Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ആലാഹയുടെ പെണ്‍മക്കൾ - Sara Joseph

Urbanisation needs people to who work the dirty things behind the 'every thing is good clean and shining' life of the city dwellers. These people, who work non-stop in the background, live in the  hidden quarters, work at odd hours, are the necessity of any growing city . Forced to live outside the city limits, their land and their life is encroached and driven away by the ever expanding need of the  city, forced to shift themselves away, as the city grow. Sara Joseph in her short novel write about these marginalised people, whose culture, language, voice, thoughts and life are encroached by the pretentious mass of urbanised, mainstream population.

Invasion through out the history had those who control and those who suffer. The economics, religion, and physical and organised power always played a key role in colonisation and control. The invading power , however, need the service of these sidelined populace for their daily affair. The exterior brilliance of the society needed the dirt and filth to be cleared.  Thus, every city, every social setting has people who are termed and identified to be the 'cleaners' for long time. These people, scavengers, the washerwomen, the cart pullers, the maids , gardners, security agents  are 'housed' just outside the social strata. They have to be available at a calls length, but not within their 'identifiable community'. Sara Joseph, reflects our conscience to these people and their life in the mid 20th century Thrissur.

Kookanchira, in the outskirts of Trissur, was once the dumping ground of abandoned bodies and carcasses, before the group of people, scavengers and other low life settled in. Annie, now eight years, is born in this place among the other low class, after her family moved into this place. Her father had abandoned the family, leaving her and her mother among many aunts , the aging grand mother and a crippled uncle suffering from TB, bed ridden, spitting blood. His whereabouts are not known and the family is resigned to the fact that he is not to be expected. Kookanchira is infamous for its past glory, its criminals ( the gang of 14 rowdies), the other people of ill-repute. Even at school, a place for progressive thoughts and teaching, students from Kookanchira is looked upon with disgust and contempt. Annie, through her childish eyes, witnesses the slow but definite changes that takes place in her outskirts. The place, where many houses stood, was being taken by the rich from the city, producing documents from authorities to show ownership of the property. The fights and the resistance, can easily be soaked wet by alcohol, by brute force, by the might of authority or the ruling class. Hence, the place, which was once a grave yard, a place of wandering ghosts, of numerous legends is now become history. So is the history of kookanchira, a history of the place is the history of its people.

One of the attributes of colonisation, or invasion, of encroachment is the structural destruction of what existed. The culture, the way of living and the language in particular. It was so from the early days of invasion. The Spaniards and Portuguese in the South America, the English all over the world. It is the same within the country by the rich over the poor. Brahminism, dictated the standards, the structure and the style of language (sanskritisation) and the way of living and thinking. What is followed by the upper class people become the norms of the society. However, those sidelined and marginalised community, find their own identity through their language, their rituals and customs and even physical appearance.

Sara Joseph uses the language to an outstanding effort. The identity of the people is in their language. Language is the character here.  The legends, the folklore, the politics, the daily life of the inhabitants unveiled through the natural progression of language. The language of the elite, is viable only for Annie's uncle, who is always bed-ridden. Annie, complains that she cant understand her uncle when he speaks in this language. This uniqueness in the narrative is that it often hard to understand ( even those who speak Malayalam) and makes it all the more difficult for translation. This is a hold no bar way of communicating. The idioms, the ample use of foul and unparliamentary language, the care a damn attitude for grammatical correctness the referential contexts and the other 'characteristics' of their spoken words make this an enriching reading experience.

While the focus is shifted to the narrative, one should not take the attention away from the story telling. Sara Joseph, cleverly weave the story, of the families shifting fortune, and through them the society that they belong  and the larger population and the changing social and political scene of Kerala. A family of 7 women ( mother, grand mother and five aunts), a young girl and an invalid bed ridden male of past fury  of rebelliousness, under one roof. Apart from the sporadic interjections, the voices are all of the women. Its the women who moves the daily score, with men busying themselves with alcohol or quarrel. Their might and demonstration of power are restricted to the public arena, but the control in the real sense ( despite a few beating they suffer after an alcohol induced reaction) is with the women folks. For Annie, her uncle is some one who is beyond her world. She know he taks about profound things, but have no connection with the world they live in. Its through her grand mother ( and her stories) she know the worldly wisdom. The men of her town, the women, the religion ( her grand mother is switched to Syrian sect while her mother remained Roman Catholic) , the authorities, the money lenders, whores, the neighbours and the ancestors are opened to her world through these womanly conversations and experiences.

