Monthly Archives: October 2007

Shame by Salman Rushdie

shame.jpg Though the characters and events are cast in a fable like fashion, “Shame” is clearly a portrayal of post independence Pakistan, with some of its main characters replicating prominent political figures in real life, albeit loosely. Iskander (a vairant of Sikander/Alexander) Harappa is the liberal Zulfikar Bhutto, Raza Hyder, his subverter and subsequent president, the autocratic General Zia. Iskander’s daughter, Arjumand the virgin Ironpants is Benazir, though the work never spans beyond to that chapter of Pak political history. Though names are altered and lives coloured, the resemblances are unmistakable.
Rushdie takes potshots at Religious fanaticism, through Maulana Dawood and Hyder. In real life, it does seem Gen. Zia’s rule saw the revival of religious extremism. Rushdie notes:
…Islam might well have proved an effective unifying force in post-Bangladesh Pakistan, if people hadn’t tried to make it into such an almighty big deal…
Few mythologies survive close examination, however. And they can become very unpopular indeed if they’re rammed down people’s throats.

He is also critical of Pakistan’s high handed attitude towards Bangladesh – all through fictitious representation of real characters and incidents. His satire, for instance the left right dialectics tormenting Raza Hyder, is also effective.

The book has five sections, the first three serving to explore the origins of the heroes. I found them (the first three sections, that is) too elaborate, especially the one dealing with Omar Khayyam Shakil. He, though dubbed as the main hero, mostly serves as an eyepiece to view others, running into their lives. Of course, Hyder’s end comes due to Omar Khayyam’s choice, in the hands of his mothers (he had three).
It becomes gripping from part IV, titled “IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY” and continues that way till its conclusion.

Overall, it is a great read, accept don’t accept. Rushdie’s prowess as a literary artist is evident page after page, bringing great order to seeming chaos. Rich and fluid writing, full of delirium of the characters, yet carefully choreographed from start to finish, is the novel’s highlight. Magic Realism, though not as profuse as in Midnight’s Children, is nonetheless present – in the psychotic Hyder daughter Sofia Zinobia who transforms into a mythical panther and tears off people’s heads with bare hands, and Talvar Ul Haq’s clairvoyance.

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Online is fun, but offline is where it matters

        In the days of pushbutton publishing without the threat of quality control in the form of an editor, it is easy to become a writer or a critic. Yet I wonder how many sincere writers and critics, who toil the internet day after day in the hope of increased readership, will ever get to see their words in physical shape, in the blackness of ink on paper that smells of newness. The magic of the printed word – in that first story, essay or novel making it through the barbs of censure and heaps of submission – brings much joy to the heart of an aspiring writer, besides elevating one’s status with that formidable adjective prefixed to their nomination: “published author”, published still meaning the print medium.

But despite success in print, many authors today maintain an online presence, not as a source of their primary work but as an introductory platform, prompting a surfer to dig deeper, buy one’s books, or partake in discussions of mutual interest. The widespread reach and easy accessibility of the internet has rendered it a very viable and valuable source for useful literary information – from book reviews and critiques through countless blogs to lecture notes and reading topics of students and teachers. Universities use it to dispense online courses, and some, like MIT, have thrown open their cyber doors to one and all, many of their courses available for free. Here’s a link to the MIT Open Coursweare available for Literature: http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Literature/

There’s no denying the fact that the internet and its associated technologies have forever altered our reading and writing habits, enabling us to disseminate our opinions freely while making it easy to elicit information of interest. In the future, I can only see this influence grow, not only in numbers, but in the depth and quality of the participants.

However, I cannot imagine the cyber word replacing its printed counterpart. There’s a solid, timeless feel to a book that can never be achieved online. There’s also the fear of short attention spans and flickering interests deterring the serious publisher or writer. And ultimately, there’s the wall of quality that one must scale to reach “Published” heights, which of course with sufficient infrastructure is not unachievable online, say in the form of paid subscriptions.

