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“A writer of uncommon elegance” – The NY Times: A tribute to Jhumpa Lahiri

“A writer of uncommon elegance” – The NY Times: A tribute to Jhumpa Lahiri

Boredom can lead to some great discoveries. A few years ago I was spending a summer in my grandmother’s house in Bangalore and ended up picking up a copy of Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I started it grudgingly because I had already read and disliked The Namesake (which I admit, I read just before Mira Nair’s movie version). The narrative of that novel was uninteresting and the details felt unnecessary and disconnected from the story of the Ganguli family.

But the poignant, subdued emotions of Unaccustomed Earth planted themselves in my mind. Lahiri, a Bengali born in London, raised in Rhode Island and living in Brooklyn explores stories of generations of Indian immigrants that struggle to hold on to their roots or shake them off.

Yes, too many Indian authors write about immigration and living in an unaccustomed world, but Lahiri’s writing moves and grows as if unguided by a pen. The characters are themselves and grow into who they want to be in the most organic manner. She’s in no hurry. The last three stories in this short story collection, about Hema and Kaushik are some of the most beautiful stories I’ve read. You can read the first one here.

Interpreter of Maladies, her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories moves from simple immigration issues to insightful stories about relationships. And her Indian characters could, really be of any nationality. The New Yorker’s archive has Sexy, one of my favourite stories from the book, here.

Some books come to you when you need them the most. Almost like the universe saw your underlying restlessness and frustration, scanned its ginormous library and threw a book in your lap.

Displacement is universal. Whether you’ve lived in the same house since you were born or whether you’ve moved three cities in the past year, the feeling of not entirely fitting in, is universal. There is always some people, some place where you struggle between who you are and who you are trying to be.

Jhumpa Lahiri is credited with having changed the future and course of American fiction and was slammed by some Indian critics for not painting Indians in a more positive light. But I think she has the ability to spin life’s most simple, monotonous chore into the most wonderful story, like this one about her father cooking pulav. Lahiri’s stories have a universal appeal aided with the slow and steady pace that makes you feel like your own life (if chronicled in it’s truest sense by a really brilliant writer) would fit right into the pages of a Jhumpa Lahiri book.

Bonus : Hell-Heaven

– Sharanya

Beloved: A tribute to Toni Morrison

Beloved: A tribute to Toni Morrison

I know that some of the readers of this blog, sorry website, used to be my classmates or seniors at St. Xavier’s College, where I spent three years studying and falling in love with English Literature. Those readers will remember that in the third year there would be certain mornings where the thirty of us who were also getting a degree in functional English would settle down for our American Literature class where two mornings a week we would spend an hour reading and discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Those classes were not classes. They left us exhausted, emotionally drained and completely disoriented. We would talk, we would listen, fall silent and mull over feelings that were alien to our 20 year old selves – feelings of loss, anger, displacement, regret and pain. One particular class, the scene when Sethe’s milk was stolen, a girl broke down and cried. As a reader, I’d always been amazed at how words could move me despite myself, but never in my life had I experienced something like those classes, nor, I venture to say, will I ever. With Morrison, and right through those American Literature sessions that thirty 20 year olds sat through, I knew unfailingly I was in the presence of genius.

I’m at a loss to explain just how much of an impact Toni Morrison, who was christened Chloe Wafford, has had on me. I own a copy of the bluest eye and beloved but I have also read, actually devoured, Tar Baby. Each time I pick them up I experience awe, definitely, but mostly wonder. What’s great about each of these books in their own ways is that they voice the fears and aspirations of a community against a socio-political background, without overtly doing so or making a big deal out of it. Incidentally, this book, the authors first, was written at a time when America was awash with slogans like “Black is beautiful.” “I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.””

In The Bluest Eye, you read a scene about a girl wanting something she can never have, but you see, through other characters and several powerful scenes, why she wants it. The basest human action (spoiler alert)- a drunken father raping his youngest child, or a mother brutally murdering her newborn  – is portrayed with the “why” firmly in place. There is still a sense of justice, an overwhelming sense of “but this is wrong”, but we are made aware, very subtly, that this wrong is a result of what man has made of man.

