Monday, July 30, 2007

Latter-day Godivas

(In another departure from the Ennobling World of Literature, here's a piece of mine that appeared in the Mumbai edition of today's Hindustan Times. (Will be putting up more book reviews soon!)

From PETA activists worldwide to protestors in Manipur to, most recently, a harassed housewife in Rajkot, appearing disrobed in public appears to be a potent weapon for aggrieved women today.

All of them owe more than they realise to the first person who supposedly employed this form of protest: the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva, who rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century to make her husband repeal the harsh taxes he had imposed on the local populace. Fortunately, the man in question did indeed abolish the levies and we have no reason to believe that Lady Godiva ever again said that she had nothing to wear.

The Lady Godiva myth has many versions: some say her long, lustrous hair covered her completely; some assert that she was actually wearing a sleeveless shift; and some spoilsports maintain that all she did was to ride without her jewellery. (In passing, the expression ‘Peeping Tom’ is derived from here, too, referring to a lascivious tailor who had the temerity to stare at the lady, while others modestly kept their eyes lowered and windows shut. How unlike today’s media.)

Though the legend is unsupported by historical record, Lady Godiva’s fable refuses to die. Paintings and tapestries in Europe commemorate her ride; musicians from the Velvet Underground to Boney M have made use of her in lyrics; there’s an asteroid named after her; and, of course, she has a namesake, however mystifying, in the famous Belgian chocolate company.

Latter-day Godivas haven’t yet taken on inequitable tax regimes – one wishes they would – though it’s interesting to note that intentional or accidental exposure by celebrities, from Janet Jackson to Mallika Sherawat, leads to growls of protest at the state of our morals, but when it comes to the woman on the street, a state of undress serves as a weapon to provoke those in positions of power. Why bother with black armbands, besloganed T-shirts and angry badges when doing away with all forms of attire can make your point much more effectively?

That such stripped-down protests are primarily employed by women says a lot about the as-yet unbalanced equation between the sexes, from before Lady Godiva’s time till today. Men seem to prefer self-immolation, the effects of which are less easily reversible. Perhaps this is something one ought to be grateful for: the daily spectacle of hairy potbellies on TV would really be too much to bear. (Recall, if you will, Shiv Sena activists in baggy underwear protesting against Dilip Kumar’s support of Deepa Mehta’s Fire.)

If, however, this is a trend that catches on, one can only imagine the gloom that will descend upon the world of clothiers, outfitters and fashion designers. Times will be hard when nudity is the new black.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lunar Module


First published in 2004 and re-released in paperback this year to cash in on the renewed interest in East-meets-West narratives, Sorrows of the Moon is Iqbal Ahmed's first book, a non-fiction account of his 'discovery' of London.

The bulk of the book comprises stories of down-at-heel immigrants in London, be they from the Indian subcontinent or Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, Ahmed gets no points for his prose style: his metronomically unvarying sentences are wearisome in large doses, and his paragraphing, too, can be erratic. Get over this faux-naif approach, and there's much to move you here, such as the stories of Anwar in his Brick Lane workshop, Kasim in his Charing Cross kiosk or the depressed, jilted Isabel.

It must be pointed out, however, that at other times, Ahmed can be quite one-sided, such as in his portrayals of the irascible Gujarati postmistress or the drivers of London's Black Cabs.

The tales are shot through with Ahmed's personal impressions of London, his wide-eyed awe and more than occasional disappointment at the people, sights and sounds, as one living in London after a boyhood in Srinagar.

Worth your while? Only if you happen to have a specific interest in the subject; otherwise, check out Sukhdev Sandhu's compendium, London Calling, for other immigrant tales.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Manhattan Maladies

The demands of work have kept me away from this blog for a while; in a feeble attempt to set the balance right, I'm posting an edited version of a review that appeared in The Times of India in November 2006. Normal service will resume soon.


Way back when Woody Allen was shooting films on the streets of his favourite city, he called attention to a distinctive Manhattan malady: his characters were obsessively self-conscious, analysing and dissecting their lives ad infinitum. It’s a trait shared by the characters in Claire Messud’s new novel, The Emperor’s Children. This is a comedy of manners that shows up the vanities and petty preoccupations of New York’s chatterati in the months leading up to, and a little after, the destruction of the Twin Towers.

It’s about three friends: Danielle, a TV producer looking for a break; Julius, a talented reviewer searching for the right break; and Marina, thwarted in her attempts to complete a manuscript on the sociological implications of children’s clothing.

