Tag Archives: childhood

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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Up until somewhere near its midway mark, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – the story, primarily, of a boy’s voyage on a ship from Colombo to England in the 1950’s – proceeds with a certain deceptive simplicity. The boy, named like the author as Michael but known to most of his fellow passengers under the nickname Mynah, is the 11-year old child of divorced parents on a migratory journey, being sent to reunite with his estranged mother. While this echoes, biographically speaking, Ondaatje’s own early background and departure from Sri Lanka, an author’s note insists that this is a work of fiction – and indeed, the events on board the Oronsay are fraught with such drama and intrigue that one would not necessarily imagine otherwise.

At sea for twenty-one days, Mynah befriends Ramadhin, whose troubled heart lends him a cautious nature, and the confident, thrill-seeking Cassius. The trio find themselves assigned the same table at mealtimes – the eponymous Cat’s Table, as one of the other diners calls it, far from the Captain’s and seemingly not of particular ranking or importance. Free of serious adult supervision for the most part, the boys enjoy the small autonomies of travelling alone – sliding on polished floors, dive-bombing into the pool and staying up late – alongside varying encounters with others onboard, who reveal, by their own examples or in direct interactions, numerous things about adulthood that will tincture their understanding of life for a long time afterward.

He remains friends with Ramadhin after they walk off the gangplank, and eventually becomes a part of his family, but loses touch with Cassius. Still, he never stops circling his old friend in some way: a successful writer in adulthood, Michael goes to an exhibit of Cassius’s paintings – inspired, he discovers there, by their time on the Oronsay – and signs the guestbook as ‘Mynah’ yet leaves no address. And although he says that he has rarely thought of the voyage, its impact on the way he understands consequence, relationships and change is profound, deeply sublimated.

And this is where something shifts in the narrative. About halfway through the book, the adult Michael’s voice becomes truly adult in its reminiscences. There is a kiss that “knocks the door down for the next few years”, “an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie”, and suddenly we are seduced – here again is the idiom Ondaatje is famous for.

While the sustained intensity of The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, to name his two most acclaimed – and stunning – novels, never quite manifests in the same way, The Cat’s Table contains its moments of beauty. If the name Michael appropriated for a narrator who is adamantly fictitious is a sort of reverse red herring, then there are others that the devoted Ondaatje reader will recognize and delight in. On board the ship is a handicapped girl who had once become a trapeze artist, after tracking down a long-lost aunt in a troupe that performs in “a new village in the southern province every week”. Immediately evoked is a poem from his 1998 collection Handwriting entitled “Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”. This is what it means when an artist, over the course of his career, successfully creates a whole world in his body of work – wandering it, the reader finds herself in familiar rooms.

Later, in the book’s most breath-catching passage, the one most reminiscent of the elegance of his earlier prose, Michael reads a letter from the hitherto incomprehensible Miss Lasqueti to his cousin Emily. Both had been on the ship: the former is the one who has so named the Cat’s Table, the latter is onboard by coincidence, but her presence affects and alters the young Mynah deeply. Lasqueti writes of a time in her past when she had fallen under the spell of a powerful man, just as Emily has, and of what the experience taught her and what had been taken from her as a result. In one luminous line, she mentions in passing the artist Caravaggio, for whom Ondaatje named a protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient.

What begins as an adventure story is thus revealed to be a novel about adulthood as disillusionment and the untraceable origins of damage. What happens to Mynah on the ship is not anything as obvious as trauma; he is simply an observer, and in this way the events of those three weeks influence him in a subtle but indelible way. And there are events aplenty: how could there not be, when his co-passengers include a prisoner, a botanist transporting an entire garden across the world and a businessman with a curse on his head, to name just a few.

Good books by great authors sometimes suffer on account of their siblings. Though by turns moving and delightful, The Cat’s Table is not Ondaatje’s most wondrous work, but it helps to keep in mind that this is a book by a master of his craft being compared to other pieces of his own oeuvre. It is not an opus composed at the height of his powers, but coasts on a pleasant, if modest, plateau.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Loosen Up And Love The Lungi

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When our very own humble lungi made it onto the pages of the acclaimed street fashion photography blog The Sartorialist a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to bits. Cultural misappropriation and decontextualization? Oh pshaw. That Caucasian guy rocked that indigo lungi the way indigo lungis are meant to be rocked: by men with serious balls, metaphorical and otherwise.

Needless to say, I’ve been trying for awhile to get men out of their pants. And into their lungis.

Veshtis are too formal, kilts just trying too hard, regular skirts too evocative of transvestites (and if you’ve been following this column, you’d realise that would mean all amorous hopes will summarily be squashed but we could be BFFs). But the lungi – ah, how I would love to be taken to a fancy dinner by a man masculine enough to wear an indigo lungi with a white button-down shirt.

Of course, this takes quite some coaxing. I once made a guy come to college in a miniskirt (ah, the perks of being a slightly scary chick with a college magazine editorship!). He refused to take his track pants off from under the red wraparound, but not only did he very sportingly attend lectures and go out to lunch and let himself be photographed that way, he loved it. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he’s graduated to the liberating lounge-cum-luxury wear that is the lungi by now.

Then there was Lungi-Man, the superhero who fought cultural imperialism and mental colonization – and thankfully didn’t go commando as he bounded over traffic and tall buildings. Our intrepid crusader was invented for a friend who is quite severely desi-challenged (you know the type). Lungi-Man’s partner was the über-feminist Pavadai-Chatta Girl (yeah, she liked ironic statements). If I ever get tired of writing dysphoric verse and self-indulgent columns, I’ll do a graphic novel starring the two of them. Installment one: it’s laundry day, the wife’s on strike, and Lungi-Man is forced to wear the attire of his archnemesis, Veshtimeister. Things climax with Lungi-Man and Veshtimeister glowering at one other in a showdown, tweaking their own moustaches and striking dramatic poses, while Pavadai-Chatta Girl unties herself from the train tracks in her sheer boredom, then spits paan onto the both of them, staining their garments irreparably.

I guess you could say my lungi fascination started early. Some of the most fun I recall from my childhood was something called “the aeroplane game”, the key components of which are one lungi, one person to wear it, and one very small and easily amused child (two if the lungi-wearer has long legs). My father, in lungi of course, would sit down with his legs up on an adjacent chair. His lungi would fall in such a way as to create a sort of hammock-cradle, in which I could sit and swing around. I always thought I had discovered this by accident until I met a girl in my teens who had played the exact same “aeroplane game”. My guess is it may have been a common thing in Indian households until people started getting paranoid about the perceived ickiness factor of a kid being so close to the family jewels.

Some time last year, it was reported that a UK distributor had put in an order for 11,000 lungis from Kurunjipadi. No news since about what happened or is in store for what could very well be biggest fashion invasion of Europe since jodhpurs. Take heed, men of India! You can pre-empt the fashion capitals of the world starting today.

And trust me, the girls will love it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.