Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Six Sentences

The body is giving way rapidly. That kilo does not disappear with a couple of missed meals and stress. Half an hour on the treadmill is a marathon. Sleeveless needs careful consideration. The grey is definitely more than the black. Death is the next stop.


Remember the feeling. The very first thought as you wake up. And the last one before your mind shuts down for the day. The reason you drag yourself to places you don’t want to go. The near-constant presence in your head through the day. Obsession.


Do you care for a short walk on the wild side? A wee touch of bohemia? Some unexpected spontaneity? A little less restraint? A bit more cleavage or leg perhaps? Or a line of cocaine?


You feel yourself getting harder. More impatient with random foolishness. Less inclined to give anyone the benefit of doubt. Uncomfortable with anything out of sync. Every moment needs to be counted and there is no time to sit and waffle. Even if the time deserves a little waffling.

Love and Longing

As I grow older, it’s interesting to see how my little-girl fascination for enduring love stories has shown little signs of fading. Some of my favourite movies and books are still about love – unrequited passion, can’t stay away from each other obsessions, illicit love.

Here are some love stories I have come to love over the years – they are the ones I remember at this point in time and are in no particular order.

• Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff’s obsession with his Catherine proves detrimental to all around him. Yet there is something that is primal and raw and fundamental about his ardour. Bad Love.

• Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: I like all of Jane Austen, but Darcy and Elizabeth are special and enduring. It is a classic rich guy, not-so-rich girl plot… but Elizabeth is so feisty and Darcy so vulnerable, you cannot help falling in love with them.

• Yuri and Lara in Dr. Zhivago: The novel has other merits – telling a personal story of idealism and courage in a time of great historic change, bringing alive the Russian revolution, capturing the beauty of Russia in a way I have not seen before. But for me the lasting impression is of Yuri and his Lara – doomed love in the time of revolution. Poetry adds that extra bit (so do Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the movie)

• Vicomte de Valmont and Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons: Here I am talking of the movie, not the 18th century epistolary novel on which it is based (and which I have not read). Malkovitch was brilliant as the wolf set to seduce Michelle Pfeiffer, the innocent lamb, and losing his heart and his life in the process. Cruel Intentions, the adaptation set in New York with Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon was not bad as far as adaptations go.

• Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind: Rhett’s famous last words to Scarlett were a heart breaker – ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’. Not when Scarlett had just about realized after 600 or so pages that she had feelings for him.

• Cecilia and Robbie in Atonement: Beautiful, tragic, utterly magical.

• Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise/ Before Sunset: A perfect example of interesting conversations leading to crackling sexual tension. There comes a time when you want them to just shut up and kiss or make love. In those beautiful European cities.

• Arvind Swamy’s Shekhar and Manisha Koirala’s Shaila Bano in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay: Forbidden, inter-religious, impossible love. Mani Ratnam has a special knack for creating achingly beautiful and unusual love stories – Dil Se, Yuva, Mouna Ragam… the list is long.

• Harry and Sally in When Harry met Sally: Another of those postponed love stories; when everyone, but them, knows they are meant for each other.

• Jennifer and Oliver in Erich Segal’s Love Story: After all these years, it can tug at my heartstrings (and make me cry) in a way few books can. ‘What can you say about a 25 year old girl who died? That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.’ I can still remember those first few lines!

• Karen and Denys in Out of Africa: The beauty of Africa offsets this outsized romance – love out in the wild. Redford and Streep had a chemistry that felt tangibly real.

Each of them has a searingly aching magical quality to it. Some end well, most do not. Which is why, in the case of love stories, I believe the best ones are ones where ‘all is not well’.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


More books, more movies, more travel, more writing, more cooking, more learning, more listening, more exercising, more smiling, more reaching out, more generosity, more abundance, more inner life, more new, more family, more calm.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Curfewed Night

Basharat Peer

In many ways, this is a disconcerting book. Kashmir is never an easy subject for us Indians. All nations have events in their history they are never proud of. We have a sneaking suspicion Kashmir is one such issue for us. Basharat Peer takes us right to the heart of it and suddenly we feel like we have nowhere to hide.

Peer is a journalist, born and brought up in Kashmir, growing up at the height of the insurgency. He moves out of his native land to study in Aligarh Muslim University and later study and work in Delhi. Yet he can never forget his roots. Kashmir draws him back to tell its story that surprisingly has never been told before.

