Friday, June 29, 2007

Laboured rendition of personal history

Neera Kapur-Dromson came to know of her great-grandfather Lala Kirparam's journey from Karachi to Kenya when she chanced upon a portrait of his in a relative's house. Fascinated by his story, she set out to trace the daredevil journey Kirparam made in seeking new lands and opportunities. He was one of the several thousand Indians who, in the nineteenth century, traversed the frightening unfamiliarity of the Indian Ocean in triangular sailboats known as dhows. Their mission: to work on a new railway line connecting Mombassa in Kenya to Kampala in Uganda.

The story begins with Hardei reminiscing about Punjab as she awaits a train at Mombassa with her six-year-old son, Chunilal. The reader stumbles across Hardei's life through her recollection of the time her husband Kirparam left her for the shores of Kenya. She is reunited with her husband, of course, and what follows is the saga of the Kapur clan over generations. Kirparam and his fellow Punjabis were the first to open dukas (extracted from the Hindi word, dukan, meaning shop) and were the precursors of the prosperous Asian merchant class in Kenya.

This book had the potential to be a major work on the history of African settlers of Indian origin. However, in Kapur-Dromson's unskilled hands, it fails to lift beyond the ordinary. In fact, it's not even ordinary: it's clichéd, cloying (in parts) and devoid of feeling. Kapur-Dromson carries her tale by indulging events from history, including the two World Wars, and how they impacted the Kapur family. Yet, there is never an attempt to make the reader really connect with the characters, nor is there a tendency to seriously analyse familial ties against the background of history.

Kapur-Dromson is undecided on what to make of her material: personal memoir or historical narrative. Even though she tries to demarcate the individuality of her main characters—the sprightly Hardei, the morose Yashoda, the resolute Lajpat—she falls short, and as a means to overcome this shortcoming, delves into Kenyan history and rounds it off with the Indian independence struggle, in what must easily be a most repetitive, amateurish look at these events.

The dialogue is all supposed to be in colloquial Punjabi, which is fine to an extent, but very soon into the novel, it begins to stare the reader in its awkward assimilation with English. Nothing is more jarring than trying to marry two mutually exclusive etymologies. Kapur-Dromson has, in all likelihood, caught hold of a hoary storyteller who has plucked events out of his/her imagination and swept them with heroism, grief, solidarity, what have you, to beguile the young writer.

While she hints at the Hindu-Muslim rivalry that reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the creation of Pakistan, she makes no mention of the inherent racism in the nationalist movement for Kenya’s independence. The Mau-Mau rebellion is only touched upon briefly, and nowhere is the inherent contradiction of Asian-Africans looking down at the local black population while fighting a white enemy explored.

Even the most basic premise, of a young girl encountering racism against her father, is diluted by Kapur-Dromson's tendency towards excess:

...Lajpat blew his nose with his hand to release the mucus. And, there, as if by the turn of a sorcerer's stick, stood a white policeman. Shouting from where he was, he called out, "Hey, you! Come here. Do you understand?"

The voice sent a clichéd cold sweat down his flanks; Lajpat's knees gave away and he staggered.

"What are you gibbering away in your babu English?"...Lajpat stood rooted. Muni nearly peed in her salwar...

"Clichéd cold sweat?" Pardon my sarcasm, but it seems to me that only a passing knowledge of the English language, and perhaps the recent successes of the likes of Kiran Desai and Vikram Chandra, have given a number of inept hopefuls a contemptible stick with which to bleed the language dry.

For a truly authentic experience of what Indians suffered at the hands of Englishmen in Africa, watch the 1996 Michael Douglas-starrer The Ghost and the Darkness.


This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A minister's mercy plea

Andrew O'Hagan is a writer of rare talent. His books teem with characters and aspirations, which in lesser hands may become caricatures drenched in maudlin concerns. But O'Hagan drapes them with an exalted sensation, not dissimilar to the godliness he explores so skillfully in his work. "Be Near Me," his third novel, is another resounding achievement and a fitting addition to his already robust oeuvre.

Consider the opening lines, and you'll have an idea of the beauty O'Hagan blends into his words:

"My mother took an hour out of her romances to cast some light on the surface of things. I was just back from Rome and we stood together on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, watching the sky go black above a warship anchored in the Firth of Forth. Picture that time of day in the old city when the shop windows stand out and the streets of the New Town begin to glow with moral sentiment. She took my arm and we rested like passengers bound for distant lives, warm in our coats and weak in our hearts, the rain falling down on the stone."

