Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sujatha, the Icon

To himself everyone is immortal; he may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead. ~Samuel Butler

Sujatha, the prolific Tamil writer died last night.

There was a time when I had very bad, lowly opinion about Sujatha. That was mainly due to his prototype story setup, characterizations you find in his Vikatan, Kumudam short stories. That also shows how shallow my reading had been. I never saw beyond those popular magazines and did not understand the immense personality of Sujatha.

Ironically Sujatha was the first one to impress me in the serious literature. When I had enough of Balakumara and Ayn Rand, I went to Moor market in search of 'good' books. I did not know that that was not a place to be in search of such books. After hours of search I discovered two short story collections in tatters - one by Thi.Janakiraman (Akbar Sastry) and another one by Sujatha (unnamed).

Both the books blew me out. That was the 'first' short story collection of Sujatha to be published. It introduced me to a world of Sujatha that was hidden from tabloids. His notable short stories 'Ore oru maalai', 'Nagaram', 'Ranjani' were found in that collection. His style of story telling, which was unconventional, yet very easy to read impressed me greatly. (But in that collection there were pretty ordinary stories too). His eye that catches unnoticeable details, sense of humor, language influenced me enormously. As usual I went from one extreme to another.

I frantically searched for Katrathum - Petrathum series, Srirangathu sirukathaigal and read them several times. Slowly over the years I started seeing the short comings in his essays and stories. His essays had very simplified views of philosophies, technologies, ideologies et al. At first I did not realize Sujatha intentionally simplified ideas so that they reach common men. One should take Sujatha as a starting point, an introduction. It is wise to move from there to build our own understanding. Taking Sujatha's views as defining ones defeat the whole purpose. Sujatha himself would not have wanted it.

His stories are very shallow. Yet they are festooned with unusual, fresh prose. It is very difficult not to get influenced by his style. One Srirangathu Sirukathaigal story ends like this "Avarkitte intha vishayatha sollatheengo. Kathaiya ezhuthida poraar." (Don't tell him this. He will write it as a story). His characterization in simple, few words portrays a pretty neat pencil sketch. In the same story his describes a small girl: "She was very small girl. She was wearing silk shirt and skirt. When nudged by her mother she recited 'Aazhimazhai kanna' in a faint voice, gasping for breath."

Yesterday when I returned home from office, I had the great urge to read Sujatha's "Kanaiyazhiyin Kadaisi pakkangal' - a collection of essays he wrote in the little magazine Kanaiyazhi. As always I was thrilled by the variety and sharp cynicism which was missing in his later years. An hour later I got the news that Sujatha expired. He wrote in one of his essays that he did not believe in rebirth. I too don't believe that the void created by Sujatha's departure can be filled.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

R.K.Narayan - the dear Grandpa!

First of all, thanks to Rishi, who keeps reminding me it has been long time since I wrote anything down here. Well... Just this evening I had a chat with my long time friend, Srivatsan on literature and various other stuff. We agreed upon one common thing – ever since we started reading books, it is only on R.K.Narayan on whom we never lost our faith; we always hold him dear to our heart. Quite true. A person might have so many bad feelings towards his dad. Its quite natural. Its generation gap and all that. Mr.Freud might explain it to you better. But I hardly know anybody who doesn’t like his granddad. R.K.Narayan is like a grandpa to me.

On a first read, R.K.Narayan’s works seem to be so simple and ordinary. But the depth of his work is always penetrating – here I mean your heart. There are so many people who challenge his literary values. But nobody will disagree to agree that he was the one who never created any word picture “literally-metaphorically” – (you know who I mean – what the heck, it’s Rushdie!) - But who re-created the typical south Indian village in plain, simple, neat English. You just read it, feel it and be there!

Though R.K.Narayan is known for his fiction writing, he was an accomplished travel writer also. From the time I read his travel piece on Sringeri I had this irresistible urge to visit those beautiful temples and serene mountains. Another good friend of mine too got excited after reading that particular piece. We set for the trip on a bus to Sringeri from Bangalore. I carried R.K.Narayan’s “The writerly life”, collection of essays which contained that particular piece on Sringeri as well.

I started reading the book randomly in the bus journey. I bumped on a piece which talked about a place called “Kadur”. R.K.Narayan in his own mellowed way wrote about his experience with the local people there. The description of the roads and forests around Kadur by Narayan fascinated me. He also mentioned that it was on the way to Sringeri. Surprised by this, I just peeped out, and though it sounds cinematic, exactly I was on Kadur. The jungles and hills of that Malnad region start from this Kadur. No doubt, it was a beautiful place. It was slightly drizzling which freshened up the flora and fauna around. I was awestruck by this amazing coincidence of reading a piece and enjoying it ‘live’ at the same time. Needless to say, Narayan’s descriptions were as beautiful as I experienced them myself.

