Friday, February 22, 2013

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I love Russian books. My introduction to adult literature was through a collection of short-stories by Gorky, a book I received as a prize in Middle School. I may not have understood all of it but I appreciated it.

I was also very much the product of the Cold War era. Non-aligned India leaned left, the Indian Air Force flew MiG-21s, my father spoke Russian, our family possessed Soviet memorabilia from his only trip abroad. And books from Russia were cheap. I grew up reading ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’.  As I read more I grew to love Lara and Aksinya and Levin and Ivan and Mitya and Grushenka. I loved the honest and fierce sensibility of the Russian writers, their brilliance that gave full play to drama but controlled it, in page after page devoted to the terrible search for an elusive truth and happiness.

And then I took up The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s offering that has upended all my notions of Russian Literature. This is not a book that systematically plumbs the depths of human experience. Instead, it calls to mind flying fish leaping to evade the predators lurking below. If you will, dolphins coming up for air. If there is a tinge of hysteria in this experiment in magical realism, that, I suppose accounts for the realism. 

Mikhail Bulgakov
This book was written in secret, in Russia between 1929 and 1940, at the time of the Great Purge, when repression, deportations and sudden disappearances were the order of the day, when writers kept packed suitcases in the hallway, preparing for the proverbial midnight knock on the door. Bulgakov came from a family of priests and had served in the White Army; moreover he was a playwright who in the best Russian tradition wished to portray reality as he understood it, his understanding often at odds with that of a totalitarian regime. He was a prime candidate for the lethal moniker ‘Enemy of the state’. Writing a subversive novel like the Master and Margarita was a risk, but it might have also been its author’s redemption. Indeed Mikhail Bulgakov had no immediate hopes of its publication as he raced to finish this masterpiece before he died.

'The Master and Margarita' opens one hot spring evening in Moscow, with the arrival of supernatural forces in the form of a Professor Woland and his assistants. Professor Woland strikes up conversation with two men – a literary critic and a poet. To elucidate his point, he goes on to narrate a fascinating account of the events surrounding the Crucifixion. He also predicts precisely the gruesome death of the critic listening to his story. What follows is mayhem, a series of inexplicable and magical events that rock Moscow. The poet who has witnessed the death of his friend and the supernatural abilities of this Professor (of Black Magic) finds himself in a lunatic asylum. There he meets the Master, a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown following the rejection of his life’s work, an account of the life of Pontius Pilate. The Master talks of  Margarita, the love of his life. Meanwhile Margarita, in order to rehabilitate the Master makes a Faustian bargain with the devil, Professor Woland that is, for he has been identified as such by common agreement. 

By the end of the book, the Master and Margarita achieve a semblance of closure as have the various Muscovites traumatised by the antics of the Devil’s coterie. So have Pontius Pilate, and significantly, a pathetic sinner, suffering for eternity for having suffocated her child.

Personally I found the Moscow narrative tedious (alright, it was painful in the extreme; it reminded me that there is a certain repetitive quality to Russian writing, and while it achieves closure for the writer, is seldom enjoyed by the reader. A case in point is Gorky’s story, character study really, of his ‘Travelling Companion’). However, I believe ‘The Master and Margarita’ makes an instant connection with people of that time and place, sending a jolt of pleasurable recognition of the travails they experienced. Bulgakov’s flights of fantasy - the witch’s Sabbath and Lucifer’s ball to give two examples, were too over the top for me. But I was in thrall to his story of Pontius Pilate, of a man who knew where justice lay but did not see it done, and suffered for it. With a few strokes of the pen – the overpowering scent of rose oil, the scorching sun, a splitting headache, a wrinkled olive tree, Bulgakov recreates first century Judea. It is a literary tour de force and a testament to Bulgakov’s genius. After I finished the book, I immediately reread the Pilate chapters, and it was every bit as enjoyable the second time around. I think I also began to understand the appeal of Christianity in Europe.

I have always wondered about the hold of an essentially pacifist religion over a basically  forceful race. It could be that people choose the religion that they need, just as the undoubtedly aggressive Mongols of Chengezed heritage gravitated to a religion that means Submission. But I wonder now, if European Christendom did not identify with Pilate. Any religion founded on martyrdom must give rise to a protective and assertive-aggressive outlook in its followers. So it should be with Sikhism and so it is with Shia-Islam. Come to think of it, modern day Zionism. A sense of ‘never again’, perhaps.

