Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Abhimanyu the wobbly doll (and a plug for Anti-Serious)

A shout-out for the new online magazine Anti Serious (Laughter in Slow Motion), launched by Sumana Roy, Manjiri Indurkar, Tanushree Bhasin and Debojit Dutta. You can read their mission statements here and surf the various sections. And here is a piece I wrote for them about the tonal peculiarities of some scenes in the Star Plus Mahabharata (centred on the so-tragic-it-was-funny killing of Abhimanyu). The piece was written back when the show was still on, so content-wise it may seem a bit dated - but hopefully the basic point comes across.
Attacked from various directions (by a bunch of people who look more like clumsy sidekicks than seasoned warriors), Abhimanyu continues to smile, like the college fresher who is undergoing a spell of mild ragging and knows he will come out of it having influenced people and won new (grown-up) friends [...] And perhaps here, the writers unintentionally tapped into something truthful about the Abhimanyu character that generations of teary-eyed Mahabharata readers have missed: that he is a swollen-headed – if insanely talented – 16-year-old boy with a highly romantic view of war, who doesn’t quite understand the implications of it all.
 [Full piece here]

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dry well, foul smell - on Ketan Mehta's excellent Bhavni Bhavai

[Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, scheduled to release next month, years after its completion, marks a return to alliterative titles in the director’s filmography: Maya Memsaab, Hero Hiralal and most famously the beautifully shot parable Mirch Masala, now available on a restored NFDC print. But my favourite among Mehta’s films is his debut feature, which he made when he was just 27]

“Our homes are burnt, our women are raped, we are treated like animals, and you don’t feel anything?” the lower-caste man says, looking straight at the camera. I am talking to “all those who are watching from the safety of their darkness”, he tells his wife. The words could refer to the moral blindness of people who practice or tolerate discrimination… or to a darkened movie hall in which some of those people sit in comfortable anonymity, staring and judging from a distance.

This scene in the Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai – written and directed by Ketan Mehta in 1980 – reminded me of the last shot of a more recent film about caste oppression, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry. In Manjule’s film, the final image – which implicated the audience in the bigotry faced by the protagonist and his family – was an unexpected Fourth Wall-breaker in an otherwise realistic narrative. Bhavni Bhavai, on the other hand,operates in Brechtian mode throughout (Mehta dedicates it to Brecht too) – it draws attention to its own staging, employs the distancing device of a story within a story, and has more than one scene where a character directly addresses the viewer.

And unlike Fandry, Bhavni Bhavai can be described as a comedy – jet-black, absurdist and slapstick in turn. “Ketan’s vision for the acting in the film was that it should be like the behaviour of the characters in the Asterix comics,” writes Naseeruddin Shah in his memoir, and indeed Shah himself (three years before his role in a more famous dark comedy) has a grand time as the Raja in this film: preening and swaggering but unable to withdraw a sword from its scabbard when required to (either because he doesn’t have the strength for it or because the weapon has rusted from lack of use); giggling like a baby with a new rattle, and doing high-fives with himself when he learns he has won a war and his queen has given birth to a son. He rolls his eyes wildly, makes little grunting sounds, wails “Chhup re! Hamaari jindagi ka sawaal chhe!” when a jester suggests that a dire prediction mustn’t be taken seriously.

This prediction – which has been contrived by a crooked minister (Benjamin Gilani) and a jealous second queen (Suhasini Mulay) – is that the Raja will die if he sets eyes on the newborn prince. Cast away but found and adopted by a member of the local “untouchable” community, the baby grows up to be Jeeva (Mohan Gokhale), whose path crosses with his biological father when the Raja is told that the only way to get water flowing in his stepwell is to sacrifice a man with 32 vital qualities. By this point the allegorical nature of the story is clear, what with the many archetypes – a Brahmin who has to keep bathing because he is repeatedly “defiled” by contact with a bhangi, a self-serving astrologer, the court fool Ranglo, who may be the wisest man in the tale – and the deliberate comic exaggeration. In a society where the “dirty work” can only be performed by lower-caste people, what happens when they take a day’s leave to attend a wedding? The palace starts stinking to the high heavens, of course, because there is no one to clean the human excrement. The Raja has them whipped, but this worsens matters since they are now writhing in pain and incapable of working, and the shit keeps piling up, so to speak. The smell seeps into the very walls, the king is constantly tormented by it – but then, something has long been rotten in a kingdom where an entire group of people have to wear spittoons around their necks and drag a little “tail” behind them to wipe away their offending footprints.

Like Shyam Benegal’s wonderful Charandas Chor, which it often reminded me of, Bhavni Bhavai is rooted in folk-theatre traditions, including the use of scatological humour to address social injustices and hypocrisies. The gags are beguilingly simple at times, and very effective: the Akashvani tune is used when the Raja is shown bathing in the morning as the sun rises; the Pink Panther theme plays in scenes where the court spy makes his little appearances (to the Raja’s befuddlement, since he can’t recognize his own man under his disguises!). The pomposities of royals and their courtiers are mocked: the king emerges importantly from a room and is set to make a grand gesture, but has to pause because a minion has his head bowed right in front of him; the minister becomes an object of mirth whenever he is trying to be dignified – beset by a coughing fit as he laughs derisively, having a prison door hit him on the head as he struts about.

