Apr 21, 2018

Notes on October

Let me state at the onset that I liked Piku, Soojit Sircar (director) & Juhi Chuturvedi's (writer) last collaboration, much more than October, their latest. While the former flowed seamlessly, unencumbered by false notes or an at-times-sluggish pace, October is sometimes bogged down by the weight of what it wants to say. Having said this, it is an important and memorable film. How many films have you seen in the last 2 years about which you can say this?

The problem with October is its protagonist Dan (Varun Dhawan); it is too easy to dismiss him as petulant, selfish, arrogant, inconsiderate and annoying. He is all that and perhaps something more. That something more, no I'm not talking abt his capacity for unconditional love, is neither hinted nor painted with broad strokes. It is simply there if you care to see. Dan reminded me of those children that used to be classified as 'problem child' during my childhood. Today it is said that they 'lie on the spectrum'. Whether it is Autism or Asperger's or something less defined, these folks find it difficult to fit in and say or see most things the way others do. I have known many such kids who sorely lacked social skills and always stood out unfavourably. Not only do such kids come across but they often are indeed self centred and self contained in ways that can seem offensive. Once Dan has decided to take care of Shiuli, he shows no consideration for his parents or his close friends, or even his own welfare. While we applaud and cheer for him, it is obvious that his decision is neither grounded in reason nor practical.

Much more than the 2 young protagonists, i felt invested in the peripheral characters like Shilu's mom, Dan's two best friends, and his weary manager. In fact the scene with both Dan and Shiuli's mothers in it, wrenched a lot more out of me than anything else in the film. The former's appears only briefly but her weary hopelessness breaks your heart. She knows Dan better more than anyone and is aware that the boy has lost something precious forever and there is no going back. Shiuli's mother on the other hand is played by Gitanjali Rao with such calm and understated poignancy that you are pinned by the weight of her grief and loss. A person of science, her faith is answered in strange ways. In what is perhaps one of the film's most beautiful scenes, she sits besides Dan with a steaming mug of tea at dawn and says something that expresses why he is so precious to her. Dan is not the child every mother would have wished, but Dan is definitely the best friend every mother will wish for their child.

The parts that work wonderfully and elevate the film are Shantanu Moitra's stunning background score and Avik Mukhopadhay's cinematography. The soaring shots of Kullu seem almost like oxygen after the sterile indoor shots of the hospital.

In a time where gruesome rapes are being defended or being leveraged for ideological and personal gains, Sircar is one of the few directors who is brave enough to tackle the subject of difficult love. Whether it is for a cantankerous and selfish parent (Piku), or for a young girl whose vegetative state  makes unimaginable demands on others, or even a mother's boundless love for a problem child who is not like the others and keeps her awake at night. There is a beautifully wise line in Piku where referring to her father, Deepika Padukone tells Irfan Khan, "Ek umar ke baad, khud se zinda rehni ki icha khatam ho jaati hai. Unhey zinda rakhna padta hai." 

Both Piku and October explores why and how those who love unconditionally, dare to tread along paths that are not only arduous, but also hopeless. 

Jul 19, 2017

Some Thoughts On the FOP (First Day of Period) Leave Policy

So, the weekend was washed away in the deluge of arguments in favour of & against the First Day of Period (FOP) policy in the workplace. The starting point in this latest Twitter debate was when digital content agency Culture Machine announced the launch of its FOP policy in early June. This was followed by the company starting a Change.org petition to the Ministry of Child Development to introduce this policy across all organisations. Predictably, this was followed by arguments both lucid & banal in favour of and against the policy. While many have made the case that this is a step towards shaping the workplace in a way that accommodates women’s unique needs, others have argued that such a move will be construed as a sign of weakness, also inhibiting the cause of women’s recruitment even further.

I’m looking at this issue from the prism of a working woman and one who employs women in her team and household. 

