The Sense Of An Ending

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

By Julian Barnes

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A Review

I remember falling in love with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I’d read it a couple of years ago. I also remember realising as soon as I’d finished, that I needed to read it again (which I did for a book club), slowly, carefully, with more attention to every word, understanding and savouring the ideas that Barnes subtly, almost insidiously, puts across. Ideas and concepts that I had probably let slip by in my hungry pursuit of the narrative.
Well, the narrative is what it is and I’m a firm believer in all possible sorts. Your story can be anything. It’s how you tell it that matters. Convince me. Barnes did. Retired, well-settled and, perhaps, a tad placid Tony Webster receives a letter and a bequest of money from the departed mother of his ex-girlfriend from college, Veronica. And this triggers a chain of memories from his distant youth, each unfolding gradually in its interpretive shades and details as we read on. Memories of the prodigally gifted and deeply reflective Adrian. The somewhat unreadable Veronica and his weekend with her judging family. Her mostly reticent and yet once curiously chatty mother. And, of course, the suicides. The earlier one from school founding the basis of understanding and comparing with the one from later on. All characters, all turns and twists in the plot, all interpretations and re-interpretations of events, chains of causation, utterances, attitudes, expressions, all seem completely plausible. And through the remembering and recounting of them all is Tony’s sympathetic but pragmatic ex-wife, Margaret, listening to his ramblings, shrewdly pinning the source of his agitation and smartly moving on. And Tony continues to sift through his memories trying to fit them coherently with the reality he sees today.
We all know time to be malleable, sometimes treacherously so, as we are forced to learn during moments of huge emotional turmoil. We also know our memory to be fallible at best, patching together the snatches and snippets that filter through time’s subjective sieve, leading us to construe or misconstrue according to our own predispositions. We know that history is written differently by victors and the vanquished, and again by the survivors of any period of turbulence. We know that each experience of every relationship determines not merely the progress over time of that particular relationship, but of all others as well, for we are but the accumulation of all that we have experienced. We know that while we could fantasize about life imitating art, many of us let life simply happen to us, that our innate inertia leads us to choices that render us peaceable and comfortably settled.
But here is a writer that takes all of this and more and pushes the envelope further and further and even further, until we are gasping drenched in the power of his ideation.
Every word, every observation, every analogy, every metaphor is apt. Just so. And they all impel you to question yourself, to cross check against the parallels in your own personal history, in your own sets of predilections and prejudices, in your own dwelling over personal pettiness and thence missing the larger picture, your own shuffling and reshuffling of cards from your memory to come up with a hand that suits you best at that particular moment.
Barnes’ style of writing is deceptively simple, chatty, homely, but it packs in huge punches, especially when you’re not looking. There’s dry humour, recourse to satire, and an ability and willingness to look at people and things, ourselves included, square in the eye. To me, Barnes is like a wise old owl, nestled comfortably and seemingly stoically in his favourite tree, staring into the darkness around and deciphering nuances in the night as only owls can. He peels the darkness that we hide within us and then pierces right through. Illumination.
Well, this slim little book, more novella than novel, is packed with power and will probably prove to be timeless in its appeal.

 

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(Image Source : Google Images) 

 

I also watched Riteish Batra’s film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending. I was extremely sceptical as to how such a reflective and nuanced piece of writing could be faithfully translated to visual celluloid. But I was happily surprised. Batra has, of course, tweaked the storyline, ironed ambiguities into definitives and fleshed in a character more than in the original. Well directed, well scripted and well performed, it was a rewarding experience. Of course, less so than the book. But I’m not really complaining. Batra has impressed with Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night as well. And am happy that we have a young director who handles human sensitivities with such grace. And quiet confidence.

Random Thoughts on Random Days

There are days and there are days. Just like that. On some days I feel as if life sucks, and that everything I do turns awry. My best laid plans go kaput and I am either frustrated or angry or disheartened. I might wake up with an uncomfortable foreboding that things are likely to go terribly wrong, and I go to bed with the notion of zilch, of having achieved absolutely nothing or, worse, having ruined some. Yet, mixed with that is a strange relief that I’ve managed to survive. Phew.

