Saturday, April 2, 2016

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan – A Book Review



Questions about conscience, about rights and wrongs never have easy answers; do they have any answers at all? But anything that makes the reader uncomfortable, forces him to dive into the recesses of his thoughts, makes him struggle with his thoughts and that of the characters is remarkably good, an achievement for the writer.
Amsterdam revolves around some strong characters, Clive – an established musician, Vernon – an editor of a struggling newspaper called the Judge, Garmony – the foreign secretary and Molly Lane. Vernon and Clive, former lovers of the dead Molly are close friends, maybe the best. Molly, she lived an eventful life, a colourful one but death sucked and paled each shade and rendered her colourless in the end. Married to her husband George at the time of her death, she found it nearly impossible to recognize anyone as she laid suffering.
The others carry on in their establishments till some scandalous photographs find their way in the hands of Vernon. With these, Vernon feels elevated on the pedestal of power; the power to destroy the foreign secretary. But why would he do that, make a personal incident a public episode? Is it because he personally hates Garmony or is it because he is a good journalist and wants the world to know. Or maybe he thinks Garmony is the wrong person and doesn’t belong to the responsibility he bears. Should it matter if the end result, even though for a contemplated societal favour is borne out of a biased hateful mind. Does the end justify the means no matter how personal, how individualistic, no matter how odious the means are?
What would I do if I were in his skin? Grab the opportunity, convincing myself that I’m right, acting against my conscience or let my morals shove me out of this personal campaign? How easily these soulful words like conscience, morals and values, like the enlightening flame of a lit candle, escape skilfully like smoke with the mere blow of air in the presence of an opportunity. The strength of our character, I believe is how easily we can convince ourselves for or against our own values in the event of an opportunity. Clive too faces a similar dilemma, though in a different situation, where he could have made a difference had he chosen to, but doesn’t; only to be loathed by Vernon.
But somehow, as it always happens between McEwan and me; as I was pleasured on the decks of his titanic book, a disastrous iceberg lay ahead. Just when I thought this was the Ian McEwan book I will finally like, the end left me devastated; completely let down! Not because it was devastating in thought, but because it was so predictably horrendous; so ludicrous. I feel cheated by McEwan, by his hurried incapacity towards the end of the book; more so I feel being stabbed in the back by the Booker committee. Why, I wonder, how?
My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * - 5/10
Ian McEwan

Picture copyrights:
Amsterdam book cover - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Amsterdam-Ian-McEwan/dp/0099272776
Ian McEwan - http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-children-act-by-ian-mcewan-9691662.html
 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – A Book Review


 
          I wish I had read this book before I had watched the film Titanic. Not because this book is much better than the movie or the other way round, but for the fact that my thoughts wouldn’t have been clouded by scenes from the movie while reading the last chapters describing the catastrophe of the sinking ship.


“Every man for himself”, how true regardless of whether you’re on board an elite ship or otherwise. The story is narrated by Morgan, an orphaned lad of 19. Orphaned but raised by a wealthy aunt, Morgan is a thinker and that’s what renders him different from the multitude of friends; so say some. He’s in love with the beautiful yet cold Wallis only to have his heart broken by the person who he personally looked up to, than her.

                As the mammoth cruise sails on its maiden voyage to New York, little do its passengers, millionaires know its and their fates are going to be tested by a greater power. Through Morgan’s eyes, the reader meets the denizens of the ship; the philosophical and heartless Scurra who claims to have seen life and lived it too, Rosenfelder, an obsessive couturier, irascible Ginsberg, the suicidal chanteuse Adele amongst others.

                As destiny changes in the wink of an eye, as it always does, what will finally matter?

                Can one exist to be as one is, as one has been when one hears death sing a lullaby, a sweet enchantment one wants to shut ones’ ears to? Would one be kinder, gentler, feel the need to reform when one knows there is no waking up from this sleep? Would one still harbour hatred, feel the urge to slaughter an enemy in the final hours? Would one still be a gentleman to hold the door for the pretty lady, or rather push her to get ahead in these times of chaos? Would I help you if I could, knowing you would never do the same? Does humanity resurface in these trying times or does it sink? Would the dandy still be obsessed with the faint stain on his exclusive jacket when the ocean rises to swallow him? Will the pleasure of kicking a cat, years ago be the paramount subject of repentance when I pray to the Lord?

Do we finally find ourselves, do we? Does our ordinariness float like a shattered plank in the gigantic ocean? Does the stupendous importance we give ourselves matter anymore, contrary to how miniscule we really are to the world we live in. Hopefully, the unfortunates got their answers before they perished; hopefully the survivors breathe every single breath knowing them.

