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Victorian Age, that supposedly dark age of medieval thought, is known for its strict morals and orthodoxy and perhaps a few would associate it with Dickens too. It was those double standard morals that shaped every bit of society from the clothing to the stories in the magazines to the way women and men should behave and carry on relations.
Tess of D’Urbervilles is very much a product of its time. But wait, there’s a twist. And you would have to wait a bit longer to know that or perhaps when you read the book, eh?
Moving on, the novel by Thomas Hardy is singular in that it features a woman protagonist: Tess as the heroine. And like all heroines she too faces her own set of trials and tribulations in love and money matters among other things. And typical of Hardy, the novel is set in the country side-a place he never tires singing praises of as the sylvan beauty as against the raging industrialisation that was changing the British landscape.
The novel begins with Tess’ father finding out from Parson Tringham that he in fact belongs to an old lineage, an ancient line of family who were once rich and owned boundless land. This sets him on the path to use this info to his advantage and therefore sets out his eldest daughter, Tess, to be engaged to work with a rich relative (who are actually upstarts who have merely borrowed the last name!) close by. It is there she meets the brash son of the old lady she has to work for, Alec D’Urberville. And his constant pursuit of her despite Tess’s dislike for him, changes Tess’ life for the worse until she decides to take matter into her own hands and find another occupation in Mr. Crick’s dairy instead of sitting idle crying over her fate. Over there her life unfolds without much ado as she likes it and she falls in love with one of the dairy hands, Angel Clare, who had interestingly even seen her before at a countryside May dance and danced in that very group too. What then happens is a series of romantic trysts along with a bit of tragedy and the book ends on a bittersweet note that will linger for sometime.
So that seems plain enough right? Girl loves the boy and they have ups and downs and somehow then its smooth sailing? So where’s the twist?
But no Tess of D’Urbervilles is more complicated than that. Hardy has nuanced the story well so that it does not read like just another moral story about love, relations and women. It is layered story which at every turn of the page forces you to think beyond the status quo, beyond the rigid morals and social norms and archetypes especially that of the fallen woman and woman as a temptress. He thought way ahead of his time! For one, Tess is not the typical damsel in distress who believes her world has ended if no man loves her or rejects her. She picks up the pieces and gets on with her life and tries to order her life with her own choices. She is the agency for her own life and that is something commendable to see in a Victorian Era book (Indian soaps should learn something from Hardy!). The ending jars with the whole plot and may have been put perhaps to please the moralistic Victorian readers of the time. Who knows?
Hardy himself does fall prey to certain set ways of depicting the woman such as Tess as a divine ethereal being, the portrayal of her physique to emphasise her beauty and put her in the stock character of the temptress, thus exempting the man from any blame.
Yet, the novel is peppered with several gems like his beautiful descriptions of the setting-Blackmoor Vale and others that are too exhaustive to list here. But one I cannot help listing is Tess utterance when she is leaving Alec and her work to go back home in the 2nd part of the novel: ” If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.” It is a succinct take on the much abused “no” of a woman to her so called admirer, pursuer who expects that he alone can somehow convert that no into a yes. It is clearly stating that a no means a no and if i did love you I would let you know it. Are the Bollywood filmmakers listening??
For the review of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, another marvelous and beautifully written novel, click here.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?
But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?
Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.
For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!
Now to the plot:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead:
Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.
The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.
Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.
Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).
The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.
The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.
To read the novel, click here.
Half Of A Yellow Sun is a brave book; brave because of its heartfelt, honest writing; brave because it highlights truthfully the colossal loss of everyday life during war; brave because it is clear in the political points it wants to make.
