Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Restless Wind; book review

ISBN 9789382616115 Author, Shahrukh Husain, Publisher Pan Macmillan India, Pp 360, Rs 499/-

A Restless Wind piques the reader’s interest from the very beginning with fine details and a strong and engaging protagonist. However, a restless wind blows through the closing chapters, leaving a heap of tangled threads. Hana, the ailing matriarch of the Ramzi clan of Muslim gurus to the Hindu rulers of Trivikrampur in Gujarat, knows her end is near. She needs to clear up what she can and rectify mistakes of the past before 21st-century sectarian violence ruins the age-old communal harmony of her beloved Trivikrampur. She chooses to reveal these stories she should have told long ago to her dear niece Zara, whom she summons to their family home in Qila....

The theme of communal prejudices runs through the novel, and the author explores its many aspects in a balanced manner. The opening pages introduce us to the demon of communal violence in present-day India. The armies of dispossessed, who flee for safety across boundaries of sea and land, are Zara’s clients who seek asylum in Britain. The author balances this with specific acts of goodness. Zara’s client, Parveen’s family, is massacred by communal forces in Gujarat.

Yet a Hindu auto driver guides her to safety. Other good Hindus rescue Parveen after she is raped and brutalised. Hindus like the “Swami guy” help Muslim victims of communal violence, and themselves end up as “fucking asylum seekers in the UK,” with no housing, no NASS allowance and a dog’s life. Zara sees racial and cultural prejudices everywhere among the British as well, with “hooligans chanting racist and misogynist obscenities.” Zara comes home to Quila to find its walls charred by arsonists protesting against “the Ramzi-Vamana bond and the blurring of religious boundaries,” dating back to the legends of the Green-clad Man, who founded the Ramzi clan.

The first half of the novel leads us to expect further exploration of the inner life of Zara and other major characters and the intricate dynamics of communal harmony and disharmony in India. However, the latter half of the novel overwhelms with a profusion of new characters and sub-plots. Hana dies before revealing her secrets to Zara, who resolves to uncover them on her own. We are rapidly introduced to Zara’s cousin Saif, the spiritual head of the Ramzi clan, his wife the peevish and suspicious Pebbles, their mentally-challenged daughter Sharmeen and her cousin and lover Kamran.

 Things happen so fast, that we do not learn enough of their true feelings. We are told, for example, that Pebbles and Saif are deeply in love. Yet Pebbles plans a shopping spree for her daughter’s trousseau just after his sudden death. Did Aunty Hana really alienate Zara from her mother, while professing to love her? Dilkash’s demented narration of Nyla’s past is one example of too obvious and expedient a plot device.

Too many things involving too many people happen simultaneously in the latter half of the novel. Each of these many subplots is potential Bollywood material. As things stand however, they give the impression of outlines rather than fully fleshed out characters and their stories. There are mysteries galore with Sita Devi and her strained relations with Hana, who were formerly like sisters. Sita Devi hints that her son Jay and Zara may share the same father, making Zara cool off toward her former lover.
In sum, this book begins on an interesting and exciting note, but towards the latter half, the multiple characters and their stories get entangled into a confused heap. There are passages of fine writing and character delineations, but the momentum and focus gets diffused toward the end.

My detailed review is published in Sunday Herald

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Heroes around us

In the good old days, our heroes were towering personalities such as Sardar Patel, who focused on strengthening our newborn nation with single-minded conviction. Gandhiji inspired us through a non-violent revolution, wanting the bare minimum for his personal needs, and striving for everything worthwhile for his fellow Indians. Gandhiji was a simple man, yet he heroically brought the mighty British Empire to its knees. Their followers have since gone the way of dodos and dinosaurs. New breeds of heroes have evolved, taking their hallowed predecessors’ ideals to fresh and previously unimagined directions.

Humanity has always needed heroes as role models to guide their lives. Our heroes are changing along with our value systems. The primary aim of Indians today is to somehow make as much money as possible. Everyone worships money, from government officials drooling over bribes, to private manufacturers pushing shoddy products with deceptive advertising and indifferent customer service.  Scamsters are today’s heroes, because they make the most money. They pursue this aim with the single-minded devotion of the heroes of yesteryear, striving to excel as faster, stronger and bigger crooks. Our leaders of yore preached the equality of all, irrespective of caste or creed. Modern scamsters treat Peter, Shanta Bai, the government or Rahim equally, for they see everyone as suckers to be duped. Nothing matters as long as their Swiss bank accounts fill up.

