Sula – Toni Morrison

“Hell ain’t things lasting forever. Hell is change.”

It is time for change; slowly, painfully, but inexorably the spirit of the age sheds old rags and dons a new garb. The mutes are beginning to discover a voice that had been trapped in their windpipes; eyes see things that they had hitherto only watched; and hearts ache with a new throb of hope mixed with fear of which no one can tell which is greater. From this sense of foreboding out comes Sula.

The excluded community confined up in the hills outside a small Ohio town is made, through centuries of social conditioning, to see themselves as different and separate from the white people. They know who they are and they also know they are not the same as the people who live in the town down the hills. They aredifferent, in every imaginable way. You could see that.

They are scandalised when Sula, one of their own, embarks on a path that’s opening up out there, a path of education and mobility, of employment and relocation, of mingling with the white folks as their human equal, if not racial, social or political equal. Gods be good, the black people are offered to live their lives like the white folks!

“It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

When she returns home after a long absence Sula is transformed into an unintelligible mass of thoughts and actions her people find difficult to square: It’s like a white girl in black skin. Or so people think. Unpardonable. Outrageous. Her community is devastated; nothing is more sacrilegious than dressing like white people, speaking like them, behaving like them, being like them. And what’s more, Sula has taken a white man for a lover. Sula, we’re not the same. Ah, what an incredible fact of human psychology that even if you do not lose a sense of identity and self-respect, you eventually come to accept the role to which your oppressor designates you.

Sula becomes a pariah in her own community, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. The ominous signs that lend her a preternatural aura testify to something strange. People see those signs in retrospect, from her birth to childhood, from her growing up as a daughter of a woman abandoned by her husband, from the way she looked at them when she was a child, the way she walked and sat, ate and gestured. Sula, they reach on a terrifying conclusion, is not a young black girl but a phantom implanted from a world of shadows. She is almost a witch, and if she really is not, she ought to be one.

Sula’s character is a symbol (self-contradictory, torn, divided, compartmentalised, unmappable) of the conflict borne of the changing values that had held together isolated, nebulous, inward-looking black communities across the United States in the age of institutionalised racism. Values constructed so carefully over centuries when challenged elicit a response that’s always out of proportion. Sula is a couldn’t-care-less woman whose threatening individuality alienates her from her community. For this she is taken to task. Her own dealings with her family and the community bespeak a cruelty she’s picked up in the course of her contact with the outer world. She, a black woman, treats her own kith and kin with a shade of contempt with which they had always been treated by the White Others.

Her character elicits mixed reactions. Sometimes you want to blame her, sometimes blame her family, sometimes you want to blame the sudden rush of new ideas that has thrown the whole social equation out of balance.
Was it the new life among the white folks that turned her against herself? Or was it to do with her troubled early years, living as she did with her mother who had taken to selling sex as the most natural vocation a woman might take when her husband walked out on her, causing a rupture in relations with the community? Or did her people, unable to take her novelty, pushed her to the wall, turned her into an alien in her own skin?

What made Sula, Sula? This is a question you’ll be grappling with by the end of the novel.

“You have been gone too long, Sula.

Not too long, but maybe too far.”

(First published 1973)

I Take This Woman – Rajinder Singh Bedi

We are used to reading fictions from the Subcontinent (much of it below par) that seem perennially to swing between the two psycho-social poles of pre and post-marriage lives, with all its unsavoury offshoots – a long, never ending A Suitable Boy. The former is spent under controlling parents who consider it their inviolable right to make every important (and unimportant) decision of your life and the latter wasted under the burdens of connubial anti-bliss from whose poisonous claws the only safe escape is death, natural or brought forward (Throw in a love story to make all this palatable). Both lives are bound together by a shared thread of entrapment and women characters, naturally, lead those stories.

