Sunday, February 24, 2008

Doordarshan

Sometime back I found the Ek-Anek video from Doordarshan onYou-tube, and realized how much of a craze it had suddenly become. Somehow it had become a catalyst for all memories surrounding Doordarshan and its programs; memories which are shared by all people who were children when Ek-anek used to be interrupting their favorite programs. May be it was not so lovable then, and people would lose patience over it. But watching it now, you can't help feeling acutely nostalgic.

In Doordarshan many people shared a common thread. I remember many debates being triggered when cable television was just finding roots in India, and many people worried about its bad influence on children, on the limitless distraction it provided. But I think, cable TV has sort of made television less interesting as when it used to be with countable programs, most of them running only for 13 weeks. You could feel a sadness as the 13th episode came to a close and feel sorry at having to say goodbyes. Those goodbyes never happen now, because you may find the same vicious characters over and again, lasting through years, plotting the same evils. It is of course interesting to watch Discovery or History, but you cannot form an emotional bond with them - they are information. Neither moving like Oshin, nor simple-hearted like Swami. There are no jingles like "Jungle Jungle", nor any "Ta na na nananana"'s that you could not stop humming.
During those years of DD, there were comedies like the Flop show which made you laugh, and the romantic soaps like Kashish or No one but you which made your heart jump. But the best part of all of them were, that everyday in school we could go back and discuss them endlessly, because everyone would have watched them. We can discuss them today and could still find someone who would remember a vague story from Honi Anhoni, or the characters from Circus. Though it is sometimes hard to think of Shahrukh Khan as a TV actor, but I remember all girls of my class swooning over him when he appeared first in Fauji. Of course, all of us fell in love with him then.

It was lovely, this doordarshan we all called the idiot box, which everyone loved to hate when there was nothing else. How life used to come to a stand still when there was mourning and all DD played was some sarangi for two days. People sometime watched even that.

How much there is to common memories.

L'eclisse (Last of the Alienation Trilogy)

I finally finished watching yesterday Antonioni's trilogy on Alienation, which I had begun a few months ago with La Notte, by watching the culmination L'eclisse. I liked this last movie quite a lot, though a little less than the powerful La Notte, but more than the first part of the trilogy: L'avventura.
The movie tells the story of fleetingness and disaffection, and is the best depiction of alienation amongst the three movies. There are few words in each of the movies, but L'eclisse takes the lack of dialog to the extreme. The characters in this movie are even more shallow and plagued with a greater indecision. The little dialog is drowned out in background noise of civilization - sound of an electric razor or the din at the stock market or ringing of telephones - the lack of communication between two people is acute and complete.
The whole story of alienation is brought to a wonderful culmination in the last scene, where the discontent of modern man is shown through shots of incomplete buildings, flowing water, growling buses, eroded faces, an unsmiling child and a sharp, blinding streetlight. All of it engulfed by a broken promise and the absence of a rendezvous.

The film tells the story of Vittoria, who breaks off with her fiance in the first scene and then meets Piero, a stockbroker and falls in love with him (if their relationship can be defined by the word love). The relationship remains on the periphery, due to Piero's materialism and Vittoria's indefinite aspirations. They endeavor to make their relation a reality with a promise to meet everyday, but the last shot ends with a shot of their proposed meeting place, which stands empty and desolate, indicating the rupture of the promise and an end of the relationship.

The actors have done a brilliant work with the characters, filling up for the lack of dialog. It is not that they act too well, or use their eyes to convey the unspoken. They just exist in a drawl, always full of emotion that stays masked a little thinly. Just perfect for Antonioni's theme perhaps. I like Monica Vitti in general - specially for her role in L'avventura, but here she supersedes it with a complete foreignness. Alain Delon as Piero is coldly, cruelly very handsome, and reminded me of Daniel Day Lewis in Unbearable Lightness of being.

I had liked watching L'avventura too, though I thought that it ended very abruptly, especially with Claudia (Vitti again) accepting the shallow excuses offered by Sandro and choosing to stay with him despite reasons that had probably led her best friend Anna to escape. The landscape in the movie was stunning, and there, the island and the sea became the symbol of alienation.

A good essay on both movies can be found here and here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Apology

The first day I landed in Sydney was the illustrious, much emphasized and much talked about "Sorry Day", an event that was omnipresent in all forms of media that I happened to get exposed to. The day when the state offered a former apology to the indigenous people of Australia for the misconduct towards them in general and a state policy in particular. This was a policy which allowed the state to forcefully separate indigenous children (now known as the Stolen Generations) from their parents and put them in various institutions, orphanages, etc. Australians went to the Parliament to hear this apology, children voiced concerns against such a ghastly act, and in general there was a general pool of emotion.

