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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Bohemian Anthem

(While I generally take a more calculating, measured approach while writing prose, poetry is an excuse to let my hair down, so to speak. Whether it's my fondness for the great comedic poets like Ogden Nash, or Franklin Pierce Adams, or my general laziness, I'm not sure, but I'm generally more freewheeling when I'm writing poems. This one, for example was scribbled down when I was watching a yawn-inducing football match between Portugal and Brazil)

None can resist the call of the wild,
Good sense, logic and forethought, begone!
In each of us resides the Devil's child
Who bays and snarls till the crack of dawn.

You may walk the straight and narrow path,
("God bless" you say when you see me sneeze)
Fearful of incurring the Lord's wrath
Afraid of doing as you please.

Be warned though, it'll catch up with you
That imp of the perverse
Bearer of mischief, anarchy or just the truth
For better or for worse.

Best be rid then, of doubt and guilt,
That vicious pair, cursing, spitting bile
Give in to yourself, (just hear me out)
Because you know resistance is futile.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Karna's metamorphosis

Yesterday, I read a whole bunch of poems by Indian authors via links on The Middle Stage, author Chandrahas Choudhury's excellent blog. One of them, "Moult" by Gieve Patel, really captured my imagination. Before you continue to read this article, here's the poem itself:


The sodden dripping weight which he moulted

and offered to the god who received it

in cupped hands—was it skin

really, or rather something amphibious,

half metallic scales, half mutely screaming

integument smelling of fish, while

flayed Karna shivered from a cold

he had never thought to endure, shivered

animal-like, a mere beast

prepared for the cooking pot;

and walked to the battlefield certain

to be pierced by the first lance

aimed at him. But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness.

For the uninitiated, the incident from the Mahabharata being described here goes something like this: Before the battle of Kurukshetra started, Lord Indra, the king of the gods, and father of Arjuna, the mightiest of the Pandavas, started getting worried about the possible threat to his son's life, if he faced Karna. Now Karna, the son of the Sun-god, had been born with an armour (kavacha) and earrings (kundala) which were blessed by his father. These made him practically invincible. Indra, therefore planned to cash in on Karna's famed philanthropy (he had earned the epithet of daanveer, or the one who gave generously) by simply disguising himself as an old Brahmin and asking Karna for his armour. The Sun-god knew of Indra's intentions and was quick to warn Karna, but Karna, being the man that he was, obliged Indra, anyway, when the moment came. (Although not described in this particular poem, Indra was so impressed by Karna's gesture that he granted him a boon, upon which Karna asked for an amogh shakti, an unbeatable weapon.)

Now, the very first reason that this poem is fascinating is its basic premise: that what Karna gave away that day was quite literally, a part of his body. Note the use of words like "sodden" and "dripping" from the outset, to lend it an almost organic air. Every single edition of the Mahabharata I've ever read has coyly suggested this, cloaking it under various metaphorical blankets. The most common of these versions insists that the reason why Karna was so weakened and vulnerable after this act was that "the armour, on account of having been worn for so many years (Karna would never take it off) had stuck to his body, like a second skin."

What if it was literally a second skin?

Consider this: Karna and the five Pandavas were all born in the same way: Kunti would use a special mantra to summon any god she wanted to, and said God would then yield Kunti a son. The twins Nakula and Sahadeva were born when Kunti passed on the mantra to Madri. Why then, was Karna the only one abandoned? According to the Mahabharata, Kunti was terrified when the mantra worked for the first time, and plus, she was a maiden and not married. But the Karna-as-mutant theory would definitely explain this irregularity better: because Karna was the only one externally marked by the god's divinity, because he was the only one who you could look at and tell that this child was not a mere human; Kunti, afraid of social ostracism, and perhaps more than a little personal disgust, abandoned him. Was this another of the infamous "revisions" done to the Mahabharata done to make certain situations and characters look more "decent" or "human"? (The late Irawati Karve's magisterial book of essays on the Mahabharata, "Yuganta" abounds with examples of such possible "revisions")