The novel written by Chimamanda Adichie is a story of three individuals-Ugwu, Olanna and Richard- caught in the three year Biafran war in the 1960s. But you may ask what is new
about novels written about war-there are gazillion of them out there and this is just one needle in a large haystack? True though that is, Adichie’s novel is not the average run of the mill book about the war because what stands out in the story is her heartbreaking, close portrayal of the all the main characters so that you are immersed in their lives and war’s turmoil as they are thrown into it and face it everyday. She gives a remarkable, intimate portrait of them and of other marginal characters too who provide multiple viewpoints of the ravages and the sufferings of war. And that’s the power of this story-to make the reader feel the suffering, sense the shattering of relationships and the immense tests they go through. And isn’t that in a more broader perspective-the power of literature? To proffer a humane perspective to any crisis, to portray the human element of it and not just as a drab and dry report. In a way it is similar to what Manto did for the Partition of India-his stories depicted its horrifying consequences on the individuals and did not treat them as merely a statistic. To read my review on Manto’s stories, click here. Every individual has a story to tell and Adichie’s novel shines through with the ordinariness of her characters and how they deal with that falling apart during the Biafran war. She doesn’t make the story into a sob story to garner attention but emphasises on the everyday emotions and how they go on despite the crisis raging on.
Ugwu is a poor village boy who is brought by his aunt to Nsukka to work as a houseboy in her master, Odenigbo’s house. Olanna, a smart intelligent woman, has had a life of privilege in Lagos but still sets to live with her lover, Odenigbo who is a professor in Nsukka University. Richard is the Englishman staying in Nigeria and slowly as he gets caught up in his love for Kainene and the war, he drifts apart from the stereotypical, white colonial view of Nigeria and comes to love the country. Their lives intersect as tensions simmers between the Hausa and Igbo tribes. The story is very well structured with each chapter focusing on one of the three character’s point of views. Each chapter plunges us thoroughly into their lives as we are allowed to take a peak into their thoughts and apprehensions and feelings. Adichie doesn’t use the omnipresent narrator and leaves a lot for the reader to interpret. We therefore see a bunch of characters with all their imperfections and doubts and emotions as most human beings actually are. We see them as introspecting themselves; searching for who they are; negotiating their selves, their identity, their relationships to other people and the world and the war. The story is also open ended with a hopeful ending but that which is tainted by heartache and hurt along with a tragedy and loss that comes in the wake of any war.
Half Of A Yellow Sun has an interesting feature-Adichie has incorporated snippets of book written by one of the characters and the revelation of who that character actually is makes quite a strong and brave point as to who should actually be writings stories about Africa and that brings into consideration the whole idea of a white, colonial, racist appropriation of history. In writing Half Of A Yellow Sun Adichie takes a bold step of depicting the Biafran war through the eyes of the people actually being affected by it. In using the feature of a book within a book she subtly makes a scathing comment on the Western idea of war, of Africa and its people and how they created and used the tensions among the tribes for their own vested interest.
Need I say more?
Amidst the hullabaloo of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US government snooping on its own citizens and those of foreign countries, George Orwell’s 1984 has been mentioned countless times and how he was right in predicting the government’s role of the Big Brother. Another author depicted a dystopian future wherein the government had a different sort of control over you-controlling your violent instincts. While the government spying on one’s phone calls, emails, social networking data is not a comforting feeling, the government actually controlling how you behave is even more disconcerting.
Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess, explores precisely this aspect of control. Alex, the anti-hero of the novel, is a the narrator and refers to himself as “Your Humble Narrator.” He narrates his and his pals’ violent escapades in a nameless town where such violence by teens is rampant. They engage in brutal violence-assaulting, stealing, beating and sexual violence during the night. On one such escapade, Alex and his gang decide to rob a single woman living with dozens of cats. However, the plan goes awry as Alex’s usual ruse of acting like a wounded boy and fooling the woman to open the door fails. He then goes through the window and threatens her but the old woman isn’t frightened so easily. She seems to get time to call the police and eventually in a fight, Alex gives a fatal blow. The police picks him up and he is shunted to the prison for a good 14 years. It is here Alex learns of a miraculous technique that will reform him quickly and let him get out of jail in no time. The prison chaplain, the only decent person around, warns of this so-called-miraculous Ludovico Technique and of its ethical ambiguity. Due to a turn of events, Alex is eventually subjected to this technique which is torturous in its own way and has terrible consequences for our Humble Narrator.
