Archive for June, 2009

June 29, 2009

Nothing but praise for you, my dear

Shristi publishers continue to bring out cutting edge works by young Indian writers. Other books from them that I’ve read include Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called LOVE, and Novoneel Chakraborty’s A Thing Beyond Forever (which I saw in a bookshop yesterday in a new edition and with a new cover. This proves that I was wrong in saying that the language of the book might be too dense for the average reader. My faith in readers is thus re-established). Yesterday I found myself buying four new books that have come out since I left the country, and last night I read Arpit Dugar’s Nothing For You My Dear: Still I Love You….!
Arpit Dugar is a very young writer indeed – he’s 22. Impressively, he chooses to write from the point of view of a character older than himself, 26 year old Avinash Jain. The parallels between Dugar and Avinash are obvious – they both (from the information about the author given on the book’s inner front cover) have attended the same educational institutions, and are both from Jain families. At one point, due to a minor blip in editing, perhaps, a character even addresses Avinash as “Arpit”. With so strong an identification, it is impressive that Dugar manages to view his protagonist in a detached and critical way. Here he is describing Avinash on the first page of the book, where he admits straight off that his character isn’t perfect:

Avinash was the kind of guy who actually got on your nerves in the very first meeting. His physical appearance was no less than that of a super-model, his way of dressing, his smartness and of course his intelligence attracted everyone around him.

The book is structurally complex, with its story within a story. Avinash Jain’s parents are forcing him to marry Neha Bhandari, and as a dutiful son he cannot deny them their wish. He therefore begs Neha to reject him instead, and when Neha (who has fallen in love with him through the photos she’s seen) demurs, tells her the story of his relationship with Lisha, the girl he hoped to marry. The bulk of the book consists of Avinash’s narration of the story of his life and love.

You or I might tell such a story in a couple of lines. But Dugar’s narrator has clearly been bottling things up and needs to talk about it. As a result we are presented with a number of tiny details that make the whole thing real and add poignance to our understanding of the tale. Details such as this, when Avinash describes his hostel bedroom:

Then there were my gadgets, a personal desktop computer with almost all the gadgets loaded. There were two keyboards, I remember, one was of the normal style and the other was the folding one. There were two mouses even, one was Microsoft’s wireless optical mouse and the other one was the touch pad one. All the eight USB ports of my board remain occupied. Two of them were used by the wireless mouse connector and the folding keyboard. The third was used by the TATA Indicom internet card. The fourth was for the web camera. The fifth port was for the printer, which most of the time remained out of cartridge. The sixth port was an external hard drive, 500 gigabytes. And the seventh and eighth were left open for any extra peripherals to be used. Generally pen drives took hold on them.

A number of people have commented on the “student” flavour of recent novels, many of which seem to be set at least partly in an educational institution, possibly because the bulk of the readership are students or people who were very recently students. So you have Chetan Bhagat and Tushar Raheja writing about IIT life, Ravi Subramanian and Harshdeep Jolly tackling the IIMs, and Soma Das doing her bit for JNU. But the above is about as authentic a picture of student life as I have ever seen. While the references to Tata and Microsoft may seem like product placement, they actually function as a commentary on the importance of brands in daily life, as well as giving the reader a strong sense of context. Dugar is clearly aware of this, as he begins the book with a list of brands, so that we know all about Avinash almost before we know who he is. It’s a satirical take on consumer culture that is done in a startlingly subtle way for a young author and a first novel. In fact, the care with which this book has been written and edited gives the lie to Avinash’s claim that he’s not good with grammar and vocabulary, “I find grammar is some bullshit for crammers”. He has, among other gifts, a positive genius for metaphor.

I felt excitement spreading in my chest like a pleasant cactus.

One of the things that fascinated me about the book is how Dugar negotiates the gender issue. Many of Avinash’s close friends (Lenika, Akanksha, Ria, Tia) are female, for example, so he clearly values what the women around him bring to his life. He is also aware that men and women are fundamentally different, something that feminists have tried to make us forget. Thus his pronouncements on women are hesitant, as if he knows he may be giving offense and is afraid to claim authority. And yet he clearly speaks from experience Some examples:

I don’t know why girls only tell half the story. Don’t mind Neha but most of them love playing mind games and it is truly said that even the one who made them cannot judge what’s going on in their minds. And I believe that is the thing which we guys are so crazy about. Girls are so innocent and beautiful in their own ways.

I had heard from my friends that girls call boys sweetie, honey, cheeku-pie, hubby-dubby when they are in love with them.

The girls are in true sense the gamblers. They actually know the techniques to control us.

When you see a beautiful girl you actually fprget everything. Even Einstein in his theory of relativity mentioned that “Time is relative. When you are with a beautiful girl, the whole day will pass like a few seconds. On the other hand, when you are with a fat ugly lady, you will find a few seconds like years passing out”.

She came late to the college on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Maybe because we are allowed to wear casuals on those days and don’t mind but girls take hell lot of time in getting ready, choosing the best outfits and wearing the make-up.

Some of my friend once told me that staring is half the victory in love.

Understanding that women are fundamentally purer and more innocent than men, Avinash shows a wonderfully tender protective streak. He takes chivalry seriously.

I knew it had created a bad impression of my attitude but I never like attending booze sessions. It depresses me, so I avoid it. I am not against it, but I don’t support it in presence of girls and women even. It is something against my ethics.

And after all, what girl can resist being cared for?

