going to write much about it because frankly, this small book is something that everyone should just go and read. I mean no one should need convincing that it needs to be read. It should be made a compulsory reading (I’m kidding of course, but you get it, I assume). Because it’s such writings, that have — if anything has it — a tiny chance at changing the world, in  tiny little way. Because, someone needs to make us look at all that we choose not to look at. It’s relevant for everyone. For black Americans, because really, it’s just so patently obvious; for white Americans (or as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say: “those who believe themselves to be white” Americans) because if he can’t reach them, no one probably can; by anyone really, born with privilege, because it’s only by reading something like this can you start seeing that invisible power and how it affects others; or without privilege, because there are lessons for them, a tiny bit of hope, and a lot of wisdom to draw from.

What is striking about The World and Me, though, is its expanse — on both emotional and ideological  axes. Early on, the author talk about his life as a kid growing up in Baltimore, in black neighborhoods. In that context, he touches upon his son’s disillusionment on hearing that Michael Brown’s killer cop will go scot-free. This is what he says:

I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

That may come across as negativity, but as you read through the book, which pretty much sets to help his kid to “find some way to live within it all of it”, it’s as much about hope, and wisdom, and compassion, as anything you’d read before or after it. And the whole book is written with this unrelenting honesty, because, understanding is crucial to survival.

He’s scathing about America (and beyond a point, he doesn’t bother qualifying it as white America, because the America that he talk about, the one with agency is — and there certainly is no doubt in his mind — white America):

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

And

But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.

And much much more.

But it is not all bitterness. The idea is to understand, be aware, and yet survive, even flourish. To seek one’s answers, one’s way of “getting out”. And hence there is great introspection, within the dissection of all that’s wrong. And so he discusses the process of trying to find the “way out”, or rather a way from the streets he grew up with, full of fear (not just his, but everyone’s, even those with guns, and attitude), to the “dream” presented on the television where kids have mundane little problems to deal with.

But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.

One answer for him was the very process of introspection, through putting on paper the feeling, observations, the whys …

Your grandmother […]  taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior—they certainly did not curb mine—but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?

But this, surely, couldn’t be enough. There were, also, predictably, reading. Although reading can take you either way.

Your grandfather loved books and loves them to this day, and they were all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room, boxed up in the basement. Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party. I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers and his stash of old Party newspapers. I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. And I compared the Panthers to the heroes given to me by the schools, men and women who struck me as ridiculous and contrary to everything I knew.

There was also the questioning of non-violence of the civil rights movement, because:

How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all they were, and then speak of non-violence.

School, was obviously a part of the answer, but :

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.

Then there was what Ta-Nehisi calls “The  Mecca” — the Howard University, where his idea of “black” world changed, enlarged. And he wants his son to know about it, because:

My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there—a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm. Surely I am biased by nostalgia and tradition.

In his mind, the importance of this stable “port in the American storm” cannot be emphasized more because, it is there that :

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white.

And it is from this realization, comes a deeper, more profound, understanding :

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been “black,” and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the “white” from the “black,” even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.

Through The Mecca I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.

And it’s not being anti-white, or anti those “who think they are white”.  It is not about black superiority. Rather beyond. Understanding the complex history of slavery, including that in black history which was less than ideal.

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

This acceptance, this rite of passage, was just an extension of that “introspection”, taken from the personal to the race, one’s race, not the other.

The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.

I could have stopped right there. I was saturated. I was stunned. I was moved. I was taken on a whirlwind ride through the heart of pain. But I kept reading. Because, what else can one do, faced with writing of this caliber?

Of course, The Mecca, can enlighten, but the world is still the same world, even though you see it with different eyes. Later in the book, Ta-Nehisi talk about losing a friend to the machine — cops killing him, and getting away with it. The world changes slowly. Painfully slowly. Wounds open before they can heal. There is a lot of poignant writing about it, including his meeting with the friend’s mom, a successful Doctor. Her son, who could have possibly got into any college of his choosing, but chose Mecca, and was killed one day, as police tailed him, and shot him.

I asked [her] if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. “No,” she said. “I regret that he is dead”.

She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and  direction that the great American injury demands of you.

