Uncoupling I

The clutter chokes as she offers coffee. Her hands shake:
flowers in the rain from the previous night, the soft petal face.
She pauses on giving the cup, dips her fingers in the salt jar,
sprinkles textures from her mottled skin on cooked okra. When
knuckles clink on porcelain, the materiality of his waiting ends.

It is known he must not wear a tailored garment: robed
in self-imposed seclusion, not a stitch on the body. Breathing
deep he moves across the small space, picking one rice grain
after another for the silverfish burrowed in the old book crusted
in time and dust, seed and sod, breath and saliva.

She holds against him for wanting all she desires. That is a sting,
the razor snips his curls, the silver mined in dense forest—
white horses on a moonless night. There is no space for two.
She cooks, slices moonstones of baby radish
in the tamarind broth of muddy thoughts as he takes the path.

He recants forms, the shape and texture of her throat once
translucent as a lotus stem, an old woman’s pouch now. When
she lifts her feet to cross the threshold, he turns away to burrow
in the pastel core of silence, looking intently at the emptiness
as the air decants with the freedom of uncoupling.

The Pity

Pieta: a mother cradles a grown man.
A woman carries her father, scrawny limbs
drape her breasts. She hefted strained muscles,
coiled in the heart nerves frayed with grief

for a journey bypassing the town marked
by death – the end comes at a different time
to each person unlike the year when the plague struck,
took away the brother and sister the same day.

Why is a graveyard called a burning forest?
When I married into the family I learned
to discern the depth of sorrow in the way
dust swirled into a hurricane under chairs.

The slats crusted with mercurial light,
a string of shorter questions flapped in a line
of thought dried out in the yard: weighty
wetness upended between poles of pain.

Books Of 2009

I do not recall in what order I read my books through 2009. But there had been some reason why I read certain books together, sometimes there was a link that lead me from one book to another though they were of different genres, reading of certain books had been prompted by my state of mind, while a few others were because I had read reviews of them.  I had undertaken to read Conrad after reading the inspiring blog of Beth, I read Amitav Ghosh’ s Sea of Poppies as a counterpoint to Conrad’s Lord Jim. I know I still haven’t cleared the best books of Conrad, shall continue to read Conrad through 2010. I want to begin rereading alongside Conrad either Dostoevsky or Thomas Hardy.

Here is the list of books I read in 2009
Stranger to History  Aatish Taseer
Empires of the Indus : The Story of a  River  Alice Albinia
The Immortals  Amit Chaudhuri
Sea of Poppies  Amitav Ghosh
Hotel du Lac  Anita Brookner
Providence  Anita Brookner
The Prodigal Summer   Barbara Kingsolver
Curfewed Night   Basharat Peer
The Art of Happiness   Dalai Lama
In Other Rooms , Other Wonders  Daniyal Mueenuddin
Somewhere Toward The End  Diana Athill
Atonement  Ian McEwan
On Chesil Beach  Ian McEwan
Enduring Love   Ian Mcewan
Saturday Ian McEwan
Nostromo   Joseph Conrad
Chance   Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim  Joseph Conrad
Victory   Joseph Conrad
Burnt Shadows  Kamilia Shamsie
My Family and Other Saints  Kirin Narayan
A Pedagogue’s Romance  Krishna Kumar
The Japanese Wife  Kunal Basu
Authentic Happiness  Martin E. Seligman
 Happiness  Mathieu Ricard
The Wasted Vigil  Nadeem Aslam
The Private patient  PD James
Snow Leopard  Peter Matthiessen
Abandon  Pico Iyer
The Open Road  Pico Iyer
If You Don’t Know Me By Now  Satham Sanghera
Q & A  Vikas Swarup
On Beauty  Zadie Smith

Books that I read soon after they were published were Immortals, Stranger to History, The Wasted Vigil, Curfewed Night, Empires of the Indus,  In Other Rooms, , Private Patient and Burnt Shadows .

Amit Chaudhuri’s novels are remarkable for their minimalism, the bulky 300 odd paged novel The Immortals  feels in spirit like a haiku.

PD James crime novels read like a piece of literature, her readers savour her beautiful turn of phrases, her ponderings on life and follow the psychological motives that drive her characters. PD James was 88 when she published Private Patient in 2008, the novel can be bracketed as one of her best along with In the Holy Orders and Taste of Death.

Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is as beautifully written as his earlier novel Map of Lost Lovers. The Wasted Vigil set in Afghanistan spins a dark tapestry of violence, repression, betrayal.  The novel at a level communicates that history forcefully buried as in the Taliban Afghanistan, breathes through the pores of the earth – an ancient stone Buddha lying buried keeps a vigil over the wasted land.

I read Curfewed Night, Burnt Shadows, In Other Rooms, Stranger to History  and Empires Of the Indus  because I was impressed by the reviews they received.

Curfewed Night is an inside story of a Kashmir that the rest of India does not know, it is a disturbing picture of the India that we do not want to acknowledge – an India that initiates crackdown on innocent civilians and keeps them indefinitely in custody, an India that uses its power to hold the valley in terror through military brutality and blood curdling tortures. 

Burnt  Shadows is a beautiful novel spanning six decades and five countries – from the U S  bombing of Nagasaki  to the post 29/11 bombing where history appears to come a full circle. The story travels ambitiously from Japan to post British era India to Pakistan smoldering from partition, the Pakistan in the 70s & 80s, to Afghanistan where CIA backs Mujahideen to resist the Soviet power and to the USA paranoid after the 29/11 bombing. At the centre of the novel is Hiroko, a survivor and in its truest sense a world citizen. She is a Japanese who falls in love with a German translator, at his death she travels to India where she marries a Muslim, she chooses Pakistan as her home and lives there as a second class citizen, she mothers a son who is trained by the Mujahideen, she finally moves to America where she follows the fate of her son who is waiting to be shipped to Guatanamo Bay.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut collection of stories , In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is undoubtedly the best of the books I read last year. Set in modern Pakistan Mueenuddin is as adept at representing the urbane upper middle class  as he is in sketching a Pakistani landlord from Punjab or a poor labourer from that region. There is a distinct ring of Chekov’s pathos in his stories.

