Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Spying Game

Absolute Friends

By John Le Carre

It has been a while since I visited Le Carre land. But each time I return, I realize nothing fundamentally changes. The spies still live in a morally ambiguous world and the individual moral compass is often at odds with the official wisdom that defines good and bad. This tension between the individual and the state had its best moments in the Cold War era, though. In his more recent novels, Le Carre tends to be much more didactic with a very definitive point of view on the evil influence of corporations in modern day governments. This point of view still has its good moments - like in his The Constant Gardener, one of my all-time favourite Le Carre novels. Absolute Friends, however falls very short of this standard.

Ted Mundy is the British spy, one of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born in Pakistan to an English army officer. He spends his early years in the subcontinent, is sent to boarding school in England, then goes on to Oxford to learn German, dropping out to join the ‘60s left-wing protests in Berlin against the ‘bourgeoisie’ American view of the world. He befriends Sasha, a natural leader in these left-wing groups, a German who is rebelling against his Nazi-sympathiser father turned good Christian. Ted saves Sasha’s life in one of the protests that turn violent, but is forced to flee Germany, going back to his native England, where he joins the British Council, marries a local school teacher with ambitions of labour party politics, has a kid and in general is all set to lead an ordinary life. But it is not meant to be. Sasha returns, this time as a defector to East Germany, wanting to play the dangerous spy game. Ted becomes his handler, and a double agent, with the East Germans thinking him theirs while all the while it’s the other way round. He starts leading multiple lives, one Ted to his wife and family, one to the East Germans, and the third real one - that of a double agent. Sasha and he play this dangerous game for years...until one day the Berlin wall comes down and there is nothing left to play. Sasha disappears, Ted’s marriage falls apart, and the next we see him, he is living in Berlin again, this time with a Turkish immigrant and her son, working as a tour guide, trying to put a failed business behind him. But there is one more twist in his life. Sasha is back to try and recruit him into one of his idealistic plans for the world. But this end game turns out to be one twist too many. The plot begins to meander into one of the least credible parts of the story… and one is left feeling Le Carre was actually writing a different novel in the last part. It is a ridiculous end to an otherwise moderately-engaging story.

Ted Mundy is the quintessential Le Carre hero. Ordinary, every-day man, living a heroic life, unknown to the rest of the world - an unsung, unrecognized hero. Sasha is the friend, but he is a shadowy character, never completely clear in his motives and actions to the reader, a mystery influence on Ted. It is this blurry character that makes the whole plot somewhat vague and insubstantial. The other characters are all mostly props in the Ted and Sasha show. And it is a show that disappointing and strangely irritating - especially when you know what Le Carre can normally do with plot and character.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wasteland

Beginners



By Raymond Carver


Alcohol, bad marriages, loneliness, desperation that comes from the loss of dreams… and sometimes, somewhere, a tiny bright ray of  hope. That’s what Carver’s stories are about. There are 17 of them in this collection - the original and previously unpublished version of his stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Each of these 17 is a small gem, shining on tiny slivers of the human condition - rough, ordinary lives with all their attendant miseries and transient joys.
There is Max, alone and drinking, with all his household goods out in the driveway, put out for sale. Until a young couple drives up looking for a bargain and ends up drinking and dancing with Max all night. A tiny moment of connection in a life otherwise going to seed.
There is Duane and Holly, two people trying to make a life for themselves, trying to get past the drinking and the money problems, trying to grow old together. Until the rug is pulled out from under their feet when Duane falls in love with someone else.
Sam Lawton spends his nights hunting slugs in his backyard because he can’t sleep. A book salesman from Chicago meets his estranged father at an airport but has nothing to say to him even when he hears about the desperate tragedy that has visited him - “I had nothing to give him, nothing to give to anyone for that matter. I was all smooth surface with nothing inside except emptiness.”. Ann Weiss loses a young son in an accident and it takes a rough baker to offer some comfort with hot rolls and the words “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”. Bill Jamison can only watch his friend Jerry live what seems an ordinary life, of family and children and weekend get-togethers until a fateful afternoon when he realizes how much of a life of desperation Jerry has been leading; an inner life that the world does not suspect and that inevitably leads him to an act so horrific, he knows it’s a point of no return. James Packer plays bingo with his wife at the local community center on Saturdays and is inexplicably enraged one weekend when he catches someone do some low level cheating. The anger masks the gnawing fear, of losing Edith, of a life slipping away beyond his control, of dreams unfulfilled.
There’s more. The disastrous division of spoils in a marriage gone sour, the despair of an estranged husband watching his family move on with their lives, the memory of love, laughter and dancing on a distant cold winter morning, couples talking about what it means to love someone, unexpected glimpses into the character of people you love that make you question that love.
“After that morning there would be those hard times ahead, other women for him, and another man for her, but that morning, that particular morning, they had danced. They danced, and then they held to each other as if there would always be that morning, and later they laughed about the waffle. They leaned on each other and laughed about it until tears came, while outside everything froze, for a while anyway.” There is always that memory of happiness in most of the stories. It makes the wasteland of a present that much more unbearable.

