Nana by Emile Zola

That I found reading Nana difficult is an understatement. I expected some labour over it because classics is not my usual genre and Zola makes the slow pace even harsher by his scientific glare.

But Nana presented more challenges than my anticipation. For instance, I couldn’t empathise with the tempestuous, irritating child at the center of the story, who is perennially unhappy. She reminded me of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, out on a mindless chase of pleasure, afraid of growing old. Despite the beautiful image that Eduard Manet has captured of her, I imagine Nana as something cheap, engulfed in a putrefying odour of a fake perfume and poor quality makeup. The painting and the character are reversed.

The story starts with a climactic build up in the theatre. Zola expertly describes the palpable tension in the audience as they wait for a promised new Venus. In those few pages, a greedy and seedy Paris is presented to the reader. A Paris interested not in art, but only in its indulgences. Zola drops many names, and while we get introduced to a whole city, we know nothing about the individuals, who will keep flowing in and out of the story. Zola does not want you to engage with them. Out of the theatre, these blobs float away to all-night parties, to uncomfortable dinners, or circle around the houses of theatre actresses.

Amidst all these blobs sits Nana; Zola has certainly sharpened the pencil on her, but not filled in all the details. Nana is a high society prostitute who runs her men through ruin. There are small fleeting parts of the book when you sense her hankering after a simple life in the country, or one of domesticity. But it is clear that she doesn’t want to work towards those dreams, and keeps them as impossible ideals to be unhappy about. Once, she tries domestic life with a fellow actor and the experiment is so dramatic and theatrical that you know it is headed to failure.

Zola himself has no empathy for his creation. He judges her more harshly than he judges the lusting, foolish men who run around her consuming every inch of her space. In his experimentation, he has defined Nana with 2-3 variables only, and in this sense his ‘provoked observation’ seems incomplete. Nana, comes out looking like a ghost moving through boudoirs and theatre corridors, rapidly changing upholstery and ultimately ruining everything.

I cannot escape the question whether my distaste in the novel is biased because of my judgement of Nana and the society she inhabits. I do not like the gluttonous Paris that Zola has created, because it conflicts with my image of Paris as a city which has nurtured art above the material. The struggle to continuously separate the fiction from the real created a distraction.

But I think I struggled less with the judgement, more with the scientific writing itself. Zola has defined each of his creations as a collection of black and white variables, and in that definition he has been sparse. Each person is a variation of greed, lust, need for current/desired social status, age and physical attractiveness. The only one with the back story is Nana, and with a mild stretch C. Muffat. All conflict is played out within the above variables.There is no variety to the ambitions, and there is no transcendent love or need for a higher ideal. It is this need, the biggest chaotic variable which gives people conflicts. In Nana’s world it is missing not just from her own personality, but all of Paris. This is different from the other two stories I have read from Les Rougon-Macquart series, where emotions and higher ideals conflict with natural desires. (The beast within, and The Ladies’ Paradise), and in one the ideal even wins.

I recognise that in order to understand Zola’s experiments, I need to read more books from the series. But coming off this long experiment, I will take time returning. Meanwhile, I started reading his essay on the experimental novel which will take me a while to finish.

Yuganta: A critical eye on Mahabharata

I have often wondered about the contrast in the number of writings that have been woven around bible and its testaments, and those of Indian epics. For instance, there is little deliberation on Mahabharata, the story of epic proportions with it’s very complex and real characters. Only a handful of texts come to my mind: Shashi Tharoor’s Great Indian novel; Chitra Banerjee’s Palace of Illusions; Sawant’s Mrityunjai. I have chalked up the difference to be because of a focus on oral traditions in India, and the lack of good translations of some of the regional works. But often, I worry that the reason could also be my own reading oeuvre, which is not exposed to works in this space.