The poem then continues to describe Karna as "flayed" while he "shivered with a cold/ he had never thought to endure" which clearly suggests that this is as unexpected and as brutal to Karna, as losing a limb would be to any of us. Patel, however, is not done yet, and he says that after this selfless act, Karna "shivered animal-like, a mere beast prepared for the cooking pot." The straightforward iterpretation of these lines is that the now-vulnerable Karna would be easily defeated and killed on the battefield. However, I think Patel has used both "animal" and "beast" to suggest that Karna, after shedding the elements which made him a mutant or a semi-divine entity, is now finally human, a "mere beast", so to speak. Referencing "Yuganta" once again, the author Irawati Karve argues that the central tragedy in Karna's life was his inner dilemma "Who am I?". According to the Mahabharata, Karna, a Kshatriya (the warrior-caste) by birth, was raised by a Suta (charioteer) family, and his foster parents had told him that they were not his biological parents, and that he had been found with a Kshatriya-like armour strapped on to his body.

It was because of this dilemma of Karna's that he found his judgement impaired, all-too often in crunch situations. Like Drauapdi's swayamvara, where he was berated for being lowborn, and he was not allowed to take part in the challenge. (This, by the way, is another one of the "revisions" I was talking about. This has been omitted in later versions of the Mahabharata.) "Yuganta" also says that this dilemma culminated in the final momets of Karna's life, when he was busy getting his chariot wheel out of the mud, and urged Arjuna to stop fighting until he had done so, calling upon the Kshatriya's code, a set of ethical war practices. But the omniscient Krishna, pointed out that Karna had not followed the same when he dishonoured Draupadi or when he took part in the unfair slaughter of Abhimanyu; and instigated Arjuna to kill the temporarily defenseless Karna. Karna died wondering "Who Am I?"

The caste-identity crisis which the Mahabharata wants us to believe, is an old one, and seems rather too simplistic for the otherwise complex and fascinating character of Karna. But if Karna was really confused about the infinitely more frightening and perplexing question of his humanity, I think it would make a lot more sense.

Patel acknowledges explicitly, towards the end of the poem that Karna is now destined to be killed swiftly in the battle. But then, he suggests something truly marvellous: consider the parting shot with which Patel leaves us

"But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness."

Is he hinting that Karna deliberately cut off his "second skin" in order to settle, once and for all, the question of his humanity, or lack thereof? It would certainly seem so, as the last two lines suggest. I would definitely want Karna to finally take control of his identity and his destiny, even if his actions led to speedy and inevitable destruction. I think, if this were indeed the case, then Karna, after his metamorphosis, died what Albert Camus called "a happy death" .

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"

(originally published here at

Gus Van Sant has been, in my humble view, one of the most important filmmakers in the world, over the last twenty years or so. Although his career really took off after Good Will Hunting(1997), which garnered over 200 million at the box office, (as well as Oscar nods for the then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the screenplay, and a long-overdue one for Robin Williams as Best Supporting Actor) Van Sant’s first truly great film was “My Own Private Idaho” , which was released in 1991.

“My Own Private Idaho” is difficult to sum up in a few words. Indeed, to abbreviate it thus would be an exercise in futility. For it combines elements of the classic road film, high Shakespearean drama, the bildungsroman, and some which defy description, in a heady cocktail which stays with you long after the end credits start rolling. Starring River Phoenixand Keanu Reeves as a pair of young hustlers, it remains one of Van Sant’s finest films, and mind you, he has made some very fine ones indeed. Mike (River Phoenix) is a young gay hustler, who suffers from narcolepsy, a condition which causes him to fall asleep during stressful situations. He also has a troubled past, leading to his having frequent visions of his absentee mother. His best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is the son of a mayor, but chooses to live the life of a street hustler, hobnobbing with low-life urchins and petty thieves, one of which, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) becomes a mentor to him. Scott confides to Mike that he will inherit his father’s fortune when he turns 21. The crux of the film lies in the trip the two take, in order to find Mike’s mother, who he hasn’t seen in years. The trip makes the pair confront some uncomfortable truths about their lives and their relationship.

Due to his frequent narcoleptic episodes, Mike often wakes up to find himself in places he doesn’t remember going. Early on in the film Mike comments, “I can always know where I am by the road.. this here road.. there isn’t a road anywhere which is like this, I mean exactly like this. It’s one kind of place… one of a kind. Like a face… like a fucked-up face.” During the last part of the dialogue, we are seeing the road through Mike’s point of view, where he watches it in between his first and second fingers, and the shot zooms out to make it seem like we are watching it through a lens, or an ocular device, with the road converging to a point in the distance, the sky with clouds which are too picturesque, a clear reference to the standard ophthalmologist’s test which we take to check our eyesight. From the outset, the often conflicting and overlapping nature of narratives, depending upon the “impediment” which we place on them, (i.e. the different points of view) has been hinted at. That Mike is a classic drifter, is emphasized by the frequent shots of clouds speeding by overhead, a mechanism familiar to movie buffs, and one which would have been banal and superfluous in a lesser film.

