Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Civil War Tragedy

This Divided Island
Stories from the Sri Lankan War

By Samanth Subramanian

“In its most hackneyed perception, the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross section of a hand grenade, with the tapering Jaffna peninsula, up north, forming the top of its safety clip.”

We know the history. A beautiful island in our neighbourhood, torn apart by civil war. Years of festering resentment against discriminatory policies lead the Tamils into a violent struggle for self-determination, for an Eelam, a promised land. Prabhakaran and his band of Tigers develop into one of the most feared revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on where your sympathies lie) organisations in the world, assassinating prime ministers,taking control of the north and east of the island, fighting a guerilla war with the Sri Lankan army for decades. Until the tide turns, with a newly elected President Rajapkse, who takes the war to Prabhakaran, in a ruthless exhibition of military might. The Tigers are decimated, Prabhakaran is killed and thousands of civilians are dead in a crossfire of tragic proportion.

That is what we know. What Samanth Subramanian does is take us to the ground level actors in the conflict. The Tamil ex-military doctor in Colombo who still finds it difficult to acknowledge the role of the military in the decimation of his fellow Tamils in the end game of the war. There are the Jaffna-ites - Sundaram, the mechanic who ran a garage at the height of the blockade, converting petrol-run cars into kerosene-run ones because there was no petrol; M, the newspaper columnist, ex-Tiger and possibly part of their propaganda unit, still a Tamil nationalist, and only willing to talk incognito, who tells Samanth of the last days of Prabhakaran, when he watched the Hollywood movie 300 in a loop, willing himself and his troops to stage an endgame like the Spartans. The ones in exile - the ex-military Tamil in Canada, talking about what it was to be a Tamil in the Sri Lankan army, and what drove him out; Raghavan, the ex-Tiger, close friend of Prabhakaran, who bailed out when he realized he couldn’t reconcile himself to the violence of the Tigers; Nirmala his wife, married to a Tiger and whose sister was killed by the Tigers; Adityan, doing boring data-entry work in London, and nostalgic for the days when the Tigers administered Jaffna. Samanth meets some of the victors - right wing Buddhist monks preaching violence, completely comfortable with the contradiction it presents with their faith; also Buddhist monks who don’t agree with the current regime, yet unable to do much about it. He meets Tamil Muslims, not willing to take sides in the war and punished for their non-alignment from both sides. He meets Ismail, who describes surviving the massacre of a hundred Muslims in 2 mosques in Batticaloa by the Tigers. It is a description that is wrenching; and all Samanth can give him in return for his story is the promise that his story will be told. It is one of the most hard-hitting moments in the book.

Samanth meets Tamils in Sri Lanka who hate the Tigers, for forcing children to take up arms, for their cruelty to their fellow Tamils, for their inhumanity in the name of their cause. Ultimately, it is this hatred that leads to Prabhakaran’s downfall. “This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf. Once this war was lost, once this earth was scorched, it could have been only a question of time before the Tigers lost the other war too”

The end game description provides some real kick-in-the-solar plexus kind of moments. When he describes first hand accounts of the Mullivaikal siege, where thousands of civilians are trapped between the army and the Tigers, when the Tigers drag every young person out to join them in a desperate attempt to prolong their fight and when the Sri Lankan army refuses to let any kind of aid through for fear of the Tigers confiscating them for their use. Samanth listens to dozens of these stories, each more horrifying than the other. And you are left wondering if there is anything man is incapable of doing to fellow men.

There is no redemption even at the end, in Samanth’s eyes. The Tigers are subdued. But their cause is relevant more than ever, as Rajapakse’s government goes into totalitarian mode, wiping out any trace of dissent, even among their own. The Sri Lanka after the war is a bleak world, with little grace on the victors’ side and little fight left in the vanquished. There is no reconciliation, South Africa-style. And that ultimately is the true tragedy.

