Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler
 I like Maeve Binchy because she sounds like Anne Tyler. I even like Ruth Rendell before she turns on the hypo horror, because she sounds like Anne Tyler.

There is a core of decency in Anne Tyler’s characters. They are credible, and the muted drama of their inner narrative is instantly recognizable, never mind that her stories are set in Baltimore while I read them sitting here in Singapore.

Anne Tyler puts a fictional family under the magnifying lens in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. What we get to see is tragedy - familial and personal - and perseverance – of people and their families. This is a universal theme, though probably poorly explored by writers who are mostly concerned with individual angst, endeavour or fortuity. The family is often shown as the circumstance around an individual. In this novel, we also get to see the converse.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of Pearl and her three children – Cody, Ezra and Jenny. The children’s father ups and leaves one day leaving Pearl to manage as best as she can. They turn out all right but not quite, like all of us I guess. The story is told from the perspectives of the main characters. Certainly, we know what they all think, either through a personal POV narrative or through some confessional piece of conversation. This easy comprehension of motivation and attitudes of family members is believable; Tyler’s style is very effective.

The descriptions are fantastically evocative – a big part of all our lives play out within the walls of our homes, yet until the advance of the blogging generation, literary produce very rarely concerned itself with the mundane details of home life. It either ran outdoors or delved deep into the individual psyche, leaving Anne Tyler to spark to life ‘the mild indoors.’ So we have ironed napkins stacked in a block, the conundrum of whether or not to wash a plastic doily, the act of a lady smoothing out fallen drops of water on her quilt after being helped to a few sips. We also have a mother who rages when she comes back from work to discover the dishes not done since morning and how the rage turns ugly. We see how this woman copes with her life and how the children have been scarred, even debilitated to an extent, but not damaged in a permanent way, certainly not destroyed. We see how the children resent their mother yet look out for her, save up to buy her presents, cannot bear to see her suffer. One has been granted a peek into others’ lives and I suppose the message is to teach us some empathy.

And thus the middle class family dynamic is mined for a study of the Human Condition.  As usual this book takes me to others – the setting of Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections” is uncannily similar, while Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” looks to be the story of the missing father. Hmm, American settings both. In terms of a middle class family ‘saga’ I rate Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” better, for it also weaves in history. 

And my favorite Tyler is still “Saint Maybe.” 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Numayishi Mizaz mein Shairana Andaaz

There was a discussion the other day of Zafar's Delhi and the Nawabs of Awadh. People quoted their favorite poets; there was a sadness for days gone by. Gauri described those times perfectly and I quote her below:

'Those were times of political turmoil, a very weak,inefficient,crumbling administration , a threat of a change in order was imminent and no one quite knew how it would turn out. But what of  the 'adab', the 'nazaaqat' the 'saleeqa' of a tehzeeb that since then has crumbled, the loss of a language that was essentially Indian and yet seems 'foreign' to most Indians now?'

What of? And these couplets rose unbidden to my mind:

Kya mol Yeh Nazakat, yeh tarbiyat, yeh taaleem

'Ke' phir Zamana badal gaya, zubaan badal gayi

Phir masroof raho, vilayati taalim mein,

Yeh hi teri kismet, isee mein teri khushi

Tabeeyat e tawayaf, puraane yaaron pe kya rona

Zaalim toh woh bhi thei, Be-abroo  to ab bhi hum.

And here I was hoping to write a villanelle... 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Batik Rain and Other Stories by Ashwini Devare

‘Batik rain and Other Stories’, Ashwini Devare’s debut collection, is a book with a difference. Six stories set firmly in the mindscape of today’s Global Indian, bringing alive a slice of the great Diaspora and evoking the rhythms of a new community in the making, these stories are different because they are not replete with the received angst of second-generation immigrants – look no further than Jhumpa Lahiri or Chang Rae Lee. Neither are they characterized by the surprised indignation of a privileged person from back home facing negative discrimination for the first time. In real life people cannot allow their pain or frustration to bubble over like it does for Adichie’s Ifemulu, nor do they always have to subside into repressed creatures of suffering. They make their adjustments with grace, and with the support of society – a community of people in and probably off the same boat. Devare’s characters are these people and as a recorded history of a changing people, this book is important.