But what really makes all this come together, and also plays a large part in making this the film that it is, has to be River Phoenix’s jaw-droppingly good performance as Mike. The gossamer vulnerability of Mike…. the way he aches for his long-lost mother, Phoenix makes it apparent, during the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, that he had gone under the skin of his character (a term used and abused by every Tom, Dick and Harry nowadays, on both sides of the ocean). When he begs an old client, a middle-aged man, for a few dollars more, we feel Mike’s quiet desperation. When he’s with the oddball street thieves, dancing away the blues, we see Mike and his presence for what it is, an elaborate self-parody. So involved was Phoenix during the production of the film, that he re-wrote a critical scene of the film( Van Sant did not have storyboarded scene sequences in any case, choosing to improvize, as he would a decade later, in the bleak desert drama, Gerry) where his character Mike professes his love for his best friend, Scott. Looking at this scene today, as well as the film in general, one cannot help but draw parallels with Heath Ledger. Two truly awesome talents, both making waves with their superlative, unusually sensitive portrayals of homosexual characters, both dying tragically early, from drug-related episodes. (Phoenix died, all of 23, in 1993, a couple of years after the release of “My Own Private Idaho” )

That doesn’t mean we take anything away from the brilliant Keanu Reeves. Yes, that’s right. I said “brilliant”. Over the years, Keanu Reeves has been one of the most criticized mainstream actors in Hollywood. Described variously as “plastic” , “stone-faced” and “cold” Reeves has faced a lot of flak, both for his style of acting, and for his choice of roles. The fact that he isn’t your typical Hollywood star didn’t help. (He’s fiercely private, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and doesn’t take pains to go on well-televised PR trips) His story arc in this film placed him in the shoes of Henry V, upon whom his character is loosely based(the Shakespeare play Henry IV, both parts, is the basis, hence the rich father and the son who’d rather be a vagabond, a wastrel than to follow his father). Bob, his mentor, then is Falstaff, one of the unforgettable Shakespearean characters, a fat, flamboyant, cowardly fool, who leads the future king astray. In the superb sequences between Scott Favor(Reeves) and Bob(William Richert in a delightful cameo), most of which are taken directly, or in a slightly modified manner, from Shakespeare’s original text, Reeves turns in a razor-sharp performance, swaggering his way through the Bard’s inimitable puns, and the wordplays, barely breaking a sweat. Far from being plastic, this is Reeves finding his calling in Shakespeare.( He went on to play Hamlet, in a prominent theatrical production, to rave reviews, a few years later in 1995)

It is instructive to note that Gus Van Sant initially had separate scripts for each of the two main story arcs, i.e. Mike’s story and Scott’s(which was basically a modern-day retelling of the Henry IV plays). He then utilized the “cut-up” technique made famous by William S. Burroughs and his seminal 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” which is cited by many critics as one of the starting points of post-modernism in literature.(Yes, “cut-up” means exactly that: to cut up and rearrange an already existing text; Burroughs had previously co-written and appeared in Van Sant’s previous film“Drugstore Cowboy”) Overall, the film also has formal similarities with Burroughs’ work, the meandering storylines, the lack of a “resolution” or a denouement, and the fact that one could go through the individual segments in a different order, without affecting the efficacy of the narrative.

But obviously, as with Burroughs’ work, this did not go down well with a section of the critics, particularly those from the old school, so to speak. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for TIME magazine, said “What plot it has is borrowed, improbably from Henry IV” (if borrowing from classical sources is such a heinous crime, then “Throne Of Blood” ,“Maqbool” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, should all stand in the dock), adding for good measure, that “even this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film” . Remember, it was the sagely TIME magazine which went on to include Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” in its Top Ten list for the year 2002, citing “the pretty frocks worn by Aishwarya Rai” as one of the stellar reasons behind its choice. Another critic said that “My Own Private Idaho” was (and I quote) “nothing but set-pieces, tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private”.