That trip introduced me to a new world of spiritual and aesthetical experience. I fell in love with those scenic paddy and rice fields and the very beautiful Sringeri temple. I made a point to visit this place every year. I also strarted exploring the literature around this place and got introduced to Kuvempu, U.R.Ananthamurthy, and Raja Rao who wrote stories based on hilly regions of Karnataka. This year when I went to Malnad I visited Kuvempu’s very beautiful ancestral house near Tirthahalli.

Many years from now, I see myself, settled down in a small Malnad village, enjoying those serene hills and tranquil life, drowning myself in good literature and good music, in that untouched wilderness. I should be thankful to Narayan as it all started with that wonderful Sringeri piece.

R.K.N – I love you, dear Grandpa!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Catch-22 'The crazy book'

"All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight."

If I say Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” was a good novel, it will be much more than stating-the-obvious. It is probably the most famous anti war satire ever written. The central character Yossarian is fed up of the combat missions and wants to be out of the war. But every time he reaches the number of missions one should fly to be out of the war, the higher authorities extend the limit. So, he devices out all possible ideas to stay out! The story is full of crazy people, crazy thoughts, crazy deeds and ideas. By the time I finished the book, I was so accustomed to the word ‘crazy’, everything around me seems to be so crazy. The anti-war satire holds good for any organization based movement. Here it reminds me, Catch-22 is like Orwell’s “Animal Farm” – in the quality of being universal. In Heller’s war camp, people in the authority go to any level in ditching their subordinates to go up in the management ladder! Heller is very clever like the character Orr in his book. Orr acts very innocent and crazy but we realize later that it’s a self-imposed garb to stay clear of any suspicion from his fellow soldiers from what he does. Likewise, Heller creates a very rosy, comic picture of the war camp. The reader is able to easily relate to the characters with their ‘craziness’ and funny acts.

“Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was”

The most hilarious chapter of this novel is Yossarian’s travel with Milo, the chief cook to fetch the eggs from a small town of Italy. After reaching there Yossarian comes to know that Milo is the mayor of that town. In that journey wherever they go Milo is ‘something’ there – like Assistant Governor General, Sheik, President et al. Milo’s business fundas will make any investment banker run for cover! Finally when the reader gets emotionally attached to the characters Heller kills them one by one. Yet the book ends in an optimistic note and there is a sequel to it too.

After finishing the book I watched the movie so enthusiastically for it has so many good visual moments. But I was disappointed grossly. It was the worst film adaptation of a book I have seen. The characters are so lifeless. The hilarious situations became so weak and pale on screen. But there are some good photographic moments too in the film. When everybody shows “thumbs-up” before starting the mission, Yossarian shows his middle finger! “Citizen Kane” famed Orson Wells acted as General Dreedle in the movie.

Joseph Heller was an world-war veteran. He made friends with another world-war veteran satire writer Kurt Vonnegut. They had admirations for each other. They remained good friends till Heller's death in 1994. On Heller's death, Vonnegut wrote a wonderful poem in Nytimes. I quote it here:

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller,
an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesteray
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!"

--Kurt Vonnegut

There is an interesting chat between Heller and Vonnegut arranged by Playboy. Read it here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pantheism of Baruch Spinoza

I happened to get to know about a Jewish 18th century philosopher - Baruch Spinoza, who lived and died in Amsterdam.

He fought against the beliefs of his own clan. He questioned whether there exists something called superior race. This greatly infuriated the Jews of his time.

According to him, God is not a “personality” but a substance like nature. He claimed, there is no good or bad – no emotion or event, there is not any separate substance. So, everyone, everything, every action/substance is a reflection of the supreme nature! This philosophy is today known as Pantheism. God is in everyone and everything. (Does it ring any bell that Hindu Philosophy Advaita has similarities with Pantheism?). When someone asked Einstein whether he believes in God, he replied “I believe in Spinoza’s God”. Spinoza’s rejection of God as a personality irritated fellow Jews and Christians, as he questioned their beliefs. He was declared as an atheist and was excommunicated from the society. This happened in his early 20s! This ban was never lifted till his premature death, while he was working as a lensman.

A lensman is a highly skilled artisan who grinds the glass to make lens. He started working as a lensman after this excommunication. (Indeed Dutch lenses were quite famous in that period!)

