Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Devdutt Pattnaik - The Pregnant King

After I read the book through, I put it down and cried. Like Jayanta, the king’s younger son, I cried for “the imperfection of humans and for our stubborn refusal to make room for all those in between.” We are limited in our perceptions by our limited imagination, and having learnt about the world from persons of limited wisdom, our intellect is not allowed to form to its fullest. We no longer have teachers and thinkers of high caliber amongst us to challenge our minds. Our education is filled with pre-set syllabus and pre-set ways of understanding it. No wonder, as each generation develops, we find ourselves less tolerant of people who are not like us and pick fights over petty issues of region, religion and class. We follow customs and conventions of the society without trying to understand them, discarding them or adopting them for our convenience.

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is a tale told of a man, a king of a prosperous kingdom who finds himself bearing a child. Due to this ‘aberration of nature’ he finds his mind in a turmoil. His feelings for his child are more maternal than paternal and he finds himself grappling with issues of Dharma and of existence itself. Although this mythical tale of Yuvanashva is set in time more ancient than Mahabharata, the author takes the liberty of setting it parallel to parable of Pandavas.

Through the tale, we learn the ambiguous roles that many kings had to play. There were both feminine and masculine sides to them, their subjects learnt to revere them for their ability to portray the best of both sexes as an additional blessing instead of a curse for their multi-sexuality. We learn many of the old traditions that were coined for the good of people, the vedic way of life that ensured harmony and prosperity. The caste system which is much reviled now, was a means of allowing people in different walks of life to live with dignity.

However the fissures in this perfect way of life were already evident. When Ashwathama discarded his varna to become king, when Kshatriyas used deceit to win the war, when Dharma was abandoned in an attempt to cling to power. Then, as now, the final message is that it is Love that is most important, in its most sublime form, Compassion.

Here is a gem from the book – “Careful of the word unnatural. It reeks of arrogance. You are assuming you know the boundaries of nature. You don’t. There is more to life than your eyes can see. More than you can ever imagine. Nature comes from the mind of God. It is infinite. The finite human mind can never fathom it in totality.”

The tale is carefully woven. As in Mahabharata when the seeds of discord were sown generations before the actual war, here too we go back to the story of Yuvanashva’s mother, the widowed regent Shilavati and go on to learn life in Vallabhi the kingdom into which she is married. Yuvanashva is a sheltered child and needs to fulfill his primary function, father a son and provide and heir to the throne of Vallabhi before he can become king. It becomes hard to fathom whether Shilavati is hanging on to power for its own sake or as a maternal instinct to protect her son and allow him time to procreate. Kaliyuga is about to dawn and it is indicated when people use dharma to further their own end.

The wisest of Rishi’s Angirasa laugh when the Chief Priest Mandavya wonders why power corrupted the mind of Shilavati, she was a woman after all. “He thinks women are not corrupted by power” they laugh. The Angirasa also descend on the Pregnant King and seek to pray to him as they think he is a special signal from Gods. They open his mind to the ambivalence of human forms. Not all are rigidly male or female.

Myths are philosophic tales to educate us through entertainment and exist to inform us that nature is more powerful than any of us. Those readers who loved reading stories from Chandamama, tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vikram and Betal stories will love this book. I was able to devour the 149 page book in 5-6 hours of continous reading, I found it gripping and unputdownable. The finale was satisfying and disturbing at the same time.

Devdutt Pattanaik has made a career out of studying the ancient myths and decoding them. He has his own website here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Haruki Murakami - Kafka on the Shore

I can be highly suggestive when it comes to picking literature. I am more likely to pick up a book that has been written about well, and spoken of as a classic. It was this instinct I followed when picking up Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Why this one by this writer? Because Kafka is my favorite author and I liked the use of his name.

Some books are not written asking for appreciation. They exist and wait for you to pick them up to read. If you do so, YOU are rewarded, if you don't its YOUR loss. This is that kind of a book. It does not hang around waiting for you to award it 4 or 5 stars, it is 10 stars already, and if you recognize that fact, its your good luck.

Now, what kind of a genre does the book fall into? Is it a romance? Drama? Fantasy Fiction? A coming-of-age tale? A combo of the last two? It does defy compartmentalizing. What do genres exist for anyway? So that the bookstores and librarians know where to slot it?

I am asking a lot many questions, mainly because I am trying to find words and phrases to describe the book best, knowing I am going to fall short. Ok here goes.

