Monday, August 24, 2009

Brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession

A direct descendant of indentured labour who had moved to Trinidad from India, rising from humble beginnings to go on scholarship to Oxford, finding his calling in the written word, and scorching the literary scene with incisive forays into hitherto unexplored territories. That is the life historian Patrick French set out to chronicle.

It was an unexpected thing to do for a writer. V S Naipaul, narrator par excellence of the agony of the immigrant, a writer who had built a career describing the diverse ways in which identities shift in foreign lands, let his biographer Patrick French unrestricted access to his private correspondence and to the diaries of his wife, Patricia Hale (Pat), kept at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

It was to be a mixed blessing, arrived at after much introspection. For Naipaul is not an easy man, least of all, an easy husband. His hankering for truth is his fiction may have extended to an unnatural striving for a brutally honest account of his own life, a wish granted by his biographer.

Meeting Naipaul as a fellow student at Oxford, Pat disregarded her family's doubts about him to enter an alliance that would, ultimately, become the death of her. Over the course of several decades, Naipaul reduced her to a pale effigy of her former self. He forced her to become his cook and typist — so thorough was his indoctrination in hate that Pat, the silent gullible wife, felt honoured in surrendering to his genius.

Later, Naipaul began a torrid affair with Margaret Gooding, an Argentine woman from Buenos Aires. French's biography is the most damaging to Naipaul's reputation in portraying the monster that he could turn into with the women in his life. When Margaret revealed a one-night stand to him, he beat her repeatedly for two days, relishing in her acquiescence.

While Pat knew about Margaret, she was embittered by Naipaul's proud assertions that he had started visiting brothels three years into their marriage. Pat was weak with cancer, and Naipaul concedes to French that his verbal volleys may have hastened her death.

Naipaul's bad behaviour did not stop there. He fell for a third woman, Pakistani journalist Nadira, after Pat's death, and asked his agent Gillon Aitken "to sort out the mess" with Margaret. "I feel that in all of this, Margaret was very badly treated. But you know there is nothing I can do. I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady," he says.

Naipaul's corrosive gaze extended to large swathes of his life, including his writing. As a journalist, he was a scathing, original chronicler of the social pitfalls in the lands he visited: India, the home of his ancestors, in "An Area of Darkness"; and Trinidad, the land his ancestors adopted, in "The Middle Passage". Further, "Among the Believers" was the result of his excursions into the heart of radical Islam, much before such writing gained widespread readership.

A one-time friend and fellow Trinidad writer (Naipaul hates this label), Derek Walcott was also not spared the famed acerbic tongue. In "A Writer's People", Naipaul slammed the veteran's writing as being symptomatic of Trinidad's cultural barrenness. Naipaul's dismissive attitude toward friends and agents completes a portrait of brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession.

"The World Is What It Is" is an apt title for Naipaul's biography, for little that happened in this man's life played to convention. French must be congratulated for undertaking an intimidating task that involved poring over hundreds of documents and spending time in the august company of a man who must have seemed, with every passing day, less and less deserving of the attention.

Real to the touch

The Sherpa and other fictions is a collection of nine short stories by first-time writer Nila Gupta. Gupta is a a second-generation Canadian. She was born in Montreal, spent a part of her childhood in Jammu, and then went back to Canada.

Each of the stories is the collection is about people who are part-Canadian and part-Indian. But the stories are not strictly about the immigrant experience. While the characters wrestle with the pull of "home", there are larger undercurrents driving their returns to India. Gupta captures these undercurrents with humanity and insight.

In the title story, the daughter of a Canadian immigrant returns to Jammu to meet her Indian relatives. The father has had no truck with India since he left, for his own reasons. The daughter though welcomes India and India welcomes her with open arms. "It seems to me that I am related to everyone by blood or marriage and my head is spinning to keep up with the complex relations and unfamiliar terms," she tells the reader at one point.

But there is a certain reason for her visit—to meet Madam Jaune, an unmarried woman who had once wished to adopt her. Is she able to accomplish her motive or does the weight of the past, her father's, make her decide against it?

