Friday, April 25, 2014

Tolkien's Tour de Force: The Silmarillion

Imagine this: you are running a marathon. Not just any marathon, but one of the most daunting ones out there, stretched over many long days (imagine!). You trained hard and managed not to be put off it when people said it was impossible to do, or worse: an utter waste of time. The big day has finally arrived! You'd just rocketed off the starting line, very determined to see this through. Agreed, you had trouble staying on track in the beginning; a lot of gear was laid out at every turn, to be picked up before going any further. It was part of the rules, but you reasoned it out as just an initial hiccup. Surely all that heavy gear would help you navigate the arduous path later, right? So you did what you had to do: Stop, pick, proceed. Rinse and repeat.

Many hours later -- you are in a daze, wondering how you're ever going to reach the finish line. You realize no amount of training could have prepared you for this. It's the additional gear that appears every so often - even after all this time - that you are compelled to take. It's the treacherously winding road, putting a brake on your pace, making you consider every turn carefully. But more than anything, it's the sheer breathtaking old world beauty that surrounds you, engulfing your mind and senses. Every single step brings forth a new delight. You find yourself slowing down, backtracking your steps every so often, despite winding track and heavy load, to take in everything so slowly that it's imprinted on your mind. Beauty of this sort you never knew existed. You drink it all in, knowing you won't come across anything like this once you step out of this path into the outside world.

You are now lying somewhere by the track, wallowing drunkenly. It has been a while since you thought of proceeding, but the thought slowly starts niggling you, prodding you up. You dust yourself, gather the bundles, tighten your laces and get back on track - ready to be knocked again, off your feet and off your mind. That is how my experience with The Silmarillion has been for the past few days, as anticlimactic as the marathon analogy may seem :P I'm currently at [The tale] Of Beren and LĂșthien - hands down the most painstakingly crafted story in the book. (For those who've read/watched Lord of the Rings: its Elvish version is sung by Aragorn one night in The Fellowship of the Ring. He says it's about an elf-maiden named Luthien who fell in love with a mortal man, and gave up her immortality to be with him.) It's admittedly a bittersweet tale, but also has some of the best exchanges of all time. My absolute favourite is this one between Beren and Thingol, father of Luthien:

Then breaking the silence Thingol said: 'Go your way therefore! Bring to me in your hand a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown; and then, if she will, LĂșthien may set her hand in yours. Then you shall have my jewel; and though the fate of Arda (Earth) lie within the Silmarils, yet you shall hold me generous.'
And those that heard these words perceived that Thingol would save his oath, and yet send Beren to his death; for they knew that not all the power of the Noldor had availed even to see from afar the shining Silmarils of Feanor. For they were set in the Iron Crown, and treasured in Angband above all wealth; and Balrogs were about them, and countless swords, and strong bars, and unassailable walls, and the dark majesty of Morgoth.
But Beren laughed. 'For little price,' he said, 'do Elven-kings sell their daughters: for gems, and things made by craft. But if this be your will, Thingol, I will perform it. And when we meet again my hand shall hold a Silmaril from the Iron Crown; for you have not looked the last upon Beren son of Barahir.'

Now tell me that wasn't majestic as hell! This story is also a significant token of Tolkien's love for his wife Edith, who was the inspiration behind Luthien - supposedly the most beautiful of all the creator's children - right from when Beren first encounters her in the woods and forgets all memory of pain. So close was this story to his heart that when his wife died, Tolkien had 'Luthien' written on her gravestone, "...which says for me more than a multitude of words: she was (and knew she was) my LĂșthien". After his death, 'Beren' was engraved on it beneath his name. No other eulogy could have said it better.  (I will go weep in a corner now.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Bend in the River - V. S. Naipaul

To be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.

How do I even begin to describe my reading experience with Naipaul? His snide views on female writers and absolute jerk-like behaviour towards women in general (among many other things) had always given me second thoughts while picking up his books. But as compelled as one may feel to boycott his work, his Nobel-endorsed literary merit infuriatingly works in his favour! Which is why I finally relented and ended up reading A Bend in the River: a bleak and hard-hitting commentary about the uprooting effects of colonization in post-colonial Africa. The narrator is Salim, a merchant of Indian origin who migrates from Africa's coast to a recently freed bush country in its interior, to take over a small shop in an unnamed town by the bend of a river (widely believed to be Kisangani by the Congo river, based on geographical markers).