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia serves more than a travel narrative. Alice starts her journey from the delta of River Indus and travels upstream in search of its origin across Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern India to Tibet. She travels back in time to trace the histories of the cultures that this river has birthed, she tarries along sunken tributaries to document the history of forgotten communities. Her narrative is not linear as she moves across times and places and her erudition comes through the densely written book.

Stranger to History – Aatish Taseer, son of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, uses his embattled position to search his roots and construct his identity.

I had read Anita Brookner in my college days, and I chose to reread her two novels to see what I feel about her books now. The female protagonists in the two novels are middle aged like me, still I could not relate to their angst. I wonder if her books lack the timeless quality that you find in Conrad, Hardy, George Eliot, Jane Austen.

I was struggling with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, my friend suggested that I read On Beauty. I liked the book, and without regret a
bandoned White Teeth (I hate pulling out of books, I generally plod through them with grit). On Beauty is such a beautiful book that I felt I had to drop White Teeth.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam had such an impact on me that I had been meaning to read his other novels, I managed to read four of his novels last year. I began with On Chesil Beach and followed it with Atonement, Saturday and Enduring Love.

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite writers, I have read many of her works. I felt inclined to re read Prodigal Summer  last year, will re read her Poisonwood Apple sometime this year.

I read Vikas Swarup Q & A after all the hullaballoo over the Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire that was an adaptation of the novel.

My friend who owns a bookshop recommended If You Don’t Know Me By Now. She kept calling me repeatedly to go over to look up the top-knot guy’s book. If I had refused to buy the book, she would have lent the book for me to read, she was so taken in by the book. A few months later she called again to tell me about Somewhere Toward the End. I went over and picked the book, and at both instances I have not been disappointed.

I read Kunal Basu when I was in between two books, I did not complete all the stories at one go, but stretched it across a couple of months. I chanced on My Family & Other Saints by serendipity, I was searching for some other book in a bookshop. Kirin Narayan has penned a beautiful memoir that makes you roll with laughter and moves you to tears all at once. 

As Director of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) Prof Krishna Kumar’s views on education in India is perceptive. I enjoyed Pedagogue’s Romance, and have begun reading Prejudice and Pride that compares the way a period in history is presented for school children in Pakistan and India.

One morning, feeling very low, I began reading Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. I opened the book at random and read a page here and one there. Very soon I started the book from the beginning and found myself reading while traveling to work, while waiting for my computer to boot, while sipping my tea.

Soon after that book I read Pico Iyer’s The Open Read which is an interesting biography of Dalai Lama. Back to back I read books which I feel in spirit were a take off from Dalai Lama – Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Snow Leopard. The only digression at that time was Pico Iyer’s Abandon, a beautiful novel of romance. In spirit, this book which is about the sufi poet Rumi, is very restive that it went with the temper of Dalai Lama.

Reading Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’

It makes a world of difference to read Lord Jim after 20 years. The novel was a prescribed text in my Masters Program at college, I remember reading most of the novels of Conrad soon after and a tome of literary criticism on Conrad’s works. Most often in a college program we read a work of fiction/play /poem through various lens, so there was a colonial reading of Conrad, reading Lord Jim as a romantic novel, as adventure fiction, psychological novel, as a modernistic novel, we read it for its stylized structure and much more. There was always this anxiety to see the layered meaning of the novel.

Now I have no such anxiety, I read the book for the sheer pleasure of reading. The book evoked the predictable responses it did that many years ago, though in a muted way because of what the passage of time has done to me as an individual. I, in fact, read the same book from my college days, a yellowed paperback where I have liberally marked with pencil in the margins – ‘honour’, ‘morality’, ‘guilt’, ‘imagination’, ‘isolation’, ‘romantic’ – superficially, tags that I used as pointers for preparing essays; but at a deeper level those were the frames where, with a feeling of awe, I froze the tragic hero Jim.

Jim is a slave of his imagination, illusions, romantic longings; he lives a major part of his life in his head. As a young water clerk he imagines saving sinking ships, quelling mutinies, but during his first training to be a sailor he fails to spring into action at the sight of a coaster crashing through a schooner on a wild weather day. This acts as a prelude to what is to come, the omniscient narrator wastes no words and time to imply that Jim is ear marked for a life of tests and tribulations.

The novel can be divided into two – Patna and Patusan. Patna is the ship that takes eight hundred pilgrims to Mecca, Jim joins the crew as a chief mate. The ships runs over  something and sustains a dangerous leak. The native pilgrims are sleeping and the four white crew members, one being Jim, abandon the ship and escape in a boat. Jim who had been waiting for opportunities to show his heroism has missed a lifetime chance. Jim had been paralyzed into inaction by his imagination of the impending tragedy. Before the minute of catastrophe he lives in his head to the last detail the sinking of the ship with the 800 pilgrims in the cold waters. Even in the boat he hears the cries of the pilgrims as they sink.

At one level Jim groans over his missed chance and wasted opportunities – here we see a twenty four year old romantic fed on holiday literature of adventure and heroism, not realizing that reality always falls many notches below the ideal. He sees himself as different from the other crew members, he sees their influence as a dark force that willed him to jump into the well of disgrace. At a very important level he fights the assaults from his conscience on his moral standing. This makes him seek for atonement and retribution, he searches for a mission that is unalloyed by coarseness of purpose.