Lucid and thoughtful with some intelligent life’s reflections from Beryl’s characters, ‘Every man for himself’ is an enjoyable read, though it doesn’t prod you to the edge of your seat. Again, I wish I had read it before watching the movie, maybe my thoughts would have been different and I would have liked it more.
 
Beryl Bainbridge
Pic copyright:
Book cover - Every man for himself - http://www.ebay.ie/sch/sis.html?_nkw=Every%20Man%20For%20Himself%20by%20Beryl%20Bainbridge%20V

%20G%20Book%20n4311&_itemId=291129773075
Beryl Bainbridge picture - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/8498392/Beryl-Bainbridges-1960s-
journal-exclusive-excerpts.html

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M.Coetzee – A Book Review


        This happened a few years back. I was staying in a hostel then. We had students from all parts of the country staying in the hostel.

My roommate just walked in as I winked at him pointing to the guy leaving the room and smirking.

“What?” He asked.

“Such a chutiya (slang for stupid) this guy is”, I said.

“Oh, so that’s the term for them here, is it?” he asked. “Just because he asks strange questions and smiles all the time? Only because he is a bit different? He hasn’t harmed you in any way, has he?”

Before I could think of an answer for my otherwise not so philosophical friend, he walked out answering his phone. The room suddenly felt strange with his question suspended like a released arrow, in mid air, ready to strike and pierce; but it had, it already had!
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Michael K with a hare lip was externally scarred and he was a gardener.

“Who are you Michael?” they asked and he replied “I’m a gardener.”

When he was a child, Michael’s mother Anna tried and kept him away from people because she thought he didn’t fit in; he was slow. Years later, fatigued from working at people’s houses, when she fell sick and the hospital corridor wasn’t of much help for her swollen body, Michael was called to take her home. He quit his gardening job. But what is home? A small windowless room below the staircase at her owners’ place?

Anna K doesn’t want to die here; she wants to live where she once lived, as a kid. As the civil war lurches everywhere, a license to travel is needed and Michael knows somehow he shouldn’t wait for it because there might never be one. As he builds a cart to carry his mother on the road, he knows now why he has been brought into this world – to take care of his mother.

            The mother dies on the way, in a hospital, and she’s burnt and the ashes are handed over to Michael. What should he do with them? He’s on his way where his mother wanted to be, carrying her ashes. He is captured and lands up in rehabilitation camps. But he doesn’t belong there! He can’t understand why he’s being kept there. He didn’t ask to be here. He doesn’t want to work for them or to eat their food. Why should he listen to them, he fails to understand. He doesn’t like being watched and guarded. They will shoot him if he jumps the wires, they say.

He escapes!

He stays in the mountains, hides there; he makes a home and a garden. He nurtures his plants, waters them, protects them. He stays awake at night, watching and covers himself at day to not be found. The ground, the water, the sunlight brings life, he believes. He eats when he feels it’s necessary, he sleeps at will; there is no routine. He is content and happy. The water melons are looking good now, the pumpkins are ready.

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I was sitting by a pond, reading a book. Except for the ripples caused by the warm breeze, the water was still and serene. A couple came and sat on the other side. Holding hands, they chatted. After some time, the guy got up and started throwing pebbles in the pond; the girl followed. Why, I thought? I had done the same on many occasions before but why, I thought. Why this sudden impulse to disturb things, to not let things, people alone? Not for long can we let things be as they are, can we; we feel the need to meddle in our own way. So used to action and events happening around us all the time that the stillness disturbs us.

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So they caught him. They found him lazing and they caught him, thin and frail. How could he be nobody, he had to be somebody; it irritated them, this man living by himself in the mountain. Was he feeding the terrorists, they poked and slapped him. “Who are you?” they asked. “I’m a gardener”, he said and they laughed. They destroyed his farm, planted mines and sent him to a hospital, another rehabilitation centre

Michael stops eating. The doctor at the rehabilitation centre tries in vain to understand him. And the more he tries, the more he gets attracted to this strange dying man who refuses to eat and carries pumpkin seeds in his pocket. He cares for Michael but Michael doesn’t heed to his caring.  As he delves deep, he sees Michael as a free spirit, who refuses to be confined, to be institutionalized. He refuses to eat and grow strong so that he can jump when the soldiers ask him to, can run and sit and raise his hands and carry a weapon as they ask him to. They are not his god. His god is the ground that gave him his pumpkins, the seeds he carries carry life. He isn’t stupid, thinks the doctor; it’s us! War or no war, he knows Michael isn’t meant for this world, he isn’t different, they are; we are. “Michael, take me with you my friend”, he cries.