Toni Morrison baulks when gushing journalists call her work poetic, but seeing as she’ll never meet me personally to slap me for doing this, I’m going to go out on a limb that it is. Not in terms of the language,(her novels aren’t prettified prose, in fact, the idiom in dialogue is downright grassroots) but in the structure. Events unfold with the imagery and subsequent back story of an epic. In Beloved, Sethe is relieved of the baby ghost by the arrival of the an image of four horsemen from the Apocalypse. Sweet Home, belying its restful name, was a plantation where all manner of unspeakable things happened. 124, (the number 3 conspicuously absent) was a house where these unspeakable things came back. There is a kind of depth, a complexity, to the way novels present themselves to the reader. Call it whatever you like, say its too difficult, but it’s awesome and you can’t escape it. She’s awesome. Toni Morrison is AWESOME.

 

– Sheena

I want to go to there: A tribute to Tina Fey

I want to go to there: A tribute to Tina Fey

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey. Not because I’m very funny, was head write of a brilliant sketch show, wrote and acted in my own sitcom, win awards or wrote a hilarious book…I kinda have a scar on my face.

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey. I think of a time when people will pay me to write a book about my life as a writer. 30 Rock, like Community has a small but dedicated audience that keeps the fandom alive. 30 Rock is a show about a sketch show like SNL that Fey writes and acts in along with Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and Jack McBryer. The characters and plotlines are so ridiculous that I’m inclined to believe that that is how TV works. Starting her career with improv comedy with almost no audience to becoming a writer on SNL , writing the brilliant Mean Girls and creating her own show, Fey is the man.

(Also, she dates Matt Damon and John Hamm on 30 rock. For real)

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey because she is open to showing people her ugly side. On 30 rock, we have seen her wearing spanks and sleep eating an entire pizza, sporting a moustache and peeing in a jar to drive a roommate out. Yeah, I can be badass like that too. Do you want a picture of my feet?

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey. A simple Google search will tell you that she changed how women were perceived in television and comedy. She was the first woman who become the head writer for SNL (where she played Sarah Palin in a few sketches) and how she made nerdy, hot.  But these are big important things she completely under plays….ok, wait, I’m the opposite of that. My bad.

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey because in my head, Amy Pohler is my best friend.

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey because, god, I would be a cool mom. If I must write letters, I’d rather write “May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers” instead of the kind Rani Mukherjee writes.

Sometimes, I think of myself as Tina Fey and try not to take things too seriously and be utterly funny and ridiculous.

– Sharanya

Fantastic Mr. Dahl: A tribute

Fantastic Mr. Dahl: A tribute

Roald Dahl writes with some serious hyper activity. That is the best part about reading his stuff. He is fantastic and fabulous all at once and his characters jump and their eyes sparkle and that’s why, as a reader, you get carried away. Some of his plots may be a little silly (George’s Marvellous medicine) but he makes it work with his style of grabbing you by the throat and shaking you till your eyes rattle in your head. Okay that was a bad analogy. As a kid, I would gaze at the Quentin Blake illustrations on the page and imagine that I too could say things like “How absolutely dashingly gorgeous, my friend. How ripping and downright lovely, small boy.” A Roald Dahl world is an exciting world on a sugar rush, whether you’re with James and company on the peach, whether you’re wreaking merry havoc with Matilda or even if you’re in the throes of a deadly adventure a la The Witches.

Other reasons I love him? If you’ve read Boy: Tales of childhood, a pleasant anecdotal volume about his boarding school years and his giant Norwegian family, I wouldn’t have to explain. A lot of Dahl’s stories are exaggerated versions of true events. (Obviously I don’t mean the Vermicious Knids, that’s just kick ass imagination.) No, what I’m talking about are honest to goodness true events that ended up triggering off some of the most awesome children’s books since the Brothers Grimm. For instance, Cadbury used to send bars of chocolate to Dahl’s boarding school as tester. The boys used to taste the bars and write out comments on a little sheet of paper. Boy Dahl remembers writing, at 9, “Too subtle for the unsophisticated palate.” It was this routine that started a germ of an idea for Charlie and the Chocolate factory.

Dahl wasn’t one of those writers who never get out and just live through their books. At school, he played at least three different sports. While at Shell Company after school, he all but begged his boss to let him travel to exotic places like Africa and India so that he could have adventures. And he was a flying ace in World War one. But how does this have anything to do with his writing? It doesn’t, but it’s awesome anyway.

