Jul 20, 2012

Notes on 'Freedom'

I read Franzen’s celebrated The Corrections last year and reviewed it here. To ask me to choose between the earlier novel and Freedom would be like asking a woman to choose between poetry and perfume.

Despite the similarities, there are obvious differences between the two novels. Freedom clearly exhibits its creator’s age - by age I don’t imply any bettering of his craft; simply, that he is more obviously sentimental, more accepting of human failures and the lies we tell ourselves and each other to make life bearable.

There are obvious flaws in the story, its ending being a convenient copout that enables everyone to live-as-happily-as-they-could-ever-after. But this is Franzen writing after 9/11, after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, after he has seen thousands of families losing their homes, and the government embroiled in an endless war on terror. This is Franzen who knows that the great culture of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln has long disappeared and states like Arizona are now seeking Bills that will enable public officials to arrest Hispanics and other minorities without an actual warrant should they be suspected of not carrying proper papers.

There’s a reason why Franzen is hailed as The American novelist of our times, up there with Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Roth. A lot of American novelists have managed to capture the fine details and nuances of what it means to live in America, what is it that distinguishes this great nation from the Continent, its all embracing culture at odds with its history of violence and racism. But Franzen goes a step further. He brings to us the smells of Taco Bell, the staid lifestyle in the god-fearing midwest, the upward social mobility and distancing from one’s roots as one moves eastwards, and in the midst of all this, he places the minds and thoughts of actual lived lives. His characters are never caricatures trying to support an idea, they are all people who we have met at the supermarket, who we are in our daily lives.

The Corrections recounted the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Educated, financially sound, holders of liberal principles, the Berglunds have everything and slowly proceed to lose it all. Introducing and explaining their liberal attitudes, Franzen adds with a nasty aside that they were the "the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege."

Patty and Walter live in the suburbs of St Paul, Minnesota, with their two children Jessica and Joey. The novel opens just as the Berglunds are about to relocate to Washington DC from Minnesota, after Joey has left home and moved in with their next door neighbor, and Jessica is practically not on speaking terms with her mother. We learn that Patty was a former basketball champion who was forced to give up the game after an injury; though she was always strongly attracted to Richard Katz, lead singer of the indie band The Traumatics, she ended up marrying his best friend Walter. Things nearly develop between Patty and Richard whom Patty knows she is ‘somewhat more than sort of into’ but not quite.

While the reader may gnash his teeth in frustration at Patty’s impulsive marriage, Franzen has done enough groundwork before to prepare us for this. Patty is the daughter of the powerful and influential Emersons who clearly have no use for a jock daughter and are only too happy when she chooses to apply to an out-of-state college. These are people who are willing to look the other way when they learn that Patty has been raped by the son of one of their close associates. Confronting Patty’s outrage after the incident, “Her dad turned to her like an attorney. Like an adult addressing another adult, ‘ You drop it’, he said. Forget abt it; move on.”

So acute is Patty’s loneliness and misery in her earliest years that everything she does in retrospect, is a life-long reaction to these events and their terrible impact on her psyche. Later she writes, ‘Looking back now, (she) sees her younger self as one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home anymore. Her cult just happened to be basketball.’ When she meets Walter, it seems to be the ‘first time that a person had ever looked through her jock exterior and; seen lights on inside.’

As for Walter, he is besotted with Patty from the moment he lays eyes on her and insists on believing the best about her, despite evidence to the contrary! Is it any wonder that this girl ends up marrying him? More importantly, what is the true significance of a bond borne out of deep need and insecurity on the one hand, and unreal deification on the other?

The initial years of marriage are good, with Patty playing the role of the social butterfly, always meeting her neighbours ‘with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valleys in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning’, and Walter being the upright employee who his company assigns to 'outreach and philanthropy, a corporate cul-de-sac where niceness was an asset’. This mention of his proverbial and incurable niceness is interesting since later we are told that ‘the fatal defect in his (Walter’s) own makeup, (was) the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.’

