One More Thing

Is there anything better than discovering a new favorite author?

Before you go all Buzzfeed on me and start listing things, let me say that that was a rhetorical question.

For me, one of the greatest joys is finding a good book. As I’ve grown older, this has become increasingly hard to do. This may be because my reading has, to a great extent, narrowed. I don’t have as much time to devour books, and so the ones that I do read are chosen with great care and only (usually, if it’s a new writer or someone I’ve never tried before), after I scroll through a few reviews from trusted websites. At least, this is the process I follow when I pick up a new fantasy series because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of trash out there that finds itself into unsuspecting hands, especially in this genre.

When it comes to the more vaguely dubbed ‘lit fic’ however, my selection process is not nearly so clinical. If I’ve heard of the book from a trustworthy source (usually a friend who’s read it), or read and been intrigued by a newspaper/magazine review, I might be inspired to peruse it. Or I might have seen and been thoroughly impressed by the author in at a literary festival and then decided to not be pseudo intellectual—no more pretending to like him/her, let’s see if they read as good as they sound.

BJNovak_AFThe case of B.J. Novak and One More Thing was slightly more complicated. Or simpler, depending on your perspective. I love Mindy Kaling, and I raced through her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other concerns faster than I had any other book for what felt like a long time. It was hilarious, and at times I felt as though I were listening to an older sister or friend talk about things that I hope, in a few years, I might be qualified to speak about myself. Going by the law of transitivity or whatever it is, I assumed that I might like her fellow The Office writer’s work as well, and so I picked up Novak’s book.

The cashier at the counter took one look at the white-covered, innocuous looking text and told me that I was going to ‘love it’. Turns out, he was totally right. And the law of whatever-it-is was, for once, proven totally right.

One More Thing is brilliant. It is a collection of short stories, poems, little notes, that are very obviously the work of a very, very smart guy who has (it seems to me) always wanted to be a ‘real writer’. Everything about Novak’s career—a double major in English and Spanish Literature from Harvard, a stand-up comedian, a writer on the hit NBC series The Office, producer, actor and now, author of two books—signals an extremely creative person with perhaps more than his fair share of talent. His book is just like that career path, zigzagging from scene to scene, jumping through a whirlwind of emotion and snapping with energy, but never, ever anything less than hilarious and, at moments, beautifully poignant.

One More Thing strikes me as a very ‘literature student type’ book. It makes digs at the whole process of studying English, the over-reading and analyzing that becomes second nature to its students, and very considerately provides ‘discussion questions’ at the close of some of the pieces. At the end of the book, for example, he asks:

Did you think the book was funny? Why or why not?

Do you think discussion questions can be unfairly leading sometimes? Why?

Do you think “why not” is ultimately a better question than “why”?

Why or why not?

Very thought provoking, as you can see.

Some of Novak’s stories, the more obviously sci-fi or ‘uncanny’ ones reminded me a great deal of one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Like Gaiman, he infuses these short glimpses into strange worlds with more reality than many ‘fantasy saga’ writers do in their twelve-book-long epics. Like Gaiman, his writing is simple, concise, no room for bloated words or sentiments. He pins his ideas onto the page with a minimum of fuss, a skill I suppose he honed during his time writing for The Office. For instance, with a few sentences, he manages to paint this character perfectly:

For the adoration due a great poet, he made a point of writing his articles longhand on legal pads in fashionable cafes, always looking like a brilliant, beautiful mess, a priceless piece of set decoration for any independently owned coffee shop: the poet completely lost in his work, pausing only to explain—often, and at length, depending on the questioner—what it was he was working on.

Totally recognizable type, I’d say.

Not all of Novak’s stories are as openly ridiculing as this one might seem to be. Like I said, OMT contains a range of emotion and encounters, and the tones of the pieces vary, but the overall effect is … comforting. I felt like I was spending the night talking to an old friend, one I knew and admired, laughing at the stories he had to tell me even when some of them made me want to cry. I knew from the first page that this was good writing, I knew this was a writer I could trust, and I know, now that the covers have been closed, that this is a writer I will go back to. 330x360xNovak_photo-e1359764894573-330x360.jpg.pagespeed.ic.3gYi-IDGZF

I hope Novak writes more, lots more. I have a feeling he will, and that he’ll continue to work his way into my heart with every paragraph he pens. He is the wunderkind after all.

