arT, DeSigN, MusIC, mOthEr, LoVE, haTE, bOOks, sTOrieS, WiND, waTEr, eArTH, skY, rAin, PaIN, fLOyd, PurPLE, lePpaRD, aRRivINg, ArRivEd, gUItar, deStiNAtioNs, mOVies, wRItiNgs, ME...a lil bit of thi...a lil bit of that...a lot of everything
Two workers, Tam and Ritchie, and
the foreman, the narrator, are responsible for building high tensile fences on
their clients’ farms. Their manager, Mr. Donald is a fastidious boss. So, they
drive, smoke, rest, have tea, sleep, work, visit the local pub, look for women,
have beer, get drunk, sleep. And again, and again. They need to be prodded, instigated,
Tam and Ritchie, for them to be out of their beds and do some work. If not,
they would rather have beer and sleep all day, and night of course. The fence
is finally built and it’s looking good. Oh, but the client is accidentally
killed. And buried.
So they move on to the next
assignment. They drive, smoke, rest, have tea, sleep, work, visit the local
pub, look for women, have beer, get drunk, sleep. And again, and again. The
fence is finally built and it’s looking good. Oh, but the client is
accidentally killed, and buried, yet again.
And then they move to the next
The fences are built, but there’s
no sign of no animals, and now there are no owners as they peacefully lie in
the depth of the buried earth.
I surprised myself by not getting
bored with the ludicrously trite routine of the characters; rather enjoyed
their idiosyncrasies. I grinned at their indolence as they reminded me of some
people I’ve had the misfortune to work with.
The author, Magnus Mills has
subtly and metaphorically drawn the need to restrain the two legged creature as
much as is deemed necessary for the four legged ones (Between 1979 and 1986 Magnus
Mills built high-tensile fences for a living, an experience he drew upon for this
novel). The need to be tamed, disciplined, berated, to move, to be motivated to
move to greener pastures is felt needed by both; the safety in confines is the
disposition of both. Like the beasts, we are born, live and die; we don’t give
much thought to the goat that was served for dinner, do we, except maybe to the
tenderness of the meat? Maybe, that explains the dead-pan humour (discovered
this phrase when reading about the author) in the cold (accidental) killings of
the clients. Was it sorrowful – no, was it deliberate – no, did it evoke
reproach – no, was it funny – no, why should it? Was it forgotten – easily!
Life goes on...
On another note, we feel free,
safe in our confines, don’t we? We aren’t born to be free, we are born to be
restrained – to do as we are told, do this, don’t do that, do it this way, behave, sit, stand, brush,
eat, travel, go to work, return home, sleep, ready yourselves for another day
of a mundane struggle – the more taut the string, the more effective the fence.
An introvert would feel as free in a crowded party as would a garrulous person
on a marooned island.
We are tethered by the invisible shackles
of our thoughts and imposed values and we roam around feeling free only till we
feel the tug of the chain, and then we saunter back to our safer grounds. We
are herded into the influential lives that we live; only few choose to, resolve
to break free and live in the wilderness.
As Oscar Wilde said “To define is
to limit.” But then again, was that for humans? :)
Can we love everyone the same way; are we supposed to?
Who tells us what we’re supposed to; who tells the eagle to
soar and the snake to slither?
And we can think, yes! So? Do we create our destiny?
Was I destined to write this review?
Is there a purpose?
As the books of Bokonon say, “In the beginning, God created the earth,
and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can
see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth,
and was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat
up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?”
he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly!” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this.” said God. And He
He’s John, a journalist. He’s out
there to collect material for a book ‘The Day the World Ended’ – a factual book
giving an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the
first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a scientist,
the father of the atomic bomb is long dead; so all John is left with are his three
erratic children, Angela, the tall horse faced, caring daughter who soulfully
plays the clarinet, Frank, the quiet modeller and thinker and little Newt
(Newton), a midget, a painter. Stumbling
upon their whereabouts, he crosses paths with Dr. Breed, Felix’s associate and
comes across a brilliant discovery by Dr. Felix, a discovery that could change
the world like all ‘Eureka’ian discoveries do.