Sara Joseph, uses these varied facets of story telling to some great effect. The language, the sociao political structure, the worlds of women, the perils of the new capitalists system, the issues of growing urbanisation, the prevailing caste struggles, the rich and political nexus combining their might against the unorganised, low class into a memorable little book with her insightful narrative. Brilliant in both style and technique, very refreshing reading experience.

ആലാഹയുടെ പെണ്‍മക്കൾ ( 1999)

Sara Joseph

D C Books

152 Pages
Samyukta , Wiki

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Four Major Plays ( A Doll House, The Wild duck, Hedda Gabler, The Master builder) - Henrik Ibsen

My reading has many gaps, and insufficient reading plays and drama are one of the glaring short coming. To claim to have read a minimum understanding of this genre, it can't be achieved with out getting into the world of Ibsen. The master playwright of the late 19th century, is one of the foremost if not the best writers of this medium and his plays continue to attract crowd in the theater for their contemporary relevance and values. This collection comprising of his four major plays is thus a great step to my attempt to familiarise with Ibsen and enhance my pursuit into this area of literature. Written at various points of his illustrious writing career, this not only bring some of the best of his writing, but are also representative of his progression as a writer. The Doll House written in 1872 while he was in Italy, begins the collection and ending with The Master Builder, which was written in 1892.

A Doll house, for its revolutionary ending, which send ripples to the moralistic, conservative European society, where the lead character abandons her husband and their two children, for pastures of her dream to discover herself. So much was the controversy, that Ibsen had to re-write the ending for the adaptation in German Theaters. He called it disgrace to the original play and a 'barbaric outage'. The play starts with Laura, wife of Torvald Helmer, a mother of two, returns from her Christmas shopping,  Torvald is now appointed as the manager of the Bank and he expected to take charge pretty soon, bringing all the difficulties related to finance and blossoming a dream of better living. Torvald is what you call it as an ideal man. Perfect husband loving and caring, respected in society, with a job to envy for, a person hold high moral. When every thing seems to be in perfect setting, what is the cause of concern?  It was Nils Krogstad, who apparently working in the same bank in a low rank, a man with a shady past in the eyes of moralistic society, is threatened by dismissal by Torvald, to help Mrs Linden, Nora's friend. Krogstad is not a bad man, he has broken the law once, but is now trying to inch his way back to the social stream. The dismissal will further damage his reputation and his attempt to redeem himself and thus he fight back. Nora, has borrowed some money from Krogstad, towards the medical expenses of her husband in the past. A deal, where she forged the signature of her ailing father, a deal she kept secret from her husband. "If need be, I shall fight as though for my life to keep my little place in the bank. . . . It's not only for the money: that matters least to me. It's something else", assures Krogstad to Nora. The money affair is something Nora kept to herself for a long time and she saves money to pay back. Opening her secrets to her friend Nora asserts she had to save her husband by taking him to Italy and she is saving every penny to repay the debt,  "When Torvald gave me money for clothes and so on, I never used more than half of it; I always bought the simplest things." The threat from Krogstad is serious and fearing the status of her husband ( if a scandal breaks out), she pleads and tries all that she could to restrain her husband from dismissing Krogstad. As expected this has to explode, and when the final moment comes, Nora is ready and prepared. Despite her husbands harsh words, she was prepared to save him from the bad names by killing herself. It was then Nora realised that she was wrong, and her place in the household of Torvald is not that of a woman of equal strength, but that of a play thing, a doll. Her inner conflict and realisation was so strong when she says to Torvald 'You have never loved me. You only thought it amusing to be in love with me', before leaving him and the children. A phenomenal play, and there is no wonder about its ever growing popularity. A new adaptation of this ( the first being in 1923) with Ben Kingsly in the lead is expected in 2014,

