The Mag This Week

In DNA Sunday’s Books page, we had reviews of

Peter Smetacek’s Butterflies On The Roof Of the World: A Memoir, by Mita Ghose

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, by Sanjay Sipahimalani

Jayant Kripalani’s New Market Tales, by Joanna Lobo

and last, but definitely not least, Amish’s The Oath of the Vayuputras, by R Krishna. For those interested, Krishna spoke to Amish about his Shiva Trilogy.

Elsewhere in The Mag, I wrote a tiny piece about Reena Kallat’s mahussive installation that will be up on Bhau Daji Lad Museum for the next few months. Kallat was commissioned to make this work by ZegnArt Public, a project sponsored by the fashion label Zegna. The local partner is Bhau Daji Lad. Here’s what it looks like, from a distance and up close.

Despite being properly swamped before the installation was actually put up — pullies weren’t enough; they needed a crane to get the web up ultimately, just as Reena had suspected — Reena did make the time to chat with me about her work. Here’s what she told me about making this particular piece and its location.

Bhau Daji Lad is a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest. The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Bhau Daji Lad, that has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names.

Reena’s installation is made up of outsized rubber stamps that have names of Mumbai streets on them, written in English and Hindi. She’s picked the names that were changed for not being sufficiently local. 

I was interested at how else one could extend this into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city. In what manner do street names define the identity of the city? Do street names mean anything to people?

Tasneem [Zakaria-Mehta, director of BDL Museum] was really courageous to take this on because it’s a heritage building and we’ll have to keep in mind all those issues. But she was very positive. There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of colonial statues in their backyard, many of the people are those whose names the street names were based on. You also have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city, which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded.

Well, actually she told me lots more, but I’ll put that up at a later date. (Insert mysterious waggle of eyebrows here.)

In case anyone was thinking of scooping out quotes and passing them off as your own, please don’t. Partly because I’ve done this interview and also because Reena Kallat’s one of the most approachable artists you’ll ever come across. So get in touch with her, and enjoy interviewing her for yourself.

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The Mag This Week: Books

Three reviews and one interview in this week’s Books page.

And we have an interview with Amit Chaudhuri, whose new book Calcutta: Two Years in the City has just come out. (For those of you in Mumbai, there’s a launch on Feb 28 at Bungalow 8 in Colaba (at 6pm) in which Chaudhuri will be chatting with his old friend and journalist, Naresh Fernandes.) Here’s the unedited text of the interview. Warning: it’s long. But I think it’s worth the time it takes to go through it. And the hot pink bits are just an ode to the hot pink in the book’s cover.

Amit Chaudhuri on Calcutta

Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.
Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.

Why write the book despite the initial disinclination:

I felt the city, despite all its exacerbations, has been transformative to me as a child, and it had a certain quality, particularly in the 60s and early 70s, in the way New York once did. When I first visited New York in 1979, it hadn’t been cleaned up by Rudy Giuliani nor become the first city of the world. It was doing very badly economically. It was seedy and dangerous in parts, but it was vibrant with a history of experimentation in culture. In those years, Calcutta had that same quality. It’s very difficult to package this and consume it later, after the event, but you do sense it when a city loses that quality. So, for example, when I returned to New York in 2002 to teach at Columbia University, I’d walk those streets and it was no longer threatening in that way, thankfully, but, alas, it was no longer exciting in the old way either. The cafes and pavement stalls were there, but that earlier past was now available only for consumption by the very rich. Incompatible things coming together create a unique kind of life, which is what New York City and Calcutta had until, say, the mid-70s.

So in 2005, when my agent asked me to write a book on Calcutta, I wasn’t so eager because I realised his idea was partly a response to the reaction Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City had received. It’s a book that I’ve enjoyed greatly and reviewed but I didn’t feel Calcutta could be written of in the same way. Calcutta was resistant to being part of new India. Other cities, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, they’d been alchemised by economic deregulation, but Calcutta was out of joint. Mumbai arising out of Bombay was a distinct development but Calcutta, or Kolkata, whatever you want to call it, it has no distinct definition in its new post-bhadralok period. This is the Calcutta I felt disengaged from, almost believing it was an aberration from the earlier, contradictory city that had once so moved me.