Dahl is also a delightful rhymer. If he sticks a poem into a story, you can be sure that it will be wicked, funny and amusing. (Oh knid, you are vile and vermicious. You are horrid and slimy and squishous). He writes one liners filled with all manner of 1960s styles racial stereotypes (China is so full of wings and wongs , every time you wing one, you get wong number.) He jeers at America and American presidents in his books, which is even more fun by the fact that he was actually invited to the White House by Roosevelt in 1945.

So listen up, read and re-read Dahl as an adult. He will be your golden ticket (nudge nudge) out of this humdrum, adult world. If you have kids, make them read Dahl. He’ll be fun and relevant, even when we’re sharing a Churchgate slow with robots. I cannot stress this enough. Read. Dahl.

 

– Sheena

Haaave you met Neil Patrick Harris?: A tribute

Neil Patrick Harris or NPH or Barney Stinson is awesome. And not only because he is a brilliant actor and has a name that are actually three first names but because of these reasons –

NPH started his career as a child star with Clara’s Heart and Doogie Howser MD, he went on to do a bunch of movies, plays, TV shows, he has a nice family, has never been accused of drug abuse, alcoholism or crazy behaviour. He didn’t grow up to be utterly annoying and a cliché. And thank god, otherwise we may never have gotten

Barney Stinson. NPH plays an opportunistic, manipulative, naïve and incredibly self-obsessed guy with ADHD who “likes to create crazy situations and then sit back and watch it all go down.” I can’t think of anyone other than NPH who could have played Barney; he is perfectly vulnerable and indifferent and has set the bar pretty high for living an “awesome” life. Barney Stinson has a great following in the guys-who-need-a-playbook-to-get-girls category and his catch phrases are legend –

NPH and David Burtka (He played Scooter, Lily’s ex boyfriend in How I met your mother) are a lovely, normal couple. They aren’t over the top, they don’t make the tabloids for any other reason, expect when people want to awww at their cute little baby girls (who are hanging out with Oprah in this picture). Here is the two of them playing The Chewlyweds game.
 

During the writer’s strike of 2008, Joss Whedon created the Dr. Horrible Sing-along log. NPH ays Dr Horrible, a failing superhero who must defeat Caption Hammer, played by Nathon Fillion who is dating the girl he is in love with, Penny, played by Felicity Day. It has 3 acts, was released exclusively on the internet and features some brilliant songs recorded in a small studio in Whedon’s loft. When I re-watched it before writing this story, for research of course, it amazed me all over again. NPH is one of those people who will do interesting things because he has an opportunity to. He has a great part in a big sitcom, he has his movies on the side, but that doesn’t deter him from trying fun new things. Something we all wish we can do with our careers that easily get stunted or boring.

Among his many talents which include looking hot in a suit is singing. He shows it off in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along blog and on even better on Glee. Listen to his cover of Dream on by Aerosmith with Mr Shuster.

Talking about Glee, here’s where you can watch NPH dancing and convincing you that Broadway is not for gays anymore.

Like Barney, NPH is a magician. That’s right. He is currently serving a two year term as president of the Academy of Magical Arts. They are headquartered at the Magi Castle (remember when he threw a dinner party there as a part of a challenge on Top Chef Masters.)

Is there anything this amazing man cannot do? God!

– Sharanya

What Ho!: A tribute to PG Wodehouse

What Ho!: A tribute to PG Wodehouse

In a Wodehouse novel, a character doesn’t just leap, he “leaps about like a lamb in the springtime,” a girl will not tremble in fear, she’ll “quiver like a badly set blancmange” and when someone chokes on a word, he does it “like a Pekingese on a chump chop too large for its frail strength.” If there’s anyone who uses words with style, it’s PG Wodehouse and that’s only one out of a million reasons why I love him.

I can read a Wodehouse novel anytime. Anytime. There is never a wrong mood and there’s never a bad place. Liking Wodehouse is also a great judge of character. If you’ve read him, you’ve scored brownie points with me. If you like him, I’ll hate you a little less on sight. It’s true. I once met a boy who said casually, “I’m more of a Blandings Castle fan than a Jeeves one.” I’m now dating him.

Speaking of Jeeves, if you’ve read one novel you’ve practically read them all. In that respect, he’s the Aaron Sorkin of literature. You know the plot before you’ve started but it’s all so fresh and new that you enjoy it heartily anyway. When a critic pointed this out, Wodehouse apparently felt very peeved. “I was trying to hide it.”


