Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima is the first book in his famed ‘Sea of Fertility’ Tetralogy. Mishima is a giant of Japanese literature, being nominated three times for the Nobel. Apart from being a hugely prolific writer, he was an actor, a model and a fierce patriot, who created and trained a private army in the samurai code, in order to restore the Japanese Emperor to his pre-World War II glory. His versatility and sexual ambivalence, can only have embellished an already charismatic and fascinating personality. And he was a beautiful man.

At the age of forty-five, Mishima completed his tetralogy, and embarked on a plan to achieve a military coup through inspiring and exhorting the soldiery. It was an audacious bid and failed spectacularly. The Samurai code demanded an apposite end to this venture. Somehow it seems fitting that this beautiful, edgy man committed Seppuku after the failed coup.

I did not know all this when I started Spring Snow, and I am not sure whether to be glad or sad.

Spring Snow is a straightforward story of a doomed love affair between two young people, the beautiful and tormented Kiyoaki, scion of an upstart Samurai clan, and the beautiful and poised Satoko, daughter of an enervated aristocrat. Doomed pair, yes, but do not call them star-crossed lovers: fate plays very little part in their affair. For a story set in early twentieth century Japan, when so little by way of ordering their lives was in the hands of people, there are no insurmountable odds to the happiness of the unhappy couple. Their woes are wrought by their own neuroses and that of their well-wishers.

There is a suggestion of Devdas’s vacillation and Paro’s spunk in the demeanor of Kiyo and Satoko, a fact that was picked up by almost all the women in our book group and exactly one man. But Spring Snow veers away from the pathetic and melodramatic course charted by Sarat Chandra’s classic, into an even more irritating arc of self-absorbed paralysis, followed by startling acts of impetuosity that have disastrous consequences. Are the storylines cultural comments then, for one does hear all the time that Indians need to be more decisive while the Japanese need to freeze less into isolated icebergs that bring down entire ships when collided against?

I felt the writing style was self-indulgent in how every action and interaction was analyzed to death. I found very foreign, the idea of telling us of the inner workings of almost every mind. I could not help thinking of Lata’s dalliance with Kabir in Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy. It could not have covered more than ten pages, but the heartbreak of young love was exquisitely put forward. I shiver that I have had the temerity to preach minimalism to a Japanese master, but that is how I felt. Then again, it may be that in a land where the inner workings of the mind go largely unexpressed (as opposed to being merely ill-expressed in the rest of the world!), it may be impossible to demonstrate a thought through the words or actions of a subject. In which case, to analyse every thought process, and at every point, to present the reader with the author’s conclusions must be a necessary tool for novel writing. The simpler explanation could be that a lot has been lost in translation, or that the style is suited to serialization, with the digressions being a plot device rather than an indulgence.

As a group we are happy to have read this book for otherwise we would not have picked it up at all, and the complexities of early twentieth century Japanese ruling class structures, and the sensibility of the post-War Japanese literary class would have been lost to us.:) Pooja loved the book and intends to go on with the tetralogy. She was particularly taken by the theme of death that looms all over the book. Seen from this point of view, the book becomes a meditation on the meaning of death and life, set in the context of a young love story. The parables and the meanderings, philosophical and otherwise, make absolute sense. That is, if you are in the mood to hunker down for some heavy-duty reading.

Anu could relate to how the younger generation was portrayed in the book- their sense of superiority and a blind confidence in themselves. She also felt that the book showed to her that women could not be masters of their destiny in that place and time and that the poignant helplessness reverberated even today in modern Japan. She also wondered if it would have helped for Kiyo to reach out to a third person instead of sinking into isolation.

Varun found the book long winded and thought that almost all the characters were negative and wondered if that was emblematic of the place time and culture. In any case he felt that there was not much positive energy emanating from any of the characters.

Pulak felt that the book was clearly a representative of a different culture and would have loved to see it from the perspective of evolutionary theory.

Preeti did not think many of the characters were weak or negative- she felt they all fulfilled their destinies. She said she enjoyed the book although she had found it tedious in the beginning. Dhruv found some of the analyses very interesting and thought (along with Varun and Anand) that it was lyrically written.

