My, oh my, what a wonderful day

I have to be honest I am a bit high as I write this. You know how sometimes out of the blue things happen which you never ever expect even in your day dreams? Yeah, that’s what happened. So Selma Dabbagh whose book ‘Out of It’ I wrote about in this post has read my review and said nice things about it as well as the reader (that would be me). Now tell me, wouldn’t you be high too if this happened to you?

Thanks so much Selma Dabbagh! You can read her lovely comment in the About page. You might have to scroll a bit. Feeling lazy? Here’s a screenshot.

Selma Dabbagh

Notes on books: Out of it by Selma Dabbagh

So I injured myself again – I am quite accident prone – and finally had time to read! Let’s say I like to see the positive side of things. I will spare you the details though – of my injury not the book.

I have to be honest: this is not a book I would normally pick up. It’s a part of the book club book of the month and so I happen to read it. It didn’t also have a great first line. It actually failed the first line test but I was intrigued by it. However, despite everything, it surprised me by being fast paced, witty and deep.

Just like I had understood the history of India from independence till the 1980s by reading Midnight’s Children, and the history of one part of South America though A Hundred Years of Solitude, I finally started to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict through this book. That is indeed a tall claim for a book that is a first novel. However, Out of It is politically engaged but also at the same time, deeply human.

As far as I can remember this conflict has been around. My earliest memories related to this conflict was not a war but a person: Yasser Arafat wearing his trademark keffiyeh and army greens smiling and waving on grainy Doordarshan News. India has traditionally been pro-Palestine following a shared colonial connect. It seems wherever the British are involved, they tend to cause conflict. I will leave the explanation for the complicated history of this region to better writers and political analysts.

The story follows a set of twins (reminded me of Rahel and Estha of ‘The God of Small Things’ a bit) Iman and Rashid Mujahed and how they try to find their place in the world in the middle of the conflict a process which is confusing and difficult even during peace time.

The novel opens with Rashid receiving an email of acceptance to study in London. He is excited and wants to get ‘out of it’. Iman on the other hand has come back from school in Switzerland and wants to start making her contribution to the cause except she is seen as an outsider with no connection to the homeland. So when a religious woman, Manar, approaches her, Iman is very tempted to go for it. However, Iman seems oblivious that this action would entail probably becoming a kamikaze warrior for a religious faction. She is stopped in time by people from her father’s former political organisation.

Rashid has been working his friend Khalil on recording the situation in Gaza. Their contact in London, Lisa, with whom Rashid is having a relationship is enthusiastic in the unsubtle and non-nuanced Western way. She wants to help but has no clue about the ground reality or the Arab culture.

Iman and Rashid also have an elder brother, Sabri, who has lost his family but continues to fight in a very intellectual way.

Rashid is also increasingly distracted from his life in Gaza because he is bent on leaving. It seems as if Rashid and Iman in spite of being twins are moving in opposite directions. Perhaps this is Dabbagh’s way of pointing out the choices available to young politically aware people in Gaza who want to be involved in the Palestinian cause.

Option 1: Do nothing. (No way)

Option 2: Write about the conflict in an academic way (Sabri’s choice)

Option 3: Join a religious group and blow up people to make a point (Iman’s first choice which she doesn’t make)

Option 4: Leave the country and create awareness of the Palestinian cause abroad (Rashid’s and Kalil’s first choice; Iman’s second choice)

Option 5: Return by courting controversy (Rashid gets caught at a rally for the Palestinian cause for possession of marijuana)

Option 6: Return without courting controversy (Iman’s final choice)

Option 7: Sacrifice oneself in the mistaken notion that it will help the family (Rashid final choice)

I am aware I am being facetious making the choices available at war time into a multiple choice question. If I do that, it’s only because the conflict itself takes on shades of the absurd.

