Sunday, September 30, 2012

അടയാളങ്ങൾ - Sethu

In the contemporary Malayalam writers, Sethu is one one the prominent names. His books stand apart in the general melee of publishing. The latest Marupiravi, was also a good attempt. Taking up his 2005 book, which supposed to have won the prestigious 'Vayalar award' in 2006, was with a lot of hope and expectation. However, this book did not live up to the expectation one had on this writer.

Priyamvada Menon is a middle aged HR executive in a respected private firm, living with her college going daughter Neethu. The mother -daughter relationship is that of a close friendship, especially after her seperation from her US residing husband Ranjith Menon. The nasty separation, seemed to have made a lasting impression on the daughter and hence her dependancy on her mother is beyond expression. However, as expected in such a relation, it has to go through the period of distrust and disown. Everything started with a trip to Goa by {Priyamvada on an HR conference, where she presented a paper on the plight of workers at a Sugar Mill in Meenakshipuram. The story of old employees, committing suicide at the age of 59 ( few months prior to their retirement) in order to secure the job to their children, was received with a lot of enthusiasm. She had a lot of fans on her ability to portray a question of ethics and those cases beyond the known HR guidebooks. One of her idea of being at the conference is not only to present her paper, but to meet her mentor Prof.Roy Choudhury. A meeting which did not go too well with her,. She recalls later ' an idol should remain an idol, it should never appear in flesh and blood, demeaning its own values.

The rift between the mother and daughter now increased with them busy with their own life and not willing to concede their position. Adding to this Priyamvada's own struggle at her office, working around a factory modernizing scheme,trying to garner the support of the warring workers were taking her time. Bringing the fiery Meenakshipuram HR lady to her folds , as an assistant at the factory and as a sister to her own life, did not yield the desired calm in her life. However, as it is expected the issues at the official front as well as the home front.

Conflicts in a mother-daughter relationship. At the outset, a standard, cinematic, cliched plot. Except for the clever incorporation of the subplots related to her work as an HR head of a private firm, and the symbolic Meenakshipuram incident, where the employees of a sugar mill commits suicide at the age of 59, in order to get the job to their direct descendant, the book is very very ordinary. The new trends in writing, with working professional women in lead, the independent living, open discussions between parents and kids etc could be a welcome change. Notwithstanding his ability in handling the subject with a good control of language, to me this is not one of those books that stands out in Malayalam literature, irrespective of the numerous awards it is supposed to have won.
അടയാളങ്ങൾ ( 2005)


DC Books

276 Pages

Rs 125

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Woman & the Ape - Peter Høeg

This year's Nobel speculation had few names which aren't those in the running for a while. Ladbroke, the betting site in their probable list had the name of Peter Høeg at 100/1 odds. I have been carrying two of his books in my ever growing list of books pile. The woman and the Ape is the slimmer book and I thought it would be appropriate to read him now, as his name is in the list of probable. I'm not very enthusiastic about his prospects after reading this book. However, to many of his readers, this is one of his weakest book and it may be too premature to judge this writer on the experience of a single book.

The Woman and the Ape, begins well with the arrival of an ape to the shores of London. Escaping the captivity, it was rescued by an animal enthusiast, Andrea Burden and was brought to her brother Dr Adam Burden, soon to be the new president of the Regent's Park Zoological Gardens. Adam's alcoholic wife Madelene, at first intrigued and develop curiosity on the animal ( now called Erasmus). It is evident soon that the intention of her husband is not all that ethical, as the experiment on the Ape, goes to the level of causing permanent damage to the captive. She set out to find the truth behind the clandestine activities, often in disguise and away from the comfort of her rich cushy home. At a turning point, she escapes with the Ape to the woods, causing turmoil in the family. Until now, the book seems to be going ok. Now, set to teach the intelligent Ape, the language of the humans, and living with the ape for over 10 days of love fest , she wanted to make a new beginning to her dull life. The action now moves from Adam and Madelene to the Ape, who seems to be in control of himself and have a definite plan for himself , which include the kidnapping of Madelene. The next few pages of intense action with the revelation of the Apes in the influential positions of the administration and the test of various levels of human-animal conflicts

I'm not a great fan of these kind of literature. I am not sure if some one can call it science fiction or experimental fiction. One can understand the need of Madelene to escape from the current constraints of her living. Ape seems to be the possible escape route for her, and her anger and frustration is directed towards her husband. Adam is busy with his own personal life with his ambition to make it big in the field of his interest with whatever means, in which he succeeds. Ape, with his own hidden agenda, plays a step ahead of them and managed to work his way through using the vulnerability of Madelene.

