Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reflections: The Hungry Tide

Marine biologist Piya travels to the Sundarbans to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Through her research and friendships she learns about the history of the islands in the Sundarbans and the dangers and realities of the people living their fragile lives in a place that’s equally menacing as it is beautiful. With Nature’s sleight of hand, Piya is pulled into unique friendships and an everlasting bond with the people and the place in a way that realizes her true calling. In this engaging and extremely readable novel, Amitav Ghosh lays out the breathtaking landscape of the Sundarbans and walks the reader through its beautiful terrain and ugly patches of history. 

World Life Conservation has a self-righteous and virtuous ring to it. Everyone (almost, everyone) agrees with it and vehemently advocates it. Ghosh asks a very simple question through this book – would you believe in wildlife conservation to the same degree if your family, your livelihood, and your home were nonchalantly treated as being disposable, or rather, considered inevitable sacrifices in the light of protecting endangered animals in a beautiful landscape? Hundreds of thousands of people live in the Sundarbans. However, these people are mostly viewed as inconveniences, for they come in the way of protecting the tigers and many other exotic species. Even though people are routinely killed, and their livelihoods are routinely trampled on, the conservation project carries more priority than human existence. Something is not right – at least from the perspective of us humans thinking of human survival. That’s not to say that protecting animals in their natural habitat is not important. Conserving nature and wildlife is as important as treating fellow human beings with equal dignity. It doesn’t seem right to callously sacrifice certain human lives because they are considered expendable, and then call it the way of nature. Ghosh’s suggestion is for a more symbiotic, mutually beneficial, mutually helpful approach that aims at a mostly peaceful co-existence. This is surely the most obvious “answer” to a complicated situation, but unfortunately not as simple to execute. But it has to start somewhere. 

I have briefly wondered of these repercussions and conflict of interest between human survival and the survival of the eco-system, and it really just boils down to primarily safeguarding the survival of human-beings whilst being as responsible and sensitive as possible to other animals and the ecosystem. Human survival really trumps the card at a deadlock situation, for I am a human being and it's in me to want to protect my species.

So the crux of the book explores how and in what ways Wildlife and Nature Conservationism affects human lives. But Ghosh doesn’t take sides or push his agenda. He has characters to represent either sides of the argument, but the arguments are always subtly presented in the background. The book tells a seemingly simple story of love and loss without hard-hitting arguments or explicit social commentary strewn across the pages. Also, the unfolding story navigates the reader through real historical events, and questions the morality behind the occurrences

Since I love marine beings, I loved that the protagonist was researching on dolphins, that too on Irrawaddy dolphins, a species I hadn’t heard of before. It was fascinating to learn about these dolphins. Ghosh vividly recreates the Sundarbans and sensitively portrays the characters and their lives. The forest is portrayed with mysticism and reverence, as if it were a nurturing being of itself. While I was expecting Ghosh’s writing to be cerebral, pretentious, and convoluted, I was pleasantly surprised (and grateful) that it was simple, lucid, and extremely engaging. Although there were aspects of the book that I thought were too drawn out or uncharacteristically romantic or idealistic, I still enjoyed reading the book. And it was refreshing to read a story that teases out significant social themes without weighing down the reading experience with too many layers of complexity. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reflections: In Custody

Deven is a timid and oppressed Hindi professor in a town near Delhi. His profession is a drudgery he has to put up with for the sake of a livelihood that barely meets his family’s needs. His hobby, his passion, is Urdu and Urdu poetry. But when India fragmented during its Independence, the birth of Pakistan also meant the loss and steady whittling of Urdu within India. Hindi elevated to be the National Language, the language of Hindustan. Many Indian scholars continue to lament on the neglect of a language so historic and beautiful as Urdu. So when Deven is approached by his sly friend Murad to interview Nur, a rare Indian legend of Urdu poetry, he pursues the opportunity hesitantly, hoping that this precious experience would rejuvenate and give meaning to his mundane existence. But the experience proves less than rejuvenating and more aggrieving as Deven wrings himself out to record the troubled and difficult poet’s words for posterity. Anita Desai conveys the angst and longing for a bygone era through a simple story that mercilessly underlines the imperfections and frustrations that color certain sections of India.

This sounds like a depressing book, but it is actually more frustrating than depressing. All the characters are flawed or deceitful. It seems like Desai has highlighted the darker sides of her characters, each caught in their own web of frustrations and disappointments. Even physical descriptions of the characters have a bitter and unattractive edge - the women are given the appearance of old hags and witches, the men are sketched as reptiles and weasels. It’s difficult to empathise with any of the characters, except perhaps Deven, but even he exudes so much timidity and cowardice that it pains to see him bullied at every turn. Event after event weighs down Deven’s meek spirit until things just run their course. The reader closes the book with a sigh of frustration.

