Monthly Archives: September 2007

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part III

Continued from Part II:

Two very compelling tales involve Jehangir, the “Bulsara Bookworm”. In “The Collectors”, he’s the boy whom Dr. Mody takes a fancy to. Shunned by other children of the Baag for his quiet, introvert nature, he finds solace in philatelic sessions with Dr. Mody before his ultimate disillusion on a false accusal and Dr. Mody’s untimely death. I had written about this piece in the review for “Storywallah”, which chose “The Collectors” because it is the most isolated story from “Swimming Lessons…”, not only because of minimal cross reference to other characters, but also since it introduces Jehangir and the infamous son of Dr. Mody, Pesi Padmaroo, of whom we hear time and again. Earlier, I had neglected to comment on an important aspect: a reference to the emergency during Indira Gandhi’s tenure at the helm. There’s a small yet significant incident, when Patla and Jhaaria Babu, the street vendors outside Jehangir’s school, are rounded up and thrown out of the city, as a consequence of the drastic measures of garibi hatao drive to sweep out the pavement dwellers of the city. Both Mistry and Rushdie expose the horrors of the emergency through the plight of the defenseless – Rushdie is virulent in “Midnight’s Children”, but Mistry’s elaborate theme under the emergency raj, in “A Fine Balance”, extracts its tragedy more poignantly.

Jehangir grows up, a not too confident college goer, and falls in love. He also marvels at the “Exercisers”, whose rippling muscles he desires to touch, as if to compensate for the feebleness of his own existence. He is overpowered by his daunting mother casting a jealous shadow, preening him away from his love. Yet he is not short of compassion for his mother, when he explains to the girl who loves him, his reasons for returning home at the cost of spoiling an evening – “…I’m doing it because I want to, because her life has been troubled enough, because I don’t want to add more misery to it.”

There is tenderness in the way Jehangir chooses to become the sacrificial lamb.

 

 

Mistry is a wonderful storyteller, and “Swimming Lessons…” keeps one engrossed. He slowly unfolds the joys and miseries of the ordinary residents of Firozsha Baag in an extraordinary way. We laugh at the obnoxious Rustomji, commiserate with Jehangir and share Kersi’s nostalgia, building up the jigsaw with pieces of their lives. If there’s one drawback, it’s the thematic similarity conveyed by a sense of loss in almost all the episodes (Almost, because “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag” and “Squatters” are in a lighter vein). Yet, this is not really a drawback, since it does not take away the variety in the stories themselves.

 

Concluded

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part II

Continued from Part I

Through two other stories, Kersi tells us more of his life. In “Of White Hairs and Cricket”, we see a silent, growing rift between him and his father. Every Sunday, Kersi’s father asks him to remove white hairs from his head using a pair of tweezers, a task that Kersi detests. He recollects earlier days, when Sunday mornings meant his father taking the Baag children to play cricket in the Marine Drive maidaan. Kersi remembers how his father had “taught him to be tough”, how once he had cheered Kersi’s valiant fielding on stopping a ball from reaching the boundary with his bare shin, how he — rummaging among classifieds — dreamed of getting a new job, how Kersi had wanted to give him a hug when his father had suggested him to go to America, saying “Somehow we’ll get the money to send you. I’ll find a way.” Disillusioned, Kersi walks out on his father, shunning hair-plucking duties. Later, overcome by guilt on seeing his friend’s (Viraf) discomposed father, a remorseful Kersi notices for the first time his father’s vulnerability, how he looked “tired, shoulders drooping and with a gait lacking confidence”. The illness of Viraf’s father opens his eyes. Yet he is unable to express his love and gratefulness to his father. This is the first of the three stories narrated by Kersi.

