Monday, June 30, 2008

Dr. Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak

I read this book first as a teenager. What had stuck in my memory through all those years was the love story – of the poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago and his Lara. I came across it recently and was compelled to read it again. Strange that my memory had left out so much of what touched me this time – the inhumanity of ideology, the simplicity of belief, the value of the individual spirit. I cried reading it then, I still cried today.

Pasternak refused the Nobel for this work. Not surprising, since he wrote this book inside the USSR, where it was banned. It is a brave work, written during a totalitarian regime and he was sure to have suffered for writing it. Like his protagonist – Yuri Zhivago.

The setting, almost in itself a character in the book, is Russia on its way to becoming the USSR – the first world war, followed by the October revolution, the civil war that follows it and the establishment of the Bolshevik order. It is the toughest of times for the bourgeoisie, especially the landed and the educated. And Pasternak describes it hauntingly – the slow circumscribing of ordinary life and its daily pleasures, the harsh Russian winter in a Moscow with food shortages, the dangerous and unforgiving train journey into the Urals, the beauty of the steppes set against the inhumanity of man. It took a poet to bring alive the loveliness of the landscape in the midst of the cruelty of the times.

The plot of the story is like life itself –meandering, often confusing, often serendipitously co-incidental. Zhivago sees Lara as a young girl in the power of an older man, sees her again later attempt to shoot the older man. These short snippets leave a mark on his mind and when he sees her again during the war, when he is the doctor and she is the nurse, it is as if fate had conspired to bring them together. He is by then married with a child, and so is she. But their love cannot help but be. Throughout the years of his travels as a kidnapped doctor with the partisan army, it is the thought of Lara that keeps him alive. She is his muse, bringing the poet in him to the fore. And even though their time together alone is just a matter of a few weeks in the Urals, that time is love concentrated, it is their short-term last refuge against the baying wolves outside their door. The times are not conducive to keeping them together of course, and having let Lara go, Yuri goes back to Moscow in search of his family. He does not find them, but forms another…and life goes on, even if only for a short while. And it is Lara’s fate to become one more nameless number lost to the Bolshevik cause.

There are characters that make a big impression– Komarovsky, the man who lures Lara into a love affair when she is little more than a girl, almost the exact opposite of Zhivago; Yevgraf Zhivago, Yuri’s half brother who appears almost magically during his most troubled times to bail him out; Tonya, Yuri’s wife who knows in her heart she is not the love of his life, though he is of hers; Strelnikov or Antipov, Lara’s husband, who sometimes is more of a child to her than a husband. Yet it is Zhivago who stays with you – exasperating, tiring at times, yet somehow untarnished in all the bedlam around.

Pasternak breathes into Zhivago an ideal and belief that stands against everything the new regime advocates – the love of the individual and the love of beauty for its own sake and the love of life itself. He is naïve and there are times when you want him to be a bit more practical, at least to save the ones he loves. But he is the quintessential poet, scoffing at practicalities, reveling in the vagaries of existence and nature, unafraid of anything man can throw at him. It is a foolhardiness that is some form of bravery – and that is what makes his women and his readers love him.

Even in translation, one can feel the poetry in the language. So one can only imagine the beauty of it in Russian. It can seem to some as almost melodramatically sentimental – but it touched me, I am unashamed to say.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Love stories. I am a sucker for them, especially the doomed ones and the unrequited ones, the searing passionate ones. Think Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Count Lazlo and Katherine in The English Patient, Dr. Zhivago and Lara, Sydney Carton and Lucie in The Tale of Two Cities, the Vicomte and Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons.

It therefore was no surprise when I found myself choking up when I saw Atonement this weekend on DVD. Ian McEwan’s classic book I had already read. And loved enough to rank among my top 10 favourites of all time. So I had approached the movie with a great amount of trepidation - I normally hate movie adaptations of books I love. But the movie was pretty much a faithful rendition of the book and it had actors who I thought were pretty brilliant – so it wasn’t at all bad. Of course it does not have that absolute ‘punch in your guts’ kind of feel that the book leaves you with. But I would recommend it very highly for anyone without the patience to read the book.

Atonement is at heart a love story between a rich society girl Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner the son of the household help. It is a love that is interrupted by a seemingly precocious but confused thirteen year old, the narrator of the story. Briony Tallis is Cee’s little sister who harbours dreams of writer-hood and of Robbie himself. She starts to notice the chemistry between her sister and Robbie, reads a note that he writes Cecilia but never meant to send, sees them making passionate love in the library – and then in her confused teenage mind convinces herself and the world that Robbie is guilty of a crime he never committed. It is a lie that changes their lives – sends Robbie to prison and then to war, alienates Cecilia from her family forever and condemns Briony to a lifetime of guilt. Briony writes the book as her last act of penitance, but in a heart-breaking final chapter (and the final scenes in the movie), we realize why there really can be no atonement for her.

Watch this movie or better still, read the book. It is a wrenching story, one that stayed with me for a very long time; with Cee and Robbie entering my pantheon of all-time favourite doomed love stories.

Saturday, June 21, 2008



The snow-white rice powder dribbled through her fingers onto the freshly-washed floor of the front porch. It was her simple no-frills kolam design. Just that single stroke around the 5 dots. It took her 3 minutes to finish it, rounded and complete, unassuming unobtrusive white, no sharp intrusions into the space around, not drawing attention, its presence only noticed when absent. Like her, she thought, without irony or self-pity. And went about her day just like any other.

