Every “writing workshop” is a menagerie. A variety of animals of varied stripes, hues, spots and patchwork skins make a foray into what they imagine will be a time of making a clearing, the way they might have desired to, in the Forest of Language. Only to find to their discomfort that the Forest and its Guardians hold their own against and resist those who seek to fell its mighty oaks and turn the wild into domesticated farmland.
Some come to gambol amidst the symbols. Others look serious and try to remain snug and safe, and smug. The playful and happy ones are easily distinguished from the ones who come to croak or bark or return with the glow of new creation. Some come to claim that “one book rules all” and, if questioned, turn their mask-smiles into scowls. Can they understand language or the Creator of its complexity when they grunt or scream as little children, body language flailing to express frustration over the Mystery of Logos?
Some animals come because of subsidies and scholarships. Others come as “circuit” hogs to nibble at hand-outs; they want to know what the buzz is all about. Some come to cut pathways through and explore the forest itself and, as bonus, they’re led and lifted to the many-colored birds in the highest canopies. Some come to peddle gospel, doctrine and dogma; they are blinded as strong Vines of Stagnation tighten as nooses around their imaginations and bind and paralyze their writing fingers.
Finally, some come who know that “narrow is the gate and few there are who enter by it”. These have imagination, a fighting spirit, a listening ear, skills to practice, and, as true initiates, they drink deep of Illumined Letters.
The angels come, as Magi. One comes with frankincense from heaven. A second comes with gold of experience and skill. A third comes with myrrh, the deathly fragrance that embalms a text-book wrapping it in the graveyard formula of “thou shalt or thou shalt not”. Can animals learn to distinguish between the three? Are the Magi in tandem or are they divided among themselves? Are they different giftings or has Satan, who knows how to quote the Scriptures well, also come to present himself among the self-righteous? What is the Gestalt here? Animals love politics and play it in cliques and corners, whispers and the sideways look of crows awaiting carrion.
The frogs get what they deserve, their ponds and their empty sounds of croaking. They like to imagine they bring rain but that is their Maya, the Ego. The dogs bark as and when they will, by day or night, disturbed and disrupted cognitively by the wand of the Magus. They imagine they are watchdogs but to a Naga, they’re just meat. But the ones, “quick to listen and slow to anger”, grasp what lies hidden within and around the text, the jots and tittles. The eagle spirals into the sky. The cheetah outruns the footmen. These grasp pretext, context and subtext, readerly and writerly texts.
In the Forest of Language, creatures of imbecility, infantilism, mediocrity and simpleton communicability are spotted, x-rayed and irradiated swiftly in their Night by the robber-red eyes of the Cuckoo or forward-facing eyes of the Great Horned Owl. Otherwise, they are dismembered by the deadly Crocodiles of Metaphor, constrained by the Bears of Oulipia, or savaged by the Black Widows of Synectics.
Yet, the Logos is hope for even those dismembered like Osiris; for thus alone are they revived and re-formed by Isis-Muse through incantation of wordspells taught by the Source and Seeder of the Forest of Language.
If you listen, yes, listen well, if you have ears to hear, beyond the rustling of the leaves, the scurrying sounds of little creatures, the squawking of the birds, the slithering of things that crawl, the hiss of mysterious beings hid in caves or holes, the buzz of anthropods crawling up tree boles, you just might just have heard One whisper:
“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old; To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings … Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because you cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father, the Adversary…”
DON’T PLAY IT SAFE
Everyone who wants to be known as a “Christian Writer” must first resolve the deeply-seated dilemma of self-identity. What does the term mean? Is there anything called a “Christian Writer” at all? If so, what is that creature? If not, why do we even posit something that does not exist other than as an apologetic for religious doctrine and dogma?
If I go back into my own life-experience, I found my identity as a writer before I ever came to realize I had been chosen by Jesus to embark on the journey of life. I won my first international prize at five for writing a short story titled “The Toy Cat”. This is all that remains of that story after termites attacked the collection of winning works that was published under the auspices of the Shankar’s International Competition 1962.
By Ampat Cuckoo Varghese (5) INDIA
Once there was a Daddy and a Mummy. They had two sons and a daughter. Their names were Lagani, Bagani and Gugani.
One day their Daddy bought them an automatic cat. Lagani, Bagani and Gagani were very happy. They played with the automatic cat.
One night Lagani, Bagani and Gugani fought over the toy cat and cried. Their Daddy got angry with them. The cat was kept on the top of the cupboard as usual. So Gugani, Lagani and Bagani cried and cried and slept.
Early morning they asked for the cat……..Daddy said that the cat is missing as an Ittoopy (ghost) came…….
After some days…….. a book on the…… the automatic cat. ….. said , “The Ittoopy …… cat.
They were once ….. they never fought….
What does it tell me about my being or identity? Simply this, that I was a writer before I was a Christian. And I have continued to remain a writer instead of trying to constrain myself into a preconceived straitjacket suited to “The Christian Writer”. For, one must remain true to one’s original calling in the womb. And, then again, one must refuse the strait-jacket at all times.
If you look into the story, you will see that being a writer comes from within what I would call the “honesty of being oneself”. There is no Christ in this story. There is mention of a “ghost”, though. There are human emotions and experiences, individual and collective. Above all, it is about how experiences are come by, perceived and interpreted. Finally, one is left with shards of memories that are pieced together as “writing”, the makings and markings of human motions of acquisition, loss, restoration. This is a “spiritual” or “Christian” process too, one might say.
You might notice that the aspects of being a writer are linked to certain mythemes, the irreducible element of ‘recognition’ within each myth, the archetypes which no human being can forswear or escape. The task for me, primarily, is to “write” within the mode ‘given’ and not so much ‘chosen’- two modes offered to the writer, but with one crucial realization. The writer can choose to write with the God-given talents which predate any mature self-identification as a “Christian Writer,” or the writer can package thoughts, talents, and soul-expressions to fit a chosen “Christian Writer” mode.”
Indeed, the task is to “write”, embellished with the personal experiences and narratives of one’s life—to distill one’s walk on earth through one’s God-given talents, salted or flavored by one’s walk with Christ, as and when He appears. This, perhaps, is the greatest gift that God gives each one of us to experience, and the greatest gift a writer can share with readers.
So then, for me, there is and is not that creature called “The Christian Writer”. There are writers and writers. But in the end all writing comes from human experiences rational, irrational or supra-rational, whatever be the categories or boxes into which people may cram their lives and articulations, however they might reason, explain or interpret. The “savour” of writing is hidden manna in the sense that every writer has “salt”, a living and rather intangible essence that co-relates to sensitivity and sensibility or taste. Some writers are salted so thoroughly their works are savored and survive across time, those books, from many cultures and ages which are called the “classics”. The writers in the Bible had this “salt”.
Every writer “flavours” his work too. Every written work is flavoured with “Christ”, “Communism”, the “Vedic”, “noir”, “morals”, “sadism”, “masochism” or “humour”. And so on. The “salt” in oneself and the “flavors” one chooses in permutations and combinations makes one’s writing alchemically unique. Every writer is unique, different from every other writer, depending on the measure of “salt’ or “flavor” given him or acquired by him through practice of the Craft.
But, I digress, or do I? Let us assume that there is a creature called “The Christian Writer”. What might its look like, what its habitat, what its hunting grounds, what its soul or spots? Does it bite? Does it bring balm? Is it only an imaginary creature like the Cheshire Cat? Let us do a short exercise at this point. Please, put down the names of people whom you construe as “Christian Writers”.
You first list might possibly consist of writers like Rick Warren, John Piper, Watchman Nee, Andrew Murray, A W Tozer, John Stott, and the like. You might just have put down C S Lewis too in that list. One will notice that these are so-called “devotional writers”. Now, this is a genre of writing that a certain type of person enjoys as a reader, usually, a certain, constrained type of human being.
Devotional writing as a genre goes back a long, long way across all religions. The Indian newspaperThe Hindu for instance has always had a column daily of devotional writing expounding Hindu scriptures and Indian spirituality. The Times of India also runs a regular popular column called The Speaking Tree which has been collated over time into a set of best-selling devotional books. Granted though, it takes some amount of experience, skill and practice to write such stuff. The flip side of this coin is the theological writer. Personally, I find both these religious genres of writing valuable, yet boring.
As a writer, those who have been of most help and inspiration to me have not been the puritanical “Christian Writers” peddling morality and religion from “Christian” bookstores. Rather, they are those who have been disciplined by the practice of writing and have flavoured their writings with Christ or Christian notions or concepts. Such writers have experimented with a variety of genres, are lovers of “the Word/word” and embrace human experience in its multiplex totality including an appreciation of how Christ acts as leaven that gently fills up the whole. By “whole”, I mean incorporating the way Christ’s “presence” infuses the work and does not shout in the streets but whispers to the reader in a still, small voice.
Let me list some of the “Christian” writers in different genres who have touched me. I list only those whom I have drawn upon for, primarily, the unspeakable joy of reading good, perhaps even great or exquisite, writing.
Poetry: St John of the Cross, George Herbert, Dante Aligheri, John Donne, John Milton, Christina Rosetti, G M Hopkins, Kahlil Gibran, William Blake, T S Eliot, and R S Thomas, Michael Madhusudanan Dutt. You may want to pick a fight with me for including Milton (an Arian), Blake (a hedonist) or Gibran (a syncretist). But their writings are exquisite and Christ shines through. Writers constrained by doctrine or dogma usually are preoccupied with being “right” and a cut above those who are “wrong” and naturally have their imaginations castrated. The work suffers.
Short stories: Here I mention Leo Tolstoy and G K Chesterton. And in the same breath, I make a distinction between Christian stories that try to be explicitly didactic (Tolstoy was a master at this game but most other writers who try to do this end up more as ideologues and demagogues; they cannot stir up dialogue as their craft fails them and falls short) and Christian-themed stories which may not have been written by a “believing” or self-professed Christian. Take, for instance, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.
I believe in making a distinction between books that are overtly Christian and those shaped by a Christian perspective. I prefer subtlety over being loud-mouthed and proselytizing. Subtlety, of course, is a matter of craft, of being able to speak the truth between the lines, of using allegory, metaphor or even Oulipian methods, rather than just being literal and boring. “Be ye subtle as a serpent.”
Novels: Here again, the great writers have grappled with the significance of the “faith” amidst the mystery of la condition humaine and the craft of writing at a level that forced “secular” writers to sit up and take note of them and the “faith” – Dosteoevsky, Tolstoy, George McDonald, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, G K Chesterton, Charles Williams, Joris Karl Huysmans, Alexander Solzhenitysyn, etc. Such writers intimately embraced their experiences, the zeitgeist, different genres and craft and its devices – allegory, fantasy, characterization, point of view, story and plot, etc. They were honest tillers who came up with blazing flowers in the writer’s field.
Autobiography: In this section there would be The Confessions of St Augustine, St Teresa of Avila’sInterior Castle or Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy.
Theatre: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
In modern and post-modern writing, Christ’s “presence” is even more marked by his “absence” being carved into written works by clever craftsmen. Writers who summon up Christ by means of “absence” include J K Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, Samuel Beckett, Georges Bernanos, and the philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
My point is this. I am not enamored of the creature termed “The Christian Writer’. It is a slippery critter. Was Handel a Christian or not? He wrote the great spiritual yet accomplished classical work “Messiah”. He also wrote other sensual works. Did that make him any the less a Christian? Perhaps he was first and foremost a musician and his spirit of faith appeared in some works and did not in others. That is the human condition.
I look at my God-given vocation of writing in like manner. I have always been a writer first, even as God created me, and rarely been a “Christian Writer” in the “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” sense. In fact, my considered view is that “evangelicalism” mostly produces mediocre writers because these “Christian Writers” limit themselves by not exploring the world of writing or the mosaic of human experience adequately enough; they fear that space which a poet once described as “every word is a world”, they rarely have epiphanies.
If one knows intimately or even superficially the One who is The Word Made Flesh, then it might be obvious that such an encounter or even glimpse would affect one’s writing in more ways than one and not just lead down the devotional or theological pathways. One need not be a “Christian Writer”, but one’s writings would time and again be branded or seared by the touch of Christ. All writing that manifests these wounds or scars to me is Christian writing, whatever is the author’s background or ideological bent.