Anand who had chosen the book clearly loves the author. He is a little blown away by the audacity of the young lovers, the enormity of the act of disloyalty to the Emperor etc. He obviously has more of a handle on the politics and society of Japan.

Radhi found something missing –probably lost to translation- in the similes and metaphors and I have to agree. I opened a page at random and put my finger on it with my eyes closed. This is what I got -

“Kiyoaki wondered at this man… How many passions lay spent within his body like a tangle of rusted springs. Far more than the jovial extrovert Marquis, his reserved and seemingly indifferent son was capable of detecting depth of feeling in others.”
A gratuitous tangle of rusted springs. And yes we got it a while back that the Marquis was insensitive and his son was all sensibility. But sometimes the translation works. (No random search this! I noted it while reading it.)

"You cannot hover in mid air forever like two dragonflies making love!"
A lovely simile full of humor, possibly the only instance of humor in the book. Elsewhere, I found the following metaphor beautiful-

"He felt regret that the morning light would put an end to the most extraordinary night of his life. Behind him he heard the sound- so faint that he thought at first that he was imagining it- of Satoko pouring the sand from the shoe she had taken off. To... it sounded like the most enchanting hourglass in the world."

This sentence on the other hand made me wonder about the effectiveness of the translation:

"Those who lack imagination have little choice but to base their conclusions on the reality they see around them. But on the other hand those who are imaginative have a tendency to build fortified castles they have designed themselves and to seal off every window in them. And so it was with Kiyoaki."
I suspect ‘building fortified castles’ is the idiom in Japanese corresponding to the English ‘building castles in the air’. I say this because you would say ‘build castles in the air’ in Hindi whereas you would say ‘building forts’ in Tamil to convey the same meaning. And until someone fluent in Japanese corrects my understanding I will continue to maintain that the translation for this otherwise wise and pithy statement has not entirely put across the meaning of the original.

This is not a quick read and is unlikely to offer any easy insights. Read this when you have the time to wonder about man and his place in this world – and how young eyes see it. Old matter in a new platter. Spring Snow.

Check this out - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPAZQ6mhRcU&feature=related

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sestina for Mumbai

This happened in the city of Bombay
On the eve of my fortieth birthday
The devil determined on a rampage
With hand held assault rifles: Carnage
That'd been funded and planned from way back.
The boys were laughing as they attacked.

Hospital, college and café attacked,
And two well-loved hotels in Bombay
Which unaware were so taken aback
That fateful hateful terrible day
Of the hate crimes and the carnage.
Headlines designed for the front-page.

For greedy news reporters no stoppage
In their reportage of terror attacks
Live coverage that endangered lives, coinage
Of terms that failed to remain. They bay
And they bray in this way to this day.
But this is not their story, let's go back.

To people fleeing, bullets in their backs
From Victoria Terminus after waiting an age
For trains that brought more victims that day.
Hotels hiding guests; warding off attacks
The unsung martyred of my Bombay
They saved lives but died in the carnage

The perpetrators of the carnage
Were cheerful, someone had their backs
And heads: Believing they’d soon leave Bombay
A foreign junket, this bloody rampage
To appease an Almighty a different tack:
They had no fear of Judgment Day.

They spilled a deep thirst, ran amok for two days.
For the nation it seemed to take an age
For the Government to mount a counter-attack
To gain control, indeed wrest it Back
And limit the damage, this scarlet seepage
From the breaking heart of my Bombay

The 26/11 Mumbai Attacks
On a day that marked my coming of Age
Bending my back with thoughts of Hate.

Bhavani Krishnamurthy

Friday, December 9, 2011

Battle for Bittora by Anuja Chauhan

First, have you read her first book? I mean “Zoya Factor” that brilliant story of the advertising account executive from Karol Bagh who enchants the Indian cricket captain. That is the stuff of romance! If you have not read it, please read the book and then come back. And yes like the Santoshi Ma prayer, it can be read by men and women (pratyek istri purush) – the combination of Indian urban-speak, cricket and lust is heady enough to draw anybody in. And if you started counting the pages towards the end of Zoya Factor, willing it not to end, then obviously you are going to put in an order for Anuja Chauhan’s second offering and not read a word of this. Like that has shut me up.

