Literary fiction is tough to write, and tough to get published. Getting a first book out can take years—yearsFirst published in The New Indian Express
Literary fiction is tough to write, and tough to get published. Getting a first book out can take years—years in which several stories are placed in different literary journals and rejection letters are collected for volume length work almost as a ritual. This means that a first book, when its time comes, more often than not contains writing done during a considerable period of time, all through which the writer was also honing her craft.
Rheea Mukherjee’s debut collection of stories ‘Transit for Beginners’ (Kitaab, Singapore) seems to exemplify the above. In that lie both its refreshing value and its minor shortcomings. One can see the gradual development of a talented writer in the book: the other side is the variance in quality within the fifteen stories in the collection. This reviewer pondered whether the title itself was a private joke: a here-to-stay writer emphasizing her transition from early beginnings.
That is unlikely, though. For ‘Transit for Beginners’ is also the title of one of the stories in the collection, perhaps its strongest. At Changi Airport, a woman in her early twenties and a slightly older man decide to spend the hours before their next flights together. The woman, who is also the narrator, isn’t the most politically correct person. In the beginning of the story, she goes into the airport bathroom to freshen up. Discretely trying to wash her armpits, she feels comfortable seeing that other women are also making full use of the bathroom. The exact description is revealing: “Luckily for me there were a bunch of Bangladeshi and Indian women who were using the bathroom as some sort of hostel. By this measure, I looked far more sophisticated.” Are we to assume that those women are using the bathroom as a hostel because they are Indian / Bangladeshi? If yes, the narrator’s assumption of sophistication derives from something over and above this identity – it is class. But with the man, Rudra, who is from the same class, greater sophistication cannot be assumed. Thus starts a game of one-upmanship, which soon turns into banter. Going further, banter comes to resemble an authentic human connection with some erotic potential. But the end changes everything, and the woman emerges the worse from the transitory encounter.
One of the strength of Mukherjee’s collection is how comfortably it traverses a wide spectrum of that grand edifice called the Indian middle class. ‘Transit for Beginners’ is about globe-trotting yuppies, ‘Sweetie’ is about a meager household where sexual abuse takes place, ‘Reckless’ is about the strenuous love relationship of an entry-level IT professional, ‘Hungry’ is about the moral conundrums of a steward at a shady hotel, and so on. There are also some stories like ‘The Rectification Still’ and ‘A Larger Design’ that are focalized on characters’ personal losses, and do not need to rely on the class dimension.
Overall, ‘Transit for Beginners’ signals the arrival of a promising new voice in the Indian scene. ...more
It so happens that none of what Aristotle wrote for the public in his time – none of thThe Plots of Tragedies
First published in The New Indian Express
It so happens that none of what Aristotle wrote for the public in his time – none of the ‘published’ works – has survived the close to twenty-four hundred years separating him from us. What we have of Aristotle is notes and half-written works, never meant for widespread sharing, perhaps written only to be of use to students as references to larger works.
One of these texts is Poetics, about sixty-odd pages if one measures in today’s page sizes, and available in half. In it, Aristotle touches upon the components of the two modes of drama – tragedy and comedy. The extant Poetics only covers tragedy and in that too there are a few fuzzy spots where it is difficult to wean any meaning. Yet Poetics contains, without doubt, a robust framework with which to look at tragedy. In fact, it is a particularly thrilling exercise to apply Aristotle’s ideas to famous plays – say those of William Shakespeare.
For Aristotle, plot is the most important element. He defines it as a chain of events in which, apart from the beginning, each individual event is necessary or probable. A tragic plot is specifically endowed with the responsibility of creating ‘pity and fear’ in the audience. Tragedies thus ought to have eminent men (in stature, achievements or morals) as their central characters, for witnessing the fall of someone inept or wicked can evoke neither emotion. Taking examples from the Shakespeare universe: Hamlet, as Prince of Denmark, and Othello, as the moor of Venice, broadly fit the eminence criteria. We could extend this to popular Hindi film adaptations by Vishal Bhardwaj too, and if readers recall, we see that Omkara fits the profile but Haider, without any eminence in his character, does not.