This is the story of David Anderton, a lonely church minister who passes his days in a state of sublime grief. Burnished by his passion for the exact turn of phrase, his faith is a cloak with which he has sought to escape life. After the passing of his lover, Conor, in an accident, David retreats to the desolate Ayrshire town of Dalgarnock, a place in a perpetual state of mourning for the loss of its jobs, its culture and a way of life. To his folly, David believes that by running away from himself - the notion of what he used to be - he can escape the past, but as O'Hagan shows, one's past has the insidious quality of always returning, so that everything may end, but the past.

The suave Father David is not well-received by the local community, and he always gets the feeling that he is being tolerated only because of his priesthood. Among his parishioners, only the irreligious teenagers, Mark and Lisa, connect with him at a personal level, reminding him of his youth. There are several scenes where David is shown putting up with what can only be called humiliation, but in the wild antics of the kids, including their boozing and drug exchanging, David discovers a version of himself he thought he had lost.

Things take a turn for the worse when in a moment of weakness, David gets intimate with Mark, leading to allegations of sexual abuse against him. To the reader, these accusations seem bizarre, because O'Hagan draws such a complete portrait of David that one empathizes with his private demons. But for a murderous people scouting out a scapegoat for their misfortunes, a wayward church minister turns out to be the perfect one.

The troublesome thing is David is so removed from the matter of his own life that even the allegations fail to stir him. When the canon lawyer offers the church's support, saying, "The Church has some experience. We will handle things," David simply replies, "I don't want things handled."

This is not egotism on his part, as the church wrongly believes, but a cry for returning to a state of solitude which he had bargained for by sacrificing his life in the name of faith. David's incantation seeking God's mercy, "Be Near Me," is a tangible - almost tactile - plea for comfort against all-encompassing grief. It's to O'Hagan's credit that in spite of a plot that bustles with worldly privations, he has given us a novel that allows us rewarding peeks into the inner lives of its characters.


From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Strange Tribe

John Hemingway begins his family biography with his childhood, when he looked upon his father, Greg Hemingway, as the "man who braved the ocean's fury and lived to tell the tale". This is the story of the Hemingway family, from the grand patriarch Ernest to his offspring and his grandchildren. It's an uncomfortable territory to step into--one that exposes the dark underbelly of a clan that produced one of the world's best known writers. For John, Ernest's grandson, it isn't only an attempt at revisiting the past, but also an effort at making sense of the "strange tribe".

The book broaches many taboo themes--themes that have been uncharted because they don't sit comfortably with the Hemingway archetype of the stoic man who must display "grace under pressure". Not only are Greg's cross-dressing and transsexuality exposed, but an elliptical analysis of Ernest's sexuality is also undertaken. John picks The Garden of Eden, the story of an American writer David Bourne and his wife Catherine, who "engage in a series of what might be defined as 'transvestic' or gender-bending experiences". He quotes several Hemingway biographers to draw the portrait of an artist who was willing to experiment with the androgynous in his fiction.

Through the length of the book, there is an attempt on the part of John to draw judgments from Ernest's life and apply them to understand Greg's bewildering facets. He writes: "Like Ernest, Greg struggled for most of his life to deal with his own contradictions and to create a balance between the hypermasculine and the hidden female sides of his personality."

Difficult as it may seem, John manages to keep the spotlight on his own troubled relationship with his father instead of making Strange Tribe another biographical sketch of Ernest. He describes a time when their relationship came to hinge upon who gets to keep Greg's Subaru. When one reads that John and his girlfriend Ornella emigrated to Italy only because he had been threatened by Greg to return the car, it is difficult to not look at the move as a way of escaping the family name and its accompanying demons.

In spite of this, John pays a moving homage to his father in the final chapter. He extols him as the ideal Hemingwayesque man, who showed true grit and courage in the face of insurmountable personal problems. While he concedes that it hasn't been easy for him either, he is thankful that he was not struck by crushing mental illnesses like his father and did not have to grow up under Ernest's intimidating popularity. Speaking of Greg, he concludes: "In the end, he didn't kill himself and leave me with the feelings of inadequacy and blame that the children of suicides often feel. Taking seriously Ernest's words that 'courage is grace under pressure,' he avoided the 'family exit'."

This book is a candid and remarkable look at the Hemingway tribe.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A statesman reminisces

In this season of unhappy regime changes, both of governments (Tony Blair) and international financial institutions (Paul Wolfowitz), here comes a biography which is at once a study of the postcommunist paradoxes of eastern Europe and an example of restrained dialogue with the self. Playwright Václav Havel shone in the international spotlight in 1989 when he was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Always politically active, most notably as a founder member of Charter 77 and through his anti-communist writings, Havel nevertheless was ill prepared for the barrage of responsibilities that came his way as the new President. These are the memoirs of a man who was forced to shun the private world of his writing to adopt the public platform of governance.

