Tagged: Salman Rushdie

AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Rushdie

“Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.”
Salman Rushdie

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.”
Salman Rushdie

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.”
Midnight’s Children

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
Salman Rushdie

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.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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Haroun and The Sea of Stories

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.

If you like young adult inspirational fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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When the Narrative is the Hero – Luka and The Fire of Life

Salman Rushdie‘s Luka and the Fire of Life was a much awaited sequel to Haroun and the sea of stories but in many ways, Luka’s adventures do not touch the peaks scaled by that of his elder brother’s tale which is not a surprise as few sequels live up to their predecessors.

In Haroun and the sea of stories, the storyteller loses his inspiration and the flow of stories were at stake. In Luka and The Fire of Life, the storyteller himself is at stake and needs to be rescued by his younger son, who by his very birth had started rendering his aged parents young. How Luka manages to save the day and his Father (no spoilers here, it is a straightforward young adult book on the lines of the standard hero’s journey) along with his trusted companions – a singing dog called Bear and a dancing bear called Dog and how he rescues his father from being taken away by Nobodaddy (an anthropomorphised version of his Father’s death ) by bringing him magic fire form the rest of the tale. The quest to find the magic fire is arranged through a series of levels similar to that of a computer game that Luka has to cross before he can reach the prize.

There are no real surprises or heavy twists or turns and at every level, Luka has serendipitous encounters as he works his way through the maze, getting chances that seem too much like flukes (such as the very old, many times told riddle about the animal walking with four, two and three legs and guessing the name of the Insultana) to be convincing and always finds someone or the other to help him at the right moment. He does not undergo a transformation as he completes his journey and even in the final situation when he needs to make a sacrifice, he gets immediate help. Except for the extraordinary wordplay and a few passages with rare flashes of insight, Luka’s story is a far too straightforward young adult book unlike Haroun’s tale which was a fable that could be read at various levels. What makes the book special is not Luka’s journey but the narrative – Rushdie’s exquisite, lyrical prose that transforms the very act of reading the book into a wonderful adventure for the reader.

Some gems from the book
“We appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way and make us young again”
“‘’Our dreams are the real truths – our fancies, the knowledge of our hearts. We know that Time is a River, not a clock, and that it can flow the wrong way, so that the world becomes more backward instead of less, and that it can jump sideways, so that everything changes in an instant. We know that the River of Time can loop and twist and carry us back to yesterday or forwards to the day after tomorrow.”
“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.”
~ From Luke and The Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

The plot is too simple, the characterisation not as great or memorable as it was in Haroun. But the narrative and the language alone (Ah Rushdie, Shah of Blah, enchanter with words) make this book worthy of being bought, read and re-read, and a contemporary classic of its time.

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Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

“With writing, we have second chances”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

Reading some books is like taking a roller coaster ride. When it gets too disturbing, you want to get off but you are so mesmerised that you cannot help staying on, and you go where the author wants to take you. Midnight’s Children is like that, so is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Magic realism has that effect on the reader. The last book that affected me so powerfully was Kafka on the Shore in which Murakami’s genius leaps out of every page.

Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is such a book. The reader lives through the horrors of the holocaust and a whole lot more through the history and legends surrounding Trachimbrod, a tiny village in Ukraine and the stories of a number of memorable characters who laugh, cry, live and love through the pages. As in many great novels, the story of the tiny shtetl and the handful of people who live in it come alive as a miniature story of mankind.

The narrative structure follows three separate threads alternating between the present in which the narrator goes on a quest to find the woman who had saved his grandfather from the Nazis, the past in which the narrator writes the history of Trachimbrod in lyrical, formal prose and a third thread consisting of letters from Alex, his Ukranaian friend who writes to him in patchwork English about the story of their journey to Trachimbrod. Alex’s peculiar use of English is a nod to his namesake in A Clockwork Orange, but the similarity between the two characters ends there. Alex in this book is pompous, crude as in unexposed to the world, infatuated with American pop culture and dreams of making a new life for himself in America but through his letters he also comes across as unintentionally funny, affectionate and humane. The novel defines itself that it is about love and an exploration of the meaning of love, but it is equally a story about peace, humanity, life, art and the world.

A definition of art from the book:
“Art is that thing having to do only with itself – the product of a successful attempt to make a work of art. Unfortunately, there are no examples of art, nor good reasons to think that it will ever exist. (Everything that has been made has been made with a purpose, everything with an end that exists outside that thing, i.e., I want to sell this, or I want this to make me famous and loved, or I want this to make me whole, or worse, I want this to make others whole.) And yet we continue to write, paint, sculpt and compose. Is this foolish of us?”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

A book that manages to be gripping, thought-provoking, hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, to think that Safran Foer was not yet twenty five when he wrote it. I look forward to read more from this author.

Book Views, Exquisite and Disturbing – Reading Anita Desai

“A book is a version of the world”, said Salman Rushdie. I have often felt that a book is also a view of the world, each book offers a different overview, a different level of insight into the world. And some of these views while being perfectly crafted are also extremely disturbing because of the way they present the stark realities of existence. Many of Anita Desai’s books come under this category, including her latest work, The Artist of Disappearance.

