Saturday, August 24, 2013

വാസുദേവ കിണി - മാടമ്പ് കുഞ്ഞുകുട്ടൻ

An year and half back, if I remember right, when I met Sri Matampu Kunjukuttan at his place, among various things he spoke, a hint about a new novel came out. Story of an old Konkani Brahmin, put in the jail for over 70 years, was shot at, on the day of his release. An old vengeance, an old settlement of score, by a member of the Portuguese (converted )  family, was behind this. He said, the story has to begin from here and he hasn't thought beyond this. During the evening, a small 200 page notebook, was opened in fron of me, and in his impeccable, clear and classically styled  hand writing, the letters and words came out of these pages . "വാസുദേവ കിണി" with an underline, and the first chapter of the proposed novel , sprang up .  Thus, I can probably boast, of having witnessed the creation of this new novel, before anyone else had seen. On every visit, I made a point to enquire about the progress, and I came to know that the same is then given to a magazine, "Kesari", for publishing it , a chapter a month. Publication in a book for was imminent and it is now available for a larger audience ( I am not sure what is the circulation of Kesari and how many of its readers has taken notice of this novel).

From the initial dramatic set up, begins the new novel. 90 year old Vasudeva Kini, released from the jail after 70 years , 10 months and 1 day, was shot at exactly 30 mins of his freedom. Francis Dsouza, descendent of the family who served the Portuguese army on their days of power, had delivered the task entrusted in him by the generations. His father, waited for 50 years at the gate, and Francis took over the charge after his death. The task is clear, you have to shoot the man in 30 mins of his coming out in the open; one shot, not one less or more. The fate had another outcome in mind. The bullet, probably due to the weariness of the shooter, and lack of concentration there of., did not cause the intended damage. It managed only to caress the newly liberated man before giving up its plight. The curiousness of the reader is now ignited, as one expect the writer to get into the flashback of the DSouza - Kini affair and the rivalry resulting in the 70 year jail and the shoot out. However, the canvas which Matampu, is exploring is beyond the family feud , but the cruel and ethnic conflict suffered by the earlier generations at the arrival of the colonialism in the country. 

For many centuries, the shores of Kerala was known for its trade, mostly the spices, largely controlled by the Arabs, en route Istanbul and to Europe and by China in the east. Barring a few skirmish, these trades by and large had been peaceful and was within the spirit of trade ( give and take). The scenario changed with the arrival of Europeans, and as is their greed, they wanted to take control of the trade barring the rest, and going a step further, wanting to control the area and its resources. Now,  the tradesmen become owners and rulers of the land.  The first mission of the Portuguese ( Vasco Da Gama)  was with the intention of trade, but the next one led by Kabral, paved the seed of colonisation in the land of spice. Keki N Daruwalla's novel 'For Pepper and Christ" is an interesting account of these early days of Portuguese. The Portuguese control did not last long, as they were defeated by Zamorin and by Dutch  and were forced to leave Kerala, settling up north in Goa ( Gomantak, the original name, as Matampu refer in his book). A rule lasted more than 400 years, until 1961 when Indian Army marched into Goa to liberate it from Portuguese. The early days of their rule was marred with large scale conversion of the people into their belief ( the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy trinity - Petal of Blood ,  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o ). Forcing the people to eat cow-meat, a taboo for the cow-worshipping Indians, holding them by force and using all the means to stuff the meat inside their mouth. Once you are eaten the meat, you are outcasted from the society, by the rigid Indian Social norms. Having no other option, most of them had then converted themselves and followed the belief system of their masters. A few who resisted, escaped from Goa, and moved south towards Kerala and settled in and around the area of current Cochin and Trissur districts. A large settlement of konkani Brahmins, in Kerala, had a history of fleeing from  Goa.  on a similar case study, there is a sizable amount of Tulu Brahmins ( Embranthiri), from the South Canara District , ran away from their home land to escape forced conversion by the Mysore Sultan's Hyder Ali, and Tipu Sultan. The Tamil Brahmins, from Tanjavur area apparently came into Kerala , during the invasion of Malik Kafur. Interestingly, all the conversions are largely directed at the higher strata of the Social life, mostly the Brahmins. The lower caste, were usually left alone for they have no financial or social power.

