A Review of “The Color Purple”

You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

This is what the man fourteen-year-old Celie calls Pa tells her after he rapes her; and this is what she does. The epistolary novel, The Color Purple, is a compilation of this correspondence.

Celie is an illiterate black girl, deep in the American South. She keeps on writing letters to God, narrating her distressing tale in short, staccato and flat sentences which however feel loaded with misery: such acute misery that the reader is likely to throw the book away during the first few pages. She is raped by her father, and two children born out of that relationship are taken away and presumably killed, by the father himself. Her sick mother dies heartbroken, and Celie is then literally sold off in marriage to Mr _____ (unnamed throughout the novel, except for his first name Albert, revealed later on), who is lusting after her sister Nettie, a more beautiful and educated girl. The idea of ‘Pa’ to force Mr _____ to marry Celie is to have Nettie for himself. However, Nettie runs away to Celie; then to Africa with a missionary couple to escape the attentions of Celie’s husband.

Into this world of dissolute, chauvinistic men and silently suffering women enters two spirited ladies: Celie’s stepson Harpo’s wife Sofia and the singer Shug Avery, Mr _____’s old flame. Sofia is a spirited young woman, who does not take white supremacy and male chauvinism for granted. She fights back, giving as good as she gets: hitting back at Harpo when he tries to discipline her, and ultimately landing up in jail for attacking the mayor for his condescending remarks. Shug Avery is a rare breed in those days: a liberated woman. A singer by profession, she was unable to marry Mr _____ because his father would not hear of it: but that does not prevent her from coming and staying with her old lover. Initially she is antagonistic towards Celie, but a curious friendship (ultimately lesbian) develops between the two as she becomes aware of Celie’s sad plight.

It is on this relationship that the story hangs – because Celie slowly starts developing a sort of self-respect, ultimately allowing her to stand up to her husband. In the meantime, Nettie has travelled to Africa with the missionaries Corrine and Samuel, who also happen to be the adoptive parents of Olivia and Adam, the children of Celie. She keeps on writing to Celie, but the letters are hidden by her husband because Nettie wouldn’t submit to his wishes, long back: they are unearthed by Shug. From then onwards, the novel becomes a correspondence between Nettie and Celie. Celie, Shug, Sofia and Harpo’s new wife “Squeak” (Mary Agnes) find an unlikely bonding among themselves, which encourages them to leave their no-good husbands and strike off on their own. Squeak discovers a singing career and Celie starts to sew pants (she starts wearing pants also, symbolically). Sofia, serving the mayor’s wife in lieu of her jail sentence, strikes up a curious love-hate relationship with her daughter; she also takes pleasure looking after Henrietta, Harpo’s sick daughter by Squeak.

Through Nettie’s letters, Celie comes to know that the man who raped her is not her father but her stepfather. He dies eventually, leaving her her mother’s house; Celie has suddenly become well-off.

Meanwhile, Nettie along with Samuel and Corinne is busy doing missionary work with the Olinka, an African tribe whose very existence is threatened by British tea growers. The missionaries try to save the Olinka from extinction, but they are unsuccessful in doing so. During the long years spent in Africa, Corinne dies and Nettie marries Samuel. Adam falls in love with a girl from the Olinka tribe, Tashi, and marries her.

Meanwhile, the Second World War begins. Celie is shattered by a telegram saying that the ship carrying Nettie and her family have been sunk by the Germans. However, she still keeps on getting letters from her. In the end, they suddenly turn up – it seems that they did not drown after all! The novel ends on a surprisingly maudlin note, which would have been cliché had it not been so fitting.

***

What makes this novel so effective?

The story, very inexpertly summarised by me above, is rambling and lacking in cohesion. It narrates extremely distressing events, and very rarely does it give us a feeling of warmth. There are very few literary passages. Still, the effect is devastating.