“Dr. Breed keeps telling me the main thing with Dr. Hoenikker was
“You don’t seem to agree.”
“I don’t know whether I agree or not. I just have trouble understanding
how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person.”
The endeavour to know more about
Dr. Felix and the discovery finds him on the island of San Lorenzo, an island
cultivating utopian thoughts, where everyone believes in Bokonon and his books
but are not supposed to. A roller coaster ride follows, where he meets the most
beautiful girl in the world, is asked to marry her, is to become the President
of the island and then – then he encounters Dr. Felix’s sinister discovery, in
the most inexorably devastating way as all good discoveries are inadvertently showcased.
The island, its caretakers, its people, all is made, bred, destroyed by the preaching
of Bokonon and a higher authority, of course!
“What is sacred to Bokononists? I asked after a while.
“Not even God as near as I can tell.”
“Just one thing.”
I made some guesses. “The ocean? The sun?”
“Man,” said Frank. “That’s all, just man.”
Now, who’s Bokonon? Is it important?
Yes and no. Replace him with any religious preacher, teacher, leader that you
believe in, have been asked to, forced to believe in; anyone or everyone your
parents, your society asked you to listen to, follow and why? Because their
parents and so did their parents asked them to; religion is traditional isn’t
The first sentence in the books of Bokonon is this “All of the true
things I am about to tell you are shameless lies”
“She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what
God is doing.” writes Bokonon
Isn’t every religion created? By a
selected few, a privileged few? And who gave them the privilege to tell us what
we should do, what we should believe, the way we should or shouldn’t live? And should
we listen to them, to these obstinate men of God or these political zealots? We
do, don’t we? Is there an option? Look around you, we are surrounded by preaching,
teaching, lies; do we really believe in them, maybe not, but that’s not
important. What is important is that we cling on to them, why, of course for
safety, like a drowning man holding on to a float for dear life! Our existence!
“Are you a Bokononist?” I asked him.
“I agree with one Bokononist idea. I agree that all religions,
including Bokononism, are nothing but lies.”
“I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense
So we all could be happy
instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
and I made this sad world,
A par-a-dise.” - from the books of Bokonon
And if we break the shackles and
become free thinkers, we say we create our own world, our own destinies. We
think, we work, be creative, we wonder, we invent and He laughs. We send a man
on the moon, we create satellites, we create penicillin and other vaccines and
He laughs. Have you heard of earthquakes and volcanoes and tornadoes and floods
and tsunamis and plagues and forest fires and of course wars, He mocks!
“Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.” - from the Books of Bokonon
So then, are we mere puppets, is
ignorance bliss? If everything was destined to happen the way it did, does, will,
why then are we equipped with the ability to think? Is there any respite from
I say “Oh! What a plight!”
He says, “Just hold on tight.”
“My God – life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”
“Don’t try,” he said “just pretend you understand.” He quoted another
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly,
Man got to sit and wonder, “why, why why?
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.
This book is high on nihilism, there
are no clear answers, and if there are, there is more confusion, more dilemmas.
The more you delve deep, the more the confusion rises and all that it does is wake
you from your somnolent safety and takes you a step closer to a lurking insanity.
Thought of and written in the
most eloquent form, Kurt Vonnegut raises a subject of poignant interest, the
most basic one. His wit and sarcasm is evident in his story telling as you grin
and laud and applaud at his cunningness, his deceptions, and his clever
ambiguities. You lose and find yourself between pangs of lucidity. You look at
the sky now and smile OR you look at the sky now, frown and get back to what
you were doing.
Some more Bokononism -
“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns
it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of
murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their
ignorance the hard way.”