Anuja Chauhan is an army kid who grew up to work in advertising, spearheading the Pepsi Dil Mange More campaign and more and surely liaised with cinema and cricket stars in the course of her career. She has mined her experiences to produce Zoya Factor.

Chauhan is also married into a prominent political family in Delhi. So this time we have Battle for Bittora, a Lok Sabha constituency being fought over by the male and female love interests. How delicious! The book is fast paced and lives up to the promise of the exciting premise, the plot twisting and turning fantastically and wonderfully. Chauhan has a wicked sense of the ridiculous, an awesome eye and ear for humorous detail and a wonderful grip over Hinglish, and she wields these majestically all over the book. If she makes a point about the system, which has its vice-like grip on the politicians as firmly as it has trapped the people, she does it in a super-blasé manner befitting the chick-lit tag of the book. By the way, Chauhan makes solid points all the way, without getting too caught up in it and derailing the romance. The book could be a metaphor for the young and bright India – very sensitive and spunky and cognizant but not so sensitive that they stop having fun. There I go again, on my serious trip… I could do with another dollop of the Chauhan pick-me-ups. Talking of which, you don’t have to worry about the moral dilemma of dating your political opponent, this is a new age book, so the woman gets the man of her dreams and achieves her dreams even if she is not sure what her dreams are!

And the hero is lean, taut and chiseled with sinewy forearms, a honey gold complexion, and great lines. And an ex-prince. Am I slobbering? Never mind.

Also never mind the curled lips and the raised eyebrows and the pulse that throbs in his jaw- that kind of rubbish that has made its appearance in Bittora (do not remember it in Zoya). It is I suppose the price one has to pay if one is reading a first class romance, labeled first class chick-lit. Anyway it does not deter us too much.

Oh Read it already. I read it in twenty hours- one sitting. But Zoya is the better book.

His latest status update (9 hrs ago)- Zain is thinking that old friends are the best friends one can have after all…

There were 7 comments in response to his status.

Hey who are you calling old? Bunty Sisodia …who was always after Zain to open a Sholay themed pub in London called the The Thakur’s Arms. He thought that was the height of wit.

So true…So true…from some random looking gora who had a toddler sitting on his shoulders

And five responses from various simpering bimbos saying cheesy things like Time is relative and Bonds can be made in one eternal moment and It matters not how far you go back but how deep you go, which was frankly obscene if you ask me.

I wonder if Anuja Chauhan’s talent is in simply tapping the rich vein of absurdity that runs through all our lives. Be that as it may, (would Awar Pappu say that in B4B?) she draws it out best and sets it off to maximum advantage. Love her.

And some more
And Salmon Khan, the maverick movie star and shirtless crowd puller, who was campaigning for whichever candidate took his fancy, regardless of party or ideology, made a speech urging people to vote for 'good purrsons', which got five thousand hits in two hours on You Tube. Wearing a tight sleeveless T shirt and a wire hairband, he declared that, 'it didn't matturr what kind of clothes you worrre, as long as you were a good purrson with a purrre hearrt- and that if you wurrr a pooorr purrson, and couldn't afforrrd good clothes, then you should at least wearr clean clothes. And drrrive carrrefully. Without drrrinking, Jai Hind.'

I think I am a groupie.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Problem of Plenty

The first half of a person’s life is all about the background story and pure experience, don’t you think? In asking this I presume that you are past your acceptable half-life mark – and since people are willing to accept a life span of eighty years, you are past forty. And considering you are willing to surf blogs and check out facebook updates, I would imagine you are not way past fifty. So are you in a mid-life crisis? Come on…. admit it…I will admit to it if you do! What, are you going to prevaricate by getting into definitions? Offo-

But lets not talk midpoints; I was thinking of the first half of our lives, the golden half before the knowledge of our mortality began to inform our every action. That wonderful time when we lived in the moment, the time before we quit that soul-attenuating job, bought that sports car, ditched our insufferable but perfectly decent soul mates for poseurs, let ourselves go, or went for a makeover. Before we started to scramble for meaning in our lives. That is, if we were not simply intent on (and content with) presenting a smashing image to the world. Many of us try to get by with that.

