Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading List: First Quarter, 2012

When my university exams ended on mid-June, 2011, I decided to inculcate a habit of writing down all the books read (and also films watched) every month in a diary. Adding to the list after reading every book motivated me immensely to plunge into the next one. On New Year's eve, I discovered that I had read 56 books from June through December (some titles reread after years). The reading pace has slackened slightly this year primarily due to work and other distractions, but I am still keeping a steady pace. Even as I maintain my physical diary, I have decided to copy it online, primarily in a bid to inspire me even more, and partly to show-off to my imaginary, non-existent readership. Since the first four months of the year have passed already, I am compiling my list into a quarter. Cheers to the printed word!

April, 2012

1. Memories of my Melancholy Whores - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. The Hour of the Star - Clarice Lispector
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carre


1. Goodbye to All That - Robert Graves
2. Confidence - Henry James
3. The American - Henry James
4. Loreley - Heinrich Heine


1. Collected Short Stories - Truman Capote
2. The Glass Harp - Truman Capote
3. Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote
4. Amader Bari - Chhanda Sen*


1. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino
2. A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle
3. Daisy Miller - Henry James
4. Selected Stories - Henry James
5. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I also read the bi-monthly editions of the Bengali journal Desh.

*This book was kindly lent to me by my wonderful German teacher. It is written by her sister, solely to preserve the stories of their family for the future generations. I was given privy to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century world of an illustrious family in North Calcutta; the food they so happily shared; the music they lent their voices to; the people who walked out of the pages of history and got a more human form inside the walls of their house; of love and warm familial feelings that survived when most other material things didn't. The book is, naturally,  not available for sale, and was circulated only within the members of the family.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Una furtiva lagrima

Gregory Rabassa, whose translations - I'm told - is as good as the law, and can be bought with eyes closed, and who did not translate my copy, talks about Clarice Lispector as "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." At once I have visions of a temptress in black and white, who despite the monochromes spills lascivious colours into the umgebung, and who simultaneously writes down frantic snatches between drawing out puffs of smoke. Being a libertine and erudite together is unorthodox; and so is poverty that is not poor, as Mme. Cixous would point out. But a lot of what Marlene Dietrich, Virginia Woolf, and Marilyn Monroe represented, was unorthodox, innit? As I struggle to write about The Hour of the Star moments after I shut the book, I wonder if I could reproduce Lispector's (or is it the narrator's?) every line and pass them off as my very own condition-of-existence.

As for me, I'm only truthful when I'm alone. When I was a little boy I thought that from one minute to the next I could fall off the face of the earth. Why don't clouds fall, since everything else does? Because gravity is less than the strength of the air that keeps them up there. Clever, right? Yes, but one day they fall as rain. That is my revenge.

There's something about Macabéa, the protagonist. When you read about her, you cannot imagine that you were capable of such pity. Our generations have learnt to distill the pity of war before being born. Pity and sorrow for a fellow human, is what Rodrigo S.M., the narrator, calls a luxury. Macabea is oblivious to her unhappiness, the innocent victim of life, as opposed to her narrator who is only too alive to his failures, and sadly knows too much. He writes about the tragedy of being alive, and the comedy and farce of existence; Macabea lives through all of them, without realising them at all, and despite myself, I think about Borges; Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings are omni-present, beyond creation, floating somewhere in the universe, in the worlds of Tlon and Uqbar. Nevertheless Rodrigo paints no idealistic picture, and though the image of Borges looms at the back, the imposing features do not make an entrance into the poor, bedraggled, TB-infested world of Macabea. And if the disease makes one think of the naive but gallant Hans Castorp, and the brave Joachim, Rodrigo would pen an ironic utterance on his protagonist's behalf, contrasting the rarefied air of the Zauberberg, with the slums of Rio. 

This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It's an unfinished book because it's still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It's a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.

L is a Mexican who wrote down the name of Clarice Lispector in a little piece of paper in black ink and bold letters, with a few other names, and then pointed to her and said, "Read her, it will change your life." There is something about appearing as a lost, unhappy soul even among friends that invites concern, but A hora da estrela was perhaps the best advice in a piece of paper I've ever received. Frankly, there's nothing life-changing about the 75 odd pages of the book. After you spend a long day working under the sun, and then seek refuge in a corner of a dark cafe, with the drone of the AC beside you affirming your views on the futility of love ("Sex is the consolation you have when you can't have love"), the last thing you would want is a printed word confirmation of how life sucks. The Hour of the Star does that unflinchingly. It reminds you yet again, how every story ever written in the world is one of affliction. Moments before Macabea died, she learnt how unhappy her life was without her knowing it, how deprived she had been without her realising it. Just as she loses her innocence, she dies. The Prince of Darkess won. Finally the coronation. My friend S tells me that life, not death, is a great leveler. Rodrigo says, death is an encounter with oneself... The best thing is still this : not to die, because dying is insufficient, it does not complete me, I who need so much.

