Thursday, November 1, 2018

If we could stop time

Amidst too many good reads, what to read next can be a tough decision, even when  I embark on several books at any given time. Sometimes such contemporaneous reading can slow me down particularly when  I have to contend with work and numerous distractions like errands, emails, WhatsApp messages. There are evenings when I feel torn as to how I could be more efficient and effective in doing what I really want to do. As I age, I feel the urgency rising looking at the books that I have not read and want to read and the stories that I want to write. I was thinking about what happens if people know when they will exit from life and then  I came across The Immortalists written by Chloe Benjamin when I was browsing around a bookstore during one of my work trips out of town recently.

It is 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, four Gold children, Varya aged 13, Daniel, aged 11, Klara, aged 9  and Simon, aged 7 visit a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. After they each know their sell-by date, the Golds become consumed by what they have been told and the big question: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life.

The stories of the four siblings are told in four different parts, starting with Simon who runs away from home and is determined to live the life that  he wants after being told that he will die at 21 years old. Both Simon and Klara leave home at a young age. Simon has dyslexia and has never been a good student. As a child, he loves to visit his father’s tailor and dressmaking shop but as a teenager, the women’s clothing bore him and the wools make him itch. When his dad dies, he is the one who will be groomed to succeed his father’s business since his older brother plans to be a doctor. He is close to Klara who later becomes a magician and is inclined to tempt fate as she performs the Jaws of Life,  the act of dangling from high ceilings with the bit of rope between her teeth. 

The author, Benjamin gives a detailed description of  Klara's act. 
'There is no gap between failure and success - the timing is perfect or it is disastrous -- and her pulse trills as she lashes the ascension rope to the batten from a ladder, as she wraps it thrice with sash cord and puts a safety break on the reverse rope. On stage, she measures seventy-five inches up from the floor; her own five feet six inches, plus seven for her fee when pointed, and a two -inch clearance to the ground.'

Klara, too, has an early date with death. Klara knows that Simon is gay so they both head to San Francisco where Simon is comfortable and it is there he discovers that he can dance well.  They become estranged from their widowed mother and their older siblings who are attending college.  Daniel becomes a military doctor certifying who can go to war while the bookish and OCD Klara plunges into research about prolonging life. According to the psychic, Klara lives till the ripe old age of late eighties while Daniel lives past middle age. Daniel is guilt-ridden by Simon and Klara’s early exits as he has been the one who has told them about the psychic. The knowledge about when they die seems to have compelled the Gold children to make certain life choices. It appears that the youngest two siblings have been living capriciously and consequently driven themselves to their early deaths leaving the older siblings wondering if their destinies could have been different. When their lives end early, it is as if they have lived to fulfil the prophecy made by the psychic. Years later, when their widowed mother, Gertie find out from Varya that her children have been to the psychic and believed in the prophecies, she is indignant.

“ How could you believe that junk?” she asks, quietly.
Varya opens her mouth. Gertie puts the yogurt container beside the spoon and folds her hands in her lap, looking at Varya with owlish indignation.
  “ We were kids,” says Varya. “ She frightened us. And anyway, my point is that it isn’t ----”
“ Junk!” says Gertie, decisive now, leaning back in her chair. “So you went to see a Gypsy. No one’s stupid enough to believe them.”
 “ You believe in that kind of junk. You spit when a funeral goes by. After dad died, you wanted to that thing with the chicken, swinging a live one around in the air while reciting  ----”
“ That’s a religious ritual.”
“ And the funeral spitting?’
What about it ?”
“What’s your excuse?”
“Ignorance. What’s yours? You don’t have one,” she says when Varya pauses. “ After everything I gave you: education, opportunity ---- modernity! How could you turn out like me?

It is then Varya sees that what Gertie has given her children: the freedom of uncertainty. The freedom of an unsure fate, her dad Saul would have agreed. 

Benjamin writes,
As the only child of immigrants, her father had few options. To look forward or back must have felt ungrateful, like testing fate --the free present a vision that might vanish he took his eyes away from it. But Varya and her siblings had choices, and the luxury of self-examination. They wanted to measure time, to plot and control it.  In their pursuit of the future, though they only drew closer to the fortune teller’s prophecies.


The Immortalists is a heartwarming as well as a sad story about a Jewish family in New York. The novel explores the line between destiny and choice.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Frexit

A scrawny puppy walked into our garden, looking abandoned and famished. When it pleaded to stay with those doleful eyes, we let it remain. The puppy has since stayed on and we have named our invitee Holly as it reminds us of the character, Holly Golightly, a runaway in Breakfast at Tiffany's,  one of my favourite books and film. While Holly could well fit into the dog kennel that was built for our previous dog,  Angel, a cocker spaniel nicknamed Pebbles, Holly refused to be confined to the dog house, it much preferred to wander around our garden. 

My elder daughter said,“I think I like pebbles more but Holly must not know it.”
Holly gets her walk every day and it refuses to be ignored. Pebbles was relatively quite deprived of attention as the children were busy growing up;  just as I was thinking that it was getting on with age and felt the rise of guilt for not paying enough attention to it, Pebbles fell ill and it died shortly after. We had not intended to get another dog and Holly showed up. It has been more than two and a half years since she walked into our garden and has become part of the family. 

French Exit written by Patrick deWitt tells the story of a sixty-five-year-old socialite, Frances Price and her thirty-two year old son Malcolm. Frances was born with privileges and  married to Franklin Price, a brutish lawyer who defended the indefensible. Franklin  was formidable ‘ among the highest paid lawyer in the United States, and his every extracurricular investment was seemingly predetermined to turn a profit. Sensible, professional men and women spoke with sober seriousness of Franklin Price as one imbued with dark energies’ and up-and-comers discreetly kowtow to him. ‘His death came unexpectedly’ and the’ coroner who performed the autopsy said he’d never seen so powerful a heart attack in his long years at practice’. When Frances found him dead in bed , she went skiing rather than calling an ambulance or the authorities and the tabloids ran a photo of Frances at an après-ski party that was taken five years before that. 

Malcolm asks Frances if she ever loved his dad,  she neatly sums up their life together in a dozen words: “ I did, then I didn’t, then I did, then I really didn’t.”  In her youth she had been renowned for her beauty and style, and these attributes are still in evidence. When her inheritance runs out, Frances liquidates all that she has and  head for the exit . When Joan, her good friend from school offers her a vacant Paris apartment, she goes  to France by cruise liner with her son and a bag stuffed with all her last €170,000 and an aging cat named Small Frank, who apparently houses her husband’s spirit. During their voyage, on the ship, they meet  a medium whom they meet again in Paris.  Apart from the protagonists, all the characters whom they meet are oddballs that include a private detective, one Mme Reynard, a lonesome American dame desperate for France’s friendship. Frances’s plan is to die before the money runs out.

Malcolm is engaged to Susan who finds it painful to maintain the relationship with him due to Frances’s disapproval and her possessiveness.Susan has fallen in love with Malcolm thus .‘It was like an illness coming on; it loitered at the edges of her consciousness, then pounced, gripping her mind and heart.’ 

Patrick deWitt’s writing is sharp and straightforward. His narration is peppered with wicked urbane aphorism such as ‘ Hatred was a fillip and she was glad in her preparations.’  Frances had come to think of gift-giving as a polite form of witchcraft


The story is dark, a madcap comedy filled with  quirky characters and clever and funny dialogues. French Exit is a page-turner and as the protagonist is bent on executing her plans, I find the  ending of the novel rather disturbing. 

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.