21 March 2013

Their Language Of Love

Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499

Year of Publishing: 2013

It was despair and unhappiness that drove Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa to be a writer. Afflicted with polio as a child, she battled intense and soul-crushing periods of loneliness.

'Earth-1947', the acclaimed Deepa Mehta film which was adapted from her best-selling novel, 'Ice Candy Man', gives a fairly accurate portrait of the author's childhood consciousness. Her personal trauma, both the handicap and a failed first marriage, was what drove her to write. She said in an interview, "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written....Just the act of writing removed much unhappiness."

It must be her debilitating personal grief that lets her see the world in its peculiar grotesque forms. And yet, the author's brutal wit and ability to see people as creatures of circumstances, capable of much charm and goodness, acts as an antidote to the otherwise grim world she portrays.

The tide changed, and the author found her peace finally.

"Now that I am pretty reconciled to my life and am happy, I don't feel the urge to write." she said a couple of years ago. Perhaps that is why Bapsi Sidhwa relies on past memories, desultory meetings with random people, leftover episodes that she could not accommodate in her earlier books, to make a collection of eight short stories in her latest.

'The Language of Love' while extremely readable is not freshly inspired. These are no stellar stories, and if you've read the author before, there isn't anything spectacularly new. In fact, on first reading, you feel impatient with stories high on embroidery and garnish, and low on plot. Much of it meanders and there is a lack of a tight structure.

The raciest in the collection is 'Breaking It Up, about a mother who travels to the US to persuade her daughter to give up on her idea of marrying her non-Parsi boyfriend. The story is entertaining and gives a portrait of the community's customs and quirks. The other one is 'The Trouble Easers' , which Sidhwa borrows from the famous Zoroastrian Gujarati tale about a woodcutter and his fortune. Both stories move with vigour.

'Their Language of Love' recounts a fairly convention story of a young Indian bride who is getting acquainted with a new country (US) and a new life partner.
None of these are very ambitious. The others are languorous and essentially stories of atmosphere. Being a novelist primarily, Sidhwa tends to linger on, and describe settings in the greatest detail.

This can get tedious in the beginning, as your mind is trained to look for a plot point in a short story. But once you realise that the atmospherics and descriptions are 'the' point, you allow yourself to soak in the elaborate and luxuriant period sets that Sidhwa tenderly etches out with consummate skill.

'Ruth and The Hijackers' and 'Ruth and the Afghan' intersect with some characters slipping in and out. Ruth is an American housewife whose husband, Rick works for the South Asian division of a company and is required to travel to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The couple's house is in Lahore, and Ruth while affectionate towards her absentee husband, has a proclivity to fall for handsome and elite Pakistani men of her circles.

The setting is of the 80s, a period where a casual visit to Kabul is possible for a foreigner. Here, Ruth and Rick befriend an Afghan, a top ranking official in the government. They are quite charmed by what they see around. The ruling party is pro Soviet Russia and America is starting to get increasingly paranoid about the latter's expansionist motives. This is the time of US support to the mujahideens (not Talibans, as misunderstood), routed through Pakistan. It ultimately led to a bloody war that destroyed peace in Afghanistan forever. This is a period rarely documented in fiction and though Sidhwa's stories are personal, they are studded with many historical details.

'Defend Yourself Against Me' is a leftover piece from 'Ice Candy Man', and considers how youngsters approach their acrimonious past.
'Sehra-bai', about an ailing elderly Parsi woman is that rare story in the collection that is a triumph of characterisation.

'Their Language of Love' is not Bapsi Sidhwa's best, but it is still greatly readable, as is the case with seasoned writers. Even when they aren't in their most inspired phase, they produce work that can make the cut.

30 January 2013

Maugham and India

Maugham was a great traveller, who considered journeying as indispensable to his career as an author. Most of his inspiration came to him from his travels and Maugham ended up visiting a great many countries in course of his life. The local flavour delighted him and gave him material to write. Like 'Don Fernando', which he wrote on his travels to Spain. The entire book covers Maugham's inimitable observation on Spanish culture, art and literature and makes for a fascinating read.

His travels to China and Malay, which were British colonies then, threw up interesting settings and cross-cultural domestic scenarios that made for some unforgettable stories.