These are, almost certainly, the same critics who famously articulated the “Good Gus/Bad Gus conundrum” , attributing to Van Sant a schizophrenic output, which according to them, veered between the very, very good, and the absolutely horrid. Predictably, the films which they hold up as being examples of the Bad Gus persona of Van Sant turn out to be the ones which do not follow the Great Hollywood Plot (Elephant and Gerry are two such notable examples), the ones which are truly exuberant artistic expressions of a master, but are trashed because they defy genres and do not conform to stereotypes, thus making them tougher to “pin” down. Perhaps these critics do not understand that art is innately easier to understand then to describe.

“My Own Private Idaho” exhibits the assured yet playful brushstrokes of a master artist, who would go on to make the superb “Good Will Hunting” , the minimalist masterpiece “Elephant” (which was inspired by the Columbia high school massacre) and most recently “Milk” which has to be one of the films of the decade. He has continued to tinker with the medium, experimenting boldly, his cinematic instincts sharp as ever, and his buccaneering spirit intact.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvey Pekar's "The Quitter"

Harvey Pekar has been the definitive working-class hero of the comics world over the last thirty years. His autobiographical series "American Splendor" , which started in 1976, ignited the underground comics movement which brought to prominence a whole generation of talented writers and artists and inspired many, many others like modern-day superstars like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. "American Splendor" was noted because of its focus on Pekar's everyday life, often featuring the ordinary, even mundane concerns of Pekar, who worked as a file clerk all his life (even after he became famous), his family and his neighbourhood. Followers of the series lapped it up, fascinated as Pekar's no-holds-barred, bare-all approach gave the comics a hitherto unseen gritty edge, and a realistic feel which was conspicuously absent in the superhero-dominated mainstream comics world inhabited by giants like Marvel Comics. His divorce, his struggles with cancer, his exasperation with brain-dead Hollywood producers..... all these and more were incorporated into the books, delivered with Pekar's trademark bitter, satirical voice, and his fierce appreciation of the trials of the underdog.

"The Quitter" was released in 2005, under the Vertigo imprint of DC comics, a label which had been producing a judicious mix of conventional comics like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, along with some seminal works like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series, and Alan Moore's V For Vendetta. It focusses chiefly on the pre- American Splendor Pekar, (although towards the end, we are given a glimpse into the making of the iconic series) specifically on his own impetuous nature, and his tendency to take failure hard.

From the first panel itself, it's clear that this is Pekar in a different, more playful avatar. To this end, the decision to rope in young upstart Dean Haspiel (who has worked with Pekar in the past on recent "American Splendor" books) was a masterstroke. In the very first page, Haspiel shows a bitter, wary Pekar, seemingly making a hurried exit, but then stops on an afterthought and says, nonchalantly, "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, five weeks after the start of World War II... for what it's worth to anyone.." and then disappears to let the story unfold.

Pekar's childhood is portrayed in a very evocative manner, as Haspiel's crisp, sharp caricatures while drawing Pekar's Polish Jew immigrant family, segue smoothly into free-flowing curves, and cinematic, wide-angle action portraits of the frquent scraps that young Harvey gets into. In fact, the latter reminded me a lot of Eduardo Risso's superb, hard-as-nails depiction of ghetto neighbourhood fistfights in the Vertigo series "100 Bullets" , with which he made his name. Pekar himself delivers a few resounding punches, like the scene where he admits to feeling a dark, vindictive pleasure at thrashing a kid, with little provocation; a sort of karmic payback for all the times he'd been beaten up by groups of black kids in his old neighbourhood.

Pekar has always been a huge supporter of comic books as an art medium, exemplified by his now-famous assertion (which makes an entry here as well), "Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." He also has noted, on occasion, the many similarities between comic books and movies, asserting that comics could achieve everything that movies have, till date. This "cinematic approach" is prominently on display, both in the frequent appearances of the adult Pekar, offering bitter homilies about the many mistakes he committed in his youth. He serves as a narrator, a peddler of after-the-event wisdom as well as a kind of deliberate de-lineating device, pointing out among other things, that "things do not always change all that much" which has been a recurring theme of the American Splendor series as well.

