A Review of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land where the seasons are inverted from what is usually experienced by the world at large, the flora and fauna belong to an evolutionary niche not seen elsewhere and the original settlers are the descendants of deported convicts. Yet over this, an English-ness has been imposed: the carefully cultivated gardens, the finely turned out ladies and gentlemen, the afternoon teas and the elevenses. This contrast often gives rise to a tension between man and nature which has been explored by countless writers and filmmakers. This novel by Joan Lindsay is an outstanding example of one such exploration.

Hanging Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation in Australia near Melbourne. As the story starts, a group of young girls, boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, is excitedly starting for their annual picnic near it, on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. There is Miranda, beautiful like a Botticelli painting; Irma Leopold, the pretty heiress; Marion Quade, top academic performer; Edith Horton, the college dunce and many others. They are chaperoned by the young and impressionable Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw who lives virtually in a world of equations. They are driven to the spot by Ben Hussey, the owner of the town’s livery stables, in his trap. The only student left behind is Sara Waybourne, the youngest boarder as a punishment for not learning The Wreck of the Hesperus by heart.

The picnic goes well until teatime, when Miranda, Irma and Marion decide to go closer to the Hanging Rock to properly examine it. Edith tags along. They are seen by the young Hon. Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England with his uncle and his coachman Albert Crundall. Fitzhubert, captivated by Miranda’s beauty, follows them for a bit then turns back. That is the last anyone sees of them, however – because all except Edith, who rushes back in an attack of hysteria, disappear without a trace; as does the mathematics mistress. The mystery is never solved.

The novel is the chronicle of the fallout from this event – how the lives of all the people connected with it, even the minor characters, are inextricably changed.

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At the outset, the author writes:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

This is the tone set right at the beginning – that of the “true story” – with quotes from letters and reports peppered throughout the narrative, and even footnotes in some places. In many places the writing becomes reportage; in others, it reads like an inexpert author trying to fictionalise historical characters and events. It is only when we realise that none of this happened that we come to appreciate what Joan Lindsay is trying to do – and we acknowledge her mastery of the medium.

If whether something really happened “seems hardly important”, what does it say about the nature of the “story”? Is truth important here, or is there a truth beyond the phenomenal world which we consider rock solid?

As the story progresses, people’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The college, a solid bastion of English respectability in the middle of wild Australia, slowly unravels – as does the redoubtable headmistress Appleyard. The tension between her and the orphan Sara (whom she subjects to mental torture mercilessly) is like a taut elastic band which is stretched and stretched until it breaks – with disastrous results. It is also to be noted that Sara idolises Miranda, who is almost a myth, an ethereal vision which fittingly disappears.

But the real protagonist of the story is Hanging Rock, the volcanic formation which is millions and millions of years old, standing ominously tall above all the puny humans crawling around like ants at its base – ephemeral beings whose unimaginably tiny lifetimes it must have surely smiled at, mockingly.

…The plain below was just visible; infinitely vague and distant. Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?’

Marion looked out over her shoulder. ‘A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it’s probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.’

The elemental power of the Australian landscape here is what is drawing the girls out of their so very English cocoons. Throughout the narrative, this rough land calls out to us in a thousand tongues: through the hissing of snakes, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of lizards, the wind through the trees – and through the silent and impressive presence of Hanging Rock. It finally succeeds in drawing even the stolid Mrs. Appleyard out.

And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gustsof spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the north wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires…

Nature, in all her raw and pristine glory – nature, come to extract her price from civilisation.

Life Etched in Spare Lines – A Review of “Dear Life” by Alice Munro

alice-munroYou know, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Alice Munro so fascinating. Her writing is without frills – she does not use flowery language or dazzling metaphors. Her stories can be read by any schoolkid without referring a dictionary. Ms. Munro does not write about extraordinary events; her characters are middle class men and women of Canada, going about their humdrum lives. It is Ernest Hemingway plus Jane Austen.

The first story in this collection sort of had me saying: “Is this the Nobel Prize winner? Oh come on!” but something in that bland narrative pulled me in, enticing me to try one more – then one more – then… well, you know. It was like a box of chocolates when you promise to stop after the next, and soon the box is empty.

The power of Alice Munro is not in what she says – but what she leaves unsaid: and that is quite a lot. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps, and I think most readers would do it in their own particular way, moulding the story to his or her own fashion. In most stories, the narrator is a child in the first person; a child who grows up as the story progresses. As we all know children see more of life and interpret it less. There is a disconcerting truthfulness to their viewpoints which makes adults uncomfortable. And when the child grows up and understands what she has experienced before she put on her adult glasses, this dichotomy of vision provides the tension which keeps the story on a knife’s edge.

