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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

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