Friday, June 15, 2018

Clouds


The monsoons have arrived in Kolkata. The skies are grey, and the rain comes down in drizzles, and sometimes in thick sheets. The one thing that you see every day now, almost like an omnipresent entity, often dictating the course of your day through their whims, is clouds. And Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds is an embodiment of the season and its harbinger, darkening the horizon. Like their geographical counterparts, the clouds in this book bring respite to some, distress to others, but spare none.

Clouds is a story of people and places, and the synergy that sometimes develops between the two. It is based in Mumbai – serendipitously I read a big chunk of the book during my own trip to the city this year, my first ever visit, and in a way it has coloured my view of the place. Clouds has two distinct narratives, of people belonging to two distinct worlds, yet both find their places in the metropolis. Farhad Billimoria is a psychotherapist spending his last week in his hometown before moving to San Francisco in search of greener pastures, in more senses than one. Having undergone a divorce not too long ago, he is ready to go back into the world of romance but feels that Indian society does not hold much promise to a man of his age – he has just turned forty two. But fate has a penchant for irony. After two years of a romantic desert, his last week becomes a whirlwind of feminine companionship. There is a heady mix of lust and the spark of connection that comes with the first flushes of amour. Zahra Irani, that feisty yoga practitioner who just happens to be based in San Francisco herself, is everything that makes man’s blood boil – she has grace and charm and a certain mystique about her, she is quirky and carefree, and she oozes sultriness, a siren call that is hard for any man to resist. With her Farhad’s ‘Billimoric’ self seems to discover a new energy in life, a new sense of direction and hope. And yet she is not the only one. A chance late night accident leads Farhad to the door of Hemlata, the five feet ten English professor whose domestic South Indian household and strong, restrained and more than a little domineering demeanour bely her research into the erotic lives of human beings. As the two keep meeting over the next few days, Hemlata’s self-assured, slightly mocking attitude challenges Farhad, calling to another deep-seated longing in him, something that no Zahra can ever fulfil. By the time his day of departure from the country arrives, Farhad has had experiences that have changed him permanently, forced him to grow, and has set him on a path that is quite unlike what he may have envisioned a week earlier.

On the other end of the spectrum there is the narrative of Eeja and Ooyi, their absentee son Bhagaban and their temporary caretaker Rabi. Stuck in Mumbai for Eeja’s treatment, far away from their home in Bhuwaneshwar, the old couple pine for their roots constantly, painting a picture of a Bhuwaneshwar of memory, to a point where it seems like that is where they still reside in their minds, even as their bodies must stay confined in a tiny apartment in the bustling megalopolis. Eeja and Ooyi represent a way of life familiar to a large section of the Indian population – the Hindu upper caste household where the patriarch is the unquestioned master, the mother a self-sacrificing, long suffering, religious woman whose entire being centres around her husband and son and her God, and their longing for the hearth and home, the roots built through generations of association. They have been left by Bhagaban in the care of Rabi, a spirited tribal boy of the Cloudpeople who has for some time been the former’s brother-in-arms in their fight against the Company, an elusive and almost demonic entity which threatens the very existence of Rabi’s homeland, his community and the way of life they have known for ages. Bhagaban is a successful film maker who has made the fight for tribal rights his life’s goal, much to his parent’s chagrin. To them, Rabi remains a mere servant and a lesser human being, and nothing that Rabi does seems to be able to change that. Until one fine day, when he tells them the story of the Cloudmaker, that childlike god of his people who has created man through his boyish games. Something seems to shift in the relationship these people share, opening up new worlds to them all.

Choudhury’s style of storytelling has an almost cinematic tone. Just like movies showcase disparate lives through separate screens while holding them together with the glue of some underlying idea, the two different worlds of Clouds never meet, yet it is easy for the reader to view them parallelly as though from above through a giant camera, unfolding at the same time in the same place, the common motif of clouds being their only connecting thread. It is almost as if the reader is looking down on them from a cloud herself, a keen but detached spectator. This is not a thriller, nor a mystery nor an adventure; not a lot ‘happens’ through the course of the text. And yet so much does happen in the minds of the people, even the most mundane, everyday occurrences come to take on enormous significance. The people change, they evolve, gradually but also overnight, discovering more about themselves, being completely new human beings one day from another. And life goes on all the time, throwing its own surprises and stumble blocks every now and then.

Farhad’s story is a close look into the dynamics between man and woman, and the different relationships they may share. It is not unidirectional; the varieties and possibilities remain infinite. And so we see Farhad happily contemplating a rosy future with Zahra in Los Angeles, thinking about possible professional collaborations, though mostly he is thinking about the breathless hours spent together in the bedroom and the almost surreal high they take him to – but before long there comes a darker hue to this idyllic dream, and all that seemed too good to be true now look prohibitive and suffocating to him. It is while in this dark state of mind that the city throws open to him a new face of itself, through a most unlikely source – Hemlata. The suave and snobbish South Bombay shrink is swept into a different world by the forbidding Borivali-bred English professor with the impossible-to-guess double life. “All the sex came from Zahra, all the text from Hemlata”, feels Farhad, and somewhere, some readers can hear a twang of recognition and relatability to this dichotomy in their own lives.

Through Farhad and Zahra, the uninitiated reader gets a sneak into the lives of Parsis, that once significant community from the Middle East whose vastly diminished numbers now battle on with a brave face in Mumbai. One gets a taste of their history in the country, as also some of their distinctive idiosyncrasies – Farhad’s most lasting love affair is with Zelda, his battered old Maruti 800, and Zahra’s uncle Sheriyar is the ubiquitous Parsi old man, rambunctious and flirtatious with infinite confidence in his often-hare-brained business ideas. Witnessing Farhad fall in love is also quite a comic treat for the reader – he steps into that same bubble of buoyant optimism and nothing-can-ever-go-wrong-again sense of confidence, and his mind builds the same castles in the air that do people decades younger than him. Love makes a happy, goofy fool out of human beings, and it is comforting to realise that people much older and more experienced than I can end up behaving in the exact same manner when assailed by the arrows of Cupid.

Mr. Choudhury’s female characters in the narrative are particularly interesting. They are from two separate generations, but three completely separate worlds. Ooyi is the all-too-familiar grandmother who cannot separate her existence from that of her husband’s and her son’s, yet has a level of self-possession and immovable faith in the God of her choice that seems to go beyond every other identity she may possess. Zahra and Hemlata, though contemporaries, have nearly nothing in common, at least on surface. Zahra represents the vivacious and ultra-feminine nymph whose very existence titillates men, a fact that she knows and enjoys. Hemlata is the firebrand feminist, with her cynical, slightly condescending attitude towards men and the tendency to aggressively assert herself as not merely an equal of but maybe even superior to the common man. But a little reading between the lines unveils a similar strength of character and quiet force of will in Zahra, something that Farhad soon recognises and comes to fear. Hemlata too has the same feminine softness and longings under her tough exterior, and her view of the world turns some of the most age-old and apparently conservative family values into potentially the greatest forms of rebellion in society. Both Zahra and Hemlata represent something of what the modern day Indian woman aspires towards, though Ooyi remains anything but an anachronism in a society that continues to be steeped in traditional values. As a woman from the fag end of the millennial generation, my only complaint, if you can call it that, about these early millennial women, is that they have ultimately put themselves in specific archetypes – I hope that my contemporaries and I would be able to steer clear of prejudiced stereotypes about flighty eye candies and sexless social warriors, and a find way to make the two types more mutually compatible than they have been seen to be so far.

