Sunday, January 27, 2008

Miscellany II

This weekend was a bit of a treat – two books and a movie!

Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a book I should have read 18 years ago, for one of my college papers. I managed to take the paper without reading Murdoch…and it took me all these years to get back to her.

It’s not a book that grabs you immediately; rather it reeled me in slowly and almost without noticing it, I was quite hooked onto Jake Donaghue’s escapades in 1950’s London. There are parts that are philosophy (a theory that says language is a series of falsehoods, that it cannot describe any particularity without falsifying it, that however much we try to crawl under its net, we are condemned to a travesty of truth each time we open our mouths or put pen to paper), parts that are first rate comedy and parts that are some of the most lyrical descriptions ever (the night of drunkenness that ends in Jake, Finn, Dave and Lefty swimming in the Thames is a chapter worth reading all by itself).

Under the Net is a first person narrative of Jake, too lazy and too scared to commit to being a writer. He ends up making a living by translating second rate French novels and cadging off his friends. Life takes a turn when he is thrown out of his friend’s apartment by her impending marriage and he is forced to look for alternative accommodation. This leads Jake to go looking for an old flame Anna and this in turn brings back into his life Anna, her sister Sadie who is in love with him and an old philosopher-friend Hugo. Innumerable twists and turns later (providing for a lot of comic farce), Jake is forced to look deep within to figure out what matters to him at heart. The end of the novel sees Jake committing to what he knows is ultimately what he wants to do most in life – write and write well.

1950s London is at the heart of the novel. There is also some amount of Paris, but Murdoch and Jake romance London beautifully. The characters of Finn, loyal and unquestioning, Hugo the philosopher, Sadie the beautiful and manipulative actress, Lefty the socialist and even weird Mrs. Tinckham are etched in ways that draw you in. And there are times you wonder if there isn’t a little bit of Iris Murdoch herself in Jake Donaghue, so real seem the protagonist’s dilemmas. It is not tough to see why the publication of this novel catapulted Murdoch into the top echelons of British literature.

After Dark is of course, vintage Murakami. Set over 7 hours in a Tokyo night, it tracks Mari, a young girl who has missed her train and her encounters with Takahashi a young jazz musician, a Chinese prostitute hurt by a client, a Chinese gang and Kaoru the woman who runs the hotel where the prostitute is hurt. Mari’s beautiful sister Eri in the meantime is in a deep sleep, from which she does not want to awaken. She has been in this deep sleep for months and Murakami, in his inimitable way takes us to her room where there is a TV screen that comes on by itself and sucks Eri in. Yes, this is Murakami after all, and there are things that happen in his world that do not make sense in ours. But at the end of the dark, when morning light sneaks into the world, Eri is back in her bed and with Mari too in hers, there just might be hope for a renewed connection between the sisters.

As is normal, this is a Tokyo that could be a big city in any part of the world. And with all pop culture references being Western (Jean Luc Goddard, Duke Ellington…), I am still quite flummoxed by Murakami and his Japan. But having read my fair share of his books, I should say there is something there that though strange and surreal, often proves fascinatingly addictive.

Jab We Met
is fluffy and cute and adorable. I am a sucker for sweet, funny love stories and this is one. A train journey, a couple of popular tracks, an effervescent Kareena, the ubiquitous Punjab scenes and a quite humorous script made this DVD a worthwhile watch. Shahid Kapoor was surprisingly cool but I can well understand why Kareena dumped him in real life. She is so much a woman and he is such a boy!

All in all, good weekend R&R.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Only child

I caught the American soap Brothers and Sisters on air the other day. It left me quite bemused with the workings of sibling relationships. And reflecting on a life without. Like mine. An only child, I often wonder how different I would have been as a person if I had brothers and sisters. They say China’s one child policy has bred a generation of ‘Little Emperors’, spoilt brats who are completely the focus of their parents’ attention. It is of course, a stereotype – the spoilt only child. But looking deep within, I wonder – do I fit the stereotype?

I do believe there are parts of me that are, only because I don’t have siblings. A certain selfishness at the core is one – the inability to share anything of personal value to me with people outside my parents and now, after years, my husband. Personal value of course is not really about money or material things like that (or at least I would like to believe). It’s more about things like personal space, attention, even to some extent love. I remember hating the possibility of my mother going to work because I would have to share her with others (an older me shudders at the injustice to my mom!). Or having to open up my room for guests whenever there were too many to accommodate in the guest room. Or having to share my precious books with friends who came home. And in more recent times, watching my husband bond with his brother on things I can hardly relate to (cars, phones and such like) can bring that old jealousy roaring back again. This is a certain kind of ‘spoilt’, I think.

Of course there are positives too, I would like to believe. One of which is an uncommon comfort in my own company. I don’t think of myself as an introvert – I have a decent-sized set of people I call friends and I love their company most of the time. But solitude does not scare me; in fact, I look forward to time alone. It stems from all those hours in childhood spent alone in my room, daydreaming, reading, role playing.

The flip side of course, is impatience with too much company. There are times when long periods of time spent with people, even if they are family and friends, irritate me. It is again a kind of selfishness, but I need the alone time. This is something very few people understand. It's one of the reasons spending more than a week in my hometown makes me go mad – I can’t deal with the constant family get-togethers for weddings, births and deaths. I would much rather shut myself up in my room and read a book.