Ruminating on it, I came to the following conclusion – it is the effectiveness of the narrative voice and the way the POV has been developed. We talk about unreliable narrators. In an epistolary novel, the narrator has to be unreliable to a certain extent. However, Celie’s uneducated and uncultured voice is so honest, that we start identifying with her from the first sentence:

Dear God,

I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.

Celie literally does not know what is happening to her. Her letters have the raw strength of a child’s honesty, narrating distressing incidents which should never happen to a teen. She takes all the punishment the world and a man give to her, and develops a fatalism which is a kind of strength.

As the novel progresses, the narrative voice slowly matures. It is all credit to Alice Walker how she has managed this gradual shift in voice: as a reader, you find the woman growing old in front of your eyes. Sofia gives her a glimpse of what a woman of spirit can be like – but it is Shug who opens her out. Their lesbian relationship is physical as well as spiritual.

Shug is a masterly creation. It is she who unlocks womanly feelings in Celie, gets her Nettie’s letters and gives her the courage to stand up to her husband. In fact, Shug is Celie’s alter ego, the woman she wants to be: her love affair is more an attempt to be one with the other than carnal satisfaction.

There is an extremely significant chapter where Celie “loses” her religion; she starts writing to Nettie instead of God. She cusses God to Shug, only to be surprised to learn that she is a believer! Only, Shug’s God is different from Celie’s.

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for…

…I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.

This is the God of the Upanishads: “Aham Brahma Asmi” (I am the Brahman) and “Tat Tvam Asi” (Thou Art That). The ultimate knowledge, the still point at the centre where the Bodhi tree stands. Once one has reached there, all is bliss. It is significant that it is from this point that Celie’s fortunes start changing: in fact, the world is the same; it is her relationship to it which has drastically changed.

Nettie’s adventures in Africa provide a nice counterpoint to this narrative. It is a sort of return to the roots for a black woman from America, for whom Africa is the equivalent of a fairy tale kingdom. Nettie finds the roots fast disappearing: but Adam’s marriage to Tashi brings it full circle. The name “Adam” here cannot be a coincidence.

Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, the happy family reunion at the end is contrived but fitting, it is needed to round out Celie’s personal journey. Her last letter is addressed to

Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.

Yes. Oh yes!

The Enduring Charm of the Outlaw

While watching the Malayalam movie “Drishyam”, which is essentially about a man outwitting the police, I was suddenly struck by a thought: why are we entranced by outlaws? Most of us would prefer a country where there is a rule of law. We would not willingly support a thief or cheat in real life, and would like to see them jailed. Yet the Outlaw remains an abiding romantic figure in myth, legends and literature – and I am speaking not only about India.

The first outlaw I remember reading about is Robin Hood. I initially thought that he was a historical figure, and only later on came to know that evidence for his existence was very tenuous. The story of Robin is scattered over many legends, literary allusions and ballads; however, many of the details are standard knowledge.

Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. He roams the Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, dressed in garments of Lincoln green along with his band of outlaws called “The Merry Men”: Little John (a giant of a man!) and Friar Tuck are two of the well-known members. He is a skilled archer and valourous fighter, and he fights against the evil Sherriff of Nottingham. His love interest is the Maid Marian. Apparently, Robin met his end when he was treacherously bled to death by nuns (bleeding was a common form of medical treatment in those days), and he is buried where his last arrow, shot moments before his death, fell.

Robin Hood is also portrayed as a loyal subject of King Richard the Lionheart, spoiling the schemes of his evil brother John to take over the kingdom. The Sherriff of Nottingham is sometimes portrayed as a henchman of John.

Not many people know that Robin Hood has an almost exact replica in far away from his native Nottinghamshire, in the backwoods of Kerala, other than Malayalis (who would know I am speaking of Kayamkulam Kochunni immediately). He is most probably based on a historical personage (19th Century), even though most of the stories about him have to be of legendary origin. It is surprising how many of his exploits closely resemble that of Robin, like a mythical cycle getting repeated.