One more thing—go read this book right now. I promise you, it’s totally worth your time. If you’re not convinced, maybe the hilarious book trailer will help:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FxhTn9cEhI 

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Maya and the Mutants

How do you  know you’re a literary superstar? When you can say sappy things and have people read them as profound and status update worthy. angelou

Last week, Maya Angelou, writer, activist and feminist icon, passed away. As expected, Facebook and Twitter erupted, people outdoing each other in a bid to provide the most thought-provoking quote they had come across either through reading her work or, if you subscribe to the more cynical school of thought, via a quick Google search. I wasn’t surprised, really, given that this was exactly what had happened when, earlier this year, other literary/political greats passed away.

My own reading of Angelou has been very limited: I was introduced to her through a credit course I did in my first year of undergrad. She was part of a collection of writers brought together under the heading ‘Gender’, ostensibly placed there because the piece we were reading, ‘I rise’, was meant to be studied (in that particular course) in its feminist context. Beyond that poem, I have read nothing of Angelou.

Until the status updates appeared.

Among the many beautiful pieces I was thus treated to was one that a friend of mine had chosen to use, for whatever reason, as her display picture on a messaging app. The quote, which trailed above a picture of Angelou, was this:

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time.

Now, plenty of people have said similar things. For instance, Auden declared, rather melodramatically, ‘We must love one another, or die’. Singers and songwriters state that love makes the world go around in various ways and Harry Potter, arguably one of the most influential literary icons of the last century, wins because he symbolizes and fights for, at some level, the power of love.

In all these cases, love does not restrict itself to the sense that it has gained in most commercial domains: that of romantic attachment. Yes, this is probably the most lucrative form of it, selling as it does cards, perfumes, books and loads of jewellery, but it is not the only one out there. What a lot of these writers, Rowling included, gesture towards with the term is a sort of universal agape, a feeling of hope born out of the hero’s ability to connect with and care for his fellow beings.

I am at an age where the idea of ‘happily ever after’ and perfect worlds seems laughable, where to even hint at believing in such things is to invite ridicule. The ‘adult world’, I’ve been told time and again, is no place for such escapist ideals. This is a land where to be open with your feelings is to expose yourself as a weakling; where courtship, whether romantically inclined or not, is a game that you play with half your attention on the board, the other half plotting ways of ensuring that you don’t ‘lose’ more than your opponent does. You can’t ever look as though you are completely earnest in what you do or feel or say; that’s just not safe anymore.

So, given all this scepticism and general cynicism that usually floods conversations, it was more than a bit surprising and, really, refreshing to see tributes to a woman who, quite vociferously, argued for the power of love. And argued for it despite having a life that no Disney moviemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Angelou’s words came back with a bit of a bang when I watched the latest superhero blockbuster to hit screens: Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike its cousin, The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which released a little earlier this year and that I blogged about here), X Men is not halfway as stereotypically feel-good. X Men, arguably, never has been, chiefly because its primary villain, Magneto, is such a complicated, shades-of-grey character whose agenda of a mutant-run-world is all too close to the reality of sentiments that govern (and, to many eyes, justify) the behaviour of the state of Israel.

But Magneto and his almost-Zionism are a topic for another day.

Like any good superhero movie however, Days has its soaring speeches and breakdown moments. At a particularly low moment, young Charles buckles under the pressure of all the ‘despair and pain’ he sees in the world: ‘I don’t want your suffering, I don’t want your future!’ Then comes a heartwarming speech from a mentor figure, about finding the power of ‘hope’ within all that morass, the strength that people like Charles need to exude to their friends and followers. ‘We can bear their pain’, he is told, if he can bring himself to ‘hope again’. x-men-days-of-future-mcavoy-patrick-stewart-636-370

Isn’t that a superpower? The ability to look the world head on, see its evil, and yet find reserves of hope to take it on? Angelou basically said what every superhero movie, even the stylishly dark Nolan-Batman, depict. No matter what dross the world throws at you, what terrible agenda the villain has cobbled together, always trust hope, love, basic human goodness, one more time and always, one more time.

It’s the only thing, apparently, that can save the world.

 

 

 

Portrait of a City-soul

ImageWas this the secret of Istanbul – that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward looking monuments and its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves. (Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk.)

How do you talk about a city? How do you contain the sights, sounds, smells, emotions evoked by a sprawling tract of land and all the people it holds within a slim (or not so slim) book, imparting to your reader a definite sense of this place? Even more puzzling, how do you do it for someone who has never seen your city, let alone lived on and walked the streets you have described with such haunting immediacy?