I had not heard of Yuganta, and I have to thank the friend who introduced me to it. (She has introduced me to a lot of Indian writing, a genre that I have largely ignored). The author, Irawati Karve is an anthropologist and that reflects very clearly in how she has studied the characters in Mahabharata as real humans and not as mythical creatures. Mahabharata never had ideal heroes unlike Ramayana where both Ram and Sita offered the image of perfection. Even in the poetic eulogies of Mahabharata, deceit, vices, greed are left in plain sight. Yuganta brings the human side to the forefront.

An anthropologist’s reading of Mahabharata

The writing is structured in ten chapters, and most of these follow a character, except some which talk about aspects of the society at the time – castes, treatment of aliens, end of an epoch. Karve dates Mahabharata in ~1000 BC, and she sees all of the behaviours with the lens of the time.

There is a lot that is interesting about the writing. The first chapter, focused on Bhishma immediately drew my attention, because it was contrarian to the popular view. Bhishma is usually put on a high pedestal of sacrifice and suffering, and the author is brutal in lifting the hood on this ideal. She points him to be a person who holds his personal vow above the duties that were expected of him. Bhishma tried his utmost to live up to his self-less image, and therein lay disaster.

When a man does something for himself his actions are performed under certain limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, the limits vanish…the injustices done by idealists, patriots, saints and crusaders are far greater than those done by the worst tyrants.

The final effort, Yuganta

Fulfilling one’s dharma

The theme of fulfilling one’s dharma is often repeated in the story of Mahabharata, and I also saw this theme run through the analysis in Yuganta.

Karve navigates away from the pandavas, never diving into their individual characters directly. The women get more attention: there is a chapter each on Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. These provide interesting insights into the backstories of these women, and I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Kunti, who was given away as a slave to a Brahmin in her youth. She is cited as the reason for the Great War, but being the woman of her times, she is only reminding her sons to fulfil their “dharma”.

(Krishna) said that though reality was the ultimate goal, it could never be reached without taking a definite stand about human life. The human society had a validity provided the values did not become a means of personal aggrandisement.

The end of the Yuga, Yuganta

The most illuminating chapters of the collection for me were Krishna Vasudeva and The end of the Yuga. in fact, most of my take away from the book came from this last chapter which clearly outlines how Mahabharata was a very different era of social norms compared to what came after. One of these distinctions was ideal of woman’s loyalty. If one did not have heir, it was customary to let your wife beget you a son from another man.

Krishna becomes a God

The other interesting distinction was god devotion or Bhakti, which emerged after the Mahabharata but was not present during. I have always assumed that Krishna was the basis of Bhakti and therefore this form of religious thinking must have started around the Mahabharata, but it seems that as part of the story, no one worshipped Krishna. The Krishna of Mahabharata was an even keel, non emotional person. Many revered him as a wise and clever person, Arjuna saw him as a friend, but the hero-worship was added later.It is also the later stories which make Krishna into a warm, naughty and lovable person. This evolution of Krishna’s character and power, sounds very similar to the divine attribution to Jesus after his death.

Religion in my own reading

I am dipping my feet in religion, and the wetness hasn’t touched me yet. What better place to start understanding this remarkably complex phenomenon than exploring the corner of it that I inherited at birth: Hinduism. I have started scrolling around, a little lazily, for understanding this religion through information and knowledge. That is the only way I know to understand things – read about them and reflect. Yuganta offers a good context for reflection. Thank you for joining me in this journey.

The tale of Princess Kaguya

I have had a wavering relation to movies: growing up, I hated them. The idea of spending three hours immersed in someone else’s story in a dark room was claustrophobic. A little older, the stories began to seem alluring, may be because life was tiring and less entertaining ; writing your own story is exhausting and daunting after all. More likely it was because people introduced me to better movies than the ones available to me growing up.

After some gap in the late-blooming love, a gap fuelled by TV series addiction, this year I am trying to return to movies, albeit slowly. A Sunday at a time. To watch something gripping enough, I have been relying on dilapidated prints of old movies available on Youtube, so it was great to see that Netflix has finally brought some titles from Studio Ghibli to our living room. Studio Ghibli has been behind some of the most revered anime movies made in Japan from sublime directors like Miyazaki, and Japanese anime is a genre I have greatly enjoyed in the past.

