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Thoughts on Manu Joseph and Cheryl Strayed

Thoughts on Manu Joseph and Cheryl Strayed

The first time I gave everything up and decided that I’m now whole-heartedly a member of the Manu Joseph fan club was when I read this wonderful post. Followed by the many wonderful snarky things he has written since then.

Last week I finished reading Joseph’s second book, The illicit happiness of other people (TIHOOP) and the prose is just a fascinating trip down his dark dark brain. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be somebody like him. Someone who sees the honest (although sometimes pessimistic) side of things and manages to spin stories that are funny, yet intelligent (both his books Serious Men and TIHOOP focus largely on NASA scientists, neurosis and philosophy) and observations (about Bombay and South Indian aunties. Topics I am well versed with).  I wonder if it’s exhausting to be like him, editor, writer, novelist, stern stare giver. I mean I have one job and one column to write a week and I’m pretty exhausted. It reminds of what Sheena once called Jerry Pinto; “Tana-tan”.

Manu Joseph’s novels are as poetic as his reporting is sharp. His sentences almost like daggers, never once becoming flowery or using an extra word.

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I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and all my free time and my commute to work is spent following her through the Pacific Coast Trail. I have been a fan of her work since before I knew who she was and she used to write the anonymous Sugar Says column on The Rumpus.

Wild is the story of her hiking the long trail after her mother’s death and her divorce. There is something about Strayed’s work that feels strangely motivational. I mean I haven’t once thought of actually doing anything like that but the act of doing something so tough and pushing through despite hunger, heat, snow and cuts and bruises is empowering. A lot of articles call her the anti-self help writer. Don’t sit and think about what you want to achieve and how you feel about it, stop thinking and fucking do.

The book is blunt and raw and straightforward. The story of her incredible journey is interspersed with stories from her life that led to this trek itself. Her writing so clean and passionate, I can feel the pain of her blistered feet. It’s sad without being maudlin.

The heart of unintelligence

The heart of unintelligence

I’m re-reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness right now, and it’s striking me how very difficult I find it, when I went through it quite easily the first time. Odd right? I try to read books I like more than once, rediscover treasures etc., but this has virtually never happened to me before. I am depressed, because the only possible reason for this is that I’m getting more stupid day by day. It’s a matter of months before I reach Crabbe and Goyle levels of dim. I think that, much of a bookwork though I am, I sometimes find sentences extremely tedious. Especially long sentences like Conrad’s, that have a lot of words that don’t make any sense, “ We shall have lots and lots of rivets and why shouldn’t we,” I thought rivet meant like a water body, see rivulet, but apparently its something you dig up on the riverbeds of the Congo? Don’t ask. The same thing happened when I read The phantom of the opera. I could not bear the archaic language. I gave up. I have pondered upon this, you guys and I have come up with reasons of why and how we came to a part of this grave state of affairs.

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Here they are:

Twitter and other social media and therein the art of saying your thing in 140 characters has broken down our brains

The interwebz has destroyed our mental faculties. Now we just LOLZ/ LULZ when we don’t get stuff.

In India, it used to be a big deal if you spoke English, now every urban Indian does. So, why improve it by reading tedious stuff? .

Our generation can only think in moving pictures and if there are gun sounds and cars and lots and lots of kisses, we’re so there.

No company. 1990s India. What do you talk about with your friends after class? Books you’ve read or Tv shows you’ve watched? Present day India. What do you talk about with your friends after class? Talk? Lulz, we just text each other.

The steady stream of mediocre trash that gets published year on year and goes on to make the writers lots and lots of money. Example: Twilight, Chetan Bhagat, 50 shades of grey. Why bother reading Sons and Lovers, when a copy of 50 goes much faster and you can get to read naughty stuff out in the open?

Language that is to be dying. And I’m so ironic, I will talk like this, even though I know better, because I do things differently okay. I’m bold and modern and ever so hipster.

The world is sinking into a miserable pit of thankless work, shot through with insufficient shots of  happiness brought through horrible entertainment and mediocre reading. Nothing is worth any effort. The universe is spinning slowly towards an inevitable death of intelligence. There is no hope and we are all, every last one of us, doomed. Now, let’s go watch a phillum.

Nick and Jess

Nick and Jess

Friends who fall in love are one of those clichés everybody loves and when a sitcom takes up the notion we love it some more. All shows begin with the will- they-won’t-they premise on some level and then finally when the audience has almost given up…bam! It’s what keeps people going. I know I’d probably have stopped watching The Office if Jim hadn’t confessed his love for Pam at the end of two agonizing seasons.

