July 31, 2007

Jose Saramago's "Blindness" - An Eye-Opener?

What happens when a group of idividuals suddenly go blind, and that is just the beginning of the problem; this 'white blindness' is extremely contagious, and within days there are hundreds more who get infected by it! Those in power, take desperate measures to contain this epidemic; alas, it's only a matter of time before the entire city and perhaps a whole country is under seige in Portugese writer Jose Saramago's novel 'Blindness'.

Jose Saramago is a Nobel Laureate, the first ever from Portugal, who received attention in the USA only after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. However, he's recognized as one of the greatest literary voices writing out of Europe today. 'Blindness' was originally written in Portugese and translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero. The setting of the novel is unknown; it could be just any city, in any country in the second half of the twentieth century, and this is perhaps what lends universality to any underlying theme that Saramago may have had in mind. Many readers and critics have drawn parrallels between this novel and Camus 'The Plague'; both deal with an epidemic that afflicts an area, and how the residents thereafter cope with their changed circumstances. However, Saramago's depiction of the epidemic has a poignance and depth that brings home the horror and the helplessness of the victims in a way that Camus plague doesn't. The 'white blindness' drags in the reader, feet and soul, into it's bog like claustrophobia. The squalor, the stench, the shit-laden corridors are as real for the reader as they are for the blinded who are living those conditions.

In addition to the realism of Saramago, it is also his writing style that makes him so unique. There is absolute fluidity so far as the construction of the novel is concerned. There are no quotation marks or paragraph indentations to prepare the reader for dialogues. At the outset the reader is clouded in a maze of sentences trying to figure out dialogues from narrative. This possibly was a perfect fit for the metaphor of "Blindness' that Saramago may have had in mind; all boundaries and distinctions, be they those of sight or of language, were to be fading and mingling into one another. The lack of clarity may have been a purposeful ploy of this master writer. Just as the onset of blindness caused individuals to seek solace and meaning in the collective, so would the uniformity of the language structure force the reader to find his own meaning to this novel set in an undefined location. To quote Preto- Rodas on Saramago's extraordinary style, "Gone are the usual distinctions involving narrative, description, and dialogue. . . . The result . . . is unsettling as the reader opens to pages filled with lines of unbroken print. One may even lose one's way in the absence of capital letters, punctuation marks, and paragraph indentation."

There is so much a reader can make of this novel that it could fill up pages; there are a string of questions that one would like to ask of Saramago to figure out what he intended the novel to convey. It is credit to his craftsmanship that these unanswered questions only serve to enhance reader interest and to make 'Blindness' a gripping read. There are several profound lines in the novel that the reader often interprets as the author's voice surfacing, but alas, Saramago gives no definitive or qualifying narrative that could pin him down. He simply provides a vision into a world descending into anarchy due to an inexplicable physical epidemic, and where a small group of people coping with this changed situation.

It's noteworthy that Saramago begins this novel with an epigram to blindness that reads :
"If you can see, look. If you can look, observe".

However, 'see', 'look', or 'observe'; read it you must! A classic no doubt!

July 26, 2007

Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly"

What a disturbing movie! Iranian Kurdish director, Bahman Ghobadi's stark presentation of a land and people torn apart physically and emotionally by war brings the bile up my throat even as I think about the movie. 'Turtles Can Fly' ( watch the trailer) is definitely not a movie for the faint of heart.

'Turtles Can Fly' won several awards for Iranian Kurdish director Ghobadi after it was released in 2005, and deservedly so. It is a movie that would shake up the coldest of cold hearts as the camera zooms in on the tons and tons of war remnants which are now the home of orphaned children; a tank, a missile launcher are some of the war memorablia providing shelter for the 12 and 15 year olds who look forward to their daily routine of cleaning ot landmines from fields in Kurdistan. Each live landmine they put into their baskets, that they so uncomplainingly carry on their young backs, means an additional 15 cents for them! If it's an American landmine it fetches an even higher price; possibly the reason these children, especially their leader 'Satellite', loves America! Their starved and crippled light-weight bodies make them perfect fits for their job, that of finding, defusing, and collecting landmines; something many of them do with uncanny dexterity, even with their mouths since many of them have no arms!

Despite the sombre theme of the movie, its rendition is not all serious. The movie has some light hearted moments that provoke spontaneous laughter for which you are immediately ridden with guilt; 'how can I be laughing in a situation like this!' Satellite, the chief protagonist brings in most of the laughs as do his young assistants, all of who are crippled orphans, victims of a war they have embraced as a normal state of being. Their life, though war ravaged to the viewer, appears quite busy and meaningful to them, as they go about cheerfully earning their livelihood with no expectations of a helping hand; yet, there's not a negative bone in any of them save in the 15 year old girl Agrin who is so obviously a victim of depression, probably due to all that she's been through. All of these youngsters carry their physical and emotional handicaps with such ease and frankness that it makes the viewer uneasy, to say the least. Ghobadi juxtaposes the innocence and energy of these Kurdish orphans living in a war-torn Iraq with the cold blooded hostilities of war, but the violence and gore is to be felt more than it is to be seen in the movie. Regardless of which side you may be on, an Iraqi or a westerner, Ghobadi has you eating out of his hand so far as this movie is concerned. When Satellite's first in command, the 13 year old one legged Pasheo, uses his limp leg as a toy gun to go 'bam' bam' in order to distract and entertain a two year old who is crying, is a scene that marks Ghobadi's mastery in wrenching the deepest emotions out of the coldest hearts.

