Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times by Mahasweta Devi

Once again Mahasweta Devi has touched upon the lives of those who are never noticed, never cared for. And her pen cuts a deep wound in the minds of readers, forcing them to sit up and discern the essential from the inessential.

Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times is a touching tale told in first person of a woman, Bedanabala, whose mother used to live in a brothel. These reminiscences are sometimes personal, sometimes historical. The story begins in the late 19th Century, with the "theft" of a beautiful girl child from a wealthy family. She is Bedanabala's mother. She grows up in the house of ill repute, to be groomed to enter the profession once she has come of age. But then, Did'ma, the owner of the brothel, grows to love this beautiful child as she would her own daughter and does not want her to enter this profession. She seeks for her a life of a householder. It is story that is seldom told. Did'ma's contribution to the war effort, her donations to the fighters of India's freedom and her gifts to the mission are her way of atoning for her sins. The story is set in a changing India, an India poised on the threshold of progress and transformation. New thoughts and ideas are forming in the minds of idealistic youth and nationalistic passion runs high.

Mahasweta Devi's Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times empathises with a section of women that is misunderstood and disapproved of. She narrates the story with great sensitivity, skilfully weaving into the story a changing India and nationalism. The book is translated by Sunandini Banerjee.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke

I am almost completing “Capote: A Biography” by Gerald Clarke and my head is still reeling from the after effects. I loved the book. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I know that it is bleak considering the book is not a light read either. Capote’s life has been contained marvelously in this book. It has character and a lot of substance.

I wonder why every genius’s life is so melancholic. Capote’s life was no exception either. Abandoned by his parents at an early age he was forced to stay with his old cousins at Monroeville, Alabama and kept fantasizing about the day his parents would come and take him away. The day did come and Capote met his first love: New York City. Mr. Clarke’s description of the New York Capote grew up in and flourished as a writer is simply outstanding. You can almost see all the sights and inhale its smells. Capote – the name was that of his step-father who eventually adopted him and who Truman grew close to.

One would think that “homosexuality” would run strong in the book considering Truman’s preference; however that is not the case. What is captured brilliantly is his rise from working as a copy boy for “The New York Times” to becoming one of the famous twentieth century writers. His flamboyance, wit, anger, a streak of bitchiness, lavishness, fastidiousness and ultimately is downfall. Everything that Capote stood for is interestingly written about. Right from his affairs to his one-liners to his impulsive behaviour and his kindness [which wasn’t known to all] to the torture a writer goes through while working on a book [it took him six years to finish “In Cold Blood” which is now heralded as a modern classic] and the frustration when the accolades aren’t enough. The book successfully depicts his many friendships with the rich and the known to the downfall when he published a part of “Answered Prayers” [his self-proclaimed masterpiece] in Esquire and the characters were based on his rich friends, who did not forgive him for that.

This is the first time ever that I am reading a biography of a writer’s life and I am so inclined to pick up more biographies of my favourite writers. To want to know more about their lives. I think next on my list has to be either F. Scott Fitzgerald or Anais Nin.

Waiting and Wanting to Read…

Someone once said, “So many books and so little time” and the phrase cannot be more applicable to anyone but me. I have hoards of books to read. There are so many of them. What I fail to understand is the urge in me to read almost every single one. Why do I have this urge? Readers please answer if you know why. I for one have no clue. I have to read every Faulkner and then there is Joyce [whose books are unusually huge], Joyce Carol Oates is no less when it comes to writing volumes, and how can I leave Proust behind in the rat-race? Remembrance of Things Past still stares at me from my bookshelf every time I reach out for something else. I hate myself more for picking up a book, losing interest in it and then moving on to another. I wish I would get over this habit. I hate it. And yes I think it has become a habit now. Nonetheless here is a list [for all the lovers of lists] of books that I plan to finish reading by July 2008. Hope I accomplish the feat