As a woman employee, I’ve realised that we will always have ‘special needs’ and anybody who thinks those needs will taper off as the child grows up, is fooling herself. These needs are as much about our unique biological functions (menstruation, childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause) as our social roles (mother, home manager, daughter-in-law). I could shout myself hoarse asking why it is so, but the fact is it has largely been my responsibility to ensure my kid’s vaccinations were on time, that her diet meets certain standards, that her school work is up to date. Her teachers, coach, our neighbours and our maids, unfailingly contact me whenever there is an issue concerning the household or our daughter. I am not the exception – 8 out of 10 working women I know, lead similar lives.

My current workplace has fantastic HR policies which strive to offer employees excellent work-life balance. We have a work-from-home policy, we have remote access-enabled workstations, and my manager has never asked me ‘why’ whenever I’ve applied for leave. Nevertheless, there have been instances when a pressing requirement at home has clashed with a commitment at work, and the former has taken a backseat. Nobody forced me to, it simply had to be done. The reality today is that companies are hiring increasingly lean teams which means there really isn’t much scope to transfer or share your workload with another. In such a scenario, companies will prefer the more dependable, the safer bet, when it comes to hiring.

Speaking as a woman who has managed all-women teams and employs women at her home, I’d like to share an incident that took place in 2015. We were living in Abu Dhabi then where it’s fairly common to employ men for domestic chores. Frankly, the degree of professionalism I observed in those men was far better than any ‘maid’ I’ve ever had – no gossip, no demands for ‘extra clothes’ or ‘salary advance’, minimal fuss and far quicker service. When Rajendra, my domestic help, had to return to India as his visa had expired and I was looking for a replacement, I had a distinct preference for a male helper.

They just suited me better. Till I met Laxmi, who I learnt would be deported back to India if she couldn’t supplement her income to meet her basic visa requirements. I don’t think I chose Laxmi as much as I gave in to her brother’s entreaties. Was I very happy with my choice? No. 
Much later, after I’d returned to India and re-joined work, I realised that my mindset was a reflection of how HR works. It is about putting my money on the headcount that serves me best.

As a part of the Diversity & Inclusion CoE in my organisation, I know how difficult it is to get the ‘right’ women candidates for many of the senior-level recruitments we do. Added to this is the problem of a steep drop in women employees as they advance from the Assistant Manager to Manager roles – most of them get married and are either forced by circumstances or choose to quit.  Then comes maternity and the guilt associated with long hours, not being able to breast-feed your child, lack of a support system, is enormous. I am not sure introducing different kinds of leave policy for each of these situations which women tackle is the answer. Why then I’d argue, we must also introduce some sort of leave for employees whose children are appearing for their Board exams, or for those whose children qualify for school or state level sports competitions! I know of a female colleague whose son has to travel alone for his chess competitions as her manager has refused to grant her leave so frequently (3-4 days every few months.)

The answer in my view, doesn’t lie in Policy making, instead must be seen from the prism of Culture Building. Yes, I know that while the former is binding, the other is subjective and may not ensure a uniform employee experience. But Policy Making alone won’t suffice – make FOP mandatory and you will still have women swallowing pain killers and turning up at work because that’s what their role or manager demands. I’d much rather go with manager sensitization and a focused and continuous thrust on making the workplace as employee friendly as possible. Trust me, all it takes is an understanding manager. Replace and reward people, not policies, is what I’d stress on. 

Apr 18, 2017

Notes on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It cannot be a coincidence that 3 of the several award-winning novels published in the US in the last 2 years, all deal with the question of race and America’s unreconciled problem with it. While The Sellout is a comic satire about race, Between the World and Me explores the whole question of destiny and free-agency as evinced in a Black life, and The Underground Railway (TUR) is a fictional account of the appalling life on a Southern plantation and how similar it was to the one in the free world outside then.
There is much in TUR to make the reader angry even as we shudder in disgust at the description of the putrefying Black bodies that hang from trees along a path in North Carolina ironically called the Freedom Trail. However, it is not the graphic descriptions of the routine outrages of plantation life that are particularly revealing or poignant. After you’ve read pages full of descriptions of daily whippings, rape, assault, castrations, wounds being doused with pepper water, you reach a point when you wonder, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”. Whitehead knows this and it is to his credit that throughout the novel, he spends time focusing attention on the minor deprivations, the sense of helpless longing for freedom that chains every slave, the stink of fear that taints even the free slaves, the almost unbearable poignancy captured in the familiar, yet unimaginable luxury of a Black being the first recipient of a book and inhaling the scent of its unwrinkled pages. Such descriptions form the powerful engine that draws this tale of abomination and hope across the American deep South from Georgia, to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana to the hope of a frontier far beyond the tentacles of slavery. 

