The other side of the page (Poem)

17125772_1856826804602918_4981282162000003072_nThe grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
like memories.
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.

I stayed.

(October 2016)

Book Review: The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction

Collections of place-themed fiction can be powerfully evocative with descriptions of indigenous sights and sounds, unique references to the geographical landscape and above all, glimpses into the minds of local characters who with their attitudes, mindset, dialogues, dreams and desires represent the collective ethos of the place in the given time setting. Examples include Dubliners and The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran which transport the readers to early twentieth century Dublin and Bangalore in the late nineties respectively. The Book of Dhaka edited by Arunava Sinha & Pushpita Alam aspires to add to this worthy genre. As  K. Anis Ahmed mentions in the introduction, the collection tries to capture the present-day ethos of the ‘world’s most densely populated city’ of rice fields, lakes that overflow during the monsoon and ‘concrete structures, among roads far too narrow for anything to thrive but despair’. This intrinsic sense of despair hangs over the book, manifesting itself in the steam-of-consciousness monologue of a timid Chemistry lecturer who gets captured and tortured by the military in The Raincoat, the story of a promising student whose poverty forces him to leave school and eventually become a gangster in The Weapon and that of a housemaid who resorts to peddling drugs in order to give her son a better future in Mother.

The sense of gloom creeps like fog into the stories of each of the characters, irrespective of their social backgrounds. Decision portrays the apathy of a young woman towards her ex-husband on coming across him at a book fair, as she rather indifferently contemplates on what went wrong in the relationship. The Widening Gyre is a chilling glimpse into the dangers lurking in the city roads where citizens are alleged to be shot dead in broad daylight. Among the most memorable of the lot is The Circle, about an overworked office man who is caught in the vicious cycle of a dull daily job, limited means and never-ending responsibilities, his love for his family curdling into a frustrated rage at his helplessness to do anything about the situation. Unlike him, the masseuse in Home braves her way through life, shrewdly and silently judging her clients even as she pursues her dream of buying a plot of land to make a home for herself and her young son. The surrealism in Helal was on his Way to Meet Reshma, a story that begins brightly with a young man on his way to meet a potential girlfriend is likewise coloured not only by the blood of a suicide that he witnesses on the way but also with the frustration and disillusionment that seeps through from the other characters. The fairy-tale-like denouement of a young lad’s good deed getting rewarded comes across as a welcome positive note in The Princess and the Father, albeit darkened by the premise of the war and the pain of the members left behind in broken families. So too, does The Path of Poribibi, another story which hovers on the edge of the surreal and the supernatural, and is another of the better stories in the collection.

The reader is left with a set of unrelated, mostly dark images from the city, wondering whether the idea behind the collection was to indeed convey this very sense of bleakness.

Musings on Pulp vs. Literary Fiction

For a very long period of my life, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on. Even the idea of categorizing some kinds of books that I might rather not read came to me at the age of sixteen, when I moved from the vicinity of carefully chosen home and school libraries into the college hostel. With good intentions of focusing all my time on communication theories and microelectronics, I had refrained from taking any reading material other than my textbooks, and within a few short weeks had started to make surreptitious visits to the arts college library adjoining ours. There I read vast quantities of the classics and there I came across Tender Muse, a poetry collection by Russian poetesses, which – but that is another story.

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We were forbidden from borrowing the arts library books, and so on the long weekends in that little town which was surrounded by hills and bordered by misty pathways of coniferous trees, my eyes would seek and find random novels lying about the hostel, which I would seek to borrow from their owners who would always, generously share them. It was there the I was exposed for the first time to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I read through novels and stories of Jeffrey Archer and wondered why so many swooned over the forgettable page-turners. Shocked by some of the graphic scenes, I threw up my dinner while reading Bloodline. A friend with a penchant for the classics lent me Gone with the Wind, which I enjoyed. But I was not able to get through more than the first five pages of a Mills & Boon novel, coloured paperbacks of which were scattered around the hostel like fallen spring flowers in the wind. The classmate who lent me the book was a connoisseur of the said romances. According to her, reading them cleared her mind and relaxed her. As I was rather prudish, she chose a novel for me from her large collection, a book which according to her was ‘very mild’, ‘no strong scenes’. But the first five pages of that novel were not only devoid of strong scenes, they did not appear to have scenes at all – just three stick figure stereotypes standing on the page, speaking atrocious dialogue. Whatever else it might have been, it was not literature. I returned the book and learned to ignore pulp romances as well as thrillers of most kinds, with the exception of standard science fiction and literary mysteries. My days of reading ‘everything I got my hands on’ were over.

