Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

"The passing years had not diminished Asmat's beauty. Time had painted some grey in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagra murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him."

I love novels which open with a birth, for what better way to start a story? The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan begins with a small family fleeing from Persia to seek refuge in India. On their way, Asmat gives birth to a baby girl. Ghias Beg, the father, already burdened by three children, decides to give up the baby. He abandons her under a tree but fate brings the baby back to her parents. A delicate child with azure eyes, they call her Mehr-un-nisa. Sun among Women.

Eight years in the future, Mehrunnisa is a sprightly kid, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in the world around her. Her father's favourite, she is stubbornly independent. Ghias has earned a position of respect in Emperor Akbar's court, in Mughal India. Today he is invited with his family to the Royal Palace for the first wedding of young Prince Salim. Little Mehrunnisa is smitten by the prince. When Empress Ruqayya takes a liking to her and commands her to visit the palace regularly, Mehrunnisa fantasises of a possible future with Salim. But before their love can fully blossom, Mehrunnisa is married off to a common soldier. And so begins a lifelong struggle with destiny for Salim and Mehrunnisa - better known to us as the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his influential Empress Nur Jahan.

Though the first in a trilogy, this novel works as a standalone. Indu Sundaresan has beautifully fleshed out the legendary romance, doing justice to the people and the magic of the late 15th to early 16th century India. She has left no stone unturned in bringing to life Emperor Akbar's court, with his celebrated aura, his many wives and their struggles for the spotlight, his patronage for the arts, his big heart and bigger ambition. Salim is a spoilt prince. He starts out a drunkard and a rebel, coaxed by Akbar's ill-wishers. But over the course of the story, he sobers down to the best version of himself. History tells us that, like Akbar, the fourth Mughal ruler too achieved admirable feats. Sundaresan shows us how.

Mehrunnisa is not without her faults. It would be foolish to expect her to stand as some ideal of feminine empowerment. But she possesses great passion and drive. A large portion of her attraction to Prince Salim has to do with the power that being his wife would grant her. She is grounded in reality, uses her beauty to woo him; then, unconditionally, immorally, supports him through his mistakes. Circumstance requires her to be wily and she is. But later, Sundaresan ensures that we see why Salim loves Mehrunnisa, beyond the looks. What starts out as a Cinderella story progresses into a bonding of minds.

Sadly, the book seems to have been marketed as just a romance, when there is a lot more to it. It is about Salim's transformation from a lazy brat to a good leader - Merhunnisa's from an idle dreamer to a woman who works to get what she wants. They journey on independently until their paths cross once again. More than half the book is devoted to sieges, wars and the conflicts of inheritance between Akbar and his sons. Sundaresan muses on the social and religious demands of the times, the tongues of corruption in the court, the increasing threat of the British colonizers. There is drama, oh yes, but the book is not what people love to scoff at and label "chick-lit," as the cover blurb implies. 

To anyone not already familiar with the cast of this story, though, the names will be confusing. Right in the middle of the book, Sundaresan begins to refer to Salim as Jahangir, the title he adopts. A shortened family tree at the start of the book tells that Salim's son Khurram is actually the future Emperor Shah Jahan. And Mehrunnisa's niece, the one engaged to young Shah Jahan is none other than Mumtaz, for whom he erected the Taj Mahal. Only at the very end of the book are we explicitly told that Mehrunnisa is Nur Jahan. A nice trick, I suppose. Sundaresan's research is evident in her attention to historical detail. But I wish she had stuck to one set of names.

That aside, what a lovely book. Swift, engrossing and richly atmospheric, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan gives a neat glimpse into one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Summary: Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. His book, Man's Search for Meaning, was originally titled, Nevertheless, Say "Yes" To Life, which I think makes a much better title for what the first half of the book recounts - Frankl's experiences during WWII as a prisoner in a concentration camp. The second half is an introduction to Frankl's theory of logotherapy. The basic premise of logotherapy is that the will to find meaning in life is a person's main motivation to go on.

