Archive for ‘religion’

October 31, 2013

Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary

From this weekend’s column.



Before the announcement of this year’s Booker prize, many of those who had actually read the whole of the shortlist seemed to think the real race was between its longest and the shortest works; Eleanor Catton’s eight-hundred-plus-page The Luminaries, and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, less than a hundred pages long. Both sprawling-and-ambitious and precise-and-compact strike me as healthy things for a novel to be (though with deadlines looming I’d prefer more of the latter) and I’m looking forward to Catton’s now award-winning novel. But this week I only felt capable of tackling the Tóibín.

“I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’, ‘the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

Religious retellings can be (also) religious or secular—they can embrace the divine or supernatural nature of their subject, or they can create a more material logic for their worlds. Tóibín’s Mary never says the word “Jesus”, and in some ways this could be any crucified son, and any mother (lots of women are called Mary, surely) who believes in the end that whatever great cause her son died for cannot have been worth it. Despite this we’re never really in any doubt of who these characters are—if Mary’s son and the two men who haunt her home after his death are not named, Lazarus is, his sisters Mary and Martha are, familiar miracles are described, even if most of them are witnessed second-hand.  If the stories that Mary hears are true, obviously, this can’t be just any story of a dead son and a grieving mother.

But while Mary occasionally seems skeptical about her son’s great deeds, what is far more striking to me is that neither she nor the book seem particularly invested in their veracity. This is not an account of the life of Jesus that attempts to explain away the supernatural, then, but nor is it one in which the divine is centred. Even as her son’s disciples attempt to narrativise his life story, and to absorb Mary into it, she resists by writing back with a story of which she and her grief are the focus. “In the way they work now”, she says, “they try to make connections, weave a pattern, a meaning into things”. Mary disrupts that meaning, refuses to allow herself to be used, makes of her life something too messy and multifaceted for them. At one point we’re shown an empty chair that is waiting for “someone who will not return”; Mary’s “protectors” (and possibly the reader) assume this is a reference to her son, before we’re forced to remember that she has been a wife as well as a mother.

Christ’s divinity (if that is what it is) then fades into the background in the face of Mary’s humanity. And she is at her human best when she departs from the perfect symbol—when she thinks of her self-preservation during the death of her son and marvels at herself for doing so, when she feels the creeping dread of passing time after each Sabbath, when she hides in the house as her neighbours (a shared female community that is one of the things I like most about Tóibín’s book) lie to visitors and tell them she has left. When she finds time at her son’s crucifixion to notice other awful things happening around her, as if the most important event in the book’s world (but not her book’s world) were not taking place right there in front of her.


April 9, 2013

Amruta Patil, Adi Parva

My review of the first volume of Amruta Patil’s version of the Mahabharata was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Here it is, with more pictures–though said pictures were taken with my awful cellphone camera, since I was too lazy to make the trip downstairs to the scanner.



“We are an unbroken lineage of storytellers nested within storytellers. When I open my mouth you can hear the echo of storytellers past.”

Copyright law is entirely unequipped to handle an epic storytelling tradition. Harper Collins’ sumptuous edition of Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva wisely proclaims itself to be “via” rather than “by” Patil, but the copyright page has all the usual wording asserting the writer and artist’s “moral right to be identified as the author of this work”. It’s fitting in a way that this conflict between a single author/single version of the story and the vastness of the whole should play out in this book’s paratexts, when the question of what aspects of the Mahabharata are told, and how they are interpreted, is such a major part of Patil’s book.

Because the sheer scale of the Mahabharata is something of which Adi Parva is constantly aware. To get to the beginning of this story, Patil has to begin with the origins of the universe. At one moment the whole is played out with the whole of the cosmos as its canvas, at the next, at a microscopic, cellular level. In a stunning spread the conflict between the cosmic dog Sarama and king Janmajeya is depicted with its main characters portrayed as constellations. But we also hear of rishis whose role is to “intervene with the necessary genetic data” (read: sire important children), and the universal conflict between good and evil is illustrated through the positive and negative charges in an atom. Ganga likens the story to the Indrajaal, the net of rubies that extends infinitely in all dimensions, and each of whose gems reflects all of the others.