This search lands him in Patusan a forested island in the Malay Archipelago, a land bloodied and ripped apart by warring factions of people – the Malay Tunku Allang, the treacherous descendant of the Sultan who wants to consolidate his power base and establish his monopoly over trade; the Bugis who are immigrants from Celebes, this race is headed by Doramin and his son Dain Waris, who are friends of Stein ( Jim is sent to Patusan by Stein to manage his trading company), and Sherif Ali an Arab sailor who with his men terrorizes the Bugis and loots the land. Jim, the white Lord descends into this Inferno to restore order and peace in the land.  This could well be read as another trip in his romantic journey.

Was it a quest to be a hero that drove him to the sequestered island?   Marlow the narrator of Jim’s tale says, “ The conquest of love, honour, men’s confidence – the pride of it, the power of it, are fit materials for a heroic tale.” Vey soon Marlow adds, “I affirm he achieved greatness; but the thing would be dwarfed in the telling, or rather in the hearing. Frankly, it is not my words I mistrust, but your minds.” Marlow fixes his glance on the readers accuses us of sacrificing our imagination to feed on a story, to fix on the ‘externals of success’ –  reprimanded we realign our understanding of heroism. Jim routs the Arab, establishes peace by reconciliation, builds bridges. He fights with an urgency of purpose and a conviction to establish stability; in the process he gets a larger than life image where ‘his word was the one truth of every passing day’. His battles are not pantomimes of his notional heroism that he read in books, Jim sees clearly that he is in no romantic situation as the jungle threatens to creep in and overwhelm him. In the end when he visits the bereaved Doramin and is prepared for any punishment that the grieving father will inflict, he goes with a complete knowledge that there are no heroes.   

Problems with Lord Jim
The novel is exclusively Jim’s. He is isolated not just by his moral predicament but he is the isolated white man working his destiny among the natives in a distant land. The people and the land are used as mere props all through the novel, this becomes very problematic.  Jim is best described in the company of other white men like Marlow and Stein, and his relationship with Malays, Bugis lacks dimension.

The lands Jim visits are a blur, the people of the land are a smudge. Most of the places he visits do not have names, not even fictitious ones – it suits Conrad to keep mentioning eastern ports, eastern seas. The place the Inquiry is held may very well be Bombay because there are references to people with caste marks on their foreheads, there is a reference to a Parsee firm, there is a sprinkle of words like punkah,  annas,  gharry-wallahs, and a tokenism through a one line mention of Hindu belief in reincarnation which sounds irreverent. He compares the pilgrims in Patna to animals packed in a pen; he writes, “800 pilgrims were driven on board”, and they gratefully “surrendered to the wisdom of the white man”.

In the section on Patusan, characters like Doramin and Dan Waris who are portrayed sympathetically, or Sherif Ali and Tunku Allang who are painted as devilish, or Jim’s half caste girlfriend Jewel whose only refrain is ‘they always leave us’ lack the intellectual and emotional breadth that Jim, Marlow or Stein are portrayed to possess. The people in Patusan are consistently single dimensional, they are not even caricatures –  caricatures of characters like Cornelius and the Captain of Patna offer a relief, the people in Patusan are not credited with even that.

Folds on Doramin’s bulk arrange and rearrange themselves every time he is mentioned, the only emotional dimension of Doramin is his love for his son and his desire to make him his successor. Dan Waris is mentioned as Jim’s fine friend, as valuable to Jim as Marlow. This rings hollow because the story does not support this. The author only states, but is not able to show the depth of their relationship.

Conrad describes the land, the physicality of the people but cannot understand the depth of their souls to write about the choices they make. Despite all the action that takes place in Patusan, the place appears unpeopled. This is because we do not hear the voices of the people, their stories, their myth
s, their folk lore, the language they speak, the songs they sing, the nature of their dreams.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea Of Poppies                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          &nb

In this context, I read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies as representing all that Conrad chose to leave out. Sea of Poppies  tells the story that  Lord Jim  left unsaid, story of the diverse people, from rascals to rajahs to impostors to outcastes to Devis who travel by Ibis, a one- time blackbirder, a ship that transported slaves. These characters inhabit the noisy underbelly of the ship; they might be packed like animals but nobody can stop their animated voices, they tell their tales, sing their songs and hold the notion of their home through their shared histories and stories.

Reading On


I was introduced to Indian poets and authors while in school. I read Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, contemporary poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Keki N Daruwala, Dom Moraes before I got to read serious Indian novelists. R K Narayan and Anita Desai were exceptions though, I soaked myself in Narayan’s novels ‘The Guide’, ‘Bachelor of Arts’, ‘The Financial Expert’. I started reading Anita Desai a little later; while other Indian novelists like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Manohar Malgoankar and Kamala Markandeya had to wait till I began college.

New Century Bookhouse located in Mount Road, published books written by Russian authors. They undertook translations of Russian writers in Tamil, writings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin were translated in Tamil for propaganda of Marxist ideology. The books were dirt cheap, booklets with collected essays of Marxist thinkers could be bought for a song. One could buy the Tamil translation of ‘Das Kapital’ for twenty rupees, and small booklets cost ten rupees. Since profit did not drive the publication of books in New Century Bookhouse, books written by great authors like Tolstoy, Pushkin, Maxim Gorky, were affordable. 

I bought hardbound volumes of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, ‘Anna Karenina’ , and Gorky’s ‘Mother’ from New Century Bookhouse and those were the first of my collection of books. I was about fifteen when I read ‘Anna Karenina’. I remember reading the book during a summer break from school. I became engrossed in the plot of the story, the diverse threads of the plot kept me hooked, the characters cohabited with me through the long hours that I read the book every day. 

Anna reminded me of strong women characters from the novels I had read, especially Catherine of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and  Maggie Tulliver of ‘Mill On The Floss’. Like them I found Anna Karenina sensual, restless, agonized by a world that she found inadequate, searching for a dream that vanished like vapour. These three women die in the end – that was not the only fate they share; though they were diverse people living through circumstances very different, they were like sisters because they dared to embrace the forbidden, fatally. 