The novel opens with Ajarry’s story which forms a kind of prologue to that of our heroine Cora, who is a slave on a Georgia plantation. Ajarry was kidnapped in Africa, shipped abroad a slaveship and bought and sold several times before she landed on the Randall plantation in Georgia where she gave birth to Cora’s mother Mabel. There is a matter-of-fact, unabashed tone to the hardships that accost Ajarry which act as a kind of prelude to the horrors that Cora’s story contains. Cora’s story is interspersed with those of the other major characters such as Caesar, Ridgeway, Mabel, and Sam. Cora’s nemesis in the novel is a relentless slave catcher Ridgeway whose code of personal honour does not allow him to return home empty handed.

Cora’s story begins on the Randall plantation which is ruled by the vicious Randall brothers and their foreman Marshall. While freedom may seem like am impossible dream here, we are told “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night.” Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped from the plantation, abandoning her 11-year-old daughter. Left a “stray”, Cora develops the unique ability to silently question and rail against the misfortunes that govern the lives of the plantation slaves. This is important since she is our protagonist who escapes from the plantation at 16 and the rest of the novel is the story of her flight across different American states, her experiences of brief moments of fulfilment and joy, the selfless support she receives from several white Abolitionists and free slaves on the run, the macabre public hangings she spies as she lies hidden, Ann-Frank-like, in a secret attic in North Carolina, and the duplicitous kindness of the white folks she encounters in North Carolina.

Colman skilfully reveals to us the less-than-pure motivations of the white folk who appear to be supportive of the Negro emancipation cause.  While the underground railway of the title refers to a secret railway carriage that runs deep in the tunnels of the South, working to ferry escaped slaves to the North, its historical counterpart is actually the network of white abolitionists and free slaves who created a secret system of safe houses, coded messages, safe passages, and tips that enabled escaped slaves to reach freedom. Whether it’s an actual railway car or a resistance movement, there is no doubting its role in offering a beacon of hope to so many impoverished, unfortunate lives.
What is unmistakable in the novel’s tone is Colman’s raging anger at the country of his birth and its legacy of bloodshed and oppression. This is beyond disgust or mere cringing or embarrassment and makes the read that much more compelling. Compare this, “The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” with a line like, “Throughout 1990, Pandits are picked up selectively and put to death. They are killed because Kashmir needs to be cleansed of them.” (more on the 2nd novel hopefully in my next post later,) and you will know what I am talking about.

One of the things that struck me as I read was the truism of “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In Cora’s world, slave patrollers “required no reason to stop a person apart from color.” Compare this with the spate of police brutality videos that have exploded across America in the past 2 years where white policemen routinely and with little cause, stop, harass and often shoot men of colour, coupled with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that runs through American politics and policy today. The novel achieves a precarious balance in its end, a note of faint hope that accompanies the realisation that centuries of death and oppression cannot be washed away by the faint promise of a better tomorrow. However, it is better than living without hope.

May 11, 2016

Notes on Child-44

Along with the award-winning fiction and classics that I dig, I’m also a huge fan of the paperback thriller. There’s quite nothing like a Lee Child or Jo Nesbo to forget abt your cares for a while and immerse yourself in the world of mutilated bodies, cryptic talismans and the brooding alcoholic detective. So, it is no wonder that I would love Child 44 – Tom Smith’s debut novel set in Stalin’s Russia. I must add that this is unlike any thriller I’ve read before as the tension here has as much to do with the chase of a dangerous psychopath who is murdering children around the western countryside and carving out their stomach, as it is abt the State machinery which is pursuing the protagonist Leo Demidov, a member of the State Police (MGB), for his efforts to catch the murderer. In case you are rightly puzzled, this is because in Stalinist Russia, crimes such as murder, burglary and prostitution cannot exist and therefore, the murders must be written off as accidents unless Leo can prove otheriwise and stop the murderer. Thus, the chase for the serial killer is intertwined by the State Police’s machinations, persecution, and eventual hunt of Leo & his beautiful wife Raisa.

