Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

This tattered book once lay on my parent's bookshelf, respectably clothed and almost new. The year was 1995. I was in Class Eight. The bookworm of the family. Who will try to read anything. Anything.

All the erotic fiction in the house mysteriously vanished when my mother caught me with a Mills and Boon in Class Six. Midnight's Children was obviously fair game for my marauding reading eye.

I struggled through two chapters. Nothing made any sense. I struggled through two more. My grandmother had to get her eye check up and I carried the book with me. I wanted to appear important and intelligent in the waiting room. I struggled through one more paragraph in the waiting room. "You are reading such big books!" said the nurse in the waiting room, with approval. The purpose of the book had been served. It had impressed someone. I put it away.

I picked it up again when I was doing my bachelors' in English literature. I couldn't put it down. My understanding of Indian history is haunted by this book. My understanding of self and wanderlust and humanity is shaped by a passage from this book - I copied it down carefully in my little book of quotes. "We name distant stars like they are our pets....and this is the species that kids itself that it likes to stay home!" or something to that effect, Rushdie says.

Rushdie was my first encounter with magical realism. Even the later encounter with Garcia Marquez did not dull the exquisite wonder of Midnight's Children.

In another city now, I still carry the book with me. I've re-read it only once since. My parents don't miss it. It has left an indelible impression on me. Tattered, falling apart, I lug it around with me - to the places I studied in, to the city I work in. If I had to give it away, I would give it to my favourite second-hand bookseller on Mount Road in Chennai. Maybe it will impress someone else, somewhere in this city I call home. "Imagine," they will say, "a book once cost only Rs. 30." I hope they will be impressed by its magical content too.

An entry for the 'My oldest book and its memories' contest

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1920

This Pulitzer Prize winner is set in New York, circa 1870. It tells of the manners and customs of elite New York that holds fast to its notions of nobility and lineage. The narrative flows with a languid ease. The tale of the meeting and separation of two freethinkers - freethinkers bound by habit and by kindness to almost-conventional lives - blossoms slowly and deliberately in the readers imagination. Never an unnecessary break in the action, never a hurried paragraph. Like other American storytellers, Wharton feels strangely 'light', not a strain on the reading eye that a British author of the time is likely to have been. The vocabulary is more familiar, the manner of telling more straightforward, perhaps? Whatever the reason, this delectable story is told simply with little pretentious sentiment and just a little romance. The carefully-guarded conversation between the affianced couple, when it becomes gradually clear that there is another woman in the man's heart, is superbly constructed - as a subtle, skillful fencing that leaves both protagonists room to manouevre and hold onto the masks that decency demands and, yet, draw blood.
Convention and form shatter in an inexplicable last chapter. The sudden jump in time and the explosion of change demand it. The son's generation has broken away entirely from the conventions that bound the father and the world seems more open, more tolerant. The taut and delicate ending jars just a little with all that has gone before - the narrative moves far swifter in denouement, than in the unfolding of the tale.
Good news: It's out of copyright and you can read it online here.
P.S. Reading some of the plot synopses of this novel online, I am beginning to wonder if reviewers still cling to the moralities and vocabularies of the early 1900s. The woman protagonist is referred to as a 'woman plagued with the whiff of scandal'. 'Whiff of scandal'? Welcome to the future already.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lost Girls by Alan Moore

Lost Girls is a graphic novel. And that means really, truly graphic. This is not a book to leave lying around for the unwary to trip over. For one thing, it is a solid brick of a book, heavy and red. For another, it is a graphic account of how three women discuss and practice their sexuality.
If you're a graphic novel fan, then you'll be thrilled anew with Alan Moore's trademark breathtaking technique: letting the text of one narrative thread echo and overflow over the visuals of another to create an electrifying dialectic between unrelated realities(remember how he uses this technique to awesome effect in Watchmen?). There is a stunning section where the Duke is assassinated in the first of a chain of events that begin the World Wars while the three women are sequestered in a sort of tropical paradise - their flippant conversation about the outside world echoes terribly against the images of assassination, the terrible shadows cast by that event bring dusk sooner than usual to the island.

And the book filled me to overflowing, with questions. Such as:

How did Alan Moore describe female sexuality with such confident ease? How could he describe the loss of innocence without nostalgia or terror, yet mindful of the violence that is attendant on the act? How did he manage to make Sade look like he doesn't know what he's talking about? Why is it liberating to break that final taboo - the refusal to acknowledge the sexuality of adolescents and children coming into awareness of the things adults do?
How did this book leave me feeling, like Dorothy, Wendy and Alice after much romping and loving and sharing of secrets, that the possibilities the world leaves open to you are endless? How could the fairytales of our childhood be reworked to tell the stories of our sexual awakening? Have the novels and fairytales we grew up with become the mythology of our times? Is it terrible, fascinating or liberating to see this imagery of the epitomes of innocence we grew up with, now filled with sexual content?
Why does that terrible final image of an emasculating and bloody war leave seeds of hope inside me? Why is it always energising to find new ways to tell the old stories? Why does this book fill me up with questions?

Some certainties remain though. If you're male, it is most likely that all you'll see in Lost Girls is porn. If you're female, familiar with the tales this book reworks and comfortable with your sexuality, then this book is a new and terrifying Wonderland, Neverland and the land of Oz to navigate. It leaves you feeling older, younger and a little wonderstruck, remembering the girl who was lost and the woman who came into being with that first sexual encounter.

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