Saturday, February 20, 2016

Language Of The Heart

IN OTHER WORDS Jhumpa Lahiri

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express.

Language is a filter through which we view the world, and, on a trip to Florence in 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was captivated by a glimpse of one such view. The Italian language, she felt, was one “with which I have to have a relationship”. After studying it for close to 20 years, she moved to Rome with her family in 2012. Here, she wrote much of her new book, In Other Words: brief, linked essays, most of which first appeared in Internazionale. The themes of exile and alienation that animate her fiction are also present in this, her first work of non-fiction, marked by a guileless prose style and a disarming frankness in examining shifting identities and the need to write.

Writers such as Beckett, Nabokov and Conrad have written in languages other than their mother tongue; however, Beckett lived in France for years before writing in French, Nabokov learned English as a child, and Conrad spent a long time absorbing English while at sea. In contrast, Lahiri writes, “what I’m doing – daring to write in Italian after living in Italy for barely a year – is different, out of the ordinary, and so I feel an even more intense solitude”.

An over-abundance of metaphors is one of the ways in which she conveys her experience of learning Italian. The comparison with a love affair is an obvious one, but that apart, she speaks of climbing a mountain, wading into a lake, filling a basket, trying on an unfamiliar sweater, crossing a fragile bridge, and navigating a strange city. Strikingly, “compared with [my newborn] Italian, my English is like a hairy, smelly teenager”.

When it comes to her newly-minted style and its self-perceived shortcomings, “one could say that my writing in Italian is a type of unsalted bread”. “It works,” she continues, “but the usual flavour is missing. On the other hand, I think it does have a style or at least a character”. It does: there’s an affecting transparency to these sentences, rendered into English by Ann Goldstein.

The first story that Lahiri wrote in Italian (included here, along with another) begins with the sentence: “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person”. This, as she points out, with reference to her Indian parents and American upbringing, is no co-incidence. “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.” Writing in Italian, then, becomes a way to chart an independent course for “my divided identity”; a means to bypass her “two sides, neither well defined”. Evidently, such reflections also serve to illumine the roots of her novels and short stories.

She’s equally candid about what made her take to writing in the first place. It was “to tolerate myself [and] get closer to everything that is outside of me…Writing is my only way of absorbing and organising life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much”. This, come to think of it, is a more impassioned way of rendering Graham Greene’s statement that he wrote out of “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience into some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity”.

In Other Words comes across foremost as an act of self-exploration by a writer without a specific homeland, a search for a location triangulated by three languages. In Italian, she has “the freedom to be imperfect”, and this limitation of words and life, along with strategies to overcome them, are what she assiduously explores. Combining simplicity without shallowness and sensitivity without self-indulgence, it is written in the language of the heart.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Carrying A Mirror Down Istanbul's Roads


This appeared in today's The Indian Express

In a scene from Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence, the narrator, in his Istanbul home on winter nights, hears a boza seller ringing his bell as he passes the door and is overcome by an urge for the vendor’s beverage, a fermented grain drink popular from the time of the Ottomans. In Pamuk’s new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, it’s the boza seller who takes centrestage.

A Strangeness in My Mind – the title is from Wordsworth’s The Prelude -- is the saga of Mevlut Karatas, who accompanies his father to Istanbul from the provinces and spends the rest of his life there, coming to realise that his vocation lies in selling boza to the city’s thirsty and sometimes nostalgic residents. In this way, the book is yet another representation of Istanbul by Pamuk, this time describing not the privileged of the city, as with The Museum of Innocence, but its underclass, those who migrate in search of a better life and find work as itinerant pedlars, waiters, maids, cooks, mechanics and the like. The unemployed, the underskilled, and the poorly educated, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has described them.

Another way in which A Strangeness in My Mind complements The Museum of Innocence is that at the heart of both is a long-lived love story. Mevlut’s wooing of, and subsequent relationship with, his wife Rahiya  provide some of the book’s most touching as well as light-hearted moments, from the case of mistaken identity with which their wedlock commences to the deepening of ties over the years.

