Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The novel, like other art forms, is an open-ended artistic output which can be interpreted in varied ways. A month ago, I read Stephen King’s ‘Stephen King on Writing’ which placed plot at the center of the novel as the main goal that authors pursue. Last week I finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist where Pamuk has discussed the novel as a more esoteric form of art (he is, in fact, against it being considered as a craft which is why he loathes creative writing workshops where the novel is considered as a craft) where the writer pursues arcane goals like finding the center of the novel, using descriptions of locations, situations etc as a conduit to convey various aspects of the main character’s personality, situation, mood and so on.

The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is a compilation of lectures delivered by Orhan Pamuk at Cambridge on various aspects of the novel inspired by EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel to which he acknowledges his debt. The book has generous autobiographical dollops about Pamuk’s coming of age as a reader (of mainly literary novels) and small bites of how the novel came about as a form of storytelling woven into the general narrative.

Pamuk substantiates his arguments by discussing novels - War and Peace, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and many more - that have shaped him as a writer. In Anna Karenina there is a scene where Anna is trying to read a novel in a train compartment while returning home, but she is not able to concentrate on the novel thanks to a handsome army officer she met at a party who has kept her mentally occupied. While she tries to unsuccessfully read the novel, Tolstoy describes the view outside the window.

Pamuk observes that the view outside the train conveys the somewhat melancholic mood of Anna. This is one of the reasons why Pamuk says Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels of all times: where everything is an extension of the protagonist’s personality (or state of mind). Being a visual writer, Tolstoy handled the situation this way. But Stendhal, for example, would have used the time, when the character is reading, to describe the compartment. It wouldn’t have mattered much to Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he wasn’t a visual writer like Tolstoy. And so on.

Compared to nineteenth century Russian greats, there are fewer mentions of writers from the West except a few like Daniel Defoe and Dickens for obvious reasons but also Virginia Wolf, Henry James etc. E.M Forster recurs several times but not for his novels but his book The Aspects of the Novel.

Pamuk informs that the novel was born in Europe and was later adopted by writers in eastern societies, but doesn’t say how and when the adoption happened and which countries where the first ones to adopt. But you can’t fault him for that because that’s not what the book is about.

According to Pamuk, there are two kinds of novelists – naïve and sentimental. Naïve are those who write without any plan, spontaneously, while sentimental are reflective writers concerned about the structure of the novel. Similarly, naïve readers are the ones who read without considering the larger message of a novel and the reverse applies to sentimental readers. Pamuk says people who received his lecture often asked Pamuk whether he is a naïve or sentimental novelist and he said he said, “I am both.”

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Professional by Ashok Ferrey

England is in news for an immigration issue where it is considering a law which would require those from a select group of countries (including India) to furnish 3000 pound as refundable bond as a warranty against overstay of visa period. Thankfully it has been dropped now. But the fact that the British government insisted on it suggests that England has long dealt with the immigration problem. (Alas, all big countries have but have reacted more soberly to it.)

That was the reason why I picked up The Professional (by Ashok Ferry): it promised a story about the immigrant experience in England not set in recent times but in the 80s. But that’s okay with me.

The Professional involves a narrative form I have come to like - where the narrative moves back and forth in time to cover a character’s past and present, with the past quietly explaining the reader what led to his present circumstances. The Professional narrates the story of Chamath seen through his older self 35 years later. Chamath, an Oxford alumnus, has applied for his residency permit and he is banned to work until he gets it.

And the only option to earn a living is the unorganized sector. In the meantime, Chamath’s father sends him a letter from Srilanka expressing his inability to send Chamath money and asking him to let out their flat in London which was bought some time back. Chamath finds an employment at a construction site where one day he is approached by two men who promise him good money for very little work. And thus starts Chamath’s dual life: a male escort in the evening and a construction site worker in the morning. His life in the evening takes him to people seeking company and pleasure and finally brings him to a couple who become his friends and benefactors.  

The Professional moves back and forth in time effortlessly and describes the world of a young Chamath, in London, and old, in Srilanka, quite well. It shows both sides of the immigrant experience: how is it for an immigrant to stay without a permanent resident status and the sacrifices parents make to send and educate their children abroad.

On the downside, however, the book moves from one narrative method to another without sometimes any change in content style to indicate the digression. Another thing that disappointed is that it documents the immigrant experience well, telling its highs and lows. But its synopsis promises more. The synopsis says the book would take you through the Thatcher years, England’s years of greed, as the synopsis puts it. 

But the story says very little about those years. The book informs that Chamath met with some prosperity as a real estate agent in later years which coincided with Thatcher rule and leaves it at that without detailing those years.

