Category Archives: Beauty

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

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Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.

Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.

“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”

In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,

“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.

‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “

Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.

The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.

Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.

“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.

The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,

“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”

The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,

“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “

You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?

To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.

Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.

5/5 

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Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

imageThe name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.

I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.

Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.

A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound  volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’

The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab  Sahib.’

As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room,  she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.

And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,

” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”

The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read.  Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.

Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.

Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?

As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.

( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )

That picture in your mind

Some books leave a lasting imprint on your soul. You might forget most parts of the story , the characters must have long receded into some obscure part of your amnesiac brain, even the author would have been long forgotten. But, the moment someone mentions the name, or you see it referred to somewhere, a picture pops up in your mind. It takes you right back into that place and mood you had escaped to  and sets you off on a dream, again.

I read Heidi first in school. Johanna Spyri’s spirited little girl who was dumped unceremoniously on a grandfather who never wanted her in the first heidiplace. Was it the first time I heard of a far off country called Switzerland? A few years before the book, I had fallen in love with hills and mountains. It was but natural that the love extended to the enchanting story of a lost little girl, running around freely among the meadows of the Swiss Alps. And the picture, a cute chubby girl in a red gingham dress with white frills and a hat to match, with a milk pail in one hand that went up in perfect balance to the sprightly feet that was dancing its way in the green grasslands. The background always looked like those ‘hills that are alive with the Sound of Music.’

Some books leave a colour on the palette that your mind is. One that immediately pops up – ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruis Zaffon.’ Sepia tones, bronze lighted up with sunlight and dreary brown in between . The dark mood of the story commingled with the eternal eagerness in the young boy’s mind. The colour of a classic movie.

The picture takes the form of a person in some others. Esteban Trueba, the ageing patriarch in Isabel Allende’s ‘The House of Spirits,’ with a forlorn look on his age withered face, loose trousers and a shirt that is too large for him, billowing in the wind, an antique walking stick in his right hand and the left hand slightly lifting the faded hat of his half bald head. As I move to her ‘Paula,’ it is the author herself that catches me by the throat. In fact, there are two pictures that keep coming back to mind. A self assured young woman running up and down the streets of a slowly disintegrating capital citu. Neither does she have the time nor the inclination to even think about others or what they might say. The focus is on the next interview and the safety of her children. The determined look hasn’t changed a bit as we meet her again, years later, by her daughter’s sick bed. A mixture of emotions on her face, from hope, to despair, to sadness and finally, of peace. The book left me with a feeling of contentment, the kind that comes only with pain and acceptance.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is the cantankerous Renee`, seated in front of her TV that is tuned low, a voluminous book in her lap and eyes darting surreptitiously to the door every time there is the slightest of movements. Paloma is a sophisticated version of Heidi, her mischievous eyes hidden behind a philosophical demeanour.

tuscanySome pictures light you up from within. It’s your own dream in another’s words. As if the author sneaked into your head and spirited away your deepest yearnings , only to give it back to you, as a gift of love, in the form of ink on paper. The house keeps changing. Today it is a tall, white colonial structure with large French windows, stately wooden chairs placed in just the perfect manner. White silk curtains fluttering in and out in the breeze on a bright sunny day and the chairs adorned with fluffy cushions in raw silk with most delicate of embroideries in red, green, pink and blue. Tomorrow it will be a low roofed building of red bricks, wide stone paved veranda with lush green plants in planters of all odd shapes and sizes. Bougainvilleas creeping up the sun beaten stone pillars, arm chairs in cane and rattan that speak of morning coffee and scones, afternoon siesta, the heady aroma of evening tea and long hours of exciting reads. I step out with an apron in pastel green tied around my waist, a tray of freshly baked muffins and garlic bread in hand. The table is huge, seating more than a dozen at a time. Faded white linen cover and mats in natural fibre, the serving plates are in white with a thin silver line around the edges. A large pitcher of ginger lemonade, a bottle or two of wine in ice, the clinking sound of crystal, baritone voices, musical notes , reminiscing chuckles, a sigh that escapes now and then, baby laughter, the rustle of silk, the comfort of cotton and the mountain breeze bringing in a whiff of the centuries old olives. Those who know me well, would know the book in an instant. ‘Under the Tuscan Sun.’ One day, soon.

Now go ahead, close your eyes. Tell me , which book was that, what is the picture that comes to your mind in an instant and leaves you with a smile, a tender sigh, an inexplicable longing?