Even before we know, things start to spiral downwards and the perfect couple make a hell of their own. As in life, everyone has an opinion about this too; the neighbours are quick to pronounce, ‘Patty had too much time on her hands. In the old days, she’d been great with the little kids, teaching them sports and domestic arts, but now most of the kids on the street were teenagers.’ And thus, once again, Patty is cruelly diagnosed as the frivolous housewife with too much time and too little to do.

The unraveling of their marriage which follows is hardly surprising. We, as readers have anticipated this with dread even as Walter and Patty were busy playing house. Joey, always precocious and fairly rude as a child, abruptly decides he’s had enough of his moralising, interfering parents and moves next door where he takes up with his under-age girlfriend Connie. It is an entirely different matter that the Joey-Connie story will form the other love story in this novel that is far more moving and unusual than Walter and Patty’s. Indeed, Frazen’s portrait of the sexually-ravenous Connie alone should make him eligible for literary awards.

Soon, Walter compromises on his lifelong idealistic principles and agrees to work for Texas baron Vin Haven, part of the George W. Bush coterie, who decide to strip-mine a particular region in West Virginia for coal and later allot the land for the breeding of an endangered avian species – the Cerulean Warbler. Walter justifies his decision on the grounds that he’ll finally have the means and reach to save this endangered species and also promote his campaign against overpopulation. His fast crumbling marriage to Patty is not helped when his young assistant ardently starts wooing him besides being his greatest support at work. To make matters worse, Joey gets embroiled in some shady deals involving supplying trucks for the American forces in Iraq; and opportunity finally throws Patty and Richard in each other’s way where they promptly proceed to fuck each other’s happiness - to employ a cliché.

In terms of a storyline, one might argue that Freedom mirrors the lives of several other such marriage sagas. But what makes Franzen’s prose stand out is the astute way he sees through his characters and explains their weaknesses. This doesn’t make them any less culpable, it just makes us more human. Thus, he beseeches our understanding when he writes, ‘She didn’t think she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t an alcoholic. ……………It wasn’t alcoholism; it was self-defense.”

It would be amiss to talk about the novel without a mention of the clever way in which Franzen structures his narrative. Each section ends on a tantalising note where the character’s story is ruptured just when something momentous is about to happen or a long-awaited resolution is imperative. As we glimpse the different characters from each others’ perspectives, we realise that there are no heroes, just like there are no villains. Richard, Joey and Patty are all victims of their most earnest efforts to learn better and to be better. This ‘better’ comes naturally to Walter, but it is no less important when it blossoms in the others for that is the source of all healing. That is what lies at the heart of this tale of loss and redemption.

No post is ever complete without a note on its theme. What is Franzen really trying to explore and how does it tie in with the title? Is Franzen shedding light on the destructive nature of too much freedom? While this may be true, it is too simplistic. Perhaps, the subtler theme is: there is but one freedom which we all enjoy – the freedom to nurture or destroy those around us. This being so, what is the ideal state? And, how does one go through life, knowing as we now do, that we all bear the burden of that boundless freedom? As Joey wonders, ‘He’d asked for his freedom, they’d granted it, and he couldn’t go back now.’