Matampu's hero, represent this group of migrated Konkani Brahmins who settled in Karuvannur, a village in Trissur District near Arattupuzha temple. Apart from the attempted murderer Kini, had another person waiting for his release. 71 year old Sheetaladevi, widowed on the day of her wedding ( the last day of the wedding ceremony). Widowed but virgin, Sheetaladevi had a divine dream , in which she was to join Vasudeva Kini in the remaining of her life. Taking him along to her small house, she took the responsibility of rejuvenating the old man. 71 year of silence, made the old man to loose his words, but his thoughts are reconstructed from the grumble of his stomach by Sheetaladevi. The rest of his life, is to establish a kingdom which  is free from the clutches of all religion. Karuvannur, the middle of Kerala, the river, at the centre of the 44 rivers that divide the land of Kerala, has become the  symbolic center of transition : the old to the new, the history and reality, the cruelty and the compassion, the confinement and freedom, the thought and action. A new beginning has to happen at the middle and spread like a wave in the pond.

Vasudeva kini is the liberator. He has emerged from the dungeons of darkness ( self inflicted) to show the light to the world. A new world order has to begin from the ashes of the history.  The wise man has no words as the 71 year old silence is muted his voice. Its left to your intellect to listen to him, and understand him. The meaningless vengeance has to end with the firing of the gun. Neither the hunter nor the hunted knows the reasons behind the rivalry, and its the same with the readers, as the novelist does not indulge in the reasons of the rivalry. It is senseless, and what is needed is a world beyond the historical learning. The perpetrator is now dead at the feet of his victim after seeking pardon for the undoing of the generations of his ancestors. The new world, the new Karuvannur, is free from all those black pages of history. Its a new beginning.

Largely told through various flashbacks, Matampu develop his theme of colonisation and conversion, with historical perspective and social importance. A subject, which not many historians ( leave alone writers) attempted to put their hands on.  Matampu's gifted ability with the language, those 'old school' way of forming polished sentences, is the strength of the book. The structure is not flawless, the plot per se is not strong, but the context with which it has to be read is important.  His reading of these hidden pages of history might be subjective. It is his interpretation of those pages and as a fiction writer, he uses his freedom and flexibility, to the best of its effect. This might be controversial if one decides to look through the narrow angle, but this is worth the effort.

വാസുദേവ കിണി ( 2013 )

മാടമ്പ് കുഞ്ഞുകുട്ടൻ

Green Books

216 Pages
പുസ്തക വിചാരം

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Shadow of the Tiger and Other Plays - Chandrasekhar kambar

Kambar's plays have to be absorbed through the stage performances, they aren't the literary kind of plays, they are for performances, and the words and language have importance over the substance or the macro level content that one look for. Most of them aren't profound from the style and substance point of view but from the folkloric style of adaptation into the Indian context of  theater ( those familiar with Sanskrit playwrights of last millennium) while staying true to the roots of folklore and local myths with modern realities.

The collection of three plays, have these clever mix of selection. The first is an easy adaptation of the Persian classic, with the indigenous introduction and screen setting. It did not create any special interest in me as a reader, but I could visualise the original kannada version and the 'conversation' and the lyric used in the original creating an impact in the audience.  The drama, begin with a setting of Ganesha Festival with a boy stealing the 'laddoos' kept for the lord in the play to be enacted, and brilliantly easing his way to the Persian Alibaba and 40 thieves. Ganesha the God , who had hidden large number of laddoos under his 'cloak' is kidnapped by the leader of the thief and switching the plot from here shifts to Alibaba, and a clever closure with the reappearance of Ganesha in the end, mixing Indian myths to the Arabian tale.

The second, which carry the title of the book is an outstanding play. Playing along the thin line of 'truth and deception' he create an atmosphere of magically build up realism. This by far is the best play of the collection. The village chief, decides to go and capture the tiger that causes havoc in the lives of his village folks. Despite the warning of the stars, the anxiety of his wife who had a bad dream, the offer of his son to accompany and support him, against all bad omen, he set forth to lead the expedition ( . However, the failed attempt gets him lost in the wild separated from his supporters. However, he returns magically to the village, claiming to have killed the tiger whose carcass he supposed to have disposed off at an abandoned well in the forest. He ban his followers to go and look for it as ill fortune is sure to befall on them if anyone dared to go and peep inside.  Kambar, writes :

         Gowda returned after everyone else.
          He was tired.
          He had come carrying something on his back.
          The hunted tiger, we said, perhaps.
          Or perhaps not, we felt.
          For into the disused well outside the village
          He threw it and came.
          Not a call of a horn
          Nor band and music!
          It wasn't as if the tiger was hunted
          Nor as if it hadn't been.
          He's got in like a thief
          And we accepted him as such.