Written in the “Nadsat” language, which is the lingo used by the teens of that world, Clockwork Orange is a gruesome look at the politics of control and surveillance and raises questions about the need for an individual to have a choice in the way s/he behaves. Ludovico Technique essentially conditions Alex to have sickening feelings for anything related to violence. It ‘cures’ him of his bad behaviour by leaving him with no choice but to be good because being bad or even thinking of violence entails a rising of aversion in him. Burgess cleverly shows how the government’s method of reducing crime by relying on such ethically questionable techniques is not a foolproof method but only raises more problems rather than resolving them. For example, if Alex is faced with a situation where he has to defend himself he is absolutely helpless since he cannot resort to violence as he has been conditioned to be averse to it.
To complicate the plot further, Alex after being ‘cured’ is used by certain individuals for their own personal gains-namely to show that the present government is using such brutal techniques in the reduction of crime. Alex becomes a trophy prize over which politically motivated parties and individuals tussle, leaving behind the core of the problem-if the Ludovico Technique is not morally correct and the usual punishment of imprisonment also fails, then how exactly to reduce the rate of crime and violence in a world where youngsters are increasingly setting up sub cultures of crime and violence.
Clockwork Orange doesn’t answer those questions outright. Instead the story explores the ideas of the nature of evil and if it is really possible for the government to control the individual’s violent inclinations and urges through conditioning techniques. The book shows how the government treats people like machines, like ‘clockworks’ that can be tweaked to make a better, crime-free society. We have already seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how the media has been effectively used to tweak people’s way of thinking and getting their support on certain politically important matters (For eg, it is thanks to the relentless media proclamations of US’ war on terror that the entire globe sees the Middle East as merely a part of the world crawling with terrorists out to attack America while completely disregarding their own unique culture. Closer home, the media is often used in India to mobilise people’s opinion for the ambiguous notions of ”development” and “growth” while cleverly trying to put down all those who clash against these ideas). It is not just the media alone, mainstream culture-whether it is books, movies or art-all are effectively used by the government to mould people’s opinions for or against something. Therefore, it is perhaps not far away that the governments all over the world will be able to control its citzens’ behaviour. And that would indeed be a scary prospect.
Though small in size, Clockwork Orange may not be a breeze to read thanks to the “nadsat” words that Burgess uses which can be understood only by referring to the glossary every once in a while. It can be frustrating because while you want to get on with the story(which moves at a good pace), you have to pause and find out the meanings first but be patient and it will definitely be worth it. It will take time to accustom yourself to the language but once you are attuned to it, it will be an easy and enlightening read. Try and read this one-it is relevant and will always be because no government has come close to curbing violence among its people. So while you figure out what “droog”, “carmen”, “chasha,” malchick,” ‘mesto” etc mean, don’t forget to also ponder over the subtexts of the story.
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.
Today, Mumbai is obsessed with skyscrapers. The illusion among officials running the city is that high rises (that like its name also have high prices) with kitschy colours or made of crystal clear glass will help the city achieve that elusive status of ‘world class.’ No matter that half the population still lives without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, proper toilets etc; as long as the city has the veneer of being world class, the have nots be damned. Redevelopment is the norm nowadays and a redevelopment of Dharavi is also on the cards; now whether this move is truly to uplift the people and give them better homes or just a ruse to make available vast tracts of land for greedy land developers is for the experts to decide. What is being missed out in this race for constructing tall buildings in the hope of emulating the Western ‘world class’ cities (remember the program of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai?), is that Mumbai is also home to numerous clusters of chawls, bungalows, smaller buildings, heritage areas that are being slowly effaced from the face of the city.