As for the title, 'Turtles can Fly', you can make what you want out of it; however, this is one explanation that helps me out of my gloom and guilt of having lived safe and away while the Iraq War raged: something as slow as a turtle and with a reach that barely keeps it above the ground, can still find it in himself to rise above all limitations to give meaning to his life and to the lives of those around him. Turtles CAN fly!

July 23, 2007

Eric B. Martin's "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" - Studying A Role Reversal?

Eric B. Martin', in his novel "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" tries to capture the 'south of the border' experience through his 17 year old, part-Mexican, Harvard-bound heroine, Alma Price. She is born to a rich American father and a Mexican mother whose past is shrouded in mystery. A 'not-so-good-looking but intelligent girl,' Alma ventures to cross the border disguised as a boy and without the knowledge of her parents to explore her roots in Mexico; specifically a grandfather who she is not sure is even alive. It is this journey of Alma into and through Mexico, and the pursuit of her by her parents that constitutes the storyline of the novel.

The storyline is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel even though it often lacks depth. Eric Martin could have done a lot more in terms of the plot given that he had an interesting array of characters at his disposal. For example Hermelinda, the Mexican mother of Alma, remains an enigma to the very last; why she plays down her past never becomes clear! Similarly, the family dynamics within the Price household are left hazy since Martin underexposes the interactions between Alma and her family. It is only in Mexico that Alma really fructifies in the reader's imagination. In fact the story moves at a much faster pace and with zest only after Alma is in the heart of Mexico, striving to fit into the alien but more open Mexican lifestyle. The dual point-of-view narrative that Martin uses, with both Alma and Hermelinda trying to tell their story, doesn't make it any easier for the reader who is already a trifle weary.

Despite all the above, I enjoyed reading the novel mainly because of the lively cast of characters that Martin provides us with once Alma enters Mexico; Dean, Lee, the transvestite, the prostitutes. Alma's interactions with all these characters makes for some sprightly reading. Also, having pondered over the title, I found new respect for this novel despite it's various shortcomings. Martin has 'virginized' his novel in more ways than one; Alma, his heroine is a 'virgin' embarking on her 'virgin' venture, sans parents, sans itinerary, into a world that's 'virgin' not just to her but to most Americans who only hear of border crossings from Mexico into USA; however, this crossing is 'virgin' in that it's an American Alma crossing over into land south of the border!' For any American reading this novel , the journey of Alma would be a first, and definitely traumatic since the roles of 'native' and 'immigrant' would now be reversed; an ill equipped American desperately trying to survive in a foreign land, among a people so obviously different, and where the ground rules of social interaction are completely unknown to her. Alma truly does need a 'guide' to figure out the mysteries of Mexico!

Finding out whether Alma succeeds or otherwise would be contingent on you reading the book, which I recommend you do only if you don't have a better book on your list.

July 11, 2007

"Shalimar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie has been making news recently with his knighthood being questioned by Muslims across the world who believe that he misrepresents Islam in his writings. Well, his novel, "Shalimar the Clown" wouldn't help redeem his tarnished image in the Muslim world; if anything it probably made him more unpopular. The novel is set primarily in Kashmir, a long disputed territory between Pakistan and India; also, one of the most picturesque places in the world that I happen to have visited twice. Released in 2005, "Shalimar the Clown" did not make any waves in the literary world and understandably so.

The novel is weighed down by its long drawn out descriptions that makes the reader's interest sag. Rushdie's descriptions of Los Angeles and Pachigam were empty and dead. For example LA as a "decentered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blob, this jellyfish of concrete and light" makes it seem like Rushdie held his paintbrush too long and too hard. His language distances the reader from the very places that Rushdie wants the reader to embrace and understand. Pachigam, a pastoral paradise apparently, has no concrete image to offer of itself, so the reader is always on shaky grounds, and thus his disbelief is seldom suspended. The reader never loses himself in the story!

The plot spans through three decades, and human emotions like jealousy, revenge, hatred, and love make for an intricate storyline that switches between the past and the present. The two main characters to house both the past and the present are Shalimar the Clown, a rope artist in a local circus of a small village in Kashmir, and Max Ophuls, a one time US Ambassador to India. "We are all brothers and sisters here,...There is no Hindu-Muslim issue." claims Abdullah, Shalimar's father, leader of a Felliniesque band of traveling players, and this pretty much is the underlying conflict in the entire novel. The rest of the story basically questions this proclamation. Kashmir was home to both Hindus and Muslims before the 90's, and the two communities lived in harmony and even shared a bonhomie that was marvelled at by Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Then came the 90's with the devious and bloody insurgencies on both sides of the Indo Pak border, the Kargill stand-off, and many such hate based initiatives, and the 'Kashmiriyat' of Kashmir was put to test. Rushdie's novel explores the impact of the 90's on the sensibilities of Kashmiris who all of a sudden faced an onslaught of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic propaganda in their idyllic paradise within the heart of the Himalayas.

