Sunday, August 8, 2010
Something silly, and something worth reading!
When we were having tea this morning, in bed, with newspapers all around, I was charmed to see that the SRE's salt and pepper moustache was perfectly matching his striped kurta. I promptly took a photograph, and showed it to him. Since we are almost as loopy as each other (although I do know that he's definitely ahead of me) he asked me to post it to the kids.
An important part of our relationship is the ability to be silly together, and to accept each others' silliness as well. You can only allow yourself to be silly with someone you are totally comfortable with.
This brings me to Gouri Dange's new book, The Counsel of Strangers. The narrative device of strangers interacting with each other in a particular setting is a familiar one. Here they are all guests at a wedding which none of them is particularly keen on attending, but has to, for some reason. What makes this book compelling is its contemporary Indian voice and characters each of whose stories will strike a chord within most readers.
The first chapter has a retired Air Force officer describing a visit to his NRI daughter in the USA. What comes through is how aging parents are expected to fulfill their children's perception of their role in this particular stage of life, and how they are dehumanised by their well-meaning offspring. I quote: "My daughter gave an I-give-up sigh. Really, why couldn't I, like the other Indian Pas and Mas here, get religious and ritualistic in my old age, the sigh implied." Wing Commander Brahme, a widower, finds unexpected love and companionship with Netra, whom he first encounters on his daily train expeditions in the Bay Area Rapid Transport system. Netra is estranged from her husband, and her grown up son is a solemn lawyer, also in a different city. When their relationship comes to light, the metaphorical shit hits the fan, and the Wing Commander's daughter and son-in-law send him back home in disgrace. ( I do believe that deep seated taboos make it hard for both parents and children to accept each other as sexual beings, especially when either is outside the supposedly 'normal' age range). What was especially insightful about this narration was how much joy and laughter and sheer silliness the protagonists could share, despite, or perhaps because of their mature age.
The youngest protagonist, Kartik, is a teenager bearing the fall out of his much older brother's delinquency. Although brilliant, Vishwas is first suspended, and then, later on, rusticated from IIT Mumbai. Perceiving his presence to be a bad influence on their younger son, Kartik's devastated parents send him to live with his grandparents in Nagpur. There he continues to feel as though he is under observation all the time. Although he does not wish to hurt his parents in any way, he is burdened by this constant need to be the good son, and suppresses his emotions so as not to rock the family boat any further. He has to accompany his grandparents everywhere (which is why he is attending this wedding), and is most upset by his every movement being monitored through the lens of his brother's misdeeds.
"Everyone is terrified that I will 'follow in Vishwas's footsteps' as if I'm such a fool or such a baby."
Anandi Mohini has seen a fourteen year old marriage end, thanks to her husband's unhealthy dependence on a psychoanalyst under whom he wished to train. He ends up as a long term patient, and the marriage erodes with the constant criticisms of this third party.
There is no dramatic abuse or single traumatic event that triggers the break up. This chapter has a wonderful description of how a divorce makes a couple the focus of intense scrutiny and unwarranted judgement."How dare anyone presume to know what exactly went on in a marriage, and what exactly was the last straw. How the eff can they talk so much about an accident just by glancing at the skid marks? You then learn to live a little bit like a celebrity- accepting that stuff will be said about you and written about you and assumed about you,without anyone bothering to check for the truth." After two years of a lonely single life, Anandi is willing to seek conjugal happiness once again. Her NRI cousin has a friend who seems to be just her type, and she travels to Chicago to see if she can find conjugal bliss once again. Things seem to be working out well, until, a few weeks later, she realises that Mr. Just My Type has no friends. When she asks him, he says he has decluttered his life. Although this does not make sense to her, she ignores her own instincts, returns to India to wind up several matters, and makes yet another trip to stay with JMT. She decides to make friends of her own, but her attempts are met with strong disapproval from JMT. "In his script, whites shot you and blacks raped you and the yellow peril had to be avoided like the plague. Life here for him was colour coded with no room for shades and hues." Things seem to improve during the Indian festival season, until she realises how utterly hidebound and reactionary JMT and his Indian friends really are. He even disapproves of her interaction with a pair of neighbourhood dachshunds. Although she sees all these, and several other pitfalls, she is loth to admit to another error of judgement and to cut her losses, despite feeling stifled in the relationship.