As an Indian though, you notice the one thing that is completely absent - the influence of Sri Lanka’s neighbour in the conflict. No one talks of the tacit support of Indian Tamils, there is no description of or anecdotes about the IPKF foray, nothing about the big assassinations. It is a gap that is quite inexplicable.

This book is a journalistic narrative of a conflict but it is also a travelogue. The names in newspaper headlines come alive - Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Batticaloa, Mullivaikal. The beauty of the land is offset by the horror of the war that engulfs it. A Divided Island is a deeply disturbing book. But one that needed to be written.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath

I read this first when I was a completely happy-go-lucky teenager. When my heroes were Rhett Butler and Howard Roark. When I took feminism for granted, when there were no niggling doubts in my head about career or marriage or the future. So of course, I couldn’t quite get my head around The Bell Jar. Esther was a strange heroine, much too melancholic, not liking anyone much, not particularly likeable either. She was the demographic I wanted to be - the independent working girl in the big, bad city. But she showed me a side to this that I just wasn’t prepared to see. So I gave up on the book.

Decades later, I re-visit this. And understand why it resonated so much with so many. Esther is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch her. Her sense of being alone in the midst of the whirlwind that is New York, of the futility of living a life that must ultimately lead to death, of wanting to end the whole rigmarole once and for all… all this delineated so painstakingly, it leaves a mark.

Reading it, you know it is real. Because you know Plath and her history. And the realness of it makes it horrific. Especially since you know that at various points in time, you have had similar thoughts, with varying degrees of intensity. “I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was like sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspectives of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

Growing up is stressful. There are careers to be chosen and husbands to be obtained, decisions to be made and disappointments to be experienced. Esther blanks them out, goes into the shell of the bell jar and when that happens in the fifties, you are taken to doctors who are unsympathetic, put through treatments like painful electric shocks and locked up in institutions where there is little recourse. It is a bit of a scary world and as a reader you experience the horror with Esther, not being able to take your eyes off the descent into madness.

But there is redemption in the form of Dr. Nolan who seems to get Esther in a way she hasn’t been before. And by the end of the book Esther is seeing glimpses of hope in a world gone blank and dark. She is once again looking to live. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” She is returned, bruised and a bit broken, but whole again. “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”

Of course, we know of Plath and of the briefness of the redemption. The Bell Jar was published after she killed herself at the age of 31. We know of the sometimes-beautiful poetry she wrote and the hagiography her death engendered, the feminist interpretations of her works and the almost larger-than-life figure she became after her death. And given all that hype that surrounds her, The Bell Jar is surprisingly a quiet little book, an intimate portrait of a young girl’s descent into a personal hell and her subsequent climb out of it. It reminds you of how little it takes to turn that ennui you feel, like Emily Dickinson, when you see that certain slant of light, into an illness you can possibly never recover from. You read The Bell Jar and realize how lucky you are.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Paris Diaries

