The purpose of saving lives

Exactly a week ago, around this time I was in a long hospital corridor walking back and forth a room where a loved one lay. At other times, I was in the lounge. (I say I but I was not alone.) As I sat there waiting in the lounge while the doctors discussed the intricacies of the treatment, I was thinking of the purpose of my life. It seems to me that the purpose of the lives of these people in white, grey, pink and other soothing shades was well chalked out. They had to save lives or reduce the pain in their last hours. Even the orderly who pushed a cart of dirty linen was helping in this business of saving lives. I, on the other hand, was not. It was such a painful realisation. What does writing or art mean in this context? Nothing. Writing or art can probably save a person from throwing herself over a bridge but not when she needs intense medical care after that. Anyone associated with the business of saving lives or making them comfortable in their last hours is doing astounding work. I felt rather hopeless, useless even. What is the purpose of a fantastically-crafted sentence, poem or book? (My passion.) Not to mention what is the purpose of training people in A, B and C specialisations? (My day job.)  None that I can see right now. Have I saved any lives? No. I doubt I can even save my own.

Notes on Books: Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Disclaimer: A few plot details have been discussed here. Proceed no further if you want to be surprised when reading either of these two books.

I have fallen head over heels in love with the searing writing of Junot Díaz. I’d like to kick myself for taking this long to read both Drown (which I didn’t know existed) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I did). I intend to read This Is How You Lose Her now. Drown is his collection of short stories – a bit of a debate on that one but that’s what the library filed it under and I’m going to call it so for the time being. I know I haven’t posted an entry in sometime and while I’ve been reading, I’ve not been shaken up in a long time. Before reading him, I thought Díaz was a festival circuit author having noticed him appear at the Jaipur Lit fest a few times and several other festivals. You know the ones who appear at literary festivals because they are either good looking or have good connections. I’d put him down as both. No, I wasn’t there but I follow lit fests like football fans follow football. But I am happy to say have been proved wrong.

Let me explain why. I’d picked up Drown at the American Library and couldn’t put it down. Ten short stories so incendiary so luminious and so true I haven’t read in a while. I can’t think of them as separate short stories since more or less the same characters appear in all of them. Yunior could be said to be a central character while the others circle his orbit and sometimes he circles the others’. Almost all the stories appear to be concerned with Yunior either aged nine or older, his brother Rafa, their absent and charismatic/strict father and the long-suffering tragically-beautiful mother. Sometimes the oppressiveness of this set up is lightened by the presence of other relatives usually an abuelo (grandfather) and a few tíos (uncles) and tías (aunts). A sense of oppressiveness is also achieved because nothing is said aloud, feelings are repressed and, sometimes when expressed, are violent. Tipping the balance is the additional factor of poverty. It’s a stark third-world poverty. But their lives are rich in spite of it. It reminds me so much of the Brazilian film Cidade de Deus.

Drown has ten gritty, dark and ravishing stories which appeared to me as ten episodes in the life of Yunior. The tone, texture and insight of all the stories were connected and appeared to be facets of the same stone. Hold up the stone to the light and you will get one kind of story. Put it down and you get another. Turn it around and you get yet another. And no matter which way you observe that stone, the kernel of the story is the same – how a child copes with several lacks (love, money, food) in trying circumstances. While in the Dominican Republic, he has one set of challenges and when he moves to the USA, he has a different set all the while observing the world from the margins. Much later, I read somewhere that Díaz wanted his first collection (published in 1996) to be this genre-bending creative work.

‘Aguantando’ (holding on) is perhaps my favourite of the lot. It’s from the point of view of the absent father. A story that the son reconstructs partly by interviewing his father’s mistress and partly by imagining it himself. Yunior through these stories is trying to understand why his father abandoned him and how this abandonment shapes the life he leads.

Drown attracted me because of the voice. The voice of a mature yet carefree nine year old growing up in the edges of poverty and violence in a corner of the world probably off the map as far as the mainstream narrative is concerned. It’s the voice that Díaz gets so right. Every nuance tells me more than any description ever will. (I try but I cannot resist, I have to say this, Díaz teaches creative writing at MIT. There, I have succumbed to biography.)