The novel’s prologue describes the disappearance of a young boy Andrei who had gone hunting in the forest with his younger brother. Jumping several decades, the novel then brings us to the dead body of a young boy, Arkady, who may have committed suicide on the railway tracks. Parallel to this thread is introduced the thread abt Anatoly, a veterinarian, who is suspected by the MGB of being a spy and is pursued and eventually killed by them. The protagonist Leo Demidov is part of the team which investigates Arkady’s death & writes it off as suicide, as well as the team which finally captures Anatoly.

Leo is a part of the MGB whose task is to wipe out the faintest stench of any real or imagined dissent or disloyalty to the State through continuous spying, interrogation, torture, threats & lies. This is a world where Anatoly, a respectable veterinarian, is forced to flee from his home as he fears the net is closing around him, though he has committed no wrong & is simply ‘suspected’ of being a foreign spy. Leo is a part of the system that persecutes innocent citizens like Anatoly and believes that in doing so, he’s actually serving the country. Like most of his colleagues, he too initially rejects evidence that a murderer is committing the killings around the countryside. It is only when he becomes a pawn in bureaucratic politics and is framed for being disloyal to the State, does he slowly begin to reexamine the foundations on which his profession has rested. He realizes that he is the only one who can apprehend & stop the murderer since the actual State refuses to even accept that there have been any murders!

Alongside the story of Leo’s gradual awakening, Tom Smith also infuses the thriller with the slowly-raveling & unusual love story of Leo & his wife Raisa. It is a love that is neither rooted in the conventional framework of marital affection & respect, nor does it seek succor from some deep-seated passion. Raisa, a school teacher & free thinker, who is critical of the Soviet State’s politics and Leo’s role in furthering its atrocities, emerges as his equal and his true partner once Leo becomes a fugitive, being relentlessly punished for questioning the State’s decree. When love finally blossoms between the two, it is with the poignant acceptance that it is bound to be fleeting. 

The second half of the novel revolves around Leo’s demotion & exile where he continues to invstigate the murders with Raisa’s support. While the ending is a bit too pat for my liking, one also realizes that a tragic end, while more realistic, wouldn’t necessarily be more satisfying. Perhaps my only genuine crib is that the murderer is never fully fleshed out or terrifying, perhaps because the MGB and State policies are far more so. 

Apr 13, 2016

Intolerance, Liberalism, Dissent, and the Arrogance of Power

One cannot be an Indian & stay insulated from the happenings that are tearing my country apart currently. To say that this deep divisiveness is unprecedented in India’s history or wholly unexpected, is to be naïve or deliberately ignorant. Starting from the Partition, to the Khalistan Movement, the Mandal Commission agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, to the Godhra massacre, our checkered history has more stains than stars. Nor are these incidents such that they can be easily pushed under the rug of a distant past – party workers hacking members of rival parties to death, point blank shootings of critiques of Hinduism, calls for purging Mumbai of non-marathis, destruction of entire belts of Dalit villages in Haryana, rape & abduction of Hindu girls in Assam & WB – these incidents have continued to dot the pages of our national & regional dailies. It would be a matter of individual ideology & also depend on which data one would be likely to refer to in order to argue for or against the allegation that we are becoming more intolerant under the current government.

