March 31, 2016

Laila Lalami Explores the Master Slave Dynamic in "The Moor's Account"

"The Moors Account" by Moroccan American Laila Lalami is a captivating read. Written in the historical fiction genre, the novel is based on the voyage chronicles of  Panfilo de Narvaez in the 1520s.

The narrator in this novel is Estebanico, a Moor and also the first black slave of the white world, who accompanied his Spanish masters on an exploratory mission during the era of colonial expansionism into Florida, the land of Native Americans.

 Estebanico, originally Mustafa-Al-Zamori- a native of Azzemur and not a slave, falls into bad times when his father dies, and soon after, the Portuguese soldiers start taking over his homeland of Azzemur. In the face of dire poverty, Estebanico, only a teenager then, sells himself for a few gold coins to Portuguese traders in order to save his mother, his sister, and his twin brothers from starvation. That is how and when Estebanico who only a short while ago was "selling slaves" is now "sold as a slave" and not for the last time; he would soon be resold to a group of Spanish explorers and embark on a doomed expedition during which he would be "one of only four crew members to survive".  Not only does he, Estebanico, survive, he also becomes the voice of his expedition, and in more ways than one. The question that arises is, will it be his, a slave's, version of what happened on this ill fated expedition that will get reported back to his Spanish conquistadors?  Will the Moor's account hold credence with his colonial masters even if it does with the reader.  A master writer, Lalami in "The Moor's Account" cleverly explores and lays bare the circumstances that lead to the establishment of the slave and master dynamic as it unravels in the encounters between the Spanish conquistadors and Native Americans seen through the lens of Estebanico, a black slave.

At the very outset, Estebanico tells the reader that his current name "was the name the Castillians had given.. when they bought him from Portuguese traders."  His name was "a string of sounds whose foreignness still grated on his ears, and..... Estebanico was a man conceived by the Castillians, quite different from the man I really was." Who was he really, is for the reader to find out in this captivating story of Lalami's.  It's a story with a 'foreign' and 'different' narrator who finds himself in an unknown and unforgiving terrain with men whose loyalties are not only sketchy but are often divided and or changing. During the course of the expedition, due to changed and challenging circumstances, the narrator, in spite of his dark skin, foreignness, and his slave status, finds himself elevated to various roles no slave had ever gotten before; those of a deal negotiator, a story teller, a medicine man, even a messiah, and most importantly a savior for his three Spanish companions, his 'masters'. This role reversal creeps up so naturally that even the three Spaniard 'masters' of Estebanico simply go along with it. It is through this role reversal that Lalami showcases the establishment of the master slave dynamic during the colonial era.

Having read this far, wouldn't you want to know the ending of the novel; it's definitely one that the reader will carry within for a while. "The Moor's Account" is  a must read for anyone who likes a good story.  This novel of Laila Lalami's was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist this year, and deservedly so. Ms Lalami is indeed a great story teller; she spins a yarn so engrossing around a bitter naked truth, and the reader takes it et al.

February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day

Ever so embellished,
and so decorated
with hearts and red roses.
It thrills and
it thralls;
at times hard gotten,
and so often
ill begotten.
Yet who can resist it?
Not even the mighty Zeus
could manage to repulse it.
Compelling to the point
that it'd launch a thousand ships.
History pays tribute to it,
with Taj's, tombs, and minarets.
Art stands in servitude
with a Picasso or a John Donne.
Song and rhythm play to it 
be it with a ghazal or a Sufi tune.
Alas, intangible it is
and impossible to define.
Sure enough you'll feel it,
as it drives
or it drowns.
In the strangest of dwellings,
it'll ebb, it'll flow,
and unknowingly it'll grow.
Can't clock it, or time it,
so just feel and enjoy it.
Does it end, or does it change?
Hard to say.
for none's ever bereft of it
to make a guess or say.

Happy Valentine!

January 26, 2016

V.S. Khandekar's "Yayati- A Classic Tale of Lust" Expounds A Puranic King from Hindu Mythology.

I had seen this novel on my mother's bookshelf, decades ago, in another language, so when I came across a translation of Khandekar's "Yayati-A Classic Tale of Lust" on Amazon, I had to read it.

Yayati is a 'Puranic' King from Hindu Mythology who lived for a thousand years in eternal youth after exchanging his old age with his son's youth. Married to the beautiful Devyani, daughter of the powerful sage Shukracharya, after a chance meeting, Yayati had to now follow both the Kshtriya and the Brahmin creed. This was no menial responsibility as Yayati soon realized, especially since he had a tragic flaw; he could not resist beauty and fell prey to it throughout the duration of his long life, more so in the time of his borrowed youth.  Even marriage to the divinely beautiful Devyani did not stop Yayati from having relationships with other women.  One such relationship was with Sharmishtha, a Kshatriya princess who, due to a curse, was serving as a maid to Devyani. It was Puru, the son born out of this union between Yayati and Sharmishtha, who when he was in his late teens, agreed to trade his youth with his father's old age and thereby gave Yayati several lifetimes of eternal youth. This selfless sacrifice of a son for his father has captivated the Indian psyche for centuries, and even today in India, a son has some unquestioned obligation to follow his father's command.

