Monday, December 26, 2005

Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Excellent take on [Indian/Bengali] immigrants

Jhumpa Lahiri is nearly as brilliant in Namesake as she was in the Interpretor of Maladies. Namesake is the story of Gogol, son on Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly. The Gangulies hail from Bengal and throughout their life try to reconcile with their alienated existence in a foreign homeland. The son, Gogol, a namesake of a Russian writer, struggles to come to terms with his love and life. He is born American, flesh and blood Indian and named Russian. The name was given to him as Gangulies never received the letter sent by an aged grandmother carrying the name for Gogol. It was Gogol's book that Ashoke was reading, when he nearly died in a train accident, so the name is forever dear to him. What Gogol does not understand during Ashoke's life, becomes partially apparent to him after his father's death (an extremely moving description).

The novel is about misplaced homelands, about misunderstandings between generations, about the pain and pining of an immigrant, about family values and about an individual who learns from a series of engaging events and conversations the significance of everything he considered meaningless and perhaps, foreign. Namesake is a novel that is brilliant in the description of typical immigrant Bengali families, and does commendable job in capturing the essential conflicts within and among the family members of immigrant families.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, (Translated by Constance Garnett)

A deep, psychological, verbose masterpiece!

The Brothers Karamazov is said to be the greatest and last novel written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In reading the novel, one discovers why so. The novel is set in nineteenth century Russia, and deals with the story of three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, and the events surrounding the murder of their father Fyodor Kamarazov. The father is a drunkard baffoon, who spares no thoughts or money to his sons, and leads a life of sexual exploits, orgies and drunken revelry. Dmitri, born to Fyodor's first wife, returns to his hometown to seek money from his father, but gets enchanted by Grushenka, who his father lusts for and threatens to win over by the poer of his money. The sensual Dmitri, a former captain of the army, was earlier bethrothed to beautiful Katrina, who he wishes to leave in wake of his intense passion for Grushenka. The brother Ivan, an intellectual stars in the three most famous chapters of the book: Rebellion, the Grand Inquisitor and the Devil; where Dostovesky presents arguments against existence of God and discusses the genesis and futility of evil; the three chapters that on their own could have made the name of the Dostovesky as famous as it is. Ivan formulates arguments that both amaze and befuddle the reader and the reader finds himself tormented by the existential, ethical and theological questions that surface everywhere in the novel. Ivan falls for Katrina.

Dostovesky calls Alyosha the hero of the novel. Alyosha is an idealist, a believer, a charming young fellow who would was all set on becoming a monk, till his mentor and guide Father Zossima asked him to return to the worldly life. The landscape is full of a range of other characters: Grigory and his wife Marya, devoted servants of Fyodor, who bring up an illegitimate, epileptic son of Fyodor, called Smerdyakov; the wealthy townswoman Madame Hohlakov, whose near cripple daughter Lise is engaged to Alyosha for some period of time; Rakitin, a character who full of big talk and shallow personality and two kids Koyla and Illusha.

The novel centers around the events leading to and after the murder of Fyodor, whereby Dostovesky creates a highly engaging and yet pretty verbose analysis of the crime, parricide, providing his deep psychological analysis of characters and endless references from Christian texts. The last few chapters where he weaves courtroom drama provides the right climax to this highly challenging piece of work.

The brilliance of Dostovesky is in making his reader undergo the same fever, same fervour that a criminal is faced with. The depth of portrayal is such that one is continuously full of the characters and the questions that surround their existence: for these questions are eternal questions that confound the reader. While the story is a gripping tale of murder and courtroom drama, the meat of the novel in the three chapters mentioned, in the discussions about what is right and wrong, in the presentation of various facades of human nature and human passion, in arguments for and against parricide, in the dealing of Alyosha with Illusha and Koyla. The last chapter, where Illusha loses his life, culminates a series of heartwrenching events, and this particular chapter is perhaps one of the best pieces arousing pathos in literature. The reader is just washed by the torrent of sorrow, and in a certain sense, Dostovesky succeeds in leading the reader through a sort of catharisis, ending in certain tears and an understanding that Christ-like love and purity of soul symbolized by Illusha and Alyosha is bound to prevail, to save our soul and society.