It is odd how on such days I don’t even notice the things that are quietly going on as they should, the little parts of my routine that carry on undisturbed, allowing me to focus my energies on the ones that are not. They figure nowhere on my radar.

And then there are those days when I awaken with all the positive energy possible. When everything I do succeeds, and when I attempt something really difficult, pushing my luck just a tad further, that succeeds as well. I don’t see the things that are amiss, the little spokes in my wheel that I toss out with scant ado. I smile and power through them all, going to bed with that feeling of being uniquely blessed and a happy conviction that all’s wonderfully right with my world.

Of course, there are plenty of normal days, the mixed bags of the moderately good and bad. The ones that I live on my own, with no extra help or interference from any real or imaginary supernatural forces, as if I have escaped their attention and hence their benevolent or malign influence altogether.

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(Image Source : Pinterest. The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow Hardcover by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, 2008)

There are those I know who put it all down to my mood, an innately temperamental disposition. As if it were an entity on and of its own and that I choose to succumb to it instead of harnessing it to my will. That I allow myself to be pulled up to dizzying heights or plummeted to dismal lows like a capricious self-indulgent yoyo, instead of rolling along that even keel that typifies the consistent and serene. That all days, they argue, are essentially alike and that it’s just over-imaginative me that’s reading more into the calendar than there really is, deflecting the source of my own internal flux on to powers that may or may not even exist. Hyper, is their favourite word of accusation. Spontaneous and passionate is how I would prefer to describe myself. But, really, who is buying? And who am I kidding? Yet, to encapsulate all my hurtling through my highs and lows in that one rogue ambiguous word, mood? Bah!

In fact, my specially bad and good days have been happening ever since I’ve been a child. I remember getting punished for reaching school just a little late, getting stumped by a particularly foul Chemistry test, not finding my voice in my music classes, quarrelling over absolute trivia with my sisters at home, getting hauled up by my parents for something that I hadn’t really done, and so on, a cumulative series of miseries. And then there were superlative Maths tests, followed by rare periods of lucid Chemistry, creating magic in music, finding that book that I had always wanted to read, spending extra time with friends, reaching home atrociously late yet going happily unnoticed and unscathed.

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(Image Source : Wikipedia) 

I also remember my mother poring over her Panchaang, the Hindu almanac, sifting through the auspicious and inauspicious days and hours. Amavasya, she would shake her head, and we would avoid travelling or wait one more day before trying out or buying something new, as the moon had played truant and we had to await its return to our skies. And, of course, there were those days when our planets, moon and stars were all supposedly well aligned, when we could confidently undertake new ventures and forge new beginnings, for they were destined to succeed. I was, and still am, rather sceptical, and I would, and still do, vehemently hold that any day could be a perfectly good one, and that every day carries the potential of turning out to be a perfectly nasty one, regardless of the moon’s and planets’ itineraries. I neither believe nor disbelieve in astrological charts, I simply prefer to disregard them. I suspect that my good and bad days have their own endogenous logical cycles though unfathomable to me, and will occur regardless of what is or is not foretold by my horoscope, palm lines, tarot cards, numerological configurations, etcetera.

Of course, there are periods of deep anxiety and wretched vulnerability when we may be sorely tempted to decipher that cycle and read beforehand the end of its troughs, containing the dark gloom within a manageable finite, looking ahead towards the predicted upswing and keeping ourselves afloat till then. But would that not then rob me of whatever autonomy I believe I have? Make me a willing puppet of forces unknown to me? Or alternatively, try to second guess everything and sidestep the given trajectory of my life? Is that even possible? Who really knows? I don’t. And I would rather struggle with my frustrating ignorance and swallow my perhaps pitiable abhorrence of uncertainty than lock my belief in another human’s soothsaying prowess. Steer clear of clairvoyants.