My thoughts: I struggle with books like these, non fictional accounts of tragedy and survival, because I can afford to be impersonal towards them. This does not go well with people. I have ineptly invited criticism on myself before, for instance, by accusing a certain teenage victim of the Holocaust of being too maudlin in her personal diary. This is why, of course, I had some reservations about "reviewing" Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. But now I find myself overcome by a need to rant.

Before I talk about the content of the book, let me say a bit about the style of writing. I went in expecting not to like the book, mostly because of my somewhat disappointing experience with the dramatically tear-inducing Night by Elie Wiesel. Man's Search For Meaning makes for quite a different experience. It is unforgivingly cerebral. In the introduction, Frankl explains how he wrote his account, as a scientist and a memoirist -

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. 

Frankl consciously tries to be objective and it is this tone that leads to reviews on Goodreads that accuse him of being too clinical. I disagree with the readers who call him dry and unemotional, because it is this very clinical precision that makes his writing visceral and honest. Frankl begins his narrative with a description of how some of them were chosen as prisoners, while others were sent off to be killed, their lives dependent on whims. How, upon arrival at the camp, all sense of dignity was stripped off and how awfully soon they got accustomed to their bare new existence. Much later, Frankl talks about becoming impassive to all the deaths. He adds that he would not even have remembered them now had he not been analysing his own reactions as a psychiatrist. A reader would have to be profoundly obtuse not to recognize how steeped in emotion such a confession is.

There are incidents in this book that I wish I could unread. Dreadful images have now permanently set up home in my mind. The German SS officers and guards in the camps are villains out of distastefully gory thriller fiction and their fiendish sadism is difficult to digest as Frankl's reality. These are things that will keep me away from books of this kind for a long, long time. But he also writes moments of great tenderness worth stumbling around in the darkness for. I keep going back to the parts when Frankl talks about his wife, when he passes by his home town and fights to get a glimpse, when he chooses to stay by a dying patient's side when he could have escaped the camp. I cannot hope to justly convey the treasures these bits carry, so let the words do their work - 

"In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner's existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now; Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and my image of my beloved."

The problem arises for me in Part Two, when he begins to preach. This is a man who has lived through a war, writing to men of that age, people who want to hear that their suffering was not for nothing, that having struggled on and survived through it with the right attitude gave their lives meaning. To form a method of therapy out of the undiluted terror they faced and to apply it to the considerably happier masses is rash. Simply put, his suggestion is to find a purpose at every turn in life to feel positively about, which sounds right. But based on the assumption that every happenstance has a meaning, including unavoidable misery, logotherapy is hopeful at best, and dangerously misleading at its worst.

Because, like all self-help books, it is subjective. Disillusionment is the biggest vice to the former prisoner. Yet this disappointment felt when circumstance unchangingly delivers pain can be overcome, the book seems to say. But often, hope is a feeble self-deception in the face of an inevitable loss of control. The diligent search for meaning in everything could prove fruitless to an introspective cynic. And I could not, even if I wanted, apply to my life all the advice Frankl hands out in the latter section (the parts that do ring true and earn my utter admiration are evident in the first half anyway.) Add to this his ample criticism of Freud's psychoanalysis. In an age where questioning Freud is hardly new, Frankl's stubborn defence seems tedious.

The first part of the book, as I have written already, is amazing. This second part is, as it helps, tiny. But I would advise you to read up on logotherapy before you decide to read it. Finally, I don't know if I want to recommend this book to people, it is a rather painful read. If you are interested in history or the war, do read it. For I must say, of the books on the Holocaust that I have read, fictional and otherwise, the memoir-ical half of Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl is by far the greatest.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (the movie)


Summary: Roland Mitchell is an American scholar, out of place in the British academic world. He is studying the life of the Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, when he happens upon two letters addressed to an unknown woman, whom Roland suspects to be a minor supposedly lesbian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Roland begins to suspect a love affair between the two, that if discovered would change the way the world sees both the poets forever. Stealing the letters, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey, a fellow literary scholar and distant relative of Christabel LaMotte, to uncover the truth. Together, they become obsessed with the poets' stories, even as they try to keep their research a secret from rival scholars. Possession is a tragic but ultimately hopeful tale.

