Sep 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Booker Shortlist

He sang ‘The more I know, the less I understand’. That seems to be my story as well. So many issues/matters I find myself sitting on the fence, unable to make up my mind. There’s a mini controversy brewing over the choice of the Booker shortlist for this year & once again, I find myself unable to take sides with any real conviction.

Ever since the judges of this year’s Booker committee announced the shortlist on Sep 6 with those fateful words, “We are looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books”, a sort of literary outrage has engulfed readers and book enthusiasts across the world. Most are unhappy with the shortlist, perplexed by the exclusion of such authors as Edward St Aubyn, Hollinghurst, and Anne Enright from this year’s shortlist. Of the 6 shortlisted entries -  Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, AD Miller's Snowdrops, Carol Birch's Jamrach’s Menagerie, Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, Patrick De Witt's The Sisters Brothers and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English - I’ve read only two (no. 1 & 5). I definitely don’t think this is Barnes’ best and while the De Witt novel is hugely entertaining and well crafted, I am unsure I’d like to get back to it after a few years, dust it and read it again. Both are good books; I’m afraid they are not great.

Reading forms one of my earliest memories but I still don’t know how I’d define a great book. Perhaps a good book changes something changes something intrinsic about you, and it is a book you gravitate towards over and over again as the years take their toll. Dunno.

Now, coming to the debate: the purists are disturbed because ‘readability’ seems to have scored over literary merit. Thing is, while The God of Small Things or Wolf Hall might carry huge literary merit, not too many people would be willing to traverse its arduous pages. I almost gave up Hillary Mantel halfway through! This means poor book sales for the author and losses for the publisher.

The judges have a choice: either to encourage people to buy, read and enjoy a slightly wider selection of books than they normally would, or to go entirely for what they believe are the most worthy books, even if not too many people are willing to invest in those books. And we all know what happens when we pick up a first book by an author and don’t like it. Enjoyment may seem like a obscene word in literature but it does affect marketability.

Having said that, there is something to be said about the level of literary maturity, taste and personal leanings of a society that cannot be bothered to look beyond ‘enjoyment’, that refuses to engage in a book unless it offers immediate gratification, that rejects books simply because they challenge the mind and the intellect and push the frontiers of the imagination. It is sad for the authors of such books no doubt, but it’s sadder still for society.

As I said earlier, I can’t decide which parameter should hold water. I am a rabid anti-marketing person so can’t really trust my instincts. Nevertheless, a memory lingers – I just couldn’t get through Faulkner’s ‘Sound and the Fury’ the first 2 times I tried. For those of you who haven’t read the novel, the first few chapters don’t  make sense because they are being narrated in first person by Benjy, an adult male who has the mind of a retard. It was a critical text in my optional American Literature paper in MA. Once I’d trudged through the opening chapters, I discovered a dysfunctional world where the basest motives survived alongside the noblest emotions, where beauty and ugliness were woven inseparably. It is one of my favourite novels.

p.s. Formatting nightmare above. Blogger has gone berserk :(

Sep 16, 2011

The Rose that Grew From Concrete

I've been putting in really long hours of late. Sometimes the endless tasks, meetings and finger pointing, gets too much. What i usually do on such occasions is sneak away for 10 mins or so and find a corner or my regular rock boundary, and quickly read a few favourite poems. It seemed only appropriate that i read some of his poetry today. After all, this week marks the 15th anniversary of his untimely death.

People swear by rappers like Emimen , Dr Dre or Snoop Dog. What most (outside the US) dont know is that he's hailed as the father of rap. He was also an acclaimed poet, crack junkie and part of an LA street gang. I cant say i love all of his poetry or that it's very refined. But he is the voice of a militant black consciousness that seems to challenge mainstream American racist complacency and complicity. I love some of his poems where he seems to be prophecying his early demise (Letter to my unborn, Upon my demise) or where he seems to have realised the difficulty of staying clean in the midst of muck, or the oddity of finding beauty in the midst of ugliness and mayhem.

Two of the my favourite poems by Tupac Shakur follow. The second is one he wrote for Jada Pinkett Smith, one of his closest friends and whom he considered his soulmate. Enjoy.

The rose that grew from concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared


u r the omega of my heart
the foundation of my conception of love
when i think of what a black woman should be
its u that i first think of

u will never fully understand
how deeply my heart feels 4 u
i worry that we'll grow apart
and i'll end up losing u

u bring me 2 climax without sex
and u do it all with regal grace
u r my heart in human form
a friend i could never replace

p.s. Even as i write this i am aware that i prefer my heroes to be imperfect - Randy the Ram, Milton's Satan, Faust, Uxbal, Henchard, Charles Strickland, are just some names that occur. I am always inspired and moved by the endless striving to be better, to improve, and do it all with a simple faith. These are the heroes who prove 'nature's law is wrong.'

