Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya - Parineeta

Publisher: Kadambari Prakashan
Author: Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya
Title: Parineeta
Translated into Hindi from Bengali by N. Chakravarti.

My eye was arrested by a book in Vietnamese language when I was browsing among the shelves of Jungman Neighbourhood Library in Houston. My mind had just started forming the thought, if they have books in Vietnamese.... when my eye fell on a shelf full of Hindi books. The pickings were slim, there were barely fifty books on that shelf. Quite understandable, they were trying to represent world literature and had to cater to so many languages. I had to take one, it had been a long long time since I read a book in Hindi. I picked Parineeta by Saratchandra. This was the only book by him here.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya was a renowned Bengali author and this book has been translated into Hindi by N. Chakravarti. It is more like a novella really, a longish short story. It took me perhaps an hour or so to read it. I am pretty sure everyone knows the story well.  Lalita lives in Calcutta with her uncle who has been her guardian ever since her parents died.  Her uncle Gurcharan makes very little money and is a troubled man because he has to provide dowry for his daughters.  He has already mortgaged the house to his greedy neighbour Navinrai for a loan which he incurred when he was marrying off his second daughter. He is very fond of Lalita but is worried about her marriage.

Gurcharan has two neighbours that his family is very close to. Navinrai on one side and Manorama on the other. Navinrai's house is connected to Gurcharan's by way of a common roof. The children keep dropping into each others houses at all hours. Navinrai is a greedy man but his wife Bhubneshwari is a kind and an affectionate lady who is particularly fond of Lalita. Their younger son Shekhar is also very fond of Lalita.

Things get moving when Manorama's cousin Girin comes to stay with her.  Girin is attracted to Lalita and tries to spend time with her.  Shekhar is jealous and it changes the way he looks at Lalita.  On an impulse they exchange garlands with each other. Shekhar kisses Lalita to seal the deal. Things happen to keep the couple apart.  Their marriage is secret and sacred - to Lalita at least. Their families, however, fall out with each other.

Navin Rai is angered when Gurucharan pays off his loan and gets back the papers to his house.  Navin Rai was plotting to turn Gurucharan out of his house and build it over as a new unit for his second son, Shekhar.  Gurucharan, under the influence of Girin, turns to Brahmo Samaj.  Navin Rai is furious at Gurucharan for losing his religion and constructs a wall between their homes on the roof, stopping the easy access they had to each others house.

I will stop here with the plot.  Those who have seen the movie or read the book will know how things unfold for the couple. There are two Hindi movies based on the book that I have seen. One is Pradeep Sarkar's and the other is Bimal Roy's film made in 1953 starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as Shekhar and Lalita. The Bimal Roy movie is far superior to the one made in 2005 by Pradeep Sarkar. For one, the actors in the Bimal Roy movie do not get larger than life. Second, the movie follows the book very closely.  Even the dialogue from the book is used to great effect in the film.

The Bimal Roy film departs from the book in a few major ways.  In the book Lalita is barely fifteen at the time of the exchange of garlands, in the movie her age is not discussed but she seems to be older.  In the book Girin marries the younger daughter of Gurucharan who is much younger than Lalita, but in the movie the girl is as old as Lalita. The ages of these girls were tweaked with to keep in mind the 'modern' times as the book was written in 1914.  The movie chickens out of the issue of Gurucharan changing his religion. In 1953 this idea was still very radical, and not something a viewer would accept easily.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It is a very slim book. Yet Saratchandra delineates each character with care. Interestingly, the good and the bad characters are married to each other. Navin Rai is greedy and divisive. He would happily toss Gurucharan out of his house and force him into penury just to add more to his wealth.  He is deeply entrenched in his regressive views and is untouched by any feelings of kindness.  His wife, Bhuvneshwari is the epitome of kindness and love.  She is forever trying to make things easier for others.  She wants Shekhar to look at the girl he is to marry before committing to her. She loves Lalita like her own daughter and worries about her.  When she learns about Gurucharan's conversion, she is not disgusted, she understands why he did that and wants to leave a door open for him.