My regard for Orhan Pamuk, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature (2006) has always been of an abstracted sort. I looked up to him as I look up to any well-known, well-regarded author who hasn’t particularly touched me, but whom the ‘literary world’ applauds for stylistic, political or content-related reasons. The only one of his books I’d read was My Name is Red and I have to admit that it didn’t exactly have me gripped. I would take long breaks, pick up other books, return only when I’d refreshed myself and thought that I could handle the long sentences full of paintings that did not seem, even when described with such verve and enthusiasm, spectacular enough for all the hullabaloo.

I have a very close friend who would probably roast me alive for saying all this. But hey, honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to literature. Besides, I’m sure Pamuk had enough fans before I got my hands on Istanbul. Now he has one more.

What Istanbul really does is take you on a black-and-white stroll down the streets of Pamuk’s neighbourhood, throw into your line of sight the gleaming Bosphorus with all its drowned secrets, reconstruct, painstakingly but oh so lovingly, the half-ruined histories of a capital steel reeling from its loss of political, cultural and economic significance. Caught in a struggle between a desire to ‘westernise’ and at the same time, to hold on to its rich past, Istanbul seems to drift in a haze its flaneur calls ‘huzun’, a peculiar melancholy that seeps through the streets, the air, the faces of its inhabitants and into the pages of a book, far away from the city-space. It is this huzun that defines the experience of this city, Pamuk notes, a huzun that affected, though they knew not what to call it, the Europeans who have viewed the city, the Turkish writers of old who attempted to rediscover it for themselves, and finally, has infected and affected Pamuk himself. Image

Pamuk maps the city out for us through his years there: from his childhood in Pamuk Apartments through his first experiences in school, in love and finally, his all-important decision to abandon art and Architecture and become a writer. He ensures that we hear voices of as many residents and writers as possible: he discusses his debt to the French writers and painters who brought to life the beautiful, ‘picturesque’ Istanbul that he hunts; he pays homage to the builders of an unfinished, exhausting Turkish encylopaedia; he quotes with great amusement Turkish newspapers and periodicals admonishing the residents of Istanbul, seeking to teach them how to behave on the streets. He also paints loving portraits of his family and their adventures in the city, in society, from his fat grandmother eating breakfast in bed and overseeing the apartment to his final conversation with his world-weary mother wherein he makes his vocational choice.

I read Istanbul with a sort of wonder, amazed that someone could paint their home so lovingly and yet so unforgivingly. Pamuk is not sentimental about Istanbul; he emphasizes its dreariness, its dark alleys and darker history, its schizophrenic desire to emulate and yet remain distinct from the ‘West’. I found myself wishing I could do the same for another city, one which I think is, in many ways, eerily similar to Istanbul. Like the Turkish city, Delhi too has its rich cultural history, has seen many, many conquests and peoples come flooding through its gates. Like Istanbul, Delhi seems to both live with and desire to forget its past, crumbling walls of old forts juxtaposed to shining store fronts of designer boutiques and McDonald’s outlets. Like Istanbul, Delhi has seen its fair share of travellers, of writers and artists attempting to capture its magic. And like Istanbul, no one would call Delhi a ‘happy city’. In India, it bears a dark reputation, for a myriad of reasons, but still, that does not besmirch its position as a centre of learning, art and literature.

If I could recreate the magic Pamuk weaves when he talks about the Bosphorus, use his melancholic music to sing songs of Lodi gardens and the wonders of the Red Fort, I would. But I have a feeling that ‘huzun’ is not mine to steal, to utilize to discuss another city. No, huzun belongs to Istanbul, to its beleaguered people. Delhi needs another mood, another term to encompass the many emotions it evokes. When I find it, I will write that Delhi book.

And I will dedicate it to Orhan Pamuk.

 

The Song of Achilles

One of my professors once remarked that writing mythological fiction is a very easy and lazy thing to do. ‘You’re taking a plot that’s already laid out for you,’ she said, ‘and pretending that, by shifting to a different character’s view point, you’re creating something wholly new. What’s so interesting about that?’

By and large, I agree with her. The wave of ‘myth-fic’ seems to be cresting steadily over here in India, with more and more permutations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana coming out every year. The only one of these I’ve read, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni, tells the story of the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi, princess of Panchal and wife of the Pandava brothers. It was well-written, interesting and even featured tabooed love, but it wasn’t something I would pick up a second time.

