The Mag This Week

From Sunday’s Books page:

Joanna Lobo reviewed Mridula Koshy’s Not Only The Things That Have Happened, which is in running with The Illicit Happiness of Other People as the most Twitter-unfriendly book title. Jo loved the book. You can read an excerpt of Koshy’s debut novel here.

Mark Bowden’s The Finish was better than No Easy Day but not properly satisfying, as far as Saikat Datta was concerned.

I reviewed Mixtape #1 and The Yellow Birds. Given below are the unedited versions of both.

The Yellow Birds

There’s a bone-deep exhaustion in John Bartle as he tries to function like a regular civilian in Richmond, Virginia, rather than an Iraq veteran. He shuffles around, surviving on depression, beer and more beer. Trying to describe his state of mind, Bartle rambles: “…you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer… everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down … but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose … so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward…”. Bartle’s weariness, despair and disillusionment make him seem old. In actuality, he’s not even 25. A year in Iraq, however, has aged him beyond recognition.
The Yellow Birds is Kevin Powers’s first novel and he has a few things in common with John Bartle. Both are from Richmond; both served in the US Army for a year and were stationed in Iraq; both were machine gunners. Unlike Bartle, whose life careens off-track, Powers returned and wrote a novel that takes you deep into the battle-scarred mind of a veteran.
Eating into Bartle’s peace of mind is the memory of his friend, Murph, who died in Iraq. Murph was declared missing in action but soon, it becomes clear that this isn’t the complete story and that Bartle has a guilty conscience for the part he played in Murph’s death. As tragic as Murph’s death and its impact on Bartle’s life may be, the truly poignant parts of The Yellow Birds are Bartle’s recollections of the war itself. The mystery of Murph’s death only provide the novel a certain direction. It’s his descriptions of everything from the landscape to the journalists reporting on the war that make The Yellow Birds both harrowing and unforgettable. Bartle’s recollections of the year in Iraq and returning to America ricochet across different time periods. The movement of the novel is best described by Bartle himself: “Every thought I had blossomed outward and backward until it attached itself to some other memory, that one leading to another, impermanent, until I was lost to whatever present moment I was in.”
The one touchstone in Bartle’s life is his grief at the loss of Murph, who comes to embody all the innocence that is crushed in war.
Powers’s descriptions of Iraq are tremendous. The sensory experience of being a soldier – the hollowing out of hope and humanity, the fear, the frenzy and the desperation to stay alive – is described in simple, precise and yet eloquent language. He manages that rare balance between empathising with the soldier without glorifying, romanticising or endorsing the brutality. There are neither heroes nor villains in The Yellow Birds. There’s only grief in all its oppressive, spirit-crushing beauty.
At one point, Powers writes of a character in The Yellow Birds, “He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.” Perhaps this novel is Powers’s attempt to do the same in real life. If it is, he’s succeeded.

Mixtape #1

From "Rather Lovely Thing", Mixtape #1.
From “Rather Lovely Thing”, Mixtape #1.