Lalita is a submissive girl, docile and yielding.  She is firm about not giving up on Shekhar, even though he does not give her any positive signal post their 'marriage'. Her firmness of character and loyalty to Shekhar wins him back in the end.  Shekhar is the most interesting character and the one that develops the most.  At the start he is bossy about Lalita, then he gets very jealous when she is in proximity of Girin. After the impulsive exchange of garlands with Lalita, he kisses her on the lips. Later he feels it was a flash of physical attraction and also is too scared to follow up the wedding with acknowledging it. He is relieved when Lalita leaves with her family to go with Girin to Munger, he feels like he need not be responsible for her any more. After she goes, he starts missing her and finally realises he is in love with her.

I was shocked at Lalita's young age in the book. It was written more than a hundred years ago, I had to remind myself.  Saratchandra's views on the ills of society were quite radical.  Gurucharan's problem is that he has four daughters and has to marry them off with decent dowry each.  His back broke when he had to marry his second daughter.  He took a private loan from Navin Rai by mortgaging his house. Now he finds himself unable to pay back his loan. He feels ditched by his community when they are quick to lay down rules but not generous enough to help him. In fact, despite the fact that he is also a Brahmin like Navin Rai, the two do not even contemplate a wedding between their children because Gurucharan is too poor to afford the kind of a dowry Navin Rai expects.

Saratbabu also admitted that Shekhar kisses Lalita out of physical attraction, in itself quite a forward looking, I think. Something that Bimal Roy wasn't ready to depict on screen even in 1953.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kathryn Stockett - The Help

Title: The Help
Publisher: Penguin
Author: Kathryn Stockett

There are times when you feel like thanking the movie for leading you to the book.  One fine day I found myself watching the movie, The Help on television.  I was impressed, it was a very well made movie, very engrossing. Much later, a week or so ago to be exact, I came across the book.  My daughter had picked it up from the library and it was lying around.

Like the movie, the book just drew me in. The major players are a handful of women, Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny and Celia. Yet they recreate a mini world where the voices of thousands of white and black women resound. The period it is set in, 1963-64 is exciting and when things are on a very important cusp of change.  On the one hand there are conservatives who want things to remain as they are and then there are those who are impatient to move forward.

Skeeter is a fresh graduate with a college degree. She wants to live in New York and work for a magazine.  On an impulse, she applies for a job with a publishing firm. She finds an unexpected but a tough mentor when Elaine Steen replies to her application with some sage advice. Skeeter is asked to look for a job at the local paper and find something big to write about if she wants to be published.  Skeeter starts thinking about something exciting to write about and gets a job at the local paper writing housekeeping tips. The irony is, Skeeter has never done a day of housework and is not qualified for writing about housekeeping. So she starts taking help with the tips from Aibileen, who is the help of her childhood friend Elizabeth.

In the upper cream of society, the well born women, Hilly is the undisputed leader. She runs the league, she calls the shots on who is in and who is out. Like lemmings, the other women follow suit. Hilly does not use her position wisely, she is mean and a bully.  If you cross Hilly, you might as well leave Jackson.  Skeeter finds herself heading for a face off with Hilly. It could break her and turn her into a pariah in Jackson.

Skeeter finds the big idea she wants to write about, the plight of black maids in Jackson.  It would be in the form of a series of interviews. Skeeter enlists Aibileen for the job. If the word got out that they are writing about this, they could face death.

The hardest part of the job is to find at least five or six other maids who would be willing to help them. No one is willing to help them. Minny is Aibileen's loudmouth friend. She is forever getting into trouble because of her short temper. Minny is wholly against the idea of the book, but agrees to share her stories reluctantly. Minny has done something unthinkable with Hilly and is apprehensive.

Skeeter cannot blame the black women for not wanting to get involved with her book, but she knows it will not work unless she gets some more women willing to share their heartbreaking stories. Will she be able to complete her book at all? Will it be good enough for publication?  I knew what was about to happen, yet I was turning pages, eager to find out more.

This is Kathryn Stockett's debut novel and boy, what a novel. Such sparkling characters, fleshed so beautifully, Hilly, Skeeter, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny. Their deeds and misdeeds have us flipping pages.  I had seen the movie and knew what was coming, yet I was eagerly turning pages to find out more.  Frankly, the movie had such good actors that I had no trouble at all visualising the characters.