For designing a good plot, Aristotle recommends that the main character in a tragedy act in error. This is not so much a moral error as it is an error of judgment, and its revelation is supposed to unleash the emotive potential of the hero, also evoking in the audience a cocktail of pity and fear. Aristotle also recommends that the action of the tragedy should concern itself with characters that are closely related to each other, as in a family or in a love relationship – so that an error, when revealed, hurts deeper. Here is the logic behind all those patricides, fratricides and matricides in the classics.
These two concepts are seen clearly in Shakespeare’s Othello, where the moor, erroneously suspecting Desdemona of infidelity, murders her (in the film, Omkara kills his wife Dolly). When subsequently the error becomes clear to Othello, he kills himself. Hamlet’s case is more complicated (as is Haider’s). He doesn’t as much act in error as he is scared of acting in error. His anguish is borne of inaction, not repentance. With this added complication, Shakespeare isn’t in concordance with Aristotle. ...more
Kierkegaard's insistence on God may demote this book for some readers in today's times. Yet, its categorization of despair is a crucial conceptual exeKierkegaard's insistence on God may demote this book for some readers in today's times. Yet, its categorization of despair is a crucial conceptual exercise; and helps, if not in anything else, then in making sense of expressions of despair in literature. A case in point is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, published fifteen years after Kierkegaard's book. The famous Underground man is in despair, and it is a stimulating exercise to attempt a classification of his despair per Kierkegaard's schema. I was lucky to find decent article online, elucidating precisely these concerns of mine...more
I hope it is still in vogue among college-going folk to discuss not just the importantThe Grand Leap of Faith
First published in The New Indian Express
I hope it is still in vogue among college-going folk to discuss not just the important matters of the day, but also vain philosophical question like, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Or: ‘Is there a God, and if there is a God, how are we to act?’
I remember discussing such things with friends in the wee hours of hostel rooftop parties. Although the arguments never resolved, they made us feel the need to be better prepared. Anyone who could quote Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, or any of the other famous philosopher-writers, usually had an edge. Thus, reading became a necessity to be able to prove a point—at least the more objective of us felt so.
Out of nostalgia or otherwise, some of the habits have persisted in me. With close friends, I still seek out opportunities to promote discussion on such quandaries. And I read philosophy to get a better understanding of how individuals more intelligent than me have thought of these questions.
One of the names I have found myself quoting more frequently these days is Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian and philosopher in the 19th century, whom later philosophers labeled a ‘Christian existentialist.’ This is to say that he pondered the same question that existentialists do—human conduct in the face of the meaninglessness of life—but gave a Christian solution to it.
Among his earliest works, the slim ‘Fear and Trembling’ is considered a masterpiece. In it, Kierkegaard complicates the Biblical story of Abraham, who was instructed by God to sacrifice his dear son, Isaac, atop a mountain. There is a three day journey between the instruction and the scheduled sacrifice. Kierkegaard brings our attention to this period, forcing us to consider Abraham’s state of mind. What drove Abraham? What made him carry out an instruction that must have, at times, appeared harsh and absurd even to him?
Kierkegaard posits that since Abraham fulfills an absolute duty to God, of obedience, the ethical paradigm—which makes killing Isaac a crime—is suspended in his case. Note that this absolute duty isn’t a transaction: Abraham isn’t offered any virgins in paradise as compensation. For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s faith is in fact a faith in the strength of the absurd—that God, whose will is not to be questioned, will also somehow make things right.
Kierkegaard thus considers faith a supremely difficult task. “Faith…is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence.” To be faithful is to lead an absurd life and yet have the courage to grasp what is bound to appear an even larger absurdity: the idea of God. ...more
I couldn't get into this one. But thanks to it, I now know that I am the kind of reader who likes it more when there is a dead body in the first chaptI couldn't get into this one. But thanks to it, I now know that I am the kind of reader who likes it more when there is a dead body in the first chapter....more
My favorite movie critic is Richard Brody of The New Yorker. Each year, he publishes a list of the best and worst movies from around the world—the lisMy favorite movie critic is Richard Brody of The New Yorker. Each year, he publishes a list of the best and worst movies from around the world—the list has been my staple for years. In 2014, Brody mentioned Oscar notable Birdman in the worst category. This year, The Revenant gets some flak. Brody suggests that for both movies by the director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the gap between ambition and delivery is filled not by imaginativeness, but by a grandiose attitude: a balletic camera trying to hide a spiritual hollowness. I agree.
