Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Fort of Nine Towers - Qais Akbar Omar

After many years of Russian rule, when the Mujahedeen came into the heart of the Capital in the year 1992, the people of Kabul rejoiced. There were widespread celebrations around the city. The house hold of young Omar was no different. His father and uncles were visibly happy and were sharing their happiness with the rest of the crowd.  However happiness did not last long. That was just the beginning of the war that damaged the country of Afghanistan for the next few decades. 10 year old Omar, who expected to see the Mujahedeen soldiers "in Uniforms and Shiny Boots", was disappointed to see the warriors with "beards, mustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet". 

The liberation wasn't there to stay long. Soon infighting began among different war lords. The common enemy that united them ( the USSR) is no returned to their homeland. The various war lords, started to fight amongst themselves for the control of the province.  Living in the mansion, built by his grand father, called as'the President' by the neighbors, for he was the second in command of the government financial institution, the extended family of Omar and his cousins and their parents have to seek refuge. The rockets started falling in the gardens, the carpets traded by his father, has been confiscated by the 'warriors' and their life itself was under threat. The team, decided to move out of the central part of the city to the outskirts around the hill, where Omar's fathers business colleague is living in a fort mansion. The story of "A Fort with Nine Towers' thus begin. Next few years, Omar and his family live in this fort, largely protected from the war and the missiles.

Omar, narrates the next few years of his life in the recently published book, which is already creating a rave with the world readers. Unlike, the typical coming of age memoirs, the voice here is not of the young boy, but of the grown up man, who recounts the days with his own interpretation of the grown-up man. There are family stories, the first hand experience of the young boy with the torturers , loss of family members both to the war lords and to the nature, huge sense of support and camaraderie that the people show during the difficult times and his own personal learning during the time of turbulence. There are horrifying details of torture, murder, rape and humiliation either witnessed or suffered by the young boy. The version of the warring factions and tribes and the shear destruction of the civilization by the war.

The most engaging and touching narrative is their journey as nomads from Kabul towards Mazar-e-Sharif. The beauty of the nature on one side, the plight of the family separated from their own people, various difficulties en-route ( the landslide and flood from which they had a narrow escape) , the thieving of Pomegranate ( the guilt the boy carried for a long time), the blind carpet weaver in Mazar, under whom he learnt the trick of carpet making ( which helps him in the days of Taliban later), the time and travel with the nomadic tribes ( to whom his ancestors belong), their stay in the Bamian hills in the caves behind the damaged head of the Buddha and the eventual return to Kabul after a few years, settling back in the Fort were written beautifully.

During all these times, the family was planning to escape the country as many of their countrymen to other parts of the world. There are traffickers who for a large sum of money willing to take them across to Turkey, through one of the central Asian republics. The money to take them out is hidden under the garden in the form of Gold. Every attempt to reach the place and recover, was failed, as they fall into the hands of the occupiers. They planned to escape to Pakistan, which was again failed and they ware caught by another warlord, in whose captivity, the father and son was bitten by one with sharp teeth , called "The Dog".

When everything was ready and they were preparing for their final departure, came a new force in the form of Taliban. Capturing the city of Kabul, the new regime was quick to establish themselves as the rulers and forced their decree on the people. The new dictate of living under Islamic Values, the hard and cruel way of enforcing their discipline on the people, the general fear they created on the people made the life even more difficult to the young Omar. However, he now recollects, that despite all these rules, there was a calm in the country and war was not in sight (“strange peace" says Omar) . The business, which he now set up did flourish, the state machinery was effective.  But yet again, the peace was short lived, as the Allied forces entered Afghanistan in 2001 end post the World Trade Center bombing by suspected Al Queda militants. The world for them has gone back to what it was.

A very matter of fact narration, may not be an eye opener as the snippets of these scenes have come out at in different ways. He has presented the facts from the point of his own experiences and as a story of his family, which is not different from many others. Born in a high-middle class family, he had better provisions, compared to many other who suffered. however, what each Afghan citizen had to endure is the same as the the others irrespective of their social status. The book is non judgmental and he left that part to the readers. In the concluding pages, he warns the readers "“I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart. Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.”