The Billimoric shenanigans lend sensuality to the book, but Clouds finds its true depth and value as a novel through the narrative surrounding the old couple, their son and their tribal caretaker. Mr. Choudhury explores ideas about religion, politics and democracy interwoven with the personal trajectories of the lives these people lead. It was through this book that I was made aware about the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project, Vedanta’s involvement, and the protests by the Dongria Kondh tribe to save their land. The allegory is unmistakable, and brilliantly brought to life by the author. The high caste Hindu Bhagaban, a successful member of the urban elite appoints himself the messiah of the (fictitious) Cloudpeople and leads them on the way to democracy, encouraging them to fight the evil Company and its threat to their sacred Cloud Mountain through electoral politics. There is a certain sense of elitist saviourism in his attitude towards the tribal community, but here I remain conflicted about whether that is acceptable. Is it okay to treat tribal people as essentially juvenile and in need of guidance because they have continued to remain distant from the force of Western civilization? Or should they be accorded the right to complete self-determination in the full knowledge that they are at a distinct disadvantage in their indigenous ‘other’ness with the modern world? Their story also brings to light other questions about the traditional lives led by tribal communities around the country, the threats they face, and how far their ways of life are viable and sustainable in an ever-changing world hurtling far away from age old customs. In the midst of all these questions is Rabi, who has left his people and his home on the banks of Tinninadi and served his Bhagaban Bhai in Bhuwaneshwar, helping him prepare to contest the elections which Bhagaban means to win this time, and pass on the baton to Rabi himself the next time. Yet even as the days of elections draw closer, Bhagaban’s father falls sick and has to be transported to Mumbai for treatment and convalescence, and Rabi must look after the old people so that his Bhai can prepare for the elections in peace.

Cooped up in their convalescent home in Mumbai, with two cranky old people as company, Rabi spends a lot of time getting to know his own mind. Unexpectedly, he comes to form a bond with Eeja and Ooyi, as forced proximity sometimes does to people. The questions of caste and religion come up repeatedly, and Rabi’s mental anguish at being treated as a lesser being is apparent, and yet there is no sense of hostility. Gradually, grudgingly, Eeja comes to open up to him, and Ooyi comes to accept him, introducing him to the world of Hindu religion and custom. Stories are shared, traditions are compared, and before the reader’s eyes there is a coalescence between seemingly irreconcilable and oceanic gaps, and humanity emerges sublime. The novelist’s greatest victory is forcing the reader to think, to ponder on the greater questions of life, even while giving her a different reality to experience life through. Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds offers both in good measure. It is a coming of age story; by the end of the novel all the major characters are different people, having gone through turbulence and often ending up very differently than any future they had imagined.

When you think about it, you realise that life is like clouds: it floats about, sometimes as free and light as a bird and sometimes heavy with the weight of rain, it is sometimes scattered by an aimless, directionless wind, while at other times it hustles purposefully towards its destination, ready to wash away the misery of summer heat with its watery blessing. Sometimes it has a soft breeze for company, but sometimes it comes with its share of lightning and thunderbolt. The same uncertainties that make the misty members of the sky beautiful impart variety to life. In that sense, the story about the birth of Cloudmaker can be taken as the summary of everything that life entails. That one story alone makes Clouds a book worth reading and remembering, and maybe even rereading years later.

I read the book months ago, but the aftertaste has remained as fresh as ever. I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction lately, nothing that has made me think so much at any rate. This is Mr. Choudhury’s second book, released early this year almost a decade after his first. But I read both in quick succession, and I have developed a fondness for the lilting flow of his language. Like Arzee, this book too has a certain nebulous taste to the narrative, but it is much more contained. He likes to leave his endings open, but with Clouds anything different would have been out of place. As life unfolds, surprising us at its turns, so does Clouds, leaving the reader space to draw her own conclusions.

Hopefully, I won’t have to wait to cross over to the wrong side of thirty for the next ride through Mumbai on Mr. Choudhury’s wagon!

Ps: I was wrong, the monsoon has not arrived in Kolkata; we just had a few promising days when I started writing this piece. But read the book anyway, it will well make up for the ruthless and parched weather outside and quench the thirst within!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mid year vacation in Kasauli


I knew I had a vacation coming up at the end of May, but I barely had time to dwell on that happy thought until almost the last minute. The university took its own sweet time to announce the dates for the final examinations, and once it did, the dates clashed with our travel plans. So while Baba flew off to Delhi on the morning of the 28th, I still had two examinations to go, and too harried to anticipate the holiday. On 30th, the last examination was done and dusted, and after a quick farewell photo session with my friends, I rushed to the airport for an evening flight. This was already my fifth flight of the year and third flight alone, and so I took a chance at the self check-in kiosk. That worked out without a glitch, leaving me to feel quite accomplished and grown up. A laid back round of retail therapy at the airport, and soon I was aboard the Jet Airways flight on to Delhi. It was a lovely flight despite the rather strong bout of turbulence in the middle, and the view outside was mesmerizing. The sky changed colour before my eyes, and looked unreal, like a Van Gogh painting. But more about that another time. I landed at 8.25 and was out of the airport in another twenty five minutes. Baba and Shilpi Di were waiting for me at the entrance.  I must say, Baba coming to receive me at the airport and at a place away from home was a novel emotional experience for me, and I still haven’t quite recovered from the thrill and slight sense of disbelief of it. Baba said that I had the quiet and slightly bored demeanour of a seasoned flier about me, so I have definitely come quite a long way from the clumsy nervous fool I had been the first time round. Shilpi Di’s place is a not-too-long drive away from the airport, and soon enough we were home and relaxing with the beer that I had been demanding for quite some time. The rest of the evening was spent in easy jesting and some last minute packing for the next day, and then we turned in to catch the few hours of shut-eye before our trip.

We were up and ready to leave well in time the next morning. We were headed to Kasauli, a small cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh, not very far from Shimla. The ride was a long one – Google Maps had predicted six hours, but we ended up needing almost seven and a half what with the multiple tolls and tax counters on the way. We crossed Haryana and Punjab, and got a glimpse of the university I am about to attend next – again, this I’ll talk about later. The road was lovely and well maintained, something that we have been noticing around the country nowadays, so that is one thing that India seems to be definitely making progress in. The heat was unbelievable, and the air conditioning had to be kept on throughout the drive except for the last stretch up the hills. The upward climb was a short one, barely an hour, and we arrived at our hotel in time for lunch. The place is not in Kasauli proper; it is a small area called Sukhi Johri about eight kilometres away, and the resort is a quaint little place called Whispering Winds Villa. You don’t often see nomenclature that is so apt: the resort is a little way off the highway, across a winding dirt road that leads to the other side of the hill giving way to a lush pine forest, and on arrival we were greeted with the magical sound of the wind blowing through the trees producing a uniform rustling sound. The trees really seemed to talk to each other by the wind! It was a steep climb up to our rooms in the villa, which Baba traversed as nonchalantly as the local folk, but which left me huffing like an engine by the time we had reached. But the location and the view from the room made the effort well worth it. With clear glass facades on three sides opening out on a wide terrace and the view from the bed stretching across the pine groves towards the rear end of the hotel, it was everything that the mountain lover could ask for. Everything but the pleasant weather that one usually expects at the higher altitudes – we still had to keep the air-conditioning on in our room. Refreshing baths and a quick and simple lunch later, all of us dozed off for a well deserved siesta after the tiring ride. Much later in the evening, while it was still light outside, we went out for a walk, after first grabbing a beer to quench the ever present summer thirst. This was at a local restaurant called Giani da Dhaba that was being manned by an adorable Sikh grandma. I have always found it delightful how unflustered and matter- of-fact the hill folk are about drinking. Throughout our vacations cross the mountains, we have come across roadside liquor shops and bars run by women of all ages, and sometimes even little kids who will hand you your choice of liquor without batting an eyelid. Compare that to the stony faced men behind iron grills at the shops in West Bengal, and the difference in the social attitude towards drinking in these regions will become apparent to you. We ventured into the pine groves before it got too dark to see the narrow road track, and from there we looked out on the twinkling lights from some village on the far side of the hill. A little way below lay the tracks of the famous Shivalik rail that runs from Kalka to Shimla and crosses over a hundred tunnels along the way. We had travelled by the train way back in 2004 during our trip to Shimla. Now we could see that the railway was much more heavily trafficked than before, with trains crossing us by every hour. In fact, we had even been stopped for ten minutes at a level crossing to allow a train to pass the previous day while coming from Delhi. As we looked around, we heard the horns blowing from a long way off, and it was quite some time later that a small train of about six carriages lumbered by, whistling to announce its arrival. These were all ordinary carriages though, nothing like the luxurious Shivalik Express we had travelled by all those years ago. The rest of the evening was spent lazing around on the terrace. Since we were the only guests on that floor we got the entire place to ourselves, which added to our sense of comfort manifold. Dinner was a sumptuous affair of rice and chicken curry washed down with curd, out on the terrace itself. We watched the headlights from vehicles travelling along the mountain curves far away, looking like blobs of moving torchlight. Everything grew quiet and still, and it was silent all around except for the gentle droning of the cicadas and the occasional horns from the trains. Then it was time for bed. Baba read out one of my favourite stories from the Parashuram collection about the intrepid goat with the exceptionally long ears, and I fell asleep still quivering with laughter.