When I sat down in front of the screen today, I was determined to watch an anime, particularly from Miyazaki. But scrolling through the title, the image of Princess Kaguya caught my eye. The water-colour hues in the background were so gentle and soothing, that I was immediately drawn to it.

The film is drawn from a folktale and is fantastical, but also very spiritual. A thumblina princess appears in front of a bamboo cutter, and transforms into a little child when he carries her home to his wife. The couple bring up the child as their own, but because of her initial appearance, the bamboo cutter is convinced that she is meant to be a noble princess. Lil’ bamboo (that’s how her friends call her) enjoys a carefree childhood with friends and Sutemaru, a boy, who would later personify all the happiness of this time. This idyllic world is shattered when the father takes her away to the capital and begins training her to be a princess. At her naming ceremony, she is christened Kaguya and the fame of her music and beauty reaches far and wide. Noblemen vie for her acceptance as she sends them on fool’s errands. All this while, she continues to pine for the idyllic home and forest she left behind. She prays to the moon, and threatened by a suitor’s advances, expresses a wish to not be on the earth. The moon takes her back on the next full moon night, as she desperately tries to cling on to the love on earth.

The story is a spiritual tale, and if you have any doubt about it, Buddha makes an appearance at the end as Kaguya struggles to disconnect from her parents. Kaguya spends her life in memory of a childhood, unhappy at the change and responsibility thrust upon her. The father continues to drive her towards what he thinks is her purpose, even though no one knows why is she on earth. Each of us is Kaguya, chasing a destiny which the world thinks is our way. But at the same time, we are lured by the carefree existence of childhood and keep wondering whether this pursuit is real and required. We want to escape to a past, even as parents and our well wishers push us to an imagined better future. And we end up ‘being’ in neither.

The brushstrokes used in the creation of the movie’s anime are ethereal. Like Kaguya, I wanted to freeze most frames, and seeing the message in front of me, couldn’t stop laughing at the irony of my behaviour. It is difficult to detach from the aesthetics and beauty of the world around, and all the heart desires is to possess. But possession doesn’t end the desire, which merely flies elsewhere. The lost love stories are so much more alluring than the ones that are found and become real.

I can’t ignore the triteness of my own words – how many times have they been said and written, perhaps even by myself. But they sound especially wise to me in the moment. If only, I can let go of the moment and still be blessed with the wisdom.

Reborn: Susan Sontag early notebooks

I began this year with reading Susan Sontag’s notes of her early life (Age 14-30). 2020 has just started and this already feels like the most influential book I am going to read this year. Primarily because it has made me want to write more, to note down more thoughts, to distil. Susan says writing is creating oneself, not just an aid to memory. I agree – though I think the creation happens because you let the memories build on each other. That is what makes us human: our ability to learn from the past, develop on it, observe and identify patterns.Writing helps to recognise what we like or dislike about something, and therefore discover a voice that is purely personal.

On Keeping a Journal. 

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. 

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.

Susan Sontag, Reborn

What is striking about reading a journal is the peek it gives me into another’s mind. It’s fallacy is that it is built with gaps – I do not know what Sontag was thinking when, at 17, she married Philip Reiff because she has not spoken to her journal at the time. And I am aware that the journal is not a pure expression of self as the writer is always conscious of the secret eye that will sometime pass over her words.

It is almost impossible to know someone else, but reading their journal gets your closer. I can see Sontag struggling with her mind, I can see her building opinions, making resolutions, then breaking them on the next page. I see her fall in love with an intensity, and then fall in love again with the same intensity, each time believing this is the greatest love of her life. Each time, she appears in her notes begging and grovelling for love from her much more confident and surefooted lovers. I see her, like me, chase multiple books and movies, trying to find the spark of knowledge. The insatiable quest for other people’s opinions. 