Detailing how he moved to prosperity would have been a good way to end the story on a more conclusive note; instead, the story ends Chamath’s England stay abruptly and later, in an epilogic fashion, informs what Chamath did in his later years in England, that he became a prosperous real estate person. It was my first book by a Srilankan writer and I liked it generally.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stephen King on Writing

No two persons write in the same way. And this is what makes writing a difficult craft to teach. However, if you have been a successful fiction writer for many years, it’s likely that the net of your knowledge would be so vast as to cover varied grains of thoughts or be based on methods which have produced results time and again. 

That’s why Stephen King’s book on writing – Stephen King on Writing, A Memoir of the Craft – makes lot of sense regardless of which school of thought you come from. In the first half of the book, King takes you through his life, his growing up years and coming of age as a novelist and then the book becomes a writing manual where King provides you with his views on novel writing he has framed based on his experience as practitioner of storytelling for several decades now.

King comes from an American lower middle class family comprising a single mother and brother. King grew up in a small town of the US and started dabbling in writing at a very young age. He ran a newspaper with his brother from their garage which eventually closed down. He wrote for his school magazine and offended a teacher so much with his writing that she held it against him and denied him an opportunity many years after the writing was published in school magazine.

He wrote short stories for various magazines and received more rejection notes than acceptance letters. But gradually the rejection notes started arriving with small pieces of advises and sometimes ‘submit again’. In the meantime, he did odd jobs trying to make ends meet after he got married with the girl he had met at a writing seminar, Tabby, who continues to be his Ideal Reader (or first reader, critic) for all his works. The publication of Carrie – King’s debut novel – marked the end of King’s struggle as a writer (and also financially).

When I started reading the book, I expected it to be a writing manual but King surprised me by starting the book as an autobiography and then digressing (or mainstreaming) into the craft of writing. But later, after covering a long sweep of the book, I realized that the autobiographical part was to inform the reader what makes King the writer he is and the book confirms that later.

As much as it is difficult to explain how to handle something which is largely a matter of instinct and imagination, King has successfully detailed the nuts and bolts of the craft without going into its theories. He provides a primer on grammar. Towards the end of the book, King presents the reader with a raw manuscript and its edited copy in the subsequent chapter.  He presents a list of books that, he says, have helped him.

What makes the book touchy is that King had put it on hold for sometime because he met with a truly horrifying accident and had very slim chances of surviving it. And many months after his release from hospital when he started writing again he resumed this book and finished it.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Chowringhee - romantic nostalgia of 60s Calcutta

When I saw the English translation of Shankar’s Chowringhee for the first time, it reminded me of another book I had read long years back on the same topic – Arthur Hailey’s Hotel. However, many years later, in fact a few weeks back, when I started reading Shankar’s Chowringhee, I found it very different from Hailey’s Hotel – in fact, the two share almost nothing except a broad topicality in common: hotel. Hailey’s Hotel had a particular plot whose setting was a hotel. Shankar’s is about life in a hotel.

Chowringhee is the second book of Shankar and a linear sequel to his first novel, The Great Unknown (the English translation of Koto Ojana Re). The book starts where the previous one had got over and the plot progresses into its central setting – Shahajahan Hotel – as the narrator – the young boy who worked as a court clerk under a British barrister in TGU – finds an employment in the hotel (on Chowringhee Road where the book gets its title from) by a quirk of fate.

And a range of characters flits in and out of the novel, taking the reader through various sides of life in a hotel. I found some similarities as well as dissimilarities with his The Great Unknown. Like The Great Unknown, Chowringhee also is told through the eyes of a wonderstruck kid who has found himself in a world which is awe-inspiring and beyond the scope and span of anything he has seen so far, especially coming as he does from a small town of Bengal.

The other similarity is that it’s just recording of life and experience in a workplace. Still another one is sentimentality – and there is a lot of it. You will also find flat characters in both of them. But the difference I noticed is that in Chowringhee Shankar has successfully brought in strokes of humor – and some of them are really funny, unlike TGU which was arresting but dour.

But despite these apparent shortcomings – expect humor – why did I read Mani Shankar Mukherjee again? For various things. The first book had left me moved despite these deficiencies – its characters and settings and recreation of the Calcutta of yore had left me yearning for a similar experience again. And Chowringhee recreated that experience for me.

The characters and their travails everything coalesces to form a moving experience – that’s what kept me interested in the book. The book shot to success after its publication (in 1962, predating Hailey’s Hotel by three years) and was turned into a movie by the same name.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Quiet American - clash of ideas and personalities

Looking at anything from an ideological point of view presents a limited picture. It slots everything into ideological categories and ignores the nuances that separate one thing from another despite belonging to the same ideological slot. On the other hand, realism (or cynicism) does the opposite. It helps you see across ideological differences and see things for what they are – good or bad – unaffected by their ideological affiliations.

