Yes we’re all made
but it’s the stardust
that is tired
after traveling forbidding
that’s long since cooled off,
robbed on the way
of the last bit of energy
that’s a forgotten legacy
of an exploding sun;
the residue of a failure
glorious in death,
but glory does not survive
the cold inter-space travels
on dull, semi-dead comets
and uninhabited planets
a game of pass the parcel,
without a plan
we aspire to be stars
but we’re afraid to burn
the stardust that made us
that a star is as ephemeral
as a flower
when one looks back
of a cosmic scale;
is a humble reminder
Yes we’re all
made of stardust
but we’re not stars
we’re cold, calculating,
and immensely lucky
arrangements of stardust
on improbable islands
of cold starstuff,
who need someone else
to explode spectacularly
just for us to be born
Title is lift-off of Woody Allen film that I’ve yet to watch, strangely.
Photo Credits: Atul Sabnis.
I want to send an SOS
just to see
who comes to rescue me;
but the childhood stories
of the boy who cried wolf
hold me back
What if I used up
the one shout
that I had earned
to break the trust?
But I’d be lying
if I said, that is what
for these stories
with their obvious morals
always hide something,
the sub-text, if you will
a covert message for those
who really want to see
For what we worry
is not, wasting our
one real chance
but finding out
that no one will come,
that you we never
had a chance
I guess you’ve realized by now that the rest of the world cares far more about you than you do about it. Yes it’s unrequited love on most part, except for the cases where it actually has seemed like getting reciprocated, only to find out in due course, that love isn’t same as being used. Our dear neighbor, for instance, knows how that feels. Being used, being owned. But then I digress.
You must be wondering, in those few moments when your narcissism is dampened by some internal crisis — everyone is supposed to have those, right? — what have you done to deserve this interest? On a remote chance that you actually have wondered, let me spell it out for you. Again, I not being you, I could actually be wrong. But let’s use the trick that one uses while watching movies: suspended disbelief.
It’s strange. I give you that. From the vantage point of any neutral observer from distant lands, the choice you have today is curious: xenophobia, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, pathological dishonesty, every-kind-of-bigotry, combined with the exact same virtues of capitalism — incompetent fool inheriting wealth and using every trick in the book to serve self-interest — on one end; and systemic corruption, political establishment at it’s ugly best, a will to get power-at-any-cost, on the other end. Yes, I give you, that the choice is not pretty.
And consider us, sitting outside. A part of us should ideally be saying: “God knows, they deserve Trump. Why should only the rest of the world suffer? Let ’em Americans suffer a bit too. Or a LOT”. But seriously, you know what, we still wish you well. I know you’re baffled about that, so let me, as I promised I would, help you with that.
For the greater world out there – especially the non-European world, which you guys fondly call third world, and which you guys sometimes bomb into the stone-age, in an effort to make lesser humans there understand the value of western democracy, which is on trial today (or tomorrow, for I still haven’t adjusted my mind clock to account for your DST); America is land of dreams. I know, I know, it’s not your fault, that we choose to believe in a myth that you beamed into our bedrooms, via your terrifically talented media, that sold us this post-racism, post-sexism, post-feminism, post-religion, post-xenophobia, land of equal and abundant opportunity, where everyone has a chance to move up, and reach the top. You even had a serial about a white guy with a white girl adopting two really cute black kids, and another one about a quaint little town of Rome, Wisconsin, where an ethical and upright white police chief, a Jewish defense attorney, a black public prosecutor, a white judge, all lived happily ever after, dealing with issues of prejudice, and ethics, and morality, and religion with adult, almost saintly, composure. You had your legal dramas, where the underdog won, more often than not.
You had your first amendment holding up a mirror to the third world, which could not even dream of that. You had your non-hierarchical, talent always prevails, kind of corporate setup with written ethics, and all. You had your diversity programs, and anti-hate-speech laws, and what not. You made us believe, that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to create just societies by creating right legislature, and by making sure it’s enforced correctly, by sticking to democracy at all cost, because, in the end, it will help in the triumph of the right (not the political, or religious, just the right), and the just.
And for this, we looked away when your foreign policy made sure that much of this dream is denied to parts of the world where your “strategic defense interests”, or oil, or ideological interests, mandated you to start and sustain wars, which your non-privileged foot-soldiers fought, while the privileged dunked drafts and became Presidents, and trumpeted glories of American penchant for freedom in the larger, third-world. When your unholy alliances supported or replaced with another/worse dictators, provided weapons for most wars fought anywhere on the earth, killed unarmed civilians and tagged them “collateral damage”, supported dangerous religious extremists/terrorists, supplying them with weapons and intelligence, all for balance of power in your civilized world, then killed some of them and made America safe again. We looked away, because, in this seriously screwed up world, we needed to believe in a myth, to survive, and to become better.
If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear stained eyes
Don’t be surprised, when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice
The Thin Ice, The Wall* by Pink Floyd
Today, you’re an inch away from taking away even that myth. So you see, why we care?
We care, because we don’t want the thin-ice to be broken, and for us all to fall into an abyss from where there is no return. We care, because we want to believe, that a better, more equitable, more just, more humane, less suspicious, more embracing, world is possible, if we all, to borrow Rushdie’s words, concentrated a little. But then again, don’t let our expectations of you hold you back from the path of self-destruction. Maybe we need to see that abyss under the thin ice, and to find new beacons, more worthy of that title. Maybe you showing the world your real heart is what the world needs — for its been blind to it so far, despite all you have shown us. Maybe you need a president that truly symbolizes you. Maybe you really need Trump.
[*]: Not that Wall.
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.
But 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.
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.
Lately, 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.
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.
Between 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.
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.
Our religions are tolerant, we're intolerant Our religions are spiritual, we're materialistic Our religions are forgiving, we're vengeful Our religions are dynamic, we're stuck Our religions are unbounded, we're parochial Our religions are open, we're closed Our religions are liberal, we're conservative Our religions are giving, we're hoarders Our religions are magnanimous, we're small minded Our religions are frugal, we're ostentatious Our religions are humanitarian, we're fundamentalists Our religions are egalitarian, we're hierarchical Our religions are about living, we're about words Our religions are the best we wanted To be, and could never be And then, We are proud of religions We hate religions We love religions We blame religions We thank religions When we should be Looking At what we are And what we should be
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.
I 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.
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 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.
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.