Queen of Dreams – Disappointment in real life!

The first time I encountered Chitra Divakurni Banerjee’s delicious fiction writing was when I chanced on a Collection of Short Stories written by her titled “Arranged Marriage”. I read through them, completely enthralled. One story after another emerged as Chitra portrayed a very realistic world of an average Indian woman. I could identify with so many of the emotions she was writing about. The last story especially where she outdid herself was so raw with emotion, so replete with pathos, that it tugged my heart quite a bit. It felt like I was watching something unfold in front of my eyes. The events were believable and the commentary that went with the flow of the story was mind blowing. I especially liked the way how she meandered on about the protagonist’s thoughts, spot on! I have read some reviews saying this was a collection of sob stories, while I do agree they were, let me also tell you that each of these sob stories was not far off the mark. Things like this routinely occur in women’s lives wherein if they are satisfied and happy with one aspect of their life, then there is another aspect wherein they are very anxious and discontented about. Chitra lays that down beautifully. I especially was blown over in the last story wherein the heroine realizes that what had happened has nothing to do with her but mostly to do with a human being’s unquenchable thirst for happiness which leads him/her to different places to satiate the thirst. However, since the nature of the thirst lies is in the fact that it cannot be completely quenched, the human being is left in the same state they were before coming and trying out the new water hole!

That is basically the essence of all the stories – that human beings are very finicky creatures who don’t seem to find peace in anything and that they leave parts of themselves scattered. Since they have already moved forward, these pieces remain broken and can never be gathered again to make the human whole. We might try to retrace our steps back to find that important piece that fell off from us, but one can never quite recover what one has lost of themselves. She carries the essence of the stories into the second book I read by her – this one a novel titled “The Queen of Dreams.”

I have heard of an earlier book written by the same author, the very famous “Mistress of Spices” which was even developed into a movie. I haven’t read Mistress of Spices completely, just a few brief excerpts here and there and from what I’ve read, it seems like wonderful read. Divakurni seemed like an outstanding author and I was really excited about reading her Queen of Dreams.

The prose as usual was very good and true to her nature, she dives into the story with a splash. There is no build up or meandering about as we are thrown headlong into the dream world. It took me a while to understand what Queen of Dreams meant though. Once I got it, I found myself very interested with the goings-ons and as is usual with me when I have a good book to read, I was feeling elated.

Well, well, well, don’t judge a book by it’s cover they say – they should also include another disclaimer – don’t judge a book by the first few chapters. This turned out to be such a bad book, I had trouble finishing it. At the end of it, I had read first person, second person, third person and no person accounts. Pretty damn confusing. Not to mention the constant back and forth from the past and not just past from one person’s point of view but past from the first person, second person, third person and no person’s point of view that I am already very confused about.

Granted, sometimes it is fun to wade through these confusions. But only if your efforts are worth it. If the story had the punch, if the treatment had the twinkle, then yes, I am all for making it harder on the reader to catch on to the author’s way of thinking. After all, delayed gratification is worth something. But what if the gratification you have been looking for simply does not exist? That’s what happens here. The story is so predictable like a Bollywood Masala Movie, worse still like an Indian TV Soap Opera, that I found myself wincing at some of the tracks. The one where the lead protagonist (who is not the Queen of Dreams, mind you!) interacts with her best friend Belle. Reminded me of all those cringeworthy moments in Hindi Movies where the heroine is put on a pedestal and her every sigh, her every move is glorified by her lesser mortal friends. I find the whole concept of having a queen bee buzzing among her friends infuriating. For God’s sake, if you have put them on the same level and call them friends, don’t make it seem like the friend is a lesser human being to make your heroine more of a heroine. That vein of thought runs throughout the novel and I found that highly exasperating. When you must take the help of your side character to add more meat to your main character, you are basically cheating. You need to make your character whole by themselves. If you must make them appear better than those around them, then you have to raise them higher, not push the people around then lower to achieve the effect. That is how the heroes in our movies are given Demi-God status – by making us feel like they are the best amongst a bevy of moronic men and women. I was highly, highly disappointed with the caricaturing of Rakhi’s best friend Belle, who appeared to be much more of an interesting character but is relegated to playing the doting sidekick more than a friend.

Another thing I take offense with is how the relationship between Rakhi and her ex-husband Sonny is handled. Once again Divakurni takes a very liberal and soft approach to a divorce and once again to prove that her heroine is quite a catch, we have Sonny (who is a filthy rich successful DJ) following her like a puppy dog, lapping up her insults like they were pieces of bone! Everybody loves him except Rakhi and we are never quite sure why she separates from him. Even she isn’t! You would think you would get to know the reason at least by the end of the book. Think again.

The most well-presented character in the book is Rakhi’s mother – the Queen herself. I really liked reading about her and the mystery surrounding her persona. I felt mesmerized by her like most of her clients do. She seemed to be the one character that Divakurni worked well on while relegating everyone else to mere shadows. Except the Mom’s, no other character is developed well nor do they have consistency. It is like one chapter they are this person and down the lane transform into a completely different personality.

Also, the story is haphazard. It seems like the author tried to take on more and more as she travelled down the road and kept shoving it into the vehicle without quite knowing whether she was going to use it later or not. The result is that we are left with all these loose ends that are never tied. At the end, she pulls each shoved in part out, mulls over what to do with it and decides that she can’t really do anything and just tosses them out. The part about the white guy in the park is a classic pointer in the case. I still do not understand why this character was introduced and why he took up so much space and, in the end, had nothing to contribute to the narrative. Also, I found it extremely childish the way Divakurni jumbles his name to Emmet Maerd to Emit Maerd which happens to be Dream Time in reverse. Ugh! And she offers no explanation about this. I would have loved to see her extricate herself from the hole she had dug herself into. It would’ve been awesome had she at least tried. Instead, she acts as if there was never a hole at all and we are supposed to understand what the secrets are. Yes, I do like it sometimes when the author leaves the reader the task of figuring out some aspects of the story and leaves it to their imagination. Here however, the clues are too vague and seem to be sprinkled at will which makes it very difficult for the reader to sort them out.