It is no secret that Liberals & intellectuals across the country openly mourned that “the fascists have won” when the BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Nor can one blame them entirely -- that Mr Modi is cut from a very different cloth than the previous BJP PM Mr AB Vajpayee was quite apparent to all. Modi’s pedigree as a RSS stalwart who has made his way up the ranks of the party was proudly touted in his tenure as Gujarat CM & his pre-election campaign. His past record during the Godhra riots, completely unapologetic stance in its aftermath, and aura of arrogance, didn’t win him many friends. While his promised mandate to the electorate was reforms, minimum governance, and boost to manufacturing, little or no profress has been made on either of these areas. Economists like Swaminathan Ankleshwar Aiyer today lament that Modi has shown none of the Capitalist-minded reforms that many Liberals feared. Instead, turning on the TV these days means witnessing yet another public spat between the BJP & Kejriwal/Rahul Gandhi, or listening to obnoxious & utterly shameful pronouncements from minor BJP leaders & supporters. One’s heart goes out to BJP spokespersons like Nalin Kohli or Sambit Patra who are called upon every evening on primetime TV debate to defend the callous and insensitive remarks of their party colleagues. One thing is amply clear – the quality of public discourse in India is abysmal & belongs to the gutter. One needs only to follow/participate in such debates on Twitter (I’ve recently become quite active) to discover new & colourful abuse at the hands of the trolls – largely from Right Wing supporters.

Having said all this, I think the BJP’s political ascendency under the leadership of Mr Modi was welcome and much required for our country to gain political maturity, for many of us to actually grasp a genuine understanding of such noble text-book concepts as ‘secular’ & ‘nationalism’; for India’s intellectuals to acknowledge (if they have the courage to) that their ideologies and choices are barely a representative of the country’s electorate; for the ‘other’, who we easily label as ‘bhakt’ or ‘anti-national’ or ‘presstitude’, to lend their voice to the larger question of what should India be in the 21st century, or, to determine which kind of economic theory & history (both Left & Right or only one) should be taught in the country’s leading universities. So far, our public discourse has largely been dominated by the Left & that is also not without reason – the Right has always decried any kind of intellectual engagement depending instead on a version of muscular Hindu nationalism. Today, I am glad that I have access to mainstream RW news & opinion sites such as Swarajya & DailyO. While I may not agree with some of their columnists, I am at least exposed to a factually whetted & well-articulated point of counter-view to what is the prevailing thought in my country. And to be absolutely frank, I find RW commentators such as Ashok Mallick, Swapan Dasgupta, Sanjeev Sanyal, and Tavleen Singh far more bipartisan than any of their Left colleagues (Kavita Krishnan, Arundhati Roy, Brinda Karat).

For many days now we have heard people argue about the idea of india? This is a stupid argument in the first place. My idea of India changed drastically when I undertook a fairly long road trip of north-India earlier this year. My cousin -- who runs his small insurance business in Murshidabad district of WB and struggles to ward of the muslim goons who haunt the area often rants that ‘we should throw all muslims out of the country’ -- is quite different from my husband’s uncles from Madhya Pradesh who belong to the Hindu upper caste and openly advocate banning not only beef but all kinds of meat among Hindus. How can their idea of India concur with mine? I, who am writing this sitting in a Muslim country and enjoy my steak & red wine.

At Jhargola village in Rajasthan it was difficult for us to find a single shop in the local haat which sold clean cooking oil – mustard or vegetable. The local brand sold there is so badly adulterated that one can barely see through the foggy, dense mix inside the bottle. Till about a year ago, I worked at one of India’s largest private banks whose corporate brochure proudly claimed its network of 2500 branches & 12,000 ATMs. Yet, as we toured more than 1700 kms across Delhi & Rajasthan, we must’ve passed about 7 ATMs & only 4 branches operated by SBI, Union Bank & HDFC Bank. Mind you, I am talking about small towns which stretch across the NH7, not the heartland of our villages. In Mulund, I am spoilt for choice – Kotak, HDFC, Axis, SBI, Canara – you name it and you’ll find them all with 300 metres of my house. So, how can my experience of India and hopes and expectations from it be in any way similar to the priest’s family in Chittorgarh who wanted our advice about his elder daughter pursuing a career in Commerce?