My thoughts: Possession by Antonia S Byatt is one of my favourite love stories. The movie is different from the book in many ways, the most conspicuous being this whole new and jumpy version of Roland Mitchell in the form of an unavoidably American Aaron Eckhart. This adaptation only grazed the surface of what the story has to offer, and yet, I did like it.

Why? Two words, Jeremy Northam, previously known to me as a rather nice-looking Thomas More on The Tudors. He makes a wonderfully solemn Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle is an unbridled beauty with a right-out-of-a-painting look. They are a perfect portrait of the two poets, who get much more 'screen time' here than in the book. In the film, you catch Ash and LaMotte impatiently awaiting the other's letters, staring at each other with that tinge of a smile, making the sort of passionate love that cannot be contained in pages. Neil LaBute has created for them a vivid world that even Byatt did not manage to fully build with her prose. When Randolph Henry Ash talks with that rich voice of his, you want to stop and listen, and the Christabel LaMotte of the movie makes it hard for you to look away from the screen. They awaken the romantic in you. You want them to live happily ever after, which makes it so much harder when they don't.

One of Ash and LaMotte's very first meetings,

"It surprises me, Madam, that a lady, who lives as quietly as you do, would be aware of my modest success."
"Oh, I am very aware the papers herald you weekly. It is you, however, who surprise me."
"And why is that?"
"Judging from your work, I'm surprised you would even acknowledge my existence. Or any woman's, for that matter, since you show us such small regard on the page."
"You've cut me, Madam."
"I'm sorry. I only meant to scratch."

The same cannot be said for Maud and Roland, even though the tension between them is palpable. In the book, Maud is a woman who has been trapped by her own beauty, who has cocooned herself in an attempt to fight men's need to possess her. Roland's struggle is to free her from the uncanny figurative bell jar, that curiously features on the cover of the book. In the movie, it is often difficult to make out what, if anything, lies beyond Paltrow's stony composure. Maud and Roland's on-screen relationship leaves something to be desired. But Possession is more than the two pairs of lovers. It is about the precarious nature of all relationships, about the time it takes for one to collapse and the destruction even momentary happiness leaves in its wake. It is about unrequited passions and unsaid promises, and one of its best played characters is that of Christabel's old lover, Blanche.

The movie is nowhere near subtle. It is a satirical look at the literary world with its grotesquely one-sided cast of academicians. They all fight for recognition, poring over dead writers' lives with a voyeuristic greed and no concern for privacy or emotion. A character I really missed from the book was Leonara Stern, the feminist scholar, who is the living embodiment of wishful conclusions. Often enough to cause alarm, the drama threatens to become a mawkish display that does seem odd in this century, and yet, suited to a world of past-diggers. It begs to be made fun of. In the movie, unlike the book, it is unclear whether the farce is intentional. 

Possession must have been a difficult book to adapt. So much of its beauty and intellect lies in its linguistic nuances. The film is a really good effort, with moments I want to watch over and over, scenes I am so glad I now have visuals for. But to me it was just a three star adaptation of a five star book. Go for it if you have read the book or if you like romance of every kind. Or you can simply watch it, like me, for a swoonful of Victorian charm.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Seven Fairytales I Want Retold

This week's Top Ten Tuesday (The Broke and the Bookish) topic is wonderful. As usual, though, my top ten list has fewer than ten items. In today's post I talk about the seven popular fairytales I want retold and how. To be honest, I haven't had time to look up and reread each of the fairy tales, so I can only hope the details match up. 

The lovely image below is from the portfolio of "jannoon028" at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.


