I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.
Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I
I admire Elizabeth Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty but also sought to speak for the suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.
I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.
One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married there. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.
Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)
I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.
Out of the many wicked and wonderful books of Fay Weldon, I like the collection A Hard Time to be a Father best. It has a number of little gems including one of the wisest short stories that was ever written.
Happy Birthday, Fay Weldon. (Sep 22)
“I called this story ‘Falling in Love in Helsinki’, not ‘out of love’ because although it’s true I fell out of love with Andreas, out of love with love (which is a real blight), somehow I fell into love with life. Or with God, call it what you will, there in that chapel. Anyway, sufficiently enamoured of just the sheer dignity of creation to realise I shouldn’t offend it the way I had been doing. I think everything’s going to be all right now . . . As for GUP, the Great Universal Paradox, that’s real enough. What I marvel at now is how happy so many of us manage to be, so much of the time, in spite of it.”
Falling in Love in Helsinki: A Hard Time to be a Father by Fay Weldon.
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.
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’.
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.
“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco
Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.
“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose
“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.
“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.
In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.
As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.
‘the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true.’
― Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses
Amy Tan is well known for her novels about mother-daughter relationships. I had not read about this when I first picked up The Hundred Secret Senses a few years ago and so did not have a preconceived notion of what to expect from the book. However, I was so enchanted when I finished it that I ordered all her other novels the very next day, and read through them in the next few weeks with a great deal of pleasure. I remember writing a short review stating that THSS reminded me all over again as to why some of us call literature our religion.
‘I know what love is. It’s a trick on the brain, the adrenal glands releasing endorphins. It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.’
The Hundred Secret Senses
The Hundred Secret senses remains my favourite novel by Tan. A compelling book that pulls the reader in from the very first page, it narrates the story of Olivia and her Chinese born half sister Kwan who has yin eyes that help her to see ghosts. Olivia is half affectionate, half condescending to Kwan – she tolerates her endless questions and finds her stories about
ghosts and past lives mildly entertaining. But when Olivia, her estranged husband Simon and Kwan take a trip to Kwan’s village in China and get lost while exploring the ruins outside the village, the real stories connecting Olivia and Kwan across lifetimes are revealed in a chain of events from the past and the present that culminate in a gripping, haunting climax. The reader comes away with the feeling of having used a hundred secret senses to assimilate the ideas and stories within the novel.
“It was a distorted form of inverse logic: If hopes never come true, then hope for what you don’t want.”
The Hundred Secret Senses
Said to be among the most popular of her books, The Joy Luck Club interconnects stories of four Chinese women immigrants in San Francisco and their struggles to keep their culture and their stories alive in their children. I found it less compelling than Tan’s full-length novels. As in most of her other work, the position of women in Chinese society of that period and intense mother-daughter relationships of tiger mothers who wield absolute control over their daughters are some of the major themes that go into building the plot structure.
“’Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’”
― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
The Bonesetter’s Daughter returns to the mother-daughter theme across generations and evokes the importance of names and the need to preserve stories, and the significance of writing and its links to memory, between the characters of Ruth Young, her widowed mother LuLing and LuLing’s mysterious past with Precious Auntie. One can almost imagine the ink flowing from the author’s pen in a ceaseless stream as the stories flow back and forth across the present and the past, connecting a contemporary narrative with fragments of history, of the characters as well as the period. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a similar novel but one which I found difficult to read for the graphic scenes and extreme situations of abuse and domestic violence.
“That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”
― Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Saving Fish from Drowning is perhaps my least favourite among the lot. Though it had an intriguing opening and setting of the literal adventure of a jungle trek as well as an omniscient ghostly narrator, the novel somehow did not quite hold together, maybe due to the large number of characters whose voices kept jarring against each other. Likewise I did not enjoy The Valley of Amazement, both the story as well as its premise of a courtesan in Shanghai in the beginning of the twentieth century. It is painful and disturbing to read about the blatant commodification of women, in any period.
“I wanted to capture what language ability tests could never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
My favourite of all among Tan’s books is her memoir The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life which provides a fascinating glimpse into her early life as the child of Chinese immigrants in the United States, her love of literature and growth as a writer.
“In the hands of a different reader, the same story can be a different story.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
Tan’s novels are page-turners which hold layers of wisdom between their lines. They belong to that elusive genre that many authors spend a lifetime trying to reach – of literary fiction that is equally accessible to readers and critics. I deeply admire her as a writer.
Many of my favourite authors have surnames starting with S, not even considering The Bard, who of course, is so much more than just a favourite author. I was halfway through a post on Shaw when I decided to write one instead, on Vikram Seth whose poetry was a great influence during a period of my life, albeit a past life, once upon a time.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another. Like how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Seth’s ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
While Hamlet dreads ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, Seth’s poetic narrator has no such fears for he ‘To one who knows this life is all there is’ and yet chooses to live in the hope of happiness, for objective curiosity and out of filial attachments. (Mappings)
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain”
John Keats, From Ode to a Nightingale
“To cease upon
The midnight under the live-oak
Seems too derisory a joke.