The pace slackens just a little in the second half, but that has to do with the natural arc of the story, with the changes in the Raja’s own personality – he is now middle-aged, a little more depressed and introspective – and with the shift in focus from the shenanigans in the royal court to the lives of the outcastes, including Jeeva, his romance with Ujaan (Smita Patil), and his knowledge of his own doom. And all this builds up to one of Indian cinema’s hardest-hitting closing sequences.

(Spoiler alert, though I don’t really think one is needed) All this while, the story of the king and Jeeva has been told by an old sutradhaar (played by Om Puri) to comfort the children of another group of outcastes who have lost their homes. His song is beautiful and soothing and runs through the film like a river (“Nadi behti jaaye” he sings, assuring the kids that all will be well in the end, that bigotry will be crushed in the same way that the river crushes rocks along its path). But he is confronted by another member of the tribe, who tells him to stop lulling the children with the opium of lies. “Let’s stop pretending. Too slow is your river, too gentle is its flow. It’s now or never, we won’t live forever. Who knows tomorrow?” And the film finally unsheathes its claws with a scene that presents two separate endings or possibilities. 

In the first, idealised one, the king learns that the man he has condemned to death is his own son; he halts the execution in the nick of time, there is a joyful reunion, and water bursts out of a long-dry well, ending decades of drought. In the second, more cynical ending – the real one – no one shows up to enlighten the king. There is a haunting, static shot of the guards standing at attention at the foot of the well’s steps, and between them is an empty passage: no help arrives this time, “Ranglo aave nei (Ranglo doesn’t come)” goes the plaintive chorus. The condemned man’s head rolls on schedule, and water does burst forth, but this time as an apocalyptic flood that will wash away the kingdom and everything in it, bad and good. This magnificently hyper-dramatic finish has the Raja feebly waving his sword at the deluge that is about to destroy him, intercut with visuals from the Indian freedom movement. It’s a call to arms, to immediate activism, but I think it is also a caustic comment on the very nature of storytelling; on the comforting narration-creation that goes along the lines “Things may seem bad now, but they’ll get better – in the long run, everything will work out.” But what can the long run, the big picture, mean to someone who is suffering in the here and now?

This film is a stunning achievement of its kind. My personal preference in “issue-based” films is for the ones that go about their work in subtle ways – not holding up a “solution”, delivering a “message” or being political in an overt, easily identifiable way, but embedding ideas, and maybe raising a few questions, within the fabric of a well-told story. Every now and again though, I come to love a movie that belongs in the other category, because – even though it can seem a bit heavy-handed or preachy – there is conviction, directness, a throbbing honesty in the telling. (It helps if there is some good “cinema” too.) Bhavni Bhavai, along with Govind Nihalani’s Party, is one of those films. Like Party, Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (both of which also have unflinching endings) and a few other “parallel” films of the time, this one has been a holy grail for many movie-buffs of my generation: dimly remembered through a Doordarshan screening or two in the 1980s, then unavailable for years while stories circulated about how the original print no longer exists, now available in a passable print on YouTube, and also on the festival circuit once in a while. I hope it makes it to the NFDC restorations soon.

P.S. Do read this 2010 column by Salil Tripathi, where he mentions the film’s dual ending in the context of Narendra Modi and the possible futures of Gujarat.

[Some related posts: Nihalani's Party, Mirza's Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, the Cinemas of India DVDs, Fandry, Benegal's Charandas Chor]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A shout-out for the Chandigarh Literature Festival

One of my regrets last year was being unable to participate in the Chandigarh Literature Festival (the first one, that is – there are now two in that city in November) because I had commitments elsewhere. When Altaf Tyrewala mailed with an invitation and a brief, it was clear that here was a lit-fest – among the dozens of such events we now have across India – making a serious effort to be focused and different (so much so that one almost wondered if they could sustain the format). The idea was irresistible: each session has one critic in conversation with one author about a specific book (which has been proposed by the critic beforehand, as a personal favourite). In the words of the brief, the nominated books “are read out from, enacted, discussed and debated”, and the critic serves as the “literary ambassador” for the book over the duration of the festival.

It’s an excellent idea, and I’m glad to be participating in the festival this year. My choice of book was Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Or the Day Seizes You (each critic was asked to nominate three books, to allow for some flexibility in case an author wasn’t available; happily, Rajorshi – first on my list – could make it). I wrote about Or the Day Seizes You when it came out in 2006 (rereading that post, I feel there’s a lot more I could say about the book today) and have followed everything Rajorshi has published since then, most recently the novel Mumbai Rollercoaster and the short-story collection Lost Men. (He also wrote a superb essay, “Perchance to Dream”, for my anthology The Popcorn Essayists – the piece was about films that had the texture of a dream for him, and included references to works by Buster Keaton, Welles, Kubrick and Truffaut…as well as the frenzied opening 15 minutes of a masala Hindi film from the 1980s!)

Rajorshi apart, the festival is packed with goodies: have a look at the schedule here. (Other participants include some of my favourite writers and critics – Salil Tripathi, Sonia Faleiro, Trisha Gupta, Manu Joseph, Zac O’Yeah and Anjum Hasan – and at least five other books that I have read and hold in high regard: Manu’s Serious Men, Sonia’s Beautiful Thing, Zac’s Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish and William Dalrymple’s White Mughals.) Do come across if you are in Chandigarh, or otherwise spread the word to anyone who might be interested.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Bloody good: on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and a Hamlet connection)

After watching Haider last week I revisited a couple of earlier versions of Hamlet (Olivier, Branagh), but also  happened to spend some time in the company of another fictional nobleman who wears an “inky cloak”. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula in full for the first time (an embarrassing admission for a long-time horror buff, but there it is) and was unprepared for how masterfully constructed it was: how the pace and energy of the story sweep the reader along, preventing us from thinking too much about the handy plot coincidences; how the many narratives (the book is almost entirely made up of journal entries and letters) complement each other, provide slightly different perspectives on the same events, and dovetail so that we arrive in that comforting place so crucial to the effect of an adventure story about many good guys teaming up against a single powerful evil: oh yes, they’ve finally figured things out, most of the pieces are in place, now they can get on with doing what is required.