What attracted me to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the title. A title like that is like the first step to a long striptease and indeed reading Oscar Wao is a seduction. The best is kept for the last but the journey is so interesting. It is not just the story of an obese comic-book reading introvert obsessed with love and women and his unsuccessful attempts at losing his virginity, it is also the larger story of a curse that follows the Cabral-de León family right from the days of Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard Luis Cabral during the rule of Dominican Republic’s very own Pinochet, Rafael Trujillo. His all-pervading and terrorising presence in the tiny Caribbean island changes so many lives – many by ending them – including that of Oscar’s family. This curse which Díaz calls fukú goes a long way back when North Americans landed on the small island. It strikes down Oscar’s grandfather, follows Oscar’s mother Beli as she moves from the DR to the USA following the arc of her own story, affects Lola to a large extent and finds its natural home in Oscar. If fukú is a curse, zafa is the force of protection, a blessing, and the most powerful zafa is – remember Harry Potter? – Love. Zafa brings Beli to La Inca, who single-handedly brings up Beli. While fukú makes Beli fall in love with all the wrong sorts, it is La Inca’s intense prayer (zafa at work again) that brings her back from the dead. Lola has a hate-hate relationship with her mother which can be attributed to the same fukú. Even though he is unlucky, Oscar thinks he is fukú-proof but he isn’t and realises the pull it retains no matter how far he is from the motherland. Basically the forces of good and evil pull our protagonists in opposite directions. As you can see, the scale of this book is epic.

Such clear-cut distinction between good and evil can only be born from someone who has a deep and abiding love of comic books. Narrated by Yunior (from Drown probably), who has a humungous crush on Lola, comic book allusions and footnotes abound. Allusions from Watchmen, Fantastic Four and references to Tolkien, E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, H.P Lovecraft and Doctor Who among others which sometimes makes complete sense to the nerd in me. There are a few that slip away but they don’t affect the story.

Most of the footnotes are a historical background to the story. (The last time I came across this detailed footnotes was in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartemaeus Trilogy.) Long footnotes detail the history that is never found in the text books. It is the untold story which everybody knows but won’t admit.  A parallel narrative, the footnotes, by themselves tell the bloody history of the Dominican Republic. The South American continent’s relationship with violence is well-documented in fiction but violence and the Caribbean – of which the Dominican Republic is a part – is rarely so. Oscar Wao is Díaz’s contribution.

The Spanish-English street patois that the story is narrated in lends a certain rawness and rhythm to the story. I could understand some of them. While it was tempting to search for meaning online, there was just too much of it so I let the language lead me: the context providing much of the meaning.

No matter who does the telling – Oscar, Lola, Beli, La Inca, or Yunior – you get to hear the same patios. Each character tells their own story, Yunior collects them together but it is up to the reader to piece together the narrative. That is another similarity between Drown and Oscar Wao.

Díaz writes this powerful story in a light almost comic-book hero voice. And this voice kind of follows you around even as you go about your day and do your everyday things. I was tempted to add ‘cabrón’ and ‘pendeja’ in my conversations despite not knowing what they mean. (Eventually, I googled.)

Writing, being written and rewritten are a particular focus in Oscar Wao. Oscar wants to pen his magnum opus to be a cross between E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and J. R. R. Tolkien. He also writes copiously to keep his sanity. He also prefers to leave evidence of his last days in writing. Yunior is writing Oscar’s story. He first studies creative writing, then teaches it. Abelard Cabral was hunted because he was rumoured to have been writing a supernatural history of the Trujillo regime. Trujillo, detestable as he is, is also engaged in an act of writing: he writes and sometimes rewrites the history of his country. Unfortunately he writes it in blood and on the people. Trujillo significantly did not leave a paper trail, unlike the Germans, the footnotes say. The women Beli, Lola and La Inca do not write. (Oscar Wao is begging to be analysed. I’d be surprised if it does not have a few master’s theses and dissertations focused on it by now.)

