Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sorrow of the Snows - Upendra Nath Ashk

Hasandin's life is in two 'avtars'. During the season, when tourists flocks the valleys of Kashmir, he works as a guide, renting his horses to the visitors and trekkers. During the off season, he is a simple peasant labourer.  He leads a normal life with his family and the horses , with an only intention of saving some money to afford a grand wedding of his son at the Shrine of Baba Pamdin, with whose help, he wife had borne him a son.  During season, he goes to the bus stand, with his three horses accompanied by his son and nephew, after offering the morning namaz, in anticipation of his clients and with a hope of making a a good fortune at the mercy of a generous customer . As expected in any such cases, he has to struggle his way through forces of evil and opposition within his own quarters. The fellow horse-laden guides who stoop to any tactics to win the customers, the police authorities whose only intent is to steal from the meager earnings of these poor guides, and the customers who refuse to pay the agreed sum under one pretext or other.

This tale of sorrow and pathos talks about one another such incident.  When he met Khanna Sahib at the bus stand and been selected to take him to Gulmarg, Khilanmarg, Afrabat and to the frozen lake of Al-Pathar, his heart was filed with joy, calculating the potential money he would make in the next couple of days from the wealthy tourist.  It did not take long to realise the true nature of his customer. Khanna Sahib, a shrewd businessman from Delhi, was all cunning and stingy. At the end of the eventful trip, he not only refuse to pay for the tour and service, but accused Hasandin of stealing his Camera, sending him into the Police Station, where he was asked to pay a large sum to secure his release.

A simple story of pathos in the common man where the nature, authorities, the clients and the colleagues adds to his daily struggle to live. Despite the initial hopes and anticipation, every thing in the end conspires against his poor , innocent existence. The only solace is in the hands of the almighty. Written in 1957, 'Pathar - al - Pathar', made Upendra Nath Ashk as one of the leading writers on Hindi Literature. His writing, with simple and elegant prose, the crisp characterisation, the background imagery of the place and history, the influence of the religious beliefs and the ability of the villager to submit to the Gods for all his fortunes are very typical of the Indian writers. As we experienced in the writings of the post independent literature, this too reflects the exploitation, the inequality, the inefficiency of the systems to provide justice to the masses of the nation, through a passionate, yet detached, powerful  narration.

Upendranath Ashk, a controversial figure in Indian Literature, had written numerous books in Hindi as well as Urdu. Many of his books are available in translation. This too a part satirical , part anecdotal narrative with sly humour ( hard hitting, but does not make one laugh or smile as the drama that unfolds in pathos) reflects his ability to bring the nuances of the daily life. The religion sans politics plays a key role here. The shrine of Baba, an abode for downloading all his sorrows, a guiding force whom he trust to be his savior ( despite the cunning methods of the caretakers to loot the visitors),  Baba's popularity among believers of all faiths, reflects the strengths of the social harmony that existed once in the valley, before the trouble erupted.

Translation was effective, but not without blemishes. Many a places, the unevenness was felt while reading. Thinking in Hindi and translating from Hindi to English (  as against thinking in English - or the target language - and translating as English from Hindi ) , a common handicap I see in any translation from Indian Language to English is rampant in this translation too. It is difficult to preserve the lyrical and structural beauty of Urdu and Hindi sentences to English, without loosing some of those fragrance, and that was evident in this case as well. However, any attempt to bring the Indian Literature to a wider audience is a laudable effort.
Sorrow of the Snows ( 1957)

Upendra Nath Ashk ( translated from Hindi by Jai Ratan)

Harper Perenniel 

133 Pages
Taylor & Francis (not free)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Gandhi and Anarchy - C Sankaran Nair

The role of Gandhi in the Indian Independent and its strive for self rule has been unquestioned and most of the generations post 1947 had been grown with these images engraved in them through the text books and stories. Hence by and large, he has been portrayed as 'RIGHTEOUS' man and the father of the nation, a role model of many many leaders to follow. Hence, it is difficult to accept criticism and voice of dissent against such a person. Not that it is not there, but are relatively rare and go largely unnoticed.

There had been voices of dissent during his life time, but among the followers and the Indian National Congress community, that lead the independent struggle in the forefront , these voices are quelled. Subhash Chandra Bose, who split from Indian National Congress and started his own Army, seeking association with the Japanese to fight for Indian independence, the revolutionary youths of the 30s - Chandrasekhar 'Azad' , Bhagat Singh and the rest -did continue to inspire the young blood, The Communists however small and insignificant they were in the national politics,  and a few Feudal elite, who always watched his actions with contempt, did not really manage to make any dent in his Himalayan popularity and his leadership.