In the second, the title “Lend Me Your Light” inspired by a Tagore poem, Kersi is a little older, having freshly immigrated to Canada. It’s a story of degeneration of childhood friendship between Jamshed and his own brother, Percy. Jamshed, from a wealthy family, is in a socially different class than the brothers. He immigrates to the States around the same time as Kersi goes to Canada. The friendship between Jamshed and Percy, built in childhood on the shallow foundation of records and toys, cracks under the differentiating weights of their social outlooks on growing up. Jamshed turns into a crass bourgeois, venomously critical of India in a showy, superficial way. Kersi wonders why this is so, why Jamshed refuses to enjoy his visits to Bombay although his situation in life had changed. Percy grows up to be a social worker, devoting himself to community work in a small village. He is no longer keen to meet Jamshed, whose presence irritates and embarrasses him. Kersi, to whom Jamshed was merely a childhood acquaintance, is himself thrown off by a scathing letter from Jamshed criticizing Bombay after his visit. Later, during his own visit to Bombay, Kersi is unhappy to discover the truth about Bombay, that it indeed was “dirtier than ever”, just as Jamshed had mentioned. He had become unused to it. He compares it to a soldier’s experience in the trenches after being away from the lines for a while. But he does not understand Jamshed’s disdainful attitude. Eventually, the brothers sever all ties with Jamshed, unable to bear his “soul sapping” presence in their lives.

Part III

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: Mago, Homosexuality!

To give readers nuances of Bengali life, Vikram Seth uses some clichés, like a mother awed by Tagore and the household poetry of the Chatterjees. This doesn’t come off as too tiresome, since Tagore was(and still is) a tremendous influence in Bengal and art and literature have a significant place in the lives of most cultured and educated Bengali families like the Chatterjees. One thing that strikes a discordant note however is the use of the idiom “Mago”. Not only it appears stilted and unnecessary in its excessiveness, it is also rendered incorrectly. These are two separate words: “Ma”, meaning mother and “go”, which is a term of endearment. “Go” is also used in other ways, like “O’ go” – in which a husband calls a wife (or the other way round), and in exclamation, such as “Ma go, what a mess!”

Some have argued that Maan and Feroze are gay partners. Maybe. But just because they share a bed on one occasion simply doesn’t imply it. What’s of far greater consequence is their magnanimous friendship. Maan saves Feroze’s life from a raging mob. Later he stabs Feroze, almost killing him. Yet Feroze forgives him, knowing the true Maan behind the delusional madness of the moment that had spurred the knifing. It simply blows any kind of sexual overtones to dust. In context, it should be noted that physical closeness, like holding of hands and laying a hand on another’s shoulder is common among close friends in India, or at least used to be during book’s times. It cannot in anyway be misconstrued for sexual intent.

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part I

“Swimming Lessons…” is a collection of eleven short stories by the accomplished Rohinton Mistry. Being a Parsi himself, it comes as no surprise that he should choose a Parsi residential society as the setting. Although they can be read individually, the stories are interconnected through recurring characters and incidents – like Pesi padmaroo and his antics and Nariman Hansotia with his trips to the Cawasji Framji Memorial Library. Unlike the old, crubmling blocks of Firozsha Baag, the lives of its residents – adults and children, men and women, owners and servants – are rich and interesting.

Rustomji of Block A, a bitter old lawyer blessed with a thoughtful, caring wife much younger than himself, is called Rustomji the Curmudgeon – a name given by his fellow resident Nariman Hansotia. The children of the Baag, always in the shadow of his squabbles, lap it up. We see a slice of his life on the “Auspicious Occasion” of Behram Roje. The rather comical nature of the story, starting out with Rustomji trying to free himself of constipation and constantly being delayed in his visit to the fire temple that he finally has to abandon due to a ghati (a derogatory term, used by Rustomji, for people of the Western Ghats migrated to Bombay) spitting tobacco juice from the bus on his dugli, is punctured in the end with the murder of a priest. As he laments on the state of the world, we realize that there’s a tender, pensive side to the “tough exterior” of Rustomji that his wife adores.

“One Sunday”, Francis the homeless errand boy for many Baag residents turns into a thief. Driven to desperation by his hunger and poverty, he sneaks into Najamai’s flat in her absence – Najamai the widow gossip monger of the colony whose daughters study abroad and who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in Block C, exchanging favours from her neighbours in letting them use it. But is Francis really a thief? We wonder through Kersi, the young Boyce boy who lives downstairs and volunteers to catch the perpetrator, but feels guilty of turning in the hapless Francis. We have a hunch that there’s more to Kersi than merely smashing rats with his cricket bat. This turns out to be true when Kersi reemerges as the narrator of three more episodes from his own life and times.