All writing that deliberately and forcefully makes the work “fit” some “Christian framework” seems to me to sell short the glory that could exist within the worlds of words sufficient unto themselves for the stories of life which they portray, the manifestations of man’s beliefs, of the presence and touch of Christ which they could convey. In this sense, Maxim Gorky’s great work “Mother”, a literary masterpiece, is still suspect given its deliberate ideological thrust, a construct that weakens the work.
To conclude, I use an example, taken from film. The most powerful “Christian” films I have seen –Chariots of Fire, The Mission, Breaking the Waves, Ben Hur, The Seventh Seal, Tender Mercies, etc – have been conceptualized and directed by non-believers. Yet, these works are infused with the spirit of Christ though the authors themselves would not make the claim that they are “evangelical” or “orthodox”, doctrinaire or dogmatic. How is this possible?
I would not play it safe by announcing myself as a “Christian Writer” but rather as a human being who was gifted the talent of writing and hopes that some of his work at least will be Christian-themed or, better still, infused by the spirit of Christ to His glory. This contradiction in terms is what I find most curious, enigmatic and full of possibilities. So I am satisfied with having no final, definitive answer to the question “What or who is a Christian writer?”
I don’t know, do you?
A BOOK A DAY – TONIGHT THIS SAVAGE RITE (THE LOVE POEMS OF KAMALA DAS AND PRITISH NANDY) – Harper Collins 2010
It is one of those days, when I do not have a paisa in my pocket. But, on entering DC Books in Thiruvananthapuram, I find two tomes I want. A credit card always does the job!
One is the spanking new 2010 edition of a book titled Tonight This Savage Rite (The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy) with drawings by Manu Parekh. I first read this in 1980, immediately after it was published by Arnold Heinemann in 1979.
In the early 70s, Nandy and Kamala Das were writers I followed closely. They seemed to fit in with my own preoccupation with and predilection for the zeitgeist of youthful rebellion, long hair, bell bottoms, free love, rock music, sex, alcohol and drugs, the return to the Dionysian by means of art, a pursuit of transcendence through the “deliberate derangement of the senses” and a spiritual mash-up of Zen, Yoga, Kalari, Karate, Transcendental Meditation and Christian mysticism.
Neither Kamala Das nor Pritish Nandy take to the “natural” extreme hinted at by Arthur Rimbaud: The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong …” They stay within the set paradigm of explorations that lovers or, perhaps, the profligate, indulge in. The difference was that the time was ripe for the poetry that came out of such trysts to be published in conservative India and in English too.
The cover of the book, its overall design and illustrations hark back to an era when love as fidelity was brought into question. Four horizontal color bands – shocking pink, bold orange, chrome yellow and bright green – combine startlingly with big, bold, colorful title-text and an abstract illustration. The mix of white, grey and black pages with text and titles provides a dynamic; whets the senses. Ignore the typo on Page 5 – “white-house” instead of “white horse” – and the strange feel of some page breaks jumping irritatingly from grey to black or white, suddenly.
The poems arouse nostalgia – gently erotic, teenage romantic, mock melancholic.
Both Nandy and Das play with stream of consciousness. In Das’ poetry, the “hidden feminine” is dredged and displayed, shaped in free verse. The woman’s “moody mind” detaches itself from pleasure’s harshly trumpet to ponder over the “skin-connected thing” she dares not call love! The man’s depth is revealed, perhaps, in Nandy’s line: “Come, let us pretend this is a ritual… forever means an empty room.”
The sea of feelings which confuses the woman as she plays her roles of wife, lover, Mediatrix, whore or nymphet combined with the fear of her self being abandoned as an “used” object of lust or for a lustier woman, is alive for the reader to splash in. All the while, behind it all, the insatiable yearning for the experience of love that does not jell comes and goes with the waves of memories and possibilities for infidelity in thought and deed.
What results? Transformations, in identity and practice through process. Madhavi Kutty becomes Kamala Das becomes Suraiya. Malayalam translates to English. Hindu converts to Islam. Poet, painter.
Das’ poetry is more visceral than Nandy’s. The latter does not allow the reader to penetrate beyond the physical and his immediacy. His poems are more descriptive than imagistic or, if imagistic, rather clichéd. Many taste insipid when I read now. Das, however, still has power to show me “whatever colors there are in your mind”, along with the scars of love and lust. Nandy is cryptic: “As the rains do not scar the hills, my body shall leave no trace on yours.”
In Das, one accesses the possibility of riding the steed of Eros towards transcendence; listen carefully and hear echoes of the oracle Diotima. “Loving this one, I seek but another way to know Him who has no more a body to offer, and whose blue face is a phantom-lotus on the waters of my dreams…” Like Anais Nin and Sylvia Plath, her journey is such that “Every lesson you have was about yourself”.
It is a pleasure, thereafter, to go forward and rediscover Ghanashyam and A Man is a Season. She invokes the perennial mystic images of the lovelorn, mortal Bride seeking ecstatic union with the immortal Bridegroom and the devadasi or “sacred prostitute”: “A man is a season, You are eternity. To teach me this, you let me toss my youth like coins into various hands, you let me mate with shadows.” The journey leads her to identify herself with the pangs suffered by Krishna’s consort, Radha. Inevitably, many poems speak of nests, snares and cocoons to be left behind, broken out of or abandoned.
Das’ poems are also illumined by the acts of savagery savored by Everywoman in the throes of passion or detachment, wallowing in self-pity on being ignored instead of being adored, plotting vengeful verbal thrusts at males. The sense of ever being a half-empty cup lingers; so too the anxiety of betrayal at the phallic altar amidst an unceasing desire to traverse the male pole.
Nandy’s poems act as counter-point. The constant hunt and craving for women’s bodies, familiar and unknown, “for the caress and the kill.” Again, the cries of loneliness, grief as an erotic relationship plunges into the Slough of Despond. The return to the cliché – “secret vibes”, “nowhere man”, “lonely highways”, “lonesome cities” – peculiar to the urban male with his innate lack of faith that Woman can ever be a full-fledged partner or fulfilling company. Everything is centered in the experience of caress, coitus and absence; the understanding of the Other, that outgrown Rib, is precluded.
This book also takes me down Memory Lane, to love poems written in English by other Indian writers, to Nissim Ezekiel’s “Two nights of love”: “After a night of love, I dreamt of love …after a night of love, I turned to love…” Or to Aimee Nezhukumatathil: “But by evening’s end, I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you.” Or Srinivasa Rayaprol with his unforgettable portrait of “Married Love”: “Every evening I am met at the gate by my wife, her hair in disorder and her dress a mess …” Or Mani Rao: “Was desire meant to be saved, kept alive, unanswered? But this is a deathfuck, different, the more I dismember, the more I want ….”
So then, one must place Das and Nandy alongside the “others” and see how they fare in their poetic musings on the mystery of “love”. For Nandy, it may be about “drifting in and out of Lovetime.” For Das, “The only truth that matters is that all this love is mine to give, it does not matter that I seek for it a container, as alms seek a begging bowl …Heed my faith alone, all the rest is perishable…” And so, the tandav goes on, yin seeking yang and vice versa, coupling and uncoupling, meeting to part, ever running the arc to complete the broken circle.
A BOOK A DAY – THE DARK ABODE – SAROJINI SAHOO –INDIAN AGE COMMUNICATION 2009
It is the first time I am reading an Oriya writer, and a woman, in translation. Of Indian women writers, I have savored Kamala Das, who hails from Kerala and wrote in Malayalam and English, Mahasweta Devi, who wrote in Bengali, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander.
But, Sarojini Sahoo’s versatility and contemporaneity surprises me. Her style is smooth as honey. Her interests are varied and her complex insights into the many layered world a 21st century middle-class Indian woman inhabits are beaten into this simple, elegant artifact – The Dark Abode, a book that reiterates for me the often un-encountered or silenced strength and sophisticated understanding of the vernacular Indian woman writer’s voice.
Three things irk me about this downloadable e-book. One, it is a translation and, yes, it works but one senses a certain lack of capability on the part of the translator. I wish I could have read it in Oriya.
Two, the “forward” (sic) has a lengthy reference to Uma/Parvati, the consort of the mythical god Shiva, and a silly question is posed to the reader: Is the protagonist in this novel a modern, living form of Uma? Is she all that Uma represents in human form? I invite you to decide whether she is or isn’t.
Three, each chapter is preceded by black and white sketches of naked women, slightly abstract and erotic. These are by one Ed Baker, an American, but some of them fail if the first intention was not so much titillation as adding an extra layer of meaning to the work itself.
The story itself begins in cyberspace with the protagonist Kuki being sucked into a cyber-affair with a stranger who captures her being with his words of fantastical passion in rather cheap poetry. Kuki is a middle-aged, middle-class housewife, educated, married to the hard-working corporate slave Aniket, with two kids, the seeming Sita (or Uma) stereotype.
The storms break upon her soul when she begins receiving intense, impassioned, emails from Safiq, a Pakistani. Her curiosity is aroused by the insane interest the Muslim takes in her and soon they are involved in a romance like sixteen-year olds which yet carries that dangerous edge of sensuality and purpose that only grown-ups can fathom for better or worse.
As the relationship zigzags through ups and down and contrary circumstances, Sahoo explores themes that are extremely contemporary – the Indo-Pak and Hindu-Muslim divide, the substance and insubstantiality of virtual ‘love’ and cybersex mediated by “hot” words that are often poetic in essence, the coalescing and separating of two distinct worlds and lives, the malady of the quotidian in middle class Indian marital relationships, the inevitable hook-up between artist and rasika, the demands and discrepancies of keeping up with the Joneses, the Damocles’ sword of terrorism and surveillance, the dilemma of sexual fidelity versus free sex, the impulse to purity in the quicksand of morality and repressed needs.
Safiq is a polygamist, philanderer and artist in Pakistan and Kuki is drawn deeper and deeper into deciphering and coming to terms with his personas even as the process unravels for herself the meaning and purpose of her own identity (Safiq re-names her Rokshana) and existence and that of her husband. Inevitably, they become partners in the crimes of adultery and infidelity. The “dark abode” is both the homely space she inhabits in utter subjection to her husband who often humiliates her and the secret new life she has discovered on the Net with Safiq who honors her as a goddess. Aniket, of course, is the orthodox “good man”, the Pati Pavitra, and Safiq the raconteur and pervert.
The virtual affair embodies (or disembodies?) the promise of the possibility of a Maha Bharat, a unified India and Pakistan, the transcending of the divide between Islam and Hinduism and the iconoclastic and idolatrous, through sexual and emotional understanding and integration of opposites and dualities. Yin meets Yang in the circle of passion. And the possibility is raised of Sita, giving herself to both Ram and Ravana to possess both.
“She had read Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” …And Safiq is her vehicle to take her out of her domestic prison expanding from thence into three other worlds. “The first one was about the common man’s world; the second was ethereal love; and the third one related to sensual love.”
Kuki’s dilemma. “Could she have ever guessed that this very life would open up such new vistas in front of her? On one hand there was Aniket; short-tempered and obsessed with cleanliness. On the other, there was Safiq; honest, broad-minded but perverted. A quiet strength and constancy went in Aniket’s favor, while Safiq impressed her with his sensitivity and tact. If someone were to ask her, ‘Whom do you want?” she would answer, “Both.””
The plot slowly becomes more complex as Kuki tries to piece together a stable, composite picture of her Pakistani lover as well as Aniket. In the process, she begins to understand herself as perhaps the “eternal feminine”; she “is large and contains multitudes”. There are the emotional ups and downs, fears and anxieties that lovers undergo when in converse with and when apart from the loved one, and there are the moments when Safiq touches her at the core of her sexuality in a way that Aniket will not. “The long e-mail was full of descriptions of physical intimacy and lovemaking in different positions and postures. She felt suffocated. She felt wet.”
