Monday, August 31, 2009

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf - Edward Albee

Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf , is one gem of a piece. Very powerful and emotional, extremely disturbing at the same time. A play in 3 acts over one night among two couple, one middle aged and the other young. Nick and Honey comes to the house of George and Martha as guests one night, after an evening party hosted by Martha's father and the owner of the institution where George and Nick works. As the night grew over them, and the alcohol consumption, the game of humiliation and insult and the internal struggle among the families are brought forward in all its dirty form. As it takes turn from one participant to the other to be the victim of the hour, bringing people to the verge of breakdown and physical abuse. A night long battle, betrayal , confrontations and mental torture makes every one exposed , and reconcile as the day break upon them.

Both Martha and George has to let out their accumulated bitterness of life. They both carry a huge burden of their past. Martha, a fathers daughter, grown up without her mother. Every attempt of her life to come out of the influence of her father failed. A failed first marriage, the compromise marriage with George who is six years younger to please her father and her subsequent failure in realising George to challenge her father. She wanted George to be smarter, take the reign of her fathers empire, to stand up to her father. To her disappointment, George failed to grow to that stature. Their inability to conceive and have children, which is her last resort in settling with her father only adds to the pain. George on the other hand has his on baggage to get rid off. His parents are died ( I killed them , he says) when he was young. Taking the moral responsibility of the death, he even writes a novel with this as a theme, only to be ridiculed and trashed by his father-in-law. His emotional and physical impotency plays a major role in his relationship with his wife and the world. In the end he invents a "son" for them and kills him in an accident as he has written in his novel, to decisively conclude the issue of potency and child with his wife and to succumbs to the fate. Even under this circumstance, we can see the glimpses of the fondness and affection between them surfacing often.

I cry alllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And George cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then, what we do, we cry, and we take our tears and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they are frozen and then...we put them ... in our drinks.

The insult and abuse does not spare anyone. In the second act, it turns towards Nick and Honey, exposing them with the bitter truth of their life. The story of Nick and Honey is not very different. They too are fighting the battle of of their own. Honey doesn't want a child but to remain a child herself. They know each other from childhood, and eventually marry each other. As the act progresses, they too comes out vulnerable and unhappy over the turn of things. They are not only witnessing the war between the other couple, but the're witnessing their own future unfolding.

This is one play with multiple interpretation possible. It could be a family drama or anger, frustration and despair, where the hidden feelings are brought to the open by the situation. There was also one interpretation here comparing it to the cold war era, the stand off between US and USSR. One of the idea could be to bring out the conflicts, turmoil, hope and despair of the people, hidden beneath their appearance, thus giving them the relief. At the end, as everyone is bruised and battered, the life opens to a new dawn.

One fantastic book, and regret not giving enough of my reading time on plays over the years.
Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf ?
Edward Albee
Pocket Books
242 Pages
Here are two superb essays on this book by Bill Johnson and Shirley Galloway

Friday, August 28, 2009

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door ; the TV is always on in the other room. Tell the others right away" No I dont want to watch TV... I'm reading. I dont want to be disturbed"

Ok, all set. Let us begin... Hey, there is a mix up. The second chapter of the book is not in continuation, but a repeat of the chapter one. Its seems to be misprinted. Reader, you have to go back to the bookshop and get a replacement. Well, you are not alone, there is another reader, a young lady with the same request. The book seller admits, that there was a issue from the printers. What you have read was from a Polish writer. You get your replacement book, is an entirely different story and you want to discuss this with your co-reader. On this pursuit, you tumble upon various books in the form of printed matter, manuscripts or translation. Each discovery leads to another, moving from the first chapter of one novel to another , from writers of one country/continent to other. You are not alone, the girl, with whom you form an alliance, to a level of falling in love with her. People associated with the novel and publishing industry are all part of this journey. The book seller, who gives you one misprinted book after other, the publisher who adds to the confusion with yet another set of manuscripts, the university professors of various language department fighting for the ownership of the book and writer, the translator who not only controls the outcome of the novel, but also indulge in fake literature in the name of translation ( which he operates in a different country), the writer himself reclusive, worrying about the reader ( and his interest) and the other writers ( to a point of jealousy) . There are also authorities trying to put clamp on literature by banning the books, confiscating and arresting the reader who carries the book, by circulating fake books instead of the original translation.

