Feb 21, 2011

World Cup 2011: Hope

Watched the first match of the World Cup and realized I’m still as thrilled as I used to be when I was 14-15 years old and first started watching ODIs with dad.  I’d cheer for India, for Kapil, but passion wasn’t in my blood during those early years. Boris Becker and his powerful backhand strokes and habit of eating bananas on court, held my attention. Then came a dull-looking guy with a not-so-fit-body and a not-at-all-happening persona from Calcutta who embarrassed the Brits by peeling off his T-shirt and waving it in unabashed glee at the hallowed ground of Lords, and life changed – for me and millions like me – of course, mostly in Calcutta.  I knew his name wouldn’t be in the team players list this World Cup yet hope is a stupid thing. As my eye raked the list, there was a childish hope that he’d feature somewhere, somehow. Sounds mad, I know, but stranger things have happened.

Anyway, as expected his name wasn’t there. As the game progressed and Sehwag unleashed his power, the commercials came on. After the commercials, it was the turn of a whole host of lists – batsmen with maximum no. of centuries in the World Cup, batsmen with the best batting averages, win-loss ratios, etc. I was glancing over these lists and suddenly his name caught my eye. At 183 runs versus SL in 1999, he trails second behind Gary Kirsten in scoring the highest runs in a World Cup innings. I must’ve been around 23-24 in 1999; not so young, but fairly kiddish considering the trajectory of my mental growth. Those were the best years of his career and the saddest thing is that another great guy was playing his best game too. More often than not the limelight was transitory and shifted from one to the other too soon. I don’t want to go into comparisons because greatness cannot be measured. But watching the first match on Saturday, I did feel that a great part of the joy I experienced in the game was gone forever.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to this year have evinced sheer boredom at the World Cup. Some of these are folks who have even played the game at the state level but now feel unexcited about it. I listen quietly to them and nod. Yeah, makes sense – too many games, IPL is a tamasha, the BCCI is a thug organisation, our players are greedy. Then I say inwardly – so what? Aren’t we all?

Not too many things thrill me these days, but the World Cup does and I’ll tell you why. It signifies ‘hope’ for a billion plus people who don’t have much else to hope for. Mind you, this unifying symbol of hope is available to us only once in 4 years. While we go about our busy lives bemoaning the metro rail work that takes forever to finish, the corrupt politicians and the bungling CBI, the World Cup is a happy occasion, for we never know how things will turn out. Our boys may just get their act right and the big guy sitting above us may just pull a few strings and I may just happen to write an award-winning script that’d star Johnny Depp. Who knows? Hope is a beautiful thing.

p.s. The problem with the smarties is that they believe the rest of us are fools. When you view the world in such myopic dualities, you run the risk of over-simplification. As does CPS here. Yeah, this post got me hopping mad. 

I’ve been seeing this ad in the theatres for a while now. I didn’t like it the first time around but I look forward to it every time I go to the movies now. It’s grown on me. Strangely, they don’t show it on TV. I remember a heated discussion with Ks when Airtel changed their logo. Big blunder. This ad has redeemed them in my eyes. A bit, at least. The two things which stand out – the girl and the background piano score. Check it out, am sure you’ll like it.

Feb 20, 2011

Notes on Rabbit Hole

'Rabbit Hole' (RH) that is not the kind of film you should go to watch if you’re looking for entertainment, even though you may be one who enjoys serous films. For truly, what RH does is puts the fear of God in you. Scene after scene you witness people and situations and ugliness that is strangely familiar, that is almost premonitory for you know life can do the same to you; that it could be you facing what the lead protagonists of the films are facing instead. That aint a happy thought.