His active role in Indian Politics commenced with his return from South Africa in 1915 ,where he did his initial experimentation with Civil disobedience and Non-violent struggle for rights for Indians and the blacks.  Within few years, he rose to the leadership of the Indian National Congress, a role he continue to hold until death,  and announced a nation wide strike and disobedience in order to achieve 'swaraj' ( freedom) from the British. As we knew the years after the World War 1 did see major political and religious turmoil across the world. Indian politics and the freedom struggle too, rejuvenated during these years with the leadership of Gandhi. The Jalianwalla Bagh incident, the Khilafat agitation, The Civil disobedience movement lead by Gandhi, the declaration of 'Swaraj',  the rejection of Montegu-Chemsford mission, the violence that sprout across the country resulting in the cancellation of the non-cooperation movement and the three 'Anti-Violence Fast'  of Gandhi etc made the early 20s of the last century a significant period of Indian history.

Chettur C Sankaran Nair, a barrister by profession, elected President of Indian National Congress during 1897 held at Amraoti, writes his strong views against the political strategy and the ideology of Gandhi in a book written and published in the year 1922. This for all probability, could be the first book that was critical of Gandhi's views and his political leadership. The date of the publication is important to be noted. This is written during these troubled days of Indian Politics and not, as the historians have the privilege of, after the repercussions and implications of these actions are proven. It is also interesting to note how strongly the people felt at that time, and was willing to voice their dissent in open. Nearly 9 decades thence, we have the advantage of the history to evaluate Gandhi for his action and can form our judgement supported by results. Hence, these criticism, for now, seems to have been done in haste and prejudiced. But Sankaran Nair, do bring out a few significant observation on the character and the principles of the man destined to lead India to independence.

Largely attacking Gandhi's non-cooperation movements and his principles on education, swaraj and civil disobedience, Sankaran Nair looks at each of these elements through his strong view points.
The struggle for Indian Home Rule which was started with the inauguration of the Indian National Congress has many difficulties to encounter, has strong and powerful opponents and has received many checks. But its strongest opponent is Mr. Gandhi and perhaps the most severe check it has received is the adoption by the National Congress at his instance in Calcutta and Nagpur of the so-called-Nonviolent Non-co-operation.
starts Sankaran Nair in his preface. He adds, "Non-co-operation as advocated by Mr. Gandhi may be a weapon to be used when constitutional methods have failed to achieve our purpose."

While attacking his philosophy , Sankaran Nair has some interesting observations to make. He says Gandhi  " belongs to a class of thought which has attracted some of the noblest minds in this world, but in applying his the gospel of life to politics, he has shown himself a babe and his interference has been generally mischievous."
Mr. Gandhi's emotional outbursts, fasting, penances, "Sanyasi waist cloth", may carry away the emotional masses, women and students. But whether this wave of emotionalism submerged the men above named I would not care to guess.
Further on his clever religious philosophy, Sankaran Nair observes that  "The severe simplicity and austerity of Mr.Gandhi's life combined with his appeal to the principle of ' Ahimsa( non-injury )inherited from Buddists and now ingrained in Hindu life, has secured him the support of the Hindu masses and particularly vegetarians. His support of the caste system has won over the higher classes and the reactionary elements of Hindu society to his side."

