Friday, December 26, 2008


By J.M. Coetzee

I am a sucker for Booker prizewinners. At least most of them. So I pick up the 1999 winner Disgrace, by the South African (now Australian, I think) writer J.M. Coetzee. And turns out he is also a Nobel Prize winner!

The title of the book describes the state David Lurie is in. 52 years old, twice divorced, Lurie teaches poetry at a Capetown University. In an impulsive Lolita moment, he starts an affair with a young student. He loses his job in the process and thus starts his descent into disgrace. David retires to his daughter Lucy’s home in the country hoping to clear his mind and see what can come out of a vague dream of writing a book on Byron.

Rural life in South Africa for a white man and his single daughter is not idyllic. That fact is brought home rather forcefully when strangers, who later turn out to be relatives of Lucy’s African neighbour and helper, render David and Lucy helpless in a rather violent attack against them. The difference in the way the older man and the younger woman react to the attack is telling. David is angry and wants his daughter to give up her land and go away, maybe away from South Africa itself. His daughter however decides to stay.

The burden of history turns out to be hard to bear for white South Africa. In the countryside they are forced to barricade themselves against a hostile world, and still end up with the possibility of a bullet in the back. Or they could choose to leave. Lucy’s generation is learning to start all over again, learning to adapt, to forge new relationships, start with nothing again. David cannot do the same, or won’t do the same and he is left to rely on his fledgling Byronic opera and his new-found love for stray animals (another species left with nothing) as substitutes for the strength to carry on.

It is a bleak novel, yet there is a sense of re-building as if from a wasteland. Just as Lucy’s child begins its life in her womb, a child born of violence and helplessness, David and Lucy have to begin life again in deepest Africa. All the dilemnasof white South Africa are brought to life in this short and sharp novel from a writer with an obvious talent for a layered tale. Coetzee is a new discovery, one I will explore more of.


How do I waste time? Let me count the ways. Laughing and crying over Four Weddings and a Funeral for the 21sttime; adding my 220th friend on Facebook; reading pretty pointless poetry to get maudlin; writing a blog no one ever reads; trawling the net mindlessly while putting off writing that important email; dreaming of heroic deeds when those clothes are crying to be put out to dry. I waste time with all the insouciance of youth, a not-so-young woman anymore.


The ironing man needs to be paid and so does the electricity bill. What’s for dinner tonight needs to be decided now – the cook is clamouring for a decision. A long and busy day awaits. An important day, filled with important decisions and important clients and important meetings. What does it matter that America has a black president, that Kashmir has gone to the polls peacefully, that newer war zones are being created in our backyards, that Nobel Prizes are being won. The minutiae of her life absorb her; a minor insignificant foot soldier in the shaping of momentous history.


It was a kind of flirting, she knew. Harmlessly provocative sms-es that make her feel more intensely alive, more than just a platonic friend. Suggestiveness over long distance seems less dangerous – and as suggestive, if that makes any sense. He sees her smiling into her mobile phone and thinks she has a great smile. He tries to catch her eye but she is too absorbed in her messaging. And so he gives up and turns to find a newspaper.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Morning Rush

The day had not started well. She missed the 6.40 bus. Ashu had thrown a tantrum and refused to take what she had prepared for his lunch. He did not want the poha, he wanted a sandwich. That was the problem with sending him to the English medium school with all the rich kids for classmates. Now the next bus would arrive 20 minutes later, which means she would be delayed reaching Sharda bhabhi’s house. She would get an earful. Not a good day for asking her for that 500 rupee advance. Maybe she should ask Neetu bhabhi in 1201. At least she would not refuse point blank. What if either would not give her the money? What would she do for Ashu’s exam fees this month? There was the bus. Hopefully she would get a place to sit. The only rest she would get for her feet for the next 6 hours.
It was the 3rd time this week. No matter how many times you told her, Geeta just came and went as she pleased. She lit the lamp and surveyed the mess her kitchen was. The dinner dishes in the sink and the ring of burnt milk around the gas stove. And there were the clothes to put out to dry and the credit card cheque to be dropped at the bank and the 9.00 am meeting to boot. What a day for Geeta to turn up late. Could she skip the cheque she wondered. But she knew it was cutting it close. That last month 500 rupee late payment fee had caused such a row with Dinesh. As if it made such a difference. But better not chance it again. There was the doorbell. Maybe she could still make the 9.00 am on time.


She isn’t a great cook, not even a very good one. But she loves the feeling of standing in her kitchen and acting like she was whipping up a feast for the gods. With the recipe book in front of her as her inspiration. The feel of the paneer under her knife… or the capsicum. The smell of roasting garlic and the sound of sizzling oil. The ladle is the magician’s wand and the wok is his hat. The suggestion of creation is irresistible. So what if the result is less than what her mother can manage with her eyes closed.