There are so many interesting things going on in this book. The shift in voices (this isn’t too pronounced, but once in a while it is done very entertainingly – when Dr Van Helsing is speaking in broken English, or the harbour scene where a garrulous old man blathers on about graves that don’t have the right people in them). The delicious little ways in which the reader is made aware of something that the other characters don’t yet realise the implications of. (A casual line like “She looks paler than usual” can be such a spine-tingler – that's Jonathan Harker, distracted by other things, mentioning his wife Mina in his diary.) The commentary on the social mores of the Victorian age and the scientific developments underway in the late 19th century, and what seemed to me at least a gentle satire on a certain type of self-consciously chivalrous man. (As the male heroes work out their plan to destroy the vampire, they are mindful of Mina’s delicate sensibilities, concerned that she be kept away from the action – not realising that by “sheltering” her thus they are creating more peril all around. Besides, she is actively helping them in important ways. Then there is the fate of the sleepwalking Lucy Westenra, a damsel so much in distress that she has to suffer numerous blood transfusions, the donor in each case being a gallant man – including three men who are in love with her. None of it helps in the end.)
Anyway, reading this book sent me back to some favourite vampire films: Nosferatu, Dreyer's Vampyr, the Lugosi Dracula and Roman Polanski's goofy Fearless Vampire Killers; or, Pardon Me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck. Along the way I noted little connections between Shakespeare’s prince of melancholia and Stoker’s Prince of Darkness. Hamlet’s “dread of something after death – the undiscovered country” is well-known. His father is technically undead, just as any self-respecting vampire would be. And take the scene with the grave-digger, culminating in our hero’s near-dash into the open grave meant for Ophelia: which famous coffin-dweller does that remind you of?  

To die, to sleep – no more. Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out. Etc etc. Definite theme here.

There is the joke about a woman who, after reading Hamlet for the first time late in her life, said, “I don't see why people admire that play so much – it is just a bunch of old quotations strung together.” We are meant to scoff at her, but perhaps one should be kinder. Reading merely the first act of the play again, I felt like I was swamped in clichés. (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”?? Forsooth, Will.) But that’s what happens when a literary work has seeped so thoroughly into popular consciousness and culture, and hundreds of lines that first appeared in it have – through over-use – become trite or ironical.

To a degree, this is also true of Stoker’s novel. After years of movie versions and rip-offs and tributes and parodies, I felt I knew iconic characters like Van Helsing (expert vampire combatant) and the heroic Harkers so well that it came as an atavistic pleasure to meet them in their “original” form. The last time I encountered Mina Harker was as the resourceful but hardened heroine of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, divorced from her husband after their misadventures with the dark Count and having reverted to her maiden name Murray. It took a few chapters of Dracula to shake that image away and start dealing with the compassionate Mina of this book.

Part of me, I think, was expecting something very quaint and dated, with little resemblance to the vampire story as it later became (I’m not talking about Twilight here, by the way – I’m not that up to date). I knew beforehand that the novel’s Count Dracula – initially an old man with a droopy white moustache, later growing more youthful after his blood infusions – was notably different from the debonair, black-cloaked satyr portrayed by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. But the book IS full of familiar things, as well as little surprises: I hadn’t realised that the line “Listen to them, the children of the night – what music they make!” so memorably hissed by Lugosi in the 1931 film, was originally from the novel.

Some of my favourite passages feature the lunatic Renfield. For years now I have thought of this character as a caricatured, Igor-like henchman, tottering about Dracula’s castle and grounds, doing his master’s bidding. So the first reference to him - around 75 pages into the book in Dr Seward’s journals - made me sit up. These chapters, where Seward diligently records his patient's “zoophagus” activities, must have delighted the hearts of screenwriters working on Universal horror films.

5 June. The case of Renfield grows more interesting the more I get to understand the man […]
He has turned his mind now to spiders, and has got several very big fellows in a box. He keeps feeding them his flies, and the number of the latter is becoming sensibly diminished, although he has used half his food in attracting more flies from outside to his room.

1 July. His spiders are now becoming as great a nuisance as his flies, and today I told him that he must get rid of them. He looked very sad at this, so I said that he must some of them, at all events. He cheerfully acquiesced in this, and I gave him the same time as before for reduction. He disgusted me much while with him, for when a horrid blowfly, bloated with some carrion food, buzzed into the room, he caught it, held it exultantly for a few moments between his finger and thumb, and before I knew what he was going to do, put it in his mouth and ate it. I scolded him for it, but he argued quietly that it was very good and very wholesome, that it was life, strong life, and gave life to him. This gave me an idea, or the rudiment of one. I must watch how he gets rid of his spiders.