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when the fad of high rises was still a distant dream, it was the chawls that dominated the topography of the city with just a few multi storeys towering over them. Kiran Nagarkar’s novel,’Ravan and Eddie‘ capture that time of Bombay by chronicling the story of the two boys of the title who grow up in the Central Works Department (CWD) chawls in Byculla. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a tongue-in-cheek tale that traces the two boys’ growth as they try and overcome the hurdles of living in the chawls and their own set of familial troubles.
The No.17 CWD chawl in which the two boys reside are themselves neatly divided on the basis of religion: on one floor live the Hindus and the other the Roman Catholics. The novel starts with the dramatic birth of Eddie Coutinho with his mother, Violet, in the ambulance just minutes after she lost her husband, Victor, whose only claim to fame in the novel was being infatuated by Parvatibai, Ravan’s mother and dying while trying to save him. Thus Eddie is born fatherless but with Father Agnelo by his side at the time of his birth. The novel then meanders its way snidely and gradually as both the boys grow up hating each other;one accusing the other of killing his father, the other believing in the truth of the accusation and finally convincing himself to be a killer. From Eddie’s dabbling in Hinduism, to Ravan’s tiffs with her mother, from Eddie selling black tickets of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ to Ravan receiving letters requesting him to kill some irascible person in their lives, from the unending work of Parvatibai to Violet’s mum acting matchmaker for her, from Father Agnelo’s constant reprimands to Eddie to Ravan’s dad, Shankar’s unemployment, from the saga of the nine Sarang girls to the saga of Ravan’s mysterious lecherous aunt, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is a hilarious, bawdy post-colonial novel that will transport the reader to the very corridors of the chawls that have been so vividly recreated in the story
As much as, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is about the two boys, it is also about the life in the chawls and moreover, a subtle critique of the condition of independent India’s urban areas. The numerous digressions that interrupt the imaginative narrative are telling comments on the tough life of the people there. Kiran Nagarkar captures both the joviality of their lives along with their hardships with the digressions such as, ‘The Great Water Wars’ and ‘A Harangue on Poverty’ breaking the illusion of a problem free, happy, independent India. There are several other digressions that talk about other quintessential aspects of Indian life and don’t necessarily try and burst the safe bubble of independent India. What they have in common is a sarcastic and snarky tone that succeeds in making a point.
The overall tone of the entire novel is cheeky and sarcastic. Nagarkar’s writing is concise, to the point and doesn’t wander away unnecessarily. Like the hustle and bustle of the city and its chawls, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is also a bustle of incidents that are crammed into 330 odd pages that leave you in a huff and puff as you try and take in all the delights, adventures and troubles of the variety of people populating the story.
Go grab a copy and immerse yourself in a world where high rises just don’t exist and where chawls were not an eyesore but a living, breathing microcosm of the city.
What do you do when your life’s story cannot be told within the confines of the autobiographical genre? Its simple, you create a complete new genre to depict your life. Genres are anyway just constructed categories to arbitrarily fit works of literature into water tight compartments leaving no room for them to be seen as fluid, independent works.
Audre Lorde did the exact same thing when she wrote, ‘Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name.’ It is an autobiographical text. But she coined the term, ‘biomythography’ to describe the book. In an interview, Lorde herself defined the term as having, ‘the elements of biography and history of myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.’ Further, Ted Warburton defined it as, ‘the weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.’ These two definitions are the best ways to define the ‘genre’ of ‘Zami: A…’
In the book, Lorde examines her life with all its ups and downs by intertwining incidents of her life with elements of the world around her. It is not just a retelling of a life, but a close examination of the life while also intermingling the historical aspects that might have affected her life. ‘Zami: A..” tells the story of a young Lorde who is a child of hard working black immigrants from Granada, living in New York in the 1940s/50s.. The earlier part of the book focuses on her childhood and teenage years. The book is not the usual run of the mill bildungsroman type but rather a book that fuses the elements of poetry, fiction, autobiography, history and myth to tell an intricate story of her life in New York, in Harlem and later on when she moves to other places like Mexico. Throughout the narrative, Lorde has juxtaposed the events in her life with significant events of American history such as the Great Depression, the World War II, the independence struggle of the British colonies, McCarthyism, the black freedom struggle etc. It gives you a sense of the larger world and a minute history lesson as well. It enables the reader to put the time frame in perspective. Through the lens of the broader events, Lorde reflects on her life, rethinks her political awakening, her understanding and acceptance of her sexuality, her femininity and her position as a minority in America. Her marginalisation creates in her a political impulse, a need to confront the mainstream hegemony on her own terms. Lorde chronicles her relationship with her family, their growing differences ideologically and otherwise, her numerous relationships with various women, her life in poverty, her life of constant struggle and pain, her close knit group of friends, the close sisterhood she developed as a student which enabled her to become independent and many other things.