It’s a tough world Carver depicts. Made tougher by alcohol and human frailty. Love is forever slipping away and so is happiness. But it is a world that you can’t take your eyes off. Like watching a car wreck in slow motion.Carver is mesmerizing.

Explaining India

How do you explain India to a non-Indian?


Here’s how some people did:


And here’s how I would:


1. Read R.K.Narayan’s Swami and Friends. Or watch the television series Malgudi Days. Either is a great way to get to know the innocence of a small town India, now possibly long gone. But it goes some way to explain where we all come from - a resource-poor, imagination-rich culture.
2. Read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. If Swami and Friends was our past, Sacred Games is our rambunctious, terribly untidy present. It presents contemporary big-city life in all its corrupt unholy mess - with unimaginable wealth on one hand and a lower middle class struggling to keep their head above water on the other. Maximum City could do the same with a less fictionalised version.
3. Watch a few episodes of Amir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate. It explains the peculiar problems of an India still held hostage to a past that can sometimes seem excessively regressive to a liberal Western world view.
4. Talk to a shop girl in any modern format shopping mall. She will show you the ambition and fierce need of a young India grasping at upward economic mobility.
5. Visit any old temple in south India. You will see how irrevocably linked religion and rituals are to life of people every day.

6. And watch a Bollywood flick like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. There is an India that is tuned in to Western sensibilities like never before - moneyed, well-travelled, as much part of a homogenized global culture as anyone in any part of the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Beauty and the Beast

The Secret History

By Donna Tartt

You are hooked from the first page. How can you not be? The narrator is confessing to a murder. So you know it’s not a whodunit (you know who the murderer is, don’t you?); yet it has all the thrill and intrigue of one. The dream-like, sensory world absorbs you, leaving you so enthralled that you have to drag yourself away to the real one. And everything there is suddenly a pale shadowy version of the one in the book. It’s like a drug-addled brain is being weaned away from the narcotics it so craves.

Okay, I exaggerate. But just a bit, really.

Richard Papen is a small town California boy who lands up in Hampden College in Vermont. The college is all that he has dreamed of - shockingly pretty, East-coast intellectual, as far removed from his mediocre, middle class Californian hometown as it’s possible to be. Richard is Jay Gatsby - completely smitten by the Ivy league-like glamour.  

He falls into the company of a group of five students who take Greek and classical studies as their major - Henry the rich intellectual genius and the de facto leader, the twins Charles and Camilla, Francis with the trust fund and Bunny, the bluff and hearty bigot. Richard passes some sort of informal test and joins them, studying under an eccentric professor - Julian Morrow, who has handpicked these six students. Richard is enamoured by this group, completely sold on their cool intellectual snobbery and does all he can to belong. Their world is that of ancient Greece; the modern one has little meaning and significance. “Pur: that one word contains for me the secret, the bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek. How can I make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue?” It truly is an alien land, filled with beauty that is unafraid to be harsh; that allows for Dionysian rituals, ecstatic and intoxicating, even as it appeals to cold, logical reason. “We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people - the ancients no less than us - have civilized themselves through the wilful repression of the old, animal self.” This exploration of the animal self, the recreating of ancient rituals, collides with the modern world - and a man is killed. What this murder does to the six friends, how it affects each of them in different ways and the repercussions of it on their friendship forms the rest of the book.

