Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Chesil Beach

By Ian McEwan

It is 1962 England. The sexual revolution is still a few years away. Two young people in love get married and celebrate their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. It is their wedding night and neither of them have had sex before. It is a tortuous, intense situation and who better than McEwan to describe it in his vivid precise manner.

“Why were these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent?” he asks. It is this question that is at the heart of this novella. “Social change never proceeds at an even pace”, he explains later. And so when the world was rapidly proceeding towards the pill, easy sex, dope and rock and roll, there is this corner in England that remains untouched.

It is a tragedy, because neither Florence nor Edward has gotten over Victorian restraint to make the physical relationship work. They are in love, impatient for their lives to get started and their future is within their grasp. But they flounder. In his exquisite way McEwan asks, “And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself.”

The night is a disaster. Florence’s fear and guilt coupled with Edward’s impatience drive them away from each other. The debacle that would not have seemed one in a few weeks or months had they stuck it out, changes the course of their lives forever. Florence runs away and Edward is too proud to follow. And at the end of an ordinary life, it is left to Edward to reminisce about the girl with the violin he had let go. “Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through…This is how the entire course of a life can be changed…by doing nothing.” And if only he had known or cared to know…Florence would have been his, if he had only called out to her in her distress.

It is a short tale but quite an evocative one. McEwan tells it with razor sharp precision and unbelievable compassion.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone

By Shashi Tharoor

It’s a book with all the standard clichés of a transforming liberalized India – the cell-phone wielding sadhu, the elephant that is developing the stripes of a tiger, the Sreesanth and Nell episode symbolizing a new India, the co-existence of Sai Baba’s Puttaparthi and the Infosys campus. Tharoor’s collection of essays published on the eve of India’s 60th year of Independence has really nothing terrifically new to say. Yet in his easy and evocative manner, he manages to say the old things in a refreshing way, making the book an interesting and informative read.

Maybe I am biased. I have a soft spot for the man – like me he is a Keralite, proud of his heritage, yet he has never lived in Kerala. His vision of India finds a resounding echo in mine – a deeply secular country that, like Whitman, acknowledges that ‘we are vast, we contain multitudes’. His articulation of the idea of India is one of the most evocative I have come across, as is his take on his brand of Hinduism. When he says “Indians are used to multiple identities and multiple loyalties, all coming together in allegiance to a larger idea of India, an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity. That idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is about the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree,” he is talking about an idea of India that takes Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations head on. If indeed India does survive on this idea, the clash of civilizations theory is truly dead. Similarly on his views on Hinduism, I can only nod and agree – “…I am a believing Hindu…(but) I am not a ‘Hindu fundamentalist’: I see Hinduism uniquely as a religion without fundamentals…Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages about divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book….It is a truth that admits of the possibility that there might be other truths…Mine is not a faith for those who seek certitudes, but there is no better belief system for an era of doubt and uncertainty than a religion that cheerfully accommodates both.” This inclusive, open, all-accommodative view of his country and his religion, I believe, needs repeated articulation by all who stand by it in this uncertain and divisive age. And just for that, this book needs to be read by as many people as possible.

With this vision of his country, the choice of the men (and woman) who have shaped his India are pretty apparent. Tharoor has written a biography of Nehru and he makes his adoration of the man very obvious. So too his esteem for Gandhi, Patel, KR Narayanan and Maulana Azad (the chapter on Azad was pretty revelatory to me and possibly deserves a post all by itself!). He is less enthusiastic about Mrs. Gandhi and his chapter on Ambedkar while being laudatory also criticizes the formidable lawyer’s ‘impatience with established political structures as instruments of change’.

There are parts of the book that can appear wide-eyed and almost naïve to those who live with the harsh reality of India everyday. His chapter on Kerala, for instance, while echoing many of my feelings for my homeland, tends to be a lot of laudatory hype without a reality check. His annual visits to his Kerala home he says found ‘a world of rustic simplicities and private inconveniences’; and it took the wisdom of years to learn to appreciate it. And while as a Marunaadan Malayali, he is justifiably proud of his Malayali cultural heritage (the land of Shankaracharya, Aryabhatta and Ayurveda; the only Indian language in which you can read Beowulf and the complete works of Shakespeare; its openness to cultural influences that has made Kerala a microcosm of every religion known to the country; Kalyanikuty, M F Hussein’s ‘emblematic Kerala woman, an enlightened modern figure steeped in her traditional culture, rising from it to conquer new worlds while remaining comfortable in her own’), he admits being a stranger in his own land, not being able to understand Ottamthullal, never having read the Mathrubhoomi and Manorama papers, never having read Vallathol or Kumaran Asaan. And of course, never having lived there, he sees the social miracle wrought by the first democratically elected Communist Party – the 100% literacy, the female empowerment, the workers rights- without seeing the price people who stay there pay day in and day out – the loss of jobs, the lack of private investment, the numbing bureaucracy and the daily bandhs and strikes that make daily life so difficult. With all the acclaimed gender equality stories, Kerala women still remain the most socially tradition-bound in all of South India. This chapter on Kerala is but one example of a somewhat simplistic look at the India today.