Sabri loses his wife and child and even his legs in an attack on them. While Iman wants to go find her father who is living with another woman in Egypt, she is questioned at the Palestine border. Though she is not overtly mistreated she is not allowed to go to the bathroom even though her period has started. Sabri, Iman and Rashid’s mother turns out to be a freedom fighter/terrorist (choose your term; choose your side) called the Sparrow who had hijacked a flight to blackmail the other side into giving into their demands. Are those demands legitimate? I don’t know because by then the conflict is so murky no knows who is right or left anymore. Who is killing whom and why becomes so muddled up that even within Palestine people start turning on each other. I gave up trying to understand it. As Sabri says:

‘It’s not something that you ever get “straight in your head,”” Sabri says turning away from the television to look at Eva. ‘It’s too wrong to be justified, too screwed up to be straightened out. If you force yourself to understand it in any way that leads you to justify it then you are fucked and we are lost.’  (Dabbagh, 284)

I am reminded of this sentence that I read or heard when I was studying absurd drama. (If you know who said it, let me know and I will add the name.) It’s not an exact quote: What does one do in the face of the absurd but laugh? Indeed several parts of the book this laugher springs out. Rashid nicknames his marijuana plant, Gloria. (Let us pause to reflect on that.) His father Jibril Mujahed doesn’t know his wife is an ex-freedom fighter/terrorist (have you chosen your term/side yet?) called the Sparrow even though British Intelligence agencies and almost everyone in ‘the Organisation’ (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) know it. He finally finds out when someone makes a joke about it.

To balance out the absurd elements, Dabbagh forces the reader to confront the existence of the self/other. At one point in the novel, in London, Rashid is brought to his English girlfriend Lisa’s family home, “as though she had brought home a particular piece of jewellery from a junk shop and could now, against a plain background, appreciate its particular panache” (Dabbagh, 113) Later Rashid gets into the London tube, and spots a woman who:

…tested the air twice with her nose as through trying to detect prey and looked up and down the carriage.

Rashid looked at what she was looking at. It had to be the otherness of the passengers that was disturbing her. Their darkness, for they all were, without exception washed up there like him. (Dabbagh, 120)

According to Post Colonial theory, ‘the other’ is the opposite of the ‘self’, which is the coloniser. The ‘other’ is the (ex)colonised subject, the brown or black people who have been once subjugated. The other is both to be feared and exoticised. It’s kind of an ambivalent reaction. Rashid’s awareness of being othered comes through several times in the narrative. It irks him because it is a kind of prison. His relationship with Lisa is perpetually slipping into these two roles: roles that perhaps they want to escape but don’t know how to.

Iman’s roommate in London, Eva, typifies another reaction of the West to the East. On the face of it, Eva has many good intentions. She is a medical student and works for many charities. Iman explains why Eva’s naïve political outlook irritates her:

‘She was trying to talk to me about what was going on in the news and she kept trying to do this supposedly objective BBC thing of being so intelligent and always looking at the other point of view, and she kept using their terms: “terrorism”, “democracy”. I flipped.’ (Dabbagh, 193)

Eva represents a kind of unsubtle and criminally exuberant response that the West has towards the especially troubled East. It builds on exoticising the East. As Iman says a United Nations/BBC kind of objectivity which is perhaps born out of good intentions but does not necessarily understand the East or its problems. It is in fact another kind of prison.

Prisons are all over the book – the house in which the Mujahed family live, the country itself and once they leave the country, they are imprisoned by ideas of otherness.

I noticed an interesting thing – for much of the book, the other side (i.e. Israel) is mentioned obliquely. In fact I think the word ‘Israeli’ is mentioned either once or less than a handful of times in the book. Usually euphemisms like the ‘other side’ or ‘enemies’ are mentioned. There is a kind of self-censorship at work perhaps to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the book, there are several secrets that the family has which are not revealed to Iman and Rashid. The fact that their mother is a high level operative of the Organisation is kept a secret. This they find out by looking up the recently released classified documents at the British Library. The sense that this family is not quite the regular one calcifies at this moment. The twins react in diametrically different ways. Rashid is disappointed and offended that this secret was being kept from him. Iman is proud of this heritage and feels empowered by this knowledge. Rashid is so disconnected from his Gazan life that he offers to die instead of another soldier.

Whatever their choices are, as narrators they are easy to relate to. Rashid and Iman have travelled all over Europe with their families; Iman has studied in Switzerland and later London; Rashid goes to London to study. They are young, neither of them is religious and both are insider-outsiders, people who are born in Gaza but educated abroad.

