Recent Reads: Musil, Limbale, Le Carre & Shanbag

My brief views on the novels that I read recently

musil‘A Man Without Qualities’ – Robert Musil: This is a mammoth and an ambitious novel. It is 1100+ pages and is unfinished!! Musil wants to capture both the external and internal worlds. It is a novel which tries, on one hand, to capture the state of affairs of a country with all its attended complexities of class, nationalism and race. On the other hand, it shines light into the deep recess of the hearts of the characters. I have rarely read a novel which is as ambitious a this and no wonder Thomas Mann and others had great regard for Musil.
This is not a novel for those looking for a page turner. The novel has very little in the way of plot and yet Musil brings forth an entire era alive. One of the criticisms of the novel is that it is, “… oversized essay whose comprehensive diagnosis of modernity is rich in thought but poor in plot”.  (http://deutscheshaus.as.nyu.edu/object/io_1479224114461.html ) There are a lot of philosophical discussions and so if you are keen on reading the novel be prepared for heavy lifting.

oxford-akkarmashi‘Akkarmashi’ – Sharankumar Limbale:  This autobiography is also translated as ‘Outcaste’ in English. An extremely honest and uncompromising book which provides us with details of the terrible conditions of the lives of Dalits. The author is ‘Akkarmashi’. Born to a Dalit mother and an upper caste father, he is rejected by both the castes and thus becomes an Akkarmashi or Half-Caste. The author not only talks about his hardship but also about community and the inhuman conditions in which all their lives are lived. It is a searing tale and made more harrowing because it is real and not imagined. You can read more about this book here: Voices from Margins

vivek shanbag

 

‘Gachar Gochar’ – Vivek Shanbag: A highly praised book about a dysfunctional family, which depends on the narrator’s uncle for their livelihood. The said uncle being the sole breadwinner for the family. The novel is all about how this fact affects the behaviour of the members of this joint family is explored. The family is one of the most complex structures and the beginning promises to explore this in detail but Shanbag settles for less. The characters inner dilemmas do not leap out and we don’t empathise with anyone. The dynamics of a joint family comes out well in a couple of places. While the book is eminently readable and holds your interest throughout, I feel it could have been a lot better if Vivek Shanbag had not tried to shock us in the end and had dug deeper into his characters and their motivations.

le carre‘Our Kind of Traitor’ – Le Carre: The blurb quoting a review says that the book is part Le Carre and part Hitchcock. Unlike his other books, Le Carre gets us straight into the action from page one itself. It has all the trademarks of Le Carre’s writing: the constant back and forth movement of the story, the secret service tradecraft, interrogations, betrayal and innocent people caught in a complex web of secrets. Somehow the book fails to grip you throughout though there are patches when it is very good. One reason could be that the characters lack the depth you expect in Le Carre’s characters.  The novel works decently at the level of a thriller and if you know your Le Carre, this is harsh criticism.

 

Ashokamitran : A wound that never heals

Ashokamitran

At first glance, Ashokamitran seems to be the definition of an author who can be easily classified. A realist who wrote about the common man, you declare. As you keep reading, your vision expands and with it the definition of Ashokamitran. Is he a writer of the absurd? An author who can take the most absurd moments in our lives and illuminate them? Doesn’t his writing involve existential crisis, you ask? You hear a resounding yes as an answer. You read more and discover magic in some of the stories. The scope keeps expanding but the unity never crumbles. Slowly you realise that you cannot contain Ashokamitran into categories.  He wrote about our lives and his works, seemingly simple on the exterior, are as complex as our lives.

Illumination has been the principal focus of Ashokamitran and achieves this in a multitude of ways. He throws light on the trivial joys, fears and disappointments inherent in our day to day lives. A tiny incident would reveal a lot about the characters. In one of the stories, a person who doesn’t have money with him on that day goes to his friend’s house to borrow 25 paise, the cost of a bus ticket those days, so that he can take the bus home. He arrives at the friend’s house and finds out he is not home. His wife who is buying vegetables from the vegetable vendor drops a 25 paise coin during the transaction and then picks it up. The whole story hinges on the 25 paise coin falling from the lady’s hand. It was all the money that the man required and yet something stops him from asking for it. He goes home walking. The story then keeps expanding in us.

This is that unique quality of Ashokamitran’s writing. The stories lodge themselves inside us, refusing to go away. Like the title of one of his stories, ‘Still Bleeding from the wound’ (‘pun umizh kurudhi’) they bleed in us. ‘Still Bleeding from the wound’ is an excellent example of the predicament of human beings: the elusiveness of the absolute truth. A poor man, who paints houses for a living, gets into a bus. An old man is kind to him in the bus, the painter gets down from the bus to discover that the money in his pocket has been robbed. He thinks the old man is the robber and accosts him another day. The old man pleads ignorance. The painter remains confused. The truth is out of reach but the wound is never healing. Most of our life is run by such doubts. By never knowing the truth and yet believing in some idea we behave like the painter. The great Portugal poet Pessoa once said, “”Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text. From what’s in the note we can extract the gist of what must have been in the text, but there’s always a doubt, and the possible meanings are many.”  This can stand as a perfect description for this story.