Gandhi was also against most of the modern advancement of the humanities such as   Education, Doctors, Industry, Railways, Lawyers. In one of his writings Gandhi demands.
"India's salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go, and so called upper classes have to learn to live consciously and religiously and deliberately the simple peasant life, knowing it to be a life giving true happiness".
Sankaran Nair refutes his arguments with his thoughts.
His tirade against machinery and mill industries on account of the evils he has witnessed in the West, is due to his ignorance ; a little knowledge in his case has proved a dangerous thing. It is this feeling which hassled him to advocate the universal use of spinning wheel in India. This might be useful as a cottage or home industry. It might find work for some who would otherwise be idle. But he is living in a fool's paradise if he considers it a substitute for or will supplant, machinery.
Gandhi according to Sankaran Nair carries one of the orthodox religious and caste believes. Quoting Gandhi's words - " Varanashram (caste system) is inherent in human nature and Hinduism has simply reduced it to a science. It does attach by birth. A man cannot change his Varna by choice. Prohibition against intermarriage and inter dining is essential for a rapid evolution of the soul.'  -  Sankaran Nair assesses that,   "It is this caste system which has brought about the conquest of India by the Mahomedans and the Englishmen, both of whom were always supported by the lower castes against the higher. It is responsible for the large conversions to •Christianity and Mahomedanism."
Moving from the philosophy of Gandhi to the issues of the era, he examines each of the elements that constituted Gandhi's political agenda during the time. On the 'Khilafat Movement' he says, "The real truth of course is that in the case of the Khilafat agitation Mr. Gandhi and some of its most active and prominent leaders want to use the agitation to destroy the Government and not to effect a real settlement of the question". Gandhi and the political leadership of Indian National Congress  wanted to use the the general dissent in the Muslim community to their advantage combining the forces in their fight against the British.  However, on the other hand, "Mahomedan fury against the British Government ( was only)  for its failure to support Mahomedan interests in the West.", and not necessarily to do with the swaraj struggle as it was described to be.

As it turned to be, the Khilafat agitation turned violent at many places across India, and widespread riots, killing of Hindus, looting and  forced conversion took place at many places. The Malegaon incidents, the Malabar Rebellion ( Mapla Riots of 1921) and other gruesome incidents were later corrected in the history books as independent struggle, underplaying the religious agenda. Gandhi, however supported these incidents saying "you are not aware that the Moplas justify their action on the ground that at such a critical juncture, when they are engaged in a war against the English, their neighbours not only do not help them or observe neutrality, but aid and assist the English in every possible way."

Ridiculing Gandhi's call for swaraj and his promise in the 1920 Lahore Congress that he will obtain 'Swaraj' before the end of the year, Sankaran Nair observed that there is no proper planning and preparation on how to gain 'swaraj' and how to run the country post 'swaraj'. He says, most of Gandhi's ideas are too week and too premature to run such a nation, by his under developed ideas of swaraj.

Gandhi's vision of swaraj is quoted as :

"Swaraj means full Dominion status. The scheme of such swaraj shall be framed by representatives duly elected in terms of the Congress constitution. That means four anna franchise. Every Indian adult, male or female, paying four annas and signing the Congress creed will be entitled to be placed on the electoral list. These would elect delegates who would frame Swaraj constitution. This shall be given effect to without any change by the British Parliament."
But 'swaraj' was a dream, not to materialise in any near future ( as we know it now). Sankaran Nair ridiculed - "Thus Swaraj was to come on September 1-1921, October 31-1921, December 13-1921. At the Congress in December, 1921, Mr. Gandhi gave up fixing any date for the attainment of Swaraj."

Similarly, the civil disobedient movement of the Non-Cooperation Movement also had its own pitfalls. While most of his demands were based on his belief in the 'ahimsa' principle, the workers and general public not necessarily imbibed the same principles in their action. Wide spread violence across the country was reported ( a huge list of incidents given as annexure) forcing Gandhi to withdraw the agitation and he had gone for indefinite fasting at least on three occasion. An idea marred by poor execution. His call for non-cooperation "involving the community in chaos, disorder and possibly violence. The country has had only a vear's training in his (Mr. Gandhi) counsels of non-violent resistance— far loo short a period for his countrymen to imbibe his spirit, in a manner worthy of his teaching."

For instance, the boycott of schools and colleges have not succeeded and even persons, of known and undoubted loyalty to the cause, complain that the action of Congress workers has caused more harm than good. They concentrated too much on the disruption of existing institutions and less on the creation and maintenance of new one on " national " lines. They forgot that a student cannot be left idle in the street and that, if the Congress must call him out, it can only be after it has provided for him a good substitute.
The whole movement of non-cooperation had to be called off in the end as " he under-rated the forces of evil, and that he was obliged to pause and consider how best to meet the situation."

He also question Gandhi and Congress in the way they handled the Punjab issue ( Jalianwala Bagh ) and the boycott call of foreign goods ( he narrates an incident where the dresses were pulled off the ladies humiliating and molesting in public, the boycott of Lawyers and other institutions, which are all come from immaturity and improper understanding.  Or in other words about the general anarchy the whole movement caused.

