Friday, 11 November 2011

Wandering Star- J.M.G. Le Clezio

I was introduced to this book by Senior S and she had said "You'll love it". I did.

The story, in brief, is about two young girls  Esther and Nejma who live through the war. It is about hopes and dreams, of death and the ugliness of war. Of spirits that are broken and still survive. It is, as one blurb says, "the story of human suffering , human misery" and gives the reader "lessons in Humanity".

But when I read through the book (in parts) I experienced a whole range of emotions. The book talked of childhood dreams, of freedom, of being hunted down- of being stripped of dignity, of living with the constant fear of death. I felt mortified and angry. At one point I wanted to kill Hitler all over again- I wanted to mutilate all the people who had caused the war.

Clezio describes with painful detail the atmosphere  these people live in. He paints a picture with deliberate slowness, with deliberate clarity that clenches your heart painfully and reminds you of all that a man is capable of doing to another.

The stories of the two girls are enmeshed, they are intertwined because of their suffering, because of their status as refugees, as people being displaced, of being stripped of Nationality and identity. Of living at the mercy of the UN that abandons them, of pinning their hopes on words they don't understand, of living in the dark, in the cold, in hunger with conjunctivitis. It speaks of the lives of the millions of people that bore the brunt of the war, of the millions of refugees, of the millions of people that got exiled and displaced. It speaks of the horrors of the Holocaust- by making Esther's father a memory, by the thundering noise of the motors that drive away the Italian soldiers, by describing the big white house towards the end, by describing the horrors that happened in the cellars under the big white building.

The book broke me down, it made me cry- for the  millions of survivors, for the millions who never lived through it- The book was too heavy for me, it made me stop and take a break before I braced myself for more reading. The tale is haunting, like the stories of O Henry, like the Last Leaf when the painter dies and there is nothing anyone can do, there is nothing one can do but think of that little leaf and a sad man who died painting it. An artist who becomes an artist in the end, someone who never lives to see his masterpiece. Or like the story of Saki- The Refugee- the blueness, the little bundle on one's back, the people starving and walking on with eyes that are haunted, of a bowl of noodles and the kindness of a stranger- and the inevitable death that the story talks about; it stays on in your mind long after you are done. Sometimes lines and descriptions, landscapes and emotions might come back to you uncalled for, it stays on in your mind to help you remember all that Man is capable of.

Monday, 7 November 2011


As my third semester of study at Stella is successfully completed, I am faced with doubts of my own. How much have I honestly learnt? How much of it is a "just-another-paper-attitude"? I realised that although I understood the theories that had been prescribed for study- I did not know what to make of them after the semester. I had understood what they were talking about, but how do I put them in perspective with my life, my background and my understanding? What are we really talking about?

I am now going back to study all that I had been told to- with diligence and some curiosity, with sensibility and patience. I am taking baby-steps to understand, re-learn and apply what I have been introduced to, to my reading and outlook. I want to understand what Women's Writing is all about- in practicality. I had seen it as a paper, as a text for study- now I am going to study it all again- with earnestness.

Good luck to me.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Sonnet - Billy Collins

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

The Thought-Fox

Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Growing up with Fiction

CS Lewis in one of his books on criticism talks about how "literature illiterate" people tend to dismiss books as "read" after a first- reading of them. Books, he says, have a life of their own, and deserve to be respected, read, re-read, enjoyed in parts, in full or in any form we may choose. I passed such a hurried judgement on one of my currently favourite books- The God of Small Things. Infact, I did not even complete the book when I first thought it was "pseudo".

And some years back, I had had the audacity to dismiss God of Small Things as being unworthy of a Booker prize and of all the publicity and reception it got. Again, I had the audacity. And then two years back I re-read the book. I loved it. I fell in love with everything in the book. It has become my favourite- I quote it when I am happy, when I am sad, when I am bored or when I see owls, children, Banana Jam or even stray dogs. Sometimes even to describe my own silences.

The book is powerful and mesmerizing. Some of my friends, who are Malayalis, find the book offensive- but I loved it. Never once did I get into the politics of Kerala, the culture it represented or anything ethnic or geographical. From the beginning- from the point she describes the house to the last page- I fell in love with the book. And since the narrative is dreamy and magical half the time I did not even realise it was Kerala or any real place. The narrative stole my attention and I was too busy living the lives of the two-egged twins and amused by their weirdness that I forgot it was a novel- a text- and entered the world of childhood head-first. Two years later, I still haven't shaken off the magical hold it has on my world. The children are too real and very honest to forget.

