Category Archives: fiction

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks – 

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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

MarriageBureauforRichPeople

I read Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy over two years ago. Yet many of the characters, even lesser ones – like Mahesh Kapoor, remain vivid in my memory. I can almost see the man when I close my eyes and try to imagine a scene from the story. One could argue that it’s unfair to compare with “A Suitable Boy”, where Seth left no stone unturned in developing the characters, where even lesser ones are given meticulous attention and volume to help the reader eke out in their minds, the flesh and blood aliases. The point I’m trying to make is this: without interesting characters, or even apparently ordinary characters cast extraordinarily by the author, a book – a work of fiction that is – will not leave a mark in the reader’s imagination. Mr.Zama’s debut novel is such a book.

There’s no need to brace yourself – I am not going to flay the author. Even today, with the plethora of publishers and writers, it remains quite hard to get one’s work published (and I don’t mean on the Internet). That, in itself, is quite an achievement. One needs persistence (let’s forsake talent for while, we’ll get to that in a bit), and some luck. Sometimes luck alone works. Zama probably has both. At least, this book is not as cheesy as Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (source of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire). What it is is a mixture of excoticism (with an overdose of spices), avuncular wisdom, a paean to secularism, a jumble of none too memorable characters (except perhaps Aruna) all afloat in a drama devoid of any significant conflict, a probable cause being Mr. Zama’s over inclination to resolve all problems, and resolve them fairly easily. There, I’ve violated my promise, but it was unavoidable.

At times, the book reads like a manual for Indian cooking:

“Aruna’s mother lit the second ring of the gas burner and put an aluminum pan on it. She poured a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil was hot enough, she took out an old round wooden container. She slid the lid open on its hinge. Inside, there were eight compartments, each holding a different spice. She took a pinch of mustard seeds and put them in the oil. When they started popping, Aruna’s mother dropped cloves, cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick into the hot oil. She added a small plate of chopped onions to the pan. The lovely smell of frying onions filtered through the kitchen and into the rest of the house”

…and this goes on for another paragraph. I mean, come on! Almost any major city of any consequence has an Indian restaurant, and with YouTube and the zillions of recipe websites, one no longer is in awe of popping mustard seeds and the smell of fried onions in spices. These so called tactile mechanisms are a bane and detract the reader, but perhaps there’s a selling point that I’m missing. Through such deviations, mediocre writing, and failing to latch on to the potential latent in the Aruna character, Zama’s work never really picks up, stuttering on through its three hundred odd pages, letting in too many inconsequential people walk in through Marriage Bureau’s doors. Mr. Ali, Mrs. Ali – why not just use their names? And their son, Irshad – I was hoping to see some real conflict when he was arrested in a protest against farmland acquisition. But Zama fritters away that chance too, and with the bloody battle of Singur still fresh in many a mind, what a miss it is.

Now, talking of talent, one doesn’t expect every Indian author to bear the promise of a Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh. We have become, are becoming, a more and more egalitarian society, with most of us finding it easier to accomplish one’s heart’s desire – be it launching a startup company, scuba diving or writing. This is a good thing. Seriously, I mean no irony or cynicism even if there’s a whiff from my take on the book. There’s a playing field for everyone, and that’s how things should be. Now as far a reading goes, it is fair to say that one needs to be choosy in this avalanche of media, and finding a good book to read (and that of course, as many might quickly point out, is purely subjective) remains difficult, for talent, unlike opportunity, is less common. Read the jackets carefully, sometimes they help. The “About the Auhor” section at the end of this one says –

“…He works for an investment bank and writes on his commute and sitting in front of the TV after dinner.”

I wish I had read it prior to my venture. Now that I have, I am not surprised of the outcome. Quite an achievement, Mr. Zama! (See, I didn’t use his first name at all in the essay, barring the title. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?)

Rating: 2/5

Booker longlist announced

The Booker longlist is out: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1252

Their website says that the long list was chosen from a total of 132 books. Curious, and and unable to find it on the internet, I’ve emailed them a query for the list of all the 132 books – part of the reason is to find out which (if any) Indian (or diaspora) authors were considered. Wonder if I’ll hear back.

The only author whose work I’ve read (that too a single, but singular, book) is Coetzee. Amazon says that the book is not yet available, and not a blip on my library either. Yet.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

unaccustomedearthAn alternative title to Unaccustomed Earth could very well be-“The distraught lives of Bengali Americans”. It is no secret that Lahiri writes about Bengali Americans, their travails and search for identity. It was the prevalent theme in the much vaunted “Interpreter of Maladies.” It was the same theme expanded into a novel in “The Namesake.” In “Unaccustomed Earth”, she continues down the beaten track.

 

Somerset Maugham’s characters were mostly English. In the preface to “The Razor’s Edge”, he was somewhat hesitant, having chosen to write about Americans:

 “I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. … I do not pretend that [the characters] are American as Americans see themselves; they are American seen through an English eye.”