Since we are talking about the Caribbean, there is of course the supernatural. Apart from the fukú, the zafa, Abelard’s rumoured book, there is the appearance at key moments of a Mongoose and a faceless man. Oscar and Beli see it at different times but usually when they are very close to death. This supernatural element is not magic realism by any account. It’s more a Frostian nod to the road that it did not walk on.

I usually read several books at once but while reading Oscar Wao, I couldn’t.  It consumed me and entranced me so much that I was in a zone from which I did not want to leave. Even as I closed the back cover of the book, I refused to break the zafa (and the fukú too) of a book as good as this. It’s been a day since I finished reading it and I haven’t touched another book while I write this. That for me is the mark of a good book. So read it if you want to be blown away by sheer talent.

Happy WordPress birthday!

Please note: I said ‘happy WordPress birthday’ not ‘happy birthday WordPress’.

WordPress tells me that today is my blog’s birthday! I am a bit surprised, I must admit. I did not start blogging in the humid heat I am sure. It was in December 2004 if I remember it right. But what will WordPress know of my pre-WordPress blogging life? I was on Blogger before this for a long-ish time. And then shifted houses 6 years back to WordPress. So it is a happy WordPress birthday today! And in December of this year, the blog birthday will come up. There will be more activity this year, I am sure. Lots of things are happening behind the scenes. Hush, you did not hear it from me!

Reading update: I am reading Introducing Marxism and Introducing Modernism. While I have read the theories in the past now I am reading them in the graphic format. What a fantastic idea! I am having a blast. Thanks M for introducing me to the series.

A functional life

I live a functional life. I pay my bills on time. I think of taxes and investments – odious things until a few years ago. Now, they’re just routine. I plan purchases like a battle. Well, not entirely. I am still learning but I have come a long way since I never used to plan anything! I try not to think too deeply about what I am doing right now. Partly because it pays the bills and partly because that way lies madness. Some days a restlessness overcomes me and I wait until it passes. I get up and write poetry at 2.20 am and I still think of the title of my perpetually-in-progress poetry collection.

***

I met M after ages and it’s wonderful because we had so much to say to each other. She no longer lives in the city but that is not the problem. I fell off the radar – or rather we fell off each other’s radars. Lots of things come into perspective when she asks those piercing questions of hers; I am always left a bit shocked. Shocked out of my complacence that is. I need to think long and deep about her questions because they are like facing a mirror and seeing the naked truth. I see all that is wrong stare back at me. Once she asked me, ‘So what is holding you back?’ That was like many years ago. I am still figuring out the answer to that question. So on this trip, she was talking about our ‘functional life.’ On the face of it, we are leading our respective functional lives. But underneath there is this profound dissatisfaction with the way our lives have turned out. Not something we expected that is. I thought I’d be out of here (read take off from planet Earth) by 27. So I suppose this is an improvement. (Or not, depending on your perspective.) She was saying that a functional life is all that is possible right now because she doesn’t have the energy or inclination to pursue more. I agree. But something rankles me anyway. I still have that dangerous thing called hope gnawing at my heels. I still think we can make our ‘functional lives’ out of the ordinary. I still think we can get out. And live. That is really scary. I don’t know how but I think it is possible. Even though the days blur by, even though there are bills to be paid and deadlines to be met and duties to be attended to, we can still build our non-functional extraordinary lives.

Why are you incomplete?*

I was asked this question quite bluntly a few weekends ago right before the music concert I was attending started. I suppose the person concerned was trying to ask me why I was not getting married without mentioning ‘marriage’ directly. While I am quite used to this question by now and know how to brush off such comments without committing to anything or hurting anyone’s sentiment but this time I was put off.