I think what convinced me to write the book was Utpal Basu, the poet and one of the few remaining Bengali cosmopolitan intellectuals who, in the serio-comic manner befitting a cosmopolitan, once hovered around and eavesdropped upon homeless people in Sealdah Station at night. Utpal Basu told me two stories of about a personable homeless woman whom he ironically called khurima, or aunt, and the stories got me thinking. Maybe this Calcutta, this post-bhadralok city, has more going on in it than I’d been willing to admit to. And I realised my being here, this too was part of the narrative of the new city.

On writing the book:

I knew I didn’t want it to be structured in terms of separate chapters on history, memories, infrastructure and so on. I wanted it to move like my fiction does, shifting almost seamlessly from history to object to myself to other elements. I didn’t want to separate things into compartments.

Knowing where to end it, that’s a kind of instinct you have, and it’s similar though not exactly like writing and ending an essay or a novel. I did briefly toy with the idea of adding a chapter. I remember the fire at AMRI took place when I had almost finished writing the book. The day it happened, I was up early, unable to sleep because of the tension of nearing the end of my book, writing at 4.30am, and I heard sirens in the distance. Later that morning, I heard about the fire. So I went there and spoke to people there. There’s a slum neighbouring the hospital whose inhabitants had helped to put out the fire, and I thought I’d include a chapter about this event and the amazing people I’d interviewed that day. But ultimately I didn’t and I stuck to the book as it was. At some point, you’ve got to trust your sense of judgement that the book is done, and the interesting things you couldn’t put into it will find their place in other things you write.

The city characterised by the question “Will you be eating at home tonight?”:

Sandip Roy’s comment captured the comedy and anguish of Calcutta now being a peripheral city. But at the same time, there’s also an intimate, caring quality to it. I thought it summed up the city as we saw it around us perfectly.

My notion of Kolkata changed much before the writing of the book. It changed with my spending time here. Also, marrying a person who had partly grown up here – part of my wife’s schooling was in this city and her family and relatives are here – meant access to a very different family from my own mother’s. My mother’s family had been the inspiration for much of the Calcutta and its characters in my fiction. They had a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy about them. They were larger than life while being ordinary. My wife’s family was quite ‘normal’ and this brought me a very different perspective on the city.

You said the Calcutta in my fiction was romantic, which implies it was constructed but I don’t think it was a construct. I think there was something real in those depictions. What was real in it was the quality I would encounter in works of art inspired by other cities. That’s why it made sense that Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief could inspire Satyajit Ray, even though it’s apparently a world away and set in a different time. Calcutta once enshrined a kind of provisionality, a kind of life on the street, a coming together of things that characterises certain great cities. It’s a city of provisional lines, structures, and patterns, rather than monuments and masterpieces. It’s not a quality you find, say, in Washington or New Delhi or Dubai, and it’s what I responding to when I began to write fiction.

On belonging to Calcutta:

It was in 1999 that I moved here and it made me realise how much of an outsider I was. After all, I did grow up in Bombay, and then moved to England in 1983. Particularly among middle class Bengali society, there’s a fund of shared anecdotes – schools, teachers, memories – that I had no access to.

I think belonging will come in retrospect. It’ll perhaps be like my experience of England. I spent years there and I didn’t like the time I spent there much. I still don’t like it but I do have deep associations with it. As of now, what I look at in Calcutta is the city around me. It’s where I do my work, I try to make sense of the city, and my family is here. When I land in the airport after a trip abroad, and make my way back home, I feel the same excitement I felt as a child, and then, gradually, I realise it’s not the same city I knew as a child. I don’t know how much I belong to it consciously. But yes, when I’m away from it, I desire it.

On turning from the Left to the poriborton (Bengali for ‘change’) that Mamata Banerjee embodied:

For a long time, while the Left was in power, people were in denial and then they became fed up. That said, I don’t think anyone in their right mind who had heard her speak could have thought Mamata Banerjee could effect the change people wanted. At that level too, there was denial. But people were absolutely fed up. To all purposes, Mamata Banerjee was category X. Maybe that was what the hope was based on. At that level, there was shock when the Chief Minister’s intolerance first began to become evident.

I think now there’s despair. I don’t know anything that can revive her popularity other than perhaps the palliative of the free market. That is a remarkably effective device.

Look at Mumbai. It’s had some very bad governments, some of its political parties thrive on intolerance, its infrastructure is not great and it hosts huge numbers of the poor, there’s great violence – but there is the palliative of the free market so you forget about these things. It gives the illusion of things happening, and perhaps they are. But the magic of free market capitalism can desensitise us to political intolerance.