Setting events into motion is the trio’s relationship with two others: Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, a man of letters with feet of clay; and Ludovic Seeley, who arrives in town to set up a magazine to fuel a cultural revolution. Into the lives of these people lands the “plump, fumbling, bibliophilic” Frederick, Murray’s nephew, an idealistic and naïve Emerson-reading youth, desperate to carve out a career free of the strictures of traditional education. Frederick becomes the novel’s moral centre of gravity: the book pivots on his actions, leading each character to re-evaluate his or her life.

Messud’s touch is light; even though her sentences are often Jamesian in their complexity, her elegant and particular prose never loses its ironic tone. The desire for vapid achievement that she satirises is satisfyingly familiar. However, it must be added that an unfortunate side-effect of her characters’ self-absorption is that it makes the novel overpoweringly insular.

Worth your while? There’s no denying that Messud’s skills are poised and precise, and that this is among the better 9/11-themed novels -- but page after page of navel-gazing can be a bit too suffocating.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nigerian Rhapsody

An edited version of a review that appeared in the July 13 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a luminous work that first unfolds against the backdrop of a newly-independent Nigeria in the early Sixties, and then against the tragic struggle for Biafra some years later. (The title, in fact, is an allusion to the emblem on the short-lived Biafran flag.)

Such subject matter could lend itself to a heart-on-sleeve polemic; it is a measure of Adichie’s talent that she doesn’t let this happen, focusing instead on the destinies of characters from different backgrounds caught up in and transformed by the conflict. In particular, they are Ugwu, the bright teenage houseboy from a remote village; Odenigbo, the principled but deluded professor in whose house Ugwu is employed; the gentle, urbane Olanna and the inscrutable, sharp Kainene, non-identical twins, the former living with Odenigbo and the latter with Richard, a British journalist who finds a new home in Nigeria.

Adichie is skilled at defining her characters, and even the ones with smaller parts are economically but memorably etched. Her prose is limpid – never overwritten or pretentious, it is a pane of glass through which we glimpse the dilemmas and actions of people involved in a civil war that is anything but civil.

Though her sympathies clearly belong to the oppressed, the author is clear-eyed about the conflict. She shows us the pride and traditions of the tragic Igbo people, but also depicts their self-deluding optimism about the future and the many desperate measures they take towards the end of the war. There are lighter moments, too, as well as observations that reveal the pleasures and pitfalls of human relationships.

The narrative ends with an extract from a book in progress, as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart does. Both an echo and inversion of Achebe’s ending, this is a comment on who is entitled to write Africa’s history, and a symbolic call to remember, learn from and consecrate the conflict. In fulfilling these aims, this novel of love and war succeeds with élan.

Worth your while? If you're under the delusion that the novel is a dying form, this is your wake-up call.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Knocking On Woody

An edited version of a review that appeared in today's Hindustan Times


Woody Allen’s first collection of pieces in over 25 years shows that when it comes to prose, he continues to display the impish inventiveness and sense of the absurd that animated some of his earlier films such as Bananas or the under-rated Love and Death.

If one were able to step into the pages of Mere Anarchy in the manner of the nebbish professor in ‘The Kugelmass Episode’, one would find oneself in a universe populated by rapacious Hollywood producers, private eyes on the trail of precious truffles, New Age gurus, envious hacks and Manhattan nannies writing tell-all memoirs.

Here, there are satires on Russian novelists and the New Journalism; spoofs of rags-to-riches screenplays; parodies of existentialist philosophy; riffs on newspaper headlines, one of them inspired by a report on Veerappan’s kidnapping of actor Raj Kumar; and. examinations of quantum physics that pose the questions: “How does gravity work? And if it were to cease suddenly, would certain restaurants still require a jacket?”

All of which means that Allen covers much familiar ground, and also hasn’t stepped out too far from the shadow of S.J. Perelman, one of his self-confessed influences. Though some of the subjects are contemporary – custom-made prayers for sale on eBay, for example – Allen brings to them a distinctive but somewhat dated Yiddish sensibility that occasionally comes across as more quaint than droll.

Worth your while? Admittedly, none of the pieces (most of which first appeared in The New Yorker) are in the league of ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ or earlier gems such as ‘The Whore of Mensa’. Nevertheless, Mere Anarchy will definitely please fans of the man who once said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."