Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for April, 2012

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 30, 2012

The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting – David Mitchell

Zadie Smith and David Mitchell are two current day writers – of younger generation – who have impressed me a lot with their writing talent. Ms. Smith’s treatment of the dynamics of a mixed race Britain in “White Teeth” is nothing short of an unforgettable bravura performance. She is blessed with an extraordinary control on language and effortless storytelling. The only disappointing aspect is her limited oeuvre – one wishes she had written more. Mitchell covers even that short coming. He is in his mid-forties and has already written half dozen novels each of which are of exceptional merit and with possible promise of more to come in the future. He is one of those writers whose books one should read with a pencil in hand

“Who was blowing on the nape of my neck” – thus begins David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” – a roller coaster of a book written in nine loosely interlocked parts with the key characters touching the life of the other – knowingly or unknowingly, in time – past and present, in places – scattered across the globe spanning Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Russia, England, Clear Island, Switzerland and America. The nine parts of the novel are so distinct in their nature, characters and plot, that they do not allow the novel to be pigeonholed into a specific genre. Mitchell writes with an exuberance of language that is a joy to read. The prose has a calm confidence of having a control on words, images, metaphors to produce the precise effect he intends to as part of the narrative flow. There is a bursting verbal energy, great rush and flow to the prose and suddenly in that torrent out of nowhere as if to put speed breakers come sentences which are beautiful, elevated and breathtaking for their imagination:

All that I remember about Tatyana’s flat is a sober clock, that dropped tocks like pebbles down a deep shaft”

The tocks in a clock’s “tick-tock” acquire a material weight and solidity of a pebble

‘The minutes are hauling themselves by like a shot Hollywood gangster crawling down a corridor

The slow passage of time is being compared to a shot, bleeding and crawling Hollywood gangster

… that plump, juicing, yielding buttock of fruit

Will fruit eating ever remain the same for me again?

“Killing is a sensation, like abortion or birth, that you can never accurately imagine


There is nothing contrived in Mitchell’s sentences. The metaphors employed appear effortless and matter of fact. There is a deeply satisfying nature to his writing. In the chapter titled London, there is a place where Mitchell describes the routes on London tube in appealingly anthropomorphic terms with temperaments, personalities and wonderfully ascribed oddities  

The Jubilee Line, the young disappointment of the family….. The District and Circle Line, well, even Death would rather fork out for a taxi if he’s in a hurry… Docklands Light Railway, the nouveau riche neighbour…. Stentorian Piccadilly, Central….the middle-aged cousin, matter of fact, direct… Yep the Northern Line is the psycho of the family

 and while one is enjoying this, Mitchell then suddenly concludes with the one liner:

London is a language. I guess all places are.

I would have traveled on London tube routes a thousand times but never managed to see it this way. The job of a writer among others is to give us an alternative way of seeing things, a possibility of imagining things differently. Mitchell produces these alternative realities with a dexterity that borders on genius. Here are a couple more which I liked immensely:

…Italians give their cities sexes, and they all agree that the sex for a particular city is quite correct, but none of them can explain why. I love that.  London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.

A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.
‘Wonderful isn’t it?’ I say to a man walking his red setter
‘Fackin’ shithole innit?’
Londoners slag off London because, deep down, we know we are living in the greatest city in the world 

As I read through the book I kept looking for Mitchell’s real voice – the author’s omniscient voice and found it difficult to isolate and pin it.  Ghostwritten is densely populated with characters both minor and major whose importance, relevance and life spans vary. Mitchell manages to control and orchestrate the variegated voices of his characters wonderfully well even while sustaining their distinct identities. There is a lot of clever writing in the book but always and unfailingly it is backed by genuine talent.

Ghostwritten was written when Mitchell was just about thirty. At this age many of us would be getting out of our protective shells to face the real vagaries of life and to form opinions which could potentially sustain us in the future. Judging by that yardstick, Mitchell appears precocious for there are some deep insights he proffers matter-of-factly. Consider this wonderful insight into the minds of cultists, fanatics and terrorists:   

Society…………. is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilization. We get protection from death by starvation, bandits and cholera. It’s a fair deal. Signed on our behalf by our educational system on the day we are born. However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he please. And that…. is what he did with it

..or the phenomenon of cherry blossom which the Japanese love so much

The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time… I think that only we Japanese understand that, don’t you?

..or the metaphysical soliloquy on chance and fate

Therefore, does chance or fate control our lives? Well, the answer is relative as time. If you are in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you’re reading, it’s fate all the way

In an interview given to Paris Review magazine, David Mitchell declared that he preferred to discuss the human heart through characterization, and to address the human condition through plot. In Ghostwritten he lives up to this declaration truest to the stated intent.