I’ve always believed that the absence of choice is the worst fate than can befall us; bringing up millions of countrymen on a single, homogenized and sanitized ideology is dangerous. The greatest nation on Earth too is not immune to such danger. Why else would it be reeling under the threat of a presidential nominee who has openly insulted minorities, women, and gays and still hopes to occupy the most powerful office in the world? When you try too hard to accommodate the ‘other’ without realizing that its definition is fluid and ever-evolving, when political correctness takes precedence over the country’s interests, and when most of the country hasn’t attained the political and social maturity to even grasp what it means to be the ‘other’, we court such dangerous phenomenon as we are seeing in the world’s two largest democracies today.

For me the saddest day was not when the BJP won the election, but every time I hear one of my urban, salaried, ‘educated’ friends & colleagues evince the desire to turn India into a China (Kanhaiya Kumar would be shot in Tiananmen Square!) and speak glowingly of Saudi’s law & order (the punishment for rape is stoning; no wonder women are safe there! Kar sakenge humare desh mein?). Blaming the BJP is the most convenient & obviously lazy thing to do. It is far more difficult to introspect and accept historical mistakes, political mishaps and vote bank appeasements.

Apr 10, 2016

Notes on We Are Not Ourselves

It seems only fitting that I resume my book notes with Mathew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves (WANO), seeing as the book is about family (complete with its burdens of keeping up traditions & caring for its members), and forgetting (the state life reduces us to when we are nearly forced to forget why & how we loved the people we still are with for they have long since ceased to be themselves.)

I read somewhere that it took Thomas a decade to finish his novel & taste the fruits of success. A high school teacher in NY, he’d been working on his novel in between his class assignments. What never fails to surprise me is the unity of tone that an author is capable of maintaining when he’s plodding away at the same project for years on end (Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch is another example.) There is no abrupt deviation in the protagonist’s voice, no rude revelations about her character, and certainly no jarring breaks in between the novel’s different parts.

WANO opens with a dedication from King Lear, "We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind /To suffer with the body." Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will recognize how pertinent they are in the context of what befalls Lear and how he is mightily reduced, and also subsequently elevated to. It hints at the diminishment that automatically follows when we are forced to abandon our true selves. While the major part of the novel focuses on a particular disease which brings about this diminishment, we also witness other ways in which people often forget their better selves, as in the case of the protagonist, Eileen’s mother.

At the novel’s centre is Eileen Tumulty, raised in an Irish-American immigrant family in Queens, NY. While the novel accommodates her scientist husband Ed and her son Connell later on, she remains the pivot from which all action flows.Thomas paints an authentic picture of the community Eileen and her family are a part of and which grants them their respective identities in America. The traits which will characterize Eileen for much of the novel and which will also determine much of how we, yhe readers, respond to her, are planted & described meticulously by Thomas in the book’s early sections. Her essential aloofness, her fierce desire to leave behind the gloomy environs of her childhood and aspire to a better life, her ambitions, her independence and sheer physical capacity for hard work, her wordless commitment to taking care of her own, irrespective of her personal feelings towards them – is all there in the first 200pages of the novel.

Studying to be a nurse so that she can one day get away from her childhood background of poverty and alcoholism, Eileen has no plans to marry when she meets Ed, a young neuroscientist who is as taken in by her as she is by him. While there is no doubt about how impressed she is by Ed, one cannot help but guess that part of her also sees Ed as an extension of her aspirations of material and intellectual ascendency. However, neither recognizes that there are huge differences in what each wants out of life and these differences in ideology, aspiration, intellectual power, and sheer will, forms a vivid backdrop of their long married years together. They are even different in what each wants for their son Connell and how they bond with him. Mathews great achievement lies in his depiction of their shared lives, the outbursts, unreasonable demands, emotional upheavals and occasional manipulations that most marriages are made up of.
When Ed is struck with early onset of Alzheimer’s, the novel begins its last and major section. What is remarkable about Thomas’ achievement is that what could have easily become a tear-jerker is transformed in his hands into a sacred gospel of other lives from which one can learn and be enriched. The reader feels privileged to be able to catch a glimpse of the magnificent spirit which animates Eileen and which is fully realized only in these later sections. It’s as if whatever we’ve known about her has only been a prep for this final revelation which strips away every impression and response we have garnered for her so far. Far from being distraught, Eileen accepts and tackles her husband’s illness in much the same way she had earlier accepted her mother’s irresponsible behavior. The underlying difference is, of course, the deep and unshakable love and pride she feels for him. If there is outrage, it is never directed at any deity or destiny, merely at those who now treat Ed as she knows he really isn’t – not quite himself.

