Saturday, September 29, 2007

Conservationist by Gordimer

When you write from a divided home, it is inevitable that the divide manifests itself in your writing. Writers from South Africa, I suppose, therefore feel compelled to return to apartheid in some form- either in Coetzee's Disgrace or in Gordimer's 'The Conservationist'.

In fact, Conservationist did remind me terribly of the other. The white man with a loosely strewn together life, a farm with black workers, the divide and the mutual acceptance across the divide.

The book primarily consists of self-monologues of a white millionaire in an apartheid South Africa, who buys a farm in the suburbs. The monologues and thought chains draw out his rootlessness and the emptiness of his life. The title very beautifully captures his essence - a man comfortable with the state of affairs, disinterested in freeing his country out of the apartheid which serves him well. In other words, a man who wants to conserve what is. Very subtly, Gordimer has mocked this entire group of these 'comfortable' people, which were instrumental in maintaining the racial divide.

At other times, she delves into the monologues of a few others - significantly the rich man's farm manager Jacobus and an old Indian shopkeeper living close to the farm. Both these men too, are reluctant to any kind of change - comfortable in the continuum. Through them, she tries to give the perspective of those discriminated against and the immigrants, always struggling to only keep their feat on the foreign land.

The Conservationist is a rewarding reading, even though it is a bit tedious because of its monologues. The 'You' in the monologues keeps referring to several different people - the son, the mistress, the ex-wife, and you have to pay attention or the monologue floats away fast. But in the midst of the tedium, you can see in the rich farmer the entire country. And then there is the freshness of the farm to enjoy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The brand new chamions of the brand new cup!

Wham! Booms! That's all you can hear in the Indian sky today. Everyone is busy celebrating. Yes, they have brought it home. After beatings, brickbats and a write-off by almost everyone. A world cup finally after 24 years! Not the same cup, a new one, but not any less important. The only small thing about the Twenty20 tournament was the number of overs. In everything else, it over did the ODI by a far margin. Great entertainment, great spirit, great shots, great cricket! And those Sixes!
How comfortable to go home in the evening and get glued to your television for three hours. 3 hours - that's all it takes to wind up two innings. And because of the fewer overs, you do not have to wait till the last few overs to find the excitement. It is there throughout, waiting at the edges! In a single match, the game turns to either side several times.

The final was of course the icing - even an off match between India and Pakistan has the thrill and tension of a world cup final, so a final between the two was bound to be a breathless roller-coaster ride. Both teams played excellent cricket and gave their fans and supporters many reasons to cheer.

India was terrific in the series. They played with the cool-headed aggression that they have always been blamed of lacking. And it paid off. In every match we found them turning the match in the last over, with a stroke of good bowling or a sustained effort at fielding every run. The team pulled it off without the traditional spearheads - Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid. Dhoni lead the team with exceptional tactic, being the clear leader. As Gavaskar put it - you could always see the team looking at him in the field, which is a true sign of a leader.
The best part of course was Yuvraj's six sixes. Had he done any better in the final match, no one could take away from him the glory of being the Man of the series. But for India, he would remain the ultimate hero for the tournament after turning the significant matches with England as well as Australia in complete style.
RP Singh showed great bowling, unlike Shreesanth who was consistent only in his tactics rather than the bowling. The latter could do better than to annoy the batsman with his drama on the field and adopt a little bit of finesse.
At the end of the day, it was a delight to see India the team win, rather than seeing another one-man showmanship that always architects India's fate. Well done.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

End of the novel

Long time back, in a class on 'Modern Fiction', we were making a presentation on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' (Of course, there is nothing modern about Rand's writing but for the theme, which too becomes outdated in two readings, but that is beside the point). At one point we were making sarcastic comments on the ending of the novel. After 50-100 pages long speeches on objectivism, Ms. Rand pulled off an end in a complete Bollywood style, with the hero escaping from the villain's den in a helicopter as the whole world collapsed beneath! Surely she could have taken the end more seriously.
At this point, our Professor (a grandson of the venerable Premchand, but admirable for his own qualities) pointed out that it wasn't simply Ms. Rand's at fault. A good number of authors face the dilemma of finding the perfect ending for their novel, and often come up with a mechanical end, which does no justice to the exceptional innovation of idea with which they started their work.

And we agreed that it was a fairly good point. If you write a novel mocking an artificially perfected world, like 'Brave New world', how do you end it, except for the cliche' end of a world turning on itself or a personal tragedy? In other words, a complete anathema of the 'They all lived happily ever after'. It appears that the modern writer has taken a directly opposite line from that taken by its predecessor.
But can a good story possibly have only the two diametrically opposite ends of complete catastrophe or the promise of the moon?
Perhaps as a mid-way many authors have resorted to ending their works without a conclusion. Surprisingly this strategy seems to work well, even though the readers are often left with a unsatisfactory taste on their palate. And yet days after days, readers appreciate the ambiguous non-ending. Lawrence can end his exquisite work (Women in Love)with a simple statement 'I don't believe it' and readers clap with vigor.
For that matter, many a writers have resorted to ending the novel with a dialogue. Coetzee ends 'Disgrace' with a simple conversation over a dog: 'Yes, I am giving him up' - encompassing a man's defeat and submission. And Maugham ends his autobiographical masterpiece with a simple 'Dear!', capturing the hollowness of the song and dance very simply.
Favorite endings?
I am sure everyone has them. I particularly like what Pirsig says at the end of 'Zen...', because it emphasizes the happiness of the moment, without the mirage of its perpetuity:
Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before,
and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through:
We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.
One author, whom I believe to be the best when it comes to endings is Orwell. He perfectly rounds off the 'Animal farm' and brings us back to the beginning. And carries to a fitting end a great tale of dystopia in 1984: 'He loved Big Brother'.