8 July. He has managed to get a sparrow, and has already partially tamed it. His means of taming is simple, for already the spiders have diminished. Those that do remain, however, are well fed, for he still brings in the flies by tempting them with his food.
My homicidal maniac is of a peculiar kind. I shall have to invent a new classification for him. What he desires is to absorb as many lives as he can, and he has laid himself out to achieve it in a cumulative way. He gave many flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds. What would have been his later steps?
Macabre as these passages are, they are also very funny in the image they create of the conscientious doctor observing his demented patient and taking notes; the professionalism and scrupulousness of purpose contrasted with the informality of language (“several very big fellows in a box”), and the sense that the author is having some fun in detailing this relationship, the power equations of which are not always clear. How interesting it is that Seward – sane and balanced, but also melancholy because the woman he loves is betrothed to someone else – expresses envy and admiration for Renfield's orderliness:

“How well the man reasoned; lunatics always do within their own scope. I wonder at how many lives he values a man, or if at only one. He has closed the account most accurately, and today begun a new record. How many of us begin a new record with each day of our lives? […] If I only could have as strong a cause as my poor mad friend there, a good, unselfish cause to make me work, that would be indeed happiness.”

On this evidence I feel reasonably sure that Hamlet, Seward and Renfield could have a good tea-time conversation. But a little more on the Hamlet-Dracula connection: Olivier’s 1948 film has a scene where the prince holds his sword up like a crucifix, a Van Helsing keeping the monster at bay. This may have been an inspiration to Peter Cushing, who played the small role of Osric in the film, and would later be arguably the most famous Van Helsing onscreen.

(And as if that weren’t enough, the young Christopher Lee played a spear-carrier in Olivier's Hamlet. Spooky music alert.)
P.S. And now it turns out that Van Helsing's very name comes from Hamlet's Elsinore Castle - see this detailed post about links between the two texts. Talk about opening a can of (politic) worms...

Friday, October 03, 2014

Notes on Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider (and a brief chat with Basharat Peer)

To begin by stating the obvious – Hamlet isn’t a great, enduring play because of what it tells us about the politics of 16th century Denmark or Europe. The reasons for its appeal are more universal: the quality of the poetry and how it fuels the narrative, creating a weave of human emotions, relationships and duplicities; the portrait of the sensitive young prince at the centre of it all, wise and callow by turn, child and man at once, never quite sure of what he must do; and the many ways in which the particular sheds light on the general. (I have always been puzzled by Charles Chaplin’s remark that he wasn’t too interested in Shakespeare because the plays were mostly about privileged royals whom he couldn’t identify with.)

But Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider isn’t “just” an adaptation of one of the most celebrated English plays ever (which would have been a big enough challenge) – it is also concerned with the recent history of Kashmir, which is an immediate, politically charged subject (so charged that the film has already run into trouble for its refusal to treat the Indian Army as unblemished angels of mercy and righteousness). And what made Haider compelling for me was the friction I sensed within the film: a conflict between the need to do well by Shakespeare – to do new things with a major literary text that has universal appeal – and the need to address Kashmir’s complexities. This tightrope act gives a pleasingly schizophrenic quality to a movie that is, after all, about a young man on the cusp of madness.

Some thoughts (mainly for those who have seen the film):

– Can a script that carries the load of Kashmir PLUS Hamlet avoid patches of heavy-handedness? Probably not, but Haider acquits itself well in the circumstances. I liked the non-underlined way in which this story's Gertrude
Haider’s mother Ghazala, wonderfully played by Tabu becomes a sort of symbol for Kashmir herself: the object of desire or (blood)lust, the thing that needs to be possessed (the film isn’t coy about Haider’s own ambiguous relationship with her), the woman – “our sometime sister, now our queen” – whose very body is a battleground (an idea literalised in an explosive climax where Ghazala is given more agency than Gertrude has in the closing moments of the play).

– Other noteworthy things are done with the original text, such as the use of the character Roohdaar, who presents himself as the “rooh” (soul) of Haider’s father, a mouthpiece for a dead man. It’s a good way of sidestepping the supernatural aspects of the play, but it also ties in with a basic ambiguity in Hamlet itself: until the moment of Claudius’s confession, we can’t be completely sure if Hamlet’s father really was betrayed and murdered; the prince might be hallucinating, or the ghost might be a malevolent spirit leading him astray. In Haider, the very nature of the setting – the moral murkiness, the deceptions and counter-deceptions – is such that there exists at least a small possibility that young Haider is being set up. This adds a layer to his madness, uncertainty and his rambling, Toba Tek Singh-like soliloquy, which touches on how the people of Kashmir are caught in events they can’t fully understand. Which side, which border to trust?

– Scenes such as the gravediggers’ goofy song “So Jao” are reminders of how similar Shakespeare’s work is to a certain type of Hindi film: the episodic structures with constant shifting of moods and tones, the melodrama and the cheerful bawdiness, the use of clowns as sutradhaars who get to say unexpectedly profound things. Watching the “Ek aur Bismil” sequence where Haider confronts his uncle during the course of a celebratory song, even someone who knows his Hamlet might forget the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king and instead recall “Ek Haseena Thi” in Karz – but of course Shakeapeare’s “lowbrow” dramatic flair has influenced popular Hindi cinema for decades, and that Karz song is part of the tradition.

This is also one reason why Haider’s wildly over-the-top Rosencrantz and Guildenstern worked for me. Turning these two spy-buffoons into Salman Khan-obsessives in a video parlour (complete with the playing of “Tumse jo Dekhte Hi Pyaar Hua” on the car stereo in a grim late scene) was an inspired touch. It’s loud, cutesy, front-bencher stuff…and I think Shakespeare would have heartily approved of it.

