Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Can there ever be a boring telling of the Mahabharata? Rajaji’s version was my introduction to the epic. I have spent innumerable childhood hours reading and re-reading it and then you grow up with these images in your head – the heroic Arjuna, the doomed Karna, the wicked Duryodhana, the wise and righteous Bheeshma, the sly Sakuni, the beautiful and proud Draupadi, the playful and wily Krishna… You have arguments in your head whether Arjuna deserved to kill Karna, whether the Pandavas deserved the kingdom, whether Krishna’s partiality was justified…

It is not a clean story, not a classic case of the good winning over evil. There are far too many ambiguities, too many heroes on the losing side, too many lies and half-truths on the winning one. Victory at the end is not an unalloyed triumph and revenge does have more than a taste of the bitter. Which is what makes it such a fabulous source for re-telling.

Chitra Banerjee attempts one such re-telling. From Draupadi’s perspective. Draupadi or Paanchali is a woman as much embedded in the Indian collective imagination as a Sita, a Rani of Jhansi, a Mira. She is strong, beautiful, with an ability to turn the course of a story on her own strength. Isn’t it strange then that we never name our daughters Draupadi or Paanchali? Her praises are not sung nor is she revered in the way the other heroines are. Strong willed women with a streak of individualism have a way of being uncomfortable. So it is interesting that Banerjee takes her up as the protagonist and weaves the stories of the Mahabharata with her as the centre.

Banerjee stays true to the original most of the time and there are few surprises. But there are some new perspectives that have the ability to startle. Draupadi’s lifelong rivalry with Kunti, Kunti as the stern mother with little tenderness, Bheeshma as the righteous patriarch whose adherence to his code of conduct makes him less than human, Draupadi’s own secret love and longing for Karna that lasts throughout her lifetime, her inability to feel anything half as passionate for her own husbands, her special relationship with Krishna that is hard to qualify, her irrational love for her palace, the description of her father as a vengeance-obsessed autocrat, Karna’s ascetic loneliness…

Coupled with a rather melodramatic telling, Banerjee’s tale of Draupadi is interesting, racy and sometimes surprising. It could have been so much more though… a more unique point of view, with more revelations, more straying from the original, more perspectives that shocked, more imagination that astonished. But overall, The Palace of Illusions is a good solid story that has the ability to grip you. But then, that is the power of the Mahabharata itself.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


By Raymond Carver

My first Carver is a set of short stories. Immaculate cameos, not traditional stories with beginnings, middles and twisty ends, these are almost still life pictures in word form. Scenes assembled in front of you carefully and meticulously, almost poetically. Carver is after all, also a poet.

There are a lot of drunks fighting addiction, in rehab and out of it, the women who love them and the women in whom there is no love left; there is looking for love, love dying, love dead; there is ‘a small, good thing in a time like this’ – freshly baked bread in a time of grief; stories of hope and slow revival, stories of moving on and help for moving on; stories of hopeless despair where ‘dreams are what you wake up from’. And then there is ‘Cathedral’, a wonderful beautiful story of a man describing a cathedral to a blind man by guiding his hand as he draws it out for him – an act that offers as much to the sighted person as it does to the blind man. Sheer poetry.

These are truly stories of the human condition, with all its warts and and all its glory. Love, longing, despair, hope – all is encompassed, in a style that is minimalistic, spare, intense. I will be re-visiting Carver again.

In the meantime, here is a poem he had inscribed on his gravestone:

No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.

Gravy, these past ten years.

Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years

ago he was told he had six months to live

at the rate he was going. And he was going

nowhere but down. So he changed his ways

somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?

After that it was all gravy, every minute

of it, up to and including when he was told about,

well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"

he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."


I am a lucky woman.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

The time is the first half of the 19th century in colonial India; the first opium war is closing in on the horizon and the opium trade from India to China is under serious threat; slavery has just been abolished and Indian indentured labourers are being shipped out to sugar plantations in Mauritius. With this scenario as historical background, Ghosh brings together a cast of characters, diverse in race, language, religion, each with his or her own compulsions to travel across the Kala Pani, from Calcutta to Mareech (Mauritius) on the Ibis.

Deeti, wife of an opium addict, tiller of an opium field, mother to her brother-in-law’s baby, painter of deities in her shrine, sees the Ibis in her dream…and recognizes it as her destiny. When her husband dies, she flees the sati pyre with a sympathetic lower caste Kalua to her destiny as a girmitiya on the Ibis.

Zachary Reid, an American, the son of a white man and a freed slave, passing off as white (and so forever condemned to have something to hide), becoming the second mate on the Ibis by sheer dint of enterprise, perseverance and good luck, taken under the wing of the lascar Serang Ali, is in love with a French woman Paulette Lambert; and is arguably the hero of the book.

