Friday, March 23, 2007

The Hunchback of Notra-dame by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo, the French poet and writer, who wished to change how novels were written and read, wrote The Hunchback of Notra-Dame in the beginning of his career. In contrast to Les Miserables, which is his more celebrated work, and was written several decades after the Notra-dame novel, the present piece is not only laced with more humor and romance but also stands out as a piece where the young poet in Hugo pours out a ravishing range of similes. Just for the pure magic of his metaphors and similes that make all his descriptions so poetic, so powerful Notra-Dame is worth reading.

The story itself reads like a fanciful movie, an ugly hunchback, Quasimodo is brought up by a Priest Frollo, the archdeacon of Notradame. The hunchback is hence attached like a dog to his master to him. The English title of Hunchback of Notra-dame is a misnomer, for the original is called Notra-dame de Paris, and English title lets us assume that it is the story of Hunchback as hero, while the original title asserts it is story set in Notradame and has charaters who reside in it, or live in its shadows. The Priest Calude Frollo, leaving his pursuit of science and philosophy meanders to a path of unrelenting lust for the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda. A writer, Pierre Grigorne, gets into a set of bizarre circumstances, where a token marriage attaches him to the gypsy. Phoebus, captain of King's Archers is the object of the affection of Esmeralda herself.

Besides these characters, there is a madwoman who lives in confinement, pining for her lost child, who was carried off by gypsies, and hates Esmeralda. There is the goat Djali, who performs tricks with Esmeralda, Jehan who is Claude Frollo's irreligious brother, King Louis IV - who interacts with Claude on issues of science, and the most important character, who lurks like an existence all though, is the Notra-Dame itself. The romances criss cross through a series of interesting episodes and drama, and that forms the crux of the story that I won't divulge here. Readers will benefit by discovering surprises and mystery for themselves, in process getting enchanted by a story that has been a popular read for centuries now.

What makes this novel a masterpiece, besides the poetic descriptions, is Hugo's description of the cathedral of Notra-dame and the city of Paris, and his discussion of how the arrival of printing press signaled an end to the importance as architecture as the expressive art of intellectuals. The views of the author expressed in these pages and pages of delightful reading provide the reader not only with historical and architectural prespective on the buildings in Paris, but also gives us a word image of buildings, roofs, rooms, carvings, modernism, and more. In his commentaries and comparisons between writing and printing as form of expression in contrast to architecture, Hugo unmasks a wide array of issues that arrival of every new media (TV, Cinema, Internet, Digital Photography) bring. How existing precepts and concepts are revised, how adaptations occur, how each age has its own expression through any of these means- and all Hugo says so passionately about architecture or literature allows us to feel the essence of why we make monuments of stones or words in the first place.

Victor Hugo had great skill in developing characters, and describing their lives over an extended period of time, capturing how situations and people led to certain choices, behavioral changes and thought process of each. His ability of doing this, in a very detached manner, where narrative is like a camera floating into a room, and staying long enough for a distant observer to watch and identify traits of every person present there, makes him a great novelist. The novel, like all classic reads, looks formidable in size, but can be read at a formidable pace, especially after the first half of the novel is over.

Besides the merits of the novelist, and the beauty of his wordplay, the story itself is a charming one, and has been brought to screen versions many times. Reading Hugo's two major works allows one to get the same keen insight into French society of the respective times, as does Thackeray and Dickens novels for England and Tolstoy in Russia. Reading any of these masters takes time, but trust me, it is worth the patience and the effort. Recommended highly.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Maila Anchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu (Review)

Renu's Maila Anchal is one of the finest novels ever written in Hindi. The landscape of Bihar, the caste divide, Indian independence and changes in its aftermath, Maithali folklores and poems and multiple love stories painted on a canvas with highly perceptive descriptions of village life make it one of the most important novels written in and about rural India.