The book is not without its flaws, however, and both of the things which spoilt it for me were factual errors. The first was a mere question of haircare. Lisha, at the point when Avinash meets her, has hair that is “cut in steps”, something that Avinash could probably not have recognised were it not straight. Additionally, he later describes her hair as straight. Yet at that first meeting, she also has “a curl carelessly on her forehead”. It seems extremely unlikely, though with curlers and straighteners freely available on the market anything is possible. And anyway, as has been discussed before on this blog, authors are frequently ignorant of the differences between straight and curly hair.

The second problem is one of timing. Towards the end of the book, Avinash waits for Lisha at the Ansal Plaza. Lisha telephones (half an hour late) from Sarojini Nagar, to say she’ll be fifteen minutes. Now, we’re told that Lisha is always late, but no reader could seriously believe that either of them think the journey even possible in fifteen minutes. What about the South Extension bottleneck? Unless we assume that Lisha also has no sense of direction as well as no sense of time, it is hardly feasible.

But it is possible that these minor criticisms arise out of bitterness and jealously from a critic who has never had a book published, yet is almost 24. All in all, a fine effort.

June 24, 2009

Dear Marat Safin

Look at you. You’re awesome.

Why, then, must you make supporting you so hard? Seriously, yesterday’s match? What *woundikins* was that? (And Levine was brilliant, and I’m glad for him and all, but ffs)

June 16, 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he’s right up to a point – that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil – and if you don’t have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando – I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war – that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read – “Tal-elmar”, set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he’d gone on with it he’d have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I’d be very annoyed. It’s unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It’s not the history of a race, it’s a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you’re asking who the “teller” of the Silmarillion is. And it’s no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it’s how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about “the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins)” (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I’m willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that’s the sort of text it is. That’s the structure it’s modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it’s not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you’re willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that’s actually happening in the world he’s living in, I’m not sure if it’s because he’s “in full, panic-stricken flight from it”. You could criticise Tolkien’s choice of this form - it’s probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you’re a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it’s self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it’s open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That’s pretty big.

And there’s that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn’s life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they’re not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It’s not enough, but that it’s there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read “something like that” even if it didn’t move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I’m not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem’s “World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in “Aldarion and Erendis”" in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It’s rather excellent.

June 15, 2009

It’s a beret, not a tea cosy.

I simultaneously really like the Harry Potter books and whine consistently about them. Here’s something to whine about: Dobby.

At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry visits the Ministry of Magic, where he sees a fountain that’s symbolic of the hierarchical nature of the wizard worldview.

A group of golden statues, larger than life-size, stood in the middle of a circular pool. Tallest of them all was a noble-looking wizard with his wand pointing straight up in the air. Grouped around him were a beautiful witch, a centaur, a goblin and a house-elf. The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard. Glittering jets of water were flying from the ends of their wands, the point of the centaur’s arrow, the tip of the goblins hat and each of the house-elf’s ears.

The fountain is only a very obvious marker for a theme that reoccurs a number of times during the series – the dodgy foundations of the wizarding world and the failure of the community to interact with other magical races on equal terms. The Malfoys mistreat their house elf, Umbridge refers to the centaurs as “filthy half-breeds”, and the historical failure to treat with the giants means that they all end up on Voldemort’s side. Hermione is made to sound silly for saying it, but Hogwarts functions on unpaid labour. Mrs Weasley (we’re told in the second book) really wants a house-elf. Sirius Black’s death is partly due to his consistently treating Kreacher the house-elf like shit. In the last book Harry himself attempts to double cross Griphook the Goblin. It’s not just the bad guys – the wizarding world has functioned this way for centuries and every wizard is implicated.

Enter Dobby.

When Dobby arrives in the Dursley home in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he really appears to have revolutionary potential. He speaks for house elves as a class, rather than from the perspective of one discontented elf and we learn a few pages later that it must have required a tremendous act of will for him to come there against the wishes of the Malfoys at all. To make a decision like this one, to muster up the strength to carry it out, and to develop this sort of sense of class-consciousness is all pretty impressive. Dobby is genuinely heroic.

But Harry is the Hero. Dobby’s working conditions improve drastically, he is given wages (tiny ones, but he won’t accept more and he really likes work, no really), but it’s all a gift from Harry. Dobby now becomes Harry’s willing servant. “’Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do!’ said Dobby”.

Rowling’s house-elves are given a weird kind of false consciousness that makes them impervious to Dobby’s propoganda. There isn’t likely to be any sort of house-elf uprising in the near future. Liberation can be forced upon the elves (Hermione) or gifted (Harry) but it’s not likely to be taken.

In CoS, Dobby’s decision to support Harry is shown to be in part strategic – the house-elves had a miserable time of it when Voldemort was in power and have a reasonable stake in trying to stop this from happening again. This is why CoS Dobby is interesting – he has his own agenda and while he may want to protect Harry he’s also capable of being a genuine obstacle when their agendas don’t match. Once he’s freed he’s turned into a goofy but faithful retainer who wears silly clothes and talks funny. From this point on, his investment in the fight against Voldemort appears to be entirely about Harry and the wizards. Eventually he dies rescuing Harry. Which is great on the one hand, because it means Harry can stay alive to defeat Voldemort and thus save the other house-elves from an increased crapness of existence (I wonder if this was part of his motive?). But it also means that the house-elves have lost the one prominent revolutionary figure they seem to have had in quite a while.

(Much love to Pradipta and Shreyas for silly photoshoppage)

June 11, 2009

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

See here.

Valente’s an amazing writer, and this sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful book. For those of you who haven’t discovered her yet, this is a great opportunity to do so. I’ll be reading and donating what I can, and I hope (once you’ve discovered how awesome she is) some of you will as well.