Excommunication is banishing a person from interacting with the society. No member of the society is supposed to talk (forget interacting!) to an excommunicated person. (People, who happened to watch village based Tamil films can easily relate to this – in which a white shirt – white dhoti clad rich man sitting under a huge banyan tree will pronounce the verdict of keeping the condemned – mostly the Hero, away from the village, while rest of the villagers would watch in a mournful silence!)

Unlike the radicals who questioned the religion of his times, Spinoza was very simple, of clean habits and was nice to people. He was a great influence to the western philosophers like Hegel and Goethe. All his philosophies are collectively known as Spinozism. There are two books written on him recently and you can find an excellent article on those in Salon. Happy reading!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Crime and Punishment

This book, “Crime and Punishment” was lying in my bookshelf untouched for the past three years. I still don’t know what stopped me from reading this book for such a long time. Probably, my inherent feeling that this book was a heavy one – might be one of the reasons.

Now that I have read this, I want to write about it, before the heat dissipates.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the renowned Russian literati wrote this novel in the year 1866 when he was 44 years old. By then he had enough experience to write a saga. He spent three years in the most torturous of prisons (Siberia) for anti-governmental activities. He lost his wife and his brother with whom he was very close. He was about to go to debtor’s prison for the huge money he owed. In that desperate need of money, he made an agreement with a publisher (of “Russian Herald”), that he would write a serialized novel. If he would fail to deliver initial chapters by November 1866, this publisher would obtain the copy-right of all his future works, without giving a single copeck to Dostoevsky. Making such an agreement he got an advance of three thousand rubles. He gave almost all this money to his stepson and his brother’s ailing family. He gambled the remaining very little money too, which would not have been enough for repaying his debt. Thus having no money, disgusted at himself, he went and stayed in a remote, lonely place; pleaded everyone to offer him a loan. Staying in a wretched hotel, when the situation could not be further worse, he started writing “Crime and Punishment”.

Just when there was only a month to the deadline, he was lucky enough to get a devoted and caring stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna, to whom he dictated the novel, and who would soon become his wife. Thus, in Keith Carabine’s words (who had analyzed and written a detailed introduction to the novel) “he escaped in a hair’s breadth from the ugly deal”!

Coming to the book, it is about an honest, intellectual but very poor student, who out of desperation – driven by an ideology of his own, kills an old pawnbroker woman and her sister. In his eyes, she was a wretched, useless person who sucked the money of poor people. His plan was to rob her and use the money in relieving his sister who works as a maid and help his mother who pawned her pension money to pay his university fee. After killing them how he was tormented by his own guilty feeling, fear of getting caught, and how he was driven to the point of madness by the failure of his ideology makes up the novel.

Being a “serialized” novel, written for a public magazine, each and every chapter has the element of sudden twist and suspense. In a way this is the first “psychological thriller” ever written. This book acts as a page-turner, yet contains detailed discussions on trivial stuff and psychology. But one should not go to this book with a notion of finding a half-baked twister (which will twist everything, including your time, money and still remaining reasoning skills) like Sydney Sheldon or Jeffrey Archer. This novel in detail, analyzes the mentality of the criminal before and after the crime. Moreover, Dostoevsky has the knack of enacting the scene as though it happens in front of your eyes, still he would make you explore the psychology of all the characters involved! [“The last moment had come, the last drops had to be drained! So a man will sometimes go through half an hour of mortal terror with a brigand, yet when the knife is at his throat at last, he feels no fear”] The way the chief magistrate Porfiry interrogates Raskolnikov, the murderer is worth all the praises this book received so far!

Dostoevsky is one of the beginners who explored “Existentialism” in literature. According to Existensialism there is no universal good. Every man has (or should have) his own laws of good and bad. On a very high level, you can correlate this philosophy with the way Raskolnikov questions the governmental bodies, religious beliefs. But Existensialism in "C.a.P" is very intricate and a subject matter for a doctorate thesis in Literature. The great philosopher Nietzche himself declares, “Dostoevsky is the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn”. Moreover, in Dostoevsky's times this philosophy was not known by this name. It is the French writer Albert Camus who first named it so.

There is love, parental feelings, criticism on progressive movements, theism, analysis on punishments given by law-bodies in this book. Thus Dostoevsky is truly a master who could enchant everybody from a layman to a learned intellect. Indeed all his stories were written under constant pressure from the need of money and the deadlines of magazines. (“I am convinced that not one of the writers, past or living, wrote under the conditions in which I constantly write” – Dostoevsky). So, he had no time to correct some of the short comings of his works. According to his wife, he lamented very much for this.

