Feeds:
Posts
Comments

imanishiI am quite hard to please when it comes to crime fiction. This is a genre that relies to a great extent on a well-crafted denouement, which is often precisely the let down. Some books, like those by Barbara Vine are redeemed by exceptionally sophisticated plotting and writing, even though the finish does not quite live up to my expectations. So, I do realize that by giving Inspector Imanishi Investigates a five-star rating, I might be setting future readers for disappointment by raising their expectations. But I’ll say with reasonable confidence that if you like crime fiction and/or care for social and cultural commentaries, reading this book will be time well spent.

Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1989) is the English translation of the much more poetically titled Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand) which was first published in 1961. Inspector Imanishi’s investigations certainly bear fruit, but shed no light (to me) on why this work should be titled Vessel of Sand, or what the picture on the book’s cover of a man covering his face with both hands is supposed to signify, and how it is relevant. Apart from these burning questions,  all plot-related intrigue is sufficiently cleared up.

Imanishi Eitaro (Imanishi being his family name) is a conscientious haiku-writing, bonsai-collecting detective trying to solve the mystery of a battered corpse of an unidentified man in a rail yard. His only clue is a half-line of conversation overheard by waitresses working at a nearby bar, that the victim supposedly had with an unidentified potential suspect. With almost nothing to go on, Inspector Imanishi slowly, methodically sets about identifying and capturing the killer. He does too, at the end.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates has an air of elegant simplicity, although its plot is anything but simple. This police procedural has layers upon layers, red herrings and blind alleys aplenty, and yet the richness of plot is intensified by the subtle and understated writing. The translation seems flat, but doesn’t impact the reading negatively, adding to the overall effect of sparseness. I can’t help but wonder whether reading this book in Japanese will have the same effect—I’ll never know.  Imianishi has none of the swagger of Philip Marlowe or the eccentricity of Hercule Poirot. He is just a good detective – deliberate, hardworking, quietly intelligent, though he’s not beyond an occasional miscalculation. He is mostly likeable, even if entirely conventional, and a little brusque (though not unkind) in dealings with his wife, who polishes his shoes, gets his newspaper, and uncomplainingly welcomes him home at the end of long days spent investigating. This is the 1960s after all, and the reader is oft reminded of the post-war, patriarchal setting of the story. Part of the charm is certainly the descriptions of everyday life – the pouring of the green tea over rice for a quick dinner, the Wajima lacquerware obi fasteners that Imanishi gifts his wife, the Kamedake abacus that Imanishi receives in the post, and such.

I am excited to read more by Matsumoto and will look out for Points and Lines and Pro Bono.

Night Film

night filmNight Film (2014) has  pretty impressive  credentials – New York Times Bestseller! Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Cosmopolitan, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage. The book lovin’ community also seems to have lapped it up – mostly. So, of course, I wanted to read it. What should have given me pause was that it comes recommended as a “page-turning thriller for readers of” among several others, Gillian Flyn. Remember Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn? The same Gone Girl that won, according to goodreads:

Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award (RT Award) for Suspense/Thriller Novel (2012),Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Best Novel (2012)Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Goodreads Choice for Best Mystery & Thriller (2012)Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2013), and Grand Prix des lectrices de Elle – policier (2013)

Well, I didn’t  care much for it.

So, after investing a few days on the nearly 600-page lumbering tome (only in length) that is Night Film, my reaction was an underwhelming meh.

I haven’t read much noir, and Night Film would certainly fall into that bucket (whether successful or not) so I don’t really have a frame of reference here. But enjoy it, I did not.

The missing center of the book is a mysterious cult horror-film director, a Stanislas Cordova, whose twenty-something daughter, Ashley, jumps to her death. Enter the protagonist, shamed investigative journalist Scott McGrath, the shining examples of whose once-illustrious journalistic history include intriguing titles such as Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry, and Cocaine Carnivals. McGrath sets out to investigate Ashley’s life and death together with unlikely companions, Nora and Hopper, whose motivations are not entirely comprehensible entirely bewildering. Cordova’s eccentricity begins to grate after the first 300 pages, and the themes of black-magic and family-curses only add to the confusion. The conclusion is neither neat nor clever.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the characters – none of them are very likable, but that does not really preclude interesting or good characterization. To me, all the characters fell flat and felt completely phony. I could not buy who they were and what they did. I could not buy the outlandish scenarios they found themselves in. The setting and the people felt bizarre, but not good, noir-like bizarre, but just plain absurd.