· I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
· Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke
· The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
· Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
· Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
· The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
· Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
· Justine by Lawrence Durrell
· The Kingdom By The Sea by Paul Theroux
· Before Night Falls: A Memoir by Reinaldo Arenas
· Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
· East of Eden by John Steinbeck
· City of Glass by Paul Auster
· Ghosts by Paul Auster
· Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Becher Stowe
· The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia
· The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
· The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
· The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
· Music For Chameleons by Truman Capote
· The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
· The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
· The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
· Beloved by Toni Morrison
· What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver
· The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
· I, Claudius by Robert Graves
· Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
· Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera
· Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
· Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
· Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
· Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
· The Grass Harp by Truman Capote
· A Tree of Night and Other Stories by Truman Capote
· In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
· Answered Prayers: An Unfinished Novel by Truman Capote
· Lolita by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
· The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
· Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
· Ulysses by James Joyce
· Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
· The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
· One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi
· Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
· Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
· Night by Elie Wiesel
· Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
· Palace Walk : The Cairo Trilogy: Book 1 by Naguib Mahfouz
· Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
· The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
· To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
· Moby Dick by Herman Melville
· Light in August by William Faulkner
· Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
· Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
· Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
· Blindness by Jose Saramago
· Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
· If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino
· The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘CHE’ Guevara
· House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
· The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
· Claudius the God by Robert Graves
· Underworld by Don DeLillo
· Broke Heart Blues by Joyce Carol Oates
· Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
· The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
· Terrorist by John Updike
· The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
· Everyman by Philip Roth
· Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
· Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
· Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
· Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec
· No One Writes To The Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· Two Lives by Vikram Seth
· The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
· The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
· The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
· The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
· Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
· Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
· Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
· A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
· The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
· The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
· The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
· Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard
· Rabbit, Run by John Updike
· Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
· Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
· Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
· The Outsider by Albert Camus
· Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Monday, June 12, 2006

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

I just finished the most amazing book I've read this year (After Sputnik Sweetheart though) and its called "Between The Acts" by Virginia Woolf. This was the last work of a gifted genius and the first that I read of this author. Amazing! Simply Superlative to the core!The story goes like this:Written in 1939 - the year Woolf Died..."Between the Acts" is a masterpiece in its own genre. Lyrical and highly poetic, this is one of its own.

The story goes like this:

On a single day of June, 1939--with the war imminent but virtually unperceived--the action takes place at Pointz Hill, an English country house. It revolves about a pageant played upon the lawns by the local villagers. Despite her necessity, the solitary, thick-legged, masculine Miss La Trobe,who knew how "vanity made all human beings malleable," is not one of the principal characters. The chief actors are the members of the Oliver household. The head of the house is old Bartholomew Oliver, who like so many retired English soldiers has only his India to cling to. He marvels at his widowed sister's orthodoxy. ("Deity," as he supposed, "was more of a force or a radiance, controlling the thrush and the worm, the tulip and the hound;and himself too, an old man with swollen veins.") This aging sister, Mrs.Swithin, who would have become a clever woman is she could ever have fixed her gaze, is the most sympathetic figure in the book. Living with the older Olivers are Isa, the poetry-quoting daughter-in-law, temporarily attracted to a gentleman farmer, and Giles, the stock broker son, handsome, hirsute,virile and surly.
To this special group are added buoyant, big-hearted Mrs. Manresa, "a wild child of nature" for all that her hands are bespattered with emeralds and rubies, dug up by her thin husband himself in his ragamuffin days in Africa. Uninvited she drops in at luncheon, bringing along with the picnic champagne a maladjusted, putty-colored young man named William Dodge, whom Giles contemptuously sizes up as "a toady, a lickspittle, not a downright plain man of his senses, but a teaser and a twitcher, a fingerer of sensations;picking and choosing; dillying and dallying; not a man to have a straightforward love for a woman."

William tries dallying with Isa, and Giles, partly to annoy his wife, pays court to the full-blown charms of sparkling Mrs. Manresa, who confesses she loves to take off her stays and roll in the grass.