Indeed “Crime and Punishment” is a very good book – will definitely direct the reader towards quality literature and will shake his conscience a bit.

1) Do you know, Dostoevsky was about to be executed and saved only three minutes before the execution? When he was imprisoned for anti-governmental activities and he was condemned for capital punishment. He was taken to the execution chamber. There were six people to be executed. Dostoevsky was supposed to be the fifth. They executed the first three. When they were preparing the next three for execution, an order from Tsar to relieve these condemned was delivered.
2) In prison, he befriended a fellow prisorner, who was jailed for killing his father. Indeed after few months, he was found innocent when the original killer was caught. But the innocent son kept saying that in an indirect way he was responsible for his father’s death so his suffering was justified. Then realized Dostoevsky, the urge in the people to enjoy the suffering, which is the basis of Christianity according to him.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Slaughterhouse - 5

How can you stop reading a book that starts like this? “All this happened, more or less. The war parts anyway are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot dead in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.”

These are the opening lines of the novel “Slaughter House 5” by Kurt Vonnegut. This is the second time I am writing about Vonnegut. The first one was a translation of his introduction to his short story collection “Bagombo Snuff Box”.

The first time, I heard about him, was through the New York Times article “God bless you Mr.Vonnegut”. Well written by the author this article kindled my interest towards Vonnegut. From that article I could “feel” that Vonnegut has similarities with some of the writers I enjoy a lot. As a strange coincidence my favorite R.K.Narayan’s patron Graham Greene acclaimed Vonnegut as “one of the best living American writers”.

Vonnegut was known as a science fiction writer when he started writing. But his stories intertwine the very quality of reality-based novels with that of Sci-fi. His later stories deviated from his sci-fi genre and became literary reflections of real life. Though it seems to be easy to categorize Vonnegut in one genre of writing, one will be misled by his “deceptively simple” stories which deal with various facets of literature.

Slaughter house 5”’s initial chapters seem to be very much auto-biographical. A writer wants to write a novel based on his experiences in the WW-II. He promises his anguished friend’s wife that the book would definitely not be supportive to the system of wars, even if not against it. The story changes its course with the introduction of Billy, the central character, who by mere chance, happened to participate in the war.

Billy, a neurotic clown, happened to acquire time traveling skills with the help of some alien creatures. According to those aliens, there is nothing called time. One can live, re-live whatever moments passed-by, whatever moments about-to-come. There is nothing called death. The story extrapolates this principle with the screenplay. The scenes constantly juggle between years, events, world war, mental asylum and time travel. This technique was later popularized as post modernism in literature. Though Vonnegut was one of those fore-runners who practiced and inspired others in “post modernism” he was never given due credit for this. Though the screen play is so complex, one never feels so. Vonnegut’s skillful black humor glues the reader to the book.

To heck with all those “isms”, one can read without bothering much of any of these and still can enjoy Vonnegut’s work. To read and understand Vonnegut one requires no great intellect. His stories are so simple and straight forward, they feel like a breezy walk after a Kafka or a Dostoevsky.

The book extensively deals with the treatment of Prisoners of War in WW-II by Germans and the behavior of captured soldiers. American soldiers behaved very shabbily in the war – they were not given proper war materials (almost near the end of the war), but the English soldiers acted in a very sophisticated manner. Vonnegut analyzes the reasons for this attitude difference in detail.

“Roland Weary and the scouts were safe in a ditch, and Weary growled at Billy, “Get out of the road, you dumb motherf*cker”. The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never f*cked anybody – and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.”

There are some pit falls too in this book. How Billy got this time traveling skill is not conveyed clearly. Since he is portrayed as a neurotic from the beginning, at some places the reader would be wondering whether the time travels are simple hallucinations. Similarly the Trafalgamore (the alien planet) creatures do time warping in which case Billy can’t be present in the same moment in two different places as mentioned in few places of this book. Anyhow these are some logical mistakes which can be caught only by a nit-picker. Over all, the book is a good one. Indeed this book was adapted to film medium and won an academy award for best sci-fi film of the year 1972.

An addendum:

Being a surviving POW himself, Vonnegut’s some of the short stories give a very good glimpse of the post war status of WW soldiers. In one story “Memento” a survived soldier tries to sell a watch he acquired in Germany, which contains some inscriptions unknown to him. But the pawnbroker keeps persuading the soldier for a lower price, while he tries to decipher what was written in German in the watch. Raged by the broker’s behavior and sentimentalized by the world war memories, the soldier changes his mind about selling the watch and takes it away with him. Few moments after he left, the errand boy brings the translation from a German professor.