Kuki comes across a painting by Safiq titled Alienation in Delhi but she does not have the money to purchase it. She is drawn increasingly into his artist’s world-view, his dream of going to Paris or getting a job in Columbia University (he does get to Paris but doesn’t make the job) and his desire to take her along with him, his family and the marriage of his daughter and, finally, the dashing of his hopes. She lives his life vicariously as she tries to fathom the meaning and purpose of this relationship. She is tormented by the fear that he might be a Pakistani terrorist and that his phone calls might be traced and land her in trouble or, worse, shame!
Her fears almost come true! Safiq’s life is destroyed under President Musharaff’s regime when his second wife Tabassum, much younger than him and to whom he has given the freedom to take her own lovers provided she remains loyal to him alone, gets into trouble with some military big-shots. When she refuses to fulfill their carnal desires, they reopen an old case against Safiq pertaining to him having had consensual sex with a model who is blackmailed into bringing a sexual harassment charge against him. He is also linked to someone who engineers a terrorist blast in London.
Most of the novel consists of Kuki sitting on her side of the glowing computer screen and reading Safiq’s emails. These help her understand and empathize with the four women (leaving aside the 52 other women with whom he has had sex) central to his life – his first wife, Tabassum, Nagma – his daughter by his first wife, and Linda Johnson, the American woman “who had clued him into the intricacies of sex”. Kuki had initially hated all of them. Safiq opens for Kuki the possibility of her being that “ordinary” woman who can yet encompass the feelings and struggles of all women and who is also able to receive into her bosom at least two men, polar opposites.
In the end, Safiq is jailed in Pakistan and writes: “Rokshana, will you wait for me? Till I get out of custody? …Kuki sat down and wiped the tears from her cheeks, at a loss to fathom the depths and impossibilities of a human relationship nipped in the bud by so many unreasonable constraints. She would wait. For Safiq, for her love, till all her hairs turned grey, till the wrinkles conquered her face, and perhaps till the day she closed her eyes for good. She would wait for the voice that once charmed her ears and echoed with a subtle resonance in her soul, a voice she had never told anyone about, then or ever since.”
Therein lies the tragedy of this tale of transgression, the tragedy being that of every middle-class Indian woman, educated yet shackled, wanton and yet proscribed from its expression, passionate and yet subjugated, looking for reality and experiencing only virtuality, longing to speak out and yet condemned to silence.
The clever analogy Sahoo draws in the novel is that of the Pakistani artist who dares to break the yoke of orthodoxy and pays the price for it. He is a model for the Indian woman who dreams of breaking a similar yoke. The difference is that he is willing to pay the price for his inner freedom while the Indian woman remains secretive and silent in her “dark abode” where the only light that penetrates comes in through a computer screen through a forbidden voice from the “other”, a forbidden land and religion.
Kamala Das, the aristocratic Hindu Nair woman, blazed a trail by opening up the Pandora’s Box of women’s sexuality for public discussion. In the end she converted to Islam and married a Muslim. Mahasweta Devi gave voice to the marginalized and downtrodden. Jhumpa Lahiri is sophisticated enough to gain access to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. Arundhati Roy bulldozed her way to international fame and loads of moolah with an isolated literary stroke that included a clandestine relationship between a Syrian Christian woman and a low caste male. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander have each carved out her own niche among the literati of the Indian diaspora. As for Anita Nair, based in Bangalore, I wonder why I bothered to read her.
But, apart from Kamala Das or Mahasweta Devi, Sahoo provides for me the most powerful indictment of the powerlessness of the Indian woman in any tale I have read penned by an Indian woman writer as yet.
A BOOK A DAY – THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH – RAYMOND RADIGUET – MARION BOYARS 2005
Both books deal with forbidden love. In Goethe’s story, young Werther’s unrequited love for the married Lotte leads to suicide. In Radiguet’s tale, a 15-year-old boy falls in love with a 19-year-old girl married to a soldier who goes to war. The illicit love is mutual but given the nature of adultery and the illicit nature of the relationship, the tale must end tragically, with the death of Marthe.
Both writers are autobiographical. But Radiguet grips me more than Goethe for he is cut in the image of Rimbaud, a seer soaked in absinthe and reeking of clarity concerning the darker aspects of being human. Not to forget that Jean Cocteau was his mentor. Again, Radiguet impresses me because he dared at 14 to have an affair with an older woman. I can vouch that highly sexual older women turn little boys into men. Pleasure and the pain that leads to mature insight go together.
Of course, all tragedies of this kind arise from fleshly passions, rationalized and indulged in via literary influences. The virus of non-conformity is spread through language. Writers experiment with life and words and this, in turn, shape what they write and those writers who follow in their train. Radiguet is both child prodigy and a writer’s writer.
The tone is set early by this Prince of Paradox and King of Nothing who plays both ends against the middle, that middle being his being. The discourse is located right away in the flesh, in sensuality. It is provoked by parents who represent certain mores. “My parents disapproved of friendship between the sexes. But our sensuality, which is born with us, though for a time it remains dormant, was aroused rather than quelled by their disapproval.” What he discovers about his sensuality is true even for those whose parents approve of friendship between the sexes.
So begins his experimentation with the deeds of his flesh and, by association, our flesh. And in telling this tale he reiterates William Blake: “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d, it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.”
The plot is constructed as a repetitive, spiral structure of subtle transgressions, their masking or exposure, pride or shame in the process, alternations between affection and malice, both deliberate, and the ritual of internal confessions interspersed by passionate external coitus with death and oblivion as climax. The question one is left with – “Is it true that love is the most violent form of selfishness?”
And it is explored over and over again by means of juxtaposing experiential and intellectual contradictions in the flesh by the protagonist, who reads 200 books “considered the best from the literary point of view” between 1913 and 1914, and is (therefore?) “affected less by the picturesque than by the poetic side of things”.
Radiguet’s line of questioning is intriguing; Goethe got there only much later in life as a writer in Faust. Radiguet extends with ease Blake’s insight that “It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.” It is from this Abyss that Radiguet brings forth his notions about the malleable, dicey, impermanent, non-eternal nature of love, loyalty and infidelity.
When he goes out with Marthe and succeeds in influencing her choice of furniture and draping for her future bedchamber with her husband, he notes with deviant pleasure:“Item by item, I had succeeded in transforming this marriage of love, or rather of infatuation, into a marriage of reason, and a strange marriage of reason at that, since reason had no part in it, each finding in the other only the advantages provided by a marriage of love.”
He suggests that a semblance or resemblance of love is possible only between those who are drawn together by their love for literature. Marthe and he come together through a love for art and literature as symbols of deviance and difference; she chafes against her fiancé who bars her from art classes and reading Baudelaire’s Le Fleurs du Mal or Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer.
But now, to list some of his insights as a disobedient, deceiving, wayward spirit into the nature of “love”, in thought, word, and deed.
My love for Marthe had dispossessed Rene (his school friend), my parents and my sisters.
Marthe would see in this impatience the proof of my love for her …and if she did not, I would find ways of making myself clear.
… I tried hard not to think about her, with the result that I thought of nothing else.
… this complicity between us …
If we live constantly with the same ideas, if we see only one, passionately desired object, we become unaware of how
criminal are our desires.
When the ties between two people are not yet firm, a single meeting missed is sufficient to lose sight of the other.
Now that I was sure I no longer loved her, I was beginning to do so.
“You are only a child,’ she sobbed. “Don’t you understand? It is because I love you that I ask you to go.”
I was drunk with passion. Marthe was mine; and it wasn’t I who said so, but she.
The one who loves always annoys the one who does not.
I cursed the man who had aroused her body before me.
I loved Marthe too much to regard our happiness as a crime.
… love is like poetry, and that all lovers, even the most ordinary, imagine themselves to be innovators.
When love is one’s life, what is the difference between living together and dying together?
Yet love, which is a form of selfishness involving two selves instead of one, sacrifices everything to its own interests and lives off lies.
Only love could forgive such a lapse of taste.
To believe a woman “at a time when she cannot lie” is to believe in the sudden generosity of a miser.
Nothing is so absorbing as love.
Love feels, rather obscurely, that its only distraction lies in work.
Love wishes to share its happiness.
All love has a youth, a maturity and an old age. Was I already at that final stage when love no longer satisfied me unless accompanied each time by some new trick?
Love had turned her into a slave.
There must exist in us seeds of resemblance that are germinated by love. Even the most prudent of lovers sooner or later give themselves away by a gesture or an inflexion of the voice.
Marthe dared not tell me she was pregnant.
I loved this child already and it was because I loved it that I rejected it.
I hoped I would be able to cure myself of my love for her.
This was the schoolboy in me: I imagined that the code of love made certain lies obligatory.
…love places us in the situation of having to justify our actions …
Just as a bee plunders in order to enrich the hive, a lover enriches his love with every passing desire that besets him in the street. It is his mistress who benefits from this accumulation. … Such duplicity leads to profligacy.
… the ephemeral nature of our love …
… romantics, like madmen, must not be contradicted …
Can one be happy with somebody one does not love?
Only love can show a woman the resemblance she is searching for.
I saw my love for the first time as a whole, with all its aberrations.
Is it true perhaps that love is the most violent form of selfishness?
Travel, ascend and descend these nadis, and the tale unravels itself for the reader along its spine and its chakras. Give it bones and muscles any which way you imagine. It is an ancient tale. David and Bathsheba. Paris and Helen. Henry Miller and Anais Nin, Anna Karenina and Vronsky, Karuthamma and Pareekutty.
The protagonist discovers that Marthe is pregnant. He torments her physically and mentally partly because of his own feelings of doubt and ambivalence. The child is born. Marthe’s parents, her husband and people at large remain hypocritical and protective of extant social norms and masks. The general impression is that the child is fathered by the husband.
But, is not the protagonist the father? How is one to be sure of paternity? Or, of love? The protagonist discovers that Marthe had given herself to her husband too when he was home on furlough and had hidden this truth from him. Sometime after the child’s birth, Marthe dies, as our suave anti-hero learns, calling out her lover’s name, the name she has given the child? Can only the woman in love know who the true father of her child is?
The tale ends in paradox, the sign of genius. It critiques the romantic impulse and the illusion of eternal love between humans. It posits life in the possessive, selfish and jealous nature of love. “We cannot bear the person we love to go without us to some gathering where there will be a lot of people … Yes, what I wished for Marthe was oblivion, rather than a new world where one day I might join her.”
Finally, there is the anchoring of the self in the present, in skepticism, in a modernistic indifference. “A very young man is an animal that does not take easily to suffering. I was already rearranging my views of the situation… in the end, order reasserts itself over everything.”
STIEG LARSSON‘S MILLENNIUM TRILOGY – FILMS TO BOOKS – A REVIEW
It’s the first time in my life that I am lured to reading a set of books because the films made based on those books gripped me. I am curious to know what changes might have been made to the books themselves. Thus far, I’ve been pretty disappointed whenever a book I’ve read has been turned into a film. There is always the “gap”, a certain contempt for screenplay writers who do not hold a candle to the original author, and a grudging admiration for film directors or actors who come close to depicting, translating or even sometimes interpreting, powerfully, effectively the possibilities embedded in a written story.
I am one who believes that “a word is worth a thousand pictures’, contradicting those purveyors of visual and media culture who tout the adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words”. But maybe it was the rainy weather, maybe the choice of actors, maybe the plot and pacing of the tales, or my being utterly bored or a combination of all these factors that led me to watching the Millennium Trilogy films.
The Millennium Trilogy, of course is the set of books that launched Swedish writer Stieg Larsson into the limelight, posthumously. The books are “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest“. The Millennium itself is the magazine the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist serves, the last Swedish bastion for authentic expose journalism that takes on the powerful and the twisted. The subtext in these films is that though Sweden seems to be an orderly society, it is also a haven for a variety of criminals and perverts who cannot be brought to book by the efforts of the police but by that price paid by conscientious citizens and the fourth estate, the price demanded for the survival of any true democracy or welfare state – eternal vigilance.
Larsson had come to my notice in 2009 (he died in 2004) for his interest in science fiction, his left-wing bent, his commitment to exposing and combating right wing, white-power groups and individuals in society, knowledge I had picked up by reading articles about him. I had many a time picked up one or other of these books in an airport or city bookshop, read the blurbs, looked closely at the image of his anti-heroine on the covers, but not bought them simply because I would inevitably find something “more serious” than crime fiction.
