Thursday, October 25, 2012

Watching Ourselves Grow Old

And all of us are going old. It was inevitable, of course. But it's sad, nonetheless.

When will we realize that we are? Growing old, I mean. When will we realize that we can't continue the same lifestyles we always had? That we're no longer immortal. That Time has touched us with his black brush, that we can no longer remain arrogant, uncaring. That we can longer eat and drink and smoke and smoke up like we used to.

When others tell us? When we watch television shows in which it happens to other people, and it strikes us in a blinding epiphany? When our bellies overhang our belts by a certain number of inches (because they already do, you know)? When we wake up from restless sleep, and try to decode the unsettling dreams we struggled through? When a friend dies one day - a heart attack, a brain hemorrhage, or something more innocuous?

'Carpe Diem' is so much more poignant now. Because the number of days we have, they dwindle. They're no longer infinite, stretching ahead of us like an endless golden beach.

It's easy to waste a day, many days. Just sit still in a corner, and the day is gone. That's good in a way, because it helps us survive. But it's also bad, because you wake up one morning, and your life is spent, over, wasted. How do you make it count?

How do you manage to get up from the couch in front of the television, how do you stop your hand from stuffing your mouth, how do you stop doing what's easy and accepted and acceptable? How do you figure out what you want to do? And if it's different from what you're doing right now, how do you make that switch?

It irritates me, in a way. That people are okay to do this. That they're not even aware of their own potential, of what they're wasting. It worries me that I'm the only who's worried.

I tell myself I'm not like them, that I'm not wasting my life. But me, what am I doing? Do I know what I want, am I working towards it?

A flat on a lake-shore. A green painting on a wall. Enough money to travel and see the world. Fulfillment, the knowledge that what I'm doing makes a difference. Books, lots of books, and enough time to read them. A book of my own, but only if it's good. These are some of the things I want, things I have, things I would like more of.

And what I don't want? No TV. No car. No middle-class urban life. Trainspotting pretty much summarized it for me. Maybe I should put it up on a wall, as a reminder. Though it may be too late already.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Ukranians, Families and Communism

Most of us, we spend our lives trying to convert our ordinariness into extra-ordinariness. But people who have been scorched by extraordinary events, they spend their lives trying to get back to normal, to escape the pollution and the corruption of what happened to them.

Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is one such story. On the face of it, it's the story of an 84-year-old Ukranian widower settled in the UK, who falls for a 36-year-old Ukranian woman with fake blond hair and fake boobs. The woman (Valentina) is after the passport that she can get by marrying him. The man's two daughters try to get their father to see reason, to not marry her. When that doesn't work, they try to prove the marriage false and later on to convince him to divorce her.

Lewycka uses this story to explore the complexities of family relationships. The love-hate relationship between the two sisters, the hate-hate relationship between the father and the elder daughter, the love-love relationship between the late mother and two daughters. The trauma that Valentina causes in their lives brings them closer together, helps them understand things about their family that they didn't before, causes them to work through long-held grudges and misunderstandings.

By narrating the story of how the old man and his wife landed in England, Lewycka also explores the century old struggle between communism and capitalism, the excesses of both. Communism gets the worst of her treatment - the 1932 famine that Stalin imposed upon Ukranians to integrate them better into the Soviet Union, the independence struggle that Ukranian Radicals waged against the Soviet Union. The couple also survive Nazi camps and World War II before landing up in England.

A story about a bunch of Ukranians in England could easily have been about a clash of the cultures, but Lewycka thankfully doesn't choose that easy route. The story is set very firmly amongst the Ukranians, with the outside world barely getting a peep in.

Lewycka's greatest merit is that she chooses to show, not tell. The younger daughter is the narrator, and she is just as caught up in the family politics as the rest of the crazy characters. It's up to the reader to interpret her subjective account of the entire ordeal. Maybe Valentina is not as evil as she is shown to be? Maybe the late mother, whom the daughter has always worshiped, also used their father as an escape route? Maybe there is a reason their father is as crazy as he is?

The book's cover says it's a comic novel. But I couldn't see anything comic about it. What's funny about old age, about starvation, about the struggle to survive other people's cruelty? I guess it depends on the reader, as much else does in this book. 
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Manu Joseph's Illicit Happiness

If books could be judged by their covers, then Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People would be funny, cheerful, and eminently edible - in a mango ice-cream kind of way. Well, except for the corpse hanging from the top, of course.

The book largely does live up to the promises its cover makes. It's the story of a dysfunctional Malayali Christian family living in Madras of the 1990s. The father is a failed writer, a journalist, a drunkard. The mother talks to the walls and tries to find dignity in poverty. The younger son is bad at maths, and has to tell himself to 'put fight' every day, just to find the courage to step out of the house. And the elder son, Unni, the bright one, the cartoonist, the glue that held the family together, committed suicide at the age of seventeen.

The book takes up the tale three years after the suicide, when the father, Chacko, suddenly decides to investigate why his son killed himself. He speaks to Unni's friends one by one, he pores over the cartoons that Unni left behind, he goes over each of Unni's actions that day. The mother, Mariamma, wants to know only one thing - why did her beloved Unni not leave a suicide note, to tell her why he was leaving her?

Chacko's search leads him into the shadowy world of philosophy. Unni's conviction that the fight between good and evil has already been won by evil, that the world is an illusion to make people think that the fight is still on, that he is one of the few 'mutated beings' that Nature has created, who can see through the web. (Keanu Reeves, anybody?)

Most teenagers have such illusions at some time or the other. But they leave them behind with their acne and their confidence issues and their awkwardness, when they step into adulthood. Why did Unni not survive, then? Unni, who was bright enough not to fall for the engineering frenzy, who could lead the rest of his class into mischief if he wanted to, who read psychiatric books with names nobody could understand.

Joseph uses the story to explore dysfunctionality, the struggle to fit into society's norms and expectations. Each of the characters has something that doesn't let them fit into the Tam-Brahm wannabe-engineer-children good-husband good-housewife building they live in. He also explores the theme of men's sexual violence on women - pats and prods on the street, an attack by a familiar neighbour, an attempted rape by the side of a village stream.

Yes, there is philosophy, of the teenagerish, 'why-do-I-exist' kind. There is also humour, of the wry kind. But there is also a slight tendency to judge, to lay down the anti-engineering preaching with a heavy hand.

The book meanders a bit in the middle, but finds itself a rapid denouement later on - many apparently diverse strings coming together and meshing with each other quickly to show us the real pattern. It leaves us with a sense of waste, and more than a tinge of sorrow - a natural feeling about any suicide, I suppose.

This second novel from Joseph is definitely a step up from the previous one, Serious Men, both in terms of language and its characters. Serious Men had cardboard cutout characters - the flattest (no reverse pun intended!) of whom was Oparna, who could have been so much more. But in TIHOOP,  Joseph has managed to create better rounded characters. Thoma is funny, Mariamma is heart-wrenching, Chacko is pathetic. Unni remains shadowy, which is natural, given that we only hear about him from other people. 
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