– In Hamlet, because the focus is on individuals and their conflicts, revenge is a relatively straightforward thing: there is a sense of loss, of course, and a sense that innocents like Ophelia have been swept away in other people’s battles, but the canvas is small and self-contained. In Haider, despite the emphases on relationships (Haider and his mother, Haider and Arshia, Arshia and her father), the big picture is always in view. And the thought that inteqaam followed by more inteqaam can only lead to wholesale destruction is a philosophical statement that keeps in mind the generations of self-perpetuating distrust and antagonism in Kashmir.  (It is also an apt thought for a film released on Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary.)

I liked the way the film ended, but I felt it might have been even better if the last shot had been the one of Haider indecisively holding the gun over his uncle’s head, and a simple fadeout on that image, along with the dual voiceover, one voice urging revenge, the other urging restraint: that would have been a fine encapsulation of the “to be or not to be” (or “to do or not to do”) theme, and an image of Kashmiri lives in a state of suspension.

P.S. Shortly after writing the above, I spoke with Basharat Peer who, in preparing the Haider screenplay, revisited Hamlet and simultaneously drew on his own wide-ranging experiences of Kashmir (including some that have been chronicled in his excellent Curfewed Night). Basharat said he wasn’t consciously thinking of Ghazala as a symbol for the “motherland”, but in writing the character – and in trying to make this Gertrude a more active
participant – he had in mind the many stories involving unsung heroines from the Kashmir struggle: women who are often forgotten in official and unofficial records, and who defy the stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman who stays at home with eyes lowered.

The gravediggers too were inspired by some of the old men Basharat knew who were running around trying to save – or avenge – their children. “When we talk of the violence, we usually think of young, able-bodied men," he said, "but there are so many older people too who picked up guns after losing everything. And people like that don’t do this for big ideological reasons, it is purely personal: you lose your child, and all you want to do is destroy the world. It’s all part of the overwhelming complexity of what has happened in Kashmir, where the personal is always mixed up with the political.” I thought it notable how this view of embittered old people, dealing with grief, knowledge of mortality and the possible meaninglessness of it all, fits so well with the absurdist-nihilistic graveyard scene in Hamlet, and with Vishal Bhardwaj’s own dark sense of humour (also mentioned here and here, in the context of his collaborations with Ruskin Bond).

Basharat also mentioned that the “roohdaar” – Haider's father's twin soul, so to speak – was drawn from a real-life incident where a man, fired upon and dumped into the river (with a sack containing the chopped-up limbs of his friends tied to his back), survived to tell the tale. Another case of fiction huffing and puffing to keep pace with the implausibilities of real life. No wonder great Elsinore to high Srinagar can come.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fornit, some Fornus - writers on writing

[From my Forbes Life column]

The American author Stephen King is too prolific to be easily categorised, but most people who know of his work from a distance think of him as a “horror writer” – he has, after all, published bestsellers about a psychotic dog, a homicidal clown, a creepy hotel with a mind of its own, and a girl who wreaks vengeance on her tormentors through her gift of telekinesis. But one of the scariest King stories I have encountered is the novella “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”, which is about a writer’s personal hell. The story is included in the collection Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, which, along with King’s On Writing, contains many valuable insights into his profession.

The framing device for the flexible-bullet story is a literary party where an aging editor recalls his association with a once-promising novelist named Reg Thorpe. Thorpe became convinced that his typewriter was inhabited by a “Fornit”, a tiny elf that sprinkled magic dust – Fornus – on the machine and was responsible for his creativity. Which sounds outlandish, but is it? As the editor’s account comes to its tragic conclusion and the party winds up, the wife of another young writer nervously asks “There are no Fornits in your typewriter, are there, Paul?” and we get this chilling sentence: And the writer, who had sometimes – often – wondered where the words DID come from, said bravely, “Absolutely not.”

Writers do wonder. Many of them don’t understand their processes – how the “muse” emerges, how quickly it can vanish, leaving no trace of the idea or the turn of phrase that had seemed so brilliant in the middle of the night – and some of them feel a painful disconnect between the thing they had in their minds and what finally emerged on the page. (Was the Fornit responsible for the bungled prose? Could the Fornit be a double agent?) Here is Ann Patchett in her memoir This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, on the conception and gestation of each new novel: “…the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty. […] When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.” Patchett goes on to write movingly about the experience of seeing the dry husk of her beautiful friend on the writing table, “chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead.”

All this can sound pretentious to those who think creative people romanticise their work needlessly rather than just “getting it done” – but nearly any serious writer has experienced these feelings, and their accounts often echo each other. Consider King’s little elf in the typewriter, and then look at Mishi Saran’s description of “the dwarf clamped to my shoulder – a mini-me – hissing into my ear”. This is from an essay in the fine new anthology Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves, edited by Manju Kapur. The book has many candid pieces by novelists such as Anita Nair, Moni Mohsin and Jaishree Misra, and while some of the points made are gender-neutral, they also touch on the specific difficulties of being a woman writer in a conservative society – many of the writers mention Virginia Woolf's famous essay “A Room of One’s Own”, about the financial independence and the emotional and physical space a woman needs in order to write.

Another of the most engrossing self-reflective books I have read in the past year is Vikam Chandra’s Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code, which tries to reconcile his two selves, the fiction writer and the software programmer. Chandra examines his trajectory as a reader and writer: for instance, he recounts how, as a youngster, he was divided between classical Indian forms of storytelling (with their episodic structures, logical discontinuities and narratives nestled within narratives) and the cool, minimalist “realism” of modern American writing (in creative-writing workshops in the US, the model to aspire to was the spare prose of Raymond Carver).