Neither did I enjoy the writing. Author Marisha Pessl interjects the meandering writing with plenty of visual aids – webpages of interviews and articles, official reports and plenty of pictures. A great idea in theory, but poorly executed – the news clippings and pictures seem too contrived, and if they are meant to be a satire, they are unsuccessful.

The book goes from promising hype to disappointing beginning, and all too quickly into the territory of Plain Boring (I feel a bit cruel saying this, though). I really tried to like it, but even being a 100-pages shorter, would not have endeared this book to me.

But no long-lasting harm done. Nothing a trusty Mo Willems can’t fix. His Elephant and Piggie  series has been a great hit with my four-year old, and he has leapfrogged explosively into unaided reading.

marbles

Many weeks ago, while I was still reading Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir (2012) by Ellen Forney, I visited an Edvard Munch exhibition at Princeton University. I haven’t taken an art class in my life, but the angst erupting from Munch’s artwork is almost palpable. Of his life and work, Munch is reported to have said:

My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder…My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.

The titles of  his paintings offer sufficient clue (‘Anxiety’, Melancholy’, ‘Despair’, ‘Jealousy’) – Munch was tormented by mental illness for much of his life.

Author Forney is happy when Marbles begins. Deliriously happy. “Jazzed”, she says, “…everything was magical and intense and bursting with universal truth.” Scary happy. At the peak of her exhilaration, when she is excessively motivated to do too many things: party, run, swim, party, run swim, draw, draw, draw, and plan, plan, plan; her new shrink tells her that she is a textbook case of Bipolar Disorder.

A word about Bipolar Disorder is in order. Bipolar Disorder is not schizophrenia. Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder where one’s mind oscillates between two opposite states: mania (the “high”) and depression (the “low”). This is different from Unipolar Depression, which is characterized by a constant low – just depression.

Shocked, Forney tries to resist treatment at first. Her “high” mind reasons, (a) how bad can it be? My ecstatic, energetic mind can plan to take care of my future “low” self, when that happens; and (b) medications might kill my creativity, and what am I without my art? What scares Forney into starting treatment is the shockingly high stats for hospitalization and suicide in the Bipolar population – as high as 1 in 5 commit suicide. The prognosis for Bipolar Disorder is not good – it gets worse, and then even worse, with the two polar states alternating more and more often (rapid cycling); and is characterized by destructiveness and a shortened life span. She starts with Lithium, and over the next few years, her psychiatrist constantly ‘adjusts’ her medication, trying to find the right potion for her.

Marbles has two major themes.

Creativity and Mental Illness

As an artist herself, Forney is troubled by the high incidence of mental illness in the creative population. At the Princeton Art Museum, I also looked at an iconic O’Keefe flower. Georgia O’Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Platt, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf are only some of the more famous artists who were anguished by mental illness, some succumbing to it. How does the illness affect creativity, Forney wonders. What does mania/depression/medication do to a person: What is the real me? What is the manic depressed me? What is the medicated me? What is just a side effect? How do you know which is which? What if the illness or the medication dulls creativity?

In his TEDxTalk, Andrew Solomon also ponders:

The next day I started with the medications and the therapy. And I also started reckoning with this terrible question: If I’m not the tough person who could have made it through a concentration camp,then who am I? And if I have to take medication, is that medication making me more fully myself, or is it making me someone else? And how do I feel about it if it’s making me someone else?

Forney attempts a fairly scientific analysis – she tries to define creativity and creative thought; and also looks at some of the other lifestyle-related factors that seem to be more or less typical in creative artists (and possible contributing factors): irregular sleep, high goals, stress, drug and alcohol use, intense emotions. Could it be that there is a link between creativity and being bipolar? Regardless, Forney finds a lot of variation in artistic output – mania, depression and medication seems to have affected different artists differently. Yes, there is a chance that the illness or the medication might kill creativity, but there is a chance that might not happen, that the medication might bring some semblance of control to one’s life. Ellen finds this a few years into treatment

