November 23, 2014

Akhil Sharma Weaves a Winsome Web of Despair in his Semi-Autobiographical Novel "Family Life".

I read an excerpt from Akhil Sharma's new novel "Family Life" in the New Yorker a while ago, and right then I knew that I wanted to read more of his writings; it was so distinctly different. As a result, I added Akhil Sharma on my starred 'to read' list.

Luckily for me, only a few months thereafter, someone presented me a signed copy of Akhil Sharma's  "Family Life"  bought at an 'AuthorReading' event in NYC. This is what that someone said when he gifted me this book: "He writes immigrant stories, and the reading session of his I attended was very impressive. The story is semi autobiographical and sad, but it appears to be different." There again it was the 'different' in Sharma that had gotten through.

 "Family Life" is indeed different in that it has a stagnant plot, and yet, the story is captivating. Though told in the most simplistic and matter-of-fact way, it sucks the reader into an emotional whirlpool almost with a Naipaulian élan. The readers are so drawn to every character in the story that there is empathy for each one of them despite their frequent mean and hurtful exchanges. Only a master writer could accomplish such a feat: to get the reader to understands and even admire a mother who emotionally orphans her younger child by blinding herself to his needs while he is growing up in a foreign country, and to not hate a father who brings his young wife and two young sons to a foreign land only to become an alcoholic in the face of a humongous tragedy.  Even the narrator, oftentimes a mean and foul mouthed younger brother who taunts his paralyzed and brain-damaged older brother by calling him names, is endearing to the reader! How does Sharma manage to do this all within a compact 200 page novel told in the voice of a young adult.  I loved each one of his characters, and even though they drew me into their all encompassing despair, I was but a willing participant who didn't want to let go. Sharma's deceptively simple narrative, a loom of lure, wove a magic of despair around me, and, quite like Ajay, the narrator, I too didn't realize I "had a problem" until the very end!

Akhil Sharma's novel "Family Life" is a must read, and it isn't just an 'immigrant story'; it's a saga of pain, loss, and helplessness in a foreign land.

November 07, 2014

Suketu Mehta's Presentation of Mumbai as "Maximum City" Carries a Diaspora Bias.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is a kaleidoscope on Mumbai at the turn of the century. This kaleidoscope, though vivid and engaging, appears to have a diaspora bias to it.

Mr Mehta has very deliberately selected to explore and present the most salient and perhaps the most sale able facets of Mumbai, India's city of dreams. Mehta's novel is a collage of his experiences in Mumbai that capture the daily routines of some very colorful characters that inhabit the darkest, some of the seediest, and also the high power wielding venues of Mumbai, not surprisingly referred to as 'a city in heat'? For instance, the charming dance bar prostitute Monalisa who becomes Mehta's good friend, or even the simpleton Sunil, "a man who has murdered, but is not entirely defined by it", are fine examples of how intriguing and enchanting each of these characters are. Sadly enough, their heart rending stories, be it Monalisa's or of the bad guys such as Satish and  Sunil, if housed in a work of fiction, would not have jarred as they do in Mehta's "meticulous documentary of living -- and struggling" in his native city, Mumbai, to which he returned after spending several years abroad. The characters, and even the milieu in which they dwell, often appear staged and melodramatic, and challenge the readers willful disbelief. If Maximum City is indeed a documentary, a reporting, a narrative on Mumbaikars, the residents of Mumbai, then why is it that each character and every venue depicted is a hotbed of controversy and has a dynamism to it that needs Mehta's "meticulous' reporting? Does Mumbai have no ordinary commonplace people who go about their lives without being embroiled in 'encounters' with the 'bhais' of the underworld or the partisan politics of the Nationalist Party, the Shiv Sena? Mehta has dedicated six hundred pages of brilliant writing to 'meticulous' reporting on the film stars of Bollywood, the dance bars, partisan politics, and the underworld gangs with connections to the Dubai based mafia; all of which make for some racy reading that gratifies the insatiable appetite of the Indian diaspora across the world. The Indian diaspora that no longer recognizes the new India that has emerged since they left, crave for the corrupt and corruptible India they left behind. Novels such as Mehta's and even Anand Girdhirdas' India Calling' tap into this need and write best sellers capturing the maudlin Indian diaspora that indulges in nostalgia for a homeland it left decades ago! In fact it would be no surprise if non-resident-Indians (NRIs) are Amazon's largest clientele for purchasing books by Indian writers. 