If I was in a particularly charitable mood, I’d have thought he was aware of Plato’s two-souls theory and is genuinely interested in my emotional and psychological welfare. But I suspect it was nothing of the sort because the vibe I got was a distinctly weird one. At first I tried my usual tact, a non-committal smile which said nothing. Then the smile got wider and become a laugh. By this time people are usually puzzled and leave me alone. No effect this time. (Note to self: must change tact) Then I explained how I have seen some terrible marriages (and I have) which discourage me (it doesn’t but it works to deflect attention for the time being). No effect again. All I got was counter ‘gyaan’ echoing one of the quotes of Eleanor Roosevelt. I am not sure if the person concerned would have realised that he is echoing her. (Roosevelt said ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ I got this version: ‘No one can hurt you without your consent’). My smile become wider more forced and I wanted to throw something at him without his consent. Except I had a book and my clutch – hardly things that can be thrown. Anyway he plonked himself in front of my seat and refused to leave through the entire concert which got on my nerves. This is the same man who a few years back wanted to advice my mom on my wedding menu. An indirect way of asking when is the ‘bhalo khobhor’ (good news i.e. marriage).

I usually avoid attending events where incidents of such kind have a high possibility of happening. But didn’t think a music concert would be a place where I will be attacked. And yes, it feels like an attack. I kept trying to keep my cool by thinking of Plato and his theory and how in college I had spent several afternoons in the mezzanine floor of the college library, which housed the reference volumes of all the Greek philosophers. Those fat leatherette brown books with gold lettering in whose pages I discovered the origins of the two-souls or divided soul theory. I remember I was surprised because it was not exactly as I thought how it would be. It was better, less rigid and really well thought out. I am not going to summarise it here. I am sure you can look it up on Britannica or one of the philosophy websites. My reverie was cut off by more personal questions and more gyaan. I was thinking if he has ever heard of Plato. I doubt it because Plato would not figure in this person’s worldview at all. If given more time, I’m sure quotations of other Indian language writers would have followed including maybe the Hindu holy texts. Anyway, I looked away pointedly and refused to engage in a debate. I think he got the hint. I was a bit furious. I wanted to make sense of this. As usual when I want to understand the world, I look for it in literature. So my mind turned to one of my professors, the brilliant Jean Fernandez who taught my undergraduate class. She had once said – I am not sure if these were her own words or she quoted someone else – ‘A single woman is a threat to society.’ I kept turning that line in my head. By remaining single, she is basically challenging that very foundations of patriarchy – i.e. marriage. By refusing marriage, she is refusing to live under a man’s rule. She could be under her father’s rule unless she is financially independent. So, a single woman who is financially independent is a threat to society. Maybe that is what the person concerned reacted to. At least that is what I think it was. Patriarchy asserting itself in a different way. Now it all made sense. I might be a source of immense frustration to him. For a very long period, since I kept my interactions to just a few people with whom I can connect with, I felt free. However, the inconsiderate impolite world is always waiting out there.

And oh, just to be clear, I never thought I was incomplete or halved or quartered. I am a complete person, thank you.

—-

*The word chosen in Bangla was ‘kata’ or cut. That is conveying a sense of incompleteness. That is why ‘incomplete’ is the closest English term I can come up, which gives a similar sense.

Notes on books: The Ayah’s Tale by Sujata Massey

I’ve always said that I don’t choose the books that I read, they choose me. And it is all the more true when it comes to this book. I’ve had ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ with me for some time now (Thank you Sujata!) but something or the other kept interfering with my reading. It is only in the past two days that I have devoured it.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead.
Disclosure: As you will find from my other reviews on Goodreads, I am a big fan of Sujata Massey and she was kind enough to give me this one herself.

‘The Ayah’s Tale’ is a frame narrative of one English child and his Bengali ayah during the time of the British Raj. Sometime in the second decade of the past century, an English family hires a Bengali ayah or maid to look after their three oldest children. The middle child, sensitive Julian, is the one most affected by her. While rumours of the Indian freedom struggle swirl about in the humid air of Midnapore Menakshi Dutt, an English speaking Bengali Christian 17-year-old girl, steps into the Millings household. In doing so, she also steps into Julian’s heart. Menakshi to turn breadwinner to support her family since her father’s death. The ups and downs of such an arrangement is explored in the story.