I understand that Divakurni might have wanted to keep the mystery of mistresses and queens going but this attempt is very, very weak though it tries to use every trick of the trade to make the tale exotic. There’s sand caves, there’s snakes with banana leave skin, there’s singadas, there’s Bollywood music, there’s drums, there’s the streets of Bengal, there’s Cha, there’s cacophony – almost everything that foreigners associate with India – but alas, the soul is missing. The only couple of times I got interested in the narrative is when Rakhi tries to cope with the loss of her mother. I wanted her to break free of her obsession with why her mom is the way she is and work on her own character. Instead she gets even more deeply embroiled into it. The sudden appearance of the dad as a main character who could do almost everything was a bit too much. As I pointed out earlier, inconsistent and not quite believable. But I have to say, I loved the descriptions of all those yummy Bengali sweets and pakoras being made. The opening of the restaurant and everything that went it, I enjoyed reading. But even that was abruptly halted as the restaurant and its employees come under a racially motivated attack in lieu of 9/11. As if the story needed any more drama to it, we have a few pages devoted to this tragedy and everything that happened after that. Just on the surface though. Does not do anything to leave an impact.
As if this mess was not enough we have a vile female manager from a competing business who I am not sure is good, bad or ugly. She seems to be starting ominously and putting her life on line to make sure that her competition bites the dust. Her character sketch is so bad, that I found myself getting uncomfortable whenever she came on. She was the classic vamp and villain mixed into one. Once again I felt that her character was there to make our Rakhi look better. Very cliched – the well dressed, fit and fanatical other woman, only here she’s after the business and not the man. Even that loose end is not tied as she disappears without a trace leaving behind in her wake a portly harmless old man!

All in all, this book was a damp squib. I wish I had not read it and my respect and awe for Divakurni would have had not waned. Well, I have heard that this is the only bad book she wrote. I want to test that out because I have yet another book of hers with me, The Vine of Desire. I am hoping this turns out better and Chitra can re-capture the magic I associate with her writing. This magic I saw sprinkled all over Arranged Marriage. Every story I read in there, every paragraph, every character and every line could have been underlined for retrospection later. As you could imagine Queen of Dreams has none of the going for it. However, I managed to find her spark here and there which I will reproduce here.

The best of the lot for me are these:
“Words are tricky. Sometimes you need them to bring out the hurt festering inside. If you don’t, it turns gangrenous and kills you. . . But sometimes words can break a feeling into pieces.” – Very thought provoking.
“Everyone breathes in air, but it’s a wise person who knows when to use that air to speak and when to exhale in silence.” – Absolutely Delicious!
“I liked his voice, rich and unself-conscious even when he forgot words and hummed to fill in the gap. What I didn’t understand, I imagined, and thus it became a love song.” – Sweet!
Not much, I am aware.

The Joy of “Joy Luck Club”

As a prelude to my next blog, I wanted to reproduce here a review I had done of Amy Tan’s ‘Joy Luck Club’ a couple of years ago.

I am always looking for books that are unputdownable. Books that want me to keep flipping the pages, drink the words in and savor them slowly. Books ironically, I don’t want to end, but can’t wait to finish. When I was a kid, Enid Blyton made sure I had a continuous stream of afore mentioned books at my disposal with the Famous Five Series. As I got a little older, I was reading Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. After that, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse made sure I had that my saga of wanting nothing more than getting back to my book was kept alive!

I realized that murder mysteries were the books I was most interested in and especially Hercule Poirot made sure that once I started reading the latest case he was on, I couldn’t stop until he caught the perpetrator of the crime. It was great fun while it lasted. Soon I got over my mystery fixation and started branching out into more mature reading.

I found a lot of books that I just devoured, but soon life started to kick in and my reading was limited to a book here and there. Now was the time I needed books that belonged to the unputdownable category for me to put life on the back burner and turn the pages. Well, I found some but for the past few months, I haven’t been able to find anything that would remotely match that category.

While doing some spring cleaning our house, I chanced to see Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. I did not remember buying it. I took it in my hands. It was a very old paperback and I opened it to see my nephew’s name written on the first page. This intrigued me since the book itself seems to explore mother-daughter relationships. The big bold letters “Nine Months on the New York Times bestseller List” helped too and I was soon putting it away as a book to read rather than one to be donated.

As many of my intelligent readers must have figured out by now, this book fit into that elusive category – like a 100% fit. Right from the start till the very end, Amy Tan had me captivated and awestruck by her writing style. Being a daughter and a woman, I could relate completely to the book. I have read a fair bit of Chinese literature in the past year including the much acclaimed “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. While that was a good read too, it was too long and sometimes the one-track story got so intense, that one longed for a break, a diversion from the main characters. ‘The Joy Luck Club’ is that and so much more.

I will go a quick synopsis of the story for the reader’s benefit. The story is about Chinese Mothers who have immigrated to the United States. All of them have daughters who are Americanized and feel embarrassed about their heritage. There are a few stories running in parallel that I had trouble keeping track of because I have a condition of not quite associating names with characters. This made it hard for me to follow the story, but I didn’t mind. I was just savoring the writing style. Incredible would be the word. I can’t imagine how someone can write so well. That’s what writing is – pure magic.

