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.