The novel was first published in early 1950s, in the post Prem Chand era, at a time when young, independent India was trying to redefine its identity as a Nation. The novel is set in Bihar, and incorporates the regional contexts and references into its theme, making it into a perfect example of Anchalik Upanyaas (Regional Novel).

A short synopsis of the story reads as follows (I won't serve you the details or the surprises for I wish you will read the story and enjoy the unfurling of events): Tehsildaar babu, by the virtue of his position in local administration, has acquired large tracts of land, and turned into a Zamindaar (landlord) himself. His daughter Kamla suffers from some disease that results in fits. Doctor babu (Dagdar babu) has left his city-life to work in these hinterlands. This is the realm where Malaria, Kalazar and numerous such epidemics run havoc, where people trust tantriks and pandits (witches and priests) more than they trust Western medicine, where poverty itself is the biggest disease affecting people, and besides the lack of basic amenities, people lack education and faith in government as well as in the doctor himself. The character of Doctor Babu is based on the life-story of Dr Alakh Niranjan, who was alive (and 100 years old) in 2003. The doctor babu makes special effort to fight disease as well as lack of belief in medicine, he battles both the ailments and the superstitions of people around him. Kamla, who is one of his patients, perhaps the only rich patient, falls in love with him.

Lakshmi lives at a Matth (a kind of monastery), serves an old Mahanth (a priest) (they have a scandalous relationship, for the Mahanth is supposed to stay away from all pleasures). The Mahanth has a servant, who bears all the insults from his master, and eventhough he is of low birth, is admitted into the Matth, as he is adept at playing the Khanjira (a musical instrument). A freedom fighter, S (I forget his name), comes in contact with Lakshmi, and is attracted to her. After Mahanth's death, the servant assumes office with help of Lakshmi, and because of her scandalous position, several people's lust after her, till she gives up her position in Matth.

The novel describes a whole bunch of characters who get involved in caste-based politics. Apart from S, who is a strict Gandhian (and makes speeches in pure Hindi, that most villagers admire, but never understand), there is a dwarf, who has had correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi himself. After Mahatma's death, the dwarf wanes away like a candle, celebrated in the darkest hours, flickers away unnoticed, once the power supply is restored. The village hooligans are lured by the Communist party, and the hooligans care about neither social justice nor communism. The novel describes division s between different castes and groups, the divisions become harsher as politics promises power and money. If you wonder about the genesis and the consequences of caste-based politics, Maila Aanchal has a perfect script that will assist you in tracing its roots. Renu in a manner of great story tellers lets the events speak for themselves: the episodes in the novel shed light on how Gandhi was revered in even these remotest villages and how his death was mourned by most who had no inkling of what difference becoming "free" would to make to them. For them the simile of being like a free bird meant nothing, for they were like wingless birds who knew not what wonders a flight entails, what sceneries lie beyond the horizons. The events reveal how Gandhians and idealists lost hope and direction after Independent India thrust itself into games of corruption and caste-based politics. The events prescribe the socio-economic condition of the villagers, the unequal sharing of crops, the inherited hierarchy of caste and money, and the family values or lack thereof.

Be it gossip or folklores, songs of tribals or cures by the Doctor; be it drama (nautanki) enacted on stage or the Akhara fights (the wrestling matches); be it dresses and ornaments of womenfolk or the idealism and corruption of men; be it the bhajans (hymns) in Matth or the lust of men who sought Lakshmi; be it the harvesting season or description of monsoon rain; Renu presents a masterpiece where each description comes with a perspective and perception as keen and humane as of Tolstoy and Chekov, as astute as of Maugham and Lawrence, as rich in local flavor as no English novel written by any Indian has ever managed to be.

If Renu were an author in any other language, in other country or tongue, he would have managed to be read and celebrated a million times better than he is by us Hindi speaking Indians. He shares this fate with Prem Chand, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Dharamveer Bharati, Ageya, Yash Pal, and Jaishankar Prasad, to name a few. His story Maare Gaye Gulfaam was made into a movie Teesri Kasam, though Maila Aanchal seemed to have been ignored by our Bollywood (they are most obsessed with copying Hollywood, and often ignore literature written in India).