France has attacked Vietnam and a war is raging in the latter. Pyle comes to Vietnam as worker of an American humanitarian organization which is promoting democracy with an imperial motive behind it. Fowler is a British reporter who is stationed in Vietnam. They meet in the country and become friends. Pyle is a starry-eyed idealist who believes that the West is spreading the cause of democracy and the cause is worth the cost it’s claiming (war, human lives and so on). On the other hand, Fowler sees it for what it is – he believes no cause, however great, is worth killing humans for.

Fowler’s marriage back in England is on rocks, thanks partly to the fact that he is in a live-in with a Vietnamese lady, who Pyle falls in love with and wants to marry. In The Quiet American Graham Greene has used the theatre of war to analyze the subtleties of human nature pitting two opposite personalities - Fowler and Pyle – against each other - who are not just opposite in their beliefs but also demographics – Flower is in mid forties who has had several relationships with women; Pyle is a 20 something virgin.

Graham Greene was one of those rare authors who enjoy popularity as well as critical acclaim. And, when I read The Quest American, my first Greene book, I understood that. The book is a thriller; yet it explores human nuances with delicacy, a path thrillers usually avoid treading. In other words, it has the thrill of a tightly-knit action-packed plot together with strokes of artistry. And a message that’s timeless.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - innovative storytelling

Asia is not homogeneous. However, there are some commonalities across the continent. Lopsided economic prosperity is one of them, poor wanting to scramble over to the brighter side of economic divide is another; and wherever you have the two, some amount of corruption and nepotism have to come next in the order. Mohsin Hamid has brought them all in his new innovative novel – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

The novel is written in a self-help format and that’s why, I guess, Hamid has not given the book any clear geographical setting basing it loosely in Lahore (Pakistan) which he conveys to the reader by local descriptions and current events the city has been in news for.

The fact that it’s written following the conventions of a self-help book makes ‘How to’ quite different from other novels. None of the characters has names. The protagonist has been addressed in the second person, instead of third or first as is the norm. The narrative skips lot of details that a usually conventional story nets. But surprisingly, none of these omissions takes away anything from the book. On the contrary, the self-help format gives it liberties to introduce firsts that conventional forms don’t.

The protagonist (you) comes from an impoverished family which stays in rural Pakistan. The family moves to a city and faces the usual difficulties any immigrant poor family faces. Despite the economic hardships, the protagonist somehow manages to acquire an education owing to his vantage position in the order of his siblings none of whom manages to lay a foundation for a future in the city.

Romance wafts into this self help book as a girl enters the protagonist’s life. The first burst of romance doesn’t last for too long but their love survives the changing phases in their lives during which their ways cross several times and finally merge at the fag end of their lives. Expect the Pretty Girl, however, many things change in the protagonist’s life. He goes through several odd jobs and finally sets up a water-purifying business, a lucrative business to set up in rising Asia given that government-supplied water is not fit for consumption,. And his business rises, sometimes through a deal with an army official (this being Pakistan) and sometimes a bribe to a bureaucrat.

The story the book tells is not particularly new - the story of Asia, the divide between poverty and prosperity, how the poor always scramble as the rich have it easy so on - but how he tells it is significantly different. The book is critical of how fortunes are made and lost in Asia where you have to bribe your way up and a wrong move or a misplaced trust can cause your fall. Hamid has effectively used the self-help format of the book to buttress the book’s cynical character. At the beginning of every chapter he addresses the protagonist (or probably you, this being a self-help book) giving him ‘tongue in cheek’ advises about how he should negotiate various phases of his life on his way to becoming filthy rich in rising Asia.

However, the format gives an artificial and impersonal feel to the story. Hamid has loosely based it in Pakistan but has touted it as a story of Asia and Pakistan (terrorism, filth etc) is so different from so many parts of Asia that Hamid’s effort to pass it off as a story of Asia doesn’t come off. And, as if conscious of it, Hamid uses various ploys to remind the reader that it’s a story not of a part of the sub continent but the whole continent.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Visiting a Creative Writing Workshop

Of all things the most difficult to teach are liberal arts. Until I did a course in mass communication, many years ago, I was not convinced that there was anything substantial to learn from a mass communication course – how can they teach you how to write and so on. And my views immediately after doing the course didn’t substantially change. (Of course, you learn the technical aspects of a mass communication job but those things you can learn even while on a job.) But over the years I have often felt richer for doing that course.

Not necessarily because of the technicalities (like how to edit a copy, how to file a report etc) I learnt – in fact I have forgotten most of them as I didn’t pursue a mass communication career after the course - but because I heard lot of things about writing and related matters which I still remember.

Couple of weeks back, on a Sunday, I attended a creative writing workshop at British Library, Bangalore. And as I felt before attending my mass communication course many years back, I was a little skeptical about its practical value. And now after the passage of a week or so since the workshop if you ask me what I learned, you will find me telling you several things, stopping and starting again.