The Wild Duck, is very disturbing and intriguing play.  Gregers Werle is back home after many years of self-imposed exile, on a day when his father is throwing a dinner. His mother is passed away long back, carrying a suspicion that her husband is having some relationship with other women, a suspicion Gregers continue to carry. He realises some of the back ground of his fathers growth in stature is also to do with his ill treatment of one of his friend and business partner, Lieutenant Ekdal, who is now doing few copying jobs for his father. It was also revealed to him that Ekdal's son and his classmate Hjalmar  is married to Gina, who was once his fathers associate. Refusing to live in the same house with his father, he decided to pursue a life of his own, rejecting the offer to divide the property into two halves  by his father. His father is known to have an affair with the care taker of the house,  Mrs. Sørby , which on a later scenes she confirms. Deciding to pursue this matter further, Gregers, leaves home and take shelter in the household of Ekdals. A complex household with an external calmness, wants Gregers to expose his father. He invites Hjalmar for a walk, and supposedly reveals the secret of his father to him. Hjalmar, returns home drunk, confronts his wife.  Mrs. Sørby's arrival with a letter from Gregers father, declaring pension for  Lieutenant Ekdal, which later extended to Hjalmar's daughter, increases his suspicion on his wife and his daughter. Dejected, he returns to his friends to drinking, In a tragic end, Hjalmar's daughter, in a symbolic gesture sacrifices herself by shooting herself ( instead of the wild duck) to the shock. A very sophisticated play, where the written text hide a lot more than what it reveals. There are many scholarly readings, symbolising the 'wild duck' and the attic where Hedwig and her grand father, spent the day.  Gregers is driven by idealism and his hatred towards his father. His attempt to reveal the truth to his friend, is largely directed towards his father, but his meddling of the affairs of Ekdal's family had destructive effect. The father might have done two crimes towards the Ekdal's , by impregnating the servant Gina and then marrying her off to Hjalmar, and sent the elder Ekdals to prison for his own wrong doing. Trying to rectify the guilt of his father, the step further by completely destroyed the Ekdals. Father did amends by restoring the Ekdals to some level of comfort by offering job to the elderly man, and by setting up a studio for the son. In an attempt to settle the score with his father for the death of his mother, the real victims happened to be the Ekdals and a young girl.

Hedda Gabler, probably isn't as grand as the other two. A young couple returns to their new house in Oslo, after six month honeymoon, which apparently did not go all well. George Tesman, is an academic and is interested in research of old manuscripts. Hedda returns in bad humour and she did not hide her displeasure in her interactions with Aunt Julie, who dropped in to welcome them. Mrs. Elvsted, a friend of Hedda,  arrives soon after announcing the return of Eilert Lovborg, to the town recovering from the alcoholism that saw him off for more than two years. Mrs.Elvsted makes a mention of her liking of Lovborg, despite being a married woman, but is aware that Lovborg did have a girlfriend and a possible break of that resulted in his notorious behaviour. Hedda wants to invite Lovborg to their place, and gets George to send the letter requesting his visit. Judge Brack, who came in and in the conversations let Tesman know that the new book published by Lovborg has been a huge success and there is a potential threat to George's dream of becoming the professor at the University. By now, it is clear to the readers that the long lost love of Lovborg is Hedda, which Hedda cut off by threatening to shoot him. Lovborg comes in with a manuscript of the new book, a continuation of his best seller, and wanted George to read them. Hedda, cleverly manages to send both her husband and Lovborg to a party thrown by Judge Brack. George return with the manuscript saying it was found abandoned in the pavement after Lovborg lost them, after an altercation post reckless drinking. However, Lovborg had a different story to tell, he did not loose it but shred the manuscript into thousand pieces. Hedda did not reveal her possession of the manuscript, instead send him to his possible suicide. He burns the manuscripts in an attempt to protect her husbands interest, but Mrs.Elvsted and George tries to rebuild the manuscripts from the notes written by Lovborg which Mrs.Elvstd possess. In the meanwhile Judge Brack returns with the news of the death of Lovborg, and identifies the pistol used by him belongs to Hedda. He also informs Hedda, while there might be circumstantial evidence that saves Hedda from influencing suicide,  only he can keep the secret from falling into the ears of the Police. Realising she has fallen into the hands of the Judge, Hedda goes into the next room and shoot herself.

Hedda comes out as a highly manipulative individual. We observe she continue to use her father's surname and not changed it to Tesman, post her marriage. Clarifiying this Ibsen wrote, "My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife". Hedda as a character is for drama in the true sense. Depending upon the interpretation ( apparently there was a version in an Australian production where Hedda is portrayed by a male), she can be portrayed as a victim of circumstances, a ideal feminist, a cruel manipulative villain or a devout heroine working towards the betterment of her husband.  It provides ample moments of character twists, and dramatic moments. Trapped in the constricts of the family after her wedding, Hedda is already bored and is in look out for options to shake herself free from the imposed clutches. She makes her intention clear to the judge that she wants a friend, not necessarily a lover, beyond her husband whose interests limits to his academic pursuit. Despite her rejection, she continue to have her sympathy for Lovborg and could not come into terms with Mrs.Elvsted's advances towards him. It is from this she manipulated the intricate threads of dependencies, to send both her husband and Lovborg to the party, waiting for their return in her room. It was this control she wanted over destiny, of hers her husbands and the rest, she pushed Lovborg towards committing suicide. It was the same thoughts that lead her to her own death, when she realised that her life will now depends on the Judge Brack, who guided by his profession,  could make in roads to the machinations of a intelligent mind.