I had a similar experience with The Penelopeiad by Margaret Atwood, which narrates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the voice of Penelope, the lonely queen of Ithaca. While the anthropological treatise presented at the close of the slim tome was thought-provoking in and of itself (it stated that the epic chronicled the death of a female-centric Moon Goddess culture and the rise of a patriarchal pantheon), the rest of the novel didn’t succeed to well in holding my attention. Maybe it was Penelope’s voice, which didn’t grab and hold me the way the original Homer (or his translators) did. Maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I expected more of Atwood, one of my favourite writers. Or maybe I just didn’t like the Odyssey and its characters enough to trawl through another version of the same thing.

ImageWhatever it was, it put me off myth fic for a while. This explains my lack of hastiness in picking up Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. I’ve got great respect for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction), and have enjoyed many of the books it’s been awarded for. Combine the prize with a focus on Achilles, one of my favourite characters of all time, and you would assume I’d have a winner on my hands.

And that assumption is correct. I don’t know why I dilly-dallied, but now that I’ve finally read Song, I will admit that it has reinstated my faith in myth fic and done justice to its source material. It’s a quick read, the language lyrical enough to echo the cadences of the epic (not that I’ve read it in its original Greek, but I have heard it in snatches). Its strength, however, are its central characters: Achilles and the narrator, Patroclus.

The book takes off with the marriage of Patroclus’s parents. The boy, the only child of their ill-fated marriage, is a disappointment to his stern sire, awkward, slight and shy. His exile and disownment comes, therefore, as somewhat of a relief, and he is sent to Phthia, the home of Prince Achilles and his ‘pious’ father, Peleus. Once here, Patroclus becomes the boon companion of his host’s son, a fact that makes his divine mother, the sea goddess Thetis, very angry.

The relationship between the two boys deepens when Patroclus flees Phthia to join Achilles on Mount Pelion, where he is to be tutored by the centaur Chiron. Here, on the mountain where Thetis cannot ‘see’ them, they proceed to fall, and stay, in love.

The rest of the story is predictable: Achilles is summoned back to Phthia, where he is asked to join the fleet put together by the Mycenean king, Agammemnon. The fleet intends to sail to Troy and avenge the rape of Helen, wife of Menelaus. Despite his mother’s best efforts to keep him from his destiny, Achilles, accompanied by Patroclus, join the band.

Everyone knows what happens next, and you don’t need me to rehash one of the most widely told stories of Western civilization. Miller chooses to focus on relationship between the two men, how it is shaped and pressurized by the weight of Achilles’ fate. Both Achilles and Patroclus know that it is only the continued existence of Hector that stands between them and death. Once Hector dies, Achilles, and therefore Patroclus, cannot be far behind.

Miller creates compelling characters and makes the relationship between the two men something of great beauty. In my opinion, it is Achilles, confident, heroic, no less sensitive than his lover for all his seeming divinity, who steals the show. As should be, perhaps, since we see him through the eyes of ‘the best of the Myrmidons’, Patroclus. Here’s an Achilles who is equally gifted in the musical and the martial arts, who has a wry sense of humour, who laughs easily only when he is with the one he loves the most. He is so much more than a butch hero. As Patroclus says to Thetis as she sits before her (spoiler) son’s tomb:

You are the one who ruined him. Look at how he will be remembered now. Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief…

Perhaps such things pass for virtue among gods. But how is there glory in taking a life? We die so easily…Let the stories of him be something more.

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. ‘Catch,’ he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. ‘If you have to go I will go with you.’ My fears forgotten in the golden harbour of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

Miller skates delicately over the gore and bloodshed (‘tasteless violence’ as someone memorably put it) of the war, never stinting in her descriptions but managing to infuse them with a sort of poetry that makes reading them irresistible. Whether it be a description of Achilles laying waste to the enemies around him, duelling the river god Scamander, or Apollo delicately plucking Patroclus off the walls of Troy, the images are crisp and clear. And yes, the gods are a part of the narrative. Since they are among the most entertaining characters in the epic, it seems only right that they retain their importance here.

The Song of Achilles is for people who like romance, who like heroes, who enjoy a well told story. It’s for people who know that Achilles is more than a golden-haired Brad Pitt, muttering sullenly about honour in his isolated tent. It’s for people who like the twisted humour of Odysseus and the politics of the Greeks, watching as their power struggles play out in the agora of a protracted siege camp. Most of all, it’s for people who, like me, enjoy a new spin on an old tale, seeing something new in a story you thought, two thousand and more years after its first telling, has nothing more to say.

Read it for the revelations. Read it for Achilles.

Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

A Modest Tribute

Dear Mr Heaney,

I studied a few of your poems in the twelfth grade. You were the last, the most ‘recent’ in a group of twentieth century poets who were encased in the covers of a robin’s egg blue book, its front emblazoned with portraits of Tennyson, Blake and, yes, you. I didn’t know who you were when I received that book, and I didn’t particularly thrill to your music. You were not, in my very considered opinion, a ‘poet’, because you didn’t write in rhyming verses, nor did you describe beautiful things like King Arthur’s exploits, Elven women in the Wood and tigers blazing in the night.

What use is poetry, I thought, if it cannot cloak the dreariness of the world? Why would anyone want to read about potatoes, or peat-frozen women, Mr Heaney? Why would they open a book of verse to find these things when they could get the real version easily enough? Where was the beauty of it?

You didn’t have the passion of Hughes, tearing into existence tooth and claw, painting lovesongs red with the blood of an opened vein. You weren’t Tennyson, aesthetisizing grief and, with your rhythmic melodies, moving your reader and yourself past it. You weren’t Larkin, making biting, bitter statements about the futility and meaninglessness of existence, though like him, you used the everyday and wove your words around things we could all know and understand.

The question I had was, why would we want to see what we already understood?

High school and its dreary annals behind me, I arrived in college, breathless with anticipation of what ‘literature’ awaited me. As I wandered the dust-moted lanes of the Library, I chanced upon your translation of ‘Beowulf’ in a section that contained, mostly, writing by and on the Romantic poets.

Why would I, sitting in my corner of the world, would know about Beowulf. The answer is long and complicated and involves a lot of history and politics and other affairs which, hailing from the country you did, would know much more of than me. I think you will understand if I skip the history lesson.

For me, however, Beowulf and the fact that I know of its significance is more than a matter of political and cultural history. I love the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and when I learned that Beowulf was one of the texts he taught and modelled his own epic on, I knew I to read it. And you made that possible.

It was then, when I had finished your translation, that it came home to me why people loved you, why they celebrated you. In your own manner, you were doing the same as Tolkien: weaving pride and dignity from the annals of history, placing the humble in the spotlight, showing that fortune’s wheel is turned, as he put it, ‘by small hands while the great are looking elsewhere’.

And then I read you with freshly-opened eyes, watched as you carved a live skull from the ground with your pen, scattered a libation of ink on its peat-encrusted brow, kissed it back into its native earth with words, gave it fame, if not the peace it had lacked in life. I watched as you whittled away with your ‘spade’ and the past and present swam into focus, clarified by your stark and uncompromising, and yet, strangely gentle words. You were ever in the shadows, I thought, translating, translating, the history of your world into literature, bringing it out there for the rest of us to see.

From you I learned that poetry is not always glamorous, that it is not just the clever spinning of words—neither is prose, for that matter, though I still fall prey to the sweet and easy seduction of a finely turned phrase. See, I’m doing it again.

I learned that a writer’s role, really, a true Writer (not the many that crowd the markets, but those few who, as my colleague put it, reach above and stay there as beacons for the rest of us), is to watch the world and ‘dig’ into its ‘gravelly’ ground with a ‘squat’ pen. From you I learned reflection. From you I learned that literature is not always the sounding of trumpets and the death grin of a pike, the sheen of a painting on a wall.

So thank you, Mr Heaney. Thank you for that lesson.

 The Ocean at the End of the Lane

There is something inherently disappointing about a hugely-anticipated book that you can, despite deliberate pacing and long work hours, finish in two days. The tragedy of this is only exacerbated when the book in question is by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, that’s right. You can finish The Ocean at the End of the Lane in two days. One, actually, if you’re not trying very hard to stop. Surely that makes something crumple a little and die inside.

Gaiman’s latest offering has been described by the author as his ‘best book’ so far. There have been rave reviews about it in a number of newspapers, there was a huge build-up with the three-chapter release, and the book comes studded with great endorsements from Erin Morgenstein and Joanne Harris, both writers celebrated for their ‘weird’, magical realist fiction. The cover too, in both editions, is gorgeous.

See? Pretty cover.

See? Pretty cover.

So what went wrong?

I hate to confess that I was not hugely overwhelmed by this novel. In fact, given the build-up and my anticipation/excitement, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I have read better Gaiman, and while I agree that the book certainly has its strong points, it doesn’t touch, in my opinion, the success with which The Graveyard Book or American Gods or even Smoke and Mirrors told their stories. Instead of leaving me with any of the satisfaction or awe that those books did, Ocean leaves me feeling confused, lost and a teensy bit annoyed.