None of the things I heard at the workshop was really novel to me but they weren’t necessarily devoid of value. The workshop was on fiction writing, mainly novel instead of short stories. Different aspects of the novel were discussed and analyzed using Gone with the Wind by Margaret Michel as a point of reference. We were given writing exercises to do – plot building, situation development, character sketching etc.

These are not things you have to go to a workshop to learn. Nor do they promise to teach you these things. But the finer points they tell you (about things like how to properly develop a character, what goes into building a situation, how a plot progresses and so on) are important and these details help you to dispel doubts when you are not sure whether you are going in the right direction.

Reading also helps in a similar manner but the observations you make while reading are confirmed by these workshops and you feel reassured. There were also interesting discussions on writers and books. They also act as connecting points among people interested in writing and help you understand where you stand vis-à-vis others.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reluctant Fundamentalist - a Movie Worth Watching

I had long wanted to read Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist but couldn’t get round to doing that before Mira Nair’s movie adaptation arrived. I watched the movie at the theatre last week. It’s both a thriller and a thoughtful film. It has all the trappings of a ‘sexy’ movie with drama, sex, romance and a fast-paced narrative and also an underlying tension, a constant anger and protestation.

The story starts with the kidnap of an American professor in Lahore. Following the kidnap Changez (the protagonist) is being interviewed by a CIA agent, masquerading as a journalist, involved in the search operation to find the professor and Changez is narrating his story starting a decade back in 2001, a year before 9/11 happened. The narrative moves back and forth taking the viewer through Changez years in the US and the modern day Lahore. Chanez’s past, in the US, explains the choices he made in life in the later years following 9/11.

Changez comes from a liberal Muslim family which is on a financial decline. Changez a bright chap goes to the US for studies and laps up a job in an investment banking company, a dream start to a career in the US. Similarly, Changez has a fulfilling emotional life: he is in a passionate affair and live-in with an artist (Kate Hudson). As Changez starts climbing the career ladder, 9/11 happens and his world starts changing and so does the world of Muslims in America. As Americans’ patriotism and schizophrenia rise making the land suddenly inhospitable to ‘outsiders,’ Changez goes through a series of experiences (humiliating frisking at US airport, being arrested for nothing by police etc) which leave him humiliated challenging all his preconceived notions about the US and his position in it as a Muslim.

And this inner churning gradually brings into sharp relief the questions of identities which had until now lain dormant in Changez. The more his Muslim identity (made aggressive by post-9/11 experience) asserts itself, the more mortifying Muslim-belittlements (made through conversations in office in surcharged post 9/11 atmosphere and general attitude towards them in the US) feel and the wider the cracks in Changez’s American dream get.

Finally an office visit to Istanbul pushes him off the cliff: he returns to New York, resigns his job and goes back to Pakistan.

The performances are very understated. There were enough opportunities for Changez (Riz Khan) to break out into an angry anti-West rant but he didn’t; yet the simmering anger comes through effectively.

But the most important aspect of the movie (or perhaps the book) is its emphasis on the fact that those outside the circle of fundoos who identify with the ‘Islam under attack’ phenomenon think it’s their identity (or people who share it globally or the lands they inhibit) which is under attack and not so much the religion. And it’s precisely how the occasionally drinking Changez who doesn’t give up his dalliance with alcohol even after embracing the cause of his faith/land/people - feels after 9/11. However, how Changez’s espousal of the cause is different from his other comrades across the world is that unlike them Changez doesn’t believe in violence.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

Those of us who have not been to boarding schools don’t understand how difficult life for a kid can be there. Apart from a few difficult situations, however, Sabby Sarkar doesn’t face too many challenges coming from his peers. But that doesn’t make Sabby’s experience at his boarding school at Gaddi pleasant. The Skinning Tree is the first book by Srikumar Sen (now 81). The novel starts in the Calcutta of the 40s and 50s where Sabby is growing up in an aristocratic Anglophone Bengali family.

Sen brings alive the Calcutta of the period effectively and successfully creates the political and social atmosphere of the time. Through the Sarkar household, Sen has brought about the duality of the world aristocratic-Anglophone Indians inhabited those days, one that included their British social equals cohabiting with their loyalty to India and sympathy for the Independence movement.

However, Sabby’s Calcutta world abruptly comes to an end when he is sent to a boarding school and finds himself in a completely different world. Of the most remarkable things at the school is the fearsome atmosphere created by discipline-enforcing sisters and brothers at the boarding. Every boy who strays from the straight line of discipline faces punishment, spanking of various degrees of severity depending on how far away you strayed.