Kafka on the shore is about a 15 year old boy who is trying to escape a horrific prophesy. To avoid it, he has to run away from home. On his travels he learns about life and that even if he cannot avoid fate, he learns to deal with it. He is also trying to find the answer to a question that dogs most children who have to do without a parent - Were they loved?

"Every time we wish for something with our whole heart, the universe conspires to fulfill it." We have heard this phrase a lot recently. Here in this book we get to see how exactly the universe conspires. We get a bit of 'behind-the-scene' activity that can qualify this books as fantasy fiction. But as the setting is our world, the 'other world' element is so well integrated, that it seems like an everyday happening. The 'niceness' of everyday happenings soften the blow of the bad things that are actually happening elsewhere.

Murakami is an intellectual with varied tastes, you can see as you read his book. And he wears his it on his sleeve proudly, quite like TS Eliot. His literature shows up his taste for western music, philosophy and literature quite unabashedly. He references a lot of a music and books and speaks about them through some knowledgeable character. I quite like the 'international' feel of the book. Though it is set in Japan, it is so contemperory, it could have been in any corner of the world. There are no overt 'cultural' references. No Japanese tea ceremonies or bowing or references to the ancient cultures being best.

The book is crazy, wild, sexy, original and simply fantastic.

What am I going to do next? GRIN. I am going to pick up some Beethoven music that Murakami talked about. I am also going to pick an anthology of Prince, a musician that I love and so does Murakami, and so did Micheal Jackson. Oh. I am going to pick up Norwegian Wood by the same author.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Steve Berry - The Alexandria Link

Among the books to fall into my lap recently (link) was The Alexandria Link by Steve Berry.

The novel starts with a bit of an epilogue the purpose of which becomes clear later. The second chapter is when the action starts. Cotton Malone, ex- US agent finds his ex-wife on his doorstep in Denmark to inform him that their son had been kidnapped. Within minutes he finds his house and shop burned to ashes, and is on the run from assassins as he tries to unravel the mystery of his son’s kidnapping.

Several other links open up. Stephanie, Cotton Malone’s ex-boss finds herself embroiled in conspiracies of various sorts. Across the globe in Vienna, another thread in the story is revealed when a mysterious organization called The Order of the Golden Fleece that seems interested in causing economic and political instability by using religious controversies, is found to be embroiled in the kidnapping of Gary Malone.

Soon the kidnapping angle is discarded when it is revealed that the actual quest is the lost library of Alexandria and Cotton Malone is being coerced into tracing it. As the novel progresses, the shit rises higher, and all the good characters seem on the verge of elimination. Sigh !

It’s been quite a while since I read a racy bestseller. As they go, The Alexandria Link is gripping and well written, and keeps you turning pages. Each chapter has this soap opera kind of ‘gasp’ endings which is supposed to egg you on to read the next page without break. It works most times, at times it bugs you. There is plenty of categorical listing of good and bad guys – US, Israel are good guys, Arabs – BAD! Europeans – not too good. All these simplistic allusions get to you at times. Anyhow they are too superficial to really affect you. A lot of heavy tracts of ancient manuscripts are thrown in to make you feel you dealing with serious history. There is a Dan Brown like chase for clues and links that ONLY Cotton Malone is able to decode.

How Sweet!

Now that reminds me of the horribly cheesy ending of Superman II, the Christopher Reeve one (Mind you, I liked the movie). The trio of Zod, Ursa and Non are vanquished, the world is set right. The President of the US is restored to the ‘throne’ of the free world. Supe comes flying in, resplendent in his eye blinding blue suit with the red undie and brings back the top of the White House with the flag with was blown away by bad man. Dhan Tan Na! Superman is here and all is well with the world.

As an aside, I really like the Indian politicians who are so obviously bad, they are human! In books like these, the President of USA is depicted as some kind of an un-impeachable hero. Almost like royalty.

Though this book is better written than the Dan Brown ones, I must say I liked Da Vinci Code better than this. At least he kept the Prez out of it and turned it into a genuine thriller.