Rob Roy MacGregor is another outlaw in the Robin Hood vein, although he was certainly a historical personage – a dispossessed Scottish landowner who fought against the English. I first read about him in a Walt Disney comic book, which later I discovered had taken a lot of liberties with history. However, the story enthralled me, and I was ecstatic earlier this year when I had chance to have a boat ride on Loch Katrine, on the shores of which he was born (they still show the place where his house originally stood).

A lot of these “outlaws” were branded thus because they fought against foreign occupation – in the face of an overwhelming military power, they had to resort to guerrilla warfare. Veera Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja was a heroic king-turned-outlaw in northern Kerala, who fought against the British East India Company from the forests of Wynad. His army consisted mostly of aboriginals. Pazhassi Raja’s story has thrilled countless generations of Indians, and has recently been revived by a blockbuster production on the Malayalam screen, with veteran Mammootty in the lead role.

It is a big question mark whether these people were actually outlaws or whether the occupying foreign power was the lawless entity. Taken in this sense, even Gandhi was an outlaw, although peaceable!

Some other outlaws are of purely literary origin, even though they have virtually become historical personages through popularity. Zorro is the example that springs to mind immediately. I first encountered him through (again!) Walt Disney, and immediately assumed that he was based on a historical personage. However, he is the creation American author Johnston McCulley.

Zorro is the type of outlaw who leads a double life: during daytime, he is Don Diego La Vega, nobleman and lover of arts – a pacifist and something of a coward. By night, however, he dons his black mask and jumps on his horse (“Hi-ho, Silver… away!”) and fights corrupt politicians and tyrannical officials in Los Angeles at the time of the Spanish rule.

This kind of double identity is common for most of these “righteous” outlaws – The Scarlet Pimpernel, created by the Baroness Orczy, is an English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney who saves innocents from the guillotine under this alias. In fact, this character seems to be the original inspiration for all such heroes including Zorro.

Another literary outlaw is one of my favourites. Simon Templar, known by the name The Saint, strikes terror into the hearts of corrupt politicians, warmongers and international criminals in turn-of-the-century England and Europe. He is the masterly creation of the gifted writer Leslie Charteris, whose prose is a thing of beauty to behold. The Saint is an irreverent, humourous, swashbuckling hero (reminding one sometimes of James Bond as portrayed by Roger Moore) and Charteris’s language is equally funny – worthy of P. G. Wodehouse.

Simon Templar attacks, robs and sometimes kills (yes, he is not averse to committing the odd murder) villains; their money is distributed to charities or victims, after a certain amount for his upkeep. He always leaves a stick figure with a halo at the scenes of his crimes – it’s his trademark. In the middle of the series, however, The Saint changed from outlaw to detective after receiving a pardon from the Queen.

 

***

What is the charm of the outlaw? As he keeps on defeating the minions of law and order, why do we keep on rooting for him?

The simple answer is that these people are not really outlaws – they have been made so by a system which is evil and corrupt, and which is too strong to defeat in a straight fight. The outlaw is the common man, who only has his wits to help him. (In this context, the Hindi film A Wednesday! has to be mentioned: Naseeruddin Shah’s unnamed “common man” who takes on the might of the Mumbai Police became such a hit that the movie was remade into Tamil and Telugu.) Since most of us have felt the injustice of the system at one time or another, we subconsciously identify with him.

But I believe the matter goes deeper. There are some similarities between the outlaw in legend, history and literature, and the Trickster figure which is common in the mythology of the primitive peoples. The Trickster is a Jungian Archetype, who has been described as part of “The Shadow” – the part of our psyche which we prefer to keep hidden deep in the well of the subconscious. He is an agent of chaos, often maliciously attacking the established order – he is of ambivalent nature, both good-evil and cunning-foolish. He is an earlier god who has been submerged as human beings became more “civilised”.