What is it about? Well, that’s not precisely clear (intentionally so, one would assume, knowing Gaiman’s style). A little boy is witness to the dark forces unleashed by the death of a lodger. He becomes the target of those forces, and finds solace and safety with the Hempstocks, three mysterious women (of three different generations) who live on an idyllic farm at the (you guessed it) end of the lane. Of course, no fantasy novel worth its paper is going to end there, and there are complications and tribulations galore, in those quickly-turned 243 pages.

What I got from the first three chapters (posted pre-release) was a sense of darkness and foreboding, of forces bigger than human comprehension brooding upon and entering our fragile world. In short, it was a Lovecraftian ethos that permeated those pages, but unlike Lovecraft’s world, what I felt on reading Ocean was not mute, uncomprehending horror, but more a general what’s-the-big-deal sort of ‘eh’.

I am not saying Lovecraft is a better writer than Gaiman, of course. My heart will always belong to the latter. I just have a bad feeling that I’m either missing something massive in this novel, the finding of which would make the whole thing click together into awesomeness; or Gaiman hasn’t lived up to the hype in this particular book.

And that is something I just cannot bring myself to believe. Contemplate it, yes, but not believe.

The problem, perhaps, is that Gaiman is, in this book, walking too thin a tightrope. He seems to be telling the classic growing-up story, of a child discovering that the world is far more fragile than he had ever imagined, encased as he has been in the covers of adventure stories. The unnamed narrator learns that ‘Death happens to all things’, and that adults are never as self-controlled and perfect as he once imagined them to be. You cannot rely on your loving parents all the time, nor can you expect yourself (despite all the plucky school stories you might read) to be a hero when the time comes. Sometimes it’s all just too vast for you to comprehend, let alone handle.

There are some beautiful lines in the book, throwaway moments almost when Gaiman seems to be writing a letter to a younger self than a novel for adults. It is those moments that most resounded with me, such as when the child narrator wonders why grown-ups’ books are so boring, why they don’t read about adventures and fairies and magic. When he reflects on the self-centredness of his child-self, and how that is a trait peculiar to children, the belief that there is nothing more important than him/her in this world. That conviction of self-worth is one that is missing in the grown narrator (and, supposedly, his readers). Gaiman attempts, through this short novel, to remind us of a time when though we were helpless and alone and dependent, we did not rely on the straight and most obvious paths to take us home. Instead, like he points out, we wandered from dell to fairy circle and back.

But overall, I’m left feeling rather incomplete. I don’t understand what the ‘fleas’ in the book were, why (spoiler) such a creature’s name is significant at all, what on earth the varmint are and why they are so terrifying, and honestly, I’m still lost about the ocean. Maybe a second read will do wonders for my understanding and opinion. After all, I did appreciate American Gods much more on the second read. But, I must admit, I did enjoy it on the first. I did not leave me feeling just a little bit cheated.

Was it the hype? The fact that it’s a Gaiman? The fact that I’m jealous of his wife and the book is dedicated to her? (Okay, I’d like to believe I’m not so petty as all that.) I’m not sure. But what I do know is that Ocean is not what I would call, on the first go, Gaiman’s ‘best’ work. It is good, as all his books are, but far from his best.

 

Almost in sight!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by genius writer Neil Gaiman is almost here! In a rush of excitement (and Twitter-fueled love), I preordered and downloaded the sneak peek on my Kindle. The ‘preview’ includes a short story by Gaiman, ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’, previously published in Fragile Things and four short chapters from the upcoming novel.

Like any Gaiman book, it seems a little slow to start off, and there’s an atmosphere of something brewing, of forces greater than mortal ken can comprehend. I was hit with an American Gods flashback, actually, and you might see why when you read it.

It seems to be the done thing now, to release a sample chapter or two, toy with your readers and convince them that buying a piece of a book they are going to get anyway is the done thing. Tor did it with A Memory of Light, selling the Prologue for 2.99 dollars. And I will confess that I bought it, read the other two and a half chapters that were released a little later (for free) and then read everything again when the book was finally in my hands. So I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. It’s embarrassing, a little.

At least Gaiman’s tidbit is free. So you’ll feel no shame in taking a sneak peek. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who won’t be able to rest in peace afterwards and keeps wondering, wondering, wondering what’s going to happen.

But the titillation is so worth it. Go ahead and download away!

