Monthly Archives: June 2014

‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’ by RM Rajgopal

emptyBooks signed by authors, I have a few. But a book launch? Never.

So when V, a good friend, sent out an invite, I was excited. For more than one reason. V is a born raconteur and his sense of humor is truly out of this world. So by law of genesis or whatever, his brother had to be a chip off the young block, I presumed. And rightly so, I was to find out.

RM Rajgopal, the author wrote these stories ‘while pursuing a hectic career,’ says the introduction in the book. And the author corroborates it when he says tongue-in-cheek that he has a lot to thank Indian Airlines for the number of delayed flights, most of these stories were written either while waiting at the airport or while on a flight. Apparently he used to carry and notebook and pen with him, always. That he must have observed a lot, not just in the course of flying, is evident from each of the story that he has penned in this debut collection.

‘The Empty Pedestal’, the title story, and the first one in the book is about how times change and the labor leaders along with it – from being idealistic to realistic . The tone was a little sombre and I was more than a little disappointed. I had an inkling of the next one, ‘They Listened’, this was one of the stories from which an excerpt was read out at the launch. An old musician’s yearning for at least one discerning ear and how a few choice requests change his whole life, albeit for a few days, is told so well.

The true meaning of that twinkle of mischief in the author’s eyes starts getting visible from the third story, ‘A Genuine Blonde’. The climax is brilliant, I wouldn’t dare to add any spoilers here. That he is still a boy at heart is brought out in the following stories about a nursery interview, the swaggering senior in a boarding school, and a boy who has lost his mother.

Humor turns into satire as he goes on to regale us about the God-man in ‘All the people all of the time.’ Life’s strange twists and turns are what the next few stories are about. ‘The Bombay Edition’,  is set in a typical corporate office, and was something that I could totally relate to – how the news of a promotion can bring out the attitude of a typical Indian male mind, even today. I was nodding vigorously through the story, reading the archetypal comments about Finance departments and women working there 🙂

The brash Punjabi graduate in ‘A B-Class Abode,’ the hapless Krishnaswamy who is caught between the eternal tangles of principles and an avaricious wife in ‘Principles and the Price Line,’ the ill fated Umesh in ‘Sharing a Berth,’ – all of them are characters taken straight out from life. We would have encountered them sometime in our lives, their stories are heartening and tinged with the pathos of middle class life as it truly is.

The author’s pen turns political in the next four stories. You cannot help but chuckle as you read ‘The Hand’ . There was a time when his words might have been truly prophetic ,

“The irony of what has happened cannot be forgotten. That fifty years after the last Englishman who ruled us left our shores, a daughter of Europe was sworn in as Prime Minister last evening….”

That Mr. Rajgopal decided to have ‘A Guffaw in the End’ is so apt. It is the changing face of today’s woman, practical, clear of what they want, they knowing exactly where they stand and how they will walk their life.

The charm of this collection is how true to life each story is. That the author is a keen observer of what happens around him need not be stated, his tales speak for themselves. What is also evident throughout is his zest for life and the eyes of a naughty boy that looks at life through his sparkling eyes, hiding his seriousness behind resounding laughter.

However, what enamored me totally is the exquisite language, there is that unmistakable charm of old world. You feel as though you are sitting at the end of a long dining table, the dinner is done, you are picking at morsels now and then, the tinkle of crystal and the muffled sound of silver on porcelain somewhere in the background.  Your eyes and ears are keenly attuned to this sixty something charismatic, worldly wise guy, churning out tale after tale amidst loud bursts of laughter, with a few guffaws thrown in here and there and the inevitable anecdotes by others around the table, adding to the spice. The kind of night that you wished never ended.

Verdict : If you are one who loves tales that smell of life as we know it, told in an exquisitely elegant manner and impeccable language, a must read. You will love it.

4/5

p.s. somehow I could not connect to the title story, it seemed to stand apart from the rest. Maybe that explains why it is the title 🙂

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When Dreams Wake You Up – ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

kateWhen I was carrying our first born, husband used to see pregnant women everywhere. It happens all the time doesn’t it? When the mind is focused on something, consciously or sub consciously, it seem to attract relevant experiences, thoughts and people. Or is it that we become more mindful and aware that we actually start making sense of what is around us? Stories, real life and made up, discussions, real and virtual, all tend to rekindle those once burning embers. As if that was not enough, this  book found its way and added fuel to the already smouldering ashes.