Another hallmark of Sabby’s experience at the boarding is the numerous acts of cruelty the students carry out towards animals. This is where the book draws its title from – there is a tree outside the boarding premises on which the students throw out skinned bodies of birds and animals after sadistically killing them. Initially a little reluctant, Sabby eventually joins his boarding friends in their acts of cruelty. I felt cruelty towards animals was a manifestation of the pent up feelings caused by oppression at the boarding – cruelty inflicted on one person finds its way to another, maybe in a different form.

However, this cruelty-towards-animal part of the book can read a little unsavory. The details of torture of insects, birds are too graphic and sensitive souls will find it difficult wading through them. The book also becomes a little monotonous while the author takes you through the butchery of one animal after another by Sabby and friends. The book takes a sudden turn towards the end when a tragedy occurs.

One day Sabby finds a sister, a very authoritarian figure in the boarding, calling out to him for help standing on a ledge a fall from where would surely lead to death. At the same time, it is time for Sabby and the other boys to attend a prayer. The prayer bell has rung and heeding the sister’s call for rescue would mean reaching the prayer late and attracting punishment from one of the brothers. Sabby stops upon hearing the sister’s call for help, but as he sees his friends rush for the prayer, he follows them. Next day they find the sister’s dead body lying on the ground below the ledge.

And even after many years a contrite lingers in him. Sabby wonders should he have tried to help the sister, but wouldn’t he get late for the prayer then attracting punishment? Even if he tried to save the sister, would he, just a child, be able to really save her? He could have called others' attention to the incident, but who would listen making a dash as they were for the prayer? Or was it that when he saw the sister in a helpless situation calling out to a mere boy for help, Sabby found it hard to believe that a person of such command and authority as the sister could be so helpless – the prayer bell seemed more believable and he ran for it?

The very atmosphere of oppression and fear-psychosis which the sister had helped build finally took her life. To me The Skinning Tree is a strong indictment of the boarding life where punishment (and fear of punishment) is used as a means to enforce discipline.

After this incident Sabby visited home and never went back to the boarding.

The book has won the Tebor Jones South Asian Prize.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Srilankan crisis, one without easy answers

I have been reading about the Srilankan issue and each article seems to peel off a new layer from the issue making it more and more difficult to identify the issue with any one problem. One aspect of the issue is whether the Rajapaksha government was right in going after the LTTE.

Yes and no depending on which side you are viewing the issue from. Yes - if you believe that if a terrorist group causes bloodshed and massacre and runs a parallel administration which is beyond the writ of the state, a government has the right to do whatever it takes to cleanse the group. No – if you believe that before going after any outfit which has political demands (which the LTTE had) a government should be sure that it has exhausted all political means.

Whether the Rajapaksha government was disposed to solving the LTTE issue politically is debatable. Being a right wing party, it probably wasn’t. But past regimes had tried out political options and they had not yielded any results. My belief is Prabhakaran, like any underground revolutionary, had lost interest in the cause of the movement and wanted to continue its pretence to hold on to power. Many had understood that and LTTE had lost popular sympathy.

From what I have read so far, no one is shedding tears for Prabhakaran except some political outfits. Of course, killing Prabhakaran’s son was inhuman but even those castigating the government for it aren’t questioning the logic of the murder: that the son would have been the representative face of the LTTE and could have followed his father’s footsteps in future. So, for all the brauhaha, neither Prbhakaran's nor his son's death forms the core of the issue.

What people are baying for Rajapaksha’s blood is that in the last days of the war the government had caused Tamil civilian casualties while trying to wipe out the LTTE. This is the issue. There are a few things about this issue one has to consider. Once the government went after the LTTE there were bound to be some casualties. The civilians killed were taken hostages by the very outfit – the LTTE – which claimed to represent their interest. Should the government have withdrawn when it became clear it could not cleanse the LTTE without killing noncombatant civilians in the process? If it had withdrawn, the LTTE problem would have been left half-solved. There are no easy answers to these questions.

The social aspect of the Lankan Tamil issue is equally muddled. Some months back a friend of mine was in Srilanka and he said while he was in a bus and some passengers were talking in Tamil, the bus conductor forbade them to. This means there is an unaccommodating attitude towards Tamils in at least some parts of Srilanka. And it is much more dangerous than a government’s indifference, or even hostility, towards a community.

In India, successive governments have been variously disposed to minority communities, but what has secured their position in the society is that there is no sustained social hostility towards them. Not that there has never been but it did not continue. And it’s partly because India is a land of contrary voices, one where all opinions are contested. The media have played a great role in making it so. I don’t know how independent Srilankan media are but they surely have a role to play to make sure people don’t lose sight of the Tamil plight.