All that said, the story does realistically represent a slice of India. The characters are true, and very much real, flawed to such depths that their virtues remain firmly shadowed. Much credit goes to the excellent and intelligent writing that unflinchingly etches out the characters and settings with remarkable perspicuity. So many aspects of Indian society and prevalent attitudes are seamlessly layered onto the narrative. The book is not just a commentary on the eviction of a beautiful language from India, but an objective portrayal of  the corruption and dissatisfaction that took over Independent India. Taking on an idealistic tone, Deven’s passion gives him that much-needed meaning and purpose in his existence that regardless of the outcome of his pursuit, just the journey is shown to fill a void within him that was so lacking in confidence and belief. I think one needs to hang onto the romanticism lent by the arts (such as poetry) to see beauty in an otherwise gray existence. In that sense, this story can be appreciated by those of us that get carried away by the beauty of artistic expression.

The book is surely worth reading for the writing and the characterization. And on another note, I would highly recommend watching the movie adaption of it, if you are not so inclined on reading. The movie is adapted and directed beautifully. The atmosphere created through the visual medium softens the rough edges of the story and the characters, making the experience much more satisfying. With a cast of really talented actors, the movie complements and does justice to the book by showcasing the characters and the story in the best possible light. I watched the movie mid-way and it was remarkable how much it positively enhanced my reading experience. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reflections: Clear Light of Day

All families are wrought with emotions. Emotions in so many colors, brightness, and intensity that they are hard to capture and arrange within a structure, a spectrum. But its presence in the form of wild splatters, delicate splotches, careful strokes, and rough smudges creates a unique pattern that begins to define the family. Only the those within the family unit can find meaning in that colorful picture and remain connected to its significance. It’s a bond so full of intense contradictions that sometimes we come across as silly and self-absorbed creatures. But, this bond of vibrant emotions exists in every home and will continue to flourish with time. In this vividly sensitive and beautiful book, Anita Desai explores the emotional complexities that are knit into the intrinsic fabric of being a family.

This is a quiet and contemplative book. There is no plot, no story that races or twists or turns. It is simply a sensitive commentary on a family that strains to solidify their weakened bonds. It is a relatable story of siblings who drifted apart and are navigating towards each other against the currents of time, words, memories, and emotions. Sometimes there is more comfort in nursing grudges than healing wounds. But I think there always does come a time (however long it takes) when it gets tiring to hold onto grudges, because we finally see the bigger picture. This novel is a sensitive portrayal of this inner journey.

The writing and the characters make this novel stand on its own. Every character is meticulously and sensitively written. The scenes are beautifully rendered. Anita Desai recreates images and memories that every Indian raised in a middle-class family holds and nurtures. From the tank in the terrace to the dirty well in the backyard to the heat, the dust, the wild gardens, the peeling paint,  the annoying geckos, the rhythmic winding of the ceiling fan, to our own aunts and cousins and neighbors, every image has been reconstructed with delicate attention. The writing grows and matures with the characters, taking on a heightened sheen of insight and beauty towards the end of the book. The beginning of the book doesn’t carry such beautiful writing, but as the book progresses the writing just blossoms with poetic grace and insight!

Recommended for a quiet afternoon read. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Reflections: The Great Gatsby

In feverish anticipation of the movie, I read this acclaimed book. I know it sounds shallow to read a book just to prepare for a movie-adaption, but it’s so fitting given the main themes of the book. With “Love is Blindness” ringing in my ears, the trailer playing in my mind’s eyes, the reading experience was way more dramatic and sweeping than the book itself inspires.
Jay Gatsby is a mysterious millionaire shrouded in enigma. He yearns and cultivates a dream so fantastical, so pure, so unreal that it represents the collective American dream of the 1920s to pursue the “unreal”. In the age-old clash of idealism against cruel reality, loyalty against selfishness, the dream crumbles and emphasizes the beginning of hedonism and moral deterioration of a materialistic world of excesses.  

Almost everybody has been edified on all the various social and moral symbols pervading the novel. The sudden wealth and economic boom after the first World War saw America burgeoning with so much materialism that it loosened the social morals of the middle and upper social-strata. The American dream turned into something wholly greedy and selfish. With the swarm of such ambitions and vapid pleasure seeking, the disparity between the social classes widened, and everyone wanted to imbue and realize the dream at any cost. When such ambitions consume one, nobler feelings compete with the brasher ones, and the pursuit is romanticized as something one dearly wishes it represents than what it really is. This is the core of the whirlwind drama that tells the familiar story of the careless rich and the trampled poor. These themes are familiar enough for us today because of the innumerable books and movies that have been cloned and inspired from an original piece such as this. Reading the book from that perspective helps to appreciate the author's foresight and insight.