The top dog in this genre is undoubtedly Umberto Eco with his The Name of the Rose; these two gentlemen don’t even come close.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Anne Bronte - Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The more said about the Bronte sisters is less. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a classic, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is likewise, a classic. However the two books by Anne Bronte are often overlooked. She outlived her most illustrious sister, Emily, by a year, dying at the young age of twenty-nine. In her lifetime she wrote only two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Even with my avid readings I have not read the other books by Charlotte – Vilette, Professor and Shirley – mainly because I was ignorant about them. These books and Anne’s books were not readily available at my school library, where I read most of my classics. Recently, a friend of mine (Vani) visited my house and was struck by the amount of books I had. She had been gifted a number of books that were lying unread by her and offered to lend them to me. Never the one to look a book-gift horse in the mouth, I agreed. She offloaded a stack of books on to me and I was charmed to find amongst them The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I began reading the book and was struck immediately by the way the book avoided the ‘Gothic’ and the ‘Romantic’ traps that were so typical of Victorian novelists. I was refreshed by her normal, colloquial use of language, the simple unassuming style. In fact I read the title page once more to check if the novel had been abridged, and hence simplified, but it was not. Let me outline the plot a little. I had assumed that the Tenant of Wildfell Hall was some Rochester/Heathcliff like creature, prowling amongst great halls full of angst. But this tenant is a mysterious lady called Mrs Helen Graham who is dressed in widow’s weeds and has a little son. She makes her living by selling paintings and seems to be a gentle lady who has fallen on ill days. The parish is abuzz with the new arrival and families start visiting the lady, eager to make acquaintance of her. She seems friendly but a bit standoffish. Her great beauty wins her admirers among the men, which in turn angers their former beaus. Some women are struck with jealousy and spread rumors about her character. It is then revealed that Helen is in fact on the run from an abusive husband, Huntingdon, and is trying to bring up her son away from his harmful influence. What happens to Helen, and how her past is revealed is the rest of the story.

The story was set in Regency and was based on the various young squires (some say the wicked Bronte brother, Branwell was the model) who led degenerate lives, going on wild drinking binges and hunting. Along with this, hitting on each others wives was also a great sport for them. The gentler wives were obviously distressed by the events. To add to their misery, the law was stringent for women. They had no identity or existence without their husbands, could not own money or property independent of them. They could not leave their husbands without their consent, nor claim custody of their children. In such a background the mystery with which Helen Huntingdon has to surround herself is necessary, and the step she had taken was seen as unusually bold for those times. Anne invests strong characteristics in Helen and creates a character of great strength and beauty. Her characters spring out of the book, quite like the one’s created by Charles Dickens. She describes the landscapes beautifully. Her greatest strength however, is her graphic presentation of the society. She is able to bring to life the equally the degenerate lifestyle of Huntingdon and his friends and the family lives of the gentleman farmers that dwell around Wildfell Hall. Her humor is gentle and satirical like her famous predecessor Jane Austen. She is like a bolder and a more decisive version of Jane Austen. While her sisters content themselves with presenting just the lives of Heathcliff, Linton and Earnshaw on one hand and just Rochester and Rivers on the other, Anne meticulously draws the portrait of several families near Wildfell Hall. We learn of the mating rituals of the young and fashionable when Helen is young and is being courted by several gentlemen. Likewise, we learn about the married lives of several people when Helen marries Huntingdon and starts living with him. She gives us valuable snapshots of various lives.

All people who habitually read Victorian or pre Victorian authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte among them, should read Anne Bronte too and not treat her like a ‘lesser’ Bronte (a fault I was prone to).

At home I was reading Tenant of Wildfell Hall and at work I downloaded her only other book, Agnes Grey. Agnes Grey lists in useful and entertaining detail the travails of a young girl who works as a governess for two families. The book is supposed to be drawn on her own experiences in a couple of households as a governess. Agnes is a young gentlewoman fallen on hard times. But her betters in wealth treat her no better than a servant and often heap abuse on her, neglect her and inflict her with spoilt children. However, she meets a cute curate and the story ends happily. This book is very slim and not ridden with any lengthy digressions that often mar the classics of that age. She goes deep into the psychology of the character and describes their feelings in great detail. She also describes the environs almost photographically and brings the scene alive to us.

The only fault of this work is extreme piety and often correct-to-the-point-of-harshness attitude of the heroine. She allows no levity to the children and young girls, and often follows the story through to make the reader realize that the girls suffered in later due to some frivolity of theirs in young age.

If I compare both the books, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her second work, is much better. The story is gripping and the female characters are very strong. In face of Huntingdon’s dissipation, Helen seems too correct, but that is the fault of the times. The character of Helen grows from a skittish young girl to a fine woman who is very sure of herself. When she finds love again, she is not afraid of revealing her true feelings and ends up practically proposing to the young man. Again, like Agnes Grey, Tenant of the Wildfell Hall is a slim book and does not put in any story elements that are unnecessary. Her realistic, flourish-less language is a delight to read even in these times. Indeed she writes more like Anne Austen than Anne Bronte. But she has to be lauded for sticking to her convictions and writing the way she did, so apart from the more romantic style of her sisters. With a will like hers and a talent like hers, who knows what beautiful stories she would have turned out, had she lived longer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Richard Llewellyn - How Green Was My Valley

Some books, I am sure, seek you out.

