Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Kinsmen of Ugna - Surendra Jha 'Suman'

Maithili, a language spoken by the people of Mithila ( north-eastern Bihar and adjoining Nepal) isn't one of those languages known for its literature as is with other leading languages in India. Once a mighty empire, the region lost its prominence over the centuries and has become the part of the state of Bihar post the independence. Surendra Jha Suman, is considered one of the leading writers from this language and Sahitya Academy has done a commendable job in making it available for the larger reading community by this translation.

Modern Maithili literature, claims it roots to the celebrate poet Vidyapati, who lived during the 14th-15th century. A staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, he was known for his love-poetry and his dedication to Shiva. Legends has it that the lord himself was pleased with his devotee, and incarnated as Ugna, a man-servant to the poet's house. The book had the origin of its name to this Ugna, the lord himself. Surendra Jha Suman, quotes and uses the poet through out his novel, as one inspiring the people of Mithila through his words and life.

Kinsmen of Ugna, paves the same path of caste struggle and the upbringing of the downtrodden. The protagonist Tulsi, born to a poor backward caste, had the typical upbringing, that is prevalent in the early days of independence. The issue of social injustice, untouchability, servility was rampant and the young Tulsi himself was victim of few unpleasant experience. It might be these early experiences that made Tulsi into taking up the cause of the people of his caste. Discontinuing his studies and the possibility of a better paid job, Tulsi instead decided to work among his people to bring education and better living to them. The effort did receive support from a few forward thinking leaders and the enthusiasm of the members of the community. The small gathering of the people paved way to a bigger school and proper methods of education to the underprivileged. The wind of change was coming to the closed quarters of the 'backwardness' of the tribe. They were more positive and collective and the unity saw them through few tough times. Along with the social changes, the calls for the resurrection of the Mythili language and culture was on the raise. While the community elites were divided, they organised two separate events - one for the upper casts and the other for general public, the voice of the people were heard and acknowledged. The book however, do not focus its energy on the caste conflict or the local power struggle much, barring a few attempts of jeopardy by his upper-caste friend and classmate. So much was his popularity, that he was elected to the regional administration through election beating his erstwhile friend. The book ends at a high note with the newly crowned people representative decided to get married to an invalid from a lower caste.

I'm not sure of the date of publication of the original works, but the language and the setting give me pointers to the early 60s. Surendra Jha Suman, manages to portray the social fabric of the region and the sentiments, without getting propagandist, pretty effectively. He also focusses his mirror to the 'alternate reality' of the neo-rich Urban metropolis pointing us to nastiness behind the glowing curtains of the city. May be he is wanting us to appreciate the local life.

I have seen the 'class struggle' , not in the same sense as the Marxian thinkers project, as a key theme in many a writing across various languages. The 'caste' struggle , the continuous efforts of the backward classes to bring themselves out of the poverty, chaos of life and the need for social equity has been a major topics of many yesteryear writers. While for most of the Urban modern day readers, this might be a subject that is as over used as the 'holocaust' stories of 40s. but it did have a major effect in shaping the modern India, post independence.

One of the qualities I find attractive about the regional language literarature, is its simplicity. The innocence and earthly narrative. There is no pretentious writing and no superficial ideologues. It may be too simple and not carry any profound intellectual debates nor follow some of those established western norms of literature. I like some of them for the same. The book has been translated amicably, without loosing the flavour of the local language. Does it read as smooth to a non-Indian as it is to an Indian ? I think, in this case it does. In comparison to the other heavy weights of Indian Literature, this might not be one that stand out. But, in the context of the Mythili literature, and in bringing out the post independent social changes in the Mithila region, this must be a significant work of fiction.
The Kinsmen of Ugna

Surendra Jha 'Suman' ( translated from Maithili by Ratneshwar Mishra 2010)

Sahitya Academy

104 Pages

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bartleby & Co - Enrique Vila Matas

If I'm asked to pick 10 books of my choice, Pedro Paramo will be one of them. I've always wondered why we do not see many more books from him. The list of one book wonders are long, and there are many theories and speculations on their lack of motivation or inability to recreate the magic again. The famous 'writer's block' seems to have affected many writers in the era of modern literature.

Enrique Vila Matas looks at this subject in his acclaimed work. Marcelo, a clerk in a Barcelona office, has written a novel about 'the impossibility of love'( for which his father wsant very happy about) and hasn't written anything since. It was long long ago, almost 25 year back. In what he compares himself as 'Bartleby' a character in the Herman Melville's story, who prefer to do nothing, whenever asked to something. "We all know the Bartlebys, they are being inhabited by a profound denial of the world", says he.

Which is why he is interested in other Bartlebys in the Literature and set about exploring them and capturing them in his dairy, what he calls as 'footnotes'. Hunchback, no luck with women, he takes a long medical leave citing depression, to pursue his interest of investigating the literature of the No.
"For sometime now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby's syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience ( or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop all together or, working on a project,seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good."
In what it should be a tale of the investigation of the 'NO' in literature, Enrique Vila Matas takes us through some of the literary giants and those of the the No. The 86 short 'notes' which has been collated by Marcelo, barring a couple of the personal anecdotes, are dedicated to various writers of the era. In a strict sense, there is no progressive story no plot and no twists. It is only a literary collection of the various writers and their disrupted career. As he move from one to the other with some ease, with his own commentary, this book give some valuable insight to the followers of literature. I haven't read some of the writers that attract his attention, but they were as interesting as the case of those you are familiar with.

We see writers with one or two works and then gone out of public eye, preferring the self imposed isolation, few never published at all, few wrote a couple of very promising books and went on a hiatus for long period ( 40 years or more) , few decided to end life and another set disappeared with no traces whatsoever.

This might not have all that is needed to claim as a literary masterpiece, nor it has demonstrated the capability of Vila Matas as a writer (there are many places we get to see the glimpses of his narrative power though) , this seems to be very original and modern. However, there is a draw back in these type of Non-novel, one can go on for ever. It uses the ingredients from within the community he is engaged in, and is there fore become a collection of literary reference, far from being a work of deliberation and literary creation. I still liked reading this for that very fact.
Bartleby & Co ( 2000)

Enrique Vila Matas ( translated from Spanish by Jonathan Dunne 2004)


178 Pages
Quarterly conversation, Guardian, Book Slut, Complete Review

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Caligula & Cross Purpose - Albert Camus

Reading Camu almost after 20 years has been a new experience. This time, reading his plays. These are written in the early days of his literary career, before the celebrated novels and his raise to stardom. As I understand from the introduction, Camus was deeply involved in the theater movements in Algeria, and played a prominent part in founding the so called Theater du Travail, in Algiers. This collection of two plays brought together by Penguin are my introduction to this aspect of the writer.

Caius Caesar Caligula, the third of the 12 Caesars, ruled Rome from AD 37 to AD 41, from the age of 25 until his assassination. He was known as a cruel ruler, He was known to have incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla, and was intended to marry her. An untimely death of her prevented this, but he was a changed man after that. Often absconding from the palace for days, spending sleepless nights in the streets and in the open, he planned and plotted his cruel actions against the citizens. He killed and tortured many of his subjects so that the patricians finally came out in open rebellion and assassinated him.

Camus intend was not to present the 'monster in human form' the the audience, but to examine the nihilistic response of individual and its not so obvious reasons. One do not see a bad character here, but a Ruler carried by his own actions trying to find a logical conclusion of his misdeeds, knowing the repercussions could be his own death, even manipulating the events that leads to his own death.
" I'm the only man on earth to know the secret - that power can never be complete without a total self - surrender to the dark impulse of one's destiny. No there's no return. I must go on and on, until the consummation."
Despite the knowledge of the conspirator among his men, his close friends, Caligula is unperturbed. As the plot thickens and the eventual end of his life
"Then there must be two kind of happiness, and I've chosen the murderous kind. For I am happy. There was a time when I thought I'd reached the extremity of pain. Bu,no, one can go farther yet. Beyond, the frontier of pain lies a splendid, sterile happiness. Look at me."
Even as the dagger thrust and gasping for his last breath, he goes down with a shriek "I'm still alive".

Originally written in 1938 , as a similar nihilistic ruler was gaining control over large part of Europe, his play seemed to be having a prophetic outlook. Unlike his novels that came out later, these do not seems to have the existentialist overdose. Mostly going by the French and European absurdist style, Camus too presented his plays as expression of ideas, of moral dilemma rather than the judgmental and morally decisive.

Cross Purpose , written in 1943 ( as The Misunderstanding ) is Camus idea of the absurd. Jan, the prodigal son, who had been living abroad for more than 20 years, returns home to his mother and sister. Widowed mother and sister, now making a living by providing lodging to travellers and then murdering them, taking away all their processions. Not recognizing Jan as their son and brother, they continue their act, as usual. Jan, on his hand deliberate the idea of announcing himself first, but decide to surprise them later. Having realised their mistake of killing their own family member in a rather cold manner sans any emotions, mother commit suicide by drowning in the river and the daughter followed her by hanging herself only after advising Maria, the wife of Jan, " to pray God turns her to stone or kill herself too". Maria cries to the heavens for help and in what is supposed to be an incarnation of the power of the world, the old man servant appears and conclude the play with an emphatic 'NO".

Camus once remarking that this play "resembles me the most", While not reflecting on the philosophical nature of the human, Camus seems to have written this during his time as a propaganda agent for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation. It must have influenced by his own live in distant land leaving behind his wife and family in Algeria. Cross Purpose, interestingly is the reversal of the classical prodigal son's story of the bible.
Caligula & Cross Purpose ( 1938)

Albert Camus

Penguin Plays

156 Pages
Caligula, Cross Purpose

Saturday, February 09, 2013

ഭാരതപ്രദര്‍ശന ശാല - സി . അഷ്റഫ്

Kuttayi Moopan's introduction to the Independent Movement and Congress is accidental. It was during the agitation across the country,  the famous 'Dandi March' of Gandhiji, when Indian National Congress members across the country marched to the nearest sea shore in order to 'make salt from the sea water as a part of disobedient movement. A significant moment of Indian Independent struggle, has its own versions across the various part of the country. Koman Nair, the leader of the Congress in Ponnani, along with the large number of workers and supporters of Congress, dried , precipitated the River water and in order to produce the lime from the water. At the crucial moment, they realised there is no one had a match box to light the fire ( being good samaritans, Congress workers do not have the habit of smoking). It was Kuttayi Moopan, young boy in his teens, who came to witness the historical moment, had to step in and provide the necessary fire power to a successful campaign. A relation started in 1931, continued despite the changes that swept the country as well as the Indian National Congress. Under guidance and support from Koman Nair and other leaders Kuttayi became attached to the movement. The independence wasnt as exciting as it was expected. The issues related partition , the death of Gandhiji and the general chaos that prevailed after that disappointed many of the freedom fighters. Koman Nair, retired into his 'newly build' ashram neat the river. 

Following the footsteps of his leader, it is Kuttayi's habit, to observe fast during the days of January, culminating on the Martyr day. A habit begun since 1949, the year after the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Single, with no dependants and no one to depend upon, Kuttayi Moopan has his routine of living during the month of January, before and after. A month of utter obedience to rituals are often joined by few friends ( who supports in whatever way they could) and the flora and fauna of the village. Birds, trees, squirrels, rats and others adjust themselves to  Kuttayi's style for that one month.

There aren't many old timers left. The generation, spend a lifetime of their to the independent is now leaving the planet dejected and angered. Koman Nair, who led the Congress in their town, Moopan's Guru and mentor, is no more. The 'ashram' ( a single room attic) he constructed at the shore of the river is now abandoned, except for the weekly visit of Kuttayi Moopan. He can not leave the place, as he is entrusted with the task of taking the last interview of the old generation, named and numbered in a notebook, before their imminent death. There aren't many, left. Kuttayi Moopan himself is not in any great health, as the age has shown its power on a body that is build and strengthened by the hard labour and a truthful life style.

The book is through the 30 days of January, as Kuttayi Moopan set about to observe another month of martyrs remembrance. It takes us through the post independent days of the rural Kerala, with all its local flavour. There are tea shop owners, retired army professionals, prostitutes, the lazy workers, the politicians, the erstwhile members of Communist party, now sidelined and inactive as they do not understand the new world politics of economics, the Congress leaders joined party after they won power, who had in their previous avatar as a feudal lord, worked for the British army, often acted against the nationalist leaders. Retired army men, who fought the war along with their mates who are now belongs to the separated Pakistan.The town has its own local replica of the leaders from Nehru, Mahatma, EMS given to their valiant members for their act of similarity to their national leaders.  Kuttayi Moopan is the last of the generation remain to document the last of the men as they prepare for their last journey, until its time for his turn.

One of the issue of this book is the language. For a theme such as this and a build  and construct which is brilliant, the use of words, forming of sentences and paragraphs often gave sour taste. Too many metaphoric sentences spoils the reading experience. Every sentence has some metaphor or other,  it read more like the College Arts Magazine. I'm not sure if it only me, but a bit more control or a little restraint would have made this novel a treat to the readers. So was with the aspect of magical realism and his writing of intimate affairs. Almost all the time, it stooped to a level of porn fiction, aesthetically poor  and repulsive.

Apart from that, every thing else in this book was very good. Brilliant theme, nice structure and progression, and though predictable, beautiful finish. Every characters that came in and went, all the sub plots and narration were brilliant and vivid.  He has the substance and vision, but he will need to work on his language and style of delivery.
ഭാരത പ്രദര്‍ശന ശാല  ( Bharata Pradarshana Shala 2010)

C Ashraf

D C Books

310 Pages