In any case, I found the first film “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” riveting and even disturbing in parts. It was a very well-woven plot, I thought, with extremely interesting characterisation. Lisbeth Salander is an anti-heroine after my own heart, brought up as I was on Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise books and comics. Only, this version of the fighting woman is far more complex and not nearly as invincible as Blaise. Lisbeth has a worthy “partner” in the much older journalist Blomkvist, a kind of parallel to Willie Garvin, Modesty Blaise’s partner. Blomkvist is both lover and father to this severely traumatised yet lucid young bisexual woman who is not afraid to be both judge and executioner when necessary.
What I liked most was how the two central characters, who are arrayed against apparently not-so-intelligent monsters with perverted and violent sexual appetites, play out their adventures along separate threads that then come together to unite in a knot not easily untied. Lisbeth’s expertise in hacking plays no small role in digging up information or uncovering important trails.
The unraveling of the mystery in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” made me hark back to Umberto Eco’s crime thriller “The Name of the Rose” with its central clues encoded in Bible verses twisted by maniacs to suit their perversions. Some of the sequences are graphic, for instance when Lisbeth is handcuffed to the bed by her “guardian” and sodomised. The sequence where she takes her revenge is equally powerful. Though sexual violence, torture and murder are always in the foreground or strong, constant undercurrents, there are places in these films where tenderness and even love is emphasized. Nazism, as an archetype of fascism, is clearly portrayed as evil, and linked to secretive and exploitative corporate culture.
Larsson’s point seems to be that the world is becoming increasingly controlled and populated by fascists and violent, inhuman criminals operating from the shadows and that the victimisation and abuse of women is a natural corollary. His ‘dynamic duo” proves that it takes extraordinary tenacity, courage, intelligence and sacrifice to unearth and bring to book these baddies who are often ensconced as “wickedess in high places” – in famlies that control corporate empires, the secret police, and other social systems including those meant to benefit possible victims but end up destroying them.
The second film “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is more fast paced and the plot gets thicker and more complicated for the anti-heroine. She discovers secrets afresh about her own father, who controls a racket in trafficking and sexual abuse of girls from East Europe. In the penultimate confrontation with her father, he asks her “Did he (Lisbeth’s guardian) rape you?” She replies: Yes. “That shit had poor taste,” is her father’s coarse and hurtful response.
This monstrosity of a father, an ex-GRU defector from Russia, was disfigured by the 12-year-old Lisbeth who set him on fire for raping and beating her mother, his own wife, unconscious. The father shoots Lisbeth and buries her in a shallow grave. She digs her way out and smashes her father’s head and knee in with an axe. But not before she also discovers that her father’s Man Friday is her half-brother, a blonde hunk of a killer impervious to pain since he has “congenial anagelsia”. Somehow, the second film, though riveting in itself, is not as deep in nuances or suspenseful as the first one.
I am yet to see the third film which is still downloading on my computer. Tomorrow, perhaps.
But, in the meanwhile, I am delving into the books themselves. I do not think I will regret reading them, what I have tasted thus far is …simplistic yet yummy. These books takes me back to the time when I first read Robert Ludlum‘s “The Bourne Identity”, a superior writer in my view, and the books that followed in that series. Later, I was glued to the Bourne film series starring Matt Damon.
I find that Larsson’s set does the same for me, gets my adrenaline going, brings alive the butterflies in my stomach, has me gnawing my nails, baits me and holds my attention in a way no other crime thrillers have done in a long time.
Maybe I am regressing, but so what? Join me. Go ahead and grab both the books and the films, in whichever order you prefer, and zone out with me and the 30 million others who have become Stieg Larsson fans.
2011 KERALA ASSEMBLY ELECTION – QUICK REVIEW
KERALA ASSEMBLY TOTAL SEATS 140
United Democratic Front led by Congress – 72 seats
Left Democratic Front led by Communist Party Marxist – 68 seats.
INC – 38, IUML – 20, KC(M) – 9, SJ(D) – 2, KC(J)-1, CMP – 0, JSS – 0, KRSP(B) – 1, KC(B)- 1
CPM – 45, CPI – 13, INL – 0, JD(S)-4, NCP – 2, KC(AMG)-0, RSP-2, Independent (LDF) -2
The best part of the 2011 elections to the Kerala Assembly, which the UDF led by the Congress won today by a small majority of two seats, is that several marginal parties (in Kerala they are called “broomstick” parties) have been wiped out and several others of “gnat value” pushed even further to the peripheries.
Of these, two casualties are UDF parties formed by powerful leaders who fell out with/from the Communist Party (Marxist) oligarchy – the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) led by M V Raghavan and the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithy (JSS) led by Mrs K R Gouriamma.
The JSS was given four seats as part of the UDF and lost all four, but what else can you expect of a party led by a 92 year old woman, whatever her past achievements might have been? The CMP had been allotted 3 seats and lost all of them. That’s seven seats the UDF lost, of which at least four to five could have been salvaged if the strength of the JSS and CMP had been correctly assessed and the claims of these parties cut down to size.
The LDF no longer has to worry, likewise, about the Kerala Congress (Anti-Merger Group) which lost the three seats it had been allotted. The Indian National League also lost the three seats it was allotted.
The parties marginalized in the UDF are the Kerala Congress (Jacob), Kerala Congress (Balakrishna Pillai), Kerala Revolutionary Socialist Party and Socialist Janata Party. The leaders of these parties have survived but the parties themselves are disintegrating. So too, the National Congress Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Indian National League and Congress (Secular) in the LDF.
All these parties will, hopefully, disappear over the next few years and their followers enter the ranks of the parties that have demonstrated their solid bases – the CPM, CPI, Congress, IUML and KC(Mani). This would make coalition politics more robust and binary in nature. The jettisoning of the marginalised and fringe parties can only help the UDF more down the line; the LDF is already being consolidated in a tighter totalitarian manner by the CPI(M).
The right-wing, fascistic Bharatiya Janata Party is, once again, despondent. It has been trying for nearly 25 years to enter the Assembly either from the northernmost parts of Kerala (Kasargod district) or the southernmost (Trivandrum district). It seemed for a moment that the dream might be fulfilled. BJP candidates were leading in Manjeswaram and Nemom, respectively, only to lose in the last lap. The BJP can, however, console itself that the influence of saffron Hindutva fundamentalism has spread in some parts of Kerala.
It is clear that Kerala remains a “madhouse” of caste, class and religious configurations, a strange mix of a paradoxical pluralistic yet exclusivist insanity that Swami Vivekananda, one of the indirect founders of the Hindutva movement, had condemned in his prime.
The IUML kept 20 out of the 24 seats it contested in the Muslim heartland of Kerala. The KC(Mani) kept 9 out of the 15 seats it had contested in the Christian heartland of Central Travancore, the Nairs voted for the UDF, the Ezhavas and segments of the lower castes and classes stuck by the CPI(M).
The CPI(M) is making bold noises, prophecying the collapse of the UDF by means of the bickering and horse-trading among the “partners” that lie round the corner for the formation of a UDF government.
But, the CPI(M) itself is shell-shocked by the utter rout of the party in West Bengal, where it had ruled without a break for 34 years. That defeat will have its impact on the Kerala unit which is already riven by in-fighting between factions led by the geriatric ex-Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and the wily party boss and hatchet-man Pinarayi Vijayan.
A good part of the glory of holding the LDF fort against the UDF challenge goes to Achuthanandan, something Vijayan chafes against. The Achuthanandan glamour won the CPI(M) many seats in Alapuzha and Kollam districts. Of course, Pinarayi ensured that the fortresses of Kannur and Palghat were not breached in the north. Yet, the CPI(M), which had persecuted Achuthanandan in many ways during his term as Chief Minister, will have to be careful that the party does not undergo another split like those brought about by Gouriamma or Raghavan earlier to the detriment of the LDF.
What lies before the people of Kerala given that the UDF has come to power with only a slender margin? Will the UDF hold together? Or will suddenly disgruntled UDF parties like the Muslim League and KC(Mani) decide to forge an alliance with the CPI(M) for the sake of wielding power? This kind of crossing of lines has happened in the past.
Then again, will in-fighting in the Congress itself bring about the ruin of the UDF? State Congress President Ramesh Chennithala, who flaunts his Nair caste colours, is ambitious enough to believe that he can, at some point, challenge Oommen Chandy, and take a shot at Chief Ministership, for a week or two at least. That’s the kind of petty ambitions many petty politicians in Kerala harbour.
Chennithala just scraped through in his seat. It might have been better if this short-sighted trouble-maker had lost his seat. But then, the UDF would have had a majority of only ONE!
Then there is K M Mani who too would definitely love to go down in the annals of history as Chief Minister of Kerala, even if it is at the cost of the possibility of the UDF running a full five-year term, or the state’s economic development, always stymied when the Commies are in power. That’s easy to understand, for where there are no poor people, there can be no Marxists and the intention of the Marxists has ever been to keep the people chained to poverty or bureaucracy!
Will Mani go with the LDF (the coalition could support his party from without) to fulfill his personal dream?
The wafer-thin majority of the UDF casts a black shadow over the hopes of those who want to build up Kerala’s economic potential – IT, cash crops, tourism, etc – and push its creaking, medieval, analog systems into the 21st century. It is almost certain that now, being out of power, the CPI(M) will use its age-old strong-arm union tactics to paralyse the functioning of both government and people by calling for strikes, hartals and bandhs at the drop of a penny.
The principles the Marxists live by are simple: when in power, ensure social and economic stagnancy; when out of power, paralyse all possiblities for progress.
Can or will the UDF partners pull together or fall apart over the haggling for ministerial berths and other privileges for the sake of the progress of the state (and God knows His Own Country needs a kick-start!), weather the storms an unforgiving Marxist deathshead machine will certainly rouse up?
If this is not possible, then it’s time a new political figure arose on the Kerala scenario like Mamta Banerjee, for better or worse. It is the miracle needed to break the sociopolitical and economic impasse Kerala has been mired in for decades now, thanks to the two coalition fronts that have alternately ruled the state for more than two decades.
A BOOK A DAY – JUST KIDS – BY PATTI SMITH – PUBLISHED BY HARPER-COLLINS 2010
This is the book if you want to know how the mandalas of Patti Smith’s life and, likewise, of her lover Robert Mapplethorpe, were forged as one.
Again, it’s an important book both for those who have been touched by the compulsions of Art and feel its breath upon their clay-beings and yet doubt its calling and for those who have known themselves to be artists from the womb. Patti was the former and Robert the latter. Yet, the two became one, a coming together of contraries and contradictions into a dynamic “married” whole, infiltrated, infused and interpreted by Love.
And the central doubt about the terror of the calling of Art is voiced by Robert as he lies dying of AIDS.
“Suddenly he looked up and said, “Patti, did art get us?” I looked away, not really wanting to think about it. “I don’t know, Robert. I don’t know.” Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that. Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint. Robert beckoned me to help him stand, and he faltered. “Patti,” he said, “I’m dying. It’s so painful.” He looked at me, his look of love and reproach. My love for him could not save him. His love for life could not save him. “
Patti stands beside him in 1986, her belly swollen with the second child she is carrying, not Robert’s. He wonders why they never had children and says, ruefully: “Our work (of Art) is our children.” But“Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.”
At the risk of sounding naïve, sentimental, romantic and inane, a read like this leaves behind works like Eric Segal’s Love Story or Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther. Life fired by Love as the root and driving force of reality is strange, stronger than anything imagination or imitation can toss up when two, like Patti and Robert, are “chosen” and enter Kahlil Gibran’s “moving sea between the shores of your souls”.
Patti Smith’s book allows us to touch the sacredness of immortal Love.
The autobiography is as much, if not more, about Robert as Patti herself. Inevitable, for the pages are alive with the presence of a beautiful woman who gave herself up entirely in spirit and soul to meld a Binary into Unity.