Catcher in the Rye is a novel that refers to that awakening awareness and melancholy that first intrudes into your happy and ignorant life. But you absorbed your angst and grew up, didn’t you? And one day you understood with breathtaking warmth, the identical tribulations of the people around you. In particular you began to appreciate your parents. A tribute to that stage in a person’s life is ‘The Corrections’, Jonathan Franzen’s wildly successful novel of a family of five.

I loved this book. Franzen has a wonderful sense of the family dynamic, and sharp observations to make. More than anything else, I realized that people were the same - in America or India or elsewhere. That realization continues to dog me through Franzen’s latest offering, “Freedom.” Set in contemporary America, this is probably the most vivid and real portrayal of a ‘normal,’ middle-income family with a progressive outlook, going through an impressive mid-life crisis. It is real in how it co-opts every member of this ‘happy’ family in a horrible dance to devastation.

You have to read this book. Whether you are under thirty or no, whether you are in a crisis or no. It is an important book because it captures like no other book, the zeitgeist of here and now - this time being lived now, by people like you and me who can log on to a computer and bother to read about a book.

Like Corrections, Freedom too centers on a family, though it is a family of four instead of five (like so many forty-year olds I too have two siblings and two children), and the central action has shifted to the parents rather than the children.

Enter the Berglunds, who cycle to work and work socially responsible jobs, who renovate dilapidated mansions into stunning homes, who thus gentrify their neighborhood, who buy organic before everyone else and choose to stay at home to bake cupcakes - for their own and other disadvantaged children. They steer clear from petty politics and are concerned with doing the right thing. Mrs. Patty Berglund seems to have achieved the dreams dreamt by a new-age college girl after landing Mr. Right.

The heartbreak usually is that Mr. Right is exactly that - Mr. Right. Not Mr. Dreamboat, not the homme fatale if you please. This is exactly why Elizabeth Bennett prefers Darcy to Wickham and why Lata chose Haresh over Kabir Durrani. While women idealize love, marriage is all about hard-nosed common sense. Weirdly, this troubles my post-modern, feminist, emerging-Asia sensibility. I should cut the c---p and simply say that I am afraid a woman marrying sensibly may not gain much respect. I am afraid that many women think so, so they deliberately set themselves up for a rejection from Mr. Dishybutwrong before they settle down – with Mr. Right! So you have Bridget Jones who is dumped by Daniel Cleaver before she finds love in Mark Darcy’s arms. Or Scarlett who needs to lose Ashley (and the heft of a fat book thrown at her head) before she realizes Rhett is Just Right.

And this is true for Patty too, for she fancies Richard Katz, a musician and a maverick while she loves Walter, her besotted but unfortunately uncool husband. This is the central plot of Freedom and in trying to take the story to its end, Franzen weaves a compelling narrative of sweeping scope, intimate depth and sheer brilliance. We are taken through Patty’s loneliness during her growing up years and her childhood disappointments and traumas, some small, some big and very real, that have all built up into a grievance that has turned into a willful refusal to see things as they are. We see also that Patty essentially regards herself to be in a passionless marriage with a good man (ohhh), that her daughter Jessica has been relegated to dad-clone status (no no), and that she concentrates most of her emotion on her son Joey (oh no!). Her alienation from her past and present families and her cultivated apathy, comes to a head, when the one person she relates with (or thinks she relates with at any rate), Joey, rebels spectacularly. Joey’s revolt comes as a shock and sets off Patty’s crisis. In the case of Walter, who is following his dream of making the world a better place by saving a bird, it is not only Patty who is driving him round the bend. It is also the all too familiar disillusionment that is apt to hit people around the middle of their lives. I refer to the realization that this is it, we have given it our best shot and this is all there is to it. So long and Thanks for all the Fish. 42. (The age at crisis point?) That life has less meaning than what we imagined it to have. In Walter’s case it is the realization that saving the Cerulean warbler (his bird) is inextricably intertwined with uprooting people and allowing global big business to flourish at the cost of the environment. This is a cruel sentence for earnest, idealistic Walter, that is not in any way lessened by the admiration of a pretty Bong woman named Lalitha (yes the ‘h’ troubled me too). Katz is too cool to have a crisis, or maybe he has been in crisis forever.

