Sunday, May 16, 2010
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
I like Lynne Truss despite her wingeing and pedantry. Or maybe it was because Girl’s Like Spaghetti is one of those books you can finish in exactly 2 minutes and 37 seconds. And no it's not the ‘speed living’ decried by that faux bohemian with a lezzie edge on the Tata Indicom ad (it’s a picture book). And maybe it helps that I am a bit of a grammar nerd at heart. And maybe it also helps that the book is so endearing with its cheerful pairs of pictures, each an example of the correct use of the apostrophe like:
• The dog’s like my dad – the apostrophe makes a contraction of dog and is.
• The dogs like my dad – Without an apostrophe, dogs is a plural noun.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
Goddamn Cavafy, always manages to capture my mood better than I could even contemplate articulating it in words. This one's called Candles.
The days of our future stand in front of us
like a row of little lit candles
golden, warm, and lively little candles.
The days past remain behind us,
a mournful line of extinguished candles;
the ones nearest are still smoking,
cold candles, melted, and bent.
I do not want to look at them; their form saddens me,
and it saddens me to recall their first light.
I look ahead at my lit candles.
I do not want to turn back, lest I see and shudder
at how fast the dark line lengthens,
at how fast the extinguished candles multiply.
Constantine P. Cavafy (1899)
I am perplexed by A Married Woman. I want to like this ironic fable of Indian womanhood but somehow it falls in that no-man’s land of the average and unremarkable. Kapur’s story would have much more robust had she not included two unnecessary elements that severely detract from the book’s principal theme, the Babri Masjid issue and the torrid lesbian affair. The characters are also not very credible. Although the book is easy to read, the narrative is somewhat clumsy and certainly not what you’d expect from a writer of Kapur’s repute – almost akin to shoddy Sunday afternoon chick-lit. In short, readable but forgettable.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
The last decade has witnessed the birth of a new quasi-literary creature, the IIM bred manager turned scribe. The author of The Immortals of Meluha is the newest member of this posse but that’s not what interested me in this book. Amish sits in a glass fronted cabin at a shouting distance from my own humbler, cluttered workstation. So, it was only natural that I would be curious (like many of my colleagues, one of whose benevolence allowed me to avoid buying it) about the book despite it being perceptibly out of my fairly wide reading range.
The Immortals is the amalgamation of bits of Indian mythology and history with a dash of what appears to be Hindutva ideology with heaps of imagination. Shiva (as in our dear lord of phallic fame) heads the Gunas who eke out a marginal existence troubled by marauders on the shores of Lake Mansarovar in Tibet. They are invited by a delegation from Meluha to settle in their prosperous land to the south. The Meluhans (who our history text books referred to as Harappans or Indus Valley people) run an overregulated socialist type utopia set up by an ancient king named Rama. They manufacture an elixir that bestows on them good health and makes them extraordinarily long lived. When Shiva partakes of this elixir, his throat turns blue. The Meluhans uphold this as a sign of the realisation of an ancient prophecy about a blue throated saviour. They expect this saviour to bring peace to their land which is troubled by attacks from the Nagas, a shadowy race who are in the employ of the Chandravanshis, the Meluhans’ rivals who hold sway over the Gangetic plain. Much of the book is concerned with how Shiva builds his credibility by touring the Meluhan cities, changing their laws, smoking pot, participating in skirmishes and wooing Sati, the daughter of the king. The plot cruises predictably along towards the inevitable Thermopylae like battle scene where the Meluhans route a far larger Suryanvanshi army. When the victorious Shiva enters the enemy capital at Ayodhya, he finds that what he’s been fed about the foe is not wholly factual. Thus ends the first instalment in yet another trilogy, albeit one set in ancient India.