Based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by  David Linday-Abaire, the films deals with how a couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman ) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) deal with the loss of their only child – 3 yr old Danny – 8 months after he’s run down by a car. Becca has shut herself in a cocoon and is doing her best to erase any memory of their son. There is a tremendous rage in her that is barely under conrol. She is ready to and does lash out at anyone who offers platitudes or attempts to comfort her for she is clear – there can be no comfort in the face of such irreverrsible loss. Howie on the other hand is dealing with his loss in a different manner. He participates in group therapy, is even willing to think about a second child, and sits up at nights looking at videos of his dead son. The accident has not only killed Danny, it is slowly killing their marriage as well. Somehow Becca connects with Jason (a superb Miles Telller) the high-school kid who ran over Danny by mistake. Thing is, she is unable to connect with anyone who does not experience her grief in the same manner as she does. That her husband is grieving is not enough – he is not grieving as she is.  I found great resonance with Becca forI’m sure you’ve noticed that in moments of great joy or great sorrow, we wish for the people around us to ‘understand us.’ What we actually want is for them to preempt our thoughts, our wishes and behave in exactly the same manner as we do. But that doesn’t happen, it cant and therein lies the chasm. Maybe, people in grief are best left alone. Or so I thought. But then, the film’s end leaves you in doubt if that is the right course.  

Nicole Kidman is the heart and soul of this film and I cannot imagine anyone else doing what she does here. I have never been a great Nicole fan and age has changed her much. RH has gotta be one of the best roles of her lifetime, including The Hours. She has aged well, and I could trace my own grey hair and slight lines in her face. It was a lil unnerving. Watch her in the scene with Jason on the park bench when he apologises to her for the accident and going over the speed limit. For someone who has so much rage trapped inside her, she is surprisingly gentle with him. Of course she is – after all he’s suffering almost as much as she i, and that soothes her. It’s the only assurance she has in a callous universe that Danny mattered, that his death is a travesty, that it is wrong.  She doesn’t get that assurance from the other well-meaning people around her – her sister, mother or husband - who are all grieving in their own way.

There are many beautiful, profound moments in this film and small bits of wisdom – truths which we all know but let go off easily in the face of grief. In one of the film's greatest moments, Becca’s mother (Diane Wiest) offers a definition of loss that is sure to resonate with all of us who have ever known great loss. It is a definition that is both extremely defeating as well as hopeful. It tells us that we'll never be free of grief but it also assures us that it will get bearable with time; it also explains our need to hold on to our grief – when we have lost something that was immeasurably precious, it’s loss is the second best thing that we have to cling on to. 

How these two bereaved people come to terms with the loss of their child and whether their marriage can survive it, is the question the film grapples with. It offers no easy solutions for life is quirky and takes different routes for different folks. On the one hand it seems to be saying (what I firmly believe) – let people grieve in dignity, let’s give them time to come to terms with their loss. This is something we Indians have no notion of. On the other hand, there is also the feeling that people shouldn’t be left alone no matter how difficult they become in the face of deep loss. That it is only by constant perseverance and unconditional support that they can manage to come to grips with their loss, if they ever can. As I said, there are no guarantees, there are no set time limits. The beauty of this film lies in this ambivalence. 

I hope Nicole Kidman wins the Oscar for this one. 

Feb 18, 2011

Someone Like You

 Warning: If you’re sitting in office like me, don’t play the song. Your colleagues will never understand what caused the flood of tears.

I am fairly open in my choice of films and music, books not as much. I usually try recommendations from people. A lot of it is nice and makes its way into my BB but not into my heart. Last year in July, I received a number that stayed with me the entire year and also at the exact moment the year was ending. Yeah, I ended 2010 with that song. It remains one of my favourites.

Yesterday an old friend asked me to listen to her. Now, the strange thing is that yt and I are as different as Fox News and MSNBC. Whenever we talk, we usually fight - hard bitter fights. We are usually at loggerheads about everything – from the invasion of Iraq to thoughts on philanthropy to his constant barbs at my taste in literature. He is also fairly disdainful about my notions of love. Why someone like him would recommend this song is beyond me.