In a particularly striking sequence, the young Harvey is advised by his mothers to apologize to the kids who'd been bugging him, and were subsequently beaten up by Harvey. She advises him to compromise because "sometimes it doesn't matter if you are right or wrong, as long as you get along with your friends". The young Harvey notes the irony of the situation, because his mother was supporting Henry Wallace, the under-fire Communist-backed presidential candidate at the time, and zealously at that. His internal monologue in this regard (see picture) has been shown depicted brilliantly by Haspiel, who deserves full points here.

The pace of the book mirrors Harvey's growth as a person. At first the frequent rants against errant coaches, unhelpful parents or snooty kids get a bit repetitive, but the story gets a shot in the arm as Harvey starts his final year in high school, and the burden of the approaching future starts getting too much for him to handle. In one of his appearances as the present-day Pekar, he confesses that all these years later, he is still every bit as insecure as ever, worrying about bad reviews, the dipping sales of his comics... you name it. In a very interesting move, Haspiel draws a starkly different, wraith-like Pekar, eyeballs popping out, wrinkles grossly overdone, perhaps to show the effect negativity and worry has upon a man. This is just one of the many artistic flourishes which can be seen every now and then in "The Quitter", both in the writing and in the artwork.

This is classic Pekar fare, enhanced both by his own increased maturity and his famed proclivity for taking artistic risks. In Dean Haspiel, he has a worthy partner-in-crime, and one can only hope that we see more of him in the days to come. It is important to mention here that "American Splendor" boasts of a tremendous ensemble of artists who made it big as comic book creators in their own right. Apart from Robert Crumb, who went on to become the patron saint of the underground comics movement, as well as a prominent counterculture figure, the series boasted of names like Alison Bechdel (whose 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home" made it to the NYTimes Best Books Of The Year List), Gilbert Hernandez( co-creator with his brothers Jaime and Mario of the amazing and iconic "Love and Rockets" series, one of my all-time favourite comic books), Chester Brown ("Ed The Happy Clown"), Jim Woodring, Gary Dumm and Eddie Campbell (artist of "From Hell" , writer Alan Moore's magnum opus and one of the most important graphic novels of all time.)

Harvey Pekar remains one of the most important comic-book creators around, and in his own words, he hopes to "bring out "American Splendor" for as long as I can".


Monday, June 28, 2010

Seven For The Summer

It's been a long lazy summer as usual, and the reasons I've been away from the keyboard are simple: First, there were too many great books left unread, and long overdue.... well, summer's sweet that way. Second, I seem to have shifted my loyalties to the old-school methods: namely, those consisting of a largeish diary, and a really fast ballpoint pen. (The latter have yielded half-a-dozen stories over the past two months or so, let's see how soon I overcome my inertia and type them down...) Managed to finish about two dozen books which had been staring at me guiltily over the bookshelf.... and believe it or not, I still have about a dozen unread! (I do have about two weeks left before college starts again... ah well...) Following are some of the highlights of the summer, in all matters literary:

1. Oblivion- David Foster Wallace - Where does one begin to describe a man like David Foster Wallace? Perhaps the most succinct description came from an NYTimes article somewhere in the eary 90's, when Wallace, not yet 30, was already the toast of the literary world, following the release of "Infinite Jest" , his massive 1079 page postmodernist tome, which apart from many other oddities, was about a film so entertaining that anyone who saw it lost interest for everything else, literally being entertained to death. The article said that "Wallace is a genius who happened to be a writer, not the other way around..."

Drawing from the tradition of the spiralling, metafictional , sprawling narratives of Thomas Pynchon(he'll make an appearance very soon in this article), John Barth(whose "Lost In The Funhouse" is as entertaining a collection of shorts as you'll ever come across) and William Gaddis, DFW captured the imagination of critics and readers across America, with his cruelly accurate insights into pop cultural cliches, and the little tyrannies of our everyday lives. Having made his mark with his Big Novel, he began to redefine the way the shorter format is perceived with his stunning collection "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men". I read the book this January, and watched the excellent John Krasinski adaptation, and was sufficiently moved to concentrate my energies over the next month to bring forth a stage adaptation, which was a tremendous high for me, acting in and directing something my hero wrote.

Oblivion, Wallace's last completed book (before he hung himself in 2008) is destined to be a future classic, and Wallace's inimitable style is on ample display here: the ferocious intellect, the deadpan humour, the juxtaposition of pop cultural elements, both high and low, and of course, his signature serial digresser tendencies, choc-a-bloc with footnotes, which are sometimes more extensive than the main text itself. One story "Good Old Neon" (which I believe is available online) in particular is an eerie, yet darkly funny account of a suicidal man and his own stock-taking of his life.