Apr 12, 2012

Notes on The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (TSB) by Patrick deWitt made it to the Booker shortlist last year, and, while I had no qualms about it not being the finalist, I must admit that it made for very refreshing reading and also broke a lot of myths regarding what constitutes ‘good’ fiction. Never have I come across a novel (save perhaps for Updike’s Rabbit series and Roth’s Zuckerman series to a limited extent) where violence, comedy and a certain air of melancholy mingle so effortlessly.
First, I’d like to mention the book’s outstanding cover which shows the two eponymous Sisters Brothers of the novel in garish, black cartoon outline with a pair of eyes that seem to stare out at you. Once you read the novel you realize the level of detailing and wit that has gone into its design. The eyes sit in a face that belongs to a man who yields the power to disintegrate the fragile bond between the two brothers. Does he succeed? The novel will answer that.
The Sisters Brothers is a western in the manner of Wyatt Earp’s myth and John Wayne’s films, set in the late 19th century, with characters who are not so much grounded in real life as representatives of a way of life which the gradual rise of capitalist America killed. However, one must note that TSB is as much a part of the Clint Eastwood’s western capers as Cormac McCarthy’s gory Blood Meridian. It derives from these works, and also parodies and deviates from them.
The story is fairly simple: this novel follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins sent on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, an eccentric and brilliant inventor who has found a way of distilling gold from the river valley; and who is accused of stealing from their boss, the ruthless gangster Commodore.   However, this unique method of extracting gold doesn’t come without its own risks and in the end leaves none completely untouched by retribution.
As the brothers set out on their quest from Oregon City to San Francisco, they meet a variety of colourful characters and encounter several adventures all of which is laced with a kind of joie de vivre that celebrates rather than condemns unholy relations, dubious characters, ruthless miscreants and unabashed swagger. This is what makes the novel so enjoyable.
The characters in this novel are all brutal, rude and depraved; however, occasionally, one glimpses a stray current of virtue or kindness in them. The brothers themselves are poles apart – Eli, the narrator, is sensitive and has started to question the relentless and unquestioned violence of their life; Charlie, the older brother is cold blooded, nasty and an unrepentant mercenary. As they travel across the rugged Nevada mountains, they banter, tease, argue with each other and also save each other’s skin. These sections are often farcical in a Jim Carey kind of manner, yet they never seem to dilute the strength of deWitt’s narrative.
There is no doubt that Eli is at the heart of this saga. An odd mix of sensitivity and unpredictable violence, sometimes slow witted and occasionally almost spiritual, lonely yet capable of enjoying the small pleasures of a lonely life, the reader stays committed to this endearing character.  While he has chosen a life of evil, one senses that there is something within him that struggles with this life, “My very center was beginning to expand as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?”
As the novel progresses, Eli begins to wonder and wish for a way out of his current life. While he doesn’t exactly evince any great regret or deep seated philosophizing, he wishes for a little warmth, “I had never been with a woman for longer than a night and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in. I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness.” Such parts make this novel truly rewarding.
Thing is, Eli carries within him traces of a world that has long passed him by. He is not really an outsider in the manner of Randy the Ram, but he is also burdened by a lack of adequate understanding regarding what goes, what works. This is best demonstrated in the episode with his injured horse Tub. As his introspection deepens and the cracks in his character widen, his relationship with the animal changes. He has the chance to swap the slow and wobbly Tub for a new horse, and he does so, but then changes his mind because "he has been a faithful animal to me". All the while, Charlie mocks him as ‘The Protector of Moronic Beasts’.
The truly touching parts of the novel always revolve around Eli, his unmistakable loneliness and his constant efforts to win his brother’s approval and affection, who never misses a chance to remind him what a sentimental bumpkin he is. Despite these bits, Eli never fails to make us laugh, especially with his reactions when he discovers the joys of a toothbrush or the magical powers that a telephone, the “large black horn emerging from the wall beside the bed,” bestows.
In the end TSB is about a journey, from ambition to an acceptance of one’s limitations, from callous disregard to the discovery of a common humanity, a journey from bathos to pathos. It is rollicking as all such journeys are. The journey is as old as time, yet as timeless as any good fable is. As Eli, the narrator, himself agrees, “You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace.”

Apr 6, 2012


They say Time heals all; that Time spares no one and nothing. Time does something much worse – it dilutes and erases the fine ridges and smooth geography of his face; it leaves you confused about the exact shade of his eyes – were they hazel or a whisky brown? It no longer allows you to conjure up the sound of his voice.

After all this time, I cannot tell you the shape of his nose or the slant of his eyebrows, but I remember precisely the smell of his soap, the feel of his thick hair clenched tight in my fingers, and the sound of his voice comforting me, as he held me close and released me, and I clung to him as one would cling to a raft in a raging river. Without real hope, but with desperate relief.

I also remember the feel of his ring. It was sharp and it dug into my cheek as he held my face. Often he would hold me in so tight and for so long that my cheek would get a dent and my breath would stop. I think I was happy to have my breath stop as long as he did not stop holding me.