It is not as if Ashokamitran was just the poet of vignettes. In some cases, a whole life unfolds before you in a simple incident. Take the case of the story ‘Thoppi’ (The Cap). A man arrives at a place where his father was once insulted. He was then a small boy. Yet the inability of his in defending his father is eating his soul away.  The whole setting of the scene and the writing reminded of Rulfo and his magical realism. This story was definitely not in the magical realism mould but the way it was narrated was very close to what I experienced in Rulfo. Here too the man lives with a wound that never heals. It reflects our own lives. Many of us would have been involved in an incident which keeps gnawing at our soul and ends up defining us.

It is the same in ‘Paavam Delpathado’ (‘Poor Delpathado’). Once again, a magical setting wherein an old man is trying to come to grips the loss of his daughter. The story can be read as a straight story but I tend to read this as a fantasy. Do the events really occur in real life or do they occur in the mind of the protagonist who is blaming himself for the destruction to calm his soul? This novella is a disturbing one and keeps bleeding in you. The absurdity of life and death hits you. Our emotional lives depend only on a few people and you can never recover from losing one of them. A wound that never heals.

Ashokamitran was the poet of the absurd as well. Leaning almost towards nihilism, stories like ‘Payanam’ (Journey) question the meaning and purpose of life. The absurd end to a great Guru, a yogi and a revered person, makes us question everything about our life. The sudden death of the mother in ‘Manal’ which changes everything for Sarojini, the fate of Swaminathan in ‘Innum Sila Naatkal’, the life of Malathi in the eponymous novella, the life of the lady whose husband vanishes a day before the wedding of their child, all bring forth the absurdity of human life.  None of them is able to avoid their fate. Yet, Ashokamitran was not a fatalist. His characters, Sarojini and Malathi, struggle against the situation and you hope that they will end up winning. That, though, is not the central concern of Ashokamitran. To prepare us for the wounds that life inflicts on us is the central concern.

God is mostly absent from all Ashokamitran’s works. He rarely spoke about faith and religion. That was never a central concern. In most cases, neither God nor religion comes to rescue the characters caught in difficult situations. In his stories, Ashokamtran eschews religion and God and instead sees everything through the eyes of a rationalist. His searing gaze has no need for God. He saw human beings as human beings. He stripped them off all identities and saw their humanness. That is why the Muslim who is thrilled to get a new order (and later disappointed the order is not for him), the worker who lays roads and wears boots made of rubber from lorry tubes, the painter who loses his money and every other character resonates with us. They appear so real because Ashokamitran shows them to us as normal human beings, not as human beings divided by their identities.

It is this humanism which allows Ashokamitran to see beyond the obvious. A short story in which a girl is getting married to a person she loves has second thoughts about her decision as the wedding proceeds. What should have been described as a happy occasion is described by Ashokamitran as an occasion of self-doubt, the doubts that are infused by the proceedings. Similar is the case of a starlet, who is acting in her first scene. Once again, Ashokamitran watches this girl’s mother and ends the story with the sadness of the mother.

Paul Zachariah, who wrote a foreword to a translated collection of Ashokamitran’s stories, writes about how Ashokamitran dealt with women in his stories. The of sympathy that Ashokamitran had for women is enormous. He understands that fate and society are far cruel to them than to man. The understanding brings empathy in its wake and this empathy shapes the characters. This aspect extends far beyond our shores and shows up in America, where he deals with women from different countries in his book ‘Otran’.

This empathy is what restricts him from seeing anything as an epic. When he takes up the impact of Independence on the State of Hyderabad, he does not see this as an opportunity to present an epic. It has all the ingredients required for an epic. The Hindu-Muslim Faultline, the murderous Razakkar movement, Indian Independence, assassination of a Mahatma, military action against the Hyderabad state, the capitulation of the Nizam and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots. Instead of writing an epic, Ashokamitran sees the whole unravelling of history through the eyes of a young boy who is unaware that he is part of history in the making. ‘Pathinettam Atchakkodu’ (Eighteenth Parallel) is Ashokamitran’s best novel and the sympathetic treatment sets it apart from novels which deal with such turmoil and end up taking sides. The climax is one of the most disturbing ever. It is one in which the protagonist finally turns into an adult, who suddenly understands the horror around him. He soul is gravely wounded from which he will never recover.

All those who spew divisive venom must be made to read this novel and especially the climax. Divisiveness leads us only to death, destruction and loss of our own humanity. Ashokamitran says this in a very soft voice and it reverberates inside us. If we do not turn to be better human beings and having empathy towards others after reading Ashokamitran, something is very wrong with us.

Ashokamitran never wrote epics. He did not take up grand themes. There was no explicit philosophy in his works. His language did not stun you or dazzle you or mesmerise you. He never spoke loudly. He murmured. Yet he wounded us. He left a deep gash in our souls. He left behind wounds that never heal and hopefully those wounds which will make us better human beings.