2. A Suitable Boy- Vikram Seth - This book and I have had a tedious, sometimes edgy relationship even before I read it. When I was sixteen, I had first thought I was ready for Seth's best known work, having enjoyed "The Golden Gate" his virtuoso verse-novel, and his various travel writings. That was five years ago. But everytime the sixteen-year old me stepped into a bookshop, I found myself troubled by two observations: One, operating on a limited budget, I could buy two, sometime three novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a writer I had just discovered then (I was tremendously enamoured then, as I am today, only thing is, I've read most of his stuff now ), at the same price. And second, yes at times I was overawed by the sheer size of it, 1349 pages daring me to take the challenge. In my defence, I was preparing myself for a gruelling two years then, trying to get into IIT.

So, for these somewhat farcical reasons, I'd steered clear of Seth's whopper of a book so far. This time though, it was the first book with which I kicked off the summer( and what a summer it has been!). I suppose the best compliment one can give to A Suitable Boy is quite simply, that it is massively entertaining. It does not comprise of a single uninteresting sentence. And that, in itself, is no mean feat, across 1300 odd pages, and topics ranging from the Partition of India, the controversial land reforms in the 1950s, the decline of the erstwhile princely states of the country, Hindu-Muslim conflicts, the relative merits of the English and the traditional methods of shoemaking(this has actually been given quite an extended run in the book!) and the proper way to maintain a good garden in an Indian summer.

A Suitable Boy deserves all the hype, and enthusiasm it received, both in India, and in the West, when it was first published, nearly two decades ago. It was said about Joyce's Ulysses( a book Seth criticized in an interview for being overblown and unreadable, by the way) that one could recreate Dublin from scratch, just by reading it. Well, the same thing can be said of A Suitable Boy, and the unforgettable portrait of 1950's India it paints.(not just Purva Pradesh, Seth's literary alter for Uttar Pradesh, but also Calcutta) Seth channelizes the spirit of Tolstoy, Austen and Dickens, to name but a few masters of yore, with not just his purity of style, but the shining sincerity of his ruminations. Think Rushdie's scope and vision, but stripped away of the excesses he's often guilty of, and filled instead with the gentle humour of R.K. Narayan; the polished erudition of a Milan Kundera or an Umberto Eco married with the easy likeability of a Wodehouse. This is the kind of book which has the depth and the comprehensiveness of a whole, magnificent body of work. I began to read it, thinking I'd give it as much time as it demands, but ended up limiting myself to 100 pages a day max, for fear of finishing it too quickly! P.S. Seth has a sequel, "A Suitable Girl" lined up for 2013!

3. A Mercy - Toni Morrison - From the biggest book on the list(indeed, on any list for that matter), we move on to the smallest. This slim volume from Nobel Laureate Morrison (weighing in at a svelte 160 pages) has seventeenth century America as its setting. Slavery, and the crushing of the human spirit, the difficult and sometimes unimaginable choices one has to make in the toughest of situations; these are some of the epic themes Morrison covers, many of which she has dealt with in the past, in a masterly manner, with "Beloved" which is one of the most celebrated American works of the last century.

A Mercy can be called a sequel, or perhaps prequel(a term much in vogue these days, mostly due to Hollywood head honchos short on inspiration but big on enthusiasm) in spirit to Beloved, but it is rather different in tone. I believe Morrison has absolutely no peers when it comes to delivering loaded, crushing one-liners immediately following a pregnant pause or a especially tense or poignant showdown.

In the past, she has been called Shakespearean for the stark emotionality of her plots and her penchant for supremely lyrical dialogue. Here, the lyrical flights of fancy have been toned down somewhat, but the sheer tautness of the book, and its ominous overtones make for a compelling read. Make no mistake, this is the mature work of a master supremely secure of her skill, and on top of her game.

