Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Twists are a tricky business. They can make or break an artiste as Manoj Night Shyamlan will ruefully attest to. Fowler takes quite the risk with her shocler which is revealed 77 pages into her gripping tale, in the Man Booker shortlisted, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. As far as these things go, hers is quite clever not to mention “irritatingly coy” and feels more than a little ludicrous. On the strength of it one tends to become a tad dismissive about the weighty themes the writer had hitherto been grappling with using a deceptively deft touch and surreptitiously clever writing that draws up dread – inducing visions of the smoking ruins of a family that once included loving parents and three siblings, two of whom are gone possibly never to return.
            Then a miracle occurs and ever so gently, Fowler weaves her intricate spell pulling the unsuspecting reader into the heart of her wondrous story, filling them with empathy and getting them invested emotionally with every one of her characters irrespective of whether they are human or not. Case in point is a marionette we get to know as Madame Defarge and whom Rosemary Cooke, the narrator/protagonist tries unsuccessfully to protect only to wind up losing her the way she has too many of her loved ones.

            Rosemary is reeling from a double blow - the loss of Fern, the twin sister who has been taken away from her and whose departure she might well have brought about in the extreme throes of sibling rivalry and Lowell, the runaway brother, she adores, now embarked on a self – destructive path of no return and who with the inexplicable cruelty of the very young may have held her responsible for the spectacular disintegration of their family. As always, Rosemary is inclined to agree with her beloved sibling and for the longest time she runs from her past as though it were a hound from hell out to get her, armouring herself in denial until the day she realizes that her very future is imperilled because of her inability to confront the ghosts from her unorthodox childhood that refuse to die.

In a bid to make amends and to absolve herself of the debilitating guilt that has long enslaved her, Rosemary begins a meandering journey through the dangerously slippery slope that is memory, piecing together pieces of her life that are too painful to be borne even as the phantasmagorical wisps of clues dredged up from her tormented psyche play hide and seek with her, concealing, misleading and tricking her outright into a false sense of security before pulling her down under and leaving her breathless with misery.
            Funny in parts but mostly heart – rending, Fowler draws attention to the ethical obligation that science and scientists owe species ranked lower on the food chain than the homo sapiens, in their often ruthless quest to alleviate the suffering of the latter be it from illness or their frustrated attempts to zero in on the perfect moisturizer or lipstick. Sterile labs that carry out their secret experiments have seldom taken on a more sinister cast. Needless to say the author is far more effective than animal rights activists with their penchant for featuring topless celebrities in order to induce people to curb cruelty towards our four – legged and feathered brethren. In fact, readers will undoubtedly experience an unexpected pang of guilt, the next time a filthy rodent crosses their path and be warned that a fun - filled trip to the zoo, especially the monkey enclosure is likely to bring on a fit of hysterics.

            Rosemary Cooke is a wonderful narrator with a disconcerting but delightful habit of engaging her audience directly - “My father made a crude joke... If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job not yours.” as she bares her soul with exhibitionist and gay abandon provoking laughter and tears in equal measure. With her intimate reveal of fractured relationships and scientific experiments gone hopelessly haywire, this moral comedy is a harrowing hoot and a half. 
An edited version of this originally appeared in the New Indian Express. You can read it here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Finding the Love in an Arranged Marriage

