Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Golden Exit

One weekday, I felt like having a bowl of wonton noodles, the unhealthy kind that look like long strings of rubber bands huddled together dressed in soy sauce and topped with lean char siew pork and little dumplings. Around two in the afternoon, after circulating around in the inner city to look for a park, I finally settled in some street where a roadside stall was around the corner further than a stone’s throw away. There were five or six people who were before me waiting to be served. Occasionally, I enjoy sitting by the roadside stall under the makeshift shelter and watch the people who do not work in offices or banks. A couple of students were in their school uniform. They remind me of my student days when I used to cycle to town and these days cycling has since become more of  a sport and recreational activity in this city.

Despite feeling hungry, I did not mind the wait as I was eager to finish reading The Golden House by Salman Rushdie amidst all my other reads such as  French Exit by Patrick deWitt. 

In the latest novel by Salman Rushdie, Nero Julius Golden, a seventy-something billionaire together with his three sons, Petronius, Lucius Apuleius and Dionysius have moved to America, the land of reinvention to escape from their murky past in Bombay.  They arrive in New York in January 2009 shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama.  They ‘emerged from the car in the old heart of the ‘ Greenwich Village and  move into  the former Murray mansion, the grand  “Beaux-Arts building in the MacDougal – Sullivan Historic District that is to be known as The Golden House. The sons are nicknamed  Petya, Apu and D and they each have their demons to combat with while their father, Nero has his secret past to contend with. The original Mrs Golden has died in a fire before the family moved to New York. Enter Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a tall and striking , 28-year-old Russian girl who becomes the trophy wife of Nero.

The narration is by René who lives next door to the Goldens and he is an aspiring filmmaker, thus he finds his next door neighbour the perfect subjects for his script. He describes the old man as short and squat who wears his mostly dark hair in spite of his advanced years, slicked back to accentuate his devil’s peak. His eyes are black and piercing and he dresses expensively. When the Goldens first moved into the neighbourhood, René was twenty- five years old. René becomes a friend of the Golden boys, the autistic Petya,  the bohemian Apu and hermaphrodite D. Here are some snippets of how he describes the eldest son, Petya and Apu.

'The sad, brilliant strangeness of the man we called Petya Golden was clear to everyone from the first day, when in the failing winter-afternoon light he planted himself alone on a bench in the Gardens, a big man, like an enlargement of his father, large and heavy-bodied with his father's sharp, dark eyes that seemed to interrogate the horizon. He wore a cream suit under a heavy herringbone tweed greatcoat, gloves and orange muffler, and there was an outsize cocktail mixer and a jar of olives beside him on the bench and a martini glass in his right hand, and while he sat there in his monologic solitude and his breath hung ghostly in the January air he just started talking aloud, explained to nobody in particular the theory, which he ascribed to the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel, of why the perfect dry martini was like the Immaculate Conception of Christ. He was perhaps forty-two years old then and I, seventeen years his junior, approached him gingerly across the grass, ready to listen, instantly in love, as iron filings are drawn to the magnet, as the moth loves the fatal flame.'
‘ He was physically clumsy, and sometimes, when agitated, clumsy too in the mouth, stammering and stuttering and being infuriated by his own ineptitude. He also had the most retentive memory of anyone I ever met. You could say a poet’s name. ‘Byron’, for example, and he could do twenty minutes of Don Juan with his eyes closed.’

America changed them both. Petya and Apu –America that divided self- polarising them as America was polarised, the wars of America, external and internal, becoming their wars as well, but in the beginning if Petya arrived in New York as the heavy drinking polymath who was afraid of the world and found living in it a constant hardship, then Apu came as the sober romantic artist and promiscuous metropolitan, flirting with everything that was visionary yet with a clarity of vision that allowed him to see people plain, as his portraits showed; the panic in the eyes of the fading dowager, the vulnerable ignorance in the stance of the ungloved boxing champion, the courage of the ballerina with blood in her slippers like the Ugly Sister who cut off her toes to squeeze her foot into Cinderella glass shoe “

 Apu was his brother’s antithesis, a flamboyant dresser and ‘his clothing embraced all the fashions of the planet’. D is hermaphrodite and androgynous, he is struggling with his sexuality even though he has a very understanding heterosexual girlfriend and he has professional help but he keeps arguing with the Professional.

It was hard for the youngest of the Goldens to give up the habit of loneliness. He had felt lonely from his earliest days as the odd-one-out child of an illicit liaison, partly accepted, partly resented in the grand houses he was obliged to call his home, first in Bombay, then in New York. Even in large crowd, he had felt alone, and yet now, with only Riya for company, he was visited by feelings he at first found hard to name. Eventually he found the words . Togetherness, companionship.