The next day was kept for exploring Kasauli town. A breakfast of oily aloo parathas later, we took off on a small road leading out of the highway with Google Maps as our guide. It was a lovely drive, though quite short. As we climbed higher – almost two thousand feet in the span of eight kilometres – the air got increasingly more pleasant, and finally we could make the most of the hills. Once there, our first stop was the air-force base that houses an old Hanuman temple at the top of the hill. There was a thorough security check and we were asked to leave almost all belongings behind ostensibly because the monkeys had a bad habit of snatching everything, and the warning ‘trespassers will be shot on sight’ did not exactly inspire confidence anyway. The place is named ‘Monkey Point’, with creative alternations like ‘Manki Point’ making appearances on signboards. Definitely a colonial era name; no Indian will risk the wrath of the great mythological sage by referring to his apish anatomy. We walked around a bit in the area, but gave the actual temple a miss. A combination of lack of piety and back and leg aches made the prospect of climbing hundreds of stairs up the hill quite unpalatable. But we did have a lovely cup of iced coffee at an air-force run canteen there, before retracing our steps to the car park. This was a little way off the main town, and as we drove back, I looked out over the numerous bungalows and villas dotting the hillside. Those who can afford to live up in the mountains are lucky people indeed. And many must share my opinion; on the plaque outside one pretty villa, along with the name of the owner was the exasperated turn-off  “this property is not for sale”!

Kasauli is a small place, even by hill standards. The main tourist hub with the mall road and the church is in an area barely a square kilometre in size. We made a quick visit at the Anglican Church, where the reverend turned out to be a Bengali gentleman, and afterwards went for a walk up the less frequented upper mall road. It was a steep climb, but shady and peaceful. There were bushes of wild flowers and shrubs along the pathway, and occasional benches for weary travellers. The military has put up many signboards venerating martyrs from the local divisions in various wars, as well as quotations that are hilarious in their self-aggrandizement; one went so far as to claim “Those who say the pen is mightier than the sword obviously haven’t seen automatic weapons”. We explored two small detours pathways, one that led to a hundred and fifty year old estate established by some Scottish sahib, all the while imagining what it must have been like all those years ago, with the lone Britisher clambering down the dust road on his horse. The other was a tiny track we found leading down to a quaint and somewhat rundown house that had the names of Khushwant Singh and Sir Teja Singh on a plaque at the roadside. It was not difficult to visualize that grand old man sitting down with his glass of whiskey in the garden overlooking the gorge, composing his masterpieces. Afterwards we were ready to return to our hotel, but only after I had managed to bag a lovely little birdhouse from the Heritage Market at the lower mall area. The return drive was quicker, as it often is on the mountains. Before retiring to our room, we spent a little time sitting at the edge of the pine forest behind our resort, listening to the whooshing wind and trying to slide down the soft tuft.

I spent the afternoon reading while the others slept. Around four thirty it was suddenly too dark to read, and there was an increasingly loud roll of thunder outside. Pretty soon it started raining in earnest. Baba was now up, and we went out on the terrace to watch. Thunderstorms in the mountains have a flavour of their own. Everything becomes grey and hazy and there is a distinct sense of otherworldliness about everything. The temperature declines rapidly, and before long we were wrapping ourselves with the hitherto untouched blankets. It rained for a long time, and afterwards there was a stillness in the air and a clarity of vision unlike anything you see down in the plains. We went out for our customary walk once the rain had stopped, and had piping hot puri bhaji at Giani da Dhaba. But a sudden power cut forced us to return quickly using the torches on our phones. Once again we moved to the terrace and stayed there for a while, and later called it a night earlier than usual, looking forward to a good long nine hours of sleep.

And then it was time to go home. It was the second of June, and we were ready for the long drive back by ten thirty in the morning. This time the journey was smoother, with much fewer stops on the way. We were in Delhi by five, Baba’s estimate being as impeccable as ever, and in bed by six thirty, after squeezing in a meal of sausages and sandwiches. It was the weirdest sleeping session we have ever had, from seven to ten in the evening and again from eleven to two thirty. Our return flight was due at 5.50 in the morning, but because I tend to be paranoid about these things, we were at the Delhi airport by three forty five! And I wasn’t too wrong either; even at that hour the place was milling with people and the queues seemed to be miles long. We were done with the formalities well within time, though both Baba and I got stopped at the security, him for his metal support from the leg fracture, and me from a metal refill that a pen apparently had. Talk about arbitrary airport situations! The flight was a peaceful one and I slept through most of it, and we were received at the newly opened Andal airport by Thamma. We were home in Durgapur before nine.

It was a short and sweet vacation, much needed after the examination grind of the last month. The one less than perfect element was the driver we had been assigned by this app based service called GoZo in Delhi. His control over the vehicle was good, but that apart there was nothing suitable about him. He either texted or made phone calls or worse still, practically dozed off at the steering wheel, all the while driving along the highway at ninety km per hour. He was also spectacularly uncooperative and constantly grumbling about having to move off the highway into mountain roads. To anyone looking to hire cars from Delhi, I will suggest that you give this particular service a miss. That apart, the trip went off without a hitch, and I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to travel, this time from Delhi itself.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Goodread Review: An Era of Darkness

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in IndiaAn Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Indians we are taught about the British Empire in school as a significant part of our course. We are given a broad out line of the events that saw the arrival and entrenchment of the British East India Company as a powerful trading and eventually ruling power in India, the takeover of Indian rule by the British Crown, the growth of national consciousness among natives and the nationalist struggle for freedom leading up to Independence and Partition in 1947. The trajectory of our colonial history is read and reread by students in school and even in college for those who choose to take up History, to the point where a sense of weariness and boredom sets in, and one gets desensitized and tired of its repetitiveness. This is essentially because the facts are often laid out in textbooks in a very dry and empirical manner, with the intention to impart data, not provoke emotional responses. It is hardly surprising, then, that a great many youngsters grimace at the thought of reading up on our colonial history once they are no longer compelled to do so by teachers and examinations.

Shashi Tharoor's book remedies this very shortcoming in this marvelous book of his. Written in the aftermath of his 2015 debate speech in Cambridge University that went viral and thrilled the country into sitting up and thinking back on the inglorious British Raj with anger, the book is 300 pages of un-putdownable prose filled to the brim with information and eloquent arguments. The speech that sparked off this project was in support of a debate motion about whether Great Britain owed its former colonies reparations. Tharoor argued that the answer to that is an unqualified yes, and An Era of Darkness carries on this very argument. A group of Imperial apologists continue to hold to this day that the British Raj was in fact a blessing in disguise for the backward and disorganized Indians. Tharoor decimates this argument piece by painstaking piece, taking up almost every so-called English blessing to India - democracy, rule of law, a sense of nationhood, and of course the railway - to show that these were in fact often unintentional byproducts of a system of commerce and governance that was built primarily to fulfill the need and more often the greed of the mother nation - Great Britain. He makes extensive use of figures and quotations from contemporaries to display the extent of British rapacity and callous disregard of the well being of natives while ensuring continuing domination by the Empire, leading to the decimation of indigenous industry and agricultural produce, loss of traditional socio-political systems, and even the occurrence of horrifying famines. He traces back many of the contemporary problems that India faces to having roots in colonial oppression, most significantly the communal issues in India and widespread shortage of national resources. Ultimately, he zeroes in on the English language, the game of cricket and the drinking of tea as the only lasting legacies of value from the Raj; a careful reading of the narrative so far describing the extent of damage done to the national character and condition by the British during their imperial days would make it evident how piteously inadequate and almost ironic such a legacy is.