Three different narrative techniques crowd this book, each demarcated from the other by horizontal lines. Havel himself claims in the preface that one may read any one of the three at a time, and still get a fair picture of his life. The first of these is Havel's personal observations during his stay in America during April-May 2005. These observations give us a rich peek into the fertile imagination of the writer-philosopher. Havel discusses everything from Americans' driving habits to the effects of Sep 11 on the nation's psyche. He rues his inability to write given the demands on his time, but speaks lovingly of his wonderful stay in the US.

The second is a series of memos—unedited official transcripts—from Havel's presidential years. In these writings, Havel comes across as a hands-on President:

(April 16, 1996)

1) Today (Saturday) I dashed off the first draft of my speech for Latvia…I would ask for comments from all the usual commentators. (…) I must have them by Tuesday around 3:00 P.M. if I am to finish editing it by Tuesday afternoon, so the translation can be started and the speech copied and printed, etc. on Wednesday morning. (…)

But by far the longest and most interesting segment of the book is Havel's interview with Karel Hvížďala, a Czech journalist and broadcaster widely considered the father of Czech journalism. In the Q&A format that Havel and Hvížďala partake, Havel opens up truly and holds forth on a host of issues. So we come to know about the trials of running affairs in the Prague Castle (the seat of Czech Presidency); his political rivalry with then prime minister, Václav Klaus; his battle with lung cancer which forced him to quit smoking ("I feel a deep affinity with smokers and I enjoy breathing secondhand smoke in their presence"); his intense love for his mercurial second wife, the Czech actress Dagmar Veskrnová; and his worries about the future of the European Union (Havel is a confirmed "Euroenthusiast"). The translation by Paul Wilson is excellent, retaining the feel of the original discourse.

Havel is never impolite, even when he is facing up to his critics and it is this essential humanity of the former dissident-turned-statesman that deeply endears him to anyone who'd have the good sense to pick this book and dwell into an interesting era of the late twentieth century.


From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Of memory and empathy

Childhood is tricky territory to handle in fiction. One always asks the obvious question: How can an adult writer plumb the depths of feeling that only childhood bestows on us since it is that time in our lives when nothing is contaminated by knowledge? However, childhood has provided rich saplings for writers of fiction. As I read Maxine Swann's nostalgia-laden Flower Children (Riverhead, $21.95, 210 pages), I was reminded of the intensity of feeling I experienced when I read Anita Desai's short story "Games at Twilight" as a child.

What a writer Swann is! She captures with an unerring eye for detail, the little sights and sounds of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Lu, Maeve, Tuck and Clyde are the children of a hippie couple who bring in new partners every now and then and do crazy things like examining their children's stools. Against this backdrop, Swann narrates the process of the children's growing up from the tenderness of childhood to the self-awakening of teenage. The book is an extended collection of several short stories that hold their own as individual pieces. Jumping two years in the lives of the children with every new chapter, the reader gets glimpses into the guilty pleasures of the first sexual arousal and the painful realization of the irreclaimability of one's childhood.

The most poignant is the final story, "Return" during which the children visit their mother's house as young adults. They invent memories and fight to repossess games that had seemed cruel back then. They recollect joys which were acute and losses that were severe. Today, they are ready for all this and more, ready to take on the world with the gift of knowledge weighing them down, and yet, they miss all this so. Swann writes:

Certain things make sense now. Others are still baffling. They pick up a book that baffled and intrigued them, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and suddenly it makes sense. Suddenly all kinds of things make sense. And others still don't and never will.

Pick this book if you wish to be transported to a time when everything was strange, yet lovable.

More are the wonders awaiting you in Amity Gaige's The Folded World (Other Press, $23.95, 300 pages). Strands of memory and thought intersect in this sensitive tale of a social worker, Charlie Shade, and his wife, Alice. The idealist Charlie has devoted his life to the service of the mentally ill. But his passion for his work begins to cost him his family life when he gets overtly involved in the well being of Opal, a mentally disturbed woman shaken by her father's suicide. As Charlie tells Alice, "It's [Opal's story] got a happy ending. It's about finding love and kindness in unlikely places." In Charlie, Gaige has wielded a fully developed character with whom we come to empathize.

Then there's Alice, a woman who has successfully escaped the droning misery of her small-town past and made a life for herself with Charlie. There is nothing patently grand about her, yet in describing the motions of her life, Gaige demarcates her individuality as clearly as any other's in fiction.