Today I met the boy I want to spend the rest of my life with. He has the most amazing smile I have ever seen. And a habit of looking at you and listening to you as if you were the only one in the whole wide world. I know I will dream of him all the nights of my life. I know he can break my heart. So I walked away. I don't think he even noticed.

It’s been a while since this blog has seen some action. There have been books, a few movies. Average stuff, not worth a visit to blogger I think. Unless you have an evening to spare and wish to drive away tedium by inflicting your opinion on a silent web page.

Shashi Deshpande is an Indian writer I had never read. I picked up That Long Silence because I came across her name in a magazine that described her as one of the foremost Indian women writers in English. It’s a tedious read. When Jaya’s husband is accused of fraud, the couple coops down in an old flat in Dadar to tide the time through. In those two weeks, Jaya has enough time (her kids are away with a friend) to think about her life and the relationships that make it up. Surprisingly there is no one except her dead father who she seems to care for. Her childhood comes across as a dreary one with family politics holding sway. The matriarchs on either side of the family rule the roost and they come across as unsympathetic and stern beyond forbearance. And when her father dies, Jaya’s life is pretty much made joyless. She marries Mohan, has two kids and puts her writing career on hold. At the end of the book though, she attempts to break her long silence when she reaches some kind of realization – that she herself will need to make the effort to make relationships work, to change the situation of her life. It’s a pretty sudden insight with no big events that shape it. I guess life is that way – a slow movement towards some kind of understanding of a bigger picture.

Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time is quite a different place and time. As in the best of McEwan’s books, there is one shocking incident that transforms the protagonist and his circumstances. In this case, the protagonist is Stephen Lewis, a children’s writer and the incident is the kidnapping of his daughter from a supermarket just in a few moments when his back is turned. Both he and his wife have different ways of coping with it. He goes ballistic trying to find her, even after everyone begins to realize that little Kate is not coming back. His wife withdraws… into her books and art and music. This is complemented by Stephen’s friend Charles descent into childhood – almost a replacement for the lost child. It is a slow internal recovery process for Stephen. But he does eventually get there, happily with his wife in tow. Charles is however not so lucky. It’s vintage McEwan. Liked it quite a bit, though it never comes even close to the emotional punch Atonement gave me.

Then there was the strange book called The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant. Strange because it is written by someone called Merchant and it describes a hard-core Tamil Brahmin lifestyle, almost flawlessly. It is Merchant’s debut novel and it is a pretty decent one at that. At least it starts off well. With Janaki Venkatakrishnan, her sister Mallika and her father in their Sripuram agrahaaram. The death of her mother when she is 13, means Janaki has to drop out of school and look after the house. In this she is helped by her widowed chithi (her mother’s younger sister) who she realizes in a shocking revelation is having an affair with her father. Her hatred for her chithi, her hopelessness in her future and the suicide of her best friend Kamala lead Janaki to do the unimaginable in a traditional Brahmin household – she runs away and gets married to a Muslim actor. Her father disowns her and it is left to her younger sister Mallika to piece the family together again. Janaki’s return prompted by a plea for monetary help from her chithi for her father’s medical needs brings mixed feelings in Mallika. Mallika can never completely forgive her sister for abandoning her to her father and aunt. But there is finally a realization that both of them were caught in the same trap – of stultifying tradition and narrow-minded provincialism. The strength of the book in my opinion is the description of the life in an agrahaaram in small town Tamil Nadu. The kolams and the daavanis and the maamis, the classical music that is so much a part of daily life, the early morning wait for the milk van, the ponnu paarkal with the veena in hand… it brought back Madras in vivid detail. Nostalgia is a good enough reason for a book, I think.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Falling Man

By Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo I hear is one of America’s foremost contemporary writers – a National Book Award winner and runner-up in a NY Times survey of the best American fiction in the last 25 years. Falling Man I am hoping is not one of his better works – it was disappointing to say the least.

First of all, it is about the twin towers and 9/11. I would think it couldn’t be the easiest place to start a work of fiction – it is too close in time, there are far too many images in your head from TV, real-life stories have been played and re-played far too often. Even with these disadvantages, I found the book shallow, whiney and insubstantial.

Keith is the man in the building when the planes strike. In zombie-like fashion, he gets out carrying some one else’s briefcase and comes straight to his estranged wife Lianne’s house. In trying to make some sense of his life after those dark hours (where he has lost a poker-playing buddy), he attempts re-enacting the family man with his wife and son, gets into a relationship with the briefcase owner who has suffered through the incident herself, gets out of it and finally ends up in the casinos playing serious poker.