The unwritten story was what had me returning again and again to this collection.

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The “child’s-eye-view” is most effectively used in the stories “Gravel” and “Voices”. In the first, a broken-up marriage is described in the voice of a child too young to form clear memories of events but has vivid recollections of things. When the story suddenly escalates to tragedy without warning, the kid suddenly grows up; and we realise that we have been hearing this child-woman all along – because in a sense, she has been trapped at the point of her tragedy. Her vision is crystal clear until the actual event, but the moment the adult takes over, analysis starts and we are now dealing with conjectures instead of concrete certainties.

In the second, the situation is more prosaic. In a country dance, the narrator and her mother meet a prostitute. The child is entranced by the elegant lady but the mum is understandably outraged. Sent upstairs to get her coat so that she and her mum can leave, the girl meets a girl called Peggy, who is visibly upset and crying, and her two suitors on the stairs. Peggy is part of the prostitute’s entourage and the men are quite obviously trying to pacify her. They are talking to her as the child-narrator had never heard a woman talked to before.

For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s. I know now that some of the Air Force men stationed at Port Albert early in the war had come out from England, and were training there to fight the Germans. So I wonder if it was the accent of some part of Britain that I was finding so mild and entrancing. It was certainly true that I had never in my life heard a man speak in that way, treating a woman as if she was so fine and valued a creature that whatever it was, whatever unkindness had come near her, was somehow a breach of law, a sin.

It is obvious to us adults who read the story that Peggy has been somehow slighted by the “respectable” ladies at the dance – the child sees only the consideration she obtains from men, something that is forever withheld from her.

Nameless child narrators (who seem alter egos of the novelist herself) are central to the stories “Haven”, “The Eye”and “Night” also; and other stories such as “Leaving Maverly”, “Pride”and “Dear Life” also deal in part with childhood. In fact, most of these stories involve the shifting of human relations as people grow up, and they seem to wander all over the place without coming to a point. Many contain snippets of information that are seemingly irrelevant to what the author is trying to convey but then, as Ms. Munro’s narrator says in “Dear Life”

…And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I am writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.

Life, unlike a story, is never neatly rounded off. Life leaves a lot of its story on unwritten pages – like Ms. Munro.

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dear-lifeThe characters in this author’s fictional universe are often jarringly disconnected from one another. In “Train”, the protagonist (unusually, a male) is on the run from a relationship: but not for the reason one thinks, as becomes shockingly clear at the denouement: in “Amundsen”, a relationship develops and unfurls with frightening speed. The characters seem to take it all in their stride, especially when narrated in Ms. Munro’s extremely spare prose. Sometimes, this alienation results in unlikely alliances too, as in “Corrie” and “Pride”. Many a time, core plot elements are hidden or only fleetingly mentioned. In the hands of a less skilled author, it would have been a disaster; here, it is what gives the stories their pith.

Because at the centre of it all, there lies hope. As Neal, a character in “Gravel”, says:

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”

 

Yes, indeed.

A Christmas Fable for All Times

18Heart-warming: that is my one word review for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

This has to be one of the most read and loved stories of all time. It works, whether one views it as a Christian allegory or a simple fantasy. I studied it in middle school and loved it: I was laughing along with Scrooge in the last chapter. I was wondering whether the magic would still work with a moderately cynical middle-aged man. It did.

The story could have been maudlin, sentimental, didactic and moralising. That it is none of this is due to Dickens’ mastery of the medium. From the beginning to end, there is hardly a word out of place: and the narrative is structured so meticulously that one simply floats through the story, along with Scrooge and the ghosts.

Take the first paragraph:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This sets the whole tone of the novel. The conversational style with its mock serious tone of voice; Dickens is sitting near to you, with a tankard of ale in front of him, on a cold December day in the neighbourhood pub. He is entertaining you with a Christmas tale. It is not to be taken very seriously, but the teller’s heart is in it-if you listen to it carefully, it may work wonders for you.

dickens_gurney_headThe handful of characters are finely etched: true to its fairytale nature, the “good” and “bad” are strongly bifurcated without any shades of grey, yet we find ourselves loving even the bad characters. Scrooge, for all his miserly and cantankerous nature, can never be taken seriously: his “bah!” and “humbug!”, we feel, are most applicable to the persona he presents to the world. And as we visit the lonely boy in the classroom, we get an idea how Scrooge turned out to be the man he is: the colossal insecurity of the impoverished child, developing into the worship of money for its own sake, and building a barrier of hatred against society so that it can never hurt him.

marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_blLike a five-act play, time and space are compressed into an evening, night and the next day. As we sweep through the narrative at breakneck speed, Scrooge’s character undergoes a tremendous transformation which is possible only in fables and fairy tales: however, the author has already set the stage for it in the opening chapter itself by showing us the chinks in his armour. The development of the miser of the first chapter into the loving philanthropist of the last chapter seems not only possible, but natural.

