Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This is a documentation of the poverty ridden lives of real Bombay slum dwellers who were residing near the Bombay Airport that was undergoing a beautiful and glamorous renovation a couple of years ago.  

Another book on Bombay slum dwellers, because there are so very few books and movies on them, right? That must have been my first warning. But, I truly expected something different. The title and the image on the cover gave me an irrational instinct that the book would be different, that it would somehow portray some aspects that have never been touched before - perhaps something uplifting about the human spirit, it’s tenacity and optimism even in the face of hopelessness. In hindsight, it was foolish of me to expect such things. And rightfully, all my expectations were brutally murdered and put to rest.

Remember the debate that photojournalists face on whether or not to interfere with nature and circumstances while reporting a story or an event? Which side are you on? In support of not interfering or interfering? Or perhaps like many, you sit on the fence and argue that it depends on the circumstances. For the most part, I understand that it’s not wise to interfere with nature’s course and to observe and record events for the benefit of awareness, education, and science. But when I see videos of upturned baby turtles struggling to right themselves up to swim away before a predator snares them, something in me just does not agree. I think it’s cruel to exploit the tragic plight of the turtle, and it’s even more inhumane of the photographer to not help it. It’s okay, every creature deserves to get a few random lucky chances… that’s also part of how Nature works… your small act of kindness is not going to disrupt the ecosystem. Isn’t it part of your innate humanity to want to rescue something that’s in pain and struggling in front of you? That too when all it takes is just a flick of your finger? You can report the truth, but why not stop the camera at some point to help instead of choosing to film the slow agonizing death of the animal? However, when a documentary captures how a predator hunts a prey, it’s disturbing, but as my husband reminds me, the lion also needs to survive, and it’s tricky to take sides, because no matter what, one of the two animals suffers in the end… so I sort of understand that interfering isn’t wise in such situations.  So, I do understand both sides of this debate and I often switch sides based on the footage and the circumstances.

That said, reading this book made me feel like watching a dozen writhing baby turtles struggling to right themselves up, but never do. And I got to read a few hundred pages of their slow torturous misery. Needless to say, this is the most depressing, excruciatingly painful book I have ever read, and will possibly ever read. I made the dumb mistake of reading this book on a vacation, and it ruined my mood. I was sleepless, guilt-ridden for everything I was blessed with, shocked, and terribly upset for days. It’s taken me quite a bit of will to revisit this book to write about it.

The author researches on the strategies that people in low-income communities employ in order to survive and rise above poverty. So this is her unbiased, honest, methodical research document. She states how rigorously research protocols were followed, how each “subject” was thoroughly interviewed more than 120 times in relation to some events, and how she left no stone unturned in her quest to report the truth of the stories. Commendable from a purely research standpoint, but there’s something unethical and inhumane when a researcher decides to objectively write about the rat bites that babies routinely endure than intervene in some little way. I understand that it’s beyond the capability of the researcher to help everyone in the slum or go out of her way to change their lives - that’s not her line of work, but some of the incidents in this book are clearly too much for anyone to just observe and record. These people are not subjects behind some one-way mirror… their lives are not open to research scrutiny and analysis. To me, it is an exploitation of tragic lives. What do the participants get in return for sharing their life stories? Advertisement and awareness? Forgive my ignorance, aren’t people already aware of tragic lives that slum dwellers lead? Especially those in Bombay? Do the graphic details and individual stories matter? I can understand if certain specific themes or social topics hitherto unknown are brought to light. But,  that's not the case. It doesn’t help much to regurgitate on the same themes concerning poverty and corruption in a developing country - it’s one more document stacked against thousands.  It’s one thing if reporting these stories would help the individuals in any way to get justice, charitable aid, or guidance, but I don’t think any of their lives have changed, or changed much. Maybe some of the readers have decided to help the individuals, or perhaps the politicians and policy makers in India will take notice, if at all. And if these benefits outweigh my irrational emotional outburst, I am sincerely relieved and happy.

This book is “insightful” and “fascinating” and “beautiful” mostly to readers in the West, or if you support photojournalists taping footage of helpless, dying animals. If you are from India, please do not inflict misery onto yourself by reading this book… you do not learn anything new.

Many will argue against my contention and harsh review of this award-winning book, and I can understand their points of view, but not agree with them, for this is how I feel - as emotional, irrational and silly as it might be. I may not have been able to eloquently articulate and put my finger on exactly what bothers me so much about this research document, but my instincts strongly rebel against it. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reflections: A Personal Matter

Oe Kenzaburo is the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I find most books of well acclaimed authors a mystery. Perhaps I’m just a philistine, but I go into these books with expectations and trepidations, and I either come out of the experience extremely intimidated and feeling inadequate or just wanting for more. A Personal Matter made me want for more.