In literature, too, there are examples of bluster filling the gap between high ambition and actual content.
Altaf Tyrewala’s debut novel, No God in Sight, garnered near-universal praise over a two year period from 2005 to 2007, in which it was published in country after country and translated in various European languages. My Penguin copy had a front-cover Salman Rushdie blurb laden with numerous five-star adjectives. Manil Suri’s back-cover blurb called it “a bullet-train of a novel,” in a good way.
Tyrewala’s thin novel is indeed big on ambition. It is composed of dozens of vignettes, almost all in first person. What we have is not a single narrative arc but a variety of situations, all of which are supposedly contributing to the meaning inherent in the title. Tyrewala comes up with good scenarios, most of them involving Muslim protagonists. There are abortionists, shoe sellers, young lovers, cops, rich people, fake Urdu teachers, and others – all struggling to get by. But Tyrewala' writing chops do not turn up routinely. Sample the below exchange between a woman and her boyfriend:
"I'm sorry Abhay, you're just too crude! We've tremendous physical chemistry, agreed, but we can't be in bed all the time. What about the mornings or during meals? What do we talk of then? How many programmes you debugged? I want someone immersed in life, someone who can buy me diamonds while fascinating me with his take on Pynchon's works."
'No, Swati, no!' I looked up from between her thighs. 'You're the one for me! Give me two months. When I come back to Boston, I promise I'll be dripping with the humanities like you won't believe.'
I'm too lazy to accommodate other examples of shoddiness, but suffice to say that one often wonders if Tyrewala’s conceit of multiple 1000-word vignettes isn’t a ploy to hide the sub-standard nature of his content. It is a pity that the structure happens to be the most definitive thing here; the component stories, of variable quality, do not contribute to the initial design uniformly. The novel reads like a brief survey of lives, and the more-or-less aleatory nature of the selections bares the writer’s deficiencies. Had there been more of a plan, had the writing been better, and the vignettes longer, the book would have left a better impression. For now, this reader is left wondering just how a Salman Rushdie blurb resembles an Oscar nomination. ...more
It has come to seem there are no perfect endings. Indeed, there are infinite endings. Or perhaps once one begins, there are only endings.
Glück narrateIt has come to seem there are no perfect endings. Indeed, there are infinite endings. Or perhaps once one begins, there are only endings.
Glück narrates like a short story writer; but then she always complicates the narration with a poetic construct that illuminates the entire field she operates in. Her narration morphs into something that does not need an ending anymore. Her endings are complex, and seemed to me to be happening in the middle -- it was satisfying that way. She ruminates on old age and death, and seems intent at creating an image of death as a peregrination. Her parents' death and her relationship with her aunt and her brother are talked of in multiple poems, in each of which seasons pass and melancholy acquires a constancy that renders meaning to memories. According to Glück , memories are like distant stars; yet if they were to be looked at as astronomers look at them, the never-ending fire in them would be apparent....more
I have come to this after reading two police procedurals from Arnaldur Indridason. But Roseanna still surprised me. It was slower; its realism more prI have come to this after reading two police procedurals from Arnaldur Indridason. But Roseanna still surprised me. It was slower; its realism more pronounced. The detectives (the hero is surrounded by equally heroic figures) often use brute methods more than intuition, which is a delight. NOT edge of the seat stuff, and that's the special contribution of the Martin Beck series to the world of crime writing....more
The major concern of this novel is (progressively deviant) female sexuality. In that it finds a topic that the French have dealt with at length in theThe major concern of this novel is (progressively deviant) female sexuality. In that it finds a topic that the French have dealt with at length in their literature and their cinema. This might be the reason why the powers that be in France have nominated it for the prestigious Prix Medicis. In India, its descriptions of Delhi, and the fear in which women tread the city, is the bigger concern. In India, the novel is liable to attract contrasting views....more