The bottle lies on the ground.
He sleeps. His sleep is sound.”
Vikram Seth, From Ceasing Upon Midnight
Which is better, to cease upon the midnight, or to raise a toast to the moon and fall asleep, laughing at the joke called life? Seth’s translation of Heinrich Heine perhaps has the best answer – “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”.
“All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
An emptiness above–
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all your years.”
― Vikram Seth
These lines evoke R.K. Narayan’s quote, “A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”, and are characteristic of Seth’s early poetry that is poignant, reflective and elegant. I must have read his collected poems (Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight and Three Chinese Poets (Translations from Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei) about twenty times, if not more, during a period of my life which was literally darkened by depression. Above all, I read and re-read the book that many consider as his magnum opus – The Golden Gate.
It is not easy to write about depression even after being cured for years, less easier still to read about the condition when one is depressed. Trying to connect with writing on the subject, I had sought out Sylvia Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar, The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen…their words only rattled my mind that had been rendered fragile and trembling in the darkness. But The Golden Gate saved my life. A few pages into the book and I was laughing aloud for the first time in years. The humour had less to do with it, than relief in the knowledge that everyone shared the feeling of loneliness, universal truth of life. I had very little in common with the protagonists in the book but could relate to their ambitions, idealism, dreams, despair, disillusionment and especially their sense of alienation. I clung tightly to the book as I cried myself to sleep during several of those long, dark years.The verse was a source of comfort, solace, even fleeting moments of happiness.
On his other work, I loved From Heaven Lake and found parts of A Suitable Boy a joy to read. An Equal Music was rather too sentimental (I kept wanting to give the character Michael two tight slaps and ask him to get a life) and Two Lives really needed an editor. The Rivered Earth was so disappointing that it put me off from reading Summer Requiem. I am not even sure if I will pre-order A Suitable Girl. But I remain grateful for what The Golden Gate once did for me, so much that I dedicated my first novel The Reengineers to the poet who wrote it.
A related excerpt from The Reengineers in which I pay my respects:
“The darkness had almost got me for good one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now
think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.
There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out.
Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life…His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.”
I didn’t realise how far I had moved away from the past until last Hilary term when I chose to do a critique of The Golden Gate. I found myself nodding wholeheartedly as my Professor explained how the rhymes in the sonnets were was rather clumsy and how the verse was far clunkier than, for example, Byron. My avant-garde poet classmates had strong views on the book – ‘It was horrible!’ ‘Hated it!’ they said, cheerfully. I surprised myself by agreeing with some, if not all of their critique. For now, I see the book as it is. But I remain grateful for the verse and to the poet who along with many others inspired, consoled, energized and sustained me with words through those years of literal and metaphorical exile.
This series of posts which I began mid-April last year has taken so long but I am determined to finish the series before end of March and do a proper challenge in April, doing a post per day.
“Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.”
Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, I remember that the literary columns of most newspapers and magazines would often focus on two names as the ‘big two’ in Indian writing in English – Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. While Seth’s writing (his early poems, The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy and From Heaven Lake) in gentle, formal prose is nostalgic both in terms of form and content and flows like a river, Rushdie’s rich voice with its many layers of allusions, inter-textuality and effervescent wordplay cascades through the pages like a waterfall, challenging and at times, tending to overpower the reader.
“It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.”
― Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
I started reading Rushdie with Imaginary Homelands, a fascinating collection of essays that include literary criticism of his contemporary writers (Gunter Grass, Marquez, Calvino, Vonnegut and Barnes among others), travelogues, memoir, reflections on the literary life, colonialism, racism, religion and empire, and his personal definition of what home means, and what it means to be an exile.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”
― Imaginary Homelands
“He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”
― Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The meta-fictional fable Haroun and The Sea of Stories was my first introduction to his fiction – a book that remains one of my favourites to this day. It can be read at various levels, as a metaphysical fable about the power of fiction, as a political satire on the storyteller’s freedom of expression or simply as an entertaining young adult story based on the hero’s journey.
“I have always thought that these two ways of talking, one is the fantastic, the fable, the fairy tale, and the other being history, the scholarly study of what happened, I think they’re both amazing ways to understand human nature.”
I next read Midnight’s Children and was mesmerised by the book which won the Booker and the Booker of the Booker prizes. I remember the days passing like a delirious, gripping dream while I was reading this masterpiece of a novel. The pages turned as though by themselves, compelling me to keep watching as places and characters came alive through the words, and projected the story, scene by scene, sharply on my mind. The actual movie version which I saw last year left me underwhelmed. In spite of the character names and events, the film seemed to bear no trace of that magnificent novel.
“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”
“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
Shame, East, West, Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence were good but nowhere as great, while Fury, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh were lesser literary siblings of the illustrious Midnight’s Children.
Luka and the Fire of Life was a beautifully written sequel to Haroun. However, Luka’s story did not quite touch the peaks scaled by his elder brother’s tale.