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway

It is a magical time and place - Paris in the twenties. Hemingway is a struggling young writer. There is little money and he has a wife and baby to support. But he is part of a set of writers and artists who are or will be household names. It’s literary voyeurism at its best.
A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death. A set of sketches of his time in Paris during his first marriage with Hadley, it shows us a Hemingway trying to become the Hemingway the world knows today, crafting his literary style, making and discarding friends, building up to the nastiness and the greatness he became known for later. The title is taken from something he said about Paris - “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
In a lot of ways, Paris is the hero of the book. It’s a Paris that has probably all but disappeared a long time ago - a place where a struggling young artist could live cheaply and well, where there was Sylvia Beach and her book shop providing literary sustenance, where Ezra Pound created a fund to save TS Eliot from his bank job to allow him to write full time, where there are cafes to write in and parks to walk through, where there would always be a fellow-writer to go on trips with. It’s lovely and romantic, especially when you know your writing is going well, and you feel the world is there for the taking. Watching a beautiful young woman waiting for someone in a cafe he is writing in, Hemingway says “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.” It’s heady!
He writes about the famous figures he encounters. He doesn’t flatter, he is downright nasty sometimes. Fitzgerald is weak and a drunk, Zelda undermines his confidence, jealous of his writing and scornful of his manhood. His novel The Great Gatsby is pure genius and just for that Hemingway is willing to forgive him anything. Ford Maddox Ford has terrible breath and lies all the time and is disliked intensely by Hemingway. Ezra Pound is generous to a fault, even to writers not deserving of it. Gertrude Stein has regressive views on homosexuality, she plays favourites with the writers and artists invited to her home, and she has a falling out with Hemingway. James Joyce is a hero who frequents a restaurant Hemingway cannot afford, yet he attempts to go there hoping to catch a glimpse. All of this is terribly interesting and voyeuristic and is the literary equivalent of People magazine.
But what binds me to this book is Hemingway’s notes on his writing progress and his own consciousness of the purpose of his life - the writing, always the writing. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” It does not matter that he is poor and has sometimes to go hungry. It does not matter that the artists and famous people he meets always manage to disappoint him. He is writing and writing well. “Do not worry,” he tells himself, “ You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Hemingway is probably describing the happiest time of his life - married to Hadley whom he loves, probably the only woman he ever truly loved, living in beautiful Paris, moving among probable geniuses, and crafting his own literary legacy. It is a deeply evocative book. An older Hemingway manages to capture a more innocent time, a time when anything seemed possible, when everything seemed a bit more clear.

To be young and in Paris. It’s pure heaven. Especially when an adult you knows how it’s all going to end.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Last Days of Summer

Kaup Beach
You are not a beach person. You hate the sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. And never having learnt to swim well, you are afraid of the sea. So the weekend getaway to a beach one hopes will be an exception to the general feeling a beach evokes.
The Blue Matsya
The Blue Matsya is a lovely little house right on Kaup beach, about an hour away from Mangalore airport. It has blue slatted french windows that lead to a porch on the ground floor and a balcony on the first. Both of which look out into the sea, less than a 100 m away. Awesome location and you are quite smitten at first sight.
And then, even you, who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the water, realize the magic of close proximity to the sea. The sound of the waves, the rhythmic beat of it, the infinite stretch into the horizon. And if you happen to be sitting on The Blue Matsya’s balcony at night, with the lights of the house switched off, the intoxicant of your choice in your hand, the waves sounding a symphony in the background, the dark empty beach in front of you, the stars playing hide and seek with the clouds above you - well, you hit a moment of near perfection, when you begin to shed all those minor irritants at the back of your mind, when you tell yourself, I am happy now, in an Eckhardt Tolle kind of way.And then after a long while, you go back in and fall asleep to the lulling sound of the waves.
View from bedroom
You wake up to a glorious Saturday morning. You sit out on the porch, with Nancy Mitford on your Kindle and the beach still whispering its magic. You can sit there forever. But breakfast and tea come calling, and once done with that, you tell yourself, it would be a shame to refuse the invite of the water. So you go in to dip your toes and end up with sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. But you don’t fail to notice the water is cool, the sand is warm and the beach is virtually empty. You come back to the house and settle back on the porch with Nancy. The waves keep pounding the shore, the temperature climbs up and you catch yourself dozing. Until your stomach reminds you it’s time for lunch, which is just a phone call away.
But you decide to walk the kilometer to Ravi Anna’s for his fish. So you walk and you walk and lose your way and the sun is blazing hot, and just when you are beginning to question the sanity of the decision, you find yourself in this tiny place smelling of frying fish, right next to the highway. You sit on plastic chairs and eat fish curry and fried fish and red rice on a plantain leaf, and it’s as good a fish curry as any you have tasted in your keralite-i-know-all-about-fish life. You eat till you are stuffed and then you walk back along the highway. A bad decision - it’s hot and the concrete road has little charm. But you sweat yourself back up to the cool house by the beach and plonk yourself right back on the porch. An afternoon nap is inevitable, the sea breeze and the sound of the waves cooling you off. And this time you wake up to chai and mangoes.
Mangoes! Not the Mumbai Alphonso variety, but your childhood summer ones, the ones you threw stones at, to bring them down from trees, never knowing if they would have insects in them, the sweetness tasting sweeter because of the effort and the uncertainty. And then more plonking. On a hammock, now, swayed by the evening breeze, warmed by the setting sun. It’s a slice-of-paradise moment, one you can bring up in your mind’s eye when you are dozing off in a conference room in the not so distant future.
You rouse yourself and make the effort to get to the lighthouse, a 100 metres away from the house,
The Kaup lighthouse
down the beach. There are holiday makers there - semi-clad men and fully-clad women. You do a bit of jostling and climb up. The setting sun, the sea, the breeze. Ah! Again, a moment to capture in your inner camera, to savour later on a not-so-kind day. You walk back in semi-darkness to the house, where wine, the stars and more delicious food await you.
And so the last days of summer come to an end. You have a flight to catch that will take you back to life’s hustle. But a warm beach and a lovely house on it have created some memories that can make that hustle just a bit more bearable. And for that, you are immensely grateful.