I had gone to this second hand bookshop on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I was browsing through the books. Actually I was hoping to get some old romances which abound in these shops. Some Georgette Hayer, some Nora Roberts, a bestseller or two, pulp fiction. I did pick up Jackie Collins' Hollywood Husbands, ok, mission accomplished partially. Some more digging and I come across a collected works of Sherlock Holmes, great. And then this book by Richard Llewellyn falls into my hands.

Years ago, sometime in the 80s, Doordarshan (god bless it) used to show award winning (or acclaimed) films on late nights fridays. On one such evening, I was about to snooze off when I saw the start credits rolling for the movie How Green Was My Valley. A few scenes later sleep was far away from my eyes. I watched the movie mesmerised. I had absolutely no idea (as there was no google then) that this was a movie adaptation of an acclaimed book.

As was the movie so was the book. One chapter into it, and I was hooked. Llewellyn recreates life in a mining town in Wales with simplicity and candor. We get to know about a respectable family of Morgans. The father, Gwilym Morgan, the mother Beth and several brothers and sisters of the narrator Huw Morgan. The father is a true patriarch who holds his family together and plays an important role in the community. The mother is, likewise a matriarch who is able to manage her home and hearth well and keep a hospitable table.

The life in this family and the little community is ideal as long as all the members are able to stick to their roles. In such a perfect state, the little village can rival Eden. The local pastor Gruffydd is an able mentor to his folk. Even the owner of the mines, Mr Evans is not too inclined to greed and pays his men good wages. In such a scenario, the valley is beautiful and green despite the mining. The accidents in the mines are fewer, the people less ambitious, more god fearing and happy.

Soon, fissures start appearing in this Eden. Fear of exploitation by the owners bring in the Union which in turn makes the owners more wary. The new owners are greedy and want to dig more without a care for the environment, making the slag heaps rise higher. There are more accidents and women and children are suddenly made vulnerable by the rising deaths. People start leaving the village in search of a better future. The close knit little community crumbles.

This is backdrop in which little Huw grows up, and loves to distraction. He does not want to change this way of life and wants the Eden of his childhood intact.

We can feel the love with which the pretty portrait of a conventional life in a little Wales village is drawn. Like Huw, we want it to remain as it is, quaint and lovely. We want to see his father and brothers marching in home from the colliery covered in soot and rubbing it all off with a bath of hot water. Sitting down to a hearty meal with the pastor and later singing Welsh songs in their hearty voices. We want to see Bronwen, his beloved sister-in-law, happy in her domestic life with Ivor. His sister Angharad peeping out of the window to take a look at Mr. Gruffydd, hoping he would return her passion. Little Huw who finds love of his own when he takes Ceinwen over the hills.

It is a novel of epic proportions. I have found that the Huw Morgan saga continues in 3 more books by the same author. I hope I find these books too somewhere.

The movie - Superlative.
The book - of course more detailed and super-superlative.

Warning - I am devouring books these days.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A S Byatt - Possession and Audrey Niffnegger - The Time Traveller's Wife

It has been my fortune to read two wonderful novels in the recent times. Novels that have excited and challenged me. Both the novels play with Time. One is a scholarly research into the past of a fictional poet couple, another about a fictional creature who is at the mercy of Time. Past and present are required to be blended seamlessly in both these novels.

Possession by AS Byatt was gifted to me by a blogger friend who I had the privilege of meeting. One chapter into it and I was hooked. It was about a research scholar Roland Mitchell who comes upon a letter hitherto undiscovered from a Victorian Poet (fictional) Randolph Henry Ash to some unknown woman. I have done a year of MA English Literature and am quite familiar with the tracts of texts that delve into the personal life of writers, trying to find clues to their genius. It seems voyeuristic and thrilling at the same time. I have read scholars who tried to decode who the 'dark lady' was that Shakespeare mentions in his sonnets. I can imagine how such a letter would throw scholars like these into a tizzy. So it is. Roland keeps the letter a secret while he tries to unravel the mystery behind it. RH Ash had an unblemished personal life and this hint of extra marital romance is sure to create waves in the literary world. As Roland has a hunch that the lady in question is Christabel LaMotte, he has to take Dr Maud Bailey into confidence as she is the one who knows all there is to know about the Victorian poetess who was thought to be a lesbian.