The questions are what every woman would have asked herself at least once in her life. Unless of course, she is single and childless. Is it worth it? What about me? My dreams? Do I even have a choice? Are child bearing and rearing my responsibilities alone? What if I reset my priorities? And family and children no longer held a place there, or they were far down on the ladder? More than ten years into the twenty first century, such thoughts are rarely heeded, then imagine the furor that it might have caused when a woman dared to think aloud on similar lines towards the end of the nineteenth century, even if she was fictional?

Edna Pontellier had no right to be unhappy. Rich husband, tastefully furnished house in the suburbs, holidays to sea side every year, happy kids, customary maids and servants – she seemed to have it all, everything that women like her where supposed to want. Reticent by nature, she seem to further withdraw into herself, the holiday crowd and their shenanigans doesn’t charm her anymore and she seem to search for that sense of freedom that she has experienced once, while running through the fields in her childhood. There is this restlessness that seem to settle over her and refuses to let go. She had always thought of herself different from other women in her social circle, the mother-women,

who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels

Edna is at first slightly disturbed by the fawning ways of young Robert, the land lady’s son. No one sees anything amiss in it as he is known for his flirting ways with the rich ladies who come down from the city year after year. Yet, for Edna, that might have been the spark that the fire in her was waiting for. The questions start taking complete shapes as she overcomes her fear of swimming. And that could very well have been a metaphor for getting over her inhibitions. And her friendship with the musician Mademoiselle Reisz, who is not too welcome in her group of friends, helps in showing her a way out to her dreams.

Back in the city, taking up the role of a dutiful wife is something Edna finds difficult to come back to terms with. To give due credit, Mr.Pontellier is not a cruel husband, just an ordinary guy,

“a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife,”

and hence could not understand the changes and the increasingly insolent behavior of his wife. He tries, in his own way, to make her comfortable and to make her see sense. Edna realizes that her relationship with her husband was just that and love was something else entirely that she has just begun to understand. Kids away on a holiday with their grandmother, and husband on a business tour, Edna finally seem to find herself in her art and affairs of heart. It takes her friend Madame Ratignolle’s words to bring her back to earth from the colorful skies that her spirit was roaming around,

“Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”

The mother in her takes over, but the consequences are rather contrary to what we might expect.

The questions continue. I remember a conversation that I once had with a male friend. We were talking about a macho movie actor who was quite well known for his roving eye and abject disregard for his wife and mother of his children. My friend’s response was, “well, he is a great artist. His wife should understand that and respect his life. After all, she is his wife.” There was no clear answer to my counter of what if it was the wife who was a great artist and the husband was just that, her husband. A mumble was the only answer, if that was one.

Society has conditioned us to expect mothers to be the be all and end all of everything related to family with scant respect to what they themselves may really want. She is expected to give up all her comforts and aspirations for the overall happiness of her husband, parents and children whereas men, well, continue to be men. Mr. Pontellier could not have put it better and here he speaks for scores of men and even many women,

“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”

Edna Pontellier, for me is the sound of many a woman that I see and listen to these days. They know their priorities clearly and perched right on top of the list are their children. They nurture their offspring with single minded passion, protect them like a tiger mom and is ready to give anything that it takes to give them the best. Yet, they know where they will stop, even if it is with a regret or two.

“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.”

Normally, I am more of a casual reader who might have read about the author somewhere and is satisfied with the bits and pieces of information that might float in with the wind. This time around, I really wanted to know this brave soul who had shocked many an orthodox soul right out of their shoes and even stockings. How could a woman talk about her sexual desires, and so openly? How could she leave her husband, and God forbid, even her children, just like that?

Kate Chopin is now considered a forerunner of the feminist authors of the twentieth century. She has written two novels and about a hundred short stories. ‘The Awakening’ is her second novel and as expected, was a quite a sensation when it was published in 1899. It was condemned, critics gave it all the choicest labels and the publication of her third collection of short stories was cancelled. The novel started getting recognized for what it was, almost sixty years after her death in 1904.

 Verdict – The easy going manner of writing belies the brevity of thoughts. You can finish the book in a day or even less, but it is sure to disturb your thoughts for a few days, especially if you are a woman and a mother, who had and still have some dreams, and whose life is an eternal list of priorities that keeps changing by the minute. Read it.