PS: I wrote about Ashokamitran’s ‘Eighteenth Parallel’ long time ago. In case you are interested, please read it here: https://mysteryofbooks.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/ashokamitran-his-secunderabad-and-mine/ 

PPS: To those who want to read Ashokamitran in English, there are a reasonable number of very good translations available. Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc on twitter) has been one of the leading translators of Ashokamitran’s work. The following works of Ashokamitran are available in English:

To those who want to read Ashokamitran in English, there are a reasonable number of very good translations available. Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc on twitter) has been one of the leading translators of Ashokamitran’s work. The following works of Ashokamitran are available in English:

  1. Mole (translation of ‘Otran’ by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Mole-Ashokmitran-K/dp/8125026827
  2. The Ghosts of Meenambakkan (translation of ‘Paavam Delpathado’ by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Ghosts-Meenambakkam-Ashokamitran/dp/0143423274/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590210&sr=1-1&keywords=ghosts+of+meenambakkam
  3. Still Bleeding from the Wound (translation of Short Stories by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Still-Bleeding-Wound-Ashokamitram/dp/0143423282/ref=pd_sim_14_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=0SF7H8M5ZAA1GZ02AD5H
  4. Fourteen years with the boss – Collection of essays – Based on Ashokamitran’s experience working in Gemini studios
  5. Sand and other stories – (translation of some novellas by Kalyanaraman and Gomathi Narayanan) – http://www.amazon.in/Sand-Other-Stories-Ashokamitran/dp/8125022686/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590422&sr=1-1&keywords=Sand+and+other+stories
  6. Manasarovar (translation of the novel by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Manasarovar-Ashokamitran/dp/014306746X/ref=pd_sbs_14_4?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=1SJAYZG4070HW5JP3T57
  7. Eighteenth Parallel (translation of ‘Pathinettam Atchakkodu’) : http://www.amazon.in/Eighteenth-Parallel-Disha-Books/dp/0863113443/ref=pd_sim_14_5?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=020N00VZARM6F7EW83CX
  8. My Father’s Friend (translation of ‘Appavin Snegidhar’ and other stories by Lakshmi Holmstrom) – http://www.amazon.in/My-Fathers-Friend-Ashokamitran/dp/8126013478/ref=sr_1_14?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590692&sr=1-14&keywords=ashokamitran
  9. Star Cross (translation of the novel ‘Karainda Nizhalgal’ by V. Ramanarayan) – https://www.amazon.in/Star-Crossed-Ashokamitran-ebook/dp/B008G1STGC?_encoding=UTF8&keywords=ashokamitran&qid=1490590692&ref_=sr_1_16&s=books&sr=1-16
  10. Water (translation of the novel ‘Thaneer’ by Lakshmi Holmstrom) – http://www.amazon.in/Water-Ashokamitran/dp/8187649135/ref=sr_1_21?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590924&sr=1-21&keywords=ashokamitran
  11. Today (translation of his novel ‘Indru’) – http://www.amazon.in/Today-Ashokamitran/dp/8183683843/ref=sr_1_20?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590924&sr=1-20&keywords=ashokamitran
  12. Colors of Evil (translation of short stories by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Colours-Evil-Ashokamitran/dp/8186852050/ref=sr_1_33?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490591076&sr=1-33&keywords=ashokamitran

Kiarostami – The man with the human touch

kiarostami

There is a simple scene in the movie titled ‘Life and Nothing More’. An old man, a director, is driving along the Iranian countryside, which has been devastated by an earthquake recently. He stops at an old lady’s house and starts talking to her. The old lady is lifting some heavy load. The conversation goes like this.

Man: “I wish I could help you but my back gives me problems”

Old Lady: “That is OK. I can do this”

Man: “I am sorry I cannot help you. If my back was fine, I would have helped you”

A very simple scene in a documentary-like film and suddenly you realize what all troubles the earthquake victims must be going through. The film magically transforms itself from an Iranian film to a universal film.

lifeandnothingmore

To me, most Kiarostami’s films  start after they end. They make me think. This film gives you a portrait of Iran which you will never get from the Western press. Beyond all the politics it talks about ordinary people and their ordinary struggles. The realization dawns on us that their lives are not very different from ours. What realms and realms of propaganda cannot achieve, Kiarostami achieves in a few frames. He breaks many walls and makes us empathize with a fellow human being beyond all the identities we cloak ourselves with.

THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES / UNDER THE OLIVE TREES

Title: THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES / UNDER THE OLIVE TREES ¥ Year: 1994 ¥ Dir: KIAROSTAMI, ABBAS ¥ Ref: THR132AB ¥ Credit: [ FARABI CINEMA/KIAROSTAMI / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

In the movie, ‘Through the Olive Trees’, a film crew is traveling in the back of a small lorry and they give a ride to a mother and her young daughter. Among the film crew is a youngster who wants to get married. After the mother and daughter get down at their destination, the director of the film crew asks the young actor,

Dir: “What about the girl who just got down. Why don’t you marry her? She is very pretty”

Actor: “But she is uneducated. I want to marry an educated woman”

Dir: “Why”

Actor: “Because if both of us are not educated, how will we educate our children. So I want to marry an educated woman”

Dir: “You are uneducated. Wouldn’t an educated girl want to marry an educated guy? Why will she choose to marry you?”