In ten chapters, you ( or the reader ) goes through the experience of his life time with the complexities of the books, reading, writing, translating and publishing quagmire. A post-modern novel by one of the masters of 20th century literature, is a demanding read. Switching between the protagonists experience of reading and seeking, the resulting first chapters of various novels in varying style, Italo Calvino creates a world of frustration, intellect and admiration to the readers. Each of the ten pieces were brilliant in its own way, modelled around some of the well known literature available at that time. Brilliant satire on the publishing industry and the various genre of literature writing.

It isn't an easy read. It does demand the readers attention and time. It takes a while, before you start getting a grip of things. After that, it had been an interesting and unputdownable read. A clever novel demands a second read in the near future; I don't think I could understand everything what Italo Calvino has to convey.

We are discussing this master piece at length in our book group. You can read them here.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Italo Calvino ( translated from Italian is William Weaver )
Wintage Books
260 pages
Read More : Matt.Todd

Friday, August 21, 2009

Snakepit - Moses Isegawa

" We all have things to regret; it is the human condition, General. Maybe you more than I. I have one rule in life: I don't look back. That is how I have survived to reach this age. Somebody blasts me, I blast back. If I don't, I have myself to blame. If one day you become president, send a whole battalion of your sharpshooters to arrest me. If you send boys, I will kill them all, and you wouldn't want to begin your reign with burials, would you? "

It is the common story of all the countries under military dictatorship. We have heard similar stories in many forms. The actions are the same, only the name and country differ. Military coup, followed by mass murder, exodus, violence, loot, abduction, missing civilians, torture, rebellion, which invariably ends ( or restarts) with yet another coup.

Uganda was in the forefront of the news in the 70's and for the notorious ruler called Idi Amin. Arguably one of the most murderous of the rulers in the second half of the 20th century ( 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 people were afraid to have been killed during his regime).

Moses Isegawa, an Ugandan born writer, takes us through the Uganda during the 8 year old regime. This is not a recollection of historical event, but a novel set at these times. Bat Katanga, newly graduated from Cambridge returns to his homeland in search of job and fortune, to serve the new regime. He believed, that the newly emerging Uganda is more lucrative for his career to the safe havens of west. It took less than a week for him to land in a dream role under the ministry of power controlled by General Bazooka. A government mansion on the lake side, envious sports car, a powerful job , he had all that one looks for early in life. Soon, his name was the talk in the higher circle , for his efficient way of handling the business, his intelligence and dedication. Other ministries was in need of him, permanently or on a short term assignment. The pride of General Bazooka, soon become his worry. Victoria, a close confidante of General Bazooka was soon entrusted with a task of shadowing him and tracking him. Victoria and Bat soon fallen for each others charm, and 'barren' lady become the mother of Bat's child.

But the situation is not all that safe for General Bazooka. Once the second in command, the right hand man of Marshal Amin, is now not in favour of the Marshal. A British mercenary called Robert Ashes, had better access to the Marshal, and was given the all important role of anti- smuggling unit , taken away from General Bazooka. Robert Ashes influence of Amin is increased day by day, so is the power struggle and rivalry between him and General Bazooka. Each fought a proxy war of abducting and torturing, each others men.

Bat's relationship with Victoria soured after the entrance of Babit to the scene. Soon, Victoria was thrown out of the house, replacing her with Babit. In the power struggle between the General Bazooka and Marshal Amin, Bat is taken as prisoner for his alleged involvement in corruption in an equipment deal involving Saudi Royal family. While the detention and torture continued, Bat gets his release after 6 months, after the intervention by his friend, a member of British Parliament, giving a moral victory to Robert Ashes.

"How does it feel to be back?" the Professor asked.
"Feels like f***. I dont have a job to wake up to, no home, no guards. I am a bit afraid of soldiers now. I am a bit afraid of you. I am a bit afraid of myself. It is great, isn't it?"
The situation turns worse in Uganda, after Bat's brother aligned himself with the revolutionaries, and start bombing key locations and blowing up the cars of prominent people, including that of the wife of General Bazooka. Victoria has her revenge by sending people to kill Babit. Though caught and tried under civilian court, she was left free with the intervention of General Bazooka. As the unrest increased in the country, General Bazooka sets the trap for Robert Ashes, partially succeeding. Though he could not finish his rival as planned, Robert Ashes escaped the attempt and flee to South Africa, settling in his farm. General Bazooka too ends his life after he lost his wife and children ( disappeared without trace), while the fearsome Marshal Amin leave the country and new regime takes control.