Lonely ladies battling circumstances is a major theme in this collection. In "The Mouser", Mala Lalla is believed to be losing her mind, as she watches over an army of mice in her kitchen. Her son Ahmed is a gay man who stays in faraway Toronto (there is another tale about homosexuals in the collection, where gayness is a central theme). Sadia, a cousin of Ahmed's, is sent to look after her. We learn that Mala Lalla has been scarred by Partition and Sadia, meeting two young people in the neighbourhood, awakens to her own sexual blossoming. Their lives intersect (over mice), and slowly revealing the burdensome past of one and the jumpy future of the other, Gupta scripts the best story of the collection.

Miss Kamla Vati cares for children of refugees and people on the run in conflict-scarred Kashmir in "In the House of Broken Things". One of the children she educated has grown up and visits her with his wife at a time when her house has been attacked by those who believe that Miss Vati is a "sympathiser". (The Kashmir conflict provides a nostalgic and political setting to the collection.) Torn between Miss Vati's troubles and his wife's demands to move on, the man will decide if he must let go of the past for the future or vice-versa.

Nila Gupta's debut collection flits between India and Canada and crosses boundaries at every instance: boundaries of religion, gender, sexuality and nation. Which is why her characters and stories are so real to the touch.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Crying for deconstruction

At a time when Barack Obama is the US President, it may take some effort to remember a time when blacks were not allowed to share the same seats as whites in buses or live in the same neighbourhoods. However, the rights that blacks enjoy have come after much struggle. Kathryn Stockett's The Help showcases one such struggle—of black women who worked as maids in white households, who raised white babies and who, once those babies grew up and the poison of racism made it impossible to tend to the grown-up children, left to tend to new families.

Stockett assumes the voices of three narrators, who tell their stories in alternating chapters. The setting is 1960s' Jackson, Mississippi, when the old walls of segregation are being weakened little by little by news from the outside world. There's Aibileen Clark, a maternal black maid who works at Miss Leefolt and looks after Mae Mobley, Miss Leefolt's daughter. Minny Jackson is Aibileen's friend, with a reputation, apart from being the best cook in the town, of having a mouth loud enough to get her kicked out of her jobs. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a young white woman who dreams of finding a job in the New York publishing world. (Her story closely resembles Stockett's own, who also moved from Mississippi to New York to work for a magazine.)

Their stories come together when Skeeter is advised by a stern New York publisher that she ought to write not about lazy subjects but "about what disturbs you." Having grown up in a town where racism swings from the outright "activism" of her childhood friend Hilly Holbrooke to the insidious hate of her own mother, Skeeter decides to undertake a secret project chronicling the experiences of black maids, that is, the details of spending their lives working for white families.

The Help is the story of how Aibileen, Minny and several other maids come to share their stories of love and bitterness with Skeeter over coffee in Aibileen's house, a project of such secrecy that Skeeter has to tell her mother she is working on a life of Jesus Christ. Mississippi in the 1960s is the zenith of segregation, made all the more apparent for the voices raised against it. At a crucial point in the book, an NAACP member is shot in the head in front of his family. Libraries don't allow blacks to enter and a black man's tongue is taken out for speaking to an "outsider" about the "situation".

In such a scenario, Skeeter drives up to Aibileen's every other day and— after a false start— begins taking diligent notes on her typewriter. The women talk about everything, from being made to pay for the silver they never stole to being helped unexpectedly in a moment of sudden misfortune. Stockett makes the stories the central theme of the book (even though, unsatisfyingly, we never hear most of them) but she also allows minor distractions in the form of Skeeter's on-now-off-now alliance with a handsome young man, or the sidelined story of Minny's abusive husband.

The villain of the piece is Hilly, a stock racist who, at the novel's beginning, is championing the building of separate toilets for black maids. From here to her final humiliation (an exciting sub-plot relating to the eccentric but golden-hearted Minny), The Help moves through several nerve-wracking twists before coming to a — what can only be called — rather hastily-arrived finale.

The Help has its heart at the right place, and in its imagining of the black women's voice, it lends an authenticity which only a personal experience could have supplied. In a moving afterword, Stockett reveals how she never understood the silent suffering of her own black maid until long after her death which happened when Stockett was only 16.

However, the book must be accused of borrowed characterisation. Consider Aibileen who matches every stereotype that one may harbour about black people, not seeing the irony of her own observation on meeting one of her white kids, now grown up:

"And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine."

