Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Thakurda” (Grandfather)

Thakurda is a short story by Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice). I have reviewed a short story by Tagore previously on this blog, so I will not repeat that unmatched resume that is Tagore’s alone! But I will once again say how much in awe I am of Tagore’s poetic genius, which lifts simple, everyday events into a realm of literary brilliance; and how much I am amazed by the creative heart that places the strength of human dignity above all the petty joys and sorrows of this world.

Thakurda is about Kailaschandra Raychaudhuri, or Kailas Babu, one of the last remnants of an era gone by - an era of ‘zamindars’ and ‘babus’, of titled landowners and noble gentlemen, of an old and aristocratic Calcutta. The core struggle of the story comes from the passing of that era, the coming of a new world, and the struggle faced by Kailas Babu, who was never quite able to make a successful transition.

What was most fascinating about this story was the characterization of the two main characters - the narrator and Kailas Babu - and a beautiful narrative that made me start off by identifying with the narrator, and end up with empathizing with Kailas Babu.

As the story starts off and the narrator describes an aging Kailas Babu and his annoying pretentious ways, I easily felt the irritation he did! Haven’t we all met with or heard of some old man, financially wanting, yet with all the airs and mannerisms of the wealthy? But then, there came the day when the narrator decided to play a trick on Kailas Babu - partly irritated by the endless stories of the past glory of the Babus of Nayanjor, and partly to amuse himself at the expense of the ridiculous old man. Building on Kailas Babu’s self-confessed close relationship with the rich and the famous, he told him that the Lieutenant-Governer was coming over for a visit. Confident beyond reason, Kailas Babu did not question this, and started preparing for the visit. What followed was a detailed plan, including a fake Lieutenant-Governer in a horse-driven carriage with liveried footmen, and an elaborate preparation by the host Kailas Babu and his faithful old servant… And yet, as the drama unfolds, the joke slowly begins to gain an air of pathos. Dressed up in the one presentable yet old-fashioned outfit, offering the last carefully preserved family heirloom, and making a final attempt at creating an old world charm with the last rose-water sprinkler… the old man’s near worshipful treatment of the fake Lieutenant-Governer was no longer funny. When Kusum, Kailas Babu’s granddaughter, cries out “What has my grandfather done to you? Why have you come to trick him?” realization hits us and - along with the narrator - we see the cruel joke for exactly what it is - a mean attack on a scared and insecure person.

For, in the end, that’s all Thakurda was: an old man desperately clinging to a bygone age because he was confused by all the changes in the world; he was too old to understand it and too tired to move with it, but above all, he was too afraid to let go of the only world he had known and lost… And suddenly his mannerisms were no longer comical; his self-importance just brought tears to my eyes… Thakurda’s final acceptance of the narrator - with a complete breakdown of all bravado - took me to the very core of the human heart.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”

I will begin this blog by saying that I did not like this novel by Stephen King at all. Everything that follows from this point on will just be my reason why.

The Girl Who… is the story of 9-year-old Patricia (Trisha) McFarland who, while on a family hiking trip, takes a bathroom break in the woods and gets lost. The story consists of her trying to stay alive and be rescued. For the most part, she draws strength from thoughts about her idol, baseball’s Tom Gordon.

Here is my main reason for not liking this book: nothing happens. Girl gets lost. Girl walks through the forest. Girl is rescued. The end.

In all that nothingness, there were a few glimmers of hope - when the three evil entities appeared, I thought it finally got interesting. Barely had I finished the thought, when they left - only to come back very rarely, and very briefly through the remainder of the book. Worse, it was very possible that the supernatural beings were just her hallucinations.

To add to those false hopes, every now and then, there was a spooky mention of “the cold voice” - was that intended to scare the reader? For it was quite obviously her inner voice.

Also every now and then, a “scary” image was abruptly thrown upon us - like the deer’s head, or the bloody intestines - again, was that supposed to shock us? It’s a forest. It is natural to find dead animals that have fallen prey to some other animal.

That reminds me: all attempts at comedy were so feeble. Example, when Trisha was fleeing, petrified by the sight of the head, her running was awkward, and - in the midst of all her fear - she actually managed to picture herself in a leotard, as a guest on a T.V. exercise show and even branded the “getting away from the torn-off deer’s head” move. Considering she was genuinely scared, that comment seemed to come from an outsider - the writer - trying to be funny, and was one of the many jarring moments in the story.

In fact, like the humour, all the dialogue, all the likes and dislikes of the girl and her friends as she reminisces, were quite cheesy. I got the impression that an older person created the character of a young girl, but was quite out of his depths when it came to writing what would be considered “cool” by the next generation.

The “supernatural” being that was hinted at briefly along the way, finally appears in about the last 30 pages of the book. Unfortunately by this time I had lost all interest in this creature from hell… Which was good, because it was actually a bear. Trisha hallucinates (again) about it. But it was just a bear. To add to that weak end of a dull adventure, hitherto unknown Travis Herrick, a random passer-by, emerged as one of the - if not the - final hero.