Since it is presented as his memoirs, there is less scope for analysis and for insight to the issues of Afghanistan. I am sure that is the intend of this book as this is not a political study. The strong family ties, the closeness towards ones own at the times of difficulties, the separation and the impact of which in young ones, the slow and definite destruction of the cultural fabric of the country and many similar parallel reading is possible within the narrative. Some of the events are too brutal or good to be true. The reality borders around the exaggeration. They are harsh at times, and so moving at other places. He is able to get the readers along with him in the journey and that is the success of the book.

A Fort of Nine Towers ( 2013 )

Qais Akbar Omar


396 Pages
Washington Post, New York Times

The Good Soldier Svejk - Jaroslav Hasek

One of the central character of many of the Sanskrit drama is the Vidushak. Usually subordinated and associated with the main hero, the king in most cases, vidushak provided the  social commentary and with his humorous dialogues, creates the much needed criticism of the King's actions which has the direct relevance to the society.  The Vidushak of the drama is the direct replica of the court room Vidushaks, of the Indian Kings. They had the authority and approval of the Noble, to ridicule and criticise the court, including him or judiciary decisions without earning the wrath of the emperor. Often behaved as a clown, with self depreciating humour they were the integral part of the court room, bringing the balance of the rule and the voices of the people.

Jaroslav Hasek's World War I satire to me reminded of this great traditions of Vidushak.  Good Soldier Svejk, stood for what a Vidushak would have done. By making himself as the center of ridicule, by his sense of obedience, his self accepted idiocy, his innocent looking but profound interpretations of the events, his ability to stand up to any negative repercussions in order to prove the triviality of the war and the plight of the people who are recruited as soldiers of the Royal Army as a 'subject' of the His highness who stays in a far off land. Like Svejk, most of the soldiers has no connection with the Lord whom they are fighting for and no enmity with  those they are fighting against.

"And so they've killed our Ferdinand"
"Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller ?  I know two Ferdinants. One is a messenger at Prusa's the chemist's and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil and the other is Ferdinand  Kokoska, who collect dog manure. Neither of them is any loss".
Originally a dog dealer ( usually stolen dogs), Svejk was recruited into the Austro-Hungarian Army to fight the enemy at the border. Like many Czech peasants he too was assigned to a regiment which was on move to the frontiers. Svejk had previous experience with the army where he served for a short duration, before being discarded for his 'idiocy' and his inability to comprehend. Giving nightmares to his superiors by his idiosyncrasies , yet always being at their side with his clever manipulations to protect them, taking the blame on himself, he spent his time as an orderly whenever he is out of the Gaol. Svejk entertain the readers through his ever ready anecdotes, from his acquaintances and colleagues, filling the pages of this giant book. These anecdotes, seldom has any connection with the main topic in discussion, frustrates his superiors. The exploits continue from one garrison to the next, from one gaol to the other, from one bogie of the train to the next. In the end, he gets arrested as a Russian spy, while attempting to wear the uniform of a Russian Soldier in the frontier line. Interestingly, for every trouble he get himself to , he comes up with his rational which is often difficult to argue against.   

Jaroslav Hasek, himself was a soldier during the WW I. The characterisation of Svejk is developed from his own personal experience of the service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army.. These experiences were published in the journals at various times, and have then been developed into a mega book. However, he did not live to complete the book as it ends abruptly before the real action or war begin. But, what he was expressing to convey is very clear in the pages that are left for us to savour. Hasek's life itself has been of a nomad and anarchic , which reflects in the theme and in Svejk.

"Great times call for great men", says Hasek in his preface. "I am very fond of good soldier Svejk and in relating his adventure during World War and I am convinced that this modest, anonymous hero will win sympathy of all of you"...."and that is enough".

The writing is hilarious and extremely funny and thus its a page turner, despite the mammoth size of the book. The illustrations of Josef Lada ( the original publication was with the illustrations of Lada) adds flavor to the character, and I am likely to remember Svejk as perceived and drawn by Lada. Probably one of the best anti-war novels ever written, inspiring a whole lot of writers ( Joseph Keller of Catch-22 said once that he could not have written Catch-22 if not for this epic novel). Its pretty obvious that this is an untranslatable book, with its local idioms and the use of large mix of languages. The translations of Cecil Parrot, was a great effort to bring out these nuances of the languages.  Brilliant book, and a character permanently etched in my memory.

