Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not a Casual Read

He appeared and reappeared in our lives for ten long years captivating our imagination like no other character fiction has created. First from the pages of the books that featured his triumphs and travails and afterwards in the magic the darkened cinemas offered. His friends were our friends, his victories ours to savour, his pathos our tears. For millions of Harry Potter fans like me, the emaciated and bespectacled boy is the ultimate hero and much after he vanquished the evil Voldemort and settled into blissful domestic bliss with his best friend’s sister, continues to be a part of our lives. Tirelessly embellishing it, smiling at us from bookshelves and DVD racks. Whenever I encounter him accidentally while surfing television channels, I am tempted to pause with a smile to caress all the memories associated with him.

Potter’s appeal was universal. From him, not just children, but adults too got life lessons on the power of unconditional love, the importance of having friends in life and how good must always triumph over evil. That his creator J K Rowling managed to do this without ever preaching from a pedestal was as much of her triumph as that of her creation. It was always difficult to be objective about the seven books, the Potter series spawned. How could we critically dissect any of the works that featured him, his friends and his school? Somehow it felt as if we were being disloyal to Harry, Ron and Hermione if we dared to pass judgement against their creator.

Now of course in hindsight we know that it was too much of a good thing. The signs were always there but carried away by our infatuation, we never bothered to analyze what kind of baggage it must have left the writer with. It’s no secret how another English author got fed up of her Belgian muse, Hercule Poirot, and couldn’t wait to bump him off.

Rowling has never publicly shared what she feels towards her immortal creation that changed not just her destiny but also the entire genre pertaining to children’s books. Of course we would like to know whether she holds Potter with the same affection that legions of his fans bestow on him but she’s not telling. All we have presently to add to our conjecture is that she has come out with a new book that is as depressing as the books featuring Potter were life affirming. There are no wizards or muggles in her latest offering. Only dementors who exist in human forms in a fictitious English small town called Pagford.

Bottom of Form
 ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is likely to hold the dubious distinction of being one of the most depressing books ever written. There is not a single ray of light to wash any of its numerous characters in glory. Everything from the setting to the characters is designed in such a way that it makes the reader recoil in horror and disgust. It’s as uncompromisingly bleak a take on life as it can get. Rowling has gifted her readers with her own version of ‘Clockwork Orange.’ Reading the book makes you feel she was mono focused on annihilating all the positive vibes we had imbibed from Potter and his friends.

William Golding, another British novelist of timeless repute had managed to say a lot about the inherent evil present in mankind with his Noble prize winning work ‘Lord of the Flies.’ But the setting of that one was understood by the reader to be in the middle of a nuclear war. And from that realization to make the connection that Golding’s work held a mirror to what the world had descended to with its weapons of mass destruction was not difficult. It was possible to have empathy for his characters however depraved they were in their ambitions and its execution. We could place them in the larger context and understand their descent into hell.  Rowling willfully and deliberately denies her readers that with her latest. 

There are five adolescents driving the plot in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ Leading the pack are the nasty Fats and the victimized Sukhvinder. There is also the not so innocent Andrew in the first flush of love and his object of affection Gaia. And there is the unfortunate Krystal from the wrong side of the tracks, saddled with an addict mother and a toddler brother she wants to save. Krystal is the closest approximation to Harry Potter in Rowling’s latest. Except her creator refuses to salvage her. Just when Krystal is at the verge of redemption, Rowling decides to snatch away her lifeline plunging her into an abyss from where there can be no reprieve. Making her destroy that one thing that gave her life some meaning.

The adults in the book are all uniformly losers and even when the writer tries to make amends to some of them towards the end we are long past caring. All of them without exception are mean and selfish.  Consider this. Three of them have the chance to rescue a child from drowning but none of them get down to doing it, preoccupied as they are with their own petty concerns.  

It is only when the reader has reached the climax of the book after battling frustration and anger for at least one half of the 500 odd pages the book in hard cover comprises of,  that it all starts to make sense in a strange way.  We realize Rowling is holding a mirror to the world that is inhabited by the middle class not just in England, but perhaps in all parts of the developed world. That is why there is no salvation for any of the characters. It’s not because she couldn’t do it but because she didn’t want to. Think about the numerous characters she redeemed in the Potter series including that nasty brat Malfoy. Not as if she’s not capable of it if she wants to. Her choices are deliberate in her latest work. All is not intended to be ‘well’ in this one.