Precisely three weeks ago Mahashweta Devi told us that every individual's fundamental right is to dream. Today Clarice Lispector, through a book for which she had envisaged thirteen titles, told me about the right to scream. I have not tried it yet, but tonight I know about my luxury of life, my luxury to mourn, and to feel sad. With it, the luxury of singing the blues, of swooning on listening to Chopin, of the allegro and the aria, and of understanding this story as the imminence in those bells that almost-almost ring. Clarice has walked a long way from Ukraine, the neighbours of the land of green plums, to the rugged ridges of Brazil, and reminds us a little of Herta Mueller's hapless and struggling young people. Like Virginia Woolf who could be Lily, and Clarissa, and Mrs. Ramsay all at once while being Orlando for four hundred years; like Marlene Dietrich, the angel and the devil together; like Elizabeth Bishop, friend, translator-translator, lover; we all intertwine and flip through the pages of this book, with Macabea, who is not us, but whom we want to tuck in bed, and give hot soup, who breaks our heart with her innocence and who dies in silence. Una furtiva lagrima, or a furtive tear. 

And now -- now all I can do is light a cigarette and go home. My God, I just remembered that we die. But - but me too?! 
Don't forget that for now it's strawberry season.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Toilets, Love, Triangles, and Ideologies

I have a theory. I find that when my life suddenly gets very busy with activities that I hadn't initially planned to do, my mind goes blank for days on end, and I find it difficult to make an intelligent conversation. When someone asks me what I am currently reading, and though at other times I could go on about the Henry James in my bag, and the bad article in the Desh that kept me up the previous night, on these days I go completely blank, give a vague smile, look as if I couldn't hear well, and make a clumsy exit. I cannot even decently excuse myself. Later, fraught with shame and guilt, I try to assess the situation. On one such event, I devised the theory. It is during these periods of apparent dumbness that I am in the middle of ideologies. It is like the toilet model of Zizek. The moment you flush the toilet, you are in the middle of ideologies. Before that your existence was determined by the shape of the toilet - flat back, hole in front, being visible so as to examine worms if any (this is strictly the description of the German toilet bowl, and no double entendres intended whatsoever); bigger hole at the back and the capability of vanishing immediately (the French toilets); floating in the water (America) and so on. Now, if the shape determines the ideology of the culture, signifying the habits they indulge in (examining worms, denial, or indifference), the moment the toilet is flushed, the predominant structure of ideology is flushed with it too, and the person is in a curious state, when he can continue with the embedded culture of his toilet, or might embrace a new one for the day until he goes to toilet again. similarly, I realised, my clumsy conversations - when not especially dictated by the sex and attractive quotient of the person I'm having the conversation with - is between ideologies; the one that existed before I got too busy to sit back and think, and the one I'll presumably follow once I've settled down with the flow of life.

Every time Maa and I have a quarrel, we stop phoning each other. However, a complex system, other than just refraining from the phone calls, is often at work. Despite being angry with Maa, I feel a desperate urge to share a juicy bit of gossip with her. Until I do that, i feel restless. So I start looking for substitutes. I try confiding in my 89-year old grandmother. But she is rather hard of hearing, and as I am trying to tell her about a cousin and her date, she tells me about the price of dhyanrosh at Bhowanipur market (it's one of her obsessions - checking the market price of vegetables at all markets of Calcutta, as printed on the paper). Maa, on the other hand, needs to vent about the acquaintance whom she ran into at the market in Siliguri. Since she has obhimaan, she will not call me. She tries telling Baba who is not interested. I try calling Baba up and telling him about the cousin; he says he's not interested. At last, after two days of waiting, hoping the other one calls first, one of us dials the number, the other one picks up, and after a few seconds of obhimaan related accusations, then laughter, we finally indulge in soul-baring bitching and exchanging notes. This system has been repeated time and again over the past six years, and I have discovered a semiotic triangle that correlates to the culinary triangle modeled by Levi-Strauss. Confiding in Thamma, is like boiling while cooking. The latter needs a receptacle, and hence is not a natural culinary method. Thamma cannot decipher the depths of my thought as dhyanrosh and jhinge crop into her mind, and hence is not natural. Confiding into Baba could be associated with roasting meat. The latter is a natural culinary method, and is associated with men in many cultures. However just like my disinterested father, meat can lose some parts when exposed to the fire, and thus signifies destruction and loss. But confiding into Maa, is like smoking meat. It takes more time than roasting because we have our feelings to resolve before picking up the phone. It is rather natural, but involves the phone as an outside agent like dhyanrosh and jhinge, and makes it somewhat akin to boiling. Other methods of confiding can also be situated within this triangle. Confiding in friends will not elicit the same reaction as confiding in Maa, because the former will demand a lot of footnotes. That could be like grilling, a method which involves placing the meat closer to the fire than roasting (ref: Baba, who's not interested at all).

Of course, the associations are not completely perfect, but it's not completely dismissive too, innit?

This is disgusting.