Being bipolar

Forney’s drawings beautifully describe what it is like to be depressed, to be manic, to be scared about being depressed and manic, and to be on an ever-changing prescription and trials to find the best combination of popular, experimental, and even potentially fatal medication that seem to help. The side effects are colorful and varied, from poor word recall, and acne, to excessive hair falling. Lithium (a popular treatment for Bipolar Disorder) gives Forney bad skin, “a cyst the size of a marble”.  To treat this, Forney is put on Accutane (for the severe acne), spironolactone (an androgen blocker), and minocycline (an antibiotic). The antibiotic gives her a yeast infection, for which she was put on diflucan – “side effects meds for side effects meds”. Apart from the physical burden, there is the financial burden.  The therapy is often not covered by insurance, even generic medication is expensive, and the latest treatment can well run up to a grand – hard on an artist’s income.

Therapy often requires individuals to be acutely aware of their behaviors. Forney is required to constantly (almost obsessively) track – What is my mood? How much did I sleep? Am I talking too much? Am I feeling too sensitive? Am I interrupting people too often? Am I being excessively flirty? Anything can be possibly symptomatic.

***

Forney has a peculiar talent of amusing us with her very real burdens. It feels strange to say I enjoyed her book, but I did. If you’ve been affected, directly or indirectly, by a mood disorder, you might enjoy Marbles. If you want to know what it feels like to have a mood disorder, Forney’s drawings can help you understand.

The art of Osamu Tezuka

I am only familiar with two of Tezuka’s works: the Buddha series that I am reading and collecting, and the Adolf ni Tsugu (Message to Adolf) series that I just finished reading, both historical manga, so I can’t say that I am particularly familiar with Tezuka. But I couldn’t resist reading the biography of someone often called Manga no kami-sama (The God of Manga).

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga by Helen McCarthy (2009) traces Tezuka’s life from his childhood to his growth to a manga titan, with plenty of pictures, illustrations and strips from his comics, and discusses his work and his legacy.

 So, who was Osama Tezuka (1928-1989) and why is he such a major force in Japanese pop culture?

…an innovator in animation, a creator of vast comic book sagas founded on a wide knowledge of international culture and literature, a fantasist who mined his innermost self for universal stories, a significant science fiction author, and a scientist who popularized technology, but also warned of its dangers to the planet and to mankind years before environmental concerns became fashionable.

Tezuka was also a medical doctor who received a PhD from a medical university for a thesis entitled A Microscopic Study of the Membrane Structure of Heterotropic Spermatids – imagine a scientific thesis illustrated by the God of Manga! Tezuka, however, never practiced medicine, even though he descended from an illustrious family – one of his ancestors was the first to practice Western-style medicine in Japan; another ancestor was Hanzo Hattori (whom Tarantino immortalized in Kill Bill). Tezuka chose, instead, to become a manga artist at a time when the job was neither considered particularly prestigious or well-paying.

Clearly, Tezuka’s family and early childhood played a significant role in sparking and developing his artistic tendencies, and I found the pages about Tezuka as a young artist particularly fascinating. Tezuka’s father, Yutaka, wrote haiku and comics for his own amusement, and was a keen photographer (and the reason for the family photographs which feature a young Tezuka and his siblings). Yutaka screened cartoons from Europe, America and Japan on family film nights, and encouraged his children to draw and share their own comics. Tezuka’s mother, Fumio, introduced the children to theater and concerts, and was a skilled storyteller. Fumio and Yutaka would leave a pencil and paper on the children’s table, and they often entertained themselves during illnesses and sleepless nights by cartooning – drawing on all of the movies, stories, shows and comics that they read and watched, and also fed by their own imagination. When Tezuka filled his drawing books, Fumio gave him his grandfather’s huge legal books to make flicker-book animation. By age nine, Tezuka had a firm grasp of presenting distances, shadows, lights, drama and comedy in his comics. Is it any wonder then that the boy grew up to create his own posse of characters?