When one can ignore the story in favor of the writing style, that to me denotes the ultimate achievement of the writer. It is like the actual story takes the background and you are left savoring the deliciousness of the lines. The words that make up the lines, the words that are mere air but seem to resonate together to vibrate at a frequency that matches your own. That to me represents the biggest achievement for a writer and that is what separates the great writes from the good ones.

One of my very good friends and an avid reader of my writings used to compare this state to gliding. He would say that some Chapters in my works would give him the feeling that he was gliding and not just barreling down the story. Reading Amy Tan’s work gave me the same feeling. That I was gliding slowly, meandering about, looking over the vast expanse which sometimes was beautiful and lovely, sometimes was stark and depressing, sometimes mundane and ordinary and at once fantastic and amazing! Before I venture off more into the gliding, let me return to the book!

Amy Tan writes about so many simple situations that have been labeled as normal by the society in general, but how these situations could systematically erode the person that is going through them to a point that even their own mothers are unable to recognize them! The book celebrates strong mothers and how their presence (and even absence) impacts the lives of their daughters. Whether it is a good or bad impact, the reader is left to decide. The author just presents the stories with no judgment whatever on who is right and who is wrong.

The lingering theme running through all 4-5 stories that make up the book, is the presence of not so talkative mature women who have gone through a lot when they were young and how they fought their circumstances, went against them and managed to give their daughter’s a better life only to see the young women struggling in their lives. Struggling not because of the circumstances surrounding them, but rather with the choices they made. The contrast between the lives of the poor and illiterate women who had nothing but their spirit guiding them and the spoilt kids that grow up into unsure women even though they have everything going for them forms the crux of the stories. Each life, each relationship finding something similar in each other.

The one thing you might find is that Amy Tan does make one feel that the American way of life is not as honorable and right as the Chinese. But I guess considering she is writing from the point of view of a crusty old woman, we could forgive her that transgression!

Read it and you will find yourselves drawing parallels with your own life.

I am reproducing some of the best lines from the book that have touched me in some way or the other.

After a while, I didn’t think it was terrible life, no, not really. After a while, I hurt so much I didn’t feel any difference. What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny mushroom and bamboo shoots I had helped prepare that day? What was more satisfying than having Huang Taitai nod and pat my head when I had finished combing her hair one hundred strokes? How much happier could I be after seeing Tyan-yu eat a whole bowl of noodles without once complaining about its taste or my looks? It’s like those ladies you see in American TV these days, the ones who are so happy they have washed out a stain so the clothes look better than new.
Can you see how the Huangs almost washed their thinking into my skin? I came to think of Tyan-yu as a God, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please, someone I should follow and obey without question.

I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see., that no one would ever take away from me. I was like the wind.

For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.
And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So, I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable.
And even worse, I never asked her what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope?
For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons stopped. The lid to the piano was closed, shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.

I wasn’t so afraid of my mother was I was afraid for Rich. I already knew what she would do, how she would attach him, how she would criticize him. She would be quiet at first. Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And even if recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.

“A girl is like a young tree,” she said. “You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pills you out and throws you away.”

Here’s to strong mothers and to their poor hapless daughters who take forever to realize that their moms were right and knew better all along and here’s to the words that are mere air, but words that resonate so much with you, that you feel like you should be the one’s penning them!

Reason for Hope – Reason for Joy

One of the women I admire (and there are many) is Jane Goodall. I am right now amid reading her biography and am extremely enamored by it. My love affair with the lady started when I read her response to the unfortunate killing of Harambe, the female Gorilla who was killed in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. A baby girl fell into Harambe’s enclosure and to save the baby’s life, the Zoo officials decided to shoot Harambe. There was a lot of hue and cry about the event and people took no time in raising fingers at everyone involved in the incident. The mom who was labeled careless and the Zoo officials who were labeled heartless. I really felt bad for Harambe that she had to die for no fault of her own, but I could not understand the debates and arguments about how wrong the response was – everything in hindsight mind you. I thought about what if it would have been a child dear to me that was caught in the situation? Would I then have had issue with the Zoo official’s response to the incident in shooting Harambe and rescuing the child. Yes, there has been an instance of another Gorilla in a Chicago Zoo picking up a child who had once again fallen into the enclosure and delivering it to the waiting arms of the officials at the gate. However, one incident does not guarantee that a completely different Gorilla will have the same kind of response. A decision had to be made and it had to be made fast. Sure, there was a lot of outcry because people believed that Harambe had a hand around the child and was trying to save it. But the Zoo Officials did not have the luxury of hindsight or time on their hands. Imagine the backlash if the child had not been rescued. So, for whatever reason and because they had the authority and responsibility of the Zoo, it was decided that Harambe be shot. There were questions as to why she had to be killed and not just drugged from people not realizing that a big Gorilla does not go to sleep instantaneously. It could get agitated and most likely attack. My thoughts were that the Zoo officials must have done the best they could under the circumstances.

A few days later, I read a statement that was released by Jane Goodall. I tried to google her response, but I am unable to locate the exact words but in a letter to the Zoo she empathizes with the Zoo officials and tells the Zookeeper that she understands the response and ends with “Feeling for you!” She asks for the well being of the other 2 female Gorillas who were with Harambe and asks if they had been allowed to grieve. If there is one word I would associate with this response from her, it would be the word Empathy. Something that is sorely lacking in our world right now.

She empathizes with the Zoo Keeper, the officials, Harambe and her companions. No judgement is passed nor any agreement with the actions shown. The letter is short, to the point and elegantly written. I can imagine the lovely and elegant white-haired Jane Goodall typing this response and sending it out. Truly, a remarkable woman that I was (mis) introduced to via the movie Gorilla’s in the Mist. Later I realized that Dian Flossey who was portrayed so brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver was completely different from Jane Goodall though both had dedicated their lives to the study of primates. Jane to Chimpanzees and Dian to Gorillas.

