Across Generations Sunday, Mar 26 2006 

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss

One of the perils of being an opinionated so-and-so is that every now and then reality comes along and delivers a swift kick in the pants. When Kiran Desai’s first novel came out, I didn’t bother reading it. Instead, I spent my time bemoaning the fall of this last bastion to the forces of parochialism. Wasn’t it bad enough that the Nehru-Gandhi family seemed to have a stranglehold on Congress leadership. Wasn’t it troubling enough that an entire generation of young ‘actors’ (and I use the term loosely) in Indian movies seemed to have the same last names as the actors who graced the screen 20 years ago? Hadn’t we been tortured enough by the likes of Anoushka Shankar and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Indian Classical Music – Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash? Did we now have to be subjected to the grotesque spectacle of Indian writing being taken over by the daughter of one of our foremost novelists?

If Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, is anything to go by, I got this completely, absolutely WRONG. (Note to self: remember Martin Amis?). I have a very high regard for Anita Desai’s writing – I consider her one of India’s finest novelists, miles better than the upstart Arundhati Roy’s of the world, for instance – so it means a lot when I say that Kiran Desai may well be more than the equal of her mother [1]. Not that their writing styles, beyond certain surface similarities, are alike. Kiran’s writing is far less poetic than that of her mother’s, and she has nowhere near her mother’s Chekhovian elegance. But if her writing is busier and less intense, it is also, perhaps, more sharply observed, more thorougly grounded. Kiran delights with details, and The Inheritance of Loss has moments of sparkling humour, of naughty playfulness, that her mother often seems too serious for.

The story of The Inheritance of Loss is far from extraordinary. The novel juxtaposes two narratives – one focussing on the lives of the old world inhabitants of remote Kalimpong, their genteel existence threatened and partly destroyed by a local insurgency; the other tracing the trials of Biju, who having left his father (an impoverished cook) behind in Kalimpong is now trying to make a living as an illegal immigrant in New York City. Couple that with the story (told through flashback) of a young man joining the ICS back in the Raj Days, and an account of the doubts and frustrations of a young man drawn into the Gurkha ‘revolution’ and you have an intricate enough plot, one that gives Desai ample opportunity to explore a number of interesting themes around (to name but a few): identity, inequality, opportunity, justice, the generation gap, the schizophrenia of the immigrant, Anglophilia, culture, the difficulty of spanning differences between people across time and space simultaneously, etc. This is less a story than a buzzing hornet’s nest of metaphor and allegory, a spider-web of counterpoint and opposition plotted out with almost mathematical accuracy. There are many fine points made in the book, and many delicious ironies, but is all seems very obvious, almost predictable. If there is one failing of the book, it is in Desai’s determination to leave no issue untouched, no point of view unrepresented (even bringing in, in a hideously ham-handed last minute inclusion, the father of a passing traveller to represent the Indian who is Not Fascinated with the West). It almost feels, at times, as if Desai is concerned that someone might accuse of her misrepresenting / under-representing one side or the other, so that she goes on adding alternate points of view, like a tyro cook adding first too much salt and then too much water to what would otherwise have been perfectly good soup.

This is, in my view, unfortunate, but it’s a testament to Desai’s talent that it doesn’t keep the book from being spectacular. What saves the book, what, in fact, elevates it beyond all this dialectic, is the fact that Desai has a rare eye for detail. It’s the small, but finely observed minutiae that make The Inheritance of Loss a superb book: the pitch perfect tone, the acuteness of observation, the psychological accuracy. Page after page, paragraph after paragraph, Desai dazzles with the exactness of her descriptions, with the shock of recognition she is able to achieve so casually. Consider the following paragraph, a minor aside to the plot, where Biju, working as a delivery guy, ends up at the house of some desi women:

