Monday, September 26, 2011

The Secret Of The Nagas -Amish Tripathi-Shiva Trilogy

Writing the second part of a planned trilogy is a pretty tricky thing. In the first part one can blast off from the starting point and run amock. In the second part, you have to move the story forward enough to keep your readers interested in looking out for the final part and at the same time you cannot divulge much, so that the reader loses interest. (Think 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' which pretty much killed the interest in a promising series). Amish Tripathi's 'The Secret Of The Nagas' the second part in the Shiva trilogy and coming after the unexpected success of the first part (The Immortals Of Meluha. has come with bigger expectations.

The first part ended with Sati, Shiva's wife being attached by the masked Nagas. This books charts the journey of Shiva through various regions of India as he tries to find the secret of the Nagas and also to find answers for other events that happened in the first part. The book is a by and large enjoyable and fast paced read, in fact at some points it looks pitch perfect to be made into a movie. The series itself is well suited to be made into movies. Some relevations like the identity of the Nagas are bound to capture the reader by surprise (not the part about the nagas also being good people, that one can guess pretty easily, but the part about who they actually are). I guess most of the readers would not have seen that coming.  The intention is to give a readers a thrill ride and there are enough twists turns in the story, peppered with action sequences to keep most happy. If you get into the book with only that expectation you will not be disappointed. Personally, what I like the best about the series is how the author tries to show how bigoted one can be with someone who is different from us. As the author shows through the events of the novel, with just a bit of open mind one can perceive that what we think of evil may not be so evil at all. If in the first part, it was the Chandravanshis who were the target of such insinuations and rumors and in the turned out to be merely different and not evil, here it is the turn of the Nagas.

There are some irritants too. Amish seems determined to plugin nearly all of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon in the novels and that sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb. There is a pirate named Parasurama, whose story is similar that of the mythical Avatar. Now, I don't have any religious beef with naming a pirate Parasurama, but he could very well have been named, Balrama, Krishna or any thing else. The character's back story does not serve any purpose other than to plugin the avatar and to introduce to western audiences. The help he does to Shiva could very well have been done with any other name. The twist at the end is again one is something once can pick up easily, in fact it's the reverse on the relevation about the Nagas. 

It's not proper to comment upon what an author did not attempt to write, but I cannot resist here. As with the first part my main grouse here is that the book promises much, could have been much much more, but insted of creating something epical that is unique to the Indian ethos, it ends up being only a fast paced actioner. Maybe, Amish could have forsaken a few thrills and created a much tighter, enduring work that may not have got such a huge reception, but would have stayed more with anyone who read it. At the end of the second part, the reader does not feel any connect with any of the major characters. Even the secret of the naga, whose  story should have had an instant connect with the reader remains on the fringes of our emotional involvement. In fact, the emotional investment the reader does is pretty much minimal through both the novels. Actually, in some ways, its not a bad thing at all. When you look from the author's point of view, his objective of writing a fast paced book has succeeded quite well. It sure marks a new path in the mythical/fantasy genere in India. I for one am still looking forward to the final part of the trilogy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I'll Go to Bed at Noon - Gerard Woodward

Gerard Woodward's excellent 'I'll Go to Bed at Noon', (published in 2004) a novel on a family coming apart is one the most underrated works of recent years. It got a Booker nod, but by and large has been sadly not part of major discussions. Generally novels of the 'family' genre, fall into 2 modes of narrative, one is with hyper/hysterical realism with slightly larger than life characters bordering on manic eccentricity ('All Families Are Psychotic', 'Corrections') or fully dark novels with serious themes ('The Gathering'). But here Wooodward treats it in a different way, giving a more nuanced and minutely detailed potrait of a family's slow disintegration. The novel is the second part of a loosely connected trilogy ('August' and 'A Curious Earth' precede and succeed this novel), but can be read as a stand alone. The third part however is best read after reading the first 2 or at least the second. I am posting this in the order I read them.