The master builder, written in 1892, the first play after Ibsen's return to Norway, talks about the eventual fall of a master buider. A young 24 year old woman shows up dressed in mountain attire, with no change clothes, in the house of a middle aged builder of repute. Demanding the promise he made to her ten years ago, when he built a church tower in her home town, during which he supposed to have forced himself on the young girl calling her his princess and promising to return in ten years and build her a castle in the air. A story he did not remember or as expectedly ridiculed, but the young lady Hilda, manages to impose the story upon him through her seductive charm and flirt. Vulnerable, having an unremarkable married life with Aline, Master builder Soleness, fallen prey to her charm and was easy being manipulative. On the other hand, Soleness, worried for his place, as the young generations trying to advance in every aspect. To continue leading the front, he has recruited young architect under his wings, and refuses place and time for his personal growth as an independent architect. The arrival of the young women, saw him dismissing the young man from his clutches, allowing him to find a path for himself. We understand that he is building a new house on the land which once belonged to his wife and where they lost their kids around 13 years ago in a fire. Despite knowing his suffering form Acrophobia, Hilda encourages him to climb on the tower to the topmost to inaugurate the new house, as he has done in the past. As he climbs up to the ascend he looses foot and falls to eventual death amidst the large group of people gathered to see the new house.

Arguably a play which has the maximum autobiographical elements of Ibsen's life. The old architect, threatened by the young generation, an unhappy married life, a flirtatious affair with young women. He himself talked about his short lived affair with a young apprentice, who was later known for tis behaviour. He added, she did not use me, but I used her in my play. To me this play works in three planes. One the flirtatious middle aged mind easily vulnerable to the charms and manipulations of the young woman. The second the insecurities or the mid-life crisis that every professional undergo, as he watch the younger generation, threatening to take over from him and a fragile family life whose foundations were shaken with the death of the children. The mother soon withdraw to her own reclusive self, with blocking the two way communication, limiting to mundane daily grind. Ibsen brings all these three elements together with a brilliant proportion, adding his own personal experiences and inhibitions.

Four remarkable plays of Ibsen, selected from his later stages of his writing career, arguably the best representation of Ibsen. Non-absurdist, realistic plays taking on social issues and deep understanding of the inner thoughts and actions of the characters. Marvelous..

Four Major Plays - A Doll House (1879), The Wild duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master builder (1892)

 Henrik Ibsen ( translated from Norwegian by Rolfe Fjelde in 1965)

Signet Classic

384 Pages
Doll House :  Guardian, UCB, Wiki
The Wild Duck : Ibsen Voyages, wiki
Hedda Gabler : Shmoop , Wiki
The Master Builder : Guardian, Ibsen Voyages, , Wiki

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh - Mo Yan

Last years ( 2012) Nobel Laureate Mo Yan goes back to his childhood days in the province, to the days of poverty and hunger the days of cultural revolution t the early days of one family one child policy, in this collection of carefully chosen eight short stories. 1960s , Mo Yan says, is "one of China's most bizarre period. On one hand, those years saw the country in the grip of economic stagnation and individual deprivation. The people struggled to keep death from their door, with little to eat and rags for clothes ; on the other hand, it was a time for intense political passion".  He talked about people surviving by eating coal. "The more I ate, the better the stuff tasted, until it seemed absolutely delicious". These collection of stories are reflective of the time which Mo Yan experienced as a young boy.

The title story talked about a factory worker laid off from job, barely a month before his retirement. Known for his exemplary work, a role model to the rest, even he could not survive the axe, as the bad economic situation, caused the authorities to shut down the factory. All the sweet words that flew and the promises that were given, as Ding Shikou soon to find out, had no meaning. Forced to find a way to live, Shikou takes the help of his friend to transform a abandoned chassis of a bus into some thing called a 'lover's cottage', which he rents out on a fee to young lovers seeking privacy and seclusion. While it gave him economic freedom, as the business grew to greater heights during the 'season', Shikou looses his conscience and self esteem, resulting in his hallucinatory visions of 'visitors' to his cottage.