Just Kids is also about the mysterious pursuit of Art which rises from deep-springs of passions and leads through intricate, narrow, labyrinthine by-lanes and alleys where artists encounter God or demon-spirits, human depths of soul-experiences, material affections, intersections, manipulations, appropriations or confusions, enjoining many others who penetrate the subtle, the beautiful, to pursue what lies beyond the normative.
The journey begins instinctively, impulsively, intuitively. Patti has her epiphany as a child upon seeing a “singular miracle”, a swan. “The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan … The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it.” A poetess/artist was born in that instant but it would be years before her poetry would be recognized and feed into theatre, performance and song-writing for her unique rock band. The road is long and winding through hunger, poverty and long hours of banal work at boring jobs, but she keeps writing and drawing, singing and dancing.
A second epiphany comes, before she sets out for New York much as Rimbaud set off for Paris from his village, when she encounters Picasso in a museum. “…that pierced me the most. His brutal confidence took my breath away… I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
Knowledge sows desire. Frida Kahlo. Diego Riviera. And Patti’s desire: “I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.” Blessed are those whose desires are granted. Thus, she meets Robert in New York and the manifest rib slips back into, merges with the Androgyne. Of course, she is not aware then of Robert androgyny till faced with his struggle with his homosexuality. He finds men for casual sex and to earn money to keep Patti and himself alive. And then he has his lovers, culminating in the aristocratic, wealthy Sam Wagstaff, who leads him to fame, prosperity and the tragedy of the times. Sam first, and then Robert, are struck down by AIDS.
How well Patti understands her deepest love/lover. “The thrill of the battle between good and evil attracted him, perhaps because it mirrored his interior conflict, and revealed a line that he might yet need to cross.” She walks with him through his metamorphoses from the angelic to the daimonic fuelled by sex and acid, “perverse” explorations of S&M, his obsessions, his entry into high society and the commercial production of art; she deciphers his silences, fears, confusions and distances without distancing herself as they sojourn side by side, never allowing a wound to appear as a “gap” between them but as a space into which new experiences can enter and also, as Kahlil Gibran put it, affirming the “spaces in your togetherness”. “We went our separate ways, but within walking distance of one another.”
Thus she was “privy to his new adventure, the miracle of his death”. As she stands by his death-bed:“So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger.”
Patti’s story is about Robert’s deep acceptance and trust in her, his constant closeness to her in body and spirit, his continual acceptance of her worth, vision and ambition, his encouraging her to pursue her art work with the objective that she should become fulfilled, successful, famous. Their deep intimacy never really wanes. Soon after Patti cuts her first album Horses at Jimi’s Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studio, she smokes a hash joint with him. “Do you want to have sex?” he asked me. I was surprised and pleased he still desired to be with me. Before I answered, Robert took my hand and said, “I’m sorry.” Patti lived the principle of “Love means never having to say ‘Sorry’.”
And then the Good Times arrive for Patti as her poetry readings combined with music and performance, finally lead to the formation of her rock band and the cutting of acclaimed albums. “Patti,” he drawled, “you got famous before me.” When, in the summer of 1978, her song Because the Night rises to number 13 on the Top 40 chart, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record.”
Robert too succeeds, but dies young. So does Patti’s husband, the guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, with whom she conceives two children. She had had intimate relationships earlier with the painter Howard Michaels, the playwright Sam Shephard and Allen Lanier, keyboardist of Blue Oyster Cult, before finding Fred and moving from New York to Detroit, and of him she writes: “Thus I was living as I did with my first love, with the man I had chosen for my last.”
But, almost always, between Patti and Robert, as with no other, it is US:
“Patti, nobody sees as we do,” he told me. …We wanted, it seemed, what we already had, a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free…“What will happen to us?” I asked. “There will always be us,” he answered…His drives toward men were consuming but I never felt loved any less. I never saw him through the lens of his sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life…He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, “With you I can’t miss.” ..
When Patti looks, later in life, at the photograph he took of her for the cover of Horses, she relives what always was between them: “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”
So then, we embrace a love story that never ends. And between the meeting of the two souls and the disappearance of Robert’s soul from earth on March 9, 1989, we see through Patti’s eyes and direct experiences and relationships a historic period in the arts – the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Patti lives and her memoir, which won the National Book Award last year, takes one through people and places – the famed Chelsea Hotel with its famous arty inhabitants, the CBGB club, points of real-life intersections between her and doomed superstar-geniuses like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, her obsession with Bob Dylan and Robert’s with Andy Warhol, encounters with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Rene Ricard, Gerard Malanga, underground film-maker Jack Smith, artist-moulders and makers like Robert Miller, Andy Brown, Jane Friedman, institutions like The Poetry Project, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and more.
Just Kids is perhaps the most simply told, direct, poignant, and inspiring autobiography I have ever read. It comes straight from the heart without embellishments or lies. It is an exact representation of Patti’s central dictum: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” She writes: “I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.”
A BOOK A DAY – HUSH – A GRAPHIC NOVEL – PUBLISHED BY MANTA RAY COMICS 2010
“I got a certain little girl, she’s on my mind/ No doubt about it, she looks so fine/ The best girl that I ever had/ She’s gonna make me feel so bad/ Yeah, make me feel so bad …” From Hush by Deep Purple.
Yeah, and should I feel bad? Not if I can help it!
I’d heard about this “graphic novel” called “Hush” put out by Manta Ray Comics, the new kid on the Indian comic books block. Word of it was out on the grapevine. I saw some references on Facebook.
Then, I was ordering William Gibson’s latest book “Zero History” online one day from flipkart.comwhen I came across a reference to “Hush” in a blog – http://blog.flipkart.com/10-classic-alternative-graphic-novels.
What I saw there really pissed me off.
“Hush” was included among the top 10 “classic” alternative graphic novels of our times!
This dark deed was done by one Sailen!
If this isn’t “insider marketing”, I don’t know what is!It is a blatant attempt at manipulating the sensibilities of those who care about graphic novels, “alternative” graphic novels and Indian graphic novels.
I’ve traversed Indrajal Comics, Raj Comics, Tinkle (always hated that stuff!), Amar Chitra Katha, Comix India, Virgin Comics India (now defunct), Fluid Friction (Devashard), Blaft Publications, Campfire, Corridor, Kari, Faluda, and more!
And I was never conned by the claim that Corridor by Sarnath Banerjee (published by Penguin) was India’s first-ever graphic novel, having read River of Stories by Orijit Sen more than a decade before Banerjee appeared on the scene.
Hype is hype.
And we’ve got a long way to go, babe! To catch up with the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.
Well, let’s feel a bit more upbeat. The silver lining on the dark cloud that is the Indian comics/graphic novel scene is that at least there is stuff coming out into the market now that is not the mindless recycling of those boring, flaccid, ancestral mythological tales (wonder of wonders! Rama now has Thor’s Marvel muscles!!!), nationalistic garbage or the Panchatantra/Jataka Tales.
Well, what am I saying?
“Hush” is partly hype, cleverly shoved down an unsuspecting audience’s throat through “roaching” and a variety of other marketing techniques.
So I ordered my own copy on flipkart.com.
What was in it for me?
A cover that in no way thrilled me but awoke a faint resonance of the cover of King Crimson’s classic “In the Court of the Crimson King” .
Pretty good print job.
Black and white is classy, huh?
But the comic in itself is just 17 pages. Out of 36.
Price: Rs 195 (Flipkart sells it at Rs 144). In other words,, Rs 8.47 a page.
What about the other pages? Lots of white space for relief, I suppose.
A “gratitude” page. A “Manta Ray Comics welcomes you” page, hyperbolic in nature. A write-up by some journo.
(“Leave us alone, hack, true comic readers know how to make up their own minds.”)
A page for the “cast”. Some “notes” from the creators.
Some pages full of character sketches, explorations, alternative covers, script excerpts. (Project documentation for NID?)
And a couple of cheesy posters I wouldn’t put up anywhere, let alone in my room.
Ok. The comic itself.
Story-wise, it might be shocking for those from the cow-belt or the backwaters. But not for hardcore comic readers and collectors. Might be a first in India, but stuff out there produced over the last two decades beats the pants off this one.
In Hush, it is the abuse of a daughter by the father. But there have been some powerful variants on this theme and the ones that comes to my mind immediately are Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Dreschler and Why I Killed Peter by Alfred and Olivier Ka.
And then, there is Paul Auster’s City of Glass turned into a graphic novel by Paul Karasik as part of David Mazzuchelli’s class at RISD, where the idea of “abuse” is frighteningly real, yet abstracted/metaphorised.
Which brings me to a crucial observation. While the art-work is acceptable, pretty strong, the representation is literal. Worse, this literal approach is visual in nature. What you see is what you get. There is little that is hidden for me to unearth or ponder over.
The creators of Hush, of course, project the comic book as a “graphic novel”, an experiment, a purely visual (no text used) breakthrough in the history of “Indian” comics.
I admire the passion, the movement forward from concept to printed copies out in the market, and the ambition of these young fans and creators of the graphic novel genre.
But I am also reminded of how ten years ago, Vinayak Varma (a key player behind ACK’s Brainwavemagazine) was the first to attempt a graphic novel as his final diploma project at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
Since then, there have been a number of talented students from Srishti who have done amazing comics/graphic novel projects – Somesh Kumar, Pia Hazarika, Urmila Shastry, Aashim Raj, Pratapaditya N Deb, Upasna Mehndiratta, Shakti Dash, Prarthana Gandhi, Viraj Circar, Sharvari Shah, etc.
Shakti Dash’s graphic novel Ethereal was lauded by Jeff Smith, creator of the underground classic Bone, who was on his final diploma project jury. Somesh and Pia have been editors of Comic India editions. Sharvari’s graphic novel Strange Touch is all of 64 exquisitely crafted pages dealing with the same issue Hush takes up -child sexual abuse. I have no hesitation in saying that Strange Touch, created in three months, is the superior product.
The way the comic publishing industry works in this country, it is impossible for this talent to find its way to the market. The industry’s talent scouts do not exist. The young artists have to band together and create their own fora. Which is why I take my hat off when I think of Comix India or Blaft or Manta Ray. The better stuff ought to come out from these impassioned and independent fora and not Penguin! Where are the big publishers who will take these talented youngsters and their products and shape them for the emerging market for comic books and graphic novels in India? Does India hope to create a culture that is its own equivalent of manga? Then, the makers of Hush and other such emerging talent must be harnessed swiftly.
Yeah, well, good luck and Godspeed.
Yet, call me nasty if you like but, if you ask me specifically about Hush, don’t buy it. Wait till someone makes a PDF of it and puts it out as a torrent. Download it for free when that happens.
Meanwhile, invest in Jamie Delano’s Narcopolis or that book at the top of that “hyped” list on the Flipkart blog – The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus by Gilbert Shelton or Robert Crumb’s Genesis.
You will have no regrets.
I could suggest another 20 must-haves for your graphic novel collection. But I will leave you to do the hunting for yourself based on your sensibilities. Hone them.
You will have no regrets. That’s state of the art.
A BOOK A DAY – DENNIS COOPER – THE MISSING MEN (1981 – AM HERE BOOKS/IMMEDIATE EDITIONS)
The Missing Men. A rare slim copy of 28 pages. Autographed by Dennis Cooper. Converted into PDF format by an unknown lover of books, writers and dark sayings. Distributed via an internet source that revels in putting out pirate digital versions of books one cannot easily locate or afford to buy. Thus, it appears before my eyes.
Cooper is famous now an integral item in the lists of great homosexuals who have achieved heights in Art and Literature. He began writing poetry as a teen deeply influenced by the lives and writings of the likes of Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine, de Sade and Baudelaire, a potent cocktail. The Missing Men reflects these influences but also foregrounds his powers of keen observation, ability to open himself up to extreme experiences and wrestle with language to attain mastery just before he embarked on his life-time task of writing the George Miles novel cycle across a span of 20 years.
Somehow, when it comes to the making of forms of art, or so it seems to me, homosexuals accentuate the intensities of their peculiar relationships and experiences of love and sex in ways that heterosexuals are hard pressed to imitate or come close to, in terms of form and substance.