Chettur Sankaran Nair lived long enough to see the outcome of these agitations, but he died much before the country received its independence. His words probably were harsh and venomous at times. He might have been prejudiced and by the time the book was written, he was already knighted and was cooperating with the regime, not giving up the idea of independence. Hence his views and methods were radically different from that of Gandhi (" for the simple reason that I believe that Mr. Gandhi is honest in his self hypnotisation. I believe he does not really know what he is doing") . That displeasure, probably resulted in this book. This book, however, is significant in the history of Indian independent, which provide and alternate view of some of the incidents, which otherwise was known to us through the official statements. This also shows light, albeit critically, to the life of Gandhi in his early years of Indian Politics. Gandhi himself would have progressed from these days both in his strategy as well as personal leadership, learned from the mistakes and experiences.

Nearly half of the book is in the forms of appendix , to substantiate his points and to give weight to his arguments. The note made by Anne Besant, on her visit to Calicut during the Malabar Rebellion, the address of the Viceroy to the nation and Gandhi's self defense at the court were some of the best among the many that were compiled and included at the end.

I would not say, this book is not compelling enough to shake the confidence of a man on Gandhi or on his personal life principles. But it does give the glimpses of the century long independent struggle and few pitfalls in its execution. It also give a non-conditioned ( by time and influenced by out come) view of the history. I am glad that I read this book.
Gandhi and Anarchy  ( 1922)

C.Sankaran Nair

Tagore & Co , Madras

286 Pages

Friday, January 31, 2014

Thousand Cranes - Yasunari Kawabata

Its time to read Kawabata again, revisit all those previously read works again to reiterate my belief and to refresh the memories. I did read snow country last month, and now "thousand cranes". The rest of the works will be in line for a re-read. I carry a fond memory of reading Kawabata ages ago. The entire process of re-reading begun after "Beauty and Sadness", which to me was very ordinary. As a reader you grow over the years and the taste become more polished or finer and many of the books you liked earlier, fails to impress me any more. However, both my second reads of Kawabata , not only restored the faith, but was able to appreciate them with the inherited wisdom of experience.

A short novel of guilt, love, seduction and deception, in the backdrops of tea ceremonies and shattered dreams and plans ( and the precious tea cups, symbolically). Twenty five year of Kikuji, trying to fight the past  of the memories and guilt as well as the cunning plans of his fathers mistresses to have their control over him. Kikuji inherited his father vast wealth, post his death. A well respected man, with finesse tastes, collector of ceremonial cups for the Tea functions, and also some one managed more than one mistress while he was alive. This short novel begins with one of his father's mistress Chikako, inviting him for a tea ceremony, only to realise that the pretext behind this was an ulterior motive of a potential match-making.  Cleverly positioning Inamura Yukiko, along with him during the function to play the role of a collaborator. Spoiling her manipulations by arriving at the function was Mrs.Ota, another mistress of his father, with whom he spent majority of his days,  and her daughter Fumiko arriving at the function uninvited. The game of one-upmanship between the mistresses continue as they fight their way to his life.

Kikuji has to endure and carry the guilt of his fathers past, through his mistresses. The girl with the thousand crane kerchief ( he remembers Inamura girl though this symbol and not through her face or character) and the daughter of Mrs Ota ( who is much more prudent and possesses self control), are representative of the new generation and can understand the conflict and difficulties Kikuji is trying to overcome. The real tussle is between the mistresses. One who did not win his fathers favours in bed but was mostly used as an accomplice, and the other, probably younger and better looking who continued to enjoy the favours until the death are now vying to extend their control over the son. Chikako, ugly with a large birth mark spread across half of her breast ( a distant memory remained with Kikuji, which he happens to witness as a young boy) with her poisonous , manipulative acts of taking control and the other by trying to lure the young one into her fold by seduction, and committing suicide out of guilt. The two girls and Kikuji had to face the consequences of the designs of the rivalry, which distance them from one another instead of making alliances and prospective marriage.