Pamuk has elsewhere written of his admiration for Stendhal, of the latter’s brand of psychological realism, and in this novel, that influence is in full flower. He carries a Stendhalian mirror down Istanbul’s roads, allowing it to reflect the milieu, morals and manners of Mevlut, his family and his friends. In keeping with the mischievous modernist manner of his other works, Pamuk also makes this novel polyphonic: the third person saga of Mevlut  is shot through with first-person voices from others in his ken. (One of these characters even alludes puckishly to the writer’s own predicament: “I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.”)

The somewhat na├»ve and always sincere Mevlut’s “strangeness” is referred to time and again.“Mevlut wasn’t sure whether the strangeness was in his mind or in the world,” we’re told at the beginning, and then again, referring to the perfect match between Mevlut and Istanbul: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in our mind inside its teeming multitudes.”  For over four decades, from student to husband to father, and during various occupations, he finds satisfaction as a seller of the emblematic boza on Istanbul’s streets, with his cry “reminding us of centuries past, and the good old days that have come and gone”.

Overall, there’s an even-toned quality to the narration, in Ekin Oklap’s English translation. Personal triumphs and tragedies (births, deaths, employment, unemployment, friendships, fallings-out, reunions) are rendered in the same register as urban progress and setbacks (earthquakes, military coups, elections, slum razing, expansion), with the whole bracketed by an index of characters, chronology and family tree. In addition, because of the span of time covered, many sections inevitably contain more summary than incident. At times, all of this can flatten the novel’s landscape.

One of its considerable strengths, though, is the way it makes the universal aspects of rural-urban migration spring to life. One member of a family leaves home for a better life; others from his immediate family follow; shantytowns with informal, collaborative networks of people spring up on the outskirts, and, in time, integrate into the city’s fabric: to these bare bones, Pamuk adds flesh and blood, and heart. (Migrant workers, casual bribery, overcrowded footpaths, land grabs, electricity thefts, bloodshed over beliefs, packs of stray dogs, run-down movie theatres: change some details and locations, and Pamuk could well be writing about an Indian city.)

At one point years after he’s come to Istanbul, Mevlut reflects that “it was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnel and flyovers, but it was also gratifying to feel that someone out there was working to improve the city for his benefit.” These changes and more, and the reactions of those affected by them, are precisely and compendiously captured here, creating an affectionate, nostalgic portrait of inner-city Istanbul by one who knows it intimately.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

New Lives In A New Country

This review of Sunjeev Sahota's Booker long-listed The Year of the Runaways appeared in  today's The Indian Express.

Asserting the universality of immigrant fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri once said: “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar...The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.” It’s this theme that animates Sunjeev Sahota’s rich, rewarding second novel, The Year of the Runaways.

Sahota’s debut, Ours are the Streets – on the basis of which he was anointed one of Granta’s best young British novelists – was a sympathetic portrait of the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield. In The Year of the Runaways, also largely based in the same city, he writes of those who have fled their homes and countries to forge a better future not just for themselves but also those close to them. As one of the characters puts it, “It’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.”

The novel is structured around the interactions of three such young men and one woman over the course of four seasons during which their dreams, physical limits and faith are put to the test. There’s Tochi, from a so-called untouchable caste in Bihar, embittered and alone when his attempts at making a living by driving an auto go up in flames after an engineered riot; there’s Avtar, a private bus conductor from Amritsar, who finds himself at a dead end after he loses his job and finds a girlfriend; there’s Randeep, a college student from Chandigarh who is forced to take over the reins of running the household after his father’s stroke; and there’s Narinder, a staunch Sikh from Britain who discovers that following the codes of her belief leads to an ethical impasse.

After their arrival in England, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep share a squalid flat with other migrants and work on a construction site until circumstances pull them apart and then together again. Sahota describes their motivations and movements in pacing and prose that’s pleasingly unhurried, so that the unfolding of the plot takes on an air of inevitability. Attention is paid to minor characters, be they a girlfriend, an erratic co-worker, a heartless employer or an ailing family member, which creates an enviable verisimilitude. Details of everyday adjustment to an unfamiliar environment – from clothes to food to cramped living quarters—are also carefully and tellingly chosen: “Soon the house was a whirl of voices and feet and toilet flushes and calls to get out of bed. They filed down, rucksacks flung over sleepy shoulders, taking their lunchbox from the kitchen counter; next a rushed prayer at the joss stick and out into the cold morning dark in twos and threes, at ten-minute intervals.”