This description, and many such, made me a little uncomfortable, because they played into the long-suffering image of black people that has been mythologised by popular culture—the gentle sacrifice, the immense capacity for self-denial. Why are black characters so devoid of ill will in novels about racism? How do they stand being good to the children they raise, knowing fully well that they will grow up to become dyed-in-the-wool racists? It completely boggles the mind. It actually reminds me of how prostitutes are mostly shown to have hearts of gold, like the reader would be uncomfortable with any other description, lest it accentuates the reader's imagined discomfort with her morally compromised position.

The Help is a well-written, imaginatively peopled (in fact, too imaginatively) novel. But in a post-racial world, I would like to read about characters that are real and don't fit such easy patterns as the long-suffering black maid, the evil white woman who meets her comeuppance, and so on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All you who toil tonight

When Alain de Botton received a rather uncomplimentary review for this book in the New York Times, he went ballistic: “Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value... I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

Leave aside the qualities of the review itself, de Botton’s outburst suggests that in spite of the huge amounts of research he poured into this book — which purports to divulge the pleasures and sorrows we derive from the monotony that defines one-third of our lives — he clearly hasn’t understood the rules of his own work. You shout at the reviewer and you expose yourself to be the self-centred crybaby that you are.

Be that as it may, the book is, strictly speaking, undeserving of the viciousness that characterised the NYT review. De Botton, pop-philosopher extraordinaire, travels far and wide in his quest to offer “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”

He covers ten professions broadly, as diverse as aviation and biscuit manufacture, and accompanies his analyses with photographs straight out of a coffee table book. In each case where it’s possible, he travels from source to sea, making this a book of reportage the likes of which one encounters in New Yorker and Granta—10,000-word pieces offering a personal take on an issue of importance.

De Botton’s smooth flow, which he demonstrated in such wide-ranging books as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006), stands him in good stead here too. Chapters on staid subjects like “Logistics” gently hum with the glow of his language. Writing about warehouses that dot the English landscape, he says: “One looks up at their cathedral-like ceilings and finds, instead of angels, workaday, economical spans of steel punctuated by fluorescent strips, which guide the onlooker’s eyes back to rows of symmetrical shelving and the hurried motions of forklift trucks.”

He finds teeming ocean life—all dead, of course—in one section of the warehouse and this prompts him to find out how a tuna fished in Maldives makes it to a Northamptonshire warehouse in a matter of hours. As he journeys, this time from sea to source, he begins to realise that his leisurely project may not be so easy after all. Sea food exporters are reluctant to speak to an outsider, least of all a writer sneaking around for trouble. De Botton visits Male, the capital of Maldives, where he encounters silence until the country’s minister of fish makes a few phone calls and launches him on his trail. Really, the book is as much about pleasures and sorrows as the pulls and pressures of work.

One thing de Botton is especially attuned to is bursting bubbles. The chapter on “Rocket Science”, which term we associate with IQ scores of 140-plus, is a subtle exploration of the disillusionment of bright young minds who enter this field to make a lasting contribution to humanity’s body of knowledge. Yet, in de Botton’s chapter, we come across the painstaking work on a satellite which will merely beam signals for a children’s TV station in Japan. Routine, humdrum work—much too removed from intimations of glory.

De Botton tackles such brick-and-mortar topics in other chapters, notably “Transmission Engineering” and “Aviation”. But the real thrust of the book comes with “Career Counselling” which goes to the heart of de Botton’s Holy Grail: Is work meaningful?

The spotlight shifts to Robert Symons, a fifty-five-year-old psychotherapist who is less counsellor and more motivational speaker. The irony of Symons’ job is not lost on de Botton: to help, with an archaeologist’s precision, people to decide which job would suit them the best, only for them to subsequently realise that the world of work does not ease into such unguarded cheeriness. It is no picnic that can be chosen, altered and left at will.

In a roundabout way, this applies to de Botton’s project as well. Having set out to discover the details of work life as a detached outsider, he discovers that his posh accent and head-in-the-clouds ideas about real work are often at odds with the vast majority of toiling humanity. Hailing from an affluent background that allows him the luxury to go on such wild goose chases, de Botton’s rich language and slight concerns sit uncomfortably in a book about drudgery and endless hopelessness.