An Era of Darkness imbues life and soul in a subject that often runs the risk of growing stale to the Indian of the 21st century. Tharoor of course is a gifted storyteller; the book is a joy to read as much for the lilting flow of language as it is for the cogent argumentation it presents. It will be worth a read by anyone who has an interest in History, and even the professional scholar should be impressed by the extent of research and substantiation of arguments with relevant data that has gone into the book - unless of course it is one of those scholars who expect all 'academic work' to be cut and dried and tear-inducing!

The book should be read by Indians as a reminder of our legacy and all its horrors, but perhaps more importantly, by the inhabitants of that erstwhile coloniser, Great Britain, to make them aware of the role their ancestors played in reducing one of the oldest and grandest and richest civilizations of the world to such lowly depths of poverty and backwardness. It is important that they realise the inhumanity of imperialism, lest they start considering it a favourable and even glorious feat, as a section of Britain is wont to do today.


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Friday, February 9, 2018

Arzee the Dwarf


When I picked up Chandrahas Choudhury’s Arzee the Dwarf, I did so more under the sway of emotions than from any genuine expectations about the book itself. I had read the author’s blog and knew his writing style was interesting and thought provoking, and since the book was easy enough on the pocket, I went and made the impromptu purchase. And boy was it worth every penny and more. Not once did I imagine that the unassuming little book, barely two hundred pages long, would leave me deep in thought for days.

Arzee – ‘Arzoo’ to his mother – is little. He is a grown up adult, nearly twenty eight years old at the time of the novel, and yet he is a ‘little man’. At three feet five inches, he is a dwarf, and that is the most defining element of his entire being, or so he has come to believe. Like Tyrion Lannister, probably the most recognizable dwarf character among millenials today, Arzee has come to wear his dwarfhood like a cloak, proclaiming it upfront to a world that will not let him forget what he is.  

At the beginning of the novel we find Arzee in a state of victorious joy. He seems to be a man coming into his own strength for the first time. He tells himself that the time has come for him to change, to grow, to be more than he has ever been before. And all of this realization has come not merely from his own inner reservoir of strength and fortitude – that is for later –but also from the promise of some very welcome news about a promotion and a financial increment of five thousand rupees in his monthly income, a sum that seems to him life-altering in the opportunities it can open up.  

And yet life throws up the most unexpected hurdles and pitfalls in Arzee’s way at the very moment when he expects matters to improve. Instead of the long-awaited promotion at work, he gets the worst possible news that turns his world upside down in a moment. Soon after this follows a revelation of his personal history that threatens to push him off the edge completely. In the maze of hopelessness and anger and abject misery he is plunged into, Arzee’s hold on reality, unsteady at the best of times, seems to slip through his fingers and drive him deeper into a land of nightmares.

There is nothing permanently dark and gloomy about Arzee’s state of being though; he perseveres, and emerges a winner. In the span of a few weeks, it is almost a new person that faces the world, ready to take on whatever life has to throw at him. The old Arzee is gone, in more senses than one, but not entirely. The process of self-transformation that Arzee had been so convinced about in the beginning completes itself only towards the end, and it is much less showy than he had expected. But it is more definite, more secure, and less likely to evaporate by a mere scratching of the surface. Our little dwarf is indeed a bigger man by the end of it all, and all the more loveable for it.

Arzee the Dwarf is a book about love and relationships, and not just between humans. The central relationship of the narrative is that between Arzee and the Noor Cinema, a historic but run down establish where Arzee has worked for the past decade as a projectionist. The Noor is more a home to him than his tiny family apartment. It is his kingdom; it is the one place where he looks down on the earth from the majestic height of his projectionist’s room, instead of staring up in awe at it. It is where he revels in the familiar femininity of the ‘ladies’. Arzee, lover of darkness, finds his own comfortable niche in the Noor’s perpetual gloom. His entire life’s  tapestry seems to be inextricably woven into the Noor’s looming presence, so it is of little surprise that when that unshakable presence is threatened, his life comes nearly undone, forcing him to move out of his safe haven and explore the world anew.

The other characters add spice to Arzee’s topsy-turvy world, and compete each other in eccentricity and the ability to catch the reader off guard. Mr. Choudhury has a special gift when it comes to creating people; his characters are unpolished and real, sometimes slightly repulsive, always very familiar. There is Deepak, the goon from the syndicate that Arzee has managed to get himself entangled with, the most unlikely and sometimes unwilling friend Arzee finds by him at a very difficult time of his life. There is Phiroze, the old Parsi head projectionist at the Noor, whose reticent and withdrawn manner is the perfect foil to Arzee’s own explosive persona. There is Mother, the all too familiar doting Indian parent who still treats her grown son like a child, and plays a vital role in the evolution of Arzee’s nature. And then there is the mysterious Monique, the lost love whose existence is central in Arzee’s story as much as her absence is formative. Even the minor characters, who are often mentioned no more than a couple of times in the novel, are invaluable to the flow of the narrative. Phiroze’s daughter with her pretty way of talking and her sad secret, Rajneesh Sharma, the elusive owner of the Noor who Arzee considers his biggest enemy until a fateful encounter towards the end, Dashrathji, Arzee’s friend and probably the most philosophical taxi driver on the streets of Bombay – it is the way that their lives cross Arzee’s for a few fleeting minutes, like the momentary brush of a woman’s dupatta on the streets, that make him the person he grows into, and the novel the quaint little pleasure it is.

And then there is Arzee himself. Mr. Choudhury has done something remarkable – he has made Arzee a little like everybody, but a unique specimen as a whole. Arzee never forgets his dwarfhood, and makes sure that everyone else remains perpetually aware of it. His deep sense of victimhood, of having been wronged by the world, gives him a certain air of entitlement. He complains incessantly about the hardships he has to face because of his stature. He is acutely aware of his position as the proverbial underdog, and this makes him bitter. And yet there is a philosopher hiding in that little body. The life of his mind is vibrant and serves him well as a constant companion. There is a childlike quality to him that sometimes peeks through the veils of worldly cynicism that shroud his mind, particularly when he is at his most vulnerable. He goes through the same anxieties about money and family, the same sense of vague confusion and lack of direction in his working life, the same pleasures and highs of lovemaking, the same gut wrenching pains of heartbreak that almost every young person experiences at this stage of life. I found myself stopping several times throughout the narrative, disconcerted at the way Mr Choudhury seems to have taken my thoughts and emotions and put them into his little dwarf. But that is the magic that authors know and wield. Arzee is loveable as much for his familiarity as he is distant through his own distinct experience of life.

Above all else though, Arzee is a story about Bombay. The city breathes life into the narrative, and the author returns the favour several times over. The descriptions are so vivid, never overly dramatized yet startlingly alive. It is in the minutest details that the impact is the strongest. The names of characters, the odours, the roadside salons, the overcrowded and squelchy railway junctions, even the colours used to describe the city bring out the urgency, the potency and the never-ending rush of humanity that is Bombay. The city is a living presence, always very close at hand, shaping the lives and thoughts of the human beings, making them just so and not a little otherwise. The city lover in me spent a most memorable few hours, savouring the word picture painted by the author, my heart doing a secret happy jig all the while.