On the cover of Mixtape #1 is a hand holding a red heart. It reminded me of the saying “be still my beating heart”, which is usually used sarcastically. The singer Sting used the phrase very earnestly in a song in 1985, which probably helped make it popular. There’s a section in Sting’s song “Be Still My Beating Heart” that goes like this:
“I’ve been to every single book I know
To soothe the thoughts that plague me so
Stop before you start
Be still my beating heart.”
While “every single book” may be overstating the case, those familiar with the song may find themselves humming it while reading Mixtape #1.
Reading seems to be an odd word to describe the experience of going through a graphic novel, particularly when it rests as much on imagery as the stories in Mixtape #1 do. However, publisher Manta Ray has a skill for picking storytellers who can fill silences with drama. They hinted at this talent with Hush, a powerful graphic novel about child sexual abuse, and they’ve proved it with Mixtape #1, in which the most moving of the stories are told without a single word.
Mixtape #1 is a compilation of four graphic shorts (the kid brother of the graphic novel). They’re beautifully illustrated, particularly “Rather Lovely Thing” and “The Silver Spider”. “The Silver Spider” (story by Praveen K Nair and art by Devaki Neogi) is strikingly cinematic in the way it shows different perspectives and initially seems to be an Indian Spiderman. A boy goes out for a walk in a grassy area and a spider bites his foot. But the boy doesn’t end up filling out a latex bodysuit. It’s darker, more silvery and contains many, many more spiders than most readers would expect. In the heart-rending “Rather Lovely Thing” (story by Pratheek Thomas and art by Archana Sreenivasan), about a woman buries a part of herself at the root of a tree, is the only one that uses a dash of colour. The almost-cartoonish drawing styles of these two stories contrast sharply with the themes of the stories. This incongruity serves to highlight the ominous quality of “The Silvery Spider” and the quiet sadness of “Rather Lovely Thing.”
The other two stories have artwork that is far more realistic and they move almost like a film’s storyboard. “Voyeur” (story by Pratheek Thomas and art by Sachin Somasundaran) is about a man who watches his neighbours make love and it hovers between black humour and flat-out creepiness. Fittingly, the artwork uses a wide palette of greys. “My Beloved” (story by Tina Thomas and art by Jasjyot Singh Hans) is a love triangle between two women and a man. By the time you reach the end, it’s difficult to tell who is the real victim among the three.
Compared to the eeriness and subtlety of the first three stories, “My Beloved” is perhaps the simplest and also the least satisfying. It’s a neat little vignette and is the most grounded in reality, both in terms of story as well as its artwork. It’s also the wordiest of the four. However, there’s little tantalising about it. While the other three stories leave you wondering what happened next, there’s no intrigue at the end of “My Beloved.”
Spend Rs55 and buy yourself a copy of Mixtape #1. It comes with a bonus: once you’re done “reading” it, at least “The Silver Spider”, “Rather Lovely Thing” and the cover can double up as art for your walls.
You can buy Mixtape #1 here.

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The Mag This Week

Right. Links. In the Books page this week:

Saikat Datta reviews No Easy Day by Mark Owen and Counter Strike by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker.

An exclusive excerpt of Mridula Koshy’s forthcoming book, Not Only The Things That Have Happened. Harper Collins is bringing out the novel in November (which means you should see it in bookstores in a couple of weeks. That is, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place that has bookstores). The excerpt is about a character named Saramma, who has decided she’s returning to her family for good after having been a rich man’s sexual keep. Enjoy.

I saw Cloud Atlas and I wasn’t wildly impressed. In the never-ending debate of Book versus Film, this round goes to the book. Particularly unimpressed by the Wachowskis’ decision to ‘yellowface’ actors, rather than using Asian actors. Of course, it was done to underscore the idea of reincarnation (Bollywood thought of it waaay before them), but the trope gets tired quickly and hampers the acting and — since I’m not particularly clued in on Korean cinema — there I was, imagining someone like Tony Leung playing Hae-Joo Chang. Anyway, here’s the piece on Cloud Atlas. 

Cloud Atlas: Book vs. Film

David Mitchell described his novel,Cloud Atlas, as “one of the most ’unfilmable’ books I’ve ever read.” He also said that if the novel’s structure was retained in the film, it would “suck”. Clearly, Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski agree. Their adaptation is very different from the intricately-plotted novel as far as structure is concerned. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is complicated swirl of sub-plots that take the reader through past, present, future, and all over the world. Nested in this house-of-cards novel is a thriller in which a journalist is hunted by a powerful corporation.

There’s also a sci-fi story, in which “fabricants”, or clones, rebel against a horrific and oppressive system. Yet another sub-plot goes into the future while one goes back into the 1800s. All the stories seem independent but ultimately prove to be intimately connected. Much of the joy of reading Cloud Atlas comes from discovering connections and realising how one character’s experiences loop into another.

Cloud Atlas the film begins near the end of the novel and unravels the stories in flashback. This should make it easier for those watching the film, especially if you haven’t read the book.

