Thursday, April 30, 2009

A life bound by despair

The Grasmere Journals are a set of four diaries that William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy kept during her time in Grasmere. They span the period from 1800 to 1803 and are a ravishing portrait of sylvan English life. In the Grasmere Journals, Dorothy, the talented, poetically inclined sister of the master of Romanticism, notes everything from the changes in the weather to the siblings’ shared admiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a friend.

But the Grasmere Journals are most well-known for the cryptic, though not less passionate for that, references of Dorothy’s love for William. Countless scholars down the ages have tried to define this peculiar intimacy, always stopping short of calling the relationship between the siblings incestuous. Now Frances Wilson launches a biographical panorama that finally does justice to Dorothy’s long and eventful life.

Born in 1771, Dorothy spent her childhood away from William (the siblings were separated after their mother’s death), and this may have permanently defined — or, more appropriately, defiled — her vision of happiness. Her intense love for William is said to have originated in the lack of familial love she experienced as a child. When she and William spent a blissful six weeks together in Forncett in 1790, Dorothy wrote of how “his attentions to me were such as the most insensible mortals must have been touched with.”

The peaks of her life and love occurred at Dove Cottage in Grasmere—coterminous with the time described in the Journals. Curiously, the thought of starting a journal appeared to Dorothy at the time William was away visiting Mary Hutchinson, who he was to later marry. Her first entry morosely evokes the passage of her brothers William and John to Yorkshire: “I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier.”

This sombre tone returns throughout the Journals, accompanied by headaches that Dorothy diligently records. The Journals themselves are bookended by the relationship between William and Mary. If William’s visit to Yorkshire was Dorothy’s reason to start writing, his marriage to Mary finally drags a dagger through the Journals’ heart — and hers. As Wilson writes, “[Dorothy] can stand it no longer. When she looks from her window at the two men running up the avenue to tell her that the wedding is over, she throws herself down on the bed, where she lies in a trance, neither hearing nor seeing.”

The Ballad takes the form of such imaginings, astute and immediate, and supplements them with actual notes from the Journals. Not that Wilson does not go beyond the time spent at Dove Cottage. Wilson’s book traces the remainder of Dorothy’s life, first at Dove Cottage and later at Rydal Mount in nearby Windermere, but throughout the stress is on those bygone halcyon days at Grasmere.

In an interesting aside, Wilson compares the relationship of William and Dorothy to that between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. She even suggests that Brontë may have based her iconic characters on the brother-sister duo. Certainly, Brontë’s story owes fantastically to intense sibling love, as Wilson explains:

“Catherine and Heathcliff, raised as brother and sister in the same family, evolve from childhood inseparability into a hybrid of such inward-looking self-consumption that the disappearance of one means the nonexistence of the other...The two of them shift between dread of separation and fear of engulfment.”

Further, she explains how the romantic ideal of Catherine and Heathcliff—and indeed, of William and Dorothy—is sexless:

“Like Dorothy and William, they [Catherine and Heathcliff] have sexual desires but not for each other. Sexual desire feeds on distance and separation, and what Catherine and Dorothy describe is proximity and sameness.”

Dorothy Wordsworth drifted from the wildness of her youth to endure the death of her beloved and later, towards the end of her life, was gradually consumed by mental illness. Dipping tantalisingly into the personal and the provocative, this fascinating, never dull book thumpingly reclaims a life consigned to the shadows by posterity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Epic tale told through innocent eyes

Kamila Shamsie's book is the latest addition to a fertile crop of fiction emerging from one of South Asia's most fragile nations. She is in august company. Over the past few years, a slew of writers, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin among them, have staked claim to a daring new voice that more than matches the fiction emerging from Pakistan's bete noire, India.

Burnt Shadows (Picador, 384 pages, $14) is Shamsie's fifth novel, and her most ambitious. We follow the life of a Japanese woman Hiroko, as she undergoes a series of life-altering events, each leaving grave personal imprints on her, but also pointing toward the momentous shifts taking place in global geopolitics.