I have been blessed in the sense that with my Dad being in the Forest Department that encompassed postings in remote areas and finally overseeing the huge Hyderabad Zoo for more than 5 years, I’ve had a close relationship with nature and animals. I believe that much of my personality has been molded based on those years I spent hiking mountains, wading through rivers and streams, walking through the jungles of the Eastern Ghats. My most treasured memories and I know I have been extremely lucky to have had that in my life. I have always been drawn to people like me who enjoy nature and have a close relationship with animals. Jane Goodall fit that bill and much more. I enjoy her thoughts and her talks. Her quotes are mind blowing and seem so much in sync with what I take away from a situation. In short, I admire her and have been a fan for years.

I remember picking a book for kids and reading it with my son about her. It narrated how Jane had loved animals from since she was a child and once when she was about 18 months old had collected worms and placed them under her pillow. When she was told that it might kill the worms, she had been distraught and did not rest until she restored the worms to their habitat. Soon after she collected snails from the beach and bought them home. Apparently, there were snails all over the walls of her room and her parents again told her that it might kill them. Jane became hysterical and then again put them all back in the sea. These stories enchanted and fascinated me. No wonder that when I chanced upon her autobiography – Reason for Hope, I immediately picked it up.I have been full of wonder and joy reading it the past few days and her personal narration of those charming incidents was lovely. She writes about even more incidents and I find myself really savoring this book. Her insights, her journey to achieve her dream of living in Africa coming from very humble beginnings, the empathy and wonder she writes with – I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is to be reading this book. Consider the following snippet from it:

“I fell madly in love with him. I was fifteen years old, and in those days, one could still be a child at that age.”

She writes about her mom –

“Certainly, I was lucky to be provided with a mother wise enough to nurture and encourage my love of living things and my passion for knowledge. Most important was her philosophy that her children should always try their very best. How would I have turned out, I sometimes wonder, had I grown up in a house that stifled enterprise by imposing harsh and senseless discipline. Or in an atmosphere of overindulgence, in a household where there were no rules, no boundaries drawn. My mother certainly understood the importance of discipline, but she always explained why some things were not allowed. Above all, she tried to be fair and consistent.”

I could have written this about my mother. That’s exactly how Ammi was with me.

What I read today completely blew me away and I felt very strongly that I need to put this on my blog and I am just trying to do that. Jane is writing about the time where she basically agrees to work in the forest observing Chimpanzees. She writes –

“I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the Chimpanzees’ lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with religion and philosophy. Nevertheless, those months at Gombe helped to shape the person I am today – I would have been insensitive indeed of the wonder and the endless fascination of my new world had not had a major impact on my thinking. All the time, I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature, there is really little need for me to say more; for those who have not, no words of mine can ever describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected. The beauty is always there, but moments of true awareness were rare. They would come, unannounced; perhaps when I was watching the pale flush preceding dawn; or looking up through the rustling leaves of some giant forest tree into the greens and browns and the black shadows and the occasionally ensnared bright fleck of the blue sky; or when I stood, as darkness fell with one hand on the still-warm trunk of a tree and looked at the sparkling early moon on the never still, softly sighing water of Lake Tanganyika.”

Pure Magic – the words, the feelings, the emotions and the raw love for nature. Mere words, but from the heart and so touching. Once again, my feeling that I could be writing these words permeates my being as I visualize a sky with all hues of colors possible from grey to orange to blue to red slowly receding into darkness with the limbs of the trees silhouetted against the vast expanse, donning on the darkness before nightfall itself!

I, Lucifer at it again!

“It may have escaped your notice,” I say, “but me and rules don’t have what you’d call a happy history. Me and rules haven’t been known for wildly hitting it off, if you see what I mean.”

Great way to start off the second part, you have to agree. Yes, we all know Lucifer, that you are not very keen on rules. So our villian almost slips, but the angels make a comeback to warn him that he’s breaking the rules. That’s when he comes up with the gem above, but then he decides to toe the line and not do anything bad. (He’s about to commit a murder when he’s stopped in his tracks because he can’t really harm the person whose body he’s in). So he comes back and starts mulling and telling us his thoughts and feelings. Most of the book proceeds this way. Something happens and then Lucifer comes back and tells us his take on the situation. He digresses a lot. For some people that might be annoying because it takes away from the progression of the story, but to me these digressions are delicious. As I have said before, the object is not to hurtle in a straight path towards the end of the story but to take those winding scenic bypasses and delight in their beauty, though they might be completely unnecessary to the main plot.

So Lucifer digresses and starts to shed light on how he created money and made it the root cause of every evil.

“Wealth breeds boredom and boredom breeds vice; poverty breeds anger and anger breeds vice.”

So Lucifer said – “Humans and human needs lay hid in night.
I said: ‘Let money be!’ and all was light.”

But best of all were the following lines on the same subject:

“The key to evil? Freedom. The key to freedom? Money. For you, my darlings, freedom to do what you like is the discovery of how unlikable what you like to do makes you. Not that that stops you doing what you like, since you like doing what you like more than you like liking what you do.”

Mere air these words, but oh! so sensational. The play of words here is AWESOME! It took me a couple of times or reading and re-reading the lines to get the full gist of what Mr.Duncan wanted to convey and when I did get what he wanted to say, I had to do what I usually do, put down the book, mull over how well some people can convey such depth of meaning, wonder what is wrong with me that I can’t quite write like this and then come back to taking up the book a few hours later.