As Chandra knows, the writer as part of his own story – creating and participating at once – is a tradition that goes back a long way in Indian literature. Look at what happens early in the great epic the Mahabharata. A king has died heirless, his wives need children to carry the Kuru lineage forward, but no one with the right pedigree is able or willing to do this. At this point Vyasa himself, the poet and composer, enters the story and fathers the children who will in turn beget the epic’s protagonists the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Now the tale can continue. Did someone say deus ex machina?

Such a narrative arc is facilitated by stories that begin with oral recitations and gradually expand over time. (Picture a spoken story reaching a dead end, the audience impatiently asking “What happened next?” and the storyteller finding a way out by introducing himself as a character.) But some modern classics have also aimed for such an effect. Rabindranath Tagore’s Shey – translated from Bengali into English as He (Shey) by Aparna Chaudhuri – has for its protagonist a man who is made entirely of words. The book was written for Tagore’s granddaughter Pupe, and includes a number of unusual adventures and creatures; but as Chaudhuri points out in her introduction, storytelling is presented here as an interactive process – the tone changes with Tagore’s moods and Pupe’s demands, and also eventually reflects the difference in her personality as she grows from age nine (when the storytelling begins) to age 16 (when it ends).

Among more straightforward, linear fiction that has an author as a protagonist, a personal favourite is Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, in which a writer tries to uncover details about the life of another, deceased writer – in particular, to understand how the latter’s literary output changed with his personal circumstances, and what the contribution of his now-forgotten first wife Rosie was to his art. The result is one of Maugham’s most delicate books, an examination of the wheels behind the creative process and, importantly, a pretty good story in its own right.

Writers do sometimes stop navel-gazing for long enough to write about other, real-life writers. Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché is a fine collection of essays on the methods of old masters (Milton, Donne, Cervantes) as well as contemporary practitioners of popular forms (Thomas Harris). More recently, there is Jonathan
Franzen's collection Farther Away, my favourite essay in which – “What makes you so sure you’re not the evil one yourself?” – is a celebration of the great short-story writer Alice Munro. Franzen notes how Munro is sometimes not taken seriously enough because she writes in conversational prose about everyday things, rather than about self-consciously Big Subjects; through a brilliant discussion of a particular short story, he analyses her talent for uncovering layer after painful layer in human character and relationships. So much of writing is implicitly a tribute to other writing (because everyone has been influenced by someone or the other), but this essay is that rare thing, one accomplished writer trying to make acquaintance with another well-known writer’s Fornit.

[More soon on Stephen King's excellent On Writing. And some earlier Forbes Life thematic columns here: popular science, satire, true crime, translations, doubles, time travel]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Love, longing and philanthropy in Parvati Sharma's Close to Home

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian. When writing about film, I often – too often perhaps – bring up Manny Farber’s “termite art-elephant art” formulation. Well, here’s a novel that I thought might be classified as good termite art]

Among the many carefully observed moments in Parvati Sharma’s novel Close to Home is one where the protagonist, a young woman named Mrinalini, is entertaining her maid’s little daughter Anjali with cartoon films. They are in Mrinalini’s room – her husband Siddhartha is also around – sitting together on the bed in front of the laptop, when the maid Beena comes in to check on the child. Mrinalini craned her neck to look up at Beena; mother and daughter had the same smile: willing to be pleased, then delighted. “See,” said Mrinalini, “it’s a cartoon. Sit?” She wasn’t sure where Beena would sit and counted on her declining the offer, which she did.

The notable things about this episode, and the larger scene it is situated in, include the suggestion that the class barrier separating the two sets of people in the room doesn’t quite apply to the little girl yet; Anjali, barely three and hence not a card-carrying citizen of one of the many countries adults create for themselves, can casually make the bed her own (though Siddhartha is a little concerned that she will get her heavily oiled hair on the pillows), but it would be an immediate, noticeable transgression if her mother were to sit on it. The scene also depicts the mixing and mashing of backgrounds and cultural reference points in a world where one can shift from watching kung-fu pandas (“too much in English” for this little girl) to watching an animated Ganesha (wherein an upper-middle-class woman might feel self-conscious when a servant’s child commands her to “do namoh” to the cartoon God) or listening to a bhajan about the infant Krishna. And there is the description “willing to be pleased, then delighted”, which lets us imagine Anjali and Beena, so happy to be in the unusual position of watching shiny images on a computer in this room – but also allows us to reflect that maybe this is just Mrinalini’s perspective, born of self-congratulation.

This slim, sharp book centres on a woman trying to fill a blank screen, at work and in life. As a writer, Mrinalini stresses over the empty word-files on her computer. As a person, she wants to prove – to herself and to others – that she cares, that she can make a difference, and perhaps that confronting discrimination in the real world is more meaningful than writing about it. But being well-off carries its own traps. Even with the best intentions, you may have to deal with the possibility that the poor aren’t just an amorphous mass of eyes brimming with tears of appreciation for the little things you do for them, the favours and kindnesses you dole out at your own convenience; they are just as complex as you are, they have their own capacities for resentment or pettiness, or for wanting more than you think they should be satisfied with. The ayah whose child you are self-consciously looking out for isn’t always going to be the grateful supplicant, she might turn out to be a shrill-voiced bitch who rants about you behind your back, accusing you of using her daughter as a toy. And there could be some truth in that charge.