Kersi is the voice of Mistry himself. This is evident in the last story from which the book derives its title. Here, Kersi, having immigrated to Canada, tells us of his experiences through various anecdotes – the tale tattling Portuguese woman(reminding him of Najamai), Berthe, their big Yugoslavian building superintendent with her son and husband, the suntanning ladies, racist slurs(“Paki, Paki, smells of curry”) and straying pubic hair at the swimming lessons. These are interspersed with third person glimpses of his parents in India. Through his letters they come to know of his life in Toronto. They are delighted on his becoming a writer and take turns reading his book sent by post, despite his father’s regrets that there were other more worthwhile subjects on Parsis than the weird lives of the Firozsha Baag residents that he could have chosen to write about. This is a nostalgic piece, where Mistry reflects on his own life.

Part II

Divisadero by Michael Ondaajte

divisaderoIn Divisadero, his new book, Michael Ondaajte traverses the lives of three siblings who grow up together and are separated after a traumatic experience. In parallel, he also explores the life of a relatively lesser known(possibly fictitious?) French writer.

 

Spoiler warning: If you’d rather skip the plot, click here.

Anna and Claire are sisters, not by blood, but by adoption. Anna’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father, in a gesture countering the loss of his wife, adopted another baby born in the same week and whose mother too had died. Coop, otherwise an orphan after the brutal killing of his family, is elder to the sisters and was adopted earlier as a farm hand by their father. Life is serene in this farm near Petaluma, California, with milking of cows, riding of horses and herding of cattle, till Anna falls in love with Coop and the two are drawn to each other like magnets, eventually to be discovered by the taciturn father, who, in a fit of rage, brutally attacks Coop. Anna, unable to believe her father’s violence and in the hysteria of her lover’s annihilation, stabs and injures her father. This singular event separates not only the young lovers, but also Anna from the rest of her family. She runs away and so does Coop, although their own separate ways. Claire remains with their father in the farm. Their lives take different turns and it is these journeys that we are led through.

Anna, now a published scholar of European literature, is deeply traumatized by the incident. She tries to wipe out her previous incarnation. She changes her name and makes no attempts to knit back ties with Claire or her father. Yet she is haunted by her past, her fondness of Claire, her days of love with Coop and the bloody aftermath, to such a degree that she has had no steady relationships since. She devotes her life to the pursuit of the lives of others. We see her in a remote French village called Dému, demystifying the life of early twentieth century French writer Lucien Segura. Here, living in Lucien Segura’s last home before his death, she meets Rafael, a carefree gitan (gypsy) who had known Lucien Segura. Rafael had been a child then. Rafael’s unsophisticated, frank yet mysterious ways stirs in Anna a yearning that had been long absent in her life.

Cooper becomes a gambler of sufficient adroitness but insufficient reserve. He teams up with Dorn, Dorn’s wife Ruth, and a few others in Tahoe and plan to rip off a formidable group called “The Brethren” in a game of Poker. They meet in Vegas and do eventually beat “The Brethren” through Cooper’s sleight of hand, which goes undetected. But their deceit is given away in Cooper’s childish display of bravado. Cooper, Dorn and others part ways, knowing that they would forever have to stay away from the major gambling venues of Las Vegas and Tahoe. Cooper goes to Santa Maria, near Los Angeles, lying low. But not low enough, since a gang tricks him, using a junkie called Bridget, as a bait. They want to use Cooper. But Cooper, knowing the consequences of retribution against a known swindler, refuses. After he is followed, cornered and threatened, Bridget in a sudden move stabs a syringe full of drug into his neck. Cooper then loses his memory.

Claire lives in San Francisco, working as an assistant in the Public Defender’s Office for Vea, a state lawyer. Vea is also her mentor. She enjoys working for him and is close to his family. She also visits her father at the farm during the weekends, briefly seeing him and then enjoying the countryside on horseback. She bumps into Cooper in Tahoe, when Cooper is already in the shadow of his pursuers. Sensing something wrong, Claire traces Cooper’s residence to a rented lakeside chalet, and discovers him in a bruised, amnesiac state. Cooper is unable to remember past events, although his motor memories are intact. He can drive a car, but can no longer remember anyone from his past. Claire helps him recuperate and tries various cues to reclaim his memory to no effect. They evade Cooper’s pursuers and spends some time with Dorn’s family, after which Claire decides to take Cooper to the farm to meet their father. There is a hidden hope that the old world might stir something in Coop’s dormant memories and bring him back.