Both Nabokov and Sontag opined that novels are to be re-read for reasons that are universally justifiable. Notwithstanding the reasons, a re-read is never like the original read where the first time pleasure of encounter is mingled with a sense of progressive anticipation. In a re-read, anticipation is near dead. One knows the plot, one gets familiar with the characters and one is aware of the conclusion. The place of anticipation is taken by a quest for clarity, insight, analysis, a certain critical bent attended by slightly dimmed joy. While all of this may be true for a majority of books, David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” will remain a near certain exception to that

A wonderful book by one of the most talented writers of our time and a book worthy of reading many times over

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Miscellaneous murmurs: Random thoughts on writers and libraries

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 29, 2012

Franz Kafka once said that a book is an axe for the frozen sea within us. In today’s India there is no dearth of frozen seas. All around us we see these congealed and frozen seas – a billion plus of them. Some are frozen seas within frozen seas. We are desperately short of good axes. But more worrying than this shortage of axes is the shortage of axe makers: the swarthy blacksmiths with their capacious bellows of humane concerns, ignited and blazing forges of personal conscience, heavy hammers, tongs, anvils and chisels of writerly skills using which the axes are moulded, beaten and shaped to be used to prise open the frozen seas within us. If we run short of axes we can borrow from our neighbours (which we are already doing), but we run short of axe makers where can we borrow them from? We need to have our own blacksmiths

Do a sampling of what defines a well-read person and invariably one finds that the proffered list of read books contains a disproportionately large number from other countries. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact it is heartening for it indicates a level of familiarity with world literature and also of an evolved taste. However, that does not take away the truth that the books of other countries were written primarily with their immediate concerns in mind. It so happens that they were so well written, that the act of writing elevated the books from a local to a more universal human appeal. We too need our writers to be able to do that for us and for the citizens of the world as an act of reciprocation. Sadly, we are far away from stepping on to that podium of world literature where our writers too can stand shoulder to shoulder with writers of other countries. It would be nice to see some of our giants rubbing shoulders with some of their giants. Barring one or two, where are our giants? We appear to be producing more dwarves and at best ordinary humans than giants. The regional literatures are producing some tall men but for lack of translation they are being shoved into oblivion of limited readership. This needs to change and if it does not we will lose something relevant and precious forever

That brings us to the next question:  So are writers made or are they born? David Mitchell in his brilliant novel Ghostwritten says: Birth deals us out a hand of cards, but as important as their value is the place we are dealt them in. Note the importance of the place in deciding the strength of the hand. Here lies a clue to the question posed earlier. One may be born with strengths of expression, urge to write and tell a story brilliantly but all that gets dented and stunted if one is not in the right place. And that place should be created in our surroundings, with our resources and by our powers. The British Library in London is called “the memory of the nation”. There is not an iota of exaggeration in this. There are similar memory banks in the US and almost all countries in the developed world. Besides the dazzling array of resources bestowed on these memory banks what distinguishes them is the user friendliness that is embedded in them. They readily lend a helping hand to lay readers, amateur and professional writers alike to base their research for their books. Many great and outstanding books are indebted to these institutions. Surrounding these memory banks is a network of top notch institutions that feed into and feed out of these memory banks. For a country of 60 million, Britain still produces the highest per capita of quality writers. US, Germany and France have very similar numbers. So given the right conditions, the writers will be allowed to make themselves. As much as they are born they are made too

Sadly, in India, while we have enough money to buy humongous quantities of armaments and enough money to give away to crony capitalists (if you don’t believe me please ask Mr.Raghuram Rajan – former chief economist of IMF) we do not have enough to invest in world class libraries and educational institutions. Our libraries are already in a state of crisis and if we continue like this we will have no libraries worth talking about. While a well written book is a great achievement, a well-read book is a great personal satisfaction. We need to have numerous great achievements and manifold more personal satisfactions. It is time the powers that be did something about this

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The Feel Good Accident

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 12, 2012

The sudden screech of braking tyres accompanied with the loud crashing noise jolted me out of my reverie. As I snapped out, I managed to catch a glimpse of a black object flying in the air at about six feet above the ground and land in the midst of the road like a lump of putty. It took a split second for me to realize that the object was a human being clothed in a rider suit. The yellow bike from which the rider was propelled into air was lying ten feet behind him with its front wheel still turning at high speed. The Mercedes coupe which crashed into the bike held the hind wheel underneath its front tyres. With its shattered windshield the car looked like a hungry carnivore pinning its victim to the ground at the terminal stages of its hunt. All around me people at all corners of the junction where the accident took place came to standstill with curious, anxious eyes directed towards the site of the accident. Some ladies, especially the middle-aged and older, already had their hands to their mouths, proving that the enormity and suddenness of what transpired already sank into their minds with the attendant reflexive action already in place. There was mild acrid smell of burning rubber in the air. None moved from their places.