For the next few chapters Lucifer dwells on how he made man commit evil. He asks hard questions like what did he do wrong. His argument? It goes something like this:
“Is it pride to want a place of your own? Is it pride to want to be independent? Is it pride to want to do something in the universe? Is it pride to be want to be somebody? Is it pride to want to live with Dignity? Is it pride to get sick of KISSING AN OLD MAN”

You gotta hand it to him, he sure does make a valid argument, childish and unnecessarily churlish it might seem. I felt a shift in the book from around here. It’s like Lucifer wants you to know that he actually is a dear old thing and there is nothing wrong with what all he did. Till this point, I felt like he did not give excuses for who he was, but slowly he does seem to be getting ensnared into the trap that we all human beings share – the desire to get our point across, the desire to tell the world that ‘I am right and have a heart of gold’ even if we committed the most vile sin.

“The rich, the famous, the slim-and-gorgeous – they incite an envy so urgent that you can escape it only by translating it into pity. People who live like that never end up happy. Yes, you’re right. But neither do you.”

A case of sour grapes, eh?

So anyways, our dear friend gets a great idea to make a movie out of his manuscript and since Gunn already had connections in the Hollywood world, it soon takes off. While I am not very big into Hollywood and its machinations, I am sure it sure takes some time before a movie is approved to be made. Maybe it’s Lucifer’s influence but everyone loves the out of the world script and very soon the filming starts. The narrative got a bit boring here and I had to force myself to keep reading. I knew it was a matter of time before Lucifer would be back in full form and sure as hell, he was. (Excuse the pun!)

“Look closely the next time a pedophile comes via the media to the attention of his peers, look closely at the faces of the outraged mob. That’s where you will find me. Those pixelated tabloid stills of good mums and dads transformed by righteousness into grimacing beasts, bellowing for blood, teaching their children to hate first and ask questions later(or better still never), buoyed and inflated by the gobbled-up lie that they’re doing God’s work. This is pedophilia’s quality yield: the indignant mob bloodthirsty with decency, obscenely relieved of the burden of thought and yoke of argument. EVIL PERVERTS SHOULD BE TORTURED THEMSELVES. The bald leaders make me fizz with pride. You’ll have noticed, I dare say, a dearly purchased and bitter confidence, now that their loss has excused them their own ethical failings and moral mediocrity. They’ve suffered the tragedy of poor Tommy and are thus absolved of further responsibilities. It is required of them now only that they exists as mascots for the mob. Please do look and tell me, if you can, that there’s any greater evil than the transformation of individuals into the lurching, self-congratulatory mob?”

This paragraph to me represented, the highest level of thought process that Glenn Duncan forces his readers into. This is where everyone’s comfort zone is violated to some degree, but one has to sometimes suspend one’s way of thinking and try to think outside the norm. I am sure most of our reactions on coming to know about a huge atrocity being committed is akin to what is described above, though we may never admit to it. I can so easily picture the transformation of individuals into the lurching, lynching and self-congratulatory mob. This is what is happening right now. Maybe Glenn Duncan meant it as an exaggeration when he wrote these lines, but unfortunately they represent the society we live in today. Lucifer must be happy!

Mere air these words, but oh! so insightful. This book is full of insights like the above into the human psyche. The devil does take credit for it but the off hand matter in which these big transgressions are discussed is simply mind blowing. It’s like the author manages to hold you by the scruff of your neck, drag you out of your comfort zone and leaves you gasping for breath. Truly, you will be thinking while reading this book, thinking all the time. For some of us, this might be a book that is unreadable, but that is where it gets its charm from – the fact that it forces you to think, though it might be accomplishing that goal by hitting your head continously.

Lucifer comes up for yet another creative but nail-on-the-head description for another prevalent vice in our society.

“Wife batterers around the world will tell you: the primary effect of hitting your wife for the first time (assuming she doesn’t leave you immediately) is that it makes it much easier to hit her – harder – a second time. Then a third, then a fourth, and so on, until hitting’s nowhere near enough and you’ve got to start getting creative.”

Creepy, but unfortunately once again the truth!

From time to time Lucifer’s thoughts and actions are taken over by Declan Gunn, the body host. As is the norm, the narrative veers towards his mother. I was half expecting this, it seems to me that if we need to talk about emotion in a looser, then we need to talk about his relationship with his mother.

“He remembers her, that she had much to forgive him. Chiefly, that he never once thought of her as a person in her own right. Instead he measured her by her aesthetic near-misses and hair-raising mispronounciations – measured her solely in relation to himself. She knew. He knew she knew. Time after time his resolutions to rise about himself. Time after time his failure to honor it.”

I believe a good writer makes you think right in the wrong direction. By wrong direction I mean a direction where you have been afraid to turn towards all your life. A direction whose existence you deny even, but which is lurking just beneath the surface and you know it is there, though you chose to ignore it completely. Well, its your bad day today because Glenn Duncan makes you face that direction and shoves those thoughts up your brain – thoughts that you never entertained. As I have said before, the hallmark of good writing.

As the book nears the end, Lucifer starts to loosen up a little and the profoundness of his words becomes a little light. It was with almost a relief that I read the following:

“Sunrise was a vast magnanimous presence below the horizon, a furious benevolence with an inexhaustible wealth of heat. (Except of course it’s not inexhaustible. Except of course it’s burning itself out.)

Coming to this statement felt like I was going back to elementary school after attending graduate school. The narrative takes a turn towards treading softly as Lucifer’s time on earth hurtles towards the end. It is almost like the devil has a change of heart and starts to side with his humanisque side. He recognizes what is happening to him, but as he points out, the pull of the flesh is very attractive.

“The feeling that someone, somewhere (I know, I know, I know) was quietly, simply, without a concealed agenda, telling me that it was all right, that stillness would come, that peace is purchased in the currency of loss…”

Basically, humanizing the devil by giving it a human form. Game, Set, Match – God!