So from losing her German paramour, Konrad, in the Nagasaki nuclear bombing in 1945 to finding herself falling in love with Sajjad -- a Man Friday at the household of Konrad's half-sister Elizabeth Burton in India -- Hiroko, and Burnt Shadows, flit lightly from one event to the next. The India of 1947 is a dangerous place with the British departure from the subcontinent leaving in its wake a bloody splitting up of the subcontinent -- the Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-dominant Pakistan.

Throughout, we see the world, and its unsettling ways, through Hiroko's innocent eyes, as fate takes her and Sajjad to Pakistan, where they build a home. Really, it boggles one's imagination to consider a Japanese woman adapting herself to strict Islamic traditions, but Shamsie's deft touch makes the story believable.

Time passes and the next generation -- Raza, the son of Hiroko and Sajjad -- makes an appearance. It is the 1980s and a new conflict has reared its head in the neighbourhood -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Shamsie delicately builds the momentums of everyday life against the insidiously political situation of the time, to arrive at surprising, though plausible, plot twists.

Burnt Shadows is not as bulky a book as this review would suggest, given that it also finds space to tackle 9/11 in the scene-stealing denouement. This is, more than anything else, a tribute to Shamsie's skills as a writer of sharp, compact narratives.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The diaspora as adventurous pilgrims

It’s a happy coincidence that a recent, highly lauded work of fiction with an Indian setting shares its backdrop with Minal Hajratwala’s multi-generational saga of her globetrotting family. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, set in the early 19th century, delves into the lives of sea-faring “coolies” or indentured labour who were transported to islands as far as Fiji and Mauritius to work on British plantations. This followed the outlawing of slavery across the British Empire in 1834.

Hajratwala’s book is not fiction, yet her tale begins with just such an intrepid journey that her paternal great-grandfather, Motiram, made to Fiji in 1909. Having recently read the excellent Sea of Poppies, I was delighted with the promise of spending time with its non-fiction counterpart—the tale of a real Gujarati family that spread its wings across the globe.

Hajratwala splendidly keeps that promise. A graduate of Stanford University now based in San Francisco, she bravely summoned the passion and diligence to undertake this mammoth project. It entailed crisscrossing the globe and uncovering family secrets that were at best indistinct. The resultant book is a fascinating study of a few of the emigrants whose tentative steps eventually resulted in today’s Indian diaspora of as many as 30 million people living outside the country.

Hajratwala begins by drawing an elaborate portrait of her paternal clan, the Solankis. According to the varna system that designates social standing, Hindus descended from four distinct groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (artisans), and Shudras (labourers). The Solankis are Kshatriyas, and Hajratwala builds on this seemingly inconsequential fact to narrate an account, based on community lore, of how her ancestors turned from warriors to weavers, and how that dovetails with Motiram’s journey in 1909 to seek his fortune in Fiji. There he worked as a tailor—a first step on the way to building one of the South Pacific’s largest department stores.

Another path brought Hajratwala’s maternal side to Fiji. Her maternal grandfather, Narotam, walked with Gandhi during the famous march to Dandi in 1930 to protest the colonial salt tax. A year later, to support his young family, Narotam joined the Gujarati community in Fiji and began sewing women’s clothes. Eventually, he and his brother opened a ready-made clothing store. Narotam’s last child, Bhanu (Minal’s mother), was born a year before India gained independence from Britain in 1947—an event he had made his own little contribution toward.

It is a tribute to Hajratwala’s writing that she is able to coalesce the disparate factions of her family into a satisfying whole. Her training as a journalist ensures that the narration has no loose ends. And we are not even halfway there. It’s 1963 and a young man is about to make use of the recently relaxed US rules for foreigners wishing to study in America. Bhupendra, the author’s father, enrolled in a manufacturing programme at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was among the first generation of Asian immigrants to come to the United States for skills training, and in the process, permanently change the composition of the country.

The families arranged an alliance between Bhupendra and Bhanu, who was still in Fiji at the time. The two had nothing in common except the “Gujarati from Fiji” tag. He was stern and no-nonsense; she was sweet and artistic. The wedding was hastened so that Bhupendra could return to the United States in time for the start of the new school year.