Lorde admits in the book that is tough to be a coloured immigrant in Harlem, tougher to be a woman and even tougher to be a Black woman immigrant lesbian. She is a minority in all senses but throughout the book she never allows this to marginalise her further. She finds ways to deal with them and the best way is to accept her individuality. Instead of moping around about her minority status, Audre finds hope in many ways and one of the ways is through her community of female friends, companions, girlfriends, other politically like minded people etc. She never allows any of her pain to close herself to the world but rather reaches out to the world to find people like her and find solace and comfort which helps her to assuage her pain.
‘Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name’ is a tender yet tough look at the trials and tribulations Lorde faces as she grows up and comes into her own.
To read an e-version of the book, click here.
Imagine living a particular way of life for quite some time and then gradually realising how you are actually quite dissatisfied with it. What’s worse is that no one else feels that you should be dissatisfied with that life at all. This discontent seems absurd to everyone else except you. No one quite understands your plight. This dilemma was faced by Edna Pontillier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s novel, ‘The Awakening.’ In the novel, she realises that she is nothing other than a role in the patriarchal society of the 1890s’ American South. This perturbs her as she desires to be viewed as something more than just a wife and a mother, but as an individual as well.
‘The Awakening’ was written in 1899 and is therefore a pre-feminist text which means that it was written in an era when the feminist impulse was not as strong as in the feminist era of the 1960s.’ It was therefore quite revolutionary to portray Edna as a woman discontented with her position in a privileged society. Edna is the wife of Mr. Leonce Pontillier who owns plantations and is a wealthy man who leads a life of privilege and luxury which also extends to Edna. She leads a comfortable life with her children and husband in a friendly neighbourhood of New Orleans. On the surface, there shouldn’t be any problems in the privileged world of the Pontellier. Leonce is the bread winner as he should be and Edna is the care giver as is expected of her. All is going fine according to the dominant patriarchal discourse that clearly demarcates the roles for men and women. However, scratch the surface and Chopin gradually peels away the normalcy of the situation to expose the seeds of doubt and discontent that grows in Edna as a result of a number of incidents in the novel. She comes to realise her individuality and how she is more than a role and a possession. She sees all social ties as confining her to the prescribed roles. To perhaps escape this discontent she tries falling in love with Robert Lebrun, a friend of Mr. Pontellier. However, he is too conventional for Edna’s revolutionary thoughts and rebelliousness. He cannot help her get out of the despondency she faces over her dilemma to break free from her typical roles. Moreover, none of the women characters like Adele Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz etc. share her sense of discontent. They believe that is absurd to feel that way when one has all the comforts one needs in life. Edna can think of no solution to get past her curiously unique dilemma except one. To find out what it is, go pick up the book and enjoy.
‘The Awakening’ is remarkable in portraying a questioning, rebellious female protagonist who defies the strict norms and rules to chalk her own path out. It is truly commendable given the time period in which it was written to write about a woman’s ‘awakening.’ However, precisely because of that, the novel received a lot of flak from critics which forced Chopin to apologise and this huge mass of negative criticism also crushed her morale to a large extent.