All in all it was a great book to read – just the kind of book one would want to read when trying to read out of the comfort zone. There were many places when my way of thinking and understanding the world was questioned and threatened. The book showed viewpoints that made sense once they were revealed. The language was rich and luxuriant throughout, the pace was lacking sometimes, there were parts of the book that made for some lethargic reading, sometimes the coherence would be lost, some parts that were meant to be read and re-read again but definitely a book that you should read, at least once, preferably twice. There are jewels strewn all over, but you need to get to them.

Straight from the Devil’s mouth – I, Lucifer!

Thanks to my commute via Rail, I have been reading a lot of books lately. While mostly I have stuck to safe havens like motivating self-help books, P.G.Wodehouse, Salman Rushdie (believe it or not, he has written a couple of smashing uncontroversial children’s books), Amy Tan, Anita Desai etc, I have tried to heed to the little voice inside of me (and from a self-help book too I have to confess) that tells me that I need to get out of my comfort zone and experiment reading stuff I am not used to. Subject I am not comfortable with. So I have been trying to do just that.

It took me a while to get to determine what it is exactly that I don’t like to read. There is a lot of that actually a I have reached conclusion by reading and abhorring genres like spy thrillers, violence, romance(!) and of course the unmentionables. I am a big fan of memoirs, classics, mysteries – everything that mostly has to do with realism. (I just picked up Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House where he touches on modern realism…I can’t wait to finish and write a review of that one!). I somehow don’t seem to have a penchant for sci-fi and all those imaginary tales. At the risk of invoking Rushdie’s name a third time, I have to give him credit for me actually opening up to tales involving imaginary lands and imaginary characters. His ‘Haroon and the Sea of Stories’ was an absolute delight to read (hopefully my next review) with a lovable Haroon travelling to the land of Kahaani and Chup with a water genie! How is that for imagination? I remember groaning as I took up that book but could not stop myself from relishing each and every paragraph from that lovely book. I assure you this is not a review of that feel good book, though I would love to continue with that.

This is a review of the book I took up reading after finishing ‘Haroon and the Sea of Stories.’ This book I am talking about belonged to someone who was very close to my heart. This was one of his favorite books and that in itself is special to me. However, I could not bring myself to read it. I knew this book was about fantasy and imagination but more than that it was about the protagonist. A book I would never have picked out for myself. A book outside of my comfort zone. Just the kind of book the nagging voice in my head was pushing me towards. What more signs did I need? I picked it up and started reading it.

The book is by Glen Duncan (an author I have never heard of) and it is titled – “I, Lucifer!”

It claims – “Finally, the other side of the story!”

Definitely not my kind of book. But the tag line piqued my interest. I am all for there is always another side to the story and I thought it would be pretty interesting to read the devil’s point of view as the tag line proclaimed. So, I picked up the book mainly because it was the favorite book of one of my most favorite persons and I started reading this as my way of paying honor to his life.

The first few paragraphs brought a chuckle but I sighed thinking what it must have in store. The introduction goes like this:

“I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of this World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer and without doubt the best **** in the Seen and Unseen Universe have decided – oo-la-la – to tell all.”

I could imagine my ‘most favorite person’ saying this to me. I was already liking this book. While poignant and serious writing has its own strength, reading a book, however heavy and uncomfortable its content may be, becomes a source of delightful and easy reading if humor is interspersed in it. I am a very big fan of subtle humor incorporated seamlessly into the narrative and Lucifer’s introduction was exactly that. Ambitious adjectives I must say. I had that in mind as I continued to read forward and almost fell out of my chair laughing when I chanced upon these lines in the novel (trudging a bit too forward I must say, but staying true to the context).

“One small bedroom, one small living room, a small kitchen and a small bathroom. (I looked for other adjectives).”

Just in character for Lucifer to be able to come up with a plethora of adjectives while describing himself but falling short when it comes to saying the same about something else.

So coming back to the beginning of the book. Our hero (or should I be saying villain) is offered a deal by his arch enemy, God himself. It is a homecoming deal that Angel Gabriel relays to Lucifer. One earth month on earth without any mortal sin and the fallen angel would be able to reclaim his position in Heaven. I would’ve imagined that the Devil might not be forthcoming to such an idea, but interestingly Lucifer takes the deal. He is tired of all the mischief he is doing for thousands of years and it is painful to him. The pain is described as under –

“I wasn’t kidding about the pain. Imagine death by cancer (of everything) compressed into minutes – a fractally expanding agony seeking out your every crevice.”

I find myself when reading stuff like this to want to hear how the words sound like. There are so many wonderful tones and tenors associated with these words that I find myself reading out aloud the lines. Go ahead, try it. It is like you are giving every sound that you can possibly make a go. The words have a tune like quality, mere words but oh! So resonant!

But that’s not where the wonder ends. One line has so much meaning written into it that the mind boggles at what all it is trying to say. I find myself pausing sometimes from the reading, taking it in, re-reading the lines, taking more in, coming back to them and still taking more from it. The hallmark of a great writer and this Glen Duncan is all about that.

fractally expanding agony seeking out your every crevice!”

There’s Mathematics there in the fractal, there is science there and of course raw untamed emotions! The graph of a fractal in geometry expands to take everything its grasp. I can almost feel the agony that is seeking every crevice. Imagine pain like that overtaking your body. Originating at a point and encompassing your every nook and corner. How much has been conveyed in a phrase that is made up of 8 delicious sounding words. That my friends is what I an looking for when I read fiction. Aren’t we fortunate that we can just sit there and devour words with such meaning, arranged in such cacophony? I for one feel very fortunate that we have the means to write, publish and read books. How boring life would have been otherwise!