 

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

 

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

travelThe title was misleading. I was expecting to read about how to travel in an artistic manner or the science of artistic travel , whatever that would have been. As for the author, the only relationship till now were a few quotes, mostly from his ‘On Love’. The first few pages were more less on the expected lines – the anticipation that is mostly colored by a travel agency brochure. Palm fringed beaches, multi hued sea in shades of green , blue or a more sexy sounding aquamarine, the ubiquitous ‘hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen‘ and an almost always ‘azure sky.’

You think you know it all when the author comments on , how in the course of anticipation of a travel, mortal human beings like us tend to forget the details of what happens between the time that we get into a car on the way to airport and reach the hotel at your dream destination. We get an almost bleak picture of however exotic the destination maybe, how we experience it depends to a large extent, on a lot of other factors, beyond our control. The bliss cannot be permanent, and therein lies the beauty or the reality, as the case maybe.

The book is neatly divided into five parts – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return – two chapters each, except the last, that has one. Enlightenment struck in the second chapter of ‘Departure’ where Botton talks about a remote service station somewhere between London and Manchester and connects his thoughts to the French poet Charles Baudelaire and how his poems borne out of yearning for places afar inspired the American painter Edward Hopper. This was much more than what I had hoped for. Poets and artists I’d never heard of, why they did what they did, how their travels and what they noticed in details en route affected their art and their views on people and life….literary bliss indeed.

In the first chapter  ‘Motives’ of travel, Botton talks about how the very term ‘Exotic’ was synonymous with Middle East at one point of time. Did you know Gustave Flaubert hated his homeland with a passion and was obsessed with the Orient? As the author observes, “What we find exotic abroad maybe what we hunger for in vain at home,” you can’t help nodding in agreement. You also wonder whether the places that you call home are really that , or as the cliche goes, ‘isn’t home where your heart is?’

Curiosity could be another factor that prompts one to take up travel. He talks of the extreme levels of curiosity that one can go to citing the example of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who went on an expedition to South America and came back with details as diverse and detailed as to cover biology, geology, physics, chemistry and whatever else you could think of. (His biography is aptly sub titled ‘What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime‘). If you are overwhelmed with this super human’s endeavors, Botton leaves us with a consoling thought,

“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”

‘Landscape’ and ‘Art’ are what really captured my heart. Serendipity strikes when you listen to Wordsworth echoing your thoughts on living in the city as against the country. It was on a visit to Red Hills in Ooty a few years ago that the fact of how your surroundings  can actually affect the kind of person you are, first came into mind as a conscious thought. Every morning, Vijay, the owner of the serene home stay could be seen sitting on the green wrought iron bench in the front garden, staring at the emerald lake below. He was a man of gentle manners and I wondered whether it was the lake and its surroundings that passed on its sage like qualities to him. Over the years, I’ve noticed the changes that come over people based on where they lived and who their constant companions were at any point of time. Some places leave a lasting impression on one’s mind that you are found going back to it time and again, especially when the mind is in turmoil and longs for peace. Isn’t this what the great poet meant when he said,

“For oft on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye….

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the Daffodils.”

The two chapters that follow goes on to tell us about what sublime is all about and how art influences our appreciation of certain things and places, which we might not have otherwise. At some time or other, most of us are influenced by the various reviews and historical significance of places and people. It is as if we are some idiots if we fail to find the same awe and wonder as others mostly pretend to. ‘On Eye-Opening Art’ tells us a different story. Botton , who is totally not impressed by the much appreciated Provence with its quintessential olive and cypress trees and wheat fields. It took aVincent van Gogh to make him appreciate the beauty of the place and its colours.

He saved the best for the last. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ is about John Ruskin, who I must admit, was someone whom I’d never heard of before. He gave a kick on my backside and how. Do we really see what we are looking at, and if at all we do, how much? According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. (That explains our hoarding mentality , I guess. The definition of what is beautiful may vary, though. ) And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?

“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”

The catchword is of course, ‘irrespective.’ We are so worried about what others think and say of our work, all the while forgetting the real essence of art. For, isn’t art something that should give you absolute joy? Irrespective of definition, of what others term as good or bad, if it is something that gives you joy, without harming anyone else, isn’t that the ultimate aim of art? In Ruskin’s words again,

“Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.”