1. Rumpelstiltskin from the point of view of Rumpelstiltskin - The eerie story of the dwarfish creature who helped a young woman turn hay into gold in exchange for her first-born baby as the future Queen was a favourite childhood fairytale. But he was so mysterious, we never found out why he did what he did, how he knew the woman would become Queen, whatever he wanted the baby for and why on earth he was called Rumpelstiltskin. It would be great to find some answers.

2. The Little Mermaid with the prince giving up his legs - That's right, I want Disney's Ariel with a happily ever after that not only has no sacrifices but I want the prince to become a merprince for her. Andersen's ending for the little mermaid is beautiful, her sacrifices and the gift she receives for not killing her prince are all magical. But this way, the fairy tale will still be beautiful, and modern and much happier.

3. Red Riding Hood where no one dies - This was my least favourite of Grimms' fairy stories. It has no concept of redemption. In some versions the girl dies, in others, the wolf is killed. I want a retelling where both Red Riding Hood and the wolf are taught their lessons without any bloodshed and maybe someone tells Red's mother not to send her alone through a freaking forest and visit the grandma herself instead. 

4. The Ugly Duckling the other way around - All of Andersen's fairy tales have nice moral endings, without much open-mindedness. I mean, of course, the swan realized it was beautiful, that's because it was. I want a story of a duckling who finds himself with swanlings and is convinced he isn't beautiful until he finds his true family. Now that will be a much more satisfying story about misfits.

5. Beauty and the Beast with a better father - Fairy tale fathers are always conspicuously absent, either dead or too weak to care, and the princesses are inevitably completely attached to them nonetheless. Like in Rapunzel, Beauty's father enters the Beast's palace to pick a pretty rose for her, but when caught, he exchanges places and abandons her with the Beast. This is my favourite fairy tale, for its surprising character depth and all the elements of the Cupid and Psyche myth, but we need better fairy tale fathers. Father rescues Beauty, but she must go back as she is in love with Beast - something of that sort.

6. Hansel and Gretel with an alternate ending - Does it ever occur to anyone that Hansel and Gretel are two spoilt brats who never learn a lesson? I mean, even their father abandons them and all they do is go eat this woman's house, eventually drive her away from it and finally steal her treasures. And all this mischief when the witch is just minding her business in the middle of nowhere.

7. Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of Sleeping Beauty - This one is probably the hardest and most curious one on my list. But it is the only fairy tale that has an ending that brings so many questions to mind. I would love a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that focuses on either her lost years - was she dreaming? Whatever was it like to be asleep for all those years?

Which fairy tales would you like retold? Any fairy tale retellings you'd recommend?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell, who in this photo looks somewhat like a stout twinkly-eyed wizard, happened to be born in India. He was an English naturalist who believed that zoos should primarily act as reserves for endangered species of birds and animals. He founded a unique zoo to capture, collect and raise rare animals facing extinction, aiming to breed and perhaps eventually release them back into the wild. The wikipedia page of the Jersey Zoo, now called Durrell Wildlife Park, is worth a perusal. 

Summary: In this memoir-like book, Durrell has returned from a trip to Australia, only to find his zoo in shambles. In Catch Me A Colobus, he recounts how they set up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, found sponsors and eventually built the zoo back into shape. The first half of the book is a compilation of vignettes expansing about seven years at Durrell's Jersey Zoo. From escaped chimps, pregnant tapirs and bullying parrots to stories of the strange characters that visit the zoo, like a woman who sat on a bird. Durrell and his staff care deeply for their animal cohabitants, which shows how his zoo is a long way off from the cruelty that is commonly seen in such places.

The second half of the book follows Durrell's expedition to Sierra Leone to collect the rare Colobus monkeys and make the eponymous BBC series. The travelogues detail the conservation efforts or lack thereof across the world, the lives of tribals and forest officers, the customs problems Durrell faces when transporting animals across oceans and the difficult job of adapting the wild to a life of captivity. When Durrell speaks about conservation in the final chapters, he speaks with an admirable passion. 

