Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Hours: the film, the book , the history

Mrs Dalloway, or the story behind the story behind the story:
When Michael Cunningham – author of The Hours, winner of the Pulitzer – was fifteen, a bookmobile would come into his neighbourhood in Los Angeles. One afternoon, chiefly to impress a crush, he checked out a book that nobody had borrowed before: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
In the novel, considered by many to be Woolf’s finest work, it is a delightful June day in London at the end of the Great War, and Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, hostess of some repute and great breeding, wife of a minor politician, prepares for a society party she will throw that evening. Woven around that single strand by way of a plot, appear characters Clarissa has known in the past, and loved – Peter Walsh, a former beau, and Sally Seton, former best friend (one might even suggest, lover). As also, people she has never known, and would not be likely to meet in the highly class conscious English society of the time, the hapless Septimus Warren Smith, discharged soldier, war hero, and patient of shell shock who will, before the party begins, kill himself. Through the curious crisscross of lives and feelings, Woolf tells the history of all humanity – full of light and darkness, and life and deathwish, and sorrow and memory – in the action of a single day.
Fifteen-year-old Cunningham was transfixed by the book. In the nineties, already a writer of eminence if not stardom, he decided to rework Mrs Dalloway into a modern-day retelling; indeed, he had always wanted to do something with it. But, then, as is wont to be in the hands of a writer in his prime, the book quickly became something else.

The Hours: the book
Cunningham’s The Hours is a complex tribute, not only to Mrs Dalloway, the novel, and Virginia Woolf, its writer – but also to the league of extraordinary ordinary women whose suburban everyday lives Woolf had attempted to make worthy of great art, the value of whose lived experiences she had so vigorously defended in her feminist classic A Room of One’s Own. It is thus, Cunningham points out, a tribute to his mother.
Consequently, there are three parallel stories in The Hours, three women living out one day in their lives. Virginia Woolf, in 1920s England, battles bouts of grave depression as she attempts to write her magnum opus, Mrs Dalloway, coming up with its memorable first line in the course of the morning – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – between interruptions by the maid and bursts of vague anxiety about her sister’s visit that was planned for later on in the day. Mrs Brown, a young housewife in 1940s postwar Los Angeles, pregnant with her second child, reads Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway with a searing hunger that throws the banal reality of her life in an off-kilter haze; even as she bakes a cake for her husband’s birthday, comforts a neighbor due to go into hospital – and in a strangely passionate moment finds herself kissing her – she contemplates suicide. Clarissa Vaughan, the contemporary Mrs Dalloway, a book editor, lives in Manhattan with her life partner Sally, and is throwing a party for her best friend and former lover, Richard-the-writer, who is dying of AIDS. In a continuous loop of engaging dialogue with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham’s book begins: “There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.”    

The Hours: the movie
Translating the multi-layered narrative of this novel – crafted as it is, with emphasis on a poetic quality that is both spare and rich – into the medium of cinema is no mean task, but director Stephen Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare have come as close as it might be possible to a perfect compromise. They have pushed the frontiers of collaborative exercise to make a film that while is close enough to the novel, is true to its own form. That is, in my book, a big feat.  
                The realities of Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf, when set against the looming beauty and confinement of their tactile worlds, become powerful presences in the story. That is where the film provides a remarkable canvas to the complexity of sorrow, through its elaborate attention to detail: Virginia Woolf lies down on the soft mud in the dimly greenish light in her garden, beside a dead bird for whom her nephews and niece have arranged a funeral; Laura Brown drives into a posh hotel, in the afternoon, books a room, gets under the perfectly laundered sheets and fingers her little bottle of sleeping pills wondering what it would be like to die; Clarissa Vaughan separates eggs expertly into a bowl while talking of youth and love and the house they had shared one summer, to Louis, an old friend/beau, Cunningham’s counterpart to Peter Walsh.

Why watch?
The powerhouse performances. Nicole Kidman’s inspired performance as the tormented Virginia Woolf, battling with her demons and pining for London, even as she creates and crafts with the effortless felicity of genius which draws from some deep inscrutable pool within, won her the Academy Award. Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan (Dalloway) and Ed Harris as Richard-the-writer are exquisite, underplayed; Streep articulates with sensitivity the glamorous yet resonant banality of lives where freedoms have come by easily – and Harris, essays with aplomb, the poet who at the threshold of fame, realizes, most clearly, the extent of his failure. However, it is Julianne Moore as Laura Brown that, in my opinion, plays the most complicated, restrained and fiddly role. And finally, in one epiphanic moment, her character brings together all three stories in the climax, where Laura Brown’s chemistry with her little boy transcends to the deepest relationship that is suggested but not narrated in the film; the miasma of absences.     

