Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

First published:- 1914

Star rating:-

A languid, melancholic dream of a novel which pierces the heart of the reader with its quiet intensity.

Cautious in its narrative tread on the ground of contentious issues, delicate in its broaching of subjects like the indignity of death, sin and redemption, existentialist ennui, self-recrimination and misanthropy, 'Kokoro' is a masterful recounting of a tragedy which unfolds against the backdrop of the dying years of the Meiji era. As Emperor Meiji breathes his last taking along with him the anachronistic echoes of an obsolete way of life rigidly shackled by the conservatism of the isolationist years, a hesitant Japan steps into the welcoming embrace of modern day materialism while simultaneously waging an inner war with the self-denying Confucian ideologies of its past. 

A mysterious and scholarly middle-aged man only referred to as 'Sensei' meets our young protagonist in a chance encounter and the unique mentor-protege bonding, that forms between them subsequently, brings an indescribable joy and solace to both. While 'Sensei' eventually summons the courage to confess to past wrongdoings in a letter to the young man he barely knows and attains a kind of salvation through a self-imposed exile from society, his unnamed protege learns to look past the horror and agony of slow bodily death and accept the natural order of things. A powerfully written spiritual inquiry into the corruption of the human soul, an elegant acknowledgement of the juxtaposition of mournful endings and optimistic beginnings and a testimony to the fragility of human lives.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

First published:- 1961

Read in:- January, 2014

 Star rating:-

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio is a name possibly not known or cared for beyond the frontiers of India. 
At the tender age of 17 this man of Anglo-Indian descent, possessing a sharp intellect and an even sharper tongue, was already a Professor of English Literature and History, busy influencing a group of eager, well-bred young men hailing from affluent Bengali families in Calcutta. He became a leading figure in the age of socio-cultural reform movements in Bengal in the dawn of the 19th century through his dissemination of Western philosophical and scientific ideas at a time when our society was stagnating in a cesspool of ignorance and blind prejudices. And his close-knit group of brilliant young students of the Hindu College who were referred to by the smart moniker of'Derozians', much in the same manner of the ill-famed 'Brodie set' of TPOMJB, were viewed with as much suspicion as unacknowledged respect. But following the pattern of reception of new ideas which are regarded 'radical' and therefore dangerously subversive in their times, Derozio was expelled from the Hindu College and this in turn applied an abrupt brake on the Young Bengal movement. 

As much as my teenage self had looked upon the Derozio name and his legacy with a kind of starry-eyed deference, post-acquaintance with a fictional educator as sociopathic and ambiguous as Miss Jean Brodie, I am forced to view this whole idea of an inspirational teacher weaning a student away from conventional methods of learning with utmost skepticism. No I do not intend to overlook Derozio's small but significant contribution to the collective betterment of our society of the times which in turn greatly aided the nationalist movement later on. But maybe, it will be wise to probe deeper for the unadulterated truth rather than be so guilelessly accepting. I am sure both Muriel Spark and Derozio himself would have approved.

Young, impressionable minds being shaped according to someone else's personal standards of nauseating elitism and if one is unlucky enough to fall under the spell of some conniving Miss Jean Brodie in her prime, being sucked right into a sinister trap. 
What a slippery slope this is! This setting about to correct the course undertaken by a young learner under the facade of challenging conformity, with a perverse sense of authoritarian entitlement. 

'I know better than you, therefore you must follow my instructions.' 

In the way of Miss Jean Brodie's attempts at manipulating adolescent girls into competing with each other to be made a part of her venerated 'crème de la crème', people of insidious intent devise ways of propagating some attractive piece of ideology with confident pronouncements of it being the 'path of righteousness' and all that familiar drivel. 

Which is why I now realize how treacherous traversing this distance between not knowing and knowing a little better is - there's no way to fill up the vacuum of ignorance other than with information in any form that is available nearby and you better hope that pedagogical influence of the likes of the magnetic Miss Jean Brodies of the world does not hold free reign in the vicinity at the time.

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."

It's been a while since something quite as innocuous sounding as the above claim has left me feeling so deeply unsettled.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

First published:- 1997

Read in:- January, 2014

Star rating:- 

As I stand just outside the compound with the untended garden, an uninvited, random visitor, the darkened Ayemenem House resembles a haunted mansion, belying the truth of the lives it once nurtured with maternal protectiveness in its cozy interiors. Derelict. Abandoned. Forgotten.
But I remember, you see. I remember the lives lived, and the loves which were birthed by circumstances, loves which breathed for a while before perishing on the altar of conformity. 
I remember Chacko and Sophie Mol. Ammu and Velutha. Rahel and Estha. 

And, most of all, I remember You. You, the painter of this portrait of a family's downward spiral into oblivion. You, the creator of this life-sized painting of a city and a nation, and all of human civilization in turn.
I see You as an iconoclast, persistent in your demand for liberties we are too submissive to dream of acquiring. You ask for things so heedlessly, so powerfully. The right to love whom we want and how much we want. The right to be equal. The right not to be discriminated against. The right not to be left languishing in solitude, battling painful memories. The right not to lose, at any cost, one's faith in the goodness in human beings.
You are the rebel we never considered becoming. We do not have courage like yours, you see. 
(Your opinions aired on national television are so often misinterpreted. Deliberately. Craftily.)