Lianne in the meantime is going through her own crises, just worsened by the trauma of the attack. She has never got over her father’s suicide when he discovers he is losing control over his senses. It leads her to co-ordinate a support group for people suffering from the slow loss of memory. Within years her mother too is affected and it leaves Lianne paranoid about a possible loss of her own memories.

Keith’s and Lianne’s son Justin is left scanning the skies with his friends for more planes and a man named Bill Lawton (Bin Laden in traumatized child-speak). There are a couple of more characters – Lianne’s mother Nina and her lover Martin. Nina is an intellectual and her arguments with Martin, a European art dealer who might or might not have been a left-wing radical in the ‘70s form a strange backdrop to the attacks. Martin’s anti-American views are just a vague mumble though and never articulated enough to make any sort of point. Then there is also Hammad, one of the men with Atta who flew the planes into the towers. DeLillo takes us into his mind – a poor insubstantial journey that does little to explain the enormity of his actions.

The falling man refers to a performance artist who simulates the falling off the tower in various parts of the city, at various times. No one knows why he does it, there is little information about his background and he remains a mystery even when dead. If there was something profound that DeLillo meant to convey through him, it was lost on me.

Overall the work is so superficial that you wonder what the point of the exercise was. Keith draws little sympathy and neither does Lianne. There is a self-absorption to all the characters that grates. Conversations are stilted and so is the writing I thought. The only parts that moved me were those of the Alzheimer’s-diseased people in Lianne’s workshop – real and scary.

DeLillo has failed to impress me. I will read Underworld and White Noise, his best works I am told. But I will go in with little expectations.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The White Tiger

By Aravinda Adiga

Adiga’s debut novel has been acclaimed as the one that questions the India Shining story, the one that puts paid to the hype of the emerging super power. It describes an India that has been left behind in the New India dream of the middle classes. In a state that is obviously Bihar, Adiga creates a character called Balram Halwai and gives him a voice. It is a voice that is unlike any that we have seen so far in English Indian fiction – brutal, simmering with obvious anger, yet laced through with sardonic dark humour. Balram Halwai is a man who has come up from the depths of grinding poverty to become one of New India’s stories of successful entrepreneurship. And in a series of letters he writes to the Chinese Premier on a state visit to India (a devilish ploy by Adiga, given our obsession with comparisons with China), he describes the route he takes to get where he is.

Balram is born Munna (there are so many children in his joint family in Laxmangarh, the elders forget to name him and it is left to a school teacher to do so), the son of a rikshaw-puller. As in the case of all the men in his family, he is forced to drop out of school and work in a tea shop when one of his sisters needs the money for her marriage. But Balram is no ordinary boy – he is canny, intelligent and has the street-smartness to figure a way out of the misery of the tea-shop worker. He takes driving lessons and becomes the local landlord’s driver. And thus begins his life of servitude to the landlord and his family. For a driver is not just a driver in the Indian household – he is the cook, if there isn’t one, a masseuse and a general man Friday. For a few thousand rupees, Balram pledges his undying allegiance to his master’s family. When Ashok, the America-returned son of the master moves to Delhi, Balram moves with him as his driver. For the ‘sponge’ as Balram calls himself, the move is most fortuitous. For it is here that the India of Light and the India of Darkness collide. This is where migrants from the Darkness, like Balram, meet the shining new malls and glass-towered suburbs of Light. This is where they see the true nature of their servitude. And this is where Balram acts out the most decisive chapter in his route to entrepreneurship – the killing of his master.

For most middle class Indians, this is an uncomfortable book. We know there is something wrong in a world where the price of a dress or a meal in a restaurant is as much as the salary you pay your driver. Adiga brings home to us truths that we’d much rather not see – the divide between the two Indias, the geographic inequality of progress, the corruption that vitiates our democracy. Yet strangely enough, it is not a bleak book. Balram Halwai becomes an entrepreneur, creating jobs and bringing prosperity to more people like him. The sheer venality of the route he employs and the absence of any remorse might make us squirm. Yet, he does manage to escape the fate he was born to, becoming a success in spite of the system. It’s a bit like watching Guru and the Ambani story. There might not be murder in that success story, but there sure was corruption.

Adiga’s book is a compulsive and riveting read. His Balram Halwai is a character that is sure to remain in the reader’s mind for a while, like the policeman Khatekar in Sacred Games and the bar girls in Maximum City. As I finished reading the book, the Booker announced Adiga as the winner. Does The White Tiger feature among my favourite Booker winners? No. Adiga is no Salman Rushdie. Nor does he write as beautifully as Arundhati Roy. But he tells a topical story in a compelling almost un-put-downable manner. It definitely is one of the better books to come out of the Indian fiction scene in the past few years.