As all good stories, it does not start at the beginning or the end, it starts somewhere in between with the now 40-year-old Menakshi walking in rain-soaked Penang to a library to get a book to read to Mrs. Abbot, a ninety-year-old British woman who had helped her when she first came to Malaysia. She discovers a book of short stories ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ by one J. Winslett, a former RAF pilot who now lives with his wife and 4 children in Dorset. J. Winslett turns out to be one of her charges who has now written a book about his ayah. As with all stories, it is only from one perspective. While Menakshi reads out the stories to Mrs.Abbot, she fills in the gaps with her own perspective, chapter by chapter. It is these interspersed narratives that we read as Massey’s novel.

One of the themes is the serious disconnection between the British and the local people. The children and later men and women had no idea how locals live. Julian says early in the story, ‘I knew all about native life was like from Mr. Kipling’s stories.’ (Kindle Location 182). He needs Kipling to tell him about local life because of the insularity of his own upbringing and in spite of being surround by them.

Another theme is the extravagance of English life – Dutch tulips adorn the Millings home:

…a long cobbled drive leading up to it lined with pots of foreign flowers called tulips. The tulips could only survive in the cool seasons of autumn and winter—and to my amazement they were replaced every few weeks by new bulbs that grew as tall and red as the ones before. The bulbs had been coming by sea-mail from Holland for many years, the cost absorbed without question by whoever lived in the house.

that contrasts with the poverty of affection. Long silences at the breakfast table between Mr and Mrs Millings signal to Menakshi that this couple is far from happy. It becomes her job therefore to protect the children from their parents. Mrs Millings finds her solace in drink and affairs while stoic Mr Millings buries himself in work. Menakshi becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Julian whose own mother is preoccupied by a thousand concerns none of which include her children. In addition, the threat of boarding school forever looms in the horizon. English children aged 6 or 7 were sent off to public schools (Think ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’) to one day return as ‘masters’ of the local people.

Names or their lack thereof play an important role in the story. Menakshi is called the Big Ayah, in contrast to Baby Ayah, thereby stripping her off her identity. We never get to know the real name of Baby Ayah. Menakshi herself confronts the strangeness of her name when she introduces herself to Ram Hollander. Ramsay Hollander has shortened his name to Ram. Julian, Julian Millings and J. Winslett are the same person. While J. Winslett retains his name in the book, he changes the names of his family. Julian’s father is the Commissioner Saheb of Burdwan but all we know is that he is called Tubby. We know in passing that Mrs. Commissioner is Marji. In other words, no one is known by their real name in the story.

Another theme that is explored is the idea of Home, home and homelessness. Menakshi is far away from home while the Millingses are far away from Home. Julian pities Menakshi at one point in the book because she has no Home to go to. He says, ‘She had no chance to go to Home one day, because she had no home except for ours. She would always stay at our house, working and watching the river flow by.’ (Kindle Location 184-185). When Menakshi asks for leave to visit her home, he is shocked that she has a life outside the Millings household. This attitude later changes as Julian runs away from home twice – once with his older brother Nigel and the second time by hiding in Ram Hollander’s tonga. Menakshi’s mother loses the house that Menakshi considers her home. Somewhere in between home and Home, the Millings children and Menakshi manage to make a home of their own. She tells them stories and shares a bed too. However, this is not to last.

While reading the novella, I found a few literary echoes such as the trip to a nearby town Ghoom.

It all started with a marvelous surprise. Mrs. Millings called me to speak with her by the fire one morning. As she sipped her rum tea, she said that she and Mrs. Berryman and some others would make a trip the next day to a neighboring mountain town. Ghoom was famous for its beautiful views and Buddhist monasteries. (Kindle Locations 455-458).

It reminded me of another Raj-era novel, E.M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ specifically when Dr. Aziz and the two English women take a trip to the caves.