The deeply buried and half-dead romantic in me still gets swept and swayed by stories and characters that idealize and romanticize romanticism just for the sake of it. Jay Gatsby is an impressionable character whose personality is an endearing set of contradictions that make him an aggressive, mindlessly ambitious idealist. All the characters are memorable for the deft ways in which they are given their personalities with so few words. The author is extremely economical with his words (my perpetual aspiration). Everything is expressed with incisive sarcasm, insight, and beauty. Sometimes, the brevity and incisiveness result in a few vague phrases. The other downside to the writing was the sudden shift between scenes, the impulsive (sometimes flighty) dialogues, and the rapid rush to the end. It all seems too sudden to take in, too unbelievable to let the weight sink in. You need some time to let the book touch you. This makes the book constantly alternate between being a satire and a serious drama. Perhaps the writing itself represents all the contradiction and moral conflict of that era.

As I mentioned, the movie and its dreamy lead may have had a strong bias in my reading experience! But I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it.  

Friday, March 01, 2013

Reflections: The Death of Vishnu

Vishnu is a homeless man taking refuge in the first-floor landing of a middle-class apartment in Bombay. Thanks to the odd-jobs he does for the people in the apartment, he scrapes his way through life, barely living, but surviving. Now, he lies dying on the stairs. As the families in the apartment steadfastly neglect and wish him away from the stairs, Vishnu’s life flashes past him as a series of delirious visions that mingle and move in and out of the happenings in the apartment. Reality and delusion often thread in and out, and that’s a major theme of the novel. What’s an illusion, what’s reality, what’s faith, what’s reason, what’s ideal, what’s foolish etc. It’s a novel that brings out several different facets of middle-class life in Bombay with all the communal unison and rifts, disparities and equalities, cooperation and tension, prejudices and biases, superstitions and myths. Weaved into all this is a thread of spirituality and mythology that evokes questions on the bigger significance of life, and how we make sense of it. Is God, the powerful energy of creation, really within each of us? Even within a homeless, hopeless, miserable, pitiable man like Vishnu? What does it mean for this energy to be indestructible?

Too many themes, too many words, too many contradictory terms? True. There’s a lot going on. But it is a compelling and easy read that slips into several layers of meaning, if one is inclined to go into such depths. I love Manil Suri’s writing. It is one of the most captivating and beautiful styles that I have read. I gushed quite a bit on his other novel (Age of Shiva), and the same sentiments hold true with this book. I read it in two sittings, foregoing sleep and everything else because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the words. It’s haunting, alluring, and incredibly sensitive. With his words, Suri touches on just the right notes of his characters’ emotions, and accurately taps on the pulse of their psyche. He hits the right chords deep within you to be able to recognize and understand all the flaws, the absurdities, and sentiments of his characters from. It’s his ability to evoke that deep lingering feeling of poignancy and even nostalgia, that makes his writing special to me.

None of his characters are particularly likeable, but the details and idiosyncrasies of his characters, even if they be unsympathetic, lend so much flavor and realism. All that said,  the story by itself is made to hang in an ambiguous, unfinished state. That’s probably because this is not meant to be a story with an ending. Just like all stories and experiences in life, the story never really ends or begins at a certain point, because there is always a past and always a future until time ceases to exist. So, Suri subtly gets into these philosophical, meta-spiritual levels and leaves the interpretations and symbolism to the reader (examples: the apartment could be seen as the human spirit. The lowest floor signifies baser instincts, the intermediate floor shows the ascent of the spirit through its tussle between faith and reason/intellect, and finally the highest floor marks the graduation of the soul to renunciate, self-actualize, and self-realize. And what awaits in the terrace/roof? That’s up to you). This sometimes makes the novel vague, because most of the social themes just float alongside the spiritual symbols, and the two don’t always come together. Besides, if one is not an Indian, I doubt if some of the social (or mythological) elements would make sense without much elaboration. For example, I thought the characters were developed realistically and thoughtfully, but I can understand how some would find them to be abominable caricatures, because there isn’t enough context to explain their motivations. Too many things are deep-rooted in India. The complexities aren’t always brought to the surface for a non-Indian to understand and appreciate.

It was indeed ambitious of the author to tackle so many disparate and few interconnected themes through one novel. If you expect to find a “tapestry” that arranges and hems all these themes into patterns, you would be disappointed. Everything is sown in subtle stitches that barely hold together. The reader is expected to feel the stitches and decide how the pattern should be. It would have been so much better if Suri had focused on a few themes, particularly through the lens of spirituality/mythology that dominates the book. I’m also not convinced if so many mythological elements juxtaposed alongside social themes add any value to his novels. Regardless, being an Indian who could perfectly understand the underpinnings and roots of these themes, I enjoyed reading the book. The writing was my hook. I’m addicted to the words, and perhaps biased because of it. If you think sentences such as this: “Perfumes perch along the periphery of his perception, flitting away at his approach”, is interesting and even beautiful, you would appreciate the book. If not, I’m not sure the book would sustain your interest.