There is something truly macabre and Gothic about the whole story, which is in essence an anatomy of a murder (or two). It calls to mind Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, even if it never matches that book’s gruesomeness. What lifts it from mere horror though is the vein of beauty that runs through it. Tartt’s descriptions of the landscapes, the atmosphere, even the drug-infused mental maps of the students are almost lyrical. I think of Rossetti’s drawings and poetry, of Poe, of the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. “..that cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and a fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside. The whoosh of the flames was like a flock of birds, trapped and beating in a whirlwind near the ceiling…. Julian, at the head of the long table, rises to his feet and lifts his wineglass. “Live forever,” he says…” Or, Henry describing the effect of an ancient ritual to Richard - “ Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know…”

You are stunned by the beauty. And somehow the horror is part of the beauty. By the end of the book, you realize the truth of what Richard says right at the beginning - “ Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” And you know as a reader, you share that fatal flaw with Richard. Because you are ready to forgive the horror; as long as you can see the picturesque-ness of it.

The Secret History is supposed to be a cult book. I did not come into it, knowing that. But I can now understand how it became one. There is something very adolescent about it - the sort of book that as a young college student, you would worship. The intellectual references, the aesthetic atmospherics, the drug-induced hallucinations. As an adult too, you can feel the power. It took a while, after I finished reading it, to cast aside the spell.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bollywood romance and Oscar-worthy performances at the movies

Ram Leela

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it says. The basic premise is  - the feuding families, the star crossed lovers, the tragic end. But Sanjay Leela Bhansali takes a leaf (or rather a tree) out of Buz Luhrman’s book, and gives it a colourful contemporary spin, setting it in Kutch. Of course it’s a Kutch no one has seen - where guns abound and people go around killing each other with little legal consequence. But then it’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and who is looking for realism?

I don’t quite know what to make of SLB - I liked his Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (even though I find Salman Khan pretty much unbearable) and loved his version of Devdas; but I couldn’t sit past the first 10 minutes of Saanwariya or Black or Guzaarish.

I can be quite bewitched by the excess in his films - the saturated colour and the large set pieces of song and  dance, the gorgeous clothes and jewellery, the beautiful women (who do show glimpses of spunk, while remaining doll-like most of the time). It’s the melodrama that can be quite iffy.

Ram Leela has all the trademark SLB excess. But what it also has is some crackling racy dialogue. And a lead pair to die for. Ranveer Singh is effortlessly funny and charming. His Ram is an abs-displaying ladies’ man, gun-wielding macho, yet vulnerable. Deepika is beautiful in a real sense, quite un-plastic; and she plays the achingly-in-love Leela with a lovely playfulness in the initial phases and a deep dignity in the second half. And she does share quite a chemistry with Ranveer.

The plot meanders. It has twists and turns and a villain that has no place in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. There are times when you want the story to get a move on. But Ram Leela is what a super hit Bollywood movie is meant to be - colourful landscapes, beautiful actors, tear-inducing moments, bring-a-smile-to-your face dialogues, dance-in-the-aisles music. In a word, entertainment, rolicking and unabashed. Shakespeare would have approved.

Dallas Buyers Club


Matthew McConaughey deserves an Oscar for this role. He plays Ron Woodward,in an adaptation of a real-life story. Set in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when it was seen as primarily a homosexual disease, Dallas Buyer’s Club tells the story of Ron Woodward, an electrician by profession, who is diagnosed with AIDS and is given a month to live by his doctor. Ron refuses to accept his situation and starts to research treatments available. His research leads him to Mexico where a cocktail of un-approved-by-FDA drugs makes him feel better. He smuggles these into the US and then devotes the rest of his life to  figuring out experimental drugs in other countries, drugs that the FDA has not approved, but which become the hope for dying AIDS patients who really don’t have the time for the regular FDA approval process for drugs. He forms what comes to be known as the Dallas Buyers Club - where AIDS patients come in with monthly subscriptions for these newer drugs, making it an island of hope for patients who have little hope left.

McConaughey is outstanding as Ron. He plays Ron as a rough and unsympathetic homophobe who slowly changes his stand, as he finds his homophobic friends turn against him when he is diagnosed with AIDS. As he continues his research and as he comes into contact with more and more AIDS patients, most of whom are gay, he turns sympathetic, even forming a close friendship and a business partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto in an outstanding portrayal), a transsexual.