Sometime later, I picked up a book from the British Library intrigued by the premise of a leprechaun switching the minds and bodies of a married couple. I regretted it from the first few paragraphs, on the very first page. The cardboard characters were more unimaginative that those found in a women’s magazine story, the descriptions were tedious, the scenes barely hanging together, the dialogue flat and uninspired. That was the British Library in a boring little coastal town where I was working at the time, and its collections were small but highly selected. It was surprising to find a book of such poor quality on its shelves. I skimmed through the pages and read the author’s note at the end on ‘why he chose to write this drivel’, which was the only statement that rang true in that book. It was the beginning of the realisation that I read fiction to find the truth within it.

Since then, I learnt to fastidiously avoid pulp of any kind, averting my eyes from the rather vulgar looking displays in bookstores and skipping whole sections in libraries, the exception being one ladlit paperback by the chap who unleashed a cottage industry of poorly written English novels in India. An ex-colleague in my previous office urged me to take a look, according to him it was ‘crap, but time-pass crap’. The book reminded me strongly of the first and only Mills & Boon that I had tried to read – with poorly conceived characters, badly written dialogue and a non-existent plot, there was nothing commendable in it but nothing that gave offense either, until I got to the last page and found that the climax bore more than a strong resemblance to that of Life of Pi. The plagiarism has been hinted upon in many other blogs, but it will most likely continue to go unnoticed as it has over these years as despite the millions of copies sold, no one takes these lowbrow novels seriously. For these are but the twenty-first-century versions of dime novels and penny dreadfuls – cheap reading material that is mass produced, consumed like fast food and forgotten soon afterwards, poorly written pulp fiction which is the polar opposite of good literature.

But is every book that calls itself literary fiction really worth reading? Though not exactly in the same league as the pulp paperbacks referenced above, I recently read a book that aspired to, and was categorised as literary fiction for a class on dramatization taught by the author. Despite the striking opening with the main character who wins a reality show and is thereafter lost in a jungle, and a promising premise of nostalgia for old England which is often interesting to readers of English literature across the world, the characters and narrative turned out to be flat and uninspiring. It comes as no surprise that Amazon mentions the book being out of print. This is one of the very few books that  I plan to give away as it was really not worth the time spent on it.

Quote for the day

“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”
― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

In the past few months, more than once I have been filled with regret on not having read Murdoch much earlier in life, on not having read her first before I fell in love with the scintillating wit and wisdom of Muriel Spark as an impressionable teenager.  Still, better late than never.

The Riders: A Literary Page-Turner

*spoiler alert – review may contain mild spoilers*

In the first few pages, The Riders by Tim Winton comes across as a simple story of a family migrating from Australia to Ireland. Scully, a young Australian is working hard to restore an ancient cottage in rural Ireland, transforming it into a home for his pregnant wife Jennifer and daughter Billie who are soon to join him. He strikes up a friendship with the postman Pete and through their conversations, it is revealed that Jennifer had made the impulsive decision to sell their home in Australia and relocate to this remote village. Jennifer emerges as an enigmatic figure through these conversations, an educated woman with artistic aspirations who flits across countries and art-forms in search of self-actualization. Scully is the loving husband who believes in her, supports her and follows her.

When the cottage is finally ready, Scully drives to the airport to receive his family and finds that his daughter has arrived alone, traumatised and unable to speak. Father and daughter soon set off on a journey across Europe in search of the absconding mother encountering scary dogs, would have been artists, old friends who sound like they are withholding information and strange women. All along, fresh insights are revealed in fleeting glimpses, subtle hints in the settings, reactions of minor characters and in between the lines of dialogue. Was Scully, whose thoughts project him as a calm, kind and positive man, really a good husband? What appear to be plot-holes – Why wouldn’t Scully report his wife as missing to the police? Why was Billie silent about what she knows about her mother?  The questions fall away as the novel moves towards its surreal conclusion.

The references to the myth of the wild hunt are unclear and open-ended like Scully’s journey in search of Jennifer. There is much inter-textuality in the narrative, with repeated references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Billie thinks that her father is like Quasimodo and loves re-reading her old comic version of the novel, while her mother dismisses it as ‘that old thing’. The device of multiple narrators with the points of view shifting rapidly from Scully to Billie to the omniscient narrator to Pete to Irma to even an unknown voice that may or may not have been Jennifer’s, allows the reader to see just a little further into the minds of the flawed characters. Despite the harsh realism, the book is a gripping read and the open conclusion with a touch of fantasy is not unsatisfactory. This is another of those novels that fall into the rare genre of the literary page-turner.

The Writer in The Library

Just returned after listening to a very enjoyable meta discussion: Four writers in the British Library speaking about writing in the British Library. Tracy Chevalier, Romesh Gunesekera, Stef Penney and Charlotte Mendelson talked among other things, about favourite reading rooms (Rare Books or Hum-1?), Distractions (Cafe, Shop or Treasures) and the question of us vs. them – writers vs. non-writers, readers of fiction vs. others, etc. at various levels. The writers, especially Mendelson were effusive in their support of paper books against e-readers, a comforting sentiment to hear.

I was curious to know if a library setting had crept into their fiction. Except for Gunesekera who spoke about his short stories set in libraries including one called The Library as well as the incident of the burning of the Jaffna Public library, the others said no, they preferred to sit in the libraries, research and imagine themselves in other places where their novels are set. And then Chevalier mentioned her first novel which has a library in France in a period before the digital age, with a handsome librarian. The Virgin Blue is now on my TBR list. Having loved the way Chevalier brings the period settings alive in Burning Bright and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I am quite looking forward to reading about the old-fashioned library in the book. Mendelson recollected an Oxford library setting in one of her novels in which a creepy boy stalked his crush through library index cards, and rounded the discussion saying that ‘Oxford is essentially a large library’.

As I walked out, I remembered my first time visiting the British Library in London – I was so overcome that my mind went pleasantly blank for a while before a Farsi Couplet by Amir Khusro came to mind, a short poem which translates roughly to, ‘If there is a paradise on earth, It is here, it is here, it is here‘. It is.

Mini Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Over the past year, I have attended a series of lectures, seminars and interactive workshops on drama in my master’s course. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry was on the reading list of the most recent workshops and while reading it, I wished more than once that it had been recommended much earlier. The three-act play about an African-American family living in Chicago in the late fifties was so vividly written that reading it is as good as having watched it on the stage.

In the first scene, the readers are transported to the living room of a two room flat in Chicago, with ‘typical, undistinguished and tired’ furnishings, and they remain there like flies on the wall witnessing the characters live through an experience that changes their lives. It would not be fair to call the dramatis personae as characters for they come alive in each gesture, dialogue and action, from the matriarch Lena Younger to the child Travis. It would be simplistic to state that this is a play about racism – it addresses among other issues that of class, the struggle to rise above poverty, the question of national identity and what it means to an immigrant, the relevance of education and above all, what it means to be a man.

The play commences at a point when the Younger family is awaiting their father’s insurance money of ten thousand dollars. Lena’s children Walter and Beneatha have pinned their hopes on the amount towards securing their respective futures, but Lena has her own plans. From there onwards, the play moves at a rapid pace from scene to scene and as we follow their journey, we learn more about the characters – their dreams, desires, hope, fear and frustration. Like Vonnegut’s glass of water analogy, every character wants specific things. Lena wants her family to be comfortable and see her son as a man worthy of his late father. Walter wants to become a successful businessman, the kind for whom he currently works as a chauffeur. Ruth wants a happy marriage. Asagai wants Beneatha. Beneatha is torn between her need to become a doctor in Chicago and Asagai’s vision of an idyllic return to their African roots. George wants to have a good time. Travis wants fifty cents for school and like the rest of his family members, a more comfortable life. By the end of the play, the main protagonist Walter has transformed from a frustrated chauffeur who longs for a wealthy lifestyle into a stronger man who has started to look objectively at life and stands tall and proud of who he is.

Many scenes stand out in the play. Some of my favourites included the conversation between Beneatha and George – for all his wealth and education, George is revealed as a coarse character who wants a ‘simple girl’ for action more than discussing thoughts and who believes that education means to ‘read books—to learn facts—to get grades—to pass the course—to get a degree’, which has ‘nothing to do with thoughts.’ Lena owns the scenes in which she is present, whether it is admonishing Beneatha against blasphemy, declaring happily that she has bought a house for her family, tenderly handing over the rest of the money to Walter or stating proudly that ‘he had come into his manhood’ like ‘like a rainbow after the rain’.