"The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider's web, and like a spider's web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we're not just touching the web, we're tearing great holes in it... 

When asked why I should concern myself so deeply, I reply that I think the reason is that I have been a very lucky man and throughout my life the world has given me the most enormous pleasure. People always look at you in a rather embarrassed sort of way when you talk like this, as though you had said something obscene, but I only wish that more people felt that they owed the world a debt and were prepared to do something about it."

My thoughts: Durrell's dedication to his zoo is remarkable. In this pre-internet age, he conducts his research through a vast library of books on flora and fauna. He highlights the shortcomings of most books of science and explains how he combats them by maintaining intricate journals on the behaviour of the animals at his zoo. He also often reaches out to his contacts for assistance, from veterinarians and human surgeons to other zookeepers. Their readiness and the lengths they go to help out say a lot about Durrell himself.

I had read a book in my mother tongue once about a similar conservationist's zoo, and I had a few issues with it. The main problem was, the writer kept attaching human qualities to the animals that made their behaviour a little misleading to the uninformed reader. The leopard threw a tantrum, he would say, and purred to me that he was upset with me. It was cute, but not quite scientific enough, and I kept wanting to remind him that it was a wild animal he was referring to. Durrell, on the other hand, displays his love for animals and their unique personalities quite well, while explicitly reminding the reader not to mistake a chimpanzee for a friendly little pet. 

Disappointingly, the book has no pictures, only cartooney illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. An annoying unnecessary addition are some rather absurd fan letters that beg the question - do people put in any thought before they put pen to paper? 

But Durrell more than makes up for both shortcomings. He has some engaging writerly tricks up his sleeve. My favourite is how he attaches animal qualities to the humans that populate this book. So we see someone "spread out in his chair like a ship-wrecked giraffe," or another "clung to his bed like a limpet," and we get these profiles of the BBC crew - 

"Chris has heavy-lidded, green eyes, which he tends to hood like a hawk when he is thinking, and in moments of crisis retreats behind his nose like a camel. And there was Howard who was short and stocky with dark curly hair, and enormous horn-rimmed spectacles which made him look like a benevolent owl."

Now, I would not have called an owl benevolent myself, but I can totally see it. It is silly and very entertaining, and only the tip of the giant iceberg that is Durrell's warm, endearing humour. The glimpses of his personal interactions with his wife Jacquie and his assistants make him out, perhaps self-flatteringly, to be a thoroughly lovable guy.

Durrell is also pretty good at imagery. I mean, the man can really write. He sees the world with the eyes of an expert, notes even the tiniest of details, and yet, his conversational tone assures that we never feel overwhelmed by factual information. Check out these few passages on Durrell's first sighting of the Colobus monkey. I have never seen a tree or a monkey described with so much care and fascination.

I was standing, looking out over the misty forest, when I heard some noises in the valley just below the house. I knew it was monkeys because there was that lovely sound as they leap into the leaves, like the crash of surf on a rocky shore. They were heading for a big and rather beautiful tree that grew a couple of hundred yards from the veranda just below us. It had a sort of greeny-grey trunk, the leaves were a very vivid green, and it was covered, at this time of year, with bright cerise-pink seed pods about six inches long. 

There was another crash and rustle amongst the leaves. And then, suddenly, it seemed as though the whole tree had burst into bloom, a bloom of monkeys. They were red and black Colobus, and they were the most breathtaking sight. They had rich, shining, chestnut-red and coal black fur, and in the morning sun, they gleamed as though they had been burnished; they were magnificent. 

When I looked back at the tree, they had all disappeared. As I sat sipping my tea, I remembered a stupid woman I'd met at a cocktail party in Freetown, who'd said, 'I cannot understand why you're going up country, Mr Durrell. There's absolutely nothing to do or see there.' I wish she could have seen those Colobus.

