Monthly Archives: July 2017

Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliffhanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated it gives them depth, and makes them appear real, like you and me.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to give up but I urge you to read on and not be put off by big words.

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, lives in Mumbai and their son is a young writer, who lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu. Renu works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way some things are done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins are brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother then leaves home to find work. It follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a livelihood. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He calls the bear cub Raju. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware of the fact that he is at the mercy of the helpless animal. With his brother gone, the responsibilityof feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’.  It makes you think who are the ones that are wild and savage.

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime you could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train him to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making Raju perform in front of a crowd. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home and familiar surroundings in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.)  Continue reading Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

The Postmaster

After watching Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of The Postmaster, a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, and I am forced to think how little I had understood of Ratan’s plight, and the subtext, when it was taught to us in school. I wonder if the opinions were even our own. Then the only interpretation that flew was the teacher’s. We weren’t encouraged to apply our brains much those days. So many years down the line I don’t even remember who taught it. That’s what memories are. Fleeting and evasive, just beyond your grasp when you need them. You seem to remember some things while forgetting others. That’s where people come in. You ask them what they remember of an incident or something that happened, and you will be amazed to hear the stories, real and imagined. Everyone thinks they remember it correctly, the way it happened. But it is the prism of perspective that colours everything we view.

Chandana Banerjee as the young Ratan is outstanding. I couldn’t have expected more. She brought Tagore’s Ratan to life. I have no love lost for the postmaster but it was portrayed well by Anil Chatterjee. Incredible acting. The fish out of water-ness and his loneliness were apparent. I can’t exactly call him unfeeling or unkind but in the end he thought only of saving himself. That is human nature, the survival instinct kicking in. I won’t reveal much that may spoil your reading or watching. But I shall say this, you will be surprised by what you feel once you have finished watching or reading it.

It’s a pity I found subtitles only for a part of the story.  It wasn’t that big a problem because I do understand a bit of Bengali, especially when it is spoken slowly, it being similar somewhat to Odia and all.

The Postmaster is one of three short films collectively titled Teen Kanya. I have only seen The Postmaster which is so nuanced that even though you don’t understand the language completely, by dint of what’s unfolding on the screen, the feeling will find its way to you. What the director was trying to convey  is in tandem with what the writer was trying to say. Do you know how rare that is?

I loved the black and white minimalist cinematography where every single thing that unfolded on screen added something to the story. Nothing was extraneous. I found this podcast online where Anita Desai narrates The Postmaster which is followed by a discussion. Listen to it now. It is of course thousand times better than me reading the text. Needless to say I love and admire Anita Desai having read her The Village by the Sea when I was young (for school again) and the book has stayed with me all these years.

It’s been a while since I read Tagore. It’s time to reacquaint myself with his prose. And what better time than the monsoons, when loneliness and desolation walk hand in hand.

School Days by Paro Anand

Even though I am a grown woman a school girl still resides in me somewhere. It is wonderful to get into a child’s head and see how they view the world and hope some of the innocence rubs off on you. So years ago when I spotted Paro Anand’s School Days in the book fair I pounced on it. It was a tattered old copy but all the pages were there. I know I have come a long way from reading only pristine undamaged books (read new books). What can I say poverty teaches you many things.

It has eight not so short stories with different settings and situations. They are guaranteed to make both children and adults laugh. Your attention won’t waver even once (unless you aren’t a reader) as the stories are delightfully crisp.

Centre of attraction

The girl in Centre Stage is competing with Malati , her classmate, to be centre stage in some kind of a gymnastic event. She has to do a headstand to guarantee her place in it. But for some reason she’s unable to pull it off even after trying many times. Help comes from unexpected quarters, from a person who exists only for her. Confidence is the message here. 

Settling in a new place

New Blue was hilarious and had me laughing out loud in a public place. Immersion into a new culture is never easy. Being the new girl in not only a new school, but a new country in a culture Parvati’s not familiar with is too much. Making friends isn’t easy when people can’t even pronounce your name. (Read Parvati becomes Poverty). How we perceive things to be true without really knowing the facts and fitting in, are what the story deals with.