Why read?
The sheer art of Cunningham’s prose. It is a tribute to Woolf alright, with its poetry, precision and jazz-like riffing where you don’t know exactly where the sentence is going to go and exactly how the meaning is going to strike your soul, but it does, and with what intensity.

T-2 pick: Very very difficult choice – but the book.
Ultimately, the writerly voice has the freedom to problematize every little story, incident, version that it narrates – and thereby, give the characters a subtler finesse; that is the limitless possibility of words. The filmmaker who is operating within the genre of beginning-middle-and-end (in that order) cannot compete easily in this regard since he has to tell the stories in three hours or less – and get out of there. Thus the realizations that were profound in the head sound slightly mawkish out loud, as dialogue, and the deep insights into sexuality and memory that the book offers are partly lost in translation. The lines with which the film is drawn are far less blurry, and therein it expresses the impossible beauty, after all, of misreadings.

Monday, 23 May 2011

On Birthdays

or why the spouse, though kindly, is lying

Now, I am turning 27 tomorrow; apparently it’s the new 17, the spouse assures me. And apparently, heat and dust rules are suspended on the morrow, and I am allowed to spend on something completely unnecessary in its scheme. Except, I am always a little suspicious when he says that. He has other ways of getting back – but that is not the first thing on my mind tonight.

I am not going to be 26 any longer; what can I say, I will miss it. It was a good age.

Being in Rishikesh, though, happily offers me a very good turning-over-yet-another-new-leaf symbol - and don't mistake me,  but I love the faddishness that symbols imply. A dip in the Ganga, thereby, expiating the sins of not just the last 27 years but the last 27 lives possibly. It’s probably a good start.


As I nibble my pre-birthday slice of cake, I indulge in nostalgia:

When I was a kid, my mother threw me great birthdays. My friends from the school bus were invited; though the cake was never store-bought she always fashioned what I requested – say, I wanted a rabbit, I’d get a rabbit; she would cook a fabulous array with my grandmums and aunts and once, even made ice-cream ffrom scratch for everybody. There was always room in the neighbours’ refrigerators during birthdays and stuff.

Of course, being born in May, I never had the whole celebrating-your-birthday-in-the-school gig. The summer holidays would intervene. You went to class in what was called “colour dress” with a packet of sweets to distribute and the teachers would be very nice to you and not mention your spelling. Then, in one of the classes after recess you coyly went up to the teacher and asked to be excused so that you could go around school giving two sweets (from the pile remaining after each classmate had been given two as well) to other teachers. You were permitted to go – and wait for it, that’s not all – your best friend could go with you, to carry the bag, and  to generally be helpful and sakhilike.

That was the best part – you just roamed around the campus, interrupting other people’s classes and smiling sweetly as you handed out the two sweets. Some teachers complimented your dress, and ever since that moment, you always loved them. One year, I remember, I got really lucky – not only did I go once with my best friend Joyeeta, as the Class President (believe me, I'm not proud of this phase of my life) also with the new girl who had no best friend yet.

Then when we became teenagers, we would celebrate birthdays with more exclusivity; the best girlfriends would spend the day at home, chattering and drinking iced lemonade while the sun spewed gold over the grey Calcutta streets and trees, and ah, the sweetness of those long long afternoons. We were still so desperate to add on years to our total. And see, that’s why, 27 cannot be the new 17. At 17, I was desperate to jump a year, become 18, embrace adulthood, Baywatch and the vote all at once.

And that's the difference between then and now – I am definitely not going to want to turn 28 a day sooner than I have to.So there it is, the truth.

Of course, I know I know this obsession with numbers is meaningless, and life is all about cyclicity and fullness – not linear progression – yada yada yada – but hell, I know I’d be lying through my teeth if I pretended I like 28 more than 27.  

And therefore, the wise conclusion: the spouse, though kindly, is lying. 27 is the new 27. And that is precisely why I am going to use the prerogative of adulthood and buy something useless to celebrate it!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

the heat and dust project

                      the heat and dust project: disambiguation

                     1) a budget journey of india, with special reference to the budget bit.
                     2) (to be) a travelogue for harpercollins, who saw something in a crazy seed of an idea and for                      whatever it was worth, decided to lend their name to it.
                     3) a facebook group on the journey referred to in 1.
                     4) a certifiably insane project.