Paulette, French, brought up by a liberal father, almost like a native, more comfortable in a sari than the restrictive corsets of European ladies of the time, friend to Jodu the boatman-become-lascar, who is as close to her as a brother, is forced to adopt the ways of the white mem when her father dies and abandons her to the vagaries of fate and the Christian Church. She finds her way to the Ibis too, impersonating a coolie, running away from the horrors of a regulated life and marriage in search of adventure and the love of her life, Zachary.

Neel Raskhali, is a bankrupt raja, duped of his estates by a charge of forgery. He finds his way to the Ibis as a convict because he is forced to travel across the Kala Pani to Mauritius to serve his sentence.

These and many more form the colourful cast that populates the Ibis on her voyage. Most are forging new identities, having given up their old. All are joined together on a horrific and yet exhilarating voyage to a possible fresh start, unmarked beginnings.

Through this cast, the history of the period unfolds. 19th century Bihar and Bengal – the food, clothes, caste systems, religions – come alive like in a Dickens novel. It is everyday life framed against great historical tides. The research is glaringly obvious…yet there is nothing thesis-like about it. Ghosh writes a historical novel like the best in the business.

The detailing is meticulous – the opium factory Deeti is overawed by, the jail conditions Neel suffers, the ship and its structure Jodu and the laskars learn like the back of their hands. The language is a patois of lascarese, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Anglo-Indian (did people really speak like this, this mingling of Indian and English?) and American. It forms an uneven cadence that gets some getting used to in the beginning. But once you do, it turns out to be pretty delightful. I especially found myself looking forward to Deeti’s Bhojpuri – it has a certain intensity well beyond the capability of good old English.

Sea of Poppies is a rollicking read. I love historical fiction and Ghosh never fails to disappoint. It is a wild mixture of Dickensian grit and Scottian romance. Some characters are wooden (especially the colonial Brit), the sailing terminology and descriptions could interest no one but a hard-core sailing addict, at times you wish the research did not show as much, and in the simplicity of the language, you miss the gripping prose-poetry of a Roy or a Rushdie.

But these are holes one tries very hard to pick. Ghosh has created a masterpiece anyone with a modicum of interest in books would find enthralling. One can only shudder at the sensibility that chose White Tiger (a really good book, nevertheless) over this magnificence for the Booker. At least, there is hope – this is just the first in three instalments.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009



The feel of my skin after an oil bath. The never-wanting-it-to-end feeling while reading a book. Bucket lists. The quiet of an empty house on a lazy morning. The spunky women in Mani Ratnam movies. The half hour of staring out the window at the city lights before falling asleep. Kerala temples. Tales of impossible longing. Standing under a hot shower after a sweaty workout. TamBram Tamil. That lopsided George Clooney smile. Old albums. Poetry when I am in the mood for poetry. The smell of agarbattis and camphor in my puja room. Aftershave. The lightness of being, after a drink. Love stories. Re-runs of Friends. Re-runs of Julia Roberts movies. Exquisite handloom sarees. The smell of freshly washed clothes. Cats. Madras CafĂ© set dosas. Museums and galleries. School girls in uniforms with ribbons on their plaited hair. The smell of roasting garlic. The heavenliness of Daniel Craig’s body.

Pet Peeves

Feelings of inadequacy. My pot belly. Visitors on a lazy Sunday. Money talk. Unwashed dishes in my kitchen sink. Plastic covers on magazines. ‘Hindi-fication’. Crossword bookstores. The sambhar in Udipi restaurants. Unwaxed limbs. Dragging myself to the gym. Smoking in my car. Books am forced to abandon midway because of boredom. Body odour. Colin Farrel movies. Right wing Hindu ideologues. Crying babies on airplanes. Inattentive men. Responsibility of any kind. Irresponsible colleagues. Chiffon/ georgette sarees with bling. Really late nights and very early mornings. White stone idols in north Indian temples. The salwar kurta. My inadequacy in any Indian tongue. Morning breath. Flies. Ants. Cockroaches. Tears at work. Nicholas Cage movies. Men who don’t read.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Kafka On The Shore