These are some of the things this book “is about”, but to list them like this makes Close to Home sound ponderous and doesn’t adequately convey what a fun, fast-paced read it is. (It took me just three or four hours to finish it.) The seven chapter heads are lines that come together wittily to make up a little poem – the sort where “Jangpura Ext” can be made to rhyme with “vexed” – and the main narrative has its own rhythm and flow. It begins with a chapter set before Mrinalini is married – she is smoking a joint with her roommate Jahanara, who confesses her love for her. Here as elsewhere, Sharma uses long sentences with unfussy, elegant flair. (Mrinalini was so obviously delighted by this – the dotcom, though unstinting by way of motivational talk and pizza lunches, offered little real excitement, and Siddhartha only called on Sundays – and so eager with her questions and generous in her felicitations, that Jahanara, who had tensed after uttering the words I think I’m gay, had uncoiled and unfurled and unthinkingly discovered, in the time it took them to roll another, that she only ever wanted to tell Mrinalini all her secrets and fears, and the strength of her feeling being what it was, it must be, it had to be, reciprocated.) There is an eye for detail, for pithy observations about behaviour and body language – whether in a description of a character laughing “from fear and happiness”, or a long, seemingly indolent chat between two people where layers of desire, insecurity and awkwardness are revealed. (Mrinalini indulges Jahanara a little, they banter and speculate about a fantasy future together, it seems like harmless fun but the frothy surface is misleading, and it all ends with Jahanara accusing her friend of being insensitive. This is the set-up for much of what follows.)

Though an easy read, Close to Home is in some ways a hard-to-classify book, and this is true of its characters as well – which is probably part of the point. Mrinalini and Sidhartha are well-meaning people, potentially non-conformist in some ways (he gives up a job in banking – though shortly afterwards he lets his father settle him in a government job), but there is something synthetic about their conversations, the hip self-awareness mixed with naiveté. They are so lovey-dovey, so much in tune all the time, articulating their thoughts so clearly even when they disagree – and you just know they will have fantastic make-up sex (“I’ll make your world spin, baby”) just a few hours after a nasty, crippling fight – that I found them a bit annoying. But it would be too easy to say this book invites us to judge them wholesale, even though some passages seem to play out that way. One subplot has their tenant Brajeshwar, also an author, writing an “ethnographic memoir” in which he casts them as a bubble-gum couple who have superficial conversations about important things, and even patronisingly gives them the names of the lead characters in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge. There is some truth in this description, but counter-perspectives are immediately presented too, and we get to see the gaps in Brajeshwar’s own understanding (and later, his vulnerabilities as well).

All of which means that this story about the troubled relationships between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, and how philanthropy is so often about the giver rather than the beneficiary, should cut close to the bone for any privileged reader (and by “privileged” I mean anyone who has the means and ability to read this book in the first place) – even someone whose first instinct may be to see Mrinalini as a shallow dilettante. Possibly she is, but then possibly the best of us are too, forever struggling with the question that makes up the final chapter head: “Do you choose good or bad, or merely all right?"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mom and pop stories - some thoughts on parents in literature

[Did this some time back for my “thematic” Forbes Life column – this is about some books dealing with the parent-child relationship]

Given that writing is an inherently self-examining – some would say self-obsessed – act, it is no surprise that the parent-child bond has been at the heart of so much literature, going back to the oldest recorded stories in every civilisation. Apart from being gateways to understanding our personal and cultural histories, parents can be foils or inspirations, scapegoats or pretexts for fretting about genetic legacies. And there is strong dramatic potential in the many – positive and negative – facets of these relationships.

In the best such works, personal history is effectively set against a larger social backdrop. For instance, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel-cum-biography Maus manages to be an intimate story about a son’s attempt to understand his father’s life even while it tackles one of the most important events of the last century – the Holocaust, of which Spiegelman’s parents were survivors. His major stylistic decision is to draw the Jews, including himself and his dad, as mice and the Nazis as cats. (The Holocaust was, after all, founded on the Nazi willingness to see their victims as “filthy vermin”, which was how a manifesto of the time denounced Mickey Mouse.) The present day of the narrative is sometime in the 1970s, when the young Art, tape recorder in hand, visits his cantankerous father Vladek and learns about his youth in the early 1930s as well as the horrors of Auschwitz; their conversations over time show us that Vladek, though a victim of the worst of racial discrimination, is far from unblemished in his own attitudes to other communities, and this in turn helps us understand the distance between father and son.

A less dramatic series of memoirs, Ved Mehta’s “Continents of Exile”, includes two books – Mamaji and Daddyji – that are specifically named for Mehta’s parents and are linear accounts of their lives: these are also explorations of changing worlds, from the provinciality of village life in mid-19th century Punjab (where a journey to Haridwar could be the achievement of a lifetime) to the England of the early 20th century. But for me, the most poignant of Mehta’s books is the smaller-canvas The Red Letters, which is about his father's brief extramarital affair in the early 1930s. “It’s hard to imagine one’s parents having hungers, fears and longings of their own,” Mehta said in an interview. The dialogues between father and son form the book’s most gripping sections; these are tentative exchanges, founded on guilt and reticence, where both men learn things about each other and about themselves.