The cover of the book I read has this quote from a major newspaper - “Frightening… feverish terror”. I think it was meant to be printed on some other book.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Salmon of Doubt”

The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time is a posthumously published collection of Douglas Adams’ notes, excerpts, speeches, interviews, journal entries… what Stephen Fry refers to as his “bottom drawer”. I already knew that he was a very funny man; I now got to see a man who was well read, intelligent, and always questioning; a man who had a great passion for traveling and a great love of technology. I have developed a deeper admiration for this man, and that was a very moving experience.

All the matter in this book has been categorized into three sections - Life, The Universe, And Everything. (By the way, I have to say that I was thrilled to see the Foreword by Stephen Fry. He has introduced all the P.G. Wodehouse books I have read/own, and so I know that he recognizes true wit. It was fitting that he should have his say here as well).

“Life” is a collection of little snippets of Adams’ life. A remarkable introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings; a look at some funny boyhood experiences arising from his exceptional height (he grew to be 6 feet, 5 inches); his great fascination for the Beatles; teaching children the difference between Friday and fried egg and teaching Americans how to make tea; calling the lame ‘placeholder’ lyrics of “La a note to follow so” one of the great unfinished businesses of this century; talking about his travels around the world including a fascinating ride on a Sub Bug along with manta rays in Australia… this section was a wonderful glimpse into the heart and mind of Douglas Adams.

“The Universe” focuses on two main concepts: Technology and Religion / God. From the former we get to know how passionate Adams was about gadgets and gizmos! From the latest in computers to the greatest in cameras, he kept up with the most up-to-date in technology. The other chapters deal with his views on Religion and God. ‘Is There an Artificial God?’ - the speech he gave at Digital Biota 2 in September of 1998 - was a phenomenal read. An “out-and-out atheist” as he called himself, Douglas Adams explores the concept of God - where and why it originated, its importance in shaping the history of mankind, and its relevance in a scientific world.

“And Everything” contains various interviews as well as letters (one of my favourite sections was the frustrated letter Douglas Adams wrote to David Vogel of Walt Disney Pictures, after being strung along for about 20 years, while Hollywood was trying - or not trying, it seems - to make a movie out of the hugely successful book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)! The highlight of this section was of course The Salmon of Doubt assembled from various versions of this work-in-progress. The search for half a cat; a friendship with Thunder God Thor; a dog named Kierkegaard; a mysterious weekly deposit of over ₤3000; a botched stalking; a carjacking at gunpoint; a forecast about meeting a rhinoceros named Desmond - that actually comes true; a haunted manor… it is a pity this book could not get completed - it would have been awesome.

Richard Dawkins’ epilogue read like I imagine news of Douglas Adams’ death would have: a rude interruption of joyous reading. It was an honour to go inside the mind of the man that created such a unique world, combining the best of science fiction and comedy.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Ringu” (Ring)

Some of the books that I count among my favourites are Japanese books, and Ringu, the first of the horror trilogy by Koji Suzuki is one that I now add to that list!

Ringu (translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley) follows reporter Kazuyuki Asakawa as he, with the help of his friend Ryuji Takayama, investigates the sudden and mysterious deaths - on the same day and at the same time - of 4 teenagers: Tomoko Oishi, Shuichi Iwata, Haruko Tsuji and Takehiko Nomi.

A row of condominium buildings… the oily surface of the ocean… a single two-story home… a beam of fluorescent light from an open window… and we are launched into the story and into a world of fear and mystery right away! The story moves rapidly and takes us through a slowly rising sense of dread as we see the first two victims - as we drive to cabin B4 - as we read the journal entries - and as we discover the tape with the anti-erasure tabs broken off.

A surreal introduction. Red fluid. An erupting volcano. An old woman. A new-born baby. A man whose face gives rise to inexplicable feelings of hatred… “Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly– …” Asakawa’s frenzied efforts to work out what the deleted instructions are form the basis of this story.

On the one hand, this was a good spooky story - the kind of horror I like: minus all the clichéd trappings of gore! At its base is a story of two generations of psychic powers, with the recovered statue of En no Ozunu possibly at the heart of it all. On the other hand, it was also a very good murder mystery; we follow the clues as each frame and every element of the video is painstakingly and thoroughly studied, deciphered and its meaning traced right down to the secret that was and should have been Sadako Yamamura’s alone.

One section especially stands out in my mind. During the course of their investigation, Ryuji and Asakawa have a conversation regarding smallpox. As they wonder if a virus can ever become truly extinct, they raise some very interesting ideas about the co-existence of opposites. Asakawa is of the opinion that no matter how much you try to kill a virus, eventually it would mutate and find a way to survive. Ryuji offers the idea that genes could escape from our cells and become another life form, and then develops that thinking to believe that all opposites were originally identical. Light and darkness. Male and female. God and the Devil.

I have not watched the Hollywood version of this book, but from what I hear, that movie lays a lot of stress on the ultra-psychokinetic and the ghostly. Where this original story differs, is in its powerful combination of the supernatural and the scientific, with smallpox being as important a factor as psychic powers in this saga of the Ring Virus.