Together Maud and Roland try to piece the story of the Victorian lovers together, like stalkers from another age they try to follow the steps of the past lovers. They cannot keep their stealth for long as established scholars can sniff out that this couple is up to something. More people get sucked into the story till it becomes a delightful, almost comic, free for all.

The book operates on many levels, it is a work of astounding scholarship, as AS Byatt creates two poets and also a body of their work. It is also a gentle sweet stabbing satire on scholars who get too voyeuristic and too meddling and too digging at times in trying to discover all about their favorite authors. It is also a story of a love of great depth unearthed gradually and lovingly recreated. There is a romantic tension between the two scholars Maud and Roland as well, and they find themselves shedding their inhibitions and bonding as they journey along the path of the lovers past. It is a mystery too, as secrets spill out of Victorian closets. It even has a twist in the end.

A magnificent book to be savored again and again.

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffnegger was recommended to me by
Couchpapaya many times over. When I saw the trailer of the movie that was based on the book, I knew it was time to read it. I received the book from flipkart on thursday the 12th of August, 2009 I read one chapter and was immediately hooked. I devoured the book by late last night, 14th August, 2009. The title of this blog is a quote from the book.

A BIG RECKLESS NOVEL.. UTTERLY CONVINCING says a blurb in the back by Daily Telegraph.

So True.

How can I describe this book? It is so bold and original and so sure footed. Henry DeTamble is a time traveller. His body gets pulled into different time zones by its own accord, and the experience is not pleasent. He arrives naked in a spot that is not always of his choosing, he has to forage for money and clothes and survive till the time he is pulled back. He has to maintain a strict regimen about his time travels and be very moral. He will not use (except for a few notable exceptions) his time travel for profit, nor does he reveal the future too often to the 'straight' travellers. His concern is how to lead a normal life despite his digressions. Clare is sucked into his world when she is six years old and Henry is 36, he knows things about her that she doesnt and he knows he has to be very patient with her. It is like a love story that is constantly travelling back and forth into time. He knows their love will endure and she has to believe it, have faith in him.

The book is carefully dated and timed to make the reader realise at what point in time they are. It is easy to feel disoriented in a book like this, but Niffnegger is sure footed and you travel with her, eyes open, taking in each marvel. Henry has to keep fit, running miles everyday to be able to survive when he arrives in a different time zone, buck naked and vulnerable. He has to learn how to pick locks and steal, passing time sometimes in jail. Similarly Clare has to keep faith, learn to fend for herself when she finds Henry missing. She has to get on with her life and keep her body and soul together.

As I read this book, I was reminded of Possession that I read earlier, and realising that these two books really challenged me. My cup of happiness was filled to the brim when I saw a quote from AS Byatt in the middle of the Niffnegger book. It proabably wont make any sense out of context, but here is a part of the quote anyway.

This is always where I have been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything else ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those times are running elsewhere.

Incidently, both the books have been made into movies. Possession stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as the scholars and Jeremy Northram and Jennifer Ehle as the Victorian poets. The Time Traveller's Wife will star Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. I have not seen either of these. TTW is yet to release and Possession can perhaps be found on DVD if I look for it. If I do watch the movies, I will surely write about them as well. But I do wonder how stories with such 'scapes can be made into films.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Jackie Collins - Hollywood Husbands

I grabbed this book from the second hand book store. Its been a long time since I indulged in a bit of lit-trash. I have read a couple of her books earlier, Lucky and Hollywood Wives.

Jackie has this trademark style. She introduces several strands of stories at the outset, linking the characters in some way. For instance, in this book, there are three friends who struggled together once upon a time in Hollywood. Jack Python is rich and successful as TV talk show host. He is handsome and scores easily with women. He is dating Clarissa, a noted film actress and is thinking of settling down with her. Howard Solomon is a studio CEO and starlets love to dance at his whims. He is married to Poppy but wishes to play the field. Mannon Cable is a filmstar married to beautiful girl, but still years for his ex-wife Whitney Valentine. Jack Python has an older sister called Silver who has just bounced back from a total washout stage to being the top star on a TV show. She is single and despite being in the late forties, can pick and choose. She has a daughter called Heaven and they do not get along. Heaven is living with her grandfather. Her uncle Jack looks after her well. On the other hand, a famous model Jade has just moved to LA from New York. Wes Money is a bartender and drug runner, he is a survivor and a real man. All these fates are intertwined.

Oh.. there is a side plot of a psychotic killer on the loose. The novel gives us tantalising glimpses of her background and the people she has done away with, making them look like accidents. The reader is kept guessing about her identity. All we know is someone is gonna pay....