And yes, there is also the little matter of his reaction to unkind reviews.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Stories imbued with a master's touch

The title of Maile Meloy's new collection of stories comes from a poem by A R Ammons: "One can't have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it." Serving both as epigraph for the book and a certain moral revelation in one of the stories, this artless line runs like blood through most stories in this collection. Meloy's characters are stuck in a world of choices — moral, psychological et al — and they can't seem to decide which one to go for.

The first story in the book is called "Travis B", about a loner ranch head in rural Montana, who walks with a limp due to a bout of childhood polio. A Native American, Chet tends horses for a living when, on a boring evening, he chances upon a class on school law. The teacher there is Beth Travis, a white lawyer who drives nine hours to take the class. There is such a wide chasm between Chet and Beth that when Meloy introduces longing, first in the air and then in Chet, it gives the story a raw frisson, reminiscent of Annie Proulx Of course, love in such a case must be unrequited, weighted down as it is by gender and class and race, yet the menacing silence of Chet is a thing unto itself—a self-contained, restrained sparseness of the soul.

The trauma of lost love is also the theme of "Augustin", in which an ageing Argentine widower discovers meaning in his staid life when he finds that his paramour of long ago has returned to town due to straitened circumstances. His daughter informs him that she is now working as a maid in one of the houses he has rented out. When things don't work out as planned, and the lady refuses to accept his help, Augustin "cursed his daughter for bringing the world and its attractions back to his door."

In an interview, Meloy has quoted Ann Patchett on how a short story collection "was like a mall: it needed a few big stories with broad horizons, like the big anchor stores, to make a space in which the smaller, quirkier stories could survive." Indeed, there is wide variety in the collection and Meloy places stories in quite their proper places.

So, in "The Girlfriend", a father meets the girlfriend of his daughter's killer to find out the exact turn of events. The killer has already been prosecuted and there is nothing to be had from this conversation, yet Leo cannot bring himself to let go. The girl, a bundle of contradictions who threatens charges of rape, ultimately reveals a truth about the killing that will leave Leo worse off than when he started.

This story — threatening to drown the entire collection in a gale of grief — is thankfully followed by "Liliana", a light-hearted story about a former Nazi era actress, presumed dead, returning to her grandson's house. The grandson, passing through a protracted spot of financial bother, hopes that her substantial financial assets, now open to redistribution, will land his way, if only he is able to discover a connection he never had with her. But, the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.

Each of the eleven stories in the collection chooses a moment in its characters' lives when the lines between what one wants and what one can have blur. Steven loses his best mate in a factory accident in "Lovely Rita" and finds his friend's girlfriend seeking his help to stage a raffle for providing sexual services. When Steven refuses, the girl threatens to anyway go ahead with it, with or without his help. Caught in a bind, Steven cannot sort his own feelings, a whirlwind of desire and guilt—and decides to help her. Sex is an ever-present hook in Meloy's stories, working its insidious way into luring characters who show tremendous restraint and come out clean, though ridden with loss and emptiness. The story ends on an anti-climactic note, yet in its evocation of Steven's discombobulated self, it shines.

In "The Children", a man prepares the ground for disclosing to his wife that he has been cheating on her, but when the moment arrives, he is so completely caught up in it — its innocent, regular bliss — that he cannot believe that he, this same person, can feel this way at home and another, bordering on thrill and danger, when with his mistress. And so, "both ways..."

Raised in Montana, Meloy's stories reflect the quietude of her childhood landscape, and a self-assurance that living in the country bestows. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is her second short story collection, after her 2002 debut, Half in Love. Having written two novels in the mean time, Meloy gifts us conflicted characters in short, bite-sized stories that are imbued with a master's touch.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A gentle, firm attack on national mythologizing

When President Obama reached out to the global Muslim population in Cairo in June, his speech was littered with references to non-Christian Gods and stressed that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam."

But the real subtext of the speech, as subsequently shown by members of both the American left and right -- to different aims, of course -- was to denounce the notion that America is a Christian nation chosen by God to spread the message of goodness and attack evil in its various guises.

It is this national mythologizing of a "chosen people" that Richard T. Hughes, distinguished professor of religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., sets out to attack in his serious inquiry, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 232 pages, $29.95).

Hughes busts the myth of America as a Christian nation by quoting widely from the Bible and showing how American actions since the founding of the republic have often contradicted the central scriptural teaching of peace on earth and goodwill to man.