The rituals and culture play a major part in Kawabata's works. The concept of thousand cranes ( though not directly referred here) is a Japanese tradition of folding 1000 origami cranes for getting their wishes fulfilled. The 'tea ceremony' again so much of part of the Japanese psyche, which we see in the book going through a deterioration from generations to the next. An event, once very close to his fathers heart, a pride and prestige, a symbol of aristocracy with well preserved and maintained vessels and utensils, are to Kikuji and the new generations are mere curios. One can sense his unhappiness in being forced to participate. The function he would like to conduct in his house, is as a respect to his father, a respect to the past, and not something for the current. These cultural and traditional undercurrents along with the landscape, be it the snow peaked mountains, the flourishing valleys or the changing seasons. The book will have to be absorbed including these vivid and marvelous settings. There are  strong undercurrent of traditions and social stigma in all of his works. Hence the mere story of love and deception, seduction and manipulation, guilt and conscience has a different meaning and values in his novels. Under a calm narrative of simple tale, lies the turbulent currents attributed to these subtleties. Which is why he is one of the masters of 20th century literature.

Thousand Cranes ( 1952 )

Yasunari Kawabata ( translated from Japanese by Edward G.Seidensticker 1958 )

Penguin Classics

91  Pages
Wiki, Complete Review,

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The View from Castle Rock - Alice Munro

Typically, I read the newly crowned Nobel Laureate, during November or December, if they aren't in my familiarity zone. I did not have to do that for a Saramago or a Llosa or Mo Yan as they weren't new to me when they were chosen for the award. But as for the current laureate,  I haven't read any book of Alice Munro, barring a couple of stories published in New Yorker. For various reasons, the customary reading (of Nobel Winner) has split into the new year, and on a collective suggestion and a group reading choice,  The View from the Castle Rock, was decided.

Being the first writer  known only for writing  'short stories', to be a Nobel Laureate, it did attract a higher attention and expectation. The inside Cover specifically mentioned it as 'stories'. The book, however, is a progressive narrative of her own family, spanning over three centuries and two continents. As they say, one can always look at sources closed to us for inspiration, hence the vast number of 'autobiographical' or 'semi-autobiographical' writing in literature field . Alice Munro does exactly that, looking back at her family's history , from her great great grandfather to her step mother in a captivating, touching collection of stories.  The book read like a novel to me, than a collection of short stories. A seamless narrative , chronologically progressed, albeit not in continuous sequences, leaving gaps in the story, space and time. 

From the small Islands of Scotland, Alice starts her tales, of survival, of migration to greener pastures, intricacies of family connections and incidents and anecdotes. Set in two parts, part one,  the family's journey from Ettrick Valley in Scotland to North America, and part two in the new lands and the later generations of her family. I personally liked the initial parts The back yard search for the clues and stories about the ancestors, few prolific ones, and the threading of these various anecdotes into a seamlessly woven story form was marvelous. I am not as enthused in the later part ( especially towards the end) , where the narration tends to be a bit disjointed. A bit of triviality takes over. The later part has a lot more personal experiences and more autobiographical in nature. The first part is more adventurous, the quest for hints and connecting dots, bringing few interesting characters of the Islands. The plan and the dream of the new land, the metaphorical "View from the Castle Rock" to the new world.

This is one of my first reading of Munro and I was talking about this being a progressive stories as in novel vis-a-vis a collection of short stories. I argued that a random reading of one of the stories in the middle, probably will have a lesser impact, as against reading these stories as a collective. I was told that she tends to play along these lines and the narration often breaches the boundaries of the novel and short story.  Characters , places and events apparently pops up repeatedly in the other collections as well.

I would look at the two parts separately. Part one, largely based on the snippets of information she gathered during her visits and from various mentions in the old documents. She stich together a compelling story, enriched with beautiful imagery, characterisation ( build up from the data available) and fixing the missing links. This part which has more fictional element is fabulous, and a creation of a worthy hand. The second part, largely autobiographical and contemplative has lesser amount of fictional element, but more of internalisation of her own life and observations. The energy of her ancestors is derived into the later part, but these two remain different and in contrast in many aspects.

The terrain and the place has a large part of participation in her stories. These stories are all of limited scale and scope. Largely around relationships, confined within the family or short extensions in a few cases. There is a sense of intimacy, a closeness, a dependency of mutual existence. The gradual demo graphical and geographical changes in the landscape , minute observations of the changes in the living conditions et all are carefully handled through the stories.  Beautiful passages, meditative, emotionally deep story telling and fabulous control over language makes this a great read.
The View from Castle Rock ( 2006 )