George Hardy, rather Master
George is an obsessed medical practitioner, a surgeon and an ardent
photographer too. Shortly after his father’s untimely death, the whereabouts of
which are to be kept a secret from the other members of his family, a choleric
proliferation and the waging war against Russia sets Master George on a journey
to offer his services to his countrymen, to the sufferers of war. Could he have
possibly known that he was to turn into one, a sufferer and likewise, the ones
Myrtle is an orphaned girl, taken
into the Hardy family, raised to be a lady, to all - George’s adoptive sister, but
that’s possibly an introduction for the world. For her, she’d rather be
Georgie’s skin, which can be cut, wounded, torn, sutured, and repaired but
remains till the very end, before it withers, fades. So, convoyed by Myrtle the
infatuated, Dr.Potter the geologist brother-in-law, a caravan of relatives and
of course Pompey Jones, the assistant, George walks into the labyrinthine decay
of the war.
Beryl Bainbridge fascinates us
with the numbness of war; the dead are luckier than the unfortunate living. Every
brush stroke only deepens and darkens the colour, a singular one, of red, a
bloody one at that, the only miscellany presented in its shades. And as one
inebriates in the gory visuals, the putrid miasma of decay suffocates you but
there is nothing to cover your nose, your eyes with, not even your willingness.
a gun is meant to kill and so it
will! a soldier is meant to,
made to kill and so he will! a war is meant to destroy,
burn, annihilate and so it does!
No dissuasion can keep a moth
from the light; no enticing would keep Master George away from the war. Cut,
cut, cut, tear, tear, tear, sawing limbs is the norm of the day; stripping a
dead body of its soiled clothes to adorn a living is no dread. Nonchalance isn’t
an option. Like Dr. Potter who’s losing it with all the delusions and
hallucinations, one would agree that to be insensitive to the calamities of war
is the only sensible thing to do; how would one breathe otherwise? To be insane
is the only way to be sane.
In this decadence, in this
coldness, the author manages to light up emotions and allure the reader with
their dancing shadows. There aren’t any secret lives, or any secret emotions,
almost everything is blatantly real, only trampled on by the squalor of war. Pompey
Jones likes Myrtle, he believes the attraction more to come from the nasty cavern
of poverty and squalor that they once belonged to. Myrtle is hopeless when it’s
about George but he, the curer, is only a curer of the surface, the body; the
soul isn’t a surgeon’s lookout. Can love possibly surface in such abominable
conditions? Is it still important to know if you’re loved when a cover from the
next bullet or the next chance for a meal are the only things you should really
"I stood , resentment wriggling like a worm within my breast. It had been my conceit that it was enough to give love, that to receive it would have altered the nature of my obsession. When passion is mutual, there is always the danger of the fire burning to ashes. Rather than lose love it was better to not have known it."- Myrtle
Bainbridge’s eloquent portrayal
scratches beyond the surface and delves deep; the emotions infused in the
characters are real and hence felt. Whether you shed a tear for the dead or
not, the eyes will be in vain for the living, the living dead. The book and its
gory descriptions reminded me of the movie ‘The Pianist’. I’ve read Beryl
Bainbridge before, ‘Every man for himself’ but this one has struck a chord, an
This novella is about Meursault,
a person indifferent to everything and everyone around him. Having murdered a
person, he faces a trial and is convicted for the homicide. Though the story
builds onto the indifference that the protagonist shows towards society in
general, the essence of the book lies in the last few thought provoking pages,
in his conversation with the priest – his obstinate and unyielding
non-acceptance of God.
The book has raised a lot of
questions in my mind and the inexorable ramblings that it has created strive to find answers.
Indifference – is it
dangerous? Could be! But is it necessarily so? Could I force you to like me,
like anyone, anything? Am I right in doing so – obviously not! What changes in me
if you are indifferent? Is Meursault’s sending away his mother to an old age
home, an act of indifference, couldn’t it be plainly an act of being practical?
The lack of sadness at the loss of his mother, his inability to mourn her
absence isn’t normal, yes. I would personally abhor such a being, but what’s he
to do if he actually doesn’t feel it? Should he enact the perfect mourning? My
mind does say that that’s being less human, as I said earlier not normal, but
maybe he likes to live in the present rather than in the past or the future
like most of us. Am I trying to empathise here or am I holding a mirror to my
feelings, my thoughts with Meursault’s torso in an attempt to comprehend him?