But it’s not going to be easy. My friend also noticed that Srilanka has a thriving market economy. Anything is available but at a high price, so the lower income groups have it really difficult. Why this is relevant here is that, typically, in a market economy a government finds it easy to make people indifferent to the plight of the marginalized by anesthetizing them with prosperity. The effect of this anesthesia can be in fact so strong on people that they readily believe what the government tells them to; the government’s rhetoric becomes the belief of the common man; the government becomes the nation and a threat to the government is perceived as a threat to the nation and its wellbeing. It is not to say that development is bad but it should not be devoid of social concerns.

But how will they address social concerns? Tamils, as is apparent, are linguistically and culturally different from Sinhalese. And this is going to obstruct social integration. So probably assigning the Tamil community a separate place and devolution of power are going to be considered. But if you go by India's Kashmir example, devolution doesn't necessary help. Problems continue to stalk Kashmir spilling onto the rest of India.

So the path of reconstruction and rehabilitation is going to be difficult and one without any easy solutions; but probably constant international gaze will ensure Srilanka will at least try to look like it's doing something. But will a constant international scrutiny push Srilanka closer to safer sanctuaries - China - who can help thwart international pressure leading to a new power imbalance in Asia?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Merry Go Round - W Somerset Maugham

The best part about reading novels set in the Edwardian period, in England, is that that society resembles the Indian society in many ways. A rigid moral code defying which meant attracting collective social frown; the existence of a strict class division, violating which led to social derision and people going about their lives under these social norms , sometimes digressing but most times conforming. Merry Go Round was my third Maugham novel and it shares many traits in common with the other Maugham novels I read before, like character examination, a slow build up, adultery etc.

But the book is also different from the other two I had read in various ways. Merry Go Round is a commentary on the Edwardian society: how social rules shaped the lives of people, how a rigid class division was maintained, the shallowness of all this etc.

The narrative has several strands. Merry Go Round starts with a house party and then pans out into a novel tracking the lives of the guests at the party. The host of the party, Miss Ley, is a spinster who has inherited a fortune from another spinster and is the moral axis around which the other characters in the novel revolve.

There is Basil Kant an aspiring writer who marries a barmaid because of an unexpected development, overlooking his feelings for Mrs Murray - and the marriage suffers. There is Herbert Field, a clerk and poet, who is suffering from tuberculosis and Bella Langton at 40 double the age of Herbert marries him to tend to him in his last days and sees the poet die. And there is Frank Hurrell, a cynic, who abhors the conventional life. And there are many more to bring about a complete social interplay of characters, some conformists and some rebellious.

Maugham has skillfully pitted the rebellious characters against the conformist ones to throw into sharp relief his voice and views against those of the Edwardian society. The book mainly cocks a snook at the rich the employing class which held people economically dependent on them to the very moral codes that their socials peers and companions violated.

In another review of a Maugham book, I had said that his observations on human character and other things form an important part of Maugham’s narrative. In MGR they are plenty and they leave you feeling edified.

MGR was published in 1902 and is not among Maugham’s famous works. In fact, the novel has been completely forgotten. But you will find Maugham at his best in character development, interplay of plots and a commentary running in the background climaxing in a strong condemnatory message about the society in which the plot is set.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Novel plot challenges modern day technologies bring

When you try to write a novel or short story set in the ‘pre-Internet and mobile phone’ era, you realize how these technologies have changed our lives. I’m trying to write a novella (my third attempt to write one having failed twice before to take my attempts to conclusion) which starts from the early 80s and ends somewhere towards the end of the last decade, 2010s (roughly), spanning 30 years. Such being the timeframe of it, half of it is set in the period before the Internet and mobile phones arrived. While writing situations, I realized how the two technologies govern our lives today making them very different from the lives before the  arrival of mobile phones and the Internet.

The plot traces Anoop Nandi through his stay in Bangalore in the 80s and what happens to him after he leaves the city - all the way to current times with other characters coming in as the plot progresses. The novel is not about Anoop alone but three friends who had lived in Bangalore in the 80s and how their lives unfolded later, each representing a separate perspective on life.

The first half of the novel is set in the 80s. Anoop and I stay in Bangalore as friends and colleagues but we can talk and exchange details about each other only when we meet in office or each other’s residences, physical places. These physical places are important for us to stay connected, to exchange details about each other and so on. (Being migrant workers in Bangalore we didn’t have landline phones and landline connections were very difficult to get those days anyway.) In modern times, mobile phones and of course social networking sites would play the role of a connecting platform. You wouldn’t necessarily need an office or someone’s residence to be in touch with your friend. This makes our lives today very different from the pre-cell-phone-Internet times.

And being used to our modern lives as we are, you have to constantly remind yourself while writing a plot based before the advent of modern communication technologies that a lot of what we take for granted today were not available then. So a person had to either have a landline at home or go to a public booth to phone someone up. A person had to send a telegram to give an urgent news to someone else. Etc.

