Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chemical Brothers

This is from the latest issue of Tehelka.

SOLO Rana Dasgupta

In Jorge Luis Borges’s story, ‘Funes the Memorius’, a 19-year old finds himself in possession of a perfect memory, enabling him to remember every aspect of his life. He is, however, “almost incapable of general, platonic ideas”, recalling only details. Borges’s point is that some level of abstraction is a vital component of thought, of what makes us human. In Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, we find Funes’ antithesis: a character who, with what he recalls, fashions an alternative universe more vivid than reality.

This is Ulrich, a man nearing the end of “his life’s tenth decade”, now sightless (another echo of Borges) and ruminating over his past. From a squalid flat in Sofia, Bulgaria – a city in which he’s spent most of his life – he recollects his early fascination with the violin, his years in Berlin studying chemistry, a short-lived marriage to his charismatic friend Boris’s sister, working as a book-keeper, a fractious relationship with his mother and his supervision of a barium chloride plant.

These personal events are inevitably influenced by Bulgarian history: its Asiatic past, the tussle of fascist and communist parties between world wars, Soviet fiefdom and after. This life of another alienated man without qualities takes up half of the book and just as you begin to wonder what the point is, you reach the second half, comprising Ulrich’s daydreams “of strong young people filled with the courage he never had” -- inspired by a tale of parrots being the sole repository of the language of a vanished world.

At this point, Dasgupta turns a kaleidoscope to re-arrange the elements of Ulrich’s life into new patterns, depicting the other side of the chemical equation. Ulrich’s creations bestride New York City, a place he has never visited. Boris, an abandoned Bulgarian violinist, captivates the world with his art; Khatuna, a strong-willed woman from Tblisi rises via a series of relationships with powerful men; and Iraki, her brother, finds his poetic soul at odds with the environment into which he is thrust.

No object or locale is too humdrum to be transformed by Ulrich’s Bulgarian-stamped glasses, from a makeshift urinal to a Woolworth Building postcard to pig-farming to violin shops to the marbles that clink in the pocket of a village fool. As Ulrich says about music and chemistry, “an infinite range of expression can be generated from a finite number of elements”.

In scope and ambition, then, Solo is breathtakingly audacious. That tremendous care has been taken over craft is evident even from a cursory glance at the chapter headings of the sections, or “movements” as they are called. The first comprises chemical elements – “Magnesium”, “Chlorine”, “Carbon” – which morph, in the second, into creatures of the deep: “Narwhal”, “Beluga”, “Dugong”.

Some transformations are pleasingly organic, such as in the two characters of Boris. Others are more contrived, such as TV and newspaper reports about a sportsman-turned-racketeer who becomes, in the daydream, Khatuna’s powerful protector. And some are merely playful, as in the character of music impresario Plastic Munari, an amalgam of Ulrich’s fascination with plastic and knowledge of uranium.

There’s a cool, ironic gloss to Dasgupta’s prose, at odds with the subject matter: “Life happens in a certain place for a certain time. But there is a great surplus left over, and where will we stow it but in our dreams?” Solo can, of course, also be read as a parable for the nature of creation itself: with what materials do we fashion art, and how does it make its way in the world?

At a time when so many novels in English, especially those from India, cleave to late-stage Romanticism, it’s satisfying to come across one in the camp of high Modernism. However, though Dasgupta’s disaffected surrealism enables one to stand back and admire the artisanship of his mirrored ball of angled reflections, the same quality makes it difficult to lose oneself in his self-conscious art.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Replaying The Great Game

This is from the January-February issue of Biblio.


In a recent analysis for The New York Times, Michael Gordon, the paper’s chief military correspondent, noted that “Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.”

With his third novel, The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam takes it upon himself to demonstrate the validity of that statement in recent history through a set of characters from different backgrounds, all indelibly changed by the country that has been called, not without justification, the Graveyard of Empires.

There’s the 70-year-old Marcus Caldwell, doctor and perfume creator, an Englishman who’s spent most of his life in Afghanistan, suffering the loss of a wife, a daughter and a hand, yet remaining as stoic as his Roman namesake. There’s Lara, who arrives in the country to search for her missing brother, once a part of the Soviet Army at the time of their ill-fated excursion. There’s David, an American gems dealer and CIA operative, who’s mourning the loss of Zameen, Marcus’ daughter. And, among others, there’s Casa – short for Casabianca – the brainwashed and bitter Afghan jihadi, whose actions provide the spark that sets off a further conflagration in everyone’s lives.