"Heroes don't exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs. But in the end every body will mutiny and there will be a fine shambles. Long live the army! Goodnight!”

The Good Soldier Svejk ( 1923 )

Jaroslav Hasek   ( translated from Czech by Cecil Parrott  in 1973)

Penguin Books

752 Pages
Wiki, Telegraph

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Quicksand - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Well, I haven't read Tanizaki before. I know he is considered one of the best Japanese writers in the 20th century. Having decided to read him, I picked up two of his book last time from 'Strand' and started with the shorter one, the other being Makioka sisters. On a general glance around the world of readers, I found out this book was considered a master piece by many and in general the enthusiasm was very high. That set the bar high on expectations and in the end, I must admit, I ended up a bit disappointed. Considering the time it was written( in the late 20s), and the theme that could have shocked the conservative society, this could have significance in the modern Japanese Literature. However, reading this now, 85 years after its original publication, it did not stir any excitement in me.

Sonoko Kakiuchi, 23 yrs old, married to Kotaro, a law practitioner is enrolled in an art school, to continue her love for art and more importantly to escape the boredom at home. The husband and wife leave home together and return back home together in what seems to be a perfect life. However, a malignant rumour that spread across the school, connecting Sonoko to another student Mitsuko, changes the whole scene. The whole thing seems to be the handy work of the School Pricipal, who commented on one of the pictures of Sonoko, that it resembles Mitsuko. It did not take long for the two accused to join, and form into a friendship, somewhat challenging the rumour mongers. The friendship soon changed into mutual attraction and Mitsuko started spending long hours at Sonoko's bedroom, posing nude for her friend for the picture that take eternity to complete. The act of seduction and manipulation begin with a new entrant to the scene in the form of a lover Watanuki. In some clever manipulation, Watanuki get Sonoko to sign a 'blood-pact' of friendship and brother-sister relation complicating the affair after Watanuki starts his black-mail. Getting into it to the affair to bring normalcy, Sonoko's husband Kotoro gets dragged into the "quicksand".  Now the control is in the hand of Mitsuko, who until now cleverly manipulated the events, gets the upper hand over the husband and wife, controlling every movement and event sin their life. In the end, the trio form a suicide pact, killing themselves with poisonous sleeping powder. increasing the dose day after day. In the end, it was Sonoko who survive, narrating the story to the unnamed writer.

A typical story of seduction and betrayal, with more twists and turns with the readers suspicion pointing towards various characters as the manipulator. The protagonist, caught in the labrynth of unholy sexual adventure with another woman, continue to be fooled by those around her. She goes through the typical anger, revenge, seduction, reconciliation routine and end up as the victim of her own stupidity. This is a tale which can give you enough dramatic and thrilling moments and no wonder there had been many adaptation into films.

The writing( and the translation) is very simple and largely told in the first person narrative of Sonoko, as told to the writer. Tanizaki handled the sensuality and seduction with prudently. The air of carnal desire between two women is in the air, which gradually pave way to possessiveness, aggression to cruel manipulation and retribution ( the best way of conclusion) is in the hand of a good writer. Cleverly plotted, one get all that you see in a cheap thriller camouflaged in sensuality and some good prose.  However good the writing is and novel the subject is, it is still far too light and insignificant to merit the accolades I see the book received. I may be missing something, for what the rest of the readers are able to appreciate the book. I will read the Makioka Sisters soon and revisit this book again on a later date. I might, hopefully, change my impression on this book.

Quicksand ( 1928-30 )

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki   ( translated from Japanese by Howard Hibbett in 1994)