Michael yet again escapes. A walking skeleton, he is puzzled – when he had food, they took it away, when he didn’t have any, they wanted to feed him; they said he was free within the barbed fences.

They need me for their amusement, don’t they?

Another brilliant piece of storytelling, J.M.Coetzee brings another incredible character to life. Michael K is a gift. Coetzee’s pen is as sharp as a sword; it cuts through our beliefs and draws blood that is pure and warm. The wound hopefully will remind us, time and again to respect people for what they are and not treat them as mirrors to see ourselves in them. Sometimes, just let be; you are not needed, nobody is needed. Just let the flower bloom on its’ own!

J.M.Coetzee

 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kabuliwalla and other stories by Rabindranath Tagore – A Book Review



It’s so easy to know you are in love yet so difficult to explain. A plethora of mixed emotions run through your heart and mind, inexplicable ones. It makes you restless, your heart skips at times like a watchful timid deer, at times an invisible needle pricks it causing a sweet pain, a pain you want to elude from but somehow enjoy it, when day dreaming is not an option but inadvertently becomes a need, a time when what you think and what you say are poles apart. You attempt to read a book but you don’t read anything for hours, the clouds have got a new meaning, the sky is suddenly blue and oh, the flowers are so lovely. I have a dried leaf in my hands and I turn it, look at it and then at the sky; I have it in my hands for hours as I sit there lost in my thoughts beside the river and eventually throw it away.

And ‘love’ is just one of the multitudes of emotions. To be able to penetrate through a person’s thoughts and feelings and relive their emotions and to be able to decorate them in words is the mark of a genius and that’s what Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories tells us about him. Set in the rustic Kolkata villages, every story oozes with the innocence of that era, long gone, and the characters are only haunted by the silhouettes of their emotions. So be it the puzzled ghost of the widow Kadimbini in ‘The Living and the dead’, the virtuous wife in ‘The gift of sight’ or the innocent Ratan vying for the attention of the unruffled postmaster in ‘The Postmaster’ or be it the anguish of poor Ramcharan to spend his entire life raising his thankless son like a rich boy, only to hand him over to his master in ‘Little master’s return’;  the upsurge of emotions are felt, the suffering is felt, the motherly love caresses the heart, the distress weakens, the longing breathes through the soul in the stories. The ‘Kabulliwallah’s’ endurance to the coldness of his little friend is heart warming.

Most of Rabindranath Tagore’s characters have been women, and though oppressed in one form or another, they are strong women replete with sentimentality and often a marked sensuousness. Tagore’s writings dive deep into the oceans of their spirited emotions and whether the pearl is found or not, the discoveries along the journey are a treasure of their own.

           Though I generally avoid translated books, I really liked the short stories. Having been in Mumbai since my childhood, it’s a pity that I can’t read and write in Bengali, which happens to be my mother tongue and the original language of Tagore’s writings. I am sure, in Bengali, the stories would be a greater delight to read.

My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * - 8/10

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore

Friday, July 10, 2015

Life's Characters - Omkar

Picture courtesy - http://www.cartoonaday.com/tag/job-interview/

I voluntarily teach ‘Spoken English’ to underprivileged youngsters as part of a project. I have been doing this for the last 8-9 months now. But this was the first time I was presented the opportunity to screen learners for a batch, to select them for the class. Hitherto, learners were present in the class and I had only to teach them.

Not everyone who came for the screening was selected. A basic knowledge of English was required and those who registered for the course were interviewed through a small test, to gauge their limited speaking abilities in the language, to comprehend if they would participate in class and how keen they were in learning the language and how much it would help in their day to day life. It was made clear to them that they had to speak in the interview and more so ‘only in English’, else they would not get selected.

It was a truly enriching experience, this first screening of mine. And I particularly write about a boy Omkar who appeared for the test; a lanky adolescent aged around 19. We made him read a sentence and he read it effortlessly. He was then shown a picture of a temple and worshippers and was asked to talk about the picture.

Omkar: Temple...God....Ganpatti

Me: Can you try and speak in sentences Omkar, this is a temple....

And he tried but what he spoke was indubitably miserable. I understood everything he said, or rather was trying to say, but that was not the point. I knew he wouldn’t get selected and maybe, by then, he knew too, but the poor lad wouldn’t give up. It was evident that every piece he tried to deliver had a battle raging in his head. He knew what he wanted to speak but the words evaded him, maybe the words weren’t there and his struggle made his hands dance to compete and complete, to stress what his mouth couldn’t eject. He fumbled, he stammered, but he went on. From the picture of the temple, he moved on to talk about his village temple and the grand prasadam organised every Tuesday.