There is no definite ending to Arzee’s tale. The narrative has an undulating style, sometimes rushed, sometimes more serene, always in sync with Arzee’s mental state. There are so many different threads, so many potential side stories, so many chance twists and turns, almost like the path woven by a bicyclist pedalling his way through a crowded market street. The reader’s attention is constantly pulled in different directions because Arzee is never stagnant. Even as the narrative draws to a close, so many questions remain unanswered. Arzee’s own future course of action remains uncertain. But unlike many other novels that are equally open ended, this one did not leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Turning over the last page, I was content to lie back and dream a little about what Arzee might have done next. I do not want a definite answer – life is sometimes about letting loose ends be, and this is one such time.  

This was Chandrahas Choudhury’s debut novel, and reading it has made me feel impatient for more of his works. He has a rather whimsical style of writing – there is a constant sense of wonder to it, sometimes veering towards a little wooliness, particularly during Arzee’s mental conversations. His sense of humour is unassuming even when it is sarcastic. It shows itself at the most unexpected moments. I imagine that this style may not find takers everywhere. Some may find the novel a little slow; indeed I myself struggled a little with the initial chapters. But there is an intoxicating quality to his prose. At some point you are drawn into a world of thought and ideas, and you find yourself drifting weightlessly through its stream. The experience can be best summarised through the author’s own words – “Do we live the life that’s given to us, or do we really live a kind of dream life? Isn’t our inner life really a life of the imagination?” The success of Arzee lies in the way that it stirs the imagination, and reignites the inner life of the reader, pushing him to exercise his own creative faculties and paint his own picture of Arzee’s future.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Goodreads Review: Uncle Dynamite

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When you are feeling blue and morose and generally displeased with life, pick up the nearest P G Wodehouse you can find, and you are guaranteed to be transported to a world of laughter and wholesomeness, and, if it happens to be one of the Uncle Fred books, of "sweetness and light".

Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham, Uncle Fred to his long suffering nephew 'Pongo' Twistleton and his friends, considers it his sacred duty to bring joy and contentment in the lives of those around him, using unorthodox and highly imaginative methods, never letting trifles like logic and legality hinder him. In this book, his mission quickly becomes to pave the way for marital bliss for his young friends and relative while ensuring they make what he considers the appropriate choice of partners for themselves. He completes his undertaking through a maze of fibs, impersonations, blackmail and adventure, all the while maintaining the impeccably suave air of the English aristocrat. The other characters are superbly entertaining by themselves - the overbearing ex-governor uncle with a fascinatingly alarming collection of African curios, his equestrian wife, his authoress daughter who makes everyone around her wilt before her beauty and her flashing eyes, the intrepid and strong-minded housemaid and her buffoon fiance the policeman to mention only a few. The narrative can almost be termed as a thriller comedy, and the impossible pace of events can leave you a little dazed at the end of it all.

Uncle Fred will probably not become a favourite Wodehouse character for me, because the woolly charms of Uncle Emsworth and the sophistication of the supremely talented Jeeves and his bumbling employer Bertie Wooster are difficult to surpass. However, as always, the world of Wodehouse provides a quick escape to a much happier place, and is the perfect getaway from the humdrum of everyday life. 


Saturday, October 14, 2017

How I Came to Write a Paper on The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

I took up History for my undergraduate studies because I love the subject. But in the last two and half years I have not written almost anything related to my subject, despite Baba urging me time and again to do so, and even supplying me with ideas about what I could write on. Hopefully I will  get around to working on one or two of them before I wrap up my formal education in History. Today though, I want to post something rather special and very dear to me. 

Term papers and regular written assignments should be a part of every academic curriculum. It isn't in my college though, particularly in our department, adding to an ever-growing list of complaints that many of us have against the department. But I don't want to gripe today. We did finally get a chance to try our hands at writing a term paper this semester for one of our papers on Modern Europe. The paper spans the time period between 1789 and 1848, a time of epoch making changes that the historian Eric Hobsbawm so rightly termed the Age of Revolutions. Our professor asked us to submit a paper on any event or aspect that would fall within the purview of our course.

The task was as daunting as it was thrilling. It was quite difficult narrowing down on any one topic from a period as intense and diverse as this. On top of that there were constraints of practicality - as an undergraduate student trying her hands at her first term paper with limited access to source material, and more importantly, time, there was only so much that could be done. Many of us came up with grandiose paper ideas in the initial excitement of the task and our race to impress the professor with originality, but these were quickly dashed when the paucity of time and resources as well as expertise dawned on us. 

How I came about writing on this topic is itself a funny story. This was in fact the first paper idea that had sprung to my mind; I have a distinctly easier time working with literature-oriented ideas, so this is hardly surprising. But my seniors warned me that the professor had a reputation for actively disliking the use of literature as source. I reluctantly gave up my plan and set about planning a paper with a rather convoluted theme involving deep history, environment and colonialism. I did not understand the idea very clearly - it was suggested by a senior - and went on postponing the work. So imagine my delight when the professor made a casual remark in class one day about how nobody in my batch seemed interested in working on literary topics. I literally jumped up from my seat with my hand in the air, and within five minutes it was fixed; I was going to work on Brigadier Gerard after all. Talk about lucky breaks!

For the next three days I worked harder than I had in the previous two years combined, and by the fourth day I was done, and in the nick of time too.I am rarely completely satisfied with my writings, but this one is an exception. I feel this is one of the best essays I have ever written. I was so pleased when I went through it, I realised that it did not matter to me whether or not the professor liked the paper and graded it well. He did in fact like it though, and while I generally find self aggrandizement distasteful, for one I will say that getting the highest marks in class was well deserved.

I hope some people will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Baba has to be thanked of course, not merely because I consulted him constantly while writing the paper, but also because my love for literature as well as my inheritance of books comes from him. 

Also, it is Baba who suggested I put this one up on the blog. Thank God he is constantly after me about keeping this blog alive!


 History Through the Lens of Literature:
The Napoleonic Era as portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

There is much debate among scholars over the appropriateness of treating literature as a historical source. Historians of the realist imperialist school of thought refuse to accept literature as a valid source, while liberal post-modernists are more open to the idea. However, sometimes the best practice may be to draw one’s own conclusions about such matters. For that, making a study of a famous piece of literature in terms of its historical validity is a useful step.   

Napoleon Bonaparte once commented “what a novel my life is”. Indeed, the Napoleonic era continued to colour the brightest minds of the world throughout the nineteenth century. The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a wonderful example of Napoleon’s impact on literature. Based at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these are tales of adventure as narrated by the protagonist Etienne Gerard, now an old man living in Paris, about his days in the Emperor’s army. Across seventeen short stories, Conan Doyle, claimed by many to be the greatest storyteller in English literature, brought to life a period of great turmoil and flux making use of one of the most quintessential aspects of war: the soldier who tells tales to the enthralled civilians back home.  The tales work as a reflection of real battles fought by Napoleon’s army across Europe. Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in the Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars, originally from Gascony like Dumas’s d’Artagnan, spent the most glorious days of his soldiering life with the Hussars of Conflans. The young and dashing Gerard was the bravest soldier and the most gallant gentleman in all of France, or so he believed. The most outstanding quality about Gerard was his vanity, but his courage made a close second. Brigadier Gerard is probably the most loveable character created by Conan Doyle, and his astonishing conceit and remarkable thick headedness is not only forgivable but even enjoyable for the reader who savours a jolly good yarn based in one of the most exciting periods of human history.