There is no gainsaying a mindset that views children as human properties whose relationship with their parents is given idealised treatment in filial caricatures reminiscent of master-disciple relationships of mystical tales: smiling, submissive, sacrificing, histrionic, conforming – ready to leap into the fire on a subtle hint of the nod. Maa, tu kahe to main jaan de doon.This is supposed to be out of love, respect and duty. And if there’s anyone who thinks marriage is not a fixed point of reference in a life-calender from which the BCs and ACs of one’s existential trajectory are measured, then one should pick up this novella and see for herself that a desi life can almost be reduced to a formula: birth, marriage, death. (Who knows, this in part may also account for the extremely fecund wombs of our women. My grandmother were 16 brother and sisters, none of them half)

One reason for the proliferation of these themes is the massive influence Progressive Writers’ Movement exercised on writers who led the Indian literary scene from 1930s onwards. They focused, inter alia, on social realities they believed were incompatible with the spirit of the time that valued social justice and battled gender inequality. Underprivileged people, especially women and poor, were made the subject of countless stories. So much was written with so much speed that women found themselves trapped between conflicting and competing ideas of male reformers about the role women should have in society. But on the bright side this literary exercise did much to raise popular consciousness. A debate was set going that couldn’t be stopped.

Rajinder Singh Bedi was an integral part of the new movement and a stalwart Urdu writer on social issues. He knew how to draw out emotions without dragging the protagonists through a sentimentalist swamp. Here in this novel he elicits sympathy through careful blending of tribal ethos with Rano’s simple desire for familial happiness that has fallen apart when her husband, Tiloka, is murdered. She is no angry intellect soliloquising endlessly in utter disbelief, an easy and once famous way to get a story out of a literary midget, but a sorrowful heart bracing the blows of widowhood with her strength of character; the unique situation she is faced with brings out most prominently the absurdity of her conundrum: in her best interests she is required to marry Mangal, her dead husband’s younger brother, who is many years her junior and whom she had raised like a son.
Rano’s complete silence adds to the sheer confusion of young Mangal whose simmering romance with a village girl he’s supposed to marry is common knowledge. Family elders ‘ask’ Mangal point blank to sacrifice his love to offer male protection to Rano who, of course, could not survive on her own as a widow with young children.

Whether or not they escape this trap is for the reader to find out, but it turns out that men, too, are victims of the same system that puts them above women.

(First published in Urdu 1967; translated by Khushwant Singh)

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

A metaphor of rotting and unappreciated beauty. Deep in the frozen reaches of the Snow Country a geisha waits out her days for a man who would give her the life of love and dignity that she believes she deserves.

Geishas in the Japanese society enjoyed similar social prestige as the Courtesans of the Indian Muslim culture. They were the connoisseurs of culture and art; they exerted political influence through their patrons; they decided the fates of people who desired their services; they made and broke marriages – they were a soft power centre in the Japanese society.

But in the backwater of the Snow Country only a perception of this power remains. The Geishas there live under crushing poverty and hopeless surrender, maintaining a façade of self-importance but in reality are no more than prostitutes offering affordable services to travelling men.

This novel is a heartfelt depiction of that culture, told through the story of a Snow Country Geisha, Komako, who meets a rich idler from Tokyo, Shimamura, who comes to the town to enjoy the hot springs it’s famous for. Shimamura knows immediately when he sees Komako that she is unlike other Geishas of the town. They develop a relationship but it never goes anywhere. The rich city idler is as though unable to reciprocate the love of Komako who, despite something special in her, is only a hot spring Geisha in his eyes. He tries to involve himself emotionally but can’t stop himself from looking down upon her.

The novel reads like a dream with disjointed and abruptly changing scenes fusing into one another. The writer’s stylistic method is to juxtapose two opposing and contrasting characteristics as in old Haiku: light against dark, sound against silence, being a sex selling Geisha who has a clean and fresh countenance, the whistle of the teapot against the continuous sound of the silence…. and there are beautiful evocations of the stark nature of the Snow Country and the frugality of its people, their lifestyle, travails and their aspirations.

I liked the way the story builds up into a high emotion in so imperceptible a way, without any loud noise-making plot twists. I enjoyed the novel a lot.

(Written during 1935-37; translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!