I cannot believe this is the first I have heard of this man. Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell is a treat for animal lovers, amateur naturalists, ornithology enthusiasts, and pretty much anyone with a liking for wordy English humour.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On simple pleasures and a long overdue day-trip

This post is not about books. Let us call it an answer to, "What do you do other than read?" - an annoying question that is often popped my way. Last week I took a much needed day-out - a tiny road trip to a place called Mahabaleshwar, about a three hour drive from home, with many stops along the way. Mahabaleshwar is a hill station that attracts loud partying crowds through the weekends so we went on a Thursday, desperately hoping to have it all to ourselves. A good idea, it was quiet and soothing. I always have all sorts of fun with my mother no matter where we are but the rain made this day most special.

Lately I have had a curious obsession with references of rain in books. And there aren't as many rainy good-times in literature as I expected. No kissing, dancing, playing scenes. It's all power, destruction or simple hassles. Disappointing, really. Last Thursday, it rained quite a bit and the whole time there we were walking through clouds. It was dreamy and very fairy tale. The mist made it nearly impossible to take pictures, but I tried.




Rain is such a nature's prank. Half of my state has landslide-causing downpours right now even as the other half suffers a drought. And even in the most urban of places, we can only pretend to have it under control. Roads turn slippery, wind upturns umbrellas and puddles leap up to splash trousers, coolly impervious to fancy raincoats and gum boots. The child in me delights in watching a sudden shower make prim grown-ups lose composure, hopping over puddles, grabbing at each other, arms flailing for balance, a screaming bunch. 

A favourite childhood pretend-game was jumping around in muddy red puddles with friends, calling for help, a group of pixies who had fallen into cups of chai. Thank you, Enid Blyton! Of course, the romance of rain for me may simply find its roots in iconic Bollywood rain-dances (worth a watch for the fun of it if you have never seen any) but I think there is more to it than a six-year-old's choice of fandom. 

I read a quote somewhere about how rain alters everything it falls on. And it does wash away both literal grime and figurative - leaving us with that peculiar scent of churned mud and humid air, and trees that have cast off their ashy olives and jades for a lush shimmery hue, and if we just embrace the water splashing on us, a thoroughly relaxed mood. It also gives an excuse to stay in and watch this transformation, with a steaming cup of tea to fight off the cold, revelling in the comfort and guise of control. More power to you if you extend the comfort to that neighbourhood stray, there is no thank you like a vibrating purr.

I found a cute, silly little rhyme by Charles Bukowski that I must quote here,

“I think that the world should be full of 
cats and full of rain, that's all, just
cats and rain, rain and cats, very 
nice, good night.” 

Another highlight of our day-trip were the seven temples we saw along the way, possibly more than I have visited in the entire year. My interest in religion is mainly mythological. Hindu mythology has all the charms of the Greek and about ten times its scope. We have all manner of gods - powerful, weak, blue, elephant-headed, anthropomorphic sun and moon deities, who all have multiple earthly incarnations, egos, clashes and feisty goddess-wives. They have many demons to fight and are accompanied by everyone from angels and saints to ginormous talking eagles, apes and bulls. 


The bull called Nandi is the vehicle of the great god Shankar or Shiva. He is one of my favourite creatures in mythology. He stands as gatekeeper outside every Shiva temple, but is deliberately poised facing the shrine. First disciple, then guard. In more intricately sculpted temples, you can see both Nandi's mellow, wise eyes and powerful musculature in the stone - a juxtaposition that really captures the spirit of a gentle but strong bull. Sadly, I can only find photos from one temple in which no one has photobombed my Nandi. 

At the main temple at Mahabaleshwar, I read the fascinating legend that gave the place its name - the story of a mighty demon named Mahabal who gave up his immortal life in exchange for the privilege of sharing his eternal resting place with his god. And the compromise made him godly too, it seems. They had even put up an English version of the story. I could post it, but the translation is clumsy at best. The temple is some five hundred years old, while the idol inside claims a life of perhaps more than a thousand years. 