Look at Narendra Modi, for instance. The man’s a monster, the history he’s responsible for is terrible, but his praises are sung by everyone because he can show a certain kind of success. So yes, the palliative of the free market is the only thing that I see saving Mamata Banerjee because the promise of poriborton has certainly failed. But at a larger level, at a national level, this tendency of ours to be seduced by the booming India rhetoric is a cause for worry.

On the possibility of a cultural resurgence in Kolkata:

I don’t know. One of the great things, and I say this not because of my Bengali identity, but one of the great things about Calcutta’s cosmopolitan efflorescence was the Bengali language. It was much more than a language rooted in identity and racial pride. It denoted a modernity, an openness, a true cosmopolitanism. It adopted so many personae, it encompassed so much. The lack of support for this language, both among people and at a governmental level – and I mean real support that is beyond the patriotic, chest-thumping rhetoric – is worrying. That said, perhaps a source of optimism is that one still notices in Bengali media, in local publications, very interesting and erudite letters from readers. It’s something my wife pointed out to me: the letter writers, particularly from outside Kolkata, are often more erudite than their counterparts in other parts of India. That’s worth being interested and invested in.

Otherwise, there is a deadness about Kolkata’s engagement with the Bengali past. It’s characteristic of Kolkata as well as Bengali communities abroad who will celebrate their identity with sammelans. It’s a static version of what the past was. It’s conservative. It’s essentially a closing of the ranks against where they’re actually located to create a synthetic little Golf Green or Dhakuria for themselves.

Curiously, I feel the one celebration that still does have a sense of Bengaliness to it is Durga Puja. You see the puja pandals and the decorations, they’re using Kolkata as it is now, rather than denying it. In the pujas you see the city being acknowledged for what it is – decaying in parts, derelict in parts, built up in others. I’d be happy if more filmmakers, artists, video artists made more use of these spaces.

We tend to forget Jean Renoir’s marvellous insight – “All great civilisations are based on loitering” – was based on Kolkata. I think it is possible to create something here, even now, simply by taking a camera and following a person around the city, as Renoir had suggested. I don’t think enough people do that.

The Mag This Week: Shilpa Gupta

If you’ve made it to Bandra and not gone to Carter Road, shame on you. Because Carter Road Bandstand has a lovely piece of public art by Shilpa Gupta, titled “I Live Under Your Sky Too.” There’s a little interview with Shilpa in today’s DNA and here are a few photos of the installation.

 

The Mag This Week

Actually, last week. But whatever.

Fiction aimed at women tends to be of two kinds: weepy and fluffy. Both varieties were reviewed in last week’s page (along with an interview with the authors of book that’s a guide to getting a divorce. Just ’cause) and fluffy proved to be way better than weepy.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, reviewed by Apoorva Dutt, sounds like debutant Ayana Mathis desperately wants to be this generation’s Toni Morrison. Not quite an easy task.

Joanna Lobo reviewed I Kissed A Frog And Other Stories by Rupa Gulab. She loved it.

I offered my tuppence on Those Pricey Thakur Girls, the latest from Anuja Chauhan.  The unedited text of the review is below, but first, a bit of blathering.

Annie Zaidi has written a piece on how chick lit is pockmarked with stigmata. It’s a persuasive piece but I have to say, I don’t quite agree with everything she’s written (though I do like the term “lad lit”). I do agree that if women authors are to be painted into a gendered genre because they write about women, then male authors who write only about men deserve to be cornered similarly. It’s not that this doesn’t happen. Take Eric Van Lustbader, for instance. I suspect he was considered very much a gentlemen’s favourite. The gender divide exists in literary fiction too, but let me not loiter away from the point. Men usually don’t suffer labelling even when they write almost exclusively about men — agreed. But chick lit as the stuff of shame and dismissal? No. I’ve done a quick poll in my immediate circles. None of the women are ashamed of reading this genre. There’s more shame for having read the collected works of Chetan Bhagat, from what I can see. Of course, this is not conclusive. Annie’s writing from her perspective just as I’m writing from mine.

My point of view probably has to do with the fact that I’ve always had a soft spot for chick lit and romantic comedies, both in cinema as well as literature. I’ve never been ashamed of this because some of the smartest people I know love the genre. My grandfather, for example, was a physicist, enormously erudite and read complex philosophy for fun. He also LOVED Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. He’d wheedle my mum for her copies, much to her exasperation. My mother and my aunt have wall-to-wall shelves stuffed with Mills & Boons. They’re both ridiculously intelligent. (The only reason I can’t say the same for myself is that I regularly donate books to Welfare for Stray Dogs.) In fact, every bright mind I know is a connoisseur of some sort of popular, pulpy fiction.