There is the realization, again, and again, that not much has changed, although a lot has:

And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

It’s through all that, that he has to find his answers. And pass them on to his son. Hoping they would fit, at least partially. This book, is that labor of love, of knowledge, and understanding, of pain and suffering, and of surviving, when even the bare basic survival seems like a challenge. I cannot think of anything that I should have been reading in those times when I was reading it. This has to be read. These excerpts cannot do justice to the book. This commentary is superfluous. He has to be read. Maybe, then, the “dream” would be less harsh for others. Maybe, we would see more of hell around us. Maybe, we will learn to be better humans. It’s a tall ask. But so was starting where Ta-Nehisi started and to write this book.

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.

 

 

 

 

A Strangeness In His Istanbul

A Review of Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind”

It’s no secret that Pamuk’s infatuated by his city, Istanbul. To be fair, infatuation is a wrong word — It doesn’t last decades, even years —  love bordering on obsession probably is more apt. What else could explain his ode to the city, Istanbul: Memories and the City, intertwining personal history, with the streets and shops, the sights and sounds, of the city, loving tribute to a city he grew up in? And yet, being the story-teller that he is, his non-fiction work about the city doesn’t do justice to the city, as it’s preoccupied with how it affected him, growing up.

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It’s been over a decade since he wrote that one, though, and a perfect time for a sequel of sorts. And so we have :  A Strangeness in My Mind, a love-story on the surface, but really a tale of the city, which just refuses to become a backdrop to an engrossing story of Mevlut — from his small-town beginnings, to a drop-in-the-ocean existence in a metropolis bursting at the seams; underlined by his strange love that lasts a lifetime, and his travails, his naivety, and the tragedies that punctuate his life with a deadpan regularity. Through all of it, the city keeps on raisesing its head, both figuratively, and formatively (through mosques, and houses, and skyscrapers) every now and then, as Pamuk moves Mavlut’s story along with the story of his beloved city.

While Istanbul (the non-fiction), is more interested in the spaces, and the temperament, and the overwhelming feel of the city, and that too, for someone living on the more Europeanized side of the Turkey’s cultural fault-lines; in Strangeness, Pamuk takes more interest in the evolution of the city from the point of view of those on the other side of those fault-lines: the peasants, who flocked to the city in search of opportunity, the daily-wage earners, the communists and the Islamists, the housewives, and the uncles, and the mothers, and the customers, and the religious gurus … It’s a vibrant picture of a city that Pamuk painted gray in his earlier work. Not that gray is used sparingly here either.

Mevlut comes to Istambul, already a dauntingly big city for someone coming from a village, and watches it grow to a megapolis, transforming people around him, in more ways than he could have imagined; while he tries to hold on to a trade that’s already on the decline (a boza [a fermented drink, possible etymological origins of the English “booze”]  seller), even in his father’s time. Mevlut, who finds his love-of-life, thanks (!) to a cruel trick played by a cousin, never really comes out the trumps in life, which isn’t that unexpected knowing Pamuk’s fatalistic view of existence (at least what comes out as one, from his books), where happiness is always fleeting, and melancholy (or huzun, as his other Istambul book educates us about) enduring; with his quintessentially un-heroic (but also un-villainous) characters. But as he struggles with, and then begins to accept the whole existential strangeness, inside his mind, as exemplified by his tortured love/life story, and outside — in the streets, and back-allies of the ever changing city. In Istambul (the  non-fiction), Pamuk tries to capture “hüzün” of the city in words, and images. He almost succeeds. But here, he paints with it, and it’s hard to miss. If one goes back to the “Memoir” now, one would get it right-away.

In terms of the narration, Pamuk resorts to a mix of third person narration, with the multi-narrator technique that he so well employed in his best book to date: My Name is Red. That technique, in its measured application, works very well for this one too, as it gives a glimpse into more lives, more point-of-views, and builds a context to assess Mevlut’s struggles, and tiny triumphs. And Pamuk is in fine form here, with a countenance  of a test match specialist batsman who is reassured that time is on his side. Which means, for many, it is too slow for their comfort. Not me. I like books that water the plant, and wait patiently, for the bloom to come. And if you have time too, then Pamuk is enormously rewarding. The hüzün and the grays not withstanding.