Alice Munro

Vintage Books

349  Pages
Wiki, Guardian, NY Times, Quill & Quire

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

Dictator novels, as a genre begun probably with Asturias, 'The President'. It is, however, came into prominence as a genre in the late sixties and early seventies with the a flurry of novels ( 10 novels written by 10 prominent writers ) from some of the leading writers in the Latin America. The political systems and the vibrant literature scene gave us some of the best novels of the 20th century. Garica Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpenter's Reasons of the State, Roa Bastos' 'I the Supreme' were some of the highlights of this series. Mario Vargas Llosa's "Feast of the Goat' published late in the 2000, was one of the last of the series belonging to the Dictator fiction group. Most of the Latin America, by then was returning to democracy. 90s and the new millennium saw a similar influx of such novels from Africa ( Snakepit from Moses Isegawa for example) and a few from Europe ( Inquisitor's manual of Antonio Lobo Antunes, few of the works from Saramago, Kadare) came during the same time. Asia, by far was lagging here, not because of the lack of dictatorship in these part of the world, but most of the writers were limited themselves to writing anti-establishment novels , but not something that can be classified as a 'dictator novel'.  Mohammed Hanif's fictionals attempt on the death of General Zia Ul-Huq of Pakistan, to me, is one that can considered to be one that can be kept along with the earlier mentioned books.

Gen Zia, the military ruler of Pakistan for over 11 years after a coup that dethroned a democratically elected regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was killed in an air crash on the 17th of August 1988. The flight carrying him and 11 of his top brass of military leaders along with the US Ambassador, disappeared from the control radar soon after take off from Bahawalpur in Punjab after his inspection of a tank parade. There are various conspiracy theories that went around for a while, but none were clearly established. The case is closed with no clear evidence, apart from few murmur in the local circuit.

Mohammed Hanif, rebuilding the days preceding the events with his own version. Building through the eyes of the narrator, Ali Shigri,  a junior officer in the Pakistani Airforce Academy, he cleverly threads the story around the hidden fortress of the country's dreaded president, military and intelligent nexus and their internal struggle for supremacy. Ali Shigri's father, an erstwhile colonel with the Pakistan Army, involved in leading the country's engagements in the Afghan War, where his country and the CIA supporting the Mujahideens of Afghan, managed to send the Soviets packing. However, he was found hanging from the ceiling fan, on one morning, a case which was concluded as suicide, left Ali convinced that this has involvement of some of the high authorities in the regime. Seeking his revenge for his fathers death Ali, joining the Air force Academy, training under an American Instructor.

Hanif Mohammed, try to explore the possible angles to the conspiracy theories, by expanding various simultaneous threads, culminating on the final event, with no possible conclusions. His attempt is not to establish the truth behind the conspiracy theory, but to take the readers through the journey of possibilities, and the inner life and political power struggles within the regime. The brutal force of the Military and the Intelligentia, the looming threat on the leader, the secret and definite plots to eliminate potential threats within the regime, the constant distrust among the top leaders, the larger global interest and manipulations by the World Power, the isolation of the rulers and the ruled, the vast gulf between the make belief and the real issues at the ground level ( Gen Zia, experience one by himself while attempting a disguise , but not before the alert spy network tracked him and put him back at ease) and  the idiosyncrasies of the leader himself are something that get the readers hooked to this book.

Most of the description and narrative conforms to the general believes, of any regime. Torture chambers, inhuman treatment, the propagandists, putting up the show of solidarity and national interest in front of the leader and the visiting dignitaries, the cruel business interests of the corporates, the general distrust , the portrayal of the leader as someone with his own ridiculous habits and mannerisms, the peep into his domestic life ( an object of terror to the nation turns to be a voiceless, powerless husband) and many similar scenes that one is familiar with such books do appear aplenty.  Running in two parallel threads, one focusing on the General and his paranoia about his safety ( Code Red protection) and his constant fear of the attempt on his life and the episode focussing on the narrator Ali Shigri, his capture, interrogation, torture, solitary confinement and subsequent release, thanks to a change of handle of ISI by a clever move by the General Zia ( in an attempt to remove the power of one of his potential conspirator).  The section on General Zia in general was funny, often ridiculous, caricaturing him as close to a clown in some places. However, the other thread was more profound and with a lot more intensity.