Books and opinions come with a place of surety. All the tribulations, doubts and hesitance that has gone in the making of those opinions are swept away under a carpet. I cannot write a conviction, I am forever limited by the awareness of my ignorance – the confidence of another puzzles me, and therefore to find the hesitations and doubts in this journal are re-assuring.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves

Susan Sontag ,Reborn

Towards the end of this first part, one can see Sontag finding her own voice. She becomes aware of her X, the bad faith, the pretence to please others. She recognises how she is leaking when she talks. Even in some of her unrelated pieces like her thoughts on cities as a negation of space, an opposite of the country, I can recognise her independent thinking which will become stunning by the time her famous essays are written.

Samskara: A rite for a dead man

Samskara, a story by Kannada author U.R. Anathamurthy starts with a question, that of a dead body and what rites are appropriate for it. The body belongs to the bad sheep of a Brahmin community, a man who when alive, openly mocked the religious ways of this community, took a low caste woman as a mistress, ate meat, drank alcohol and defied every rule that the scriptures imposed on a man’s life.

The entire community is weighed down by the question of whether Naranappa the dead deserves a Brahim’s funeral. But the person who is weighed down most is the person who is the antithesis of the dead man – Praneshacharya. A man who has not only embraced the life prescribed by the scriptures, but gone a step ahead by even changing the nature of his grihastaashram by marrying an invalid woman. His marriage thus becomes an exercise in caring for the sick instead of the snare of a physical or emotional relationship.

The question unsettles this man who feels responsible for his community . The hungry Brahmins repeatedly implore him to resolve the problem so that they can return to their normal lives. Anxious that his knowledge is not enough, Praneshacharya retires to a temple seeking answers from an idol. This is the moment when his carefully constructed virtuous life is thrown into chaos – he has a sexual encounter with the dead man’s mistress. A stranger to physical intimacy, he loses his head at this encounter. What follows is a dream-like journey in the style of lost weekend. He walks to distant villages, forms an acquaintance Putta, a man who refuses to leave his side and insists on helping this unworldly man. Walking through a religious carnival, the colourful sights and invasive sounds scare and overwhelm Praneshacharya into further indecision. He has lost his context, his identity and is almost paralysed in the world he is unfamiliar with.

My favourite part of the story is Acharya’s transformation – from a person sitting on a high dry ground, to one who is suddenly thrown into a gushing water and anxiously follows the flow. The greeds and ugliness of the community is telling but an exaggeration. The plague (which is the cause of Naranappa’s death) is almost comical and superfluous to the plot. A plague cannot be a background score- I kept waiting for it to take the center stage, but it never did, and that was an unnecessary distraction to add to the story.

At times, I couldn’t help wondering that Acharya had defied the essential part of being a Hindu – it is a householder’s religion after all. But in his pride, he had chosen to dispense with the engagement of the household and skip to an ascetic life. Interestingly, this is what Buddhism proposes. But a Buddhist would probably not have to deal with the question of a dead body or rituals surrounding them. In trying to bridge the line, perhaps Acharya skipped some samskara that were essential to his way of life. If he had passed through all his rites, may be he would not have been so baffled with the question of the body.

For all its great ideas and alienation imagery, the book is poorly written, at least in translation. It is overly dramatised and the characters are mostly caricatures. And yet, I walked away from it feeling a warm glow in my mind.

Acharya’s introspections are the most telling parts of the story. I leave with these:

Have I the authority to include another’s life in my decision? The pain of it, the cowardice of it. God, take from me the burden of this decision”

“Putta gave him an entirely new personality. In the eyes of strangers, one gets a new form, a new make up. Even to the point of doubting who I really am, I have become many persons in one single day”

“It becomes clear that he didn’t have the skills to live in this world of sharp and cruel feelings. One part of lust is tenderness, the other part a demonic will.

Coming to Gita


I have been brought up a Hindu, by a devout mother who adores Krishna and cares for him almost as her third child. So, Gita is not an alien text to me. I have heard its basic tenets a few times, I have seen some gatherings of elderly women weep over the message of divine devotion, I have oscillated between feeling the same surge of emotion and rolling my eyes at the overwhelmed group . But I know the messages only partially and superficially – in punchlines and not as embodied knowledge. When I began to transition into adolescence, like most young people, I violently threw the cloak of tradition and religion, afraid that it will consume me into a mass which I was not ready to become.

