Sunday, December 07, 2008

Miscellany

It’s been a while since this blog has seen some action. There have been books, a few movies. Average stuff, not worth a visit to blogger I think. Unless you have an evening to spare and wish to drive away tedium by inflicting your opinion on a silent web page.

Shashi Deshpande is an Indian writer I had never read. I picked up That Long Silence because I came across her name in a magazine that described her as one of the foremost Indian women writers in English. It’s a tedious read. When Jaya’s husband is accused of fraud, the couple coops down in an old flat in Dadar to tide the time through. In those two weeks, Jaya has enough time (her kids are away with a friend) to think about her life and the relationships that make it up. Surprisingly there is no one except her dead father who she seems to care for. Her childhood comes across as a dreary one with family politics holding sway. The matriarchs on either side of the family rule the roost and they come across as unsympathetic and stern beyond forbearance. And when her father dies, Jaya’s life is pretty much made joyless. She marries Mohan, has two kids and puts her writing career on hold. At the end of the book though, she attempts to break her long silence when she reaches some kind of realization – that she herself will need to make the effort to make relationships work, to change the situation of her life. It’s a pretty sudden insight with no big events that shape it. I guess life is that way – a slow movement towards some kind of understanding of a bigger picture.

Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time is quite a different place and time. As in the best of McEwan’s books, there is one shocking incident that transforms the protagonist and his circumstances. In this case, the protagonist is Stephen Lewis, a children’s writer and the incident is the kidnapping of his daughter from a supermarket just in a few moments when his back is turned. Both he and his wife have different ways of coping with it. He goes ballistic trying to find her, even after everyone begins to realize that little Kate is not coming back. His wife withdraws… into her books and art and music. This is complemented by Stephen’s friend Charles descent into childhood – almost a replacement for the lost child. It is a slow internal recovery process for Stephen. But he does eventually get there, happily with his wife in tow. Charles is however not so lucky. It’s vintage McEwan. Liked it quite a bit, though it never comes even close to the emotional punch Atonement gave me.

Then there was the strange book called The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant. Strange because it is written by someone called Merchant and it describes a hard-core Tamil Brahmin lifestyle, almost flawlessly. It is Merchant’s debut novel and it is a pretty decent one at that. At least it starts off well. With Janaki Venkatakrishnan, her sister Mallika and her father in their Sripuram agrahaaram. The death of her mother when she is 13, means Janaki has to drop out of school and look after the house. In this she is helped by her widowed chithi (her mother’s younger sister) who she realizes in a shocking revelation is having an affair with her father. Her hatred for her chithi, her hopelessness in her future and the suicide of her best friend Kamala lead Janaki to do the unimaginable in a traditional Brahmin household – she runs away and gets married to a Muslim actor. Her father disowns her and it is left to her younger sister Mallika to piece the family together again. Janaki’s return prompted by a plea for monetary help from her chithi for her father’s medical needs brings mixed feelings in Mallika. Mallika can never completely forgive her sister for abandoning her to her father and aunt. But there is finally a realization that both of them were caught in the same trap – of stultifying tradition and narrow-minded provincialism. The strength of the book in my opinion is the description of the life in an agrahaaram in small town Tamil Nadu. The kolams and the daavanis and the maamis, the classical music that is so much a part of daily life, the early morning wait for the milk van, the ponnu paarkal with the veena in hand… it brought back Madras in vivid detail. Nostalgia is a good enough reason for a book, I think.

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