Suketu Mehta's writing is definitely a treat, and if you are an Indian living abroad looking for an entertaining and a gripping read, then Maximum City fits the bill. Mehta doles out exactly what his diaspora reading community longs for, the drama that is India in the eyes of an NRI. Although it is rather disappointing when an NYT reviewer says Maximum City is "narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years". Alas, the NYT reviewer must give due respect to the number of copies sold of the book in question, so what if most buyers of the book are NRIs!

Was it Forster who once said that a novel that is written with a select audience in mind, has already lost ground, and if it is a non-fiction piece that relies largely on its emotional appeal in order to sell, it surely rests on shaky grounds.

August 19, 2014

Visiting India's Capital - New Delhi

Delhi has been the capital of India for several hundred years. Even when India was ruled by the British and the Mughals, Delhi was the capital, though under different names. Clearly, Delhi has been a privileged city in the Indian subcontinent for at least two hundred years. However, for an outsider it is a challenge to figure out why Delhi continues to enjoy this privilege.  Is it because the Rashtrapati Bhawan happens to be housed here, or perhaps Lyutens Parliament House was built in this city? Outside of this, there appears to be no justifiable reason why the second most polluted city in the world, and one that competes to be the rape capital of the world is held in such high esteem by its citizens in the world's largest democracy.

Even though I don't live in New Delhi anymore, I have lived in this city for an extended period of time, and in the last two decades I have been visiting it quite frequently. In spite of which, Delhi still remains an enigma to me. It is a city that has inspired and lured conquerors and artists for centuries, yet their experiences, writings, and representations of Delhi, though varied, have only added to the enigma of this ancient city. There is no one defining aspect to Delhi other than the fact that it is and has been a nation's capital. Artists and writers have tried long and hard to capture the entirety of Delhi's ethos; every now and again an artist is able to capture or highlight one facet, a mood, a characteristic of this vibrant metropolis.  Delhi transcends, or else defies definition, and that may be the very reason why 'dilli', as it is referred to by its residents, has captured the imagination of so many rulers, artists, and writers. Each one wanting to find meaning in the ever evasive Delhi, manages only to provide and project a myopic and unilateral vision of this dynamic city, and are often disappointed with the outcome. For example, the last Mughal King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in one of his most soulful lyrics laments that this city 'could not offer a couple of yards of earth to hold his grave'. Khushwant Singh, a writer and journalist wrote a most gripping novel depicting Delhi metaphorically as a 'slut'.  Ahmed Ali in his novel 'Twilight in Delhi' captures it's elusive nature when he said  "Delhi, built hundreds of years ago, fought for, died for, coveted and desired, built, destroyed and rebuilt, for five and six and seven times, mourned and sung, raped and conquered, yet whole and alive, lies indifferent". 

Delhi has, indeed, evoked some very strong emotions in many brilliant and imaginative minds, and when one visits this city it is easy to see why. Daunting as it is, I have tried to capture and document the various moods and colors of this enigmatic city during my stay here this summer.....

More to follow....

July 30, 2014

Old Age - A Cancer of Dependency

An aggressive-malignant tumor,
the cancer of dependency 
surreptitiously saps 
the shreds of human dignity.

Stage one:
decision making slowly impaired
and problem solving undermined.
Brooding over what could've been
a sure symptom, but overlooked.

Stage two:
Your world has shrunk
and the cancer's grown.
With fewer friends 
and even fewer needs.
A routine of
food, sleep, defecation, and
zero altercations.
It's now a focused dependency;
a chimera of everlasting security
raising walls of complacency.
Chemo, radiation never sought 
so the cancer spreads unfought.
In a paralyzed mind and body
time is bought...until the metastasis!

Stage three:
The tumor pushes
against bone and muscle
seeking space to grow.
Alas! There is none.
Afterall, no caregiver lasts a lifetime!
One by one the plugs get pulled.
A yanking out of reverie
of life support dependency.
Incapacitated and bewildered,
sans flailing arms, free falling,
in a painful race to the end.

May 26, 2014

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" Comes to my Town!

It was a Thursday night, and I was at a viewing of Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town". No doubt, I would much rather have gone on a weekend, but I couldn't, since I bought the tickets at the last minute. I could have and should have bought them earlier because "Our Town" was a play I have always wanted to see, and this time it was being staged by a renowned director and right in my backyard. What was it that prevented me from booking the tickets in advance? The answer is simple, and that answer, ironically, is also somewhat the theme of Wilder's play. I was so engrossed and overwhelmed by life's nitty gritty that I chose to put on the back burner something I valued and loved very much! While in the process of living life, we forget that there is only so much time we have on this earth. The play "Our Town" illustrates just that; life passing us by, while we mindlessly go about the daily chores of making a living and securing a future that may or may or may not come to be.