Vintage international

224 Pages

Monday, September 09, 2013

An Incurable Romantic - Lakshmi Devnath

As an avid listener of Carnatic classical music, one can not but admire the virtuosity and the talent of some of the doyens of the last generation of musicians. The post independent India and the next 50 years thence, can be considered the golden era of Carnatic music. The art form saw unprecedented growth and popularity on one side, and a consolidation and structural optimisation on the other side, which later formed as the basis for the new generation of artists to expand. Numerous stalwarts, who made a mark in the art form enthralled the audience with their music and intellect both in vocal and instruments in this era. The later generations continue the tradition to lift the music to greater heights, giving the credit to the yesteryear musicians for paving the way. Though, vocal concert  dominate the musical field, and violin being the integral part of the vocal concert providing much needed support, be it in aligning the notes, or by filling up the silences or lifting the overall experience of the concert with apt interludes and meticulous following of the main artist. However, under the vocal concert arena, it always been a supporting instrument, and the violinist were accompanying artist limiting their ability to the main artist of the evening. It remain largely so, even in these times. There are, however, many violin concerts, giving the instrument an independent identity, in recent times, thanks to some of the hard work and "demand" put in by the earlier vidwans, especially Lalgudi, MSG andTNK , the three names that stood out from the rest in the fields. Having listened to numerous recordings of their accompanying the yesteryear stalwart, one always remained in awe of their virtuosity and their dedication. However, I always had a bias towards the accompaniment of Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman. It is this admiration of the artist, that prompted me to buy the book on the life and music of Lalgudi Jayaraman. Having read through the book, the respect has not diminished a bit, but have only increased. I haven't had the luck of listening to him accompanying any vocalist, and had only a couple of instance of listening to his violin concert live. But Lalgudi, always remain high in my musical listening experience.

Laksmi Devnath's book, does justice to the man in discussion. Written on the suggestion and request by the family members of the musician, she seems to have done adequate research on her 'subject' and the awe and admiration which one carry while talking about someone of his stature, is evident in the book. As in a typical biographical book, it starts with his forefathers and the lineage both musical ( from Thyagaraja ) and parental.  From Lalgudi Rama Iyer, great grandfather and a direct disciple of Thyagaraja to Valadi Radhakrishna Iyer ( one of the first in the field of Violin accompaniment in Carnatic Music ) to his father Lalgudi Gopala Iyer the direct connection to the trinity of Carnatic music is established. Lakshmi Devnath spends enough pages on these individuals and on the musical lineage who directly and indirectly shaped the musician in order to set the base to person and musician in Lalgudi jayaraman. Under the strict ( as one expect in the old Gurukula style of teaching) guidance and tutelage of his father and guru Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Jayaraman's learning was fast and meticulous. There was no place for silly games or other entertainment in the pursuit of perfection. Gopala Iyer continue to "fine tune" the music of his son, even after he has made a name for himself as one of the bright future in the carnatic music field.

Jayaraman, now started knowing under the prefix Lalgudi, had his god fatherly support from the Superstar of Carnatic Music, non other than GNB. GNB was partly responsible for his growth into a complete musician at a very young age. He had the privilege of accompanying most of the leading singers of the era, only to receive supporting gesture as well as the admiration of the public. A new star in the arena of carnatic music is arrived.  Lakshmi Devnath, spends a lot of time on specific incidents and anecdotes to support her findings before she moved on to the personal side of the musician. His wedding, the relation between the father and son ( Gopala Iyer continue to be the guiding force in his life) and his relations with his siblings ( as a guru as well as the musical pair on stage) were discussed in detail.

As one expect in any biography, it did touch upon the many controversies around Lalgudi. The famous "Sangitha Kalanidhi" episode, the somewhat strained relationship with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the tussle with the music critic Subbudu various allegation about him overshadowing the main vocalist ( in his quest to perfection) , many many so called misunderstanding among musicians, the cold relation with Music Academy were discussed in detail, mostly in line with what is already known to the music world. Interestingly, there was no official version from Lalgudi in any of these topics.

While the book does a great job of consolidating and documenting what is already available, in did not in real terms give any larger perspective of  the musician. However, the study of his compositions, his various works as music director and composer for dace drama and musicals, the compositions specially tuned and written on the request by dancers are the exception. This to me is the meaty part of the book and that made my day. The writing in general was aimed at a music lover and those familiar with Carnatic music. There is abundant use of Tamil words , which often distract the smooth flow of the reading. Being a non-Tamilian, the early chapters were very annoying at times.  She does provide the meaning of these terms both musical and Tamil in the annexure, but at many places, these Tamil words did have proper substitutes.

Biographies are very tricky genre of writing. Its like peeping into someone else life, the private personality of a public figure. It is expected to give a new insight to the person, thus enhancing your own perspective of the world. In most of the cases, one see the writer is overpowered by the persona, intimidated by the charisma of the' subject', the voice and words gets carried away under this influence, hampering the objective approach to the life of the person. This book too suffer from the same. Patrick French's biography of V S Naipaul, was an exception.

