Friday, 11 December 2015

For the love of literature...please!

I've read my fair share of bad books (I'm tired of repeating this line to people and online entries alike). Unlike bad movies and bad TV shows, my tolerance for bad writing is rather poor. I have acquired a taste for unwinding with movies and shows that can proudly claim that the sky is the limit for their stupidity. Unfortunately, I am still incapable of extending this courtesy to terribly written pages bound together to masquerade as a book.

The father unwittingly gifted a copy of "Scion of Ikshvaku" by Amish (of the 'Shiva trilogy' 'fame'. The second set of quotes is a pair of air quotes. Feel free to imagine my eyes rolling as you picture me saying that) the last time that I was home, thinking I'd enjoy some reimagined mythology. Clearly, he had heard words of praise from the self-proclaimed bibliophiles that seem to exist everywhere in India these days and bought the book by this celebrated writer.

Now I do not mean to sound judgemental or arrogant, but I've a few words of general wisdom to say to these folks:
1. Chetan Bhagat is NOT a writer. Please do not put him on the pedestal of India's favourite writer. At least, if you still value the sanctity of the language and the art of story-telling.
2. "You can win" by Shiv Khera is NOT a classic.
3. Reading Dan Brown DOES NOT mean that you have taste in international literature.
4. I'd rate 'Tinkle' ABOVE all of the aforementioned names.

My system slows down considerably every time I see a 'Book Bucket' challenge on social media. Listing down four Chetan Bhagat books out of the ten top works that have changed your life is NOT cool. Ever. At least, to us literary snobs. I did not have to think twice before typing that out. It helps that we are from a country where intolerance is rife (so say some actors who are surrounded by security personnel and are out of the country for a large part of the year). But more on that some other time.

Imagine my consternation then, when I see Amish being called 'India's first literary popstar' every time I pick this book up. Now I know what many people will say. Defend these books all you like. Cry out about freedom of taste to your heart's content. But speaking on behalf of people who value certain standards even in their leisurely pursuits, I can tell you that you can do so much better if you really care.

Before I started typing the angriest rant yet on my blog, I was wondering if I should submit my usual book review on GoodReads, followed by my other blog on book reviews. But it struck me that this is nowhere close to being a book review. This is a scream that has managed to escape my cranial enclosure. This is a written account of my having to tolerate something that I really do not wish to endure. It doesn't help when you have an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD for the lazy 'uns) to finish something that you dislike very much. That said, I HAVE abandoned a few books because I cared for my mental well-being. I still have a few pages to go on this one to still take that route.

Amish is nowhere near as bad as Chetan Bhagat in his writing. I haven't read his Meluha series but speaking purely from this particular reading experience, I can vouch for this claim. Why did I even read Chetan Bhagat, you may ask. In the hope that he would have learned from his mistakes and improved his art of story telling. But I do not believe in giving chances to people who do not take them or even worse, deserve them. Sure, Bhagat's life is not going to take a slump because of the annoyance of a few readers like me. But, we do hope that he will listen to people like us if he cares about expanding his audience base and raising the quality in his work. Chetan Bhagat gets away with every book by saying that his reach is far. Yes, I did buy into that one for a while. But, now I wish to opine that writing for the 'common man' does not make you a saint. The 'common man' is actually more intelligent than you give her/him credit for. It is when you dumb their intelligence down by stunting their intellectual exposure that you make money out of rubbish. Like bad books, or bad movies. You set terrible examples and corrupt impressionable young minds.

Now that I've expressed my anger (primarily towards Chetan Bhagat it would seem), it is time to move on to my thoughts about the book. (You are probably already feeling the emotion that is being discussed in this post just by reading my verbal spillage.)