Looking In

It is twenty years later and she can see the scene clearly in her head. The sun is hard at work outside while she lies in bed gazing at the picture, a calendar picture. The girl with long curly light hair, luminous washed-clean skin, long legs in soft denim, round frames on her eyes; she is a glossy picture of freshness, youth, possibilities. She sits on a green grassy ground of a college campus, with a big bound book open on her lap. The girl on the outside is looking in, seeing a blue-jeaned world, a world of pretty womanhood on the cusp, of independence and escape, of unbounded futures, of promises of fame and romance and sex, of cosmopolitanism, intellectualism. It is twenty years later and she wonders if she is still the girl looking in.


The rain is relentless. She goes out into it to let it beat down on her mercilessly. She wants cleansing, a melting away of everything corrosive. The caustic soul is crying to be purified. And she stands clench-fisted under the grey thundering skies. The rage is relentless.


The inertia is delicious. The chores are for now outside the cat-like stretch she allows herself. The sky is a dull grey promising cooling rain and for once she is grateful for the un-drawn curtains. She decides she likes grey. She curls up against the warm body next to her and dreams. It’s a Sunday morning and there is a little time for laziness.

The Mirror of Erised

In the darkened room, the sharp glint in the mirror draws her in. She approaches it slowly, excitement warring with fear…and the excitement winning out, as always. Two steps closer and she can see the fire, the burning and the swish of the swords cutting through the air; almost feel the sharpness biting through flesh and the damp hot fear, almost hear the wordless screams. She can feel the heady power of the sword-wielder and sense the triumph in his heart, sense the power and the glory of the conqueror. She looks closer, deeper and sees her eyes in his, her heart in his, all of her in him, he is her and she is him. Startled, she draws back instinctively, wanting to deny it, wish it away… but The Mirror has spoken and there is no rest for her soul.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie

A new book from Rushdie always promises to be a treat. This is one, albeit with a slightly confusing aftertaste.

The book has all the requisite elements to make it a Rushdie block buster – fabulous storytellers and their stories within stories, unbelievably beautiful princesses and kings who are all too human, history and magic, the Arabian Nights feel. There is the sensory overload of the colour and enchantment of places that have come to signify the magic of the East – Tabriz and Samarkand, Ferghana and Herat, Sikri and Stamboul. And of course the constant attempt to make connections between the East and the West.

Renaissance Florence and Akbar’s court in Sikri are the West and the East. And in the travels between the two, we make excursions into the Ottoman empire and the Safavid, encountering figures that we know through history books and most of who in Rushdie’s skilled hands come alive as real people.

A stranger comes to Akbar’s court in Sikri to tell him a tale of a lost princess’ a woman extraordinarily beautiful and enchanting. She is Qara Koz, Babar’s little sister, a princess of such unearthly beauty, kings and conquerors would kill and die for her. Yet she is someone ‘history forgot’. She is passed on as bounty in the battles between Babar, the Saffavid ruler Shah Ismail and the Ottoman Sultan Selim. Each of the battles is historical fact, Babar was indeed driven out of Samarkand by Shah Ismail, who in turn was beaten at the battle of Chaldiran by Sultan Selim. And when Sultan Selim’s mercenary Florentine commander Argalia claims Qara Koz, her path to Renaissance Florence is paved. The Mughal princess becomes Angelica, the enchantress of Florence.

At the heart of the stranger’s tale is the story of 3 friends in Italy, Machiavelli (yes, the same one), Ago Vespucci (a cousin of Amerigo) and Antonino Argalia; each of whom has a special role to play in the Enchantress’s life. It is Argalia who brings her to Florence and Vespucci and Machiavelli who help her escape it once her enchantment fades.

The stranger claims to be Qara Koz’s son, yet Akbar knows it can’t be true - a son of his great aunt cannot be young enough to be his. Yet he hears him out, and in the hearing, is enchanted by his great-aunt himself. This enchantment is worse than his infatuation with Jodha, his imaginary perfect queen (Rushdie makes Jodha a figment of Akbar’s imagination) and when the spell breaks, as it did in Florence too a generation ago, there is disaster. Sikri has to be abandoned when the lake runs dry as the river in Florence did when the enchantress was forced to flee the city.

Akbar’s court and Florence during the Renaissance are filled with intrigue and betrayal, yet are inexorably colourful and talented and rambunctious and magical. There is a lot of Akbar in the book, yet for me, he does not come alive in the way Argalia and Machiavelli do. Akbar is the philosopher-king and he does seem way ahead of his time in his doubts about religion and kingship. Yet his portrait reeks of the text book, as if the sterile words in Class 5 history have just been superficially garbed in the rich clothes of the miniature moghul paintings we are so familiar with. Maybe Akbar is just too well-known to us and it is difficult to see him as an ordinary mortal.

The book is a good read; how can anything Rushdie writes not be one. Yet not all is well. There is better historical fiction I have read (Nagarkar’s Cuckold with Babar in the distance bearing down towards India, comes to mind) and there are times when the magic grates. One of the great things about Rushdie’s writing has to be the joie de vivre that infects it; that is an integral part of it. Is that missing in this particular piece and has tedium crept in? Has the fabulist somehow lost his own enjoyment of the fable? I wonder.