You can best feel these time-gap differences when you are building a tight situation-based plot: how a character is informed by another character about an accident that suddenly killed someone close to the character being informed; if two characters have to be separated for a period such that they completely lose track of each other, in ‘pre cell phone Internet’ times it would be very easy to do them part, but today due to social networking sites it’s almost impossible for two persons to be untraceably lost to each other.

I’m struggling with these details particularly because my plot is based in both pre and post communication revolution times, but these are just auxiliary details for my plot – they may convey dynamics of the times in which an action is set, but they don’t contribute to the essential plot. Albeit, for, say, detective stories where small details actually form the main plot, the technology angle can make lot of difference and present a challenge to the author. First he/she has to decide whether his characters use these technologies; if yes, at what level, how frequently; if no, why. And so on.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai - a Good Debut Novel

Mumbai is a city which refuses to date despite the number of books written and films made on it. Upon the Tracks of Mumbai, by Rishi Vohra, mayn’t be among the best works on the city but Vohra effectively brings a part of the city alive to his readers through the eyes of Babloo, an autist who negotiates the difficult world of Mumbai in his day-to-day life. What makes the book touchy is that Vohra has used the first person narrative to detail Babloo’s travails, a supercilious brother, indifferent parents and condescending people Babloo meets on local trains, streets of Mumbai etc.

However, in the middle of this indifference, Babloo finds solace in his love interest, Vandana, a resident of Railway Colony, like Babloo. Once Upon The Tracks of Mumbai is from the genre of books that just sets out to tell a good story. However, some of them succeed and some don’t. Rishi Vohra’s book certainly stands out as a tale well told. Another thing I noticed while going through the world of Babloo is that the book is immensely filmable – the situations are well described and characters skillfully chiseled out.

Rishi is a debutant author and his first book suggests that there is a lot in store.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Midnight's Children - the movie fails to stand tall

Some books lend themselves beautifully to movies and some don’t. Midnight’s Children appears to be one of those books that are hard to adapt to movies. I say ‘appears’ because I have not read the book but watched the movie last Saturday. I’m reluctant to criticize Deepa Mehta for the shortcomings of the movie because the defects a naïve movie watcher like me found in the movie would have been spotted by a movie maker of her calibre with three eyes closed. But  I have a few bones to pick with her for choosing Midnight’s Children for a movie-adaptation.

The story starts in Kashmir about 30 years before India’s independence and meanders its way through various incidents to Bombay where two boys are born exactly at the time India got independence, on 15th August, 1947; one rich, coming from the clan that migrated from Kashmiri, and the other poor, the love child of a poor minstrel musician's wife and a Britisher who is leaving India.

The two newborns are swapped by a matron as a tribute to her Marxist lover, condemning the rich boy to poverty and the poor to wealth - as a metaphor of social justice - forever altering their fates. The rich child is named Salim and the poor Shiva whose paths cross several times during their lives, Salim representing the accommodative, kind India and the tough India of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, the state and system embodied by Shiva. Their birth coincides with the birth of India and their lives move in tandem with India’s history (till Emergency) shaping their lives – which, I felt, was a larger metaphor of how the lives of people are shaped by lives of nations.

This is a rough sketch of the story. Amidst this there are many plot devices used to bring various angles into the story, like Salim’s ability to summon, in his imagination, a bunch of children (born at mid night during India’s birth/independence) representing varied social strata of Indian society, his ability to sniff danger etc. The problem with this kind of plot (and it has come to this after lot of snipping by the screenplay writer who was also Salman Rushdie) is that it's very difficult to effectively flesh out its naunces in visual form. (Many reviews have complained about how the film has turned out to be a very emaciated version of the book, which rids the film of the richness of its literary sibling.)

And the result is often that one incident leads to another without any logical dots linking them, reducing the film to a collage of multiple frames forming, maybe, a very broad thematic narrative but without any immediate connection with each other. Characters come and go and after the movie is over you feel many characters just disappeared from the story without any conclusive end given to them.

However, Rushdie’s background narration is where the movie scores. Some of the lines are just too haunting and told in curt, British accent.

Probably Deepa Mehta got swayed by the grand pull to become the first person to recreate the book on screen. The book was staged in 2002 and, according to many critics, it didn’t work. Mehta could have learnt from the precedence. Or maybe the movie was made for people who have read the book thinking that the audience, having read the book earlier, would overlook the oversights in the movie narrative and would see the movie for the sheer joy of watching what they have read.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Joseph Anton - a Memoir by Salman Rushdie

In the 90s, news papers told us Salman Rushdie had some kind of death sentence on him for writing The Satanic Verses. But we never understood how serious it was, whether it represented an actual threat to Rushdie’s life, whether a book could really offend people so much, did people who were offended actually read the book. And above all, could a book ever be so world-churning? 