Art can never be separated from life. And when someone links one of the deepest longings – travel – to an object of beauty and makes you think of how you can never be really away from life and its twists and turns, with the added pleasure of finding new artists to enjoy and new authors to be read, you realize you have found a treasure, and a true one at that.

Botton says,

“I had seen many oak trees in my life, but only after an hour spent drawing one in the Langdale Valley (the result would have shamed an infant) did I begin to appreciate, and remember, their identity.”

True of people in our life as well, isn’t it?

ruskin2

‘The Small Brick Bridge’ by John Ruskin

 

Verdict : You love travel ? Art ? Poetry? Go read!

4/5 for the book and 5/5 for ‘On Possessing Beauty’

 

Francesca and Robert – some random thoughts

bridges

I first read ‘The Bridges of Madison County‘ at an age when one believes love is only for the young. Anyone above forty would  have been done and dusted with romance and got lost in the mundane things of life. It was no wonder that the book left a kind of disbelief in my mind. Really? A fifty something house wife, somewhere in the wild falling in love with a wandering photographer? Not just that, plunging headlong into a full blown affair? And then, celebrating their anniversary? The feeling was of a mild disgust – how could she do this to her husband – and total disbelief.

Well, at times, with age comes wisdom and acceptance. So does a gradual change in the definition of romance. It is really difficult to remember when the change starts taking over you. The sudden surge in hormones that brings forth a luminous glow in your eyes, that makes your heart rate go at the rate of a super bike and turns your bones into jelly, slowly transitions to something deeper.  Looks doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. You are more interested  in what comes out of a mouth guarded by those sensuous lips rather than imagining a scorching kiss on them. Along with family and kids came a better understanding of Francesca, but questions remain aplenty.

Few days ago, a friend of mine shared this beautiful love story. It’s about a night that Sir Isiah Berlin spent in Leningrad in 1945. Through a friend, he met the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, twenty years older to him and about whom he did not know much. The article goes on about how as the night progressed, they went from one topic to another, discovering more and more about themselves, the books, thoughts and philosophies they had in common, “They had read all the same things, knew what the other knew, understood each other’s longings,” is what Berlin’s biographer says about the meeting. That night was something the two of them would never forget in their lives and probably influenced many a story and poem that the two brought out. A rare connection of heart and intellect.

Reading the story, my mind automatically went back to Robert Kincaid, the ‘peregrine’ photographer who had come to Iowa to capture the covered bridges of the county. He meets Francesca, wife of a country farmer and the next few days define the rest of their lives. They would have never imagined or even had the wildest dream  about such a confluence souls.

“It’s clear to me now that  I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty humming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.”

Call it destiny, fate, luck, serendipity or whatever you may, the essential feeling is the same, that this was bound to happen. All is well as long as the two of you are unattached and you know no one is going to get hurt. The power of recognition and love is so strong, it is just not possible to find fault in their relationship. Yet, a question keeps gnawing at the corners of my heart, “what if it was me? Would  I have jumped at the chance?”

Francesca was a free and passionate spirit and wanted to see the world. She had jumped at the chance to get out of her small Italian village, so got married to the dashing American soldier, only to live the rest of her life in a remote farm land in Iowa, miles away from civilization. Into her conventional life comes this leopard-like handsome creature, upsetting her plcaid existence and pulling out all that she had pushed down into the deepest recesses of her heart. She realizes that at her age, there could never be another chance. And she decides to give that gift to herself.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t given much thought to Robert, except as the handsome Clint Eastwood. He is free to do anything he wants without too many repercussions. It is Francesca that kept stealing silently into my thoughts, “why didn’t she take the chance of a lifetime? she could have had the life that she always dreamed of, why did she let go?” And then that nagging question again, “what would I have done, in her place?”

More often than not, we want more than what we already have. Especially so, if you are a dreamer. We are in constant search of that someone or something that would make you whole and complete. Someone who fits into the contours of your soul, mind, body and intellect with perfect ease, as if you were parts of the same puzzle. Alas, the imperfect mortals that we are, with all the associated faults and foibles, perfection turns out to be a mere chimera. So what would you do, if you are one of those rarest ones, who is lucky enough to find that elusive mate, even if it is only for sometime, irrespective of whether you are young or old? Would you grab that chance with everything that you have and let go of all else? Would  you just ignore it or would you do as Francesca did – fill her soul to the brim and feed from it for the rest of her life?

