Tree of life

After months of wait, I finally got to see Terrence Mallick’s new masterpiece – Tree of Life. It is never good to see a movie with too much expectation, and I had carefully avoided reading much about this work. So, when the movie unfolded into an orchestra of Universal creation, I was astounded. I was not expecting an hour of a musical journey taking me through the creation of life. That anyone could attempt such a feat in a movie was impressive.
Tree of Life brought together the dichotomy of a vast cosmos versus individual life. Many times, a cosmic order is used as a salve for personal tragedies. God has a much larger scheme, the Universe has a much larger scheme, your personal sorrows are small. But is it comforting to know that you are nothing in that much larger scheme, that you could suffer personal losses and the Universe will just move on? Would it not be more satisfactory if you were the center of the Universe and the world would come to a halt if there was a hitch in your journey? It is possible that much of human angst is caused by the knowledge of being miniscule. Perhaps this is what causes Jack O’brien’s (Sean Penn) angst and restless wanderings.

This film is a journey – into the memories of childhood, into the realm of Universal knowledge, and finally into the beyond. As a middle aged man, Jack O’brien remembers growing up in a small Texan town with two brothers. They have an idyllic childhood, spent in blissful afternoon excursions, looked upon by an angelic mother and a doting, though disciplinarian father. The brothers are happy in each others’ company. There is just one scene in which sibling rivalry is mildly indicated: a toddler Jack looks upon his baby brother with curiosity, expecting him to play with him and then goes to throw tantrums when he finds no response. Mallick has captured a whole range of emotions in such subtle, ethereal scenes. There is very little dialogue in the entire movie. People whisper to themselves, or sometimes it appears that only bits of conversations are overheard by the camera/viewer – none of the words are spoken for the benefit of the viewer. In the movie are the rebelliousness of growing up, an exploration of personal failure and how it changes a person as a father, and more overpowering – a deep sense of loss. When Jack’s younger brother dies at the age of 19, the whole family is thrown off, especially the mother, who wanders restlessly in the woods, seeking an answer from God. She asks: ‘They say he has gone to God, but was he not with God all the time?’ Her confusion, and sense of being wronged is deeply touching. Jack’s misery is more lasting, as he tries relentlessly to keep the memory of his brother alive. His mind continues to wander, until one day, in the afterlife, he meets his family again and smiles in the togetherness.
It is hard to know whether Mallick is pitching a war between personal losses and the vastness of continuous life, or if he is trying to find comfort in the continuity of life. It seems like he is still wondering, as am I. But I am sure I will look forward to the blu ray release in October – so that I can enjoy the magnificent scenes on my personal screen.

Loving Sabotage

Loving SabotageLoving Sabotage by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nothomb’s short novel is a curious work. It is the story of a child, narrated by herself, but filtered through growing up. Filtered here does not mean filter out,because Nothomb does not really filter out her thoughts, obsessions and world view of childhood as she writes this. But she lets some of the latter experiences seep into the tale, a quote from Wittgenstein here, a little reference to Lolita there. It is remarkable how she never seems judgmental or dismissive about the fantasies of nonage – that is perhaps the most outstanding quality of this book, which lets it be a story told by a child and allow a child all its seriousness.

The book is about a part of Nothomb’s own life, spent in China as a diplomat’s daughter. Most diplomatic families live in colonies (which Nothomb christens ghettos) that are separated from the local population. As a result, many different nationalities come together in a microcosm of the outside world. Like the outside world, children from expat colonies indulge in their own wars, form their own alliances and chose their own enemies.

At appropriate intervals Nothomb, the child is funny, and these comic sightings keep the book interesting. Though the narration is based in China, there is little China that you meet – it is just somewhere out there, and never penetrates into the story, which is a bit disappointing, especially because the back-cover gives you the impression that it is going to be about an imaginative childhood in a troubled country (I immediately imagined Pan’s Labyrinth, my fault, but you always anticipate based on what you have already experienced). Yet, there are certain short but astute observations, particularly on the secretive nature of Chinese government.