A small smile appears on the actor’s lips.

Actor: “That is true but I want to marry an educated girl”

These aspirations are universal. Kiarostami is able to focus on such small incidents which connect with everyone instantly. It is this concern for the normal human being which probably ensured that the movies he made outside of Iran looked so authentic. They did not feel that they were made by a director who has never lived in that place.

Kurosawa famously said that when Ray died he was devastated but after watching Kiarostami he felt at peace since he had found someone who could replace Ray. Though their styles were quite different, Ray was very lyrical and Kiarostami quite formal, their compassion towards the common man remained the same. That human touch both gave to their films is what would have made Kurasowa think of Kiarostami as Ray’s replacement.

closeup

Kiarostami is a craftsman of the highest order but hides his craft successfully. In the movie, ‘Close-Up’, he builds the story brilliantly towards the climax. A man has been arrested as he had stayed with a family by impersonating the famous Iranian director Makmalbaf. The imposter hadn’t stolen anything nor had he behaved inappropriately. He just enjoys the hospitality of the family. He is arrested and a trial happens. The judge says that he can release the man if the family pardons him. This whole segment keeps you on the edge of the seat though Kiarostami doesn’t do anything to make it tense. It is just the way he presents the human situation that draws you into the drama and you are desperately hoping that the family will pardon the imposter. It is then you realize the craft of the master. On how in a film which almost plays out like a documentary he has pulled you in effortlessly.

Or take the way he plays out the drama in ‘Certified Copy’. The slow build up, the sudden twist in the tale and the subsequent happenings which leave the viewers dazed are all well thought through. Yet the impression given is one of ease. As if that is how the story would flow naturally. You don’t see the craft until you revisit it again.

certifiedcopy2

‘Certified Copy’ also showed that Kiarostami was more concerned about human beings than he was about dazzling you. While the whole pretext of the movie is interesting (we have seen something similar in ‘Mood for Love’), Kiarostami’s aim is not to showcase his brilliance in screenwriting. Rather it was to bare open the soul of a single mother. A simple scene where the single mother (Binoche) is walking with the male protagonist and talking on the phone to her teenage son tells us so many things. You suddenly understand the deep frustration of the woman as well as the enormous burden she has to bear. Towards the climax when the male protagonist washes his face, you see the terror on his face. I am not sure if he is terrorized by the situation he has got himself into or whether he is terrified because he has understood what the woman is going through.

like someone in love

It is probably in his last feature film, a Japanese film, ‘Like Someone in Love’, that his craft comes to the fore. The film is almost like reading a top class short story. The interaction between the Professor and the boyfriend and the subsequent complexities which push the story forward are quite different from the earlier Kiarostami’s film. Here we see Kiarostami displaying his craft a bit more than he did in his earlier movies. Additionally, this is one movie, which has what we can call as a traditional story and thus easily assessable to a larger audience. (I love the way Kiarostami capture Tokyo through its sounds. More than the neon lights, it is the incessant sound which is typical of Tokyo and Kiarostami doesn’t miss a single sound)

Kiarostami was more interested in the moral and existential dilemmas than in their solutions. ‘Taste of Cherry’ is an example of this approach. The answer really doesn’t matter. What matters is how people react to certain situations which can be morally ambiguous. Similarly, we see how the situation is a very ambiguous one for the ‘hero’ in ‘Certified Copy’. Many a time Kiarostami lets us decide the climax. This can put off some people but it is very consistent with the aesthetics of Kiarostami.

tasteofcherry18

Kiarostami resembles the great Indan writer, Ashokamitran, a lot. Ashokamitran’s writing too isn’t lyrical. They are quite formal I would say and he too to conveys his compassion towards fellow human beings effortlessly. Both Kiarostami and Ashokamitran show us incidents from a distance, in the sense that they are completely non-judgmental. This distance is what accentuates their humaneness. The author doesn’t speak on anybody’s behalf and yet when you complete viewing / reading their work, you unambiguously know which side they are on.

Kiarostami’s loss is a major one for he was in top form even in his last film, ‘Like Someone in Love’. It is but natural that he would have given us great films going forward. In that way, we are missing some great art. He will go down as one of all time greats of world cinema. His place in the pantheon along with filmmakers like Ray, Kurosawa, Ozu et al is assured.

It is well known that it was Kiarostami who put Iranian cinema on the world map. Unlike the Indian film scene where there weren’t many to carry Ray’s legacy forward, the Iranian film scene is more robust and boasts of filmmakers like Makmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Asghar Farhadi. Kiarostami has been an inspiration to them and will continue to inspire more filmmakers, not only in Iran but throughout the world. May he rest in peace.

Michel Bussi – After the crash

michel bussi

Michel Bussi’s  ‘After the Crash’ is an imaginative thriller. The basic premise of the story is what holds this novel together.