Sep 14, 2011


When you knocked me over
For serving the burnt crust,
When we dated and you
returned to find the tyre’d burst.
When your house was flooded,
And you cursed the rain and my stormy passion.
When wishes made on eyelashes didn’t come true,
But reprimanding me seemed the latest fashion.
When the milk turned rancid,
And the puppy went missing,
While the garden turned barren,
Long nights you spent tossing,
Cursing my rotten deed.
It strikes me as odd,
Not once did you think,
I could be harmless.

Sep 7, 2011

Rolling Eyes & an Ode to Manhattan

A lot of people don’t get it when I say ‘rolling eyes’. Is it an expression of disdain? Humor? Disbelief? I guess I can’t quite explain what it implies. But Woody Allen does. And man, how brilliantly he does it!

Manhattan is my favourite Woody Allen film - a film I haven’t written about before not because it didn’t dwell on my mind. Rather, because I was afraid I would be unable to adequately express everything that I experience every time I watch it.  When I first watched it way back in college, things stirred inside and I knew I’d been privy to something that would resonate at different moments in my life.

Manhattan is Allen’s meditation on the nature of adult relationships, and also on what it means to be an adult. Is innocence the antithesis of adulthood? Is it possible to be wise and retain innocence at the same time? Is innocence an invitation to people to walk all over you or simply the inability to give up faith despite being walked on? Manhattan asks you all this and more.

Manhattan is the story of 4 people -  Issac (Allen), a successful 33-yr old writer of television comedies, Tracy, his 17-yr old high school gf, Miles, his best friend who is having an affair with Julia (Diane Keaton), a sophisticated writer much better suited to Issac than young Tracy. From the beginning you sense that while Issac is fond of Tracy, he hasn’t completely bought into the idea that he might be sharing something precious with her; life has jaded him & taught him too much and he knows that there can’t be much in common between a cynical 33-yr old man and a slightly overweight high school kid. As a result, the relationship is always something of an amusing distraction, a ‘time-pass’, so to speak. Instead he pines for his best friend’s alluring gf Julia and when fate provides an opportunity, he doesn’t waste any time in dumping Tracy and rushing to Julia. Appropriately enough he breaks the news to Tracy at a soda fountain and as she wipes a lonely tear and says, “I don’t feel much good’, you know that this is a line this kid will have to repeat many more times before it ceases to matter anymore. Like it has for the 3 adults in the film.

After a brief affair with Issac, Julia realises that she still loves Miles and goes back to him. Rejected and lonely, we see Issac spread on his couch trying to recall the 10 things that make life worth living - Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong,  Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Cezanne’s painting, the crabs at Sam Wo’s. And Tracy's face. He adds that almost as an afterthought and then realises something and runs to meet her.  What happens next is perhaps the most beautiful scene I've ever seen in the movies.

I don’t know if his return to Tracy at the film’s close is to be construed as a too-late realisation of what he has lost. Issac is the epitome of a successful adult - someone like you, dear reader -  popular, witty, incredibly smart, and though geeky, he possesses something that endears him to most women. So, no, I am not sure he has or will ever learn to value someone as rare, as unadorned, as Tracy. But there is something that happens in the last scene and it is the zenith of Allen’s vision as a director as well as his range as an actor that he shows us what is happening to the adult inside Issac.

If you see the video below, you’ll note that he rolls his eyes upwards – a clear unuttered ‘Oh c’mon! How na├»ve can you be!’expression on his face. At the same time, something softens inside him, and his eyes start to smile and then his whole face undergoes a change and it seems as if he is aware that this is the last time he’s seeing her and all he wants to do is capture forever her youth, the radiance and hope and innocence that makes Tracy who she is. As Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue breaks out and the end credits roll, you experience a bittersweet heartache.

And what exactly is Tracy? In a film where every character is seeking love in relationships, she is the embodiment of that love. But it is an embodiment that doesn’t really concur with our adult version of what love should be like, hence, Issac keeps dismissing it throughout the film.

Every time I watch ‘Manhattan’, I’m left wondering at the end – do they meet again? What will happen if they do? Is Tracy changed so irrevocably that she can’t share herself with Issac anymore? Then I remember: Tracy will always be one of the ‘innocent’s abroad’ because her capacity to mumble embarrassedly, ‘Not everyone gets corrupted. Sometimes you got to have a little faith in people’, doesn’t stem from blindness or naivete but simply a nature that makes her different from others. It is neither stupidity nor dumbness. Though we may roll our eyes.