A perfect Christmas fable for everybody. Recommended for young and old alike.

A Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

There is a special kind of emptiness in a marriage, when both the partners long for a child without success. Their private moments change from solitude to loneliness: intimate chatter degenerates into monosyllables before ultimately descending into dark silence. The carefree laughter of a child, the picture of a smiling cherubic face, or the pitter-patter of small feet on the road all become exquisite torture – reminders of some esoteric happiness forever out of reach.

I know… I have been there.

It must be (at least in part) to tackle this anxiety creatively that fairy-tales use the trope of the childless couple quite frequently. The story is quite formulaic: there will be an old couple (mostly on the edge of a wood) who would have been longing for a child without success for ages. Finally out of desperation, the woman (or in some cases, both the partners together) would fashion a child’s likeness out of some unlikely object such as wood or mud, treat it like a human child for one night, and – hey presto! – it would become human overnight. The overjoyed couple would raise it as their own, but the story would usually end badly, with the breaking of some taboo resulting in the child going away.

“Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden) is a Russian fairy tale where the child is fashioned out of snow by a childless woodcutter and his wife, and subsequently brought to life by Father Frost, the spirit of the winter, who takes pity on them. The snow maiden lives with her foster parents quite happily until she falls for a human boy against the express admonitions of Father Frost – the warmth inside melts her, and she fades away bringing spring to the countryside in the process.

From myths.e2bn.org:
sneg-teachAs the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.

As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.

But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.

But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
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Eowyn Ivey has taken this bittersweet story, transplanted it to the rural Alaska of 1920’s, and woven a tale which is every bit as magical as the original. Her protagonists are Mabel and Jack, who are trying to make a living on their farm, fighting against the unforgiving climate as well as life, which has given them only the memory of a stillborn child to live on. The couple are slowly moving apart, and Mabel is on the verge of suicide when, in one blustery night of mad gaiety they a fashion a girl out of snow in front of their cabin. Next day, the child is gone – and a wild girl starts visiting them, clandestinely at first, then more and more openly.

The girl, Faina, is more or less adopted by the couple soon. Their close friends George and Esther initially consider the unseen girl as a hallucination conjured up by Mabel, but after the initial shock of meeting her in person, comes to accept her as she is. Their youngest son, Garrett, a boy of the forest himself is initially antagonistic. Well, as so often happens, antagonism changes to fascination, mutual attraction and love… and the story moves towards its expected climax (and no, this is not a spoiler!).

The beauty of this novel is that it does not follow the trope of the fairy tale blindly. Faina (the child) has a mysterious past as the daughter of an eccentric trapper who died in the forest. She lives off the wild, hunting and eating animals in a strangely feral manner. It is left to us to decide whether Faina is real or a phantasm. While such a style could easily become contrived, Ivey walks the tightrope expertly. There are times when we feel that the novelist is slipping into the realms of fantasy, but every time she pulls back just in time.

Contrasted with Faina are Mabel and Jack, who are very real. Mabel, with her cultured upbringing and artistic tendencies, is the bridge that links the gritty and unromantic world of rural America to the poesy of the snowy slopes of the far north. In fact, the story is almost self-referential in the sense that Mabel owns a book telling the story of the snow maiden, which her father (a literature professor) used to read to her: however, she learns as an adult that he only pretended to read, because the tale is in Russian! Only the pictures make sense, including the terrifying last one of the melted maiden.

We follow the characters with bated breath as they move along their pre-ordained paths – but the end, when it comes, is refreshingly different from yet absolutely faithful to the original. I will leave it at that.

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From myths.e2bn.org:
vasnetsov-snegurochka-teach

In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.

Birth, death, rebirth – these are the themes of ageless tales. There are no full stops in life, but an endless cycle of seasons through which we eke out our existence – brief candles, whose flames are ephemeral yet eternal at some level.

