Saturday, April 14, 2007

Loving the Land of the Pyramids

I was in Egypt for a couple of days this past week; not enough to really get around, but just enough to be able to see the Pyramids from the hotel in the daytime, and then attend the sound & light show in the evening. Work constraints meant that I could only attend the show that's done in French. End result is that I spent minutes listening about "le roi Tootanchamoon", "la pierre Rosette" & "la belle Neferteetee".... quite surreal, but nonetheless a fantastic experience. I really loved buzz that Cairo has; it seems like a fascinating place, and somewhere I have to go back to soon!

Looking from the Nile east over Mohandiseen towards the Citadel
Look familiar?
Cecil De Mille, where are you?
And they say Bollywood is colourful

Monday, April 09, 2007

Love Twinned with Darkness

Buying novels at an airport can either prove to be serendipitous or they can be terrible finds. Either you end up reading another rehash of the Da Vinci Code ilk of writing, or you can often find some hidden gems. Airports in India especially seem to favour selling copies of Pablo Neruda right alongside Dan Brown, Borges next to Barbara Cartland. The eclectic organisation of books can be either frustrating or entertaining, but never dull.

It was during a frantic rummage while my flight was being called that I stumbled across Amos Oz' autobiography, A Tale of Love & Darkness. A quick glance at the backflap, coupled with the heft that would guarantee the consumption of several hours of flying time(and did I mention the dirt cheap price?) made the purchase an easy decision.

A Tale of Love & DarknessI didn't manage to get around to reading the book until many months later, but the decision still remains a good one. Oz's story traces the origins of his family in Eastern Europe, where as Polish & Lithuanian Jews they are persecuted over several centuries. Subsequent migrations, to the USA, Odessa, and finally to Ottoman/British Palestine in the early 20th century are traced in the first part of the novel, as Oz builds up through a mosiac of stories the extended history of a family. Oz narrates the story along multiple chronologies, moving between family history in the "old country", while his "present" traces the development of the state of Israel in the 19030s through to the late 1950s. Stories of how the Irgun, Stern Gang & Haganah begin the process of British resistance are counterpoised against the tales of industrious ancestors running flour mills in 1800's Poland.

More disturbingly, the entire narrative is an attempt by Oz to understand and explain his mother's suicide in 1952 through an overdose of pills for her depression, a time when Oz was an incredibly intelligent & sensitive 12 year old. Oz takes us through both the origins of his family and the present of his mother's time to deconstruct the sources of her depression, her loneliness and the marital discord between his parents that eventually drove his mother to take her own life. By reconstructing the events, both political & personal, that eventually led to her death, Oz tries throughout the narrative to understand why his mother would choose to abandon him.

Perhaps the strongest emotion that comes through the story is that no matter what the circumstances of our existence, and our daily realities, the greatest asset & burden we all have is the legacies of our personal histories. The legacy that Oz carries has helped feed his writing, his characterisations, his creativity; for his mother, they became a large part of what finally drove her to take her own life.

The centrality of the narrative is on the development of Oz's identity, and that of his family, as Israeli Jews. While focusing primarily on the implications of what it meant to be Jewish from the 1930s, and by focusing on the individual stories of what his own family goes through, Oz manages to describe a broader sociopolitical phenomenon - that of the construction of a national identity. The one insight that was perhaps most interesting for me is the realisation that despite being returned to what was their original "home" 2000 years ago, most European Jews were unable at the time to divorce their Jewish identity from their European one. Auteurs, musicians, artists, intellectuals, people who heard Mozart & Rachmaninoff, studied Spinoza & Kant, and often spoke several European languages, many immigrants to what was then British/Ottoman Palestine were distressed and horrified at being returned to what was clearly the "Orient". Palestinians weren't only just Muslims who were against the resettlement of Jews in their lands, they were also clearly Orientals who didn't understand the justification of the Israeli state. Ah, what it must have been to be European and full of the "white man's burden" back in the 1900's.

The book is surprisingly easy to read; possibly a result of being a translation from the original Hebrew, which is itself a more grammatically directive language than the obscurities & tangentiality afforded to the writer in English (amazing what you can do with an infinitive, isn't it?) Despite its considerable length (thankfully not as long as some novels, but easily crossing 500 pages of small font) the book can be one that you can choose to linger over, savouring the stories on each page, or one that you can blaze your way through.

A poignant, nostalgic and emotional look back at a personal history, A Tale of Love & Darkness, promises a lot, and thankfully delivers.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi

What was it like to be a young, educated Indian in the late sixties & seventies? What was the circumstance of your daily life, watching the hopes, dreams & desires of so many shattered by a corrupt regime? What did it feel like to be helpless in the face of such extreme brutality, darkness & despair?

Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi tries to answer some of these questions. Using the incredibly tumultuous political landscape of 1970's India, when the Naxalite movement was in its early years, when Indira Gandhi had started tightening her grip on power, and when Delhi had begun its descent into the nefarious web of power broking, coteries and political intrigue that marked it through the 80's and much of the nineties (and from what I've heard, has started to resemble again under the current regime) the story tracks the lives of three individuals - Siddharth (KayKay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) & Vikram (Shiney Ahuja). Siddharth & Geeta are a couple, but whose relationship is ended by Siddharth's political activism and desire to move away from the sloganeering & banner waving of the city, to a more participative approach by fighting with the Naxalites in the villages of Bihar & West Bengal. Vikram is the lower middle-class son of an idealistic Congressman, madly in love with Geeta, but unable to gain her attentions as anything more than a friend.

Through the ups & downs of the six years between 1969 & 1975, the story tracks how the three are continually separated and brought back together through circumstance. Against the backdrop of the political upheavals of the time, each of the main protagonists is woven in a tightly crossed web of friendship, sex, emotional interdependence and love with the other two. Reaching out to each other at the most unusual of times, the letters that the three write to each other form a recurring leitmotif of the narrative. Siddharth's letters to Geeta are about idealism, a desire for revolution & changing the system. Geeta writes to both Siddharth & Vikram, talking about love to the one, and of confusion to the other; often interchangeably. Most importantly, all of them write about their desire & urge to make sense of the despair that surrounds so much of their daily lives.

And yet, despite the darkness, there is hope & a need to bring change that keeps them going. But perhaps more than the desire to change the world is the desire to understand themselves; the need to accept their own aspirations and shortcomings that make the three lead characters so amazingly human, believable and empathetic. Siddharth is driven by an ideology, but also perhaps a fear of failure; Geeta doesn't want to change the world, but she is drawn further and further into the movement through her love for Siddharth, until finally the movement becomes the greatest of her all loves. Vikram is the money minded "fixer", the man who plays the power circuits and gets things done. He is driven by his love of Geeta, for whom he goes to extreme lengths, even if only to help her meet a fugitive Siddharth. But he is also motivated by what he describes in a letter as a need to make it. "You guys are all trying to get out," he writes in a letter to Geeta, "while I am trying to get in".

There are some beautiful moments & dialogues in the movie; scenes that are brief, often only glimpses, but enough to bring enough colour to the narrative. A subtle shot of a man's silhouette against a rising sun in a field in Bihar; red blood on grey stone cladding swept away by a barefoot sweeper after a communal riot in Meerut; the blare of sirens as a fleet of white Ambassadors drive down a tree lined road; these are enough to capture the moment.

But what Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi does best is talk about the lost generation of India - thousands of young idealists, for whom the only option was to stand up and be counted in the protests against a regime that was seen to be oppressive, exploitative & corrupt. People who went to fight in the villages, endured police brutalities, and often died unsung, almost pointlessly. People who are easily forgotten because to remember makes what they died for equally remembered, and some memories are easiest to deal with by forgetting.

In so many ways, watching this movie was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Starting out as it did in Delhi University, filmed extensively in my alma mater of Hindu College, the film started out by bringing so many amazing memories - of times well spent with friends, hours whiled away on the lawns with endless cups of tea, the faint remnants of the morning's fog still adding a cold nip to your breath. Extensive panning shots of Library lawns, the front of the building, VT, Hindu hostel & the chemisty faculty brought those days, now so long past, right back.

But that's not all; the scenes of the movie relating to Bihar were probably equally resonant, but for completely different reasons. For my family, the Naxalite movement was never a good thing; hailing from a landowning family, my idea of Naxalism is stories of the village house being barricaded from within; of hearing stories of small private militias that were springing up all over the countryside; of my aunt, barely aged 7, grabbing a bhaala and following the men of the house as they ran to tackle another confrontation (she was spotted by her uncle who promptly sent her packing.) Conflict, you see, is never unidimensional. Naxalism was never an easy nut to crack; the issues that it tackled were so complex that it was never going to be black & white.

And then of course, the scenes of the Emergency. I was spared the anguish of those times by being safely born after what many have called the darkest period in India's democratic history. But I grew up hearing such stories - of how my grandmother hid the local student union leader in the bathroom, while she went out to deal with the police who had come to check the house on an anonymous tipoff. Stories of my uncle who was a closet journalist during those years, knowing where the secret printing presses were hidden in Kamla Nagar behind the university in Delhi. Stories of a cousin whose grandfather was an opposition party leader in Assam, and who described watching her grandfather being interrogated in his own living room by the same police inspector who would salute him until the day before.

This is a brave movie, for tackling the complexities of the issues it chooses to, and it succeeds in humanising the issues. Go watch this movie - it will make you think, it will chill you to the bone, and it will break your heart. And when its all over, it will make you think all over again.

I know that I am.