It is to Wider's credit that his play, written some seventy years ago, is as relevant to the audience today as it was then. The daily routines of the characters may be a shade different from ours, but their obsession with those routines are identical to ours. The town and the roles they play in it preoccupy them to such an extent that they forget to enjoy and appreciate their present until it's too late.  The last scene in the cemetery is definitely the most poignant; I carried it within for the longest time. 

"Our Town" could be anyone's town or community, and the everydayness that Wilder has so casually yet accurately embedded in the fabric of each scene is so easy to identify with.  In fact, even the division of the play is in accordance with the stages of everyman's life: childhood, youth, and old age. It is in the depiction of ordinary everydayness that Thornton Wilder has masterfully made the commonplace sublime. The finiteness of human life as it plays itself out on the canvas of the infinite and unstoppable time is the story of each one of us, and Wilder's play brings this message home loud and clear to the audience even after sixty years.

Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play is truly a classic, and watching it on stage directed by David Esbjornson was an absolute treat. 

February 17, 2014

Taiye Selasi Explores the Afropolitan Identity in "Ghana Must Go"

Taiye Selasi’s novel “Ghana Must Go” tells an engrossing story, but one that is complexly told. The characters are delectable, and grow on the reader, even those that make some out of character choices.  The setting shifts from Accra to Lagos to Boston, and it is distracting at times, but each one is beautifully nuanced by the lyrical quality of Selasi’s writing. The plot is so compactly woven between the unexpected death and the funeral of a family member.  It is between these two events that the story unfolds as Selasi takes the reader across continents to experience an emotional roller coaster that leaves the reader in complete awe of what the characters in the story have undergone.

A writer of mixed heritage, Ghanian and Nigerian, Selasi calls several places ‘home’, and in this debut novel of hers, she explores her hybridized Afropolitan identity through the Sai family saga of separation. Like Selasi herself, the Sais straddle between cultures, Nigerian, Ghanian, American, and while they appear to maintain a fair balance, they are unable to delineate one culture from the other. Like in Isabel Allende’s biography ‘My Invented Country’, the Sais carry their ‘home’ in their immigrant hearts, and manage to put down roots in new places, though at a cost, one that is not visible to an outsider. Their immigrant experience is about being able to reinvent a home far away from home. However, as depicted in the novel, this reinvention, could likely become an overused phenomenon that allows an immigrant to pack up and leave, just like that, even the most involved of lives, only to begin another.  However, there is an interesting distinction Ms. Selasi makes between first generation immigrants and their progenies.  The first generation immigrant has acquired an ease with which he can leave and walk out of a setting. He ‘knows how to leave’; his immigrant identity has made him embrace his rootlessness, a trait he’s acquired in order to survive the harrowing immigrant experience. However, his progeny do not share this trait, and they do not understand it either. Consequently, when a family member, or a dear one, abandons them, as is in the novel, they struggle to come to terms with this illogical and near apathetic behavior.

In an interview, when Selasi was asked about what drives her to write, she claimed, History and Geography have oversimplified and made generic the African experience, and that she wanted to undo that by lending subjectivity and individuality to the challenges and accomplishments of each of the characters in her novel. Which writer of fiction does not do that? History and Geography, by definition, require collective documenting of a people and of a region; whereas fiction, by nature, focuses on individuals pitted against unique circumstances and settings. For example, Sophocles’, the Greek playwright, presents a defiant young princess challenging a powerful monarch in the play Antigone, but Herodotus, a historian from the same time period as Sophocles, could not possibly have done that! What he did do was to document the fact that Sparta was a better City State for women than was Athens.  Sophocles’ work of fiction showcased the status of women of Ancient Greece through a defiant Antigone, just as Selasi's “Ghana Must Go” will illustrate the Afropolitan identity through members of the Sai family.  Selasi's claim, though ambitious, is noteworthy, and the African diaspora will be the richer if this young writer lives up to her claim.

The title of the novel is intriguing no doubt, and forces the reader to research Ghana Nigeria relations, and in some cases may get the reader to buy one of the “Ghana Must Go” bags, available online, that do NOT support a noble cause. Without a doubt, Ghana Must Go is making waves as a debut novel; it has won Taiye Selasi, of the African diaspora, the Best Young British Novelist award in 2013, and it appears to me there will be many more such.