I had never enjoyed historical fiction, and that was why I could never proceed beyond a few chapters of’ ‘War and Peace’. I could complete reading Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’ though I found it dreary and uninspiring. I found ‘Mother’ dated, working in a specific socio-political context that I could not relate to.

I was near eighteen when I started reading Dostoevsky, I was overwhelmed by intense energy that his novels ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘Idiot’ represented. Though writing in mid 19th century, I found Dostoevsky a modernist in terms of his thinking, themes and style. His novels were a psychological probe into the human soul, his brooding characters were tormented by existential angst and spiritual turmoil – they anticipated Freud, Jung, Kafka, Milan Kundera in my reading oeuvre. 


This post is inspired by Beth’s ‘How We Read’. It took me back to the time when reading seemed to be the only thing I did, especially back to my college days. I decided to do my grad program in English Literature so that I could read more and more books. I was so naïve about the courses offered in a University, more so I was fed up and impatient with Science, Math, History, Geography, the tests and exams that came in my way of reading. 

Reading as an activity began when I was nine /ten, late when compared with reading habits of children of this generation. (There are many reasons for that, and it will require a post by itself.) I started with comics, the Amar Chitra Kathas. These were many comics bound together into several volumes that my mother borrowed from the library of the school that she worked as a teacher. When I was nine or ten there was only Higginbothams in Madras and the only book that my father bought with great attention was the Oxford English Dictionary which was thumbed well by everyone in the family. Landmark with its children’s section for books came a generation later. 

After Amar Chitra Kathas, I moved to Enid Blytons (Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Tower) , Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Perry Masons, Hadley Chase. These books were the only ones circulated in School Library and the Local Lending Library. I was then in Grades 6 and 7, I finished a book in a couple of hours, and I had to wait a week to take another book. Few of my friends, all avid readers, exchanged their books for mine, and I finished about seven books a week and the school library could not keep up with our thirst for more. 

Despite this frenzied reading along with school work, I felt inadequate. It was then, sometime when I was in Grade 8 that my mother introduced me to Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’. I acquired a new meaning to reading. For one, I realized that I could not tumble through this book the way I did with the earlier ones. It seemed like I was reading a different language, the story belonged to a different world. There were large parts that I did not understand; still the world the book represented seduced me in a puzzling manner. When I finished the book, I knew I could not go back to the type of books I had been reading earlier. 

My mother gauged that the transition to serious reading was tumultuous though I didn’t accept it. She recommended that I read Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, she kept harping on the surprise element in the story that would box me. She regretted having introduced me first to Jane Austen, ‘Rebecca’ she felt might have provided a smooth transition. My mother personally was very fond of the book, she had seen the movie as well. I wanted to read other books of Daphne Du Maurier, but the school library did not have any.

I decided to try the other classics in the library. Through the next two years I lived my life out of the bookshelf that my friends seldom visited. I read Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, more of Jane Austen – ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Northanger Abbey’, ‘Persuasion’, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, George Eliot’s novels. I had completed the entire major women novelist from the shelf. I kept away from Dickens, Thackeray, Thomas Hardy – they seemed formidable and for another day. 

Marks Of Brilliance : Nikita Lalwani’s ‘Gifted’


How do schools define competence and performance? Fearing that children will be left behind in the competitive world, teachers/ parents want their young wards to dent an identity in this faceless world through academic success. In secondary grades and high school, academic excellence connotes high level of numerical intelligence, an impressive proficiency in pure sciences, a spattering knowledge of social sciences, and a language proficiency that aims at using English as a tool of communication.

How much do adults – teachers and parents – coerce young minds and spirits to perform better? What if a child does not size up to the desired level of performance? I ask these questions myself as a parent of a 14 year old. My son is in grade 9, this means  that he has to suddenly grow up, understand that the world is a difficult place to live, hear that he will have to grab the world by the throat even if he does not understand the import of it and mouth eloquently what he aspires to be. This will merit him approval.

I am a very normal mother, anxious about what will happen to my son in this extremely competitive world if he is too laid back. This sounds trite, but this is how I feel. Out of this anxiety I urge him to work harder, steering him towards finer proficiency in math, sciences, social sciences and languages, in that order.

So in what way am I different from Mahesh Vasi, the overambitious father of the child prodigy Rumi in the novel ‘Gifted’?  I might be just a watered down version of Mahesh. One should ask my son for that. Don’t all adults in some way shove into young spirits an adult’s perception of performance and success? Is this violence on the sensibilities of young spirits and minds?

It is in this context that I read Nikita Lalwani’s novel ‘Gifted’. Lalwani’s debut novel gravitates around the child genius Rumi Vasi whose mind is inhabited by numbers. The child draws comfort from numbers; she decodes the world that she finds hard to handle as a coloured in a white society, through numbers. She is gifted announces Rumi’s Math teacher, the father who is a Math professor himself first sees this as something natural for a child who carries the Indian genetic pool of mathematical geniuses. Nevertheless, he uses his daughter’s extraordinary talent as a springboard that will catapult her to success and acceptance in the society that had been hard on Mahesh. He takes the onerous task of educating Rumi in his own hands, he draws a schedule that charters Rumi clearing math A-level, O-level  to enter Oxford at the age of 15. The program that Mahesh draws out for his little daughter is insensitive to the emotional needs of the child. He fails to understand that emotions and desires too cohabit with numbers in the mind of his child.

At a wider level the novel deals with the throes of assimilation that immigrants experience in a racialised British society in the 1980s. The Vasis are caught between two cultures.  Mahesh and Shreene, Rumi’s parents, the first generation immigrants make aborted attempts at assimilation in Cardiff, Wales, that in spirit fails because they deplore the value system of the alien culture but still go at length to be accepted by the adopted home. Rumi is a product of this confusion. Mahesh perceives accomplishment and success as the stick to shake at the British society, or to say the least, as a means to prevent victimisation.