4/5

 

 

 

 

On Eulogies and ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

faultWhat you heard is true, this is a cliched story. A star crossed pair of teenagers, both of them terminally ill, wishes coming true, devoted parents, adoring sisters, video games of guns and gore, precocious dialogues,  the story has all the ingredients of a block buster young adult movie. No surprises here, a movie is indeed slated for release.

Hazel Grace, or ‘Just’ Hazel as she calls herself, is terminally ill. Her cancer seem to be temporarily stalled by a new medication, but she knows her days are numbered. As expected, she meets the gorgeous, precocious, tongue in cheek Augustus Waters in a support group meeting. Once a talented basketball player, the dreaded illness has left him with a prosthetic leg in place of a real one. And he falls in love, not the least because she resembles his girl friend who, no surprises here again, died of cancer. Too much cancer, you think? Wait, there is Isaac, who is waiting to lose his eye so that he can be certified NEC – No Evidence of Cancer.

Ready to run off? Not so fast. If you are still wondering what the hype and hoopla is all about, open that copy of yours and read.  We tend to dismiss such books saying the kids sound smart beyond their years, they speak words far suited to people much older, if not wiser and so on and so forth. Think for a minute, though. Aren’t our kids exactly the same? And we listen to them with a proud smile and an indulgent look. It is quite obvious as you read that the author knows young adults and ill ones at that. He seem to read their minds quite well and can really relate to the insecurities that rage their hearts. So it came as no surprise when I read somewhere that at twenty two, he worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital.

If the strength of the story is the realistic manner in which it is portrayed, its huge success among the young ones could very well be the ideal love that  they long for at that very impressionable age. The growth hormones on overdrive, peer pressure on one side, parental do’s , don’ts and expectations on the other side, it is a period of conflict for them – of emotions, soul and body. It is only natural that they yearn for that one true love, who understands you inside out, who stands by you come what may and who is ready to lay down even his life for you. And that is the connect that the author is able to tap effortlessly. For, here is someone who is willing to give up his last wish for his love. What more could an idealistic teenage heart ask for?

The parents are mostly in the background, especially Gus’s. Both sets of parents seem to be similar, maybe because of the almost identical backgrounds all three characters seem to come from. Hazel’s parents are a little more deeply etched – the mother who stays strong and the father who breaks – again seem to follow an expected pattern. What I loved here is Hazel’s concerns for her parents. She has read up on how a kid’s death might affect the parents , ‘studies say more than 50% end up in divorce.’ She has overheard her mother ‘cannot be a mother’ anymore. We give kids far less credit than they actually deserve and Green has beautifully brought out this point. Their fears are as real as a grown up’s and it is much more similar to ours that we would actually admit.

I will leave the details of the wish, what happens in between and how it all ends for the reader in you to find out for yourself. As I moved the book into the ‘read’ folder, two thoughts refused to leave me. The first one was Hazel’s thoughts on how illness defines her life and the person that she is now. As parents and elders, we tend to treat children with kid’s gloves many a time, more so when they are ill. It might be fine with them when it is an occasional illness. But it could be shattering to them when the illness is something that they are forced to be reminded of whether they want to or not, like Hazel’s oxygen tank. The ultimate fear of a young girl or boy is to be different from their peers. It is so well brought out when Hazel’s father tries to force a curfew on her. The teenager in her wants to act like a typical one, but she is almost always restricted by the thought of how she might hurt them. For a typical girl her age, that might very well be the last of concerns. You can only try to imagine the emotional trauma she must be going through, understanding and acting accordingly would be an impossible task for a parent.

The second is something that has been in my mind ever since I read a Reader’s Digest article years ago. There was this story about a terminally ill guy who decides to celebrate his own wake. Along with his wife, he plans it elaborately, with his favorite food and drinks, all his close friends and family present and each one reading out their eulogy for him. What a beautiful way to go, isn’t it? I am all for this. Why are we so reluctant to say good things about people directly to them when they are alive and then eulogize about them when they are no more? A simple ‘I love you’ said with feeling fills our hearts with joy, imagine the abundance of happiness it would mean to us if our loved ones took time out to really say what we mean to them. Isn’t that what is so charming about kids? They live for the moment and tell us what they feel in that instant. So, why not eulogize someone each day, while they are still in your life?

Going back to  the book, these lines from ‘Desiderata’ keeps playing in my mind,

“Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

 

Verdict – If you are a parent to a teenager, read it. If you are a parent of a teenager who swears by this book, read it, now. If you are not a parent to a teenager, but is someone who believes in and tries to live by the above quoted lines, read it.

4/5