Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Big City

I saw this city for the first time sixteen years ago. And I fell in love with it. Just like that. A small town girl dazzled by the big city lights. There was an anxious uncle hovering over me teaching me the basics of getting around the city - the trains, east and west, fast and slow, indicators and platforms. I took to it like fish to water. Within days, I had found PG digs. And here I was, a young woman on my own in the big bad world, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.

It was the place where I felt grown up for the very first time. An adult, taking my own decisions, a bonafide working woman, independent and cool. When I got out of VT station, when I took a shared taxi and much later, when I looked out of a Nariman Point office over the Oval Maidan, my fantasy was quite complete. The girl who watched Colleen Khan in the Pond's Dreamflower ad with such longing was now Colleen Khan herself.

It was also the city where I fell in love. A city perfect for falling in love. With a million ways to be together and no one to forbid it. Late nights and countless movies, long train rides with the rain beating down on you in the doorway, longer taxi ones, Irish coffee at Prithvi, horrible sandwiches at Sundance, the sea spray on Marine Drive - I couldn't have been happier.

I am older today. I don't wear those rose tinted glasses anymore. I can see the brutality of the city without romanticising it. Traffic jams annoy me, the din during Diwali is excruciating. I can no longer get myself onto a crowded train and rain on my face feels more bothersome than romantic. I can feel the hardness in me.

So there are times when I dream of getting away from this city altogether - to a gentler, more gracious place. But just once in a while, in those half-awake moments of an early morning, or when I enter a new, noisy bar filled with pretty, young things, or even when I rush past Marine Drive towards some terribly boring meeting, those heady feelings of that first year in the city come flooding back - the adventure of growing up, of discovery, of youth and possibilities, of being incredibly, intensely alive.

And my 40 year old self knows she cannot leave this place just yet - if only to hold on to her 24 year old self for just a while longer.

Revisiting The Great Gatsby

Unbearable longing for something completely unworthy; desperately trying to be someone you are not; an ability to be so completely inhuman; holding in high regard things so completely superficial; tragedy that goes almost unnoticed by the world...The Great Gatsby is such a lyrical mirror to the human condition.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Granta 112: Pakistan

It's vividly, brutally engrossing. Pakistani writing has been the flavour of the times for a while now. Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hameed, Mohammed Hanif are all writers we have read in the recent past. All of them find a place in this edition of Granta that focuses on Pakistan. It's a collage of reportage, short fiction, art, poetry coming together in a rich tapestry of dramatic beauty and vicious horror.

The opening act had me hooked. Nadeem Aslam's 'Leila in the wilderness' is a fable, much in the tradition of Laila Majnu. Except that it has at its heart the brutality of female infanticide and the terrible lengths people can go to in the quest for a son. Leila is magical as the young bride brought home to bear her husband a son he craves, torn apart from her family and her young love. The cruelty of a world that thinks nothing of killing babies because they are female, the incomprehensible faith that leads people to entrust daughters-in-law to lustful old men, the utter powerlessness of a woman in a man's world, the survival of exquisite love even in this brutal world - all brilliantly captured in this story that has echoes of Rushdie's magic realism.

Daniyal Mueenuddin has a short poem, and that is a disappointment after his cool ' In Other Rooms, Other Wonders'. Mohsin Hamid's 'A Beheading' is short and vicious like a knife through skin and snapshots the perils of being an artist in an autocracy. Uzma Aslam Khan's 'Ice, Mating' describes a stunning land in sheer poetry and a story that is neither here nor there. Mohammed Hanif's 'Butt and Bhatti' is a tragic farce of love and guns in the hands of men who don't know much. Jamil Ahmad's 'The Sins of the Mother' tells a story of ancient tribal customs of revenge and honour killings that survive in a twenty first century world.

The reportage and opinion pieces are no less riveting. Declan Walsh's piece on the north west and the forces that are tearing it apart - the Taliban on the one hand and the old feudal tribal system on the other - is a fascinating look at one of the last frontiers of the world. Jane Perlez's 'Portrait of Jinnah' paints us the picture of a man who possibly stood for anything but what Pakistan has ultimately turned out to be. Fatima Bhutto's piece on the Sheedis (a negroid race surviving in parts of Pakistan) is interesting because it tells me of a community I am not aware of. But her writing is less than inspiring, and I cannot read her without the background of her family in my mind.

There is more to discover in this book. But the underlying themes of beauty and horror keep replaying themselves over and over. Some of the horror is South Asian - the obsession with sons, the inability to integrate into a western world. But a lot is peculiarly Pakistani - the tribal customs, the extreme lawlessness, the Islamicisation/ jihadisation of an entire generation, the love-hate relationship with the only superpower in the world. The cover of Granta that features the art of a truck painter is vividly colourful. And so is the material inside.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why I like Mad Men

1. It's about an advertising firm and its peculiar combination of madness and magic. I can relate to it so much sometimes that it is frightening. Frightening because this is a supposedly authentic 40 year old milieu. What has changed?

2. Don Draper. A swoon-worthy brilliant hero who is not faultless or fearless. Women fall all over him and he takes advantage; yet he is a good father and his sense of family is an old-fashioned one. He is the creative backbone of his agency; yet he is pretty much a product of his times when it comes to gender equations in his office. He has things to hide in his past and it makes him mysterious, enigmatic.