As an outsider whose fate and fortunes are now tied to the country, Salim partakes in all its sudden phases of growth as well as political turmoil and upheavals, while being emotionally uninvested in the reasons behind these changes. That makes him a unique and interesting observer who sees things for what they are, whether it is the burgeoning construction of government buildings - that remain largely unoccupied - to show-off the country's "prosperity", or fancy schools for young men where propaganda is fed, or hurtful policies of the authoritarian military president (referred to as "Big Man", who takes after Zaire's Mobutu), whose wishes to reclaim Africa's cultural identity by shunning all things foreign eventually affect the country - and Salim's business.

A Bend makes it abundantly clear why Naipaul is so revered despite his horrid conduct. The prose is alarmingly direct and crisp, making for a super-engaging read. I was surprised to find myself reading it everywhere I went like a dork, including coffee shops and public buses and even my office lounge at lunchtime - noisy places that I never thought were conducive to serious reading! And that went on despite frequent passages without dialog that provide a continual reflection of Salim's thoughts and observations of current events. In fact, it is these very stream-of-consciousness style passages that form the soul of the narrative, giving center stage to all the confusion and belligerence of a new country instead of relegating them to the plot's backdrop.

But it may be that a little of Naipaul's persona has crept into A Bend, adding occasional bouts of condescension, vanity and sexism, which were aggravating to read. Towards the end, I had lost all pity for Salim, who become more and more degenerate as the situation got worse. You'd expect even an anti-hero to find a semblance of purpose or betterment of circumstances, but trust Naipaul to deny even a sliver of optimism to the reader! And as much as this is a perfectly crafted book, its biggest fault is that while it revolves around Africa, the African has been ignored for the most part or reduced to a helpless cardboard cut out. I believe there is abundant room for a local's point of view even in an outsider's tale, which A Bend misses out on, making one wonder what the other side of the story is.

Or maybe that is the whole point.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lesson learned

It's a popular opinion that modern Indian/Indian-origin writers of the literary type are over-hyped. It definitely doesn't help that they are forever in the limelight, be it for writing controversial stuff (Rushdie and his Satanic Verses) or parading presumptuous opinions. I mean, between Naipaul's condescending views on women writers and Roy's pseudo-activism, it's little surprise that theirs is a hated breed. So like many others, I too was irked and decided that these folks thrive mostly on shock value. Seeing the most illustrious awards in literature stamped on every self-respecting Indian writer's books only made me more skeptical. (Secretly, it also made me somewhat intimidated, impressed and a bit proud; but it's easier to cover up a jumble of contradicting feelings than God forbid admit to being wrong!)

Did I mention that I hadn't read a single piece by any of them before coming to this half-baked conclusion? Yep, talk about being presumptuous. But as it turned out, my reading style became increasingly eclectic in the past one or two years, and at some point I ventured to sample their work - for proving my untested theories if nothing else. What little I've read has made me realize I couldn't have been more wrong! This bookworm now stands corrected, humbled and suitably ashamed for having been a prejudiced ignoramus. But in exchange for such mortifying self-discoveries, I've had some truly enriching experiences and am dying to share my recommendations!

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
"What came for them? Not death. Just the end of living."

This, will make you experience pain. Physical. Tangible. Pain. I'm being literal, and not a bit afraid to be called over-sentimental. The God of Small Things, set in a small town in Kerala, is about two twins - Rahel and Esthappen - and their mother Ammu. It's about loneliness, living with mind-numbing guilt, and what happens when societal boundaries are crossed. It is supposedly semi-autobiographical to an unknown extent. I don't find that very surprising, as it may very well be impossible otherwise to write a story so hauntingly melancholic and raw. Roy takes you one step ahead of feeling for the characters; you will be dropped into their heads and left to feel your way around the chaos that is released in their lives. It is one of those rare works that will stay with you in fragments, ages after you've read the shocking yet oddly befitting ending. 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
"'Happy endings must come at the end of something,' the Walrus pointed out. 'If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.'"

If you ever need a primer to Rushdie, or even Indian writers in general, let this be it. Like The Hobbit, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a children's book by a master storyteller, and that makes it universally appealing. It's also really endearing that Rushdie wrote it with his son in mind. Inspired by Arabian Nights and the Indian Kathasaritsagara, it's about Haroun going off on a quest to Kahani - Earth's second moon - to stop his father's story stream from being turned off, and his part in the war against Khattam-shud, enemy of speech and King of the Land of Chup (silence), who is poisoning the Sea of Stories. On the surface it's a fantastic work of magical realism with water genies and floating gardeners and what not - quite delightful as is! But with clever use of allegory, Rushdie adds layers of inside meaning on freedom of speech and the pitfalls of intolerance. Coming on the heels of the Satanic Verses controversy and attempted attacks on his life, it's a class act of defiance and a must-read.

P.S.: Coming up - Naipaul and Lahiri!