Gaige has revealed that she would read a couple of pages of To The Lighthouse every time she sat down to write this book. No wonder then, the similarity with Woolf's style and themes is palpable: The decipherable charge of emotion breaking into a sudden spasm of speech that marks a return to the here and now from the sharpness of sporadic thought. The inner dialogue of Opal reminds you of Septimus's in Mrs. Dalloway:

And then, for the first time that morning, she looked at him [Charlie]. Really looked at him…He was like a childhood beau from a childhood she never had. Temporarily, the thought of him being her childhood beau made her cheerful, but then like a passing shadow she became morbid and hated him. She broke up with him in the childhood that she never had. She struck him on the head with a hammer and he covered his bloody face in the childhood she never had. She marched away from him leaving him to die never knowing him. And then she ran back to tend his face but he was not there because neither was the childhood.

Gaige's second, this misty revelation of a book is an inspired homage to Virginia Woolf.


From Washington Times.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Upcoming interesting titles

In July:
Relative Stranger by Mary Loudon (a personal inquiry into schizophrenia)
David Malouf's complete set of short stories
Clean, a history of personal hygiene through the ages
Inner Workings (Literary Essays) by JM Coetzee
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The cruel, luckless lot of Afghan women

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but moved in 1980 to America, where he has lived ever since. A physician by profession, he hit the spotlight after his debut novel, The Kite Runner, became an international best-seller in 2003. A touching portrayal of the friendship between two men, The Kite Runner has as its backdrop the tumultuous history of modern Afghanistan.

In his new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini again focuses on an Afghanistan ravaged by conflict. But this time, he delves into the lives of two disempowered, burqa-clad women, Mariam and Laila, who come together to chart a destiny in the face of unrelenting cruelty.

The novel begins with Mariam, the illegitimate offspring of a wealthy cinema owner, Jalil. Mariam lives on the outskirts of Herat with her mother, and is provided for by Jalil, who visits regularly. In spite of her mother's warnings, Mariam grows close to her father. Then, one day, she comes to visit Jalil at his mansion in Herat. Dismissed by Jalil's men, she returns home to find her mother dead, whereupon she is forced to live in Jalil's house.

This turns out to be a temporary arrangement. Mariam, all of 15, finds herself married off to Rasheed, a shoemaker in Kabul. Thirty years her senior, Rasheed is coarse and unkempt. To Mariam, Kabul in the 1970s is a lively, interesting place whose sights and sounds lead her to expect a good future. Under the monarchy, women are permitted to go to school and work. Hosseini captures well Mariam's shock at the way Kabul women dress:

These women were all swinging handbags and rustling skirts. Mariam even spotted one smoking behind the wheel of a car. Their nails were long, polished pink or orange, their lips red as tulips. They walked in high heels, and quickly, as if on perpetually urgent business. . . . These women mystified Mariam. They made her aware of her own lowliness, her plain looks, her lack of aspirations, her ignorance of so many things.

Only weeks into the marriage, however, Rasheed's bestial ways come to the fore. After she miscarries, he becomes impatient and cross with her: "He was more apt to sulk these days, to fault her cooking, to complain about clutter around the yard or point out even minor uncleanliness in the house."

Heartbreaking as Mariam's story is, it is less tragic than Laila's. A sprightly girl born into a liberal Kabul family in 1978, she has a father who is a schoolteacher and tells her, "When this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated." Laila even has a boyfriend, Tariq, with whom she hopes to spend the rest of her life. The novel's first half focuses on the contrast between the lives of Laila and Mariam, who live just a few houses away from each other.

Then the force of events begins to play havoc with Laila's life. Her childhood is spent observing the defeat of the communists and the rise of the mujahideen. In the civil war that breaks out after the last of the Soviet tanks have left Afghanistan, her house is hit by a rocket, and both her parents are killed. By then, Tariq is in Pakistan, and Laila is left with no choice but to marry her savior - Rasheed.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is, at one level, a taut story of two women who come together by chance and discover a filial bond in the absence of any other. Mariam discovers the joys of motherhood with Laila's offspring and commits an act of unmatched bravery and supreme self-sacrifice to allow the younger woman a good life.

At another level, this is an insightful chronicle of the lives of ordinary women in Afghanistan. The portrayal of these lives, with their brutality and everyday cruelty, touches the reader to the core. The U-turn Laila's destiny suddenly takes demonstrates why liberal attitudes at a personal level aren't enough if society at large does not support a structure committed to them. Without getting preachy, Hosseini's novel sends a message to Islamic societies to look within and face up to their denial of rights and opportunities for women that are taken for granted in other parts of the world. Paradoxically, by refusing to glorify his native country's less edifying aspects, Hosseini has in fact done it a distinct service.


From Philadelphia Inquirer.