Finally, ‘Out of It’ apart from giving us a glimpse of Gazan life also contributes to world literatures from the conflict zone. Think South American literature, Partition literature, World War II literature, South African literature (apartheid) and Kashmiri-American literature (Agha Shahid Ali).

Read Out of It if you want to question the regular ways of seeing the world.

Notes to self

I tend to write in whatever piece of paper or notebook I find and then forget all about it.  The other day I opened a tiny notebook with a kantha-stitched cover, where I note down the bills I have to pay and then score them out once I have paid them, and found written in pencil these lines:

The short story demands to be understood while the novel demands to be embraced. In all these years of back-breaking familiarity with the novel, I have stepped out to make a shy acquaintance with the short story. Hence these enthusiastic dates with the lean, mean and demanding form of fiction.

I thought, not bad! The lines are pretty good. But what was I writing about? A book of short stories yes but which one? Obviously I was reading something inspiring and these lines were meant to start the post for this blog but for the life of me I don’t remember what that book was. I didn’t date the note so I don’t know when it was either! I got the notebook in Shantiniketan so this much I know, the note was written after 2010. I don’t have much of clue beyond this.

Note to self: I must be more organised and at least keep all incomplete notes in one place.

Does this sound familiar? Do you also write anywhere and everywhere and then forget about it?

That reminds me, I think I found an old poem that I wrote in an old bag. I must go retrieve it before someone throws it out.

Saying no to reading favours

So I attend this book club at a library that I frequent. After a few meetings, one old man started pestering me to read a book he had written.

They are all old men there. Sometimes I think there are no young men left in the city. At least no young men who read. A handful of people land up at the book club most of whom are there because they are retired. And exactly two women including me. Where are the women who read as well?

You could ask me what am I doing there. Well, about 90% of time, I am conducting it. By that I mean come up with discussion questions and host the session. It’s not that difficult.

Anyway too polite to refuse, I agreed. And immediately regretted it. I had no idea how many pages that book had. I warned him that if I don’t like it I will be honest. He nodded his head vigorously. Right away, I knew I wouldn’t like the book. Thankfully, I got only one chapter to read. I discovered that he had illustrated it too! Well, I told him exactly what I thought of that chapter. I didn’t like it. There was such forced humour and puns without any effort at the craft. Puns, I am sure you’d have heard, are the lowest form of wit. Imagine if there are only puns in a chapter. Of course, I softened it a bit. I didn’t want the old man having a heart attack right there.

I ended the review with a disclaimer that I usually give for anything I review: ‘Feel free to ignore what I said and go with your instinct’. He replied without batting an eyelid, ‘Yes, I intend to do exactly that.’ What the eff? Then why waste my time?

This is the last time I am doing a stranger a favour. I don’t mind reading books of friends because (a) I know them (b) I care about them (c) I enjoy reading what they write because we think alike but strangers are a different species. I’ve made up my mind: I will not be reading books of anyone whom I have just met.

A blog to remember

When you have some time, do hop over to my friend, D’s blog so much depends on and enjoy reading her poetic turn of phrase. She is a new blogger and let’s welcome her!

The title as you’d have noticed is from the poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams. Here is the complete poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I thought the poem itself was like a dotted line. You join the dots as you please and decide on what emerges. Coming to think of it, all poems are.

For more on the poem, go over to the Wondering Minstrels for a substantial commentary.

Back to the post: do read D’s posts. They are as much poetry as they are prose.

New Look

So I grew bored of the blog theme and changed it. The previous one Book Lite, with its close proximity to the Thought Catalog theme, was on for the longest time ever. This neat new theme is called Independent Publisher. I like the overall look and feel. Adding that extra touch is the name. Anything with the word ‘independent’ in it gets my vote!

The header image that you can see is that of a house in Sowcarpet, a part of North Madras, which still has the old-world charm and retains a colonial feel that much of Madras/Chennai has lost. A and I went hunting for wholesalers in the lanes of Sowcarpet when I came across this house. I thought it was colourful and well-maintained.

You will find things changed a bit. But I find this arrangement far more intuitive than others. All the links that were at the bottom of the blog are now on the left. There is a menu on the right of the header image which has the pages (About, Books, Theatre, Films, Media and Lomo Diary). Everything else is the same including I think my irregularity of posting.

