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Review: The Akram Khan Company’s Gnosis

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In Gnosis, the first production by The Akram Khan Company to be performed in India in eleven years, the eponymous principal dancer appears in two distinct incarnations: Akram Khan as purveyor of beauty, and Akram Khan as perpetrator of violence. In each mode, he exudes power in completely different, but equally riveting, ways.

We are introduced to the former incarnation during the first half of the show, consisting of three pieces: Polaroid Feet, Tarana and Unplugged. Here, the choreography doesn’t stray far from Khan’s kathak roots; it is the music that modernizes. His movements are informed and counterparted by cello and western percussion in addition to tabla and classical vocals. The result is extraordinary, so stunning a sonic and visual experience that dichotomized ideas of tradition versus experimentation lose their relevance. The synthesis is so perfect as to allow their being forgotten.

In Unplugged, an improvisational section, Khan has a certain ease in the shoulders and a wordless amity with his musicians that give one the impression that above all, he is having fun – like someone in a club, who can’t help but groove. His feet, meanwhile, could be instruments of evisceration in their precision.

In the show’s latter segment, consisting only of the titular Gnosis, he takes off his ghugroos and joins Fang-Yi Sheu in a piece that takes its ethos from the contemporary and its sense of drama from the classical. Here, Gandhari and Duryodhana – who in literal or figurative ways chose darkness – are the crux of this exploration of greed, violence and transformation. A powerful dancer, Sheu has a deadly, almost martial, presence juxtaposed with the vulnerability of blindness. Together, the duo evinces a chilling performance.

Pure evil emerges in one surprising moment. Sheu is at centrestage. A pinpoint of white emerges in the darkness behind her, grows larger and larger, until Khan himself steps forward – that eerie looming light was the one reflected off his bald head. If the body in dance is inseparable from narrative, this innovative detail – the use of even the top of the dancer’s head to create mood – strikes an extraordinary note.

In the final minutes, Sheu’s mastery of technique is evidenced in a sequence in which she appears to lose control. Here there are no cheap ruses emulating chaos. Her body behaves as though it has been possessed, as though she is a doll being manipulated. The effect is astounding.

Something inexplicably seamless exists between the kathak-based and contemporary segments of this show, and it’s difficult to place one’s finger on what that is. Perhaps it is a lack of pretension. The emphasis is not on philosophy but on sheer performance. Gnosis is spellbinding: a feast that stirs. Don’t think. Just watch.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

 

 

 

A Few Reviews

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A few articles about the reading at Spaces last week.

Here’s one in The New Indian Express – the scan, and the text link.

Here’s a very thoughtful one at myLaw.net.

Thank you, everybody, who came or sent good wishes.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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Until he turns five, Jack lives in Room with Ma. When God’s yellow face looks in through Skylight, he counts one hundred cereal and eats it with Meltedy Spoon. Then he plays games, sings songs, and watches TV, and when God’s yellow face is gone from Skylight, he lies down inside Wardrobe and watches as Ma lets Old Nick through the door that only Old Nick knows how to open. Jack counts the creaks Old Nick makes in Bed before he finally falls asleep.

Then Jack turns five and Ma tells him that it isn’t true that he and she and Old Nick are the only people, and that some of the things he sees on TV are not make-believe, and that what is outside of Room is not Outer Space – it’s the rest of the world. Only, because he was born in Room (right on Rug), he has never had a chance to see it. And because Ma has lived in Room ever since the day Old Nick tricked her and stole her from her life, neither has she seen it herself in seven years. But now, because they can’t live like this forever, it’s time to find a way out of Room, and to a world that has no idea that Room, or Jack, exists.

Room is the story of a little boy’s world expanding, but in ways that bewilder him and shake to the core everything he has ever believed about what the world itself is. Told in Jack’s voice, Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s gripping and deeply stirring novel is on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. This is a story not about trauma and damage – Ma’s kidnapping at 19, subsequent rapes, and the consequences of her life in custody are dealt with only through Jack’s eyes. The child himself is both beloved and loving, and spared the knowledge of his unusual situation until such time that he might be able to reconcile it. What gives Room its power is how it disturbs the reader not by evoking shocking details of human life in captivity, but by turning the question more existentially to confinement, reorientation, and the multiplicity of reality.

Literature about children and adolescents with dysfunctional backgrounds is extensive, but Jack is unlike any other such character. Thoroughly endearing and possessed with a beatific disposition, with a gift for imagination and love that is almost heartbreaking in aptitude, he steals the heart and inspires more awe than pity. Ma, we understand as a complex adult – a teenager who found it within herself to nurture this incredible child under astonishing circumstances, but whose life before and after Room contain other facets. But Jack’s life began with Room. His very first encounter with the world Outside is in during their Great Escape, which he manages single-handedly, and which is the beginning of every challenge that comes as he adjusts to a world beyond his very paradigm of comprehension. That Donoghue has found a way to render a child character who is both innocent, who won’t cut his long hair in case he will lose his strength like Samson and thinks Dora the Explorer is his friend, and yet is so intrinsically heroic and inspiring, is a victory.