Now everything starts to resemble a scrabble board where the chips have been hastily scrambled after a long game.

Apr 2, 2012


Came across a fascinating discussion on the Guardian books page on marginalia, or the scribbling down of one’s thoughts/notes while reading a book, where most commentators seemed outraged that any reader would callously maim a book by scribbling on its margins. I disagreed. 

I am a compulsive annotator; most of my books have notes scribbled on their margins; passages of outstanding linguistic virtuosity and sections that have filled me with outrage or immense joy are underlined. I am not in the habit of picking up second-hand books (the market’s dismal in India), but occasionally some distant relative passes on a much-cherished book to me. My collections of short stories of Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe, and novels of Victor Hugo are all legacies from my mom’s uncle. Some of them have his scribbles in the margins – in faded, beautiful handwriting. When I first started reading Maupassant in class 8, I remember looking forward to what phool dadu had scribbled about a particular story. I guess if I came across a copy of American Pastoral all dog-eared and full of a previous reader’s notes, I wouldn’t mind it at all. I would think it made the book a dynamic object, containing not only the words and ideas of Philip Roth, but also another reader before me. Isn’t that a treasure nonpareil?

Reading is a deeply personal and intense experience – in the confines of your bed or chair, with the ashtray beside you, and the drapes pulled aside to reveal the tree tops outside, you sit absorbing words that a Woolf or a Pamukh took months to pen. The careful reader doesn’t merely read – he looks for clues in what was left unsaid, he looks for subterfuge in what was said, and he makes it a dialogue, not a mere monologue. He scribbles and tells the author about similar experiences he may have had, or similar characters he may be familiar with. He shares with the author things he cannot bring himself to share with any other. He intuits when the author’s heart is soaring as his protagonist tells a 10-year old boy while flying kites, "For you a thousand times over", as also when an author has seen defeat and written about the, “enormous assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” Can there be a truer soul mate than an intuitive reader? 


Selecting a Reader by Ted Hooser

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will

Mar 15, 2012

Requiem For a Dream

So, a lot has happened since the time I last posted here. Indian cricket has hit its nadir, Vidya Balan has created Bollywood history of sorts (go girl, go!), UP has just passed from one set of thugs into the hands of another, and Rahul Dravid did the only thing any dignified individual should do.

I didn’t watch the test series against either England or Australia, though I did hear abt them and later, read their coverage. I don’t know if you’ll call me a pessimist, but to me these twin series marked the end of an era, a golden age in Indian cricketing history that for me began not with our Wold Cup victory in 1983, but with that memorable test victory against Australia in 2001. Harbhajan Singh created history during that series and nobody could quite comprehend then captain Sourav Ganguly’s strange fixation on this spinner. For me, that test series has always been abt one thing alone - possessing ‘balls of steel’ - something which I consider as Ganguly’s legacy to Indian cricket. Does that mean I am belittling the efforts and achievements of the other players like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Kumble ? No way.

All these players epitomise the joy of watching cricket for people of my generation; of uplifting a beleaguered team to its moment of glory. To claim, as some do, that its only moment of glory was lifting the World Cup last year, is foolish. Excellence takes years to come by; it is a by-product of a manic desire to hold the bull by its horns; and of an unquenchable thirst. Once you have sat at the bar drinking the finest liquor, no matter how badly you crave a drink, thirst is only an idea, a vague concept. So, no, I am not going to write off our current players, nor am I saying that they are at fault for playing too many matches or being involved in too many endorsements. They are just not thirsty anymore. Enough said.

The newspapers are full of columnists playing tribute to one of India’s finest batsmen. As I read them, I am filled with a deep sadness: maybe Dravid is a greater player than Ganguly after all. Look at the outpouring of genuine admiration! I am simply blown away by Rahul Bose's tweet, "Rahul Dravid reflects an india that is honourable, ethical, hardworking, and thoughtful."