In all ways, the book is a capsule of a larger, more conscious adult life taken by a child. She experiences war, love, suffering and lives in a microcosm. All in the space of three years.

View all my reviews

Stretched tragedy in Marias

Someday I would like to write an essay on the title above. Someday soon I hope. It’s just that I do not have the mindset of a literary student, and have not written essays since high School. But there is something so characteristic about Marias’ writing and his penchant for elongating a tragic/unpleasant situation which begs writing about. He wrings out the misery, repetitively and pulls it out on the pages in the most discomforting manner.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, one of the spins is about an affair that Gogol’s wife is having. While reading through the affair, I was constantly anticipating an explosive, uncomfortable moment when Gogol would find out about it and feel cheated/humiliated. So I was pleasantly surprised when the author cut through that moment and skipped into the future. From there, Gogol only looked back upon the moment when he had found out about the affair – you can feel that time has already softened the hurt, it is merely to keep the records straight is why the reader is being told about it. You are not expected to sympathize or feel involved. It has happened, done with. As a reader, it is a relief to be spared the emotional turmoil.
But not so with Marias – he does not let you escape. At the outset, he will tell you that the tragic event has happened. But that distance of past never comes as as escape. He then begins to describe the moments immediately before and after the tragic event. In excruciating details. At the beginning of Tomorrow in Battle Think on Me, (which I am reading now), he tells you that a woman dies in the arms of a man she had just recently met. You instinctively want to escape the horror of this man, who finds himself in another man’s house, his amorous interlude with this man’s wife suddenly thwarted by her unexpected death. He is left alone in the house with a child of two years, torn between the horror of staying with the child in the house and explaining his presence to the husband in the morning, or the coldness of leaving the child alone with his dead mother. And Marias, unrelenting, makes you live that horror yourself – for 100 pages or so. You find yourself worrying about the sick woman whom you already know will die. Upon her death, you worry about the child, and worry about how you will explain the affair. It is curious however, that through those unpleasant pages, you suddenly begin to get comfortable, no longer as afraid or tensed as the first few pages, just treating it as a practical problem. The possibility of confronting the husband no longer seems as intimidating as at the beginning.

Perhaps this mulling over tragedy is what makes him a master. That and his ability to conjure up the most unpleasant situations (have you read A Heart So White where a newly wed wife shoots herself, or the mega-book your Face Tomorrow, where a multiple of such unpleasantaries unfold)

iphone Blues

This is one of those how to kind of posts that I never write. But considering the amount of trouble I went through in getting my iphone legally unlocked, I have to make a note of this. Also considering how I have never written How-to posts, this will probably read less like one and more like my horror story.

Somewhere beginning of last year, I purchased an iPhone 3G in India. At the time, the only options available were to either get an iphone locked to Airtel or to Vodafone. Now, none of these carriers were offering a deal. There was no lucrative plan, no discount – So you were saddled with a carrier for one year without any benefits except the ability to own an iphone.

So I got myself an iPhone locked to Airtel. At the time of taking the connection, I asked about the unlocking procedure after the completion of one year; to which the sales representative replied: It will auto-unlock in one year.

Well may be I was too gullible, but when I moved to Singapore, it did not strike me to check whether the phone was unlocked. I arrived in Singapore, and happily inserted a sim from 7-11 into my iphone – to get the rudest shock of relocation. My phone was still locked to Airtel and rejected this sim as Invalid! My first reaction was to rush off to the nearest Singtel store and buy an iPhone4, but providence saved me, as the store did not have the model I wanted. I know that iPhone5 is expected next month, and buying a model an year old is nothing short of foolishness. But to live without an iPhone till the next model arrives. Unimaginable!

So here’s what I did. I shot off a mail to Airtel Customer care, requesting for a remote unlock. After about 4 days, I got a mail asking for some specifics regarding my model, which I promptly provided. Silence, for another 7 days. I could bear it no longer, and searched for ways to expedite. On twitter, I found Airtel_Presence – the twitter channel to reach Airtel’s customer care. And I have to say they were responsive, at least far more than the official contact given otherwise. After two days, they responded (on twitter) saying that my phone is unlocked. I inserted the new sim again, expecting a ‘Voila’ moment, only to see some more invalid sim flashed on the phone.