(All images courtesy myths.e2bn.org)

A Review of “The Martian” by Andy Weir

The art of engineering is finding solutions.

Engineering is applied science. The scientist will find out that a high enough force applied over a small area will provide tremendous pressure: the engineer will use the knowledge to fashion the sword. The scientist will discover that magnetic fields, when cut by cables, will produce electricity: the engineer will design the generator with this information. The scientist will posit e=mc2: the engineer… (Well, you get the drift. No need to go into that.)

Mark Watney is an astronaut, a botanist and an engineer – but primarily an engineer, as evinced by his sheer glee of fiddling with machinery and recording his antics faithfully in a laconic fashion, even when faced with the prospect of a lonely death on Mars. The Martian is Mark’s valiant tale of survival in an inhospitable terrain beyond imagination. I would have called it Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but old Rob had nothing as challenging Mark had in odds against survival – so calling Mark Crusoe would, I feel, be sort of demeaning.

mars-curiosity-rover-msl-horizon-sky-self-portrait-pia19808-full
Watney is part of the Mars mission Ares 3, and is left for dead when the crew does an emergency evacuation in the face of a sudden deadly dust storm. The good news is that he does not die – the bad news is that he is the only person in the universe who is aware of it.
Actually, this is the backstory. The novel properly begins with Mark alone on the red planet, opening his log with the following passage:

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Of course, being the engineer he is, Mark is not willing to let go of life without giving it a shot at staying alive. What follows is his attempt to do so, and makes up pretty much the lion’s share of the story.

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From an engineer’s point of view, the novel is terrifically exciting – as Mark ponders each problem threatening his continued existence and works out solutions to each one of them. I was pulled into the tale, and literally devoured each technical tidbit, rooting for Mark as I did so. But I think someone with a non-technical background might get lost unless they skip all the details and take it on faith that whatever the protagonist did was within the realms of possibility. With my Chemical Engineering background, I can assure you that almost all the engineering described in this book is not even stretching the imagination – most of it is business as usual (I especially loved the making of water inside the hab).

Suspense is maintained throughout by making the survival neither too difficult nor too easy – and the helplessness of NASA, even after spotting their man on Mars, to do anything urgent due to the sheer distances involved. Andy Weir has put in a lot of effort to make his world believable.

And therein lies the novel’s major weakness – it’s all Mark Watney and Mars. The other characters, even though tantalizingly sketched, are never fully fleshed out. We don’t know what makes them tick. Commander Lewis, Martinez, Vogel, Beck , Johanssen, Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Bruce Ng – we feel that these characters have a life, but that Weir was not much interested in showing it to us.

Oh well – maybe it’s too much to expect characterisation in SF.

martian-gallery3-gallery-image

Fantasy and Allegory – A New Reading of a Timeless Favourite

Narnia1I don’t think there will be many who do not know the story of The Chronicles of Narnia, even if they have not actually read the books. The stories of the four Pevensie children who discover the magical land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe is the stuff of legend in literary circles – a land which they rule over as kings and queens after freeing it from the enchantment of the White Witch, under the benign yet firm supervision of Aslan the lion.

As fantasies for children go, this is a terrific universe filled with possibilities. There are talking animals, magical creatures from Greek mythology and English fairy-lore, and suitably satisfying and mysterious landscape worthy of exploration again and again. So one feels that if only the author in C. S. Lewis had let himself go he could have produced something similar to the The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, he does not do that. The author sublimates himself to the Christian, so that the story becomes allegory – and mostly allegory. The spirit of gung-ho adventure is coated over with sickly-sweet preachiness which becomes so cloying towards the end that one almost feels like throwing up.

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The edition I read contained all the novels in the chronological order as regards the story:

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

However, the actual order in which the books were published is:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Magician’s Nephew
6. The Horse and His Boy
7. The Last Battle

It seems that there is a hot dispute going on about the order in which the books should be read. After reading them in the chronological sequence, I would advise reading them in the sequence of publication. In my personal opinion, the last two – The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle – are better left unread, especially the last one. More about that later.

Aslan2005Aslan the Lion is Christ – this becomes evident in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself. The White Witch (and later, the Queen of the Underworld) are embodiments of Evil with a capital E.

(I was a bit surprised that there was no sign of the gentleman with the horns and the forked tail. Evil is entirely feminine – that too, with a perverse sort of sexual attractiveness. It seems Lewis was genuinely frightened of woman’s sexuality: Susan becomes a “non-friend of Narnia” the moment she becomes a nubile young woman. Lewis’s protagonists, like that of Lewis Carroll, are prepubescent girls.)