Interesting book, non regular narrative, clear and stand out characterisation and easy read. However, on the whole, this books does not deliver to the promise. May be the shift of the narrative to the Ape, from Madelene caused the disruption. His attempt to satiric portray of London's society and academic community, Attempt to bring in the inter species love affair , to the level of being physical love ( I remember reading a similar instant in one of Alena Rayes novel) and Apes learning of Human Language the thriller type finish, all that was almost silly and unimpressive. The pretext is very interesting and an idea of human-humanoid interaction is interesting, but the result it delivered is not in line with the idea and structure. He may be a good writer, but this book did not live up to the expectations. May be, Smilla's Sense of Snow, the other book I have , will be much better.
The Woman & the Ape ( 1996 )

Peter Høeg ( translated from Danish by Barbara Haveland 1996)

The Harvill Press

229 Pages
NY Times

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Stupid Guy Goes to India - Yukichi Yamamatsu

If you are an non-Indian and have experienced India, you are likely to rate this book high. Coming to India for job, Yamamatsu a Manga artist, lands up In Delhi. The next 200 pages are his attempt to find foot hold in India trying to publish Manga Books here in India.

Yukichi's arrival to India itself was marred with troubles. He called the Pak Embassy to start with before getting the India Embassy. The typical travellers issues awaits him as , the need of Visa , the costly ticket, unpleasant journey by Air India, general confusion and chaos at the airport, and missing bags . He has his own vested interests. The market in Japan is dull and the only job he know is to draw. India is a huge country with vast population , hence coming to India and publish a few books is a viable idea, especially Indians are not exposed to Manga style of comics. He had been warned by his friends and colleagues about various things to worry about India and the precautions to be taken. Moreover, he does not know the language, not even English.

After reaching the hotel, his initial idea was to find an accommodation. Small, cheap and a place where he can do his job. His struggle with the house, the Japanese Embassy, the schools which teaches Japanese for a translator for the Japanese books, the equipment needed to carry out his tasks ; each had its own impact. The next 6 months of his eventual living in the capital of India, trying to get his book translated, printed and distributed is what the content of this book. He goes through numerous hurdles trying to overcome each in his own way.

The book is presented in the typical 'manga' style and structure. The reading is from back to front for the normal readers and from right to left. It's a casual read. Funny & hilarious if you are a non-Indian and a bit under whelming if you are an Indian. It has all the ingredients you expect a foreigner to see in India; cows on the road, crowded market places, general confusion with the language, improper mannerisms of the locals, lack of ethics and professionalism, dirty lanes, pickpockets, prostitutes, cheaters , filthy slums etc etc. The art per se, is very good and his observation of his surrounding, to the minute detail is brilliant. His drawings of Indian Deities, Mahatma Gandhi and multiple Indian characters are very good. However, beyond some good drawings and his general experiences and 'conformation' of the general view about India, this book has nothing else to offer because there is no compelling story apart from his own confused self through out the book.
Stupid Guy Goes to India ( 2008)

Yukichi Yamamatsu ( translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian in 2011 )

Blaft Publications

230 pages
Hindustan times , DNA, The Hindu

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Six Plays of Strindberg - August Strindberg

The recently concluded Bangalore Theater Festival, staged Stindberg's master piece Miss Julie, performed by an amateur troupe from Delhi. The book was with me for over a month and I thought this was the right time to read Strindberg. Unlike some of the older play you read, what impresses one with these plays are its relevance despite a century passed since they were originally written and staged. This is my first read of strindberg and I guess, these are the best and essential reading of Strindberg.

Six plays in this collection are written between 1887 and 1907 , reflective of his progress as a writer. Though all the plays are good, I was deeply impressed with 'Easter' and 'The Father'. Influences of "Expressionism" and "naturalism" of the 19th century artistic concepts are evident in his plays.

