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review 2013-12-11 08:31
The Past in the Present
The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri
"It was as if Udayan were there, speaking to him, teasing him. He felt their loyalty to one another, their affection, stretched halfway across the world. Stretched perhaps to the breaking point by all that now stood between them, but at the same time refusing to break."


You don't have to be in a certain place, at a certain time to be able to catch the faint thrum of the lifeblood coursing through the pages of this book, live the heartbreak of its characters, to develop a sense of solidarity with their loss and desperation, to gaze at the spectacle of their unravelling fates across continents. But it will help if you have lived, at some point in time, in a city christened Calcutta by the British and rechristened Kolkata (the pure Bengali name) centuries later by a government intent on erasing telling signs of a nation's unfortunate colonial past. It will help if you have ever felt rudderless, adrift in a sea of anonymous human faces, unable to come to terms with a painful event, its aftermath too profound and terrible for you to grasp at once. It will help if you are carrying on with a half-life thousands of miles away from the land of your birth, toeing the line of divide between two distinct yet similar worlds. 

I have lived near Tollygunge all my life - a sort of an overlapping region between the place where I spent the earliest years of my childhood and the place where I grew into a young woman. Every time I arrive at the beginning of Tollygunge Circular Road from another portion of the city, I know with a comforting certainty that I am close to home, close to the assurance of rest and a meal, close to where my loved ones await my return as yet another day reaches its inevitable end. And Ms Lahiri has brought my humble, modest, familiar Tollygunge to life. Reminded me that my decrepit and majestic city has been witness to the rise and decline of too many political regimes, to the bloodletting during senseless communal riots and a terrible famine manufactured by a colonial administration too busy fighting a world war. That my city has been living for centuries before I was born, like a mythical, gargantuan beast and that it would continue to throb with life and activity years after I am gone. How silly is it that in the eagerness to match steps with the developed world, to achieve set targets, we forget the blood-soaked, tear-streaked history of the country we live in, that we are inextricably bound to the political upheavals which serve as foundation stones to our present state of equanimity, to the sheer tragedy and violence of turbulent times.

Neither am I Jhumpa Lahiri's biggest fan nor her harshest critic. My reaction to her writing has been very subdued so far. In addition, Ms Lahiri never seems to accomplish anything else other than rehashing the same old themes of nostalgia, the very cliched search for identity and the familiar rigmarole in novels recounting the immigrant experience. But with The Lowland, she has achieved something monumental, managed to rekindle an extinguished flame within me. Perhaps her achievement lies in an accurate enactment of that unmistakable sensation of being anchored to a place and a way of life, of being pulled towards a powerful centre. Whatever the case maybe, my past resentment about her 'undeserved' Pulitzer win is now gone as if it never was. 

It's like she has reached out to me from across the shores of the Pacific, held my hand and gently propelled me towards a life-like portrait of Calcutta, my Kolkata, the maddening, mystifying, glorious and ugly city of my birth which will remain as beloved to me by any other name, towards the people who inhabit its upscale townships and dingy shanties, towards the unknown stories of hardship and triumph which breathe life into this jungle of steel, brick and mortar, towards the struggles of an ill-fated generation now forgotten in the mad dash for globalization, towards a culture which has molded me into what I am today. It felt like looking into a mirror after a prolonged gap and spotting something hitherto undetected in that reflection. It felt like remembering something important.

I won't go into the subject of Udayan's misguided idealism and the havoc it wreaked in the lives of his loved ones. I won't elaborate on how Subhash ended up living a proxy life, responsibly stepping up to assume all the roles designated for his brother. I will not retrace Gauri's path to self-discovery and emancipation from the assigned identities of bereaved widow, dutiful daughter-in-law, mere wife and mother. And I certainly will not defend or condemn her refusal to let her life be defined by the flawed choices of the man she loved. 
Instead I would only leave you with a polite request to place your faith in the Booker committee's judgement and read this. Regardless of where you may have grown up - Rhode Island or Tollygunge - irrespective of whichever movement has left its indelible mark on the socio-political landscape of your nation -SDS or Naxalite agitation - Ms Lahiri will take you on a trip down memory lane, back to your roots, to the values that reside at your core and hold you together, to the people you have left behind somewhere in this long, befuddling journey of life but cannot ever forget. And she may remind you of who you used to be once and what you are now.

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review 2013-10-14 06:47
Review : On the Road by Jack Kerouac
On the Road: The Original Scroll - Jack Kerouac,Penny Vlagopoulos,George Mouratidis,Joshua Kupetz

This is the book which has given me anxiety attacks on sleepless nights.
This is the book which has glared at me from its high pedestal of classical importance in an effort to browbeat me into finally finishing it. 
And this is that book which has shamed me into feigning an air of ignorance every time I browsed any of the countless 1001-books-to-read-before-you-die lists.