Massey deftly plays with several strong threads in the story each of which gives in a certain heft to the story. She explores the relationship between parents and children, Indians and the British, upper and lower classes, home and homelessness, India and abroad, stories and reality. Read it to find out which one speaks to you the most.

 

Best reads of 2013

It’s been a while since we stepped into 2014. So happy new year! ( A bit late but the year is still young.) I was having this conversation with Rita Says who asked me for the five best reads of 2013. Books that I read not books that were published in 2013. I obviously had a longer list. Here they are:

Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster and its sequel Monster Songster. Both are so hilarious I laughed so much! I read out bits to my parents and they laughed as well. It got an element of fantasy as well.
Genre: Young Adult fiction.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. I went to a talk at Tara books by Sarah Odedena, the editor who oversaw the editing of Harry Potter at Bloomsbury when she was visiting India last year. She is no longer with Bloomsbury. She recommended generally to all those present to read this book because it was discovered by her current publishing house. It’s about a dyslexic boy and how he stands up to authority. It’s quite unlike any book I have read.
Genre: Young Adult fiction.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. I kept hearing good things about this book. So when I found a worn copy at Odyssey, I had to buy it and no, I didn’t get a discount for it. But it was so worth it! It’s hilarious because it imagines the Queen of England as a reader who lost in the books once she starts reading. Very British, very funny.
Genre: Fiction.
Maus: Vols 1 and 2 by Art Speigelman. The artist who drew this book mined the story of his parents. It is a Holocaust story but explored through the media of graphic novel. Wonderfully moving. Very unique treatment of subject matter.
Genre: Graphic novel.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s a picture book for kids but it was rather appealing to me as well. I was trying to write picture books sometime last year so was trying to read up on some iconic ones to get a feel of the genre. This is one of them.
Genre: Picture book.
Mille’s Marvellous Hat by Satoshi Kitamura. This book touched me a lot because it asked the child/reader to imagine. A picture book again.
Genre: Picture book.
Not a part of the list but as a footnote: Finally, I will remember 2013 as the year I re-discovered Neil Gaiman. The Sandman series did not work for me. (Yeah, I know.) But his Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere are fascinating books. It makes me want to go back and reread Coraline.

Clowning with Hamlet

After much debating about venturing out in the hottest part of the day in May in Madras, I went to see, The Company Theatre’s Hamlet The Clown Prince last Saturday (May 18th). Madras does not have just a summer. It has summer squared. The blinding heat time during May is locally called Agni Nakshatram or the fire star. This year the days under the fire star are from May 4th to 28th. Hamlet was recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to be a playwright herself. My love of theatre conquered the 40 degree heat that was burning Madras. So off I went to see the famous Rajat Kapoor play at 3:30 pm in the afternoon at Music Academy.

I had some idea about the clown trope having seen Rajat Kapoor’s C for Clown many moons ago at IIT, Madras. Since I was reading experimental theatre then, I totally loved the way the play spilled over the proscenium.  Then, I saw Nothing Like Lear last year, which was again Kapoor bringing Shakespeare, the Clown, and a story from Bombay all in one play. So I knew what to expect. But what I didn’t know was how effective it was going to be.

The play opens with a frame narrative, a group of off-duty clowns have gathered together to decide what their next production is going to be. They start off with a comic introduction where each clown is introduced and their signature act hinted at. One of the clowns, Soso, is missing from this picture. He is a gap that will have to be filled. Soso (the outstanding Atul Kumar) walks in late, nearly 20 minutes in to the act and explains that the Chennai traffic and the construction of the metro are to be blamed, along with a fat lady who didn’t allow him to enter the theatre. This reference to the specific theatre went down very well with the predominately college audience. A rapport was created. (It would be interesting to see how the audience in Edinburgh or London would have reacted to this gag.) From here on, I knew that the audience would always support Soso. He was the – for want of a better word – the hero of this play. This is important because later on in the play, he displays many unhero-like characteristics and yet his stature as the hero will not be challenged. All this before even Hamlet has been mentioned.