 

Rohinton Mistry’s characters are middle class Parsis in Bombay. Thus it is only natural that Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis. But it doesn’t end there. Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis in New England. More specifically, Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis who grew up in the Boston area, often tied to academics, references to MIT, Harvard, Boston not infrequent. Also, there are two kinds of characters in Lahiri’s works – isolated, second generation children of immigrants torn between the past and the present, and disenchanted, first generation parents out of place in a society they had chosen but are unable to reconcile with. Wait, there’s a third kind – quiet, judicious Americans observant of their lives. And in “Unaccustomed Earth”, she digs deeper into this pattern, at the risk of being repetitive to the extent of regurgitation.

 

This is not to ridicule her writing. Her prose is meticulous, uniform, chiseled to perfection. She is particularly gifted in turning out melancholy stories that are poignant without being sentimental. To me however, most of the stories in this collection lost their resonance, simply for the fact of having read all her earlier works. The quality of her writing is not nearly enough to lift the book beyond the monotony of repetitive themes. Yet two stories stand out, signaling what Lahiri, as a serious, thoughtful artist, is capable of.

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth is a two part book, the first, larger portion devoted to five different stories in the same flavor, of which the opening story is truly extraordinary. Part two, Hema and Kaushik, is a novella, which, if surmised as a sign of things to come in the future, bears the promise of newness.

 

The title story is based in Seattle. Being a Pacific Northwest resident myself, scant references to its landmarks were gratifying. That of course in not the source of the story’s ingenuity. What Lahiri captures beautifully is the landscape of three very different generations – father, daughter, and grandson. We find an estranged, septuagenarian father pulled by the novelty of a relationship with another woman after the passing away of his wife, and drawn to sharing the joys of his only grandson at the same time. The pain of seeing children drifting away is powerfully expressed in a father’s rumination.

“He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamored of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things.”

 

The story does not ponder upon life and death but merely touches them in passing. Yet Ruma’s awe in her son, and the deep loss she feels in the absence of her mother, manage to evoke something profound.

 

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times-simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now-that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.”

 

It is portals such as these that elevate the story above its predictable, cloistered theme. Lahiri’s unencumbered prose touches a reader in the recognition of the universal, in way that is simple and powerful.

 

 

 

“Hema and Kaushik”, as the title suggests, is a love story, but one quite unconventional. It begins in the manner of many of her narratives-Hema’s first person reminiscence of her childhood, when Kaushik and his parents put up in their home upon their return from India. There’s a notable difference, in the inclusion of the second person, addressed to Kaushik. A trend breaker-I cannot recall her having used it earlier. But there’s more.

Chapter two of the three section novella shows a totally different point of view-with the adolescent Kaushik now in the first person, as we discover the upheavals in his life in progression. The concluding segment then switches to third person universal, where the principals in their adulthood, having grown up to be very different individuals yet similar in never having found the love of their lives, temporarily converge before the final, heartbreaking end. The final epilogue, barely a page, returns to Hema again, her realization of a permanent loss. The shadow of Kaushik in her life is obliterated by fate, as she herself steps into the mundane, by choice.

 

Here is a writer breaking out of the mould, with the freshness of an experimentation that is both controlled and assured. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of change-at least in narrative style if not themes, for it may lead to other things. It is about time.

Behind the words

I have just begun reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”. The back cover caught my eye. It is not that I haven’t seen her picture before, and was caught unaware by the fact that she is good looking (quite photogenic too). But the way photograph has been rendered, she could pass for a model, or a film star. While only a fool would buy a book based on an author’s looks, there is no denying the fact it has become increasingly common to flaunt it if you’ve got it, and perhaps even if you haven’t. So what if JL was a buck toothed hag with a De Niro mole on her nose and about as photogenic as a crow? I am sure that the photograph would be either missing or much subdued. What I am not so sure of is whether this is a phenomenon chiefly pertaining to women writers. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, one must learn not to take blurbs on book jackets seriously. The photograph merely makes up for the missing ones, and enhances the rest. One shouldn’t unduly bother with correlations between their fulsome promise and the quality of the actual writing, which, in this case, is surprisingly high.

 

jhumpalahiri

 

A writer of the caliber of JL needs such accoutrements only for those who have not experienced her earlier works, most notably “Interpreter of Maladies” – a gem of a collection. I admire her unornamented style, very much contrary to the glitzy marketing snapshot, but equally, if not more, arresting. She’s a shining example of what talent and a good writing school degree can do to someone with luck. The luck factor is of course required for winning fame and recognition, awards. And her good looks are only a part of her good fortunes.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

seaofpoppiesTo read an Amitav Ghosh novel is not merely to get a glimpse of the best of contemporary Indian writing, but also a snapshot of an oft-ignored episode of history. The “Sea of Poppies” is no exception. After a somewhat lukewarm tryst with Sunderbans and the Gangetic Dolphin (Hungry Tide), the first novel of the Ibis trilogy is a tour de force.