When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.

I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!

There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.

Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:

Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…

In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.

But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’

From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

And further on:

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

And if you go on:

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)

Poem: Poverty – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only on the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. This poem comes from his collection titled “The Captain’s Verses”.

 

 

Translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh.

Ah you don’t want to,
you’re scared
of poverty,
you don’t want
to go to the market with worn-out shoes
and come back with the same old dress.

My love, we are not fond,
as the rich would like us to be,
of misery.
We shall extract it like an evil tooth
that up to now has bitten the heart of man.

But I don’t want
you to fear it.
If through my fault it comes to your
dwelling,
if poverty drives away
your golden shoes,
let it not drive away your laughter which is
my life’s bread.
If you can’t pay the rent
go off to work with a proud step,
and remember, my love, that I am
watching you
and together we are the greatest wealth
that was ever gathered upon the earth.

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Book subtitle: I will write down everything I know about a certain family of Bengali immigrants in the United States by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Immigrant anguish – the toll it takes in settling in an alien country after having bidden adieu to one’s home, family, and culture is what this prize-winning novel is supposed to explore, but it’s no more than a superficial complaint about a few signature – and done to death – South Asian issues relating to marriage and paternal expectations: a clichéd immigrant story, I’m afraid to say.

Gogol’s life, and that of every person related to him in any way, from the day of his birth to his divorce at 30, is documented in a long monotone, like a camera trained on a still scene, without zooming in and out, recording every movement the lens catches, accidentally. A final picture emerges in which nothing in particular stands out; and twists that could have been explored more deeply, on a philosophical and humanistic level, such as Gogol’s disillusionment with his dual identity or the aftermath of (Gogol’s father) Ashoke’s death are touched upon perfunctorily or rushed through.

Some cultural comparisons are made as though to validate the enlightened United States at the cost of backward India. This is a familiar line in immigrant success stories: to justify their decision to migrate to the West by heaping scorn on the country or culture of their origin.

But even that’s not done intelligently. E.g; Maxine’s mother wears swimsuit on the lakeside; Gogol thinks his mother would never do that. Maxine’s parents don’t bother when Gogol moves into their house and have sex with Maxine; Gogol’s parents would have been horrified! It is almost in these words the comparisons are made. Well, of course. We get it.

However, on the bright side, I liked the trope of public vs private names – Nikhil aka Gogol – and how Lahiri relates this private, accidental double-naming to the protagonist’s larger identity crisis as an American and Indian immigrant. But, again, it’s also wasted; it doesn’t stand out; nothing catches your fancy; nothing piques your interest; and you sit with a little impatience welling up inside you.

You just sit there, squinting your eyes, making faces at the text, wondering…Pulitzer? Are you kidding me?

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Told almost entirely in dialogue-driven vernacular, it is a haunting depiction of the labouring class of Salinas Valley (California). Through the story of two friends who travel to another town to find petty work, Steinbeck has so imperceptibly painted a grim picture of their travails, hardships and dreams. They are hardworking but wasteful but have aspirations for their future. When one of them, due to his mental weakness, does something terrible at the new workplace, their plans to save up and have a patch of land of their own fall into jeopardy.

The novella could really have been a novel. I’d have liked it to explore the previous lives of the lead characters a tad more to put their current lives in perspective. I was apprehensive, in the beginning, for the good deal of dialogue written in slang or vernacular. But it turned out really well. Come to think of it, it is the dialogue in real life tilt which brings out in full force the essence of the labour class characters. All in all a good, enjoyable read, if not for its literary writing than for its simulated slang.

First published 1937

Poem: I Can Still See You – Paul Celan

Paul Celan

 

Paul Celan (1920-1970) is a major German-language poet of the post World War II era. Here is a short poem from his collection Lichtzwang (1970)

I Can Still See You

I can still see you: an echo
that can be groped towards with antenna
words, on the ridge of
parting.

Your face quietly shies
when suddenly
there is lamplike brightness
inside me, just at the point
where most painfully one says, never.