However, the situation in the village change drastically post the event. The idol of the village goddess is found split into half and other misfortune one after other befall on the villagers. An old lady , incarnation of the goddess herself possibly,  unveil the 'vision of the reality' to the son of the chief. The 'demon'ic influence in the life of the villagers is represented through the Chief himself, who is now under the influence of the devil ( the devil himself is come in the chief's body after killing and dumping him in the forest well). Chief's son, who is now entrusted to clear the air, is as confused as the rest  'Now everything appears to be split into two. I am seeing two of myself. How can I put both truths to test?...What is truth? Which is false?' . It is here the mastery of the writer comes out in open. Brilliantly traversing between illusion and reality, he creates an ambience with his magnificent wordplay, lifting the reading experience to a higher level. And in that context, this lift itself above the Kannada proximity to a larger global relevance.

Thukra's dream, takes us to the days of British Raj. Symbolically representing the nameless, wordless millions of India, all Thukra has in control is his dreams, but in reality he is forced to suffer and in the end face death. As the resources of the land is held under the control of the wealthy, and the authorities are hand-in glow with those with money and power, poor Thukra and the likes has one one way forward. To rebel, and use the identity of the rebellious folks elsewhere to their own. But before doing this, he tries to escape the land of his misdeeds, and tried to be par with the land lord, by travelling far and wide to Bangalore, attempting a few jobs and more thefts. But on return he realises that the hands of the mighty is stronger and his attempt to equal them is only short lived. In an interesting tragi-comic narrative, often bordering the silliness, it leaves a lasting impact in the end.

I write. In writing I build what I feel. My feelings are my experiences and I build with words, which are stories, pictures, pieces of tales, all off of which have been part of my experiences" says Kambar in his foreword to the  book. His plays are part of the same process of "relate to environment both in time and space,  through  stories, the fantasies, the images". Neither his characters not his plays are for the upper segment of the society. They seems to be aligning with the common man, the non pretentious , those in his words 'he celebrate'. To me, reading this in Kannada and seeing it in Kannada will have much more deeper impact on me. Having said that the efforts in translation is commendable, despite few unevenness one observe as we read on. Interestingly, each play is translated by different person(s), and probably that was one reason of the unevenness.

The Shadow of the Tiger and Other Plays( 1980 / 984/ 1991)

Chandrasekhar Kambar ( translated from Kannada by Sandhya S, Padma Ramachandra Sharma ,O L Nagabhushana Swamy  in 1999)

Seagull Books

162 Pages
C K Meena, Purushothama Billimale

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Under the Frangipani - Mia Couto

Ermelindo Mucanga, is dead for last 200 years, and his physical body is cremated under the frangipani tree in old fort , where he died during the work of restoration of the old slave port. After many many years, with the independence of the country , he is now considered a national hero, and his mortal remains is now unearthed, to give a State Funeral. While he is happy that he is dead now and the current civil war post the independence will not affect him, he isn't happy with the new development of being the national hero,  "A spirit that reoccupies its former body risks mortal dangers". So he consult his pet ant-eater, the mammal lives with the dead.  "You, Ermelindo, you should relive your death"  came the suggestion, and it was the ant-eater who gave the way.

Thus, on advise from the ant-eater, the spirit entered the body of the Police Inspector, arriving at the fort island, to investigate the murder of the Director, of the Refugee Camp. He was also made aware that the detective will have a short life and will be killed in next six days.

Izidine Naita, the detective, Police inspector from the country capital, arrives at the fort island in a helicopter, to investigate the murder of Vastome Excellency, a mulato who was responsible for the old people's refuge at Sao Nicolau". The detective, the ghost, the writer and us follow the investigation in the next six days,  through the testimony of the inhabitants, where each of them claims to have killed the Director. An intersting piece of writing here, which covers many aspects of Mozambique's, rich oral tradition, its folklore and myths, the historical and political aspects with and without the European occupiers, and their own racial and regional issues.

While, the investigation per se, is not revealed the murder mystery, it opened up a lot more, probably the true intend of the investigation, by unearthing a huge treasure of arms, hidden by the Director, saved from the earlier war. Which opens up some of the crazy behaviour of the inhabitants towards him. It is the same danger, that fell upon the Director, awaits him.