Both 'The Father' and 'Miss Julie' work around the 'battle of sexes' theme, where the feminine gender perceived to be taking upper hand often in the negative shades. In 'The father' we see the husband and wife trying to take control of the life of their only daughter. husband wants to send his daughter away fo rhigher education and the progressive way of living. Fearing , she will loose the hold on her daughter, the wife conjures up plans to scuttle his decision playing around the basic nature of the husband-wife relationship. Her attempt to protect her authority goes as low as creating doubt in his mind about the parentage of the child. She even manages to work around the rest of the crew in making them believe about his mental state and manipulate every one, In then end the father succumbs to the loss of his daughter, his pride and his senses dropping dead with a  heart attack.

Miss Julie, again work on a similar theme. Miss Julie, heir apparent of a wealthy baron, uses her charm to to work her magic with her valet. In her attempt to shake off from the monotonous life and add little fun, she dances at the servants midsummer eve with Jean. The play act get serious with she following him into the kitchen, where Jean's fiancee Christine is cooking. The politics of power thus play out between the trio. For Julie, being the upper class and daughter of the count, has power and control over the others. Jean on the other hand has the male authority over the rest, but also learned through his wide travel across Europe. Christina and Jean are also free from the prejudice of the upper class. The battle for superiority, in subtle form continues through out the night which began with flirtation progressed into a love affair. In the end, unable to shackle out of the maze of existence, the only way out suggest was the suicide of Julie.

Stronger a one-act play is loosely based on his own experience. At the time of writing this play, it wsa said that he was having an affair with a 17 year old actress, while entertaining another two love relationship. However, his wife seems to have stood by him through out this and at the end of each affair he returned back to her. Madame X, middle aged lady trying to save their marriage, by working it out with Mademoiselle Y. A play starts with cordial interaction between two ladies, changes into a powerful monologue of anger, hate and desperation by Madam X, at the end of which she thanks Y for teaching her husband to love.

Starting on a Maundy Thursday through to Easter Eve, "The Easter" goes through the despair and hope of a family riddled with debt , whose future is in the hands of the vicious creditor. To add to their woes, the mentally unstable sister comes back from the sanatorium. As the days progressed, the changes and hopes in their life is visible through the changes in the external world. Winter is over and the ice is melting. Sun is slowly seen in the outside and autumn is setting in. The day of crucification (his father was arrested and jailed for false crime) to the day of resurrection is obvious. To me this setting and the indirect , very subtly symbolic expression of hope was the highlight of the play.

A dream play was very different from the rest. Daughter of Indra ( the leader of Gods as per Hindu Mythology) comes to earth to understand and experience the human predicament. "because I want to know about human being and life-to find out if it is really as hard as they say".  Indra agrees:

Descend and see, and hear, then come again
and tell me if their lamentations
and their complaints are justified

Through several encounters and experiences, she tries to learn and understand the human conditions before returning to heavens. The characters are symbolic and depicts various facets of life. There are people representing various professions and believes, people in different social structure. As is the performance, the characters emerge, dissolve change shape in accordance to the scene.

The Ghost sonata, an experimental play is much more complex in nature. An accidental encounter of a student, who apparently performed a brave deed, with an old man changes their lives for ever, On the invitation from the Old man, he accepts to attend the dinner at the colonels residence where he meets a hoard of characters each expresses their life experiences. It is here he realises, after falling in love with the colonel's daughter, that he has ended up in a dead house. I guess, there could be various interpretations and understanding of this play. I could also sense some continuation from 'the Easter' in few characters and schemes.

Phenomenal set of plays from one of the masters of modern theater. The eternal relevance of his theme makes these play enjoyable even after 100s of years.
Six Plays of Strindberg ( The Father(1887), Miss Julie( 1888), The Stronger(1889) , Easter(1900), A Dream Play(1901), The Ghost Sonata (1907) )

August Strindberg ( translated from Swedish by Elizabeth Sprigge 1955)

Anchor Books

304 Pages

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Too Loud a Solitude - Bohumil Hrabal

'For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story'

For 35 years Hantá has been working in a press, compacting old and discarded books and papers into pulp. His acquaintance with books and words are so high that he end up 'rescuing' books from the jaws of the massive press, by sneaking them out. These books occupy the majority of his single room attic, threatening to topple over and crush him. He scared about the possibility of the only human being crushed under the debris of books. To avoid the monotonous nature of his work and his loneliness, he has turned alcoholic ( “drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery”). He has no family , relatives or friends and his life is spent between press and his book, barring an occasional visit to the pub. His mother died long ago, and an uncle whom he frequent ( who after retirement as a Railway Signal man, erected a signal post in his courtyard with the help of his friends) also died some time ago. Now that his tenure at the press is coming to an end, 5 more years to go, he is also worried about his future and contemplating a similar action, of buying a second hand press and install in his attic.