The dog and Yudhishthira ascending to heaven (ignore Bhima)
So, I called my mother with my little epiphany. She surprisingly heard me out, and then surprised me further by asserting that Bulgakov must have been exposed to Hinduism! The basis for her assertion is in his play White Guard. A character, Zhilin, asks God why he welcomes Bolsheviks into heaven, when they do not even believe in him. God replies that it is all the same to him whether the soldiers believe in him or not. He says, “Zhilin…you have to understand, that for me you are all identical – killed in the field of battle.” This is too similar to the story of King Yudhishtira of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, who dismayed to see his mortal enemies, the ‘unrighteous’ Kauravas in heaven, asks Zhilin’s question. He too is told that the Kauravas have died in battle and have a right to heaven.

Then there is the imagery of Pilate’s dreams. In his dreams Pontius Pilate argues happily with Christ  as they ascend a sort of moonlit celestial stairway, followed by Pilate’s faithful dog (all men are bad says Pilate, no they are good says Christ, but they agree that cowardice is the worst of all human failings). This picture too, recalls Yudhishtira who refused to ascend to the heavens without his faithful dog.

 Rushdie: Bulgakov was an influence
Mamta felt that all characters were various aspects of the writer. Shivalik found it impossible to pigeonhole the book, although Rushdie’s books, in particular the Satanic Verses are comparable. In some sense all characters are reflections of its author, but to my mind, the Master and Margarita represent Mikhail Bulgakov. The Master, the impractical artist who wishes only to live through his work and is crushed by criticism and intimidation, is as much Bulgakov as is Margarita, the ambitious pragmatist, compassionate and vengeful and weighed down by the bargain she has struck with the forces of ‘evil’ to rescue the Master. (Bulgakov owed his survival to the patronage of Stalin, who had liked a play of his, and responded to an open letter with a personal telephone call- leading some to surmise that Professor Woland could even represent Stalin).

The Master offers blessed release to his hero, Pontius Pilate whose courage failed him once. The parallels between the Master, Pilate and Bulgakov are striking. Margarita similarly redeems a woman condemned to be reminded eternally of her act of suffocating her child, again an arresting analogy for the pain suffered by an artist who smothers her own creation. Does suffering and redemption lie within the same person?

If there was something that bothered me it was the strain of revenge seeking, as a balm for one’s torments. Pilate executes Judas in the book and vows eternal enmity with the Jewish Sanhedrin, Margarita trashes the apartment of the literary critic who ruined the Master. There is the unmistakable odour of anti-Semitism, although Bulgakov is objective and precise in his depictions. I have to remind myself that he died before the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust came to light.

The book is a cry from the soul of an artist forced to acknowledge his powerlessness. A true artist cannot be a pragmatist but when he is beset by forces from without, his art has to twist and swerve into different modes of expression if it is to remain true. So it is with The Master and Margarita. A tough read, beautiful in parts, and guaranteed to leave you thinking for days.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oh Delhi!

The Jantar Mantar is an architectural observatory
Delhi versus Bombay arguments happen all the time in India, something that adds spice to a first date or an after dinner conversation, not unlike Hong Kong-Singapore showdowns or the NYC-LA face-offs. If Delhi is loud and all brag, Bombay is mercenary and all hustle. If Mumbai claims the crown for business and cinema, Dilli has her four thousand year history to tote. If a Mumbaikar moans over the small town mentality of the Delhiite, Dilliwalas scoff at the miserable Bombay existence. However, one subject brooks no discussion. Delhi is a grim place for women. It is universally agreed that it resembles a frontier town in the Wild West, where everything a woman says or does, including how she carries herself, can become a serious matter, with consequences ranging from the merely disturbing to the truly horrific. And women like us, old timers who came of age in our nation’s capital, have our stock of war stories, yarns that we dourly trade, woman to woman, pretending to more bravery than we felt, reliving the danger and inflating the risks we took… sometimes even sharing the outrage and the shame. 
Jantar Mantar at Delhi

I was sixteen when one Delhi winter morning, my friends talked me into going to the Jantar Mantar. On a vague impulse, we raced up a structure in the architectural observatory. The lack of a parapet brought on the usual tingling in my palms and feet, but it was on the way down that I took in the steep and narrow steps; I was seized by an attack of vertigo. Resting my slippery left hand on the wall, I sat my way down, taking care not to look at the amazed faces of my friends, or the sheer drop on the right. I had been so busy chalking the route back home that I had forgotten my immediate problem of heights.

