31 March, 2012

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Oh the brilliant wretchedness, the weariness, that one is doomed to witness among the silly people whom we meet in society here! The ambition of rank! How they watch, how they toil, to gain precedence! What poor and contemptible passions are displayed in their utter nakedness!"
Read when you've reached The Edge. 

When I started on this slim book (a mere 88 pages long!), the prose seemed unwieldly, too ornate for my taste. I grew apprehensive, perhaps I'd been reading too much 'new age literature', perhaps it was my waning patience? Thankfully, it was neither, and slowly, Young Werther grasped.

Goethe was only 24 (!) when he wrote this semi-autobiographical book, applauded as one of the most important milestones in his career. The preface states "it rose like a literary meteor in the world and carries his name on its blazing wings."

Narrated in the form of letters Werther writes to his friend, the story charts the spiral of wrenching emotions he faces and finally bows down to. For all the weaknesses of his character, Werther is strong in his love, something he nourishes and fans till there is nothing left for himself. With an almost morbid fascination, I watched him rise, on the ecstacy of finding love, even if unrequited, and then his fall into the Abyss of No Return. His introspective letters are exquisite pieces of prose and I watched Werther wade through anxieties that I have often had at different turns of my life. He too holds an immense fascination for Nature. He too echoes the feelings of jealousy and pain I have ridden. And that, for me, is Goethe's triumph. He transcends time. Werther is a young man in 18th century Germany. I, a girl in 21st century India. Our contexts could not be further removed and yet he manages to build a story that resonates.
"This confirmed me in my resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters."

17 March, 2012

The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha

"...when you find it difficult to say something, when the words get trapped in your chest, your lips quiver, as in winter, you can always write it down."
I'd read it on a train journey.
Raj Kamal Jha writes exquisitely, there is little to doubt there. The attention to detail is awe inspiring and rather envy inducing "the black rubber bands that held her white socks in place". And he is a crafty writer, luring you by nuggets of familiarity in the same way one rejoices at meeting people and recognising oneself in them.

Set in the humidity of Calcutta, the book is in the form of words being fervently written by the protagonist as he sputters out his strange story. All in the span of one night. A baby lies near him and he is addressing it as he writes. The story is powerful and delves upon the delicate and contentious subject of physical intimacy between siblings (some threads reminded me of A God of Small Things). At times I wanted to read faster than the words were written, but the tone sometimes collapses into overt sentimentality, and sometimes, the reader is almost isolated as the protagonist moves ahead. However, for its calmly urgent story telling and perhaps because of its flaws, The Blue Bedspread is a book I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

For a taste, here is the first chapter.

"Like lonely lovers often do, I keep thinking things, I conjured up worlds where we were husband and wife, we had taken a house, all for ourselves, with a tiny garden in front."

12 March, 2012

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Read it lying down

"If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane."

Many people must have reached a similar conclusion but I have to say that John Green's Alaska aims to be the Catcher in the Rye of this generation, and it comes pretty close. Miles 'Pudge' Halter and his band of misfits: the Colonel, a rotund short guy who knows the names of every country's capital (it is his coping mechanism), Alaska, the impetuous pretty girl who says she 'smokes to die', Takumi, the Japanese kid who is supposedly the best rapper in all of Alabama, and Lara the Hungarian, Romanian blue-eyed beauty. They're high school teenagers in boarding school with an abnormally high proclivity for pranks. And then something happens that changes the way they will witness their world, shake it to the very marrow and leave everything slightly hollow. 

John Green keeps the language simple but manages to come up with wonderful phrases, you know, the kinds you underline?  

"... the glittering ambiguity of a girl's smile, which seems to promise an answer to the question but never gives it."

Underneath a story of a group of nicotine starved teenagers, and how they grapple with the first big tragedy of their lives, John Green weaves in a parallel narration on religion. Through the voice of the very old and crumbling Religious Studies teacher Dr. Hyde, the story attempts to understand the questions raised when the mind is faced with unfathomable suffering. I wish he'd have delved deeper, but then that would have been another book. 

My only grouse with the book is the lack of empathy the character of Alaska aroused in me. She seemed too shallow for my taste which sat uncomfortably with her very voluble feminist streak. The layers that Green tried to create for her, didn't seem to go very deep. But while she seemed superficial and at times forced, I warmed up to the the other characters especially my personal favourite; the Colonel.

If for nothing else, I recommend the book for introducing me to the ideas of the Great Perhaps and Simon Bolivar's labyrinth.

Cross-posted here.

03 March, 2012

In Absentia

From Typewritten

A room with walls painted the sound of rain. Yellow light bouncing off my bookshelves, fanning some stories, banishing others into dark solitude. On the uneven floor, a mattress lies covered with that cotton bedspread, the colour of autumn, coarse and handwoven. The window is agape, cooling this long summer night and a breeze lilts in. A glass of nimbu pani sweats, encircled in its wreath of condensation. The night is silent, as silent as snow, and I can hear my heart beating. Calmly. Pirouetting in the pool of light, memories confuse themselves with wishes. My tired eyes strain to read between the lines I've already rewritten. The curtain flutters and flails in the fanciful breeze. The yellow flowers on it rise, expecting a new lease of life and then, collapse, breathless and disappointed. Shadows ink the walls and I watch them dance. Merging in and out of my consciousness, they fight for attention, only to dissolve into shades of light. It's warm and the mogra flowers are exhaling their fragrance in desperation. I smell impending death and crush them before they turn to rust. Footsteps? Did I hear footsteps? Yes, but they seem to be walking away. The breeze has stopped its playful banter and the curtains lie inert, looking vacantly at the stillness. I realise I've been holding my breath. And exhale. For you're not here. 



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