New as I am to my knowledge of Australia outside of their cricket, I was a little shocked to hear that this policy had been in use till as recently as 1970. But I was even more surprised that an answer to such a glaring and blatant injustice was merely a delayed apology, over which an entire nation was going hysterical. Is there really an expectation that the people stolen from their mothers, who never found a home since, will be moved to tears at this state apology and not hold any resentment anymore? Is an apology strong enough to do that?

I am not undermining the value of apology as a concept - it is the first step to setting things right often enough. But there is a context for everything. I can understand an apology for misconduct in general, but can you simply apologize for a holocaust and expect the victims to respond? And that when simply apologizing took so much deliberation, so many years of planning?
May be it helps someone, somehow - and may be the government will try to set things right. But imagine if someone stole you from your parents and twenty years later came back and said sorry. Would you refrain from punching his head for that word?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Still Alive: A Holocaust girlhood remembered

Difficult times are often swept under the carpet. The natural course is to run away from them, almost negating and denying the memory. Most tragic events are narrated not by people who suffered them, but those who heard/read/researched about them, sometimes being born in the same century being their only claim to that narration. Perhaps that's why a lot of these narrations have a God-like or at least saint-like ring to them, pretty much like - "This my child, is the essence of life...." or something equally pedantic.

A lot has been said about the holocaust, most of it by people who were simply alive in those times or others who, fascinated by the tragedy struggled to imagine it, weave it in their thoughts and super-impose it on their lives. Most of the victims of holocaust did not survive to give us the story, those who did, had the happy end which somehow diminishes the tragedy and concocts it into, what to our minds is, a fairy tale. The treatment of holocaust essentially is either a narration of unspeakable evil, or a fleeting, vague account of the rootlessness felt by the survivors. Both treatments make us restless about the tragedy , but both of them are in a way incomplete.

Ruth Kluger's memories of a holocaust childhood, however are as close to the reality of that sunken, cold, frost-bitten life that I have ever come across. Perhaps that's because it is a very honest account; I am surprised she remembered her feelings of so long ago with such remarkable clarity and had the courage to live through them again. (Is this too, then, another super-imposed account, even though the imposition is internal and not forced? That, however, is beside the point). These feelings are not those of a tragic heroine who bore the atrocities backed by an unshakable faith, nor do they emphasize dramatically the death that hangs around her life. They are an account of a daily decay, perceived through minor changes at school, the fighting of old women, and many such small events that no one associates with the holocaust.

The author, born in Vienna is very young when Germany takes over Austria and the extrication of Jews begins. She loses her father, who escapes to France, and her brother who is sent to a camp. She and her mother are unable to escape and are eventually sent to the ghetto of Theresienstadt, then transferred to Auschwitz, then to a slave labor camp. As the war breaks out, the prisoners are taken on the death marches, where she escapes with her mother, and then eventually emigrates to America. In America, her past associations never leave her and in a way continue to shape her behavior, friendships, relationships.

In recollection of all these stages of her life, there is a remarkable perception, clarity and objectivity. In a few words, Kluger is able to capture the moment as perhaps it must have seemed to the young girl. Her relationship with both her city and her mother are captured in a line each:
"Vienna was a city that banished you and didn't allow you to leave."
"During an earthquake, more China gets broken than at other times"
In this earthquake, Ruth's already tepid relationship with her mother increasingly became difficult, suspicious and intolerant. Again, I was surprised at the anger that she still holds for that mother, even though she was not a particularly malicious person. Is their relationship with each other also another broken china? Perhaps, but as she correctly points out the error of people who judge her marginally through her one experience, one would be wrong in summarizing it thus. She resents these judgments and presumptions; abhors the indiscretion of curious intruders (I too feel like one sometimes, wanting to soak up the reality of that horrifying time) and strongly dislikes the turning of death chambers from the past into a shrine visited by enthusiastic homage-payers. I understand that resentment, even though I know that if I ever visit Austria/Germany, I will also go to these death-chambers - not to pay homage, but only to satisfy a pathetic curiosity.

I put down the books moments before I set down to write this blog, and I am still quite moved by whatever she described here. Perhaps a little bit of it is imagined, but still it is a very honest account, and definitely should be read by everyone who has any interest in the holocaust literature.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Liquidation

I am currently on a roll of experimenting with European tragedy. After Roth's disillusioned hero, I am now meeting the alienated, fate-less anti-heroes of Bernhard's Frost and Kertesz's Liquidation. Though Frost, with all its density of thought and observation will take me sometime, I was able to get through the slim volume of Liquidation soon enough, with ease.

Liquidation was a good read, my one complaint with it being the introduction of a narrative structure within it, and then a complete abandoning of that that structure mid-way. Had it been a simple assortment of thoughts and recollections, without that ambitious and un-natural structure of a play within the novel, it would have perhaps been a far superior work, or more sincere.