If you look at the stories of the trickster cycle in many mythologies, he is more or less amoral – there is no righteousness to his actions. For example, see the character of Coyote in many Native American stories. However, as humanity evolved, god became more righteous, and the trickster changed into an actual figure of malice such as Satan, or got absorbed into the playful mischief of a god – Krishna being the prime example.

I believe that the outlaw also falls in this category. When society becomes too oppressively conformist and suffocating, we need the outlaw as an agent of chaos to free us, to remind us of the primitive freedoms we once had; that is why we lab-abiding citizens keep cheering him on while he rushes across our pages and our movie screens.

 

 

 

A Review of “Drishyam”

In Malayalam, “Drishyam” means “Visual” or “What is seen” – in this context, each movie is a “drishyam”. The director carefully chooses to show you what he wants you to see. He strings up the images in a certain fashion so that the narrative is built in your mind (remember the famous “Odessa steps” sequence?). In the process, he is like a magician, cheating your senses to create the visual he wants you to see – and you are willing to be fooled. The art of the movie, creating the illusion of movement by the juxtaposition of static images, is itself a form of cheating.

011114_1100_AReviewofDr1.jpg

In “Drishyam”, the protagonist Georgekutty does a similar sleight-of-hand to create a fictitious alibi for his family, to save them from being indicted for a murder which they had to do. Being up against the system and very powerful people, he has no hope of any mercy from any quarter: he has only his sharp wits and the street knowledge he has picked up from watching movies (he is a cable TV operator) to pit against the powerful police force and the antagonism of one particular policeman. It is to the credit of the director and scriptwriter that Georgekutty succeeds in fooling us also till the very end of the movie. (I will stop my explanation here. Any more would be telling. See the movie!)

The movie works on many levels. First of all, it is an out-and-out thriller, without any of the trappings of traditional thrillers: there are no gunfights, no fistfights (“dishoom – dishoom”) and no hair-raising chases. Even though the theme is loaded with possibilities, there are no sex scenes (apart from a bit of loaded dialogue): a very adult theme has been handled with restraint. Suspense is built up gradually through intelligently cut scenes, rather than jump cuts and jarring music. The craft is near-perfect for an Indian film – my only complaint is that the film is a bit overlong, about twenty minutes could have been reduced by shortening the length of some scenes and reducing the initial “family” scenes.

Moving a little bit further in, it is the fight of David against Goliath that has really entranced the people. Police in India are not seen as trustworthy by a large part of the populace. They bend to (have to!) political pressure and corporate muscle: they are constrained by resources: and quite a few of them are corrupt (like the villain of the piece, Constable Sahadevan). Knowing this fully well, and knowing that they stand very little chance against the police behemoth, Georgekutty fights back with the only thing that is available to him: an astute brain. No wonder we root for him all the way.

If we dig down even deeper, ultimately we find the glorification of the family unit. Georgekutty tells his family: “As long as I am here, none of you will go to jail.” In a country where most government institutions are seen as failures, this is the assurance that keeps all of us going – our family will be there for us, whatever happens. Ultimately, I feel this is the reason behind the thundering success of the movie.

A Review of “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon.

For a person drunk on the film society culture prevalent in Kerala during the Seventies and Eighties, this is a magic word.

Akira Kurasowa’s film enjoys cult status among movie buffs. It is rivetting in its presentation of “truth” in many layers, presented as a conversation among three people: a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner who take shelter under the ramshackle Rashomon city gates to escape a downpour. The story is the death (murder?) of a man, the rape (?) of a woman and the capture of a bandit responsible (?) for both: as the story unfolds, the differences in the widely varying testimonies of the people involved force us to have a rethink on what “truth” means.

I had heard about this movie a lot before actually seeing it; and it lived up to its hype and more when I finally got around to seeing it. But this post is not about the movie. It is about the magical short story which was its inspiration – and other stories like it, penned by one of the great figures of Japanese literatures, the turn-of-the-century novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

When I first saw the movie, I was so taken up by the sheer visual beauty of Kurasowa’s storytelling that I did not ruminate much on what this movie was based on, even though I saw the “based on…” title in the beginning. It was only after joining Goodreads that I came to know about this book, and was immediately hungry for it. Having read it, it has left me hungry for more by the same author, and Japanese literature in general. It is so shattering in its impact on the intellect, even in translation; I cannot imagine how powerful it must be in the original Japanaese – for, as Haruki Murakami says in the introduction, the translation can never capture the power of the original.

