April 28, 2009

Achy Obejas' Cocktail of Characters in "Ruins"!

Achy Obejas recent novel "Ruins" takes the reader to Cuba in the 1990s and screens it through the eyes of a die hard nationalist. The novel does not have much of a storyline, and that perhaps is the reason the reader never feels completely engrossed. Also, I found myself resisting the lens that was offerred to me by the narrator; almost as if I resented the paucity of the information provided by a clearly biased narrator. Obejas could have done so much more with the robust setting that she had chosen; Cuba during this transition period would be a writer's delight, and yet Obejas presented it within a pretty narrow spectrum, and I wonder why...

Usnavy, the die hard nationalist and chief protagonist of the novel, was quite a disappointment and did not make any impact; primarily because the delineation of his character appeared contrived and unoriginal. He reminded me of Old Major in Orwell's "Animal Farm" who dies half way through the novel spouting all that was supposedly 'good' about Animal(Commun)ism. Usnavy also has shades of Willy Loman from Miller's "Death of a Salesman" as the disgruntled idealist, and then there is a distinct similarity that Usnavy bears to Santiago of Hemmingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". These similarities made me feel cheated as a reader; it's almost like the writer put together a cocktail of characteristics from various welldrawn characters in literature and put them into her protagonist. Perhaps, readers who are not familiar with some of the characters I mentioned may find Usnavy appealing, and as a result, they may possibly enjoy the novel. However, even though Usnavy forced me to reminisce on some great characters in Literature, but that did not make him a memorable character. or Ruins a delectable read. Obviously, in my mind there was a stalemate in terms of the character of Usnavy, and I think that really ruined 'Ruins' for me.

I have heard great things about this young writer, and she has received some good reviews this past year, but I will just have to wait to read another of her books ...

April 21, 2009


Inspired by someone who is lost but will not listen to a little voice that cares to keep you in the game!

Do you have somewhere to go?
You know there’s a way
if you know how to get there.

Do you want to get there?
You know it isn’t so hard
if you used all your cards.

Do you use all resources?
You know friends can hold on
if not kept waiting too long.

Do you see yourself there?
You know you could
if pursue you would.

Do you imagine you'd pursue?
You know you might
if only you tried.

Do you even mean to try?
You know, NOW, you should
if you care to be understood!

April 13, 2009

Only a Partial "Rescue"; the Pirate Needs Rescuing Too!

This piece does not aim to undermine the courage or the commitment of the rescuers who put their lives on line to save a fellow human being, Captain Richard Phillips, who will go down in naval history as a model Captain.

A 'rescue' alright;
by snipers and seals so savy!
A brave battle in distant waters
betwixt a lifeboat and a navy!

Saving the innocent
from a dastardly attack
by 'pirates' of
a nation -
one fighting for morsels!
A 'rescue' albeit:
of the have from the have not!

A 'rescue' was it?
Tentatively balanced
on a few million dollars.
Hushedly conspired
in powered headquarters.

A 'rescue' no doubt:
one precariously towed-
with a hundred feet of rope;
one fervently prayed for-
on pretty Vermont slopes;
one testily argued -
in Somalian swelter;
one instantly admired -
by American viewers.

A 'rescue' so unique!
Made thinkers to ponder
as to who was captive,
and who the captor...

April 07, 2009

"What do we, as writers, owe our subjects?" - Sudhir Venkatesh's 'Gang Leader for a Day' Fails to Answer.

I had been meaning to read "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh ever since I read about it in an article by Steven Levitts who authored "Freakonomics", a brilliant piece of non fiction that came out a few years ago.

Venkatesh calls himself a 'rogue sociologist' who tested and often defied all norms of academic research while collecting data for this novel which is set in Robert Taylor Homes, a poor and gang infested neighborhood of Chicago. Venkatesh, a graduate student at University of Chicago, takes up a daunting task to study gangster life from within, little knowing that soon it would cease to be a mere study as it would graduate into a complete immersion of him into a life that he had never imagined! This novel documents an unusual relationship between two people of very dissimilar backgrounds and with completely differing goals and futures. Whereas one of them terms this relationship as a friendship, the other is guilt ridden on how to label this relationship, since he clearly sees it as being one-sided, yet is unable to or incapable of reciprocating.

The novel deals with a subject that has been popular with American writers for the last so many decades. Gangs and gangsters have been depicted often enough in motion pictures and other artistic genres; West Side Story being one of the more popular ones. Venkatesh therefore, was not exploring uncharted territory here, but it is his approach and the fact that he is who he is, that makes this book a trifle unique. Sudhir Venkatesh is a Southern Californian of Indian origin who has attended good schools and had lead a sheltered life until J.T happened to him. J.T on the other hand, the gangster from Chicago who Venkatesh chooses as his subject study, is a product of the projects and has lived the life of a 'have not' until he became a member of the Black King gang in which he steadily rose in rank to eventually become one of its leaders. It is this relationship between Sudhir and J.T, that gives this piece of non-fiction an emotional twist. What starts off as a 'study', a 'research project' spirals into a complex human interaction with some highly charged give-and-takes.

An interesting and captivating read, but toward the end it had me wondering about the writer's motives behind this extensive research; what was the writers objective, and was it achieved? If this were academic research in Sociology, what did it lead to other than instant celebrity status for the writer who is already enjoying the fruits of his unusual and daring research; he is now a chaired professor at Columbia University. I am also told that Dr. Venkatesh is currently busy with another research project involving poverty, but it is in France this time. In the meanwhile, J.T, the Chicago gangster, is simply thankful " as long as I am not behind bars and breathing, every day is a good day."

Who said life is fair or academia clean!

A Human Story

Tears and smiles
do color this life
in hues and shades
that promptly fade.

The fear to tear
so always near.
The need to smile
always takes a while

Tears and smiles-
manifest a call
Casting a vote-
an emotional poll?

Foreclosures both,
do clearly imply
an inadequacy
to live out a lie.

Having said that,
how do I compile -
a human story sans
tears and smiles.