Yes Jack Kerouac, you have tormented me for the past 3 years and every day I couldn't summon the strength to open another page of 'On the Road' and subject my brain to the all-too-familiar torture of Sal's sleep-inducing, infuriatingly monotonous narration. 

Finally, I conquer you after nearly 3 years of dithering. I am the victorious one in the battle in which you have relentlessly assaulted my finer senses with your crassness and dared me to plod on. I can finally beat my chest in triumph (ugh pardon the Tarzan-ish metaphor but a 1-star review deserves no better) and announce to the world that I have finished reading 'On the Road'. Oh what an achievement! And what a monumental waste of my time.

Dear Beat Generation classic, I can finally state without any fear of being called out on my ignorance that I absolutely hated reading you. Every moment of it. 

Alternatively, this book can be named White Heterosexual Man's Misadventures and Chauvinistic Musings. And even that makes it sound much more interesting and less offensive than it actually is. 

In terms of geographical sweep, the narrative covers nearly the whole of America in the 50s weaving its way in and out of Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco and many other major American cities. Through the eyes of Salvatore 'Sal' Paradise, a professional bum, we are given an extended peek into the lives of a band of merry have-nots, their hapless trysts with women, booze, drugs, homelessness, destitution, jazz as they hitchhike and motor their way through the heart of America. 
Sounds fascinating right? (Ayn Rand will vehemently disagree though). 

But no, it's anything but that. Instead this one just shoves Jack Kerouac's internalized white superiority, sexism and homophobia right in the reader's face in the form of some truly bad writing. This book might as well come with a caption warning any potential reader who isn't White or male or straight. I understand that this was written way before it became politically incorrect to portray women in such a poor light or wistfully contemplate living a "Negro's life" in the antebellum South. But there's an obvious limit to the amount of his vile ruminations I can tolerate.

 

"There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama."


Seriously? God-blessed patience? 

Every female character in this one is a vague silhouette or a caricature of a proper human being. Marylou, Camille, Terry, Galatea are all frighteningly one-dimensional - they never come alive for the reader through Sal's myopic vision. They are merely there as inanimate props reduced to the status of languishing in the background and occasionally allowed to be in the limelight when the men begin referring to them as if they were objects.
Either they are 'whores' for being as sexually liberated as the men are or they are screaming wives who throw their husbands out of the house for being jobless, cheating drunks or they are opportunistic and evil simply because they do not find Sal or Dean or Remy or Ed or any of the men in their lives to be deserving of their trust and respect, which they truly aren't.

And sometimes, they are only worthy of only a one or two-line description like the following:-

 

"...I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry"


Look at Sal talking about a woman as if she were a breed of cat he wanted to rescue from the animal shelter. 

 

"Finally he came out with it: he wanted me to work Marylou."


Is Marylou a wrench or a machine of some kind? 

And this is not to mention the countless instances of 'get you a girl', 'get girls', 'Let's get a girl' and other minor variations of the same strewn throughout the length of the book and some of Sal's thoughts about 'queers' which are equally revolting. 

Maybe I am too much of a non-American with no ties to a real person who sees the Beat era through the lenses of pure nostalgia or maybe I am simply incapable of appreciating the themes of youthful wanderlust and living life with a perverse aimlessness or maybe it's the flat writing and appalling representation of women. Whatever the real reason(s) maybe, I can state with conviction that this is the only American classic which I tried to the best of my abilities to appreciate but failed.

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review 2013-10-13 06:22
Review : Collages by Anais Nin
Collages - Anaïs Nin,Jean Varda

Anaïs Nin is my beloved witch, capable of making the nebulous frontiers between imagination and reality dissolve away into oblivion with one well-maneuvered flourish of her metaphorical pen, her personalized magic wand. Or I see her in my mind's eye, as a lovely but shabbily dressed seamstress, patiently weaving a patchwork quilt of exquisite beauty out of the gossamer strands of time. 

Does art imitate life or does the opposite hold true? 
Where does life begin? Where does it end? What lies in between? What does it all mean?
Anaïs Nin attempts to answer these hazy, unanswerable questions by giving us a snapshot of the perpetual movement of time and the phantasmagorical spectacle of humanity caught in its web, establishing without a doubt that there's no end, no beginning and no middle. Life is ad infinitum.

Dreams and reality collide in her writing, exploding in a dazzling array of fireworks illuminating the obscure part of our consciousness, giving us brief flashes of the realm in which the ultimate truth lies cocooned in the protective covering of the mundane, slumbering peacefully - the truth about life and beauty, love and lust, happiness and grief, the extraordinary and the common.