For more information on The Blue Matsya, visit

Friday, May 23, 2014

Adulthood Imperatives

Brightness Falls

By Jay McInerney

Russel and Corrine Calloway are ‘America’s sweethearts’, a couple seen as model among their friends, acquaintances and even by themselves - beautiful, young, on their way to success. “Like Scandinavians, they inhabited a hygienic welfare state the laws of which didn’t necessarily apply outside the realm, and sometimes, when one of them expressed an opinion, an outsider wanted to say, Sure, that might be true for you two, but the rest of us, we’re still trying to find a warm body.” Jeff is their best friend, a writer with a successful first book. The scene is ‘80s New York, a time and place that has its own peculiar zeitgeist - of excessive ambition and greed, designer drugs, of a belief in entitlement, all coupled with soup kitchens and homelessness and street corner crime. Russel and Corrine and Jeff are products of the time; college mates and best friends, winging it through big city life.
Russel is an up and coming editor in a well-known publishing house, making far less money than the times warrant, yet acknowledged as someone who will ‘make it’. He exemplifies America during those times - “Propp was intrigued by Calloway’s mind precisely because it was so American… standing on firm ground where Victor descried quicksand. Calloway reminded Victor of those cartoon characters who were able to walk on the air so long as they didn’t know there was an abyss underneath them. Naive, in a word - but an interesting, almost exemplary naivete, having to do with youth and an admirable brashness.”
Jeff is Russel’s alter-ego, the successful author, loving his friends, yet unable to let go of his yearning for Corrine, and along the way, trying to ‘fill the big empty’ with drugs and alcohol, finding his own path to self-destruction. In the words of Corrine, he had ‘the dark eyes of an old soul’ as opposed to Russel’s who ‘had boyish wide blue eyes and was born the day before yesterday’.
Corrine is a stockbroker without the soul of one - “How can you like the Clash, punk-socialist band, and sell corporate equity at the same time? That was the inexplicable mystery of being Corrine Calloway at the age of thirty-one.” She is making a bit more money than Russel, yet but she does not really buy into the excessive optimism of the age, advising caution to her clients. But her cautionary advice has no impact on her reckless husband who throws himself into the whirlwind of the stock market bubble, leveraging himself completely, trying to make a bid for his publishing firm with the support of an unscrupulous Wall Street raider. Russel is sucked into the dream of big success and when, as dreams often do, it crashes along with the stock market, he wakes up to the reality of debt, a failing marriage and a broken friendship.
It is a simple enough story, of the fading of youth’s certainties, of a generation learning about what it means to fail, about the real meaning of relationships, about the impermanence of so many things, including life. Russel and Corrine grow up into the sort of adulthood that includes words like compromise and settling and loss.
It’s a story we have all heard before. You could say all great literature is really about the journey of growing up. McInerney has his own way of telling it though. Clever lines, pretty passages, descriptions that bring alive the time and place. “..there came a moment in February when the gray sky seemed to drop so low it brushed the top of one’s hair, while the slush reached over the tops of shoes and the dry skin on one’s face felt as if it were being stretched on a rack and cured for glove leather. Love itself seemed old and worn-out, like the shoes bleached white and brittle from the salt. This was the day that newcomers to the city called a travel agent, the old hands already holding tickets to warm islands.” And the dulling realization of impending adulthood - “He wanted to say he couldn’t live without her, but he was afraid that somewhere along the line he might have lost the romantic fanaticism of innocence which allowed him to host such absolute beliefs… By the time she hung up he felt dull and heavy, uncertain of anything except, perhaps, that his heart would never be simple again.”
McInerney can pack a punch with his word play. At the end, we share with Russel and Corrine that tinge of sadness at a world where the glitter is just a bit more faded, where ‘brightness and beauty and youth falling like snow out of the sky all around them, gold dust falling to the streets and washing away in the rain outside the church, down the gutters into the sea.’, where ‘intimacy with loss’ just gets a bit more pronounced as days go by. Adulthood as we all know, is not particularly appetizing. McInerney’s language makes the passage to it bearable.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Internal Monologues