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Yes, along with being an amazingly talented writer, he’s handsome. The man has it all. ALL.

That’s Not All I Am

‘My voice sounds all tinny and fake. Like I don’t come from anywhere.’

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Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson in TRF

And with those words, The Reluctant Fundamentalist stole my heart. Stole my heart so thoroughly that I didn’t mind seeing it twice in the space of two days.

I will be honest. I haven’t read the book and hence, cannot compare it to its cinematic adaptation. What I can do is give you my take on the movie and you can decide whether or not it is worth the same investment I made (twice).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid) is a Mira Nair film. That means it has lots of beautiful, sweeping shots of cities around the world and a pensive young man looking plaintively (and quite stunningly) for his roots. As you might have guessed by now, I am comparing TRF to The Namesake for both are, at their core, different versions of the same story. One, of course, is more politically charged than the other but when you look at their cores, they’re both about young men adrift in an adopted world that has suddenly and inexplicably turned alien and/or hostile, and it takes soul-searching (and father-finding) to set things on a new path. In TRF, Changez has it harder than Gogol ever did–not only is his name a strange sound on the lips of Americans, he happens to be of the wrong ethnicity at a completely wrong time.

Born into a culturally rich but economically parched family in Lahore, Pakistan (which, in the movie, looks suspiciously like Delhi. I wondered aloud about this and the innate similarities between India and Pakistan until my colleague assured me that they had indeed shot bits of the movie here in Delhi. Romanticism bust) Changez (portrayed by my new celebrity crush Riz Ahmed) makes the move to ‘where the money is’, the United States of America. Right after a magna-cum-laude graduation from Princeton, he joins the prestigious firm Underwood Samson and rises quickly in the ranks under the mentorship of his boss, Jim Cross (played by a deep drawling Kiefer Sutherland). He meets and falls in love with a ‘boho’ photgrapher-artist, Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson). During an assignment to Manila, he sees the news report on the WTC attack and knows that his life has been inexplicably, fundamentally changed. Nowhere, no one, he realizes, is ‘safe’ for him any longer.

Changez narrates his American dream to a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber). Bobby has come to him in the hope of information on the kidnapping of an American citizen. The question we are posed at the beginning of the film is whether or not Changez has anything to do with the kidnapping. The question at the end is a little bit bigger, and seems a lot more complex.

That’s all I’m going to tell you of the ‘plot’. What I can do now is tell you why you should see it.

TRF takes a complex, human story and weaves it seamlessly against the larger fabric of the War on Terror, the rise of fundamentalism as a political force/tool in South Asia and questions of identity. It uses one man’s story to encapsulate the confusion, loss and anger of a huge swathe of people affected by the events of 11 September 2001, and the manner in which the event has shaped lives in its aftermath. In the movie, Changez constantly asserts his individuality in the face of an official America that doesn’t seem to care: ‘Yes I am a Muslim. Yes, I am a Pakistani. But that’s not all I am.’ Despite his repeated claims, he gets taunts of ‘Osama’ and ‘Saddam’ and is taken into police custody at least twice, simply because he belongs to a certain community.

In a striking scene, a Turkish publisher talks to a wondering Changez about the janissary boys of the Ottoman empire, young Christian boys who were kidnapped from their homes in the opposing kingdoms and raised as soldiers for the ‘mighty Muslim army’. Once trained, the boys were sent back to their original homes to destroy and kill. The publisher, Nazmi Kemal, pauses significantly at this juncture and asks Changez ‘How old were you when you went to America?’ Upon hearing the answer he smiles sardonically and says, ‘Ah. Too old to be a janissary.’ The implication and parallel however, are very clear, fitting in and forming an echo to Changez’s early pronouncement on his own inability to recognize his voice, which sounds, to him, as though it’s speaker doesn’t ‘come from anywhere’.

The music of the movie is wonderful, and the acting great. It doesn’t hurt that Riz Ahmed is extremely easy on the eye, and can carry a scene with confidence (and his beautiful face). Literature afficionados might recognize Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as a college student in Lahore. I thought it was him at first glance, and my hunch was  confirmed by the credits. It was fun to see him outside a Jaipuri tent, without his trademark scarf.

There have been movies, there have been novels and songs and plays about 9/11, but there is something special about TRF. If you want a movie that makes you think, that provides you good visuals coupled with good acting (although I didn’t really care for Dwayne Wright, who seemed to me the stereotype of the African American with his witty one-liners), go watch this. It’s about America, it’s about Pakistan, it’s about modern day janissaries, but that’s not all it’s about.

