Sunday, September 29, 2013


By Colum McCann

“When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me. This god-awful manufacture of blood and bone. This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers.” The war in question is the Irish conflict. It is a conflict that has been documented well in English literature. Yet it is one that is unfamiliar to me in a very fundamental way - and I have to go back to google to pick up the bits and pieces of that history that McCann litters his Booker-nominated novel with. Which is probably the reason the book does not grab me the way his Let the Great World Spin did.
Lily, Emily, Lotty, Hannah - four generations of women who live through love, loss, pain, loneliness, joy. This is their story, set against the larger political backdrop of Irish (and North American) history. The Irish famine, the civil war in America, the waves of Irish immigration to America, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the peace process… it’s all in there. Through it all, the first non-stop transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown, an event, like the wire walk in McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, proves to be the pivot to the story.

Lily is the Irish maid, transfixed by Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and orator, who makes the tough passage to America. She loses a son in the civil war and two more in an accident. Her daughter Emily is a woman ahead of her times; she has a child out of wedlock, and works as a journalist and writer, making a name for herself in her small community in Newfoundland. Emily and her daughter Lottie are the ones who see off Alcock and Brown on their transatlantic flight, even giving them a letter to deliver to Lily’s saviour in Ireland - a letter that proves historic, as it is one of the few that goes across the Atlantic on that first flight. Lottie returns to Ireland to settle with a Cork linen merchant. But she too cannot escape the sorrow of loss as she loses her only grandchild to the conflict in Ireland. The last section is Hannah’s - Lottie’s daughter as she grows old in Ireland, mourning her son, and trying to cope with the loss of everything she has held dear.
There are long sections where McCann recreates historical moments - Frederick Douglass’s sojourn in Ireland, Alcock and Brown’s actual flight, George Mitchell’s role in the Irish peace process. They are long winded and sometimes distracting, especially for someone like me who is not clued in to the history. Yet McCann’s language has a strange, powerful hold that drags you along these back-and-forths across time and place. And I was forced to finish a book that I was at times willing to give up on.
Transatlantic did not grip me the way Let the Great World Spin did. Yet the story of 4 generations of women does have something to say to you - of how women have always borne the brunt of men’s conflicts, that nothing ultimately can cure the loss of a child, that however hard your grief is to bear, life must and will go on, filled with everyday beauty that one can see if only one is willing to stop and see it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Grief. It’s the primary emotion underlying the book. Everything is tinged with it - even the most evocative descriptions of beautiful landscapes - warm, marshy Tollygunge in Kolkata in the ‘70s, the harsh yet gorgeous Rhode Island coast. This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri and the emotion doesn’t surprise me. I watched The Namesake and saw the same. 

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in the Kolkata of the sixties. It’s a middle class childhood spent playing football in the fields beyond the lowland that flooded in the monsoon, sneaking into the exclusive Tollygunge Golf Club in the neighbourhood, spying Bengali actresses outside Technician's studio, working hard at their lessons in school. Subhash, older by a year  is the conventional, timid brother; Udayan the quick and impulsive one. While Subhash is content to let things flow, Udayan questions, prods, pushes. As they move into college, their lives diverge irrevocably.

The Naxalite movement in the ‘70s always had a romantic feel to it. CP Surendran’s Iron Harvest tells it as it was - a doomed uprising, brutally put down by governments in Bengal and Kerala. The Lowland revisits it, in a far more particular, individual manner. As fiery Udayan gets caught up in the ideology, Subhash is content to move away to America, far away from the uncomfortable debate about the rights and wrongs of a movement that is the closest we ever came to a revolution. But Subhash cannot move too far away. The consequences of Udayan’s actions bring him back - to a family forever broken, to a sister-in-law Gauri and an unborn child. And when Subhash tries to repair some of the damage in a way that is more Udayan than Subhash - impulsive, uncaring of repercussions - all their lives are irrevocably changed.

Gauri is complex. She can never stop loving Udayan even if he was a man who risked that love for a belief system. Her grief though is complex - underlying it is her knowledge of the reality of Udayan’s last days and her ambivalence towards his actions. Her consequent actions - towards Subhash and her child Bela - are tinged with this complexity and are quite inexplicable to a world that has prescriptive notions of marriage and motherhood. But to me, she is the heart of the novel. Beautiful, torn, unable to tear herself away from the past, she wanders through Subhash and Bela’s lives as a wound that refuses to heal. 

Subhash, Bela, Gauri - three lives charted by events in Kolkata in the seventies. Jhumpa Lahiri delineates them through exquisite prose that can on occasion bring you to tears. It is a novel that reminds you of the worlds of Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, even sometimes Arundhati Roy - human stories, individual, particular, minutely observed. I liked Jhumpa Lahiri. I will be reading more of her.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Forbidden Kingdom no more

7 days in Bhutan

Bhutan, the land of the Thundering Dragon, the last Shangri La, the Forbidden Kingdom, the place time forgot. Well, it’s not quite all that in the summer of 2013. There was wireless in almost every hotel and restaurant we went to. The TV had more channels than Tata Sky gives me at home. Mobile phone penetration was nearing 100%. Hindi film songs and the Indian Army were ubiquitous. Jeans and sneakers and Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed the norm in Thimpu.. There is a construction boom as the Bhutanese build newer hotels and homes everywhere. And they are a democracy - that most modern of political theories.