From the earliest westward expansion that subjugated the Native Americans to the most recent "Axis of Evil" rhetoric of George W. Bush, Hughes shows that the seductive charm of the term "Kingdom of God" has mostly been misused to carry out actions that are against the Bible's spirit.

As a professor of religion, Hughes is ideally placed to bolster his claims with passages from the Bible. Nearly every page in the book has extensive quotes from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Hughes lays special importance on demonstrating how the Bible references "Kingdom of God" to mean an Arcadian paradise filled with love and justice, and not, as history as shown, a divinely ordained tool to justify the militaristic ambitions of those in power.

Such us-against-them rhetoric, Hughes laments, has gotten more strident in the aftermath of 9/11, even as American society becomes evermore culturally diverse. A proud Christian himself, Hughes is emphatic that true Christianity is removed from hubris and Jesus is best served by acceptance of, rather than discrimination against, the other.

A genuinely thought-provoking read, Christian America and the Kingdom of God makes one wonder if those who wage wars and bloodshed in the name of God do really know the holy canon.


This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Monday, August 03, 2009

MJS' Geeta Sharma-Jensen says goodbye

Geeta Sharma-Jensen, the book editor at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is accepting a buyout offer from the newspaper to pursue other forms of writing and spend "time with neglected gardens."

In a moving farewell piece on the MJS website, Geeta recounts her 35-year journey at the paper, the changes that have come about in the newspaper business and what she will most miss about her job.

It has been a journey of sorts for me too. Geeta was the first book editor outside Philadelphia Inquirer to give me work, with Tarun Tejpal's The Alchemy of Desire. That initial encouragement was vital for someone from New Delhi trying to make a foothold in the American newspaper book sections. When I was unreasonable and got upset about her cutting a well-loved review of mine (The Indian Clerk), she was patient with me, allowing me to see my mistake, and when I apologised, she accepted it without issue and continued to give me work. I remember she said she used to be like that at my age, and so understood. Geeta, thank you for your kindness and maturity.

I wish Geeta all success in whatever she decides to pursue now on. I hope the free time allows her to indulge her interests in other forms of writing. And yes, I will be looking out for her freelance work every now and then—that particular muscular way of putting things she possesses that brings the page alive.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Innocence and intrigue in a bygone age

Saadat Hasan Manto is most well known for his Partition-era magnum opus, “Toba Tek Singh”. However, like many other writers albratrossed by just one of their several outstanding works, Manto's other short stories have been confined to relative obscurity. This is a travesty since all of them combine his atypical wit with a stark tendency to unveil double standards.

Aatish Taseer brings forth several of Manto’s little-known gems in a fine new translation. Since Manto, before moving to Lahore, was a film journalist in Bombay, not a few of the stories in this collection are based in the city of dreams, especially what can be called an early prototype of today's Bollywood. While technical finesse may be a distant destination, scandal is very much the order of the day. In "My Name is Radha", a wildly popular superstar, known in the industry as the epitome of high morals (he even addresses his co-stars as "sisters") is shown by Manto's acerbic narrator to have feet of clay.

Manto's world is a curious mix of innocence and intrigue, so that Hindus and Muslims in his stories are friends and well-wishers, still untouched by the poison of Partition. In such a politically fecund setting, Manto yet manages to throw the human element in sharp relief, showcasing the warts-and-all mortal lurking inside the seemingly divine. "For Freedom" is about a Muslim freedom fighter who, in the thrill of the moment at the historic Jallianwalan Bagh, forswears sex and pledges at his wedding to not have "slave children" unless India gains independence. The story is clearly a dig at Mahatma Gandhi, who appears as a high-minded Babaji here. Narrated over many years by a friend of the freedom fighter, it a scathing attack on the pulls of self-righteousness and the havoc it can unleash.

For a writer of his time, there is a strong feminist streak running through these works. Manto’s women are sharply etched characters who persevere with their choices, at times to tragic consequences. In “Licence”, a woman must resort to selling her body because it is easier to get a licence for that than one for driving her dead husband’s horse carriage.

Manto's brilliant touch is visible in all these stories, hop as they do from a moment of child-like, unadulterated joy to the sudden onset of tragedy. Rooted in a certain setting, these stories nevertheless whisper to us across time and space.