If you do happen to play the song, listen to it twice back to back – the second time with your eyes closed, let her sadness wash over you. Soak in her grief as she apolgises, “I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited.” Great works of art spring from some source of eternal, irreversible sorrow. The sorrow needn’t be personal. Maybe it is associated with Man’s fall and our collective sins or some personal tragedy. I don’t know, but I am sure that such beauty cannot spring from happiness. When she sings, you wonder at the depths of her sorrow. And you find echoes of your own sorrow.
Is it any wonder that she breaks down at the end of the song. I can’t get over the repeated ‘Don’t forget me, I beg’ refrain. I don’t detect shame, I don’t detect any self-consciousness. All I sense is a crushing sorrow; a voice that doesn’t shake even when the world around has collapsed. Such confidence in love comes only with acceptance that your love is futile.

There is a lovely scene is Ye Saali Zindagi with Irrfan Khan & Chitrangada Singh inside a car. She’s in deep shit and he’s wondering how he can help her. When she asks, why he hasn’t been responding to her calls, he offers an invisible shrug and tells her what else is he supposed to do when he returns to find the girl he loves in his friend’s arms. There is neither self-consciousness nor abject misery written over his face. There is an assurance that nothing will ever change – he will continue to love her and she unable to return his love. This acceptance of the status quo lends a quiet dignity to his character. He isn’t like the lover of fairy tales who dreams of whisking away the princess. He’s hurting but he’ll die before he shows it.  I love that confidence, that sense of self-assuredness even when there is no self left worth preserving.

Last, I am reminded of that lovely scene with Vinay Pathak in ‘Dasvadaniya.’ I doubt any of you have even heard of the film, let alone watched it. Amar (Vinay Pathak) is dying and he has been given 6 months to live. He makes a list of all the things he wants to do before his time is up –he keeps ticking items on his to-do list. In this scene he goes to meet his childhood friend  Meera (Neha Dhupia). The two were best friends in school and were always partners during sessions of dumb charade; but they haven't been in touch for over 15 years. I’m not gonna say much, watch it here. The actual ‘dumb charade’ sequence lasts merely 10 seconds but what’s captivating is his  face at the end. Watch him slowly turn around in the falling rain, watch him ‘shush’ her with a wave of his hand as she starts to say something.

Thanks, yt.

Feb 14, 2011

Notes on Ye Saali Zindagi

I’d rate ‘Ye Saali Zindagi’ (YSZ) at par with ‘Ishqiya’ and much higher than ‘Kaminey’. Along with ‘Ishqiya’ and ‘Peepli Live’, it is the best Bollywood flick I have seen in the last 2 years. Fast paced, intelligent, absurd, funny, sexy and colourful are the words that come to mind to describe this mad caper. And then of course there’s Irrfan Khan, that actor who always reminds me of Nana Patekar and all that he has managed not to be. Whether it is comic role (Life in a Metro) or a stern police officer (New York), Irrfan is that actor who hides an incredibly sensitive soul beneath his habitual deadpan  expression. YSZ is a homage to that soul. 

The critics claim that this is a thriller. Does that mean Dr Zhivago is about the Russian revolution and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (HKA) is about campus politics spilling out into life later? Naah! They are about all these things and also great love stories. For me, YSZ reveals one fundamental truth which very few of us recognize – all of us have fallen in love and continue to love and buy gifts for Valentine’s Day. But only a rare few are ‘lovers’. For you see, a lover doesn’t merely love, in the manner of a cook who cooks superb palak panner. He is someone who defines his entire life through the code of his love. Hence, all his actions, his decisions, & his emotions centre around that single fundamental fact of his life. In this sense, he is removed from a banker or a doctor. Once you understand this fact, you’ll see that everything an Irrfan or a Shiney Ahuja does (in HKA) makes perfect sense. They are neither na├»ve, nor particularly great. They are just great lovers.

In the true tradition of Beckett, Pinter, Camus, and Pirandello, YSZ is also an existential comedy. It works on the central premise of chance and accidents; your birth is an accident (ref. Whatever Works), things unfolding around you are mostly accidental; marriage, career, children, old age and death are all governed by the quirky hand of fate. Does that mean there is indeed no one up there? Maybe there is, but if you’re gonna count on him when you’re in trouble, you better smarten up. I think it’s best to look upon Him as an aged grandfather. One who can’t bail you outta trouble but whose presence nevertheless comforts you.  