So I muddle through my calendar, acknowledging days as superb, horrid or just average, but in retrospect. And while the last category may be what life is mostly made up of in terms of sheer volume, it’s the challenges of the other two that really get me going, make me walk that extra mile, spurring me to explore that mysterious fork down the road. Think. Feel. Create. Live. Giving full vent to my spontaneity and passion. With a clear understanding that the knowledge of the yoyo’s lows can be just as powerful and productive as that of its highs. And bounce between the alternating nadirs of despair and zeniths of bliss with an abandon as uninhibitedly exaggerated as these words may sound. For I know not how to be otherwise.

Of Work and Freedom

Whenever the movie The Help surfaces while I’m surfing across TV channels, searching for something to settle on, I find myself watching at least a couple of its scenes before moving on. My first viewing, several years ago, had been against the backdrop of all the noise and hype that usually accompanies awards ceremonies, where it had featured brightly, bagging a few trophies. But my scepticism had been blown away, it was all it had been touted to be, a well-crafted film with a solid subject and story.

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(Image Source : Vanity Fair) 

The random re-viewings remind me of its narrative and appeal and, unfortunately, of the relevance of its subject even today. Employing people of colour for the drudgery of ones’ domestic chores may be frowned upon and perhaps politically unthinkable today, but there clearly was a time when it was an accepted practice, accepted by both whites as well as blacks. By whites because they were blinded by privilege, an entitled belief in their natural superiority over other races, their legitimising backbone of exploitation. By blacks because they had been oppressed and hence conditioned for centuries through slavery and systematic segregation, because any expression of their dissent had been stifled, even ruthlessly snuffed out over generations, and because otherwise they would have had no bread on their tables. They also accepted not being allowed to sit with the whites, pray in their churches, eat at their tables, relieve themselves in their toilets. And while The Help portrays the animus between the two communities while largely following the eyes and voice of its rebellious white protagonist, it does give sizeable footage to the disgruntled yet helplessly acquiescent black voices, exposing the symptoms of the divide if not its deep-rooted causes and reminding us of the flagrant injustice of it all.

The discrimination and implicit segregation insidiously endures. Even at home. No, we don’t really have blacks as such, we are all different shades of brown. But we do have our own caste hierarchies, and Gandhian philosophy, and Ambedkar’s, Phule’s and many other notable social reformers’ persistent painstaking efforts notwithstanding, we still have obnoxious relics of caste-job correlations. The Annihilation of Caste seems to be but a distant pipe dream.

Yes, we have a kind of ‘upward’ migration, where people of the so-called inferior castes can dream of and realistically aspire to occupying places originally reserved for the upper echelons. Doors, spaces, jobs and homes are now thankfully increasingly open for all, a slow but perceptible dismantling of caste barriers. And, of course, it would be politically incorrect to not do so. In fact, as the original ‘upper’ castes are quick to point out, there is a reverse reservation in place today, a system that is edging them out of dominions that had traditionally and exclusively been theirs.

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(Image Source : The Hindu) 

But, frankly, I have yet to see Brahmin men and women cleaning toilets in non-Brahmin homes. Every day. For a living. Or toiling without any decent protection in the stiflingly dark and dangerous sewage drains that run under the bellies of towns and cities. Or carrying the euphemistically termed night soil on their heads towards the designated waste disposal dumps. Manual scavenging has, since decades, been declared unacceptable because of its caste quotient and thence illegal, but has nonetheless survived in regions and communities that obdurately and inhumanly look the other way. Watching their videos on the internet fills me with repugnance and shame. And anger.

I remember watching Fandry, a Marathi film made by the director of the hugely popular and successful Sairat. I had been bowled over by its sheer beauty, showing it as it is, sans embellishments, sans melodrama. A simple story simply told. But again in that apparent simplicity were embedded layers and layers of social complexities, those that we have inherited from over centuries ago, and that seem to doggedly and successfully resist change. Here again there were jobs that only Dalits in the village could do. Like snaring pigs that were proving to be a menace. That was their birthright. Theirs alone. So an adolescent Dalit boy who has a crush on his upper-caste schoolmate must go through the angst of being watched by her along with a mocking, jeering village crowd, when he and his family are chasing and entrapping the disgusting but elusive pigs. Heart breaking.