Akutagawa is a tragic figure. His mother went mad shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his childless maternal uncle and aunt. Even though they were a highly cultured family and young Ryunosuke was lucky to have a childhood exposed to a lot of intellectual pleasures, he was constantly plagued by ill-health and bullying in school. His ill-health continued into youth: he suffered from chronic insomnia and fears of madness. The misfortunes of family and country also distressed his oversensitive soul to an inordinate extent. Until finally, on 24 July 1927, Ryunosuke Akutagawa committed suicide by an overdose of Veronal.

The author’s gifted and tortured soul is visible throughout this amazing collection of stories. It is divided into four sections: (1) A World in Decay, (2) Under the Sword, (3) Modern Tragicomedy and (4) Akutagawa’s Own Story. These sections correspond to four periods of Japanese history as well as four creative styles which took birth from Akutagawa’s fertile imagination.

In the first section, stories (most of them retelling of old legends) set in the Heian Period (A.C.E. 794 – 1185) are included. This was Japan’s classical era; a time of peace, prosperity and opulence when art and culture flourished. But as is common with most ancient kingdoms, it declined and power slipped from the hands of the aristocrats into the hands of the warlords. It is this twilight period that Akutagawa uses as a backdrop for his stories of degeneration and decay. The title story of the collection, Rashomon, encapsulates the entire misery of the country in the symbol of the gate of the capital city of Kyoto. The city having been struck by one calamity after another, the author says:

With the whole city in such turmoil, no one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally, it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper storey of the gate, which made the neighbourhood an eerie place that everyone avoided after the sun went down.

The stage is thus perfectly set for a set of disturbing stories. Rashomon narrates the story of a jobless servant who is sheltering from the rain inside the gate and an old woman, who steals hair from the corpses lying there to sell to wig-makers, justifying it by pointing out that the dead people were also thieves and cheaters. Ultimately, she inspires the servant to become a thief himself who starts off on his new career by stealing her clothes!

In a Bamboo Grove, one of the most extraordinary stories ever written (this was the inspiration for Kurasowa’s film, even though he used the Rashomon gate as a symbol of the decay he was portraying) narrates story of a dead warrior, a thief and a raped woman from the viewpoint of each of the protagonists. Each of the stories is different and equally believable from the evidence available at the scene of the crime and the statements of the witnesses. Who we believe will depend a lot on who we are.

But the story which impressed me most in the whole volume is Hell Screen. This gem of a novelette gives us a taste of horror, Japanese style – I could understand how movies like Dark Water, The Ring and The Grudge came into being. The tale of the deformed artist Yoshihide (nicknamed “Monkeyhide” because of his deformity), the tapestry of hell he paints for the Lord Horikawa, the artist’s daughter who is a serving girl at the Lord’s mansion and the pet monkey has all the elements of a medieval ghost story and a gothic romance. However, it is Akutagawa’s narrative style (whereby he leaves a lot unsaid) and his choice of the narrative voice (that of an unnamed member of the Lord’s retinue) that are masterful. The story is a one way ride into darkness.

In the second section, we move forward to the Tokugawa Shogunate (A.C.E. 1600 – 1868). This was the last feudal military government of Japan. During this period, the shogun elders of the Tokugawa clan ruled from Edo Castle. As Jay Rubin, the translator, says, the Tokugawa centralised feudalism “imposed the principle of joint responsibility on all parts of society, punishing whole families, entire villages, or professional guilds for the infractions of individual members. This fostered a culture based on mutual spying, which promoted a mentality of constant vigilance and self-censorship.”