Chitrangada Singh is as stunning as expected but has too much bronze body spray on her and doesn’t emote too well. But then I guess, with a face and body like hers, she doesn’t really need to do anything. Just park her in front of a camera. Arunoday Singh is perfect in his role as Kuldeep, that child-man who is steeped in a life of crime and planning big things when all he really wants is to be with the woman he loves, who by the way is an incredibly alluring specimen of womanhood. The chemistry between them is so charged, you can light up an entire village in remote Orissa. A lot of heroines on Karan Johar’s moronic chat show say, “I will do intimate scenes only if the script demands it.” Well, this was one script where the ‘bed breaking’ scene seemed absolutely natural, was picturised beautifully and was hauntingly erotic.

The initial parts of the film are a little confusing with Mishra tagging every sidekick for name and location and it gets a tad irritating. Gradually, however, you can sense the method in this madness and a glimmer of a structure emerges. Arun (Irrfan) loves Priti (Chritangada Singh) who in turn loves Shyam who is unfortunately engaged to Minister Verma’s daughter. When a notorious gangster named Badey (Yashpal Sharma) needs to be freed from Tihar jail, he entrusts this responsibility to his trusted henchman Kuldeep (Arunoday), also a previous inmate of Tihar jail. Kuldeep hatches a plan to abduct Shyam and the minister’s daughter and in return for their release, negotiate Badey’s release from Tihar. As expected, in a universe governed by chance, the wrong girl gets picked up and it is Arun’s beloved Priti who is now in trouble. Though Arun has no reason to get involved and his voice-over which is one of the most delightful elements of the film informs us, “Zindagi mein kabhi kabhi samajhme aata hai ke galat samai pe, galat jagah me ho aur waha se nikal jaana chahiye’, he does nothing of this sort. How can he, he’s a ‘lover’, right?

One of the things I found delightful in YSZ is that though the film has two pivotal reference points in the characters of Arun and Kuldeep and the audience remains committed to what happens to these two men, the peripheral characters all have important roles to essay and are not mere cardboard cut-outs. Thus, Mehta (Saurab Shukla) is entirely believable as a corrupt CEO of an investment firm that specialises in converting black money into white, as is Prashant Narayanan as Badey’s creepy transvestite step-brother Chotey who turns up with falsies stuck to his chest. Yikes!

Even the close-up shots of Anjali, the minister’s daughter, are interesting for they reveal much about her character. In the absence of much dialogue (hers), this does help.

I must confess that I had misgivings about YSZ. As the film began, I thought my worst nightmare had come true and Mishra was trying to join the hip new brigade of young filmmakers who deploy multiple narrative threads, flashback storytelling, and needless profanity as a means of lending authenticity. Sure, Mishra mixes all these ingredients but the end product is a universe where cash is indeed king and people are willing to kill their next of kin from for 5 lakhs. Arun and Kuldeep are the two aliens in this dog-eats-dog world. You know their chances of survival are slim and yet you are riveted to their fortunes for while they are not like us, in them you glimpse who you could have been had you loved like they do.

Feb 11, 2011


Faith: To believe is to believe you have been torn/from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.

Desolate: Deep down, she may have been as sad as a cover band. She might have felt drier than a clod of Arkansas dirt. Lonely lonely lonely, like the hunter green suitcase that hadn’t been used since her honeymoon.

Fulfilment: Like a baker, swaddling the juice and heft of apples in pastry,/I want my mouth to cradle the delicious name of God

Deathbed: Taken in your beauty, let the last hands/that hold you/be gentle.

Read these beautiful lines on the NYT books page and just tagged them for themes.

Feb 6, 2011

Notes on Whatever Works

Let me mention at the outset that i looooved Woody Allen’s ‘Whatever Works’. It’s definitely not Allen’s finest work, but it made sense to me on the Sunday evening i watched it and it made me laugh. What more can one ask for!