Then there is Kundera in Identity, who brings in the author directly in the foreground - asking questions of the reader: 'Who was dreaming?'

And how can I forget my recent two favorite authors.
'He'll come back.' But perhaps a reassurance offered for herself, Khadija thinking of her man at the oilfields. (Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup). In one single statement Gordimer defines both the acceptance of an alien and the difference between acceptor and the accepted.

He changed his clothes, clean shirt, trousers, jacket, his best shoes. He stuck the pistol in his belt and left. (Jose Saramago, The Double). Doesn't that statement hold so much promise of future action, no indecision to be entertained anymore?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rare surges of patriotism...

The moments when Men in blue make everyone back home awfully proud and happy - when they bring a match with Pakistan to a tie, and hit wickets with every ball, even as the other team misses with equal consistency.
And then in a single over,Yuvraj hits sixes continuously on each ball, as if he has discovered a magic formula. 6 balls - 36 runs! You cannot help feeling buoyant on such an occasion.
Way to go!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Innovation of image

Amongst the several alternative careers that exist merely in my mind and (day) dreams, a one that figures at least in the top twenty is professional photography. Like all the rest of the list, which includes literature, travel writing and travel journalism for Discovery, I have done nothing to advent this one either and am merely stuck in my dull profession. except browsing on the net for beautiful pictures and sigh at them.
In the course of this browsing, I came upon an innovative form of photography called the 'Kite Aerial Photography' which means shooting photographs from a camera placed on a kite. Surprisingly, I also found that this is not an innovative form - and was first used as long back as 1888 by the French photographer Arthur Batut.

In 'KAP' (which is what kite photography is generally called), the photographer uses a camera tied to a kite and remote controlled by a radio remote. Apart from the fact that the concept sounds fantastic - the kite images have a different quality because of the element of shadow - which forms an important part of the image.

(The famous aerial panorama 'SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS'
taken by George Lawrence in 1906 after the SFO earthquake)

Some very interesting KAP images can be seen on the French photorapher Mr. Nicolas Chorier's website. Mr. Chorier has recently published an edition on India called Kite’s Eye View: India between Earth and Sky. The preview of the book on this website is definitely interest provoking.

Some more photographs on Flickr.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bergman in Text

I mentioned in the last post that I picked up a book from Ingmar Bergman: 'Private Confessions' at the Landmark sale. I recently finished reading it and absolutely loved it - even more than Svevo's 'Zeno's Conscience' which I was reading last week and had thoroughly enjoyed.

The book is roughly based on Bergman's life - or rather his parents' and their troubled relationship. It is a story of a married woman (Anna) who is having an extra-marital affair with a young man. It has been narrated through five conversations that Anna has with different people, in an effort to erase her guilt by explaining herself to these people. All these conversations, however, seem an attempt by Anna to convince herself that what she is doing is not wrong. The first three conversations are excellent - specially the one with her husband Henrik. Henrik's reaction have been very realistically drawn by Bergman, beginning with numb silences and ending in angry accusations.

The book however becomes more of a story as it reaches into the fourth conversation, with the focus swept away from conversations into the actual relationship. In fact there is very little conversation in the fourth and fifth 'confessions', something that I did not like about the book. Yet the shreds of conversation that do happen are very poignant and articulately express Anna's guilt and her confusion.

It was amazing how everyone in the story, with the exception of Anna's mother is able to understand her and be supportive in some way. Even Henrik, being a clergyman and the wronged husband! It seemed that even in a severe era of bigotry and sanctimony, people found space for compassion and understanding. However, even with the supportiveness, Anna was admonished by all in some way, ,most of all by herself and her lover, which was the most moving element of the book.