The door of the Mercedes coupe opened slowly and the driver, an old man of about sixty with a French beard staggered and slumped on the road. He looked completely dazed and tired. The bike rider lay stretched on the ground without moving. A couple of brave souls reached out to the car driver and were asking him some questions which did not appear to register with him. One of the men who were trying to speak to the driver disengaged and began calling an emergency number on his mobile phone. The way he was gesticulating and pointing to the various landmarks at the junction while on the call indicated that he reached the right number for help. The rider lay still unmoving. A couple of more people walked towards rider. They bent over him and attempted to make a conversation. The lack of response forced one of them to clap his hands in front of the rider’s visored head. That did not elicit any response either. There was no attempt to move the rider or make him sit. The dutiful traffic lights at the five-way junction kept doing their programmed job of changing from red to green via yellow but no traffic moved. The empty junction, with its thick white crisscross lines, suddenly appeared to possess massive proportions – much bigger than what it normally appeared to be with regular bustling traffic.

The wailing sirens of a medical ambulance and patrol vans were heard on the horizon and in minutes using whatever passage ways were available they reached the site of the accident. Half a dozen paramedics rushed with a foldable stretcher towards the bike rider. The stretcher was laid by his side carefully and the one of the paramedics started to speak to the rider who was still immobile. The crowds began to grow on the pavements. The police swung into action and cordoned off the site of accident with phosphorescent signs. In doing so they took adequate care to be economical with the space they were encroaching. One of the cops was on his walkie-talkie pointing to the traffic signals which got switched off and traffic control operations switched to a manual mode. While the paramedical staff was at work, the traffic police resumed the flow of traffic. From buses, cabs and cars people were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the accident while they passed by. After sometime one of the paramedics stood up and pointed his two fingers towards his own eyes and raised his thumb. As if waiting for this cue the others shifted the rider to the stretcher carefully and unzipped the riding suit and slowly eased the helmet off the rider. One of the paramedics who looked like the lead of the pack sauntered towards the police and conveyed something and walked back to his team taking along with him the zonked car driver. The stretcher and the car driver were eased into the ambulance and with wailing sounds and flashing lights it began to move away from the accident site. In the meanwhile a largish tow-vehicle appeared on the scene and carefully loaded the bike in its carriage, hooked the Mercedes to its tow and moved away from the scene. The cordons were removed and gradually the traffic started to assume its normal intensity of flow. Even the thicket of cops dispersed leaving just a couple of them to monitor the traffic situation and ensure its return to normalcy. As if to survey and assess the overall progress, a helicopter from emergency services hovered over the scene for a brief while and then left. From start to finish the whole incident took under an hour to clear out. It was as if a stone was dropped into a calm pond which after seeing its share of splashes and ripples settles back to its usual serenity

Even to this day I am not sure whose mistake it was in the first place. Is the biker alive or dead? Maybe he is alive, with a few scars, a half broken tooth, mild limp but continues to ride a bike – with a sense of caution. Maybe he is sharing his wisdom by cautioning his friends, kids in the neighbourhood and members of biker communities and clubs to drive more carefully. What happened to the car owner? Did he get penalized? Was it his mistake? Was his next car a Mercedes? Did the biker and the car driver ever meet again? May be they are good friends now and exchange greetings on occasions to remind each other what they went through. Who knows? May be they are sworn enemies blaming each other for inducing excruciating moments of uncertainty, panic and pain in one another’s life

My distinct memory of this incident was the feeling of a surreal. The red helicopter hovering on the top, paramedics in their trademark dresses surrounding over a stretcher, the body of the man lying on the road unmoving mostly because of shock, the anonymous person who instinctively knew what to do and called the hospital for emergency help with a gratuitous kindness, the cops in their blue and white dresses, shining shoes,  buttoned down holsters, minimal epaulettes, the ambulance and emergency response vans on standby with their flashing lights, the tow vehicle that gently crawled in and out of the scene from nowhere were all an odd mix of things. I also have a remembrance of feeling very hungry, walking to an Italian joint and asking for a baguette with egg mayonnaise and sun dried tomatoes to be packed for my lunch to be eaten at my desk at work

However, what I remember most was also the memory of a strong surge of a feeling of hope engendered by the first-hand demonstration of a social system responding with a throbbing urgency to the need of one of its distressed constituents. That man can design and invoke human systems to work for the common good in times of crisis while keeping the collateral impact of disruption to others at a minimal left me with a sense of feel good and remembering this accident also reminds me of that sense of feel good. Contradictory……………………. is it?