This probably is not the best of Mia Couto. However, this gives the indication of the caliber of a writer he is. The fantastic ability to live the African way of story telling, the intermix of myths , history and fiction, the "magical realism" with an African touch, the brilliance in the formation of words and sentences. I am pretty sure that this book would have suffered from translation not suspecting the ability of the translator, but the very African usage of language and few idioms , probably would have lost the same impact on translation.

There is no great literary achievement and the plot, otherwise is pretty weak. The freshness is in the story telling, through rich poetic sentences, and building up the sequences of events. As a reader, I was never really interested in the outcome of the murder mystery, and could sense the deeper issues, which the inhabitants, all elderly people of varied ethnical background, trying to prevent.  There is also a deeper political essence, of both colonialism, and the post independent civil war ( in line with an ethnic conflict) , which emerged in almost all the African nations, who gained independence from their colonial rulers.

My first reading of Mia Couto, and I'm sure many more to come.

Under the Frangipani( 1996)

Mia Couto ( translated from Portuguese by David Brookshaw in 2001)

Serpant's Tail

150 Pages
Doe Eyed Critic, News Desk,

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Book of Satyabhama ( Krishnavatara V ) - K M Munshi

Moving on to the book five of the Krishnavatara series, with the story of Satyabhama. In the forward, Sri K M Munshi, admits the different versions of this tale, and there could be different regional and linguistic variations of the Syamantaka tale. He decided to go with more appropriate tale, in line with the characterisation of Krishna, that was built over the previous editions.

In essence, this is the story of Satyabhama, a young yadava maiden, carrying a hidden infatuation on Krishna.  Her father, Satrajit, one of the leaders of the Yadava clan, is not in terms with Krishna and the other Yadava rulers. He had always stayed away from the decisions of the elders, often causing embarrassment to the clan. He believe, Krishna is one of the causes, for their plight, and their constant life in danger. He and his few remaining associates, continued their resistance to the rest of the Yadava leaders. When Krishna requested the Yadava leaders to come forward and help Pandavas to build their empire, by donating half of their wealth including their arsenal, their gold, their battle ready horses, Satrajit and his friends, stayed away, giving additional burden on the others ( in order to keep the promises given by Krishna).

Satrajit's arrogance and his strength lies in the magical stone, 'Syamantaka', given to him by the God Surya ( sun) pleased with his dedication and devote. Syamantaka, is the origin of all the wealth that he accumulated over the years and continue to receive. When Krishna advised him to surrender the stone to the eldest , as it has to be the source of prosperity for the community, Satrajit, attacked Krishna and threatened with dire consequences. Taking up the challenge, Krishna assured him that before sunset the next day Syamantaka will be in the hands of Akrura, the Yadava elder, controlling the financial matters of the community.

It is now, the clever ploy by Satrajit comes into play. Sending his brother-in-law with the Magical Stone into the forest for safe keeping, he declared to the world that the Magic stone is stolen and he had seen Krishna stealing it under the cover of darkness. As the issue blew out of proportion, and became the talking point of the town, Krishna came forward and made a public oath that he will return with Syamantaka, failing which he will self immolate in front of all.  The search for Syamantaka is now on. Satyaki, his close friend along with Satyavati ( who had some clues to the whole disappearance) decided to do it by themselves.

As it turned out, the brother-in-law of Sathrajit, who was travelling with Syamantaka, on the directive of Sathrajit, was attacked and killed by a Lion, who was in turn killed by a bear. The same bear, kidnapped Satyaki with them, abandoned Satyavati in the scene. Krishna, comes to the rescue, and along with her ( already in cloud nine being with Krishna) , they reach the bear kingdom. With further exploits of Krishna, and yet another marriage ( to the daughter of Jambavan , the bear king) , the triumphant trio ( plus the newly wed bride) returns to the land of Yadavas, with the Magic Stone, clearing up the doubts and the ego of Satrajit.

K M Munshi, narrated the story in its own, without much changes. Unlike the previous books, I hardly found any insight, those analytical brilliance from the writer. While he did attempt to demystify the Syamantaka tale and the 'Jambavan's kingdom', it did not have those moments of high intellect, which was visible in the earlier ( especially book 2 and 3) books. and But the part of Satyabhama , is captured fabulously well. A good refresh of the tale , you grew up listening to, is all the book was worth.

The Book of Satyabhama ( 1967)

K M Munshi

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

187 Pages

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Blue Fox - Sjón

Many of the best books in my list (if I make one), are books that is around 100 odd pages  ( Closely observed trains, A Life's Music, The year of the hare, Too loud a solitude and this one to name a few) . You don't need a 600+ page volume to make an impact. The compactness of the text , tending towards poetic composition make these little gems some of the masterpieces in the literary world. Sjon's "The Blue Fox", after reading it , and re-reading it leaves you with such a lasting impression, not easy to get it off you head.  Sjon, himself in this interview says,  "You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds".