Amish’s take on ancient Indian history would have the late K.S. Lal doing a little ‘out of India has history come’ dance on that allegedly ignorant leftist wench, Romila Thapar. I am not so fussed about historical revisionism in fantasy fiction but at times the detailing is quite crude. Take for example the names of cities in the Indus Valley. We have no idea what the denizens of this civilisation called their lands save the single reference ‘Meluha’ in some obscure Sumerian texts. In The Immortals, Amish uses rehashed versions of modern place names, Mohenjodaro, which he justifies as ‘house of mohan,’ is in fact a descriptor meaning mound of the dead in Sindhi, a language that won’t come into existence for another 2000 years or Karachapa from Karachi. He alludes to the legend of the ancient submerged land off the coast of Southern India as the place where all Indians come from and he calls this land Sangamtamil. Historically, Sangamtamil refers to the classical age of Tamil civilisation as well as the form of the language spoken during this era and certainly not a submerged land. Like all good Tamil boys, I know the story of Kumarikandam which is the actual name of the legendary ancestral land of the Tamils which was allegedly lost to the sea. It may seem pedantic to point out what may seem trivial to most readers but the beauty of a novel, even a fantasy, is in its details. Of the many anachronisms and revisionisms, I found the validation for the ‘beneficial origins’ of the caste system particularly odious.
The contemporariness of the language spoken by the characters is jarring and requires the reader to ascend to a whole new level of suspension of disbelief. The writing is for the most part unoriginal and makes easy use of stock phrases. The initial chapters are particularly amateurish. I read about 50 pages before putting it away. It took a lot of effort to go back and finish it. Fortunately, things got a little better towards the middle with the more frequently appearing action sequences carrying the plot and writing along more fluidly.
One blogger called ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ a sleeper hit and I noticed this morning whilst ordering some books on Odyssey that it appears to be on their bestseller list. There is definitely a market for this kind of fiction but that market ain’t me.
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Once in a while, I like to read a book intended for children. Despite its ostensible sophistication, there’s a certain degree of tedium with reading book after book on the intricacies of human psychology and relationships. Sometimes, you just want to escape and fantasy in my opinion, works most effectively when it isn’t plagued by the complexities of adult life. Triskellion was my escape hatch this week. It’s a dark mystery (a tad too dark perhaps) where American twins, Rachel and Adam Newman are sent away to England to spend the summer with their grandmother whilst their parents are going through the motions of a divorce in New York. They arrive in the odd village of Triskellion, so named because it has a chalk engraving on the moor (much like the real life Uffington White Horse) of a Triskellion, an ancient symbol of 3 overlapping spirals or blades. Their arrival and their encounter with a strange gypsy boy named Gabriel sparks off a race to uncover the ancient secret that the villagers seem desperate to hide. Triskellion was a lot of fun but I wonder if it’s really appropriate for kids with its scenes of animal sacrifice. I suppose they’ve seen enough of that sort of thing on the telly. Unfortunately, everything these days seems to come in threes and I won’t get to know the thrilling conclusion until I read the other two books in the trilogy.
Sunday, May 02, 2010
I have enrolled in the Univ. of Cambridge's English language teaching certification program (CELTA). The course starts on the 17th of May and will last for 4 weeks. It's very intensive and I have begun to panic already. There's a ton of pre-course work which I just can't seem to start. It's a veritable pre-course work block. I wonder if all this effort is really going to be worthwhile. I can't even back out now that I have already paid a small non-refundable fortune as the course fee. I can't help thinking that my privilege leave and money would have been better spent on a holiday. I could have taken advantage of the Greek crisis. I would have been lounging about on the shores of Aegean or exploring ruins. If it weren't for those shitty counter-factuals.
Saturday, May 01, 2010
Since we move about in different academic and social circles, the definition of certain is far larger than the scope of the word. This is problematic as Bayard points out, “As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn't read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject.” He goes on to say “If many cultivated individuals are non-readers, and if, conversely, many non-readers are cultivated individuals, it is because non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”
His book is divided neatly into 3 sections. The first, titled Ways of Not Reading is divided into 4 chapters: Books You Don’t Know; Books You Have Skimmed; Books You Have Heard Of; and Books You Have Forgotten. With each ‘type’ of book, Bayard advises the non-reader how to behave as if one has read the book. In Books You Have Heard Of, Bayard uses the analogy of proceedings in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to brilliantly illustrate his argument. In the second section, Literary Confrontations, he gives us strategies for different situations where you may need to discuss a book that you haven’t read. These include Encounters in society, with professors, with the writer of the actual book (imagine the cheek) and finally encounters with someone you love.