Is it because a sense of being an “outsider” forever remains deeply embodied in them even after they have fought to come out of the closet and be “themselves” and have been accepted and even lauded by society for their exceptional abilities, at least in the case of artists? Even the ordinary “gay” feels empowered in the company of such aesthetes! But then I am reminded of the “cartoon by Rick Fiala in the 1970s showing a bearded man wearing a T-shirt on which are printed the words ‘Walt Whitman Oscar Wilde Sappho Alexander the Great Gertrude Stein Cole Porter Radcliffe Hall Socrates Leonardo Da Vinci Colette Valentino George Sand Tchaikovsky . . . and Me’. Fiala satirizes the slightly preposterous effect of ordinary gay people including themselves in the company of the great queers.”
And, then again, why and how does the “outsider” seek to express oneself? Are the artistic acts of such Sisyphean efforts to understand ones being and becoming? Or are these plaintive cries to the general undiscerning insensitive public to come to a deeper understanding of humanity? Is it the thrill of exhibitionism? Is it to preserve the memories of their “strange” experiences or relationships? Or, perhaps, a combination of all these?
So, reading through Cooper’s The Missing Men suddenly opened up for me the fragrance of memorable lines penned by the great British gay film-maker Derek Jarman from the text of his last film Blue:
I hear the voices of dead friends/Love is life that lasts forever./ My heart’s memory turns to you/ David. Howard. Graham. Terry. Paul….
And following Cooper through his little tome, took me to a place where lay, behind the openness to experience and a certain exuberance of life, a terrible sense of sorrow, of alienation, of isolation, or dissipation and a foreshadowing of pitiful extinction made all the more an abominable horror by that special sense of awareness not often available to ordinary mortals but always accessible to the outsider. Cooper too writes obituaries for friends, lovers and the gay prostitutes he picked up (“I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there…”).
That which is so fleeting can be inscribed both in the body and on parchment to defy the ravages of life. Thus Cooper is also scribe and witness. Excerpts, for instance, from his piece Ten Dead Friends:
Mervyn Fox, 56, spent the night in the pool house at his estranged wife’s house in Altadena. He had looked ill for several weeks. He read part of Aldous Huxley’s THE DEVILS, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and lay dawn on the bed.
Bunker Spreckles. 28, was at a party. He thought he had come down off the heroin heid shot earlier that evening, so he excused himself from his friends, walked out to his car and shot up twice as much.
Robert Benton, 43, was having trouble with his lover, John Koenig. They argued and Koenig left. Benton’s oldest friend, Annetta Fox, came by and attempted to comfort him. They drank a bottle of champagne and she went home. Soon after she left, he shot himself in the chest. Annetta said that at that moment her car jerked sharply to the left.
David Sellers, 17, met an older man at a bar and went home with him. They had sex and the man gave him some money. Afterwards he walked to a nearby phone booth and called his roommate to ask for a ride. Midway through the conversation, a blood vessel in his brain burst.
There is always the shadow of decadence and death hovering in and over the spaces Cooper haunts – the underbelly of gay singles bars, punk rock concerts, alleys and corridors and toilets and hotel rooms where shadowy sexual trysts take place, and one scans the work carefully to touch – LOVE. Yes, thankfully it is there, hidden by the skilful hand of the write, tucked away underneath as innuendo, sometimes as joy, insight, celebration or just a knowing touch or gesture, but also, most, as inspiration.
There’s a face in the back of my mind like a/ stained glass window that throws its light on/ my lines. Brian Winchester’s its name/….. My hand is falling/to earth. As it touches it scribbles poems/lit from inside/…Writing a poem in his likeness/
I make it as light as the feelings that form/in his wake./… I’ve carried these words for/a while, and throw them like rice when he/enters. A mechanical glow from my writing/is changing from heaven to hell with the love/that has colored my lines. Brian Winchester/come home. It feels like a cathedral now. (Winchester Cathedral)
But it is also about sex, its tenderness, violence, even pain of perversion, the distancing and reflecting upon the acts of lust that are perhaps obsessive-compulsive, sometimes satiating and sometimes not, always the seeeking for the experience that does not gell but which also transports the being, becoming or undoing, inside of what Anais Nin calls the “little death” and the hardcore calls “cumming”.
Men smudge me onto a bed,/…I’m fifteen. Screwing means/more to the men than to me./…I took a/ deep breath, stripped, and they/ never forgot how I trembled. (Being Aware)
I wash my ass/ in a basin, rolling my eyes, while following them/ to a pillowcase, which lowers me in its sights/ and pushes me forward, shyly,/…with a sigh as my body is lifted up on its toes, and,/ in honor of their having known me, looms forward. (Kevin Creedon)
And there is more of Cooper’s sensitive poignancy and musings over love and sex in the piece 10 Bedded Friends who, of course, the writer knows, will soon at some time in some way, be ten other dead friends. There are too the stronger poems that deal with what some may think are the coarser, perverse elements, but those who have savored the throes and thrashings of blind alcohol and drug-driven passions know to be the deeds of heightened moments, the crossing of thresholds, the transgressions, for better or worse, as being or in becoming. So, one is able to recline, after such episodes or events, remember, smile or even laugh out aloud if not cry.
Such is the content of poems like Song of the South (about “rimming”), Drugs (need I say more?),George (story of an encounter), Kip (He has been/ fucked hundreds of times. Naked,/ his value is present, and a well-fucked/ hole is its presence./…This is/ the flesh that belongs to the face/ I decided I needed. So I fuck it …) and the brutal James (somebody kneels behind him. puts a fist up his ass to the elbow,/…James snorts from a small vial of/ cocaine and trles to stay conscious./ This is his first time in pain and/ he hopes to embrace it, like a/dummy does its ventriloquist).
With James and the last poem titled ? one comes to a type of denouement that leaves one pondering over the Janus-faced nature of those who inhabit the twilight zones of the queer outsider, no matter how brightly the sun shines or how legit everything is. Deep sensuality, sensitivity and even the ability to soar spiritually in moments of epiphany still cannot prevent the return to Stygian shores, that harsh realisation of “a lack of real feeling in anyone” and then, of course, the stark reality of having to face the death of one’s lovers and friends, “when he’s down in/a hole in the earth, and his/body, as black as a miner’s,/is backing, slowly, away.”
In this sense, perhaps what Cooper establishes yet again is establishing for queers the simple home truth that we are all part of a single humanity and queers in themselves are not unique. This then is that insight, which Jarman too acknowledged as he was dying of AIDS – “all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within me.”
This is the soliloquy all poets sing, queer or otherwise.
A BOOK A DAY – TRILLION YEAR SPREE (the history of science fiction) – BRIAN W ALDISS (with David Wingrove), Gollancz 1986
My book shelves are liberally peppered with science fiction novels. Right now, in front of my eyes, I can see a William Gibson trilogy peeking back at me mischievously. Pattern Recognition. Spook Country.Zero History.
I taught Art and Design in India for 12 years. These books must become part of the curriculum of any cutting edge art and design school across the world, I think to myself. But, not many will care. Because, firstly, are there any Gen X or Gen Y kids who read? Should they read at all? As for that older generation that wants to “teach” them , who reads science fiction? They have the lines blurred between SF and Fantasy; unable to discern between the two and the changing of both times and the guard, they throw out the baby with the bathtub, water, scented oils, soaps, bubbles, towels and all.
Stop. Think. All that talk of Futurology and Sustainability and New Age Pedagogy that disturbs you, not to mention the students, is driven subtly from behind the scenes by the Iluminatii and, horror of horrors, what if I told you that these are the writers of SF? Gibson is a “cyberpunk”, or so I have heard some say despisingly, as if he was meant to be Shakespeare! Do they know their genres?
What about Bruce Sterling? From his fictional Schismatrix to his non-fiction work Shaping Things, he has emerged as a “design guru”. Both Gibson and Sterling are intuitively and learnedly drawn to the influences and convergences of art, design, science and technlogy, psychology and business on the shaping and the making of human futures and the mutation or expansion of the species’ vision and capabilities in the coming phase of entropy/extropy, Utopia/Dystopia/Trans or Post-humanism.
But then I pause, for instance, to ask myself “Where did all this begin?” or rather “Where did all this emerge from?” And so it was that by means of synchronicity one of my “unknown-to-the-world” book-loving and reading friends placed into my hands this erudite book by Brian Aldiss. Hey Presto! I found myself travelling back and forth through the swing doors of the Past and the Future via the Present, through an intricate tapestry of the notions and networks of “Amazing Stories” and writers from across several centuries woven into a semantic web (with SF inscribed across its nodes) of a breadth and depth that held me in its thrall.
What’s more, this particular history of SF has been written by one who is not exactly a “genre conservative” but comes, as it were, from the deeper and interior spaces of the “ghost in the machine” involved in combinatorial conspiracies with those grappling with paradoxes relating to la condition humaine in terms of form and content driving the process of the generative art that is writing SF.
I particularly laud this earlier extraordinary contribution to understanding the impulse to SF – and it’s role in mainstream literature and even scientific speculation, simulation, discovery and innnovation – in the light of having come across a more recent anthology of “Amazing Stories” titled The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (2009 Tachyon Publications).
The case that Brian Aldiss makes in Trillion Year Spree subtly is provided a megaphone in The Secret History of Science Fiction. Aldiss has the subtlety and sensitivity to both identify and articulate the soul, nerves, circulatory systems, bones and flesh of what constitutes SF with a more generous, bountiful and deeper understanding of the larger Purusha of literature with a capital ‘L’. Kelly and Kessel are driving the definite agenda of a rapprochement between what they perceive as the deliberate building of a Great Wall between SF as a genre and Mainstream Literature. Their concern is the facilitation of the breaking down of such boundaries.
“The loss of the future as home ground for sf has bothered some writers, readers, and critics who embrace sf culture. It seems to us that one of the consequences of the rapprochement between sf and the literary mainstream is this move to set stories in the present, and to reduce the extrapolative element in favor of experimental structure or emphasis on characterization,” they assert. The argument is on the side of those writers who “came to use the materials of sf for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name” and an appeal to “genre conservatives” to abandon their preconceived ideas of and definitions of SF.
While the anthology Kelly and Kessel have produced is nothing less than exquisite to illustrate their argument, Aldiss doesn’t bother to enter this “game”. So I say it would be wise to read Aldiss before entering the space of the argument put forth by Kelly and Kessel.
What is it that Aldiss is attempting? He lays out the panoramic landscape of SF and takes one on a leisurely walk through it and points out the various landmarks, milestones, the castles, the moors, the fences, the cattle on the hillsides, the trees and the seasons …It is a stroll through the history of SF not just chronologically, but touching upon the lives and thoughts, dreams and deeds of the actors upon the stage, mapping out the layers, the mosaic, the similarities and differences in approach from era to era or movement to movement, the shifting paradigms and yet continuously coming upon and perhaps even deliberately evading “the one ring to bind them all”.
To cut the longish review in my mind to a short one in word-processor social media space, I will mention that the book is a whopping 512 pages. What’s more, while one takes the Nautilus into the depths of the sea of central ideas that enabled, over time, the creation and “concretisation” of the SF genre, one also comes to terms with the even more powerful undercurrents that drive good literature. So one is able to suddenly, with new eyes, traverse known landscapes like Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Erewhon, Beowulf, the Odyssey, the Book of Ezekiel or Revelation, and so on and so forth, and recognize them as close kin and contributors to the emerging body of literature known as SF.
And tongue in cheek Aldiss describes ordinary fiction as “hubris clobbered by mimesis” while SF is fiction that is “hubris clobbered by nemesis”! As for those who engage with and/or are addicted to SF of the pulp fiction variety, I suppose that is “hubris clobbered by pop” but the genre is inclusive of such too, since it piggybacked to fame upon the shoulders of such before heavier discussions took place as to its stature and future and its comparative advantages or disadvantages vis a vis mainstream literature.