The novel is also an excellent read in terms of insights it offers into the ethical, social and philosophical ideas present in Russia towards the end of nineteenth century. In that respect, it presents a case study of the undercurrents in the Russian society, the seeds and spread of socialism and well as the nature and depth of belief in church, miracles and God. The novel is also a part-time love story, where the flaring passions are so intense as to drive characters to the brink of madness, to the edge of chaos, to extremes of happiness and sorrow.

Reading Dostovesky is like undergoing catharisis, tortuous and painful, and precisely so he is a must read for everyone who ventures into deeper questions surrounding the humanity.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Discussing passive dowry!

I am at an age where most of my friends are getting married. Conversations invariably revolve around what one will look for in his/her future spouse. We all talk about what is acceptable and what is not, with considerable conviction. There are some who accept arranged marriage as time tested method and are willing to wait to choose from the right ones brought forward by the parents. There are others, the romantics, who believe in Yash Chopra like endings, and fan arguments in favor of choosing for oneself. Thus they create enough matter for gossip, and in general humor us with their bravadoes, escapades and failures. In heart we know, we all will get married, and as it always seems to happen, most will appear richer right after they do. Like it has happened with rampant pollution and corruption, we, Indians, have accepted this ritualized exchange of gifts, where the bride's family pays for all the bills. This custom of dowry, somewhat amazingly and alarmingly, continues to flourish and this is spite of all our education and grand talk about progress of society.

The most obvious form of dowry is where the demands are explained and outlined at the outset, and depending upon how the greed grows, the market forces, the pliability of bride's family, the counter-offers and some astronomical or astrological reasons, the demands evolve with time. In some of these cases, getting married is like finding a life-long credit agency, where one must be paid in cash or kind for just being an in-law. Many people, in spite of their education and social standing, allow themselves to become leeches on the wife's parents and brothers. The most easily cited counter scenario is where the bride is asked to walk into husband's house in three pieces of clothing. When I discuss about dowry, I am usually referring to neither; both represent extreme cases and my identification of dowry as a problem demands I talk about passive dowry, the most prevalent, and yet the least criticized method.

Passive dowry is the most common form of dowry. The bride's family is supposed to supply whatever they deem as necessary for newly weds, for it is clearly stated that the groom's family lacks no luxuries per se. The bride's family is supposed to estimate and evaluate what gifts and presents could be considered satisfactory in the social circles of both the families. An over-estimate is always pleasant for the receiver, an under-estimate source of perpetual jibes and widespread "thu-thu" (criticism, metaphorically stated by spitting at the defaulters face). People might talk about groom's getting a new car in hushed voices, and bride's family may say out aloud that their daughter requested it as she wouldn't want to walk after marriage, but the bottomline is that the car stands in the garage of newly married couple, will remain there, the groom usually accepts it with either a smug or sneeky smile and the bride's family is poorer by that amount. If one lives away from his parents, we often hear about the secretly managed sudden increase in the standard of living. We often associate it with the groom's coming of age, realizing a married life requires more than just a bed and a tv, and maybe it is partially true that marriage brings some sense into us bachelors. It seems to bring lots of other things too. Like sex, and of course money; we usually talk about neither. We see where the money came from, and either wink or close our eyes. How convenient!

Even if the groom demands nothing, there is no guarantee that he won't do it later. The bride's parents must, indeed, for custom and age-old wisdom demands it, must always have enough emergency funds to meet the stated and unstated demands of the in-laws. Sometimes the groom's family is totally opposed to dowry, and then the bride must suffer through the constant whispering and sniggering from either relatives or from the neighbor, who leave no opportunity to remark how empty handed the bride's family must have been. Not only we have embraced and ritualized dowry, we have also allowed it to become a status symbol. In the naked hunger for easily earned money, dowry is a phenomenal thing. It comes with someone who you are supposed to share your life with; and you seek payment for uniting with her who stars have designed for your sake. You seek a price for yourself, for an IAS is obviously more expensive than an IPS, a US degree definitely requires more gold than a desi pedigree, IIT & IIM is obviously means acquisition of better valued commodity than from a run-of-mill college. In this market, where we sell and buy companionship, each ability and disability, education and ancestry, custom and social standing, play a role in making most of us the most overpriced objects of affection. Being hypocritical as always, we shall not call these bought objects with the name they deserve, for these objects come armed with social recognition and even in selling themselves, they are the ones who call the shots. Still, most end as over-hyped and over-priced objects of affection. What objects for what purpose, and ah, at what price!