Whatever Works is the story of string theory expert and physicist Boris Yellnikoff who’s divorced from his wife and gets by teaching chess to dumb suburban kids who he refers to as ‘inchworms’ and hits on the head with the chess board when he can't control his exasperation. With an IQ of 200, it’s no wonder that Boris sees the rest of the world as cretins and imbeciles and cannot fathom the boundless stupidity of a world where everyone is given to trusting  a random entity called God. He is the voice of cold logic, and a defier of myths – the myth that America is the great embracer of diverse cultures and people, the myth that smoking causes lung cancer; he is the proud author of such wonderful aphorisms as “if it wasn't for sexual inadequacy the National Rifle Association would go broke!” or that “They've had to install automatic toilets in public restrooms, because people can't be entrusted to flush a toilet.

It is in keeping with the tradition of romantic comedy that this curmudgeonly old man who we are told was nominated for the Nobel lands up with a brainless twit when southern belle Melodie St Anne Celestine, a 21-yr old runaway beauty paegent winner from Missisippi,  lands up at his doorstep. At first reluctant to offer shelter to the homeless waif, he’s eventually taken in by her “If you throw me out and I wind up an Asian prostitute, that's gonna be on your conscience.” The funniest scenes of the film are between Boris and Melodie, the latter displaying not the least hint of self-consciousness when Boris says that she is like “a character out of Faulkner, not a unlike Benjy.”  If you haven’t read Faulker’s The Sound and the Fury, you went get the joke but it really is vicious. He keeps these insults coming and she takes them effortlessly and an odd camaraderie grows between them. Even when she takes pains to prepare a special dinner for him, he loses no time in writing it off as disgusting. Anyway, to move things along, she evinces interest in marrying him and well, you can see she isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in town and despits his protests, “Have you lost your mind? Why on earth would you even fantasize about such a thing. What could I offer you but a bad temper, hypochondriasis, morbid fixations, reclusive rages, and and misanthropy. And what could you offer me?”, they do get married.

Soon thereafter Melodie’s mother, Southern Belle Senior, lands up at Boris’s doorstep and then later her dad too. What happens when the superstitious, red-neck south encounters NY city and the ex-professor of quantum physics, is best enjoyed by watching the film and not reading abt it.

All of Allen’s films are brilliantly talky and this is no exception, but the end suggests an unusual, unexpected redemption, or so i’d like to believe. Thing is, like Boris says, he alone truly sees the big picture. It aint a pretty picture, nor very reassuring; it paints a picture of a world where neither beauty nor love nor brains will guarantee you the stairway to heaven and much is left to chance. There is neither inconsolable heroic grief, nor perfect bliss, but a midway formula of hands extended forever, hoping someone, somewhere will grasp it and make life bearable. But it’s all we have and all you can do is pray and make do with whatever works. That’s what stays with you at the end of this delightful film when Boris wisely affirms,  “That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself. Because it's by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you'd like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your fathers one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you. Don't think about it, you'll have a panic attack.

Feb 2, 2011

Egypt & The Finkler Question

I work with a global logistics behemoth and things have turned completely topsy-turvy in the last few days owing to the crisis in Egypt. We have been bending over backwards communicating updates to anxious customers and assuaging fears. There is skeletal staff at the cairo offices. For inter-office communication via messenger we use the Microsoft Office Communicator (OC) application. Usually it is work but sometimes it’s a nice device to learn more abt people sitting in far away places, thinking different thoughts and seeing things you’ll never be able to. Rashid Alwai is the communications executive in Egypt and as we were discussing what updates to issue, the conversation meandered off to the current uprising.

Whenever such events unravel, the world and media form opinions abt its impact. People actually facing these events often have totally different things to say. For Rashid, the ousted President Mubarak was not as bad as he’s being made out to be. At a very simplistic level, he feels that only those Egyptians who have no work or are too lazy to work are part of this opposition to Mubarak. Though I didn’t argue with him I don’t think this is the complete truth.