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(Image Source : IMDb) 

There also comes to mind a documentary, The Children of the Pyre, made a few years ago, that raises similar questions. Simply brilliant with scant playing-up of the inherently and obviously gruesome subject. Getting the stark horror of burning body parts done with and out of the way in the first few frames, we are allowed into the private worlds of the underprivileged children who work to ensure that the fires are well stoked until the bodies burn through. We see their natural innocence jostling with their grotesque reality, a reality that they have inherited by birth. So while a Brahmin chants the mantras and officiates over the funeral ceremony, it is the Dalits who stick around long after the mourners and priests have left, to ensure that the cremation is properly complete, else as one of them warns, the scavenging dogs that prowl the Benaras Ghaats will feast on the remnants of the corpse. One of the many lines that stayed with me as I walked out of the auditorium was, if we are untouchable and can’t share your space, then how are we allowed to burn your bodies in your funerals? So, does the ‘choot-achoot’ distinction melt away on funeral pyres? According to convenience and expedience or because our souls that supposedly outlive our burnt bodies had never been stamped with caste in the first place?

Yes, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures and many more such well-made films show us the dark side of what society once used to be like in the west. Yes, racism is still an inescapable fact of life there even today. But its face isn’t as absolute as it was a century ago. These films don’t deal with the subjects of today. But the horror that befell the people of colour then, still torments the underprivileged in India today. If The Help were to be adapted and made in India it could be a film about today. Fandry and The Children of the Pyre are about today. I dare not imagine how ghastly it all must have been a hundred years ago. Our inheritance of our caste related socio-cultural history clings on tenaciously and still surrounds the accident of our birth. So while we may mark Labour Day on our holiday calendars with officious fanfare, the underlying idea of the dignity of labour has been reduced to a mere lip serving platitude.

So, going back to the movie The Help, the question poses itself: what about the help we have at home? Where does it come from? Which social strata? Do we treat them on par with us? Do they sit at our tables, on our sofas, use our toilets? Mostly, the answer is a circumspect no. If I ask this question directly there is some squirming, a wish to deflect the issue, or a nervous half-baked response which says “they themselves won’t be comfortable with that”. Or there is a blunt dismissal of their ‘worthiness’ to do so, to be treated on par. And the question is then redirected towards me, “Do you do that? Treat them as complete equals? Sit with them on your sofa to watch TV? Eat your meals with them at your dining table?” Regrettably, the answer is still sometimes an embarrassed no.

I remember stepping out of the Dachau concentration camp when touring around Munich, physically numbed by what I had seen, then revolted and enraged by it all. Beginning with the promise emblazoned along the arch at the gates: Work will set you free. Forced labour from an incarcerated race but sanctimoniously dressed up with a mirage of freedom. I remember thinking that the cruel monstrosity was not the creation of a solitary mad man, but that it involved the active participation of plenty of other mad men and women, and also the tacit complicity of a people who were willing or complacent enough to cover their noses to escape the foul stench from the burning of the socio-politically despised, no longer fruitful and hence redundant dispensable flesh. And I remember feeling guilty of belonging to a human race that revels in inflicting suffering on its own. I felt ashamed that I belonged to a human race which despite its astounding mental and social evolution, just doesn’t do enough, doesn’t step up to protect its own, doesn’t fight for its neighbour’s rights. The right to exist with dignity.

And today I feel the same shame. For I am often but a passive, even blind observer of human indignities and travails in my own backyard, for I am so wrapped up in my social apathy, that it takes films like these to jolt me out of my comfortable stupor, my entrenched unseeability of their apparently ineffaceable untouchability. And I hold myself guilty of not doing enough.

