Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Legends of Khazak

By O.V.Vijayan

It is easy to see why this book is considered such a seminal work of fiction in Indian literature. Published first as a novel in 1969 (it was serialized in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly a year before), it pre-dates a lot of the magic realism that Rushdie brought to the fore by more than a decade.

But The Legends of Khazak is not just a tale of magic-realism. A lot of the fables in the book are very real for a Keralite. They are reminiscent of stories that you grow up hearing – the ‘velichappaadu’ (oracle), the ‘poothams’ (ghosts), the ‘yakshis’ (spectres), all are familiar. As they are for the villagers of Khazak, these are an everyday presence, real and true, not just a part of some writer’s fantasy.

The tale is of Ravi’s – a would-be astrophysicist who chooses to come to the remote village of Khazak to teach at a single-teacher school. Khazak has not seen a school before. And so the conflicts between the local madrassa, the Hindu paathshaala and the new school master are inherent in the situation. But maybe because it is a more innocent time (the ‘60s were more about communism than fundamentalism), these conflicts do not form the basis of the story. Instead, the tale focuses sympathetically on very local characters, the old mullah who realizes his time is past, the dwarf-cretin Appu Kili, the poverty-stricken and abandoned Chaand Umma, the child Kunhamina, the toddy-drinking oracle Kuttadan. The small pox epidemic, the liquor prohibition and the resultant illegal toddy tapping, the advent of communists – all of them form a backdrop to events at Khazak.

Ravi, who is escaping personal demons from the past, is drawn into the stories of Khazak until he is a part of them himself. He comes to teach the village children the logic and rationality of the outside world. He ends up being taught that the so-called irrationality of the locals is as rational as anything he has learned in physics. The first school inspection passes off with flying colours. Ravi and the school do not pass the second. By then, he is telling the children stories instead of teaching them the alphabet. The village has changed him. What starts off as a regular tale of a city-bred schoolmaster coming in to the village to revolutionise it, becomes inverted. The teacher becomes the learner. And the enchantment of Khazak works its magic on the outsider. Until Ravi’s death wish is fulfilled.

‘Kazakinte itihaasam’ is supposed to have brought about a change in the Malayalam narrative structure as well. Unfortunately, to readers of the translation, we will have to take everyone’s word for it.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell

A riveting read. My first David Mitchell and this will definitely not be my last. What strikes me when I read him is how comfortable Mitchell is in so many different worlds. The book is a series of 6 different but strangely interconnected stories set in different geographies and different times, varing from the Pacific Islands in the 19th century to Europe in the early 20th, to a Reagan-era California to a 21st century middle America, a clone-era somewhere in the future and an even further future after the fall of civilization. The connections between the stories are tenuous - there is a strange birthmark that travels across characters and diaries and manuscripts of one character from one time period are found by characters in other periods. Most of the narrative is in first person and that is what makes it so amazing. Mitchell manages to get the differences in language and narrative patterns between the different worlds down so pat - the early 20th century Englishman, the clone's fumbling learning of the language and the back-to-nature native's rythmic tone. All so different and yet sounding so authentic. Borders on brilliant, in my opinion. The book is almost an un-put-downable read. There is something of the mystery in it and the thriller. One of the best reviews I have read is by AS Byatt, featured in The Guardian.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Cheong Fat Tze mansion

Cheong Fat Tze mansion
Originally uploaded by paronair.

The 'blue' mansion in Penang. A heritage building over a century old, this perfectly feng-shui-ed home belonged to a Chinese businessman. His rags-to-riches story had him dubbed the Chinese Rockefeller. Currently the house proves to be a popular tourist attraction, it being one of the few original Chinese courtyard mansions left.


Originally uploaded by paronair.

Rated one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world by Time magazine sometime in the late 70s, Tioman was also the setting for the magical island of Bali Hai in the film South Pacific. For me, Tioman was the my first weekend getaway from Singapore. It was also the site of my first snorkelling attempt. It's a beautiful island, though thronging with tourists from Singapore and Malaysia.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Originally uploaded by paronair.

Have seen this a million times on postcards. Yet being there was special.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sputnik Sweetheart

by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart is not one one of Murakami’s most representative books – or so people who have read a number of his books tell me. But it’s different enough from normal for me to recognize this writer as unique. For one, the book has a Japanese setting without anything in it being particularly Japanese. Other than the names of the characters and the places, the story could be set anywhere, in any of the big cities of the world. So there is no exoticisation (if there is such a word) of a culture – nothing at all like, for instance, Memoirs of a Geisha. For another, while the novel tells a seemingly normal story, there is always an undercurrent of the surreal which gets magnified as the story progresses.

The narrator of the story, identified only as K, is in love with a childhood friend, Sumire, a writer. Sumire’s life is untidy and chaotic, with no fixed plan, unsympathetic to a commercial world outside. The only steadying influence is K, a school teacher who she can call at all times of the day and night and be assured of a listening ear. As Sumire waits for time and experience to teach her to be a writer, she meets Miu and falls in love. Miu is 17 years older and a woman, married, a business woman, as far removed from Sumire’s world as Sputnik is from the earth. This unlikely triangle is the base of the book.

Sumire gets closer to Miu, changes herself to fit into Miu’s world (wears business suits, gets a haircut, is unable to write anymore) and goes off with Miu on a business trip cum holiday to Europe. Which is where she disappears ‘like smoke’ never to be seen again. There is enough of a clue earlier on in the book about this strange event. Miu has a cat that disappears from the top of a tree that it has climbed. No explanations, it disappears just like that. As K goes to the Greek islands to help Miu in her search for Sumire, the tale gets stranger still. He discovers some of Sumire’s writings where she details out Miu’s story. Fourteen years earlier, Miu is stuck in a ferris wheel for the night in a remote Swiss town and as she looks into her apartment from the top of the ferris wheel through her binoculars, she sees herself making love to a stranger. The Miu in the ferris wheel is repulsed, but the Miu in her apartment seems to be enjoying herself. In the morning, Miu wakes up in the ferris wheel with one half of her self completely gone. So the Miu of today is just one half of a whole self, thus explaining her lack of ability to feel anything, to love. Her other self took that away – the ability to love, the ability to make music, the ability to feel.

Sumire disappears, goes into ‘the other world’, Miu loses half her self and K returns to Tokyo to continue his life as a school teacher, a job he seems to be good at, but not something he seems to care too deeply about.

The whole alienation thing seems to be a big theme in Murakami’s novel. Sumire is a writer alienated from the normal world where no one seems to get her. So she has to, in a sense go to ‘the other world’, presumably a world in which the ‘other Miu’ resides, a world where she can live out her passionate life, hopefully with the Miu that can feel. The book is a stark commentary on the commercial, normal world that makes people lose things that are intrinsic to them. It is a deeply unsettling theme, and one that stays with you long after you have finished the book.