Despite his idiotic outlook and alcoholic spurts , he is a learnt man. He can quote from Kant, Derrida and other philosophers at will, and have spent a long time reading the books he managed to take out.
"Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol..."
Despite his physical out look of a rag, dirty , unwashed and illiterate drunkard, he has profound wisdom of words from his books. He often wonders "which of his thoughts come from me and which one from the books". His thoughts, comes outs as first person narrative, is often riddled with his reminiscence of his few unsuccessful relationships one Manca, who splash 'shit' over the other dancers at a party and a gypsy girl much later.

The war is over and the world around him is changing. The country is now under the autocratic rule. The technology is advanced and there are newer press is installed in other parts of the town, which calls for lesser number of manpower and faster and more effective. He is not able to come to terms with these changes and his visit to one of the new press to understand the system, only managed to terrify him and increase his worries of his future. The inevitable had to come, as his boss installs new machines and labours skilled enough to handle the newer methods and machines, asking him to leave the job. In the last chapter, Hantá dreams about the collapse of the civilization and the system under the new press, as the building, the roads, the populace and town crumbles under the heavy arms of the giant press, taking him along.

To Hanta, his existence is revolved around the press and the books. Every efforts from his side to go along with the changing world had been futile. As he noted,
"everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
The book, originally written in 1976, but was published only by 1989. It might be against the totalitarian regime of the Republic, even though there are no direct references. Hanta's life and fate is that of every human being. The isolation in society, the solitude one feel among chaos and the maddening world, the comfort under your own settings and inability to get out of the zone are something universal and eternal. Hanta's own reflections of his past is limited to few failed attempts to get a companion in life. As he is crumbling, the entire universe of his, is crumbling along with him.

You don't need to write mammoth books to create an impact. What a 1000+ pages book could not do, was managed by sub 100 pages, if they are conceived and handled by masters. Having read "Closely Observed Trains" a few months ago, I was hugely influenced by Bohumil Hrabal and the quest for his other works thus began. Many of his admirers recommended 'Too Loud a Solitude" and here it is. My respect and admiration for this writer only increased post these two books.

Its pure magic, that is in these pages. Hrabal's language, his voice , his style is brilliant. The book is often funny and the character is idiotic. However, the omnipresent irony, the pathos is evident as you read the pages through, coming to a most fitting end to the narrative. As is with the previous book I read, this too demand a few re-reading. I am overwhelmed.
Too Loud a Solitude ( 1977)

Bohumil Hrabal ( translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim 1990)


98 Pages
Wiki entry, The Asylum

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Wrath of an Emperor ( Krishnavatara II ) - K M Munshi

The part 1 of the book ended with the death of King Kamsa. Taking off from the same point K M Munshi, continues the journey through the life of Krishna post the death of Kamsa. Kamsa is dead to the comfort of many, the street rejoiced, there were celebrations and festivities around Yadava land. Some of the deserted Yadava clan leaders are now coming back. King Ugrasena and the elders now meet to decide the future of the land. Ugrasena is aging and so are most of the leaders. They need to elect some one who can lead the Yadava's in the future. Unanimous choice had been Krishna, which he refuses. Hence, the selection of 'Prince' is inconclusive. Death of Kamsa is not received well with his erstwhile allies. The mighty king of Magadh Empire Jarasandha is fuming. Kamsa, his son in law has been killed by two cowherds despite the presence of a large contingent of 'Magadh Warriors'. He plans revenge, and with the support of his other allies, decides to invade the Yadavas and inflict destruction of their kingdom.

Fragmented Yadava's can not resist the might of Jarasandha. They have no leader, nor an army equipped or trained to support the kingdom. Krishna offers to flea, as the emperor's wrath is against Krishna and Balarama for the murder of his son-in-law. The advancing army of Jarasandha was informed about the escape of the young price and Balarama by an envoy of Yadava's, thus chaning the track of the advancement. Krishna and Balarama had no place to go as most of the small kingdom were frightened of Jarasandha. Vidarbha king Bhishmaka , though likes Krishna, was in control of his son Rukmi, who call the shots and befriends Jarasandha. Karavirapura, other large empire is known to have his anger against the Yadava's. The only place they could escape to was to the Garuda kingdom of Gomantaka, over the Western Ghats. However, the advancing army managed to lay siege of the hills. Jarasandha, on advise of Bhishmaka, managed to set the hill on fire, only to be quenched by some clever maneuver from Krishna, who diverted the sea to the plains of Gomantaka. In the fierce battle that followed, the Garuda Warriors, upbeat by the support of Krishna and Balarama managed to defeat the might of Jarasandha. Jarasandha himself was broken and defeated by Balarama, only to be saved by the intervention of Krishna from an ominous death from the hands of Balarama.