It is – unsurprisingly – Soso’s idea to stage Hamlet and to star as Hamlet in Hamlet. There is much opposition in the beginning. But the clowns give in. The reasons for the opposition become clear as the play moves on. Nemo (the nuanced Namit Dass) who plays Polonius has his eye on the main role of Hamlet. At certain parts in the pay, he prompts Hamlet and sometimes even says his lines for him, much to Soso’s annoyance. Buzo (the delightful Puja Swarup) one of the female clowns, who also plays Gertrude, was at one point in time romantically involved with Soso, has her own problems with Soso. At one time, Soso says, “She is always bringing the bedroom onto the stage!” This also impinges on the Hamlet that they are trying to stage. The other female clown Fifi (the vulnerable Rachel D’Souza) who also plays Ophelia has no definitive agenda of her own but she is trying to curry favor with the director Popo by pointing out Soso’s ironic messages to the audience. Fido (the entertaining Neil Bhoopalam) is like the anarchic force in the play constantly breaking out into sudden references to popular culture (The Dark Knight, Ghost Busters, Michael Jackson). At other times, he is either lost in his own world thinking about his blue egg, or his dancing, or coming up with one-liners that provide comic relief. It sounds odd that one needs comic relief in a play about clowns. However, the drama between the clowns playing themselves was so intense that a comic relief was required. The director is Popo (the able Sujay Saple) who also plays the role of Laertes and is appropriately seen with a stick to signify his director status. Soso is always challenging Popo’s authority. So do the other cast members but not as much as Soso. This pushes Popo to always be in damage-control mode, cutting short long clown gags, longer asides, and bringing the clowns back on track from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet.

Soso breaks off from his comic persona from time to time to his serious Hamlet persona. Almost always that took me by surprise: as if the line between comedy and tragedy is not very well defined. The actors switched from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet with such fluidity and pace that it was at times a bit overwhelming. But that said, this switch was rather dexterous and quite difficult to pull off.

Hamlet – almost anyone would agree – is not particularly suited for the comic stage. But I think the director wanted to bring his two favourite ideas together. It was an unexpectedly fruitful juxtaposition. Comedy has been described as the gap between what is expected and what is/happens. Rajat Kapoor and his able actors, specifically Atul Kumar who played Soso/Hamlet sought to explore this gap. The fact that an opposition (a tragedy) can be fit into it is to their credit.

The most obviously different part of the play was its language. (Even the ticket declared that it was a play in English and Gibberish.) Using Gibberish adds a certain dimension to the play. It decenters language and breaks it up so that new ideas or combinations burst forth. In this, the play excelled.  However, this Gibberish sounded either like faux Italian (in Soso’s case) or faux French (in Buzo’s case). Either way, there was not difficulty in understanding what the characters were trying to say. I wonder how Gibberish Hindi or Tamil or Gujarati will sound.  Is it easier to speak Gibberish Italian or Gibberish French rather than it is to speak an Indian equivalent? I am tempted to talk about the politics of language at this point but I doubt that was the intent at all. So I will let that be.

The trope of the clown itself is a non-Indian concept. At least the image of the clown is: the one that pops up in my mind when I say the word, clown. I doubt if it would work in an Indian setup. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong.) You could argue that the court jester – like say Tenali Raman – was very much an integral part of Indian history and one could possibly take inspiration from him. However, the court jester is closer to Shakespeare’s fool than the modern-day clown. I think Rajat Kapoor does not go that far back for inspiration.  He is perhaps influenced by clown-like figures of Charlie Chaplin and Raj Kapoor, who himself channeled Chaplin. You can say Rajat Kapoor is in good company. Picasso also went through a clown period himself. Many of his paintings of the Rose period focused on circus performers and clowns. It’s possibly the transgressive quality of the clown that appeals to an artist. The clown is never at the centre but always at the periphery. The point of view from the periphery is always closer to the truth.

Hamlet the Clown Prince is worth the watch – maybe more than once – because of its exploration of a well-known trope, excellent acting, and experimental ideas.