In the December of 1980, a plane from Istanbul to Paris crashes in the mountains near the Frano-Swiss border. Everyone in the plane dies except for a 3 month old girl child. She is thrown out of the plane and in that freezing cold, is kept alive by the warmth of the burning plane.

A rich family comes forward to claim the child as their grand child. Just when the formalities are about to be completed, another family, not so well off, comes to claim the child as their own grandchild. The case goes to the court and after a long process the child is handed over to the poor family.

The rich family employs a private detective who works on the case for 18 years and is unable to solve it. In a fit of depression, he leaves his diary behind for the surviving girl to read and decides to shoot himself. As he is about to perform the act, he keeps the old local newspaper, which first reported the details of the crash in front of him. Then he sees something in the newspaper which solves the mystery for him. Before he can takes steps to inform the concerned people, he is killed.

Most of the book is about the investigation performed by this private detective. We get to see all the actions performed by him through his diary. The diary also helps in slowly unraveling the mystery. In many places rather than unravel the mystery, it deepens it.

This book depends completely on the construction and story telling. The characters are not well developed. Rather they are more like pieces of a puzzle. The puzzle is laid out in an enticing manner that you really don’t care for the characters. Rather you are more interested in the solution to the puzzle.

Bussi builds the suspense slowly. He allows the reader to think, ‘If this is what happened, why didn’t they check the obvious things?”. In the next page, the obvious things get checked and they deepen the mystery. The user then thinks of the next steps which was not done and that step gets done after a couple of pages. In short, this is a story born on the drawing board. A board on which the incident, the questions and the timelines are all laid out and then ticked off one by one. The success is how these are ticked off only after the user gets sucked into the mystery and is trying to solve it on his/her own.

This is not a standard thriller novel in the sense of there being a strong villain. Here too the villain exists but the thriller aspect doesn’t come from the villain but from the central puzzle. These sort of interesting puzzles are double edged sword for the thriller writer. Whenever the puzzle is very interesting, the denouement must be equally effective and satisfying. Else the whole novel crashes, leaving the readers unsatisfied. Bussi is able to come up with a very logical and satisfying solution, giving the reader no cause to complain.

The lack of character development keeps it rooted in the genre and hence the novel doesn’t rise above the genre, though the story has the potential. It reads like a standard but effective thriller. Worth the buy.

Parva – Bhyrappa

Parva

The first thing that disconcerts you is the age of the characters. Bhyrappa starts almost every chapter by telling us the age of the person. As the war clouds gather and massive preparations are on for a large scale battle, we are introduced to Karna, who is sixty five years old!! That puts everything in a different perspective. Karna is no longer the one we read in our Amara Chitra Katha  He is not your handsome young TV Karna nor is he the angry Sivaji Ganesan. He is a sixty five year old man who is preparing to go to the battle field. Similarly we get to know Drona, who is in his eighties, Bhishma who is beyond hundred and Bhima who is in late fifties. You are now seeing Mahabaratha through different eyes.

Bhyrappa’s ‘Parva’ is a retelling of Mahabaratha shorn of all its myths. It is now told as a simple human story of myriad emotions. The characters are normal men and woman with no magical powers. Whatever powers they have is achieved through their hard work. Krishna is not God incarnate. He is a master political strategist who understand people’s desires better than anyone else. Every character is stripped bare and there are very few who survive the author’s penetrating gaze.

The action of the novel starts in the Madra region, where king Salya resides. He is above eighty and is worried about his grand daughter’s wedding. She is still a virgin and her father, Salya’s son, is adamant that he will have a swayamvaram for her and not get her married the usual way of demanding ‘bride price’. He wants to follow the path of the Kauravas and others where swayamvaram is the norm. Salya’s son rejects the morals of his kingdom and wants to follow the morals of what he thinks is an evolved kingdom.

This clash between differing morals runs throughout the book. It is sometimes about swayamvaram, it is sometimes about niyoga, sometimes it is about who owns the child, father or the mother. This confrontation between differing moral standards happen often and gives us a glimpse of how human beings would have evolved and how difficult it would have been to reconcile the varying moral codes which each tribe or kingdom brings along with them. When people had to live together this would become the source of tension and even to this day we observe these fault lines in our daily lives.

The famous Tamil writer Jeyamohan, in his younger days, once went to visit the legendary Shivaram Karanth in his town (in Dakshina Kannada?). Jeyamohan asked Shivram Karanth as to what he thought was the central concern of literature. Shivram Karanth answered without hesitation, “Dharma. That is the central concern of literature. Krishna Dvaipayana himself has stated this. Who am I to disagree?”. Mahabaratham is always seen as a treatise on Dharma and ofcourse central to its story is the revered Bhagavat Geeta. ‘Parva’ is also about Dharma but the way Bhyrappa treats it is very different from the partisan tales we are used to. He is relentless in his pursuit to expose the hollowness of the ‘dharma’ argument of almost all the characters and this is what gives a different flavor to the novel.