In the story Loyalty, the disastrous effects of the madness of a samurai on an entire dynasty is described: in this merciless world, it does not mean just the destruction of a person, but of a whole bloodline. The other two stories included describe the clash between Christianity and Japan’s traditional religions. These distressing tales are rendered with much empathy and wit.

In the third section we find a sarcastic Akutagawa, full of black humour. The Story of the Head that Fell Off and Horse Legs use the trappings of fantasy to create a sort of darkly comic tale. In Green Onions, we can see an author smiling at himself and his fellow-scribes, in a pastiche of a romantic tale.

There is a whole tradition of autobiographical writing in Japan, called “I-Novels”, where the author’s life itself is fictionalised. Even though Akutagawa initially stayed away from this genre, he finally succumbed to peer and critic pressure and started writing such stories. It is here that one can see a fine mind finally unravelling. There are hints of this in the first three stories, especially in The Writer’s Craft where an author is forced write an elegy for somebody whom he barely knows; just on the strength of his writing talent. This sense of unease is increased in Death Register where he tabulates the demise of friends and relatives: and in The Diary of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears (where Akutagawa keeps on hallucinating spinning gears on one side of his vision), we sense that we are standing on the edge of a minefield. (Spinning Gears was published posthumously.)

This is a well-chosen set of stories, with a fantastic introduction by Haruki Murakami. There are explanations about the historical periods, and background information on each story. The timeline of Akutagawa’s life is also provided. The book satisfies one, not only literally, but also as a window to Japanese literature.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

The romans had a god Janus. He has two faces on either side of his head – an old one on the back looking into the past, and a young one on the front looking to the future. Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, of gates, doors, passages, endings and time. The month of January is fittingly named after him.

As we sit on the threshold of 2014, I am thinking of this god: does he not represent all of us? Even though we exist only in the transitory present, the present is the only thing we cannot feel: our memories look back into the past, while our intellect looks to the future.

A year is an arbitrary thing. As long as it contains 3651/4 days, it can be started from any point of the earth’s orbit around the sun. The reason we have the Gregorian calendar is only chance, since Europe colonised most of the world after the industrial revolution, their systems were imposed. And the Gregorian calendar being the most mathematically precise helped its almost universal adoption in the modern era.

We ring in the New Year with festivities and rejoicing. These celebrations are mostly secular in nature. Apart from the universal human need to celebrate anything and everything, I cannot any reason for these: unless it is to be thankful that one more arbitrary unit of time has passed by, and we are still here.

As part of a new beginning, it is customary to resolve something for the New Year: getting rid of a bad habit, learning something new, etc. Given my miserable track record, I have not had any resolutions in the recent past. However, this year will be different – I have taken three resolutions which should be reasonably easy (!) to keep.

  • Start Reading the Mahabharata

    I have been planning this for a long time – read the Mahabharata in the original Sanskrit. I know the story, have read many condensed versions, read various types of analyses and interpretations… but not the original. It will be a Herculean task; I would need to brush up my school Sanskrit and stick to a strict regimen of reading, a certain number of verses every day. I don’t know whether I will be able to finish it in my lifetime. But I will definitely start – that’s a promise.

  • A Critical Reading of Das Kapital

    In my opinion, people (including myself!) often discuss and argue about communism without knowing the fundamentals. The book which started it all, Karl Marx’s Capital, has taken on the status of a holy book which can only be worshipped or reviled (depending on which side you are), and never analysed critically. I have set myself the task of reading and analysing this epoch-making work in the light of changes in the structure of production and consumption since Marx’s day – within my limitations, of course. I shall be sharing my viewpoints on this blog.

  • Read More of World Literature

    Like the average Indian booklover, my exposure of world literature is limited to Western Europe and America. I will make an effort this year to search out more and more books from the Far East, Africa and Eastern Europe. I have already started with Japanese literature.

    Happy New Year, all!

By nandakishorevarma Posted in General