The stories span a wide arc. At one end is the story “Saroj”, a chronicle really, from past generations, of first time travels, loss, redemption and more travel. At the other end is “On Air”- a modern coming of age tale so universal, the Indian ethnicity of the heroine is irrelevant. My favourite, “Batik Rain”, centres around a family on an Asian holiday; the plot is not complicated but the writer keeps you on edge throughout, demonstrating a masterful control of tempo and narrative tension. I liked too ‘Siem Reap’ for how Devare weaves in a travellers’ perspective that I am partial to – thoughtful engagement with a different culture rather than being a mad box-ticker or a poolside sloucher. “Homecoming” and “Anthem of Guilt” are flipsides of the same coin, and describe to me perfectly, the conundrum of the NRI patriot.

Devare’s writing is informed by her professional training and her experience as a career journalist – this can be a good thing and a bad thing. She has a light touch and we do not have to put up with any authorial neuroses whatsoever. With a few deft strokes of her pen, she paints a very accurate picture of a marriage that helps a man rediscover his roots or another relationship that pulls him away from his mother and motherland. If there is stating rather than showing, it is understated and has the ring of truth to redeem it. However, Devare’s touch is much too light at times – “On air” for example predictably proceeds to a tame end - tortured introspections by the protagonists or fictive plot twists could have helped, but Devare is possibly wary of letting these devices take over her craft.

There is likewise a tendency to step back and give a panning shot of the background and the story up until that point, something that recalls late night chai and chat sessions with frequent backing-ups to understand a nuance, rather than the modern short story form where plot development does the talking, and flashbacks can never be straightforward. I find this refreshing though. Emotion and fantasy are kept tightly in check in ‘Batik Rain and other Stories’ and this might be a weakness, but the effect is surprisingly one of muted grace and integrity.

Devare succeeds in her portrayal of the urban pan Indian identity – a significant departure from the strong provincial flavours of all literary fiction coming out of the country. There is a welcome currency and immediacy to ‘Batik Rain and other Stories’ that should recommend itself to anyone interested in, or curious about the modern Indian dynamic.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Raju Maama was our favourite uncle. He was a great story-teller. A wave of comfort would settle over me and my brother when he started in his sonorous voice. Raju told us marvellous stories celebrating the bounty of our Gods – Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Parvathy, except he would say Mahavishnu, Mahalakshmi, Ambal. The way he rolled the appellations in his mouth, the pleasure with which he intoned their names was infectious. “...the Goddess is standing behind all the time, a smile playing on her lips, as he rants and bemoans his fate…”, so the story would go, and we would listen, rapt, knowing that a happy end awaited – all ills would be remedied so that the actors of the story could finally sit down to a celebratory feast like Asterix and the Gauls. And instead of roast boar, Raju would count off every single sweetmeat and savoury known to us, pronouncing Murukku and Badhusha, Paayasam and Puliyodarai with the same relish with which he spoke of God’s greatness. We would remind him to add our special requests to the menu – Mysore Pak and Mixture,  roast potato and onion pachadi, Bajji and Sojji. We could taste the food in our mouths just as well as we could feel God’s glory in our hearts.

Raju waited every day for a miracle – a miracle that would reverse his motor neuron degenerative disease. He was sixteen  when he started to stumble too much on the sports fields. The local doctor prescribed iron tablets and vitamins. When he continued to slip and slide, they went in for a second opinion. This was the early sixties in a provincial town in South India, but the doctor was very competent. The diagnosis broke over the family like a bucket of ice imploding inside of them. A hard cold rock wedged in their insides, to be ignored so they could carry on living and laughing. They did, although my grandfather, rather inexplicably, rowed with his superiors and lost his job, while my grandmother got diabetes and lost her temper forever, my oldest uncle went out to sea and my mother decided she would not write the IAS exams after all. But Raju prayed. When asked if treatment options were available, the doctor shook his head and said drily, “Only a miracle will cure him”. And so Raju prayed, for a miracle that would gather the reins of his body and give it back to him.