The central dharmic question asked by Duryodhana and the question on which the war is to be fought is: “How can Pandavas be considered part of the Kuru lineage since they were not born to Pandu but were born to Kunti via the act of niyoga”. (Niyoga is the act of the wife having sex with a third person with the consent of the husband in order to bear a child. Pandu is impotent and hence he asks Kunti to perform Niyoga with different men from the Deva clan). According to the scholars of those days, niyoga is an accepted method to perpetrate the kshatriya lineage but Duryodhana now questions it and rejects it. This in turn converts Kunti into an adulteress.

Bhishma, though he agrees to fight on Duryodhana’s side and is also elected as the Chief Commander, is still unsure about the central question of dharma.   He is not convinced with Duryodhana’s argument and travels to meet Veda Vyasa in order to get clarity about this question. Only to find that Krishna Dvaipayana himself is in confusion. His son has just starved himself to death with the reasoning being that he (Vyasa’s son) had embarked on a journey of brahmacharya and this meant he renounced all pleasures. He logically goes a step ahead asking that if all pleasures are renounced why live on this earth? People continue living because they are scared of death. They are scared because of their attachment. Why should a man without attachments be scared of death? Thus arguing Vyasa’s son Sukha stops partaking food and slowly dies. At the same time a couple of atheist arrive at Veda Vyasa’s ashram and want to engage Vyasa in a debate. Their central question is about the rituals performed by Vyasa on his son’s death and these questions lead them to questioning the Vedas themselves. Discussing about life after death and the land of spirits, the two strangers ask Vyasa’s disciple Paila, “Where is the proof that those who have talked about them in Vedas have actually seen them? How can one believe in existence of things beyond the grasp of our five senses?” These questions hit at the very foundation of Vyasa’s faith which are the Vedas.

A tired, sad and confused Vyasa is unable to answer Bhishma’s question about the validity of niyoga as per dharma. He answers Bhishma thus, “The burden of that thought has increased since this morning when the two strangers initiated the debate. Before that question, the issue of whether niyoga violates dharma or not fades into insignificance. When we have no answer for the key question, what is the point worrying over trivial details?” He further adds, “If only we can assign meaning to death can we assign meaning to life”. Bhishma returns back to the battlefield without his question answered.

The impact of dharma is felt more on women than on men and in this novel too we see how this impacts women. Draupadi is almost stripped naked in an open court with her husbands sitting silent because of dharma. Kunti sees her character questioned and all her actions termed immoral when Duryodhana questions the legitimacy of niyoga. Salya’s grand daughter’s marriage hangs in balance as the elders discuss the morality of pre marital sex. The fate of most woman in this saga is one of tragedy and everything hinges of dharma.

A conclusion that we can draw for this epic is that dharma cannot be absolute. There is no such dharmam which is true at all times. Dharma is intricately mingled with the lives of people and in many case is mingled with the vested interests and the traditions of a particular region. Time and again we see dharma being questioned and the goal posts of dharma being shifted. When Veda Vyasa himself is unsure about dharma it shows how slippery the concept of dharma is.

Additionally we see how dharma is used to protect one’s own interest and inaction. When Draupadi is dragged into the court and almost disrobed, Bhima wants to fight but is held back by Arjuna saying it is not dharma to do so. Yudishtira is portrayed as one who talks about dharma all the time but uses dharma as a shield for his inaction. This makes Bhima and Draupadi hate him and his cowardly actions. Dharma as a written text without any backing action leads to cowardice is what is implied. Bhima seems to inherently know what dharma is and he has no use for texts. Arjuna on the other hand uses dharma to his benefit and this again leads to both Bhima and Draupadi hating his actions. It is no wonder that the only person Draupadi respects is Bhima, for in him she sees a primordial dharma in action. This implied rejection of textual dharma and the upholding of a dharma in action is one of the key messages of this book. The book infact ends with some women asking a question to Dharmaraja and he being stunned by their question and unable to answer it.

This is ofcourse the most disturbing part of the book. Is there no such thing called dharma. Is everything relative? So a kshtriya dharma is something which caters to the vested interest of Kshatriyas and Brahmana dharma something which is advantageous to the Brahmins? There are no answers in this book but you do see that some people realize this double standard nature of dharma. For example, Ekalavya comes to Kurukshetra because he has turned himself into a Kshatriya, for he has great regard for the Kshatriyas. He thinks it is his duty to serve his guru Drona. So decked as a Kshatriya king he offers his services to Drona. Later he learns from Drona that Bhishma was responsible for him losing his finger, he realizes that Kshatriyas are no better than his forest tribe. He throws away his Kshatriya attire and decks himself in his tribal attire and gets back to his forest without participating in the war. The constant search of dharma and its evasive nature leads one to conclude that maybe our own life is nothing but a search for this quality called dharma. A quality which can help us to justify our actions and enable us to understand what is happening in the world around us. Unfortunately we need to search hard and deep for this. We should search beyond our religious beliefs, beyond our humanistic beliefs, beyond our class and caste prejudices and come to some conclusion about dharma. This is not a search for the faint hearted. That is why we take refuge in religion, caste, cult or gurus. This book questions everything and what is left behind are questions which we have to answer to ourselves. The author provides you no crutch. Therein lies the success of this book.