 

Ghosh has a talent for suspense. The ghost anecdote from Calcutta Chromosome is still vivid in my memory, and certain parts of Shadow Lines gave me goose bumps. The climax of this work sees ample use of this prowess, and leaves one breathless. But the best sections of the novel, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the transformation of Neel – from the squeamish Raja Neel Rattan Halder to the denounced convict resuscitating an opium addict, as if in redemption. The abjectness of Neel’s incarceraton hits one with a retching effect, such is the power of his prose.

 

To read the novel is also to get a glimpse also of the beaten-to-death issue of caste system. So many people have written about it in so many different ways that it has become a cliché. So is the Kalua character and his escapade with Deeti. Ghosh however adds a linguistic tribute to Bhojpuri, the language spoken by the shipload of girmitiyas (indentured laborers) being transported to Mauritius:

 

“… of all the tongues spoken between the Ganges and the Indus, there was none that was its equal in the expression of the nuances of love, longing and separation – of the plight of those who leave and those who stay at home.”

 

This is immediately followed by what I think are the best lines of the book:

 

“How had it happened that while choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

 

What an awesome metaphor!

 

Another beaten-to-death theme of many post colonialists, the ills of colonization itself, is given a poignancy that blatantly stares us in the face and raises unanswerable questions for the guardians of so called modern civilization. The British in the eighteenth century attempted to freely sell opium in China. In today’s context, it is tantamount to allowing the drug lords of Columbia a free rein in the streets of LA. Yet, in the name of the free market and God, the British fought two wars with China over opium trade. Here is how the Mr. Burnham character, a businessman of the East India Company, justifies it when Neel questions him on the moral implications of opium trade:

“…the antidote for addiction lies not in bans enacted by Parliaments and emperors, but in the individual conscience – in every man’s awareness of his personal responsibility and his fear of God. As a Christian nations this is the single most important lesson we can offer to China – and I have no doubt that the message would be welcomed by the people of that unfortunate country, were they not prevented from hearing it by the cruel despot who holds sway over them. It is tyranny alone that is to blame for China’s degeneracy, sir. Merchants like myself are but the servants of Free Trade, which is as immutable as God’s commandments.”

 

Swap poppies with petroleum and the Emperor of China with Saddam Hussein and it sounds very much like George Bush and the Iraq war.

 

Noam Chomsky in his arguments often states that the standards set by developed Western nations are not the same when it comes to judging their own actions, that somehow they are above the very principles by which they hold others. When Neel is sentenced and every bit of his property seized, he has similar thoughts on the virtues of English law.

 

“There was something about this that seemed so absurd to Neel that he had to drop his head for fear of betraying a smile: for if his presence in the dock proved anything at all, it was surely the opposite of the principle of equality so forcefully enunciated by the judge? In the course of this trial, it had become almost laughably obvious to Neel that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr. Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins.”

 

The hypocrisy is further elucidated with Captain Chillingworth’s candid admission:

 

“…We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretense of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

 

 

In many ways, Sea of Poppies is a departure from his earlier works. It has a new publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, no doubt, but also a substantial chrestomathy in the appendix, as a reference to the eighteenth century British India lingo (sea faring and otherwise) used extensively throughout the book. While one can understand why bawarchi became bobachee and Pollock Saug the anglicized name of the popular dish, the ubiquity of such terms appear needless to me. I do not think that the novel would fall short, in the veraciousness of its context, with a lesser profusion of such nuances. Such background is really part of an author’s research and flouting it to the reader serves little purpose in a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a marketing ploy or an effort to optimize content for audiences with only a dithering knowledge of India or those inquisitive of the arcane. Is it also a marketing ploy to not publish the entire trilogy at once? My argument is, if Suitable Boy was suitable for it, why not this? The counter side is of course that Ghosh might be at work on the rest and was unwilling to wait as long. The sale of three volumes is certainly more enticing than one while appearing less onerous to the reader as well.

Another departure is a hint of magic realism. Deeti’s vision of the Ibis and her future does not appear to have an equivalent precursor, except perhaps in Calcutta Chromosome, which again is a different genre altogether.

Also, the generousness of humor is a markedly different approach. Nob Kissin Pander and Doughty doubtless attenuate the grim events, but their deliberateness seems quite intended. The Glass Palace, whose scope this work emulates, has a far darker tone.

 

At the end of the novel, one sees a chapter in the lives of the characters coming to an end, but there is a distinct undertone throughout the book (references to Deeti’s shrine) which does not see fruition. There is also a general inconclusiveness — of Neel in his new avatar, of the fate of Zachary and Paulette’s love, of Deeti in isolation, of Kalua and the band of mutineers fleeing Ibis. This is the buildup to part two, which I fervently await.

 

*Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker*

Literary potshots

In Fury, a Salman Rushdie character (Prof. Solanka) flays Hemingway, calling him the “most effeminate” of novelists, or something to that effect. It suits Rushdie, his writing leaning towards the opposite spectrum of literary style.

A few years down the line, Rohinton Mistry writes in Family Matters –

“…Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”

– obvious references to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Mistry makes up for it when Yezad is immediately penitent:

“…He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust…”

 

It is interesting to see some mudslinging between authors, through their own medium, a license to criticize one of the small pleasure’s of a writer’s life.