Hamid

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Oh! What a twisted and tortured world it must be out there in modern day Kashmir. Where truth and lies overlap and blur and lose themselves in each other. Where everyday breaths are stolen against the everyday din of screaming bullets and pelted stones. Where the lakes freeze over the memories of stifled lives and the flickering hopes of those that yet live. Where blank eyed women queue up in front of their local constabulary or their visiting ministers, holding placards of missing sons and husbands. Where men of God become men of insurgence and violence and where mosques are centres for both prayer and propaganda. Where the echoes of clarions from the plains beneath and beyond rouse men, women and children to their patriotic duty. And where the chinar reaches out higher and higher to the skies, carrying with it tragic cries for help, for shelter, for peace, and for that ephemeral, traitorous or glorious azadi, only to fling them all back unheard on the blood soaked ground beneath.
Hamid is a cinematic ode to this present day Kashmir. A tale of cruel, irredeemable loss. Of a local boat maker, Rehmat, who goes missing one night. Of a father and husband who leaves his boat, his wife and his child suspended in limbo. Of his forlorn wife, Ishrat, who staunchly averts her face from the grim prospect of widowhood, losing herself instead in a frenzied search for her missing husband, forgetting even how to be a mother to her little boy. Of that little boy, Hamid, who telephones Allah at a miraculous configuration of the magical number 786, berates him soundly for his sorry situation, and orders him to return his father, Rehmat, to his rightful home and family. Of that telephone connection that crosses political divides and stirs concern and compassion in the beleaguered and tired CRPF jawan Abhay’s heart, spurring him to play along as Allah, offering sympathy, help and advice to the little boy. And keeping him afloat.
But above all it is a tale of lost innocence. As the seven-year old Hamid steps up to take charge of his life, his mother and their home, he simply squares his shoulders and grows up. He learns his father’s trade and completes the boat that he had been crafting. And then rescues his mother from the abyss of blind denial, bringing her back to life, teaching her how to be his mother again.
The beauty of Kashmir is breathtaking, but we see it as in a mirror cracked, the shards reflecting remnants of what must have gloriously been. The gentle splish-splosh of oars paddling along a peaceful lake, the hum of wood being sawed, the tender thrusting gold green of the chinar, the narrow roads winding through steep mountains and verdant valleys, the firans and the walnut, the light eyed Kashmiris and their peculiar sing-song intonation, the smoke billowing from wooden houses and the snow piling in the distance. The picture postcard of yesteryear now creased with barricades, soiled with gun powder and stamped equally as terrorist and terrorised.
Hamid stole my heart completely. Reshi as the little boy is heartbreakingly endearing. His confusion, his impatience, his stoicism, his humour, his beliefs and his doubts, all come through so cleanly and clearly, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a child acting. Rasika Duggal, whom I’d loved as Manto’s wife in the Nandita Das film, impressed me yet again as his distraught mother. Sumit Kaul makes your heart leap with love and joy in those tender nostalgic scenes between father and son. And Vikas Kumar as the stressed out jawan chafing against the killing of his comrade and aching to go back home to hold his newborn baby girl, makes me want to hold his hand and tell him to just breathe. All such mesmerising, eloquent performances.
But the one who stands above them all is the director, Aijaz Khan, who pins you down to the narrative of the little boy, to his dilemma and his resourcefulness, and his innocent heartwarming conversations with Allah. The strife that tears through the region remains firmly as the backdrop. There are no loyalties or partisan sentiments that are stoked, no jingoistic calls parading as patriotism, and no glorification of the call to azadi either. The canvas is what it is, and the lives painted in the foreground are those of Hamid and his family.

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The cinematography is vivid, making the lake pristine and pure or dark and secretive, the mountains menacing or friendly, the people opening up or clamping up, all as the mood of the story may be.
The music is haunting, and the Kashmiri song that the father and son sang together, plays on as the credits roll and leaves you ruing the loss of the melodic serenity of that land.