The killing – was that an
act of fear or ruthlessness? Was it the fear of being killed if not kill? He
said the sun was in his eyes and he was tired. Why did he shoot again and again
the motionless body once life had escaped it? Hmmm! That again could have been
fear, right, or was it the sudden impulsive thrill from having pulled the
trigger for the first time? For one, Meursalt for whatever else he was,
wasn't a liar, rather he was a truthful person. His inability to express his thoughts exaggerated each of
his shortcomings. The lack of pity, repentance, tears, his calmness, his
irritating ability to let go is what makes it so hateful. But, aren’t we all,
when we do something wrong, repeatedly asked by our dear ones to get out of it,
to forget it – doesn’t that make Meursault a winner then?
If he was so grotesque a
character, why was he madly loved by Marie or was she insane too?
Does God exist? For me, yes,
for you, I don’t know, but the fact is, if He exists, He exists, whether your
answer is a yes or no. Are we supposed to fear Him or love Him? Why then, like
our parents, like our elders, the priest too forces Meursault to believe in
something he doesn’t. Doesn’t that question the priest’s faith in the first
place? His frustration at not being able to convince Meursault of God’s power,
his presence, his benevolence, his forgiveness is derisive. Does he, the priest
have all the answers just because he’s draped in a cassock and lives in the
supposed house of God? His belief – isn’t it trying if he realizes that
Meursault is created by the same power that created him. Can you, should you
force someone to love a piece of poetry if he or she doesn’t appreciate it?
Isn’t it beautiful by itself or does its essence fade away with the lack of
appreciation of a few?
“I had only a little time
left and I didn’t want to waste it on God”
Am I defending him? No,
definitely not! Does Meursault seem even a bit moral? No. He seems almost a
stranger to himself, to humanity. Then what’s disturbing me? I guess the fact
that I, we expect him to be normal, his acts, his thoughts to be acts of
textbook normalcy is what has irritated me as I advanced to dislike him.
Normalcy, now what’s that?
Nothing’s ever enough for
anyone! Not even goodness; time and again it needs to be proven; a thankless
virtue that’s ostentatiously expected to lay bare, naked for others to see.
Seeing is believing, isn’t it; mere feeling is not!
There have been very few
books that I’ve liked from the very first pages, very few characters that
have struck so strongly, a chord – the right one, for me to shake hands with and
smile at them instantaneously the moment they were introduced.
must die young if it isn’t to kill the souls of men”
a God fearing man as one can possibly be; not as God fearing as much as God
loving, is an honest policeman in an African state in the times of World War II. His honesty, like always is
seen as a banality to be pitied by others. He’s been passed over for promotion
in the middle of a war. Scobie is content with the banal life that he lives,
the place that he is in but; and there’s always a but! His wife Louise, who he
loved immensely once, cared for, still cares, has gradually turned out to be, rather a
responsibility than the love that once existed. Her inability to make
friends, her happiness is of immediate concern to him more than anything else.
She wants to get away; she terms him as selfish for not being able to arrange
the money to send her away.
a turmoil of justness and responsibility, Scobie readily falls into the trap of
Yusef, a smuggler, a crook, a local businessman when he borrows money from him
to send her wife away. And the trap only widens; but anything for the happiness
of his wife.
was a relief to be on board and no longer alone together.”
As Scobie’s wife is away, he
falls hopelessly and sympathetically in love with a dying ship wrecked patient
Helen, much younger to him. What starts as a friendship, soon gets entangled
into the grip of a painful, pitiful love affair.
“What they had both thought was safety proved to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity.”
she said, “why do you always tell me the truth? I don’t want the truth all the
time.” – Helen
Scobie, now torn between his
wife and an indignant lover, has a bigger concern – the answers that he has to
give to the supreme. Very few, have I experienced to possess a soul so pure, such
clarity in thoughts, so determined and conscious in actions, so strong willed.