In typical Jackie style, we get a quick character sketch of all couples in the first couple of chapters, we get to know their agli pichli. What the chars have been doing and where they are headed. Then the story starts, things happen to this of that person, the story moves ahead. Some chars get together and make violent love. Some chars fall into a flashback, some cheat, some break up, some meet and fall in love and all that jazz.

Jackie Collins tries to be brash and brave and shocking. Errr maybe at one time she was. Now she aint. Despite her characters trying hard to be bad, they wind up being good. Even a drug sniffling, ass-licking, wife cheating b**tard like Howard whimpers tamely by the time the book is to end. Silver falls in love ... jeez ! Wes Money turns straight (in his dealings - his orientation is straight right from the start). All the husbands turn seedha sada at the end.

What Jackie is, is a good read. Her books are racy, fluffy, frothy. Good for airports. I hardly ever fly, but there are times when I feel I am waiting at an airport. When I am home, I am just whiling time till I am back to the kitchen for dinner, or off to sleep, or doing some other chore. Jackie is a perfect read for the waiting period.

She likes to draw a strong character that reminds you of someone in the entertainment business. So Silver is drop dead glamourous and talented and a diva like - say - Marilyn Monroe. Clarissa is a serious actor in the mold of Susan Sarandon or Meryl Streep. Mannon Cable is like Clark Gable (hey it rhymes even ! ). So while aam readers like us dont know these people intimately, we know through gossip rags the kind of things they do. So whatever Jackie tells us about them seems believeable.

Racy Fun and Glamourous. Thats what the book is !

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Truman Capote - Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood

It was the movie Capote that introduced the writer Truman Capote to me. It was a no-holds-barred view, showing the warts of the writer in full. I did a bit of research on the author and discovered that, besides the acclaimed In Cold Blood he had written the famous Breakfast at Tiffany's too. I was floored. I had no idea that the famous iconic movie was a book. Following my usual bug about reading the book and watching the movie (Atonement, Slumdog M, Love Story, Gone with the Wind and many others I can't remember now), I ordered the books right away.

Breakfast at Tiffany's:

Holly Golightly is a socialite, to put it politely. She tried her hand at a film career with little success, though the foray groomed her to behave like some pricey princess instead of poor trash that she really is. Now she does what she is best at, escorting rich and famous men. They provide her with some immediate social and financial security. Not for her the ruminations on what she will do when her looks fade. She is ridiculously young - just in her late teens, not an age when girls worry about what comes next. The sweep of her ambition is to marry someone rich so she can have what she wishes for.

Paul, the author who moves into the apartment above her discovers that she is a delightful person. She is sweet, caring and totally carefree. She lives in the moment and almost nothing shakes her.

I am not sure whether I can discuss the end where the book and movie make significant departures, but all I will say is that there is no romantic angle between the author and the girl in the book.

The Poet and the Prostitute is a common theme in literature. The assumption is that only the poet has the sensitivity to see beneath the surface and look at the woman in a prostitute (as in the movie Pyasa). Other men are merely consumers, who look at the goods on offer and take their pick. They will screw the prostitute and take home the pristine woman to be a wife. Rarely will they stop to ponder at the prostitute in the wife (who will marry only for material benefits) or the pristine in the prostitute (who has a soul that is untouched by the material).

Holly Golightly is so alive, so beautiful, so fragile, so lively that she captures our imagination. Luckily for us, she is played by the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in the movie. Despite the differing fates she has in the book and the movie, she is still the best girl ever!

In Cold Blood

This novel has interesting origins. Truman Capote, already an acclaimed author, looking for new subjects to write upon, chanced upon a 300 word article in The New York Times about the multiple murder of a farmer's family in Holcomb, Kansas. This prompted Capote to go to Holcomb for some ground research on the story. He had a feeling it would make good material for a book. He took along his childhood friend Harper Lee to help him out. Lee and Capote met everyone in Holcomb and took first person accounts of the murdered family, Clutter. Capote also closely followed the progress of case with by Alvin Dewey, who was investigating the crime. Subsequently, Dewey and his team nabbed the criminals, Smith and Hickock and trials began. The prosecution had the case neatly sewed up as they had formal confessions and all the evidence in place. As anticipated, the criminals were sentenced to hang till death.

Capote started speaking to the criminals and went into their backgrounds, talking to their family as well. He had material all ready for the book, but had not yet written a word.

However, this is just the background of the book. This is all revealed in the film Capote.