It was Francesca who gave me my answer,

“The paradox is this: If it hadn’t been for Robert Kincaid, I’m not sure I could have stayed on the farm all these years. In four days, he gave me a lifetime, a universe, and made the separate parts of me into whole. I have never stopped thinking of him, not for a moment. Even when he was not in my conscious mind, I could feel him somewhere, always he was there.

But it never took away from anything I felt for the two of you or your father. Thinking only of myself for a moment, I’m not sure I made the right decision. But taking the family into account, I’m pretty sure I did.”

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

 “With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”

Some people and certain experiences come right out of the blue , gives a kick on your backside and shock you out of your lazy complacence. You are left bewildered for a while before the light slowly starts shining down through the clouds. Certain books are like that. You start reading like you usually do, turning page after page, stopping to catch a phrase or a sentence now and then, skipping a page here and there, expecting to like, love, hate and ignore certain characters and to bring that satisfied smile on your face at the end. You think it would be another affair coming to an end. And then it transforms into a love that would last a lifetime.

To be honest, I was expecting the experience to be a little different from the usual, two of my book group friends just could not stop praising it. A precocious young girl who had decided to burn her apartment and kill herself on her 12th birthday because she was disillusioned with life , a 50 something extra intelligent concierge of a high end apartment complex somewhere in the frequented-by-ultra rich  lanes of Paris, and their profound thoughts – sounds quite pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what my thoughts were as I started with it.

The invasion of senses was slow, but sure and steady. I had to stop after almost each paragraph, sometimes to smile, sometimes to think and sometimes just to have a stupid grin of pure bliss on my face. A book, or should I say an author  was doing this to me after a long time. ‘The Garden of Evening Mists‘ made me dream and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was like seeing my dream come to life. ‘The Book Thief‘ had enchanted me and ‘The Forty Rules of Love‘ was a mystic experience. But this was something else.

At 12, Paloma already knows the futile nature of life. Or so she thinks. And when we consider how most of our lives turn out, you cannot actually blame her,

“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

Renee`, commonly known as the bland Madame Michel, the concierge of the apartment where Paloma lives, is a connoisseur of art and literature. Unfortunately, she believes that people are expected to behave in a certain manner according to which section of the society one belongs to. So, she takes great pains to act like a typical concierge, hiding her true self.

Both have a penchant for things Zen and Japanese. And to their secret world comes in an old and charming Japanese guy, to shake them out. As the three go through their meetings and discoveries about each other, I was wondering what is it about the Japanese that brings out the sublime in us? Is it because they are constricted for space that they make it an art of silence and emptiness? No, to call it an emptiness would be sacrilege, it’s more like creating space and calm from emptiness.

Even an attempt at doing a review would be pointless. For, this is not about stories and plots, maybe a little bit about characters. The first and only word that I can think of is ‘profound,’ if someone asked me to describe it in one word. More than what the characters say or do, the book is about what the characters think.  And their thoughts are what enamors and encompasses you and your whole mind. Among a lot other things, it made me think about a never ending discussion, questions to which there is no right answers, “What the characters speak for, or in this case, think for, is it how the author would be in real life? Do we or should we judge books by their authors and vice versa ?”

The book talks about life , art , beauty and such sublime matters. Weaving its way through all these is the thread that connects one human being to another, irrespective of where they come from , what they do and where they are going. You might be successful in hiding your true self to most, but kindred souls will always find you out, as Paloma says about Renee`,

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”

Paloma’s ruminations tells us how children are not much different from us, the so called adults. You are left wondering how we lose the sense of wonder and the ability to see things as they are , as we grow up or pretend to do so.  Most of us knew how to find joy in the simplest of things as kids, each experience was as exciting as the earlier one and we welcomed it with open hands.  As adults, many of us find solace in  music and art. Have we ever thought the feeling can exactly be the same for a child as well?

“Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”

I have always found answers to many a question on life in books that I love. This one made me wonder whether  they are true answers or merely what my mind and soul seek for. It reinstated my belief that the most profound truths comes from the mouths of children. It also made me realize that the questions that pop up in my mind from time to time are merely an attempt at re asserting what I already knew, that this is exactly what life is about,

“Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

To put it short and blunt, the Hedgehog made me think, after a long time…for a long time…

 

Verdict – You will either love it to death or purely  hate it. If well developed plots, action and the art of beautiful story telling is what turns you on, this may not be for you. But, if you are someone like me who goes into a trance after reading something profound and which touches the core your soul, this is a must read.