It’s so difficult to keep sanity intact in the midst of these inexorable, interminable
thoughts that plague the mind; but it’s his heart that wins each time, a heart
I term to be so pure.
Scobie now has to make a
choice, never an easy one, between God and love, loyalty and sin. He is now
derided by his lover as much as he is tested by his despairing wife. He’s
responsible for one and immensely loves the other.
were happy. Doesn’t it seem odd? – we were happy,”
do we go on like this – being unhappy?”
a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love,” Scobie said
often he thought, lack of faith helps one to see more clearly than faith.”
then,” she said triumphantly, “be hung for a sheep. You are in – what do you
call it – mortal sin? Now. What difference does it make?”
thought: pious people, I suppose would call this the devil speaking, but he
knew that evil never spoke in these crude answerable terms: this was
innocence. He said, “There is a difference – a big difference. It’s not easy to
explain. Now I’m just putting out love above – well, my safety. But the other –
the other’s really evil. It’s like the Black Mass, the man who steals the
sacrament to desecrate it. It’s striking God when he’s down – in my power.”
And he, finally in an act of
contrition chooses love over God; he finds God in love. What doesn’t exist won’t
hurt the ones he loves, would it and like the Lord, he sacrifices himself at
the altar of love.
is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is
told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never
practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing
absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this
capacity for damnation.”
And because I love you so
much Scobie, I detest your wife even more. She calls you selfish; her resentment
seems so shallow when she’s the one who deserted you and came back only to chain
you to responsibility, to gather safety because you were happy with someone
else. You did all that you could and more for her but it didn’t take her much
time to give herself to another when you were gone.
Many would indict Scobie for
what he did, call his damnation, his act of complete contrition as cowardice. I
don’t support it of course but that’s who he was; who am I to stand between him
and God. I envy you Scobie for being able to love so purely.
Like the doctor in ‘Anil’s
Ghost’, like Estha in ‘The God of Small Things’, Scobie stays with me and will
forever. I have closed these books but they stay with me, these great souls; they
for me are men of God. When I sit beside the serene waters of a lake, I’ll
think of you Scobie, the calm that you possessed, the inner turmoil that you
kept hidden from everyone, the sacrifice that you made.
he wondered, does one ever begin this humiliating process: why does one imagine
that one is in love? He had read somewhere that love had been invented in the
eleventh century by the troubadours. Why had they not left us with lust? He
said with hopeless venom, “I love you.” He thought: It’s a lie, the word means
nothing off the printed page.
he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but
with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to
understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died
too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”
Thank you Graham Greene for
taking me through this journey with Scobie, for miraculously expressing and
passing on each of your, his thoughts to me.
This book was recommended by
a friend, Giedre and I thank her immensely for introducing me to Graham Greene;
he’s at the top of my favourite’s list now!
William Dalrymple, in one of
his interviews says, “If I had five more lives, I would have lived all of them
I have travelled to Delhi
many a times. If you ask a non-Delhiite about the city, though they would awe
at the roads and structures, complain about the filth and crowd in some parts
of the city, one common thing that they would say is ‘it’s a city of snobs’ and
so would I.
Delhi – a city like any
other city in the world; what’s the fascination attached to it? History, I
would say and so says WD; a beguiling city built from a scratch and then
destroyed, reduced to a scratch. And built again only to be destroyed again,
and again, and again; like a potter’s creation at the wheel, marvelled at for
some time and then thrown again to the hearth by the vagarious potter who
doesn’t want anyone else to see its beauty.
Conquered by the mightiest
of conquerors the world has ever seen, Delhi, apart from being their capital of
power, was like a beautiful princess that every king or emperor vied for. It held
a certain enigmatic love for them; a love, a masculine, salacious consummation
that these monarchs couldn’t possibly find in their harems.
research of the city is absolute. His travelogue extends from the epidermal
surface of the current unconcerned multitude of the Delhi people, and excavates
to scour layer upon layer of treachery, annihilation, love and power; an era
long buried in the city’s abyss. WD talks of the mammoth structures the city
hosts, their comparison to facades in the west, their historical bearing and
the neglected state that they are in today. The ‘Red Fort’ receives a special
mention and righty so; the throne from where was ruled most of India, all of
Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan during the time of the celebrated
Moghul Emperor Shah Jehan. WD writes, it was the apex of Moghul power, the
golden age of unparalleled prosperity.
story of Delhi is incomplete without the mention of three important entities;
the Moghuls, the Britishers and the bloody partition. Powerful and obstinate rulers
like Timur the lame, Muhammed –bin-Tughlaq, Nadir Shah, Shah Alam, Shah Jehan
and Aurangzeb, WD says, had their own doctrines, their own laws to abide by,
each so different from the other. Some respected the saints, the others
abhorred and beheaded them. The city’s story is replete with acts of deceit,
treachery, barbarity and incest too. How many people would believe that the
great emperor Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz
was salaciously close to his eldest daughter Jahanara Begum. Needless to say,
each king had his own harem, decorated and filigreed with the choicest of
sow, so shall you reap”, probably was quoted of Shah Jehan, an emperor who,
though liberal than the others, conquered his place to the throne by killing
his brothers and their children and capturing his father. Not surprisingly the
barbarous Aurangzeb, one of his neglected sons imprisoned him, killed his own
kin and presented to him on the dining
table, the lifeless head of his favourite son and successor to the throne Dara
WD meets historians,
researchers, knowledgeable people, old members or their descendants from that
time in history. With the changes in the throne, the language of Delhi has come
a long way though the transformation isn’t a pleasant one. From Persian to Urdu,
an immaculate language delivering and demanding respect, the language of the
poets, the city now has to do with Hindi. Delhi, once was the land of poets
like Mir, Jalal-ud-din Rumi, Ghalib and the likes, and the greatest gift to a
king would be the latest verses from the great Mir than any jewel or tapestry.
While meandering around the
streets of Delhi, WD meets some interesting multitude like the eunuchs, the
masters of the pigeon fights, the leftover Britishers and their families, now
called Anglo Indians, the survivors of partition like his landlady and the
driver. The eunuchs, though in the present time are rebuked, they had a
stronghold in the days of the emperor; they were a part of the courts,
caretakers of the harems. At the Nizam-ud-din mosque, a place thronged by both
the rich and the poor, the saints tell WD about the Djinns, their existence
since God created man, how they can be captured and used.
Delhi, as WD rightly points
out, post the India-Pakistan partition is itself divided into two conspicuous
parts; old Delhi sporting the remnants of the Moghul era in bits and pieces and
New Delhi, a facade of Lutyens’s brilliant architecture and now a house to the
Punjabis. India, always has been an easy country to be besieged because of its
religious differences. The bloodbath of partition is a horrific tale where
entire villages were annihilated, people burnt alive, women raped – a crowd has
no face, or rather has the face of a terror. As Dr. Jaffery, a historian tells
this city, culture and civilization have always been very thin dresses. It
doesn’t take much for that dress to be torn off and for what lies beneath to be
research is excellent; he presents facets of the city which a tourist would
normally miss. If you ever happen to visit the city, sitting on the ramparts of
a fort or marvelling the intricate designs of a palace, or being blessed by the
saints in one of the mosques, the djinns will most definitely bring to life
snippets from this book. And as you relive the glorious incidents of that era,
you would shudder at the thought of living under the rule of a monarch.