Americanah

A few months ago, the literary world suffered a great loss when Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author and wielder of words passed away. Achebe is remembered chiefly for having blazed a trail where few had dated to venture before him—he took on the task of representing ‘African history’ to an English-speaking (and hence, international) audience, putting forth a viewpoint that most of the world had never considered before. Africa, he attempted to say, was not the ‘dark continent’, the ‘heart of darkness’ in which Europe saw its primal, barbaric reflection. It was a continent made up of diverse peoples and cultures, with a rich history that its inheritors could and should be proud of.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–an amazing literary talent

Achebe has left behind him, along with a rich legacy of work (of which I’m ashamed to say I have read only Things Fall Apart), successors who have taken up the mantle, bringing Africa’s voice to the rest of the world. Of those, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is among the most well-known and celebrated, thanks to her ability and choice of writing in the English language, as well as the hefty prizes she has scooped up early on in her career. Those prizes are very well deserved, and with her latest novel, Americanah, she proves once again that she is a formidable talent, a voice to be reckoned with on the literary stage.

 Americanah tells two stories: that of Ifemelu, the ‘Americanah’ the title refers to, and her one-time lover, Obinze. The novel starts with Ifemelu having decided to leave her cushy Princeton fellowship, close her extremely popular and hard hitting ‘race blog’ and return to her roots in Lagos, Nigeria. To prepare for her journey home, she goes to a new hair-braiding salon. As the hairdresser works on her braids, we are taken on an elliptical journey, tracing both her and Obinze’s lives from their childhood in Nigeria to where they are now. As the braid is woven, so their histories come together and fade apart, Ifemelu having cut off contact rather abruptly after a traumatic incident in Philadelphia.

The second half of the novel talks of Ifemelu’s arrival in Lagos, the disappointments and surprises she faces, and the manner in which she encounters Obinze, now a married and highly successful business head, one of the ‘big men’ of Nigerian society. The novel ends with their charting of a new relationship, hazy on the details of what exactly is to happen to the two one-time lovers. Is there hope for renewal and forward movement? Only time and the readers’ imaginations will tell.

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Read it!

The book, in my humble opinion, is brilliant. Adichie writes with a simplicity that cuts right to the bone, describing, first, Ifemelu’s prickly negotiations of a subject in America that she confesses she never had to think about growing up. Ifemelu discovers the curious dance of avoidance that hedges the subject of race in upper middle class American society and academia, her blog a response to the denial that she sees writ large over the majority of the (white) American population. Adichie refuses to be hackneyed in her presentation of ‘race’ and class questions, using the metaphor of hair to deliver her message. Black women, Ifemelu notes, seem to hate their hair, using products such as relaxers in order to tame its natural kinkiness. In order to score her first job in the U.S., Ifemelu heeds a friend’s well-meaning advice and uses a relaxer, subsequently deciding to never opt for such a step again. As she begins to claim her hair and see it as a mark of her own beauty and individuality, her acceptance of herself grows and she finally manages to throw off the vestiges of depression that life in America had foisted upon her.

Through Obinze, Adichie tells the story of thousands of illegal Nigerian immigrants, struggling to survive on the fringes of Western society (in Obinze’s case, London), plying hopeless, dead-end jobs in the long wait for security numbers and citizenship. She brings in the convenience marriage, having Obinze nearly marry an EU citizen in order to obtain his legal papers (that would allow him to work in the UK), but the operation is sadly shut down and he  is summarily deported to Nigeria. Adichie evokes beautifully the anxiety, fear and yet, almost bizarrely, the rays of hope that keep these workers alive and working in a society that seems little to want them. Iloba, Obinze’s friend in London, is an excellent example of a man who clings on to optimism in this world.

The characters that populate the novel, American, British, African, are amazingly real and well-drawn. The Lagos of Ifemelu’s childhood and the Lagos she returns to are both distinct, allowing even readers who have never been there (such as yours truly), to imagine vividly the vastly different sights and sounds that assault her as she re-enters a world she had left behind (and which many people wonder at her for returning to). Despite their many periods of darkness, and the trials they face, Adichie allows her readers to hope for the best for these characters. Perhaps they too, like the city, will find ‘small redemptions’, moving forward (like, Obinze would insist, the good Third-Worlders they are) from a ‘legacy of defeat’ to a future of slanting sunshine.

In short, go read it. You will definitely get more than your money’s worth.