But even there, I doubt if the user will not prefer clicking the print menu from the browser after logging in, to feel the magic of the ink on paper.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Of quotes, names and more

        I wanted to follow up my earlier post with a few things I had in mind, but could not fit in, due to lack of context and contemplation.

The first is in the name of a principal character – Dina Dalal. This is almost too perfect a nomination, yet doesn’t sound jarring or unnatural at all. In Parsi, Dina (as I found searching on the web), means judged. However, the Hindu connotation (deen) is mired in poverty or lack, just like her life. She then becomes an agent, or a dalal, for an export company to counter her situation. How much relevant could it get. Nicely done!

A character I missed was Monkey Man (his real name we never know). This is the guy whose hand is seen in the cover of the book, balancing a little girl atop a pole. You’ll have to read the book to find out more of the Monkey Man’s and the little girl’s fate, but the innocence of the photograph intended to garner pathos is utterly misleading – for the hand turns out to be that of a murderer. A murderer that society created when it took away the poor man’s livelihood and forced him into things he’d rather not have ventured into. But not all wronged become murderers, means there must have been something, a streak of madness, in him to make him cross the line. Monkey Man is another of the bizarre characters that the book is littered with. Bizarre in the absurdness of what one does to earn a living, and in the extremeness of their actions. Some of the others are Hair Collector Rajaram, Shankar the Worm and Beggarmaster. Perhaps I should also include Ibrahim the rent collector and Vasantrao Valmik the proofreader turned orator turned lawyer.

I’d like to conclude with a couple of significant quotes that I spotted. Both are from Dina’s younger life, in the earlier parts of the book (since I got too engrossed later to jot down any specifics).

 

 

The first is an excellent use of a metaphor:
There was no such thing as perfect privacy, life was a perpetual concert-hall recital with a captive audience.”

 

The second is after the untimely demise of Dina’s husband, when she’s trying to regain her foothold on life:
The road towards self-reliance could not lie through the past.”

I think I might hang this one up in a frame in my study.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you missed the Introductory bit…

A Fine Balance Dukhi, the father and Ishvar and Narayan, fed up of the oppression of lower castes, sends his sons to his friend Ashraf, so he can train them as tailors, breaking away from the erstwhile caste dictated professoin of chamaar. Narayan then returns to the village, setting up his own enterprise, his son Omprakash being sent to join his unmarried uncle Ishvar and Ashraf chacha, to train as a tailor. But Om loses his entire family when a vindictive upper caste landlord burns Narayan’s and Dukhi’s homes, decimating them. Following the annihilation, Ishvar and Om go to Bombay, to make some money before returning, planning to set up their own tailoring business.

After much searching, they finally land a job with Dina Dalal. Dina has herself fallen into bad times. A widow for sixteen years, she was managing to keep up with her home based sewing business, until her eyes began to falter. To pay for her rent, she plans to take up a paying guest and also run a tailoring business – both with her friend Zenobia’s help. Zenobia gets her in touch with a friend of their schooldays, Aban, who now lives in a faraway hill station, her son Maneck studying for a diploma in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning in Bombay. Maneck’s search for an accommodation, in the face of hostel ragging, turns out to be an opportune moment for Dina. She simultaneously receives a contract with Au Revoir exports, to stitch garments for them based on paper their patterns. All she needs is a couple of tailors, whom she finds in Ishvar and Om, themselves desperate for a job. Circumstances thus bring the quadrangle together.