Road trip, however small, means awesome street food. As someone whose vacation at home is on the brink of its end, I jumped at this chance to gorge on everything homey I could find. I give you, a collage of some of our colourful choices - onion fritters, strawberry with cream which is a Mahabaleshwar-speciality, a spicy curry with bread called misal and that steaming cup of tea that we know adds an extra flavour to rain. 


Phew, that's quite a long post for someone apparently only used to writing about books. I hope to branch out more often on Tabula Rasa, rather than trying to keep two blogs. Meanwhile, I would love to read your thoughts on rain, food, mythology and such days-out!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the movie)

The film begins so - "The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years."

Never Let Me Go is set in this alternate reality. It follows the lives of three children, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who grow up together in a typical English boarding school. Except, Hailsham is not an ordinary school. The children are "duplicates" or clones whose lives have a special purpose - to make organ donations, a fate clear to the viewer from the start, but not to them. A coming-of-age journey like no other, Never Let Me Go is a search for identity, hope, a tale of friendship and unrequited love, as Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up to face what the world has in store for them. 

Two years ago, I wrote a rant-review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the book (read more about the plot there.) The movie, directed by Mark Romanek (who unsurprisingly I had never heard of), is also a beauty. Like the book, it made me scared and weepy. Ishiguro writes a blend of Japanese and English styles, somehow both melancholy and impassive. This book had some failings, an odd arrangement of plot here, a convenient tying off of loose threads there - but its powerful composition made me let them go. And this is a rare adaptation that so closely follows the story while doing justice to the sentiment.


Never Let Me Go has a tone of helpless silence that is most striking. No reader or viewer is new to dystopian fiction - from Hunger Games to 1984, there has been a lot in this genre. Doesn't the word dystopia conjure dreadful provocative images in your mind, the kind filled with torture chambers and riots? Never Let Me Go is not that. It is much closer to home.

Do not watch the movie expecting a story about three friends teaming up against circumstance, to overthrow an awful authority, if only to end up squashed by the system. Ishiguro and Romanek have penned a far likelier version of the future for the vast majority of us. It is a world where you accept what is thrown your way, because that's what most of us would do. The quiet resignation in Kathy's voice makes the movie most haunting. 

And what makes the story most effective, irrespective of medium, is this - you never meet the bad-guy. The normal people, who are not duplicates and organ donors, are the teachers at Hailsham school. And they never outright mistreat the children, they do nothing that doesn't happen in schools now, nothing you want to shout at and protest against. You see the injustice in the little things, the rundown cottages the kids move to after school, the deliverymen who can't quite meet their eyes. The sad truth of the story is it makes you empathize with both sides of the coin - the main characters, who are little more than experiments created to serve others, and the rest of the world that reaps the benefits of invention, guiltless, so long as they don't know what goes on behind closed doors. 

The cast is great, just like I had pictured them. There should be a word for finding out the book adaptation you really want to watch stars Keira Knightley. In this movie, unlike her others, I actually liked her in the role of sassy, headstrong Ruth. The book gets its title from a fictional song that little Kathy dances to, imagining herself an impossible future. The scene in the movie, somewhat different, is still touching, and the young actress who plays Kathy conveys a multitude of emotions through her little swaying dance. She brings this light to the first half of the film that is just charming. Her bond with Tommy is precious. And she looks uncannily like Carey Mulligan, who plays grown-up Kathy. 

The movie appears inescapably English. Ishiguro uses rain as a frequent plot device, most key conversations happen because the characters are stuck somewhere while it's pouring outside. True to the narrative, the film has this drab rainy appearance that makes it even gloomier. The story is brimming with ideas and Ishiguro lets them brim over inside you, leaving a hundred questions unanswered. The movie could have been more dramatic, graphic, but it maintains Ishiguro's subtlety. Don't watch the movie with a closed mind and expect to be taken by the hand and led through an experience. Open your mind, welcome in the discreet flavourless terror and your imagination should suffice to drive you crazy.