The central plot of the novel is both simple and complex. It is the story of a man coming to terms with the birth of his first son, born with a rare medical complication. The protagonist, referred simply as the “Bird” (due to his fragile physical and mental frame), is firstly unprepared to become a dad. He’s in complete denial and is vexed with anxiety. He hates his work, is unhappy in his marriage, dreads the prospect of being a dad, and generally hates everything about himself and his life. Pretty bleak. His self worth is little to none and his anxiety and fear towards facing anything in life is crippling. It is precisely in the midst of this troublesome period that he gets a call from the hospital saying that there is something terribly wrong with his son. His mother-in-law hints at getting rid of the “monster” child and the doctors try to hint at something similar. His wife desperately banks on him to save their child. What is fragile Bird to do when all he wants to really do is flee away from everything and turn back time?

Reading the “synopsis” of the story, you would appreciate why the novel is both simple and complex. There is only one simple, honorable answer to the question plaguing Bird - He needs to try and save his child. But given Bird’s frame of mind, it isn’t so simple. The short and taut novel is about Bird’s journey towards accepting the realities of what is happening around him and trying to face his responsibilities. There is never a boring, dragging moment in the story. Bird is caught in a whirlpool of time and emotions, and events unfold fast. The anxiety that Bird throbs with is so palpable. He goes to the very extreme of cowardice and irresponsibility and then as if he is incapable of anymore denial, takes a sharp turn. This is where I found myself wanting for more. There are so many interesting themes to this novel but Kenzaburo focuses all his attention on Bird’s plagued inner journey and tunes out the rest. Even Bird’s journey seems to be preemptive and rushed, although I appreciate how Bird connected with his conscience and changed himself.

I was expecting more on the role of Choice in a man’s life when he would rather do without choice or responsibility. I wanted Kenzaburo to take the reader through a realistic journey of acceptance - one that takes time, internal angst, and even mistakes and realizations along the way. Bird goes through angst, makes mistakes and fumbles, but the “realization” part was lacking. I guess Bird’s rapid journey makes sense, given the time pressure involving a sick infant. But,  there was more time dedicated to how Bird tries to run away from the problem itself and very little focus on how he actually comes around - which is the meaty piece, according to me. Perhaps that is the elusive mystery… maybe people do come around in a flash in such emotionally draining and time sensitive situations.

The social thread in this story - of how not just society, but even doctors and grandparents look at an ill child as being unwanted and “abnormal” had a lot of potential waiting to be developed. I can imagine so many unwritten pages dealing with the intersection of Japanese culture, society, and consequently, the moral as well as social implications that go with one’s choice.

All that said, this is a well written novella with a starkly drawn protagonist. I read this book in May of this year, but I still vividly remember Bird and all the emotions he goes through. It explains why Kenzaburo is so revered in the literary world. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reflections: Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a difficult novel to write about. It is a dystopian science-fiction story involving a subject matter that is grave and disturbing. It is a good thought experiment on the ethics of scientific practices that affect humanity - in both positive and negative ways. Ishiguro builds the story in a nonchalantly reserved manner, and you don’t realize when things hit you. It doesn’t hit you all at once, and it isn’t dramatic in any way, but the story washes over you only after you have read it, and it haunts you. This is a powerful novel that unequivocally makes the case that humans are humans, no matter how they come into being, and they should be treated with equal rights to freedom of will, respect, and dignity.

From the start of the novel, the reader realizes that something is eerie with the setting and the characters. And as the mystery thickens and the pieces slowly fall into place, the anticipation grips the reader with a hollow dread. Eventually, when the reader realizes what is happening, it is a sickening feeling. The feeling is even more so, because you have started to invest in the characters. The parallel story of the characters’ lives and their coming of age and maturing is simple and relatable. The more simple, realistic and relatable it is, the more difficult it becomes when the revelation of what is happening to them hits us.