Bergman, as I suspected after watching his movies, was amazing at book writing. He has a particular sensitivity in his movie making, which seemed like an appropriate trait for writing. Of course the filmaker manifests itself in the writer, and so you can immediately see a lot of imagery and detail in the text. At times it almost appears like he is writing a screenplay, describing in detail the posture, the dress, the colors of the moment. He even describes scene cuts at sometimes: Anna on the road, Anna in the garden, Anna at the gate. And like his movies, Bergman is innovative in the way he tells his story.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Shortlist for the Man Booker & Book Sales

The shortlist for Man Booker is out. The six books in the list are:

“Darkmans,” by Nicola Barker

“The Gathering,” by Anne Enright

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” by Mohsin Hamid

“Mister Pip,” by Lloyd Jones

“On Chesil Beach,” by Ian McEwan

“Animal’s People,” by Indra Sinha

Unfortunately, I have not read any of this to circle out a favorite and bet on it. The betting odds are in favor of McEwan and it is not surprising considering his popularity in general.
It is encouraging to see yet another Indian on the list - specially one who is not completely an NRI, since he has spent a lot of his life in India. There are hardly any noted Indian English writers who are not NRIs.
Along with Mr. Sinha, there is also Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer whose book outlines the suspicions faced by Muslims post 9/11 - a topic which has been much discussed on many forums. But I want to pick up Mr. Llyod's book sometime and see what he has done with Dickens' 'Pip' - but I suppose I have too many unread books on my shelf right now to even think of the new ones.

To talk of new books, this seems to be a lucrative season for Bibliomaniacs like me - Landmark has begun its annual sale, and Crossword is on sale too. I never thought much of the latter's collection, but the sale selection of Landmark too was extremely disappointing this year. While last year I managed to pick up some great authors like Oe & Saramago, this time it is a complete washout - and I picked up only three decent deals - a book by Bergman (I am really looking forward to reading that,because I have always thought his movies would make better books), 'The Impressionist' by Hari Kunzru and 'On the Waterfront' - a collection of articles by Malcolm Jhonson. I also got a chance to indulge in a Coffee table-ish book on movies - 501 must watch movies - and I am on the list with a dedication :-)
I suppose I will have to wait till Strands goes on its Book festival to get my hands on more deals.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Anthills of the Savannah

Sometime back I finally read another book from Achebe. I liked this book, though not so much as the first one - Things fall apart. That was certainly Achebe's masterpiece and I was expecting something comparable when I sat down with this one. That is the folly of expectations and that is also the trouble with beginning on an author with his signature work.
Anthills of Savannah is a story of a nation facing the political conundrum of a new found independence. After years of ruling, it is expected that a country finds itself unable to take charge of a freedom, which it severely struggled to obtain. It is almost like you wait for exams to get over and when they are finally over you do not know how to manage the free time since you have been so focused on seeing them through that your head is heavily blocked up with that.
Achebe describes this confusion through the lives of three political leaders and through alternation of narration tries to give a wholesome picture. However at times, the different narrators do not seem too different but appear as one. In that he has failed to give multitude to his thought.
The book is dark, almost inadvertently it appears, because it starts off with satire and winds up being a serious story.very serious indeed. There appears to be a lot of confusion in the book -not just in the story, but in the writing style also.
In the end, it is a political work, and describes the aftermath of colonialism. Many countries witnessed such destabilization after they freed themselves. Some more than others. Even our country sometime appears to be in similar clutches at time when the Government looks unsteady like a house of cards, ready to tumble down with the merest flicker. But hopefully those are the turbulences of a mature nation rather than a stumbling one.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Memories & objective reality

There are many adjectives that can be used to describe different memories -happy, haunting, scary, embarassing, distinct, elusive, sad and sometimes even perplexing. But perhaps one adjective that can be used more universally with memories is 'interesting'. No matter which end of what spectrum does a memory fall, it is seldom dull and uninteresting. That could possibly explain the prominent featuring of memories in many works of fiction - written or celluloid.

What makes memories so interesting? While we are still in the present, life hardly seems that interesting. Just by moving on in time does the past become more colorful? Perhaps the mind uses the filters - of preserving only the vivid moments - or does it add the vividness to the routine dullness? That is something we will not know - the mysteries of the mind. What we remember as memories - are they real? Or a snapshot modiefied in the photoshop of our minds?

And why just memories, even the reality that we see is perhaps modified by the medium of our minds through which we see it. That's why the account of two people seeing the same thing is so different. Kurosawa's Rashomon focuses upon the impossibility of determining the objective truth, and the complete reliance on individual accounts to arrive at reality. Similarly, we are forced to completely rely on the account that our mind gives us to make an image of reality. 'Somethings have to be believed to be seen', and people often see what they believe. After watching a sacry movie, often the shadow of the trees falling on the window takes gruesome shapes.

A brilliant depiction of the enigma called memory is done by Michelangelo Antonioni in his movie Blow-up where a photographer comes to believe that he has captured a murder on his camera. In this convinced state, he even sees a body lying at the spot. But when he returns in the morning, there is no body. And without a proof, he cannot claim to the truth of the murder. He is not even sure if he saw the body or it was an image from his mind. The last scene with the mimic tennis game brings home this point with remarkable clarity and finesse.

I wonder if there truly is an objective reality? What if, like Matrix our minds are projecting a world reality and it is largely uniform accross a number of people only because it is programmed to be so. Sometimes a bit of a fault in the program makes people see an alternative reality and we call them mad, insane or 'soft in the head' depending on the degree of deviation. Does what is seen by a majority of people become objective reality? Because 2 out of 3 witnesses said they saw a similiar picture?