That’s another thing about Wodehouse. He doesn’t take himself seriously at all, and much like his books he has no clue about the outside world. I devoured this interview in The Paris Review where he couldn’t give the journalist directions to his own house because he had no idea where his house was. Things like directions, are codes, correspondence, even basic current affairs (Jack Kerouac died? Did he? Oh dear they do die off, don’t they?”) he couldn’t be bothered with them. He was just content to sit back and write literature that shines with the brilliance of a sun. And he did it so well; I imagine no one who managed the hum drum stuff for him would mind.

I was reading his Berlin broadcasts the other day and I couldn’t help but wonder. You have to be really positive to see the funny side of a prison camp, I mean geez. The broadcasts make it clear that PG Wodehouse wasn’t made to paint grim pictures. Like his books, everything is sunny and bright and they all live happily ever after. His is the best kind of escapist fiction there is. And when he found out that the broadcasts had ruffled a lot of feathers back home, he was dismayed. “I see now, of course that I was tricked into making these talks and I naturally feel a damned fool.” Dear old soul. Just like one of his well-meaning but errant characters!

I’m only 24 years old and I’ve met at least three staple Wodehouse characters in my life. In my college hostel alone, there was a Madeline Basset who famously thought the stars were gods daisy chain, there was a Bobbie Wickham, a beauty who would always get into trouble and get boys to help her out and there was a pseudo-intellectual Florence Craye (people tell me I’m Florence Craye sometimes, but I don’t believe them and just carry on with my daily life). Without Wodehouse, these characters would have been near unbearable. Because of him, I just find them funny.

Stephen Fry, who along with Laurie, brought faces to well-loved characters said of Wodehouse “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection. You just bask in its warmth and splendour.” Word.

– Sheena

The greatest storyteller: A tribute to Amitav Ghosh

The greatest storyteller: A tribute to Amitav Ghosh

“You cannot force your character to do something that isn’t them. They simply won’t let you”

I sat in the back, at the book launch of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, amazed. Mostly because I was in the same vicinity as Amitav Ghosh but also because it dawned on me again, how brilliantly he had crafted his characters. I thought of Deeti and Fokir and Rajkumar and Tridib and Zachary. Characters that I feel I have met and know very well, Characters who stopped being characters and became breathing, living, walking bags of flesh and meat and bones.

The Hungry Tide, a book I had borrowed, introduced me to Amitav Ghosh. While I loved that book, it left me with an incomplete feeling. You know that feeling you get when you snap a book shut and process what just happened from outside because you aren’t a part of the story anymore? Didn’t happen. I read The Glass palace, Shadow Lines, Circle of reason; they were beautiful stories but I was uneasy. Usually, when I like something, I can tell you in great detail and with many examples, why. This time I couldn’t.  But there was still a solid somethingness about Ghosh’s writing that appealed to me.

And then I read Sea of Poppies and suddenly, as the song goes, I saw.

The first of his Ibis trilogy, the book is set is 1838 during the opium war. His stories exist in that wonderful space where history meets fiction, where real events meet fictional people and run about through decades and centuries, changing as time changes. All the characters, big or small, and there are so many of them, have a story, they bring with them their past, through their accents and language or their behaviour. They characters do and speak (whether you understand pidgin and laskari or not) as they must, and Ghosh won’t so much as put in a footnote. Every description, including the women’s saree, the cityscape or the food served is extremely detailed.

In River of Smoke, Ghosh describes life in Canton, the way it was in 1856, using the information he gleaned from mad levels of research. You think you want to write a book and you reckon a year or two of back reading in libraries should do it? NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Ghosh pored over the menus from the banquets described in the memoirs of people who went to them. He read back issues of the Canton Register, the newspaper of the time, to find what the weather was like on any given day. The weather. The damn weather!

He studied anthropology from St Edmund Hall, Oxford but he grew up in Calcutta, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and you can see why displacement, despair and determination set the tone for most of his stories. They leave you feeling that way too. Things won’t be tied up in a little bow at the end; they’ll be as they are.

For two hours at that book launch, Amitav Ghosh answered questions (even stupid ones) in his mild-mannered, unassuming way and then it was finally time for the book signing. I reached the front of the line, I told (stammered at) him about how I was worried because I had read 200 pages and there was no mention of Kalua. He looked up and smiled and said, “You might have to wait a little more time, unfortunately.” And then told me I had a beautiful name. AMITAV GHOSH SAID MY NAME IS BEAUTIFUL.

I still don’t know what happened to Kalua. But I can’t wait for the next book.

 

– Sharanya

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