The concern of this paper, however, remains the validity of the book in terms of its historical accuracy and content. And this is evident in almost every individual story in varying degrees. We learn about how Brigadier Gerard came to be a part of the Hussars in the story ‘How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans’. The war having come to a halt in Germany but raging fiercely in Spain, Napoleon sent Gerard from the Hussars of Chamberan to serve ‘as senior captain to the Hussars of Conflans, which were at that time the 5th Army Corps under Marshal Lannes’1 as reinforcement for the army in the Pyrenees. Here, Conan Doyle gives a very realistic picture of the second siege of Saragossa under Marshal Lannes, Napoleon’s personal friend about whom the Emperor commented that he had found the man a pygmy and left him a giant! The siege of Saragossa was symbolic of conditions throughout Spain. Doyle’s description of the city filled with hordes of Spaniard ‘soldiers, peasants, priests – all filled with the most furious hatred of the French, and the most savage determination to perish before they would surrender’ and the difficulties that the French soldiers faced in overpowering the city2 is as accurate as any historian’s. Napoleon’s peninsular conquest is considered by many scholars as one of the early signs indicating his eventual downfall. As Gunther Rotherberg points out, the great general failed to take into account the potential of a popular resistance supported by the armed forces with a secure supply route, while also being deluded about the precarious food supplies for his own army and the difficulty in movement and communication in Spain3. Ultimately, Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’ played a significant role in his inevitable demise.

The same story also brings to light other factors of interest to the historian. In describing his adventures, Brigadier Gerard made repeated mention of the reputation of the Spaniards as cruel and prone to torture and mutilation. It is significant that of all the various reconnaissance missions that the brigadier carried out, this was the only one where he was given a vial of poison which he could use in case of capture. The Spanish reputation was borne out when Gerard found Monsieur Hubert, the French soldier whose mission Gerard had been instructed to complete, crucified to the walls of a house. The stories based on the Emperor’s peninsular conquests bring out various aspects of war as a whole, particularly the dark and inhuman sides of it, the side that the protagonist remained blissfully unconcerned about in the most part, focusing rather on the glory and honour of war. In Spain Gerard met some opportunists of the lowest order, ‘bandits, who embody atavistic values that enlightened Europeans thought they had seen the last of, and which can be seen in Goya’s paintings, the Disasters of War.’ In Spain he met El Cuchillo or ‘The Knife’, an ordinary man whose inner monster had been awakened by war, who was now a notorious guerrilla chief who found pleasure in blank verse and torture, such as burying French soldiers alive.4 Characters and events remained close enough to the reality to be an honest reflection of the experience of the Grande Armée in its peninsular encounters.

Throughout his stories, Conan Doyle placed his brigadier in battles and events the accuracy of which would make the historian proud. In ‘How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshall Millefleurs’ Gerard was seen taking orders from Marshal Massena after his 1810 offensive was stopped by the English army at the Lines of Torres Vedras, lines of forts built in secrecy on the order of the Duke of Wellington to defend Lisbon from French conquest. The Marshal’s frustration at having to retire from a failed conquest is likely to have been very close to what the real Marshal must have experienced.5 It was to Torres Vedras that Gerard was sent by Massena to ascertain the distribution of  Wellington’s troops in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’, and in ‘How the Brigadier Saved the Army’, he saved the troops of General Clausel from annihilation by lighting up the signal beacon for the general to fall back upon the main army, while himself coming face to face with the infamous guerrilla chief named Manuelo,‘ The Smiler’, and just about escaping with his life.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are a fascinating study of the prevalent view of the French and the English of each other, particularly to a student of cultural history. What is interesting to remember is that the author himself was an Englishman, and yet his hero belonged to the opposing camp. Gerard was excessively vain and conceited, a perception that Christopher Coker calls ‘a stock trope for a Frenchman in English literature, particularly in the late nineteenth century’6, and yet the Englishmen found in him a greatly loveable hero. Throughout his adventures, Gerard displayed admiration towards the English in various ways, particularly to individuals who he found honourable and came to consider as friends. In ‘How the Brigadier Held the King’ Gerard was rescued from the murderous El Cuchillo by ‘Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart.’ with whom he struck up an easy camaraderie, a camaraderie that turned to partnership in the adventure of trying to capture Marshal Millefleurs, where the Bart had come with the same orders from Wellington as Gerard had from Massena: to hang the troublesome marshal. His disposition towards the English continued to stay unchanged even when he was captured by Wellington and sent as a prisoner to Dartmoor, from where he broke out and tried to escape before being recaptured and informed that he was in fact to be released and sent back to France in exchange of a Colonel Mason (How the King Held the Brigadier). The brigadier was particularly appreciative of the Englishman’s ‘sportsmanship’ even though his complete inability to understand English customs made him a source of extreme irritation to the English; in ‘The Brigadier in England’ he injured his English hosts while playing cricket and boxing through his misinterpretation of the rules of the games, and in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’ he inadvertently destroyed a traditional English fox-hunt by killing the fox, earning for himself ‘a deep, steady and unchangeable hatred’ from Wellington’s army! And yet he earned the begrudging respect of several Englishmen for his heightened sense of honour.7 In the study of war, literature can sometimes be the best instrument to bring out the nuanced and contradictory interplay of human emotions between opposing camps, usually through the interaction of individuals.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are surprisingly accurate in the placing of some of Napoleon’s greatest Marshals. One learns about the various charismatic leaders from Gerard’s eloquently expressed admiration for them. There is repeated mention of Marshal Massena, ‘a thin, sour little fellow’ who was not a favourite with his men or his officials for he was a miser, who ‘clutched on to his positions as he did to his strong box, and it took a very clever man to loosen him from either.’8 Of Marshal Ney’s bravery in the Russian conquests Gerard said with great respect ‘one man above all rose greater as the danger thickened, and won a higher name amidst disaster than he had done when he led our van to victory’, calling him ‘Ney, the red-maned Lion’.9 Of Marshal Lannes he spoke highly in context of the siege of Saragossa. And yet despite the ample praise for their courage, there is sneaking criticism where it is due, worthy of any self-respecting historian. About the failed attack on the Lines of Torres Vardes, the brigadier made no bones about admitting that internal feud between Napoleon’s marshals led to missed opportunities. In his words, ‘Ney hated Massena, and Massena hated Junot, and Soult hated them all.’10 Of others one finds scattered references throughout the stories: Murat and Berthier and Mortier and Grouchy to name a few.

With the Emperor himself the brigadier had few encounters, but they were enough to set in stone his love and loyalty for Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was a charismatic leader who had the power to draw the allegiance of the French not merely to the state but to him personally, through the Imperial Catechism, creating an almost cult status among his followers. He issued grandiloquent statements before and after battles, paying little heed to the truth and often fudging facts and figures to suit his conveniences. In the words of Gregory Fremont Barnes, ‘Napoleon was an unashamed self-publicist whose power rested on his extraordinary capacity to captivate his soldiers with his undoubted charisma and to win the hearts of the French people at large by feeding them on that heady diet whose appeal the revolutionary generation could scarcely resist: la Gloire - glory achieved on the battlefield’11This feeling of absolute loyalty is evident in Brigadier Gerard, who considered laying down his life for the Emperor a matter of great honour. Napoleon himself chose Gerard for certain mission because of his unquestioning loyalty, such as in ‘How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio’, where the Emperor needed to assassinate in secret some men from his Corsican past who had come back to haunt him, and in ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’ where Napoleon decided to test the loyalty of his men before setting them on a very delicate and dangerous mission. And yet the unequivocal devotion of the soldier to the Emperor remained unfortunately lopsided in its depth of emotion. There is an evidence of Tolstoyean irony in Gerard’s stories, in his lifelong faith and service to an Emperor who had little respect for him.12 Napoleon chose Gerard for some of the most sensitive missions because he perceived the latter to be simple minded despite his enormous courage, even awarding him the special medal of honour along with the dubious honour of calling him the man with the thickest head and the stoutest heart in his army.13 Napoleon was callous towards the suffering and losses his army faced for him, and remained unmoved by the fact that his conquests cost France the flower of a generation.