Raju was a natty dresser, a good looking boy in a Dharmendra-like fat-nosed way. He did not finish his BA program because there was not much awareness of Lou Gehrig’s diseases or Friedrich’s Ataxia- you could not ask for someone to write for you unless you lacked a hand I suppose - and if your handwriting went all over the place, well, then you deserved to fail. Owing to my grandfather’s continuous lobbying he managed to get a few apprenticeships here and there although it was tough to obtain the “PH” classification. He finally got a job as a receptionist in a Public Sector Undertaking; his main concern in an eight to six day was that he should not  have to use the toilet.

Raju was not wheelchair bound until he turned forty, but he struggled to walk, prompting many to ask if he was spastic, epileptic, if it was polio, and once in Ambala, if he had had too much to drink. We tried to explain, but we were vague about it ourselves. The progression of his disease eventually followed that of ALS, but the onset symptoms were those of Friedrich’s Ataxia – it did not matter, no cures exist for these diseases, and management and treatment options are limited as doctors have very few cases to work on. To create a data base of case histories is in itself challenging outside of the First World – and that is why it is wonderful that the ice bucket challenge has done so much to increase awareness  of a disease that hits you in your youth and then proceeds to rob you of all vitality- your ability to use your limbs, your trunk, your neck and your head. Freezing you in your tracks. 

My youngest cousins had no idea what an amazing raconteur Raju Maama had been. Talking to him had become an effort as his slurring got worse by the day; mealtimes were an ordeal with my aunt or my mother on the wait, ready to thump him back to normal every time he choked while trying to swallow. Inevitably the food turned bland and the conversation banal. 

Many people feel that the ALS challenge was “stunty” that too much water got wasted (and I suppose energy too, for we were not digging up ice from the Himalayas), that it was insensitive to the regions that were thirsty for water, and that people were doing the challenge in lieu of donations which was not great. They probably have a point.

I did it because I think Raju would have liked it. His belief in miracles waxed and waned just as his rages ebbed and surged during the course of his life.  He was more delusional than depressive though, and that might have helped him cope, as did a wicked, little-boy sense of humour. He woud have found the idea of dunking ‘ice water’ on one's head, (that’s what he asked for by the way – it was always 'ice water please') hilarious. It would have made his day. And thousands of them doing it for a disability that afflicted him would have tickled him no end. He was not very high minded, I am afraid, but he struggled everyday and was cheerful and courteous to all.

To Raju Mama who sits in the heavens next to Ambal and Mahavishnu and Mahalakshmi -  some ice water on me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The F word

Blast from the Past- in which I am all strident and sanctimonious.

The journalist heroine gives in a piece about the importance of looking good. Based on painful personal experience, her account argues that appearance is our greatest asset. Her editor is surprised and concerned. Leaving aside his soft corner for her, he is worried because the cover article for the week’s issue is the Miss India beauty pageant. He does not need dissenting wet blankets while India joyously celebrates International Recognition. “But no sir,” our heroine replies, “I am not anti beauty pageants, nor am I a feminist. I simply want to delve into the psychoblahblah….”

That is when I switched the TV set off and logged onto the machine..

Did the writer know the meaning of feminism when he wrote that sorry line in the serial? I always thought Manisha Koirala considered herself a liberated soul until I read some interview. “I am not a women’s libber or a feminist”. Why are women so scared of the F word? I am forever coming across women deathly scared of being typecast. Thinking individuals yes. Independent, smart, talented, free, ambitious, can take care of herself - yes. Lovely, gracious, classy- well…is it politically correct to admit…what the hell, yes yes yes. But call a woman a feminist and she sits back and faint frown lines appear on the forehead.

For heaven’s sakes it is not so terrible.

Sure, people get defensive about labels all the time. So you may be against the Pokhran blasts but possibly hate to be called a pacifist; just like a Hindutva supporter does not want to be a communalist. But at times the courage to stand under a label, can give it the legitimacy that it needs.