Very well presented book, help you to reiterate your admiration of one of the most versatile artist,composer, guru and performer of Carnatic Music. The added bonus was the CD of his select recordings.
An Incurable romantic - The Musical Journey of Lalgudi Jayaraman ( 2013 )

Lakshmi Devnath

Harper Collins

435 Pages
Indian Express , Lalgudi Official Page

Sunday, September 08, 2013

This Blinding Absence of Light - Tahar Ben Jelloun

A group of soldiers were put on a truck and was driven to the palace of the King Hassan II, on the 10th of July 1971 on an attempt to topple the King and seize power. However, the coup failed , leaving around 200 death that included the rebel leaders, but the King survived. Forces loyal to the King, gathered those responsible for the coup and put them to Kentira, where they were subjected to torture. The leaders ( and many others) were executed, and remaining soldiers were sent to a secret prison, hidden underground in the desert, which was called Tazmamart. It took a long time for the world to know about the existence of this hellhole and many more years for the remaining prisoners to be released, but not before the traces of the prison was erased by the authorities. Those survived, opened up to the world ( western world) and the stories of one of the most dreaded prisons are thus known to the rest of the world.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, uses this page from Moroccan history to rebuild the story of human condition at Tazmamart, through this intense and powerful novel  ( loosely based on Aziz Binebine , who was sentenced 20 yrs after participating in the attempted coup). Blindfolded from Kentira, Salim and his friends ( 58 of them in various jails and 20 of them in his prison) were taken to the Tazmamart. In an underground cell, with no light and a small hole to get the air and another for food, they were put in isolated cells of 10ft x 5ft x 5ft. A height of 5ft to prevent the prisoner from standing up.

In a cell, in darkness, where one can not even stand straight, in the company of cockroaches and scorpions, fed just enough to keep them alive, with only possible way to communicate was through the brick walls. The prisoners, resigned to fate, with deranged spirit and bruised body. Though not religious when they were brought in  most of the prisoners turns to faith , calling Allah for help and reciting from Qu'ran, to pass their days through. The only time the prisoners are shown light is when they were asked to dig the grave for one of their fellow prisoner who died. As one after the other perishes within the walls of their solitary cells, the rest have to make the place their home with the hope of freedom. The world do not know about their whereabout as the secret underground prison is away from the eyes of the rest of the world. One after other perish as the years go by  one to gangrene, another to scorpions, to cholera, by refusing to eat and thereby deciding to end it all or by just giving up the hope,  Salim has to keep the rest of them alive. Its his stories, the poems of Moroccan writers and  Karim maintains a clock within himself, Ustad sings verses from Qu'ran, and another the anecdotes from the movies he watched and they play imaginary card games.  It's their collective survival tactic against the omnipresent death.The occasional visitors, the birds, whose language Salim, decoded and started having meaningful conversations, the slimy cockroaches, the rare moments of openness from the guard ( only to help those who are suffering, or to confirm the death of a colleague who stopped responding to the calls and not giving any signals of life).

Very gloomy, very despairing story of hope and survival, yet never loosing the narrative control to make it a melodrama. Tahar Ben Jelloun at no point attempt to glorify the sufferings, nor trying to make a judgement over the affair. The words and sentences are used carefully, which are often poetic. Which is why, despite being a story of such nature, the pages fly smoothly, and the reader never suffers from the premise that the novel is set in. Despite the possible 'triumph of the human spirit against adversity' kind of tab, the writer check the overflow of emotions cleverly.

Herta Muller's Russian Labour Camp story 'Hunger Angel' is still fresh in mind and I generally thought that was a good piece of writing about the times in a labour camp and detention centers. There was comparisons of the same to "One Day in the Life of...". However, this 'prison story' by Tahar Bel Jelloun, stands tall amongst the rest, if not a notch higher. Beautifully composed, yet extremely powerful tale of survival from one of the worst detention cells in the history of human kind.
This Blinding Absence of Light  ( 2001 )

Tahar Ben Jelloun ( translated from French by Linda Coverdale 2002 )

Penguin Books

195 Pages
Guardian, Wiki