The sun, inside of You that refuses to be subdued by the drear of political machinations, by the evil lurking in the human heart, by the sham of 'development' perpetrated under the helpful charade of inexistent liberty, equality, fraternity, by every one saying 'No no no, you ask for too much. The world cannot ever be a fair place.', sent a little light my way.
That light gives me hope. Your Small God gives me hope.

He augurs that the overlooked small, mundane cruelties will only snowball into a tragedy of life-altering proportions later on, a gigantic boulder hurtling down the slope of a mountain crushing everything in its path into an unrecognizable gory pulp of flesh and blood. Small God's wrath will eventually consume Big God's apathy and reduce it to mere cinders.
I hope your Small God is right.

You speak the esoteric language of children, whose inner worlds are but their own, beyond the reach of the sharpened claws of the Love Laws - worlds which are free and infinite, where fables, dreams and terrifying realities churn into a nonsensical lovely mass, worlds untethered to earthly considerations. The two-egg twins' interlinked worlds, which stubbornly rejected the continued tyranny of the cycle of injustices perpetuated outside, were the same.
Their combined muteness throbbed with the dull ache of longing, loss and irreparable damage. Their collective passivity stood out as a blistering denouncement of humanity always coming second to zealously preserved blind prejudices. And You spoke through Rahel and Estha's silence which rung much louder than a giant church bell chiming away nearby.

We stew in our own insecurities and the irrelevance of small personal outrages, unable to take a step forward, helpless captives in the iron grip of the status quo of the world. While You, Ms Roy, take up your pen and fearlessly hail The God of Human Dignity, Empathy and Love - The God of Small Things.

So in this space, I thank that God for the Arundhati Roys of the world.

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

First published:-1985

Read in:- August, 2013

 Star rating:-

Consider this not a ground-breaking work of literature. Consider this not a piece of fiction boasting an avant-garde mode of narration. 
Consider it not a commentary on the concept of subjugation of the weak by the ones holding the reins. Consider it not a thinly veiled feminist diatribe either.

Instead, consider The Handmaid's Tale an almost physical experience. Consider Margaret Atwood a fearless deliverer of unpleasant news - a messenger unafraid of dishing out the bone-chilling, cruel, unaltered truth and nothing but the truth.

Move over Bram Stoker. Move over H.P. Lovecraft. Fade away into oblivion, Edgar Allan Poe. Disappear down the depths of obscurity, Stephen King. Your narratives are not nearly as coldly brutal, your premonitions not nearly as portentous. 
Because Ms Atwood, presents to us something so truly disturbing in the garb of speculative fiction that it reminds one of Soviet-era accounts of quotidian hardships in Gulag labour camps. 

Speculative is it?

Aren't the Offreds (Of Fred) , Ofglens (Of Glen), Of warrens (Of Warren) of Gilead equivalent to the Mrs So-and-So-s of the present, reduced to the identity of their male partners? Isn't the whittling down of a woman to the net worth of her reproductive organs and her outer appearance an accepted social more? Isn't blaming the rape victim, causing her to bear the burden of unwarranted shame and social stigma a familiar tactic employed by the defense attorney?
Hasn't the 21st century witnessed the fate of Savita Halappanavars who are led to their untimely deaths by inhumane laws of nations still unwilling to acknowledge the importance of the life of a mother over her yet unborn child?
Doesn't the 21st century have materially prosperous nations governed by absurd, archaic laws which prohibit a woman from driving a car?
Doesn't the world still take pleasure in terrorizing activists like Caroline Criado-Perez with threats of rape and murder only because they have the audacity to campaign for female literary icons (Jane Austen) to become the face of Britain's 10-pound note?
Do I not live in a country where female foeticide is as normal an occurrence as the rising and setting of the sun?

Are we still calling this speculative fiction?

Some may wish to labour under the delusion that the women belonging to this much vaunted modern civilization of ours are not experiencing the same nightmare as Offred and are at perfect liberty to do what they desire. But I will not.
Because when I look carefully, I notice shackles encircling my feet, my hands, my throat, my womb, my mind. Shackles whose presence I have become so used to since the dawn of time, that I no longer possess the ability to discern between willful submission and conditioned subservience.

But thankfully enough, I have Margaret Atwood to jolt me back into consciousness and to will me to believe that I am chained, bound and gagged. That I still need to break free. 
I thank her for making me shudder with indignation, revulsion and righteous anger. I thank her for causing bile to rise up my throat. 
And I thank her for forcing me to see that women of the present do live in a dystopia like Offred's United States of America. We just prefer to remain blissfully blind to this fact at times.

Disclaimer:- I mean no disrespect to the other writers mentioned in this review all of whom I have read and deeply admire.

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