Stammering through a play

​To Play a P-p-part is about a girl who stammers. ​Gitali desperately wants to take part in a play in school which is about Savitri and Satyavan. How will she make that happen? Most people in her class make fun of her but her teachers start to hope when she shows initiative and suggests a play, Children of a Lesser God, of her own accord. It has a deaf and mute girl in its lead. Since she won’t have to open her mouth the stammering won’t be a problem. Clever, but there is one problem. The movie is a romance with intimate moments and not suitable for children. Comedic moments are done well and it so real you think it is all unfolding before your eyes. Evading a problem isn’t going to make it go away. To deal with the truth you have to face it head on. These stories have a lesson or two for us world weary adults too.

Who’s a bully?

In Bullies, a fat kid who is a good student is spoilt rotten by his parents because they finally got a son after 3 girls. Hail patriarchy! He is bullied because of his flab. It talks about a very important issue that affects so many people at so many levels, not only kids. Either you have been teased or you have done the teasing or you know someone who has been teased because of his/her weight. The story is about learning to deal with body image issues and being comfortable in your own skin.

Hostel diaries

Dear Dad is a funny story which has epistles (letters for the uninitiated) and telegrams from a boy in boarding school to his parents (each of them, mind you, for maximum impact) asking for more money but it falls on deaf ears. We get a tiny peek into his life at boarding school (reminded me of Harry Potter). Children are sent into boarding school to build character so that kids are self reliant and stand up for themselves. I should know. I have never lived in one! He talks about his mother’s handbag where the phone can never be found (My mom is the same). He exaggerates situations which results in more laughs.

 Pandemonium in the classroom

Mouse C Tung opens with an alarm beeping. (I have a hate hate relationship with alarms to this day.) A sound too familiar to all of us when growing up. Winter break is over. Time to go back to school. Cosy under the blanket, he finds it hard to get up in the morning. His school is far from his home. So he has to get up at an ungodly hour to reach the school on time. This particular morning he’s looking for his pet mouse but he can’t find him anywhere. This boy is like Philip from Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, fond of keeping pets. Where has the mouse vanished? Meanwhile in school excitement is in the air. The class is abuzz with everyone swapping stories. Wait. Why is the teacher, the one who is supposed to maintain the decorum, climbed up on the table? 

Running Race

I used to run when I was a kid. Nothing to write home about, just something I remembered while reading the story. In Suvira there are two runners – the new girl Suvira, and the crowd favourite (obviously not new). In this story we see a race from start to finish. Running commentary is through the eyes of the Suvira. We read the thoughts as they race through her head. I could feel the suspense mounting, waiting with bated breath to see who will reach the finish line first. I felt as if I was back in the school field watching the race unfold before my eyes.

Cheater cheater pumpkin eater

In Caught a boy who has never cheated in exams is sweating buckets because he has taken a chit in an attempt to cheat. Does he manage to cheat egged on by his friend Pratap? The story is set in the examination hall for most part and the tension is so thick it can be cut with a knife. The ending sends a message to kids and, especially to adults on how to handle things.

Most of the stories are written in first person and quite a few have protagonists who are unnamed. So it becomes more personal, and in a sense, your story. Her stories always end on a cheerful note, quite unlike life, and much needed if you ask me, if we are to imagine a better world.

The writing is so effortless that you start to wonder if it came to her this way. Crackling dialogue seems to be a given in Paro Anand’s stories. Read School Days to your kids or better yet have them read it to you. Their activities in class will remind you of your own school days or of your children. It’s a pity we grow up too soon. 

I need to get my hands on all of Paro Anand’s books, especially Wild Child and Other Stories for which she was awarded the Bal Sahitya Puruskar. I’d better find a way to retrieve I’m Not Butter Chicken which I gave to a cousin of mine two years ago. And Pure Sequence is waiting to be read.