The story begins with the election of Obama and concludes with the election of  Donald Trump labelled as  The Joker and  Hilary Clinton  is nicknamed as Batwoman. René and his girlfriend, Suchitra get busy making political ads for the election in the US.  
  The election became a contest between the Batwoman and the Joker-Batwoman, who owned her dark side, but used it to fight for good, justice, and the American way,  a leader who could save the country from becoming a calamitous Joke. We denied the struggle, it became what we said it was.’

The Golden House has been hailed as its author’s  return to realism  and its writing style is of wry and verbalistic panache. The novel makes a compelling read about betrayal, opulence, reinvention and immigration that is imbued with  the tragic and caustic undertone of how one's past deeds would not be forgotten and retribution would follow as a consequence.

Friday, October 5, 2018

About Humans

I remember falling into the trap of believing a parent with whom I carpooled for ferrying our children to school when she told me,

“We are relaxed parents.”

One evening when I picked her child up along with my daughter, during the journey, I heard the child say,

“ My mother is going to skin me alive for getting this result. I hate my life.”

I like to believe that when someone says what he or she says, he or she means what he or she says but I know I must not. Also it may be that I have not heard what he or she actually says. I have also caught myself saying things uncharacteristic of me and afterwards, I either mull over them exceedingly or accept that what is said is said just like what is done is done. After being in legal practice for more than thirty years, I have become wary of what clients tell me. But when we act for a client, we have to trust what the client is telling us. I know there are definitely more than two versions of the same story but we have to stick to the version that we are told. If there are aliens, I can understand why they want to destroy the humans. We can be lovable and we can be deplorable. 

I  read several books at the same time, some take longer than others. Usually the e-books and the ones on kindle take a longer time. Some books are more challenging than others thus I like to read a mix match of books from different genres. The Humans written by Matt Haig is one of those reads that keep you going in one sitting. The concept is interesting. This tale of alien invasion is a story about humans as the title is named.

One wet Friday night, Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge. Food sickens him and clothes confuse him even human touch is repulsive to him. He is not from this planet. He has arrived from Vonnadoria, some planet very far away, a place where life is about common good and based around maths, logic and rationality, with no messy emotions to deal with. Professor Andrew Martin, a Mathematician has proved the Riemann hypothesis, a Mathematical conundrum involving prime numbers and  the alien has been sent to Earth to destroy Professor Andrew Martin along with anyone who may have been told about his discovery about the Riemann hypothesis. The alien race believes that it is best for the universe at large if this discovery is kept out of human hands.

The alien that has been sent in disguise as Professor Andrew Martin is reminded this by his race about the humans.

 ‘ The humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to , and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves. They have developed technology at a rate too fast for human psychology to keep up with , and yet they still pursue advancement for advancement’s sake, and for the pursuit of the money and fame they all crave so much.

    You must never fall into the human’s trap. You must never look at an individual and fail to see their relation to the crimes of the whole. Every smiling human hides the terrors they are all capable of , and are all responsible for, however indirectly.'

After living amongst the humans, the alien disguised as Professor Martin begins to like them and he wants to be amongst them. He has discovered music and poetry and he likes Emily Dickinson who said this : “ I dwell in possibility.” He has come up with advice for a human and they are intended for Professor Martin's teenage son , Gulliver who is going through a difficult time of his life. Here are some of his statements.

“ Irony is fine, but not as fine as feeling.’

“ History is a branch of mathematics. So is literature. Economics is a branch of religion.
“The news should start with mathematics, then poetry, and move down from there.’

“ Tragedy is just comedy that hasn’t come to fruition. One day we will laugh at this. We will laugh at everything.”

“ A paradox. The things you don’t need to live – books, art, cinema, wine and so on – are the things you need to live.

"Technology won't save human kind. Humans will."

The book was published in 2014. According to the author, Matt Haig, he first had the idea of writing this story in 2000, when he was in the grips of panic disorder. Back then human life felt as strange for him as it does for the unnamed narrator. He ‘was living in a state of intense but irrational fear’that meant he couldn’t even go to a shop on his own – or anywhere – without suffering a panic attack. The only thing he could do to gain a degree of calm was read.  In an afterword at the back of the novel, Haig  writes,
It was a breakdown, of sorts, though as R.D Laing (and later Jerry Maguire) famously said, breakdown is very often breakthrough and , weirdly,  I don’t regret that personal hell now.”
 Haig truly believes in the power of fiction to save lives and minds. He found that reading and writing helped so he became a writer. 
I discovered that words and stories provided maps of sorts, ways of finding your way back to yourself.”

But The Humans was not his first book. The Humans is a wonderful story that is in essence about humans and the vulnerability of human relationships and the emotions and  bittersweet love that consume humans.