October is not a love story.

There are few movies where I immediately want to go back to the world it portrayed and my first thought after watching Shoojit Sircar’s October was just that – I have to watch it again. This is not a movie review but a discussion. Spoilers ahead.

For some reason October reminded me of The Big Sick (another movie I wanted to see again as soon it finished) even though the leads Dan and Shiuli aren’t romantically inclined like the real life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon in the former. Perhaps because like The Big Sick, October dealt with something catastrophic happening out of the blue with humour.

I am foolish. I am naive. I am easily irritated. I am moody. I get affected by things which most people shrug off without a care. I am frequently annoying and have been known to speak out of turn when I should have kept my head down and stare at my feet. I hold on and be direct in the wrong-est of situations, and do things because I want to without thinking of returns in the hope of things working out even when there’s no chance of it. In short your typical Aries. (No better time than Aries season to embrace who I am.) So I could relate to Dan’s character in the film October more than I’d like to admit.

I don’t believe October is about a romantic relationship of any kind. Affection, connection and love are different things. But people have always seen what they wish to see. Although Dan and Shiuli work in the same hotel they had barely interacted with each other outside of work when she was conscious. Most of their interactions are after the accident. Shiuli cannot reciprocate Dan’s affection or repay what he has done for her but he continues tirelessly without hoping for much, a little (flash of) recognition maybe, and, of course, her recovery.

Dan finds a cause which changes the direction of his life. He insinuates himself into something which actually isn’t any of his business. And through this obstinacy and refusal to even admit a negative outcome or become jaded he actually gives hope to a family in a trying time, in a situation devoid of much hope.

Why did he fight for her? The world asks him why does he care so much. Can’t he get a grip on himself? Why is he so affected? To which he says how can you be so unaffected! They see him throwing his life away for a girl he barely knew because of something she said before the accident. They were colleagues not friends. It is perhaps feeling for someone who met a grisly end for no fault of her own and caring because they got the rough end of the deal which could have easily happened to him. Though I am the last person on the planet to admit this, I have seen enough of life to acquiesce that some occurrences in life cannot be explained in rational terms.

Setting the movie in a hospital is bound to connect with people. There is no one in the world untouched by sickness or hasn’t been a patient or a caregiver and dealt with such things in a family member or a relative. And though they are not happy places for me, I have made my peace with them. Knowing about medicines, chit chatting with the staff while waiting for the doctors felt like familiar territory.

Gitanjali Rao is outstanding as the mother of Shiuli trying to hold it together when faced with mounting hospital bills and imminent death of her eldest child. Her children, Shiuli’s siblings, go to tuitions and study in the hospital and she continues to take classes at IIT Delhi, sticking to their routines for the sake of sanity. I have loved her stunning short films as an animator and now adore her as an actor.

Banita Sandhu as Shiuli is especially amazing in the slow recovery and progress scenes.

The cinematography by Avik Mukhopadhyay is amazing; the quiet moments never drag but allow you to appreciate what is unfolding with an intensity that is immersive. The changing of seasons while circumstances in life’s barely keep pace with it is captured well. It took me back to a time in my life when I couldn’t do much except note the passage of seasons. This is what good cinema does, you experience the film and connect it with the story of your life.

Continue reading “October is not a love story.”

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Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

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I loved Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth and I have come to expect lyrical prose and magical realism in her work. I am not a fan of magical realism as such but hers I gobble up like a plate of hot Top Ramen noodles (read the fragrance of childhood). Poetry, magic, fate everything I have never understood and can’t put into words, Alice Hoffman does it with ease like she has done it all her life, which she has, but it always takes me by surprise.

I usually steer clear of misery or negativity in pop culture unless I think I can handle it. And Alice Hoffman should be read when you can handle her prose. Her words pierce your soul. She wrings out emotions and feelings you never thought you had. The storyline is easy to follow but the themes are weighty. The Ice Queen deals with matters of life and death and everything in between that constitutes the business of living. She writes fairy tales for adults but don’t be fooled into thinking that it would be simple or straightforward.

I took the book with me when I was travelling but somehow I could sense it wasn’t the place for it and I read very little. And I didn’t want to read the book at breakneck speed because I wanted to inhabit the words of this book until I absorbed its essence.

Like many reviewers I agree there isn’t an extra word in The Ice Queen. She covers so much in 211 pages. It is a sentimental tale but the ending is unpredictable. At the centre of the story is an unlikeable protagonist – the unnamed narrator, who is a librarian and a lightning survivor. Something happened when she was a child and and she has allowed it to colour her entire life. Lightning has always fascinated me but this scared me, the damage it can do to your system if you have the misfortune to be struck by it. Her character changes in a fundamental way and she sees herself differently by the time the book ends and so did I. Alice Hoffman makes you feel for her and in spite of everything you root for her. Deep down we are all dreamers.