All of these people, linked together in ways known and unknown, assemble for different reasons at Marcus’ large house in a relatively isolated part of the country near Jalalabad and in the shadow of the Tora Bora mountains. This dwelling, with its underground perfume factory, nearby lake and freight of resonant memories, becomes the theatre against which their tragedies are played out, and the narrative moves back and forth in time to create an effect of delayed, unhurried denouements that link the effects of the British conquest, the Soviet invasion, the depredations of the Taliban and the attacks by the US-led forces. As Aslam puts it at one point, “More and more these days, Lara’s interest is caught by personalities and events on the edges of wars, by lives that have yet to arrive at one of history’s conflicts, or those that have moved away from the conflagration – the details of lives being lived with a major battle occurring just over the horizon, or on the mountain above them.”

Less compelling, however, is the introduction of two other characters puzzlingly and relatively late in the book: Dunia, a spirited young schoolteacher on the run from fundamentalists for her allegedly freethinking ways, and James Palantine, part of an American special forces team in Afghanistan and the son of David’s sometime associate. These, along with a corrupt cleric and the actions of skirmishing regional warlords, seem to primarily serve the purpose of moving the action along and introducing more facile points of view at play in the beleaguered land. And Aslam belabours the point, “It is possible here to lift a piece of bread from a plate and, following it back to its origins, collect a dozen stories concerning war – how it affected the hand that pulled it out of the oven, the hand that kneaded the dough, how war impinged upon the field where the wheat was grown.”

There are many vivid images to be found in the pages of The Wasted Vigil, among them the spectacle of a cache of water bottles submerged in a lake: water concealed within water; the unearthing of paintings on walls smeared with mud to prevent them from being destroyed; and, most strikingly, a huge Gandharan statue of the Buddha half-submerged in a basement. As a counterpoint, there are many brutal episodes, with mutilations, torture, rape and stoning to death being an inextricable part of the narrative. All of which go a long way in underlining Aslam’s aim of portraying the country’s current state: “Where Richard the Lionheart displayed brute strength by breaking an iron bar with his sword, Saladin’s delicately sharp scimitar countered it by slicing a silk handkerchief in two. What had been lost is the desire to believe in and take pride in Saladin’s gentleness.”

Throughout, Aslam essays a lofty, semi-mythic tone in his statements about the country, contrasting a glorious past with a parlous present. For example, “…this land that Alexander the Great had passed through on his unicorn, an area of fabled orchards and thick mulberry forests, of pomegranates that appear in the border decorations of Persian manuscripts written one thousand years ago.” Then again, “This country has always been a hub of things moving from one point of the compass to another, religion and myth, works of art, caravans of bundled Chinese silk flowing past camels loaded with glass from ancient Rome or pearls from the Gulf.” And there’s yet more: “The lapis lazuli of their land was always desired by the world, brushed by Cleopatra on to her eyelids, employed by Michelangelo to paint the blues on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…”

The prose frequently tips over from the simply poetic to the unnecessarily lush. Some of the metaphors are arresting, being based on a specific reality: an explosion causes “the blades of a ceiling fan to curl up like a tulip”. At other moments, however, Aslam can be effete: “The beauty of the rose is considered a medicine. Healing through sight, through the act of looking with all veils swept aside”. Such lushness is accentuated by the often mannered dialogue: “The forgiveness of the weak is the air you strong ones breathe”. Not exactly guaranteed to leave the reader breathless.

The character of Casa, moreover, is more of a cipher than anything else, with his brainwashed and callous attitude predominating: “At the very core of him was the belief that human beings had little to offer but cruelty and danger”. It must be said that Aslam does show us moments when the putative terrorist reflects on his mindset with a degree of hesitation, but these are too few and unconvincing. (Those who have made similar attempts earlier have come up with equally middling results, such as John Updike with Terrorist and Martin Amis, with the short story, ‘The Last Days of Mohammed Atta’.)

Aslam’s heart is on his sleeve throughout these pages and, by means of some fervent late-stage Romanticism, he shows us a clear demarcation between the love stories of poetic, sensitive wanderers on the one hand, and the aims of brutal men who would be kings on the other. Those that succumb are “wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,” as Kipling put it more than a century ago.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Scalpel, Please

This is from today's Hindustan Times.

CUTTING FOR STONE Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese is, of course, known for the sensitive, restrained My Own Country, about his experiences as a doctor fighting AIDS in the American south during the Eighties, as well as The Tennis Partner, a moving memoir of a close, complex friendship. His first novel, Cutting for Stone, is, however, sprawling, messy and a bit of a “loose baggy monster” as Henry James would have it. (People who like this sort of thing will call it “epic in scope”.)