This is also one of the reasons why Bhyrappa strips the myth off and give us a plain story. Once God(s) enter the fray, the definition of dharma changes. We are ready to accept whatever is done by God or his avatara as dharma. That gives an easy resolution to the question of what is dharma. By pushing Gods away, Bhyrappa asks us to answer the question about. Ofcourse we too need our religion and our identity to answer this answer this question and more often than not we reach out to the epics for the answers. Bhyrappa asks us indirectly as to what happens if you do not have the religion as your support. It is something even atheist would want to look at. For even an atheist has some identity or ideology to hold on when he/she makes a decision about the right dharma. Also taking Gods out of the picture ensures this is not a fight between dharma and adharma. Rather it is about searching for the very definition of dharma. A search humankind is still undertaking. A search which will never end.

Bhyrappa adopts a non-linear approach to story telling. He brings a mammoth epic to earth in a very literal sense. In this you see the people sweating, women menstruating, the dust accumulating on people, the war field is filled with the stench of human feces and urine, the major heroes go out to defecate in the open, iron mongers come to the battlefield in search of iron, which they can take away from the dead bodies, the battlefield moving to a different place each day since the dead of the early day can neither be buried nor cremated and the vultures and jackals feasting on the dead. The story jumps all over the place but slowly Bhyrappa draws all the strings together. His main aim is to de-mythologize the whole of Mahabaratha and make it into a standard story of clash between two kingdoms and he does that quite well. The approach to each character is unique and in a way the whole novel moves on the monologue of the characters. It is to Bhyrappa’s credit that even though much of the story is told via monologue, he keeps it gripping enough and never lets the interest fade. Each character’s point of view adds a different colour to the story and gives us a kaleidoscopic picture which is in keeping with the epic nature of the tale. This is an excellent example on how you can retell an epic and still keep it an epic.

The book is so vast and the concerns numerous that it allows for multiple readings. You can read this as a treatise on how women were treated, you can read it as a treatise as how kingdoms were run, you can read this as a clash of civilization and values and in each case you would be right, for there is enough material in this book for every type of reading.

The sympathetic view it takes on the status of women, the way it portrays the destruction of smaller tribes by bigger kingdoms for their own reasons, the ineffectiveness of even the elders to stand up to adharma: all add up to provide us a comprehensive view of the human condition and the society in general. That is why ‘Parva’ can justifiably be held as a great achievement in the field of Indian literature.

( I read this in English translation. A few friends of mine have told me that they couldn’t go beyond a few chapters since they found the translation unsatisfactory. I am plain happy that this novel has been translated. It is better to read a not so good translation of this book than not read it at all)

( A second note: I wish they had included a map of ancient India which maps the current geographical names to the ancient ones)

Impressions on Two Indian Novels and a Drama

Work commitments and other writing commitments have kept me away from this blog for some time now. In the meanwhile I had read three good Indian works. Since I am constrained for time, I thought I will atleast jot down my impressions on them.

mandraMandra – S.L.Bhyrappa : I have read a book in which music is described so precisely and effectively. Bhyrappa is able to translate an abstract emotion into concrete words. The novel opens brilliantly and goes on to detail the dilemma of one of the main characters. The indecent proposal made, the lure of music and the need for perfection drive Madhu to cross the moral line. That forms the core of the novel. Music as an art form which inspires, which forces people to cross moral boundaries and finally music as a form of redemption.

Bhyrappa’s sense of drama is superb and the way he puts forth Madhu’s dilemma, the way he describes Manohari and her Guru’s dancing in front of Mohanlal is possible only to the best of the writers. He makes you feel the intensity of the dance. It is the same when he describes the singing of Mohanlal or Madhu and the feeling they get when the Mandra Shadja.

Mandra, which stands for the lower octave, is also symbolic of the lower depths the musicians descend to. Unfortunately Bhyrappa talks mostly about the lack of sexual mores in this novel and almost every descent is sexual in nature. This concentration on the sexual profligacy at the cost of other elements becomes tiring as the story progress.

While the novel does have some great parts it fails to give us a well rounded view of Hindustani music environment and its musicians.

(I read the English translation of the book and I thought it was well done. Those who read it in the original may have a different view though)

Last wildernessLast Wilderness – Nirmal Verma : A story in which almost nothing happens, which reflects perfectly the life in the mountains. In these Himalayan mountains, time doesn’t move. All the characters have left time behind. They have no aspiration left and as the blurb says, the novel starts where the story of the characters has ended. Nirmal Verma’s sparse prose is perfect for this stationary story. It is a mediation on life and death, about pasts which refuse to leave and about compromises made. All this told in a very even and introspective tone. This was the first book of Nirmal Verma that I have read and I liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. The translation is top class.

silenceTheCourtIsInSession_2Silence!! Court is in session – Vijay Tendulkar : The most dramatic of the three works. It is a drama and a dramatic one at that. Tendulkar builds the tension step by step leading to an excellent climax. The whole drama is about morality and the inability of society to let people live on their own terms. Additionally it is about the struggle an independent woman faces when she refuses to conform to the societal norms. A very effective drama. Highly recommended.