This is not a story of Amin, not a story of Bat Katanga or about General Bazooka. It is the Uganda in the 70s under Idi Amin, and all these characters are replica of the real events that might have happened there. That is the positive and the short coming of the novel. While the author is able to portray the life of fear and uncertainty, keeping the reader on the edge, the fragmented narration moving from one character to another ( as the centre of action) does loose the continuity or flow in the story. For a while the story was around Bat and his experience, soon taking it on the power struggle between General Bazooka and Robert Ashes , into the fortune teller Dr.Ali and Marshal Amin.

Action packed, horror filled tale told in crisp pace and fluid use of language. Marshal Idi Amin is an omnipresent figure in the story ( rarely appearing himself) but the rest are characters derived/adapted from real life people. Very powerful, dark and intense novel of Uganda portrayed brilliantly.

Moses Isegawa
Alfred A Knopf, Publisher , NewYork
259 Pages
Read More : Complete Review, New York Review of Books

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Spare Room - Helen Garner

'When a person dies',she said, ' little bit of them flies away from their body'
'Yes' , I said.'I've heard people say that.What a beautiful
'It's called a soul'

Nicola comes to Melbourne from Sydney, to undergo a special treatment at Theodore Institute for Cancer. The treatment , mainly consists of Vitamin C injections on alternate days and Ozone therapy on the other. Helen, the narrator, an old time friend of Nicola, has to accommodate her for the period of treatment. The novel starts with Helen preparing her spare room for the visitor, with a quote from from the Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley, : "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep."

Theodore Institute , practices alternate medicine and the initial interaction makes Helen doubtful of their intentions. The sick, however is in good spirit and believes ( to make others believe that she believe) in them and boast to recover in two weeks time. As the days progressed, it becomes difficult for Helen. She becomes restless, gets angry and helpless straining the sacred part time nursing job. All this does not stop her from nursing the sick, taking care of her, washing her clothes and cooking for her. Her personal life also goes out of gear, shutting door to her grand children living next door hardly able to sleep, unable to complete her other usual jobs.
You're angry and scared," Helen shouts at Nicola. "But you won't admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade.... I'm sick with it. I can't breathe."
Nicola on her part does not make it easy either. She is on a different war, mocking at the face of death, with her optimism. She can't loose hope and succumb to the pain, however unbearable the treatments are. Each day she returns back after the Vitamin C injections, barely able to stand, but insists on continuing until the end of three weeks. A single woman, with no family apart from a sister and her daughter as known relative, has to put up a brave front, for survival.

The relationship is becoming fragile for Helen as she is unable to continue, and fails to convince her friend on regular medicine or on a palliative care help. Unable to stand the suffering of her friend during the injection, she lodge an official complaint against the Theodore Institute, looses cool and shouts at the Doctor in the process. At one time, "I wanted to smash the car into a post, but for only her to die - I would leave the keys in the ignition, grab my backpack and run for my life."

At the end of three weeks, Nicole returns to Sydney, but this time to convinced to do the treatment at the regular institute, where they diagnosed the cancer affected her vertebrae , needing an emergency operation.
'I thought I was on the mountain top' she said in a voice that splintered. 'But I'm only in the foothills' .............'Death's at the end of this, isn't it'.
She continue to live for few more months, nursed by her relatives and friends , including Helen, before succumbs to the eventual death.

This is a book of love, friendship,compassion, despair, tiredness, frustration and suffering. It isn't easy to live with a terminally ill person. It calls for very strong character. Especially, if the person is not your blood relative and is not an easy person to handle.

Helen Garner writes the book from her own experience of nursing one of her friend ( Jenya Osborne ) when she was dying. While the general mood of the book is of pathos, the inner turmoil of anger, sympathy , helplessness etc are depicted honestly and convincingly. Nice, little book.
The Spare Room
Helen Garner
Canongate Books
195 Pages
Rs 424
Further Read : The Australian, NY Times , The Age

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Mahatma Gandhi : His Life & Ideas - Charles F Andrews

Mahatma Gandhi , is the greatest social and spiritual influencer of the 20th century. Having lead a country of poor people against the ruling British within the principles of non-violence, while continuously working on social and religious reforms of the people of the country, he remain one of the most original thinker and leader of the human history. His ideals have won global acclaim, with followers from various generations across the globe , like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela , Vaclav Havel among others.

There are many studies and research done on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. There are innumerable books published by people who had been associated with him during his life time, and by those who have embraced Gandhism as a way of life. While there are many of them are very popular and significance in the study of the phenomenon called Gandhi, many of them are threading the same path of admiration and awe. This is where this book by C.F.Andrews is different. C.F.Andrews, the only person who could address Gandhi with his maiden name as Mohan, was one of the closest friend of him and have many association with Gandhi from his days at South Africa.

