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The Poetry of Pain

September 1st, 2008 by Sucharita Dutta-Asane · 2 Comments

I am back with a book review after weeks of procrastination and futile prioritizing. The Booker is on its way again and the reading virus infects us all—the worm in the bookworms.
Nostalgia grips my senses when I open my book cupboards. Sifting through myriad titles, my fingers curl themselves over and over again around books read once—months, years and even decades back. What is it about old titles and musty pages that draw me out from the latest bestseller and wraps itself around my distracted mind? Like when I chanced upon The God of Small Things after all these years, after the hoo-hah over its Booker award and rave reviews. Its timeworn smells wafted out to me, urging me to read, and I did; plunged into The God of Small Things, and in it, the harbinger of big tidings nudged into dark recesses of the mind, tantalizingly juxtaposed images of childhood lived and lost, the dark secrets of relationships and their impact on the world of children and their mothers, the politics of manipulation and motivation.

It struck chord again, overwhelmed me with its language, images, ideas, and the disquiet of loss. At the end of the book, I stopped at two words that should have resonated with promise but carry emptiness in their wombs. “Naaley. Tomorrow.” In the narrative, that tomorrow never comes. What does come though is the never-ness of this promise, the futility of its utterance, the exquisite pain of its hopeless hopefulness. This pathos permeates the narrative, its external manifestations and internal ramifications. It curls itself into the dreams that Rahel and Estha’s mother, Ammu, dream in the afternoon, what Estha calls her “afternoon-mares” transcribing the idea of a nightmare on to afternoon dreams. It is not mere wordplay in a child’s mind but a symbol of the long, endless nightmare into which the characters plunge.

Words. And there are plenty of them that Arundhati Roy plays around with in this sensitively written story of a pair of twins and their mother, of their life sans a father, of Ayemenem, of mean minded, manipulating adults with whom the kids share space, of dreams that are meant to break, of local politics that plays its dirty games. Amidst all the cacophony and silence, Ammu, around whom the events unfold and crash, holds her own in a Syrian Christian, male dominated, chauvinistic society, trying to hold on to and protect her fatherless twins, yet giving them enough leeway to learn on their own, from mistakes and escapades. The two-egg twins, bound by their twin-ness, practice their unusual language on everybody, both hilarious and tender at the same time. Like their backward reading, “Ot pots niart llup niach” (To stop train pull chain) or their arbitrary use of words that would defy the rabid etymologist, fast, faster, fest.

The family in Ayemenm is a microcosm of families in many other Indian villages, towns and cities, tossed around by wiles and guiles, desires and unfulfilled longing, biases and prejudices, socio-political machinations of tradition and disinheritance. When Ammu begins her long slow slide into a financial and emotional abyss, the kids are scattered, their thoughts and emotions, fused in their mother’s womb, a silent burden in their adult lives, a weight that finds release only in sharing, breaking taboo laws of love and belonging, fusing into one, two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Their mother defies taboos too, with Velutha, the man whom her children loved by day and she by night. Velutha, the Paravan, the untouchable, whom no “touchable” was meant to touch, Velutha, who glides into Ammu’s dreams and binds her two kids together in an indescribable bond with him.

Arundhati Roy was accused of obscenity in the scenes where Velutha and Ammu come together. The slander is unfortunate, because those scenes are infinitely tender, infinitely agonizing, ripped out of the characters’ lives as though without their creator’s conscious effort, without their own efforts. It is this tenderness that permeates the novel, setting new standards for pain and longing, love and loss.
The God of Small Things brings big pleasures, sensitizes the reader, and touches a hidden chord within us. It celebrates the senses, each one of them, and is the perfect example of sensual writing at its best. The unusual word plays jar at times, but that is a small cost for lyricism that stays with one long after the book is stacked away, waiting for nostalgia to strike again.

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Chronicle of a Past Forgotten-Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace

July 29th, 2008 by Sucharita Dutta-Asane · 3 Comments

I am still hooked on to Amitav Ghosh, and took up The Glass Palace again. In this brilliant and universally acclaimed novel, the author captures the forgotten memories of our past and present in a fine balance that reflects his meticulous research and carries the cadence of evocative lyricism. The Glass Palace captures the mood, reality, and history of a time and event that is not always a part of the collective Indian consciousness.

The book traverses a vast canvas of historical, political, and social events, starting with the British invasion of Burma in 1885 to Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta-ruled Myanmar of 1996. Between the two framing epochs of repression and dominance, we find Russo-Japanese turmoil, the World Wars, India’s epic struggle for independence, and a family’s search for its roots. The characters that dominate these events and places are fascinating as real people with real struggles, not angst-ridden traumatized people stilted in their ability to carry on with their lives.

The story starts with the British entry into Burma, as seen and heard by the young orphan Rajkumar, who becomes the central figure of consciousness in the novel. Entering the Palace changes his life forever for there he meets the defeated Queen’s beautiful maid, Dolly, the woman who will shape his life and thoughts for years to come. Many lives intersect—Dolly, Rajkumar, Uma and her Collector husband, and later, Jaya, Bela, Kishan Singh, Arjun, Dinu, and even the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi. Through these intersecting and defiant characters, imperialism and colonialism become bywords for political upheavals that rend asunder a nation and its culture and people. The Burmese royal family’s removal to Ratnagiri reflect an earlier national shame, the removal of Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon, in an imperialist attempt to wipe out a nation’s history and the collective conscious. With royalty banished from its kingdom, the Burmese people, as were Indians earlier, lose their symbol of resilience and defiance. The symbol is resurrected in the book much later, in another epoch, through the riveting figure of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Glass Palace tugs at our memory of a past that nobody remembers, an era that changed the course of history, repression that needs to be remembered in order to fight modern day imperialist tendencies. Most importantly, the novel chronicles the history of two nations that were intrinsically related through commerce and shared traditions.

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Word Wary

July 23rd, 2008 by Sucharita Dutta-Asane · 1 Comment

I read a story on the Net the other day and stumbled on the phrase “ravenous hair.” I stopped momentarily and noticed other readers’ comments on the usage. Needless to say and much to the writer’s chagrin, there was unanimous rebuttal. The writer insisted that creative license allowed the usage. That made me stop and think about creativity in language. How far do we go with our use of words, how much can we spin them around on our keyboards and twist them out of shape? Could ravenous hair stand in for simple “raven haired”? Think again of the images these words throw up—for a split second, imagine hair gorging on …. (ravenous hair) and then again, imagine the polished blackness, sheen, spread, and luster of black tresses (raven haired).

Adjectives create images and we cannot play around with them needlessly. We writers have to constantly remember that at the editing table, unnecessary or incorrect adjectives and over-the-top adverbs will face the axe, almost instantaneously. So, will “ravenous hair” pass the test? Most probably not. But the unusual adjective use here does throw up an interesting and erotic image, that of hair that engulfs the senses, gorges on the admirer’s or lover’s sensuality, darkens the lover’s vision with mysterious promises of endearment and sensuousness. In this form, the usage shows courage, though writing needs precision, not wayward bravery.

But if the word intends to convey the idea of jet black, the writer may need to do some serious head scratching to come up with a more apt adjective. The editor’s pen knows no mercy.

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