Please note that I use the word greater and not better. Greatness is not a mere matter of statistics; it is a holistic concept of hundreds of minute qualities and habits and choices and achievements and decisions that define a person and his legacy. It is the goodwill that a person leaves behind when he’s no longer around.

In an odd way, it seems befitting that I write about my favourite sport in such elegiac terms today. The past few weeks signified the passing of an era in a personal sense too. But let's not talk abt it today.

Perhaps my next post will be abt a good book or film; perhaps it will be a long rant about uncouth Indians who rush into the elevator as if there’s a fire raging behind them; or maybe I will end up telling you why I think Barack Obama should kick Biden's ass and nominate Hillary as second-in-command; or maybe I will just tell you abt the time the world fell apart and the plate slipped from his hands as he looked on with helpless anguish.

Jan 20, 2012


Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was 
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars 
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say 
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

by Jack Gilbert



I cannot do without you I think,
as I listen uncomprehending to their words
tumbling out quicker than diamonds,
out of a bandit’s purse string.

Eager promises, stupid condolences,
Earthy philosophy they offer too.
I turn a deaf ear and cast my mind
To times when you were my sound.
Speaking on my behalf, knowing
 their stares alone would bring a silence profound.

I was told it would be impossible
To live under the same roof.
Never once did you complain
As I read late with the light on,
When your speakers blared, not once did I frown.

Perfect harmony is made up
of two of a kind.
At the busy corners, my hands and lips,
Would beat a wild stacatto,
in sync with the tap of your stick on the ground.
As you held my hand,
Often I asked, ‘what’s on your mind’?

They asked me what did
it a
ll amount to?
Sight and sound and amber
and incense and fulfillment and knowledge
that i was not alone. 
Reading lips, fleeting touches,
The letters in Braille,
Such was our holy grail. 

Jan 16, 2012

Ebar Ashi?

One of the things I love about being a Bong is our language: the melodious, clean , rounded sounds of our vowels and consonants, the forms of respect accorded to each address based on one’s relationship with the addressee, and the meanings behind names. I find great beauty in my language, little that I know of it. Often these days, I meet people, both in mumbai and kolkata, who are ashamed of speaking in the vernacular, who stubbornly answer in english even when you address them in bengali. I find it annoying. Anyway, that’s not why I started this post.

One of the pet Bengali phrases that was once commonly used and is slowly dying is ‘ebar ashi’. Used as a signature at the end of epistles, and also in speech, its direct translation would be, “now, let me come.” But it is actually a form of goodbye and the ‘ashi’ or ‘come’ is actually a promise to ‘return’ soon. Whenever we Bongs bid goodbye, we never say ‘jachi’ or ‘I’m leaving/going’. It is always, ‘ebar ashi’ – ‘let me go now so that I can return soon.’ More beautiful still is the ‘ebar ashi?’ - the question mark lends a dignity and sanction to the addressee that should be at the heart of all meaningful interaction. I don’t know if similar forms of leave-taking exist in other languages but I have asked my marathi and gujarati friends and it seems that they don’t have anything like this.
I don’t know anything about the genesis of my mother tongue so it leaves me free to imagine how things came to be. I imagine this graceful leave-taking must have its roots in the young boys who had joined the Swadeshi movement and who touched their mother’s feet and bid ‘ebar ashi’ before leaving their homes for the eternal home. Or maybe, it was the only consolation a husband could offer his wife as he left home to eke a living in some far off land. For, poignant as these moments must have been, can you imagine a more hopeful and pregnant goodbye than this?

Jan 10, 2012


I learnt I am nobody

Did you too?

Why the pallor? Despair not.

There’s a pair of us yet.

Don’t show it,

That you have me around.

They’d banish us, you know,

Bury us underground.

Relish the thought,

You are invisible,

Truly free,

Neither the volcanic ash,

Nor the minstral, can stop your departure.

Didn’t you find it dreary,

To pose for the camera the livelong day?

To perfect the collagen pout,

And colour the hair,

Modulate your clear voice,

And tone your skin?

I know you did,

‘cause I did too.

Terrible it is to be somebody!

How like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!