When you read enough of the genre, you realise how varied it is (which is something Annie doesn’t acknowledge) and how difficult it is to write good chick lit. I’m sure the same applies to good pulp in general. It’s very easy to write it badly, which is what most people do. To write it well means a writer gets to be far less self-indulgent than an author of literary fiction. Part of my grouse with what is held up as popular fiction in India (in English) is that it isn’t as smartly written as English pop fiction from America and the UK. Take the Indian Mills & Boons for example. They’re significantly worse written than their Australian, British and American counterparts. As far as my experience goes, from plot to characterisation, the Indian writers’ books are weaker in every aspect.

But that’s a separate matter. The point is, I don’t think writers of pulpy, lad lit are considered somehow wiser because they write about men or that they’re transformed into something more intelligent and/or respectable because they have columns. They have chosen to share their spoutings with us via certain publications. This is their choice and that of editors. Should writers of chick lit choose to do so, I’m quite sure they’d be offered similar platforms. I don’t think women writers don’t get columns because writing chick lit gives them some sort of blonde aura. Are they “railing at the perjorative chick lit” as Annie put it in her article? I don’t think they need to. I appreciate someone not liking the term “chick lit”, but then again, “boyfriend” does sort of infantilise any man who is in a romantic, unmarried relationship, doesn’t it? The term may not be perfect, but it doesn’t carry connotations of disrespect unless one chooses to impose such a perspective on the term. The people who look down on chick lit remind me of all those who think science fiction or fantasy is for kids. It’s laughable. And it says more about the limited horizons of the haters than it does for the genre.

The fact of the matter is that if women will feel ashamed of a genre aimed at only us, then that’s our problem as a gender. Let’s not blame anyone else for it. (And if Chetan Bhagat makes it personal on a panel, why not serve it right back to him? I’m sure he can handle it.) Women writers don’t need to write non-fiction to prove they’re smart. When they write good fiction, popular or literary, they’ve done their bit. And those who don’t read good chick lit because they’re afraid of being considered silly, your life is duller for this decision. My advice: pick up a book like Those Pricey Thakur Girls.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls

tptgAlright, let’s not kid ourselves. Dylan Singh Shekhawat isn’t particularly rooted in realism. He is “tall and sinewy and muscular”, has “lean dimples”, long eyelashes, unruly hair and a torso made up of “muscular toffee-brown bits”. He’s also smart, a journalist and an unrepentant flirt. In short, he’s like no Indian man you know, but who cares? Rhonda Byrne said in The Secret that if you can visualise what you want, chances are the universe will manifest your desires. Fortunately for many single Indian women, Anuja Chauhan has done the visualising for you. Yours is only to read, and dream on.
Chauhan won readers’ hearts with The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora, and her fan base will only grow with her latest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls. As aficionados of chick lit will know, high quality fluffy romantic comedy is very hard to write. The story must follow predictable patterns and yet hold a reader’s attention. The storytelling should be light-hearted but intelligent. The characters must be lovable, largely divorced from reality and yet credible. Most Indian attempts at chick lit have displayed about as much fluffiness as a tetrapod does, which is why Chauhan deserves three cheers. For the third time in a row, she’s cracked the rom-com code and given readers a story that’s as cuckoo as it is cute.
Set in pre-liberalisation New Delhi, Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a simple love story with some complications and many eccentric characters. Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (retd) and his wife live in a bungalow in Hailey Road, New Delhi, with Debjani and Eshwari, two of their five daughters. (The other three are married and live elsewhere.) When we meet Debjani, or Dabbu, she’s on the threshold of fame because she’s been selected as a newsreader on the state television channel. Her prince charming is Dylan Singh Shekhawat, the son of Laxmi Narayan’s friend Saahas Singh Shekhawat. Despite his commitment to being Casanova, Dylan falls hook line and sinker for Dabbu and Dabbu’s pulse pitter-patters simply at the thought of Dylan. But of course, before happily ever-afters, there must be complications. So Chauhan throws in some sly villains, a touch of politics, one lunatic aunt, a sturdy shamiana and other whoops and whirls into Dabbu and Dylan’s story.
There’s more than a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Those Pricey Thakur Girls, but Chauhan isn’t a lazy storyteller. To Austen’s classic elements Chauhan adds some solid Delhi masala, including references to the Sikh riots, the snobbery of St Stephen’s alumni, a stolen kiss on a stairway and an obsession with body building. Those Pricey Thakur Girls bubbles with delightful mirth and Chauhan has the rare talent of being able to endow every character with a distinctive voice. And here’s the best part: this isn’t the last we’re seeing of the Thakurs. Chauhan’s next book, The House That BJ Built, will take us back to the Thakurs’ Hailey Road bungalow. Until then, we’ll settle for visualising that delicious Christian Rajput, Dylan Singh Shekhawat.