"Scion of Ikshvaku" is not a mindless piece of work. It is printed propaganda. Albeit, a poorly written one. It is in no way negative propaganda, though. The premise, as we all know by now, is the Ramayana. There is nothing left to say there, so it appears that Amish has focussed all his energy in introducing changes to the basic plot and adding some flavour of his own. Which is where my anger found its first vent. This isn't a book. It is a script for a bad Bollywood movie. You can almost picture a scene with Sita's saree (or 'angvastram', as Amish prefers a unisexual style of clothing in this reimagined world) brushing against Ram's face while he smiles contentedly in love. Which almost happens in the book. Except Sita is angrily brushing past Ram in her quest to deliver justice. A woman who values justice more than anything else. Score!

The most gaping lapse in the book? The fact that Amish has tried to lend a contemporary tone to a setting in 3500 BC. Sadly, it falls flat. He has his timelines mixed up awfully and brings in elements that do not tie up together, thus delivering a messy puddle of confusion that has transfigured into a book. We see copters with rotor blades whump-whumping in the air. Biological warfare is already in vogue. Bharat is a serial dater and Dasharatha has serious anger management issues. Characters swear in English, speak in French ("Touché!") and also deliver dialogues in Sanskrit. It is pompously labelled 'High Archaic Sanskrit' but it sounds very suspiciously like the Sanskrit that I was taught in school. Ooh mama, am I a high Aryan or what!

The most bizarre inclusion in the book is an incident that shamelessly mirrors the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape, in which one of the prime accused was a minor at the time of the crime. The version in the book involves Manthara's daughter who is gang raped and killed on her way back from a medical camp. Perhaps, Amish wanted to deliver a moral science lesson while using the righteous Ram as a venerable addition. Sadly, it ends up falling flat. The poor depiction and unbelievable setting of characters so loved and well known from one of India's oldest and most revered epics is perhaps the cause of its downfall. Amish would have done well to take the Ramayana to a futuristic setting where his imagination will have been free to take flight. 'Ramayan 3392 AD'  by Virgin Comics was a similar rehash but it had brilliant artwork to back its daring futuristic reimagining of the epic.

To cut the long story (errr...rant) short, Amish has tried his best to give us a book that blends mythology with contemporary social messages, redresses shortcomings of the Indian society over the course of time- such as, the caste system and racism, to name a few-, attempts to portray a romantic side to the stoic and righteous Ram (I can hear a sniggering voice in my head saying 'Rules Ramanujam' as I am typing this sentence), lends its solidarity to the cause of gender equality bordering on feminism and includes courses such as 'Archery 101' and 'Architecture 101' in its narrative. A very ambitious attempt, but sorry mate. Better luck with the next book!

The most scarring takeaway from my reading experience? Everytime I glance at the traditional painting of Ram, Lakshman, Sita and Hanuman on our wall, I remember Lakshman screaming to his older brother, "Dammit, Dada!"


Saturday, 17 October 2015

My thoughts on Murakami's "Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage"

Originally posted here.

This is not so much a review as it is about the thoughts that this book left me with. A book, by definition for many readers (including myself), has to give its audience something. If it doesn't, it has failed in its purpose. This 'something' is entirely subjective. I've mostly defined my reading experience by fairly standard parameters- quality of language, strength of characterisation and depth of narration. I've made very few exceptions in my reading journey so far to ignore any of these parameters in favour of the others. And the more I continue to read, the more I'm convinced that an experience with a book must be a surprise. The sheer suspense of what the book in your hand is going to deliver, while giving it the chance it deserves without any preconceived limitations.

Now that I've managed to transcribe a few of the many thoughts running in my mind, I shall start with the book. I received my copy as a gift from one of my summer research students. A year ago, we were discussing books over lunch when Murakami came up and I let it be known that he was still unvisited territory. Much has been heard about "1Q84" and "Norwegian wood" and "Kafka by the shore", but to me they were mere titles. I have heard Murakami's name being mentioned either with hushed reverence or the deepest platitude. I was fascinated when I was told about the prominent featuring of music as part of the plot in Murakami's books, and it was reason enough for me to want to try one. Predictably, I bought "1Q84" from the bookstore later that week but to this day, it has been sleeping in my bookshelf. My very first Murakami was destined to be this "Thank you" gift. And have I enjoyed it, like I haven't any book read in the recent past!