I seems to have liked the book, probably because my initial expectation was very low. The book is partly political satire, and partly a murder mystery and on conspiracy theory. The subject is a bit tricky as he has to introduce fictional characters to the real life people. It has to ride the fictional path, but abiding to the real life events and characters. The risk of drawing parallels of the fictional characters to the real life characters ( the ISI chief Kiyani in the book, is probably one such, but in the novel he joins the ill-fated team in their last journey) always a possibility. The writing is brisk and precise. The pacing is a bit uneven, probably because of the dual threads that run parallelly.  Impressive read.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes  ( 2008)

Mohammed Hanif

Random House

377  Pages
Wiki, NY Times, The Guardian

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Infatuations - Javier Marias

It's a reader's superstition, to begin the new year with a weighty book, that set the new year of reading on. I have been lucky in the 3 previous years having started the year with some brilliant books/writers.  Jose Saramago in 2013, Laszlo Krasznahorkai in 2012 and Roberto Bolano in 2011. This year begun with Javier Marias, and it puts me at ease with the outcome. 'All souls' was the only other book I've read before and I was always wanting to read more of Marias. Regularly in the speculation for the next Nobel Winner, the general praise for the writer and this book in particular, made my anticipation high even before the start of the read. I should say, I am rewarded for my selection.

It's those trivial and chance encounters in life, that reveals a great deal of personal realizations to you. Many things happen in life without we giving enough attention to it. They become a news item, a conversation in a gathering and soon forgotten. However, some of such have a larger impact in one's life involuntarily. As destiny drives us, you become part of these chance encounters, and its repercussions.

Maria Dolz, middle aged woman, works with a local publication, used to seeing an elegant couple having break fast in the Cafe she frequent. Then one day, she stops seeing them in their usual place. The curiosity did not  last long, as she discovered from the news paper about  the murder of the husband, a wealthy man named Miguel Desverne.  She offers her condolences to the wife Louisa Alday, out of courtesy, where she meets Miguel's best friend, and Luisa's new possible companion, a very handsome man, called Diaz Varela. No marks for guessing, of Maria's infatuations and a steamy affair with Dias Varela, soon after the encounter.

The questions that now arise for Maria is what is Dias Varela's relationship with Louisa and to Maria herself.  In a spurt of jealousy, Maria build her own possibilities and scenarios of Dias Verla's relationship and her interests and the potential benefits to both. The question moves towards the potential hand of Dias Varela, in the death of Miguel and her own part in the whole affair. As the questions of love, hate, sex, life, friendship and death is the theme Javier Marias examines after the initial pages of setting up the plot.

As these questions are asked and the possibilities are opened in front of Maria, as she inadvertently being part of the whole scheme, with no possible escape, she tries to find answers to various aspects of life and death.  And slowly and steadily, a rather silly murder by an addict turns to a cleverly planned and executed crime. Now the larger question of the rights and wrongs of the death. What if the deceased himself had planned for his death, and arranged everything in advance. What is the involvement of his close friend in helping him in executing his desire. When will one decide to stop fighting the illness and decided to call it quits ? Would you take your family into confidence before you decide on your fate or would you let them make believe in a random murder. Who is guilty and who is innocent ? What is the guilt shared by Maria herself ? Is she, now being aware of the crime, responsible to inform the wife and the authorities ? Does she have the physical proofs or the moral rights ? Javier Marias, leaves us with more questions and many possible answers threading the paths of existentialism, spiritual and philosophical encounters. It confronts us, disturbs us and shakes the fundamental beliefs. 

Dias Varela, cites literary examples from Balzac's 'Colonel Chabert ',  Shakespeare's Macbeth and Dumas' 'three musketeers' in justifying the events. In Balzac's novel, the dead soldier returns to haunt the survivors (including his wife) as the dead Miguel continue to haunt Varela. Varela quotes from Dumas'  "A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny,The trouble with murder is that it's always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.". However, taking refuge in Dumas' again, he chorus the words  "A murder, nothing more.".

Marias is a master with his words. The narrative is built slowly, and before you blink, you are in the thick of the things, often participating in the crime by yourselves. A typical murder mystery, given a new meaning by his intelligence and masterly creativity. This book is not intend to stir you in your seats, wanting you to get to the end of the mystery. The plot by itself is slow and does not necessarily give a definite answer, but a possibility.  "The truth is never clear, it's always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it."

His character leaves us with these thoughts, which in a way summarises my reading experience:
"It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
Fabulous book, very intense albeit slow and deliberate, very engaging and thoughtful making it a great reading.
The Infatuations  ( 2012)

Javier Marias  ( translated from Spanish by Margeret Jull Costa 2013)

Hanish Hamilton

346 Pages
Guardian, NPR, Paste Magazine, NY Times, The Globe and Mail