The Ice Queen is a book about life and death, and about love and hate. It is a book about secrets and their power to define us if we let them.

Secrets are only knowledge that hasn’t yet been uncovered… Therefore, they are not in fact secrets but only unrealized truth.

The Ice Queen is about all kinds of love – love between siblings (blood ties can’t be so easily dismissed), love between people who have survived the same thing, love between people who are married and their lives tied together in ways unimaginable and love that remains even when the object of affection has vanished into thin air. (Not literally true but I wanted to use it because I am feeling theatrical today!)

Feel lucky for what you have when you have it. Isn’t that the point? Happily ever after doesn’t mean happy forever. The ever after, what precisely was that? Your dreams, your life, your death, your everything. Was it the blank space that went on without us? The forever after we were gone?

The Ice Queen tells me things find their own way to fruition if it’s meant to be. And to have an open heart and appreciate the present. Nothing I didn’t know but how many of us actually live fully in the present?

Continue reading “Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman”

I Capture the Castle

While reading I Capture the Castle I thought it could be adapted into a very good play because the antics of the characters would have people laughing out loud. And Google told me that it has already been done. I recently saw the movie after reading the book and here I talk about them both. You have been warned!

I wish I had read this book as a teen, I would have been bowled over by it. The book is a tad wordy (I only felt that when she was describing the castle too much). No wonder she admired Julian Barnes’ masterful economy of words.

The Mortmains are a crazy bunch. The writer and father James Mortmain’s creative juices seem to have run out after one successful book. The family lives in genteel poverty in the hope that one day he will produce another masterpiece. Topaz, is his loyal wife, and eccentric but beautiful stepmother to his three children. She communes with nature to keep her sanity and needs to be a muse to exist. They live with their daughters, Rose and Cassandra, and their little brother, the studious Thomas. They are joined by Stephen, the son of their dead housekeeper who does chores around the house.

Cassandra, the younger sister, is like Elizabeth Bennet in the sense that her mind is not on matrimony unlike older sister Rose. Like Austen, her mind is on literary pursuits. She dreams of becoming a writer like her father which one would think is surprising because of the example he has set. So she writes diary entries for practice to sharpen her claws prose.

Poverty doesn’t bother Cassandra as much as it bothers Rose. Cassandra takes refuge in writing and hence she is saner (she believes that). Even though Rose is the elder sister, it is she who is childish in her ways, demanding things that she knows are impossible.

In spite of her father’s example Cassandra wants to be a writer (natural proclivity?) like her father. Both the sisters don’t do any housework – it is shared by Topaz and Stephen. The onus of earning money is on the menfolk. Published in 1934, the book appears dated because of the time period it is set in. The men and women were defined by set roles, rigid and fixed by society.

There’s talk of Bennets (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) in the beginning, and Rose is hell bent on marrying the first rich suitor that comes a-knocking to get out of poverty even if she doesn’t love him. And that is where Simon Cotton comes in.

Cassandra is a precocious narrator (I would never call her ‘consciously naïve because I don’t know what it means!), who wants to be a writer and is always recording things that happen in her life in a notebook. This was at a time when paper is scarce, and there was no electricity in the castle, mind you. She lives in her head (like most writers) which some times makes her miserable, and she has no understanding of how the world works that adds to the ensuing drama.

The way the story is narrated (Aren’t epistolary narratives the best?) by Cassandra through her journal entries, it puts us right in her shoes.

They live on the castle on a lease and haven’t paid the rent in a long time. It is when the owners arrive, the Cottons from America, the story takes a different turn.

A few pages in I knew why I Capture the Castle is a cult classic. It seems like a fairytale in the beginning with very good dialogue, and the setting but the ending is ambiguous and quite realistic, open ended which is quite a departure for books written in those times, especially for the kind of story it told.

The book will give you a bad case of the giggles, whether you are reading in public or in private. I tried to keep the wide grin off my face to appear respectable (read not look like a complete idiot in the park where I have maintained over the years a very serious no nonsense persona) but the narration by Cassandra is such that you will fail.

A story where the women decide who, where, and when they want to end up with someone (if at all), and choose to walk out of marriages when it doesn’t work the way they want it to – it would have been groundbreaking for the time it was written in.

So many things have been talked about in this book without being self conscious, which would have otherwise made reading it a tedious affair. It touches on poverty, nudism, religion, psychoanalysis, distinction between the classes, and a very real portrait of a marriage and family. Also shows us a portrait of an eccentric writer, artistic expression and the way genius works (or doesn’t work) and what the people living with him have to put up with.

The book destroys many idealistic notions of love. The teens reading it will have a realistic idea about consent, love, longing, heartbreak and infatuation; they are different things whose boundaries sometimes overlap. The book drives home the message that it is okay to make mistakes. And most importantly it is okay not to find the love of your life the first time around.

The social observations  the book makes and the way Cassandra views the world, it is true what another reviewer said and what I had felt from the beginning – it’s Austen for the 20th century. Continue reading “I Capture the Castle”

Book review – 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 surprisingly 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 cliff-hanger. 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 gives them depth, and makes them appear real.

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 stop 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, live in Mumbai and their son, a young writer, 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, who works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu because of her surly manner 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, old and new, and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way things continue to be 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 brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother leaves home to find work. This section follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a living. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He names it Raju. With his brother gone, the responsibility of 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 question who is really savage, man or beast?

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 one could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train Raju to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making him dance. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware that he is at the mercy of the ‘helpless’ animal. 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 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 “Book review – 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.

Just Married, Please Excuse

I read Yashodhara Lal’s There’s Something About You about two years ago and had quite liked the book for its unlikely lead pair (What’s not to love about an overweight, clumsy woman and a mild mannered man finding love!) and her sense of humour. Since then the name of the author had stuck. So when I saw Just Married, Please Excuse in the book fair I bought it without any compunction.

Yashodhara (Y) is a drama queen losing her temper at the drop of a hat. Vijay (V) is steady and has a cool demeanor. Both work in the same company and they ‘fall’ in love. I don’t think it’s clearly stated in the book why V fell for Y. Complete opposites in every which way, they belong to different generations (a 7 year age gap), and have different backgrounds (big city girl and small town boy). They also have different world views and ideologies unable to agree on anything except their love for each other. With possibly the shortest courtship in the history of modern romance, they jump into matrimony because V is getting older. He pesters the reluctant Y to say yes within months of going out. Yes, that is how it happens. No, I am not exaggerating.

How is 30 old (unless of course you live in a small town like me)? Isn’t 40 the new 30? Are we still living in the 21st century? That is the beauty of living in India. You can simultaneously experience many centuries in one lifetime.

V wanted to know Y’s caste before approaching his family but he assures her it won’t matter. Y on the other hand has no clue about her caste. I would like to say casteism is regressive and has no place in the society but having seen the matrimonial columns, and living in the society with my eyes and ears open, I have seen caste rear its ugly head more often than I’d like to admit.

Just Married, Please Excuse isn’t exactly a romcom but a scathing look at marriage using humour (sarcasm) as a tool.   Continue reading “Just Married, Please Excuse”

Book review – Baaz

In the past Anuja Chauhan has tackled topics such as cricket and politics in her novels, The Zoya Factor and the Battle for Bittora respectively. I like her writing but I’m not what you would call a fan. Anuja Chauhan is known for witty romances nestled in good, if sometimes unbelievable plots. I was skeptical going in when I heard Baaz was about war, the Indo-Pak 1971 war no less. Baaz offers us a behind the scenes view into the lives of everyone associated with air force.  The multitude of things the air force men worry about, knowing their future is uncertain. How their wives and girlfriends deal with the stresses of their men being in combat.

Baaz opens in 1957 newly independent India. 10 year old Ishaan ‘Baaz’ Faujdaar is standing in front of an incoming train to get his adrenaline kick, to get that dhook-dhookk-dhoookk feeling, as he calls it. Ishaan or Shaanu, as he’s fondly known, is a thrill seeker. Motherless, his stepfather isn’t too fond of him but his five siblings hero-worship him. His Nanaji gives Ishaan the idea of becoming a pilot so that he could get the thrill he craves for. And there is no looking back.

10 years later, Ishaan gets through the exam and joins the  Indian Air Force (IAF). Here he meets Rakesh Aggarwal (Raka) and Madan Subbiah (Maddy) who were in NDA corps together. Initially they make fun of him but soon become his good friends. Ishaan takes never having known his father, coming from a humble background and not knowing English, lightly. His faith in himself (read cocksure) tides him over.

Ishaan meets Tehmina Dadyseth (Tinka) when he’s on duty and she’s fleeing her marriage. They appear to have some kind of a connection which they realize when their paths cross again. She doesn’t believe in hyper-patriotism and hates the idea of war whereas for Ishaan the country comes first, and everything is black and white. Their backgrounds are vastly different and so is the way they view the world, but they do have something in common. The chemistry was sizzling but there was something missing.

Tinka, the motherless daughter of Major General Ardisher Dadyseth, was born to challenge the status quo.  She is unafraid to go where very few women have gone. From studying photography to becoming a war correspondent in Dacca, she is undeterred once she has made up her mind.

Caste is very much in the air though caste system has been abolished. Pakistanis and Muslims were viewed with the same suspicious lens. The society then was regressive and not to mention conservative – not ready to accept independent free thinking men or women who deviate from the norm. So it was heartening to have many strong female characters in the book, who defied convention in their own way.

Continue reading “Book review – Baaz”