This last element I found particularly fascinating. Bayard tells us that “the books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.” I couldn’t agree more. He uses the analogy of the film ‘Groundhog Day’ which my teenage self once denounced in a mental note as the most annoying film I had ever seen after multiple viewings on Trans-Atlantic flights. The film’s protagonist, a meteorologist named Phil, is caught in an time loop where the same day repeats itself over and over again. This powerful device allows us a lot of insight into human behaviour as well as insights of the literary variety. “Having gradually fallen in love with Rita, the show's producer, Phil attempts to seduce her through the constantly improving technique accessible only to those whose actions are without consequence due to the eternal repetition of time.” Bayard then goes on to describe the scene where unread books play a role in the development of their relationship.
"Rita confides to him that her college studies did not initially incline her toward a career in television, and when Phil asks for details, she tells him, "I studied nineteenth-century Italian poetry." Her response causes Phil to burst out laughing and blurt without thinking, "You must have had a lot of time on your hands!"—at which Rita gives him an icy look, and he realises his blunder. But there is nothing irreparable in this world in which everything always begins identically anew and in which mistakes can be rectified so quickly. The next time Phil hears Rita confess her passion for nineteenth-century Italian poetry— having ransacked the local library for material in the meantime, presumably—he is able to recite, with considerable pathos, excerpts from the libretto of Rigoletto, as the young woman looks on admiringly. Forced to talk about books he hasn't read, all he has to do is to stretch the few seconds of his reply by one day, and he is able to comply perfectly with his beloved's desire... Groundhog Day's complex narrative device allows it to play out a fantasy of completion and transparency in which we see two individuals communicate about books, and thus about themselves, without any sense of loss. Having the time to study the essential books of another person, to the point where we come to share the same ones, might perhaps be what is necessary to achieve a genuine exchange on cultural matters and a perfect overlap between the two inner books.” An overlap of two inner books – what superb imagery!
Finally, Bayard goes on to describe Ways of Behaving. He tells us that “many of the books we are led to talk about, and which have, in certain cases, played important roles in our lives, have never actually passed through our hands (although we may sometimes be convinced of the contrary)", so he gives us counsel on extricating ourselves from those sticky situations with grace. Here, he includes chapters titled Not Being Ashamed, Imposing Your Ideas, Inventing Books and Speaking About Yourself. I am detailing the names of these chapters because they give a glimpse of the author’s impertinence, which continues well into the concluding words of the book where in a grand finale type flourish, we are told “Beyond the possibility of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, by leading us back to its source. To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”
A witty, erudite and original work. I am certain that it must have been even better en français.
Vakil’s writing is articulate and urbane and yet I just couldn’t relate to the story. At first, I thought it was because I have lived in India for far too long now. But, wait a second I thought to myself, I am no prude. It wasn’t the characters’ obsession with their sex lives that got to me. It was the overall nihilism of their lives, the dwelling on the ostensibly insignificant and the pointlessness of their emotions. All of this seemed so alien to me. I particularly despised both Priya and Ben; the former, an irresponsible and annoying nymphomaniac and the latter, a spineless, bumbling idiot. In fact, I find this marital problems genre completely distasteful. One Day took many days to read and I am afraid I can't say that I enjoyed it.
Rosemary Mahoney, a free spirit in her late thirties is passionate about rowing, something she does very often in the open waters of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. She explains this with the off-hand lyricism that punctuates her book “Land was stationary and always belonged to somebody. Water, on the other hand, was free.” So, she decides to do what she loves in a most improbable place, the Nile in Egypt. The challenges of rowing up the Nile are not the hazards she faces at home in Narrangansett Bay such as currents, strong waves, turbulent weather and cargo ships.
