18 November 2007

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Didion is one of those rare writers who challenges you as much at the gut level as she does intellectually. And in the case of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, I think it would be more interesting, more fulfilling, to feel it in the stomach, rather than to simply process it in the head. It is indeed 'a ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s', as the blurb promises, and its unflinching portrayal of West Coast culture might even make Snoop Dogg and his homies blanch; but to limit it to being a sociological commentary on sex, drugs and movie-making, Hollywood style, would be to limit its greatness. What makes this a work of utter brilliance is how Didion can evoke such profound and precise emotional responses from her readers.

Maria Wyeth is a failed Hollywood actor. Alone in a world full of people, she is estranged not just from her husband, but from her young daughter, her lovers, her friends. She is adrift in space and in time. Maria's alienation becomes ours from the moment the book begins. Characters float in, then slip out of the narrative before we can grasp them--before we're ready to let them go. In short, brisk scenes that are almost cinematic in style and structure we are shunted between city and desert, past and present, and left in the end in some strange nowhere. This, I think, is the real success of this work. Like Maria, we are not granted the privilege of knowing or understanding her world; the only way we engage with it is by feeling it. And, like Maria, we are benumbed by it, so we can only really feel what cuts to the bone.

15 November 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Thankfully, Ian McEwan appears to have resurrected himself from the posturing and artifice of SATURDAY. Set in the Sixties in still stiff England, when lust and anger were barely acknowledged, let alone allowed full and free expression, his most recent work, ON CHESIL BEACH, traces the first night spent between newly weds Florence and Edward in a hotel on the Dorset coast. Fear and restraint, revulsion and desire play in almost wordless counterpoint as the two virgins negotiate their wedding night: silences betray more than people’s chatter. What makes this novella particularly disturbing is that, try as you might to maintain a readerly distance, you can’t simply linger in the role of listener or voyeur; you are forcefully, and somewhat insidiously, sucked in to become part of the (in)action. And, remarkably, this is wrought in a dispassionate and acutely crafted manner--high McEwan style, as it were.

Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf

CONGENIAL SPIRITS: THE SELECTED LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF has remained by my bedside for 11 years now. Whether she writes on writing or love, politics or household crises, Woolf is warm, original and sharp as a tack. But it isn’t just her wit, her wisdom and her acuity that make her exceptional. It is also that she is vulnerable and crazy. What could make for a better correspondent?

With the single exception of my present partner, this volume of her letters is about the finest bedtime experience I’ve ever had. And for those less of the flesh, I’ll put it this way: This collection is for me what the bible probably is for others: nightly enrichment. Virginia Woolf is the man--and I know she'd love me for saying that.

29 October 2007

Driving to Gurgaon

At the end of Aurobindo Marg, the traffic has slowed to footpace as those who want to turn left are mostly in the right lane and those who need to go straight are everywhere. But during this gridlock--one of many that there will be--the Qutab Minar emerges above an island of neem, imli and pilkhan. Against an ashen midmorning sky, it stands taller and lovelier than at any other time of day.

Several minutes and near-misses later, we manage to make the required left turn towards the Mehrauli-Badarpur intersection. We’re in the middle lane now with every kind of mid- and high-capacity passenger carrier on either side heading for us--classic v-formation flying, only much more fun because members of the flight have flouted every rule of relative motion. We slow down again, approach the intersection, then stop: This is a red light we’ve always caught. But now we’re free to look at the newly constructed Crescent Mall, hotspot for haute couture. In about three minutes we’ve covered some nine hundred years of history.

The light changes and we push ahead, only to stop again, at a checkpoint. It isn’t cops who stop us; it is that four packed lanes of cars are merging into a single six-foot-wide split between the police barriers. But we look left, like we do every morning, to be struck, like we are every morning, by the fifty-tonne statue of Mahavir sitting in defiant repose. We inch through the barriers and, suddenly, the road opens up to us. We cruise at a comfortable forty, passed the neglected but doggedly beautiful greens of Delhi’s only archaeological park, and promise ourselves to visit the tombs of Balban, Jamali and Kamali once the weather turns.

Andheria More arrives quicker than we expect. Sailing through a cattle slalom course we come to the Chhattarpur crossing. We won’t turn left, towards the glamorous new temple complexes and the even more glamorous farmhouses down that road, but head straight, workwards. We now travel through a landscape of synchronous destruction and construction--between the casualties of the MCD’s demolition drive and dusty Metro work sites. We dodge potholes and call-centre Qualises and more free-range cattle. Our destination is soon closing in on us. As we drive by the thicket that is the Arjun Garh Air Force Station, tempers run higher, patience thins further. On the verge of fulmination we hit the Haryana border. Home free, finally, we glide down the road into Gurgaon.

For the many thousands of us (official figures range from anywhere between thirty thousand and three hundred thousand commuters) who make the journey down MG Road from Delhi to Gurgaon every workday morning, the ride isn’t easy. But for those of us willing to feel it, amidst the honk and screech, the barbaric energy, there emerges a unity and force. Like, say, Bartok’s Piano Concerto no. 1 or Bacon’s SEATED FIGURE, the experience, though never concessionary, allows us to see that the lives of all lie within and without us.