Tajganj, Agra

The heat and dust project was, like other insane ventures, born in a moment of false lucidity infused by tremendous hope. We would, as the age-old fantasy went (‘Moon River, wider than a mile/ I'm crossing you in style some day’), become fulltime travellers/drifters – at least for a while – and backpack through India, joining the ranks of British gap-year kids and Israeli youths fresh out of compulsory military service. We would leave behind hopping and skipping through the fixed hoops of modern-day middle-class adulthood. Desk-jobs, acquiring EMIs – you know, the respectable routine.   

And since in moments of false lucidity one tends to overreach, it appeared in our heads to take the shape of a book – a fun, flaky, speaking, tree-like thing shooting out of nowhere – even on that hopeful misty evening a year or so ago, long before we'd actually ventured out on the journey.

For starters, it seemed like the crazy kind of book that we'd have liked to read ourselves. On Saturday afternoons as we treasured the few hours of utter sloth, or Monday mornings in unhappy autos, book in hand, collars scruffy, the clock in the head ticking ominously. What would it be like, to leave it all, and travel, break-neck or otherwise, and discover that something, between joy and sorrow, that seems to stir inchoate inside?

It would have to be on a budget of course. In fact, a very very tight budget – 500 a day for bead-and-board – and not only because, having left our money-earning routines we would be rather poor, but also because the most effective way of catching an intimate glimpse of the land was if we refused to be limited by the luxuries of travel with frills – if we ate budget, slept budget, and travelled in cramped budgety local buses for long hours. Hadn’t we, like all self-respecting humanities and social science graduates often waxed eloquently on ‘behalf’ of X, Y, or Z groups of ‘the disenfranchised’ and passionately discoursed upon ‘the idea of India’? Perhaps it was high time we got off our self-righteous high horses and did some close-to-the-grounds inspection of our long-held views.

We began our travels in January, 2010, when we traipsed through Rajasthan and Gujarat, and subsequently, in Himachal Pradesh and Western UP. We returned to Delhi and spent a month among backpackers in Paharganj – where, we, as a married Indian couple, did not fit in really – but then we had our friends from the Rajasthan expedition, Moti and Zvika Hillel or The Twins. It helped that, as Israeli boys who’d just finished compulsory army training, they fitted into Paharganj beautifully! 

In May, we ventured into the heartlands; it was then that the journey became the heat and dust project.  
Indeed, there was something so humbling about the whole idea – and something so deeply complex and inward about the nature of what we were expecting – that we decided to turn the solitary act of writing on its head and make it a more collaborative process. Usually a book is written – if one might say so – in a (slightly self-important) solitude and only engages with the reader once it has been published. But given the technologies available today, it always seemed an idea full of possibilities that this act of meaning-making, apparently of grave solitariness, could be teased open into a much more meaningful but open-ended process where others (hopefully, future readers) were involved from the beginning. That is how the idea of the dynamic book was born. After all, we do live in the era of social networking where a certain part of people’s lives has become inextricably linked to the idea of push-button sharing.  And given that the book was to be full of stories that we’d collect from different parts of India, it only made sense to put it ‘out there’ in the cosmos of the world wide web, a virtual hand, signalling to others of its need to share, to participate in a multi-logic space. Or at least that’s the theory behind it.

That is how the facebook group ‘the heat and dust project: a book in motion’ came to be. 

Born on 1 May, the day we began the second leg of the journey (we had covered a 20-day leg in January to assess feasibility within budget constraints) the group quickly became a very crucial part of the effort. As we began giving out funny stories, pictures and confessions while the journey progressed, it became a dynamic space of its own, growing steadily in numbers. Soon, with discussion threads ranging from food to favourite travelogues to suggestions and reprimands to sharing travel experiences, it became a living space full of humour, banter and wisdom. 

As the group continued to grow, we wandered: from Delhi we went to Agra, from Agra to Gwalior; then, journeying  through the intense heat of Madhya Pradesh, to Maharashtra and Karnataka. As we entered Kerala – to Kannur from Coorg, the monsoons arrived. We journeyed down the coast to Kanyakumari and then climbed our way upwards through the beauties of Tamil Nadu. Completely broke and beleaguered in Chennai, we decided to take a break.

That break became a long one.

It is not easy to snip of fetters, even for a month or two, turns out.

Now we are here, finally, beginning our travels again. It is the heat and dust project, period; we still have limited funds; we mean to stick to the budget; we don’t know where we are going next; there are worries that stick like leeches to the inside of the soul; we can’t predict the ending.

So – a day at a time – we must take it.