The novel traces a particular period life of the Joneses, Aldous and Colette, their 3 sons and daughter. Of particular focus is Alodous a professor, Collette and Janus, the eldest son who is a very talented pianist. He is frittering away his life and career, a drunkard who goes through life doing menial jobs and who seems to take great pleasure in debasing himself. In fact the family itself has a drinking problem, with Collette herself being partial to the drink and has now somewhat recovered from it. The novel's main thread is one's inability to let go of a loved one, our propensity to put up with anything that a person we love does, however harmful it may be to all concerned. That's why Collette does not find the heart to exile Janus from her house for a long long time even though he cause great suffering and when she finally does it, it does lead to tragic consequences. Collete's brother 'Janus Brian' (same name as Collette's eldest son, not to be confused with him) too is a symbol of the same thing. The novel begins with the funeral of Janus's wife. We get the impression their life was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing passionate, at least outwardly. But the manner in which Janus slips into a state of apathy, the way he literally drinks himself to death again either points to a relationship with his wife that was more profound that is outwardly visible, or it could just be the emotional inability of a man to handle with his wife's loss. (Isn't it said that women are emotionally stronger than men). Whatever may be the reason, Janus Brian's descent into hell is a scary potrayal of a middle aged man with no children whose wife is no more. There is no melodramatic crying or outpouring of sorrow, but more like the nihilistic behaviour of a person who has lost interest in everything. It is this love and affection that keeps Collette hoping against hope that both the Januses will come back to the normal track, it is what makes Collette believe in the girlfriend that Janus (the son) keeps talking about, but never brings her home. (When all others think that the girl friend is a figment of Janus's imagination). Even Aldous falls prey to this at the end. At the beginning of the novel, he is aloof with his kids, tolerates Janus with great reluctance and is the one who pushes Colette to send Janus away.  His way of handling Janus's drunken rages is to barricade himself in a room with the complete works of Shakespeare. Except for Collette, he does not seem to have any major affection for any one else and that's why he tolerates Janus since Collette cannot bear to see him leave. After the tragic events at the end, Aldous reacts without any outward show of grief, but starts doing aimless travels through London.It serves as a precursor to what would happen later. 

The minutely detailed capturing of every day life and the understated yet beautiful prose makes the novel a great experience to read. Couple of instances from the novel bring these to the fore. In the beginning of the novel Aldous and Colette are sharing the bathroom, he shaving and she taking a bath. In the course of a couple of pages, Woodward shows us a clear picture of middle aged domesticity where passion seems to have taken second seat, but is replaced by a more deeper and stable emotion like contentment with each other. In another instance, the family has gathered for a sunday lunch and spending the afternoon and evening having fun generally. Janus too seems to be sober, though Aldous has his misgivings. Janus goes missing for sometime and when he enters the room again, the other suddenly get a realization that he is drunk. In just a couple of paragraphs Woodwards captures the shift in mood from one of lazy happiness to fear, revulsion and sadness at a happy evening ruined. The effect is not to get us readers to sympathize with the characters, but rather to feel the same fear, chill they feel on getting to know that Janus is drunk. May be this detailing and understated story telling is the reason for the novel not gaining more popularity,  certainly there are no great dramatic conflicts, no hysterical crazy situations here.

I did have a few minor quibbles. We never get to know about Janus, why he frittered away a musical career, why did he come a drunkard. Janus is the subject of most of the characters thinking, conversation, but we don't get to know what Janus himself thinks. It's one thing to be subtle and leave things for the reader to figure out and another thing to leave something completely out. The case with Janus is the second one. Though we get an inkling of his thoughts at the end through his dairy and his (supposedly) imagined girlfriend lets us a bit into his mind, he is mainly an elusive character for the reader, much like he is for his family too. The first book 'August' shows Janus with teenage angst, but still it does not justify his complete descent into depravity. However the part of Janus diary and the events after that right at the end are some of the most heartbreaking piece of prose one would read. Some characters like Janus's brother in law who joins him in his drunken escapades, Janus's younger brother who hates Janus are not fully drawn out. But these are very minor things which don't come in way of the overall flow. You will not read a more bitter sweet and heartbreaking novel than this. 

Mention must made of the 3 novels covers, very melancholic drawing you to them. It was the cover that made me buy this beautiful book and read in the wrong order.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Persuasion Nation - George Saunders

This is truly the age of persuasion. Though people have been influenced by external factors from time immemorial, given the proliferation of print/visual media in the last decade or so the persuasion factor has multiplied greatly. One is assaulted from all ends with innumerable choices that one does not actually know what he wants, but ends up doing something just for the heck of it. In this scenario, George Saunders creates a dystopian world in his collection 'In Persuasion Nation', where the general theme is the persuasion of people in the consumer era. What's more this is a world where most people are not even aware that they are being persuaded, but are happily integrated into the dystopian environment. The landscape though set in America, could as easily be applicable to any developing/developed country.

The collection kicks of with the story 'I can speak' which perfectly illustrates this point. Presented a letter written by a salesperson to a customer who has returned a product produced by his company, it shows how banal one can get while producing/selling consumer goods. What's the product being returned? It's a face mask for small kids who can't yet talk. The mask takes care of the kids not talking but giving intelligent replies when their parents are talking, replies that are beyond the comprehension/intellect of the kid on whom the mask is placed. Why is this needed, what's the purpose in getting an illusion that a kid is talking much before the natural time, the salesperson gives an eloquent justification for this as he tries to persuade the customer to try the product once again. Does he succeed, we don't know as the story ends with the letter being completed, but considering the gullibility of customers these day, he may actually do.