This little book, set in the late 19th century Iceland, at the outset tells of a story of a fox hunt and the aftermath. What it carry within itself is a profound philosophical and existential question about life in general. An Icelandic Priest  Baldur Skuggason, set forth for the hunt of a rare blue fox, who takes him all over the snow and icy whiteness of the landscape , through his magical and cunning ability. Fox tries to save his life, hiding amongst blue rocks,
"Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope in telling them apart from the rocks themselves"
The hunt takes days over the whitish terrain, until the fox now caught and the pastor, fires his shot, resulting in a blizzard ( "When the peak replied to his shot") of a vast snow drift. The avalanche carries both down the terrain.

On a parallel thread, a naturalist, Fridrik B. Fridjónsson, living alone, is mourning the death of Hafdís, a young woman with down syndrome, whom he had rescued long ago from a ship wreck. A cleverly and beautifully converged threads, conclude the suspense in the last chapter, brilliantly.

Skugga-Baldur ( re-writing the name of the Priest) is the legendary demonic animal in the Icelandic folk lore, which also the title in the original, gives some glimpse to the concept of the book. The change of roles of man and animal, the indicative metamorphosis of the man into animal and vice versa. The animals even talk in human language discusses and debates about the electricity with the priest. On the other hand, the lady with down syndrome, build her own vocabulary and create a language of communication that is her own.

The early pages, poetic and musical ( not surprising as Sjon, collaborate with the singer Bjork, and started his literary career as a poet) had spell binding effect on me as a reader. Sjon, then shift the narrative cleverly, bringing out the pastor and the lady with down syndrome, coming back the the fox hunt, by now we have a general idea of the pastor, before solving the mystery in the end to some phenomenal effect. Very haunting, moving little tale, read like a poem. beautifully translated retaining all those magical beauty of the sentences into English.
The Blue Fox ( 2004)

Sjón ( translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb in 2008)

Ferrar,Straus and Giroux

115 Pages
Slate, The Daily Californian, Complete Review, Book Slut, The Independent

Blow-Up and Other Stories - Julio Cortázar

Hotchpotch was mesmerizing and will be read many times again. Ever since I was trying to read more of his writing. This collection of short stories, I understand, have varied reception. While few of my friends had very high opinion, there are many disappointed reactions. I too, went through the same upheaval while reading this book. Few of the stories were phenomenal and few did not make any ripples. This collection of stories, split into three parts, probably the time when they were written and in general the stories in the later part were more appealing than the earlier part.

"House taken over" from the first part was a brilliant story.  A brother and Sister living in their ancestral house, finds their house has been "taken over" by some one. The some one could be the authorities or forces that can not be confronted. The build up (of their daily routine, their interests knitting, the french literature etc)  and the irony of the old siblings ( the sure and gradual loosing of their hold on the place where they live, until forced out doors, locking the room and   The eery and scary atmosphere is build up by the sounds of encroachment  and noises they hear from adjoining rooms, in an otherwise silent house.  were captured with such a brilliance. I'm sure there would be a lot more interpretations of this story.

"The Pursuer" from the third part is another one that impressed me a lot. The story of a exceptionally talented and equally eccentric ( alcoholic, addicted) American Jazz musician, told through his biographer , a music critic is the longest story of the collection. This story is dedicated to Ch P ( Charles Parker ?),  Legendary musician, fighting his battle of personal issues, with the critic trying to support him rather ineffectively, and a silent witness in the form of his girlfriends. In the end, he not only bring himself down, he takes every one close to him through the downward spiral. "End of the Game" , "The Blow-up" apparently influenced the movie by the same name by Antonio Antonioni, and the first Axiotl were other interesting stories of this collection.

His style and the language here is very similar to Hotchpotch, easy and simple sentences grows into you.  He has a way of building the scene through his words. The human relations has an uneasy nature in almost every stories. They all are not necessarily ruled by the social norms. Even those stories, which did not make any great impression upon me, were carefully crafted. As a story teller, he is not behind any of his contemporaries. But this is no Hotchpotch, despite few  gems of stories.
Blow-Up and Other Stories ( 1963/1967)

Julio Cortázar

Pantheon Books

278 Pages