Interspersed in the story of Eileen’s life is that of her son Connell, his extreme closeness with his father, his later quite-cavalier-yet-wholly believable response to his father’s disease, and final reconciliation with it.

Long after the novel ends, one is left with minute incidents and gestures that animate its narrative – a hand patting its knee compulsively, a letter from a father, a mother’s calm fury that she is on her own and must get through a long night, a humble and grateful acceptance that whie life deprives us of much, in the end, it also compensates in strange ways.

Jul 20, 2012

Notes on 'Freedom'

I read Franzen’s celebrated The Corrections last year and reviewed it here. To ask me to choose between the earlier novel and Freedom would be like asking a woman to choose between poetry and perfume.

Despite the similarities, there are obvious differences between the two novels. Freedom clearly exhibits its creator’s age - by age I don’t imply any bettering of his craft; simply, that he is more obviously sentimental, more accepting of human failures and the lies we tell ourselves and each other to make life bearable.

There are obvious flaws in the story, its ending being a convenient copout that enables everyone to live-as-happily-as-they-could-ever-after. But this is Franzen writing after 9/11, after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, after he has seen thousands of families losing their homes, and the government embroiled in an endless war on terror. This is Franzen who knows that the great culture of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln has long disappeared and states like Arizona are now seeking Bills that will enable public officials to arrest Hispanics and other minorities without an actual warrant should they be suspected of not carrying proper papers.

There’s a reason why Franzen is hailed as The American novelist of our times, up there with Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Roth. A lot of American novelists have managed to capture the fine details and nuances of what it means to live in America, what is it that distinguishes this great nation from the Continent, its all embracing culture at odds with its history of violence and racism. But Franzen goes a step further. He brings to us the smells of Taco Bell, the staid lifestyle in the god-fearing midwest, the upward social mobility and distancing from one’s roots as one moves eastwards, and in the midst of all this, he places the minds and thoughts of actual lived lives. His characters are never caricatures trying to support an idea, they are all people who we have met at the supermarket, who we are in our daily lives.

The Corrections recounted the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Educated, financially sound, holders of liberal principles, the Berglunds have everything and slowly proceed to lose it all. Introducing and explaining their liberal attitudes, Franzen adds with a nasty aside that they were the "the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege."

Patty and Walter live in the suburbs of St Paul, Minnesota, with their two children Jessica and Joey. The novel opens just as the Berglunds are about to relocate to Washington DC from Minnesota, after Joey has left home and moved in with their next door neighbor, and Jessica is practically not on speaking terms with her mother. We learn that Patty was a former basketball champion who was forced to give up the game after an injury; though she was always strongly attracted to Richard Katz, lead singer of the indie band The Traumatics, she ended up marrying his best friend Walter. Things nearly develop between Patty and Richard whom Patty knows she is ‘somewhat more than sort of into’ but not quite.

While the reader may gnash his teeth in frustration at Patty’s impulsive marriage, Franzen has done enough groundwork before to prepare us for this. Patty is the daughter of the powerful and influential Emersons who clearly have no use for a jock daughter and are only too happy when she chooses to apply to an out-of-state college. These are people who are willing to look the other way when they learn that Patty has been raped by the son of one of their close associates. Confronting Patty’s outrage after the incident, “Her dad turned to her like an attorney. Like an adult addressing another adult, ‘ You drop it’, he said. Forget abt it; move on.”