Napoleon’s Russian invasion of 1812 was the beginning of the end of the great French empire that he had envisioned. The invasion was riddled with various problems from the start. The most prominent were the lack of supply lines; nine large depots had been laid from Konigsberg to Warsaw, but available means of transportation could not keep up with the advancing army. Also, the massive size of the army and its frontage required the creation of new command structures and army groups. The technical limitations of the era prevented either problems from being resolved.14 Brigadier Gerard and his Hussars never went to Moscow, staying back at the communication lines of Borodino. In ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’, Gerard spoke in sorrow and resignation of the squalor and devastation he witnessed all around. Conan Doyle used a Tolstoyean eye to describe the long, black lines of retreating soldiers, snaking their way across the white plain.15 It was in Russia that the French army faced the ruthless Cossacks, who laughed at them in their misery and hung around them like wolves, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. This air of gloom makes this one of the saddest stories of the collection, with Gerard’s own despondency almost a signal to the imminent downfall of his beloved emperor.

It is a fitting end to the adventures of the brave brigadier that he would be given an important mission in that final hour, the Battle of Waterloo – a mission that he failed to carry out due to fateful turn of events – eventually bringing a close to his glorious days in the Grande Armée with a final valiant effort to protect his Emperor from capture at the hour of defeat by impersonating him to detract his English pursuers. Though history dictates that this effort had to be in vain, the brigadier earned what was possibly the greatest compliment of his life from his enemies; the Englishman failed to realise he was an imposter and exclaimed in admiration that the French Emperor was “such a horseman and such a swordsman I have never seen.”17 By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was well past his prime. He was wearied from years of campaigning and a year of exile, and ill on the very day of the battle. Waterloo led to Napoleon's final downfall, restored the balance of power in Europe and ushered in an era of nearly four decades of peace on the Continent, unquestionably qualifying the battle as one of history's most decisive.16

The last of the Brigadier Gerard stories holds that poignant note marking the end of something great. In ‘How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to His Master’, we read of an attempt by an old faithful servant of the Emperor, with Gerard’s help, to rescue Napoleon from his exile in St. Helena, only for Gerard to arrive at the moment of his master’s death. It is the last tale that the old soldier told his eager audience before going back to Gascony in his twilight years. This is the condition of many soldiers spanning age and space, veterans unable to let go of the past, civilians but ‘with an air and manner’, relics of a time long gone. In his closing chapter, Conan Doyle successfully brought to light the human cost of war, not merely in terms of those who die, but those who are forced to reintegrate into civilian society, a mere shadow of their battlefield selves.

 Like all works of literature, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard was essentially written to provide hours of enjoyable reading to the lay person, not to serve as a tool for scholarship for the historian. The tales are not a fair and balanced exposition of the Napoleonic wars or the French society of the time. The chronology is not linear, and there are so many fictitious incidents that sieving out fact from fiction is a tedious exercise. One glaring shortcoming of the stories is that the human cost of the Napoleonic epic is completely ignored. In his blind devotion to his master, the brigadier overlooked the fact that Napoleon, having extinguished liberty by enslaving half of Europe and fraternity by declaring war on the other half, had only just paid lip service to equality, even in his army.17 The stories are fundamentally action packed adventures of one soldier and not a representation of the army as a whole.

However, a student of history may yet do well to pay some attention to such works of literature in one’s studies. As has been adequately illustrated in this paper, Brigadier Gerard is an excellent example of all that literature has to offer to history, if only one knows how to extract reality from the generous coating of imagination that is any good work of fiction.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

GoodReads Review: My Name is Red

My Name is RedMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rating reflects more on my personal lack of interest for the subject than the quality of the book itself. Based at the end of the 16th century in Istanbul, My Name is Red is a murder mystery, a love story, and a picturesque account of life in the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. But essentially it is a story about art. It is the story of miniature painting, the Islamic art of embellishment, and the increasing influence of the Western artistic ideas on miniature artists.

The story develops around a group of miniature artists in the royal workshop of Istanbul who are commissioned by an ambitious old ambassador to create a 'secret' book for the Sultan influenced by the Western style of painting, considered sinful by Islam. The inner turmoil of the miniaturists egged on by a popular orthodox Muslim preacher who is against all paintings, storytelling and coffeehouses leads to the murder of one artist by another, soon to be followed by a second murder. The book wonderfully depicts the rising influence of Western thought in the Ottoman empire that eventually leads to a loss of identity for them as a whole, and particularly the miniature form of art. There are several parallel themes that run in tandem, a particularly evident one being that of motherhood and the love for progeny. Shekure, the main female character of the novel has two sons, Orhan and Shevket. Interestingly the author took these names from his own family; his mother and older brother are called Shekure and Shevket. My Name is Red is a brief introduction to the philosophical outlook of the Turkish people, with their overwhelming awe for their Sultan and their constant preoccupation with Islam at every aspect of life.

The book will serve as an art lover's paradise with its focus on painting and embellishment. It is an enlightening introduction to the world of miniature painting, and the description of the miniaturists at work are vivid. One gets a glimpse into the lives of miniature artists right from their apprenticeship which began when they were mere children, the lengthy and strenuous training that they underwent, often coupled with harsh punishments from their masters, before becoming masters themselves, and their inexorable loss of eyesight with age due to the extreme strain the fine painting put on their eyes. The relationship between masters and apprentices is explored, and the various aspects - that of student, son, friend and even lover - are brought to the forefront. There are extensive and minute word pictures of different works of art that are sure to delight all art enthusiasts. Unfortunately, this was the very aspect of the book that I found exceedingly tedious. I enjoy looking at works of art as much as the next person, but repeated descriptions in intricate details tire me out and take away from my reading experience. I would recommend this book only to those who are keen on reading about art for its own sake; otherwise you are likely to be as exasperated as I became halfway into the book. 


View all my reviews

Friday, July 21, 2017

Maximum City

I have a theory that with cities like Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai, you cannot be unemotional; you will either be strongly attracted to them or detest them equally heartily. These cities are living organisms by their own right, shaping and in turn being shaped by the lives and minds of their inhabitants. So when I read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, a sprawling, grandiose narrative about Bombay, I could understand where his passion was coming from.

Having left Bombay as a teenager when his family shifted to the US – the most defining event that charted the course of his life decisively, including his turning to writing in order to come to terms with it completely – Mehta came back to the city after twenty one years in search of the home he had left behind. By the time of his return though, the city of his childhood seemed to have vanished. When Bombay became Mumbai, it lost much of the serene and idyllic character that the author’s childhood memories were imprinted with. It was now a city of breathless pace, of immense wealth and power and corruption, a city of gangsters and slum-dwellers, of mad cops and madder politicians, of ravishing dancing girls and cross-dressing men, of penniless poets and millionaire businessmen on their way to diksha and denunciation. It was a city bustling with energy and aspiration, a truly cosmopolitan haven attracting millions each year with the tantalising promise of a better life.

Coming back to Mumbai after his long absence, the author realised that he was now an outsider. He was more American than Indian to his friends and acquaintances and it would take him and his family a long time to fit in to the Bombay way of things. His experience brought to my mind the lyrics of a song – “so, here you are too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both”. Yet for all those feelings of being left out, it was the American card that opened a lot of doors for the author.  A lot of people wanted to be written about by the ‘American’, from the goons and rioters to the notorious politician Bal Thackeray and even dangerous gangsters close to Dawood Ibrahim. They all wanted the same thing: that he should write about them honestly and let the outer world – the world of Americans – know of their true characters. It is this very sense of duality, paradoxes and contradictions that make the book come alive.

Mehta’s Mumbai is really two cities. There is the glitz and the glamour of celebrities and businessmen, the top echelons of the city, those living in ultra modern sea-facing bungalows and penthouses worth hundreds of crores. And then there is the Mumbai of the chawls and the jhopadpattis. This is the Mumbai of the masses, of the vast ocean of people who live hand to mouth through all sorts of dhanda. This is the Mumbai that the rioters and gangsters and bar dancers live in. This is a parallel world, a world that is often antagonistic towards the other, and yet sometimes the dividing lines get blurred. Every time there is a demand for extortion, every time an ‘encounter’ takes place, every time a director comes down to the slums to shoot an authentic scene for his or her movie, there is a coming together of two separate universes.