A collection of three seemingly unconnected stories about three very different people, the book as a whole invokes the same, stark view of reality – of the transient nature of the world, the vagaries of human nature, the all consuming force of time and the sad spectacles of people clinging onto anything that they can clutch which helps them to believe that their existence is validated. The bored, young officer in a desolate town who stumbles upon a fantastic museum filled with oriental treasures that are slowly crumbling to pieces, is an unlikeable but very real character. His remorse at having done nothing for the two museum caretakers and the old elephant provides some kind of redemption to his character, but the story is less about him and more about how the past cannot be preserved and will slip away like sand. Even Shangri La will wither and fade with time.

The same sense of being a helpless observer as life passes by is portrayed in the touching story of the middle-aged spinster who gains some success as a translator and finds happiness for a short while only to relapse to her previous life when she realises that in translating an author, she had lost her own voice. The third story about a natural artist who lives and works among the charred ruins of his parents’ home seems to suggest that hope can be found only in reverting to nature.

Other than in The Village by the Sea, I have not come across a positive ending in the other four books of Desai that I have read. Desai’s characters are too often crushed, defeated and overwhelmed, or merely apathetic, and in either case appear as pretty dysfunctional beings. The middle aged spinster Uma and her brother Arun who are the main protagonists of Fasting, Feasting come to mind, the former suppressed and confined to a prison-like existence by her family, and the latter cosseted and given the freedom to spread his wings by the same family. In spite of being at either extreme, both Uma and Arun are equally isolated and unhappy. The housewife Sita in Where shall we go this Summer who runs away from her dull everyday life to a remote island, hoping that the magical properties of the place will somehow help her hold the baby within the womb and prevent it from being born into the world that she despises. Adit in Bye Bye Blackbird who decides to return to India, disillusioned with his life in London, losing his peace of mind in a quest for belonging and identity. Desai’s prose is exquisitely crafted, unforgettable and a delight to read. Her themes and characters present a world view that seems so real that one cannot help being affected. Quite often her words seem to lift the illusions of the world so clearly that the truth sparkles like a diamond and cuts like one, reminding one of what Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, we all like to believe in illusions as they are more comforting than reality.

Desai’s view is only one of the many ways of seeing the world. There are others that appear as real and are far more comforting. As a reader, I would prefer to look at book views that rejoice in the world and celebrate it, rather than the ones that accept it as an illusion and denounce it.

On Novelists, Women and Men

I was appalled to read about women novelists being moved out of the novelists category in Wikipedia.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/25/wikipedia-women-american-novelists

There are several attributes of a book that determine its quality and worth such as the premise, the depth of the ideas presented, the worldview depicted through the book, the beauty of the prose, the plot structure, the readability, the uniqueness of the characters, the personal and social concerns if any that are addressed in the book, the relevance of the book to present times, the impact that it has on the readers among others.

As a reader and as a writer, I am concerned with these and other similar parameters of a book, and not the author’s personal traits, not the least of which is the author’s gender.

It sounds superfluous to say that the gender of a person is irrelevant to their work and their achievements. It is something that I have always tried to avoid. On my first day at work, I resented being labelled as a ‘lady engineer’ and later being called a ‘woman manager’. I have refused invitations to conferences of ‘women writers’.

As a child I had two role models, my aunt who was the vice chancellor of a prestigious medical university and a cousin who had escalated up the corporate ladder in a New York firm to become vice president before he was thirty. I admired the aura of success that surrounded these two people like a halo and the confidence that radiated from their words and actions. I took it for granted that their gender had nothing to do with their achievements which were the results of hard work and ambition. As an engineering student, for a while I believed the professors who said that exemplary performance was enough for a person to rise high in any field.

The illusions began to dissolve when I read a feature in the IEEE magazine in which many successful senior women engineers spoke candidly about the obstacles that they had to overcome in order to obtain an engineering education at a time when their family expected them to run a home and bake cookies, and about their struggles to transcend the glass ceiling that covered their workplace. Almost all the case studies in the article conveyed the same message – Successful women had to struggle much more than their male peers to get ahead in the race. I remember one of them quoting to the effect that in order to be successful in engineering, a man needs to take it up as a career whereas a woman needs to see it as a crusade. Now it seems that the statement holds good not just for engineering but every other field, including literature.

As much as one would like to believe that the quality of literature transcends gender, it is a fact that discrimination against women writers has always been there, everywhere. It led Mary Ann Evans to write as George Eliot and it is perhaps why J K Rowling chose to use her initials rather than her first name on her books. Almost every article on Indian English literature mentions R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao as being among the early pioneers of the field and inevitably go on to talk about Seth and Rushdie but few bother to mention the veteran writer Anita Desai.
Most women can relate to Virginia Woolf’s meditations in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she talks about the status of women as “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history”. Lines that would sound completely familiar to any Indian woman who has grown up in a society where women are theoretically revered as goddesses and openly discriminated against in real life. At the same time, notwithstanding such crude antics like the wikipedia categorisation of women novelists, things are slowly but surely changing for the better.

Focusing on any negative aspect of the world would only serve to amplify it and make it worse. While being aware of the discrimination against women that has prevailed for centuries, I choose to believe that we are on our way to a society where human beings are treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of any of their attributes be it gender, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. It is only a question of time as attitudes slowly change for the better across society.

I just checked wikipedia again and found that new sub categories of American and British ‘men novelists’ have been introduced, in addition to ‘women novelists’. Ridiculous, to say the least. What purpose does this gender segregation serve, other than provide statistical information on how many novelists of a particular nationality were men and how many were women?

The author Shashi Deshpande answered this question in the voice of reason when she asked, “Is Literature a public toilet that we need to have signboards Saying ‘Men’ And ‘Women’?”