The movie is worth watching for an insight into a time when AIDS was a horrifyingly unknown and untreatable epidemic. It is also worth watching for its performances. But for someone with little knowledge of the history, it also leaves some fundamental questions. What is the right process for an organization like the FDA to follow during a time like this? Should it be more lenient towards experimental drugs on dying patients? Should it allow for more flexibility and if it does, would it end up being a free-for-all anarchic situation? I did not get the answers in this movie. And it felt like the Dallas Buyers’ Club was just one part of a much more complex story.

But McConaughy deserves an Oscar for sure.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Teenage angst and class divides

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Lee Fiora is a working class student on a scholarship in a fictional boarding school, Ault in Massachusetts. She is there because she saw a brochure of that school, saw prep school students in blazers, playing lacrosse and rowing, an OC world set in Massachusetts. Lee decides that is where she wants to spend the next 4 years of her life, away from her normal middle class home, where her mother works as a bookkeeper and her father owns a mattress shop. She gets the scholarship, convinces her bewildered parents and enters Ault, prepared to be part of that dream brochure.

Ault of course is a place where no one talks of money, but where money permeates every aspect of student life - from the choice of bedspreads in hostel rooms to the hotel parents stay when they come visiting. “The equation was that simple. Being rich, in the end, counted for the most - for more, even, than being pretty.” Lee is a misfit in class terms. She is an obviously intelligent young girl but in a world where she is forever looking back at what she sees as her own inadequate background, she never stands a chance. There is nothing in her normal mid-western teenage life that prepares her for the inadequacy she feels around her moneyed fellow students. She retreats. Into the dorm, into the library, into wherever she does not have to interact with the sociable, happening students of the school.

Written in the first person, Prep describes in sometimes excruciating detail, the inner workings of a teenage mind caught in a world that only heightens a lack of self-worth that is inherent in the age. “I always worried that someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely..” and “I wanted to have boyfriends, I wanted my life to be sorrowful and complicated and unwholesome, at least a little unwholesome.” Instead Lee is left to be ordinary, someone who is forever trying to efface herself, not drawing attention, keeping out of the way of situations that ask more of her.

But Lee watches. She herself tries to fade into the background, but her skills of observation are impeccable. She desperately wants to belong, yet she sees and understands the underbelly of privilege. She sees how desperately unhappy or needy or shallow some of the girls and boys around her are. How there are even different types of money, some more dignified than others. And how there are some universal truths to teenage life - there will be suicide attempts, failures in love, friendships made and betrayed.

Of course things do happen to Lee too. She makes a friend. She has sex. She falls in love for the first time. She learns about  the unrelenting pressure on a girl to behave a certain way for a guy. (“This was just the beginning! For years and years, there would be so many things I would do for a guy that I wouldn’t do in my usual life - jokes I wouldn’t normally tell, places I wouldn’t normally go, clothes I wouldn’t normally wear, drinks I wouldn’t normally drink, food I wouldn’t normally eat,..) Her heart is broken. She becomes famous in school for all the wrong reasons.

All through this, she maintains a sense of ‘outsider-ness’ that never ever disappears. Even as she reflects back on her years at Ault, her abiding memory is of unhappiness. Yet, as she says. “I remember myself as often unhappy at Ault, and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness.”

You start reading Prep as you would start watching 90210 - an insider view of a glossy, shiny, scrubbed world of rich teenagers. But Prep turns out to be so much more. It is an unedited look at real teenage life, with all its attendant misery and anxiety, all so needless to adult eyes but so terribly important to the sixteen year olds in question.

Sittenfeld writes simply. Yet truthfully..