The worst part about reading
history is that it’s almost always a biased, colourful story written by
sycophants; WD’s travelogue isn’t that, it is unbiased, written without any
obligation or pressure.
life is a story, isn’t it; every
moment lived, of everyone’s life, some glorious, some plain, some recounted by
grandparents, some cherished, some not so cherished. Some events make it to the
history books, almost often quoted to the best of imperfection; others exist as
individual or collective memories.
historical fiction, Byatt’s story is a mammoth one, a tapestry upon which are
woven intricately, colourfully and carefully, a design, a pattern that appeals
to the readers for its individual portraits as much as for the entire landscape
it creates. It’s a universe where the worlds of fairies, gnomes, sylphs and
spirits have as much importance as the flesh and bone of myriad visible humans.
Wellwood is a story teller, a writer rather; a writer of children’s books, a
respected and admired one. She writes imaginary stories for each of her
children, publishes them to the world; she hunts for her characters in museums,
in vases and historical portraits, in puppet shows, in her children. Tom, her
favourite son seems to be trapped in his story, hers and can’t get out. Like
the prince who lost and can’t find his shadow, Tom seems to be lost and can’t
find himself, can’t place himself in the word like everyone else so easily
does, or so it seems.
a difficult life for adults, but more so for children, especially the ones
getting out of their cocoons of infanthood to find a place in the world. Unlike
fawns and calves, we can’t start walking a few minutes after being pushed out
of the womb; fortunately or unfortunately, we are humans. We need to be
nurtured to get a grip. Who should they imitate, what’s good and what’s not, is
it okay to be themselves – a plethora of unguided, often misguided, at times
unanswered questions haunt the teenager as every single day proves to be a
different one as they saunter towards the path of adulthood. It’s bad to have
no options, but worse to have enough of them.
at the Wellwood household and the entangled families of their near ones, the
children are treated as growing adults and their choices are honoured, the
children find themselves at most times in a midden of deception. And in the
midst of this treachery, they fall, grope, struggle, rebel to get away. They
discover, things that should have been best left to the slothful beast of
ignorance; but they do, they discover the frightful things they shouldn’t, that
others shouldn’t about them.
the vagarious genius of Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Philip, Byatt creates
them and her other characters from clay and like their beautifully carved,
intricate and meticulous vases and pots, she moulds and shapes them. But the
pots don’t be themselves without going through the hearth of the furnace and so
does Byatt, put her characters, children and adults alike through the conflagration
of life and relationships. Some are broken, some shine like a gilded blaze – a delight
to the senses.
times, it feels like you are reading newspaper excerpts of a bygone era. The
Fabians, the Quakers, the Socialists and the Anarchists, the Nihilists, their
thoughts, their ideologies and idealism run like veins through the story. Byatt’s
canvas is replete with the arts and crafts, puppeteers and their wooden dolls,
music and festivals, museums and extravagances, the rustic beauty of the
countryside, the wilderness, cultures and their nuances, the dangling sword of
war and then the war itself. As is the sagacious disposition of geniuses, in
this labyrinth too, the author, like a master puppeteer pulls and loosens the
strings of her marionettes to perfection and woos her audience, who keep their
hands glued to the page, refrain from letting their eyes to wander and yet let
their heart and mind to. The era is one where heterosexuality isn’t abhorred,
where age is no barrier, where a single episode of intimate, salacious
closeness is forgotten as easily as it happened, though it results in the
placement of a seed in a womb; doubtful parentage isn’t disturbing. A girl you
treated as your friend, a sister, is asked to be called your mother the next
story also deals with the plight of women of that time, of all times, their
fight to their entitlement to suffrage, to individualism, to find their feet in
the land of men. As the frustrated Florence says, “The truth is that the women we are (readying to be doctors, researchers,
educated) – have become – are not fit to do without men, or to live with them,
in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don’t, there will be no help
for us. We shall be poor monsters.”
“A woman has to be extraordinary; she can’t just do things as though she had a
delightful read, Byatt’s characters, their rawness, their eccentricity, their
plight, their vagaries, their love, their disgust will stay with you for a long
time after you’ve turned the last page. At times, one might feel lost,
frustrated with the neglect of a character (there are many), but Byatt ensures
that her marionettes are not hanging from the stand for too long – she brings
them to life when you think you are on the brink of letting go and moving on,
asking, begging for more!