So acute is Patty’s loneliness and misery in her earliest years that everything she does in retrospect, is a life-long reaction to these events and their terrible impact on her psyche. Later she writes, ‘Looking back now, (she) sees her younger self as one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home anymore. Her cult just happened to be basketball.’ When she meets Walter, it seems to be the ‘first time that a person had ever looked through her jock exterior and; seen lights on inside.’

As for Walter, he is besotted with Patty from the moment he lays eyes on her and insists on believing the best about her, despite evidence to the contrary! Is it any wonder that this girl ends up marrying him? More importantly, what is the true significance of a bond borne out of deep need and insecurity on the one hand, and unreal deification on the other?

The initial years of marriage are good, with Patty playing the role of the social butterfly, always meeting her neighbours ‘with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valleys in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning’, and Walter being the upright employee who his company assigns to 'outreach and philanthropy, a corporate cul-de-sac where niceness was an asset’. This mention of his proverbial and incurable niceness is interesting since later we are told that ‘the fatal defect in his (Walter’s) own makeup, (was) the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.’

Even before we know, things start to spiral downwards and the perfect couple make a hell of their own. As in life, everyone has an opinion about this too; the neighbours are quick to pronounce, ‘Patty had too much time on her hands. In the old days, she’d been great with the little kids, teaching them sports and domestic arts, but now most of the kids on the street were teenagers.’ And thus, once again, Patty is cruelly diagnosed as the frivolous housewife with too much time and too little to do.

The unraveling of their marriage which follows is hardly surprising. We, as readers have anticipated this with dread even as Walter and Patty were busy playing house. Joey, always precocious and fairly rude as a child, abruptly decides he’s had enough of his moralising, interfering parents and moves next door where he takes up with his under-age girlfriend Connie. It is an entirely different matter that the Joey-Connie story will form the other love story in this novel that is far more moving and unusual than Walter and Patty’s. Indeed, Frazen’s portrait of the sexually-ravenous Connie alone should make him eligible for literary awards.

Soon, Walter compromises on his lifelong idealistic principles and agrees to work for Texas baron Vin Haven, part of the George W. Bush coterie, who decide to strip-mine a particular region in West Virginia for coal and later allot the land for the breeding of an endangered avian species – the Cerulean Warbler. Walter justifies his decision on the grounds that he’ll finally have the means and reach to save this endangered species and also promote his campaign against overpopulation. His fast crumbling marriage to Patty is not helped when his young assistant ardently starts wooing him besides being his greatest support at work. To make matters worse, Joey gets embroiled in some shady deals involving supplying trucks for the American forces in Iraq; and opportunity finally throws Patty and Richard in each other’s way where they promptly proceed to fuck each other’s happiness - to employ a cliché.

In terms of a storyline, one might argue that Freedom mirrors the lives of several other such marriage sagas. But what makes Franzen’s prose stand out is the astute way he sees through his characters and explains their weaknesses. This doesn’t make them any less culpable, it just makes us more human. Thus, he beseeches our understanding when he writes, ‘She didn’t think she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t an alcoholic. ……………It wasn’t alcoholism; it was self-defense.”

It would be amiss to talk about the novel without a mention of the clever way in which Franzen structures his narrative. Each section ends on a tantalising note where the character’s story is ruptured just when something momentous is about to happen or a long-awaited resolution is imperative. As we glimpse the different characters from each others’ perspectives, we realise that there are no heroes, just like there are no villains. Richard, Joey and Patty are all victims of their most earnest efforts to learn better and to be better. This ‘better’ comes naturally to Walter, but it is no less important when it blossoms in the others for that is the source of all healing. That is what lies at the heart of this tale of loss and redemption.

No post is ever complete without a note on its theme. What is Franzen really trying to explore and how does it tie in with the title? Is Franzen shedding light on the destructive nature of too much freedom? While this may be true, it is too simplistic. Perhaps, the subtler theme is: there is but one freedom which we all enjoy – the freedom to nurture or destroy those around us. This being so, what is the ideal state? And, how does one go through life, knowing as we now do, that we all bear the burden of that boundless freedom? As Joey wonders, ‘He’d asked for his freedom, they’d granted it, and he couldn’t go back now.’