Sahota lets the predicament of his characters as they move through time and space speak of the novel’s concerns: the injustice of treating people as higher or lower in a pecking order based on circumstances of birth, the wretchedness of having to scrounge for work, and the grimness of having no alternative but to carry on. Large defeats and small triumphs are delineated in a manner that makes us care deeply about them and in this way the novel tunnels through news headlines of immigration and caste debates, one of its transcendent strengths.

At one point early on, when Tochi insists on plying his trade despite the warnings of others, he realises that it’s “not just pride” that makes him do so: “It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognise his place in this world.”  This story of Tochi and his compatriots is an empathetic exploration of this question, with Sahota proving to be an able guide to the migrant terrain of loyalty, loss and longing.

(My earlier review of Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel is here.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Colonising The Present

This review of Anuradha Roy's Sleeping on Jupiter appeared in today's Indian Express.

The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley famously wrote; they do things differently there. The manner in which the past colonises the present, and the ways in which we attempt to make peace with it can be said to be the subject of all of Anuradha Roy’s fiction so far, including her new novel, the whimsically titled Sleeping on Jupiter.

As with her earlier An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, this one features a cast of well-outlined characters, with attention paid to fleshing out their particularities and points of view. There is, to begin with, the group of Vidya, Gauri and Latika, friends in their 60s – “three old biddies from Calcutta”, as a hotel manager dismissively calls them – who embark on a five-day trip to Jarmuli, a medieval temple town overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Of this trio, Latika is efficient and gently mocking; Gauri is garrulous and increasingly afflicted by forgetfulness; and Vidya takes pride in being practical and sensible. Among the people they meet in Jarmuli is Badal, a temple guide in his 20s, a graduate from the school of hard knocks whose street-smart manner conceals an essential naivete. The narrative also circles around Suraj, a liaison person for a TV production company, with his thwarted film-making dreams, erratic, violent temper and controlling ways.

Above all else, Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of the young Nomi – the well-travelled Nomita Frederiksen, born in India but adopted by a foster-mother in Oslo, who has returned to Jarmuli in order to shine a more powerful light upon the fragments of her past. Years ago, Nomi had been wrenched from her family and fallen into the clutches of a predatory ashram, witnessing violence and undergoing abuse almost too much for any young person to withstand. She now faces the challenge of putting these shards together in a form that will afford release and allow her to move on, depicted in the novel by means of deft, occasional shifts from first person to third. 

With most such novels written in a realistic mode, there’s a tussle between the needs of the character and those of the plot. How far can such fictional individuals be allowed to exist as entities in their own right, and how much do they have to be manipulated to serve the unfolding narrative? Most of the time, Roy walks this tightrope with ease, but there are wobbles: easy co-incidences and neat encounters, however necessary they may be to deepen the plot, do at times come in the way of the artifice of reality.

All of Roy’s characters have had things taken away from them, sometimes through violence, sometimes through time's passage. In some cases, innocence is what has been waylaid; with others, an intimate relationship has come apart at the seams; with yet others, it’s the coherent memory of the past that has vanished. The novel progresses by means of these people engaging and disengaging with each other, and the after-effect of these meetings and partings yields truths about the world and about themselves that have so far been concealed or ignored.

The experience of reading Sleeping on Jupiter is, for the most part, rich and immersive. Roy’s delineation of Jarmuli is as atmospheric as that of Ranikhet in her earlier The Folded Earth. In this town by the sea, incense mingles with the stench of rotting fish, scorching afternoons give way to mellow twilights, sunlight plays on water that carries ominous currents, cardamom and ginger are crushed into tea leaves at a stall by the beach, and the stairways and interiors of intricately carved temples witness a swarm of people, from visitors to locals, from the devout to the irreligious. This precise evocation of a sense of place, matched by an equally precise portrayal of interior states, all in unhurried, unshowy prose, makes Sleeping on Jupiter both accomplished and affecting.