It's a pity that Maugham did not write a book on India and explore the extraordinarily lush social and political time of the British Raj. Though E. M Forster wrote a great book in 'Passage To India',  there is no doubt that pre-independence India would have laid before Maugham a fascinating array of themes that he would have absolutely loved to work with. Unfortunately for him and his readers, for the longest time, Maugham held the regretful presumption that Rudyard Kipling had already written in his numerous books all that had to be said about India. This of course was not true, and though Kipling is certainly well- known among the reading class in India, his works aren't considered the most popular or estimable. 

Maugham visited India in the winter months of 1938 and immediately realised it was a mistake not to come here early.  In a letter sent to E. M. Foster from Calcutta, Maugham is said to have written, 
"(I) only regret that the shadow of Kipling lurking over the country in my imagination prevented me from coming twenty years ago." (source: Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham). 
He came down South, visited Cochin and The Lotus Club, started by Gertrude Bristow, wife of Robert Bristow, among other places. Robert Bistow was a chief engineer who at that time was working on building a massive port in the city. The story is that Gertrude wasn't given membership to the Cochin Club, an exclusive all-White club where aristocrats hobnobbed. That prompted the Bristows to build their own club, which they did with the help of the King of Cochin. This was also the country's first anti-racial club which was open to Indians. Maugham visited this club, and also the Trivandrum library. He was joined on this trip by well-known lawyer and administrator C P Ramaswamy Iyer. At this time, CP had been law minister of the executive council of the Viceroy Of India from 1931 to 1936 and when Maugham met him he was the Diwan of Travancore. Both became friends during this trip with Maugham supplying a eulogy for the book, C. P. by his contemporaries.

Maugham wrote of CP, "He had the geniality of the politician who for years has gone out of his way to be cordial with everyone he meets. He talked very good English, fluently, with a copious choice of words, and he put what he had to say plainly, and with logical sequence. He had a resonant voice and an easy manner. He did not agree with a good deal that I said and corrected me with decision, but with courtesy that took it for granted I was too intelligent to be affronted by contradiction."
Maugham e
ven created a character called Ramasamy Iyer in his novel, 'The Narrow Corner.'
CP (centre) British officials

T'puram library

Maugham was also pleased to see so many of his books at the Trivandrum library. 
In the course of his three-month sojourn to India, he also made a trip to Ramanasramam in Madras. The journey was a tiring one and when Maugham met Ramana Maharshi, the saint, the author fainted. This accident, wrote Maugham, was purely due to the fact that he was fatigued and moreover had a tendency to faint. But the version from the worshipers present was different, and they immediately announced that the famous English writer on seeing the Maharshi had gone into the trance-like state of samadhi. Maugham laughed the episode off in his essay The Saint that he wrote years later. He wasn't critical of India or this experience but being a rationalist to the core, his tone of bemusement is evident in the narration.

When Maugham wrote The Razor's Edge, he recreated this setting in India as the place where his character, Larry goes on a spiritual journey.  Some have conjectured that Larry's character, who Maugham said was a real-life person for whom he had immense adoration and respect, was someone the author met at the ashram. This has no evidence, and it is in fact erroneous to even call The Razor's Edge as Maugham's Indian novel.  Some have interestingly compared it to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray And Love where the author travels to an ashram in India.  Only a small part of The Razor's Edge qualifies for this juxtaposition. 

Maugham visited Bombay (now Mumbai) and had a brief meeting with none other than the young Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become the first prime minister of India. This fact is revealed through Nehru's letters that he wrote to his daughter Indira (Gandhi). While Maugham's biographers like Selina Hastings have done an adequate job of covering Maugham's India visit, not one of them has mentioned this particular meeting between Maugham and Nehru. 

Up North, Maugham did not miss seeing the great Taj Mahal at Agra and was overcome by its beauty. In his book, The Writer's Notebook which carries the many scribbles he made as a writer, he says, "I can understand that when people say that something takes their breath away, it is not an idle metaphor. I really did feel shortness of breath."