The classic episode of Yayati & Puru has been the focus of attention for centuries, and V.S Khandekar, in 1959 chose to weave this tale into a Marathi novel written from the point-of-view of three of its main characters: Yayati, Devyani, and Sharmishtha.  Khandekar used this three pronged approach to intricately explore the impact of Yayati's lust for and obsession with pleasure that made him unabashedly declare, even at the end of his thousand years of youth, "My lust for pleasure is unsatisfied..." Khandekar's novel provides multidimensional insight into Yayati's choices, and how they affected his life and the lives of those he loved and those who loved him.

Khandekar's character Yayati, though controversial, is also very likable and definitely intriguing; he reminds me of two other mythical figures who've had plays and poems written about them such as Oedipus and Tithonus. All three tried to challenge their prescribed lot and suffered as a consequence, but for whatever reason, all three have captured the human imagination for thousands of years. Yayati, though a lesser known mythical character who features in The Mahabharata, made himself popular with Indian playwrights and novelist because of his Epicurean nature, his lust for the carnal in life.  Down the ages, the character of Yayati has made people wonder, and artists, like Khandekar, have tried to interpret him in their own unique ways. In 1961, Girish Karnad, a renowned Indian playwright and actor, wrote an award winning play based on the character of Yayati which has since then been translated into several languages and has been staged in different corners of the world. In fact, a new phrase- the 'Yayati Complex', similar to 'the Oedipus Complex', was coined as a result of Karnad's play based on Yayati.

Given that this is an English translation of the Marathi original, the writing does palpably distance the reader; I could never lose myself in the tale, and my disbelief was almost never suspended, yet, I never wanted to let go of the story! Yayati's tale has that quality, and anyone familiar with Indian Mythology will want to read this English translation of Khandekar's 'Yayati' that won the novelist a Jnanpeeth Award.

Clearly, myths and folklore fascinate the human mind, and artists can borrow tremendously from that inexhaustible source that came  down to us through the oral tradition of the past. There may be so many more Yayatis and Oedipuses waiting to be found, recognized, and expounded in the mythologies of the world.

January 25, 2016

Ode to The Quaking Aspen

Populus tremuloides -
a role model of maturity.
It feeds and shades
both prey and predator.
It reproduces in abundance.
Yields when needed,
all for the larger good.
Shows up to deliver
in the direst of straits.
It quakes, it bends,
but won't let go.
Avalanches and glaciers-
It'll brave both
and reemerge
to beckon others to grow.
It's shiny leaves
do its story tell.
They shimmy and shiver
quake and vibrate
in shock sheer excitement
of braving a bolder breeze.
They shade, but just enough
to let the sunlight stream
warmth and light
to fledglings waiting under.
Saplings of evergreen
Firs and Pines
that will soon outgrow and edge out
the Populus tremuloides.
But the gentle Aspen that it is,
the Populus tremuloides
bears no grudge or hatred
of those pushy evergreens.
For the Populus tremuloides
knows, what they do not;
that every tree must grow
in shadow, sun, or rain.
Be it you or me or they,
each of us has but a role
in nature's dramatic play.
Mine was to make way for you.
Now it's your turn
to do your part
so Adieu.

September 07, 2015

Refugees or Migrants? Role of Media in the European Crisis

(Syrian refugees -
The refugee crisis in Europe affects the entire world, and yet the world watches in a stand-by mode. Why?  Is it because we are ill informed about the crisis? Is the media playing a responsible role of keeping the world informed about what's happening on the ground in Syria and thereabouts, or is the tussle for supremacy between the social media and the print media exacerbating the crisis unfolding in Europe? 

The print media is fighting to keep its hold on readership, and social media is trying its level best to make some permanent dents in the print media share.  While newspapers are trying to keep pace with the minute by minute updates of social media, the social media is upgrading its reliability of information and sources to compete with the reputed print media. However, this need for immediacy of news has compromised the quality of the end product, which is the news we get. Or else, why would established and reputed media casually use the word 'migrant' for a 'refugee' in several of its articles while reporting on the crisis? When reporting on the situation in Greece, Italy, France, Germany and other European countries being inundated by hordes of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of North Africa, the media refers to these desperate people as 'migrants'.  It appears to forget or else disregards that the hordes in question are not 'migrants' by any definition; they did not make a planned departure from their homeland, nor do they plan to establish permanent residence in another country in pursuit of better opportunities. In fact, these are some awfully scared and frantic families trying to avert death and or torture at the hands of an apathetic, violent, and fundamentalist regime that has taken over their homeland, and they have no means of fighting it off. These are mothers and fathers seeking shelter, in any place possible, that promises their children the slightest hope at life, and no tear gas, legal document, or a border fence is going to stop this mass movement of frantic and needy people.