The Mag This Week

Lots of book reviews in this week’s Books page.

I wrote about Manil Suri’s The City of Devi and The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni (the unedited version of the article is below).

Joanna Lobo reviewed Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa by Jessica Faleiro and liked it.

Alpana Chowdhury loved Joginder Paul’s The Dying Sun.

Farrukh Dhondy’s London Company was reviewed by Aditi Seshadri. She enjoyed it.

Colleen Braganza sank her teeth into the new Keigo Higashino mystery, Salvation of a Saint, and found it meaty but not as juicy as The Devotion of Suspect X.

Amberish Diwanji was won over by Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots.

Missing & In Action

(The City of Devi, The Missing Queen)

What does it mean to miss someone? The dictionary defines the emotion as an absence tinged with longing. But like many four-lettered words in English, there are nuances to “miss”. When a person disappears, it creates an emptiness that can only be filled with stories and reminiscences. There’s none of the closure that death brings in its wake. Instead, there’s a single question for those left behind: What happened?

In both The City of Devi by Manil Suri and Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen, the protagonists are on a quest to find someone. Suri’s two storytellers are Sarita, a wife looking for her husband, and Jaz (or Ijaz), who is looking for his lover. They’re making their way from Colaba, at the tip of south Mumbai, to the northern suburbs and it’s a dangerous journey. Mumbai in The City of Devi is a war zone. It’s divided between communal gangs. The threat of a Pakistani nuclear attack looms and terrorist attacks are frequent. Sarita ventures into this troubled world, armed with nothing more than a desperate desire to be reunited with her husband Karun and a pomegranate. Jaz – irreverent, resourceful and gay – ends up as Sarita’s ally even though she doesn’t trust him entirely. She meets him in a Hindu neighbourhood and quickly figures out he’s only pretending to be Hindu. She doesn’t buy his story that he’s going to the suburbs to join his mother, but she doesn’t guess that Jaz’s reasons for this quest are exactly the same as hers: not only does he also need an answer for where and why the man he loves disappeared, the man in question is Karun.

The trio become a reimagining of the Devi-Shiva-Vishnu trinity operating in a futuristic Mumbai that is dishearteningly easy to imagine as real. The parallels between Shiva pursuing Mohini while Parvati mopes and the three characters in The City of Devi are intriguing. The figure of a Kali-esque devi as someone who is revered and whose fearsome avatar is a man-made (and man-controlled) creation is less interesting and a more obvious aspect of the novel. The devi is, in fact, the weakest and most unconvincing part of the world Suri presents to the reader. It’s Sarita and Jaz’s obsession with Karun, their need to claim him as their own, that powers The City of Devi.

In The Missing Queen, it’s Sita who has disappeared and the one looking for her is a young journalist who becomes determined to unearth the truth. Arni’s Ayodhya glints with success and is an echo chamber of rhetoric. Rama’s Ayodhya has become a rich, powerful kingdom, thanks to the the riches acquired from a vanquished Lanka. Sita’s birthplace, the nearby kingdom of Mithila is effectively Ayodhya’s colony, but even though economically it’s under Ayodhya’s thumb, Mithila feels freer than Ayodhya where the moral police flexes terrible muscle and everything stinks of deceit and hypocrisy. The idea of setting a Hindu epic in the present isn’t novel, but Arni’s interpretations don’t feel forced or hackneyed. Valmiki as a senior journalist makes sense – after all, he did claim to report a story that was unfolding before his eyes. Lakshmana putting on weight as guilt bears down on him, Surpanakha as a rebel leader, Rama as a consummate politician, a spy network of dhobis – the elements Arni introduces don’t clash with the original storytelling and her own version of the post-war years in Ayodhya is very engaging.