The cream of "Between the Acts" lies between the lines--in the haunting overtones. And the best of the show--the part onereally cares about--happens between the acts and immediately before the pageant begins and just after it is over. So the play is not really the thing at all. It is merely the focal point, the hub of the wheel, the peg on which to hang the bright ribbons and dark cords of the author's supersensitive perceptions and illuminated knowledge. It is in her imagery,in her "powers of absorption and distillation" that her special genius lies. She culls exotic flowers in the half-light of her private mysticism along with common earthgrown varieties and distills them into new essences. Her most interesting characters move in an ambiente of intuition. With half a glance they regard their fellow-mortals and know their hidden failures. They care less for the tangible, the wrought stone, than for fleeting thought or quick desire.
"Between the Acts" has no more ending, no more conclusion than English history. The pageant is played out, the guests depart, night falls.

The physical embodiment of Virginia Woolf is no more, but her inimitable voice remains to speak to generations yet unborn. The first line of her last book begins, "It was a Summer's night and they were talking"--The last paragraph ends: "Then the curtain rose. They spoke."
A Must Read for Everyone!!
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I believe that imagination is the particular faculty artists possess that enables them to create a new reality from the one they live in," writes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Coming from the Caribbean, though, has made it virtually impossible for Marquez to depart from reality, even with liberal use of his imagination. Marquez claims, " . . . nothing has ever occurred to me, nor have I been able to do anything, that is more awesome than reality itself. The most I've been able to do has been to alter that reality." This seems an awesome claim after reading Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which some episodes seem completely impossible. That impossible reality, however, is what, according to Marquez, gives Latin American writers the ability to create fantastic stories. The ambiguous Latin American setting of Chronicle of a Death Foretold is what gives Marquez the opportunity to use his imagination to create an altered version of his own magical reality.

The events that transpire in Chronicle of a Death Foretold hinge on the setting. Marquez is purposefully not very specific about the location or identity of the small Latin American town in which Santiago Nasar dies. He reveals that the population is small, which is very important to the plot progression. Marquez would not have been able to create the same story in the middle of a bustling city full of strangers; he needed a small intimate setting that would allow him to twist reality within reasonable bounds. One of the elements of the plot that best exhibits magical realism is the fact that everyone in the town knows Nasar is going to die without Nasar finding out until the last minute. It seems impossible for everyone to know someone is going to die without the future victim having any knowledge of his fate. Marquez has "alter[ed] reality," but made his alterations more plausible by his choice of setting.

First, Marquez presents the town as being very small and intimate. Consisting of many large and intermarried families, the town is filled with friends and family, who would spread news of Nasar's doom relatively quickly. There is also the shop in which the Vicario brothers sit to wait for Nasar. Since the town is small, it is reasonable that many of the town's residents would pass through the same store on their morning's rounds and see the two men. This makes it more plausible that everyone might hear a piece of gossip within a couple hours.

Marquez also chooses to make the residents of the town relatively poor and not disclose the exact era during which the events occur. Through these two choices of setting development, Marquez makes it possible to remove the presence of automobiles, save the one brought in by Bayardo San Romn. This lack of automobiles explains why everyone in the town walks everywhere, and lends further credence to the fact that everyone knew Santiago Nasar was going to die. Marquez's choice of setting has allowed him to create a reality that seems impossible, yet somewhat plausible, all at the same time.

The choice of setting only makes more reasonable a story line that otherwise seems impossible. Marquez may have created a setting in which it is reasonable to believe that an entire town would know a man was going to die soon. Even Marquez, though, cannot offset the mystery as to how Nasar himself could not know his fate. In his essay, Marquez speaks of "Latin America's impossible reality," so in the end perhaps it is enough to know that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is set in Latin America. There is nowhere else that such an impossible reality could be possible.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry manages to bring forth the horror and devastation wreaked by the Emergency in all its vividness through 'A Fine Balance'. The novel is both a commentary on the political and social environment of the time as well as a beautiful tragedy.

The story is based in 1975 in an unidentified city near the sea in India, riddled with poverty and teeming with beggars. Mistry places four pivotal characters in this squalid city. Mrs. Dina Dalal, 40-ish, poor and widowed after only three years of marriage. Determined to remain financially independent and to avoid a second marriage, she takes in a boarder and two Hindu tailors to sew dresses for an export company. Maneck is the son of an old school friend of Dina's who has been sent to college because the family business is failing; and the two tailors are Ishvar and his nephew Om, who have left their village in an effort to escape the repressive caste system.
The novel revolves around the interactions between these four characters. Their dreams and ambitions and the trials that they must face in life in order to achieve these. For four months, these four characters become a family. Eating and sleeping together, sharing their dreams, meals and living space. Their relationships with each other transcend inter-caste problems and barriers of caste, religion and monetary status. The cramped apartment becomes a haven from the political and social turmoil of the time. The four face various unpleasant encounters and are repeatedly saved from these by a quaint character, the Beggarmaster. The backdrop of the novel through all this is the Emergency period and the callousness of Indira Gandhi's government.

