The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

Continue reading “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald”

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The perks of getting older

That urge to revisit. To take things slow. To see a film again. To read a much loved book again and not rush the process. It appears contradictory because as we grow older we realize we have less time. But really knowing something changes things, doesn’t it? I know I will never be able to read all the books I want, watch all the movies and series I want. Time is more limited than I had thought and flies far more quickly, especially when you are not paying attention. I realize being aware of your mortality is a good thing.

It is the strangest thing. On some days going through a day is hard with time barely passing, and getting to the next day is a struggle. Yet we struggle with time. If that is not a paradox I don’t know what is. If nothing life has a sense of humour. Irony is what makes the world go around.

 

Book Talk – Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson

I found Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson in the book fair and promptly grabbed it. The book was on my list of books (and author) to explore though I am well past the age the book is intended for. What can I say my inner child/teen continues to live on. I have a few other books by her too but this was the one that beckoned me. You know how it is. Some books you have had for ages but they sit on shelves for eons before they get read and a new book catches your eye and gets instantly picked up (I can almost hear all the old books grumble at the newcomer who made it with the least sweat. Unfair life is even books know that!). I can never understand how the timing works. I guess our subconscious knows what it wants at a certain point in life and goes for it.

Violet is naive (annoyingly so!) for a 13 year old. The book was published in 2003 and that’s got something to do with it, I think. It was the time when cellphones weren’t ubiquitous yet and people still wrote letters to authors instead of stalking them or talking about/to them online. Violet adores reclusive author Casper Dream, the author of the beautifully illustrated fairy books and writes to him regularly. She loves the fictitious universe created by him. She draws inspiration from his books and sews fairy dolls.  As you can see she isn’t your boisterous teen but quiet and artistic. Midnight offers interesting insights into the mind of a writer and on creating imaginary worlds which appealed to me greatly.

Violet has two ‘friends’ but she can’t identify with them. Whereas her brother Will is good looking and the entire school thinks he is cool. She looks up to him and adores him in spite of his snide comments and rudeness. Violet and Will are only a few years apart. It is apparent he cares for Violet but he never let’s a chance to take the Mickey out of her go.

Their father doesn’t like Will’s choices, and he in turn is constantly at loggerheads with him. We see Will after he knows a distrubing secret so there could be something to Will’s recklessness. Will is an intriguing character but I was always wary of him. Their mother is a docile woman and allows her husband to run roughshod over her. He’s taken for granted that his wife will do her job, regardless of how he treats her.

Violet’s life changes when the new girl in the school, Jasmine, who cares two hoots about fitting in, takes a shine to her. She cannot believe her luck. She adores everything about Jasmine – her spirit, her house and her family. Best friends fall in love with each other. It is an intense little place and I know that space well. Violet is an oddball whereas Jasmine is a popular kid. Is Jasmine truly her friend or something else is going on?

As I read I felt uneasy about certain things and I can hazard a guess as to how my teenage self would have reacted. The writing is good and the author is magnificent at building an atmosphere. Though at the heart of the story is Violet, a girl obsessed with fairies and fairy stories and the author who writes them, it’s not for younger readers. People expecting fantasy would be disappointed. This is as real as it gets for the intended age group!  I thought it was clever how subtly the  author showed bitter realities of the world which won’t affect younger readers but older readers will see it for what it is.

I like the quirky illustrations by Nick Sharratt which match the dark tone of the book.

Continue reading “Book Talk – Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson”

The Same Song

While cleaning and rearranging my books the other day, without thinking I selected  the OST of The Namesake to play on the phone. Perhaps because it is mostly instrumental with just a handful of songs and has always soothed me in the past. Also I needed to focus on the job at hand and get it done. Even though it is one of my favourite activities, working all day, I was beginning to tire. So I needed the music to not be distracting but help me calm down and at the same re-energize, if there is such a thing. When the album reached the end and The Same Song played, I realized I had completely forgotten about its existence all these years even though the same singer (Susheela Raman) had sung another song in the OST and I had listened to just minutes before. It was as if my brain was refusing to connect the dots which is weird to say the least (not a good sign in any universe).

It was as if no time had passed and I remembered the first time I had heard the song. I googled the year the movie had released and I couldn’t believe it’s been over a decade since it released. I can’t be sure of the exact year I read the book as I wasn’t a member of Goodreads then. But I remember reading the book during college and eagerly waiting to see the movie adaptation which I ultimately saw when it came on the TV. (If The Sense of an Ending and A Death in the Gunj didn’t release here now there was not even a sliver of hope of The Namesake releasing then.) I have a vague idea of the timeline. It must be scribbled in one of those notebooks I used as diaries(=journals) then. It will be difficult to mine out information in the old fashioned way, riffling through pages remembering which notebook I wrote what in (I tell you that’s half the battle won). Even if I am orderly because systematic I am not and my memory isn’t what it used to be (the unfortunate truth). Plus my diary handwriting is godawful to say the least, hurriedly jotting down before I forget things and sometimes even I have  trouble reading it. Continue reading “The Same Song”

Going back to Chokher Bali

Sometimes when we wait for something for a long time and then we get it, we are often underwhelmed by the actual thing.  Has it ever happened to you? Is it the great expectations built up over time to mythical proportions that did me in or something else? I don’t quite understand. It seems the older I get there are more questions and there are no definite answers. And to think as a child I had thought it would be the opposite. As an adult I would have the solutions to all the problems in the world and have a rollicking good time with no one telling me what to eat and to come home before it gets dark.