Recently, the novel has been castigated for depicting the ‘awakening’ of only a white privileged woman and ignoring the plight of the countless, nameless coloured working women who made it possible for Edna to lead a privileged life. Edna does not view them as being fellow oppressed women but only as mere servants. They are not even visible to her as individuals. The critics have thus pointed out that the novel is from a white woman’s perspective only and cannot be viewed as representing the plight of all women.
Despite its flaws and its racial bias, ‘The Awakening’ is a worthwhile read which will give the reader a glimpse into the constricted lives of white women in the South at the time. It is a short read which will hopefully make you appreciate the bold step Edna took in defying the societal norms. It is definitely worth one shot.
No other person in Indian English literature is as closely associated and identified with the Partition as Sadat Hasan Manto. He has to his credits a novel, radio plays, essays, film scripts but he is synonymous with the Partition short stories he penned.
Penguin Books has recently come out with a collection of cheaply priced books-Penguin Evergreens. The few books in this collection are mostly (not necessarily) short stories by numerous Indian authors. It also includes stories by Manto . The collection is titled-‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, Translation by Khalid Hasan.’ It is quite commendable that Penguin has come out with easily affordable collection of short stories by renowned authors. This will hopefully make the Indian readers take up short stories by Indian writers.
There is a good variety of stories in this collection and are not confined only to the Partition. They deal with many subjects-Partition being one of them, human nature being another subject etc. His most famous stories like Toba Tek Singh, Colder Then Ice, The Dog Of Titwal etc., are included in this collection. Others may not be well known but are equally well written and give a startling glimpse into tender human moments or into the twisted human mind. The great advantage of short stories is that it can capture the boldest, the most essential and deliver it with a bang in a few words which immediately hits the reader. This advantage Manto exploited thoroughly to make his point to the readers. Toba Tek Singh is a brilliant example of how Manto comments on the issues of nationality and the futility of constructing them arbitrarily. Odour captures Randhir’s wistful reminiscences of a girl he met on a rainy day and how the peculiar odour she exuded completely enchanted him and how he searches for that in his bride. The Gift borders on the comic as it narrates the story of Shankar and how he cleverly dupes two prostitutes by giving them gifts that belonged to each other. Bitter Harvest is a poignant story of the manner in which hatred and violence can consume the best of friends leaving only animals raging with vengeance. A Woman For All Seasons is about the vagaries of fame and fate from the point of view of an actress. There are in all fifteen stories that will surely give you a fleeting glimpse of a range of societal mores and characters. These stories depict how Manto wrote about all subjects, all sorts of people-whether the hight, middle, low class etc. There shines an honesty and an ache for humanity in his stories. His approach to writing his not selective as he wrote about everything under the sun be it taboo subjects like sex, prostitution or sensitive topics like the Partition.
This Penguin Evergreen is sure to delight everyone. What may not be delightful is the simplistic translation by Khalid Hasan. It is too banal and often fails to capture the mood and feel of the story with the same bitterness that Manto suffuses them with. The only stories that felt like a good translation were Odour and The Dog Of Titwal. Others had something or the other lacking in them. They didn’t make you sit up and feel shocked. They somehow lulled you into numbness which is not a reaction to be elicited when reading a Manto story. The latter always makes you think and imposes on you a new idea, a new viewpoint that you are compelled to ponder over. This translation fails to do that. The reader will only be able to take a momentary pleasure from them and not a sustained, lingering and fresh perspective. I don’t have any other recommendations to read other translations as I have forgotten the translators’ names of whatever few stories I have read in different collections. Recently in 2012 a collection, ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ was released and it is translated by Aatish Taseer. How good it is is yet to be ascertained. But it is worth giving it a shot.
Despite the translation flaws in ‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto’, it is worth picking it up (and not just because it’s cheap) as it will acquaint any reader with some of Manto’s works and his style of writing. Hopefully, this book will generate more interest in Manto’s writings.