After lulling us into a false sense of contentment and security, we are reminded of the turmoil in the outside world by sudden tragedy which envelopes the lives of these four characters. On a visit back home, Om and Ishvar are forcibly sterilized; Maneck, devastated by the murder of an activist classmate, goes abroad. Dina who is unaware of all this is suddenly left all alone. She has no inkling of what has happened to the tailors and does not know why they do not come back from the village. Her immediate reaction is that once again she has been let down by people she has placed her trust in. Dina and the tailors carry on with their lives through all this because they have learnt "to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair''.

Mistry manages to relate the cruelty faced by innocents and untouchables when a "State of Internal Emergency" is declared. The characters are used to represent people from all walks of life in India. The tailors are representative of villagers. Dina Dalal, is living in urban India. The young boy is representative of the youth of India. Through their experiences we realize the implications of a repressive caste system, an intrusive and hostile government and other adversities that must have existed in the India of the seventies.

Mistry also manages to maintain a fine balance of his own. He blends bad luck with a dash of hope, egging us on - only to dash our expectations with a new set of conflicts and troubles. There is always a silver lining for his characters. He creates a masterpiece that is Dickensian in its sympathy for the poor while combining it with a celebration of the indomitable spirit of human desire and hope as well as the despair of unfulfilled dreams. The novel is a symphony of corruption, cruelty, hope, desire, kindness and despair.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

This is a splendid and much needed guide - the beautiful illustrations are worth the price. It should be stacked on your shelf next to "The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction" and "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" which are also recommended and which take completely different approaches.

"1001 Books" presents you with The Really Great Stuff . Which is where the fun starts - this is a book all readers will want to argue passionately with. Almost at the same time as I'm finding authors I'd never heard of and making "must buy" lists, I'm shouting at the editors - "what's this? You've got three in here by Douglas Adams, and NONE by Roddy Doyle? What's all that about??" I mean, Douglas Adams is good for one, but not three... And if Douglas Adams, then Garrison Keillor... Each book gets about 300 words which editor Peter Boxall describes like this : "What each entry does is to respond, with the cramped urgency of a deathbed confession, to what makes each novel compelling, to what it is about each novel that makes one absolutely need to read it."

1001 books - it's a lot. If you had the time and money to read every one at a rate of one per week, you'd need 19 and a quarter years, so you better get going. But seriously, you aren't going to do that. The pre-1700 section, in particular, is strictly for students of literature - I stick my neck out and say that very few will be reading "Euphues : The Anatomy of Wit" by John Lyly or "Aithiopika" by Heliodorus for fun. And then the dogged reader will be coming up against the rarely-scaled Everests of literature such as Dorothy Richardson's "Pilgrimage" (13 vols, thousands of pages) or Proust (likewise) or "Infinite Jest" (one volume, 1100 pages). Each of which are going to take you 6 months solid.

Odd things abound in this mighty guide. "Like Life" by Lorrie Moore is included - a collection of short stories, not a novel. So okay - why no Raymond Carver, America's greatest short story writer? And sometimes it's hard to see that the reviewer even likes the book in question - "The Secret History" is described as "quality trash for highbrows"! Or take this: "As with his other writing `The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' raises questions about the representation of female characters, and invites accusations of latent misogyny. These are valid objections that may engender fruitful considerations of this novel as a historical document as much as a work of experimental fiction." Well, that's hardly an enthusiastic endorsement. (And while on the subject of misogyny, I'm sad to see the loathsome `American Psycho' in here - the reviewer (and editor) has fallen for the old "it's ironic, it's not actually a book that revels in descriptions of butchering women" line. It may be ironic, but I'm sorry to say that Mr Ellis does, in fact, revel in vile descriptions of butchering women. So it is - extremely - misogynistic.)