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

All is Well

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt

Theo Decker is grief stricken. He loses his mother, in a bomb blast in a New York museum, and with her he loses that ‘daily, commonplace happiness’ he rarely finds again in his life. But as he loses his mother, he gains a 17th century painting - Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. A dying old man entrusts this painting, saved from the blast, to the thirteen year old’s safekeeping. But Theo, for reasons unknown to even himself (perhaps it is the last remnant of his mother’s life, perhaps he just couldn’t let go of such beauty) keeps it to himself. He moves cities and homes, but the painting accompanies him, occupying a corner of his mind that provides him joy and wonder, even as life around him turns upside down.
Theo carries his painting and his grief with him through a temporary home with his school friend Andy’s family in New York, through Las Vegas where his gambler and alcoholic father takes him, through New York again, this time with Hobie, the dying old man’s business partner in an antique furniture business. There are unforgettable characters in all of these places. Andy’s distant mother, Mrs. Barbour, who gives Theo the closest semblance of parenthood after his mother’s death; his own father, addicted and so completely self-absorbed that even Theo, desperate for a parent figure, can see through every single selfish act of his; and Hobie, a bumbling, giant of a man, living through grief himself, spending his time in his shop’s basement, polishing and restoring lovely pieces of furniture, creating beauty and providing Theo with a career, a home and a desperately missing father-figure. And then there is Boris. Glorious, unfettered Boris, Theo’s only friend in Vegas. Speaking Ukrainian and Russian, drinking vodka and popping pills, Boris takes Theo on a ride from which he finds it hard to get off. You know Boris is that terrible influence that is ultimately going to take Theo down with him. But along with the alcohol and the drugs, Boris gives Theo a taste of friendship he has never known before, and of a life lived careless and free, unafraid. It is an addictive closeness, even a destructive one. But each time you feel Theo falling, life drags him back up. First, out of Vegas on the death of his father, into a saner life with Hobie in New York. And then, with destructive Boris back in his life as a grown man, as you feel Theo’s life spiralling beyond control with a lost painting, gangsters and guns, he is once again resurrected, almost miraculously. At the end, you are left with the feeling that however self-destructive Theo turns, there is a beauty and rightness to life that keeps bringing him back to even keel.
It is a wonderful book. Donna Tartt’s writing is beautiful and evocative -  places, feelings and people come alive (“By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built epoxy-glued version of the world.” or describing Mrs. Barbour “when we looked at each other it seemed that the whole past was redefined and brought into focus by this moment, clear as glass, a complexity of stillness that was rainy afternoons in spring, a dark chair in the hallway, the light-as-air touch of her hand on the back of my head.”). Tartt has created one of those grand narratives - with outsized characters and plots - but which in the end is a hopeful story. A story that says however wicked the world can get, in the end, all will be well.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Heights and Depths

Levels of Life

By Julian Barnes

“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” That is how the book begins. And the three essays in Barnes’s Levels of Life is a demonstration of how magic can be created by the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things.
The first one The Sin of Height is about ballooning in the 19th century - specifically about the pioneer Felix Tournachon (Nadar) who combines his twin passions of ballooning and photography to attempt aerial photography, an attempt that ultimately leads a century later to the Apollo 8 mission’s photograph of the earth from space. While describing Nadar’s experiments and successes, Barnes also points out his touching devotion to his ailing wife. The topic of  love, which is again, in some way a joining of two unrelated beings, is the subject in Barnes’s next essay On the Level.
On the Level is about an imaginary love affair between Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress and the English adventurer and soldier Fred Burnaby. Both are extremely unconventional, bohemian. They fall for each other. And it leads Fred to propose the unthinkable - an actual marriage. He is of course, refused. Sarah Bernhardt explains, “I am constantly in search of new sensations, new emotions….My heart desires more excitement than anyone…any one person… can give.” Fred is heartbroken in a way he has never experienced before; and though he does marry, he carries the hurt until his death in a battle at Khartoum. As Barnes observes in the beginning, “Every love story is a grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.”
And that observation brings us to the third and best essay of all - The Loss of Depth. A deeply personal essay, Barnes writes about his losing his wife after 30 years of marriage. He is grief stricken and he explores the experience of his own grief in the months and years after the death. It proves to be a powerful and incredibly moving exposition on the nature of grief and mourning. For someone who does not believe in an afterlife (“I believe dead is dead.”), there is little to console, little to hope for - “It’s just the universe doing its stuff.” Barnes writes about his anger at friends who skirt the issue of his wife’s death, who are uncomfortable talking about her or his grief with him. He writes about the note his wife left him, a note that in some way consoles him - “The thing is - nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.” He writes about contemplating suicide, about planning for it. And about how he gets that thought out of his mind - the awareness that if he was dead, she was even more dead - since she now lived most vividly in his memory. He writes about time not being a great healer - “ Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” He writes about the consolation of pain, about almost relishing it - “ Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love.” And then “the final tormenting, unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or moving on? Or some combination of both?”
The Loss of Depth is gut-wrenching. For anyone who has ever experienced this kind of mind-numbing grief, this is a must read. As it is for anyone who hasn’t. As Barnes himself puts it so succinctly - “Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still - at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) - it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross”