Monday, April 29, 2013

Bhavni Bhavai - Ketan Mehta

Bhavai is the popular theater form prevalent in Gujarat, which is said to have roots in the fourteenth century. Associated this art form to Asait Thakore, a brahmin from Siddpur,  He was excommunicated from the caste after an incident involving lower caste member, he married from that community and targlas , born out of this union of two castes, became famous for these traditional performance of Bhavai folk theater. Asait Thakore,himself supposed to have written more that 360 plays.

Inspired by this tradition of story telling Ketan Mehta, directed a film in 1980 ( in Gujarati) called Bhavni Bhavai ( A tale of Life), which went on to win many awards and accolades. The celebrated movie screen play was later reconstructed and translated to English by Shampa Banerjee.

The familiar theme of caste struggle, the system of untouchables , one which made Asait Thakore an outcast continue to be the point of discussion here. The story is being told by a old man, in a travelling 'low class' group of people, to his grandson, as they rest during the journey. A folk tale, concerning the king and the well is planning to dig. According to the astrologer, a human sacrifice is needed, and only a person with the 32 qualities to see water in the well. The man is found in a lower class family , who as we all know, is the son of the king himself, who was a victim of a clever palace power game between the old and young queens. The old queen is blessed with a son after many prayers and offers, but the clever treachery by the young queen made sure that the infant is taken out of the palace and be killed. The soldiers entrusted with the task felt pity for the infant prince , and instead sent him floating in a basket in the nearby river. The turn of the events saw that the boy was rescued by a low class family and after many many years, the prince, now a young boy was again fallen as the victim of the clever plots of the young queen and the minister.

Classical absurdist theater with a clear influence of Brecht's ( the movie is dedicated to him ) , Ketan Mehta build a very visual representation ( even in these words) of the socio-political issue of caste and religion. As is the tradition with folkish theater, this is filled with classical humour, often silly and comical. While we are discussing the book here and not the movie, one is to observe the clinical precision of the scenes including the physical presence of both people and objects. As one can see, the movie is noted for its structural brilliance, and the treatment of the taboo subject of untouchability, with the nice mix of current day socio-political aspect, being told through the folktale. The translation is impeccable and never once one felt the issues related to the idioms, expressions or the anglicized use of Indian words.

Bhavni Bhavai ( 1986 )

Ketan Mehta ( translated from Gujarati by Shampa Banerjee )

Seagull Books

121 Pages

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Book of Sand - Jorge Luis Borges

"...this book was called the Book of Sand, because neither the book nor the sands has any beginning or end."

The collection of short stories published towards the end of the literary career of Borges,  according to him is the best he has ever written. He was almost blind and at the twilight of his illustrious career as a writer. But, that and his words as a testimony does not make them as his best.  "The volume includes thirteen stories.The number is accidental, or fatal - here the two words are strictly synonymous- and not magical" says he in the author's note. " In these blind man's exercises, I have tried to be faithful to the example of H.G.Wells in combining the plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot." , he conclude saying "I write for myself and for my friends, and I write  to ease the passing of time".

Some of them are to his admittance autobiographical ( the one richest in memories).  Most of the stories in this book can be identified as the reminiscence of an aging man trying to fabricate the tales of his yester-years  through scenarios, events, dreamlike sequences and encounters. The other, opening story has the confrontation with his own alter ego , in Cambridge  near Charles River. The Congress and "The Book of Sand" are the two other stories I found good in this. Avelino Arredondo, a story about a Political murder in the last decade in Uruguay is another interesting story.

These stories aren't the precipitation of all that wisdom and learning of a man who enthralled the readers for years. Despite his claim as his most significant work, for the strict Borges readers , both ficcions and labyrinth probably be superior to this collection.  One can observe the reflection of those writings in these pages, and it do have few classy stories to its credit. Borges gives us a hasty afterwords helping the readers into the context of his stories. He says he prefer an afterwords because prefacing the stories not yet read, is somewhat impossible task, since it demand analysis of plots. Not the greatest of the writing of Borges, but the stamp and touch of a great writer is evident in every page. I should get back to 'Labyrinth' soon.
The Book of Sand (1975)

Jorge Luis Borges ( translated from Spanish by Norman thomas di Giovanni)

Allen Lane

94 Pages
Latinoes, Wiki

Friday, April 19, 2013

ചോരശാസ്‌ത്രം - V J James

The title was confusing. I took it for 'the science of blood' instead of 'The science of Theft'. V J James' claim to fame was the winning the award, during the D C Book's silver Jubilee novel competition. I have no previous reading experience of James.  The book and its overall approach was impressive ( reading the blurb) and hence decided to buy this and read. To his credit, this was a good attempt. However a theme like this is too thin for a long novel. The thief ( unnamed and called the thief through out) learned the trick of opening locks without the use of any device, but with the look ( concentrated gaze perhaps). A trick taught to him by an old retired professor, who chanced upon an old manuscripts on "theftology" or the art and science of theft. The professor wanted a disciple with whom he can experiment the learning of scripture and our hero fallen for the clever trap set up by the prof. To cut the tale short, he learned the trick and grew in stature as a thief and as a result in wealth.

On successful completion of the training, the professor presented him with a 14th century coin of the king, who from then on was a silent witness and companion to his crime. So much can  be said that the 'king' is the lucky charm of the thief. It did not take long for him to get his own disciple. A silent boy, who treat him as God, and leanred smaller tricks and provided ample assistance to the thief during his exploits. However, the thief was clever enough , not to teach the technique of opening of the locks to the apprentice. The rest is predictable,as the initial excitement paved way to greed  and the accumulated wealth needed protection. When you had nothing with you, the entire town's wealth was yours, but now that you own something of your own, you need to protect them. Suspicion and distrust became the way which in the end resulted in his downfall.

Apart from a clever idea, it is not supported by any greater story or a build up. Few interesting characters and swift story telling apart, this does not have much to talk about. Having said that, there are moments of brilliance in his writing.  Short and quick read, probably has limited scope for a good short story.
ചോരശാസ്‌ത്രം (2002)

V J James

D C Books

108 Pages

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pandita Parameswara Sastry's Will - Tripuraneni Gopichand

Keshavamurthy is a writer of repute, living with his wife Sujatha and his son in Warangal. He works as a teacher in the nearby school, and writer novels of critical acclaim. Any normal life has to have a twist, and thus a story to retell. It comes in the form of a telegram from one of their acquaint stating the critical illness of Sujatha's foster father 'Pandita Parameswara Sastry'. Sujatha, starts at once, to be with her ailing father, despite his disapproval of her marriage to Keshavamurthy.  Sujatha was abandoned at birth by her mother, in front of a school and was brought up by the school attendant until she was discovered by childless Pandita Parameswara Sastry, who then taken charge of bringing the lady up in his household ( later we realise that she was his illegitimate child).  When she decided to get married to Keshavamurthy, a writer and man of intellect, but who belongs to a lower caste, Sastry vehemently opposed to the marriage. The couple however decided to go ahead and get married and started living on their own. Sastry had never spoken to his foster daughter ever since, and refused to acknowledge them. 

The fame and status of Keshavamurthy had created a group of jealous writers. It was known to us ( through multiple repetitive anecdotes) that all of them at one point or other had been the beneficiary of the favour from Keshavamurthy. Too, filmy and too good to believe  Keshavamurthy, continued to help and support those who betrayed him and worked behind his back for the downfall of him. Many a pages were devoted to the good deeds of Keshavamurthy and the misdeeds from those co writers, who never been able to come to terms with the growing popularity of Keshavamurthy.

The coterie worked in injecting the venom of hatred even in the mind of Sastry, or so we were to believe. As the end of Sastry neared, they worked with him to prevent the inheritance from going to his daughter and thus to Keshavamurthy. They, under the pretext of opening a Sanskrit School bearing the name of Sastry, wanted to hive off those money to their personal benefit.  Making them believe that he is towing their line, Pandita Parameswara Sastry, had other plans.

That summarises the book in its story. However, Gopichand, uses his narrative techniques and voices to a great effect to bring out a fairly good novel. Since I couldn't read the original version in Telugu, I had to depend on the translated version. Somehow, I get a feeling that a great deal of its original fragrance and strength seems to have lost somewhere in translation. The impact and effect of the Telugu version, should have been greater, going by the recognition it received in terms of Sahitya Akademy award in 1963 a year after its publication.

Even in the translated version, one can get the glimpse of a strong writing of the solid social undercurrent. The politics of caste and sect, the influence of the communist and liberal thoughts and the strong philosophical stream mingled through out the book is noticeable. Despite being felt as an add-on , the Aurobindo Ashram and the pages discussing the philosophy of Aurobindo was impressive. The balancing act of spirituality and communist thinking, its non- contradicting existence in the thoughts of Keshavamurthy is one aspect I see the author dealt beautifully.

The rivalry among writers ( or people among same profession competing for the limited attention of the readers/listeners or audience) is not uncommon. Gopichand, takes a dig at his own profession exposing some of the obscene and often cruel tactics to demean the fellow writer. The malign include financial accusation, extra marital affairs, anonymous letters, yellow press, direct confrontation and similar methods are deployed by his foes. Keshavamurty though affected by these puts up a brave front even when his wife has a moment of distrust and an act of stupidity ( in her own admittance).

It is a good book to read, may be profound one if you are a Telugu reader. The story per se, is too filmy and ends in the typical triumph of truth over evil. But it is the connecting aspects of narration, voice and the philosophical aspect gives it the weight to be considered as a major work in Telugu Language.


Pandita Parameswara Sastry's Will (1962)

Tripuraneni Gopichand ( translated from Telugu by Uma Alladi and M. Sridhar 2010)

Sahitya Akademy

265 Pages
The Hindu, Tagoremarg

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

"Gold Biscuits" were one of my junior batches would loved to identify themselves trying to establish their association with a rather nutty professor we had. Every professor would have his favorite batch in College. Typically, it would be the batch he or she is entrusted with in his initial years. They are typically known as his pet team. The team, continue to identify themselves around the same group nearly after 20 years. The most known work of Muriel Spark is around the same theme. 1930s  Miss Jean Brodie, came to the Edinburgh school to take care of a batch of young girls. She was responsible for their early leaning for nearly 2 years. But the 'Brodie gang' remained a group beyond those two years and came to identify themselves as Brodie set. Its a different fact that it is one of them who became a traitor and was responsible for her ouster from the school.

Miss Brodie, who claim to be at 'her prime' was different from the rest of the teachers. She is known for her open nature and trying to bring out fresh thinking to her pupils. She was sympathetic to Hitler and had a liking for Mussolini's men. She had returned to Scotland after her stint in Italy, a sight of the marching of the Soldiers she cherish even now.  Her stories of her travel during vacation, her love affairs and her rebellious nature of living was a great influence on the young girls. As the girls grew, the bonding continue through occasional meeting at Miss Brodie's place.  The gossip around her affairs with the one handed art teacher, and the music teacher added to the overall mystic nature of the lady. The others weren't in agreement with Miss Brodie, especially the young Principal of the school, who waited for a reason to remove her foe. It had to be one of the members who betray their beloved teacher.

The character of Miss Brodie is said to be based on Christina Kay, a teacher of Spark for two years at James Gillespie High School for Girls. Miss Kay supposed to be a conn osier of renaissance paintings and a fan of Mussolini's fascist Army. I haven't read any other book of Spark , hence can not comment on her style. To me it was a simple straight forward read. She has a way with her narration which eases into you. If you read it from a feminine writing angle, I guess this as more relevance in the 30s. A character which rebel against the set norms of the social structure, some one who is open and try to inculcate the similar nature of thinking in the girls. As you see, some of the girls later develop their own identity ( "Rose famous for sex, Jenny Grey famous for her beauty, Sandy with small eye, Eunice famous for her gymnastics) as they grow old. This is done in a curious flash-forward technique, Mary McGregor , At the age of 23 she dies in a hotel fire, etc.

Nice little novella, with certain significance in the time it is released and is  considered to be one among the best of 100 English novels. To me, this was a nice little fast read, but will probably look for a couple more of her works to get a feel of her style.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962)

Muriel Spark

Harper Perennial

150 Pages
Guardian, Wiki