The novel states the details of the crime, traces the criminals, the work done by the KBI. Despite being a true story, it reads like a fictional thriller. It ends with a usual epilogue that tells what the surviving characters of the book (some of the citizens of Holcomb) did after the affair was over. What makes the book so effective is the fact that it is a true story. That feeling stays with you throughout the reading of the novel. Like a master craftsman, Capote keeps you engrossed in a story that you already know and on tenterhooks for an end that you already know. Its the facts that you don't know, the little things, about the characters that add to the basic story and make the book so readable. At the end of the reading, the cut-out characters of the drab newspaper reports, the Clutters, Dewey, Nancy's boyfriend Bobby Rupp, her best friend, Susan are turned into people with flesh and blood, people who you may know. Christ, Bobby Rupp and Susan could yet be alive.

Truman Capote :

It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.

Capote was an abandoned child, he grew up at the mercy of various relatives in Alabama. He was a childhood friend of Harper Lee and appeared in her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" as Dill. Right from an early age, 11, he wrote stories and got them published too. He lived his life king size, he was a toast of the social scene in New York, a braggart (Dill was a braggart too and it seems he kept the habit as he grew up), not humble, enjoyed running others down, used people to further his own ends. All said and done, he was an amazing writer. He is extremely surefooted with his stories, telling us things at their proper place, not a minute later or sooner. It is almost as if he can visualize his story, map it mentally, and put things right where they belong. Writing is a craft as much as art, and requires blood and sweat. But you need talent for this craft to turn it into art. Some people just have it. Truman Capote was one.

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can't generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

The above quote has been pulled out of Wikipedia, because it illustrates his writing so well. Only a true author can be dispassionate about his own experiences, and make it seem as if it happened to someone else. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is a compilation of some short stories, there is a very personal story about Truman Capote and a crazy aunt who he grew up with, called A Christmas Memory. At no point in the story do you feel it has anything to do with Capote. The story is like a portrait of a poor trash disadvantaged old lady who is determined to live life on her own terms. And, at the beginning of the collection, we have a similar story of a pretty young poor girl, Holly Golightly, who is determined to live life on her own terms. It is as if the writer can sense the spirit in people, whether they are beautiful and young or old and decrepit. In Cold Blood gives us the workings of the mind of criminals, how ordinary they seem, and the triggers that set them off that make them commit crimes on an impulse.

A magnificent writer, he should be on the shelf of all book aficionados.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar

It can be both beautiful and terrifying to look inside a human soul

I think this was said by DH Lawrence. It is hard to show someone the insides of your soul. Do we dare? Not me. Not one person in the whole world know all about me. We have been trained from childhood onwards to put out only a bright good face to the world and keep our demons to ourselves.

Sylvia Plath, the extraordinary poet, dared to show the world her demons by writing a book about her early days of grappling with mental illness in her first and only novel - The Bell Jar. The protogonist of the novel is Esther, a girl from a small New England town who has studied on scholarships and got straight A's all her life. It starts with her internship at a fashion magazine in New York with 11 other girls from eclectic backgrounds. For the girls, it is a step forward into life, to be able to live in New York for a month at the expense of a magazine.

Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean."
Fever The Collected Poems [Sylvia Plath].

This novel that begins on a note of hope and a promise of a life well spent soon disintegrates as a sensitive Esther is not able to cope with the hurts of life. She can cope with studies and papers and excel at them, but life terrifies her. Soon the month is up and she is back at her small town, with her mother and steps into her first deep depression, followed by an attempt to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call."
Lady Lazarus [Sylvia Plath].

Death eludes her and she finds herself put into a variety of mental institutions. This was the early '50s when electric shocks and unsympathetic doctors actually complicated the state of the patients' mental health. However, after a couple of bad hospitals, Esther's treatment at a swanky mental resort is sponsored by a philanthropic woman.

Even when her mental state is at an ebb, Esther does not stop experiencing life. We all do it, but are not sensitised enough to feel each moment. That is a gift given to Esther - to feel each moment of her life as it walks past her. She gets into the details of her life with Buddy, her boyfriend, her first witnessing of a childbirth, her blank outs, her curious relationship with Joan- who seems more of an alter-ego or a shadow- than a childhood friend. Her detailing is so perfect that you are let into her murky world and she does not spare you the torture she went through. It is like an autopsy of a soul.

"A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—"
Black Rook in Rainy Weather[Sylvia Plath].

Such achingly beautiful lines these are. And the novel too, is full of her quiet gift for words, not flamboyant, but precise and perfect. Kafkaesque - yes, that is term I would use for it, especially as Sylvia Plath seems to start, in terms of timeline, right where Kafka left off.