If I were to suggest a series of books to any Indian about his country, I would, apart from epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, go on and hand this list (Hindi/Urdu): Anand Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Gora, Geetanjali and Ghaira Bhare by Rabindranath Tagore, Godan, Gaban and short stories by Prem Chand, Maila Anchal by Renu, Short Stories in Hindi by Yashpal, Ageya and Renu, Short Stories in Urdu by Manto, Panchatantra, everything by Kalidasa (Hindi versions are not too hard to find), and Gunaahon ka Devta by Dharamveer Bharati. (The titles missing from this list (except for English fiction and Sarat Chandra) are a measure of my own ignorance, and hence I'll be delighted to get any recommendations.)

Language flourishes when people speaking it celebrate its richness, honor its bards, recognize the need for its evolution and admire scholarship. Hindi as a language needs more authors like Renu. But more important than that is the reader who can savor the delights offered by our language. Maila Aanchal, apart from its numerous merits in being descriptive and its range and depth of narrative, is a celebration of spoken Hindi language, the khari boli. The language as we hear and live it is brought to the page by Renu. While he talks about social change, and issues closer at heart to reformists in undertones, he also springs at us a well written marvel of the language, freely indulging, romancing as if, with local words and variations, and at times, openly mocking the bookish Hindi, that is the bane of our classrooms, certain newspapers, and self-styled authors. By the emphasis placed on the use of highly Sanskritized, defunct words, and due to importance of English as language of knowledge and erudition, Hindi literature and language have suffered enormously. Perhaps those among you who read the Russian authors or even the classical British novelists, perhaps you will notice how our approach to Hindi (or our Indian languages) is similar to Russians or Brits had for their mother-tongues in comparison to French. Perhaps likewise, an array of brilliant writers, a free dose of nationalism inspired by a new Napolean, is what we need for our language to flourish as it must. While Renu waits for you to admire his contribution, I urge you to pick Maila Aanchal, and enter his world and characters from not so long ago, from our own land, our own country. Maybe, like always, you will learn something new about yourselves, about us. Read it and you will find Doctor babu, Kamla, Lakshmi, S, Mahant, Tehsildaar, Socialists, the dwarf, the Panditji and other characters will live etched in your memory reminding you of one and many you have known.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


The pillow talked to me through the night.

It said that it liked soft faces -
full of petty lies
and fragile, dreamy hair.

The problem with pillows is that they are full of fluff.
They are like middle-aged woman -
asexual cotton-bags, over-prized sacks of lethargy.

Of course, I only thought this to myself, and sighed aloud,
"I need a replacement," and I meant, I needed a silent pillow.
It agreed, conjuring an image, announcing, "an American one."

It continued, "I hate the coconut oil stains,
plus your South Indians always smell of Fair n Lovely;
North Indians of Ponds or Charmis, and Dabur Amla Oil."

"The Chinese and Korean breath rinks of beef and pork,
Middle Eastern, except belly dancers, are too exotic
and the Europeans use their foreign tongue too much."

I cut its monologue short, accusing it of racial discrimination.
I reminded it of its roots. The cover was Bangladeshi, cotton Indian,
and it came packaged in polyethene bags imported from China.

Just one travel across seven seas, and a position of privilege,
had converted it. It wanted to dust off the past, and wear the skin
of an alien sensibility; edging to extreme, to prove itself reinvented.

My head, heavy with thoughts and Indian spice, crushed it,
and grumbled into its wrinkling face. "Who was it talking about?"
I groaned. "Maybe my promiscuity. Maybe my alienation?"

We resent them the most who are an image of us, don't we?
And aren't they the ones that we find most easy to befriend?
The pillow warmed up to me, my compunctions sunk into sleep.

Thursday, March 01, 2007