After wrapping life around myself in my own fashion for many years, I no longer feel threatened by a prescribed way of life. I feel strong enough to examine it with my own sight. Yet, I am not ready to dive into the literal translation of Gita, because I lack the context to interpret a text written many hundreds of years ago.

On the lookout for a starting point, three months ago, I found a copy of Devdutt Pattanaik’s “My Gita” on an airport bookstore, and I decided to start there. Pattanaik is not a renowned   expert on Hinduism or the Gita. He is often criticised for being ubiquitous, a false marketeer, biased Shaivate, inaccurate and more. But his Gita is well laid out, thematically presented, and draws comparisons between Hinduism and other religions, which may be difficult to find in traditional Hindu texts. For a person like me, the starting point in understanding Gita needs to look from outside-in, zoom in from what I see around me and crystallise the differences.

So ‘My Gita’ worked for me – even though I am cautious to not take it as the whole truth. I think of it has a starting point from where I can work my way into Gita in particular and Hinduism in general. The introduction helped me to re-affirm some of my earlier understanding and expand on a few concepts of Hindu believes, such as:

The concept of “iti” – as things are, and the acceptance of iti. There is a reality which encompasses violence, conflicts, desires and Hinduism advices to accept and acknowledge it, instead of negating and denying it.

Hinduism as a householder’s religion: One of the fundamental differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is the monastic nature of Buddhism, where a believer renounces and withdraws from the world, whereas Hindu tradition encourages people to engage with society and carry out responsibilities as per your current role.  Buddhism professes killing self-desire, while Hinduism talks about the ultimate desire to unite with Brahma.

Darshan or observation (versus judgement): Hindu mythology does not have a judgement day – instead one is encouraged to observe actions and understand/empathise with the fear underlying those actions. Judgement creates walls, whereas the world of observation is fluid and more empathetic.

Dehi or Atman (immortal resident within the body or deha): Gita talks about body and its immortal residents as two distinct entities. It is the deha which is entrapped in fear, and rebirth allows the immortal soul to escape the cycle of fear. However, stripped of the body, the soul immediately looks for a new body and perpetuates the cycle of rebirth. Through observation, dehi can go beyond the entrapments of body. Devotion to God can help the atman

The concepts don’t end here, but I am struggling to synthesize everything in one post (and one sitting). I will likely return to these concepts again in another post.

It is not difficult to see that all of the above concepts have a lot in common with popular axioms of letting go, not judging, accepting things; axioms that transcend beyond Hindu beliefs to charismatic speeches, psychological assistance, self-help guides and even pixar movies. It is sound advice, but it puts all action in the hands of the ‘actor’, which causes significant anxiety. It does not seem like Gita is ready to prescribe me a way of life, and is instead telling me that there is no script and I need to form my own. And shouldn’t this scare me?

Solaris – two different visions


(A poster by Victo Ngai as seen on Chrome Yellow)

The Projector theatre in Singapore is currently doing a run of Tarkovsky’s movies – and I couldn’t resist the chance to watch Solaris a second time. There was a time when I was devouring everything from Tarkovsky – Stalker, Mirrors, Andrei Rublev, his writings on cinema. Since then, my attention span has gone through a significant contraction and I now stay drugged in the great melodrama of streaming television. A call for Solaris was also a call from the past. One I am glad I answered.

Before watching the movie, I picked up the original story from Stanislaw Lem, the Polish writer. I found a BBC audio rendition of it, which was a delight to hear. Lem’s Solaris was a scientific exploration of an alien existence. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a celestial system Solaris. The Scientists on the space station are studying Solaris, particularly its deceptive ocean. When Kris, the psychologist arrives on the station, he meets only one of the three Scientists. One has killed himself and another refuses to come out to meet Kris. The third, Snow, is shifty, drunk and paranoid. By the next day, Kris begins to experience strange events when he wakes from his sleep to find his ex-Wife in his room. He kills this apparition by sending her into space, but another apparition returns. As he talks to the other Scientists, he realises that they have guests of their own and think that Solaris’ enigmatic ocean is reading their minds during sleep and conjuring images from their conscience. Kris begins to fall in love with his apparition, but at the same time works with the Scientists in defeating the ocean.