4. Moth Smoke- Mohsin Hamid - I had previously read and enjoyed "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" , Hamid's wickedly clever post 9/11 cautionary tale, which had remarkable restraint over its plot, giving away just the right amounts at every stage, and ended on a thrilling note, all the while exploring the culture of mutual distrust which has taken root in the deeply polarised world we live in today. In the process of reading more about Hamid, I came across Moth Smoke, which was Hamid's debut novel. (At Princeton, he had enrolled in a course taught by Toni Morrison, and apparently she had given her blessings to the first finishded draft of Moth Smoke, writing in the margins her own thoughts and suggestions!) Moth Smoke's protagonist Darashikoh, or Daru, as he is known to his friends, traces a rollercoaster ride, a journey which can only be described as a bildungsroman in reverse, as his decline is brought about by his penchant for heroin and his ill-advised liasion with his best friend's wife.

But this is no blood-and-guts noir gorefest. This is murder with a silk scarf(a phrase I once read in an article about Rahul Dravid scoring a half-century in 20-odd balls in a one-day match), as Hamid dissects the nature of obesession, jealousy and despair. I felt that one problem with Hamid in The Reluctant Fudamentalist was that at times, he took the background and the political aspects of his work a trifle heavy-handedly. In this respect, Moth Smoke scores over its successor, as Hamid's light touch and devastating satire do not desert him anywhere, whether he is talking about the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, or about the disconnect in mindsets between the nascent generation of yuppies in Lahore, as opposes to the fundamentalist youth (called "fundos" in the book). A passage where Daru, at first disdainful about the "fundos" , gradually softens up and says carelessly at the end "they're right of course, in their own way.." is a dark precursor of both Daru's own decline and Hamid's ever-growing concerns in this direction which are explored at length in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. At any rate, Hamid along with Aravind Adiga, signals exciting times ahead for subcontinental literature, despite what naysayers like Hanif Kureishi would have you believe.

5. Collected Stories- Saul Bellow - The enfant terrible of British literature, Martin Amis, commented once that Saul Bellow was "the greatest writer America has ever produced". Now, Amis is quite niggardly with praise at the best of times. So we can safely claim that Amis had been genuinely moved. James Wood , one of the most respected critics in the business, and another lifelong admirer of Bellow, wrote in his foreword to the edition I have, " I compared all modern prose to his, perhaps a tad unfairly. For before him, even the fleet-footed, the Updikes, the Roths, and the DeLillos seemed like monopodes." I had previously read Bellow's novella "Seize The Day" and while impressed with the dazzling prose and the philosophical digressions and arguments put forth, the book seemed a trifle didactic to me at times, and even though it was a slim book, tedious in portions.

No such troubles here. This is the collection of a lifetime, as we are treated to 13 of the best, selected by the master himself. Some of the stories often seem like stillborn novels(this volume does in fact include two of his works which were originally released as novels) , but that is part of their charm as Bellow casts a piercing eye to even the most banal of things and turns it into a mirror, reflecting our most insidious weaknesses, and sometimes our most redeeming qualities. Bellow is a writer capable of laugh-out loud humour and cruelly honest introspection in the twinkle of an eye. His characters are often high intellectuals with hollow inner lives, or down-on-luck losers who have an epiphanic experience, which is not always uplifting or redeeming, but always fascinating in a subtly cerebral way. Jewishness and the American experience, while they do feature prominently in his work, do not quite overwhelm it, like say, Philip Roth. In this, as in many other respects, Bellow is the perfect marriage of the intrinsically local and the obviously universal. Add to this his physical descriptions of his larger-than-life characters and the visual aspect of his writing (sample this: "His baldness was total, like a purge" OR " A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance, when the need for illusion is deep." ) , and he makes for a compelling reading experience.

6. Naked Lunch- William S. Burroughs - Some commentators believe that the origin of postmodernism in literature can be traced back to the exact moment that William S.Burroughs released "Naked Lunch". Such was the impact of this path-breaking novel. Although at first, the term "novel" itself seemed inaccurate, and maybe even inadequate to describe this work. A series of vignettes about the travels of William Lee, junkie, a.k.a The Agent, from U.S. to Morocco, to some places not on the map at all, strictly speaking, like the psychedelic "Interzone" , Burroughs had written these segments separately in a drug-induced haze, and used the now famous "cut-up" technique to assemble the book with the help of his friend, the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg.

A nightmarish journey about the horrors of addiction, the fascism of authority figures and the smothering of personal freedom are some of the major topics Burroughs touches upon. He incorporated elements of pastiche and science fiction, especially, in the otherwise uber-gritty narrative, which alternates between "hard" realism and phantasmagoric imagery, leaving the reader spellbound. One of his unforgettable characters, Dr. Benway, is the most wickedly funny caricature you'll ever see: dripping saccharine, utterly unscrupulous, and charmingly operatic, Benway is the kind of doctor who'll smash your kneecaps with a sledge-hammer and then ask, pearly white teeth shining, "Did that hurt?"