Undoubtedly, European nations feel overwhelmed by this endless surge of humanity pouring in at their borders, but wouldn't they have done the same had the roles been reversed? Rich European nations have to revisit their policies on immigration; the age old wall of disparity that exists between the have and the have not nations in and around Europe will not hold for long, as the current crisis proves.  A Germany and a France cannot sail peacefully if a Greece is sinking.  It's no different in the Americas; USA must ensure an economically viable and politically stable Mexico and Canada if the USA wants to maintain peace and prosperity within its borders. National boundaries can no longer deter people from finding safe haven when confronted by natural or man made disasters. And when masses of desperate people are on the move, as they are in Syria and other places in the region, it's no longer just a European crisis, it's a world crisis, and the media has a very large and significant role to play when reporting a humanitarian crisis of such proportion. The media cannot play games or seek leverage in the face of such mammoth human suffering.

Here are a couple of links to articles reporting on this crisis:

August 20, 2015

Night Train to Lisbon - A Philosophical Movie.

Night Train to Lisbon is a movie I'd recommend for those who are in the fall of their lives. The movie is an introspective yet random journey undertaken by  Raimund Gregorius, a close-to-retirement Swiss Classics Professor who has immersed himself, totally, in a world of philosophy and books. He is divorced, childless, and friendless, perhaps for a reason. It is a reason not known to him, but he is told by his ex wife, that it is because he is very boring, and students taking his class often corroborate that description of him. Professor Gregorius is undoubtedly lonely as the ongoing game of chess on his dining table suggests, where  Gregorius plays on both sides of the board into the wee hours of the night.

One day, fate turns a kindly eye on the Professor when a chance encounter with a woman on a bridge takes Gregorius on a journey of a lifetime. The woman he accidentally saves, was about to end her life by jumping off a bridge, but the Professor manages to stop her in the nick of time.  However, this woman is rather quiet and does not divulge much about herself even though she accompanies the Professor to his class after the incident. However, she does not stay there too long, and within a matter of minutes, rushes out leaving her jacket behind.  The Professor goes after her to return her jacket, but fails to find her. During this time he discovers a book in the pocket of her jacket and begins to read it. This random and clearly insignificant action of his turns Gregorius' life upside down as he then embarks on an intrepid venture to Lisbon hoping to find out what happened to Amadeu de Prado, the author of the book, who was a practicing doctor in Lisbon during António de Oliveira Salazar's dictatorial rule.

The movie is slow paced with a lot of narrative and very little action.  The little action that there is, comes in flashbacks, narrated by several different characters who Gregorius meets up with in Lisbon because they knew Amadeu. The camera does very little to compliment the beautiful setting, Lisbon. The actors do their part, but nothing very remarkable which would stand out. Then what is so special about this movie that made me want to write about it? Basically, what sold the movie to me was perhaps a personal connect I made with Gregorius' journey; a journey that happened from his out-of-character decision after a commonplace event which ultimately led to some dramatic changes in his life.  How many of us, those in the fall of our lives, get a chance to take on such journeys, like Gregorius'?  Those of us who do get that chance, pass it by, or procrastinate over it and then live in regret forever. There was a message in the movie for so many in the audience- to take chances, to try out a different way, and to not wait for something cataclysmic to change your life.

Having liked the movie, now I feel compelled to read the book on which it is based,  The book "Nachtzug nach Lissabon" written by Swiss philosopher writer Peter Bieri (pseudonym Pascal Mercier), was originally published in German and then translated into English and published in 2008. The book intrigues me in that I want to know how much, if at all,  the movie deviates from the original text.  Will Gregorius' journey in the book be like Marlow's in "The Heart of Darkness"? Was Bieri inspired by Conrad perhaps? Most importantly, will I find more poetically profound and soul searching dialogue to ponder over such as the ones in  the movie?

Amadeu: "Given that we live only a small part of what there is in us - what happens with the rest?"

Amadeu: "In truth, the dramatic moments of a life determining experience are often unbelievable, low key."

Amadeu: "But by travelling to ourselves we must confront our own loneliness."

Amadeu: "What could... what should be done, with all the time that lies ahead of us? Open and unshaped, feather-light in its freedom and lead-heavy in its uncertainty?"

I enjoyed the movie! Also, it is available on Netflix, so go for it!  Take a chance : )

August 18, 2015

Andy Weir's "The Martian" - A Survival Story in Sci-Fi Mode

What a read!  I was completely captivated by the story line!  I couldn’t sleep until I knew whether Mark Watney made it home.

Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian is a Sci-Fi novel with a difference.  It’s not one of those dystopic sagas, nor does it present a future phobic vision of life with automated life forms.  Here is a story of a lone man's survival in the cold and apathetic terrain of the planet Mars.  I must admit that I approached this novel with serious trepidation; a first time author with no creative writing credentials. However, reading the first chapter more than alleviated any doubts I may have had about Weir’s competence as a story teller.

Not only is the story interesting, but also the manner by which this story cast itself into a printed novel. It’s astonishing how Weir produced this book.  He did not intend to write a novel of any sorts.  He was employed as a techie at NASA when he started writing blogposts about an astronaut Mark Watney, who mistakenly gets left behind on Mars. The online posts sequentially unraveled Watney’s journey on an inhospitable terrain. The instinct for survival keeps Watney going, each day being more difficult than the previous one.  Watney clings on to the last shreds of hope; an impossible task indeed, knowing all the odds stacked against it: the fact that his fellow astronauts presumed him to be dead, he had limited provisions of water and Oxygen, he had no means of communication to call for help, the rations would run out way before any remotely possible rescue mission could be carried out.  This fearsome yet absorbing tale of a man fighting for survival on the red planet unfolded and gained momentum on Weir’s blogposts, and it intrigued Weir’s readers to such an extent that they prodded him to self publish Watney’s story!  The runaway success of "The Martian" surprised Weir himself : “ I had no idea it was going to do so well. The story had been available for free on my website for months and I assumed anyone who wanted to read it had already read it. A few readers had requested I post a Kindle version because it's easier to download that way. So I went ahead and did it, setting the price to the minimum Amazon would allow. As it sold more and more copies I just watched in awe.”  Weir’s lucky phase was still not over because a movie deal and a print publishing deal followed suit all within a week and Andy Weir, a NASA engineer, became a literary celebrity.
Besides the storyline, Weir’s format for his story enhanced and facilitated its readability. Most of this novel is written as a series of diary postings by the protagonist, with the hope that someday they will be read by another human being. Weir’s narrative style not only provided the reader with a timeline for Watney’s stay on Mars, but it also lent pace and immediacy to the storyline. "The Martian" is a gripping tale of survival and definitely a story you must read.  Also, once you read the novel, perhaps you could answer this  question that has been bothering me ever since I read Weir's novel: 
Was Watney's will to survive the driving force behind all his actions, or was it the hope of rescue that kept him going from one day to the next?

Andy Weir’s success as a maiden writer and storyteller lends credence to the belief that one can become an acclaimed writer without going through an MFA program. There’s hope for us : )

July 16, 2015

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' - A Searing Saga that Shocks and Humbles.

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' is simply brilliant storytelling with some very rich and evocative language.

"Do you know I've been here a dozen times, but I've never known anything about who built it or why.
My history is your picnic ground," he said..

“How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.”

"We anticipate disasters, calculate stress with mathematical precision. The messier our personal lives the better we are at designing structures that withstand the pressure they'll inevitably- or potentially- endure.  Bring on your storms, bring on your earthquakes. We've done our calculations.  And lovers, take note....when we break up with you, it's because we've modelled the situation, run the simulations, we know which way things are headed."

“....barriers made of metal could turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side...”

"This Pakistan, it's taking my friends, my sister, it's taking the familiarity from the streets of Dilli. Thousands are leaving, thousands more will leave. What am I holding on to? Just kite strings attached to air at either ends."

This 2009 novel of Ms. Shamsie was recommended by a friend quite a while ago, but the somber nature of the title put me off, and sadly enough, 'Burnt Shadows' sat on my shelf and on my 'to read' list for quite some years! So much for never judging a book by its title!

For someone that young, Kamila Shamsie took on a very vast canvas to paint; her novel 'Burnt Shadows' spans several decades and travels across many countries on different continents. The storyline weaves itself around three generation with the one common thread, Hiroko, the female protagonist, a 'hibakusha', who, though homeless never hankered for home,  and had 'not thought of destination so much as departure'. Having witnessed the bombing of Nagsaki, the aftermath of the India Pakistan partition in Delhi, a nervous Karachi during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and an Islamophobic New York post 9/11, Hiroko is Shamsie's global citizen carrying 'burnt shadows' of a tortuous history on her back, literally and figuratively. What these 'burnt shadows' are, how they came to be, and how they affect her and those around her is what the novel is about!

Did Ms. Shamsie have a message to convey through this novel? Obviously she did, and I'm sure readers will find several themes embedded in the panoramic saga of this novel, but the one message that stands out for me is that History cannot be ignored as it colors and determines the future of humanity. If and when you read the novel, could you think of another theme that is as pervasive and relevant ?

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' is a must-read! It is a page turner that enthralls with vivid settings, expressive language, dynamic characterization, and a storyline that never loses it's grip.