The Nile is placid thanks to the Aswan High Dam and there are no crocodiles north of the dam. The challenges in Egypt are all cultural. A lone foreign woman rowing up the Egyptian lifeline is as improbable as old Ramses' mummy getting up from its casket at the Cairo Museum to do a two step. Her want makes absolutely no sense to the locals. Moreover, the Egyptian authorities exhibit sporadic nanny like behaviour towards tourists because of the many attacks on them. I know from living in that country for many years that foreigners are usually not allowed outside tourist zones particularly in Upper Egypt (which confusingly refers to southern Egypt, it’s all because the Nile allegedly flows the wrong way with its source in the south and its mouth in the north). But, Mahoney gets her way with her strangely endearing doggedness. Her biggest obstacle is procuring a boat because none of the felucca owners or fishermen will take her seriously. They want her money but can’t fathom what business a woman has with a boat. They offer to row her, take her on a tour, sleep with her but not sell or rent her their boat. So she invents a fictional husband for whom she wishes to buy a skiff as a birthday present. As unlikely as the story seems, this being Egypt, people seem to believe her.
In Aswan, in the very south of the country, she lucks out when she meets Amr, a Nubian felucca captain, seemingly of a unique Egyptian species, a man who neither badgers her nor leers at her. “This is my boat” he says, “you can using it any times. Just take if it is there.” Her visits to Amr’s house in a Nubian village on Elephantine Island are particularly poignant. This ancient island is the last scrap of the Nubian homeland most of which now lies under Lake Nasser and Mahoney describes the marginal status of the Nubians and their poverty in a very personal, very un-American way.
Mahoney rows from Aswan to Edfu in Amr’s boat with Amr and an American friend from Cairo following close behind in a felucca. At Edfu, she abandons the river to circumvent the certainty of dealing with the Egyptian ‘bolice’ at the Esna locks. She proceeds to Luxor by road where she buys a boat off a fisherman and rows up to Qena. With dire warnings not to proceed into the strife ridden territory north of Qena, Mahoney terminates her 120 mile journey near the Graeco-Roman temple of Dendera.
I think this book would cause much angst in an Egyptian reader. Although, most of the Egyptians she meets are depicted as annoying, greedy, lascivious, hypocritical and crude, I don’t think Mahoney is judgemental, nor are these people being stereotyped. From experience, I can relate to her descriptions. Most Egyptians can put the most persistent Rajasthani tout and intrusive Bengali bumpkin to shame. Moreover, she is only confrontational when she is forced into this position like a young man in Luxor who boasts that he sleeps with many European women who pay handsomely for the pleasures of his ‘big benis’. When, he repeatedly refers to these women as prostitutes Mahoney points out that in fact it is he, who is the prostitute; the man immediately becomes agitated. The fact that hypocrisy is woven into the very fabric of Egyptian society isn’t a revelation. The men treat their own women like children, chaperoning and confining them, but expect to get frisky with every foreign woman who comes along. To some, this portrayal of Egyptian may seem like caricatures, but I think it is a very factual depiction.
What I didn’t like were the references to the travel accounts of 19th century tourists Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale (The F. Nightingale). These references form the backbone of the book, ostensibly creating a link between Mahoney and all the other travellers who have floated down the Nile. I think this was avoidable because where Flaubert and Nightingale were at the end of the day, 19th century Europeans with entrenched ideas about their place in the world, Mahoney represents a culturally sensitive citizen of the world. Flaubert seemed more interested in bordellos than burial sites describing an incident where “I performed on a mat that a family of cats had to be shooed off.” Nightingale, who Mahoney seems to idealise, describes Arabs as “an intermediate race, they appeared to me, between the monkey and man, the ugliest, most slavish countenances.” To connect her experiences to those of this parochial pair seemed to me, unnecessary and denigrating.
However, this doesn’t detract from the pleasures of Down the Nile, a unique and improbable testimonial. If you want to read about the pyramids and the tombs at Thebes, this is not the book for you. At one point, Mahoney refers to the Temple of Karnak being impressive and then never revisits it again. When she rows by the Temple of Kom Obo, she makes no attempt to stop and visit it because she sees nothing exceptional about it. She is far more excited to visit a Nubian village or a Coptic family. From that perspective, Down the Nile is not a contrived account of tombs and temples, but a very honest work about one determined woman who sets herself a challenge and all the people and events she happens upon in accomplishing this feat. Alluding to a statement by Flaubert, Mahoney concludes her book most incisively when she says “Travel never makes one cheerful. But it makes one thoughtful. It washes one’s eyes and clears away the dust.”