The point is, if you have read thus far, it is most likely you will pick up a copy of this book and its younger, questioning companion, and settle down to a week of fascinating reading. Why so? Because Aldiss will cue you into this strange world with a certain ease and finesse while the stories in Kelly’s and Kessel’s anthology will better prove his point that SF and great literature are inevitably intertwined. What destiny has put together, let no man cast asunder. I emphasise this point, because the world in which we are embedded is coming together in ways which are being imagined, shaped and made, especially for the vast ignorant masses, by “seers” who dare forsee the expediting of their SF dreams and nightmares. If you want to really draw a connection between SF imagination and technological innovation, just surf to http://technovelgy.com/ct/ctnlistPubDate.asp?BPDate1=1600&BPDate2=1899. Don’t be too surprised!
The list of “seers” is Leviathan. Mary Shelley and her “monster” Frankenstein, Erasmus Darwin genetically forwarding Charles Darwin down the tunnel of time in memetic mode, William Gibson and “console cowboys”, Bruce Sterling and Spimes, Arthur C Clarke and the yet to be Rendezvous with Rama in “Space, the Final Frontier”, Isaac Asimov who laid a different Foundation from Philip K Dick’s in the Valis Trilogy, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna sending forth their psychedelic consciousness altered/altering projections, Doris Lessing and the combining of space and spirit travel across planets and zones, and on and on and on ….This is the Trillion Year Spree …a roller coaster ride that does not end …a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (SF) Galaxy.
A BOOK A DAY – FRANCOIS VILLON – SELECTED POEMS TRANSLATED BY PETER DALE – PENGUIN POETRY
I dug this book out to read all day because I had been stuffed to my gills with C S Lewis, religion, God, spirituality, and that kind of high-strung material. I thought a good shot of Villon would bring me down to earth and, yes, it worked. Like intoxicants.
Villon, of course, was villainous. Born in 1431 and well educated by 1442, he then embarked on a rebel pathway. In 1455 he was supposed to have been involved in a fight which got a priest killed. He was later involved in robberies, went on the lam, was imprisoned for a while, and generally lived the dissolute life of a poete maudite. He was sentenced to death but escaped with a lesser penalty of being banished from Paris.
Villon was supposed to be a master craftsman and the translation attempts to be strictly metrical, trying to be faithful to Villon’s ballade stanzas without losing the spirit of his writing. The translator admits that Villon is extremely flexible and versatile in his understanding and use of the French language in terms of being satirical and generating puns, not to mention that he caricatured fellow beings and situations through his poems, making things even more difficult for a translator. Peter Dale says he “dislocated” Villon.
The collection consists primarily of two long poems – The Legacy and The Testament – followed by some shorter poems. Villon is delightful in his appeals to God and Christ to judge between himself and a variety of people whom he disparages in his poetry. He is not ashamed to admit his own unworthiness in a tongue-in-cheek manner and yet he believes in the mercy and goodness of God to support him in his nefarious and illicit acts. In other words, his poetry stems from his acceptance of himself and his circumstances. He is not ashamed of affirming his being and his calling.
In one sense, Villon’s poetry was “light” reading but as I entered into it, I found myself increasingly underlining memorable lines and phrases and occasionally bursting into mad bouts of laughter. For instance, it seems at first glance that he regrets losing women who claimed to love him but then reading between the lines one senses a great releif, a positive attitude of self-mockery and liberation, and an exposure of the woman’s idiosyncrasies.
Item: to the lady mentioned above/who overturned my applecart/and drove me from the joys of love/I leave the relic of my heart/pale, piteous and dead. Her part/it was that tossed me to this fate/and ruined pleasure for a start;/may God show mercy on her state.
That little twist proves how Villon took the untoward happenings in his life with a pinch of salt and turned them into words dipped in vitriol. Of course, only one who is able to laugh at himself has the right to laugh at others and Villon is always ironic and often deprecatory when speaking of himself, one can hear him chuckling to himself as he writes:
So love has made a fool of me/run me out and locked the door/No man has tricks enough, I see/though mercurial his wits and more/to come off lightly on this score/with even a rag to call his own/Like me, he’s beaten to the floor -/”The Reject Lover”, I’m well known.
And then it is exciting for one like me that Villon has no qualms about being risque, bawdy, raunchy and that he does not pull his punches in his attacks on his peers, colleagues, ministers of law and state and neighbours all of which resort to sexual innuendo – he makes or mars their reputations by his assessment of how skilled or not they are in terms of sexual prowess.
So this is human beauty’s end/arms writhed, crazed hands too weak to lift/back hunched until the shoulders bend./My breasts? No tits to nudge a shift;/my tail the same, skin all adrift,/My quim, for Christ’s sake! And thighs?/No more than hafts, skin, bone and rift/all blotched like sausages. Some prize!
The Legacy and The Testament are written in the same vein – people are atttacked, one is not certain whether Villon respects God or verges on blasphemy, he is obsequious in part and rebellious and irreverent otherwise, he lauds his nomadic state and looks back upon compatriots gone to seed with a twisted sneer while at the same time seeming to repent for having spent his youth unwisely and now finding himself without home or soft bed. He bequeaths all that he has, well itemised, to a string of people he has had the fortune or misfortune to encounter in life. Nor is he squeamish when speaking of bodily functions and excrement that are part of his encounters.
We make peace then in bed. She takes my fill,/gorged like a dung-beetle, blows me a bad and mighty poisonous fart …/Though when we stir, her quim begins to tease./She mounts, I groan beneath the weight – I’m splayed!
Ah, Villon, he is worldly wise, street smart, earthy, well read in history and the Scriptures, wields a mighty fine turn of phrase and ,all in all, is delightful to one who does not swear by the sacred. So, moving from these long pieces, one then encounters a piece written in a very different style – The Debate between Villon’s Heart and Body. And what lies therein suits me – the Body ignores the plaintive pleadings of the Heart. The Body has it’s own life. And then, of course, Villon is well aware that all good things must come to an end and so he offers many a time readymade epitaphs unto himself as, for instance in this quatrain:
Francis I am, which weighs me down/born in Paris near Pontoise town/and with a stretch of rope my pate/wil learn for once my arse’s weight.
Or better still:
If any ask me why the way/I speak of love is so unkind/then let this saying win the day:/”A dying man may speak his mind.”
A BOOK A DAY – THE PROBLEM OF PAIN BY C S LEWIS – FOUNT (HARPER COLLINS)
Most people today know C S Lewis only as the author of the Narnia Chronicles, that singular series of seven fantasy novels centred around the Lion-King Aslan, a thinly disguised representation of Jesus Christ, entering with a bang the space that Graham Greene called “the Pleasure Dome”. And closer watchers of Lewis and his heritage might also recall the 1993 film Shadowlands, loosely based on this Oxbridge Don’s relationship with and marriage to Joy Gresham, who later succumbs to bone cancer.
Apart from being an extremely knowledgeable academic and professor of English Literature at Oxford, Lewis was also part of a literary set called The Inklings, which included writers like J R R Tolkien who wrote The Lord of the Rings, Charles Williams, Sheldon Vanauken, and many other respectable literary figures of the time.
But Lewis is perhaps more famous today not among litterateurs or theologians but among fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian leaders, revered as the “apologist par excellence”, second only to Paul of Tarsus. For Lewis, who confessed to having been divinely hounded and brought into the Faith “kicking against it”, has provided the fundamentalist Evangelicals with powder and balls for their muskets in the “defense of the Gospel” at a time when revivalist Protestantism desperately needed that “kick”.
My intention to review or critique Lewis’ famous book The Problem of Pain must also find an anchor in the Holy Scriptures, since that is the central place from which, sometimes directly and often indirectly, the writer himself proceeds. Lewis marshals his arguments using a razor-sharp, incisive mind well anchored in deep reading of classic philosophy and literature and a sufficiently advanced understanding of modern notions of science and theology. But his final recourse is to Scripture and a certain angular Christian world-view. Hence, my recourse to Scripture as a starting point in my rebuttal of his justification of God’s ways and means of using pain and suffering ruthlessly to get humanity to mend its ways and return to obedience to its Creator and Master.
I do not intend to cast myriad verses from the Holy Scriptures before you. I will just refer to two sections from the New Testament.
A. Hebrews 1: 1-3
1IN MANY separate revelations, [each of which set forth a portion of the Truth] and in different ways God spoke of old to [our] forefathers in and by the prophets,
2[But] in the last of these days He has spoken to us in [the person of a] Son, Whom He appointed Heir and lawful Owner of all things, also by and through Whom He created the worlds and the reaches of space and the ages of time [He made, produced, built, operated, and arranged them in order].
3He is the sole expression of the glory of God [the Light-being, the out-raying or radiance of the divine], and He is the perfect imprint and very image of [God's] nature, upholding and maintaining and guiding and propelling the universe by His mighty word of power. When He had by offering Himself accomplished our cleansing of sins and riddance of guilt, He sat down at the right hand of the divine Majesty on high
B. John 14: 7-9
7If you had known Me [had learned to recognize Me], you would also have known My Father. From now on, you know Him and have seen Him.
8Philip said to Him, Lord, show us the Father [cause us to see the Father--that is all we ask]; then we shall be satisfied.
9Jesus replied, Have I been with all of you for so long a time, and do you not recognize and know Me yet, Philip? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say then, Show us the Father?
Before I explain why I have cited the above passages, let me mention that Lewis launches into his justification of God-bestowed pain and suffering in the experiences of humanity by means of a variety of supremely intelligent speculations. Yes, he’s extremely good with his arguments and wise as a serpent as he guides the reader through his understanding of human “evolution”.
He begins with humans being drawn to the “numinous” ascending the fear, dread and awe rungs of Jacob’s ladder. Then he distinguishes between the numinous and what might or might not be “morally good” and there’s a reason for that tack. Human immorality drawns upon humanity the wrath of God masked as pain and suffering.
One agrees with him when he says that self-consciousness, that special aspect of humanness, can only be understood when contrasted with an “other”, a neutral medium like the environment or Nature which is not the “self”. Then he swiftly suggests that this promotes “society”, but the ideal for “society: is assumed to be the Christian Holy Trinity.
That’s the interesting thing about Lewis – he keeps slipping in references that make no bones about his base being the Christian Scriptures which, of course, he suggests came by “revelation”. What we ought to be thankful for though, he insists, is the God-given gift of “free will” that has to choose between loving God through obedience or losing God through lack of love and disobedience.
He then carefully weaves an intriguing tapestry of “logic” founded on notions distilled from revelatory ideas underpinning Christianity to suggest that rather than asking God questions as to why He takes recourse to administering pain to bring his straying sheep back into His fold, one ought to realize that free will necessitates and creates the activation of pain in human experience.
Lewis uses several analogies to prove that God is both goodness and righteousness and therefore ought not to be questioned as to his whims and purposes. Instead, humans should take the pain as remedial and as the only way to have the “Fall of Man” reversed. The chapter on the Fall is exquisite, for here Lewis heads into territory that is almost sci-fi in its trajectory, reminding one of Ken Wilber’s book “Up from Eden”, delineating the possibility of humanity’s transformation from the Typhonic to the Transcendental, and then plunging one back into Lewis’ sci-fi trilogy – Malacandra, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.
I do respect Lewis when he carefully avoids some of the deeper, more controversial questions pertaining to the origin of the “problem of pain” directly related to doubts as to whether or not God exists, and if he does, what kind of God he is (Lewis takes for granted that God is masculine, personal and The Creator, one in three and three in one, and occasionally tosses pantheistic, monistic and other such possibilities out the window casually), or when he refuses to explore whether it was wiser on God’s part to create or not create, even while he is certain that even God’s Omnipotence cannot perform “intrinsic impossibilities” for God is not a God of Nonsense!
But to get to the point, Lewis seeks to convince us that pain or suffering is God’s megaphone to awaken a deaf world to His goodness and the need to return to the rightness of His ways, he is enamored with God using pain to break down humanity’s intransigent will, he is fascinated by the word “mortification” when he says that the key to the ‘return to Paradise’ is voluntary sacrifice of the self and surrender of self-will to God. The question he does not answer with clarity though is how is this “vile” being, now habituated to practicing evil and vice yet having a semblance of goodness, to make this supreme sacrifice of self to please God? He seems to suggest that this is possible only because humans undergo pain and suffering allowed or inflicted even by God and this leads to “transformation” into the likeness of God’s good and refined “nature”. God’s ruthless love or goodness is superimposed upon mankind through pain and suffering – “..tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking now is hopeless”.