The book has three sections, the first two of which mainly traces the lives of Anna, Claire and Cooper. The third, unexpectedly and entirely, devotes itself to the life of Lucien Segura, a French poet and writer whose life and work Anna peruses. One is led through Lucien Segura’s secluded life – his boyhood with his mother, accident with a dog that permanently disfigures him, his unexpressed adoration of Marie Neige, the difficult yet romantic lives of Marie Neige and his reticent husband Roman, Lucien’s marriage and his daughters’ romances. There are glimpses of the first world war where he serves as a recorder of events, and during which he falls ill(diphtheria) and after which he abandons his family. He travels, looking for a home to spend the final years of his life, and befriends the gitans(Astolphe, his wife Aria and their son, the boy Rafael), eventually settling in Dému, by a river. There, through of a series of novels in memory of Marie Neige and Roman that he writes in pseudonym, he attains fame. Eventually, he dies in a boat accident.

The narrative is non-linear, jumping forwards and backwards in time with no boundaries between events, yet with an invisible, self-evident layer of separation between them. One expects the Claire and Cooper reunion to be supplemented by further denouement, perhaps in the last few pages. But that never happens. Another surprising aspect of the work is the free mixing of first-person narrative with third. In fact, Anna, who begins the story in first person, later appears again in third person. The rest of the characters are expounded in third person.

The third part of the book, titled “The house in Demu”, is what elevates the work from a regular, straightforward piece to one with hidden, intricate connections. One could easily perceive two different books – the first in the accounts of Anna, Claire and Cooper and the second in the life of Lucien Segura. Yet they are joined, through events in the past and possibilities of the future. Here, Ondaajte is very successful in knitting together disparate tales segregated in history yet giving the reader a sense of connectedness. Yet the pain of the solitary artist, though present, is not very poignant unlike Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The most moving part of the book is when Lucien returns from the war to their home, weak and tired, looking for Marie Neige, and in his delirium imagines her bedridden with illness and cares for her – feeding her and carrying her to the barn as she wishes only to discover the next morning that there really was no one there, that Marie Neige had died a year ago.

The theme of the book could very aptly be summarized through a quote from itself:

There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”

 

The title “Divisadero” is referred to once, almost vaguely, as the name of the street in San Francisco where Claire resides. Spanish for “division”, it seems a relevant choice for witnessing the separations in the lives of the characters.

Midnight’s Chlidren by Salman Rushdie

Introduction and Theme

midnights_children1.jpgBefore disbursing trite compliments and proposing it as a masterly work of postmodern literature, it must be explained what sets this book apart and why one must attempt to read it. I deliberately use the word “attempt”, since it is not an easy book to read. Not for everyone. A category of readers, and this by no means reflects on their depth or level of erudition, will drop the book after a few pages or chapters, or even doggedly complete it despite finding it painstakingly difficult, to never return to another Rushdie work again. The reason is mainly due to the narrative style, which takes the reader on a journey through the twisted alleys and grimy side streets of the narrator’s perception. Through these murky and sometimes unreliable paths one must piece together the events and characters that surround his topsy turvy, magical life – a life that came to being at the same time an ancient country was split into two by forces of greed and opportunism.

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, the narrator, to Padma, who takes care of him and eventually proposes marriage. Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight of August 15th, 1947, possesses a remarkable gift – an extra sensory nose – which imparts upon him telepathic powers. He uses it to commune with the other children born with the nation, each with preternatural qualities of their own. One is a sorcerer with saucer like eyes, one an alchemist, one a time traveler, yet another a master of the vanishing trick and so on – the magnitude of their versatility increasing with the closeness of their time of birth to the midnight hour of that fateful night. Saleem and Shiva(in some ways his rival) are both born at the stroke of midnight, one with the gift of “noses” and the other, of “knees”. Saleem forms a league with these extraordinary children through a weekly meeting that he conducts in the head. He calls it M.C.C (Midnight’s Children’s conference) – where all the children(five hundred something) tune in and talk to each other. He suffers from the “optimism disease” of foreseeing a new India, a truly democratic country where secularism is supreme and poverty is eradicated. Instead he is greeted with wars and personal tragedy that tears his life apart. His life, along with those of the children, is tied to that of that nation. They are “both masters and victims of their times”.