Characteristic of Kertesz, the work is based in Auschwitz, and though none of the events in the plot happen there, the whole story rings around that one horrific word/place/planet. We find a set of characters haunted by Auschwitz and leading a life that is a kind of death. The main character B., born in Auschwitz, carries on with his life as a self-inflicted torture, a punishment and also a rebellion against the perpetrator of the holocaust, and accepts evil as the core of the world. And his bitterness, if that's a word we can use to characterize his perception, seems perfectly justified when we imagine the holocaust horrors. Kertesz being a camp survivor himself, must know this feeling of hopelessness firsthand, at least in some bleak moments of reliving the tragedy.

The narrative structure is slightly flawed - we meet a character Kingbitter, who is supposed to be that invisible, slightly hidden narrator that we meet in a Sebald or Bernhard, but this narrator refuses to be in the shadows, and even in a small book that already has a tough task ahead of it, he manages to dedicate many pages to himself, forcing himself in every aspect of B.'s life, including an affair with his wife and then his mistress. This intrusion, sometimes was annoying, at other times it explained Kingbitter's anxiousness to tell B.'s story, but if I had to take sides, I would say he should have stayed behind as the editor instead of trying to take the limelight.

A Village Voice review of the book can be found here. The reviewer sums up the book succinctly when he says:
Liquidation is at its core a book about writing, about trying to tell stories that resist being told. "Man may live like a worm," Kingbitter insists, "but he writes like a god," which, sometimes at least, in flashes, is enough.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Silent Prophet - Joseph Roth

A year ago, I did not know that there were two famous Roths in the literary world (may be there are more and I will still take years to find them out but I can only speak as far as the extent of my current knowledge goes). During the year, I read Philip Roth for the first time and appreciated his work - I amassed a few of his books which still lie unread on my shelf. While hunting for his books, in the same section I found books from another Roth - Joseph Roth. Since I like experimenting and have a little bias towards East European authors and more for writings grounded in real history, I picked up The Silent Prophet. It is only now, a few months after the purchase could I reach this book buried in my long pile of waitlists. After reading the book, I am left with a sense of deep melancholy and alienation. This is not to say that the book is depressing - far from it, it is very engaging and penetrates the superficial public image of revolution leaders created and left to us by media, and brings out the real person that remains hidden behind this image.

Referred to as Roth's Trotsky novel, the book loosely borrows from the life of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to draw its own central character Friedrich Kargan. Kargan, at a young age gets involved in the revolution, spends time in the Siberian prison after being caught in an attempt to enter Russia to spread his ideas; he escapes and returns to Russia after the revolution to become the leader of the red army. However, after his return, he is perturbed with the growing bureaucratization of his country and realizes that the revolution he was trying to bring was already a dead idea and he already a man belonging to the past generation. Disappointed, he choses exile to Germany and spends his time in solitude and a discontent that is caused by rootlessness.
Through the writing, Roth has beautifully impounded on the disillusion that follows a great revolution, when all the ideas leading up to a revolution suddenly become extinct in the world after the inflexion point arrives. The peak of such a great upheaving then, is also its nadir and it leaves the leaders of such a revolution to leave gaping and without goals - now that their work is apparently over.
It is also a novel of exile and alienation, bringing to front in Roth's own words as to how it feels on being banished from your own country. It was a feeling that presumably also played largely in his own life after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire where he had been serving in the army. In many ways, Kargan could be said to draw from Roth himself as much as he drew from Trotsky. Perhaps, that is why the words do not sound superimposed and ring with a disturbing reality, not even losing this reality through the translation. The solitude that is present throughout the book, is suddenly confronted by Roth in the chapters of his exile, specially when Kargan falls ill:
He lay alone in his room, in fever's soft delirium, cosseted by solitude for the first time. Till now he had known only its cruel constancy and its obstinate muteness. Now he recognized its gentle friendship and caught the quite melody of its voice. No friend, no loved one and no comrade. Only thoughts came, like children, simultaneously begotten, born and grown.
Expressive words with a resounding sincerity. It is of course credit also to the translator, David Le Vay, that the sincerity transpired to the English text as well.
The Editor's note tells me that the manuscript was never revised and prepared for publication during Roth's lifetime - he had apparently shelved his Trotsky novel, even after making 3 diligent drafts. The published text is a result of a laborious and painstaking task of reconstructing the final work by leafing parts of the three drafts together.
When coming across such writers, I feel a little bit of panic and anxiety over what all good literature I might be missing out because there is not enough time to read it or not enough publicity is given to them. I wish I could just scoop it all up and read everything worth reading - and sometimes this feeling is greater than the joy that reading brings - I think I am, after all, that ridiculous reader from Calvino's book, hunting desperately through books, overlooking sometimes the leisure of reading.