Taking the story forward, Lucifer is given possession of a human body – a human by the name of Declan Gunn (sounds a lot like Glen Duncan, doesn’t it?) who has decided to commit suicide because his life is going nowhere. That is until of course God decided to cut him short doing the ultimate act and making a deal with the Devil, literally, to take over Gunn’s body. Thus, Lucifer takes possession of the body to prove that he can ignore the sins of the flesh and reclaim his rightful place in heaven. As soon as he enters the world however, he decides that the entire world should know his story. He thinks it very unfair that God was able to tell the story from God’s own perspective by sending his messengers into the world. Messages that vilified Lucifer and glorified God of course. So, Lucifer takes the first opportunity at hand to send his message across. Luckily for him, Declan Gunn happens to be a writer (a failed one at that), and Lucifer decides to completely change his novel and put his point of view across.

The transition to earthly life is not so smooth however. The descriptions of some mundane things from the point of view of an unearthly being are sensational. One goes like this:

“I’m not sure what I expected. Whatever it was, it was surpassed by what I got. I remember thinking, That’s air. That’s air moving, slightly, against the exposed bits of me, wrists, hand, throat, face…The breath of the world, the spirit that wanders gathering germs and flavors from Guadaljara to Guangzhou, from Pawnee to Pizzara, from Zuni to Zanzibar.”

I marvel when a writer takes a seemingly innocuous everyday situation and turns it into a insightful statement, one that is there for all of us to take but none of us partake. I read for these moments, wherein I can revel in another person’s take on a situation I have been in. It is refreshing and humbling to see how one person can take away so much from a breath of air, whereas I just breathe it and go on. Glenn Duncan however captures the breath, the air and the entire universe in his words!

He says as much in the next page wherein he writes –

“I suppose it doesn’t strikes you, particularly, that sunlight traces ninety-three million miles to smash itself to smithereens on Clerkenwell’s concrete, transforming tarmac into a rollered trail of gem-shards? Or that a slate wall will cool your blood’s throb when you hold your cheek against it. Or that summer-heated brick porous and glittering, has a taste unlike anything else on the earth?”

Nope! Didn’t strike me for sure.

So, Lucifer starts to learn to live but is faced now with yet another mortal problem. That of time. He goes –

“That’s the thing with New Time: before you know it, you’ve spent it. Before you know it, it’s gone. It kills us in Hell, you know, the number of your deathbedders who, despite all the wrist-watched and desk calendars, despite their life’s tally of ticks and torn-off pages, look around their last moments with an expression of sheer disbelief. Surely I’ve only just got here, they want to say. Surely I’ve only just begun? To which, smiling and warming our palms around the arrivals hall blaze, we reply: Nope.”
Another hallmark of a great writer is to convey much more deeper thoughts than that of the ocean in a few smart sentences. That’s exactly what Glen Duncan does here. He basically surmises most of our whole lives in a couple of sentences and ends it with a flourish! Amazing writing indeed.

From here on Lucifer tells us the story of Adam and Eve (His take on Eve deserves another blog in itself, so I am not going to go over those here.) He makes it seem like Adam was content with Eden and in saying so writes –

“…content with an Everything so undeserved it amounted to Nothing…”

Felt like a reflection of our current state of affairs where it seems like everyone has everything so undeserved that it amounts to nothing to them. Reminds me of the President of the United States!

Lucifer’s description of his host body are pretty hilarious. He loathes the body he’s been given in no uncertain terms.

“Some humans survive concentration camps, other are driven over the edge by a broken fingernail, a forgotten birthday, an unpayable phone bill. Gunn’s somewhere in-between.”
Once again, the depth of the meaning conveyed here encompassing the whole human race is just brilliant!

The city where Lucifer is housed in is London and this is what he says about it.

“You turn up on a rainy Monday afternoon proud of all your woeful particulars – and London humbles you with its wealth of generals. You’ve seen your life. London, it turns out, has seen Life.”
Show me a more apt description of the city of London said in fewer words and I will show you a better writer than Duncan!

But Lucifer likes being human. Though its driving him nuts, he is enjoying it nonetheless.

“Every car horn, hot-dog stand, burp, breeze, sunbeam and shitswipe – you get the picture. I’m in love, truly, madly, deeply in love with perception.
And , manifestly, digression.”

When I started to read books, I used to feel that if a book was unputdownable (like an Whodunit Mystery is), then, that was the hallmark of a good book. Now I feel differently. I think that a good book calls out to be put down. That you need to put it down, take a deep breath, savor all the things you’ve read, take a break and get back to reading it again. Good books make you want to get to the end of the story. Brilliantly Good Books make you wish that the book never ends and the story keeps going on and on. Because you see when you are reading Brilliant Books, you never quite care for the story. It is the writing style that you are more in love with and that is where I am with this book.

I finished reading it last week but am enjoying going over the parts I have marked with this review again. I will have to warn you however, that I have just about finished reviewing 1/4th of it and I did not include the smack your lips kind of intelligence Glen Duncan uses when writing about Eve. I will end this part here and continue with the rest of the story and Glen Duncan’s mastery very soon.
Stay tuned.
(review to be continued…)

Tale 1: Strychnine in the Soup

My train was delayed for an hour today. I start off the day very early to catch the 6:44am train that brings me to downtown Chicago by 7:18. I have been doing this for about 2 months now and I have never had any issues. Until today of course.

“Due to mechanical problems, your inbound train to Union Station is running late …” blared the loudspeaker.

I thought the delay might be in minutes.

“How late we are not sure, we will keep you updated!” it blared louder, before blaring off.

I had to stand there in the slightly chilly weather as the crowd on the platform grew, waiting for the loud speaker to blare again. Surely, not the best way to start off your Monday morning, is it?