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" is an ordinary man approaching the weariness of middle age. He is a railroad station engineer, with a job involving his childhood passion- trains. He lives alone in a small apartment in Tokyo, with an almost non-existent social life, having come to terms with the reticence. He doesn't have friends, has had four serious girlfriends over the span of a decade and has a past that haunts him in ways that he has not realised himself. The shadow of his past is rather big, comprising of four friends who were his closest companions in school at Nagoya. These five youngsters- three boys and two girls- are inseparable, living their lives in tune with each other and completing each other as a wholesome unit. Tsukuru Tazaki has one nagging feeling in this almost perfect world- he is the colourless person in this circle of friends with colours in their surnames. Akamatsu/ Aka ('red')is the modest yet volcanic academic destined for an intellectual future; Oumi/Ao (blue) is the popular and confident rugby player. Shirane /Shiro (white) is a beautiful and accomplished pianist, who is never too comfortable in her own skin. Almost always in her shadow is Kurane/ Kuro (black)- funny and artistic in her own way. In this group with established identities, Tsukuru finds himself the odd one, seemingly talentless and uninteresting in everything he does. This self- imposed doubt is not shown remotely by his friends, who adore him, and insist on doing everything together as a group.

The first signs of fracture emerge when Tsukuru becomes the first person to leave Nagoya to pursue his engineering studies in Tokyo. While the rest of the group continue functioning in unity at Nagoya, they never allow Tsukuru to feel cut-off, always ready to welcome him home during his study breaks. Tsukuru gets on with a largely unchanged life, until one day he is asked by his friends to never speak with or meet them again. It is a clinical procedure with no questions asked and no answers given. The emotional blow that this experience delivers pushes Tsukuru to the verge of death and he loses interest in his life. For sixteen years, he mechanically goes about life with an emotional distance from people and the hope that it will prevent him from getting hurt again. The wound remains closed but pulses with infection periodically. Until one day, he is persuaded to undertake a 'pilgrimage' to get his questions answered and seek closure.

This book was a revelation to me. I realised that I did not care too much about the lack of a tangible ending here. The story is about a man filled with questions. His life has always revolved around them, in a way even been pushed forward by his unresolved past. To demand a clean ending felt unfaithful to the feeling that Murakami had pent up in this book. In many ways, the story felt as real to me as it could get. I found myself travelling to Nagoya, Tokyo and Finland with Tsukuru, experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, quiet resignation, confusion and finally unexpected calm. The resilience of life and our ability to carry on is brought out wonderfully through Murakami's words. He leaves us with an open ending to the story- and I'm led to understand that many of his works carry that trademark stamp of his- but provides answers to so many questions that plague the mind on a day-to-day basis. The impact that people have on us is so deep that we don't realise it until after they are gone. And when they are, we realise that a part of us has gone with them, and it is almost impossible for us to be the same person again. The profundity in this book may not be novel, but it was certainly conveyed in very elegant words which caught my attention.

As I'm typing this unusually long post, I'm listening to "Le mal du pays", which is a recurring theme in the book. The mood of the song perfectly captures the mood of the book. It is a deeply personal experience and I will not be surprised to hear people saying they find it 'over-rated and simplistic'. To each his own. But for me, the last three days were spent devouring the pages in suspense and eagerness. Everything from the cover to the typeface caught my eye. This book was perfect in its own way, right down to the smallest detail.

The last page of the book ends in lines that I find poignant and worth remembering. At some point of time in our lives, all of us walk down a road where dreams and aspirations are mostly cast away to the winds, so much so that one cannot recognise the changes that have come with harsh lessons. We push onward in search of the silver lining.
"We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something- with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish."


(P.S: I did not dare to post this here because this post doesn't qualify as an 'on-the-go' book review.)