So, what do you think of the new look? Good? Bad? Ugly? Would love it if you let me know in the comments section below.

Note on books: La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

I picked this book up at the Book Fair earlier in the year and got around to reading it thanks to the fact that I was housebound for a week. I liked McCall Smith’s other books and I thought that it would be easier to read since it is a standalone book not a part of the series. Well, I was right.

La’s Orchestra is a sedate little book about Lavender Fergusson (later La and Mrs. Stone) that is very much in the same vein as Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. A sort of a feel-good book about peripheral people during the Second World War. But then I was looking for a sedate book and it lived up to my expectations. You can even treat this book as a holiday from other exciting books.

Pretty much nothing happens in the book even though Word War II rages on. We follow La as she is born in Surrey, loses her mother at 15, goes to college at Cambridge, marries, separates and goes back and forth Suffolk and London. She seems the most intellectually engaged when studying English Literature under the militant Feminist Dr Price in Cambridge and that’s usually by disagreeing with her. She marries Richard Stone because he is very charming and persuasive and is shocked by both her infertility and his infidelity. (I don’t believe they are causally related. As La herself says during her student discussion on T.S Elliot, ‘Post hoc is not always propter hoc.’)

Her in-laws’ Suffolk home sounds like a perfect getaway. She comes on her own after she moves to Suffolk to heal her broken heart. When Richard dies in France in a freak accident, his share of their family enterprise makes La a young and well-off widow. While living in rural Suffolk, she wants to do something for the war effort. She tends to farmer Henry’s hens, builds a friendship with the neighbour Mrs. Agg and farmer Henry and Tim, a friend’s cousin who calls on her. Out of sheer boredom (La’s an intelligent though somewhat passive woman) she puts together a rag-tag orchestra, which becomes a symbol of victory first and then of peace. With Tim making all the arrangements, La’s Orchestra is born.

When Feliks Dabrowski, a Polish airman, is assigned to work in Henry’s farm, La feels attracted to him as he does too however reserved he is. But there is a war going on and so along with tea and biscuits, love seems a luxury to indulge in. She also suspects that Feliks is German and the general mistrust in the air creates a spot of trouble where Feliks is arrested. Later he is released honourably, which makes La feel guilty. Five years on, the Orchestra gives its Victory concert, which cheers up the village enormously and fills them with a sense of purpose that is not just to do with guns and politics. La conducts her orchestra, which had long started to take on symbolic proportions. Feliks too plays in it. However, after the war, people are scattered and she goes back to life in London, which is markedly different from the one she led before that.

Her in-laws’ considerable fortune comes to her, leaving her with no worries about how to fund her life. If anything, La seems to have both time and money and yet doesn’t seem to do much with it. She is politically aware and even joins a peace march sometime in her 50s. She meets Feliks who has married and has two kids. With the arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, La feels the end of the world looming close yet again and so calls on her the few Orchestra buddies she had been in touch with through the years. They turn up as if summoned and the Orchestra plays its peace concert. Towards the end of the concert, peace is declared. Hence, the title. Only if you allow for the flawed logic, which seems to be an echo of ‘post hoc is not always propter hoc.’ Towards the end of the book, she makes a decision to ask Feliks and his boys to stay with her.

La is one of the most detached protagonists I have ever read. Events happen to her; she is not the one who decides. If Murakami ever decides on a female protagonist, La would be her. But it’s refreshing since there are very few protagonists whose agency is not with them. Sometimes, other things and people make decisions. La does have ideas, making the decision to move to Suffolk and move back to London, growing her vegetable garden, taking lemonade to Feliks as he works on the farm. But there is this feeling that La holds her breath and waits around way too much. Her sense of decorum and propriety stop her from acting on her feelings. In that sense La is almost ordinary. But ordinariness also has its place in the scheme of things. The ordinary English life, the ordinary English people, the ordinary garden – it seems the war was being fought to protect exactly this ordinary life. So La’s Orchestra, the book, is a celebration of ordinariness. It makes me think of Doctor Who and the Doctor’s delight in the everyday and ordinary human beings.

So the book’s a read for a lazy Sunday afternoon preferably in the garden with a cup of tea and biscuits. It won’t shake your beliefs or make you question anything. It will however make you feel warm and take delight in the ordinary.