Although there’s much reminiscing about Karun and Sita in the two books, it’s worth noting that the two missing characters remain something of a blur. In Sita’s case, she’s a flash of colour (ochre, to be precise) and only those who are against Rama’s oppressive monarchy seem to remember her. She embodies resistance and survival, whether in captivity in Lanka or as a victim of Rama’s shadowy cruelty.

Karun, on the other hand, is a creature pieced out of rose-tinted memories. To both Sarita and Jaz, he is innocence and all Sarita and Jaz want from his sex, which must be the fantasy of many an Indian male. Unfortunately, the fact that Karun is gay makes it a little difficult for him to have sex with Sarita and the fact that he’s married makes it problematic for him to have sex with Jaz. (The trio ultimately resolve this problem by engineering what might be one of the most convoluted alternatives to Viagra.)

Both novels are set in unspecified time periods – Arni’s in the present, Suri’s in the near future – that seems not just credible but also probable. The cityscapes in the two books show the novelists’ anxieties about contemporary India. These are intolerant places that rob people of their basic liberties. As worrying as the oppression by the powerful is, how so many citizens are happy to be manipulated is an equally worrying feature of the cities. These are violent places, where bloodshed is so commonplace that it evokes no reaction. It’s quite obvious the cities in The Missing Queen and The City of Devi aren’t dystopic fantasies, but metropolises sculpted out of the impressions contemporary India has left upon the authors.

It doesn’t feel as though the missing, Karun and Sita, have escaped these terrible worlds even though they have by disappearing. Ultimately, their stories become less about them and more about the storytellers who survive and continue without them. So they remain in these terrible worlds despite not really being there. The missing come to stand for hope – desperate and unrealistic as it might be – because they live on in the memories of those who continue the good fight.

Up to Speed: Travel Piece

I wrote about Ha Long Bay in Vietnam for the Bangalore edition of DNA, on 27th January. Here is the piece, with some more of my photographs.

Dragons, but no dungeons

You’d have thought that we’d opted for a cruise on Ha Long Bay just so that we could crack pun-ny jokes at its expense. “Ha long do you think the cruise will be?” “Wanna come ha long for a ride?” “What if I want ha longer bay?” “Is there ha shorter version of the cruise?” These and many more terrible puns were cracked as we made our way to Ha Long City, which is a few hours’ drive from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. All this mirth evaporated within about 20 minutes of getting on to the junk boat because when you’re surrounded by the beauty of Ha Long Bay, all you can do is gape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ha Long Bay translates to “the bay of descending dragons”. According to legend, when Vietnam was born, it was attacked by invaders and the gods sent down a legion of dragons to protect the country. These dragons spat out jewels and jade that created a necklace of islands that became a barrier against the invaders’ ships. After defeating the enemy, the dragons chose to stay on in this part of the country because it was so beautiful, and so was born Ha Long Bay. Many of the present-day junk boats that take tourists out to the bay have dragons carved on them because of this myth.

Dragons may not be entirely credible but it’s easy to believe someone being charmed by Ha Long Bay and wanting to live an eternity here. The waters are like polished glass. On cloudy days, the water and the sky is almost the same colour and so, it feels like the boat is floating through the sky. On days when the sun is out, the light catches the rippling waters and makes it sparkle like it’s a sea of crushed diamonds. Most of the 1600 islands and islets of Ha Long Bay are uninhabited by people, which means all around you is perfect, unbroken silence.

In winter, craggy islands – dotted with colourful flowers –seem to glide out of the mist as the boat goes further out and the mainland becomes invisible. Go in summer, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site is lush and green, covered with rare flowers and plants. Even familiar flora, like bougainvillea, look exotic here.  Some of the islands have limestone caves with incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations. It’s like entering a weird wonderland.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, there’s fresh, delicious seafood. Vegetarians will have to starve but those who like prawns, lobsters, squid and fish will find the meal served on the junk boat unforgettable. It’s no surprise that the legendary dragons chose to make Ha Long Bay home.

Up to Speed: Book review

I’ve been a bit slack (ok, very slack) about updating, but better late than never. So here we go.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds is a novel set in Iraq and written by an American veteran. It seems to have a touch of autobiography to it. Powers studied creative writing after leaving the US Army (honorably discharged), and The Yellow Birds is his debut novel. It’s also a very, very well-written book. Here’s the unedited version of my review, which was printed in DNA Sunday, on January 20th.

The Yellow Birds

Loved this cover.
Loved this cover.

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. Something about Murph’s death haunts Bartle and soon it becomes evident to the reader that Bartle holds himself responsible for what happened to Murph.

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.