Collages is exactly what its title implies and much more than what our feeble imaginations can conceive upon the utterance of this word. It is not about a nation or a set of natives, a single protagonist or many, one life event or a set of discrete occurrences. Anaïs Nin renders perfect delineation unnecessary, makes clearly visible lines of divide vanish without a trace. Instead, vignettes, eerie and abstract, tangible and solid, merge and fall into each other, clumsily yet seamlessly, to create a surreal painting, a collage of the human consciousness holding the random admirer in thrall, glaringly all-encompassing in its wild, colorful abandon even though the viewer strives to make sense of it. But isn't life just like this baffling, bizarre work of art that Anaïs Nin begets? Comprehension stays forever out of reach. Even when we feel it floats mid-air at arm's length, attempts at trying to grasp it remain thwarted.

As Renate pours her beautiful, meaningless dreams into her empty canvasses, falls in and out of love with Bruce, drifting through space and time, touching the lives of many we get an impression of life's fluid grace and its capacity of encasing the infinite. The diseased, old man who shuns the company of his loved ones, preferring to live in a cave by the sea with a few seals as companions, the heart-broken French consul's wife who grieves for her broken marriage and vindictively contemplates finding a Turkish lover, the clairvoyant film critic who describes for Renate the scenarios written by struggling writers which never saw the light of the day, Nobuko who fights to free herself from the suffocating, rigid civility of the Japanese way of life - these are but a handful among the many myriad shades and facets of humanity shuttling in and out of Renate's life causing vague but perceptible upheavals. The quietly floating gondolas of Venice, the ochre-hued sand dunes of an African desert, the peaks of Peru and palaces of Marrakesh, upscale avenues of New York and streets of Arcadia, California all make fleeting appearances in this stunning collection of interlinked snippets, dismantling in the process all man-imposed barriers between nations and cultures and presenting to the reader an eerily arresting picture of life in all its glory and imperfection.

I don't care about Anaïs Nin being mostly recognized as a writer of literary erotica since I beg to differ on the subject of this categorization. I don't care about the fact that she shared an incestuous relationship with her father. But what I definitely care about is discovering and appreciating more of her splendidly assembled collages.

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review 2013-10-05 15:59
Review : The Color Purple
The Color Purple - Alice Walker

I give this book 5 stars to spite the myopic David Gilmours and the V.S. Naipauls of the world who think books written by women are irrelevant. I give this 5 stars to make up for the many 1/2/3 star ratings it may receive simply because of Alice Walker's forthright, honest portrayal of unpleasant truths that are often conveniently shoved under the carpet so as not to disturb the carefully preserved but brittle structure of dogma and century-old misconceptions. 
And I award this 5 stars, symbolically on Banned Books Week as an apology for all the cowardly sentiments of the ones who misuse their power by banning books, thereby shutting out many powerful voices which demand and need to be heard.

In my eyes, an author's merit lies not only in their sense of aesthetic beauty, but also in the scope and reach of their worldviews which must reflect in their craft.

Alice Walker's is the voice of one such African American writer that recounts a story which not only breaches the boundaries of an issue like emancipation of women but tries to detect a common pattern in problems plaguing civilizations across continents. She gives us one horrifying glimpse after another into the lives of women ravaged by unspeakable brutalities like rape and abuse, lives searching for meaning and connection and seeking out that elusive ray of hope amidst the darkness of despair. 
And by the end of the narrative, she brings to light with great sensitivity, that misogyny, sexism and blind patriarchal prejudices are as rampantly in vogue in the urban, upscale sphere of American cities as they are in the intractable, untameable African landscapes.

Celie and Nettie. Shug Avery, Sofia and Mary Agnes. Tashi and Olivia. 
All these are but different names and many facets of the same disturbing reality.
If the lives of Celie and Nettie are torn apart by sexual abuse and humiliation from childhood, then Tashi and other unnamed young African girls of the Olinka tribe are victims of genital mutilation and other forms of psychological and physical torture.
If the men of African American families dehumanize the female members to the point of treating them as mere care-givers and sex slaves, then the objectification of African women by the men of their families is no less appalling. And contrary to accepted beliefs, white families in America are just as easily susceptible to misogyny as the African American families are.

But Alice Walker doesn't only stop at opening our eyes to the uncivilized aspects of our so-called civilized world, but also shows us how knowledge of the world and people at large, self-awareness and education can help exorcize such social evils, how it is never too late to gain a fresh perspective, start anew and how empowerment of women eventually empowers society.

Dear David Gilmour, if I were a professor of English literature I'd have taught Alice Walker to my students without a shred of hesitation, because here's an author who may not possess the trademark sophistication of Virginia Woolf's lyrical prose but who, nonetheless, fearlessly broaches subjects many masters and mistresses of the craft may balk at dealing with.

Alice Walker: 5 | David Gilmour: 0

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