However, shuttling between so many time periods and places can be confusing. Add to that the different dialects of English, from old-fashioned to futuristic, and you have moments when even a viewer who has read the book will wonder what the hell is going on. The directors chose to make the actors play multiple roles to make obvious the interconnected nature of the different strands in the story. So, Ben Whishaw is the young composer Robert Frobisher from the ’30s as well as a record store owner from the ’70s and a ship hand in the 1850s. Sometimes, this device works; frequently, it becomes tacky.

While the novel’s many parts add up impressively, the film demands you let go of logic and follow the slipstream of the screenplay. In fact, if you do apply common sense, then Cloud Atlas is unsettlingly akin to Bollywood. Here, reincarnated characters are played by the same actor (and you criticised Karan Arjun for being unbelievable), give or take some prosthetic accessories. How can you not watch Hugh Grant with obviously fake slit eyes, pretending to be a sleazy Korean restaurateur, and not remember Bollywood’s attempts to turn the faces of actors like Madan Puri, Chunky Pandey and Aamir Khan to a more Mongoloid persuasion? Of course, the make-up is much more sophisticated in Cloud Atlas but the effect isn’t much more convincing. One of the most ludicrous parts of the film is when Jim Sturgess appears as the Korean Hae-Joo Chang, and we’re supposed to believe he’s a normal human and Doona Bae, the real South Korean, is a clone.

That said, there are some breathtaking moments in Cloud Atlas. Its greatest strength is the music that remains imaginary in the book. Frobisher’s symphony (titled Cloud Atlas) is a soaring composition and acts as a wonderful sonic backdrop. Tragically, the Indian censors’ moral policing butchers the piece’s crescendo(it accompanies love scenes).

Loved this moment in the film, even though it’s one of the sequences that the damned Indian censors butchered. Grr.

Cloud Atlas is long — at almost three hours, it gives a Karan Johar’s films a run for their money in terms of length — and parts of it are beautiful. But three directors and a novel of dazzling complexity has resulted in a film that is almost naive in parts and frequently implausible. The film simplifies the novel but this doesn’t help make the story more comprehensible. Our advice: read the book.

Interview: Mridula Koshy

This month’s ELLE has a little piece by me on Mridula Koshy, the author of the short story collection, If It Is Sweet. Koshy is one of the lovely ladies who, as the magazine’s cover puts it, “owns the future”. I interviewed Koshy over email, which can often result in a dry, boring question-and-answer session that leaves you thinking “Blah”. But Koshy’s answers were delightful and since I could only use a tiny bit of what she wrote, here’s the interview, pristine, untweaked and unedited.

Have you always been interested in writing? Was there a time during the cashier-at-KFC to reading-fairy-at-library years that felt like a turning point?

When I was ten I tried to write a story and got stuck on plot. I introduced my characters but could not figure out what came next. I tried again when I was about fifteen. I took a screen writing class and turned out a hackneyed plot – always the thing to do when you have trouble coming up with an original plot.

My plot: an Indian boy raised in America has an identity crisis, travels to the mother country, mistakes the Indian girl he meets there for one that needs rescuing from arranged marriage/her culture (a horrible conflating of the two on my part) and in the resolution of this crisis achieves enlightenment. Except that I couldn’t figure out what enlightenment would look like vis a visthe dilemma of identity.I never finished the screen play. It took me till I was in my mid-thirties to try writing again. I found myself plagued by the same problems with under-developed plots and an over-abundance of unresolved ideas.

The difference was at thirty-five I knew what ailed me and so could grapple with my mess. And I had discipline so that I went at it longer. Perhaps I needed writing like I never had in the past. When I was a child I thought writing was something that just comes to you, a visitation, a miracle, proof of ones genius, a necessarily easy achievement. This is of course a frightening understanding of writing and I am glad I have left it behind me.

Sometime after my third child I found that many of the questions I had been raising with myself, questions of justice and of motherhood – the two are hugely related – could not be answered as I had answered them in the past. It was no longer enough to read other people’s thinking about these questions or to throw myself into activism to see if some internal resolution couldn’t be achieved through working for external change. I turned to writing because it is a purely internal process, one that requires silencing all the noise and chatter till all that is left is my own voice.