That’s me, for good or for bad. There are times when I wish I had a sister or a brother to take some of the expectations off me. But these are really few and far between. I like being an only child. And I can always watch Brothers and Sisters for a peep into the world of people with siblings.

A tag! Am a bit queasy about getting this personal on my blog, but hey what the hell! Laksh, here’s to getting to know each other better.

A: Available? Nope…not in the way ‘available’ is commonly understood.
B: Best friend: My hubby - knows me better than anyone else and the person I can be myself with, the most.
C: Cake or Pie? Pie
D: Drink of choice: Chai
E: Essential thing used everyday: Cell phone - can’t live without it
F: Favourite colour: Changes every other year; current favourite – pink/ purple
G: Gummi bears or worms: Neither – what are gummi bears??
H: Hometown: Trivandrum
I: Indulgence: Travel
J: January or February: February (has a more settled-in feeling)
K: Kids and names: None
L: Life is incomplete without: Books, travel and a dream.
M: Marriage date: Oct 18 (had to think a bit here…been 9 years!)
N: Number of siblings: None (as my next post will testify)
O: Oranges or apples: Neither; need something more tropical. But if I had to choose, it would be apples – it isn’t as much hard work.
P: Phobias: Growing old
Q: Quote: Nothing happens unless first we dream, said Carl Sandburg.
R: Reason to smile: Calvin & Hobbes!
S: Season: The monsoon
T: Tag three people: Not enough blogosphere friends really to tag. Sorry.
U: Unknown fact about me: I can’t draw to save my life – it’s so bad that I can’t even draw a straight line without a ruler. Everybody fights to keep me out of their Pictionary teams.
V: Vegetable you do not like: Karela
W: Worst habit: Procrastination
X: X-rays you have had: Tooth, Chest, Finger
Y: Your favourite food: Anything my mother makes; and if I had to choose something exotic, sushi.
Z: Zodiac: Sagittarius

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


A clear fertile abundant mind
Serendipitous answers to questions deep

Journeys physical and even more, metaphysical
In solitude sometimes and with company often

New words, newer ideas, startling and bold
Eschewing staleness, sameness, hardness

Courage to cross taboo-ed boundaries
And fortitude to stay the course

Randomness and haphazard moments
With little desire for the method behind the lunacy

A disappearance of inevitability
And discovery of wondrous escape hatches

Most of all, zest and spunk
And a generosity of spirit unrestrained

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Two slim volumes were my staple during the last week of the year - Ian Mcewan’s quite uncharacteristic The Daydreamer and Milan Kundera’s Slowness. Two very different books with very different sensibilities that brought my year to a close.

The Daydreamer is a book that is bound to resonate with anyone who has ever daydreamed away endless hours as a child. The ability to just sit around, stare into space and imagine a whole different world was for me the best part of childhood. McEwan brings alive the fascination and wonder of those times and through the stories of the daydreamer Peter, gives the word possibility a whole new dimension.

Peter Fortune is a 10 year old very quiet boy, with a set of busy parents and a kid sister Kate whom he alternatively adores and despises. All in all, a pretty normal boring sort of suburban kid life. But Peter’s world is anything but normal and boring and with his child’s imagination, he conjures up stories and worlds in his mind from the most innocuous things and people around him.

Not all the stories are nice and pretty – there are elements of Roald Dahl in the story The Dolls, where Kate’s dolls want to exchange his life for theirs, starting with taking over his room. Most of the stories have Peter putting himself in someone else’s shoes – either the old dying cat, the doll, a detested baby cousin or an inexplicable adult. Some of these work beautifully – I particularly liked the story of the cat, where the cat is dying and Peter exchanges his soul with the cat’s for one day. He gets to bring alive his fantasies of cat life while gifting his life to the cat for one day. Touching and kind and lovely. Others like The Baby and The Grownup fall slightly flat. Stereotypical anecdotes of a baby world and a grown up world kind of mar the formula.

All in all, this is a refreshing children’s book that did appeal to a grownup like me too. Unlike the current fascination of kiddie books with alternative worlds – witches and daemons and such like, this book takes a real and normal boy’s life and weaves in exciting possibilities.

I cannot be this enthusiastic about the second novella though. Kundera requires more reading before I can judge whether I like this kind of writing or not. Slowness is about an idea – the idea that ‘the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory, the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.’ We are a generation obsessed with speed, because what we are trying to do is speed away from unpleasantness. While slowness is a mark of memory, when we are trying to remember something. And what Kundera tries to do is have conversations with the reader about ideas like this.

He kind of illustrates this with two stories of seduction set 200 years apart. In one, an 18th century noblewoman seduces a young man simply for pleasure, an Epicurean ideal. In the other, a 20th century academic’s seduction game is messed up, turns out more comic and foolish than expected. The 18th century seduced nobleman savours the memory of his amorous night while the academic bikes away speedily to forget his.

It’s a bit too metaphysical for my taste. But it’s different enough a novel to intrigue me into reading other Kundera works in the new year.