Room leaves the reader shaken – disgusted by the criminal nature of what was done to Ma and Jack, disturbed by what it might be like to undergo such an experience, uplifted by the wonder and testament that is Jack himself, and overflowing with admiration for Emma Donoghue’s ability to evoke all of the above. This is a fantastic book, recommended without reservation.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Book Review: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

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One of the best things about Shakespeare is that he isn’t a sacred cow – rather, he is more like the last carcass in a shortage. Every bit of his body of work can be put to use in some way – his writing finds extended life in everything from parody to purist portrayal, allegory to animation. You must forgive this slaughterhouse imagery – in the brilliantly blasphemous My Name Is Will, we find the young Shakespeare in much similar circumstances: chasing daily after hens in his father’s butcher shop, which are promptly decapitated, divided, and dined upon by his family.

We also find him, invariably, disarming the tunics off medieval lasses, lost in the arms of a hallucinogenic trip or taking up arms against persecution. But the teenage William isn’t the only one whose misadventures with politics, women and drugs we encounter. Enter William Shakespeare Greenberg, aka Willie, American graduate student in 1986 California, who’s having trouble getting his thesis on his namesake finished. His distractions include his professor’s alluring assistant Dashka, an unfettered relationship with the activist Robin, Oedipal issues and making sure that he gets a giant psychedelic mushroom delivered and paid for without getting incarcerated.

Cleverly juggling the plot between William and Willie in alternating chapters, My Name Is Will finds the two young men at stages when they are about to come into their own. Both are at turning points with women – will duty or desire make the decision? Professionally too, both linger at the threshold of their destinies. And both are deeply engaged in the politics of their time. As with all eras in which those in power wield it without moderation, the counterculture thrives – and both Will and Willie are fortunate to be a part of these dissident environments, and indeed it shapes their fates.

And there is drama aplenty – serious cliffhanger-style drama at that. Winfield is astute in his construction of the novel, leaving protagonists dangling so precariously between chapters that the book is rendered utterly unputdownable. With its ingenious, engrossing narrative style and its generous servings of sex with a side of wit, the book strikes a winning note.

William finds himself in the possession of a sacred relic that leads him to uncover a clandestine network of Catholics in the authoritarian Protestant Elizabethan regime (centuries later, Willie’s thesis postulates that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic). Willie has his own sacred relic – the giant mushroom, which he too must ensure gets delivered into the right hands – at the risk of losing his own freedoms under President Reagan’s crackdown on illicit substances. Though running on different trajectories in space and time, at points, largely owing to the transcendental effect of the said illicit substances, the two lives entwine and intersect.

My Name Is Will is a delight from start to finish. Its puns are deliciously bawdy in true Shakespearean style – Winfield never overshoots the humour, and in fact the most audaciously wicked joke in the book is such a subtle one it might escape a less dirty-minded reader.

Also to the author’s credit, the impressive amount of research into the Bard’s works and milieu that clearly went into this novel, as well as his own extensive study of the texts, never overbears on its entertainment value. And rare is a funny book that raises legitimate questions about civil freedoms, free speech, moral policing and government (even twenty and four hundred and twenty years after its protagonists struggle with them), without losing its punchlines to polemics. My Name Is Will is a terrific novel – funny, incisive and original. Despite its irreverence, or perhaps because of it, it captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and comes closer to greatness than many self-proclaimed tributes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

Review: “60 Indian Poets” edited by Jeet Thayil

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There is no doubt about it: English poetry by Indians – even by Jeet Thayil’s broadened definition that includes the likes of David Dabydeen, Jane Bhandari and Sudesh Mishra – is a minority genre.

Unlike their counterparts in prose or vernacular languages, its littérateurs are easily the country’s least known and least celebrated – readers are usually also writers, a second edition is a miracle, and profit is a laughable concept. Bookstores carry Dr. Abdul Kalam’s collections in quantities as embarrassing as the books themselves, but the award-winning Tishani Doshi’s is unavailable. When someone asked recently if the large cheque my publisher had entrusted briefly in my care was my advance, I scoffed, “What do you think I am, a novelist?”

This collection, therefore, is not just a risk, it’s a bit of marvel. Sixty poets and fifty-five years of work are here, traipsing the breadth of experience – love, sex, exile, the city, existential angst, the body, gender, death, and family. There are some exceptional choices, including Mamang Dai, G. S Sharat Chandra, Srikanth Reddy and Vivek Narayanan, who deserve greater local acclaim.

And there are notable exceptions, in spite of influence (Agha Shahid Ali), fame (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Reetika Vazirani) or recent notability (Meena Kandasamy, Temsula Ao, Sridala Swami). Alongside most of the other usual suspects, names largely unknown or unremembered take their place, among them Gopal Honnalgere, Subhashini Kaligotla, Karthika Nair, and Kersy Katrak.

In some cases, this recognition is posthumous or out-of-print, and could bring the work to greater attention. In others, the springboard provided by inclusion may portend some promising careers.