He went on for quite some time and we didn’t have the heart to stop him but not a single correct sentence, not a single complete one and still he kept at it. His face, his eyes manifested a strange seriousness and slight fear. His fervour to answer was such that his life depended on it. He wanted to pass; he was desperate to join the course, to improve his English. This was an opportunity he wanted to grab with both hands. When he spoke, his eyes reflected that small glint of hope, they were screaming, “I want to join this course, I want to better myself, I want to show the world I can”. He didn’t want to give up till all his pawns and horses and elephants and camels were back in the box. I was amazed at his temerity when others would so easily give up.

Hearing him speak and looking at his hopeful yet cautious face, I was finding it difficult to concentrate; like rays and rats, thoughts were racing through my head. How difficult it would be for youngsters like Omkar to be in their colleges, in their work places with all the myriad confrontations, when they failed to strike a conversation, to be in a conversation. Imagine the rebuke and reproach they would be facing day after day and this is not an exaggeration because I have heard first hand experiences. Indubitably smart otherwise, they would probably have all the answers but the inability to mouth them could be so frustrating. I can only attempt to imagine the angst that these situations could provoke. And what about their confidence? Probably being shattered and diminished each single day. I really felt for the likes of Omkar who had most of the answers but probably not that many opportunities in life. Impecuniousness has its own slaves.

In contrast, I thought about some of the volunteers of the same age who had undergone training to be teachers. The other side of the coin! How easy it was, how impeccable their English was and how articulately they spoke. How privileged they have been, we have been to receive this formal education, how effortless it is for us to communicate and how conventional it is for us to dream big when we have no dearth of options and opportunities and the only dilemma is to choose from them. How many of us realize how privileged we are? While learners like Omkar would possibly be uncomfortable and apprehensive facing such articulately speaking teachers, some teachers would probably dread having learners like him, not because they won’t be able to teach but possibly the student may not be able to learn which acts as a failure on the teacher’s part too.

At times, in my classes, when my learners failed to provide the right structures, the right sentences, I invariably thought they lacked seriousness. But I realise now that though it may be true for some, it may not be so for others. No one wants to give a wrong answer when they know the right one. A mistake can’t be deliberate, and if it’s deliberate, it can’t be called a mistake. I need to be more patient and keep going at it like Omkar did. Thanks Omkar for teaching me this!

“Thank you sir” he smiled and shook hands before he left.



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle – A Book Review

          I am water. I need to flow. I don’t have the leisure of thought; I don’t have the capacity of it. I am a part of the picture. I flow to the edge of a cliff and I fall, I swerve and dance besides mountains and fields, I am guided by the rocks and pebbles. I entertain sundry for a dip into my wetness. Sometimes I am placid and calm to the guy with the hat and boots and jacket as he patiently holds the line for a catch. I merge into the sea or the ocean and though I may look sedate on the surface, I have an inner turmoil. I save but then I destroy too! I have a journey, a long one but it is never defined by me. I am water. I need to flow.

And I am Henry Smart, named after my father Henry Smart, the original one, the one legged one, the bouncer standing at the doors of the whorehouse where every girl’s name is Maria. My father, a mere pawn, his ferociousness is not as celebrated as the ‘tap tap’ of his wooden leg. Melody, my mother looks out for her dead born children in the stars, in the sky. “That’s your brother Henry”, she points out above, my beautiful mama. I am the first born, the celebrated one, the first who managed to stay alive and suckle at her breasts. Born in the slums of Dublin, in its muck and dark alleys, I survive on its streets. I flow. My brother Victor is my ally, but not for long. Soon, on the streets I lose him like most others have, to the wild coughing that has infected Dublin. Alone, I am ruthless on the streets, lesser a kid, more a fighter, I am a thief, I am an urchin, I need to survive, I survive!

At 14, I am over 6 feet tall and a man, I am a part of the republicans fighting for freedom and I kill at will. I am the most handsome of the lot and most of the girls fall for my eyes. I am ready to give up my life for Ireland. At the GPO, where we are garrisoned, my friends die one by one and Paddy’s brains are spread on my shirt sleeves as we run for our lives. I am the only one who escapes and is not jailed. My father, Henry, the original one with the wooden leg had shown Victor and me the hidden route to the river, wading through the slime of Dublin. I carry my father’s wooden leg with me.