Some authors are wildly over-represented, such as J M Coatzee, Ian McEwan and Paul Auster, all of which have more titles in here than Henry James. It's interesting to check if the Booker Prizewinners are included - 20 are out of 37 and there are some strange omissions - no room for "Vernon God Little" or "The True History of the Kelly Gang", "Sacred Hunger" (nothing at all by Barry Unsworth in fact - what's wrong with him?), "The Famished Road" or "Hotel du Lac". So you can see this is a guide with enough in it to annoy everyone - tremendous fun for everyone, but particularly those who have just been sentenced to a long stretch of solitary confinement.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Currently Reading:

The Heart Has Its Reasons by Krishna Sobti
No One Writes To The Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Rain by Kirsty Gunn

3 books is enough na?

I mean I really wonder when people tell me that they have been reading 5 or 6 books at one time. Wow! That must be some task now and even more to keep track of all those tales and characters.

Next up: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy [Love Anna and just drool over Count Vronsky]

The Heart Has Its Reasons by Krishna Sobti

Currently I am reading this book and I am amazed that I managed to finish almost 150 pages in like a matter of 2 days. This book caught me from the word go and I am loving it. It is the same-old trianglur love scene, but what makes it different is the setting. It is Dilli of the 1920's and the vivid imagery that Sobti creates makes you want to live in the capital city during that time. A Vakil, his wife and his mistress. Recreating the waves of love between Mehak Bano and Kripanarayan, and its impact on the home shores through his wife Kutumb, the writer summons up the troubled waters beneath a seething calm.

Amidst all this the other family members have their own stories to tell. All of them. Almost. She describes winters of delhi, the summers, the spring and of course the monsoon. With every season the heart manages to skip a little beat wanting to know further what will happen to the lives of the trio. The kids Badru and Masooma from the mistress play a defining part in the book. Their mothers' anguish is evident in their eyes and flustered emotions.

Above all Dilli plays an important role in the book. After all the city speaks about their lives like no other character can. A city of various religions. Of a bustling bazaar where distinctive sweets and namkeens, fine quilts and wedding garments, celebrate everyday creativity. Of a male chauvinistic preserve, encouraging open forays into forbidden turf. Of cloistered women who occasionally bypass shackles, often amidst intense turbulence.

Though the book is a translated version, it yet manages to rule one's sensibilities like no other. I must read the original in Hindi. I must.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Margaret Mitchell called Savannah, Georgia "that gently mannered city by the sea" and indeed, with Spanish moss hanging from the huge oak trees and the pale shine of the moon reflecting off the pillars of Savannah's stately mansions, the imagination can conjure up an idyllic setting where the clop of hooves on the cobblestone streets echo in one's mind and sweat from the glass of a tasty mint julep leaves a ring on the tabletop.

"You mustn't be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There's more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky," says Jim Williams.

If anyone would know, it's Williams. He stands at the center of John Berendt's hugely entertaining account of a city, a murder trial, and the social machinations --- high and low --- that mesh on the fringes of the politely hushed and multi-layered Savannah society.

An antiques dealer whose parties became the talk of all Savannah, Williams one day finds himself in a lot of trouble...he's charged with the murder of a young gigolo, Danny Hansford. A part-time employee and house guest of Williams, Hansford had a reputation for his violent temper and his sexual proclivity to service both men and women. Williams claims self-defense and a trial ensues.

Through a complicated mix of legal maneuvers, Williams is tried four separate times for Hansford's murder, the only man to have achieved that distinction in the Georgia criminal justice system.

As compelling as the murder story and the resulting trial are to Berendt's tale, it's the magnificent portrayal of the history of Savannah and the cast of quirky characters that people the city that make MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL so successful.
Besides Williams, we meet Joe Odom, a former lawyer, tour-guide, and piano player, whose charm and talent are only outweighed by his audacious behavior.