I think this transition- from hating the book to falling in love with it was a direct result of having grown-up atleast a decent bit. I think books tell us where we stand, where we are and help relate with ourselves better. Reading is an active process. It requires a reader who is active, sensitive, open and ready to engage in a dialogue with the text. From one book I read just last week (recommended by Senior.S of course)-
"After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered...."-  (Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
And that is precisely what books do to us. They open up an entire universe, a new world and reveal themselves, unfurling at their own pace. It becomes a journey through the pages led by the story for the reader. It is a joyful, pleasurable experience that lingers on long after the book is over. It is interesting how a tangible thing can remain in our minds long after the book is closed. I remember Senior S asking us once in a Critical Theory class if we knew when a book was over, and one of my classmates S, answered, reasoning that a book should be over when we "closed it or finished the last page". Of course. And it did not make sense to me that time. I thought a book could never get over. You end the book, as in you finish reading the book when there's nothing more to read- but so much goes unsaid, there are stories that go beyond the covers and words- and it is upto the reader to fill them. They are like the ellipses, the ideas are implied, they are hinted at, but are not concrete. They are created when the reader interacts with the text. Even after he's reached the back-cover.
Senior S returned this wonderful world by recommending two books- Shadow of the Wind and Wandering Star. I recently finished Shadow of the Wind and only when I was reading it did I realize that I had stopped reading. I had stopped reading for pleasure, but had been reading only to make a study of the books I read. I chose books that had critical acclaim, I chose books that were beyond my experiences, I had been reading what the publishing world had told me to read. I had ceased being an interactive reader. I was acting like a critic- a very stuck-up, pretentious critic that not only did I miss out on the story, and the narrative- I had killed the pleasure involved in reading. I had stopped it from being an experience. I had tried to manipulate and mutilate my understanding and experience to compartmentalize them in already made up boxes/stereotypes- which meant that I was not an active reader but more of an empty box that tried to fill itself up with what was being told and what was acceptable. I had forgotten to make an interaction with the text- I had failed to bring my experiences, sensitivity and background to the text- I had efficiently eliminated all that was necessary to enjoy the experience of reading.
Now, after Senior S' light hearted style of recommendation- I realised two things- 1. I was rushing through life and living it way too seriously than was necessary. She keeps saying "Have fun. Keep having fun." I had forgotten that- entirely.
2. That unless I was a reader who was sensible and sensitive- I could never make a critical appreciation of any text. Period. Makes sense. Unless you invade the text, i.e. go beyond the words, the worlds and the covers- reading doesn't happen. And when reading hasn't happened understanding cannot happen. Logical. I had forgotten the basic lessons.

Shadow of the Wind returned that joy to me. It returned the essence- and now I am a conscious reader- a reader who has fun and enjoys the experience that a book offers. 

Monday, 31 January 2011

Michael C Blumenthal and Senior S and Critical Theory!

The poem was given for analysis in the Critical Theory paper by Senior S (who else?!) The poem was so weird and beautiful, that I spent almost a half hour just reading and re-reading it with no intention to analyse it! 
But the poem is profound in meaning, and speaks of truth. 

And the Cantilevered Inference Shall Hold the Day 

Things are not as they seem: the innuendo of everything makes
itself felt and trembles towards meanings we never intuited
or dreamed. Take, for example, how a warbler, perched on a

mere branch, can kidnap the day from its tediums and send us
heavenwards, or how, held up by nothing we really see, our
spirits soar and then, in a mysterious series of twists and turns,

come to a safe landing in a field, encircled by greenery. Nothing
I can say to you here can possibly convince you that a man
as unreliable as I have been can smuggle in truths between tercets

and quatrains on scraps of paper, but the world as we know
is full of surprises, and the likelihood that here, in the shape
of this very bird, redemption awaits us should not be dismissed

so easily. Each year, days swivel and diminish along their inscrutable
axes, then lengthen again until we are bathed in light we were not
prepared for. Last night, lying in bed with nothing to hold onto

but myself, I gazed at the emptiness beside me and saw there, in the
shape of absence, something so sweet and deliberate I called it darling.
No one who encrusticates (I made that up!) his silliness in a bowl,

waiting for sanctity, can ever know how lovely playfulness can be,
and, that said, let me wish you a Merry One (or Chanukah if you
prefer), and may whatever holds you up stay forever beneath you,

and may the robin find many a worm, and our cruelties abate,
and may you be well and happy and full of mischief as I am,
and may all your nothings, too, hold something up and sing.

A New Critical Reading of the poem:

The New Critics saw the text as an organic whole that communicated its meaning through the usage of words, their action and reaction upon each other. It involves the analysis of the technique employed and also of the tensions present in the poem.

The very first line of the poem begins with a hint at the tension- "things are not as they seem". The poem explains the experience of seeing the nothingness (which we fail to see) that "holds us up" and "soaring away" lands us in a field, "encircled by greenery". The poet conjures up a situation supposedly aroused by the "warbler" (Robin?) and conveys through tensions, the world- in reality and its other, unseen existence. The interplay/subtext of the implied meaning creates surprises and playfulness in the mood of the poem and, skilfully deceives the tone of the writer ( the seeming playfulness and self-depreciation masking the depth of his thoughts).
The poem uses shapes  and contrasts it by nothingness to communicate the ideas to the readers. There is a constant visual awakening of perception towards normal things and things that are no-things. For instance, when the poet talks about the "emptiness... in the shape of absence"- He makes Emptiness a shape, but a Shape of Absence- absence again does not have a shape, but becomes a concrete entity, a character as alive as the warbler or the green meadows. Similarly, the redemption through the bird, becomes one. The bird, from being a redeemer, becomes the act of Redemption itself (in the shape/of this very bird, redemption awaits us..")- another no-thing, becomes a Thing- with shape and a concrete presence. Therefore, the redeemer, redeemed and the act become one. 
The words, or choice of words, give us a sense of movement in the poem- a movement of shakiness, and also of stillness. From the beginning, words like"tremble", "soaring", "kidnapping", "swivel", "land" or even "encrusticating" (which I took to mean the act of crustication or the act of a crust being formed) show a slight sense of movement, of a shift in position (which incidentally also involves a different level of meaning). 
I can also perceive a shift in thought pattern, though I cannot place my finger on the lines or words where exactly they shift. 
But the final three lines of the poem provide a resolution where the opposites seamlessly blend in- the medium becoming the end, the doer becoming the done, and presences and absences dissolving into no-things and shapes- almost like realisation dawning after a deep sense of struggle.