Everyone’s been raving about Ann Patchett and her fabulous books. A few years ago I had heard of her Bel Canto, how well-received it was, making waves in literary circles, and I had marked the book down for a later read. But then I recently picked her The Dutch House instead, trusting my instincts of trusting an old school-friend’s recommendation! The avid and discerning reader that she is, I often blindly follow her suggestions. And I was amply rewarded. 

What a page turner! I was hooked from the start, read voraciously through, and was so satisfied in the end that I had a huge smile plastered on my face. Patchett has the masterly knack of grabbing her reader from the first word onward and she simply doesn’t let go. 

Spanning years and generations, the tale is told simply. All in the voice of Danny Conroy, the son born to the Dutch House, his memories of his childhood in it, the family that cocooned him within, his sudden eviction with the ensuing painful missing,and then the settled nostalgia tinctured with a selective rosiness that grows deeper as the years pass, colouring both home and family. The story goes back and forth in time, a memory there, a present day occurrence here, all patched together as in a richly hued and textured quilt, and we watch it take shape and substance as our Danny boy comes of age, grows to be independent, settles in his choice of profession and partner, raises a family of his own. All with the Dutch House of his earliest years remaining firmly in his sights.

The descriptions of the house are wonderfully evocative, its massive glass doors that allow the blinding sunlight to dazzle through, its spacious rooms and stairs, its hiding spaces and caches and corners, the pool at the back with petals and leaves skimming across its shimmering surface, the grass and trees and path out front, rolling down to the street that marked the address. You see the structurerise before your eyes, you go on a tour within and marvel at the paintings here and the chandelier there, the tapestry and the secret alcoves, you hear the voices whispering or laughing or quarrelling, you feel the warmth that nestles in its kitchen, you cringe at the unpleasantness that comes to fruit in it.Patchett builds its history carefully, when and how it was constructed by its original Dutch owners, why and how it changed hands, all against a backdrop ofevents unfolding around the world, stamping time and date.

The Conroy family coming in from their skeletally humble roots, struggle to adjust to the sudden leap in lifestyle, acclimatising themselves to an unfamiliar grandeur, straining somewhat to be happy in the imposing environs. The mother remains overwhelmed by the aura and proportions of her new house, mystified by the sudden shift in fortunes.  The taciturn father relishes and cherishes it all as the icing of his well-earned cake. The children torn between the two, make the place their own, marking their own territories within, etching their rights to it, only to have them frustratingly effaced, stumped by the lot that cruelly became theirs. The pretender to its ownership and her guile and wiles, her mean-spiritedness, ruthlessness. The house staff, all strongly supportive women that battle through unflinchingly, their raising of the children, teaching them values, patience, commitment, solidarity and a lot else. The intense loyalty between the siblings, Danny and Maeve, a knowing in their gut that they would always have each other, even if the world around them were to crumble away. Maeve leading the way in all that they plot, plan and do, making good their lack of resources with oodles of her own fiery gumption. And Danny following faithfully, believing in her implicitly, pressing pause on his own dreams to fructify hers. It’s such a riveting tale of circumstance and experience, all so heartfelt and earnest, that it feels lived and breathed,  endured and borne, lost and hated, won and vindicated. 

I especially liked how Patchett’s writing changes from Danny’s childhood to boyhood, on to adulthood and then middle age. There is an innocence that surrenders to instinctive animal wisdom in his perspective as a child, a clear idea of what his needs are and who fulfils them and how. That changes as the years roll by, circumstances change and much is lost and learned. The voice becomes clearer, stronger, there is a concretisation of views and values, a defensiveness that underscores attachments, that accommodates one parent’s eccentricities, though obdurately denying the other’s theirs. All subsequent attachments remain peripheral to the central sustaining bond with his sister. And then the writing becomes brisk, as if there is an urgency to grow up, do things, finish this, move to that, regain all that had been lost. There is a brusqueness too, not unseemly, for he is recounting the years when he no longer wanted to get trapped by others’ agendas and vendettas and the lousy hand that fate had dealt them. He’s done his dues, he now does as he wants.

There are some important themes that are referenced, but very deftly. For example, there is that instance that will remain in my memory, when Danny’s sister asks him to get over their mother’s desertion, that men do it all the time and seem allowed to. What about Buddha, she asks. Sainthood has its own shadows, why condemn only the woman who chooses that path? And all through, a few questions continue swirling around, about the weight and onus of motherhood. Does a mother who leaves her children to their father’s care, deciding to live her own life free from her husband’s arrangement of it, never deserve to be understood? How valid are a child’s expectations of a mother’s unfailing presence and attention to its wants, how much of that is natural, and how much influenced through social conditioning? Must a child’s wants always trump its mother’s? As Danny grows before us as an able protagonist, marked with his share of flaws, liable to anger, un-forgivingness and selfish self-absorption,as much as to love and resilience and steadfast commitment, how willing are we to allow for his imperfections? How quickly will we judge him? Judge his mother? And the woman who supplants her in their familial home?

Of course, all is not perfect, there are some lacunae. The premise of some relations, why they cement or why they fail through the passage of time, as between Danny and his wife, seem a little sketchily drawn. The plot seems linear, somewhat predictable in parts, though it reveals itself in a non-linear way. There is a lot that is wrought by fortuitous chance. Some happy serendipity, some weird coincidences, some ultra-neat falling back to what once was, like fate coming full circle with a restitution of original rights. I could quibble with that and say, it’s just a bit much to believe, a little too pat and tidy. But I won’t. The book with all its craft and simplicity, its fine and broad strokes, its stories within stories, characters that carry their personal histories and love and animosities into their futures and still remain deeply entwined with each other, made me happy. That counts. For a lot.

Can’t wait to get hold of Bel Canto. Or, maybe, State of Wonder which my daughter recommends emphatically. Dive in again into prolific Patchett’s pages, be swept away again by her enchanting words, see through her eyes and know that the world and its stories she has searched and sensed and imagined will enrich mine. Bliss.

The Days of Abandonment


                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante


A Review


 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

The Sense Of An Ending


By Julian Barnes



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.


(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.



.                                                           Movie Poster Source : Wikipedia

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.

hamidlake(Image Source: Reuters UK)

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!