Discussing passive dowry, as it is, is like discussing most ailments of our society. We divide ourselves into camps, contrasting one situation with another, and give some a benefit of doubt as we like them or know them or cannot openly renounce them. We treat all arguments as attacks on our own selves, as an attack on how our family has conducted itself over the years, and find ourselves wanting in one respect or the other, for we all, at some point, are involved in abetting in the same crime we stand here to condemn. We look for easy escape, cite how people in other countries get gifts as well, say how happy certain couple is with dowry or without dowry in picture, we contend that only love cannot run a marriage and we resign saying, it is a necessary evil, we don't like it, and we don't approve of it. We say someone must do something about it, maybe the government. In the heat of moment, we announce we will not be party to any dowry taking or giving ritual, which would mean that in next marriage we attend, we shall drown our commitment in gulps of whisky or pronounce our lack of complete familiarity with the groom's family as reason for doing nothing. We will defend all gifts we will get at our marriage. Sometimes, the brides will themselves insist on having certain gifts. At most we will read or write certain articles or blogs about it, but I am sure as hell, we will leave this discussion saddened and embittered. For like in passive corruption, or like in promiscuity, passive dowry survives due to an understanding between the involved parties. In our society ruled and run by compromises, passive dowry is natural and inevitable. So is my tone, your response, and our collective morality.

Dec 18, 2005
Written after conversation with two friends, AS and FSA.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Unbearable lightness

I kissed her lips
A chocolate jellyfish
Swam in my eyes
And what I swallowed
Blossomed in the caresses
Shirtless wonders
Nudged me afresh
But I let go
Unbearable lightness;

Cuddles muddle
Lips are delicious
A chocolate jellyfish
Swam in her eyes, fell,
I gobbled it up
Hugged and smiled
Ageless innocence
Melted in my arms
But I let go
Unbearable lightness.

14 Dec 2005
Atlanta GA

PS: Poetry for poetry's sake!
Judge the poem, not the poet!
(Dismayed by certain remarks: will write a blog about it)!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My chaotic love

From the pen of a pained and pining physicist, a verse celebrating mathematical madness of being in love; requires elementary knowledge of the behavior of non-linear systems and of chaotic dynamics.

My chaotic love

In all probability are lost
the positive eigenvalues of hope
abstracted from the coupled equations
of your swaying moods
and my time independent love;

I should have known though
only instabilities arise from
the positive eigenmodes of expectation
and in evolving, co-dependent desires
chaos is inevitable;

I knew from onset, yet doubted
the predicted behavior of us,
construing separation as an artifact
of our linear linear thinking or erratic,
faulty mapping of our realities;

Our disjointed worlds interacted
through ephemeral, random junctions;
your eyes perturbed me to oscillate
till my will enslaved, spiraled me headlong,
trapping me in the basins of your attraction;

My passions had stretched and folded
my dreams and desires to space fill
even the remotest eddies of my heart
and in the complexity of my thoughts
I saw my chaotic love as simply beautiful.

Dec 13, 2005
Atlanta, GA.

PS: To fully appreciate the mathematics underlying the metaphors and similies in this verse, please read any standard text on non-linear dynamics and chaos. The text by Strogatz is a nice introduction, though Gleick's Chaos is recommended reading for anyone interested in knowing about the rockstars of the science of chaos, and reading about the genesis of their most celebrated results.

For mathematicians who have yet experienced only chaos and no love, no books can teach them anything of the latter, and it must be experienced first-hand, for there is no known method of abstracting it from other people's experiences.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A must watch movie: Main Meri Patni Aur Woh

Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh is a class act. Rajpal Yadav, Ritu and KK star in this movie, that is in the league of Choti si Baat, Golmaal, Chasme Baddoor and Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi in its potrayal of middle class insecurities and values, and the comedy is immaculate. The husband is about four to five inch shorter than his extremely beautiful wife, and is understandably insecure about it. The prying eyes follow here everywhere, and our protagonist ungoes an agony that generates both laughter and sympathy for him. When a guitar playing, tall, dark and handsome KK, his wife's school friend moves next door, he suffers in silence, finding himself shorter in every respect to his nemesis.