Poetry with John Burnside

I am fresh from a poetry session with the acclaimed poet John Burnside at the British Council, Chennai. I cannot believe my luck that he stopped over on the way to Jaipur Literary Festival. The workshop had a long and serious name: Introduction to Writing Poetry – Uses of Form in Contemporary Poetry. But it  turned out to be a free-wheeling discussion. What a fun evening! We (the workshop participants) even got a wing-side view of his forthcoming collection of poems.

He opened my mind to two ideas that I hadn’t even considered. I have written haikus according to the syllabic count and number of lines. But according to Burnside, it is not possible to write a haiku. I almost drew my breath as he said this. It was like a door closing on a form that I might have explored some more. He meant that it was not possible to write a haiku in the way that it was originally intended by the Japanese. The haiku was originally a few lines that accompanied a picture. The layered meanings that Japanese words had could not be replicated in English. For example: the word for “duck” would indicate the season in which the duck would appear. So just by saying “duck” in Japanese, the season and maybe even the time of the day could be indicated. But in English, it’s just “duck”. For all you know, it could be the duck on your plate! Similarly, the case of leaves that fall from a tree. Burnside then regaled us with an anecdote from his student days when he roomed with a Japanese student who used to recite Japanese haikus while taking a walk. He made a pact with him, to teach him English in return for the explanation for the haiku that he recited that day. The explanation for the haiku took longer than the English lesson! This was to illustrate how difficult it was to understand the way a haiku was meant to be written. This travelling poetic form came to English via the Americans and therefore, it was interpreted in a particular way and that is how the haiku continues to be written in English.

Which brings me to the second idea that Burnside turned my attention to. As a poet I had to consider the way a poetic form came to the language that I write in. The route it took. That would explain the way it shaped itself. His first example was the sonnet. From its Moorish beginnings via the Spanish, the Italian, and Shakespeare. (Here I was quite confident that it was the Italians!) I had never considered this particular point. I considered the sonnet  a highly stylised form which I might not even venture into. He however made the sonnet quite elastic. He stressed that the poem should choose the form and this form need not stick to the syllabic/metric formula. He practiced it in his poems. To disguise the form a bit or if working with the form, to change it a bit were two salient points that I took away from this workshop.

As late afternoon turned to evening, we also explored the pantoum using a yet-to-be published Burnside poem as an example. The “hedged in” (his words) feeling that the pantoum has with its repetitions, the “claustrophobic atmosphere” (his words again) it generates and how to use this to the advantage of the poem dependent, of course, on the subject. It was a light evening of several laughs, some coffee, and a few poems. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

PS: A poet is always know by the poems he writes. If you are curious, here are two poems by Burnside: Amor Vincit Omnia and The Good Neighbour. These are already published poems not the ones we discussed at the workshop. The copyright rests with the poet.

PPS: Thank you Anupama for bringing my attention to this workshop.

A new beginning

A friend of mine (you know who you are) had pointed out to me once that she found the font size rather small on my blog to read. Hence, I don’t think she even reads my blog. Increasing the font size alone was not the solution.  The balance of the pages would be skewed if I were to do so. Therefore, the whole look had to be changed. I have always admired the Thought Catalog theme with its big fonts, content focus, clean and minimalist look. Since I was thinking of changing the theme of this blog, I was quite excited to see that one of the recently released WordPress blog themes, Book Lite, mimicked the Thought Catalog theme in many ways. I had to have it. Plus, it’s New Year, why not a new theme to start it off?

Obviously changing requires some adjusting so you may not find the same items in their regular places. All the items that were on the right sidebar earlier now can be found at the bottom of the homepage. A couple of items like the contact ID, Disclaimer, Plagiarism Alert and CC License have been moved (appropriately, I think) to the About Me page.

I have removed two pages (on my My Pages list) which I thought was not adding value anymore: On Dreams and On Food. I may choose to bring them back if I have anything substantial to say on those two topics in the future.

Other than that, nothing has changed in this blog. I will still be talking about what interests me in 2013. So, do continue to visit. Oh, what do you think of the whole new look?