The Christian world view is evident from the word go – for example, the animals and birds can all be killed and eaten, provided that they are not “talking animals”! (They have been specially blessed as such by Aslan, we are told, in the story of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.) This evidently comes from the Bible where Man is given dominion over every living thing on earth. In case we don’t get it, Aslan continuously addresses the boys as “Sons of Adam” and the girls as “Daughters of Eve” and says that only they can rule over Narnia. As the story progresses, it becomes more prevalent – and now racism and intolerance of the heathens also come into play.

The Calormenes – dark-skinned foreigners who worship a savage god Tash, wear turbans and carry scimitar-like swords – are an Englishman’s fantasy of the bloodthirsty and lecherous Turk. In their country, young girls are routinely married off to old codgers, and they wage war on the free countries like Narnia to rape and pillage. Their God Tash, however, is a pagan deity who is loosely associated with the gentleman I mentioned earlier – the guy with horns.

The unlikeable brat Eustace Scrubb is the son of liberal parents who are pacifists and vegetarians. He studies in a school which does not have corporal punishment and which does not teach the Bible – and is therefore full of bullies who are encouraged by the Principal! However, Eustace reforms after a visit to Narnia, and returns back to the school and hammers the living daylights out of the bullies. The Principal is removed from the school and ultimately becomes a Member of Parliament, where she lives happily ever after (note the point: M. P. ‘s are failed schoolteachers who fail to put the fear of God into children).

It is in the last book that Lewis outdoes himself. There is an ape who presents a donkey as Aslan. The ape is part of a conspiracy with the Caloremenes who present their God Tash and Aslan as the same, but don’t believe in either. Also, the ending is patently silly and for me, it was disgusting.

But…

If you can ignore the allegory and the preachiness, there are some pretty interesting adventures here. The first three books are rather well-written (although a bit simplistic) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is your classic sea adventure. The Magician’s Nephew is extremely funny in parts. One advice to prospective readers though – please give the last book a miss.

A Review of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverI have seen a lot of contemptuous reviews of Gaiman’s books, by reviewers I respect. What is so great about them? They ask. All of them are simplistic stories using the same motifs again and again – trite fantasies about little children up against mythical monsters. Enjoyable, sure, enough to while away a holiday afternoon, maybe… But great? Come on guys, aren’t you exaggerating a bit?

As a fan of Gaiman’s prose, there was a time I would have been furious with them. How can you not see the poetry of language? I would have asked. How can you not see the richness of the imagination? How can you not sense the profoundness of what Gaiman is saying? But not anymore – because now I understand that it is a fundamental difference of perception: one you can’t explain or substantiate, like the taste of a particular curry one loves and another hates.

The unnamed narrator of this novel says:

…the patterns in the headboard of the bed at my grandmother’s house, which, if I looked at them wrongly in the moonlight, showed me an old man with his mouth open wide, as if he were screaming.

I know what he means, oh yes: I similarly saw the face of an old hag in a dead leaf when I was two or three (reading this passage jogged my memory, and I suddenly recalled this long-forgotten terrifying incident), and had a very difficult time explaining it to my parents (they still don’t know).

It is a fact: only some can see with the eyes of a child.

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The country of childhood is a strange and exhilarating and (yes!) frightening place.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences.

It is on this path, off the beaten track, that Gaiman takes you in this novel (as in many others), as you accompany the seven-year-old protagonist on a frightening and exhilarating journey to the end of the lane, where three generations of female Hempstocks (who are perhaps older than time itself) live in their farmhouse – a farmhouse which also houses a duck-pond which is really an ocean. You watch with bated breath as he battles an evil out of time which appears in the guise of an ordinary governess, and pray for him as the hunger birds descend upon him ravenously. Of course, you do this if you can enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to find the meanings hidden between the words.

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

YES.

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As a shy and socially backward youngster, I found refuge in books at a very early age. As I grew up, the stories changed, but a bit of the boy who lost himself between the pages of a novel stayed.

I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.

I do not know about all adults, but I definitely fit the bill. If you think you do too, please take some time to visit the ocean at the end of the lane.

I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

A Review of “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

“You have control over only your karma: never on its fruits. So because of [concern over] the fruits of your karma, never shirk from it.”