After a few unhelpful calls with Airtel (who suggested that perhaps my sim was not good enough, etc), and after some unsuccessful internet searches, I called up the Apple helpline, who told me that my phone still showed as locked to Airtel in their database. So after confirming with the carrier that my phone was indeed unlocked from their end, I had to restore my iphone to factory settings using itunes. I inserted the new sim, and restored my phone using itunes and finally – the Voila I had been waiting for!

So if you have bought an iphone in India with a carrier, you must:

  1. Check with the carrier how long is your phone locked.
  2. If there are no benefits in price, you must request an immediate unlock, and once the carrier confirms this, restore your phone to factory settings and check with a different sim not belonging to the carrier to ensure your phone is unlocked
  3. If you find yourself outside the country, unable to visit the carrier to get the phone unlocked, mail their customer service ID (no point calling as most of the tele-callers will be unable to help with the technical issues) and request for an unlock. Constantly follow up – else they will take a long time to resolve the issue.
  4. In case any of the above does not work, call Apple helplines, which are very responsive, and can tell you the right solution depending on your phone’s serial number.
  5. If nothing works, well you can always go and do a hack unlock (for which there will be several guides available on the internet), but that is not something I suggest. Other than the fact that it is illegal, you end up losing warranty, have trouble doing OS upgrades (you will have to jailbreak everytime you want to upgrade)

Happy i-Phoning.

Moving to Singapore

I have seldom stayed long in a place ever since I left my hometown. Every few years, I pack some stuff into a Suitcase, reach a new place and hope to begin a new life. When it is time to leave (inevitable), I realize my suitcase has grown several folds, and I have to disperse this excess baggage. What follow are Garage sales, throwaways, gifts to friends/college juniors/housemaids, and eventually the last resort – packing away tons of stuff to my parents, who have mercifully, been less mobile, and who always welcome the stuff piled up over the years.
So it was this time too, when I chose to finally leave Mumbai, and move to Singapore. This time, the amount of stuff to be moved was massive – I had stayed, without knowing, 5 long years in Mumbai. These were years in which I had money to spend (unlike student days), had got married, and taken up much bigger houses than single rooms of earlier times. So even after days of selling and disposing stuff, I sent 47 packets home with Agarwal Packers & Movers! When they arrived at home in Jaipur (I was there to witness the catastrophe!), I was aghast at the mess. The movers kept bringing the boxes, and soon I thought Mom and I would get engulfed in brown boxes, never to be found again. Well somehow we managed (rather mom did as I watched from my sickbed, occasionally lifting a finger), and by the time my father arrived in the evening, there was no trace of the boxes and the chaos of the afternoon.

So I arrived here, in Singapore, with yet another suitcase. A few clothes, a few shoes, a few books and a few DVDs – essential moving stuff. (Leaving my collection of books behind at home was the hardest part, and the pain hit me anew when I entered the grand bookstore of Singapore: Kinokuniya at Takashimaya mall, and looked at the book prices. ).
In Singapore, the acceptable trend is to let out well-furnished apartments – it is often difficult to find an unfurnished place. Suits me in my current transient state, though it does impose quite a few restrictions. For instance, the microwave, the oven and the Wine cellar are all knitted together in a fixed space. To buy a new microwave which suits my needs better, will require a series of approvals – from the owner, followed by the apartment contractor, followed by the building committee (and I am sure followed by a Govt authority somewhere, which seems to involve itself on a macro level with public life)
Whatever I have seen of this city/country, the one defining feature that leaps out is Consumerism. I have rarely seen people who would be caught dead with a simple phone (which is any phone other than iphone), or without an LVMH/Channel/Prada bag on their shoulders. In the MRT (metro rail), the madness to consume is most prominent. Faces are buried in ipads, iphones, and the air is heavy with an amalgamation of perfume. The ugly LVMH logo stares out from all directions. As you walk through Orchard Road, the main shopping district, you see people queuing up outside the Channel store, or waiting patiently to get their Louis Vitton. In a coffee shop, sitting on a table which does not have an ipad or a mac is almost embarrassing. Heaven save you if you have some other brand of laptop/tablet. And anywhere in the city, if you are clicking pictures using a point-and-shoot, you will be forced to wonder if it is an unwritten rule to use ‘DSLR only’,