Looks like Rowling has positioned herself as the ultimate prophet of our times. If in her first seminal creation, she taught us how everything ennobling was to be found in an imaginary world of magic and wizardry beyond our reach, with her follow up act she has managed to communicate we must wake up and smell not the roses but everything that we have destroyed in our own selfish pursuits. Life, according to her latest work will go on not because the scars will stop hurting but because ultimately like all the characters who eventually survive in The Casual Vacancy, we will learn to make our peace with our demons. 

This is another of her lesson well worth internalizing although the quibble is that she could have imparted the same wisdom with smart brevity and not wasted so many words on the shallow adults who take up too much space in the first two sections without doing anything to warrant that attention.

‘The Casual Vacancy’ is an enigmatic book. It will never lend itself to frenzied adulation but that does not mean it is a work without any merit. Rowling could have been the Enid Blyton of our times and rested on her laurels by creating variations of the work that made her the richest author of all times. Instead she chose to look at life with filters caked in the grime and filth of our times in her follow up act. 

Now that is as brave a feat as any that the Potter boy attempted. 

Friday, October 12, 2012


More than the jetlag
there are other things
that need getting used to

 when strangers ask
 you for directions
learn to turn the smile rueful
and announce like them
you may be lost too

it is fall in this country
and the leaves have turned
the colour of heaven
you want to touch them all
and count their veins

the sun is surprisingly warm
through the glass panes
and one of the lilies
placed in a square vase
on the dining table has wilted

in the restroom of a cafe
you run into the man who
will play the cello for
rumbustious numbers later
he asks you to pass the soap
‘first rule, hands need to be
clean before performing,’ and
our smiles collide in the mirror

some days are about the
smell of sameness

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

City of Asylum and House Poem

I am in Pittsburgh and much as I miss the family back home, it feels as if I have come to visit another home tucked in another country. Mainly because of my extraordinarily generous hosts, Diane and Henry Reese who have set up City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, to provide sanctuary to writers under peril.

I first met them when they agreed to host me when I came to the US five years ago as part of the International Writers Program, Iowa. I was the first writer to be hosted by City of Asylum who was not under any kind of peril in his own country. The institution had simply arranged to host one writer every year from the program. I happened to be the chosen one in the first year when the arrangement got going. I was extremely ambivalent about coming to Pittsburgh the first time.

I was not sure what awaited me. But from the time I landed and met Henry and Diane, something felt oddly familiar about the city. Like there was a deep connection and bond with it. And then it hit me. Pittsburgh used to be a major steel city of the US in the 70s. Much like the city I grew up in India, Jamshedpur. I guess the proposal I submitted for the Fulbright grant happened only because I traveled to Pittsburgh and was hosted by City of Asylum in 2007. My grant is to research a book I plan to write on the impact of globalization on the steel communities of Pittsburgh and Jamshedpur.

 The house where I stayed was House Poem, something of a tourist attraction in the city. Huang Xiang, the Chinese poet and the first writer provided sanctuary by City of Asylum, lived in the house for over two years. He wrote some of his poems on the wall in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. My favourite among them is ‘The Wisp of Light.’ The translation reads-
 ‘There is a kind of space
  that’s a different vastness
  There’s a heavenly body
  that’s a different great arch ‘
  The cells that permeate my body
  are unattainably distant
  The unreachable constellations
  find shelter in my flesh in my blood
  Death, not to be denied rises  
  as it slowly falls
  Life, not to be denied.'
 For some strange reason, I experience this poem as a profound Haiku.
My hosts have very thoughtfully provided me with the same house to stay this time. And I love the fact that I   live in a space that is walled by poems. It feels special. Last time I was here, I barely stayed a month but got a good deal of writing done.

There is something very energizing and expansive about living here. This time round, I am going to be here for eight months and really look forward to getting a lot of research and writing done. It helps that Diane and Henry are such wonderful hosts and mentors. After the grueling air travel that lasted over 24 hours, not only did Henry pick me up from the airport, sharing with me on the way all that has transpired in the last five years, when we reached home, I discovered Diane had thoughtfully stacked the pantry and the fridge with loads of food, wine and beer. If that was not enough, they also invited me for dinner to their place later. I feel blessed to be in this city, in this house and in this neighborhood. 

Of course I have spent quite a bit of time on Skype with the family back in India in the last two days I have been here. And because I am living alone like this after a long time and was stupid enough to watch Paranormal Activity 3 on TV, just a few days back, I sleep with the light on. Another writer from the IWP, Iowa,is joining me as a housemate in November.

I am looking forward to that.