As I write this, we’re in Haridwar, the gateway to the hills and it was a long long journey from Delhi in a rickety bus but we reached at dusk when a pale full moon was gleaming over the waters. We’re worried sometimes that we have let the last two days just go by, vaguely, tiredly, we’ve let it go waste, we accost each other guiltily, for we were exhausted. But it is okay I guess.

Sometimes it is good enough to simply begin.

The new therapist

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that an unemployed young woman with aspirations to a novel or two must be in search of a therapist. There are obstacles to this though: said young woman, in spite of the severity of her angst, cannot possibly afford one.

In my case, however, the search for a therapist had begun much earlier – ever since age 13 to be precise, when I read Erich Segal’s Doctors and first came across the word “shrink”. It was imperative that I be analyzed immediately. The last time I had felt this strongly about something was when in Class 4 Amrapali Basu came one morning wearing a pair of the most dignified looking spectacles ever – and I prayed and prayed that my eyes might be diagnosed myopic too. I began reading in the dark in sheer desperation. I was blessed with glasses in a year, although the cosmic negotiations for the therapist took far longer. Over the next few years, I acquired several fashionable “issues”, persevered with tense inward strife and right before my Class X boards, was finally rewarded with a “counsellor”. It was good enough; the parents, practically blackmailed by their only offspring who was about to take the first big exam of middle-class Bengali life, paid the hefty fee.

At age 25 when the husband and I returned to Calcutta, having given up our shiny corporate jobs, apparently to "do our own thing" the parents probably wouldn’t have minded paying for a therapist, if only to convince me of my monumental immaturity; naturally that is exactly why it wouldn’t do one bit to accede. That was when my 2-year-old nephew, Saksham, stepped into the role smartly, displaying intuitive understanding of several schools of thought in contemporary psychotherapy. 

At the centre of the engagement was the Freudian couch. He showed me its innate purpose: strew with toys, smear with food of choice – cheese – and then sprawl on, to watch cartoons. Naturally, being a self-respecting therapist, the programmes were of his choice; I was to merely benefit from them.

He was apparently aware of the Gestalt model. We’d sit in the balcony when it rained, our hands stretched outside the black grilles and the sound of the swishing trees in our ears – and in the shift from the talking cure to the experiential sense, the realness of raindrops plopping fatly on my palm – the grey cloud from my heart would be sucked out and dispersed among its brothers in the sky.

Saksham was superior to general shrinks in several ways:
1)      He was available through the day – and much of the night.
2)      The monetary investment was minimal. A balloon or a twenty-rupee toy of his choice if I was delegated to pick him up from school. (A toywallah sat very strategically just outside the gates.) A book once in a while, and that was not something he ever expected. Therapy hours could always be exchanged for play hours.
3)      Most importantly, he had the unique distinction of operating upon grief. The following story will explain.

Early one morning around 5, I found him wandering about the hall. Neither of us were morning people really – but he was apparently looking for water and I had woken up from an acute anxiety attack compounded by the various characters – real and fictional – in my life; there are, I’ll have you know, many anxieties in remaining at home (make that the husband’s home), unemployed (possible unemployable), with nothing to show for except a long phantom pregnancy of a book in medias res. We met outside the kitchen, I was sighing; he indicated we might do well to sprawl on the couch and watch the telly – everyone else was asleep. He also indicated that he wanted the channel with the animals.

Soon we were gripped. Discovery Channel was in the midst of a heart-rending story about an elephant pack in Indonesia where a baby elephant had been injured badly. A group of intrepid animal lovers and surgeons journeyed deep inside the forests, managed to locate the injured calf, explain to the rest of the clan that they meant well (I’m guessing this bit as I was slightly woozy and not exactly paying too much attention) and tranquilized the baby. Then they carried out an operation – wielding scalpels and scissors and large mounds of gauze – which was shown in great detail; it all ended well as there was happy footage from “a few weeks later” of the restored baby prancing among the trees and spraying water from its trunk fulfilledly. Saksham was, however, absolutely transfixed with the surgery.

Through the rest of that day and on many days after that, he would spread out his doctor-kit and operate upon me, the pretend-baby elephant, and save my life. Soon, I began to look forward to it. I think, there is no sensation finer that being the passive recipient of being saved. And somehow, in that curious love that a little boy with curly hair and dark eyes could show repeatedly for a baby Indonesian elephant with absurdly big ears (acted out by his aunt in her green PJs), through that concern and empathy and dexterous scalpel-wielding, every time he operated on my sorrows too; a hundred times over, he saved my life.