Ganga is the sutradhaar for this part of the story,though we are informed that Ashwattama will be telling the next part. Emerging in the dusk in a small town square near the place where Janmajeya is holding his snake sacrifice, Ganga’s story has attracted a small crowd of listeners. But this is no spellbound audience, staring with eyes open and mouths shut. Her listeners have their own opinions – on her appearance or the propriety of a woman wandering about alone at this time of the day, but more importantly, on the story itself. “Is there a curse coming up? I sense a curse coming up”, complains one woman. The abundance of blessings and curses are “to distract from a plot full of holes”, complains one moustachioed gentleman, adding “I write plays for a living” to give his remarks more weight. (“How can anyone make a living writing plays?” asks an old man, with some justification.) Audience members complain that the asuras get given a raw deal in some situations, that women aren’t given their due in retellings. They also bring the story back down to earth when they request, for example, that more stories about dogs be included.

Patil has claimed elsewhere that she had to learn to paint for this book. Adi Parva is gorgeous, shifting constantly from watercolour to charcoal to pencil to collage with a range of styles on display. There’s a knowing use of familiar iconography as well. A page depicting the serpents about to be victims of Janmajeya’s sacrifice has them against a whimsical board game background of ladders. An apsara rising from the water to disturb the peace of yet another meditating rishi (as the text notes, this is something of a recurring motif in the epic) is a clear reference to Botticelli’s Venus. Blue gods and grey-brown asuras are a part of a visual tradition perhaps best known to modern readers in the form of Amar Chitra Katha. Though there’s very little sense, at least so far (Patil has indicated that there will be at least one more volume) that this iconography is being interrogated.

Then too, as much as the structure of Patil’s rendition seems to leave space for a multiplicity of interpretations, there can be only one sutradhaar. Her Ganga often shuts down avenues of debate, apoliticising the story to some extent and dismissing an audience member’s attempts to do the opposite as “partisan politics. Which is all very well, and one might argue that the last few years have seen a number of retellings of myth that examine these areas of the epics. But to bring them up and refuse to address them does this book no favours.

“In any case, you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.”

There’s much to be said here about which versions of a tale are retold and disseminated, and how “write your own” is sometimes too glib a response. But Patil’s faith in the myth shines through; if any story can stand up to infinite retellings, it is this one.



February 27, 2012

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals

I read The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals on a train to Amritsar, and wrote most of this piece in my hotel room later that day. Short version – it is very silly and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A version of the piece below appeared in the Left of Cool column in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian.



According to a wise man, from the beginning of time mankind has had two basic questions when confronted with something new. “Can we eat it?” and “Can we have sex with it?”

Bestiaries have existed for centuries. They describe various exotic animals, both real and imaginary, often completely erasing the line between the two. Early bestiaries were not scientifically rigourous; they relied on rumours of rumours of hearsay. They gave us the manticore, the unicorn, the bonnacon (a bison-like creature that defended itself with explosive, projectile faeces). But while a worrying number of bestiaries addressed themselves to the second of the questions posed above, few tackled the first.

Indians are familiar with a variety of traditions of what is and is not edible. Does it contain onions or garlic? Is it halal? Is it wrong to eat beef if it originated from a foreign cow? In The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Ann Vandermeer sets out to discover whether or not a selection of fantastic beasts are fit for the consumption of a practising Jew. It turns out that this question is less simple than it appears.

For example, what of those chimerical creatures made up of parts of more than one animal? If a part of the animal is kosher, does that extend to the whole? Does the reverse apply? Clearly one cannot contemplate eating a mermaid, but what about her fishy tail? Chickens are kosher, but does that mean that the cannibalistic Pollo Maligno, found in Colombia, is allowable despite its predatory, cannibalistic instincts? And what does ‘cannibal’ even mean here; does this chicken feed off other chickens or off humans? And if the former, shouldn’t those chickenesque abominations that we’re told go into fast food be non-Kosher as well? At the end of the world the righteous will apparently feast on the great beasts of the sea, land and air (respectively Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz), but does this mean that those creatures are kosher only in the case of an apocalypse? Are angels kosher (or even imaginary), and what sort of terrible person would want to eat one in the first place? Theology is a deeply complex matter.

These weighty issues are rendered accessible by the format of the book. In the tradition of Socrates, these philosophical debates take the form of dialogues between Vandermeer herself and “Evil Monkey”, the blogging alter-ego of her husband Jeff. The Evil Monkey persona seems to know very little about the subject and acts as something of a foil for Vandermeer’s own persuasive arguments to educate the reader.