It is anathema to many that arranged marriages continue to prevail and even flourish in these increasingly progressive times. Somehow it comes across as anachronistic and unromantic at exactly the same time. Parents playing matchmaker and selecting a spouse for their son or daughter harkens back to an era which those living in this age would envision as  something out of a period film where people swath themselves in yards of unnecessary fabric most unfashionably and with the docility of doormats allow themselves to be married to someone they had never even met let alone spoken to and probably made love in the dark at the auspicious hour appointed by their elders as per the tenets of the draconian laws framed by those from an even more remote timeframe.
            The marriage websites that have mushroomed across the murky wetland of the internet provide a lot of fodder for derisive laughter on account of the fact that a vast majority of the users whose predominant criteria  regarding the hunt for their better half appears to be to find themselves someone who is either fairer than the moon or wealthier than an oil sheik which of course lends support to the argument that an arranged marriage is a superficial, cold and business like arrangement bereft of the tender emotions that are needed to make a marriage really sing.
            Naysayers would also scoff at the findings showing that the divorce rates are less among those who have opted for an arranged marriage compared to the many love marriages that crash and burn on account of waning passions, insisting that the statistics are misleading because the doormats and coldly calculative types in such marriages will carry on with the arrangement irrespective of whether they are happy or unhappy simply because they do not have the guts to walk out or because the reason they walked into this unsatisfactory partnership in the first place still holds.
            However, there is the possibility however farfetched and ludicrous it may sound in this day and age that the foundation on which this creaking dinosaur of an institution was built may not be entirely unsound. Aside from the fact that it remains standing despite repeated condemnation, recent studies have led to experts concluding that lasting affection is more likely to be found in arranged matches than marriage bonds forged in the heat of passion.
This is mostly because those in arranged marriages tend to work harder on nurturing what they feel for each other till it blossoms into love over a period of time. Having made a commitment after careful consideration of compatibility either of their own accord or owing to the efforts of their family members, these couples are more willing to wade together past the rocky patches till they reach the Elysian fields of nuptial bliss.
On the other hand, those who marry for love tend to be so caught up in the heat of their romance that they forget that flames no matter how fiercely they burn eventually dissipate leaving nothing but cold disappointment behind. Unable to recapture the addictive highs of the heady romance that marked their early days together, the couple feel there is no reason to hang on to a relationship where the glowing embers are dying past the hope of rekindling. Consequently, rigid conservatives are quick to pounce on this unsavoury little aspect of romantic love and have pronounced it the predominant cause of promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, burgeoning divorce rates and the spike in sex – related crimes.
Those inclined to sit on the fence regarding this question which is almost as ancient as the venerable institution of marriage depending on the natural bent of their minds will say that a marriage is a marriage irrespective of the reasons involved and there is always romance when two souls are joined together in holy matrimony or alternatively, that marriage irrespective of the causative factors is availed off solely by those with dangerously low IQ levels.
Both viewpoints make sense. Who amongst us can listen to charming tales from elders in the family about the first time they met their spouse even if it was in a room full of stiff – backed relatives and not feel warm and fuzzy seeing the gentle glow on their features? Of course, barring serial killers and rabid members of the moral police squad none can remain untouched by lovers, lost to all but each other and refrain from rooting for a fairy tale finish to their romance.
That being said though, it is hard not to feel cynical about love and marriage, when the papers are full of horror stories about women being tortured and killed over dowry – related issues, honour killings that see lovers ruthlessly hunted down and butchered or entire communities burnt down because two youngsters dared to fall in love ignoring traditional dictates favouring same – caste unions, one wonders if love and marriage both ought not to be relegated to the trash heap and left there to fester and rot.

However since that is neither here nor there, we may sum up the issue by acknowledging that true love is rare and Kama’s arrows bearing the gift of love at their tip strike only a chosen few. It is foolhardy to chase after it hoping to be taken soaring across the heavens for a gentle landing on the summit of happiness when in reality such a quest is far more likely to see the reckless voyager plummet into the depths of tragedy. That does not mean the vast majority has to settle for a loveless existence, especially since there is always arranged marriage with its promise of the ecstasies contained within - love, sex, passion, desire, romance and companionship, all dealt out in limited doses of course as a reward to those who persevere, steadfast in their belief that love triumphs over all, even the limitations of an arbitrary God of Desire and outdated institutions. 

An edited version of this article is available at which you can access here. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

World War II may just be the most unsightly stain on the dark and messy tapestry that is the history of this world, but it has since then sought to redeem itself by serving as a redoubtable muse and consistently yielding works of art that vary in quality, ranging from literature and movies of the highest grade to the occasional dud which can only be described as torture porn.
Given the voluminous tomes and the many films that most have already waded through, horrified and shocked senseless by the atrocities documented of a time when mankind seemed hell bent on plumbing the furthest depths of evil, it is safe to say that the majority have grown benumbed to the terrible tragedy of that awful war. Richard Flanagan comes along with his sixth novel and suddenly the horror is real all over again. The bone-jarring visceral imagery he conjures up of the immense suffering endured by too-many-to-count will be burnt into the brain forevermore where the memory of lost souls who died senselessly for no discernible cause will haunt the living in the futile hope that all will learn the lessons offered by a tragic and too easily forgotten past.
Flanagan’s epic is about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor, who is not only doomed to suffer an unlucky romance but also finds himself in charge of a group of POWs who have been condemned to serve on the ‘Line’—the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway dreamed up by a desperate Japanese Empire and given its impetus by the infallible logic of war. The 77-year-old Dr Evans is haunted in equal measure by his ‘cobbers’ who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving” but who insisted on dying anyway and the memory of his overwrought love affair with his uncle’s young wife which nudges him along a tortuous path of private emptiness which he seeks to plug with a string of meaningless affairs and public honours that he grows to loathe.
You can read the rest here.