Oh! For what may have been. If only.

Oh! That it may still be. Inshallah!

In the Company of Art

When I first started writing it was just something to do, to kill time that sat staring at me, mocking my uselessness in a world of busy and productive people. A bad back had put a temporary halt to my normal routine and I was at my wits’ end as to how I would get through the vacant long twenty four hours of the day, each day, each week, each month, for some months. I grew restless and then listless. And deprived of regular company, extremely lonely.

Then I suddenly remembered my friend Lila’s suggestion: write. It had been made soon after I had returned from a beautiful holiday in Ratnagiri and had recounted my experiences to her. My Guru, Madhuritai, had always insisted that there is a writer in me waiting to come out, but I had never really paid much heed. Where was the time anyway? But now there was more than plenty of it, and I undertook it as a project, a challenge. Picking up the pen was an achievement in itself, as was writing the first few lines. It wasn’t easy. My pages looked ugly, marred with scratches and squiggles as my mind ploughed back and forth, searching for appropriate expressions, suitable phrases, the apt words to clothe my raw and sometimes equally elusive thoughts. When my article on Konkan was complete I mailed it to Lila, relieved that it was done, but also happy that I could do it. Hurrah! After the euphoria had subsided a little I thought I could do it again. I did. I wrote. And I wrote. And Lila faithfully read it all, prodding me along, ever encouraging, ever supportive. Her mail box was soon deluged. I read some of my work to Madhuritai and she too was happy and proud like an indulgent parent.

That was then. Life has long since returned to its old routine and my day is happily full again. Yet I continue to write. Why? Because I just couldn’t stop. Because it is so wonderfully rewarding, so cathartic, so therapeutic and so liberating. I have found a loyal and committed friend in my computer screen. (Yes, I have graduated from paper and pen to that modern day contraption. Well done, I congratulate myself!) It has opened up a window to my mind, helping me understand my own sentiments, gather my thoughts, formalise my views, making them lucid, almost tangible. It helps me retrieve caches of dusty memories, giving me a fresh insight into my own past, where I come from, why I feel the way I do. And it never doubts my sensibilities. It takes, and it takes, without faulting, questioning, reproaching. Ever accepting.

Of course, what is written will be read. That is a given. It is first read by me, and so it must be true to me. It must honestly portray that bit of me that I am opening up. It must satisfy me. If it satisfies others who read it, that is a bonus. And I got plenty of such bonuses from a growing group of readers.

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The first not-so-good, unfavourable feedbacks that I received made me rather grumpy and miserable. I sulked a bit. I was assailed by self-doubt. I would wonder why something that appealed to me wasn’t universally appealing. I wondered if I should change my style, change my outlook, or if I should stop writing altogether. But I changed nothing. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I still maintain that if my work appeals to me, if it is good enough for me, then it is good in itself. For, the bottom line is that I write for myself. Primarily a readership of one. And I reminded myself that I needed to be democratically liberal, that people will have different views, different perceptions, different tastes. I write from my perspective and with my integrity, my expression largely conditioned by what I have experienced, read and assimilated over the years. A feedback does not only endorse or question the veracity or appropriateness of my views and my expression, but also opens up the reader to me: her views, her reading habits, her preferences, her yardsticks of judgement. And there is enough room in this world for multitudes of those. I just needed to learn to accept that. And get along. And continue to request and welcome feedbacks, open minded.

Of course, the process of writing can be a lonely one. But that is true of most art. One communicates with oneself, engaged in a dialogue with one’s mind and heart and soul. All our faculties are turned inward. Excitedly hopeful about the end result yet anxious. All on one’s own. When I sing, I am all by myself, even if the room is full of people. Nobody holds my hand and guides me along. The agony over a missed note or the ecstasy over a true one are mine and mine alone. But therein lies a beautiful truth: the art itself is the artist’s true companion. True friend. True guide. I am blessed to have discovered that. And that just adds to the adage, art for art’s sake.