Frequently Vandermeer cites other authorities, including Dr Jorge Luis Borges, author of that great scholarly work The Book of Imaginary Beings. Or Thackeray T. Lambshead, compiler of a guide to eccentric and discredited diseases. Towards the end of the book another expert is called upon; Duff Goldman, the star of a cooking-based reality TV show. Goldman gives us his opinion on how these creatures are to be cooked, if they are to be cooked at all. From him we learn that the Mongolian Death Worm might make a delicious sushi; that Tribbles, seen in the Star Trek universe, are probably kosher (I have my doubts) and definitely tender; that while it would be predictable and dull to prepare H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as calamari, he’d be perfect broiled, garnished, and served with a sweet white wine.

One of the best things about The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is that it does not confine itself to traditional creatures of myth, showing a far more global, inclusive approach. So we see the Japanese Abumi-Guchi (not kosher), the Tokoloshe of Zulu myth (not kosher) and the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (kosher, and frequently seen by Welshmen on their way back from the pub). Occasionally Evil Monkey’s flippant comments detract from the tone of what is otherwise a serious theological work, but despite this occasional lapse The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a thoughtful analysis of religious dilemmas that may be far from imaginary.



January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.


In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.



November 27, 2011

Lemony Snicket, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming

Between us, Aadisht and I wrote only about children’s books in this month’s Left of Cool. This was a complete coincidence for the first three weekends, after which we just went with it. Children’s Day in India is in the middle of November, so it was all quite appropriate. And a McSweeney’s book because they are occasionally gorgeous, and a winter book because it is the loveliest time of the year.

(At the paper’s website, here)



Living in one of the few cities in the country to have real winter has its advantages. Delhi is not quite cold enough yet, but at least we can be reasonably sure it will get there eventually. At around this point every year I start to seek out winter-themed books, for reading under a quilt with mugs of tea or soup within reach.

Many of these books, for obvious reasons, are centred around Christmas. The book that is the subject of this column, is a Christmas story in some ways; it is even subtitled “A Christmas Story”. Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming looks like an typical children’s picture book; the sort that has not much text and a (usually quite harmless) moral. In some ways it is all of these things. And yet this is a book by the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and moreover, one that is published by McSweeney’s. It is unlikely to be a typical anything.

In a tiny village “more or less covered by snow”, one particular house is looked upon with suspicion because of its lack of Christmas decorations. It is in this house that a latke is made.

The latke is a traditional part of Hanukah. It is made (Lisa Brown’s illustrations depict the process in tantalising detail) of grated potato, onion, salt and beaten egg, and fried in olive oil until it becomes crisp. This particular latke, on being put into the hot oil, begins to scream. As the narrator reminds us, “nearly everything in this world is born screaming”.

The latke jumps out of the pan, out of the house, and runs through the town, still screaming. As it passes, it has short conversations with a number of objects. The first is a string of flashing lights, anxious to know why the latke is, with its screaming, overshadowing their cheerful glow. The latke explains that it was put into boiling oil, and goes on to explain the significance of the oil within the Jewish tradition. Yet the lights dismiss it as a kind of hash brown, possibly to be served alongside a Christmas ham. A candy cane, trying to disperse its peppermint smell through the night air, resents the latke’s delicious aroma and compares its story of persecution to that of Mary and Joseph. A Christmas tree sees no reason the latke should not blend traditions and become part of Christmas – it itself is an originally pagan symbol.

What we have here (if it is your traditional picture-book-with-a-moral) is a story about resisting having your identity subsumed by the majority, and by people who presume to dismiss with your statement of who you are. It’s something most children will face on a regular basis (“it’s just a phase”, “you’ll feel different when you’re older”), as will many adults – readers who have chosen not to have children, for example, will know this all too well. Snicket imitates the tone of a children’s book perfectly: “It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world. If you say one thing and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream”. Snicket’s latke is the most inspiring potato-based foodstuff in all my experience of children’s literature.

Of course Snicket can’t allow us something so unqualifiedly inspirational. The latke is discovered by a family who do appreciate its worth, and they take it back home. But this heart-warming tale ends with the latke being eaten, a final scream cut short as it enters someone’s mouth.

But is this a Christmas story or not? The red, green and gold cover says so, and the narrator excuses the story’s unreality by claiming that “this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life”. So is it a story about not being a Christmas story, since such a story would naturally foreground the idea of Christmas? It’s a little of all of these, and it is rather good.