The answer from me would have been a resounding No! had it not been for a brand new Wodehouse novel that I held in my hand. The hardbound volume with a delightful cover of what looked like Gentlemen in the Drones club looking at a well-dressed young man with a smoking gun instead of a cigar in his hand. The tile of the book “Wodehouse on Crime” promised ‘A dozen tales of Fiendish Cunning’! Just what I needed for an unexpected wait on the railway platform on a slightly chilly Monday morning where I was running late for my 9am meeting at work.

I felt special as I turned the pages of the book while everyone around me was either wistfully gazing in the direction of where the train was supposed to come from or directing their attention towards their phones. I, on the other hand, read a delightful preface by D.R.Bensen who attributed the wave of crime in Wodehouse’s novels to a fascination with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Wodehouse used to wait in line to get the edition of ‘Strand’ that contained an extract of Holmes’ escapades. The way Bensen cleverly weaves the common thread of crime around Wodehouse and Conan Doyle is something I am sure Wodehouse himself would have chuckled at.

I beg to disagree with Mr.Bensen though. I think the crime wave that runs through Wodehouse’s books masterminded by pea-sized Brainiacs running amok with amor must actually be inspired by the very serious tales of fiendish cunning written by one Ms. Agatha Christie. There have been direct and indirect references to her work in many of Wodehouse’s books. I would like to think there is an underlying tinge of admiration towards Ms.Christie’s works in the way Wodehouse brings it up in his novels. For example in the tale that I am about to narrate, rather Wodhehouse narrates, he pokes fun at Christie’s favorite vehicle for killing someone – Strychnine!

Strychnine in the Soup” is the first tale in this dozen tales of fiendish cunning . I am not a big fan of Mr. Mulliner’s monologues regarding one of his innumerable nephews, but this story piqued my curiosity because it started off with how readers of mystery stories are a strange lot who are likened to druggies in their addiction for the written works of thrill and intrigue. I understand that sort of addiction. In the past, I have been addicted to Agatha Christie’s mysteries, especially the ones that had to do with our not-so-modest, thinks-he’s-better-than-Sherlock-Holmes in sniffing out crime and criminals – our own adorable Mr. Poirot. It would take a lot to drag my nose out of a murder mystery that Hercule Poirot was trying to unravel. I decided to give Mr. Mulliner a chance because I identified with the main character of the story and also because I have a fascination with Strychnine, much like how Christie has with it. You can read more about strychnine and its power here: Strychnine Poisoning. Pay close attention to the fact that the poison kills the subject in a matter of 2-3 hours in a very, very gut wrenching manner (literally!)

So it is no surprise that more often than not, Agatha’s choice of weapon to bring Hercule Poirot into the frame was to bump off some unsuspecting character with Strychnine. While I don’t think it was ever administered in a soup, I do think there are many, many instances where Christie’s victims have been administered strychnine. As I said earlier Wodehouse tends to make fun of the lady in his novels and this is how he chooses to do it here. Before you get your hopes up that this tale of fiendish cunning starts off with a murder that somebody commits by putting strychnine in the soup, let me quash those hopes by saying that is merely the title of the mystery book our protagonist is reading and which serves as a very vital prop in making sure our hero is bound in holy matrimony to the woman he loves with the blessing of her explorer Mom who thinks our hero is a pipsqueak who never ventures out of his comfort zone. Delightful, aye?
Consider the following exchange:

Mr. Mulliner (on learning that the woman he hopes to be his future mother-in-law has christened him a pipsqueak): I don’t even know what a pipsqueak is.

Lady Basset (the woman who wants to make sure that Mr.Mulliner is never going to be her future son-in-law): A pipsqueak is a man who has never seen the sun rise beyond the reaches of the Lower Zambezi; who would not know what do if faced by a charging rhinoceros. What, pray would you do if faced by a charging rhinoceros, Mr. Mulliner?

Mr.Mulliner: I am not likely, to move in the same social circles as charging rhinoceri.

I was laughing out loud much to the consternation of the people surrounding me as I read these lines. I did not mind that the loudspeaker blared that the next train that we had been waiting for, for more than half an hour would not make the scheduled stop at the station. Instead, the train coming about 15 minutes after that would be picking us up. I could hear the sighs around me as I turned the page trying to control my laughter.

10 minutes into the story, Lady Basset gives in to Mr.Mulliner’s proposal to marry her daughter to him so that she could finish reading the mystery book that unbeknownst to her Mr.Mulliner manages to steal (borrow in his mind of course) from her and not only blames the crime on the man who borrows it from him (in a very dominant and unborrowable manner, have to say) that Lady Basset chose for her daughter but also helps her catch him red handed. Yes, all this happens in a matter of minutes and Mr.Basset from warning Mr.Mulliner as he comes and goes out of her bedroom at will, falling off her bed sometimes, getting his leg caught in the cord at other times :

“I am, I trust a broad-minded woman but I cannot approve this idea of communal bedrooms!”
(I can imagine the high spirited, huge, explorer of a woman who faced lions in her African Adventures starting down at our poor Mr. Mulliner!)

to hobnobbing with Mr.Mulliner to read about the 2 faceless fiends, it was quite a ride.

All I would have to say to Mr.Wodehouse for this delightful tale of crime, passion and quick thinking on the feet is – Mere air, these words, but oh so funny, so so funny!
I also need to quote another dialogue between Mr. Mulliner and his beloved:

Mr.Mulliner: There is only one thing to be done, I shall see your mother and try to make her listen to reason.
Amelia Basset: But you are so diffident Cyril. So shrinking, so retiring and shy. How can you carry through such a task?
Mr.Mulliner: Love will nerve me!

Ah! Trust Wodehouse to lace the narrative with a gallant love story. Love will nerve me! Indeed!