Mubarak’s 30-yr rule has been fairly authoritarian and he’d even been planning to instal his son in his place. Discontent was natural.

I’m currently reading The Finkler Question. A lot of jewish authors have tackled the question of jewish identity and inheritance in their works but this has gotta be the most in-your-face kinda book I’ve come across. As I was thinking abt Egypt yesterday, I wondered – what would be the repurcussions for Israel. After all, Egypt had been the jewish state’s most powerful ally for decades. What happens if the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood comes into power after fresh elections? It has always opposed peace with Israel and will go all out to rouse Arab nationalist passions, if not for anything than to consolidate its position. With the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, can Israel really bear the burden of an Islamist Egypt?

A broken-hearted D told me yday that her close friend Aarya had refused to share her stickers and chocolates with her, despite D having always shared her stuff with Aaarya in the past. What moral conundrum! How dyu explain to a 6-yr old sweetheart what you still haven’t figured out yourself. Told her, she should try explaining to Aarya that it wasn’t a very nice thing to do to one’s friend. Couldn’t tell her that she too shouldn’t share her stuff in future, nor did I feel like advocating the path of calm acceptance. There is enough time for all that later.

Feb 1, 2011

Notes on The Corrections

The Corrections is the kind of book you’ll either love or wont wait to put away, or maybe even be unable to complete. It was touted as funny and I found it brutal and poignant. It is poignant in the kind of way Christopher Reeves was in his final days – the sight of something broken and in utter disrepair, something which you believed would be grand and perfect. Most families are like that and if this is so, what is left of value, to value, anymore? What is left to preserve and cherish? This is the theme running through Franzen’s voluminous novel.

Many authors before Franzen have explored this theme (Roth is a master) and frankly speaking there isn’t anything really new if that is what you dig. What seemed to me to be the book’s clincher is the tenderness and love with which Franzen views and treats his flawed characters. That tenderness is as much evident in the scene where Chip sniffs the sofa where he indulged in escapades with his student, as in the scene where Gary (easily the most abominable guy in the cast) stands alienated from his family flipping grilled meat on the open air barbecue outside his kitchen.

Now I realise that The Corrections is not the kind of book that’d appeal to people who possess an intrinsically sunny disposition or have a great attachment to family & friends. But if you’re the kind who often feels alone in the middle of a party; no, correct that – if you’re the kind who often craves for a moment of quiet in the middle of a party, then you’ll love this book. What Franzen seems to be saying is that we are all equally screwed up and it is how we deal with it that defines the degree of correction we have succeeded in making. At the novel’s close (I have copied a bit of that extract here), some corrections are made voluntarily and others are forced by circumstances. Both work or do they? Only time will tell.

The term correction implies a setting right, an undoing of past mistakes – here they stand for the correction in the financial markets (Gary makes a killing during such financial movements, mood corrections which are brought about by a culture increasingly dependent on medications and drugs (mood enhancers named Aslan for Enid and drugs for Parkinsons and dementia named Correctal for Alfred!), and corrections in personal relations (Enid’s relationship with her offsprings sees a marked improvement towards the end).

The novel tells the story of the Lambert family where Alfred, the old man is a retired railroad official who belongs to and has always subscribed to an era where things were built by hand and where hard work and unshakable ethics were the only way a man could function in the world. That such a world is long gone and probably never existed except in his warped imagination is well illustrated via the current lives of his three children – Gary, Denise and Chip – as well as the flashback sequences outlining Alfred’s youth. In fact, forget identify, it is well enough impossible to tolerate Alfred’s rigid moral code, his almost dysfunctional idea of privacy and his obsession with preserving and repairing old things even when his shaking limbs and awry motor movements don’t even allow him to lift a forkful of food without making a mess. Yet, there is something to this man that will touch you occasionally, even if one were to discount the denouement which Franzen rather dramatically exposes towards the novel’s close. Though the novel may appear defeated by its own verbosity, there are sections which are truly delightful for the way in which Franzen deploys words to draw parallels & our attention to essential points he is making. Alfred untangling the wires of the christmas lights in his basement is one of those scenes.

