Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections: The Opposite of Fate

Life mostly runs on hope. But every now and then, as we are forced to find our way through thick jungles of uncertainty, we often wish for a pause button  to freeze the moment and collect our thoughts on the looming shadows in the horizon. Are they merely shadows cast by our fears, phantoms of our imagination, or spells cast on our set route of destiny? Is this moment a result of fate? Or is faith a weapon to slash and barge our way through the jungle? There are no easy answers. To the person who believes in the reality of the phantoms, faith is useless. But to the one who is willing to keep moving, faith is worn as an amulet close to the heart. Is it a placebo effect? Does the amulet really hold magic? Only the person who hoards such an amulet knows the answer.

Amy Tan's book of musings is a collection of snippets, reminiscing the flash-bulb moments of her life. Through her recollections, she muses on her encounters with fate and faith. Misery molds human minds - too much of it kills the mind, too little of it is a blessing, while a decent cupful is the impetus to our growth and wisdom. Tan has had her cupful. Her childhood was riddled with eerie coincidences of tragedy and pain, many of which were indeed good fodders for her novels. Tan's family "legacy" also teems with even greater tragedies; starting from her grandmother's harrowing life, down to her mother's miserable childhood, an abusive marriage to her first husband, loss of several children, and Amy's dad and brother to brain tumor. All of these trickle down to how her mom reacts and vents her anger, depression and insecurity, all on Amy and her brother. Needless to say, Tan's relationship with her well-meaning but difficult mother has left her with deep scars, which her stories and writing have been trying to heal and make peace with her life. Tan's spirit of resilience and hope, open-mindedness and charm, have left a deep impression on me. Our lives are different, but her writing makes the reader's spirit or self, tune in to her thoughts in a way that is difficult to establish. I empathized with every word, every thought - her feelings and thoughts were not new to me, and I could find much solace in the hope she inspires.

While Tan's musings start off with the question - fate or faith, her answer, or rather her exploration of the answers is not binary. It is quite interesting to read about her colorful life and her journey so far. It resembles a mottled patchwork of so many patterns -  of her past, her purpose, and inexplicable coincidences representing fluctuations of her destiny, all threaded together with a tight string of hope - perhaps even love. It was fascinating to me that most of her decisions were propelled by strong forces of intuition, or as she supposes, spirits of her loved ones. She candidly acknowledges the possibility of tricks played by her hurt and ravaged mind, making her read into coincidences. So she leaves the interpretation to the readers, almost sensing those wary eyes narrowing in cynicism.

The book also speaks to us about what it takes to be a writer, and what one has to endure to continue being one. She discusses the labels attached to writers, especially those of "color", and the impositions made by the literature-community on the norms of such writers. I have resented the stereotype that sticks with writers of ethnic origins. Someone from India, almost certainly is expected to write about India, about its culture, and boost its image in a positive light for the benefit of the world. So is it with authors from other Asian and African countries. Why? Why should this be the norm for literature and novels? Aren't there books beyond the genre of fiction to focus on those aspects? It makes little sense to me when people look forward to reading a best-selling novel to try and learn about a new culture. The few tidbits gleaned through the story don't constitute as culture-education to me. And the author's attempts at satisfying the reader's interest are by spewing the pages with detailed descriptions of the food and the design of furniture around, most of which have little impact on the story, and only stand out as distractors. It reminds me of the monotonous formula used by Indian movies - insert comedy, insert romance, insert a sizzling scene, some melodrama, a "fight", sprinkle in some sentiment on Indian tradition and voila, there is a best-selling movie.

The genre of fiction exists for a reason - its responsibility is not necessarily culture education all the time. Books like Adiga's White Tiger are loathed by some because of its "unhealthy, pessimistic" portrayal of India. But isn't that reality? What are we gaining by constantly brushing the grime under the rug and showing off a seemingly pleasant home blithely swarming with termites? I agree with the need to instill positive role models rather than perpetuating the negativity, but it isn't realistic to expect every single book (that too a novel) based on such countries to form the story around such tight constraints. Stories so churned out are too contrived to expect any reformation in people's thought processes. Each author has a different perspective to convey, their stories can be different, and the thoughts which are sparked by addressing the current unpalatable truths can be a fruitful turning point. Realism always helps; sugar-coating it, often times turns it into an imitation candy. If people choose to understand everything about what India or China is, from a novel picked off at the airport, I don't know what to say. Several rich and vivid documentaries and books exist precisely for the purpose of cultural education. While deeper principles and traditions of a culture may be brought out through the story - one book, one story can only provide a shade of any culture. Expecting everything in a nutshell is undermining the worth of stories and the purpose of literature.

The book encourages the reader to think along with Tan, to pause and grieve, to be intrigued and be inspired. She writes because writing is a part of her, and the more she writes, the more sense she makes of the world and the more balms of healing she dabs on to her blows. And just for that sentiment, the book connected with me.


SecondSight said...

In a rather convoluted way, your last two posts seem to tie together- the solution to the problems created by 'fate' may just lie in faith, in our own strength and the capacity to harness that strength to gain insight and understanding. I agree entirely about the culture-restrictions placed on writers and artists, but then I am also put off by writers who choose to milk their roots in negative ways simply to be different/ stand out.
This is one of my favorite things about Vikram Seth- that his stories span both region and sexuality, and simply talk about the human condition of loving another person. Unfortunately, very few others seem to manage that..

Neeraja said...

Yeah they are related, which is why I decided to read them in order, although I should have read this book before the other :).

It is indeed a delicate balance to strike between incorporating one's cultural roots in an objective way, while molding a solid story that goes beyond cultural boundaries.