When I see the crowds on television, protesting at Jantar Mantar in the aftermath of the unbearable atrocity of 16th December 2012, I am reminded again of how I was always afraid to soar high or venture far in Delhi. Every independent outing during my girl hood was attended by a detailed retreat strategy.

So getting back from Jantar Mantar—we would get off at the main INA Colony bus stop, where one of my mates, lucky girl, lived. I had choices. I could take a bus home, with the usual problem of harassment on the bus and the bus stop. I hated buses, even before I was groped, which was before I knew a prepubescent school child could be squeezed by a clean cut Zaheer Abbas look-alike, and that a busload of men, old and young, could find this funny. I did two things that day – I cut the side seams of my kurta higher, so they would be baggier, and I decided I would not board a Delhi bus alone. But we were not rich, car rides were out of question.

Interestingly the Cambodians see themselves as descended from an Indian prince and a Naga princess
Primal genocide - Khandava Massacre
I could walk then. If I walked, I could take the shortcut­­—past a Government boys’ school, over a sewage canal with pigs rooting in refuse, and through a dense neighbourhood arranged around a lovely tomb that I never thought of exploring. The deserted and noxious bridge was the only part of the way that was not nerve wracking. I invariably took the long walk home, skirting the market and the residential colonies, hugging the main roads, ignoring likewise the parallel feeder lanes on my left, and the whizzing traffic to my right; disregarding my mother’s maxim that safety lay in crowds. Where the likelihood of harassment is high, you seek solitude and pray.  I got lucky, for in my sporadic outings over four years, I did not meet too many people on this route. Two, to be precise and on both occasions they justified my trust in the misogyny of the Delhi male, though nothing terrible happened, nothing worse than what I was used to, all par for the course. One boy muttered an obscenity as I passed him, (I was wounded by the “fat” he prefixed to it). He tried to follow me but backed off when I shouted at him. The other time, I was punched hard in my chest by a passing cyclist. I doubled over in pain and shock. I had not expected bicycles on Ring Road and that kind of anonymous hatred was a bit much, but I was not too affected, it was my last week in Delhi, my cursed capital city that has been burnt and sacked and rebuilt so many times. 
Delhi massacres - Timur, Nadir Shah 

Delhi has folded into her lap the terror of the mythical Nagas of the Mahabharata, whose forest homes were gutted to make way for Indraprastha, her first and prehistoric avatar. Delhi has soaked up the blood of the one hundred thousand men beheaded by Timor the Lame outside her gates on December 16, 1398—yes it was the same date. In the course of six hours in March 1739, she embraced the twenty thousand men, women and children who fell to Nadir Shah’s Persian army. And she watched mutely in September 1857, in these, our modern, enlightened, times, as her lofty princes of Mughal blood were stripped and strung up on the roadside like so many ruffians in the dark ages. I had had enough of Delhi and her bloody history. I moved on to Chennai and Kolkata to study, then to Mumbai to find work. 

I have since trekked in the Sahyadri Ghats of Maharashtra and the Himalayan foothills of Meghalaya, I have sung in college bands and worked nights as an Investment Banker; I have taken buses, trains, cabs and auto rickshaws, and walked, in the wee hours of the morning in all these parts of India; I have travelled the length and breadth of my country. Six months ago, I got onto the road in Mumbai to stand before a public bus coming down at my taxi, so we could get the leeway needed to make the impossible about turn my young cabbie had embarked on before he froze mid road ( ‘I hate this’, he had cried. My heart went out to him and we chatted the rest of the way. He was from Gorakhpur, looked no more than seventeen. I am not sure if I would reach out like that again.)

 I hope I am not a coward. But I have not gone back to Delhi.

I passed Darya Khan's tomb everyday, never thinking to explore it
Delhi chat
I have not been to Delhi for fifteen years, though I miss her so, her brash energy and her old history, her emporia of bargains and her wistful weather beaten beauty. But I dare not ride a bus in the city I grew up in, or take a walk to enjoy the best street side food in the country, or go off to explore any of the innumerable ruins redolent with untold stories that dot the city, not without an escort and the trappings of privilege–chauffeur driven cars, chalked out itineraries, experienced guides.