Nicked via Google Image Search.

How did “If It Is Sweet” come about? Did you have any expectations when it was published?

When the noise and chatter gave way I wrote. That took about three plus years. But after I wrote I needed my writing to enter the noise and chatter. For me a conversation with the self is valuable only if it can result in a conversation with others. I expected the book would open the door to my entering the on-going conversation in India, that conversation in which we struggle to understand who we are. I have been more than amply rewarded in this respect although distribution of the book sucks and more people fan me on face book than read my book and oh so many other grouses.

Do you think being ambitious is important?

My oldest son, Saleem is fourteen, and wishes these days to be a writer. I talk to him about the importance of ambition. By ambition I don’t mean the ambition to become famous, which is only marginally related to the ambition to finding ones audience, and not at all related except antithetically to the ambition to find oneself. Writing is on the verge of becoming a disgraced profession because of the increasing emphasis on writing as a means to celebrity. On the other hand there is hardly any activity from cooking to sex that isn’t a means to achieving celebrity. So there are no honourable professions left. This is America’s rather nasty contribution to global culture. Our acquiescence is of course our own. And back to ambition: yes, of course it important to be ambitious about writing from your deepest discomfort with yourself. When I was anunion organizer my mentor in the movement taught me,“if you’re comfortable, you aren’t organizing.”

Do you have any rituals related to writing?

I like to write where I can see people. When I wrote in my barsati office in Delhi I would get up from my seat and go peer over the parapet to make certain the world, or rather people, were still there. Again, there is nothing like spending time with myself to make me realize how much I long for the company of others.

Do personal experiences impact your storytelling?

Yes, I am afraid it is all autobiographical. I have fallen in love with koodawallahs, lost my babies in many different ways, in child birth, in car wrecks, I have also lost my sister and just about everyone else I have ever loved. I have been afraid to love because of the hideously long string of losses.

And I lost a payal in the bushes once because it is so much more romantic to lose a payal than an Anne Klein watch given to me by my mother. And I whispered to a boy in those same bushes and then I never saw him again, well after first seeing him for a couple more years, and later I was an old woman hauled to Bhutan by my monkey companion.

Yes, really.

The koodawallah, yes.Once he was French. And many other times, many others besides.

Are there any downsides to being an author?

Sometimes I am tense from needing life to go away. So I can write. My life is of course my children. Thus: “If you would only make your bed and put away the dishes and hang up your pyjamas instead of draping them on the sofa and clip your fingernails because your tabla teacher told you only a week ago that your fingernails were too long. And if he wasn’t being polite he would have told you how disgustingly dirty they are. And I was so embarrassed for you. For me. And it’s been a whole week since. And have you clipped them? And if you would only…then I could go write.”

This doesn’t make me a good mother. Then I get depressed about my failure to be a good mother. Usually by then a good two weeks have elapsed and I have managed to write something.And I can tell myself to start over again.

Why do you think fiction is important?

It makes life worth living, even a shitty life; it hints at the truth there is something greater out there.

Do all the doomsday commentaries about people reading less worry you?

I haven’t been tuning in. I need to. There is so much to worry about and so little time in which to do it. Mostly I worry about how little I read these days.

Can you tell us a little bit about the novel you’re working on?

I have a novel forthcoming from Harper Collins India. I wish I could come up with less painfully awkward titles. But if you look at the course I have taken, from If It Is Sweet to Not Only The Things That Have Happened, you’d have to conclude I am nothing if not painfully awkward. And not necessarily lovable for it.

But the title is warranted. It is a painful story: a woman relinquishes her four year old son to a tourist couple passing through her town. Thirty six years later, in the thirty six hours that is the present tense of the novel, she dies having never set eyes on him again, and he lives, a forty-year old man at odds with the fragments of his past he remembers, or mis-remembers, he is not sure which. I suppose the only thing more painful than a mother losing her child is a society that wrests a child from its mother.I am curious about the two societies I write about in Not Only The Things That Have Happened – Kerala and the Midwestern United States.