So when they say life in Singapore is easy, it is true to a good extent. There are some standard formats you can adopt for your life and live happily. You don’t have to exert yourself in making choices – you know which phone to buy and what purse to carry. If I ask two people, I will also know the approved shoes and dresses. As a vegetarian I do not even need to exert myself in choosing food, simply have to pick out of the 2-3 options on the menu. Commuting is easy – the MRT is convenient, and safe. Located amidst many beautiful countries, Singapore is also a great place to travel from. I am told Bintan and Batam (Indonesian islands) are less than 40 minutes away by ferry, Malaysia is an hour’s drive away.

It is also a place friendly to walkers, and I simply love that. No matter where you are, you will find a walkway. Despite the warm weather, it is lovely to take evening/night walks near the river, with the city twinkling in many lights, all of them playfully reflected in the river. My favorite spot, which I have recently discovered is the walkway at Stadium (Singapore Indoor stadium).

So I think I can very much get used to staying here. And also that it is early for impressions.

The True Deceiver

Some time ago, in my post about the book ‘The Discoverer‘, I mentioned discovering a few good reads in translation through Three Percent’s Annual “Best Translated Book Award”. I have continued to find great reads through this source, be it Confessions of Noa Weber, or Memories of the Future and now this year’s winner – Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver.
Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer, who wrote this book at the prime age of 60, but was already quite famous as a writer by then, although for a different kind of fiction – children books. She is best known as the creator of some reportedly lovable creatures called Moomins. Her fiction is based in the lands of moomins.
So, at the heart of her most celebrated work was imagination and a fantasy world. When she moved on to adult fiction, she switched to writing about reality (with dark tones). Perhaps this duality troubled her, or at least elicited some contemplation, because it seems to be at the center of The True Deceiver. In these 180 pages, she has placed both her selves – the realist and the fantasist opposite each other, playing them off. The children book writer is characterized in Anna, who is an illustrator. She is the dreamy one who likes the warmth of summer and believes in the goodness of people. She likes to paint, and when she is not doing that, she escapes into adventure stories. Anna is forced to confront Jansson’s realist avatar – Katri, who loves hard numbers and is very comfortable in the harshness of winter. She is often consulted by the villagers for her logical arbitration, hates dishonesty and is very uncomfortable with all forms of kindness. When they come together, Katri’s objectivity is forced on Anna, shaking her fantasy world. Sadly, the line between objectivity and cynicism is too narrow for anyone walking that path, and Tove Jansson portrays this poetically in flashes of anger, rebellion felt by an old woman.
The book, though an adult fiction, has the writing style of a children’s book. Sentences are short and yet descriptive. Most significantly, there is very little abstraction, which is refreshing in fiction of such darkness. It is almost as if she was writing for a child, who has learned the ways of the world but not learned complex sentences. Sometimes, it is as good as having illustrations. I cannot get out of my head the image of old furniture lying on a frozen lake in anticipation of the arrival of summers, when it will drown in the lake or flow off with the water. Nor of the mad dog in a desolate lighthouse.
But this is not a book from the writer of children books. It is from someone else.