This is the story of twins Marion and Shiva, conjoined at the head at the time of birth in an Addis Ababa hospital in 1954 to Sister Mary Joseph Praise, from south India, and Thomas Stone, a British doctor. Circumstances lead to the twins being brought up by two other medical practitioners, Hema and Abhi Ghosh, themselves immigrants from Chennai. The tale is narrated by Marion, now that he is “forty six and four” years old: “I am forced to render some order to the events of my life, to say it began here, and then because of this, that happened, and this is how the end connects to the beginning, and so here I am”. His immediate urge, though, is to heal the wound between himself and his twin brother.

The bulk of the book is a love letter to an Ethiopian upbringing. There’s a torrent of information almost from the start, minutiae of everyday life as experienced by Marion and his circle. The density of detail overwhelms, and sometimes descends into list-making. An Arab souk, for example, contains “matchboxes, bottled sodas, Bic pens, pencil sharpeners, Vick’s, Nivea Crème, notebooks, erasers, ink, candles, batteries, Coca Cola, Fanta, Pepsi, sugar, tea, rice, bread, cooking oil and much more”.

Some heartbreaks and misunderstandings later, Marion flees to the United States to avoid being picked up as an Eritrean sympathiser, becoming a surgical intern at a Bronx hospital and rising through the ranks. This section is in a different key, often reading as a series of notes between surgeons swapping tales. Marion’s past catches up with him and he again encounters the central figures in his life, leading to a long drawn-out denouement during which affairs of the heart are finally resolved.

From these pages, you’d know that the author is immersed in medicine, even if you were unaware of his day job. Surgical procedures and medical conditions are lingered on, sometimes discomfortingly so, with sentences such as: “…the cabalistic harmony of heart peeking out behind lung, of liver and spleen consulting each other under the dome of the diaphragm”. You may exhale now.

There are inexplicable touches of magic realism – Marion can recall being joined to Shiva in the womb, and both later develop extraordinary olfactory powers – but these are tentative, not organically connected to the narrative. (Perhaps it’s just a Rushdie hangover, as is the naming of one of the twins “Shiva”.)

Some scenes have a vivid immediacy, such as Marion’s childhood game of blind man’s buff with Genet, daughter of a domestic help who will later play a tragic role in his life; or Hema finding herself on a plane about to go down. In addition, the character of Dr Ghosh is engaging and well-etched. Overall, though, the novel is crammed full of people, back-stories, explanations, historical tidbits, details and incidents, creating a centrifugal force that characters struggle to get away from.

Early on in Cutting for Stone – the title is taken from a declaration in the Hippocratic Oath – there’s a scene of Dr Thomas Stone amputating his infected finger; after this, his hand becomes even more adroit during surgery. With more cuts, the novel would have been more adept, too.

Lacking Enchantment

This is from today's DNA.

Given that he wrote over 20 novels, it’s striking that most of the well-deserved encomiums that marked John Updike’s recent demise mentioned only a few: the Rabbit novels, Couples, and occasionally, The Centaur. Much was made of his glorious prose style and his prodigious, generous and well-informed pieces of criticism. The sad fact is that the quality of his novels showed a clear tapering off from those early, resonant volumes. This was evident even in 2006’s Terrorist, a brave but middling attempt to understand the fanatical side of Islam. And now, there’s his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick.

As is clear from the title, this re-introduces us to the trio of Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, first encountered in 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick. While that novel of fickleness and fornication was based in the late Sixties, this one is set in the near-present. While that decade was “decaying into the Seventies and [they were] full of juice and stuck in the middle class”; now, “people are as unhappy about Bush as they were about Johnson and Nixon. It’s another quagmire”.

The coven of witches, now in their late sixties and early seventies, has separated: Alexandra is in New Mexico, Sukie in Connecticut and Jane in Massachusetts. Each one has been recently bereaved -- their decent, competent but rather dull husbands have “passed”. After some travels together, they decide to spend a summer in their old haunt of Eastwick, where they find that inevitably, much has changed – from the shops to the diners to the cuisine – but old lovers and enemies remain, with the capacity to arouse, annoy and occasionally do harm.