Maneck and Om, despite their huge differences in backgrounds, become good friends. For a while everything goes smoothly – the orders are delivered in time, Maneck is relieved to find a new place, Ishvar and Om find a settlement, and Dina no longer has to beg her brother Nusswan for rent money. Then police drive Ishvar and Om out of their homes, their chawl destroyed under the city beautification scheme. Dina’s tailoring work suffers, but still limps along, as Ishvar and Om find a makeshift dwelling in the streets, under the awning of a pharmacy. But they are soon rounded up and driven out of the city along with a bunch of beggars, to provide cheap (free) labour to an irrigation project – another outcome of civic beautification scheme, wherein pavement dwellers were strategically eradicated. Dina’s work comes to a standstill. When Ishvar and Om return after their many travails, she is willing to give them accommodation in her own flat, letting them sleep in the verandah. Maneck, an idealistic boy, who does not believe in needless social divisions, is overjoyed. What starts for Dina as a survival strategy, to keep her business running by not losing her tailors, metamorphoses into her compassion for the destitute uncle nephew pair. Superficial customs fall apart as the four share the same food, the same bathroom, plates and glasses. Maneck is joyful in Om’s company, the two enjoying their teenage escapades.

Things however take a drastic downturn when, at the end an year of successful business and bonhomie, the tailors decide to take a vacation to their native place, to visit Ashraf chacha and to find a bride for Om, whom Ishvar is desperate to get married off. Maneck too, at the end of his diploma, decides to spend some time at home, before returning for his degree. Dina, alone, awaits their return in the hope of resuming her business, missing their presence. She remains waiting. Dreadful things happen to Ishvar and Om back in town. When they return to the city, broken and invalid, Dina has already lost her flat to her oppressive landlord. She’s back to staying with her brother – her will broken, freedom taken away. Maneck, instead of returning to Bombay, is sent to Dubai by his father, for a job. Their camaraderie is disrupted for good, with the heartbreaking fate of the tailors.

However, there is more heartbreak in store in the epilogue. A word of warning: If you feel, like me, that the book is sufficiently complete before the epilogue, don’t bother delving into the epilogue. It will depress you further, to encounter more deaths and the deeper revelation of the Ishvar and Om’s horrible fate. I’m not willing to disclose it here in my review.

Coming to the characters, Dina is the one most complete of the four. We see her as a young girl, growing up under Nusswan’s strict vigilance. The guilt ridden, puerile Nusswan, though critical at times of Dina, ultimately wants her well being. He’s always there for her – when she needs that extra money to pay her rent, and in the end when she is evicted from her flat and has no place to turn to. In some ways, Nusswan reminds me of Arun, Lata’s snobbish brother in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Both are caring towards their sibling(s), although in their own obnoxious ways. Dina’s marriage to Rustom is beautifully captured, the essence of their love disregarding the entrapments of wealth. Dina, though having become more skeptical in the hard times, has a heart of gold, as Maneck discovers in the gradual melting away of her hard outer shell, much to his delight. She is strong and independent, turning down the proposas that Nusswan brings after Rustom’s death, urging her to remarry. She remains in their old flat, braving the accompanying challenge of earning her own living, rather than succumbing to a more sated lifestyle she could have easily chosen. In the end, it is sad to see her crumble, her resistance giving way to a strange kind of peace that comes right off the pages, a sort of acceptance of defeat, a kind of tiredness in the face of insurmountable injustices she has witnessed. “I have seen enough,” she seems to say. “I don’t care anymore of what happens to me and world around.” Nusswan himself is surprised, missing the old Dina and her confronting habits.

Maneck’s character seems underdeveloped. Although we do get a sense of his isolation and depression on being away from his home and due the rift with his father, it also appears that he is a rational man, more mature than his years – from his sense of respect for Dina and from his modern ideas of marketing to resurrect their dwindling family business. This does not justify his final outcome, at least in the manner portrayed. There seems to be wide gap between his year in Bombay with Dina and the tailors, to his return nine years later (in the epilogue…there, I’ve already told you some of it!). The years in between are vital to his transformation and of which there’s simply not enough.

The Ishvar and Om characters are sufficient. One is moved almost to tears in the atrocious events befalling their cursed lives. At the same time, Mistry is successful of casting in them a philosophical wisdom, especially in Ishvar, a sense of detachment in the face of all adversities.