This is most probably the most quoted, used, misused, praised and maligned verse from the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna on the Karma-yoga. It has been praised as the epitome of virtue to do your duty regardless of the consequences: it has been severely criticised as the upper caste Hindu spiritual drug to force a person to follow his caste duties without contemplation. Both views have their merits: but what they ignore is that, spirituality aside, this is what keeps most of us sane – having very little control over where we are placed as a cog in this huge machine of the universe, the best thing is to bite the bullet and press ahead, and do the best you can.

Hemingway’s old fisherman, Santiago, would not have known the Gita. But he echoes its philosophy when he says:

Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.

Being born as a fisherman, his karma is to fish – it does not matter whether he manages to land anything. Everyday he keeps on returning to the sea, because

My big fish must be somewhere.

Yes, indeed.

old man and the sea
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This slim book is Hemingway’s testament to the eternal struggle of man against nature, a dance of life and death, enacted by Santiago and the marlin against the backdrop of the sea and the sky. Even while intent on killing one another, the contest is one of love as well as antagonism.

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

There is nothing personal in it, no pleasure or pain – just the inevitability of karma. And it does not matter whether one wins or loses, whether one has the catch to show for one’s victory – for the act of fishing is what is important, for a man who was born to be a fisherman.

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

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Something attempted, something done, has earned a night’s repose. Tomorrow is always another day.

One of the real gems of world literature.

The Ethics and Aesthetics of a Hanging

Capital punishment is a sensitive question: is it allowable for the state to kill somebody? On a purely metaphoric level, most liberal people would say no. But would your answer still be the same if the convict was, say, a sex offender who raped and tortured a girl to death? More so, if she was known to you?

Is justice involving the taking of a human life, justified? Is killing by the state murder or justice? Is punishment justice or revenge? Is capital punishment a deterrent for crimes?

All difficult questions. Most of us shy away from these (I know I do!) – but they have to be asked all the same.

Meera does it, and much more, through the multiple-award-winning novel, “Aaraachaar” (meaning “executioner” – translated as “Hangwoman” into English). However, it is not a political polemic. While asking these questions, the story digs down into our psyche, to the subterranean depths where the archetypes lie.

And there the questions asked are much more basic and much more difficult. What does it mean to be a woman and a human being in today’s society?

There are no easy answers. Maybe, there are no answers, period… they are not required.

Because the question is what is important.

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Chetana Grddha Malik is a hangman’s daughter – and a potential hangwoman of the future, as he has no male heirs other than the disabled Ramu. Yatindranath Banerji is a convicted killer, waiting for the hangman’s noose – a hanging in which Chetana will assist her father, Phani Bhushan, as India’s first female executioner.

It would have been all business as usual had not the TV channels got hold of it. As with any controversial news item in contemporary India, Banerji’s hanging becomes a national spectacle, a chance to boost the TRP of the “reality” news channels. Sanjiv Kumar Mitra of the C.N.C is the first to sink his predatory teeth into this juicy situation – and also into the beautiful and desirable Chetana. He wants her to be the exclusive property of his channel on camera – and his, off it.

As the novel progresses and we move towards Yatindranath Banerji’s inevitable death, Sanjiv and Chetana dance around a complicated concoction of lust, filth, deceit and death. The ending, when it finally comes after 500+ pages is expected; yet fitting and devastating.

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Meera is a terrific writer. There is very little beauty in this novel; and there is a lot of ugliness. That she has made it so absorbing, so that one willfully endures so much unpleasantness is a tribute her skill as a wordsmith.

Chetana’s hovel is situated on Neem Tala Ghat, where people take their relatives to be cremated. The novel has endless descriptions of dead bodies and mourning relatives, narrated through her deadpan voice – interspersed with her father’s stories of his exploits as a hangman who has executed more than four hundred people. Among the people who are cremated, there are murder victims too: many of them young girls who have been raped, mutilated and murdered by sexual predators like Yatindranath Banerji. The narrative dances between two types of killing, one by the state and one by the social deviants. The narrator who is also the protagonist of the story does not take sides. It seems as though Chetana just wants us to see it as it is through her eyes, which has seen and absorbed a lot in twenty-three years.

Chetana’s home is also disturbingly full of the themes of pain and mutilation. Her brother Ramu is a practically a vegetable – his limbs have been hacked off by the father of a convict Phani Bhushan hanged. Phani Bhushan himself is a libertine, frequently visiting Kolkata’s red light district, Sona Gacchi. His brother, who stays with him is practically an invalid, having been marked by the excruciating torture he suffered as a communist under The Emergency. In this hell-house, the person Chetana is most attached to is her grandma, who is more than a century old – a crone-figure who tells stories from myth, legend and history.