I escape the war only for a while and stay with Piano Annie, yes, that’s what she’s called and fuck her everyday and work at the docks. Her husband is probably dead, in some other country having fought another war. But Ireland needs me and I am found, not by the enemies, but by my brotherhood and I join them again. I flow. Thinking is a leisure I can’t indulge in. I am a mercenary, an assassin; they give me pieces of paper with names written on them and I carry out the executions, just like my father used to; “Alfie Gandon says hello”, the message delivered for every man he killed. They tell me we are almost there, on the road to freedom and we will have Ireland to ourselves. I believe them. I am a trainer, I train new recruits to fight the war, to stay ambushed, to shoot, to burn, to bomb; I pass on the doctrines of the struggle for freedom.

I meet Miss O’Shea and she is 10 years older to me, but she had been my teacher once for a day, a teacher for me and Victor and she had taught me to write my name; ‘I am Henry Smart’. I don’t want to fight anymore; I have decided my war is over. But I am water, I have to flow, I am not allowed to think. Miss O’Shea gives birth to my lovely daughter between her bombings and gunnings and her escapades.

Ivan, the bright one, one of the recruits I have trained has grown into a house of power. I see him after a long time. He is on a mission. He says I need to be killed; he has orders from the same brotherhood of republicans I fought for. He respects me, but I have been a twit, he says. He says there is no freedom struggle, it’s all about power, it is business. Like Ivan, the Generals, my bosses have been creating history but now I don’t figure in it. I never had, says Ivan. The Captains and Generals now hold important posts in the government, and business and transactions are being carried out by who we thought were our enemies. Ivan is richer now; a county is under his control.

I meet Jack Dalton after a long time, my friend, the one who induced courage and made me meet new people, powerful ones. When I met him first, he sang songs written about me; I was a hero, he had said. The slips of paper had come from him. And now he hands me a slip of paper.
“Can you do it by yourself”, he asks. 
I look at the paper. ‘Henry Smart’
“I can’t”, I say and walk away. 
Jack tells me “If you’re not with us, you’re against us. You have no stake in the country, man. Never had, never will. We needed trouble makers and very soon now we’ll have to be rid of them. And that, Henry, is all you are and ever were. A trouble-maker.”



I am Henry Smart, son of Melody and Henry Smart and I was willing to die for Ireland.

My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * - 7/10
Roddy Doyle

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde – A Book Review

           Here I mark my salutation again; Oscar Wilde is a remarkably witty genius, a true observant and a sly story teller.

How easily he read not only the lips of society but the rationale hidden in their words, the cause for the effect and how beautifully he reverberates in his witty words, the incomprehensible fillers we miss in the thoughts behind the mouthing of the gaudy characters to submerge their ostentation and bring out the real ugliness or the real goodness. How sharpened his skills were as an observer, every character lying naked to the soul in his presence. He was a cynic who understood the value of everything.

I had read somewhere once, “If people saw in the mirror their true characters rather than their images, there wouldn’t have been many mirrors left in the world”.

This short play undulates between trust, deceit and forgiveness. Mrs. Erlynne, out of nowhere has pronounced her presence in the lives of Lord and Lady Windermere and her bearing is having a catastrophic effect on their love and relationship. Love, the overrated emotion has its own trying asks and one may spend his whole lifetime just proving it. Who is this scandalous seductress who is so popular among the men, where has she come from and why is she imposing herself on their lives, what are her intentions?

We all err, but only the one who gets caught is termed a thief, gets beaten up and is scarred for life. Oscar Wilde drives home the point that even the best of persons cannot be a Puritan in society for long, we all are misled sometimes and we all shed our values sporadically for our situational conveniences, we have to! It is a mental flaw to label someone as good or bad; even the worst of people have done some goodness in their lives and the best of people have been uglier. Patience is a virtue and to find goodness is another.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

I had watched the movie ‘A Good Woman’ featuring Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson and had liked it immensely but didn’t know that it was based on this play, now I do!

Some witty excerpts from the play:

“Lord Darlington: Do you know I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world. Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance. It is absurd to divide people into good or bad. They are either charming or tedious.”
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“Cecil Graham: Oh! Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. Now, I never moralise. A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain.”

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“Cecil Graham: Now, my dear Tuppy, don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue. Reformed, you would be perfectly tedious. That is the worst of women. They always want one to be good. And if, we are good, when they meet us, they don’t love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad, and to leave us quite unattractively good.”

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“Dumby: In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy!”

My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * -10/10
Oscar Wilde