Children in traditional Bhutanese

Yet, people still talked of that quaint term, Gross National Happiness as something real. They wore the traditional gho and kira. They seem to love their kings, especially the one who abdicated - K4, they call him. They still have an amazing 70% of their land under forest  cover. Dzongs and lakhengs continue to be important hang-out joints (as opposed to malls). All the new buildings are still built in the traditional architectural style. And they continue to be an agrarian economy. Nestled in the Himalayas, between 2 giant neighbours, Bhutan is a small jewel that is still making attempts to hold on to some form of cultural authenticity in an increasingly homogenised world.

Hike up the Cheri Goemba
Bhutan is beautiful. Irrespective of the tradition vs modernity debate, it is worth visiting purely for the incredible mountain-scapes and the blue skies, the whitewashed goembas set against the beautiful vistas of green rice fields, the magnificent dzongs on hard-to-climb cliffs and mountain-tops. Visiting it in August meant that we did not sight some famous peaks in the Himalayas. But it meant that we captured some lovely misty and cloudy landscapes, the weather was warm, the greens were lush and abundant. And the prices were off-season.

It’s no point going to Bhutan, if you aren’t willing to exert yourself a bit physically. The best of the country is seen in hikes (and there are enough short ones, for the physically not-so-fit, like me) up to hill tops that afford you incredible views around. Every hill top seems to have a goemba or a dzong. We did a few. One was a hike up to Cheri goemba, Bhutan’s first monastery  - a steep climb with lovely views of the Thimpu valley below. There were horses grazing on the mountain top as we struggled up the last few steps. The warm sun, the white washed goemba
Another hike, another goemba
and the peaceful horses made for a perfect morning. Another was a sweaty hour-long hike up to the large but relatively new
View from Zuri Dzong
(consecrated in 1999) Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, dedicated to the 5th King. It has elaborate idols across 3 floors and the rooftop has fabulous views of the Mo Chu and rice fields of the Punakha valley.
A third was the hike up to Zuri Dzong, from the Uma Paro. This was a steep one, but Zuri Dzong is pretty and
the views again on the way up and from the Zuri Dzong itself, are lovely. The climb down to the museum and then to Paro Dzong too wasn’t easy… but the views always make the effort worth the while.

The ultimate hike was to the Taktshang Goemba, more popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It is Bhutan’s most famous one, perched almost precariously on a cliff face. The walk up is tough - a steep climb of almost a kilometre, with steps for the last few metres.
The Taktshang Monastery
But there are incredible views of the monastery along the way, making it a superb subject for photography, if you are so inclined. I was worried about the climb - my fitness has always been suspect even in my younger days. But here I was, 43 years old, having never done any serious trekking, but attempting to do a tough hike with little preparation. I had memories of having chickened out of a hike up to Hemkund Sahib lake, opting to ride up on a horse instead. This time, I told myself I would make it on my own two feet. And I did - even if it was with some huffing and puffing. And it was well worth it. Taktshang was burned down twice and re-built - the last time in 2005. You can see the monastery rising up from the cliffs as you negotiate the tough climb… and it prods you to keep going. There is a cafe midway from where the views of the goemba are incredible. And the sight and sound of a waterfall as you near the monastery is breathtaking. Guru Rimpoche was supposed to have flown on a tiger to the monastery, where he meditated in a cave for 3 years. The innumerable legends associated with Taktshang and the difficulty in getting to it, just make it more intriguing and compelling than any other holy place in Bhutan. It was well worth the half day it took to go up and come down.

Pretty rice fields en route to
Chimi Lakhang
There were other dzongs (Paro, Punakha Tashi) and goembas and pretty lakhangs (Kyichu and Chimi). There was the legend of the divine madman Kunley and the penises it inspired - painted on walls and hung on doorways. There was a burnt down dzong near Paro that tourists go to for its
Pretty Punakha Dzong
dramatic ruins. There was that funny animal - the Takin - not quite
The Takin

goat and not quite cow. There was archery practice in Thimpu grounds - with incredibly far away targets. There were handicrafts to buy and the old, traditional Paro town to wander in. There were modern coffee shops in Thimpu with some seriously nice coffee. There was

butter tea that wasn’t quite to my taste. There was a pretty tea house in a nice luxury resort in Paro, where we stayed. And there were even rumours of mysterious midnight knockings at the hotel we stayed in at Punakha.

These are the memories of pretty, quaint, the not-so-forbidden
Tradition and modernity
Bhutan I will carry with me. I am not a big believer in holding onto traditions that are losing their relevance in a modern world. But even I hope that what Bhutan is trying to do - keep their traditional culture relevant and alive, while embracing modernity - is at least partially successful. So that it remains a bulwark against that increasing homogeneity that engulfs most parts of the world today.