Burroughs enjoyed iconic stature as a counter-culture messiah for several decades (interesting factoid: the band Steely Dan takes its name from a character in Naked Lunch), until his death in 1997. I look forward to reading his other works, especially Cities Of The Red Night.

7. Mason & Dixon- Thomas Pynchon -- Thomas Pynchon, one of the leading lights of American literature, renowned not only for his big, ambitious, jaw-droppingly diverse narratives, like Gravity's Rainbow, or the more recent Against The Day; but also for his famously reclusive nature. I'd earlier read "The Crying Of Lot 49" which is perhaps his most accessible book, and also quite short compared to his other work, including Mason & Dixon.

But after nearly 800 pages, I can tell you that it's well worth the effort, for Pynchon weaves elements of classic adventure stories, the Victorian social novel with his postmodernist sensibilities and his treasure trove of allusions from astronomy, philosophy, literature both popular and obscure, trade practices, little-known dialects, etymology (this seems to be one of his pet peeves, actually), nautical science..... it goes on and on. Critics of Pynchon complain that his novels are way too dense, overwritten, arcane and unreadable. But to them, I say, "You're missing the point". For beneath all this, Pynchon is a terrific humorist, a formidable intellect with an unerring ear for dialogue, and above all, more than capable of spinning a bloody good yarn.

In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon weaves a fable of the two astronomers who met on a scholarly mission to map the transit of Venus, at the Cape Of Good Hope in South Africa, but ended up being the architects of the ubiquitous Mason-Dixon Line in America, which is now a cultural line demarcating the erstwhile slavery states. This is a book which demands a lot from the reader by way of attention to detail, but delivers rich dividends. I have the massive "Against The Day" as well, on my shelf, and I look forward to a new adventure there(although not just now, actually: I finished Mason and Dixon yesterday... and am in no shape to start another 1200 pages of Pynchonalia :P )

Honourable Mention: Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell" , (an unusual, thrilling mix of fantasy and social satire) , Alexander McCall Smith's "2 1/2 Pillars Of Wisdom" trilogy (at his best, Smith manages to evoke memories of both Wodehouse and Narayan), Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" (no explanations needed!) Jess Winfield's "My Name Is Will" (a superb coming-of-age tale about "sex, drugs and Shakespeare" as written on the cover), "Yuganta" a book of bold and insightful essays, by Irawati Karve about the Mahabharata , and finally "Seven 6s are 43", the 1974 debut novel of Kiran Nagarkar, who gave us the wonderful "Cuckold", yet remains one of India’s most underrated authors.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Time Of The Voyeur

Chronicling one's own existence and the endless meanderings thereof are a time-tested method of taming one's inner voyeur.

This space has been lying idle for quite a while now, and on a stormy evening, this is all I can come up with by way of explanation for its recall.

The past few months have been eventful enough, not the least because I re-discovered the delights of writing old-school, scribbling away in quiet nooks and crannies, watching everything, speaking nothing. But why the voyeur? Is a writer simply a very dignified onlooker, seeking his jollies in the vagaries and the foibles of those around him? This question actually signalled a very significant shift in the literary mores of the past century, when the writer learnt that detachment from the world he created around him was simply not gonna cut it, and the world was as much a product of the act of his watching it, as his own perception. And it most certainly has signalled a shift in my own thought process.

The past few months has produced four fragments, which are still not the way I envisioned them to be inside my head.. but I have been told they do not suck too badly. Let's hope I find the drive to publish them here, soon...

Although there have been several books in the past few months which have captured my imagination, like Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" , Haruki Murakami's "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of The World", "Bluebeard's Egg" by Margaret Atwood, "Herzog" by Saul Bellow, "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov, "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison... the ones leaving the deepest imprint were "Oblivion" and "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men", both short-story collections by the scaringly brilliant David Foster Wallace, whose tragic suicide at 46, left the literary community heartbroken in late 2008. The latter was recently adapted for the screen by John Krasinski, and was a big hit at the Sundance film festival. I cannot recommend the book, as well as the movie(of the same name) highly enough.