 

Political Context

The novel spans the time from India’s independence(although there’s a significant portion attributed in the beginning to Aadam Sinai, Saleem’s grandfather, and his descent from Kashmir) till the period just after the emergency(1977) under Indira Gandhi. A reader with no background of India’s political history in the twentieth century is at a serious disadvantage and will fail to put things in perspective. In fact, knowledge of the partition and formation of Pakistan is also crucial to truly appreciate the book. Rushdie visits the Indo-China war of 1962 and the two wars with Pakistan, the first over Kashmir(1965) and the second which led to the liberation of Bangladesh(1971). The events leading to the second Indo-Pak conflict, during which the narrator’s family had emigrated to Pakistan and taken Pakistani citizenship – is dealt with in details, from Pakistan’s tactical ploy to undermine the subversive Awami League leader Mujibur Rehman to the actual war itself, through the perspective of Saleem and a band of young soldiers as part of the ludicrous “canine unit”.

Rushdie is bitterly critical of the emergency(1975 – 1977), lashing out at both Indira Gandhi(referred throughout as “The Widow”) whose desperation for power led to a virtual totalitarian state, and his son, the “labia-lipped” Sanjay Gandhi who, although unelected, undertook extreme measures to drive his mother’s “garibi hatao” movement – uprooting the helpless poor and forcefully implementing vasectomies in the name of birth control. He is equally critical of the supine opposition in the Janata Party and it’s senile, urine drinking leader Morarji Desai. who eventually became the Prime Minister of India after Indira Gandhi is swept out in the post emergency elections.

 

Literary Aspects

The language is rich with vivid metaphors and pregnant imagery. There are farcical elements that makes one laugh at their ridiculousness when used with such apparent sincerity. Can you imagine a game of hitting a spittoon with betel juice squirted from the mouth, or a person killing people with immensely powerful knees? Saleem’s own face has a fiercely cartoon like semblance – with a bulbous nose (I was reminded of Rastapopoulos, the Tintin villain), missing hair(“baldy”) and discolorations(“map face”). There’s also great irony forming the backbone of the story – Saleem himself is not what the real Saleem and Saleem’s son is not a true son but a true grandson (I will not dispel the vagueness of these statements here for fear of giving away crucial parts of the plot). Symbolisms are inlaid throughout the work. Saleem and others of the M.C.C are the children of hope, of a newly independent India. Yet twenty something years later when the nation reels with war, corruption and despotism, Saleem’s son is born in stupor, a mute spectator to the stifled world around him. There’s the “black mango” leading to Saleem’s discovery of his telepathic abilities, the jar of pickles in Mary Pereira’s pickle factory, Saleem’s extra sensory olfactory skills, Tai Bibi’s smell recreation – the book is replete with such evocations. There are nostalgic recollections of Bombay, Rushdie’s (and Saleem’s) home town, where our hero returns in the end to find his fond reminiscences of the city – their estate, hoardings and shops – replaced by flyovers and skyscrapers.

Reading this work is like taking a bumpy ride in a dark tunnel, guided only with a glimmer bright enough to reveal the tracks underneath. While the tunnel is solid like the historical facts, one is unsure of what to expect in the journey, just as Saleem’s own life throws one off balance. Rushdie employs magic realism, a literary device that freely blends supernatural and real events, to a tremendous effect. Orotund words are sprinkled effusively yet efficaciously. And there are gems of aphorisms waiting to be discovered, such as this one:

“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”

Style and syntax is effortlessly bent to suit the flavor of Indian-English. Such masterly control of the language over such an extensive length(Knopf’s hardback Everyman’s Library edition is 589 pages) is a feat befitting one awarded the “Booker of Bookers”. Yet it is arguable if such a style can really wield the magic of reaching the very depths of one’s emotions. The heaviness of the language and complexity of the narration, no matter how great the literary accomplishments, circumvents the direct path to one’s heart.

© 2007 mystic-wanderer

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: A verse in its honour

Here’s rhyme dedicated to Vikram Seth’s mangum opus that I recently concluded. Honestly, the last three lines are more for the sake of the poem and do not refelct my actual feelings. Though managing such a bulky(and mine was hard-bound) book is irksome(just think of carrying around outdoors), one does get used to it.

A fine novel you have, Mr. Seth,

at times it does take away my breath

just wondering of its very size.

I must say it is extremely wise

to bring to life such rich characters,

leaders, idlers, bards and barristers.

Through people, culture, trades and cities,

astute comments and subtle witties

you prove yourself a gifted writer.

But if only the book was shorter

I could wield the work with bit more ease

So next time could you shorten it please?

 

 

© 2007 mystic-wanderer