Feminism is not another word for bra burning. Feminism is giving women their rightful place in society. And if our level headed, competent and successful sisters who are busy enough leading complex lives thank you and  please do not complicate it further, stop and consider it- something that they agree with. It is tough to be part of a movement. But it is the easiest thing in the world to say, “I am a feminist”. It will definitely be an honest statement.

My maid was a good student, but she could not go to school after she got her period. She was married when she was fourteen. Her husband was eighteen. She had her first baby when she was fifteen and almost died in the process. Her husband was unemployed, and she supplemented her father-in-law’s income by sweeping in buildings and clearing garbage. A come-down certainly but it held the family together for ten years, until her man got a job as a unionised bank employee. She still works buildings, gritting her teeth and waiting for the day her son will come up and get her out of her rut. Her husband sits up late in the night drinking with his friends. If Krishna gets upset waiting up for the men, (there are only two rooms in the house) her husband rages and refuses to eat. Indeed he insisted on taking a peg with his multivitamins when he had jaundice. Like Krishna says, ‘Aurat Paon ki Juti hoti hai. (Woman is the slipper on your foot).

Muga’s husband drinks and makes a fool of himself at every party I go to. I am waiting for a woman to do the same.

Taranjit is twenty five and lives with his retired parents. He throws a tantrum if the promised pudding does not arrive. Indian children are very spoilt I know, but what takes the cake is the mother saying the pudding was eaten by the dog. Just what kind of women do we breed who resort to lying to their own children over stupid matters.

Even today the advice meted out by many well meaning parents is not to argue. Living off the son is fine but check out the families where the girl’s parents stay with her. You will be furnished with justifications galore. Not to miss that halo behind the son-in-law’s head.

When I passed out of management school it was different. Now everyone is married and I am shocked at the ease with which men and women slip into traditional roles. What starts as ego and one-upmanship (I will be the best hostess) ends up in a bind. I have not seen a single party where the men do not sit at the bar while the women walk into the kitchen helping out, cribbing about maids and exchanging home-making tips.

Count the number of men who help out in the house. Compare that with the number of women who bring in comparable amounts of money into the house. Check the man’s attitude during his honeymoon when he cannot believe this goddess wants to actually cook for him. Contrast this with his quibbling seven years and two babies later- he is the sole breadwinner, she gave up her job to look after the kids- he cannot handle upuma three days in a row. Sure its tough having upuma day after day, but your wife does it baby. You want eggs, go ahead and scramble them.

I think I am getting carried away and unidimensional, but we live in an unequal world. You may or may not feel it all the time and it depends whether you are all worked up and want to do something about it or not. But surely you can recognise inequality. That is all it takes. Go ahead and say you are an F---ist. It will not bite you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Few Quick Reads

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Mary mother of Christ comes to life in this 100 page novella, delineating the story and attitude of a peasant woman whose son has been killed horrifically, who now endures the machinations and hubris of his followers. They need her cooperation in order to make him into a cult figure, but Mary’s impotence, rage and attitude towards the myth making mechanism sets her apart as a special person, and sets the book apart. Toibin succeeds in recreating a different time, but I do not know if the book is very interesting or if Mary is likeable. A quick read, not difficult. Similar in size and structure and vibe to Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten.Click here for my Akhenaten review. It does not compare too well with the story of Pontius Pilate by Mikhail Bulgakov, extracted from ‘The Master and Margarita.’ I loved Bulgakov's Jesus. That is my favorite Jesus story. And Brooklyn, the luminous story of an Irishwoman who moves to New York City remains my favorite Toibin.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn- I would rate this the best of the three Flynns I have read. A young woman faces up to her gory past and discovers that the truth can be very messy. Dollops of a certain sort of Americana. Keeps you turning the pages and delivers up on the
suspense in a sensible way. Hope they make this into a movie. Oh they are making it into one? Yay- although I would have preferred someone shorter for Libby Day than Charlize Theron- here she is looking tense on the sets of the movie- Theron as we know lived through the aftermath of her mother killing her father in self defense and must identify with Libby Day's character. 