It has to be said that the novel only gains momentum in the second half, with the first being given over to the travels of the three. We’re treated to many pages of their reactions to the tourist attractions of the Canadian Rockies, Egypt and China while tourist guides ramble on about the allure of the pyramids or the Great Wall. Things improve somewhat once the the witches reach Rhode Island – “a trinity coming together to form a cone of power” – but the overall temperature of the narrative remains tepid, notwithstanding the novelist’s valiant attempt to navigate the contours of the female mind. What little witchcraft is practiced degenerates into an essay on particle physics, with the ending, too, a bit more convenient than necessary.

Throughout, however, the prose is burnished and descriptive, as always. Consider this sentence on the perils of living in New Mexico: “The dryness of her aging skin, the thinness of the desert vegetation upon the depth of rocks and minerals, the monotony of the sunny days, the mountain winds hollowing her out, Nature’s grand desolation unsoftened: it all added up to a fearful weight to push through the day”. This being Updike, sex and scenes of it also puts in an appearance, never mind the age of the practitioners. And descriptions of semen as “the ambrosial, eggy-tasting food of a savage goddess” don’t help.

The changed world of today is contrasted with yesteryear more than once, with some social commentary and the occasional crusty generalisation. But in this, his last novel, Updike’s art proves to be a lot less than spellbinding.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rooms Of Wonder

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


Writing about Henry Green’s Loving and Living, those novels of the goings-on between workers, domestics and employers in class-ridden Britain, John Updike commented upon the writer’s “infinite subtlety and untiring tenderness”, noting that “these maidservants and workmen are seen with more than egalitarian generosity; they loom as figures of a luminous, simplifying grandeur”. This is what comes to mind while reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. These eight loosely-linked tales – most of which appeared earlier in The New Yorker, Granta and Zoetrope – are largely set in a semi-urban, feudal Pakistan away from the noise and dazzle of the big cities, and most of them deal with the hopes and disappointments of maidservants, valets and itinerant workmen.

The link between the stories is that they revolve around people drawn like iron filings to the magnetic influence of the patriarchal K.K. Harouni, head of a wealthy landowning family, who owns a sprawling Lahore house as well as various estates and farms. The book is populated by, among others, an electrician who’s not above tampering with meters, tenaciously holding on to his prized possessions; a maidservant who enters into a sexual relationship with a valet to safeguard her future; an estate manager whose rise and fall demonstrates the fickle nature of power; and an impoverished relative who begins an affair with Harouni himself, only to realize the transience of security.

The women advance through sexual alliances and backroom influence; the men, through pandering and obsequiousness. People barter what they have – bodies, skills, contacts – for personal gain: an increase in power and affluence, a chance to lead better lives. That in the process they have to cut corners, wheedle, deceive or court favour is besides the point, as the success of such transactions is often quite literally a matter of life and death.

Thus, Mueenuddin clear-sightedly shows us the effects of late-stage feudalism on individuals under the harrow, much as Turgenev did with his A Sportstman’s Sketches over two centuries ago. There are no moral judgments: his is an understanding and even sympathetic look at the series of negotiations through which his characters attempt to better their lives

It could be pointed out that the some of the female characters – Husna, from the title story and the pseudonymous Saleema, for example -- are almost exactly the same in actions and ambitions, and there would be more than a grain of truth to this complaint. The writer takes care, though, to make sure that the plots arise organically from the constant actions of the main characters. Not for them the leisurely reflections and hesitating doubts of those with means, or the resigned fatalism supposedly indulged in by peasants. These are active participants in the making and unmaking of their own lives. In the process, the distinctions that emerge are not as much of class but of status and power.

Though Mueeuniddin’s métier would appear to lie in writing about the lives of the subaltern, equally resonant is the haunting ‘Lily’, about a jaded, party-going woman from Islamabad who attempts a form of reinvention through her marriage with an engaging, determined landowner from the Punjab -- only to discover that the attitudes of the past aren’t that easily abandoned. No less evocative is ‘Our Lady of Paris’, in which an American student meets her Pakistani suitor’s cultured and wealthy parents to find that their attitudes are more dissimilar than imagined.

The prose charts the ups and downs of these lives in a classically realistic mode, with an effortless simplicity that belies the care with which it must have been crafted. An example of this is that even minor characters, from drivers to cooks and others in the domestic retinue, are adumbrated with care. The element of puckishness in some places – such as the first-person tone of ‘About a Burning Girl’ – brings to mind Narayan and early Naipaul; equally, the inevitability with which others such as ‘Saleema’ and ‘A Spoiled Man’ unfold, evoke the wistfulness and sensitivity of William Trevor.

If one of the aims of fiction is to create empathy with those outside one’s ken, then Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short stories score a bull’s eye. Each room in this world is worth lingering in.