When we talk about consumerism and people being persuaded to buy goods they don't need, another related thing to be noted is that how do corporates get in touch with the customers, how are they able to market their products. In some way, the proliferation of consumerism could also been linked to the gradual declining of a consumer's privacy. Whether it is a form you sign up when you go to a store, or an online form that you fill up when you visit a site, all these things are used to track your preferences and market goods based on that. The story 'my flamboyant grandson' illustrates this a bizzare way. This is world where all consumers are given some sort of electronic shoes based on which the consumer's preferences are tracked as he walks through the stores. What happens then? Holograms of various products are visible to the customer based on his buying pattern/preferences. Each consumer gets to see his own customized holographic advertising. (If you have not bought a burger for the past 2-3 weeks, a hologram reminds you about the taste of burger and urges you to buy it). You can't escape it, if you remove the special shoes you are fined by some entity which operates the whole things. Sounds too unrealistic. Maybe for now, but this is something that could happen in the future. And consider the fact it's not even necessary that you explicitly specify your preferences, just think of the digital fingerprints you leave whenever you come online, even based on that your preferences are gathered. I imagined a scenario reading this where my preferences are gathered based on this blog/post and am assaulted by the images of publishing houses pitching their books to me. How crazy would that be to see. 

When we talk of persuasion, we cannot limit it to consumerism only. It happens at a policy level too, where the opinions of people are manipulated to achieve a certain end. George talks about that in the allegorical story 'the red bow'. It starts with a tragedy where the narrator's little daugther is killed by a rabies infected dog. The narrator and his friends then kill the dog and a couple of other dogs which were in cotact with the infected dog and are themselves infected by rabies. So far so good. Then they go a step further, they start killing dogs based on the suspicion that they may be affected, even on the hypothesis that they may get affected in the future. A meeting of the town people is held where it is decided to put down all dogs that are under the suspicion that they could affected. It evens goes to the extent to planning to kills birds, fish and most other creatures in the town. Most people in the town agree to it, the dissenting voices are suppressed. Link this story with the fact that it was written after the Iraq invasion and that the author himself says that 'this is a reaction of the cultural climate at that time, where people were becoming more aggressive' and you interpret what the author is trying to convey. There is no moralizing here, neither is the tragedy at the beginning trivialized or justified. But it raises questions on the way in which people are manipulated into forming a certain option, from where it's just a short step to hatred.

The title story 'In Persuasion Nation' is more bizzare than the other stories. We sometimes get tired of the same advertisements hammered day in day out into us. In some cases, we start identifying and relishing some ads. What about the characters in the ads. What happens to them. Initially we are shown vignettes of several advertisements where people to any extent to get their hands on a particular product. (One man watches his grandmother die while he eats a pizza, another betrays his friend to get his hands on a car). Now what happens is that the characters form two coalitions and start fighting each other. (The grandson and the betrayer form one group and the grandmother and the betrayed friend another group). This crazy scenario is made even weird when two characters of an advertisement get sick of doing the same thing day in and day out, they join forces and exit the ad. The trope in the story is somewhat similar to the one in which characters of a story get their own lives, but george gives it a twist by setting it in the world of advertisements.

It's an easy way out to blame corporations alone for the current state of affairs. We as consumers are culpable in some way when we give in to the temptations offered. 'Jon' is one such story, where the protoganist is nicely settled in a plastic, almost antiseptic environment (some kind of community centre) where everything is controlled, fixed in advance with no free will at all. (There can be no sexual intercourse, people are given a specific time where they have simulate the act themselve). But it is drilled into them that they are leading a fine life. Jon's dilemma in wanting to live in such a place and his inner wish to live outside the community where there are not so many facilities, but where one can make his own choices reflects the consumers dilemna in buying/doing something because it is said to be good and doing something that he actually wants.

'The Amendment' talks about alternate sexuality and the persuasion that is done on them. Sexual minorities have been persuaded for a long time that their orientation is a disease, it is curable and they can change it. This is the crux of the letter that is written by the character in this story. Not just alternate sexuality, he goes even beyond that in profiling people based on his conclusions. As per his conclusions even a hetrosexual marriage could be construed as manifestations of a latent gay orientation. He gives the idiotic example of marriage of a man with a normal voice with a woman who has a deeper voice, which implies that the man wants to live with another male while the woman wants to share her life with another female and so they are implicity living their subconsious fantasies. To avoid such marriages some rules have to be put into place. Seriously, how much more idiotic one could get. This seems funny at the surface, but shows the perception that most (so called) normal people have of people with a different orientation from theirs. It also indicates the homophobia that is present in most of us.

These stories may look far fetched, but are actually not so. Some time in the future we may be living in a similar consumer/political/social hell and what's worse even enjoying it. So as a paradox to this collection, I highly recommend this collection and author, at least this is a persuasion of a good nature.