Lem’s story is focused on man’s attempt at communicating with an alien entity. The attempt seems futile because we expect communication to be in our own perception, our own language. When the alien communicates through a different mechanism (like manifesting our own conscience), we see it as hostile and want to destroy it.

While listening to the book, I remembered similar themes from Tarkovsky’s movie. However, when I began to watch it, I realised that I had forgotten the overwhelming emphasis on human connections that this adaptation had. The movie adds a long prologue in an idyllic country home where Kris remembers his mother and his ex-Wife. He spends an emotional evening with his father and aunt, as he purges some of the old memories in a bonfire.

In the space station, while the main plot points remain similar to the original story – much of Kris’ focus is on understanding his relation to his Wife Hari than in understanding the alien entity. He is annoyingly absorbed in his romance, connecting back with a woman whose death he feels responsible for. In a slight exaggeration to Lem’s story, Hari continues to die, and though she regenerates every time, each of her deaths casts another shadow of guilt on Kris.

Kris’s illusions illustrates how a lot of our relationships and people around us exist only in our own perceptions. Strangely, Kris never seems to doubt the authenticity of Hari’s love, but he is afraid of killing her again by leaving the planet. He has already done this in the real world when Hari commits suicide after he left to another city for his job.

The Scientists decide that they can counter these apparitions by telling the ocean their conscious thoughts instead of just their dreams. “Be careful what you wish for”. This to me is the convergence between Lem’s story and Tarkovsky”s adaptation where man tries to bring back the communication to his own terms, even though Solaris was offering it a chance to understand their own dreams and desires. It highlights again in the voice of Snaut, the futility of exploration when we are only looking for mirrors.

The original story returns Kris back to earth where he writes two reports – one that narrates reality and another which reports no anomalies at the space station. However, in the movie Tarkovsky leaves us with a doubt on whether the Scientists ever leave and whether even the idea of their victory and their return is a dream that the ocean throws back at them. Perhaps our entire reality is an illusion- a product of someone creating a virtual world with the thoughts in our own heads. A matrix. And in this one, Kris is happy to take the blue pill, but most of us go chasing down the rabbit hole.

Watership Down


“There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.” 

Watership Down was a thoroughly enjoyable tale of adventure and coming-of-age, and highly misappropriated as a children’s book.
The book tells the story of a group of rabbits who move out of their warren, journey far and wide, often meeting great perils, to arrive at Watership Down – their new home. But the story goes on because: Continue reading

Shifting Sands


Traveling through the primal lands of Western Australia where I didn’t expect to find much except desolation, I strangely came upon a site which linked directly to the title of this blog. The Shifting Sands themselves – in a pristine white, so soft to the touch. Their charm was enhanced against the backdrop of a beautiful Australian sky – stark blue streaked with a dreamy white. The wind softly carried the sand, just enough to keep the edges of the sand dunes blurry and illusive. Continue reading

To the lighthouse – Virginia Woolf


It has been a long time since my last reading of Woolf. In the past, I have liked her writing, but never felt a connection to it. I first read ‘To the lighthouse’ more than ten years ago, at a time when I was experimenting with a lot of reading, devouring many words, without always understanding the subtext.

Reading it now, was like reading a different book altogether. I don’t know if the story has changed over time, or  if it was some background of modern philosophy, or Michael Roth’s lectures in Coursera, which made me see things differently. But I can not remember reading any of this story now in front of me. I remembered Mrs Ramsay, yes, as a benevolent mother figure, slightly overbearing and meddling. I remembered Mr Ramsay – a foul-tempered patriarch. I perhaps remembered the whimpering child who so wanted to go to the lighthouse, but was denied this pleasure for many years. Continue reading