Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women by Charles Bukowski: Impressions

The Internet is a strange amazing thing, and one without which life seems unimaginable now. One reads and meets the most incredible beings here, who sometimes repulse, sometimes attract and sometimes change one's life. I came upon one such curious creature called Charles Bukowski here. He came as a wave on social media. Suddenly one was seeing Charles Bukowski being quoted everywhere; and by everywhere I mean Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Anyone who frequents these social media sites will know about waves like these: Rumi has had one, Neruda has had one, Agha Shahid Ali has had one. Lovers go about looking for their words – lovers of people, lovers of words, lovers of love. I am one too. So imagine how struck I was when I read this by Bukowski: Find what you love and let it kill you. No soft wave of love this; it was like being pounded by a big wall of water. And then came more such lines. Naturally, I ran off to Flipkart to buy me a Bukowski.

A prolific American author, Charles Bukowski has written extensively and compared to some of the finest writers of the 20 stood out for its title: Women (and the wonderful cover graphic!). I had to know what the great CB, who wrote brutally about love, had to say about women. So I bought it, read it, and now I am disappointed.

To put it mildly, 'Women' is not Bukowski's best work. Yes, the book is dark and direct, in true CB style, but there are few, if any, flashes of genius that I was seeking. Perhaps I was turned off by the gritty Americanism of the book. Such oppressive superfluousness! American literature has never appealed to me and Bukowski's 'Women' did nothing to change that.

 'Women' is a seemingly autobiographical story about a noir poet, whose new-found fame helps fund his debauched lifestyle. Protagonist Henry Chinaski is about 50 years old, an unrepentant alcoholic and will sleep with just about any woman. Wild women, volatile women, young women, blonde women, black women, fat women, thin women, trippy women, good women, whore women... Chinaski's conquests are endless. There is a love interest called Lydia in the beginning, but once she fades out, the plot becomes a blur. Tammie, Iris, Sara, Katherine, Debra, Cecelia, Valencia, Tanya, Liza, Dee Dee become one indistinguishable blob – a mass of breasts, legs, ass, hair, mouth and sex. They all come, drink, fuck and leave. We find Chinaski waking up at noon with a hangover, puking, gambling at the racetrack, drinking some more, and looking for his next fuck.

Occasionally, we find him flying to one city or another to give a poetry reading. The book almost reads like soft porn, but for CB's existential angst peppering its pages. The story ends with a hint of Chinaski's transformation, but one comes away with nothing.

Because Bukowski is a good writer, you cannot put the book away easily. You go on reading and hoping there will be something of beauty, of substance in these 'Women', only to find hollow shells. His character sketches do not impress, except for one or two. Well, the characters have no real 'page time' to be able to reveal themselves. Chinaski's drinking-­whoring routine reads depressingly dull and monotonous, save for a few occasional insights about the human condition. At the end of it, the book felt like a waste of time, and life's too short for bad fiction. Skip it.

In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler: Impressions

Some authors make you laugh, some authors make you cry, and some authors mean business. Ensler means business, grabbing you by your gullet, making you laugh and cry all at once. But Ensler's business isn't about selling copies (although she happens to be an international bestseller); it is about flipping radical switches. Anyone who has watched the play, 'Vagina Monologues', written by her will know how she does what she does. She glides easily underneath the thick crust of what is considered socially acceptable, and speaks loudly and clearly of things most of us don't even like to admit to ourselves. 'In the Body of the World' is not just Eve Ensler's memoir; it could be the story of every woman, every soul that wears a body, every body that inhabits this world.

'In the Body of the World' is primarily an account of Ensler's battle with cancer, but also of her deeply troubled childhood and her work in the Congo. Everything in this memoir is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Ensler has been around the world as an environmental and women's rights activist, but only when she starts working in war­-stricken Congo does she understand the extent of cruelty humans are capable of. Amidst the cancer of human greed, she is also diagnosed with cancer and from there begins her journey of suffering and healing. Each time she speaks of the physical pain of the treatment, emotional traumas from her past surface.

Her incestuous and abusive father, her detached mother, her drug and alcohol­-fueled wild teenage years all form a flux of pain and are released onto the pages. These fuse with the pain of war crimes and chemotherapy, and threaten to swallow her in an impossible blackhole. But she rises, and rises and picks you up along the way.

Ensler's words are as indomitable as her spirit. There is so much self ­realisation, such brilliant self ­aware writing that it dazzles. But what is most remarkable, most inspiring is the complete lack of inhibition, of shame. The humanness she allows herself, is very liberating. She lets you in on her most visceral truths simply and is unapologetic about it. You could be reading about her exploding poop bags, enemas, incontinence and vomit and be smiling or crying through it; but never cringing. You could be reading about her father raping her, her sex life, or her unconventional views on relationships, but not judging. In baring her vulnerabilities and failures, she allows herself and the reader fallibility and imperfection. And in this, lies her grandness.

Few words that come to mind when I try to describe Ensler's style of writing: clarity, brutal honesty and poetry. It's a lethal combination, really. She is beautiful to the extent of painfulness. Like brilliant light that blinds you. When she speaks, you listen; when she orders, you obey.  I have been shaken and slapped and kicked out of my stupor of ordinariness, by Ensler's extraordinary story.