In the company of these strangers, she acknowledges her deepest fears- that perhaps she herself is impossible to get along with, and is destined to be a lonely old bag lady who will die alone.
Sahil Baig is a newsreader whose "news channel and I both got carried away during the 26/11 reporting." His channel survives fairly intact, but thirty year old Sahil has to hide his face and hang his head for being overzealous and the "immature face of TV journalism."
His lady love deserts him in this difficult hour. It slowly dawns on him "that TV anchors were a much hated lot- doing our 'we are the judge, we are the jury and we are the hangman' act every night." He begins to wonder whether there is something fundamentally wrong with his profession. He is much reviled upon the Internet as well, and decides that he needs to get away from all mass media. A visit to an exhibition of photographs of great classical musicians by Raghu Rai, catalyses a change in perspective- "I felt a huge pang of envy, for this purity of performance and intent.........It cast a deep shadow on the performance and intent of jerks like us in the media." Having found a little peace at last, Sahil is unfortunately captured on camera apparently trying to pick up girls at a bus stop. This proverbial last straw makes him leave town, and stay in a remote forest sanctuary for twenty days. He stays with Jagat and family, local people who have built a machan room in a tree near their huts. Jagat's children walk miles every day to go to school. He is asked to help Omkar, one of Jagat's boys, who does not fare well with his studies. Sahil finds that the boy has many other skills, and tries to foster them. He plans to go back to Dajipur with a plan, and make an actual difference to some lives.
Nurse Sajani finds herself on the verge of suicide. She has been nursing elderly patients for several years, in different parts of the world. While in New York, old Dr.Baijal passes away, leaving her a handsome bequest, and although she would like to return to India she is persuaded by his son and pregnant daughter-in-law to stay on for the impending delivery of their baby. "After years of working with the old and dying, you would think I would be happy to deal with the demands of the newly born and thriving. But this is the thing: I had become fed up of the human body." She takes care of the baby when his mother goes back to work, but the isolation of being stuck on the 17th floor of an apartment building in Manhattan constantly preys on her nerves. When, in sheer despair, she finally tells him of her desire to jump from the 17th floor, young Dr. Baijal immediately arranges for her ticket to Trivandrum, glad that it was not too late. She goes to live with her brother and his family in their ancestral home in Allepey, and is soon fed up of being treated as a caregiver and nurse by the entire family."On and on, as if they had no doctor or no clinic or no home remedies or no common sense before I landed there." She is glad that this group of strangers is talking only of emotional issues, not physical ones, as the human body and its illnesses and decay have utterly exhausted her.
The last chapter tells of the estrangement between Professor Natrajan and her son, Pparan, who, despite a brilliant academic record and a degree from Harvard, is a Bollywood scriptwriter. His change in perspective and life style do not go down well with her, and she finally moves out of the family apartment. She even finds herself lamenting Pparan's life choices to her late husband's portrait! "I badly missed Nattu's voice that had always held so much reassurance for me, resonating with his strong sense of perspective and continuity. He would have said about Pparan's U-turn into Bollywood:'Ah the silly donkey...but he's our donkey,no, Ambi...cut him some slack.' But I couldn't, I just could not cut him slack." After initial success, Pparan faces some rough times, and resorts to various forms of what Ambika calls mumbo jumbo to help turn the tide of his fortunes. Although Ambika knows that she needs to be more accepting of her son's choices, she is so trapped within her own perceptions of what he should and should not be doing that she is unable to break through these barriers. Pparan is her only son, and she wants to reach out to him but is unable to do so.
The final chapter has the six protagonists communicating to each other the results of their taking the wise counsel of the strangers they had all once been. A shift in perspective has been all that each one of them needed, something which perhaps only a kind stranger could give.
Gouri's writing speaks to me at many levels. Her characters largely inhabit middle class worlds, and the idioms are familiar. Her deep love and knowledge of Hindustani classical music and Urdu shayri shines through this book, as well as her warmth, compassion, and great sense of humour. I love the W.B.Yeats quotation on the fly leaf of this book: "There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't yet met."