For this, he puts his five-year-old daughter through a severe regimen of long hours of work and discipline. He cons the child to set difficult targets, holds her responsible for her achievements and her slips, thus making her guilty of any truancy. Rumi is isolated from children of her age group and she is crippled emotionally and socially. She has very little time for anything, her time away from school is spent in library where she works out sums, her work monitored by her father to the minutest detail even in absentia.  Mahesh ofcourse keeps a tag on her movements and her development academically. Rumi, left with no space for herself, suspects that her father can read her thoughts as well.

Rumi finds ways of imploding the authority of her family. It starts with her reading story books in the library when she is supposed to be working out math problems. She sneaks out into the mall, pilfers sweets and all her surreptitious acts are subversions of authority. In Oxford, still a child of 15, who has to cope with loneliness of living as a paying guest and at the same time experiencing the exhilaration of freedom from her parents that exposes her to relationships that awaken her sexuality, she slips down her academic chart. Pushed against the wall by the demands made by her parents and the University, she leaves her home and indicates her desire to snap ties with her family .

The novel is a heart-tugging rendering of crushing a young spirit. This is embedded on strands of themes that explore alienation, multi cultural maladjustments, and power played at various levels. This makes the book interesting.

Shreene, Rumi’s mother suffers from the angst of separation from India and her family, especially her father. Her father, back in India was a figure of authority, but in all ways different from Mahesh. The value system that Shreene carries from back home clashes with the value system she sees around her in Cardiff. She is cocooned in the value system that her father espoused that she is frozen in time and culture and is never able to connect with her young daughter. At one instance she is shocked and goes mad when Rumi asks her if she was born after Shreene had an intercourse with Mahesh. 

Shreene does not share and understand Mahesh’s maniacal obsession in turning Rumi a mathematical genius. She suspects that father and daughter are together in this and have excluded her, thus instead of being an emotional anchor to her daughter she rejects her daughter. Unfortunately, she does not realise that India, her family there and her visits to India that give so much comfort to her, give comfort to Rumi as well.

Back home relationships and filial love were forged on silences, the unsaid and the undemonstrated. Shreene believed that wanting Rumi to do well, to be accomplished had been ways of demonstrating love. Shreene is puzzled that Rumi does not understand that behind sternness and discipline there always existed love and care. Touchingly, it is Shreene who finally seeks her daughter out and attempts at building trust and relationship, a manner of bonding that is alien to the culture she hails from.

Mahesh is in another way a hurt soul. There are large parts of Mahesh that appears as stereotypes that the author has laboured to create. He is humourless, brooding, ambitious and undemonstrative. When he brings his young wife to Cardiff, he numbers for her the reasons why she has to go to the library everyday, during her pregnancy and read newspaper, the contents of which she has to discuss at the end of the day with Mahesh. One reason is easy assimilation, and every other reason that he ascribes to this daily exercise doe tail toward making the process of assimilation easy and smooth for the timid woman from India who will have to rough it out in an alien culture.

It works the same way with Rumi, he feels that she will have to use her precocity, mathematical genius and academic accomplishment as a passport into the adopted society. He had a tougher time as a fresh immigrant and has decided to equip his daughter enough, even if that means retarding her emotionally and socially. Mahesh himself is socially and emotionally crippled, warped in an exclusionist history that carries memories of partition in India and that has feelings of animosity towards Muslims.

He crumbles when his da
ughter walks out of his life, grooming his daughter had alone given sense to his existence. Hounded by the media for pushing his daughter to the extremity Mahesh stays a recluse, there is nothing left in his life to reclaim.

Desi Maal: Amitava Kumar’s ‘Home Products’

Amitava Kumar has authored three works of nonfiction ‘Passport Photos’, ‘Bombay London New York’ and ‘Husband of a Fanatic’.  ‘Home Products’ is Amitava Kumar’s first work of fiction.

Amitava Kumar’s ‘Home Products’ traces the journeys made by people of small towns, their aspirations and struggles. The book maps the creative process of Binod, a journalist from Motihari on an assignment in Bombay; he traverses between Bombay, Delhi and Patna. Vikas Dhar, a famous Bollywood director impressed by an editorial written by Binod on a young and ambitious poet from Patna who was murdered by a former politician, asks Binod to develop a script for a movie based on this story. Vikas Dhar sees the sleaze and drama in the story as good movie material.  

As Binod investigates and explores the story further, he realizes that lives in a small town are interlinked; hence the story of the young poet is also the story of his own aunt, Bua who leaves behind a bad marriage to become a politician. She steps out of the precincts of claustrophobic patriarchal world that her marriage leads her into. She ruptures realms beyond matrimony; she questions the repressive political system and is a part of a movement that upsets the political order in the state and the country. The  story that Binod labours to create includes people close to him — his Baba, Ma, his cousin Rabinder ( Bua’s son) serving a term in the prison for the offence of running a porno cybercafé, and Neeraj Dubey, a childhood friend who has made it big in Hindi movies.

The journeys that Binod makes spatially between Patna, Delhi and Bombay and the journeys that he takes into his past as he recalls his childhood in Bihar and his life in Delhi is constantly punctuated by what is happening in the world at large. The assassination of Indira Gandhi, the consequent pogrom against the Sikhs, the Godhra incident, the Tsunami along the southern coast of India  – these and many other incidents in the sub continent and those happening elsewhere impinge Binod consciousness and realign the way he thinks and writes. The story that he writes punctures the insularities of different spaces – personal and spatial.

‘Home Products’ is also a story of crossing boundaries. Binod moves away from Motihari and Patna to Delhi where he decides to become a writer. This is significant as Binod moves away from his past, the distress and pain that he sees in a small town. By moving away, he crosses over to become an aesthete, he has exchanged real life to a life that is organized around letters and words.