Either way, Thayil has taken some gambles, and this is commendable, for doing so augments the canon. In the past, anthologies (including two Oxford University Press ones edited by R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) have stayed loyal to a tested fifteen or so names. Even Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons For Belonging, with a meagre fourteen poets, encountered criticism for being filled out with “mediocre” choices. If nothing else, 60 Indian Poets will serve to detonate the perception that only a handful of English-writing Indian poets are worth attention.

But there is more to savour in this book than just the poems. Thayil’s introduction is so precise in contextualizing the place(s, as it were) of the Indian poet writing in English that it holds the attention more than some of the poems within. Two essays by Bruce King and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra are also included – King’s on the Holy Trinity of Bombay poetry in its heyday, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel, all of whom died in 2004, and Mehrotra’s on “the Indian poem”, using Kolatkar as a base. All three essays are a pleasure, and a few more would certainly have added perspective to a collection that in its ambition clearly intends to encapsulate not just the poetry but also its milieu.

The introductions to each poet also speak volumes, such as the subtle suggestion that Kamala Das’ scandalous reputation may be no more than the effect of various personae, or when Thayil says of Bibhu Padhi, “His poems have the numbed conversational tone of someone who has been so long in mourning that he has forgotten the origin of his grief”.

And there are the photographs of the Bombay poets, a wonderful touch that discreetly but too infrequently punctuate the collection. One in particular, of Eunice de Souza in a caftan with a bird on her head, is delightfully candid.

The question remains: is this a definitive anthology? Indian poetry in English has some way left to go, and this book appears at a significant junction; its publication may in fact be the most visible harbinger of an upcoming revival. A fresh interest in poetry, as evidenced by mainly low-key efforts in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai (Bombay is exempted here for its headstart and iconic status as the country’s capital of verse), suggests that in a decade, 60 Indian Poets could well be no longer representative. And this, if this minority genre meets its potential, is as it should be.

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

Review: Viva Santiago by Colin Fernandes

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At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.

Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.

There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.

Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.

It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.

Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.

An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.

Review: Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You

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Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.

Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.

Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.

Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.

The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”

Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.

Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.

Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.

An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.

Review: “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Because I work with the reimagined archetypes of Draupadi and a (female) Karna in my own writing, I cracked open Divakaruni’s retelling of the Mahabharata expecting, even hoping, to feel some envy. The Palace of Illusions presents the epic via the voice of Draupadi/Panchaali. It’s an ambitious project, and not without predecessors, choosing as its medium one of world mythology’s most idiosyncratic women.

To rework an epic is like writing a ghazal: there is infinite variety within the constraints of its key identifiers. But Divakaruni’s Mahabharata bears little difference to what we popularly understand to be the epic. That Panchaali is the narrator offers only a slight, undistinguished shift in perspective.

Plot-wise, the story is largely faithful to the original. The author succeeds in conveying depth and nuance in almost every character, portraying for example both Kunti’s resentfulness and righteousness, or Drona’s cruelty and greatness, in different lights. But when it comes to rendering her protagonist, the results are unadmirable.

Curiously absent are elements that truly challenge the misogyny of the original epic. Where is Panchaali’s famous lust, which in some retellings (but not this one) caused her husband in a previous birth to have cursed her with five husbands to quench it? Despite unexplored hints at her temper and capacity for vengeance, she is depicted mostly as obedient, pleading codes of honour as a ruse to mask cowardice. Even the single attempt at subversion, the centering of Panchaali’s secret love for Karna as the great regret of her life, is trite.

This Panchaali is obsessed by her roles, self-conscious – never is there a moment when she is not a princess, a queen, a wife, an exile, a woman wronged. Weighted down by these, she markedly lacks individuality – an enormous pity because what good is it to retell a familiar story without injecting it with a special spirit? Ultimately, the reader never manages to be fooled into believing that it is Panchaali speaking, as the best first-person narratives can do. Nowhere remains the intense, resilient, dangerous Draupadi we know of, who undoubtedly inspired the author herself.

Panchaali, in the final reckoning, is a weak, malleable character. She is unlikable, consumed by her ego, lacking the essential humanity that makes us love our heroes; the only thread that keeps the reader concerned for her is the memory of other, more fully-fleshed Draupadis.

Divakaruni seems to have juxtaposed one of the near-identical female protagonists of her previous books onto an epic setting. But positioning an indistinct character in a grand plotline cannot make the transposed character inhabit that skin comfortably by default. One wishes that Divakaruni had been bolder, dared to manipulate the epic in a manner that could have made this Draupadi truly hers.

Perhaps what draws the reader back to Divakaruni’s books regardless of their clichés has always been her impeccable stylistic craft, particularly her extraordinary gift for metaphor. But her writing in The Palace of Illusions is functional, stripped of lyricism. The closings chapters have their gripping moments, riding on the emotional crescendo of the original, but it is too late by then for the novel itself.

The Palace of Illusions succeeds as an introduction to the Mahabharata. But both its feminist and artistic aspirations seem shallow. Divakaruni’s reinterpretation of the Mahabharata falters above all because of an absence of imagination. The pathos of the original tale and its powerful heroine as raw canvas, combined with her gift for imbuing beauty in even the most repetitive storylines, should have made this book the author’s masterpiece.