The novel is also described as a feminist tract because of Esther's rejection of traditional woman's role of marrying and keeping house and having children. In the current times it seems as if Esther was merely trying to assert her individuality in times when it was anachronistic to do so. She was woman ages ahead of her times, one of the catalysts for change, no wonder she is still an icon for a thinking woman.

This above line should be end of this blog with my tribute to all budding writers - especially bloggers - in Slyvia's words. But I wish to discuss just one more thing. I have read about the first sexual experience of another writer as well, Han Suyin. Interestingly, Han Suyin describes a void she felt after her first sex, a nothingness. Sylvia leads us into a realm of pain and hemorrage. It is almost as it they want to cut out the passion that lead up to it, and reject any feminine impulses they felt at the moment. I feel that is what the feminist writers missed out on in their literature, in an attempt to reject all feminine myths, they rejected their own femininity. But I guess, at that time, it was necessary to do that to bring about the change. And for that, all women have to be grateful to them. It is because of their sacrifices that we are able to vote, claim right to be educated alongside men, some of us can lead degenerate lives, be single mothers, marry lesbian lovers, heck, just be ourselves.

"Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door."
Mushrooms [Sylvia Plath].

These lines are for all my fellow bloggers ! Our tribe multiplies as we talk, our foot is in the door.

Ryan Adams singing Sylvia Plath

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Ode to Edward Lear - Which explains why I selected this Template !

Edward Lear Home Page
The Owl and the


The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
'O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!'


Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?'
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.


'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Ruskin Bond - A Flight of Pigeons

It was a chance meeting. Smita was passing through Chandigarh enroute Mumbai and the train was stopping for 20 mins here. We met on the railway platform and chatted like old friends, turning our virtual friendship into a real one so easily, you would have thought we knew each other forever. 20 mins was too less, but we have to be thankful for such chances to meet. There was an exchange of books between two book-lovers before the train pulled out. Smita, it was awesome to meet you and your hair really looks good with the red glints.

A Flight of Pigeons is a book set in the times of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A pathan Javed Khan is struck by the fresh beauty of a very young Anglo-Indian girl Ruth Labrador. A few days later, the mutineers strike Shahjehanbad where Ruth lives with her parents. Her father is struck dead and Ruth is taken in by a kind Indian acquaintance, Lala Amarnath along with her cousins, aunt, granny and mother. Javed Khan is hunting for Ruth, and manages to track her down. He takes Ruth and her mother to his home and declares his intention of marrying the girl. Ruth is terrified of being wooed so roughly by this savage. She is lucky to have her mother protecting her. Miriam Labrador is the daughter of an Indian Muslim and a British man. She is well versed in urdu and the muslim ways, thanks to her mother. She is extremely resourceful and well spoken. She is able to act tough and speak softly as the occasion demands. She is hard pressed to preserve her daughter against the decent but unwelcome attentions of Javed Khan.

Miriam uses the uncertain temperory victory of the mutineers as a reason for not agreeing to Javed Khan's proposal. If Delhi Falls, she will be yours, she says. Luckily for Ruth, Delhi does not fall. Her mother's sagacity saves the girl from a certain ruin.

Like most Novellas of Ruskin Bond, this book is slim. Like most books by Ruskin Bond, it is powerpacked with a terrific story, amazing style and language. The backdrop of Sepoy Mutiny, with its merciless killings, mercenary nawabs and caught-on-the-wrong-foot English rulers is brought out just perfect. The impatience, impudence and imprudence of Javed Khan; the wise old Kothiwali and her gaggle of womenfolk who love to bond over festivals; the savvy Miriam who is able to turn a bad situation into a tolerable one, these characters stay with you long after the book has been closed.

I loved this peek into history. It reminds me that pre-independence India was really a conglomerate of various provinces misruled by lazy, greedy nawabs and the subjects quite oppressed. The mutiny was an additional reason for these nawabs to kill and plunder in an attempt to fatten their own treasuries. The British used underhand methods to wrest power from the provincial rulers, but they did give India some form of formal governance.

This super book is a classic and was turned into a wonderful movie called Junoon starring Shashi Kapoor as the tempestuous Javed Khan, Jennifer Kapoor as Miriam and Nafisa Ali as Ruth. Ruth has little to do in the book but look good and be scared. But in the movie, Nafisa quite stole the show with her lovely schoolgirl looks. The movie is as good as the book. Both are not to be missed.

I read the book in one go on Sunday, it is simply unputdownable. Thanks ! Smita.. and the title refers to you ;)