Franzen looks into the NGO world where fierce idealism, fanaticism and compromise are brothers in arms, he looks at an America that is a hyper-power at war and the attendant immoral manipulation, amoral adventurism and moral dilemma. His genius is evident in how he can draw even apathetic-me into his story. And Walter’s big speech ranks as one of my all-time great book speeches (along with Gussie Fink-Nottle’s inspired performance for the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School.)

What the book doesn’t do too well is to make the greedy new generation X (Y?) as interesting as Patty and Walter. Joey’s machinations and his wallowing in crap before he ‘finds’ himself are stylistic rather than hysterically real. And the less said of Joey’s quiet and scary girlfriend, the better. While Connie morphs from avatar to avatar, we are presented with some fairly real character sketches in Jenna and Lalitha. The problem is that they are sketches, caricatures rather, that never explore their truths and their personalities, and does them a serious injustice. I am willing to forgive Franzen Jenna, but not Lalitha, the Bengali girl who spells her name in such a Tamil way and who gives nothing away, except what she chooses to let us know of her. Franzen could not have fallen for the oldest immigrant trick in the world!

Yet. Read the book! It is gripping and you will not regret it.

Like my friends and I. Let me see if there is stuff that came out of our book discussion that I have not touched on in my review-

Sneha did not care for Patty Berglund. What was the fuss around her all about? Our answers- She was good looking, she had been scarred, and nobody actually liked her - except Walter and maybe Katz. But we spoke at the same time - I could have missed something. Thinking about it, I would say because she is the center of her family and Franzen writes of a family.

Sneha also wanted to know why Joey rebelled like he did? I was so focused on giving my theory that I did not hear a word of other answers. My take- he got fed up of being the “designated understander.” He resented his mother confiding her deepest secrets, in him instead of her husband. Patty also appropriated a knowingness of Joey that could be galling to an adolescent. And like a girl’s shouting matches with her dad are supposed to end after she goes out on her first date (psycho-babble of course, no direct experience here), I guess this is a rite of passage that has to be gone through when a boy falls for a girl. Some others felt that Joey’s behavior is inexplicable in an Indian setting. This could well be but I feel Joey’s actions were deliberately constructed to be gross and inexplicable – maybe Franzen feels that way of the newer generation. Anu felt I was letting my ‘mother of a boy’ panic get the better of me.

Dhruv thought Richard Katz was the coolest character in the book and most people agreed except for Pooja and Anu and me who felt that he was as much a prisoner of his image as the others were of their circumstances. Pooja told us Katz was a projection of Franzen. I felt that Patty’s obtuseness grated a bit and could be a metaphor for America- a country that did not seem to have its finger on the pulse of world opinion. Anand felt that things would have not come to this point if Patty had been economically productive. Point.

Pulak could not relate to Patty’s experiences while Preeti, Radhi, TS and many others felt precisely the opposite. There was also a lot of talk of Walter’s Swedish dad and granddad (Franzen’s father is Swedish by the way) but I missed all that because I was trying to explain to Anu that I was not being paranoid, that scary Connie is a force of evil. Ajay was very impressed by some colorful lines in the book and we agreed that Franzen puts some gross but accurate thoughts very well indeed. People also objected to the surfeit of sex in the book (things get racier after Page 140) and no one liked the descriptions of Lalitha and Walter together. (No surprise there!) And everyone felt that Lalitha had been disposed off rather too tidily. I wanted more for Jessica - my favorite character. And I found most of the characters a tad unlikeable.

Yet. Read the book.

Favorite quote, if you may call it-
Joey to Patty: "No, but, like, what do you do all day?"
Patty: "Actually FYI, that can be a somewhat awkward question to ask a person. It's sort of asking a childless couple why they don't have children, or an unmarried person why they aren't married. You have to be careful with certain kinds of questions that may seem perfectly innocuous to you."

Read on.