Luther Driggers keeps the city on edge. An inventor who failed to get rich after discovering the pesticide and process that led to the flea collar, he now walks the streets with a bevy of flies attached to his person by threads, carrying a vial of poison that he threatens to dump in Savannah's water supply.

Lady Chablis, a drag queen and performer who takes a shine to Berendt, provides some of the more hilarious moments in the book. And then there's Minerva, a voodoo high-priestess whom Williams hires to ease his guilt by calming the ghost of the murdered Danny Hansford and to bring what luck she can to his side during his legal troubles.

Yes, this is a book about a murder, but it's so much more. We can thank Berendt for taking the scenic route through Savannah in the telling. The historical facts, the anecdotes about the rich and eccentric citizens of the city, and the compelling story of the forces --- both dark and light --- that come together in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL add up to one wickedly funny, wholly evocative romp of a read.
Sula was a re-read for me and it was awesome! It was like tasting your favorite ice-cream sundae all over again. Letting the familiar flavors and fragrances wash all over you while the taste sinks on your taste buds and remains there forever. Sula is like that sundae with loads of nuts and various toppings of regret, friendship, love, betrayal and above all redemption. What made this book even more better was the fact that all the loose ends that were left untied the last time I read it, were complete and made all sense to me this time round.

"Sula" is a world in itself. A world defined by loss and womanhood. A world that is not restricted to Bottom - it could be anywhere and could occur at anytime. This book spans between 1921-1965 taking readers to a journey in the lives of two girls, Sula Peace and Nel Wright as they become friends, share secrets and make their way into womanhood. What I liked about the book was its simplicity - yeah it was simple as would not be generally expected out of Morrison's' works.

This 174 page so-called novella shows readers what it is that friendship can sometimes do and sometimes cannot. Sula Peace is one character that is so enigmatic and rich - she leaves her hometown called Bottom (which has a funny yet moving significance in the book) only to return and add to the anger of the residents. Sula is a woman of a different sort. Growing up in a poor black mid-western town, she lives in a home where men often visit, but don't stay very long. Her grandmother and mother allow men to satisfy their respective sexual desires, but don't need them in their lives on a permanent basis.

Out of this environment, and through other events in her youth (including ten years in the outside world attending college and living in different parts of the country), Sula arrives back at home as an attractive woman who, like her mother and grandmother before her, "uses" a different man every night to satisfy inner urges but nothing else. There is no love for Sula. She has exercised her freedom and independence by becoming the ultimate "player", loving and leaving them all over town, married or not. She even loves and leaves her best friend's husband, destroying both marriage and friendship.

And with nary a care. Until one day when an older man, Ajax, comes calling. He is kind but not possessive. They are a perfect match. They enjoy each other's company, and they certainly enjoy their time together in bed, but they don't need each other. They are two free spirits who can love and stay with each other precisely because their partner could care less. That is, until Sula starts to care. When she sets the table for two, cleans house, makes the bed, and "expects" Ajax to show, well, that's the end of that.

love, love, love,
makes you do foolish things.
sit alone by the phone,
a phone that never rings.
hoping to hear you saythat you love me
still,knowing, knowing, you never will.

Some pretty nasty things happen to and around Sula on the way to her adulthood of free and open choice. In freely bedding any man she chooses, she becomes hated. She is the town pariah. A witch. Evil incarnate. In fact, the whole town measures their worth, their piety in direct contrast to Sula's evil. She is their yardstick.

When she dies, when the yardstick goes away, they have no feedback loop, and fall into evil chaos themselves. Toni Morrison presents a clear view that evil makes us virtuous by comparison. In Sula, the entire town finds virtue by hating Sula.Sula, was, until Ajax, the only woman in the town who could resist the standard operating procedure, the moral code: "You need a man". To achieve that level of freedom in her time, she had to become, in many respects, the epitome of evil. Sula has to make some awful choices or sacrifices to be the person she chooses to be, to live her life as she pleases. The young Sula mutilates her own finger with a knife to prove herself a worthy opponent. "If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?"