The newly-weds haltingly made their lives in America, which required numerous adjustments, large and small. When she first arrived, Bhanu, not a vegetarian, was nevertheless aghast at the bloody look of all meat on offer—especially beef, which she had never tasted—and for a whole day ate nothing but chevdo, a traditional mix.

The day Hajratwala was born in 1971, her father sent out three telegrams, one each to Fiji, Toronto and London. He also received a telegram offering him an academic position in New Zealand. And so this peripatetic family was again propelled to new shores. “Gain and loss, give and take: these are the fundamental tropes of migration, the ebbs and flows that are as certain as travel itself,” Hajratwala writes.

Perhaps the most prominent symbol of change in her family was the cultural openness in America that allowed Hajratwala to come out as a lesbian to her parents. It may be the limited scope of the book that prevents Hajratwala from fully exploring how immigrant communities handle this explosive subject. Yet, in its spirited and kind representation of the rapidly enlarging Indian diaspora, Leaving India is testimony to the truth of the adage: “What Destiny writes, neither human nor god may put asunder.”

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This review appeared in Wilson Quarterly and Business Standard.

Also read 'Poppies' set before Opium Wars

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A dark, roiling mystery to the end

At first glance, The Glister defies all stereotypes. One is never sure if it is a crime thriller or a spooky horror story, albeit with an angelic bent. It is to John Burnside's credit that it could be both, and without its falling for any stock rituals of either genre.

Innertown is a postindustrial township in terminal decline since the closing of the chemical plant that ran its economy. The plant is a raging monument to disaster, seeping poisonous waste into the residents' consciousness and bodies.

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, a series of disappearances grip the town — teenage boys who, one after the other, simple vanish without a trace. Have they run away? Are they dead? Burnside keeps the mystery crackling until the end.

The tale runs around Leonard, a bookish teen who befriends quirky characters like Moth Man, a mysterious stranger who seemingly visits Innertown to collect data on moths. The boy's mother has left the household, leaving Leonard to look after his father, a victim of the town's infectious moroseness. In spite of his frequent forays into misogynistic bile, Leonard is an adorable guy — articulate, conflicted, determined. The action unfolds through his eyes, even as — like in the best fiction — he is no distant narrator, but a churner of integral events.

Then there is Morrison, the local police officer, mired in guilt because he knows something about the first disappearance, yet is forced to shut up by Brian Smith, an influential local businessman who has a stake in keeping the wrongdoings under wraps.

Burnside builds on the immorality of actions in Innertown to craft a tale with no neat endings. In the story's hallucinatory culmination, redemption is assured, even if in the garb of another shocking crime. The Glister is no run-of-the-mill story; it's a deeply philosophical tale that goes right to the heart of existence and what one must to do, despite circumstances, to retain humanity.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Also read Idle hands have nothing on 'Devil's Footprints'

Monday, April 13, 2009

The tenderness of beasts

In part a sequel to Joseph Boyden's first book, Three Day Road, this novel concerns itself with Will Bird, the grandson of Xavier Bird from the earlier book. Will is a bush pilot who has a history of wild plane crashes, each of which he has miraculously survived. Currently, however, he lies in coma in a hospital in Mosoonee, 12 miles south of James Bay, the "home of the Cree." Boyden divides the novel into chapters alternatively narrated by Will (from his comatose mind), and his niece Annie, who sits by his bedside and recounts to him her adventures in Toronto, Montreal, and New York City....Read more>>>

Sunday, April 12, 2009

India analysed

Ramin Jahanbegloo, well-known Iranian scholar and a faculty at the University of Toronto, regales the reader with engrossing conversations with famed psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. The dialogue form allows Jahanbegloo to tease out not just personal details about Kakar’s life (“When I came back to India the first time in 1964, after an absence of five years, I was very unhappy”), but also the richly layered development of his interest in psychoanalysis (“My psychoanalysis was ...influenced by Erikson’s relativistic stance, so it was not kosher Freudian in any case”). Those already familiar with Kakar’s work can extract from this book pearls of remembered wisdom. For others, it is a learned primer on, and a deserving introduction to, Kakar’s views on a range of topics, from the trauma of Partition to the conflict between modernity and tradition in present-day India.