Diaspora writings are gaining momentum speedily in a global world! Cheers to that!

February 14, 2014

A Poet and his Immortal Art

Penning what he feels passionately for,
or passionately penning what he feels.
Carried on a whirlwind of words,
his ideas may not always please.

As daggers in music painfully pleasing,
or caveat colors daintily defying
will myriad magical merengues churn
on a Tintern Abbey or perhaps a Grecian urn.
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
will art in posterity defend,
and on those very ‘spots of time’,
will many their lives amend.  
Legends, landforms, daffodils and dames, 
will take on a life their own, 
to live it out through you and me
with poetic words fore sown.

February 03, 2014

Dalrymple's "Return of a King" The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - 1842" - Lesson in History for Future Statesmen?

How many of us living in the western world knew about Afghanistan before 9/11 happened? Afghanistan entered the world map of the western world only after Osama Bin Laden chose to make the Tora Bora caves his hideout in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Clearly Osama knew history better than most statesmen around the world, and hence chose Afghanistan to hide from the Americans, and he made a good call; Osama Bin Laden could not be tracked in Afghanistan even with the most advanced satellite technology prevalent at the time. Afghanistan has proved invincible to the mightiest of invaders, and history cites several examples of the indomitable spirit of this land and of its people. William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer has focused on Afghanistan as the subject for many of his recent writings.  Recently, a relative who attended the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, of which Dalrymple was a co host, presented me with a signed copy of Dalrymple's latest book on Afghanistan, and what a read it was!
 Dalrymple’s Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan1839-1842 was a very engrossing read.  It is a well written, evenly paced, and thoughtfully scaffolded piece of nonfiction. Apart from the structural efficacy of his writing, Dalrymple has also put forth historical narrative that is timely, relevant, and well spun.  Interestingly the author ends the narrative with an ominous quote from an Afghani elder saying,” These are the last days of the Americans.  Next it will be China.”

The book captures the history of Britain’s disastrous attempt to get control of Afghanistan in the mid to late 1800s, summarized by an army chaplain of the time, Rev. G.R.Gleig, as ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to close after suffering and disaster…not one benefit, political or military acquired…Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” Dalrymple’s book highlights the similarities between what happened to the British then, in the 1800s, to the latest American invasion of Afghanistan in 2006, the West’s fourth war in that country! Given that Afghani topography, economy, religious zeal, and social fabric is still as it was 170 years ago, will the outcome of any invasion of Afghanistan be different from what happened with the British back then? The Afghani terrain is unforgiving to foreigners, a maze of mountains and caves that house a people unfathomable in their alliances and their loyalty.  Dalrymple’s book asks some hard hitting questions such as: Why do we not learn from History?  Why do leaders make ill informed decision that have potential for widespread disaster and suffering?  

Dalrymple’s book is revisionist in some ways as it documents an event in History using sources that have not been used in the past.  Apparently, the author did extensive research in old forgotten libraries of Kabul where he bought personal libraries of book and journals written in the local language ‘Dari’. He procured this authentic and local piece of Afghani history at throwaway costs, and spent months and years getting it translated in order to re document the “Return of a King”, Shah Shuja, from a non-British point-of-view.  According to Dalrymple’s sources, Britain in 1839 waged a completely unnecessary war based on “doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat” of a Russian invasion, a rumor mongered by a Russophobe British ambassador. British colonialism, which had already established itself in India, perceived a threat from the Russians, and decided to act upon it with a naiveté according to Afghani sources. Some instances of this being: they walked into the unknown mountainous terrain of Afghanistan hoping to reestablish Shah Shuja, a king who even until 2001 was regarded as a symbol of treachery in Afghanistan, and who had earlier been deposed; they marched into a country without any real plans of how they’d get out of it.; as invaders they wanted to challenge and change age old traditions of a people on pretext of ‘promoting interest of humanity’!!  They even attempted to introduce western political systems in a country reputed for its tribal governance.

Dalrymple’s riveting account of the First Afghan War is a comprehensive account about “The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul…a warning to the statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruits in 1839 -1842.” Unfortunately, Afghanistan did get invaded again and the same mistakes were repeated; clearly, our statesmen either do not read history, or else the history they read is biased and inaccurate.  Dalrymple’s novel makes a case for revisionist history, that which is based on documentation from both sides, the winners and the losers.  The days of writing history from the winner’s point of view are gone; there is too much at stake to base future political action on a one sided history.