Tharoor is a product of his upbringing and his views are those of a liberal city-bred, English-speaking Stephanian. He could be accused, like his hero Jawaharlal Nehru, of looking misty-eyed, through rose-tinted glasses at a vision of an India that is probably far from reality. But that vision is a positive and hopeful and inspirational one that bears re-visiting again and again. At the end you know Tharoor’s vision is borne out of a deep and abiding love for the country he calls home, even if he has spent more years outside than in it. And when that vision is told the way Tharoor tells it, in a language that is motivating and moving and witty and whimsical, you can forgive him all the clichés in the world.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


By Vikram Chandra

I loved this monster of a book. It’s 900 pages long and a rollicking ride all the way through. Vikram Chandra might have just written the defining book of his career – a crime thriller genre of entertainment that manages to capture a city and its people in a way very few others have managed to do. Mumbai is here in all its fierce, tough, dirty, gory glory and just for that portrait of a city I love, this would rank as one of my favourite books of all time.

Sartaj Singh is a character we have met before in one of Chandra’s short stories. He re-appears here, now divorced, mellower and quieter than how I remember him. He is the policeman hero – as honest as a cop can be in the city, which is to say not very. Yet there is integrity in him – while he has no qualms about taking small amounts of money in his daily work, he has not been bought over by politicians or gangsters and stashed away millions as his boss Parulkar has.

Chandra draws a fascinating portrait of the police force in the city, especially through the characters of Khatekar and Kamble – the life of the ordinary policeman in his daily rounds of work, the dance bars, the everyday bribes, at his kholi with his wife and kids and his dreams for them, the danger he lives through everyday of his life and the pittance he takes home as a salary. It makes you feel less bad about that bribe you paid to the local policeman for your passport verification.

If Sartaj Singh is one part of the story, Ganesh Gaitonde is the larger-than-life gangster other. For someone not familiar with the workings of the Mumbai underworld through countless Bollywood films and Suketu Mehta, Gaitonde’s story of a small time crook making it to gangster overlord, controlling a million dollar empire through a phone off a yacht in the Malaysian waters will seem far-fetched and altogether improbable. In fact some western reviews of the book have pinned it down as a fantastic tale with little basis in reality. We of course know better. Gaitonde is one of the most interesting characters I have come across in fiction in a long while. He is a dreaded gangster, feared by millions; but Chandra takes us into his mind delving into his fears and insecurities and paints a picture of a sharp and agile mind that has gone awry somewhere terribly.

Sartaj and Gaitonde form the 2 poles of the book. The narration is split between their two stories that form alternate chapters. Gaitonde’s story is being told after his death – in the first person, to Sartaj. And while the book hurtles towards a climax, with both Sartaj and Gaitonde driving towards the solution of a mystery that could destroy their beloved city, you realize that 900 pages have just fled past.

There are insets here – the story of Sartaj’s mother in pre-partition India, the trauma of partition, a dying Indian intelligence officer and his mental illness, the story of a small time crook come into Mumbai from feudal Bihar who manages to kill Sartaj’s trusted lieutenant Katekar, and an inexplicable aside about Sartaj’s mother’s sister who gets married to a Pakistani during partition. The insets make the book longer than is really required and you could argue about their necessity in a story that is interesting and full by itself. But I think this is Chandra’s style – it is sweeping, larger than life and has a need to encompass more than what is truly essential. I for one am not complaining.

The language is unapologetically Bambaiya. The local lingo is integrated into the English with no explanation for an outsider. And that is in fact a symptom of what could ultimately be the book’s problem. I can’t imagine a non-Indian or even a non-resident of the city appreciating this book. But for someone who still can’t get enough of Mumbai even after 13 years, it’s a paean that is long overdue.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Watermark and her prompts

Prompt 8

The hand on the iron bar
Comes off smelling of rust
It’s somehow harshly male
And uncomfortably familiar.

The smell holds memories
Of train compartments
Summer heat and anxiety
Of a love being left behind.

It’s going to need soap
And happy thoughts
And pretty fluffy things
To make it go away.


Prompt 16

Dark is a difficult skin tone
It needs a Halle Berry or
A Sheetal Malhar or
A distant cousin

To make it glow and resound
And fill a room with light
To stop you mid word
And leave you spell bound

Mesmerizing dark is
Impossibly distant
To attain it, it needs help
It needs red.


Prompt 2

She sits sipping her tea
Her special Chrysanthemum tea
In the corner that she knows
Makes her feel picture perfect.

The pineapple-shaped timer rings
She can feel the grumble rise in her
As the inevitable task approaches
And the dread of an oven to be opened.

Her eyes close for a moment
And then come open guiltily
The salt shaker awaits
And so does the evening ahead.