Joseph Anton, a memoir by Rushdie, gives you an accurate measure of the crisis’s magnitude The Satanic Verses had created, and chronicles Rushdie’s day-to-day life for 10 years under fatwa (the death sentence); how people and various governments reacted to it; and how it affected him and in many ways altered Rushdie’s life.

Following the issuance of fatwa on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, the theocratic head of Iran, people suddenly seemed to take note of the book and outpouring of passions against its author began. And its author had to stay amidst heavy security, moving from one hideout to another, for roughly 10 years, which changed his life in many ways.

There are varied arguments on the issue. The most common arguement given against The Satanic Verses is no one has the right to offend people’s religious sentiments. I find this self-defeating – because no book sets out to hurt your sentiments; it just makes a point and leaves it to you to decide how you want to receive it. Nor does a book create any controversy. A controversy is how the world reacts to a book and, as it happens, this reaction is often shaped by reasons that have very less to do with what is actually written in the book.

An author can write controversial material in his book but there is enough evidence to show that those who shout over books don’t read the books they oppose. And outsiders to a controversy lend their voice to the group they want to be identified with and depending on the stand of their chosen camp they either oppose or favour a book. Independent views falling outside the 'either with us or them' narrative are mostly ignored. Thus builds the protest narrative around a book.

Once the fatwa was out, this is how public narrative started building around The Satanic Verses. Some British politicians had initially supported Rushdie, but  they changed their stand later to oppose him (or aligned themselves with the 'appropriate' side of the narrative).

But does a lesser author or book deserve to be defended as such? Rushdie has empathised with Taslima Nasrin who shared with Rushdie the plight of being banned from visiting India, their homeland, which in case of Rushdie lasted for some years since the publication of The Satanic Verses. (However, Taslima is still being denied visa by the Indian government.)

The book opens with a BBC journalist informing Rushdie that he had been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini for authoring The Satanic Verses. Britain agreed to give Rushdie protection and Rushdie was asked to choose a pseudonym to hide his actual identity. He tried out various combinations clubbing different writers’ first names with other writers’ surnames and finally arrived at Joseph (from Joseph Conrad) Anton (from Anton Chekov).

After a steamy prologue written effectively by Rushdie, the book digresses into Rushdie’s childhood and early years in England. His early years in England were not happy at all bringing to him the real England of racism and dashing the imaginary image of the country the bookish young Rushdie had in mind owing to Enid Blyton and the like. The young Rushdie was a clever kid and a bright student, which together with the fact that he was a foreigner, according to Rushdie, made him an intolerable proposition for his peers at Rugby school. This, Rushdie says, led to his school peers’ racist attitude towards him.

Rushdie’s family back home in Bombay was a liberal Muslim household where people freely exchanged scholarly and dissenting views on religion. This environment shaped Rushdie’s worldview and he finally consummated his irreligious outlook in England by eating pork, which, despite the family’s liberal attitude, was strongly forbidden by his parents back home where they didn’t eat it, although alcohol wasn’t a taboo.

Although the British government gave him security protection, Britain popular mood was that the author was being spent too much money on and he, and not having done anything for Britain, didn’t deserve it. In the US, on the other hand, the author found an atmosphere of support and sympathy which was responsible for Rushdie’s eventual shift of base from the UK to the US - New York - where he currently stays.

Until many years since the issuance of fatwa, the UK had Tories in power and Rushdie insisted them to browbeat Iran to drop the fatwa, but the Tory government was reluctant to do so. Things changed for the better once the Labour party came to power in Britain coinciding with Democrats coming to power in the US. Britain had Tony Blair and America, Bill Clinton.

I felt Rushdie wrote the book under an extreme sense of victimhood – which is understandable - which informs his attitude towards contrary views which he dismisses with a self-righteous and aggressive flourish without, I sometimes felt, handling them with reflective consideration. For the most part, it's like Rushdie taking on a lynch mob baying for his blood.

However, I don't want to get too self-righteous about this - which I found many reviewers doing - because when you read what he went through, this question keeps coming back to you: "How he maintained his sanity?." Rushdie maintained his sanity aided by his friends and family and after sometime, I felt, he got innured to the daily business of receiving threats, hate letters and derogatory comments from the media.

Finally, following diplomatic pressure and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the subsequent regimes in Iran assured several times that the fatwa would not be carried out but refuted themselves later under internal pressure. But the threat perception dropped gradually to a level where the British intelligence thought it unnecessary to continue giving protection to Rushdie.

Albeit, the shadow of the fatwa still stalks him and although he travels and lives freely now, there are some countries he still can’t visit and countries that don’t have a formal ban on him but they refuse to let him in fearing backlash by Muslim orthodoxy (recently he was disallowed to visit Srilanka where Midnight's Children was being shot).

If you read Joseph Anton without being judgmental, you will enjoy it.
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