Maugham was treated with a great deal of courtesy by all the royals he visited. Every effort was made to make his stay enjoyable.  There's one story of Maugham inquiring about R. K. Narayan - a new Indian writer then, who later went on to become a legendary one. Narayan's novels were being read in England, and Maugham had been impressed by one of his books called The English Teacher.  Maugham expressed a wish to see Narayan when he went to Mysore, but astonishingly, no local person knew that such a writer existed in their midst.  Maugham later wrote a glowing letter to R K Narayan, that the latter's biographer, Ranga Rao quotes, "Your story (The English Teacher) is charming and moving and curious, but what I think chiefly delighted me was the description of the home life with all the telling details that you have given. You cannot imagine how fascinating that is to the European reader. The portrait of Susila is very graceful and touching, and very, very human."

It's not surprising that Maugham found so much to like about  The English Teacher. The story is about a newly-wed couple, their blissful early years, and a bitter-sweet lover's tiff that brings them even closer. But the union is not to be, as Susila is struck by illness and dies. Maugham, who has always been intrigued by domestic relationships of man and woman, would have undoubtedly found much to delight in Nayaran's novel. 

Considering Maugham's fascination for India, it is a dear loss to us that he could not return to the country to write a full-fledged novel. Maugham of course had plans to come back. However, second world war struck and the plans had to be abandoned.

24 January 2013

Conversations with Mani Ratnam

Pages: 305, Price: 799
Author: Baradwaj Rangan
Knowing how reticent filmmaker Mani Ratnam can be, one has to congratulate writer and reviewer Baradwaj Rangan who gets the maker to articulate so well in his book, 'Conversations with Mani Ratnam' that released last month.
Rangan is an erudite film critic whose reviews stand apart from the rest as cerebral and nuanced pieces . Not everyone finds his writing style accessible, and yet, his is an opinion always worth having.

The writer originally had plans of going ahead with a standard narrative style with quotes from the maker. But after their initial few exchanges, both decided to opt for a Q&A format. This could have been dicey if the filmmaker had not opened up in the manner that he does. But as it turns out, Ratnam seems to have accorded due importance to the project and was closely involved with it.
Expectedly, Rangan is the right man for the job. It's easy to see that he is an ardent admirer of Ratnam's cinema. In an age where good Indian films are a rare occurrence, and thinking filmmakers a disappearing breed, Ratnam stands out as an auteur whom a  reviewer like Rangan would quite naturally engage with.
Mani Ratnam during the conversation seems at times impatient with Rangan for reading too much into individual scenes and situations in his films, and you smile knowingly. However, as you read further, you realise that much of what you see in his cinema is indeed well-thought out, with sub-text and so on. So him chiding Rangan for it seems amusing.
The two get on quite well, though Rangan's reverential tone is clear. At some places the director gets defensive about a certain point of criticism even if Rangan words it most tactfully. Then the atmosphere gets a bit heated up, with the filmmaker getting slightly cutting in his remarks. But for most part, Mani seems like a sharp, astute man, sometimes sarcastic but with a rough affection that is somehow touching. Much like how he depicts his male characters even when they are in love.

Rangan too plays his part admirably. He is unfailingly respectful but never desists from his line of questioning when he can help it. He persists with some points to seek answers even when Mani appears to snub it in the first attempt.
Many illuminating points come up in the book for the reader. Like why he takes the action to Delhi in 'Mauna Ragam'. It is because, he replies,  the new place - cold, strange and alien - enables in externalising the heroine's feelings about her marriage.
In 'Ravanan' - the beautifully surrealistic scene of Aishwarya falling from the cliff - works sublimely to show Vikram falling fatally in love with her.
The book talks a great deal about the craft of filmmaking, which will be of much interest to film students or even movie buffs who watch cinema with some intensity. But not everyone will summon up enough patience to go through the whole book. Divided into several parts, each section talks about one major film. This is a good move. Though the content overlaps and this could not have been helped in a free-wheeling conversation, it allows the reader to skip a certain film he hasn't seen.
I was also not particularly interested in detailed analysis of films that I didn't think very highly of. And since a great many of Mani's films do tend to be emotionally less satisfying in the end, where something somewhere seems to go wrong, the superb parts never adding up to a fulfilling whole, I must confess to getting a little exhausted with  the exercise.
Still, this is a valuable endeavour and these conversations from an intellectually gifted filmmaker like Ratnam with undeniable prowess in his field is something worth preserving.