It reads:
“To General Henz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the Third German Reich. ADOLF HITLER.”

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Life is really beautiful

It was a 2005 summer noon in Chennai. Shyam, with all his enthusiasms asked me to see the film he bought. It was a very user friendly movie too, with a fast paced screenplay and commercial stuffs. Still within 30 minutes from the movie started, I dozed off. (I don’t know whether I snored too that day).

That was the interest and enthusiasm I had in films that time. Moreover the previous night I travelled in the bus from Bangalore, which accounted for the disturbed sleep. And the whole world (yeah, it’s a “little” exaggeration. Anyways I am known for it!) knows Shyam’s mom is a good cook. As a person, who is deprived of good food in Bangalore I hogged on my terms and it too accounted for my “doze”. Still it is not an excuse for not getting anything out of the film. When I woke up in the evening Shyam was ready to hurl anything at me for killing his enthusiasm so badly.

But when I was leaving from Chennai, Shyam still having faith in my aesthetical senses gave me the DVD of another film (not the one that I dozed off!) and insisted me to watch. I had no big interest in that. Had somebody given me a book to read, I would have definitely flipped some pages at least. The reason for my numbness towards films should be my egoistic approach towards the medium. I never could imagine a film would give me a high like a good novella! Shyam was really infuriated this time. Not withstanding his infuriation, I tried to check what a big fuss about that movie.

But the film… it was marvellous. I was startled. I was wondering how could a person think and direct such a movie in such a topic. It was “Life is Beautiful”. Roberto Benigni directed and did the lead role. The movie was based on the concentration camp! The lead character is a Jew, who was worked up to death in the concentration camp. In spite of all his troubles, how he saves his son is the story. Believe me, there was not a single drop of blood. The film made me laugh right from the start till the climax. But when it finished, it left a lump in my throat. Then I tried another film too, “Out of Africa”. It too was good.

These two films made me to go-and-search for “good” films. Then I bought movies in a row. New wife; new passion! I bought all the known films, mainly Oscar winners. (That includes the famous doze-off film too). But I kept my eyes open for some non English films too! (Benigni effect?!). So I had ‘Bicycle thieves’ and ‘Motorcycle stories’ in my collection.

So I had something to brag to others about my film interests when I came to Ireland. One such person was a friend of mine, Sayan from Kolkatta. He mentioned some films which I never heard of. But of course, I had the knowledge “Bicycle thieves”, “Life is beautiful” and the oft quoted “Amadeus”. It helped me to get a hang of Sayan’s comments about films and saved me from posing like a complete imbecile!

In Ireland we normally do shopping (that means buying clothes, nothing else!) in a big shopping complex. Once I happened to go there with Sayan. When I was about to enter the “Textile mall” one again in my life time, Sayan took a different route and entered a small DVD shop, that can go completely unnoticed.

I too followed him. I think that was one of the very few good things I did in my life. The shop had one hell of a good collection of foreign films. Taking the cue from Sayan, I bought some DVDs there. One of them was Truffat’s “Jules Et Jim”. French film of course!

The directors, who do gimmicks these days with “freezing” shots these days, should watch this film. What a powerful characterization! What a great photography! That too way back in 1940s! My interest in films increased many folds. I borrowed a book written by Satyajit Ray “Our films; their films” from Sayan.

It opened a new door to the field of films. (Incidentally Sayan gifted me the book, with a note – “welcome to a new world”!). Orson Welles, Kapra, Antonioni, Renoir, and John Ford became known names to me. From the pages, they came alive first in the form of Ray’s words, later in the form of DVD. Anybody who brags about the sheer commercial impacts of films on the society should be made to watch “Citizen Kane” (1945) by Welles and Eisentein’s “Battleship of Potemkin” (1926).

I was amazed by the lighting technique used in the dark room scene of “Citizen Kane” which was achieved in 1945. Believe me, Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he directed it and that was his first film. It will be very hard, real hard to believe the riot scene of “B.O.P” was shot completely outdoors in 1926. See the film to understand it better!

Anyways enough is written about the state of Indian films and the foreign films, especially by stalwarts like Ray. One Sethupathi, a film enthusiast for the past one year can hardly contribute anything constructive to the topic!

Now I will be back to India again. With lot of DVDs. Some films are slow as hell. At some places even the director would have slept off. (Godard is known for his static photography!). I am sure I will watch one of these movies, with Shyam in his house, with his mom’s lovely food and deprived sleep. But I am sure, this time I will not sleep off :-)

Are you still interested to know the film I dozed off?
“Catch me if you can”. Yes. I caught the nap :-)

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