What shall we sell next?

What Shall We Sell Next

  • Vijayalakshmi

Come tradesman,

with bulging bags of gold;

They are calling you

to sell  the river, the wind,

the sunlight and the rain,

to sell the beauties of the fourteenth night,

to sell the pure notes of dawn’s music,

for you to buy.

Come, you can snuff out

the beauties of tall, blue hills,

And root out the green trees of the forest.

You can come and pack

the cold and the mist; don’t forget!

They are calling you

with an ironed out smile on the lips,

they who are determined

to make mincemeat of the land

and sell it out

See, they are trumpeting,

you may cut the land

with your butcher’s knife:

But there is more to sell:

The men who adorn their neck

with the trump card of discretion

A hundred thousand men

Even their flesh is worth nothing

who will now come to buy them

Translated from Malayalam by C.P.Sivadasan

Taken from “These My Words” – The Penguin book of Indian Poetry

Edited by: Eunice De Souza & Melaine Silgardo

The word ‘development’ is now in the limelight. Many people want it to happen fast and are not too concerned about the consequences. There is a small segment of population which opposes the destruction of environment and livelihood in the name of development. These are not good times for those folks for this is the time for tradesman. Especially those who have bulging bags of gold. Not that it was very different earlier but the ‘development’ mantra has acquired an urgency now.

Again it is not as if greed is Indian. It is present around the globe. Unfortunately it impacts the developing countries more. The development countries have both the legislation and public opinion which ensure that the environment is not destroyed. Unfortunately in developing countries like India, while laws do exists they can be broken with impunity at all levels. This is something all of us accept. Also the public opinion is not strong enough when it concerns environment and livelihood of people who are far away from us. Infact there is a disdain for the dispossessed rather than sympathy many a times.

I will illustrate this with an example. Once some coastal town was affected badly by floods. People were asked to donate clothes, food, money etc. So many people donated old clothes that a public appeal was made by the villagers that they had more than enough clothes now and that donation of clothes can stop. Reading this a colleague of mine was furious, “How can they dictate what they want? They are like beggars now. They must just take what is given to them”. I was shocked beyond words by his outburst. Again I don’t say that this is the typical reaction but there is definitely a segment with treats those dispossessed with a certain amount of disdain. What my colleague had failed to understand is that those affected were hard working proud people who earned their daily bread by the dint of the effort they put. Pride exists at all level.

This brings me to the dichotomy we see within ourselves. One of the threads that run throughout country is spirituality. Whatever be the religion, there is a strong thread which asks people not to be too greedy. It preaches us that it takes very little to live a life of dignity. Simplicity is always honored and the simple person is always held up as the ideal we must all achieve. Unwanted display of wealth is frowned upon. Living beyond your station is not advised.

On the other hand we have always been a materialistic society. People have gaped at the indulgence of the kings, princes and zamindars and speak about them with wonder. Showing off was condemned and that was because people were showing off their wealth all the time. Balachandar captured this aspect of our lives for the glitz and glamour in his comic classic ‘Bama Vijayam’. With the emergence of more opportunities and more ‘development’ this aspect is affecting us deeply.

We call this ‘peer pressure’ now. I still recall this incident. When I joined my first company in Bangalore my manager used to have a Maruti Omni. He was loath to change it. Those were the times when new cars were coming in the market and I had suggested he buy a new car since the old car lease has run out and he could now buy a new one. He wasn’t interested. It so happened that after a few months a colleague of mine who was part of our team and reporting to the same manager bought a brand new Honda City. This person happened to be a relative of my manager. A couple of days later my manager told me, “I don’t know what car it will be but I need to buy a new car immediately. There is too pressure from relatives after this fellow bought the Honda”

The days of buying one car are over. If you are in the city and you are middle aged, chances are that you would have to buy a second car. As with the Americans, one car per person in the family is slowly becoming the urban upper middle class motto as well. The same is happening to buying of apartments.

The dichotomy for us is that unlike the Americans and others, who celebrate their material success, we are always pulled back by the spiritual thread that binds us all together. Somewhere we start questioning if material success is enough. Somehow the feeling of emptiness starts creeping in. It is with surprise that many of today’s middle aged people view their elders, who in materialistic terms didn’t achieve much and yet they are contended that they fed their family, ensured good education for their children and are now happily taking care of their grandchildren.

This dichotomy is sometimes used by people who can no longer run the race and have resigned to fate. There is a major difference between resignation and acceptance. People who can no longer fight it out use the words, “It is all a rat race. It is all politics” and so on. You can hear the bitterness in their voice. The person who accepts that he has what he needs for life and believes that he/she needs to focus on different things is never bitter. There is an energy which they bring in to do different things.

This urban consumption and need to have more due to peer pressure is a dangerous for a country like India. It is not that we should not grow but keeping our requirements within certain limits is necessary. The spiritual thread of simplicity cannot be broken. For that is what will sustain us in the long run. Else we will all become like the men the poet talks about; Men whom no one wants to buy and who are worth nothing. Even though they may possess a lot of cash.