Of course, Lewis is very clever in painting this picture with sweet analogies. For instance, he shows God as the supreme Artist painting the Great Picture of His life, only his painting is sentient and therefore as he takes endless trouble over his work, he also creates “endless trouble” for the painting itself. Don’t you, as the sentient painting under the fingers and brushes of the Master Craftsman, want to endure and embrace the sufferings and troubles, knowing the perfect future that awaits you?
Basically, Lewis is arguing for the “Eternal Gospel” and he is not extremely narrow in his position unlike his 20th century acolytes, the fundamentalist Evangelicals, who have both appropriated him and imprisoned his thinking. For he accepts that the centrality of pain and suffering has to do with humanity’s necessity to “die” to self and ego in order to come into alignment with what it imagines and knows to be the numinous “God’ who has also been integrated with “moral good”. He acknowledges that this “Eternal Gospel” has been indicated in many different ways by the Greeks or Buddhists, practitioners of Yoga, etc. How then can a Christian forego this Way, he asks, which the Christ has paved with utmost clarity and certainty thus showing forth an example?
Well, so much for Lewis’ arguments. But my quarrel with him is that he reinforces the archetype of the jealous, selfish, vengeful, angry, marauding God of the Old Testament – the one who said “Thou shalt not murder” and then unleashed the unwashed Hebrew tribes upon the nations around indulging in genocides masked as “God’s judgement” upon the ungodly and the Pagan. And then, turning around, the same God delivers His people to more pain and suffering for their own sins. And this saga or vicious cycle has gone on and on and the face of this God now resembles none other than that blood-thirsty Indian deity, the demonic goddess Kali, a figurine grievous to behold and identify with the God of goodness!
On the other hand, one can become enlightened as to the true nature and image of God if one turns to the passages I cited at the beginning of this review. Jesus is the Perfect Image of the Father – and without much ado, I can encourage the reader to look closely at His example when He walked an earth ravaged by sin and pain and suffering. In this example, not once do we find this “exact representation” of God punish anyone with pain or suffering, not once does he inflict torment or tribulation on any human being, not once does he empathize with the forces that bring trials to mankind. In a couple of instances, he even pooh-poohs the idea that suffering and death might be the result of sin. In fact, he even reverses the curse and enjoins us to “bless and do not curse”, a counterpoint to the God who cursed humanity with suffering and pain and thorns and women with labor pains!
Lewis mentions Satan once in a way but hardly ever identifies this creature as, possibly, the author of not only sin but also pain and suffering. And he doesn’t seem to give enough credence to the fact that sinful humanity is extremely weak and lacking in immunity to evil. Pain and suffering only make the weak ones weaker.
However, Jesus Christ, in his Incarnation, pushes the envelope of notions about God to a place of true blessing, to a place of redemption, to the place of healing and restoration. All his good acts are freely bestowed (“Jesus of Nazareth who went about doing good and delivering all those who were oppressed of the Devil”), He doesn’t make people feel guilty or condemned for their sins, His very goodness makes them steer a way away from sin, His light is something the darkness does not comprehend.
Of course, the only one who suffers and endures the ultimate vortex of pain then becomes Jesus himself and one understands in a flash that He stood in the breach or gap between God and Man, and so both Lewis’ God and Satan had no other choice but to rain upon Him pain and suffering for our sakes! This trial he endured and in His endurance lay Success, Salvation and Redemption for a helpless humanity.
My contention is that if one has encountered this “perfect image” or “exact representation” of God, the picture Lewis paints of a God who is out to force change upon humanity by allowing suffering or by inflicting pain, via Nature or Satan or directly, is shattered. One then joyfully turns one’s ship around (call it metanoia if you like) so that one can set sail on the Spirit-wind Captain Jesus has brought.
The past is forgiven, sin has lost its power, pain and suffering are really inconsequential for their Satanic source is now identified, revealed, overcome and rejected, and we’ve set sail for the Promised Land and it is not this Planet. “The Prince of this World comes and He has no part in Me.”
Lewis too had a glimpse of this fantastic turn in humanity’s destiny, but he had to reconcile the sufferings and pain of humanity with the acts of the God of the Old Testament and in doing so, he perhaps forgot that the “new” had replaced the “old’ in more ways than one. And, yes, Lewis might have been thought by some to have been supercilious in his zeal to defend this “old” God, the God Blake had questioned a long time ago and it was this perception of a supercilious Lewis that spurred a writer like Philip Pullman to write the His Dark Materials trilogy.
So how then does this critic resolve the “problem of pain”? For one thing, he is convinced that God is not and cannot be the author and source and instigator of pain and suffering. This would symbolize this God as Yin and Yang forming a whole within a circle, the Two-Faced God. It would also mean that the difference between God and the Devil is that one uses suffering as a remedial while the other uses it unto destruction but both have recourse only to a singular tool – Pain. Or one would have to twist one’s mind to accept that God turns the suffering sent by the Devil unto destruction into a suffering that leads to repentance and submission to God. In which case, God and the Devil can be said to be in cahoots, another case of Yin and Yang locked in a cycle or circle.
This writer contends that the source of all sin, pain. suffering and oppression of humankind is Satan or the Adversary or the Ancient Serpent, the Devil. “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in fierce anger (fury), because he knows that he has [only] a short time [left]!(Revelation 12:12)
The nature of God has been to “endure” this Adversary a long whiles while He enables humankind to “endure all things” and teaches humankind to “overcome evil by good”. This is a position the Devil cannot “endure’, that in spite of the constant harassment and afflictions he has imposed upon humankind, there are some who have and do endure and believe in the Ideal Good. This then is the response to pain and suffering, endurance and patience, and faith that in the end good will triumph, as in all the ancient myths, over evil. This faith is accelerated by those who actually do good to others, even their enemies, while enduring excruciating pain that is physical, mental or spiritual, or all three together. The Devil fears those who can endure pain and suffering right till their very last breath because of their conviction that God is not the author or source or harbinger of pain and suffering to humankind.
Partial Revelation of God is dangerous, Progressive Revelation is necessary for humanity to emerge from the “mire” and Perfect Revelation is here now if one pays close attention to the Person and Deeds of the Man Christ Jesus, the Man who endured perfectly all the suffering the Devil brought upon Him and won the Resurrection. Now it is possible for human beings to put pain and suffering and its Infernal Author in its place, see it all as but “light and momentary afflictions” to be endured by the Elect whose spirits are already in flight to their rightful home. And if you find those who are stumbling along, unable to endure the voluminous pain and suffering that has been unleashed upon them they know not why, hold such close to your heart, whisper to such dear ones these words “Be of Good Cheer, for Christ has overcome!”
“Old things have passed away, behold, I make all things NEW.”
A BOOK A DAY – THE GIRL BY MERIDEL LE SUEUR – THE WOMEN’S PRESS FICTION
It’s always been my experience that women know less about women writers than men do. Women may despise men, but sometimes they despise each other more in reality, and it takes a rare woman writer to get beyond such angularities to be able to write with sensitivity both about men and women. Meridel le Sueur is such a writer and her work in some strange way takes me back to the work of Anais Nin, my favorite woman writer ever since I read “A Spy in the House of Love” and “Henry & June”, not to mention her “Journals”. But why does Meridel le Sueur remind me of Nin? Because both were “activists” of a different order from the women who masquerade these days as “activists’. You could say that their distinguishing mark was “sensitivity” and not so much “ideology”. Ideologists are rarely sensitive. They become encrusted and fossilised. Then again, writers are usually in poetry in motion, dynamic beings, whereas “activists” are generally “stuck and scratchy records”.
But to get back to the book, aptly and simply titled THE GIRL, it’s central aspect is that it is written in a colloquial vein and it is one of the most poignant books I have ever read. If you want to feel like or identify with or enter the soul of a girl or, better still, a woman, any woman (and, of course, I do not consider the ideologues or activist, feminist women as authentic “women”, it seems to me that most of those who belong to that ilk have undergone female circumcision at some point in their life!), the Universal Woman, Eve, Pandora, the Magdalene, Sita (perhaps the oppressed, subservient, helpless Sita more than the princess), Mirabai, Mother Mary, Pandita Ramabai, Kasturba Gandhi, Lady Mountbatten, etc, this book is THE PORTAL.
Set in the years of the Depression, in the speakeasies and among prostitutes who had no other choice but to take up sex work, the story of The Girl unravels itself. The innocent is forced to work among bootleggers, down and out of job men looking for a fix or a fuck to drown their helplessness, strike busters, wise women who have been through hell and a variety of men and untoward circumstances and who form both the underbelly and the renaissant underground of society, the fecund solidity of Source, and she comes into her own. She makes love for the first time, then accompanies Clara her prosstitute friend who believes that good times are coming while she takes in four or five men a day to make five bucks, and finally gets drawn into a plot to rob a bank. That’s where poverty leads – to robbery. Thence, to death, insanity, perennial hunger, disease, torment at the hands of “charity” and “welfare” givers, unceasing pain punctuated by human love and nature’s overflow, the organising of the workers into a brotherhood/sisterhood, and the wondering if the exploitation of human beings by human beings will ever come to and end. Tragedy has its own dignity.
Poignant. Gut-wracking. Heart-wrenching. The chapter on Clara’s dying, after the authorities take her away for electro-convulsive treatment, made me weep with a book after a long time. Clara, who always in the midst of her suffering, believed that every dark cloud had a silver lining. In her case, the only silver lining was dying with her mouth open in the O of Horror.
That is what this book is about. Written fluid, the reader melts. Memorable sentences and dialogues burn every page with a fierce flame. The pace is perfect. The stories are all culled from real life and woven into an arpillera that can not be burnt out from memory. “Memory is all we got, I cried, we got to remember. We got to remember everything.” Memories of the evil that haunts humankind to its suffering and destruction. Let them be inscribed thus, in its mixutre of despair and hope.
It takes a woman to write about women, men, society, loyalty, love, brutality, the inevitability of hope when one is on the underside of Fate or Destiny as the case might be. It takes a woman to fertilise writing with her own fecund juices of insight, her ripening eggs of penetrating prescience.
Meridel Le Sueur’s ode to the heroic women of the Depression is a book very few would have come across. It ends with a powerful assertion of the feminine roots of life, the feminine impetus to life, the feminine shaping the future despite every obstacle, man-made or society-forged.
Here is the last line of the book, when the protaganist has given birth to her own child – a girl.
“O girl, I said down to her, giving her my full breast of milk.”
A BOOK A DAY – WILLIAM KOTZWINKLE’S FATA MORGANA
William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana. I’m surprised because it reminds me that for 12 years I was trapped in Fata Morgana. Thank you, author of Doctor Rat, your other great book. Both books speak of the possibility of slipping into Fata Morgana, and then one becomes just like Doctor Rat or a Toy. The danger is when one starts believing that one can weave the Fata Morgana oneself. It is the ultimate Delusion of Grandeur. Or of Persecution.
Then, of course, it is a pleasure to follow Inspector Picard. Through the sewers and back alleys and tenements of Paris and then across Europe – to Vienna, Nuremberg, Esztergom, Dunabogdany, Debrecen and Translyvania.
The layering is excellent in this tale – masks, false trails, mesmerism and suggestiveness and what that does to people, orgies and excess and magic, the individual weaknesses that endanger individuals, doggedness, accurate self-evaluation, and language that is exquisite in the way it’s been crafted.
Anyone interested in toys and references to the creation of machines with souls, this takes you into the intricacies that all toys are – mysteries – and to Idoru. And the sections divided among four cards of the Tarot, allow for musing upon the warp and woof of destinies compounded in strange manner .
Strangely enough, it is a Hindoo who weaves the spell Inspector Picard falls into (among other spells that invite him in) – 25 seconds. So while he is able to resist the spell cast by Madame Lazare, he falls into the greater Grand Bewitchment through which, in my view, he comes to his senses, to Balance, to knowing himself more accurately – what exactly he is able to accomplish and what he is unable to accomplish. This is the story of Everyman.