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn- At a pinch go for the thrills. This book will keep you on edge but if you thought Gone Girl goes to pieces in the end, this one shatters into smithereens. Too much random psycho nonsense, but a movie adaptation would work. And if you want a riveting read…

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

In 2010, unprecedented rainfall brought floods and mudslides to the Mexican town of Angangueo, and posed a serious threat to the spectacular colonies of Monarch Butterflies the region was famous for. The possible loss of winter habitat could have interfered with the hard coded flight behavior of the Monarch population, leading to unforeseen results. Barbara Kingsolver blends fiction into these facts—the sudden relocation of the butterfly colonies to the Appalachian farm of our heroine Dellarobia Turnbow—and comes up with a book that works well at many levels.

As a little township grapples with the lepidopteran visitation, scientists, tourists and newsmongers descend on the thinking heroine’s farm. And while the reader is exhorted in none too subtle language to wake up to the grave peril of global weirding (I do prefer the author’s terminology for climate change), Dellarobia achieves her own predictable awakening. This is a novel with an agenda. Not that it is a bad thing. In fact I would rate this as a great achievement, the fact that Kingsolver is able to make an agenda driven book readable—after a fashion.

The book begins fabulously, right up to the introduction of the butterflies in our heroine’s lackluster life. It ends reasonably well, in a rush of gorgeous nature welling up in all its glory to impress mankind. However, what lies in between is tedious to say the least. The science behind the story is developed through conversations between Dellarobia, and the entomologist camped out in her backyard, in a Master and Acolyte style that has a cloying, gimmicky feel to it. Nor does the scientific exposition arouse in me a sense of amazement, the kind of wonder for example that E.O. Wilson’s “Trailhead,” did. (This New Yorker extract from Wilson’s novel “Anthill” centered on the establishment and demise of an ant colony. I give the link below-)

Amirrezvani- she looks like Kingsolver! 
A woman rises to her potential
Apart from the science, a good part of the book is devoted to a study of Dellarobia’s mis-marriage. We have it on good authority, from Dellarobia herself in fact, that she is dissatisfied and that she wants out. But the source of her unhappiness, her husband’s lack of character is not fleshed out well enough for us to feel much sympathy. Neither do I find her state of dissatisfaction credible. Why for example, does she find Chinese toys in a store tacky if she has never seen any better? Oh yes the seamstress mother and the wood craftsman father. I am not buying it. I have seen children of Kanjeevaram weavers flocking for chintz prints on fluorescent nylex because they believe it is fancier. I recommend Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers for a superior treatment of the same subject – the awakening of a subjugated woman to her potential. 

However the fact remains that Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful craftswoman, her work abounding in interesting metaphors and observations borrowed from the mundane.  Check these out: 

In the normal course of events everything got snatched from her (Dellarobia’s) hands – “her hairbrush, the TV clicker, the soft middle part of the sandwich, the last Coke she had waited all afternoon to open.”

They built their tidy houses of self-importance and special blessing and went inside and slammed the door, unaware the mountain behind them was aflame.

…a child thinking what snow should be: soft and lovely, instead of the cold, wet truth.

The tumbling dog feet on the stairs sounded like a waterfall in reverse.

But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always never by herself.

She felt like a picky-eating toddler having a spaghetti nightmare.

Dear Abby had a smart mouth and a kind heart, that’s why people read her; the combination was rare.

She’d tried to get dressed, but the child had pelted her all morning with a hail of no; she felt like a woman stoned for the sin of motherhood.

It was a rule of marriage: the more desperately you needed alone time with your spouse, the quicker you’d spoil it with a blowout.

On television, deriding people was hip. The elderly, the na├»ve —it shocked her sometimes how the rules had changed.

(The butterflies clung) “to their family trees, lulled into dormancy from which they would not wake."

There are many more. You could check the book out. Or not. I found it a tad lacking in plot, implausible and preachy, written in a reasonably engaging way. If you want the verbal virtuosity I would suggest you first read her wildly successful Poisonwood Bible. There is a gripping tale.