One can find echoes of Binod’s predicament in the reference made to the dilemma and conflict that Mulk Raj Anand experienced when he left India after his participation in the freedom struggle to live in England. Amitava Kumar refers to this in his non fiction book ‘Bombay London New York’. Anand had moved away from the site of struggle and pain, ‘the realities of freedom struggle’ into the world of aesthetes for whom ‘pleasure of literature and art were considered ends in themselves’. Mulk Raj Anand resolved the conflict by expressing that he would participate in the struggle for India’s freedom, but would also admire the Bloomsbury writers for their literary skill. These two realms of social reality and creativity did not contradict each other; on the contrary one enhanced the other. Binod uses his literary skill in a similar manner, he uses his writing to get closer  home, to write of the past  and events that he tried stepping around by leaving home. He gets absorbed in the process of writing as that takes him closer to the social reality for it is through words that he begins to perceive the world, the world from where he hails that find its way again and again into the story that he scripts.

This also perhaps refers to the predicament of the author Amitava Kumar who like Binod does not travel in his writing too far from his home. In an interview after the release of the book Amitava Kumar has said, “I’m convinced now that the only story I have to tell is the story of how to find the words to put down on the page, or how to tell your own story – the story of how you came to be. My idea is that at the end of Home Products, the reader should find that the book Binod was trying to write is this very one, the one the reader is holding.” And the book that we hold is primarily about hopes and dreams of people from Amitava’s home town —  Binod, Rabinder, Bua, Neeraj Dubey and Binod’s father.

Amitava Kumar in response to what it feels to be writing about India from outside, asks if his writing would be considered more authentic if he lived here in India, inhaled smog and stood in queues for several hours. The author has proved that he could still write an authentic novel drawing from his provincial roots without being caught up in the inconveniences of smog and labyrinthine queues. 

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’: An Invocation Of The Names Unsung

I read parts of The Namesake again not because there is so much in the news about Mira Nair’s movie on the book. A personal incident reminded me of an instance in the book. A distant cousin lost her husband, he was on an official trip to Frankfurt. He had just spoken to my cousin who was in Singapore and the next she hears about him is that he has died of a massive heart attack. A gentle flick of destiny tossed her life upside down.

When I received this news I was reminded of the instance in The Namesake when Ashima gets the news of Ashoke’s death. Ashoke has taken a nine month project at a small university near Cleveland and lives alone in a flat at the university campus while Ashima stays back at Massachusetts. She had just spoken to him, he had called from the hospital and complained of a stomach upset, blamed the previous night’s dinner for his condition and had called off.  Ashima calculates the time that the consultation with the doctor would take her husband and the time he would take for driving home. She calls him at his flat. The telephone rings itself hoarse through an empty house, that by itself is no indication of anything serious. She calls at the hospital and does not receive proper response first and then her call is received and a voice, like all faceless ones at the other end that seem to have the capacity to change your fate, announces to Ashima that Ashoke is dead. A normal day gone awry, very awry.

I wanted to read this bit again, I began here and read the novel through to its end. I had read the novel the first time soon after it was published in 2003. The book was published sometime in September 2003. I am generally poor at remembering and recalling dates and months, but I remember this very clearly because I bought the book at the Chennai airport when I had gone to see off my father who was leaving for Bombay with my brother soon after my mother’s death. 

My impressions of the book at that time were different. Though the unassuming voice of the author was absorbing, there were large areas that I could not relate to. It is the story of immigrants, those who have made conscious decisions to leave home. I have not seen anyone I know who had immigrated experience a sense of guilt and pain at being away from their family in India the way Ashoke and Ashima do. Gogol is distanced culturally and experientially from those like me who live in India. 

Ashoke wants to move on after a near fatal accident, he wants to go farthest away from the site of the accident. He leaves his large family of parents and five brothers and goes to the USA. He marries Ashima; his homesick wife misses her family in Calcutta, experiences pain at not being able to share the happiest moments of her life with her father, mother, brother and uncles. Gogol’s initial rejection of the world and value system of his parents seems unfair to all that Ashoke and Ashima struggled to create. 

I searched for the likes of Ashoke and Ashima among the people I know who have immigrated to the United States of A – friends and relatives. Most had gone abroad to pursue higher studies and then settled there with a good job. The young men came back home in search of brides, marriages were arranged in a month and they went back with a wife whose parents packed pots and pans, appalams, sambar and rasam  podis and  Sumeet mixie for the young couple to build a home and start  a family. The couple then sent tickets for the wife’s parents who crossed the seven seas to help their daughter in pregnancy and child birth. The duo then became trio, visiting home once in two years to carry out the prarthanis in various temples in South India. Grand parents visited them regularly, they returned after staying for four months when their visitor’s visa expired to bore relatives and neighbours with tales and photographs of their visits to the Niagara Falls, Smithsonian museum and the likes.  

I did not hear the immigrants I know express acute homesickness or alienation, the perpetual sense of unease that Ashima suffers (quite like the sickness during pregnancy) in a foreign land. The never share what it is for their children  to grow in US of A, these second generation kids who speak with a severe accent which their grand parents, uncles and aunts and cousins back in India find hard to follow. 

I am like the Uma Maima in the novel, to my nephews who live in the U S. Alas, Uma Maima’s world is not represented in the novel! There are only two vignettes of Uma Maima. She oversees the servants in her sprawling house (His aunt, Uma Maima, presides in the kitchen all morning, harassing the servants …”), and when Gogol attempts cross country running on the streets of Calcutta Uma Maima who is drying clothes on the terrace sends a servant to run along with him so that he does not get lost. 

I wonder why nobody writes about the Uma Maimas and Rana Mamas who stay back home to take care of old parents. Only immigrants seem to have a story to say, that too only writers seem to feel the need to negotiate their hyphenated identities as Indian-Americans ! 