Peer describes a land of incomparable beauty – lakes and mountains and fields that have drawn invaders and tourists alike for centuries. A land that has been torn apart by two nations fighting over it, both not wanting to give up its magic to each other or to the Kashmiris themselves. He writes of resentment against the Indian army and its paramilitary forces, a stern, scary presence that has become part of everyday Kashmiri life; of antipathy towards India who is never more than an external force; of bitterness against a fight that has sucked away the best young men of an entire generation. There are events described that are hard to digest for any liberal minded Indian – the rape of a young bride by Indian paramilitary forces, the terrible torture chamber of Papa 2, the genocide at Gawkadal Bridge. And there is the other side; of a militancy that has moved from being a home-grown freedom struggle to something more akin to the global Islamic jihad; of an Islam that has changed form from a tolerant Sufi version to a far more radical one; from a population now as afraid of the freedom fighters as the Indian forces.

Curfewed Night provides quite a stunning viewpoint of a local Kashmiri caught in the crossfire. As a liberal minded Indian I was horrified at the harsh reality of Indian forces in Kashmir; of being seen as an occupying force; of the futility of trying to hold on to a land that never really wanted to be part of you. Yet there was anger too… at Peer and his friends cheering for Miandad’s last ball six off Chetan Sharma (arguably the most humiliating defeat India ever suffered), at Peer’s cool acceptance of Indian hospitality at Aligarh and Delhi universities and yet never acknowledging India as his nation too, at making the Pandits’ exodus from Kashmir just a footnote in the valley’s trauma. But Peer is persuasive enough to make the horror of the military cruelty far outweigh the anger against the anti-Indian sentiment.

One only wishes Peer was a better writer. His obvious subjectivity and experiential narrative is imbued with heightened emotion. Yet he never manages what Arundhati Roy so effortlessly does – intensify the passion with the magic of her language. Curfewed Night is worth reading because it is a story that deserves telling, and because it has not been told before. Read it as a good piece of subjective journalism. If you are looking for literature on the same subject, you are better off reading Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. The Kashmir experience definitely needs a better storyteller.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


By Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin is an Irish writer I came across in the best of the year lists. And he proved to be a nice little find. Someone I can pick up if I am looking for a quietly fulfilling read.

Brooklyn is a novel about the Irish immigrant experience in 1950’s America. Eilis Lacey is from Enniscorthy (what quaint Irish names!), a little town in Ireland. She works part time in a local store and studies bookkeeping. She lives with her mother and her older sister Rose, who is the bread winner of the family. Ireland is economically stagnant, there are no jobs for the locals and Eilis’ three brothers are working in England because of it. Rose figures that Eilis is better off in America where she will have a chance to utilize her bright mind; and she finds her a passage to America through an Irish priest there.

And so begins Eilis’ journey into America. She is not particularly excited by it – she would rather have stayed in her familiar home with her mother. But she realizes that Rose, her more adventurous sister has made some kind of sacrifice for her – staying behind to look after her mother while her younger sister goes off to make her fortune in the new world.

Eilis is not awed by Brooklyn. Her life there takes on a very mundane existence. In the daytime, she is a saleswoman in a department store, selling nylons. And at night she attends bookkeeping classes in college. She stays as a lodger with other Irish women and you realize how insular an immigrant community could be. The Irish women dislike the Italians and the Jews and the blacks; Irishmen are the only ones worth going out with; and local customs and traditions still have strangeness associated with them. Yet it is a support system in the new land for Eilis. In spite of this support system, Eilis goes through crippling home sickness. Until she finds some kind of love with an Italian man Tony. Tony is kind and loves her deeply. And as she gets closer to him, she cannot but help agree to his offer of marriage.

Then tragedy strikes in Ireland and she goes back. But not before marrying Tony who fears (and rightly so) that she might not be back. Eilis returns to Ireland, smarter and hipper than when she left. She is sucked back happily into her familiar life there, with her old friends and neighbours…and even finds a possible new love.

Eilis is now forced to choose. Which is her home? It is a classic immigrant dilemma and forms the crux of Toibin’s novel. There are loyalties on both sides of the Atlantic and her choice would mean the betrayal of one or the other.