Most of all, I loved the way the era is brought to life in the book. The slower life, the heavy dependence on 'society' for entertainment. The way TV is beginning to dominate lives, the slow onslaught of new ideas, the events. Kennedy's death, Man in space, the advent of television remote, air conditioning, women wearing frocks with shorter hemlines, the hair. This charming world has dangerous undercurrents when a black man can easily be disposed of. But even that is gradually changing.

This is a novel about women and men are a little too absent from it. There is Leroy, the abusive husband of Minny. There is William, Hilly's husband. Skeeter's father gets a bit of footage. The one most in evidence is Stuart, Skeeter's boyfriend. Skeeter knows his faults, but is overcome by her need to have a man in her life.  It is a very real situation. Not that you really miss the men, you know.

Hilly is a little too much in control, I felt.  Surely there were many older women who were around who would not have put up with her bullying. However, we can take Hilly, Elizabeth and Skeeter as the three types; Hilly is bossy and very conservative, Elizabeth is helpless and too much of a follower, Skeeter is the forward thinker and an agent of change.

The movie is more or less faithful to the book.  It has shortened some parts, the labour, the time, the fear and secrecy in which Skeeter's book is written. It has added some very valuable parts about Skeeter's mother and the story behind the sacking of their Help, Constantine. The movie version of it was much better.  I felt the book did not bring out the tragedy of Constantine well enough.  After all, it is Skeeter's bond with Constantine that spurs her on to find out more about other black maids.

I will end with a lovely quote from the book.

Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky hot body.  Cooling a heat that's been burning me up my whole life. Truth, I say inside me head again, just for that feeling.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Han Suyin - The Enchantress

Publisher: Bantam Books
Author: Han Suyin
Title: The Enchantress

Han Suyin is now out of fashion, her books are forgotten and out of stock. I read her in the 70s as some books of hers were scattered around our house.  My mother was a fan of hers, soon I was too.  I have never passed up a chance to pick up her books and have been greatly enriched by them.

The story begins in 1752 near the city of Lausanne where Colin Duriez lives with his twin sister Bea, his older half-brother Valentin and his mother and father. His father is a former pastor who gave up his calling to marry his mother.  The love between them is great. His father makes automata, little machines that are able to walk and do things.  His mother makes linen and lace and also ministers to woman with troubles who come to her for healing.

From this pastoral paradise, Colin and Bea are forced to undertake a long journey to Malabar, Yangchou and finally to Ayuthia. They find themselves in love with the beauty of Thailand and dazzled by the riches of Ayuthia. This is the eponymous enchantress. Here their life is blessed and they find love.

The riches of Ayuthia also draw the enemies to her. Burma invades her frequently. The King of Siam, Ekkathat is senile and under the influence of evil courtiers. General Taksin, half Chinese and half Siamese puts up the only resistance. Bea has long been in love with Taksin, a feeling that is not reciprocated.

The beauty of the book lies in vivid descriptions of lives in Lausanne, Geneva, Malabar, Yangchou and Ayuthia in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It was a colourful time when the world was on the cusp of the age of science.

Han Suyin's beautiful language brings to life those times.  We cross the seas with Colin, feel the journey arduous with him, are captivated by the sheer color and magnificence of Asia along with him. It is not so much a story as an experience.  I was led to believe that The Enchantress of the title is Bea Duriez, by the picture of a beautiful girl on the cover. It was actually the City of Authiya that was the true enchantress

I visited Ayutthya just a couple of months ago in November 2017, and took pictures of the Chedis burned down by the Burmese. Many golden Buddhas were hidden downstream by the Buddhist priests, these floated down and were rescued by the people and installed in various new chedis. The magnificent gold statue in the Emerald  Palace in Bangkok was also rescued in the same fashion.  The King's Palace was razed to the ground and Ayutthya is dotted with such ruins.  I saw the beautiful canals, the lush greenery of the place, and could imagine just how enchanting the place must have been in its full glory.

The seductive and vibrant Far East comes alive in this book.  We learn of the brave, heroic and prescient Taksin who is able to halt the Burmese, wrest the land back from them and lay the foundation of the modern day Thailand.

The story of The Enchantress just not end with sack and recovery of Ayuthia, it continues in Lausanne and ends in a most unexpected fashion. I was blown away by the last part of the book.

The book is so rich in detail, so evocative that it is perfect for a movie version or even a TV series. How I wish someone would bring it life on screen.