Temple of Dawn, Mishima

From time to time, I like to come back to Japanese writing, mostly to float in its ethereal world as against walking the more defined (and often harsh) ground of European writing. Besides, there are times in life when Memento Mori needs to be refreshed , and to do this, Mishima’s words are a good place to go to.
The Temple of Dawn is the third part of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy written by Mishima. It is well-known that he committed ritual suicide the day he finished the last book : The Decay of Angel, and hence the set of books are tinged with the after-effect of this event. The awareness of death seems all the more palpable because we know what is to follow, and hence the words appear to carry a prophetic & self-appraising weight.
I have not followed the tetralogy in sequence (I seldom follow order in books), I first read Spring Snow, part one, and have now skipped the second Runaway Horses to make way for the third. At the heart of the books is one person, fated to die young again and again, in different reincarnations. These reincarnations are witnessed by Honda, who sees the same soul in four different forms, and attempts to save each of them from these early deaths.
The Temple of Dawn is named after a celebrated temple Wat Arun (literally meaning Temple of Dawn) in Bangkok. It is in Bangkok that Honda meets the second reincarnation of his friend Kiyoaki, who is now born as a Thai Princess. The princess remembers her past lives, as she remembers knowing Honda in both these lives. It is a fantastic story, and could be written only by an Oriental. The Occidental will find it hard to transgress the boundary of births, or even suggest multiple lives.
From Thailand, Honda goes on a trip to India – he wants to visit Benares & Ajanta there, towns from a very distant past. On the way, he spends some time in Kolkata during Puja where the violent religiousness of the city intimidates him. His descriptions of that madness is evocative. This madness seems to be the theme of his entire Indian sojourn, as he meets a country which is physical, crowded, anarchical and turns him into an insomniac. He dearly misses his country and its peace, acutely feeling the Japanese discomfort of things foreign. The parts on India read like a perceptive travelogue – something a more religious/spiritual Chatwin could have written. I would like to return to these pages when I am finished with the book.

The part where I am now, is almost a second book in itself. As a war is going on from which he is dissociated due to his age, Honda finds time for extensive reading. He reads and reflects on various theories in Buddhism – on reincarnation particularly, and on the differences between Theravada Buddhism & Mahayana Buddhism on the subject. Needless to say, my pace has considerably slowed down in these pages because they are quite rich and dense.
Also posted at Project Dogeared.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In my film, time is shattered‘, says Resnais of his first full-length fictional film Hiroshima Mon Amour. I don’t think this statement is as true of this film as it is of Last year at Marienbad (where time seems to explode and be everywhere), but time does fold on itself in this poignant film of memory, loss, war and love.
A French woman is shooting for a film in Hiroshima, and a day before returning to Paris she meets a Japanese man in a cafe, whom she spends the night with. An intense affair develops, and in this intense love, the woman is transported to her first love – a German soldier whom she had met during German occupation of France. On the night of French liberation, the soldier was killed in her presence and his death and loss of love continued to haunt her. She was disgraced in her town (Nevers) for consorting with the enemy, and spent days locked in the cellar in a state of mental fever. In a while, she remembered only the pain and spent life in short, meaningless affairs – until, on meeting this man in Hiroshima she feels the intensity of love and is horrified at the thought of finally forgetting her first lover.
The horror of forgetting seems the central theme of the film. The necessity to remember disasters like the loss of love or bombing of a city, to keep it alive forever, are pictured both in the personal trauma and the scenes of horror from Hiroshima. Both disasters intermingle to make the trauma of Hiroshima very personal; it is no longer so distant as the destruction of a city. She cannot take a new lover, because it would mean that she could forget love and thus would also be able to forget this new love. And how could you forget love, forget Hiroshima, and move on?
There is something so beautiful and sad about Resnais’ movie in its clear black and white imagery. The impossibility of love and the burden of guilt is reflected in the still shots above. The manner in which the flashbacks become a part of the current conversation, and in the way the two lovers juxtapose is haunting, and yet something felt often on dreamy mornings when worlds intersect, and for while you do not know which is which.
It was so fascinating to hear the conversation of the lovers – I am looking now for the screenplay(translated) of the movie written by Resnais and Duras.

A new blog

In the last couple of years, I have begun to enjoy photography more and more. Though I still carry my camera mostly on travel (and thus almost never capture Mumbai through this eye), I have learned a little more than what I knew two years ago when I picked up my first DSLR.
Although still a bit premature, I think I can dabble with a photoblog now, which is what I am attempting to do at Memento Mori
Do drop by if images interest you.

Placelessness & Traveling

He watches, but what he sees isn’t real to him. Too much traveling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. May be horror is felt more easily from home. This is both a redemption and an affliction, he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.

-In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut

Why is it that words on travel, like these, make me yearn to leave home, and somehow still make me sad with loneliness.