[I'm also thinking about the status of those of us in India who would prefer not to use the label "Hindu". As an atheist, I find it irritating that I am considered Hindu by default, and that I can't legally un-link myself from the religion without joining another one (and Christianity and Islam are, I think, my only choices). But even among people who do adhere to some form of faith, a number of smaller religions that historically separated themselves from Hinduism are now considered under the larger 'Hindu' umbrella. I imagine that if I belonged to one of these groups I would be seriously annoyed.]
November 27, 2011

End of Term (AF 4)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

My first Forest book, as I mentioned in the introduction linked to above. It is also the best school story ever written.

In terms of plot, very little happens in End of Term, and most of it is linked to the school play at the end of the year. Nicola befriends a new girl, falls foul of the sports prefect and unwittingly finds herself cast in the role that Lawrie wants in the play. Lawrie is educated about Christianity and calls on higher powers to do her will. Sprog the comically inept merlin kills a sparrow. But plot is unimportant here.

End of Term is the book that introduces the theme of religion to the series, and it remains there (though as less of a main subject) in the later books. People talk about religious belief throughout. So we know that Ann Marlow believes strongly enough to find her sisters’ joking about the hymns upsetting; that Rowan sometimes believes and sometimes not; that Lawrie is amazed to discover that anyone believes at all. We discover that Miranda is Jewish but not particularly so, and that a minor character comes from a more orthodox Jewish family and is therefore unable to watch the Christmas play. The Merrick family are revealed to be Catholic, and while Nicola Marlow doesn’t seem to quite know what she believes yet, there are the first stirrings of her attraction to the idea of Catholicism. In Nicola’s interest in the Catholic church, in Miranda’s fascination with the Christmas play, and her half-told stories of discrimination and being outside the cultural mainstream, Forest is also portraying religion as a thing that functions socially, that exists in the world, as separate from religious belief. And belief or lack thereof isn’t seen as relevant to the basic decency (or lack of it) in any character.

By the standards of girls school stories, all this is rather astonishing. End of Term was published in 1959, rather later than most of the genre, but this needn’t mean anything. Consider Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books (the school stories I’m most familiar with)which continued until 1970. In this series, the entire range of human belief is represented by the fact that some students are protestant and others catholic – and the only implication this difference has is that they have to take prayers separately. In 1958 (the year before End of Term was published), Brent-Dyer’s Trials for the Chalet School came out. It featured a character who did not believe in god -but still blamed him for all her woes- and her very existence shocked the other characters. The book contains the immortal line “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

Forest herself was from a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism. Which may explain away the presentation of those two faiths – it does not do so for the entirely sensible treatment of atheists and agnostics.

I’ve only read Forest’s work as an agnostic or an atheist. Yet despite the flippancy of the characters when it comes to discussing Things That Matter, she comes closer than most, for me, to getting at the intangible aspects of faith. Nicola is the lead soloist in the play and “Nick makes me feel like cold water down my back” (later, “a little shudder of pleasure shivered like cold water down Patrick’s spine”). And

The organ stopped, which was her cue. She looked ahead to the West Door, past the watching eyes, and took a long breath, as if she were about to dive (which was rather how she felt). ‘Try to sing it with regret,’ Dr. Herrick had said. ‘”Once in Royal David’s City.”‘ Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.’
She had never been able to do it to his entire satisfaction, rehearsing at school, but at this moment, with the storied centuries of the Minster about her, and the play, complete and entire behind her, she thought, suddenly, she might manage it.


I mention above the flippancy with which the characters choose to treat big issues, and their discomfort with discussing religion (which they end up doing anyway) comes in part out of this. There’s a moment where Nicola gets into theological debate with the choirmaster at the local cathedral:

…for surely in the Middle Ages, when people believed properly,they’d have brought their hawks into the Minister with them -

She said something of this, in a rather muddled way, to Dr Herrick, who looked first taken aback, and then amused, and then said that though Nicola might find it hard to believe, there were people who now believed ‘properly’, as she put it, though perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘without reservation’: didn’t Nicola think so?

and this acknowledgement of self-consciousness/awareness that what one says is mediated by the world around one and not a form of spontaneous expression, is one of the things that so attracted me to the books as a child. I’m reminded of this quote of Umberto Eco’s , though I’m not sure how Forest would feel if I called her a postmodernist writer. Patrick thinks “only the older carols…managed to mean what they said without being embarrassing”. After Nicola, Patrick is the character given the most interiority in this book, and he seems both aware of how he edits his own words, and how others do the same in their heads. “He would – no, he would not tease her about it, come the holidays: it would be fatuous and obvious, quite apart from being unkind; and though, like anyone else, he could be unkind on occasion, he did not care to be fatuous.” and (with regard to Lois Sanger) “How queer. I wonder how she thinks about it?…Well – what does she tell herself? I mean – how does she make it alright for herself? Or doesn’t she? Does she think she’s a heel too?”

