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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

This side of awesome: A tribute to F Scott Fitzgerald

This side of awesome: A tribute to F Scott Fitzgerald

These tributes we write week on week can be quite tiresome. Often, we aren’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said. As for the writing we have to find the right balance between admiration and restraint. This means we can never do the written word equivalent of taking our T-shirts off and throwing them onto a metaphorical stage. Okay, we’d never do that. But with heroes like Fitzgerald, it can get pretty touch and go.

If you haven’t read any Fitzgerald or worse, are undecided about his awesomeness, (All sorts to make this world, I tell you), read on. First order of the business of being a legend – the writing. Fitzgerald is the author you read if you want to fall in love with language. He uses words to make shapes and sounds and he paints scenes so vivid, you wonder whether you were actually there. His stories are so damn visual that the written word becomes a captivating technicolour action film. And that’s me speaking as a representative of my generation,with its short attention spans and impatience. Dialogue is never just dialogue – it’s sharp insight into a characters soul.

And the characters, they’re so terribly lovely. His protagonists shimmer. Wholesome people are staid and boring; for Fitzgerald, only the fabulous will do. There is only room for the deeply beautiful, the deeply damaged. A Fitzgerald’s character is the last glass of heady wine that you probably shouldn’t have had and which you will definitely regret in the morning. He’s the comely, flirtatious, too smooth-to-be-true guy at the bar. Larger than life. Fantastic. Adventurous.

Fitzgerald has been hailed for chronicling the jazz age.  I wasn’t alive then so I couldn’t say that he did or didn’t but if the jazz age was anything like the world he portrays in his books then gimme some of that. Pulsing hot music, massive lawn parties, swing dances, beaded fringed dresses, flappers, cigarette holders, women who throw their heads back when they laugh, suave men who light your cigarette, refill your martini glass and open the car door for you. Still, despite the thrill of the world he paints, he manages to show the hollowness of its core. As a writer, he skilfully builds us up, to dash us cruelly down. Just like his characters, we revel at the height of good fortune and then we cry when we fall from grace. If like me, you enjoy books and films that make you cry with their portrayal of poignancy, truth and beauty, then you’ll be a sucker for Fitzgerald.

You know how at some point all of us have said some version of, “Well, wait till I’m rich and famous. Then you guys can suck it.”? Fitzgerald actually accomplished this. Except, in his case he did it for a chick. That’s right. This side of paradise, happened because the beautiful Zelda Sayre turned him down. He wrote it in the three years he was enlisted, and surprise, surprise, it was genius. He shot to fame. Zelda agreed to get with him. Boom. And now that we’ve raked out the trivia, key plot points and some fantastic dialogue was taken word for word from the writers life, so much so that he said once, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we’re characters from one of my books.” Which means, if we were ever to meet him in real life, he’d be every bit as awesome as his work.

Martin Amis said that when we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. That much is true. I’ve read The great Gatsby, the Beautiful and the Damned and Tender is the night. I loved the first two enough to want to have their babies. Tender is the night, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Sure, there were a couple of classic moments, (A Fitzgerald bad is still pretty good,) but it sounded like he was trying too hard. The narrative tone is defeatist, tired before its characters tire, disillusioned, discontent, despairing. And if you think about it, he was all of these things when he was writing the book. Somehow, this makes me like him even more. He is his characters. He’s beautiful, he’s flawed. He’s Dick Diver, brilliant but tired of it all too soon, he’s the arrogant Gloria Patch and her cowardly husband Anthony. His life reflects itself vividly in his art. Beautiful and crushing. Grand but terribly sad and hopeless.

– Sheena

“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

If you haven’t watched The Wire, a series that first aired on HBO in 2002, here’s some advice. Don’t. If you do, television will be ruined for you forever. The Wire created by David Simon and Ed Burns is indisputably the most intelligently written, insightful, brilliant television series in the world. Think I’m being gushy? Tell that to the academics who are responsible for having the show used as a legit college course in over four American universities.

Behind the genius of the show, which deals with different faces of the city of Baltimore through a complex web of unforgettable characters, is David Simon, a crusty, opinionated, mouthy journalist turned writer. (Side note: Journalist turned writers are the best. They make me dream of the days when people will say, “Sheena? Yes she had a pretty good byline. Damned if I knew she’d be getting the Pulitzer some day.)

The show ran for five seasons on HBO. Of course it had a strong plot, great characters and unbelievable dialogue, but lots of television has that. What makes this one stand out? It is really the story of a city, the story of terribly flawed post-modern institutions in every civilised democratic society. It explores what these flaws mean to you – no matter which team you play for – the police force, government, education, the drug racket, even the media- you’re doomed before you start out. The Wire was created, by Simon’s own admission, along the lines of a Greek tragedy. Only the vengeful Olympians were the government, the media, your high school, and the helpless mortals were protagonists who were “confronted with a rigged game and their own mortality.”

This is why I admire David Simon, based on what I’ve seen in countless viewings of The Wire.

First of all, he has something to say and he found a way to say it so that people would listen. A story is just a story but the stories that stay with you are the stories with subtext. The Wire is a great story with incredible subtext but as powerful as you find the subtext now, if Simon had to sit you down and start a five part lecture on the pitfalls of government and failings of capitalism, you’d be yawning your head off in a minute.

Second, the characters. Not only are they a million of them but each of them is painstakingly sketched out, down to the way they speak, act and think. In this interview with Nick Hornby, Simon explained how he spent years “gathering string” on politicians, drug dealers, cops and school level kids. Details are everything. Oh and here’s the other thing about his characters. None of them, not the incredible Stringer Bell, whistling Omar or the cheery Bubbles, take precedence over the plot. Characters, well loved ones, are killed sometimes, because if they had to be in a similar situation in real life, they’d die. We deal with it as viewers because we’re so drawn in by the plot, we say, “Well, he had to die. There’s no way he could have survived.”  And that’s good writing.

He also takes time with his narrative. The shape of Simons writing for the show unfolds like a novel in that he’s in no particular hurry to rush through the facts and get you from point A to B. I can’t help but compare this to what he said in his lecture on the Audacity of Denial, about the four ws and one h of newspaper reporting. “A four year old can tell you when, how, where and when. It’s the why that’s important.” In his storytelling, it’s the why that takes centre stage.

But all this is neither here nor there. The point is, David Simon wrote about a world I knew nothing about, a world that never touches any part of my life, stays outside my social, professional and personal life, never reaches my news papers or my computer, and he still drew me in and forced me to stay.

– Sheena 

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