“There are places in the world where nothing ever happens, and Time stops moving altogether. There are those of us who go on being seventeen years old all our life, and never grow up. There are others who are miserable old wretches, maybe sixty or seventy years old, from the day they are born. We know that when we fall in love, Time ceases to exist, and we also know that Time can repeat itself, so that you can be stuck in one day for the whole of your life.”
Luke and The Fire of Life
I read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights with a great deal of pleasure, a book which I am looking forward to re-read later this year along with The Golden House , and look forward to reading many more books from this master author, who remains at the top among the world’s greatest contemporary writers.
A book review that I wrote so many years ago, in what was almost another lifetime…was delighted to see it as the top review against the book in Amazon
Literature often transcends pre-set boundaries of category or genre. Prime examples include the chronicles of Alice and Gulliver originally conceived to satirise society and later metamorphosed into children’s classics, and more recently the popularity of the Harry Potter novels among adult readers. ‘Haroun and the sea of stories’ could be placed in a similar category. It can be read as a fairy tale or as a satire that addresses everyday problems, narrates social conditions and broaches political issues. Regarded by readers and critics alike as one of the master storytellers of the present day literary world, it is not surprising that Mr.Rushdie has conjured up a fantasy based on the world or rather the ocean of stories, named after the ancient Indian treatise Kathasaritsagar.
The protagonist Haroun Khalifa is a young boy who leads a happy middle-class life distinct from the rich, poor, `super-rich’ and `super-poor’ people inhabiting a nameless sad city. Haroun’s father Rashid Khalifa is a famous storyteller – the Shah of Blah with fabled oceans of notions, who often refers to the streams of story water he drinks to keep up the supply of wondrous tales that pour forth from within him. Haroun takes this as an eccentric statement by his father and soon discovers that the ocean of stories indeed exists and that only he could save it from total annihilation.
Haroun’s world is suddenly taken apart when his mother elopes with their neighbour Mr.Sengupta, a mean clerk who had forever questioned the significance of Rashid’s tales (‘What’s the use of stories that are not even true?’) and Rashid loses his gift to spin wondrous yarns. When Rashid is summoned by a politician to campaign through his stories in the Valley of K, the two decide to risk taking the trip which turns out to be both hilarious and fascinating.
On board a peacock-shaped houseboat on the ‘Dull Lake’, Haroun discovers to his surprise and horror that his father is going to cancel his subscription to the streams of the Story Ocean. After a squabble with the water genie Iff who has come to disconnect the story tap, Haroun manages to get a ride on the machine-hoopoe Butt to Kahani, the second moon of the earth that contains the ocean of stories.
Kahani also contains two diametrically opposite worlds, the land of Gup characterised by perpetual light inhabited by the Guppies who love to talk, and the land of Chup that is permanently dark and cold and is home to the Chupwallas who worship Bezaban, the prince of silence. The Guppies and the Chupwallas are mortal enemies, and when Haroun lands on Kahani, there is a terrible crisis looming on Gup – The cult master of Chup, Khattam-Shud has kidnapped the Guppie princess Batcheat intending to sacrifice her to Bezaban and worse, has started polluting the story-ocean to destroy it completely. Accompanied by Iff, Butt, Mali the floating gardener and a pair of loopy fishes called Goopy and Bagha, Haroun sets forth to save the ocean. The rest of the story deals with how he succeeds in this endeavour and is rewarded with a ‘synthesized’ happy ending courtesy P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated To be Explained).
The text sparkles with witticisms concealing thoughts, and thoughts that evoke spontaneous laughter. There is a lot of wordplay as can be expected from a Rushdie novel. The dialogues are characteristic of Mr. Rushdie’s works, with the characters speaking peculiar dialects of Indianised English – Oneeta Sengupta’s consoling words to the Khalifas, the conversation of Butt/Buttoo, the rhyming banter of Goopy and Bagha, the foolish babble of Prince Bolo, the songs of Mali and the petty quarrels between the mud-men and mud-women in Buttoo’s bus are sure to evoke laughter in even the most curmudgeonly reader. A beautiful passage describing the dance of the shadow warrior Mudra who speaks through gestures (Abhinaya) conveys that duality exists even in Kahani, and that creatures of silence and darkness could be as charming as the children of light and speech. So is the abstraction describing how emotions influence the atmosphere, with miserable thoughts causing the atmosphere to stink and brighter ones clearing out the smog. The ridiculous antics of silly Prince Bolo to save Princess Batcheat seem justifiable when he is described as being just like love – dashing, gallant and a little foolish.
Above all these, the main theme of the book is brought forth implicitly – That story-tellers cannot be silenced, and the ocean of stories would continue to surge with its many threads mixing and intermingling perpetually to generate fresh stories that would keep flowing. Looking a little deeper, it conveys that the magic of fiction has the power to soothe, restore, edify and sustain the harried, quotidian protagonists of everyday life.