The movie is beautifully crafted, provides more laugh than most movies released this year, and the best bit is that it is quite realistic and heartfelt. The attention to detail is particularly charming, the dialogues and settings take you to the streets and style of Lucknow, and the script and screenplay and direction are as good as they must be. Chadan Arora deserves all plaudits for creating this "masterpiece".

If you liked KK in Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi, you will find him equally remarkable here. So far, he has impressed with his every appearance, and his talent is seen in good measure here. Ritu is beautiful, and is cast in a role that she delivers with a finesse of an accomplished artist. I hope she will be cast in many more roles in Bollywood. The other supporting cast blends into the middle class culture very well, but the actor who stamps his authority over is craft is Rajpal Yadav. He is brilliant, just brilliant. Brilliant in every frame of the movie. We need more Chandan Arora's to utilize him in creation of movies like this, a movie that is "good cinema" at its best.

The bollywood songs are used at places to accentuate effect. The music is soulful and memorable, especially the following two:
1) Doob Jaana Re [Singers: Sony Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal, music : Rajendra Shiv, lyrics : Rocky Khanna] One of the best melodies of the year, powered by great lyrics!
2) Guncha [Singer: Mohit Chauhan, music : Mohit Chauhan, lyrics : Rocky Khanna] This is an incredible song: lyrics are ghazalish, music is soothing and singing is refreshingly tasteful.
While you might not be able to see the movie right away, savor the songs, especially the mentioned two. Another song, Paintra, is quite catchy as well.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Ik sard khamoshi (A cold silence)

Ik sard si khamoshi liye
Hum tumse thay aa milay
Tum sikurr kar, thditurr kar
Baithi rahi buss bidak kar
Saanson ke dhundh mein oojhal
Tumhaari mitt-ti, bann-ti shakal!

Ik sard si khamoshi liye
Hum tumse thay aa milay
Maano jamm gaye thay mere
Shabd juban par aakar
Aur barfilay vakyon mein
Saare rahhasya gumnaam rahay!

Vivek Sharma krit ; Summer 2005

thditurr: shiver; bidak: quiet, because of fear; sikurr: dry and shrivelled

(I do the unthinkable here, try and translate my poem; need to do so to allow non-Hindi speakers a glimpse of what is posted here. But trust me, even if it is the same poet rewriting it, the poems are written best in the language they reveal themselves to you. So a tepid translation, done at the spur of the moment:

Bearing a cold silence
I had come to meet you
You cuddled, you shivered
Sat there quite shrivelled
Beyond the fog of my breath
Your face appeared, disappeared.

Bearing a cold silence
I had come to meet you
As if were frozen
My words at my lips
Beneath the icy sentences
All secrets lie unidentified.)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Some short poems!

In the cherry blossoms of your cheeks
And the irridescent smiles of your lips
Live the glowing embers of my pining heart
And also the secret of beauty and happiness!


Lit with delicate, romantic dreaming desires
And full of morning dew and evening mist
Dark orbs of beauty, so large and deep
Your beautiful eyes, my love, are not designed to weep!


Who am I? A bird that perches
On your balcony by daily habit
Feeding on strewn sentences
Of kind, though disenchanted joy
That you find in my company
And your occasional happiness
On hearing me merrily chirp
Or happily flutter my wings
Momentary togetherness in time
That my flights of fancy cherish
Through my days spend in yearning
For the next sunset and morning
When I return to your home
Ah! I am no pet of yours
And yet I am not wild or free
A persistant visiting dreamer
In love with uncertainity!


Glow my dear candle,
Give me sight and sense,
My fear and darkness vanishes
In your glowing presence!

Burning with yellow flame
Stand firm till tomorrow comes
My messiah with your sacrifices
Our life brighter becomes!

All written on Sept 17, 2004
Atlanta, GA