With Maximum City you get to visit ways of life you will probably never know yourself – the women’s committees in different slums petitioning for clean toilets, the seedy pleasure houses that cater to all sorts of often bizarre tastes, the inside stories of a high risk IPS officer’s career, the aspirations of an ordinary salesman who dreams of going to America not for himself but to bring prosperity to his family, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to the world of cinema, the world where you visit Amitabh Bachhan’s home late at night for a script reading and are on first name terms with director Vidhu Vinodh Chopra.

It may be the exotica of a world unknown and vastly different from my own, but it was the lives of the aam admi that attracted me most in the book. The strange mentality of the jhopadpatti dweller who would not shift to an apartment because he felt part of a community in the very din and squalor of his slum, the hired assassin who pulled the trigger without batting an eyelid but was unable to sleep alone at night, the gangster who philosophised about God and the universe while doing his ablutions – these are men so far away from my world as to seem almost fictional. Yet they are very human with their own joys and dreams and fears and sorrows. Their aspirations are often very simple; a better life for their family, assured meals every day, a cemented house instead of a thatched one. Their daily lives are fraught with danger and distress; in many areas Hindu-Muslim relationships are like live wires, ticking time bombs waiting to go off any minute. Yet there is still a palpable wave of hope, a promise of better times ahead. These people are as enamoured of Mumbai as their chronicler, and that is what comes through most strikingly throughout the narrative.

Almost every emotion, every situation that the book expresses remains subjective. As you progress with the narrative, you become less and less certain about distinctions. The book is all gray, with only rare glimpses of black or white filtering through the uncertainty. The same man who is hero to one group of people is Satan incarnate for another. Ideas about life and death that offer one character solace remain absolutely reprehensible to another. You become increasingly aware of the relativity of good and bad, and are cautious about tagging anyone as evil. Your mind is opened to alternative explanations, and you are slow in forming opinions.

In a lot of ways, Suketu Mehta’s Mumbai is a microcosm for the Indian way of life as a whole. There is the coming together of a motley mix of religions and cultures that is so peculiarly Indian. There is the simultaneous existence of the frivolous and the dead serious, the riches and the rags, the East and the West, the absolutely materialistic and the intensely spiritual. The binaries of life and death, of good and evil, of the mortal and the divine are omnipresent. Indeed, Mehta’s Mumbai is Maximum City, city of extremes, more city than many others taken together.

You have to give this to Suketu Mehta, the man worked hard for his project. He left no stones unturned to get first person accounts from these people, people who very often live in the peripheries of civil society. He visited the slums to know their living conditions first hand, interviewed seasoned gangsters and killers at considerable personal risk, pulled all sorts of strings for all sorts of people and amassed a treasure trove of experiences, stories that he then wove together with infinite finesse and sensitivity, giving the text a throbbing, pulsating life of its own.

Suketu Mehta’s style of writing is very pleasing. There is the perfect blend of humour and solemnity that makes you laugh at the right places and ponder often. The undulating account of the many lives gives a sense of movement, a certain restlessness inherent to the traveller, making the book as much about the author’s own state of mind as about the characters he portrays. He has remained true to the people’s own ways of speaking, so that each character is brought to life through the dialogues. The titles to the chapters are strikingly evocative – from ‘The country of the No’ to ‘Powertoni’, ‘A City in Heat’ to ‘Sone ki Chidiya’ and ‘Goodbye World’, the names stay with you long after you have finished reading the book, like a pleasant aftertaste.

Ultimately, Maximum City is a book about the urban noir. It is a book about polarities and peculiarities and extremes. You will not find the stories of ordinary middle-class people, whose lives are safe and predictable in their regularity. These people with comfortable jobs that allow them to live in comfort and occasional luxury. The middle class professionals who form a major part of every Indian urban space are significant by their absence in this book. The author must have found too little matter of literary interest in their lives to include them – in fact, the occasional mention of this class comes when he talks about his own school days and some of his friends around the city, but only in passing compared to the study he has made of the others. For this reason, Maximum City fails to be a complete and authoritative work on the city of Mumbai. For all its intensity, it remains a selective account.

A fitting conclusion to this review would be a quick reverting to what I began the essay with. Cities like Kolkata and Delhi and Mumbai, you either love or you hate. And your feelings about the place are likely to translate on to any book you read about them. When I finished with Maximum City, I was mighty pleased and strongly recommended the book to my father. My father is the one person who has overwhelmingly shaped my own tastes in literature and we very rarely disagree on books. Yet he tells me he is finding the book quite revolting. Never one for big cities, he hates the long descriptions about the heat and the crowd and the criminals and the dirt and grime, and says that he might have to give up on the book before long. Funny how these things happen!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Goodreads

When I started blogging seven years ago I used to write much more often. Over the years the number of posts have dwindled, and I can offer no better excuse than to admit rather shamefacedly that I have grown lazy. However, in my defense, I do write in a couple of other places on the Internet now. And seeing as I still apparently have a number of faithful readers who seem to wait for my posts even when they appear only about maybe twice a year, I think they might enjoy going through  some of my writings in these other sites. I will probably link them all here, eventually. For now, I will start with my Goodreads reviews. I discovered Goodreads many years ago, and I must say it is a useful website for those who enjoy reading. They let you keep a track of the books you are reading, have read, and want to read in future. I've even found a couple of good recommendations via Goodreads, which is saying something since I already have Dad and his vast personal library. I have lately taken to reviewing each book I read on Goodreads, partly so that I can come back to these later, and partly to keep up my writing habit. These reviews are between two-liners and a few short paragraphs, so all serious reviews are still kept as proper blog post material. Still, I think some of my readers will enjoy reading these short updates, and hopefully discover a few books that they want to read themselves.

I am not one who worries too much about readers' comments in general, but for these book related posts I will break with tradition and urge you to comment. I would love to hear from anyone who has already read these books or even plan to anytime soon. Do drop in your thoughts, even if they are just a line to mention when or why you read these books, what you liked or disliked about them, or if you have any book you might want to recommend to me, or anything at all that crosses your mind really, as long as they are book-related thoughts!



A Room of One's OwnA Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the greatest pieces of feminist writing of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own should be on the to-read list of everyone who wants to get a balanced, well-thought-out feminist point of view on women's intellectual life preceding and up to the early 20th century. As somebody who rather dislikes much of the so-called feminist ranting that is so rampant all over the internet today - ranting that reeks of privilege and misandry and showcases very little commiseration to their truly oppressed sisters - I found Woolf's writing not only refreshing, but greatly enlightening. The book, an extension of a lecture titled 'Women and Fiction' delivered at Newnham and Girton, explores the very many interpretations of the title; the myriad meanings and interpretations that 'women and fiction' can hold fascinates the author and gives rise to a chain of thought where she explores women's intellectual lives - real and as represented by men - over the centuries. Starting out with examples of the widespread barriers to women's liberation still very much present in contemporary England from her own experiences in Oxbridge, Woolf goes on to talk about the overflowing of literary opinions about women and their activities as expressed by men and the unfortunate lack of women's writings till before the 17th century. She explores the contributions of early playwrights like Ephra Behn and the effect her courage and enterprise had on later generations of aspiring women writers. Moving on to the 19th century, she compared the relative skills of Jane Austen, the Bronte sister and George Eliot, commenting on how their oppressive prospects often marred their geniuses. Eventually the conclusion she reaches, or rather, an idea that pops its head every now and then throughout the narrative, is the idea of economic emancipation of women as vital to their creative proliferation. And so the idea of a room of one's own and 'five hundred pounds a year' come alive in their urgency.

The narrative is a wonderful read and a delightful study in stream of consciousness. I might even go so far as to say that this surpasses The Old Man and the Sea in that respect, though it may be unfair to draw a comparison between works of so vastly different subjects. It is a page turner in its own way, and at a hundred odd pages, this can be finished over the weekend or even one long evening if one puts one's mind to it. This is a book that should definitely not be missed.


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