‘They had a self-righteousness common to many Indian women of the English-speaking upper-educated, went out to mimosa brunches, ate their Dadi’s roti with adept fingers, donned a sari or smacked on elastic shorts for aerobics, could say “Namaste, Kusum Auntie, aayiye, baethiye, khayiye!” as easily as “Shit!”. They took to short hair quickly, were eager for Western-style romance, and happy for a traditional ceremony with lots of jewelry: green set (meaning emerald), red set (meaning ruby), white set (meaning diamond). They considered themselves uniquely positioned to lecture on a variety of topics: accounting professors on accounting, Vermonters on the fall foliage, Indians on America, Americans on India, Indians on India, Americans on America. They were poised; they were impressive; in the United States, where luckily it was still assumed that Indian women were downtrodden, they were lauded as extraordinary – which the unfortunate result of making them even more of what they already were.’

There’s more insight, and more humour, in that one paragraph, than in all of (to take but an example) Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

In the end, then The Inheritance of Loss is not so much a story as a description of a state of being. A description that is compelling for being both expansive and accurate in ways that English writing about India’s love-hate relationship with the West has rarely been. The last time I read something that felt this precise about India, this true, was reading Rushdie. Not that Desai writes anything like Rushdie, or has anywhere near his gift for allegory, or for magic – at heart, she is a far more prosaic and unsubtle writer – but the way the throwaway details seem to fit is the same. The Inheritance of Loss is a novel worth reading not because it says anything brilliantly new – there are parts of the plot that are almost unbearably cliched – but because it says the old things that we’ve alway known so incredibly well.

What Desai gets right, I think, is the fundamental nature of infatuation – whether it be the mutual attraction of a young schoolgirl and her twenty-year old tutor, or the fascination of nations and cultures for each other. How obsession can be both unhealthy and necessary. How we can despise it, despise ourselves and others for it, but not be able to do without. How it’s about identity and greed, about duty and desire. How the damage it does is often collateral, the cracks of its engagement swallowing up those who have no part in it. How we choose to cloak our suffering and our actions in grandoise principles, in the disguise of ideology, when what really drives us is something more instinctive, more contingent. And how, in the end, what matters is not these larger landscapes of right and wrong, old and new, own and other, what counts is the human cost of all this to and fro, the possibility of losing those that we care for, or, alternatively, the slim chance that our loves might endure.

Towards the end of the book, Desai writes: “All night it would rain. It would continue, off and on, on and off, with a savagery matched only the ferocity with which the earth responded to the onslaught. Uncivilised voluptuous gree would be unleased, the town would slide down the hill. Slowly, painstakingly, like ants, men would make their paths and civilization and their wars once again, only to have it wash away”

This, then, is the point. We survive the frustration and defeat and humiliation not by rising above it, or by giving in to it, but by carrying on inspite of it. Sentimentality is a defense mechanism – we are sustained, not by ideas or status or position, but by the connections we form, inspite of ourselves, by being human. The only way to keep the sense of loss from crushing us is to find someone to share it with, someone to pass it on to.

Bottomline: Read this novel. And while you’re doing that, I will go find Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. And read it as apologetically as I possibly can.

[1] Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not fair to compare; and anyway, if we are comparing, we should be comparing Anita Desai’s early novels – and I might well pick The Inheritance of Loss over, say, Cry, the Peacock.

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The Language of Giants Monday, Mar 13 2006 

Jean Luc Godard’s For Ever Mozart

There is a scene in Godard’s For Ever Mozart (1996) where a wizened old director, in answer to the question “Why is the night dark?” remarks that when he looks through the stars at the night behind, he thinks of all that no longer exists. It is this combination of nostalgia and insight that is central to Godard’s late films. In For Ever Mozart, in Elogie de l’amour, Godard’s method is founded on the principle that a few scattered points of brilliant light are enough to illuminate the most universal of darknesses. Nietzsche writes:

“Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it even becometh populace.
He that writeth in blood and proverbs doth not want to be read but learnt by heart.
In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks and those spoken to should be big and tall.
The atmosphere rare and pure, danger near and the spirit full of a joyful wickedness: thus are things well matched”

Blood and proverbs is exactly what these late films of Godard are all about.