Apart from Alfred we have Enid, his nagging, unhappy, and socially ambitious wife of 48 years whose greatest regret is that none of her children seem to share her dreams. She endlessly complains about Alfred to her children and nags him to make more of an effort to improve his condition, to follow the exercise regime prescribed by their doctor, she nags her children to gather together for one last christmas in their suburban home in St Jude – nags that are met with resistance by Alfred and ignored by her two sons Gary and Chip, and weary resignation by her daughter Denise.

Gary, a borderline alcoholic, is a portfolio manager in Pennsylvania who is trapped in a bad marriage and is endlessly manipulated by his wife Caroline who refuses to accede to her husband’s pleas to accompany him to St Jude for one final Christmas reunion. To all those touting the myth of the happy family, Franzen seems to be deliberately throwing us pictures of an increasingly lonely and defeated Gary whose only comfort seems to be in drinking himself numb. That he finally drives a hard compromise to ensure that the family is not fragmented is no surprise, for in life there are really no real chances of correction, only the illusion of one.

If Gary is married and in hell, Denise is divorced and independent and not doing much better either. A celebrity chef in Philadelphia, she possesses strains of great compassion as also the power to be ruthless and unspeakably cruel to those who care about her. A closet homosexual, occasionally bisexual, someone who is simply looking for ways to escape the shadow cast by her dysfunctional family? Who knows what she really is. Whether she will be able to set her life in order or actually manages to do so at the end is something I’m ambivalent about. There is a very moving scene in which Franzen shows how Denise is not far from becoming the person Enid has become. Without being happy yourself, there is no way you can make others happy is obviously the running idea and yet it is not so pat as that. Denise take steps which Enid is unable to and perhaps there is a faint suggestion of redemption there.

Chip, the youngest of the Lambert offsprings, is a study in utter failure and contradiction. He who quotes and follows Foucault and Marx and likes to rant about ''a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity'' devotes all his energy to pursuing women, maxing out his credit cards and then borrowing money from his sister Denise. There is just one way to define folks like him - loser. A former professor who is well on his way to securing tenure at the college he teaches, he is fired for sexual harassment: rather, unlawful sexual interaction with a student. There is everything wrong with a social order where a hapless guy like Chip is fired and loses his job for indulging in sexual activity with a brat like Rebecca who for all practical purposes seduces the poor guy. Yet the corrections which the college authrorities strive to make penalise the victim instead of the perpetrator.

I’m sure that readers who have found the book funny must have laughed at Chip’s escapades but I’m afraid I’m not one of those who find the spectacle of a grown-up man selling his books and stealing salmon from a supermarket and tucking it under his shirt really funny. To be frank, the Chip sections become fairly tedious as he continuously labours with a never-to-be-finished screenplay and finally flies to a place called Vilnius with a mobster-turned-politician Gitanas who happens to be the Lithuanian ex-husband of Chip’s girlfriend. Gitanas plans to lure American investors to become equity shareholders in Lithuania; his wants Chip to create a website for this purpose and pay him handsomely in return. Comedy is not exactly Franzen’s strong point (in the manner of Woody Allen), and all this soon turns into farce. However, disgraced and penniless, and barely escaping death in a military-coup ravaged Vilinius, Chip manages to make his way home. What he finds there and what he makes of his future are perhaps the closest anyone comes to making a true correction in this vast and sad novel.

In reading the novel I had no doubts that Franzen was well-read and had researched a lot of obscure subjects like the beginning of the railways in America, the names of molecules and components in the pharmaceutical industry, even the crazy world of gangster politics that dots the political landscape of small countries like Slovakia and Lithuania after the fall of the Soviet bloc. But all this gets a bit too much to handle as does the extended description of the cruise which Alfred and Enid take and the people they meet therein. I know Franzen makes a lot of points as he goes along, every episode, every character drawing threads which are all linked to the central theme, but it seems a little gratuituous in a novel which anyway packs quite a punch and sprawls well over 600 pages.