3. The women. Shockingly treated and used. A copywriter who is not paid as much as another because of her gender. Secretaries whose only aspirations are meant to be marriage. Affairs that lead nowhere. Yet they form pretty much the backbone of the series. Peggy is the representative of the female breakthrough in corporate ranks - a secretary who aspires to be and becomes a copywriter; who has ambitions beyond her gender; who attempts to make the most of the lift Draper gives her. Joan, her striking sexiness and her impeccable efficiency at work gets her nothing more than an affair with the boss and a loser husband. Betty Draper is the Richard Yates suburban wife, frustrated beyond words, willing herself to believe she is worth more than the roles she plays. It leads to little beyond useless psychiatric sessions, an affair and a divorce. Marylyn Monroe had a lot to answer for in setting the stereotype.

4. The suits in advertising. Don't think they make them like that anymore - gung-ho, adding value far beyond creative, salesmen par excellence. Shows me up terribly.

5. The drinking and the smoking. I love the insouciance of it all. Everybody, including pregnant women, drinks and smokes, in office and out of it, all the time. Political correctness be damned.

6. The clothes, the lipsticks, the hair, the nails, the shoes. Women who are turned out impeccably well most times. The aura of Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Monroe.

7. A current obsession with that time in American history and the surprising angst evident in a prosperous, rising economy. The civil rights movement, feminism, the sexual revolution... all somewhere in the pipeline. Historical fiction, however recent the history, is pretty fascinating.

And some inexplicable magic that keeps me coming back, again and again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Good School

By Richard Yates

Yates does despair and middle class angst beautifully. It's what draws me to him over and over again. 3 Yates novels in the last 3 months is testimony to that.

A Good School is a bit of an anomaly in this regard. There are glimpses of his trademark 'life is a bitch' feeling but this is a coming-of-age novel that does not have a bad ending.

Dorset Academy is 'A Good School'. It is a prep school that is not very well known, built by an eccentric old lady and which takes in boys that other prep schools often do not. William Grove is one of them. With divorced parents (a mother who thought herself an artist and a salesman father who spends his entire life providing for his ex-wife and kids), Grove enters Dorset a clumsy, nervous, unpopular teenager but leaves it with some measure of confidence and hope for the future. On the way, we meet other boys - boys with reading problems, with psychiatric problems, bullies, some brilliant, some dumb. And there are growing up pains always - fears about fitting in, about sexuality, about girls. There is also the war in the near future, always at the back of the boys' heads... tantalising in some respects, scary in others. And then there are the teachers, each with his own set of unnameable fears and issues - wives having affairs, sons in the school with problems, daughters whose boyfriends go off to war and get killed.

Grove eventually leaves school as editor of the school magazine, an effort that polishes his writing skills and prepares him for a career in the real world, even though it might have affected his math and French grades badly. He finds his place in the world, as most people most often do.

It is a growing-up story. And as usual, Yates tells it well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Diary of a Bad Year
By J.M.Coetzee
It's a solemn piece of work. The themes running through are two-fold - the loneliness of old age, where you are losing the faculties of your body even as your mind is as sharp as it probably ever was; and the assault of a neo-conservative world where greed and a paranoid nationalism are negating everything a liberal would hold as good and true
The format of Diary of a Bad Year is new and somewhat interesting. There are three threads running in parallel. The first is a book within a book. Mr. C is the old writer, reasonably well-known and successful, suffering from some form of Parkinson's. He is writing a series of essays contributing for a German book entitled Strong Opinions. This series of essays forms the first thread - and it makes for a very interesting read. Stretching from Mr. C's (and does it stand for Coetzee himself?) opinions on the war on terror, the nature of democracy and the West's capitulation to the Bush doctrine to music, Russian literature, travel and the English language, this thread manifests one part of the internal landscape of Mr. C - well-read, scholarly, intelligent. It portrays a strong belief that there are things going wrong with the world crafted by Bush's America.
The second thread is the second part of that internal landscape - Mr. C's fascination for Anya, a pretty young woman who lives with her banker boyfriend in the same apartment block. The fascination that is soon turning into something more, is that of an old man who looks at the beauty of youth with a longing that is at once fierce and unattainable. He befriends her and gets her to type out his manuscript for him. This second thread of the novel begins to unravel the beauty and the pathos of a relationship that cannot truly be defined by the normal world and its vocabulary.
The third thread is Anya herself - her thoughts on Mr. C, her boyfriend Allen and his callous scheme to exploit her growing friendship between her and the writer. Anya is a bit of a puzzle. We start by seeing her as a bit of a bimbette, with an unsophisticated mind, using her sexuality to draw Mr. C to her. Soon, she grows a bit more complex, just as her relationship with Mr. C grows complex.
As the three threads run parallel, we see the story develop - and the essays change as the relationships deepen. From a serious vein, Mr. C begins to lighten up - possibly the effect of Anya herself. And as the wickedness of Alan becomes more apparent, Anya is forced to come to terms with the nature of her relationships and her own sense of morality.
It is an interesting read. The essays in themselves are a book and can be read as one. To me, they proved the most absorbing part. Anya and Allen and Mr. C remain just that bit removed from the reader - maybe the format could not allow for more.
But Coetzee can be counted on to never be uninteresting.