This kind of peak-hopping can be both rewarding and annoying. When we say that an artist is ‘uncompromising’ we usually mean that he spares no effort to bring out the truth of what he is trying to depict. But Godard is uncompromising in another way – he is completely unwilling to make any concessions whatsoever to his audience, allowing them little or nothing by way of coherent narrative, pushing them to be as well-read, as visually sensitive and as mentally agile as Godard is himself. If anything, his tone towards the audience in these movies is one of brusque disdain: like the fictional director in For Ever Mozart who rejects auditioning actors the second they open their mouths, Godard seems entirely dismissive of his audience, so that the difficulty of these movies seems almost like a deliberate screen to take out all but the most devoted and intelligent of viewers.

One result of this is that these last films may be largely inaccessible and unintelligible to the average viewer, which is a shame because they are films with so much to say. The other result is that this sort of sustained elision allows Godard to create a cinematic idiom that is truly unparalleled elsewhere, a sort of intense visual-cum-verbal poetry, the ultimate avatar of the film as art. If Bergman makes one think of Kafka, Kubrick of Burgess and Pynchon, Allen of Roth, then Godard’s late films are essentially Rimbaud-esque – breathlessly beautiful meditations on the world that manage to be surreal, symbolic and natural at the same time (though, of course, significantly more political).

The plot (if one can call it that) of For Ever Mozart is simple enough. Three idealistic young people (including a girl who is supposedly the granddaughter of Camus, her cousin and his girlfriend) have decided to go to war-torn Sarajevo to put up a performance of a play. On the way (they are walking) they are apprehended by some local militia, and after a short period of being held hostage and abused (under the noses of a more or less disinterested Red Cross) are brutally killed. Meanwhile an elderly director (clearly a stand-in for Godard himself) is struggling to complete work on a film called the Fatal Bolero which attempts to explore the slow destruction of Europe by a series of historical patterns that evolve in what can only be compared to a bolero form. This is a difficult task because the director no longer gets the respect he deserves, neither from the producers whose only concerns are about money and who have no real interest in the artistic merits of the script, and an audience who, once they realise that there is no nudity involved, wander off to watch the Terminator films instead.

The symbolism of all this is embarassingly, heavy-handedly clear. Europe, Godard literally tells us, is in the midst of a crisis that parallels the crisis of the 1930s in magnitude, but is really far worse, for where earlier crises were marked by the clash of ideologies and therefore ended up being an exalting experience, the current crises is about nothing more noble than power, and therefore, far from exalting us, can only make us more indifferent to the world. Philosophy, in the form of Camus’ clear-eyed and lucid grand-daughter has no place in this world, does not belong in it. Philosophy is now “nothing, or something you don’t understand”, ideology may be important to maintaining a consistent personal dignity, but it provides no protection in the confused gunfire of war. The age of Camus’ rebels is over, the true rebellion, the philosophical rebellion has ended up dead in a common, unmarked grave.

Meanwhile art too is being destroyed by the twin assaults of commerce and popular culture. The instinct of the modern producer is essentially pornographic – entertainment is driven by efficiency, the phenomenal erudition of Europe has become irrelevant to cinema in particular and art in general. The great artists of a prior age can do little by swallow the gall of the treatment they are being given, and try to do the best they can.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where the director makes an actress repeat the single word ‘yes’ over and over again, because he isn’t satisfied by the way it is being said. It’s this search for affirmation that the film is really about, this task of trying to find the one positive we can put our faith in, the one positive we can trust.

The answer Godard gives us, is, of course, Mozart. Now that all the meanings have failed us, he seems to say, what is there left for us to fall back on but the purity of beauty devoid of meaning, the innocence and power of absolute music? After all the death and loss and despair, after all the humiliation and the frustration, if there is one thing that will console us, one thing that will bring us peace, it is music.That is why the movie finally ends not with words but with music. That is all that Godard can offer us, that is all, in the end, that he has to give.