New Girl had one of those moments two weeks ago. Initially I hated New Girl and particularly Zooey Deschanel’s character Jess. Halfway into the second season, I still hate her, but boy, has the show done a 360. Most of the credit goes to Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and some of it to Nick (Jake Johnson). Last week in one of those ‘what-the-hell-just-happened’ episodes Nick and Jess kissed. A small part of me (the part that really secretly dances when Rachel gets off the plane and the one that openly weeps when Andy and April get married) was super excited. Finally! Finally! But, hey, so damn predictable. It had to happen some time. Now, it’s going to get all complicated and saccharine sweet, there’s might even be tears, damn it.

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But it doesn’t. In fact, the following episode was a great example of brilliant comedy writing. How do you follow up a long awaited kiss with a hilarious episode? By taking the entire gang out of the loft and into an Indian wedding convention, that’s how. Ceecee is looking to get hitched and Schmidt is here to woo her. Jess and Nick are both trying to avoid each other and Winston is just doing some kind of nonsense (they should really give me him better storylines). The episode veers of into the emotional (when it dawns on Ceecee that she’s on table 34 because she’s just a model), the silly (Schmidt having a conversation in Hindi. “Hello” “Hello” “Samosa” “Yes, please, samosa” “more towels” “Do you know where the white person toilet is”) to the completely random (Nick doing a backwards moonwalk every time he’s nervous).

When Jess admits to Sam that she kissed Nick, he breaks up with her. Nick tries to unsuccessfully cheer her up and even gives her a super awkward hug. And that’s it. No indication whatsoever of them even considering romantic futures with each other. No sappy speeches. They just made a mistake and they are moving on.

Isn’t that wonderful? Everything doesn’t have to lead to anything and I do hope they never really get together. It would change the dynamic of the show and I hate that kind of change (anyone notice how nothing fundamentally changed when Monica and Chandler got married? It was like they were always married). Yes, yes Nick and Jess would be so cute (so so cute) but that’s not Nick and that’s not Jess. They can’t deal with it and I love that the writers lets the characters do as they would. If they did decide to get together, I wouldn’t believe it all.

Women writers and their male readers

Women writers and their male readers

As of this minute I am both restless and hungry and those two were never good bedfellows. Hungry because a stretch of ghastly Andheri traffic is probably keeping my food from me and restless because I have just this minute finished Edith Wharton’s The age of innocence and I am bursting to discuss it with someone. Well, I suppose I could always get on to the internet and read reviews, blogs and discussion forums but what I really, really, really want to do is discuss it with a man. Sadly I may never do this. And I say this knowing the unhealthy revulsion many twenty something Indian male readers have for amazing women authors that frankly ought have shrines erected in their honour. It’s an uncomfortable truth and we may as well suck it up.

Show me one man who openly chooses Austen over say, Dickens and I’ll show you ten women who have had to righteously defend their favourite women writers against arguments as insipid as “But Austen plots are like every K Serial ever”, “The story is bound to be depressing.” or (honest to goodness you can’t make this stuff up) “Women can’t write as well as men because they’ve never been master of a house,” I don’t know what it is. Insecurity? Defiance? A we-boys-stick –together-our-penis-strongest notion? Ignorance?

Just to clarify, I am not against male readers who genuinely dislike whichever Austen or Woolf novel they have read. I am against  the existing mindset that forces a woman author to in some way prove that she’s not some random bad chick lit writing airhead while still writing (intelligently and mind numbingly well) about subjects like marriage, love, divorce and relationships.

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I have finished The age of Innocence barely a month or two after Francesca Segal’s The innocents won the Costa Prize for first Fiction. Segal’s book takes theme and plotline from the Wharton classic and by the author’s own admission, was a sort of nod to the greatness of The age of innocence. For those of you, more familiar with film than literature, a screenplay of the same name won actress Winona Ryder the best female actor in supporting role Oscar in the nineties. The books plot, really a love triangle, is set in New York and is also really a comment on the kind of rigid old-money society that the main characters in the story have to operate within. It is also so masterfully written that though narrated from the perspective of only one character, each action and consequence is open to multiple interpretations. The narrative flows smoothly and while action is not a particularly a strong point, I found myself riveted by the depth at which Wharton explored emotions like obligation, passion and obsession. I also found the way she handled the thoughts and customs of the society of which she wrote, truly tactful. At no point, at any part in the story, did I blame the exacting and complex demands of Mrs so and so and Mr so and so, who frankly were the cause for the star struck lovers to be forever apart.

P.S: If you need one more reason to read The age of innocence it’s to get acquainted with Mrs. Mingott, the old matriarch of the Welland clan. She’s a clever, outspoken, manipulative ancient thing who has the best lines and who is the coolest character I’ve read in a while.

P.P.S: The Guardians has a book podcast, which a couple of weeks ago held a lively discussion on the woman writers place in today’s literary world and her accomplishments. The debate of “womeny books” was duly dug up and aired out. Its good stuff, talks about much of what I’ve written here and since I was in the middle of The age of innocence when I listened to it, it struck me as most insightful.

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