I've fallen asleep with her words in my blood, and woken up with the taste of cancer, incest and horrific war crimes in my mouth. It is unputdownable, undeniable. Like the cancer and Congo changed Ensler, this book will change you. READ IT.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Helpline by Uday Mane: Impressions

'The Helpline' will always be among the most special of the books I've reviewed for two reasons. One, because the author, Uday Mane, who is a good friend, sent me the book at the manuscript stage for my opinion and has very kindly put my name on the acknowledgments page; two, because it is a striking story. In fact, it is one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I've read in a long time. And no, I'm not saying this because Uday is a friend. I have a lot of qualms about this book, but we'll come back to that later. Let me talk about why this story is so beautiful, first.

'The Helpline' opens with protagonist Samir Masand in a bad state, battling depression and suicidal thoughts. He is a 20-year-old college dropout, who has shut the world out because of a personal tragedy and the ensuing guilt. Despite the best efforts of his friend, Neha, he refuses to be drawn out of his shell. He is seemingly spiraling out of control, until one day, he decides to call a suicide helpline. On the other side of the phone is Rachel, who will change the course of his life. It is through Samir's telling  of his story to Rachel that his life unfolds before us. We hear about Ria, Samir's love interest, their courtship, and an unexpected climax. But the best part is the climax after the climax! You want to read this book for the part where Rachel's identity is revealed!!!

Mane builds up the plot beautifully, with a not too linear narrative. We come back to the protagonist's present sometimes, but the story is mainly about his past. His characters are well-rounded with attention to detail. Apart from the main characters, the minor ones like Samir's grandpa (Nana), Ria's brother Siddharth – a special child with Down's Syndrome, Parker Chacha, the cafe owner, also become endearing. Two more things that struck me as special in the story are the prologue, which is a dream sequence, and an episode where Samir and Ria go to a lake. The prologue is powerful in its 'subconscious' manner of writing, while the lake episode is extraordinarily romantic. The two climaxes, of course, take the cake.

Mane keeps his narrative fairly fast-paced, but there are parts where it tends to slow down. Mane is a good story-teller, but he has to evolve a lot as a writer. My biggest grouse is against his editor, who seems to have done a lousy job. The plot could have been made tighter, and goodness, the shoddy proofing!  There are too many instances of grammatical ineptitude and not to mention the spelling errors. I hope there will be corrections if a second edition comes out. I also was unhappy with the epilogue, which seemed forced and unnecessary. I don't remember reading it in the manuscript and liking the ending better.

The writer's grip on the language is not his strongest point, but he has full marks for the narrative art. 'The Helpline' is only Mane's first book, and I know it is the beginning of a long journey for him. I've known him for close to four years now and I have enthusiastically followed the short stories on his blog. In fact, he has slyly incorporated two of his best in the novel. He is a gifted story-teller and I know he will only get better with his subsequent works. 'The Helpline' is a wonderful debut, and certainly one of my favourites!

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant: Impressions

If I had to pick one work of non-fiction from among the many I've read over the years, 'Servants of the Goddess: the Modern-day Devadasis' would be an easy choice. Author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant has a gift of style that can trump many novelists. She holds the reader's attention from the word go, and who can turn away from a title like 'Servants of the Goddess'? Especially people like me, who take an avid interest in Humanities. When the book came up for a review, the blurb promised me insights on social structures, caste systems, religion, mythology, and tradition surrounding the Devadasi system. And then there was some amount of shock that made me pick it up.

That the Devadasi system should still exist in a big enough way for books to be written about it, shocked me. Living in a metropolis, enjoying the freedom and privileges of education and financial freedom, it is easy to push the knowledge of the oppressed into the recesses of one's consciousness. We don't like to acknowledge our failings as a society, as a government, as human beings. Often, we need an outsider's perspective to wake up to our home truths; and that is exactly what 'Servants of the Goddess' does. The book not only reveals important social issues, but also the author's beautiful spirit.

Kermorgant is an author, researcher and documentary film-maker based in Paris, and she has worked on several projects highlighting social issues in India. She comes to Kalyana in Karnataka in 2002, hoping to make a documentary on the Devadasis of the region, for BBC. Kermorgant recounts her journey in this book, the trials she faced, the prejudices she learnt about, and the friendships she forged. With an astute interpreter, Vani, by her side, Kermorgant penetrates the cloistered society of lower caste devadasis and gains their trust. She understands the religious, economic and social motivations and implications of the devadasi system, often shocked and saddened by the vicious cycle that sustains it.

A few months later, she returns with a film crew and after numerous hitches manages to capture on film the custom of dedicating young girls to the Goddess Yellamma, the implicit sexual slavery, the eventual prostitution and the pitiful social position of these women locked into the system. Kermorgant learns how devadasis choose not to break away from this tradition owing to deep-rooted superstitions/ religious beliefs in the powers of the Goddess. But underneath it all, she is inspired by the dignity and resilience of these women. However, the tables turn during the editing phase, when her co-director distorts the film, failing to highlight the social and economic plight of these women. Angry, Kermorgant, sues the production company, and the film still hangs in a limbo.

Kermorgant takes recourse in this book, telling her side of the story. She gives us a powerful narrative, often exposing the prejudices we live with and perhaps even unconsciously condone. She rightfully points fingers at our lackadaisical system of reforms and unwillingness to bridge the caste gaps. The book is, however, not entirely free of the 'White Man's complex', where (s)he wants to 'civilize us barbarians'. But for the most part, it is deeply insightful and empathetic to the Indian way.  Also apparent is the author's erudition and extent of research. She starts the chapters beautifully with relevant verses from several Indian religious scriptures and ends them thought-provokingly.

It's a beautiful, informative book, really. Read it.