The second theme is the “lust affair” (it would be dishonest to call it a love affair!) between Chetana and Sanjiv. The reporter makes no secret of his lust for her: the first time he sees Chetana, he tells her that :”I want to experience you at least once.” The second time, he squeezes her left breast. (This is highly symbolic, IMO. Kannagi, the heroine of Silappadikaram burns down Madhura by tearing off her left nipple and flinging it at the city. Later, she is enshrined as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. But more on this later.) The significant thing is that Chetana also lusts for Sanjiv, and her left breast throbs every time she feels the hots.

Sanjiv Kumar Mitra – who is a kleptomaniac – needs Chetana physically as well as commercially. He wastes no time in buying her time exclusively for his channel, thus virtually “owning” her. He wastes no time in marketing her as well as the misery of the murderer’s and the victim’s family. He is a man without emotions, only lust – for riches, for fame and for pleasures of the flesh – and the hanging is only a studio production to raise the ratings for his channel. As his family history is revealed towards the end of the novel, we get an idea of what makes this complex creation tick.

Surprisingly, the ethics of capital punishment is not discussed openly. Rather, the author cleverly presents it as Q&A during Chetana’s TV show, her father’s bombastic speeches to journalists justifying it, and opinions of various characters, both pro and con. But the political subtext is very clear – and most effective, especially when various hangings from the stories told to her by her grandma are graphically described to us by Chetana.

But the most powerful theme is the undercurrent of frightening and bloodthirsty feminity which permeates the narrative – the punishing mother, the toothed vagina that men have sublimated through their myths and stories and either locked up as the madwoman in the attic or elevated to a pedestal as goddess. It is no accident that this novel is set in Bengal, I feel, as Durga’s fearsome dance of death is part of the Bengali psyche – and being from Kerala, a state where women’s mysteries still manifest as an undercurrent in many festivals (Thiruvathira being the prime example), the author can very well appreciate it.

Chetana can tie a hangman’s knot in seconds – she does that with her dupatta and uses it on would-be molesters to great effect. She feels connected to various legendary heroines of myth, legend and history, whether from her own family or otherwise, who had used the power of the eternal feminine on hapless males: the power of the soft seductress as well as that of the fierce Devi. It is no coincidence that the earth from the front yard of the courtesans of Sona Gacchi is used to make the idols of the goddess for Durga Puja.


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All the things described above makes this novel good. What makes it great is its structure.

India has a great tradition of storytelling. However, the structure of Indian stories and myths are not linear in the traditional sense. Starting with a central story, the narrative meanders through a twisted path with many byways – and many a time, the narrator takes detours. Sometimes even the byways have byways branching off them. It is quite common, by the end of the story, for the listener to be confused as to exactly where he is – but the bard keeps on singing, and ultimately reaches the end, tying up all the loose ends in the process.

The Katha Sarith Sagara and the Mahabharata are two well-known examples of the above technique. As one gets accustomed to the Indian timeless way of telling stories, one starts not getting disturbed by the detours. In fact, one starts to savour them, to relish them, to enjoy each sub-story which could be each made into an epic in its own right. In fact, many Mahabharata tales have become movies, novels and plays in various Indian languages.

This is the structure Meera adopts, and it is fascinating. I have seen criticisms of the novel saying that it should have been edited down – and I strongly disagree. Each of the chapters is an episode, as well as a stirring tale in its own right: and it is to be enjoyed as such. India cannot be rushed. So sit back in your chair, ladies and gentlemen, and travel along with this gorgeously terrifying executioner on the most terrifying and exhilarating journey of her life.

I guarantee that you will not regret it.

A Review of “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

(Warning: The review below contains what some may consider to be spoilers. But on the whole, I do not think that reading this review will spoil the enjoyment of the book for you.)
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Science fiction stories usually concern the impact of the progress of science on human beings. When the science part dominates, it is called “Hard SF”: when the human part dominates, it is “Soft SF”. However, this is not a rigid categorisation as most Hard SF stories (for example, Asimov’s Foundation series) contain some sociology, and most Soft SF cannot exist without some science. The most fascinating Soft SF stories deal with a society unalterably modified by science, and how human beings come to term with it.

Did I just say “human beings”? Well, as far as Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo and Locus award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is concerned, you can add the word “almost” – since most of the characters in this story are clones.

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The novel is a dystopia: one that many science fiction writers seem to love – the whole world having gone to hell on a handcart. Wars, pollution and pestilence of Biblical proportions are slowly wiping out life on earth. To compound the problem, human beings and animals are becoming increasingly sterile. It seems that the world is doomed to extinction.