Of Mothers And Daughters: Anita Desai And Kiran Desai

Either way Kiran Desai is damned. There are those criticising her because she is her mother’s daughter. The media has been positing the incident of Anita Desai being thrice nominated for the Booker with Kiran Desai winning the Man Booker for the year 2006. Those who like the mother’s style and oeuvre of novels find the chit of fledgling incomparable. Then there are those who see Kiran Desai in isolation as a two novel old writer who has begun quite well – just 36 and with a Booker in her kitty; they will read her for the Booker. This is something that Kiran Desai cannot escape.

Here I look at Kiran Desai as her mother’s daughter by reading ‘The Inheritance Of Loss’ along with Anita Desai’s ‘Fire On The Mountain’. Here are some of the obvious similarities — both the novels were written when the authors were in the 35 -40 age period, both the novels consolidate the authors’ position in the realm of serious writing in the Indian and world scene. One other similarity are the characters in the two novels – ‘Fire on the Mountain’ gravitates around a reclusive old woman and her great grand daughter, ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ tells the tale of a retired judge and his grand daughter.

First, I shall deal with the novels separately, and finally explain where, in my opinion, the problem lies. 

‘FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN’                                                                      
‘Fire on the Mountain’ is a story of Nanda Kaul, an old widow who has retreated to a reclusive life in the Kasauli mountains in Carignano, an old house that looks down at the Punjab plains. She leads a life that is recoil to her hectic and tiring life as the wife of Vice Chancellor whose house she ran as a perfect hostess and a dutiful mother of innumerable children. The starkness and barrenness of Carignano with its three pines reflect the minimalist lifestyle shorn of entanglements, relationships and responsibilities that she has opted for herself. The quietness of Nanda Kaul’s life is shattered when her great granddaughter comes to live with her, she dreads the arrival of the ten year old child, wondering in what ways she would have to rearrange her life to accommodate the child in her bare home and life.

If Nanda Kaul is a forced recluse, the child Raka is a natural recluse, she steers away from her grandmother and happy if left alone to explore the valleys and slopes of the hills. The child instantaneously takes to the cook Ram Lal, whose tales and lore of the hills absorb her. The old woman is intrigued by the young girl’s self possession and self absorption.                                                                         

The novel gives a glimpse of Nanda Kaul’s past through her friend Ila Das, the crass and loud woman whose life has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. All through her life Nanda Kaul had baled her out of difficult times with the help of her influential and highly placed husband. Ila Das too has come to live in a village close to Kausali, where she works for the local women and fights for their rights.

The mountain is a metaphor bearing different meaning for different people. It is a fragile piece of land that wills itself be destroyed by dust storms and forest fires. The old lady who has cut herself away, is not aware of the hill the way the girl is, Raka sees the cruelty and scars that the mountains have been subjected to by the vaccine industry, repeated forest fires – man made or otherwise. She sets fire to the mountain revealing the scars of human behaviour – hers as well as her grand mother’s and not the least the brutal and animal behaviour of the villager who rapes and murders the old woman Ila Das. The fire purges the dark secrets that the characters carry, annuls the pretensions and razes the hill to a scarred terrain.

The novel burrows into the personal, exploring the psyche of the old woman throwing a chiaroscuro with the young girl who blows like a dust storm, raking muck and blackening an already barren landscape.

The novel is political in that it comments on the society, patriarchal and destructive. Women are shored up with the wounds that they have sustained from erring disloyal husbands, selfish brothers, raping men; even the life of the young child is scarred by a demented mother and an indifferent father. All the women have built their own defences to survive, the fire is a purgatory act when all defences fall, there is nothing more to hold on to as the fire consumes the mountain. Their fate, in the end as always, is linked to the bare mountain.

Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ is set in Kalimpong in the Darjeeling hills. The novel bellows with the mist that forms over the Kanchenjunga before descending on Sai the young girl who reads about the giant squid, sitting in the veranda of her grandfather’s crumbling cottage Cho Oyo; her grandfather, the old judge plays chess and Mutt,  the dog sleeps snoring gently. The cook lights the fire in the kitchen and puts the kettle of water to boil as he thinks of his son Biju in an alien land, the father is clueless of the life his son leads as an illegal immigrant, a fugitive on run without legal papers, switching jobs from one murky restaurant to another, crawling through the underbelly of America. Sai waits for her mathematics tutor Gyan, her love interest as well, whose delay she attributes to the mist; thus the disgruntled foursome settle a wintry evening.                                                                                                           

The mist that forms over the hills carries ill portents to this foursome in the form of Gorkha insurgents who suddenly raid the house to rob the judge of hunting rifles. These are boys not yet twenty, they make a masquerade of bravado, and they clown around, wolf down pakoras and leave with the gun. The novel right away makes its tryst with history, the Gorkha’s insurgency in the 1980s for a separate state. The novel holds promise of hurtling itself into serious
engagement with issues like identity, borders, nation and home. Each of these issues can well fill into a separate novel.

There is Sai’s grandfather cast away from the colonial times, carrying scathing memories of aborted attempts to acculturate into the metropolitan. The memory of his homesick passage from his hometown to Cambridge stays in his mind, his shame at the pickle and bananas that his mother packed, the hungry nights spent as a tenant of Mrs Rice, long hours at the bathroom to scour away the smells that emanate from his body, his Indian roots that he is ashamed of, the colonial society that allows him no entry — he carries memories of experiences of alienation and loneliness that he carries back home.

In India he does not fit into the middleclass milieu of his family, his aborted identity, anguished memories scar his personality; he is a freak bastard of colonial and Indian identity. He inflicts on his young wife the pains he endured, he hates her docility, is enraged by a silent battle that she puts up by withdrawing into herself. Unloved, uncared and hated she lives a desultory life until the judge sends her back to her parents’ home, their child,  a daughter, is born after the separation.