A recurring theme in such writing is grief, and the American novelist Paul Auster has often dealt head-on with it: his The Book of Illusions has the central character, David Zimmer, wallowing for months in self-pity after the deaths of his wife and children. Then the narrative acquires momentum with a single incident, heartbreakingly recounted: watching TV numbly one night, Zimmer finds himself unselfconsciously laughing – for the first time in ages – as he chances on a short film featuring a forgotten silent-screen comedian. He realises that a part of him wants to continue living, and what follows is a portrait of regeneration through newfound obsession. Interestingly, it seems that Auster could only write his own memoir, Winter Journal, by being elusive and indirect – he doesn’t disguise it as fiction, but he uses the second-person “You” instead of the first-person “I”. And passages like the one about his mother’s death may help you see why such detachment was required. That the chapter in question was excerpted in Granta’s collection of “Horror” writing is fitting – horror can mean looking at a corpse and reflecting that “You are familiar with the inertness of the dead...but no other dead body was the body in which your own life began.”

A similar terrifying image – the sight of one’s mother slowly fading, “being sucked into the centre of the earth” – is at the heart of Jerry Pinto’s autobiographical Em and the Big Hoom. This novel is often described as a son’s chronicle of life with a mentally ill mother, but I saw it as being about parents in a more general sense: as looking glasses (or crystal balls?) in whose aging faces and increasingly unpredictable behaviour we might see our own future selves and shudder, or rejoice, or both. Pinto’s book is also very much a professional writer’s memoir: it is about writing as a way of articulating things to preserve one’s sanity. “One of the defences I had devised against the possibility of madness,” its narrator says, “was that I would explain every feeling I had to myself [...] I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words ... you would be able to deal with the world.”

Dealing with the world in the face of the unfathomable is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which is an account of losing her entire family – husband, children, parents – to the tsunami in Sri Lanka in December 2004, and the subsequent haze of her life. It is filled with moments that will strike an immediate chord for anyone who has experienced similar loss, and understandably the emphasis is on the author’s bereavement as a parent: she didn’t know what to do with her arms anymore, she says at one point, if she couldn’t hold her little boys with them. Yet a moment that stayed with me is the one where she recalls not stopping to knock on her own parents’ door as she, her husband and the boys ran out of their hotel. Strictly speaking, it wouldn’t have made a difference – the old people weren’t going to outrun the big wave – yet one senses that Deraniyagala’s regret in this matter is inextricably tied to her larger pain.

A very different sort of regret
– the feeling of having let down oneself, one’s child and even society is at the heart of Lionel Shriver’s chilling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, told in the form of confessional letters written by a woman, Eva, to her husband, about their son Kevin who murdered nine people in his school gym a few days before his 16th birthday. Over her letters Eva contemplates her peculiar, strained relationship with her child, and what emerges is a startling look at parenthood as an obligation and a burden rather than as a joyous thing. Like the mother in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, fearful that she is carrying the devil’s spawn, Eva likens her pregnancy to infestation; later, she discovers that she has no positive feelings for her boy. And yet, throughout, there is a tantalizing quality to the narrative: could this story be a couched confession of guilt by a woman who has still not come to terms with her own part in her son’s life?

Another unreliable narrator – and a transference of guilt – can be found in Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel A Pale View of Hills, narrated in the voice of a Japanese woman named Etsuko, who had moved to Britain with her second husband years earlier. Trying to cope with the recent suicide of her daughter, Etsuko tells her younger daughter a story about her life in Japan just after the war, focusing on a relationship with a friend named Sachiko. However, such is the clever circularity of the narrative – with a particularly important passage turning on the replacement of one pronoun for another – that you can never be sure if Sachiko really existed or if she was a creation of the narrator’s fevered mind.


This list of books suggests that such literature is skewed towards downbeat or depressing narratives,
though more likely that's my personal bias. So, on a marginally more positive note: one of the most haunting yet uplifting tales I have ever read is Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella Story of Your Life. You may knit your brow when you begin reading this story, for the tenses – past, present, future – seem all mixed up. But that's deliberate; the story is about a woman, a linguistic expert, whose attempt to understand the complex language used by visiting aliens eventually leads to her perceiving the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms – which is how she constantly relives the birth, life and untimely death of her daughter. This is a tale of tremendous emotional power, which touches on themes such as free will and the links between joy, pain and memory, and it’s a reminder of how closely good science fiction can engage with the human condition.

Moving to more obviously real-world terrain, perhaps the most famous upstanding parent in a 20th century novel is Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about two children growing up in a provincial American town in the 1930s. When I first read it as an adolescent, I thought of it as a romanticized tale with Atticus himself a preachy, “vanilla” character. Returning to it as an adult, I revised my assessment. His wisdom is hard-won and though he does make mini-speeches once in a while, he lets his children Scout and Jem figure out most of life’s sterner truths for themselves.

He also has a sense of humour, a healthy irreverence for sacred cows, and in this he reminds me a little of Calvin’s awesome dad in Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. The restless Calvin is of course the strip’s supreme creation, but the series derives much of its edge from the personalities of his parents, who are so much more interesting than the vapid dupes you find in, say, Dennis the Menace. So you might have Calvin’s mom coolly encouraging her six-year-old to try a cigarette so he is disgusted by the experience, while his dad tells him the world used to be in black-and-white before the 1930s and medieval painters could draw in colour only because they were insane; each of them has a devilish, fabulist side that lets us see where Calvin gets some of his own traits from. They may be no more than lines drawn on paper, but many flesh-and-blood parents I know could pick up a few valuable tips from them.

[Expanded posts about some of the books/characters mentioned here: We Need to Talk about Kevin, Em and the Big Hoom, CalvinGranta Horror, Ved Mehta]