Since this post has mostly dealt with Forest’s treatment of belief systems, at this point it seems appropriate to talk about Lawrie. Lawrie does not believe in the Christian religion as it is presented to her, shocking her family with her amazement that people treat it as if it happened rather than as they would treat, say, Norse gods. But she does believe in something, as we learn when she pretends to be Nicola in order to let her twin play in an important netball match.

There were three things she was thinking. The first, the easy one, was what fun it would be for Nick to play, and how nice of Lawrie to let her. The second, less disinterested , one was, that if she let Nick play, Someone would arrange, as a reward, that Somehow, when it came to the performance, Lawrie would play the Shepherd Boy.

And later, “‘I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy -’ [...] ‘Except for one thing, Lawrence. With whom did you make this bargain?’ ‘Who with?’ Lawrie looked surprised and waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling. ‘Well – you know – Them.’”

I find myself wondering if, in the absence of a religion to believe in, what Lawrie is putting her faith in is what Terry Pratchett would call Narrativium – the force that has events go the way they ought to in a story. It would certainly tie into Forest’s genre-awareness (see the Autumn Term post for more on this). And it seems entirely fitting for these books that a character should make bizarre, Faustian bargains with the book itself.



[The next Forest post will be a while coming. It’s on Peter’s Room, a book that stems from the Brontes’ stories of Angria and Gondal. So I’m hoping to read this book simultaneously, and with that and work deadlines I suspect writing about the book will have to wait a week or so.]

October 18, 2011

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I’ve spoken before on this blog about the weirdness of the third of Lewis’ space trilogy books. To people who have read those earlier pieces my most recent Left of Cool will contain nothing new. But here it is, for the sake of completion.



Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia series of children’s books. Many are also aware that he and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, and that the two belonged to an Oxford writing group called The Inklings.

Some of Lewis’ strangest work is a direct result of this friendship. The story goes that Tolkien and Lewis had a bet, according to which one of them would write a space-travel story and one a time-travel story. Tolkien got the time-travel assignment – his “The Lost Road” was never completed. Lewis more than made up for this by writing an entire trilogy; Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength.

All three contain a strong religious element. The first is closest to a conventional science-fictional novel – it is a voyage to Mars which draws much of its inspiration from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. With its sense of the vast, unknown history of the planet it is occasionally magnificent despite its preachiness. Perelandra has Lewis’ protagonist Ransom (an Oxford philologist – probably a nod to Tolkien himself) travel to Venus, where he is called upon to avert the Fall. He must do this by arguing his case with the Venusian version of Eve. Unfortunately, the arguments are only particularly stimulating if you believe the forces of evil to be colossal idiots.

It is in That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy, that Lewis touches the heights of strangeness. Unlike the first two books, this one is set on Earth. Like them it is concerned with evil scientists overreaching – the title is a reference to the Tower of Babel. Lewis’ villains keep alive the head of an executed murderer (with mysterious wires- Lewis doesn’t dwell much on the actual science) creating a horrendous abomination. Meanwhile there are college politics, an Orwellian organisation called N.I.C.E., a domesticated bear, and a butch, chain-smoking policewoman. There’s also the resurrection of Merlin, come to save Britain in her hour of need. Lewis completely mixes his interplanetary mythology with Arthurian legend, turning Ransom into the new Pendragon. As if this were not enough he also drags in references to Numénor, Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth. Since none of Tolkien’s writings on Numénor had been published at the time, it’s difficult to imagine what readers thought. Tolkien himself was reportedly displeased.

A major concern of That Hideous Strength is gender. Jane, half of the couple around whom the story is centred, has been ruined by such things as higher education and feminism. Her marriage is falling apart, and her failures as a wife have left her husband susceptible to negative influences. Worse, the couple have been using birth control! Merlin stigmatises Jane as ‘wicked’ when he meets her. Apparently she and her husband had been destined to conceive the child who would save England; thanks to contraception (evil science again!) that child was never born. It’s not the strongest argument against family planning that you will ever hear.