Silent House

Orhan Pamuk

It is a narrative of a week in Cenethissar, a small town near Istanbul. A week when Fatma’s 3 grandchildren come visiting her in her old house in a once-a-year ritual. Fatma is old, bitter, cranky, a Miss Havisham-like recluse, lost in her memories. Recep is her Man Friday, living in the basement, a dwarf who is also Fatma’s husband’s bastard child from a maid servant, a secret Fatma is at pains to keep from her grand children. Faruk is the eldest grandchild, a historian, trying to work at a book whose plot and structure keep eluding him, drowning his existential angst in alcohol. Nilgun is his pretty, left-leaning, book-loving sister, a character we don’t quite grasp, almost left as a prop to further the plot along. Metin is the youngest grandchild, ambitious, dreaming of making it big in America, in with a rich, young crowd, chafing against the family’s relative poverty. And finally there is Hasan, Recep’s nephew, with memories of playing with Faruk, Nilgun and Metin, yet now grown far apart especially in political ideology - running around with the Islamic fundamentalist crowd, learning to hate the communists and the western fascists.
The book is a series of internal monologues of five of these characters - Fatma, Faruk, Metin, Hasan and Recep. In a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way, each of these monologues tries to make the characters real, allowing them a less caricature-ish feel. Because caricatures they definitely are - the Islamic fundamentalist, the well-meaning communist, the western liberal historian, the awed-by-America young man. The characters represent each of the warring factions in a Turkey poised for a coup. The monologues try and make their stories personal, stories of real people living in history-making times. Fatma is the central figure though - suspicious of everyone around her, especially of Recep, without whom she would be lost, still fighting her dead doctor-husband’s atheistic views, remembering how her husband brought their once well-off family to ruin with his money-sucking plans to bring ‘superior’ western philosophy and science to conservative Turkey., drinking his way to death as he realizes his plans may never bear fruit, stuck with a wife who would never understand him. Fatma’s story is probably emblematic of Turkey itself - of age old civilization fighting a more modern world view, fighting to keep a still-relevant past alive at a time when it is under attack from different directions.
The failure of the book though, is really the failure of these monologues. They drag and turn boring after a while. The characters are too pat, too stereotypical. And other than possibly Recep, there is no one who really garners a reader’s sympathy. This is one of Orhan Pamuk’s earliest works - and it is definitely not one that makes you want to read more of him. Having read My Name is Red, one knows he is capable of so much more.

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.