5/5

 

‘To Hell in High Heels’ by Helena Frith Powell

heelsThe book blurb gave all indications of a chick lit story, the cover picture even more so. In the rush to grab as many books as I could on the last day of the epic 80% off sale at Reliance Time-Out a few months back, I failed to notice that the heroin’s name was the same as that of the author. Not that I am complaining. It took a few pages before it dawned that this is a true story – of Helena’s research to find a cure for the wrinkle on her forehead , the thin lips, small chest, a microscopically large tummy, limp hair and what not.

Her journey starts from the perfectly round, full and pert bottom of her hairdresser. The first stop is at the world renowned Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland, supposedly the best and naturally one of the costliest anti ageing clinics in the world. An experiemnt in 1931 to save the life of a patient who was suffering from the after effects of a thyroid removal surgeries led Dr. Paul Niehans, the fouder of the clinic into some more research on cell therapy. A successful treatment on similar lines for Pope Pius XII in 1953, firmly established the clinic as one of the pioneers and leaders in ‘ cell regenaration’ therapy. And the main ingedient in the ‘CLP Cell Extract’, a revitalising agent the clinic is most famous for? Hold your breath – the liver of unborn lambs. Are you wondering how on earth they extract it? Simple, kill the mother when the foetus is almost fully grown. Yes, the clinic has its own sheep farm as well.

In the course of her research, Helena meets a yogi Frenchman, gets herself treated at  the spa in The Ritz Paris (whose clientele boasts of Liz Hurley, Sharon Stone and Jodi Foster),  visits the small village of Limone in northern Italy where the people have a genetic abnormality that causes them to live longer, spends a relaxing week of stress releievng treatments at ‘Golden Eye’, Ian Fleming’s old house on the Jamaican Coast, gets younger and younger in New York, meets some typical LA women and even spends a few mornings in Laughter on Laguna Beach.

The book provides an overwhelming amount of data on the deep ocean that the search for eternal youth is. When you remember that she has covered only a small part of this business, and that too the legitimate side, your eyes and mouth might open wide  at the billions that women and more increasingly men spend in search for an elixir of life. What did not really surprise me was something that most of us alerady know in our heart of hearts. Acording to one of well known doctors in this business,

“What cream you use doesn’t really make a difference, the main thing is that you moisturize.”

And you thought, the higher the cost, better the product? Here is one for you,

“the only difference between, for example, Nivea and La Prairie is in the packaging. They are even made in the same laboratory. Just like Lancome and L’Oreal.”

Intesesting, isn’t it?

Helena’s experience is an example of how one gets pulled into this maze from which one may never come out. You start with a basic spa treatment, the ‘consultant’ there talks you into that ‘wonderful’ treatment that can oh so subtly change the look of the tiny wrinkle at the corner of your eyes, then another one tells you about the miraculous tummy tuck that can be done during your lunch hour and you get sucked into the cess pool. There is no end, and that is the brilliance of this business. No treatment promises permanent results. You do a lip filling, it needs to be refilled every 3 months, you get a botox done, that has to be redone every 6-9 months, you get a hair infusion, that has to be redone every 6 months, it goes on and on. Once you get into a new look, it is  as if you can never be your old self again.

Her narration of the ‘lollipop’ girls with anoerxic figures that are so disproportinately thin as compared to the seemingly large heads, restuarnts with faces that are all lips and the 1661 women – who looks 16 from behind and 61 from the front – are hilarious at first, and patehtically sad once you actually start thinking about it. It is as of you have enetered a mass production factory that churns out women of the same size and features and all of them endowed with luscious hair. By the way, your loved one may never run his fingers lovingly through your tressses anymore, it is all glue in there.

The most ironic fact is what almost each of these specialists recommend for a permanent change – good diet, no sugars, lots of water and sun screen, exercise, stress free life and minimizing enviornmental factors. Now, you tell me who is  having the last laugh all the way to their Swiss banks.

The author quotes the palstic surgeon Mr. Ghengis in Fay Weldon’s ‘The Life and Loves of a She Devil’  and this one sentences summarizes it all,

“I can stop you looking old, but you will be old”

Verdict – I would still categorize this as a chick lit, a very interesting one at that.

3.5 /5