And so I salute the Delhi girls who by choice or circumstance use public transport for their daily commute. Some are born courageous, some have courage thrust on them, but they are all brave Delhi women.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Jess Walter’s latest offering is an irresistible potpourri of Hollywood folklore, reality television, love and ambition, and most of all the overweening need to break out and matter in today’s world. The story moves across a fascinating number of places and times including but not limited to, the Italian Riviera of the sixties, the Hollywood of then and now, small town America, even the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh.  Through it all the author shows an awesome command of form and content, and a phenomenal control of his medium, letting out the suspense to build it up again, maintaining  all the while, a light humorous touch that keeps us turning the pages happily. And he has a message too – do what makes you happy and chill. His panacea for the problem of plenty. (Refer my review of Franzen’s Freedom – “the problem of plenty”).
What’s not to like?

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Cleopatra
It is 1962 and Pasquale Tursi of the lovely blue eyes has just returned to his tiny fishing village on the Italian coast, determined to make the family business - a rundown, “Hotel Adequate View”- into a world class tourist destination. To this end, he is busy building a beach, and designing a cantilevered tennis court atop the cliffs, something he imagines would immediately impress visitors coming by boat – incidentally the only way to reach this out of the way hamlet. What happens is that a Hollywood starlet descends on his hotel and Pasquale reacts, as if in a dream’s opposite, a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep. The actress has been sent from the sets of Cleopatra, (yup of Liz Taylor and Dick Burton fame), and believes she is dying. Pasquale finds himself enmeshed in her affairs.

Cut to the present, where Claire Silver, Chief Developmental Assistant to legendary film producer Michael Deane is failing in her own assessment of how she is living her life. Her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. In the course of her work they have hit pay dirt with reality television – and her hopes for making meaningful cinema shrink by the day as she hears out one outlandish pitch after another –

Claire saw why people worked so hard to not get things made - because once you did one thing, that became your thing.

She has a boyfriend addicted to online porn, strip clubs and texting unpunctuated questions - 'milk', 'cereal', 'what up', to quote a few; she is heartily ashamed of him. Claire is onto her last pitch for the week, when who should come looking for Michael Deane, but Pasquale from all those years back. It is lucky that the man who is making the pitch at that time knows good enough Italian to translate for Mr. Pasquale Tursi, who is on a quest for Dee Moray, the sick starlet who came to his Hotel in 1962. Tursi’s only link to Dee, the seventy-two-year old Michael Deane who was then in the publicity department for Cleopatra, and who through an impossible to trace sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem cell injections has acquired the face of a nine-year-old Filipina, and is as hard-bitten and unconscionable a Movie-Moghul character as was ever drawn, surprisingly agrees to help. Lo, the story has acquired a life of its own.

Jess Walter
What follows is an account of what happened in Italy then, the search for Dee  now, interspersed by an interesting set of narratives starring each of the myriad characters populating the book. And reading it is great fun. We are in the pages of a master craftsman. I for one will have to read his most successful book “The Financial Lives of Poets”.
It appears that Mr. Walter disapproves of the ‘extreme anguishing’ that most people seem prone to, especially those with ambitions to be creative. He also wishes to debunk the motto he clearly thinks might be a malaise affecting the populace – Act as if ye have faith and it shall be given to you. He favors doing the right thing, and keeping the wanting in check so it does not take you away from doing the right thing. So Alvis Bender puts his unwritten novel away in order to get on with living (it hits him that, indeed, all that he wanted to say has been said in his first chapter). Pat Bender makes his peace with his relative anonymity, and Claire does what she feels is “right” for her.

If only it were that simple.
Such clear problems and solutions do not make for life, it makes for fiction. Good fiction in the hands of a humorist par excellence, a superb entertainer and master craftsman, who makes you read even as you shake your head. There is no soul searching, no epiphany, or discovered truth as opposed to received truisms. But would that not be the preserve of an artist, the tortured genius who struggles with her medium and extends it, expresses her innermost anxieties, while fighting her demons? (Virginia Woolf comes to mind, maybe because of my feminist 'sheing' of everything in the last sentence.) If that’s the sort of thing you enjoy - I mean art, not feminism - then wait for my next review. “Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, set in Stalinist Russia, written during Stalinist Russia, when wanting and doing the right thing was all set on its head.