These are not the only delights afforded by That Hideous Strength. There’s the revelation that the dark side of the moon is actually a place of beauty and fertility (the barren side facing us is due to evil lunar scientists). There is a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which everyone talks in Latin to a confused homeless man. There’s a scene in which, in another reference to the Tower of Babel, all the guests at a formal dinner lose control over language and begin to speak gibberish. The bear kills and (I think) eats a villain. At one point, as the spirit of Venus descends to the earth, all the animals in the area begin to have sex, while the humans feel elevated and aroused.

My enjoyment of That Hideous Strength is of a sort that would probably lead Lewis to lump me in with the evil scientists. But for all its perversity, this enjoyment is vast and sincere. If only Lewis had given up academia (and religion) for a career in pulp SFF.


October 2, 2011

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The more I think about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the more I am impressed by it. This is a novel about the end of the human race with a teenaged narrator (one, it turns out, who is capable of the most singleminded fundamentalism). The narratorial voice is so authentic for a character of this sort that in the early stages of my reading I thought it just wasn’t very good. I was wrong; it is.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Indian Express last weekend.


If you want to wipe out a species, targeting the females is a good place to start. In James Tiptree Jr.’s 1977 short story “The Screwfly Solution” a mysterious epidemic spreads across the earth that causes men to murder women. At the end of the story we learn what has caused this state of affairs, and that it was intended to end the species. It is too late; by this point the human race is doomed.

In Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb the cause behind the spread of ‘MDS’ is never discovered, and is never (beyond idle speculation by the characters) the focus of the book. What matter are the results of this disease; MDS, or ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ has now infected everyone on the planet, and any woman who gets pregnant will die.

Jessie, Rogers’ narrator, is a teenaged girl. Over the course of a few months she moves from indifference towards MDS (she thinks of it as normal and only expresses irritation at the mass funerals for women), through an involvement with various political groups, to a willingness to take radical steps to save the human race. Her “testament” is told from captivity; the identity of her captor, hidden at first, comes as an unpleasant shock. Her account of the events that led up to this moment is interspersed with reflections on her prison.

How do you wait for the world to end? From the beginning of The Testament of Jessie Lamb it’s clear that unless something miraculous happens the human race is going to die out within a couple of generations. And (as Jessie thinks in the context of MDS) “the knowing it was coming must be the worst part”. Rogers documents various reactions to this knowing; Jessie’s mother tries to get on with life as usual, her aunt joins a religious cult, her friends join various feminist and environmentalist groups. Young people, angry with the mismanagement of the world by “grown-ups” (the awkwardly petulant teenagers are Rogers’ biggest weakness here) form a separatist movement.

The best solution that science can come up with is to sacrifice young women (“Sleeping Beauties”) – implanting them with embryos on the understanding that the women will die. The religious groups think this is wonderful; the feminists think it’s barbaric – and Jessie is tempted by the prospect of saving the species. At this point it becomes clear why the book is prefaced with a quote from Euripedes’ Iphegenia at Aulis. Jessie’s name also begins to seem ominous – the similarity to “Jesus” might be a coincidence, but Jesus is also the “lamb” of God. Late in the book Jessie’s father describes a girl choosing to become a Sleeping Beauty as a “lamb to the slaughter”.

The Christ analogy ties in with a broader set of references to Christianity. In a plot as apocalyptic as the end of humanity, it’s unsurprising that there should be explicit religious overtones. And so Jessie’s story is a “testament”, and the farm where she takes refuge is “Eden”. The religious group to which her aunt belongs are known as the “Noahs”.

At first Jessie’s narrative is rather underwhelming. But as the reader approaches the later stages of the book it becomes clear that this is a brilliantly crafted piece of work – Jessie’s frustration at the adults around her, her conviction of her own rightness and her attraction towards heroic sacrifice all ring true. It gradually becomes clear that the text is capable of a complexity that is far beyond the simplicity of Jessie’s own thoughts.  I’d like to think it’s a rare reader who will agree with Jessie’s choice or the reasoning behind it. Underneath it all are the twinned associations of martyrs and suicide bombers. Yet we see every step of the road to this decision. And as awful as it is we are made, after a fashion, to respect it.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing. The last few years have seen plenty of dystopian novels featuring teenaged protagonists (and I do wonder how this book would have been received had it been published as young-adult literature). But reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it’s easy to see how this science fiction novel published by a small press should have made it to this year’s Booker long list. It is outstanding.