The filthy rich Sumner family, up in their farm on the Shenandoah Valley, have read the signs early and have found a solution. They will preserve an island of stability and sanity in a world gone volatile and mad in their mountain citadel – and led by the gifted Dr. Walt, Harry Vlasic and David Sumner, they develop the ultimate answer to sterility – cloning.

So far, so good. Only, they discover too late that clones are not humans in the true sense of the word. Much more single-minded and efficient than their originals, and sharing an extra-sensory empathy with one another, they soon take over… and the world seems ready for a new species. A society where individuality is unknown and any deviation from the group is frowned upon; where sex is a group activity and the production of children, other than the cloned ones, is by harvesting a handful of fertile women as “breeders”. It is the end of humankind as we know it.

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Or is it?

On a field trip to gather information and building materials (a perilous one that a few hardy individuals periodically make – it is literally a matter of life and death for any clone to be separated from the group for too long), Molly, the artist, is touched and permanently changed by nature. She can’t go back to the group existence any more: she has rediscovered humanity. Her art becomes steadily less utilitarian and more idiosyncratic, and she begins questioning group values. Of course, this striving for individuality is major deviant behaviour among the clones, so they isolate her in the old house, with its hoard of books. Unknown to them, she is carrying something else – the son of the doctor Ben in her womb.

Molly and her son Mark enjoy an idyllic existence in the old house for five years until they are ultimately discovered. Mark is taken away to live in the communal nursery with other children, and Molly is assigned the role of a breeder, a baby – producing machine.

But once touched by nature, man cannot become a machine again. As the clone community declines because of lack of innovation, abhorrence of nature and the steadily dwindling resources from a dead world, Mark, the earth-child, provides the spark to ensure that humanity is born again.

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The novel is structured in three parts: the first part (and in my opinion, the weakest) showing the development of the society of the clones and their takeover, the second part detailing Molly’s “conversion” and the third, the renaissance of humanity through Mark. Even though it attempts to be nothing other than science fiction, the mythical overtones are hard to miss. David Sumner is the original savior prophet/ hero, who creates the chosen race and is ultimately sacrificed by them: Molly, the Mother of God/ Mother Goddess: and Mark, the persecuted God Child/ Hero/ Messiah of the new world.

Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel in the seventies, when the cold war was going strong. For Western Europeans and Americans, the Soviet Union was the Devil Incarnate and the ultimate dystopia, a place where human beings have lost all claims to individuality and function only as cogs in the machine, as epitomised by the communist bloc (we now understand that this was far removed from the truth). In those days, a communist takeover of the world was a real threat in the mind of the average American; the end of civilisation as we know it. Part of the success of this novel is that that particular paranoia is explored in detail, without being judgmental.

“The Freedom of the Individual” is at the heart of the American secular religion, sometimes (in the opinion of citizens of other countries) carried to ridiculous extremes (one cannot imagine a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s meriting serious consideration anywhere else in the world). Collectivism of any kind is to be abhorred. So imagine the situation if the human race becomes collective, not through force, not through choice, but as an inherent feature of their biological make-up? That is what the author does, and her prediction on the fate of such a society is clear and unambiguous: death by atrophy of the spirit.

The passage reproduced below encapsulates the author’s philosophy in a nutshell.

…He looked over the class, and continued. “Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors, send them out to the sea to locate the course of the fish our first explorers discovered in the Potomac. A hundred farmers, to relieve those who would prefer to be working over the test tubes than hoeing rows of carrots.”

Another ripple of laughter passed over the students. Barry smiled also; without exception they all worked their hours in the fields.

“For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth,” he said, “there will be no misfits.”

“And no geniuses,” a voice said lazily, and he looked to the rear of the class to see Mark, still slouched down in his chair, his blue eyes bright, grinning slightly. Deliberately he winked at Barry, then closed both eyes again, and apparently returned to sleep.

The community where everybody is forced to work in the fields and children belong to the group and not to their parents seems like a parody of Chairman Mao’s China.

It is interesting to note that Mark saves the society because he is more in tune with nature than the clones who needs the presence of each other for sustenance and cannot survive alone. While stressing individuality, Ms. Wilhelm also seems to advocating the recognition of our umbilical tie to Mother Earth (Gaia, Bhumi, call her whatever you will). Presumably it was the separation which brought about the unnamed catastrophe at the beginning of the story – a scenario which eerily parallels the situation we find ourselves in today…

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