Haruki Murakami
A teenage boy Kafka Tamura, runs away from home and his father, possibly in search of his mother who ran away with his sister when he was four. In his mind, there is a chilling oedipal prophecy that his father made – that he would one day kill his father and sleep with his mother. The reader travels with Kafka on his journey where he encounters a girl who could probably be his sister, a woman who could probably be his mother and a cross-dressing librarian who becomes his friend and ally. Kafka’s story is interspersed with that of an old man, Nakata, who in his childhood had a possible extra-terrestrial experience that left him retarded, but with an ability to speak to cats. Nakata too has set out on a journey, after he kills a cat killer, Kafka’s father. Nakata and Kafka’s journeys converge, of course. The prophecy seemingly comes true with the strange connection between Nakata and Kafka. There is a possible spirit world that Kafka visits and Nakata is possibly some sort of a spirit conduit for the Kafka story to come to a conclusion.
Murakami writes a strange yarn. There is something eerie and ominous about the whole tale and he has you enthralled in his story telling. Talking cats, raining leeches, extra-terrestrial experiences, dreams as real as reality, an in-between world, between death and life… all of these form part of this gripping story. It is Pullman, Tolkein and Dahl rolled into one.
I continue to be fascinated by this Japanese writer who so effortlessly can make the most unreal experiences read so normal and casual and every day. Kafka on the Shore is in some ways, a straight-forward tale of evil and an ordinary world’s fight against it. There are unlikely heroes and supernatural allies. It is a fable, there are elements that are allegorical in nature, yet it all holds together quite mesmerizingly.
This is not my favourite Murakami… but it comes close. It definitely seems the most ambitious novel I have read of his. In his strange blend of fantasy, quirkiness and everyday mundane-ness, Murakami sure has a winning formula. One that I have not tired of, as yet.

Monday, September 28, 2009

American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

My first Roth.

When Zuckerman (Roth’s alter id in a number of his books) goes to a high school re-union, he remembers the Swede, Seymour Levov, a local hero among the Jews of Newark. The Swede is big, blonde and handsome, is a star basketball, football and baseball player…and in the wake of the World War, epitomizes ‘fitting into Americana’ to the Jewish neighbourhood. His father is of a generation of Jewish men, tough, slum-born “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way, and nothing in between…”, “limited men with limitless energy…who keep going despite everything.” His father’s indomitable will drives the Swede to join the family glove making business, foregoing his athletic abilities. He marries a Catholic beauty queen, has a beautiful daughter when Zuckerman meets him decades later, he cannot see any disruption or flaws in the perfectly lucky, happy American life as envisioned by the World War generation. But Zuckerman is wrong.

The seemingly ordinary life has a shadow – and what a shadow! At his high school re-union he meets The Swede’s brother Jerry, a successful surgeon who somewhere along the way gets to be the exact opposite of the Swede – 3 divorces and an acerbic temperament. It is there that he learns of the Swede’s death and it is Jerry who gives him a glimpse into the calamity that blights the Swede’s life.

With just that glimpse, Zuckerman the writer, fashions an American tragedy. The reader does not know how the story really ends for the Swede, but Zuckerman’s vision is of a crumbling of the idyll. When Merry, the 16 year old stuttering sullen daughter of the Swede and the beauty queen indulges in a crazy act of political vendetta that kills a man and makes her a hunted terrorist, Levov’s life comes crashing down. And when he sees her years later renouncing his world, everything his beautiful dream of a world stood for, to turn into a cant-spouting Jain (!!!), he can feel himself coming apart.

It is this coming apart that Zuckerman details out ever so slowly, almost deliciously. The tone of the language swings from a clinical cynicism to passionate rage to a romanticizing of the idyllic; and all along it holds your attention, even when it is not telling a story, when it is just describing – the inhumanity of a leather tannery, the sheer beauty of the Old Rimrock hamlet, the vacuous-ness of the Miss America pageant.

American Pastoral is best described in the 3 section headings of the book – Paradise Remembered, The Fall, Paradise Lost. It reminds me of a Sam Mendes movie – beautiful lovely Americana coming crumbling down, underlying “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” The Jewish angle was an interesting one for me – this identity has obviously been an important one in post World War America.

All in all, left me hungry for more Roth.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

100 words or so

I used to think Colleen Khan in the Pond’s talc ad was me in some conceptual sense. And that I was Imran Khan’s soul mate. That dark could never truly be beautiful. I used to believe I could never flunk an exam. That sex before and outside marriage wasn’t something good girls did. I knew for sure that communists were noble. That there was no way a woman could fall in love with someone younger than her or someone not at least 6 inches taller. I used to think 40 was very old. It’s funny what changes and what remains the same.


You were an old tired man, the kindest man I have ever known. I was this bored young girl in a never-ending summer. My refuge was your tiny little room lined with old books and Hollywood magazines where I first encountered Hilton’s Shangri La and Carole Lombard and Clark Gable and Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy. And there was your exquisite classical music on the veena and those songs you sang to put my young cousins to sleep. You had so much to offer and I was always running away. A stupid girl too dimwitted to recognize a treasure in the backyard.


I see them play in the weak sunshine – the white, blonde couple with their 3 white, blonde kids in a simple game of frisbee during a short break between ferries. The blue of the sky complements the blue of the ocean that complements the bright blue of the woman’s t-shirt. It is a perfect scene, the tall, fit, healthy bodies moving with an effortless grace, the bright yellow hair glossy and shining in the sunlight. For that short time, there is nothing discordant, nothing at variance with the universe. God’s in his heaven and all’s well with a perfect world.