Man and the beast, reflect upon the plight of a soldier who fought Japanese and was captured and taken as prisoner to Japan. Visiting the island of Hokkaido, the nameless narrator, recounts the story of his grand father and his exploits in the lush valleys and hills adjoining the Sapporo Sea. Remembering his grand dad's words of his time in Japan, the heroic story of resistance of his grand mother, his uncles and aunts against the enemy, the ten years of solitary life in the mountains before his return to China and  the accusation of his rape of a Japanese woman as per the police records ( grand father never actually had intercourse with that women, so the furry baby described in Japanese historical materials, is not related to him. But even having a young uncle who is half Japanese would be no disgrace to our family, and could in fact considered our glory, says the narrator) the grand son tries to get the records right and restore the glory of his family. "One must honour the Truth".

Soaring, is a fantastic story with a touch of magical realism. Forty year old, badly pockmarked Hong Xi marries to a beautiful YanYan, in exchange for his sister to Yanyan's brother, a mute. However, the marriage wasn't one he hoped for, as the bride took off from his house and jumped and flew over the village, from one tree to the other, free like a bird to escape the marriage, refusing to come down despite the plea from him and the villagers, until she was brought down by the village policeman's rifle. Iron Child is an ironical story about a young boy living by eating pieces of iron, during the "great leap forward" campaign, in possible satire on over industrialisation while the country is in famine. "Cure" on the other hand is too visually compelling, forced to witness the mass execution by the authorities, a young boy and his father waits below the bridge for falling bodies to extract the 'gall' from the corpse as a cure for his ailing grand mother. 'Love story', about a city educated young girl forced to labour at the farm collectives, having a affair with a younger boy. "Abandoned Child" is about female infanticide, a larger social and political issue due to the strict one family one son policy. A story relevant in the present day India ( especially Haryana and Punjab and to a lesser extend Tamil Nadu), trying to get the attention of the people to one of the most 'disturbing' trends in the modern era. Restricted to having one child per family, young people abandon or murder new born babies, if they are born with any defects or if they are girls ( preference to male child).

'Shen Garden' is one of the story which stand out  and is my pick from this collection. The most recent story of the book, this is a poignant account of a middle aged couple ( either divorced or separated for a long time), coming to terms with their life's dreams and compromises.  Story starts with two middle aged man and woman, sitting in the bakery, having referential, trivial one sided conversations. We can gather that they are not together and the relation is already cracked. Both will move their own way in the evening ( a reference of an eight 'O clock train) not likely to meet again. Its all of a sudden she demands "I'd like to visit Shen Garden". Shen Garden might be the symbolic of their good times. Its a place where they wish to be together. As we understand from his expression, Shen Garden is not in Beijing, but in Zheijiang province . Nonetheless, they set out for the garden, the Yuanming garden in Beijing.

'This isn't my Shen Garden' she said. "You're wrong, this is your Shen Garden". He felt like a stage performer. In a tone of voice pregnant with meaning, he added, 'Of course, it's my Shen Garden too. It's our Shen Garden."

The royal gardens of China are an attraction by themselves. Having visited many, I can vouch for their effect and impact on the visitors. A place of calmness and serenity among the hubbubs of the crowded city life, the rich vegetation and green surroundings. When they entered the garden it was raining and the place was deserted. The rain lashed on them and their life. The weather is changing, it rained out and the rainbow is in the horizon,  swinging the mood of the couple. She was hopping around like a girl and shouting and the joy was infectious. Mo Yan writes,
"Without being aware of it, they had drawn close together, as they gazed intimately into each other's eyes. No evasions or sidesteps, no hesitation or wavering; first their hands joined naturally, and then they fell just as naturally into each other's arms. They kissed."

Mo Yan derives the characters and his subject from his childhood days( except may be Shen Garden). The intense fragrance of the province in the sixties is visible in each of the tale. The hardship, the ability to look at them and laugh ( as the title story reminds us) and the resilience, which are characteristics of the people comes out strongly through these stories. Its a clever mix, of some hard hitting social issues , few fantastical stories, a fabulous love story. Mo Yan, writes beautifully and they are rich in imagery and deep in content. Even a preachy story like 'abandoned child' has the elements of a good story telling. The translation is smooth and the selection is well thought out. May not be the best of Mo Yan, but are very important and reflective of the resources of this writer , the world recognised through the Nobel Prize.

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh(2001 )

Mo Yan ( translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt in 2001)

Arcade Publishing

224 Pages
New internationalist, NY Times