(This was a piece that Grazia had asked me to contribute for a story they were doing about "the new twists in classic relationships". I figured that the relationship with a therapist was fashionable enough to be classic. Saksham Jha, the therapist/nephew is now 3 years and one-quarter old and lives in Moscow with his parents and baby sister. He still takes a keen interest in elephants.)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Multiculti King Lear: a review

To Whom it May Concern by Priscila Uppal
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Pages: 342

Priscila Uppal’s second novel To Whom It May Concern is an intriguing and resonant book. It is deep, layered, and written with a kind of luminous prose that, at its best, is whittled with fine felicity. It also, self-reflexively, draws attention to the strong element of intertextual engagement in its craft. The blurb informs us that this is a “modern, multicultural re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear”. That this nugget is handed out – fait accompli – at the very outset, poses an interesting problem: this overt suggestion by the author automatically prods the mind towards a certain kind of reading. Unconsciously the mind begins to look for parallels with King Lear – and deviations; not that there is anything wrong with this approach or this reading but the fact that it as good as lays out a map for the reader means that the book’s dialogue with King Lear is an element that is very very important to the author, so important that it is not enough that the text throws it up but that it must be laid bare. 

Set in Ottawa, the novel centres around the Dange family  – Hardev, the quadriplegic father who is attempting to hold his family together even as the bank forecloses on their house and the disability benefits offered by the government goes through severe cuts; Isobel, his estranged French-Canadian wife who had brought up the girls but is rather remote from their inner lives;  Birendra, the oldest daughter who is about to get married to the suave government servant Victor; Emile, the second son, a brooding intellectual who studies curses and strives to come to terms with his own sexuality; and Dorothy, the youngest child, who is deaf but collects stories as a hobby from a noisy bar close to the tattoo and body piercing parlour where she works. The radiant cast of characters, each sharply drawn with memorable quirks and notions, also includes Rodriguez, Hardev’s homecare worker whose affection subsumes his criminal tendencies and Mohab, Emile’s Iranian friend/lover who is striving to reconcile his sexuality with his spiritual need to situate himself within Islam.

The book engages closely with the question of multiculturalism – combining a subtle critique of the jingoistic jargon of a nation that has only in the recent past moved away from its WASP fixation and made a virtue of multiculturalism, of its “salad-bowl” culture (that is self-consciously distinct from the “melting-pot” that the USA prides itself on being) – and its attendant mythos. But at the same time, Uppal’s treatment of this theme is by no means simplistic – the elaborate lies of Rodriguez are as revealing as his truths. The fantasy he conjures to half-entertain Hardev and half-tolerate himself – that he is an immigrant with a large family, works several shifts to make ends meet and is too tired to study for the citizenship test – is an easier reality for him to bear than the severity of his truth: he was born in Canada, has served short prison terms for shop-lifting, and in his own words – “I guess I should tell you first that I am the worst kind of man. I am a man without family (P. 287).”

And family is what emerges as the central concern of To Whom It May Concern – the strand that Uppal specifically  singles out from the rich and dense web of sorrow and longing that King Lear is; she singles it out to tease open its layers, lend light on its fissures, solder it apart and then put it together again. Thus, while Shakespeare’s King Lear is arguably one of the greatest tragedies ever, in this novelized version set in this day and age, the arc of the story explores both the fracturing of the selves and families, and the hints of healing – from the linearity of tragedy as an art form to the robust roundness of the real, where tragic and comedic thrive together and resurface again and again in the course of life.

Uppal uses several postmodern strategies in her narrative. Towards the end of the book, several lies are revealed and we find that the intrusive author has often not been very helpful; but while this might not work for everybody, the ease with which Uppal marks shifts of time, space and point of view, without letting one’s attention falter is brilliant. The handling of sexuality is sensitive if touched with a dash of the bold. I do not recall anything I’ve read of late that compares with the raw power of the scene where Birendra has her clitoris pierced with a ring; as Dorothy who has been professionally trained in this prepares to do it, the sisters bond – and share secrets. The moment becomes an epiphanic one, not only for Birendra, but as a new high in the depiction of relationships between women in fiction. A long distance ahead, from what Virginia Woolf had pointed out as the watershed moment in literature, in A Room of One’s Own:
‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. … It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex[1].

In the final analysis, To Whom It May Concern is an important book, and its voice is both original and sensitive. My quibble with the novel however is this: Uppal is a seasoned academic, and sometimes that tends to seep into her style; for instance, the authorial intrusion at the very end (Chapter 20) appears a little forced. Something that makes the book rather too aware, too heavy. I do hope that in future novels, Uppal will wear her considerable learning a little more lightly. 

(Published in Indian Literature, May)

[1] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own (1929). New Delhi: UBS, 2004