I finally had a chance to see Chokher Bali and it was a let down. I had loved the book and after searching for a version with Hindi subtitles (in vain) this dubbed version fell into my lap years later when I wasn’t even looking for it. I wanted to see the adaptation by Rituparno Ghosh having loved many of his movies, especially Raincoat which left an indelible mark on me. But I may be biased because I absolutely adore O Henry’s The Gift of Magi which it is adapted from.

Eons back I wrote a blubbering post about being stunned by Chokher Bali where I said nothing of any real value. I was amazed by the level of manipulation  in the book when I had read it 6-7 years ago. A lifetime ago really.  Aishwarya Rai was good in Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat (so was Ajay Devgn). So I was even more astonished by her dismal performance here. She doesn’t do justice to the part of Binodini. But the rest of the cast were good in their roles. I am now on the look out for Anurag Basu’s version which has Radhika Apte as Binodini. I have a feeling I am going to like it.

In between I have found a copy of the book. The cover is intriguingly underplayed and is in shades of grey. This one is Radha Chakraborty’s translation, different from the one I had read before. I am familiar with her having read her translation of Shesher Kobita, published as Farewell Song.

Here’s to rereading and rediscovering Chokher Bali anew.

At cross roads, if not the (hallowed) mid-life crisis.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
-E. L. Doctorow

Isn’t that how life is? We can only see a little stretch ahead of us at a time on life’s meandering road that we all travel on (with binoculars and maps and other paraphernalia). That too if we choose to move forward on the path( whatever it is and wherever it leads) as opposed to being rooted to the spot in indecision (which happens more often than one admits) until shoved(pushed will be kinder but a gentle push has lost its power in this generation of forced everything) in the proverbial right direction by people who care (or want to wash their hands off you for they absolutely cannot look at your woe is me avatar anymore). One is carried forward by the surge of the crowd all moving in the same direction(mind you the goals are different or so I’d like to think!). Towards death,one day closer to it. Towards the realization of dreams,one step closer to it.

If drawing a parallel between life and writing is easier said than done then how on earth can I call myself a writer.  Has that life  ship sailed ?  I hope not because I’m ready to run with my running shoes . And ipod in tow full of thought provoking songs.

Yeah, right.

See what I’m talking about? Kill me already.

The incomparable Toru Dutt

Our Casuarina Tree

LIKE a huge Python, winding round and round  
 The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars,  
 Up to its very summit near the stars,  
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound  
 No other tree could live. But gallantly         
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung  
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,  
 Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;  
And oft at nights the garden overflows  
With one sweet song that seems to have no close,          
Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.  
 
When first my casement is wide open thrown  
 At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;  
 Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest  
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone         
 Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs  
His puny offspring leap about and play;  
And far and near kokilas hail the day;  
 And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;  
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast          
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast,  
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.  
 
But not because of its magnificence  
 Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:  
 Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,        
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,  
 For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear.  
Blent with your images, it shall arise  
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!  
 What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear         
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?  
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,  
That haply to the unknown land may reach.  
 
Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!  
 Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away         
 In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,  
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith  
 And the waves gently kissed the classic shore  
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,  
When earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon:       
 And every time the music rose,—before  
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,  
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime  
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.  
 
Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay        
 Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those  
 Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose,—  
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!  
 Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done  
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,         
Under whose awful branches lingered pale  
 “Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,  
And Time the shadow;” and though weak the verse  
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,  

May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse

Toru Dutt

I still remember the teacher who taught us the poem in class and I have saved the tattered old textbook from oblivion. It somehow seems odd to call a literature book a “textbook” because they were always about escape for me. While people slept when Hound of Baskervilles was taught, I came alive. So much so that years later when I saw the entire collected works of Toru Dutt on my first visit to the university library, I instantly checked it out. Exams loomed but I couldn’t leave the book after finding it. You know one of those moments in life when you just have to go for it? This felt like that. And I am a big believer in serendipity! My mind reasoned that her books aren’t easily available so this was the logical next step. (Yes, I know my fear that someone would come looking for her work in the science section was unreasonable, and if I didn’t take it when the opportunity presented itself, I would never get it again.) I devoured the two novels in it, and returned the book unable to read much else. I vowed to come back to it again. Years later I am yet to go back.