No wonder, so many of our netas who lead the nation have also been involved in colossal scams! The more prominent and powerful the neta, the bigger the alleged scam that temporarily knocks him out of action. These scam-tainted netas have the die-hard determination and resilience of a Sardar Patel or Gandhiji. No ignominy can suppress their invincible spirit. They return to contest elections, reclaim their gaddis, and set an example of courageous determination before the aam aadmi. A hero deliberately and bravely overcomes hurdles without regard to personal consequences. Scam-tainted netas are true heroes and leaders, for they brave all odds to pull off mighty scams. True heroes are selfless people who strive for the good of others. Today’s monstrous scams benefit many. After all, the loot is shared with sundry kinsmen, chamchas, and their neighbours and in-laws. Jai ho, heroic, die-hard scammies!
What’s the use of heroism, if nobody notices, or forgets in nanoseconds? A new breed of popular role models are perfecting the art of being constantly seen and heard, even though we aren’t quite sure why they deserve to hog the limelight. Glamorous fashion models, Bollywood stars, meteoric stars, wannabe stars and other motley celebs are another category of heroes perfect for our times. What makes them so wildly popular?

Well, most of us are mediocre, and we relate best with our own kind. We may pay lip-service to the Sardar Patels and Gandhijis. But we know that it’s next to impossible to reach their sky-high standards. We adore glamour because flaunting expensive possessions and slathering cosmetics can make us, our milkman, and our domestic help glamorous too. Even if we don’t win the Miss Solar System or Mr Asteroid Belt title, we can still aspire to be Miss Palace Guttahalli or Mr Kalasipalya and flash our booty on Page 3. The film industry can make a hero out of anyone. Filmmakers have absolute power to make their world of fantasy seem real. Film actors, who are ordinary people, become heroes of this fantasy world created by the imagination. Glamour, therefore, is an egalitarian and accessible aspiration for anyone and everyone, in the best traditions of Gandhian philosophy.
Fake show and empty-vessel hoo-ha dominates our world. Yet a few Indians continue to do their best and make a difference despite setbacks. They do the right thing, shoulder responsibility, and facilitate change without making a show, because it comes to them naturally. Real heroes of today are upright and sincere people like Dr Verghese Kurien, who strived against vested interests and organised the milk co-operatives in Gujarat into the iconic AMUL. From being deficient, India is now the world’s largest producer of milk. ...

Why do the names and achievements of such modern heroes flicker so briefly in the public eye before being eclipsed by the screaming glamour brigade? Simple. Their unassuming, unglamorous personalities cannot promote toothpastes, piles ointments or other commercial products. How will the media afford to give them more visibility, if they cannot earn enough ad revenue to sustain the hoopla? As shopaholic consumers, we perpetuate this trend. We feel that by owning products advertised, we can be like the glamorous people glorified in zillions of ads. We try to escape from our mediocrity by becoming ‘heroic’ through the cult of consumerism. It’s easier to buy stuff with that ‘feel-good factor’ instead of struggling to genuinely excel at anything.

Another reason why true achievers with bona fide credentials do not always get the appreciation they deserve is because they make us uneasy at a deeper level. Sincere people who naturally strive for excellence without hankering for publicity are constant reminders of high standards which we may never be able to reach. Rather than follow their example and drive ourselves to excel, we try to ignore them. We usually praise them with brief obituaries only after death, when they are no longer able to make us feel inadequate and guilty by their superior presence.

If we look past superficial glamour, we will find true heroes all around us, among ordinary people. These heroes have human imperfections, but they rise above difficulties to accomplish something positive. They are not showy, but have the quiet courage to do the right thing. They have the mental and moral strength to face adversities, and fearlessly walk the talk. Haven’t we all, at some stage, benefitted from the depth, knowledge and generosity of a parent, teacher, friend or mentor? It’s time we stepped forward to encourage such unassuming heroes, and to make a conscious choice to support the right values. In this way, we can spread courage and support those around us as we face the trials of life. Each of us can be a brave hero by becoming disciplined and resolute in our own hearts. It’s true that we can’t all save the world, but each of us can show bravery by standing up for our principles. True heroism is to be genuine, to quietly and firmly persist in doing the right thing despite opposition or taunts from others.

Read my entire essay published in Sunday Herald