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – Scintillating Glimpses of Emigrant Experience

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 4, 2012

We normally speak of “emigrant experience” as something whose nature is homogenous and uniform. This view is largely misleading. The drives, motives, challenges and experiences of the first generation emigrants differ a lot from that of the second and subsequent generations of emigrants. The umbilical cord of cultural mores, shared values and blood relationships, longing for one’s land of birth, tastes and preferences starts to wilt over a period of time for the first generation emigrant. Despite this and in a way, the first generation emigrant is Janus faced. While one face is looking towards the possibilities and opportunities in the migrant land, the other face is looking, not infrequently, towards the land of birth with a sense of nostalgia. The pull of the faces in two opposite directions is long drawn and troubling. On the other hand the second generation emigrant would already have crossed over to the other side culturally and in every which way one can think of. However, they inevitably encounter two different atmospheres and value systems – one within the home and another outside of it. The reconciliation of these two value systems is mildly puzzling and frustrating at times. The issues around the sense of identity, loss, longing, value systems and belongingness are never easily resolved. “Unaccustomed Earth” – Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories deals with the tensions, disappointments and frustrations of these unresolved issues in a way that is at once mature, beautiful and moving     

In a broader sense Lahiri’s characters are all unwitting victims of geographic dislocation who carry with them the burden of heavy expectations around the need for high distinction, material progress and academic achievement. Yet their trophy master and doctoral degrees from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Stanford and LSE and the concomitant material progress for which they have migrated in the first place offer them no protection from the inherent turmoils of emigrant life. It is these turmoils that form the foundation of Lahiri’s stories. Barring a drive and desire to achieve academic distinction nothing appears to remain constant between generations. The variance in cultural values between generations actually engenders a drifting apart leading to isolation, loneliness and unhappiness. Lahiri captures these feelings with a wonderful subtlety and mastery

In the title story “Unaccustomed Earth” – a widowed father struggles with the dilemmas of the propriety of staying with her lawyer daughter who is married to an American, striking a new relationship with a widow he meets on a trip to Europe and his own need for independence that he has come to treasure during his long stay in America. The hesitation to strike a companionship prevents him from posting a card to the widow which eventually gets posted by his daughter on his behalf despite the mild feeling of betrayal of her father towards her dead mother. In the story “Hell – Heaven” – what in my view is the best story in the collection and one of the finest I have read, one gets to see the silent attraction between the mother of the narrator of the story and a long time guest who despite his closeness moves on to get married to an American. The mother is so heart-broken that she almost commits suicide but is saved by a neighbour’s greeting which distracts her from the act. There is a splendid balance and control with which this story is told. In the story “Only Goodness” one gets to see the complete drift between a once promising but presently alcoholic brother, his successful and well-meaning sister and their parents. Lahiri’s depiction of the gradualness with which the family ties unravel setting in place an irreconcilable distance among them is brilliant. The story “Nobody’s Business” is a love affair which comes to naught between a Bengali girl and an Egyptian professor of history who is a womanizer. The girl’s roommate loves her but his love is not acknowledged and she moves on to London simply fading out of everyone’s life. The stories “Once in a Lifetime”, “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” are stories revolving around the families of Hema and Kaushik, their drifting, temporary intertwining and moving away for good with the death of Kaushik

All the stories in this collection are extremely well written with the power of authenticity produced by an eye for idiosyncratic detail which appears to have been drawn from Lahiri’s own experiences as the child of a first generation Bengali emigrant. While the specific details add to the power of the overall storytelling, the stories themselves could have been the stories of any Indian emigrant and not necessarily a Bengali emigrant. Lahiri has picked up the title of her book from a passage of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” which runs as follows:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”

Hawthorne’s intention of embracing unaccustomed earths for his children was with the fine motive of enabling their flourishing. While Lahiri’s characters do successfully strike their roots in the unaccustomed earth of America, do they flourish in the complete sense of the word is a big question. It is in this authentic portrayal of unintended outcomes resides the power and beauty of Lahiri’s stories.

A memorable reading experience

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