Brooklyn is an intimate story, simply told. There are no big flourishes of language or imagery. Toibin keeps it real and genuine and the unaffectedness of the telling has its own charm. I will be exploring more of Colm Toibin.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

It’s the winner of the 2009 Booker Prize. It is historical fiction. It is British. I went into Wolf Hall with great expectations but it took me a whole month and a lot of pushing myself to get through it. Blame it on the mammoth 650 pages, on my less than deep knowledge of British history, on the disconcerting present tense of the narrative. But finish it I did, coming away more familiar and more than a little fascinated with a quite incredible part of British history.

Wolf Hall is set between 1527 and 1535…or thereabouts. For some kind of perspective, 1530 was the year Babur died leaving Humayun a tentative hold on his Indian territories. The Vijayanagar kingdom is in its last throes in the South. The reformist movement against the Church is in full swing in Europe and Shakespeare’s birth is still a quarter of a century away.

England is under the Tudor king Henry VIII. Whom we all know had innumerable wives and proved to be the reason for England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. The hero is a Thomas Cromwell (not the Oliver Cromwell of the civil war fame, but a distant ancestor), advisor to Henry and the chief architect of the break with the Catholic Church. Apparently, Thomas Cromwell is a villainous figure in British history, a ruthless conniving man who amassed wealth and quite immense power through dubious means. Hilary Mantel has a different take.

Mantel writes this novel from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. We see 16th century England in all its flux, its cruelty, its opportunities… through his eyes. A commoner who rises to one of the most powerful positions in England, Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of varied abilities. He speaks a dozen languages, knows the New Testament by heart, is well versed in the law, economics and even poetry. A self-made man, he epitomizes meritocracy in an age when blood is everything.

In the first part of the book, we see him as the right hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, a position he has got to after spending years in Italy and Belgium in various trades. Wolsey is of course Henry’s Cardinal, his conduit to Rome. We see Henry trying to get out of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (quite a fascinating portrait of a tough, proud queen) and when the Cardinal cannot convince Rome of Henry’s right to marry again, he falls out of favour with the king, dying a lonely death. It sets the stage for Cromwell’s ascendancy with Henry.

Cromwell with his powers of persuasion, his practical ruthlessness, his nuanced reading of people, is able to do what the Cardinal could not… find a way for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. It takes an irreparable break with the Church, passing laws that are not the most popular, hanging a number of Bishops and Cardinals, including Thomas More and making the king supersede the Church in England. In the process, he gets Anne, a woman he does not particularly like, the position of Queen. Anne’s portrait is a powerful one – a strong woman who uses sex (or the withholding of it) to get what she wants, a lowly noblewoman who stands up to a queen, cruel to her sister, kind to those she thinks would be useful, manipulative, willful, vindictive.

The rivalry with Thomas More is quite a riveting part of the book. Apparently, popular history has More as the wronged hero and Cromwell as the villain who is responsible for hanging him. Mantel shows More in a very poor light – as a cold zealot, cruel in his idealism, prescribing harsh punishment to people who do not believe as he does. He runs a brutal house, is mean to his wife and even at his death, prefers the utopia of martyrdom to giving up on his ideals.

In contrast, his arch rival Cromwell is all practicality, leaning towards the reformist influence in the Church, yet never zealously so. He tends to the way of compromise, of meeting people mid way, to make things work. More sneers at Cromwell’s practicality, his almost centrist approach… and pays the price with his head.

The book ends with Anne as queen, with a daughter, with a 2nd miscarried pregnancy and an almost imperceptible fading of the honeymoon days. Mantel chooses to end the book at this point, making the More- Cromwell and Anne-Katherine clashes the centerpieces of the story. We as readers know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Anne does not get to be queen for long, Wolf Hall (the residence of the Seymours, one of whom gets to be the next queen) is the next port of call…and Cromwell himself will one day fall out with the king and be left to die. But that is left to another book, perhaps.

Mantel makes the turmoil in 16th century England real in a way only good historical novels can. There is very little description, the language is today’s, the period piece is lightly told, never overwhelming character or plot…yet we can acutely sense the cruelty in the burnings, the fright of the plague, the deadly intrigue at court. The bigger issues of church vs state, of religion as bigger than nation, of the centre of power shifting to global traders who control the money, they all form the backdrop to this interesting story.

The present tense and the third person narrative that is almost first person can prove challenging at times. So too does the sometimes non-chronological jumps in story. But there is a power in Mantel’s language that is difficult to ignore. It was 650 pages, it was a history I did not completely know (and a lot of nuances I missed therefore, I am sure), and I had to plough through it at times…but I am glad I read it. History can be spellbinding, especially when told as a story as interesting as this.