A few things are overdone, like the entire beggar entourage including their Beggarmaster, whom I found quite implausible. The haircollector turned psychopath turned holy man is also much too surreal. There are some mouthpieces – in Vasantrao Valmik and the Sikh taxi driver in Delhi (again, in the epilogue) – who shed some light on the emergency and degenerating political scene of the country thereafter.

The book has a prologue and an epilogue. While the prologue is very relevant and sets up the tone, unobtrusively introducing us to all the four principals, the epilogue, as I mentioned earlier, could be curtailed, without affecting the depth or completeness of the work. The one thing the epilogue does is to drive home the pain a few notches further.
Mistry’s style is extremely fluid and I’d rank him above the formidable likes of Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh in that department.

The work is substantial, over five hundred pages, or was it six hundred. Not once however it is ever tedious.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The horrors of caste system

In Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, Indira Gandhi’s emergency era is the backdrop of tragic events befalling the four protagonists, who, despite the utter hopelessness and anxiety surrounding them, find comfort in each others’ company. The story starts in the same year the emergency was declared, 1975. Indira Gandhi was found guilty of cheating in the elections. But instead of resigning Prime Ministership, she twisted the law in her favour, turning against her opposition in a despotic effort to keep her throne. Tyranny became regular fare. Public meetings and processions banned, opponents and presumed opponents thrown in jail without trial, destitute street dwellers forced out of the city ruthlessly in the name of civic beautification and garabi hatao, forced vasectomies and tubectomies in the name of birth control terrorizing the helpless poor – events with grave consequences were driven to insignificance by their frequency. In these troubled times, two low caste chamaars (leather workers) turned darzis (tailors), fleeing the oppression of their native village, go to the “city” for their share of fortunes, or misfortunes as they discover what fate has in store.

 

The city by the sea, although never referred to by name, is inevitably Bombay. The tailors did not choose to abandon their village of their own free will. They were victims of the caste system, by which upper castes have driven the lives of the so called inferior castes to horrible ignominy. Mistry brings out, with devastating effect, the unbelievable levels of cruelty humans can impart upon their fellow. Hands chopped off, molten lead poured into ears, murder at the drop of a hat – are all commonplace, the mere hint of a diversion from meaningless customs bearing extremely violent consequences for the mute, conforming lower caste communities, in the hands of the goondas bred by upper castes. The problem exists to this day and will continue to plague India unless dealt with very strictly, like racism was dealt with in the United States. But before that, India, like the United States or any other developed country of the free world, needs literacy. Only the light of knowledge will dispel the hideous shadow of the caste system tormenting the nation for centuries. Only through complete literacy will the citizens be able to choose forthright leaders, drive out spineless bastards raping the country for power, playing one against another in their shameless show of selfishness. No more caste system in India, that evil which makes many of its teeming millions stoop below animals. No more divisions on religions. No more shackles on the masses. Unite, not divide. It’s hard to believe, but true, that in the India of the twenty first century, with smart engineers and scientists sending rockets to space, there are still in the deeper pockets of its colourful garment, people who undergo such discrimination every day, and people who can can commit such brazen crimes without fear of justice. And why just in the hell holes of deep rural India? I’m sure there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing roaming the urban jungles with as much vindication in their hearts and minds. How can we call ourselves civilized knowing such barbaric prejudices in the hearts of so many of our people?

But I digress. My intent was merely to talk about the fate befalling Ishvar and Omprakash(Om) — the two tailors. But can one conscientious human possibly talk about them without first venting oneself against the system – the very real system which is no fiction for countless unfortunate souls even today? A system that can only be eradicated with more and more people like Dina and Maneck, who befriend Ishvar and Om in Bombay. Disparate backgrounds notwithstanding, the four cement a bond. Driven by circumstances, they even share a common roof, connect with each other by kindness and love – that which make us human.

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