I have three quibbles with the movie. First, that in choosing the characters the way he does, Godard does a considerable disservice to philosophy, making too weak a case for it. Making the ‘philosophers’ in the script out to be hyper-intelligent yet childishly naive and, conversely, making the soldiers all be uncultured brutes may be very romantic but it is also reductive. Ideology / philosophy is far from dead in our age, though particular strands of thought (such as those Godard holds dear) may well be out of fashion. By equating the philosophers to the impossible dreamers, Godard makes it easy to jump to the conclusion that philosophy is no longer the force it used to be, but that’s a debatable conclusion.

Second, some of Godard’s intense contempt for modern cinema seems jarring. While there is much to be said against commercial cinema, Godard’s insistence on cinema being a dream permanently destroyed seems a little over the top, and because his frustration here is personal and self-interested, it throws much of the other socio-political commentary in the film open to suspicion.

Finally, whatever happened to subtlety? Or a sense of humour? In his best work, Godard is the consummate master of suggestion and implication – endlessly inventive, infinitely tacit, dizzyingly whimsical. Compared to these polished masterworks, these last films seem more like the snarls of an aging and somewhat frustrated old man. There is a baldness here, a sense of haste. These movies are so raw that they would barely qualify as art at all, if the sheer immensity of Godard’s talent – his energy, his vision, his sheer panache – did not more than make up for the lack of finesse. Giants, after all, do not need to walk gracefully.

That said, For Ever Mozart is a spectacular and sublime film, one of the truest examples of film as poetry that I have ever seen. Scene after scene in this movie sparkles with a dream-like brilliance, its impact both immediate and unforgettable. This is a movie that pushes the envelope of what cinema can be, what the true artist can achieve in that medium. This is a movie that deserves to be learnt by heart.

Rhapsody a little too blue Saturday, Mar 11 2006 

Woody Allen’s Manhattan

To be a lifelong devotee of Woody Allen and not be enthralled by Manhattan, is like being a fan of Shakespeare who doesn’t like Hamlet. It’s sacrilege. It’s simply not done.

And yet I’ve never managed to be more than ambivalent about this most touted of Allen films. It’s not that I don’t like it, of course – there are parts of it which I simply adore (that opening sequence, the alternate startings to the book followed by Gershwin, has to be one of the greatest starts to a movie ever), but it’s never quite had, for me, the stature of Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters or Love and Death.

Watching Manhattan again this week, for the third, and fourth, time, I think I begin to see what the problem is. If I enjoyed the movie a lot more this time around, it’s because I was paying a lot less attention to the plot and focussing a lot more on the individual scenes. And that helped to bring out all there is to love about the film – the laugh out loud dialogue, the endlessly inventive satire, the hilarious self-deprecation (what other film maker would shoot a scene where the hero starts running across town, driven by a desperate, overwhelming desire to see the love of his life – and runs out of breath in two blocks), the incredible amount of self-reference, the sublime Jazz and the most glorious, loving testament to a city ever put on film.

Why then do I not love this movie with every morsel of my being? Could it be because it seems too serious, too sentimental? That moral self-righteousness sounds wrong coming from a man who put the absurd back in absurdism, whose great cinematic insight is that the absolute meaningless of everything is actually the biggest joke of all? That it’s harder to laugh at the comic situations that Allen’s characters put themselves in when you can actually apprehend them as vulnerable, and see the pain that those situations must cause them? Or is it just that the optimism seems misplaced? Annie Hall, is not, after all an unsentimental film, but could it be that its lack of a happy ending lends it a credibility in my eyes that the sugary conclusion to Manhattan doesn’t?

Perhaps the reason I don’t like Manhattan is, ironically enough, that it’s the only truly credible love story Allen has been able to tell, and without the half-mocking tone that relationships in Allen’s movies tend to have, the jokes leave me feeling a lot queasier. Manhattan is a movie that more than deserves to be taken seriously – and that may be precisely the problem I have with it.