I found this novel interesting from the standpoint of morality. Often times, brutal decisions are made for the common good of humanity. Historians and philosophers have grudgingly admitted that some unfortunate sacrifices are inevitable on the path to achieving something significantly beneficial to a vast majority. It’s a bleary line to determine when the sacrifices are too much and unacceptable, and if the “sacrifices” are incidental versus planned. The fact that the “intentions” are theoretically logical and not “evil”, and the benefits are theoretically as high as the sacrifices, doesn’t matter much in the “equation”. When a system puts together a meticulous plan to sacrifice a set of people to help another set of people, it is much more abhorrent than if the sacrifices were inevitable and random. Besides, the important variable that matters is the victim/s of the sacrifice. If the sacrificial victims were animals and not humans, it shades the issue differently. But with humans as victims, it is an ironical case where one (the system/the person) loses some of their essential humaneness/humanity in their quest to help humanity! 

So, there are many levels of questions on morality, life, survival, and what is acceptable in the light of scientific/medical progress, but Ishiguro leaves all this discussion to the reader. In no place does he bring his opinions to the fore or delve into the two sides of the argument or force them on the story or the characters. The story is related through the perspectives of the characters, and he lets the characters make sense of the situation simply from where they stand. 

Also, if someone like me were to write this story, it would be an emotional-fest, but there is none of that either. It is a really restrained writing style - full of insight and elegance -  that’s difficult for a writer to manage, given the nature of the subject matter. Nothing seems heavy when you are reading the book. You feel the weight only after you have finished reading. But through the simple story and understated yet lucid writing, Ishiguro delivers a strong book.

This is a haunting story that’s worth the read.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reflections: Corelli's Mandolin

I have not watched the movie adaptation of this book, so I don’t have any reference points.

Stories of War that deal with both human suffering and enduring love strike that perfect formula to churn a human heart. Love and tragedy go so well together in stories.

This is the story surrounding the wars that erupted between Greece and Italy during the time of the second world war. This is the story of Pelagia, a Greek woman who lives through the many wars amidst love and loss. The harsh realities of war teach her to value the most essential elements of life and understand the meaning and depth of love. There are several interesting and strong characters in the book. Captain Corelli is one of them. The Italian Captain takes over Pelagia’s island, but has a rare mix of personality traits - kindness and compassion coupled with wit and bravery. He hates war, but is attached to his duty. So he does his best to minimize harm and create friendship and well-being between the Italians and Greek (at least those on the island). Pelagia and the Captain fall in love and patiently hope for the war to end while nurturing ideas of their future together. And then the Germans invade, and everything is washed away.

This is a simple story. But a powerful one. It’s mostly about the ravages of war, and the coming of age of an innocent and intelligent woman. Pelagia is molded and hardened by the horrors around her, and her immense strength provides a beacon of hope to the men in her life. During times of excruciating difficulties and atrocities, the human psyche changes in one of three ways - 1) it is deeply, irrevocably wounded and scarred, withdrawing into a reclusive shell, 2) it manages to rise to a positive place of strength, compassion, and constructive action despite the scars or 3) it sinks into an abyss of self-destructive cruelty and negativity due to the festering wounds. The author explores all of these changes in the human psyche through his extremely well developed characters. He fleshes them out as sympathetic characters, each driven to their ways due to the circumstances of war and survival.

In parallel to the above themes, the story explores the nature of different types of love: the one that is dominated by lust, the one that endures after the fire of lust has burned out, the one that is born from loyalty and admiration, the one that is shared between a parent and child, the one that slowly develops between wounded souls that heal each other, the one that is at the heart of friendships etc. At the end of all the destruction and tragedy, the one essential tonic that keeps us humans going is love. It sounds corny when I write it, but the book beautifully brings this out.

There is also a lot of history in this book. It is primarily a historical document. The characters are just used to color the history more vividly. So, the story moves slow. However, the excellent writing makes the reading experience worthwhile. Despite the heavy theme on war, I appreciated the intelligent humour and wit that laces through the story and the characters. I laughed out loud at scenes, smiled through many passages, and loved Pelagia’s dad and the Captain. In many ways, Pelagia’s dad reminded me of my own, and that made it all the more endearing. I was emotionally invested in the characters and lived through their terrors and hopes. I felt Pelagia’s pain and was moved to tears.

With such great things to gush, I did find one thing unsatisfactory - it was the way the story ended. The last hundred pages seemed rushed, and the ending was inconsistent with the raw realism of the rest of the story. With so much beauty and insight that accompanied the rest of the story, I don’t understand why the author ended the story in an over-the-top romantic manner and with the Captain behaving in the most infuriating manner possible. The ending felt flat and deflated. I guess I am too old for romance of this kind.

That aside, this is a book heavy with thoughtful and intelligent commentary on war, survival, and love. The writing reminded me of a serious version of Wodehouse, which has biased me, no doubt.