The book was written in the late 20s , hence will give you the perspective of the Gandhian Principles in his early days of struggle. Andrews look at each aspect of Gandhi's philosophy, taking excerpts from Gandhi's own writing and interpreting with his experience with Gandhi. This books gives us the character genius struggling against himself and continuously seeking truth during the years of his early life as the leader of the masses.

Initial part of the book is discussing Gandhi's religious believes and his response to Islam and Christian religion. As he pointed out, Gandhi's believes are deeply rooted to the Hindu way of living, his openness to the ideas from other religion is very clear.

"..... I came to the conclusion that all religions were right, and every one of them imperfect, because they were interrupted with our poor intellectuals, sometimes with our poor hearts, and more often misinterpreted. "
He is less critical of the Islam, while preaching greater harmony among Hindus and Muslims, he is very critical to the Christian missionary operations in India. He says,

"As a true friend, as I claim to be of the missionaries of India and of the Europeans, I speak to you what I feel from the bottom of my heart. I miss receptiveness, humility, willingness or your part to identify yourselves with the masses of India." and elsewhere " It will not be denied - I speak from experience - that many of the 'conversions' are only so-called. In some cases the appeal has gone not to the heart but to the stomach; and in every case a conversion leaves a sore behind it, which I venture to think is avoidable".
His early days and life in South Africa, where the initial seeds of his Non-Violence Non- Cooperative fight against the oppressors begun, and his association with many of his friends from other religion is explained, giving us an early idea of the formation of his principles. The influence of Tolstoy on his life, with few correspondence with the legendary writer and the subsequent creation of the Tolstoy Farm in Africa was also dealt with in detail.

Subsequent discussion were on those fundamental principles on which his life depends on. Satyagraha ( soul- force) , Ahimsa , Swadeshi ("Swadeshi is that spirit within us which restrict us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote."), Khaddar movement , the issue of untouchability were each looked upon through the writings of Gandhi. There had been moments of truth which he had to face, where the decision had to be taken against the written principles, such as deciding to kill a struggling calf in his ashram, the plan to physically chase away the monkey menace, threatening the habitat at the Sabarmati Ashram, his initial cooperation with the British rulers ( whom he admire for their open society and other principles) etc were interesting to read.

Rabindranath Tagore is another close friend of C F Andrews and it is interesting to note the relation between the great poet had with Gandhi. Two great leaders had mutual respect and admiration for each others work and ethics, while disagreeing on certain topics with their own way of interpretation.

There were also coverage and interpretation on some of the historical events that has determined the way of the freedom struggle as major milestones. The Chowri-Chora incident, Jalianvala bagh , Bombay riots, the arrest and trial of Gandhi , his 21 day fast in Delhi , through the eyes of a keen observer.

One of the writing was very moving and touchy when he writes during the 21 days fast.
"Instinctively, my gaze turned back to the frail, wasted, tortured spirit on the terrace, bearing the sins and sorrows of his people. With a rush of emotion there came to memory of the passage from book of lamentations - 'Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by ? Behold and see, if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow.' And in that hour of vision I knew more deeply, in my own personal life, the meaning of the Cross."
Gandhi is also aware of the necessity of social reform along with freedom for self governance and economic growth. Woman empowerment, Untouchability and the eradication of poverty were the topmost priorities for him. He also realises the necessity to associate with the poor people , but realises the challenges as ,
"We, the educated classes, have received our education through a foreign tongue. We have therefore not reacted upon the masses, We want to represent the masses, but we fail. They recognise us not more than they recognise the English Officers."
This book is not the complete history of the freedom struggle, or a biography of Gandhi. It was originally published in 1930, before some of the major activities which was lead by Gandhi and the eventual freedom. But his concluding paragraph has the eternal truth when he writes "..but what has not yet been found in the West is a moral genius of such commanding spiritual personality as to be able to unite and combine these various organised efforts into one overwhelming movement of Non-Violence which should be strong enough to sweep away on a tide of world approval the opposite forces."

C.F.Andrews , himself , does not subscribe to every ideals of Gandhi. The infamous 'celibacy' principle of Gandhi, makes him to have long drawn letter exchanges between the two. Fantastic book, giving us fascinating insights to a noble soul in his quest for eternal truth, using personal letters, correspondences, articles and editorials, his books and personal interactions.
-------------------------------------------------Mahatma Gandhi - His Life & Ideas
Charles F Andrews ( Foreword by Arun Gandhi )
Jaico Books
301 Pages
Rs 250