Here is a novel that held tremendous potential, but Salman Rushdie failed to tap it. If he were to have done so he would have brought the ethnic strife in Kashmir on to center stage for the world to see. He could have achived what Khaled Hosseini did with his 'The Kite Runner' and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"for Afghanistan; placed Kashmir on the world map! Alas, Mr. Rushdie, with his unconvincing protagonist 'Shalimar', a clown turned 'terrorist' who is unable to be the reader's 'knight'-in-armor and sweep the reader off his feet!

"Shalimar the Clown" need not be on your 'to read' list, unless of course you are curious about Kashmir, and even then you may perhaps be better off going here!

July 09, 2007

Lal Masjid Appeals!

Will you raze me to the ground?

Send shrapnel through my body

in which you reverence found.

Will you taint my sacred soul

gushing rivers of brethren blood

to let insanity take its toll?

Where does that heart reside

That once flowed fulsome faith?

What prompts those tongues

to desecrate a divine domain?

Who so historically myopic

to not let past prevent?

When will you learn

It’s not me you destroy or defend;

It’s but your humanity within

That seeks but self credence.

July 02, 2007

Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss"- The Sisyphean Task in an Indian Context?

" Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?...Slowly, painstakingly, like ants, men would make their paths and civilization and their wars once again, only to have it wash away again..." A bleak world view amid a beauteous but smoldering setting.

Kiran Desai at thirty five is perhaps the youngest recipient of the Booker Prize with only one other novel preceding "The Inheritance of Loss". This novel took her some seven years to research and write as its story straddles between three countries: Great Britain, United States of America, and India. Ms. Desai currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, and cites her FMA from Columbia as a formative experience in her writing career. Ms. Desai left India when she was eight, lived in Great Britain for a very short time, and then moved to Massachusetts, USA where she finished her high school and the rest of her formal education. All this time her father remained in India, and she would visit him frequently. Her mother, Anita Desai, a writer herself, provided Ms. Desai with an environment that lent itself to creativity; that could perhaps explain how the character of the tree climbing hermit was born in her first novel. Also this could be why Desai, in only her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss has displayed such an elan of objectivity wherein she holds up a mirror to our conflict ridden world and lets the reader choose the reflection he wants to see in it!

The Inheritance of Loss made for some engrossing reading with its rich and poetic language, its wide range of characters entwined neatly in a complex plot line, but narrated with the ease and dexterity of a master writer. Sai, the chief protagonist holds the center stage with an apparent misanthrope for a grandfather, also her only living relative. Sai's love interest is her young and frustrated Nepalese math tutor who is unable to guage his real feelings for Sai, and in the frenzy of nationalistic propaganda, accuses her of being "like slaves...running after the West, embarrassing yourself. It's because of people like you we never get anywhere." Despite its sombre tone, the novel does provide for some comic relief with characters such as Lola and Noni, the pathetic and delusional remnants of the British Raj. There is also the melodramatic cook without a name, perhaps to bring home his insignificance in the Indian caste ladder, who lightens the atmosphere at the most unexpected moments in the story: in the midst of a terrorist take over of their bungalow where he pleads with the terrorist and turns on his ever ready faucets since "he knew instinctively how to cry", and readily admits, "I am a fool' at the terrorists reckoning. The cook has a son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in the USA, who is extremely homesick while struggling to make a near decent life in the US, only to find his "heart always in another place." The Judge, another pivotal character to the plot, is an abusive husband, a tyrant of a master, and a reluctant and cold grandfather, who in 1986, still diplays behaviour disorders resulting from his humiliation during the British Raj . Finally, there is Sai, the central character in the novel who has recently finished high school where she received a typically British colonial education and who "could speak no other language but English...could not eat with her hands; could not squat down on the ground...had never been to a temple...left a Bollwood film so exhausted...used paper to clean her botom", and she becomes the readers guide into Desai's India in "The Inheritance of Loss".

Desai's colorful cast of characters takes the reader through a medley of themes: the after effects of colonialsm, the ills of capitalism, the downside of globalization, immigration - the family and morale breaker, the myth of multiculturalism... just to name a few. As the novel progresses, the author surreptiously has the reader share the chief protagonist's understanding of life: it " wasn't single in its purpose...Never again would she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it."

The novel with a title like "The Inheritance of Loss", could well have sunk into despondency and pessimism but for its tantalizing plot and the colorful characterization. All the characters have suffered in some major way, and though survivors of sorts, carry bleeding wounds that need healing. It is to Ms. Desai's credit that the novel reads with zest despite its hurting cast. She leaves it to the reader to decide what mood he wants to walk away with; "The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with a luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent." What 'truth' is made 'apparent' here, is again for each reader to figure out for himself.

A thought provoking saga of beings who 'hurt' horribly but don't give up 'living', and the reader walks away wondering why!