The shame and failure did not demoralise Jarasandha. His pledge to take revenge is now only doubled. His name and power has taken a beating from the hands of two youngsters, who are nothing but cowherds. He has to now plan his move carefully. He need vast support and a support that is locked and sealed with better relationship. Thus started the plan of getting Vidarbha and Chedi together in a relation. He planned to get his grand daughter married to Rukmi, the young prince of Vidarbha and instructed to get Rukmini, sister of Rukmi to the powerful prince of Chedi, Shishupala. coming in a wedlock thus re-iterating their already pledged alliance, can thus be used to destroy the Yadava's, whose only strength is in those two youngsters. Despite the resistance of Rukmini, the plan to 'stage manage' her 'swayamvara' was planned. Select princes were called, and omitted the Yadava's as they have no official prince. Yadava's were upset but had no means of confronting the enemy. Krishna and Balarama on their part start preparing the young yadavas in arms and riding chariots. The 'swayamvara' had to be stopped and once again they proved their mettle by tactically intervening at Vidarbha, spoiling the 'swayamvara' preparations.

The emperor Jarasandha is now furious. All his plans were defeated by the clever cowherd. It is essential for his pride to teach them a lessen. He joined with his strong ally moved their forces towards Mathura. Once again, Yadavas are in trouble. They have no army to prevent the massacre and destruction. The only way is to retreat, as advised by Krishna to one of their friendly kingdoms. The long migration to 'dwaraka' thus begin whose King was helped to regain his lost power by Balarama and Uddhava. Krishna, returned to the valley to divert and disrupt the advancing enemy to gain time for his people to reach safe havens. Mathura was destroyed by the rage of Jarasandha, but a Mathura with no inhabitants and no valuables to loot. The regrouped Yadavas, then returned to prevent the 'swayamvara' of Rukmini, arranged for the second time by the Vidarbha king on insistence of Jarasandha, and abducted the princess Rukmini. The second part ends with the abduction of Rukmini, while it largely focussed on the Emperor Jarasandha's wrath and Krishna's miraculous deeds again and again to save his people and maintain 'dharma'.

While that is the story, what was impressive about this part of the Krishnavatara was the way K M Munshi treated the subject. The Krishna we see here is a young prince, trying to protect his people from a huge and powerful enemy. The heroics are not always in confronting. He knew the strength of his opponent and the weakness of his own people. Hence he cleverly managed and planned his actions, be it fleeing the emperor and diverting the attention and the anger towards him, sparing his people, or by shifting the entire populace to safe places. You also see clever manipulations between the kingdoms, the alliances formed and broken, the battle plans and trickery. What we witnessed in these pages continued through out the history of mankind. You see political alliances formed between countries, the alliances sealed with marriages. The helplessness of smaller kings against the might of a large army.

Though Krishna continue to perform miracles in tackling some of the dredged criminals and kings through out his journey, most of his deeds aren't extra ordinary or painted with any divine touch. They are by someone who is destined to maintain 'dharma' in the world and are performed some one with knowledge and skills. Even against his enemies he is considerate and genuine.

I thought Sri K M Munshi, did a phenomenal job in the Book 2, by not glorifying the actions are holy and divine and performed by 'Avatara'. He focussed on the humane characterisation of the young prince, his worries for his parents, his close friends and associates and the Yadava people. Despite the advances of Shaibya ( whom he rescued from Karavirapura) or Rukmini, he maintained his stand on preserving dharma as his duty and the rest has to wait.

The style is much more clearer ( may be I'm getting used to it) and the language despite few hiccups and unevenness is much better in Book 2. The flow and structure with its many diversions and sub texts converged back to the main theme. Fabulous read.
The Wrath of an Emperor (Krishnavatara II) 1963

Kulapathi K M Munshi

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

435 Pages