September 21, 2011

On garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember my “Practically Marzipan” column – it ran in the New Indian Express’ Zeitgeist from 2008 to the beginning of this year.
One of the (many) columns I never reposted to the blog was written in 2008 and it was about garlic. And various other things (like sex), but mostly garlic. A conversation on twitter today led me to seek it out.
(This is an unedited version – the published version appears to have disappeared from their website)


The consumption of onions and garlic (and others among the delicious consolations that make human life worth living) was just one of the many things a large number of my ancestors seem to have been against.

In India, a number of religious groups disapprove of onions and garlic. These are supposed to be Rajasic foods, clouding the mind with passion and making it harder to concentrate on spiritual matters. A related explanation I’ve seen used in various quarters is that these foods enhance the libido. I find this baffling – surely onion-y, garlicky breath is a turn off? – but supposing it to be true, the hostility is understandable. Few people would meditate when there were enhanced libidos to be taken care of.

The writers of scripture (and more recently, well known dieticians) express themselves even more strongly on the subjects of meat and alcohol. Had America been discovered at the time when these scriptures were written, doubtless potatoes and chocolate would have been found to be objectionable too.

Of course, this idea that you are what you eat is not limited to the subcontinent alone. In 1800s America, similar beliefs led to two major culinary revolutions. An early campaigner for diet reform was one Sylvester Graham. Like all great reformers, Graham seems to have taken an active interest in the private lives of his fellow men; particularly their sex lives. Being of the belief that any form of excitement was unhealthy and that animal-based products created lust, Graham advocated vegetarianism, sexual abstinence (he believed that masturbation led to blindness and insanity) and (his one good idea) frequent bathing. He also invented the Graham cracker, the most boring biscuit in existence and thus a stalwart foot soldier in the war against sexual gratification.

But as influential as Graham crackers were to become, Sylvester Graham was only preparing the way for a greater man who would one day overshadow him. That man was John Harvey Kellogg.

Like Graham, Kellogg was a fan of vegetarianism and abstinence, and against exciting food and sex. He even wrote a book, titled Plain Facts About Sexual Life (the title was later changed to Plain Facts for Old and Young) to support his views. He and his wife occupied separate bedrooms for the forty years of their marriage. Clearly he practiced what he preached.

What Kellogg is really known for is the invention of the cornflake along with his brother W.K (Will Keith) Kellogg. The cornflake at the time was a healthy, whole grain product that was unlikely to encourage any unwanted desires. In later years the humble cornflake would take on new and startling forms and a number of exotic flavours, but the Kellogg brothers actually argued in 1906 over the necessity of adding sugar to the basic recipe – presumably John thought it would be too exciting for the consumers. A century later, there’s certainly sugar in most breakfast cereals, so it seems that W.K had the right idea.

Religious scripture remains silent on the subject of cornflakes, while continuing to shake its head disapprovingly at onions and garlic. So for now I think my breakfast, however sugared, is safe.



Srividya Natarajan’s 2006 novel No Onions Nor Garlic plays with the Shakespeare quote above – it’s a satire about TamBrahms staging a more Hindu Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madras. It is excellent.
Also I’d like to think my ability to write 500 word columns has improved over the last few years.
September 19, 2011

Totally serious non-frivolous blog-usage


Apparently there is now a play titled Ganesh vs the Third Reich, premiering later this month. Unsurprisingly Rajan Zed is outraged. All this is irrelevant, except to link you to this Hindustan Times article about it, in the comments of which may be found this gem (copied here because some people are claiming it’s disappeared from the newspaper’s site):

DILIP 48 minutes ago
Well it is a well documneted historical fact that doctrine of the Third Reich, did steal prsitine divine inspiration from the vedas, Ramayna and Mahabharata. The space technology, misslies and the atomic weapon concept was pilfered staright out of Mahabharat and other vedas.Hitler converted to vegetarian having convinced himself of its virtues and scientific benefits after reading the vedas.Intellectual Germans did drive many inspirations and ideas that enable at one stage in the 20th Century, the Greatest military and economic power, in this context we must assess the attributes, virtues and strength of hinduism and very advanced knowledge based science and technology. WE must not get distracted by some stupid namby pambies, of lefty fanatic persusaion trying to push their grotesque agenda.