Alone, rudderless and as a recluse the judge settles after retirement in Cho Oyo, with a dog that he loves more than he had any human being and a cook for whom he has no thoughts or feelings. To this cottage and to partake in the old man’s arid life arrives Sai, his orphaned granddaughter born to the judge’s daughter.  

Sai’s father was a Parsi and Sai’s mother a Hindu, their marriage symbolised the advent of new era of freedom and modernity, an epoch when new horizons opened. Sai’s parents represent the era of bonhomie relationship between India and Soviet Union, the days of Russian ballerinas visiting India, troupes of Indian dancers performing in Moscow, and when Russia and India collaborated and sent astronauts to the space. Sai’s father was a space pilot selected from the Indian Air Force to travel to space with Russian astronauts. Sai’s parents were the progeny of this dream that went awry; they both were ironically killed in a road accident in Moscow; the marriage between the couple and between the two cultures was an aborted hybridity. Sai is an orphan of a confluence that did not come through.

The main thrust of the novel is purportedly the Gorkha Agitation of the 1980s; the novel begins with this and prominently develops this thread, diverse narratives like the colonial, diasporas, gender build up analogously. Unfortunately this thread of narrative is the least efficiently executed. Desai has revealed in various interviews that she read various books about the Gorkha insurgency, sadly this academic knowledge does not transfer into an empathetic rendering of the struggle of a group of people fighting for their rights.

The main persona Gyan, the young Nepali tutor is not wrapped in history, he does not grow and evolve and is not an agency of the historical impetus rocking the hillside. Gyan is a reluctant entrant into the Gorkha movement, his engagement with the revolution is an outcome of poverty, unemployment, a deprived life and empty future courses him into the path of history.  He considers participating in history as coming of age, emasculation, a passport to adulthood while he begins seeing his affair with Sai as squeamish and childish. He is keen on emerging as a man, he raucously shouts slogans surprised at his own guts, since no ideology fires him he panics even at a miniscule crisis and misses participating in the important rally that rocks the hills with waves and waves of violent repercussions. Since Sai and Gyan are so self consciously absorbed in their rages, agonies, guilt and shame, the political does not percolate into the personal. It is for this reason that the representation of a vital historical event, like episodic documentation,  captures the events but not the thoughts and feelings of the players – the Nepalis or the others. The rally, the violence and the total paralysis of the hill town as it gets cut off totally from the rest of the world are all presented in broad strokes; caricatures of personalities, for instance the Kalimpong GNLF  leader, the squatters in Mon Ami have been presented in a slapdash fashion, they are stereotypes of a milieu.

Sai who is backed by the author perceives the Gorkha movement as an outsider. Her grandfather observes that Sai, like him, is an “estranged Indian living in India”. The GNLF insurgents are ‘boys’, the Nepali is the ‘other’, thus enamouring for Sai and repulsive to the judge who feels that Gyan lacks refinement, fit to be tutored on aesthetics and on what a good poem is . There are others, for instance the two sisters living in Mon Ami a rambling cottage, who fear the Nepalis and suspect that their Gorkha watchman is a militant. They construct a collective identity to the Gorkhas, and thus stereotype them.

If there is any ground on which Kiran Deasi scores it is in the sympathetic portrayal of Biju, his travails in an alien land; this I think comes closest to the author’s experience as an immigrant herself.  

Of Mother And Daughter
So where does the problem lie? The novels, one minimalistic and the other rambling, are problematic precisely for this reason.                                                                                            

‘Fire On The Mountain’ alternates between the reclusive characters of the old lady and the child, the story otherwise borders on inaction. The interfering friend Ila Das is a foil to the self absorbed duo, she in fact comes across as a warm and genial person despite author’s attempts at caricaturing her. The novel hurtles to its end after a groaning inertia, truths are laid open, sudden twists at the end make the story contrived. The old lady, grace personified  had hidden painful truths from the child that she sets to reveal in the end after receiving the news of the rape and murder of Ila Das, as the fire that the child sets to the mountain leaps up to engulf them. This confession is not required as the child actually does not care; Raka had not been particularly stirred by her grand mother’s tales.

Interpretations have to be painstakingly culled from the story. The novel is simplistic, does not discuss the complexities involved in human relationships. By overtly focussing on the old lady and her granddaughter, the novel fails to capture the multiplicity of voices that others represent. There are areas of silences, confusing and irritating – what was the relationship that the child had with her mother and father? How grossly did the dementia of her mother affect the child? Why are myths circulated about vaccine industry? What are the secrets that Raka unearths during her forays into the valley, finally what inhabits the child’s world that prompts her to set ablaze the mountain? All these and many more remain unclear in the  novel.

‘The Inheritance Of Loss’ is straggling, there are more issues than can be filled in one novel. Pankaj Mishra generously fetes the novel as the ‘best kind of post 9/11 novel&rsqu
o;. True that the novel examines subjects like home, identity, dispossession, shrinking and fading borders, racism, class disparities, injustice, inequality and aggression, but these remain a crowd and are packed choc-o-block through the various strands and the characters in the novel. The novel shifts from one strand to the other, the narratives are built in this fashion of moving back and forth; structurally this brief and rapid shifts prove to be problematic to the reader.

There are way too many characters representing various issues, apart from the main ones like Sai and her Nepali tutor Gyan, the judge, the cook’s son Biju. For instance, there is Father Booty and his questions of home and belonging; there are the squatters in Mon Ami and their query on possession. Then there is the poor and illiterate wife and the old father of a man in police custody for whom law and justice remain inexplicable; the sisters Lola and Noni represent empty dreams of middleclass retirement life buggered by squatters. All these characters drift pointing at themes that remain undeveloped.

The novel ends with “Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to her, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.” This revelation comes a little late, Sai’s preoccupation with her own self had eclipsed other people’s realities, except of course Biju’s. Still it is this revelation that takes the characters like Biju, Gyan beyond the story, making possible multiple voices.