During class, Professor also recommended the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris which is set in 1959 and 2009 and follows the story of the white couple from whom Lena purchases the house. And it seemed that this is how great literature lives on, passing the torch from one book to another, illuminating minds with fresher insights across the years.

Mini Review: 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane

“This is not a world in which I wish to live.”
Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis

The play could be condensed to this one line which could be a powerful epigraph to the writer, as much as the play itself is. Reading 4.48 Psychosis was painful, knowing that Sarah Kane intended this to be a suicide note. Depression is not an easy topic to read about, even when it is portrayed in compelling formal prose as in The Bell Jar. This play is an open window into the mind of a brilliant writer whose depression has reached a point of no return. The dark lines of the narrative which are often split and fragmented as her thoughts, are beautiful but do not hold the promise of hope for life between their lines.

“After 4.48 I shall not speak again… / I have been dead for a long time / Back to my roots / I sing without hope on the boundary”, she says, and “Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there, fuck you for making me feel shit about myself, fuck you for bleeding the fucking love and life out of me, fuck my father for fucking up my life for good and fuck my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, fuck you God for making me love a person who does not exist”.

There is a tirade against the doctors who failed to treat her except with ‘chemical cures for congenital anguish’: “Inscrutable doctors, sensible doctors, way-out doctors, doctors you’d think were fucking patients if you weren’t shown proof otherwise, ask the same questions, put words in my mouth…Who lied. And said it was nice to see me. I trusted you, I loved you, and it’s not losing you that hurts me, but your bare-faced fucking falsehoods that masquerade as medical notes.
Your truth, your lies, not mine.

The experimental structure with numbers and words scattered around at random and the uneven spaces between words, sentences, and pages reflect the writer’s mind. The play’s form complements the theme and the content, and the random spaces align themselves between the words into an unbearably sad harmony.

There are still, the last flickers of hope within the distracted monologue. ‘I beg you to save me from this madness that eats me‘, says Kane. Like most artists, she is aware of the limiting nature of happiness. ‘when I am charmed by vile delusions of happiness,’ she says, ‘I cannot touch my essential self.‘ In between the moments of struggle, the desires remain, ‘to achieve goals and ambitions’, ‘to be seen and heard’, ‘to excite, amaze, fascinate, shock, intrigue, amuse, ntertain,
or entice others’, ‘to communicate, to converse’, ‘to laugh and make jokes’, ‘to feed, help, protect, comfort, console, support, nurse or heal’, ‘to be fed, helped, protected, comforted, consoled, supported, nursed or healed’, ‘to be forgiven’, ‘to be loved’ and ‘to be free’. It is sad that she had to pay such a terrible price for her freedom.

As a survivor of suicidal depression, I thought that the words were far too familiar, making this one of the most difficult pieces that I have read in a while.

Mini Review: The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco

Even after two careful readings, I was unable to get the point of  Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and was not sure about picking up yet another play belonging to the theatre of the absurd. But reading The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco was an experience by itself, so much that I could see the play unfold scene by scene through the pages, in spite of the complicated stage settings, the large cast of invisible characters and the disconnected, often meandering dialogue.

The play remains open to a number of interpretations – it is never clarified if the main characters of the nonagenarian man and his wife are the among the last few survivors in an apocalyptic world, or merely two sad souls who regret their uneventful life and long to be accepted, respected and remembered. Thought-provoking, darkly funny and saddening, this is one of those works of literature, the likes of which Yann Martel said makes the reader ‘existentially thicker’.

Mini Reviews: The Browning Version

The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan takes a realistic approach to the teacher-student relationship explored in books like Good-Bye, Mr.Chips, Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and To Sir, With Love. In a few powerful scenes, it narrates the touching story of an honest, hardworking schoolteacher whose lack of charisma distances everyone around him. Shortchanged both personally by a wife who openly cheats on him, and professionally by the headmaster who denies his pension and even by his pupils who mockingly refer to him as the ‘Crock’ and the ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’, Crocker-Harris’s redemption in the end which is triggered through a small gesture by a pupil is both realistic and satisfying. The classical references to the Agamemnon are tempered with mild humour, and the sense of pathos which hangs over the entire play lifts it up into a classic in its own right. The 1951 film version is excellent, but I prefer the taut scenes in the play which conclude at the moment of Crocker-Harris’s transformation.