Sula has many layers - I feel that the book was written with much integrity and a lot of afterthought. Toni Morrison observes the racial issues with such strength and vigor that the portrayal of which in the book is breathtaking. We also meet characters from her earlier books such as Tar Baby and the Deweys - which do have their significance in the book - only that it is lost after a certain point. The central link though is a drunk lost war fellow called Shadrack who comes across very strongly celebrating "Suicide Day". Toni Morrison uses Sula to help the reader analyze the conditions that have created Afro-American life in America. The picture is not always appealing, but there are some clear issues available for deep empathy and discussion.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, I happened to read "The Death Of Vishnu" by Manil Suri. I picked up this book with great trepidation. Also, on the personal front, who would like to read about a man dying? That's what I thought until I read this one. As the title goes, the narrative also comes directly to the point - that of Vishnu, an odd job man, laying dead on an apartment landing of Mumbai. This is where the crux of the story lies.

Here we meet the Pathaks and the Asranis, two arch rival neighbours; what's worse is that they share the same kitchen and each claims to be taking care of Vishnu better.
Then on the other hand there are the Jalals - the husband who doesn't believe in any religion and just wants to gain spiritualism the easy way; the son Salim who is madly in love with the Asranis' daughter Kavita (here comes the Hindu-Muslim divide).

Not to forget the Tanejas - Vinod Taneja whose wife's death has left him with so much grief that he just doesn't get out of his apartment anymore...

And what's surprising is that all these characters are intertwined with one. And the connecting factor: Vishnu! The story binds itself based on what others perceive Vishnu to be - his mother, the Pathaks, the Jalals, the Asranis, Padmini, Kavita, and others like the scavenger and the sweeper working in the apartment. There is a holistic perspective to the point that it infringes on who Vishnu really is and what he embodies for all the bystanders.
There is a singular thread running through the book - that of isolation on various levels. The Pathaks and Asranis share a kitchen, almost to the point of invading each other's privacy and yet are so distant and cold. Vishnu is dead and yet no one wants to claim him and take him to the nearest morgue. Her husband and son, seeking refuge in intellectualism and staunch belief, leave Mrs Jalal alone.

Vishnu in another realm altogether believes that he is God (or rather is made to believe that by Mr Jalal) - Vishnu, who had ten reincarnations. His love for... Padmini, his longing for Kavita, and his thoughts on living make the book one delicious course.

This book is not an easy read. There are layers and sub-layers to this course though. On the surface, things are quite simple and easy to understand, but what Mr Suri has created is something else. He has created what one might call "a quilt of emotions" - right from love to the isolation one feels in the metropolis to the bare human nature. In short, Manil Suri has created a Universe in an apartment of Bombay - a city so huge and yet so cold and distant. So uninviting.

The spiritualism as one would expect from this book is on many levels rather ambiguous and unclear. In the sense that while the author tries to portray the elements of reincarnation and giving up on worldly pleasures - like Mr Jalal often tries doing - it all is actually a mockery of the same. One of the redeeming features of the book is that it is not written from an outsider's perspective. It is carved by an Indian living in India and breathing the air, which was what Vishnu did. An ordinary man elevated to something extraordinary to satisfy the superstitions and religious notions of the upper notches of society. This is where the element of comedy throws itself in your face.

The prose is certainly clever; however, the ending is left hanging. Possibly the author expects the reader to decide that for himself. In many ways, this resembles a grand chorus from a huge and wonderful comic opera, with all the inhabitants of the building singing at once. And underneath all the voices wailing about their personal concerns is the insistent bass of Vishnu as he prepares to die. Dealing with the most basic aspects of religion, love, and human kindness in a city setting which challenges its inhabitants to the limit, Suri creates a warm, funny, and very human drama of a every man's search for meaning in life.
Suri writes with obvious affection about a Bombay perhaps already lost, evoking easily its moods and attitudes, its light and smells. One can almost feel the heavy evening sea breeze, taste the roasted peanuts sold in paper cones along the sea wall, or see the Maharaja looking down from the Air India hoarding. A Bombay that rings true with its Irani Cafe, cigarettewalla, and radiowalla. Manil Suri's sharp eye for detail and natural ability to create a strong sense of place and time define his considerable talent, and one can look forward with a certain assuredness to its maturing in his promised books on the other two Gods of the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Shiva.