Tezuka was not the founder of manga, but he did breathe fresh air into it. What had thus far been something to just cheer people graduated to a serious art form that “could change the way [people] saw the world”. Tezuka came of age right around World War II and his works reflect both his anguish, at seeing the charred remains of his country and its people, his constant questioning of how different cultures can live together in peace, and his desire for people to live in harmony with nature. Common themes found in his manga include destroyed families, abandonment by a father, survival, hope, the senselessness of war, questioning the wisdom of blind faith in technology and science, conflict between cultures, the need to respect nature, along with some darker, and even adult themes. Many of his manga are science fiction, and are set in the future, and his drawings of technology seem prescient (you must remember that he drew many of them in  the period 1940 – 1960). His themes and plots are varied as a rainbow. Consider this plot:

Kenichi’s uncle invents a drug that can shrink humans to the size of bacteria. The pair enter the body of a sick boy and find a huge hole in his lung. To their amazement, they find that the bacilli that cause tuberculosis are intelligent beings. A cute bacillum named Mode…is sent by her people to learn human language, and she befriends Kenichi and his uncle.”

– Tuberculose (1948).

Tezuka also pioneered the use of cinematic devices in manga (using close-ups, pans, zooms, changing viewpoints, action lines). These had been used in manga before, but Tezuka took them to a whole new level. Tezuka was also the first to organize his characters into a “star system” – he built  a cast of actors (imagine a set of Hollywood actors who play different roles in different movies), who would play different roles in different manga. The star of one manga could have another name in another manga, or be a supporting actor. Tezuka himself played a role in several of his manga, stepping in and out of his own stories (like Scott McCloud does in his comics about comics). Also, Tezuka created a code for diagrams of line style, shading, backgrounds, and effects, tone and color. He then hired assistants who were instructed through this system of codes to do exactly what he wanted them to. He grew his empire. Tezuka’s manga often uses character development to build stories, and deals with serious themes, such as social awareness and gender roles. He “demonstrated that cartoons could be used to convery profound ideas and explore terrifying aspects of humanity, that they could not only compete on level terms with the science fiction novel and the political polemic but could stand on an equal footing with literary classics both in form and content”. And that is why he is Manga no kami-sama. Tezuka also “had great faith in children, in their optimism, their ability to make the best of circumstances, and their openness to new experiences. He constantly emphasized the need to encourage children to cherish life and learn about the wonders of nature”.

…the true Manga God as captured by the remote control camera is someone who takes 3-hour snoozes every three days, gathers his ideas whilst eating take-out fried rice and who gives his all to draw manga.

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga also includes a 45-minute DVD of Tezuka doing his thing – making manga. Since he died in 1989, the video must have been filmed sometimes in the 1980s, and the viewer cannot help but be acutely aware of this – the hair is 80s, the dresses are 80s, the polo shirts are 80s, and the televisions are very 80s. Tezuka sits in a red, plastic-wrapped low-backed chair at his desk (I guess ergonomic was not yet popular) with classical music at full blast, and works with both hands (both hands!). He then visits his offices, where I think I caught a glimpse of one female artist, but with the 80s hair I could be wrong. Tezuka keeps his trademark beret on, even when he does a mid-session head stand, and agonizes over his inability to draw a smooth circle anymore and bemoans looming deadlines. “…I would keep drawing for the next 40 years. I have a lot of ideas”, he says. This statement is particularly poignant because he  died about a year later.

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a half

 

This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative — like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it — but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. 

– Blurb on back cover of Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (2013) by Allie Brosh.

Hyperbole and a Half is probably surely the best thing to come out of MS Paint. I didn’t even know you could actually put MS Paint to use, let alone develop content for the ‘funniest site‘ or ‘most humorous weblog‘.  And if I were an aspiring writer/cartoonist/graphic novelist, MS Paint would not even make my list of “tools to use”. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic work these past few years. I even discovered Osamu Tezuka, and started an as of now incomplete Buddha collection. Tezuka, who has been called the god of Manga, produced work that can qualify as sublime. Reading Brosh’s raw MS Paint caricatures of herself and her dogs, right after browsing through Tezuka’s work taught me one thing: art does not have to sophisticated to be good or great; crude can be brilliant. Of course, it would not be fair to either Tezuka or Brosh to compare their works with each other’s. Other than the use of illustrations, there is nothing, really, that they have in common.

Brosh, for instance, relies as much on her prolific writing skills as she does on her simple (not!), unrefined line drawings (that my pre-schooler found oh-so fascinating – “what IS that thing?”, he kept asking). Brosh also has the singular talent to convert the mundane, the important, and the nothings into a page of giggles.

The two ‘stories’ I found the most funny, and laughed the hardest for, are “The Party” and “Dinosaur (The Goose Story)“.  The second one in particular touched a nerve – I am the victim of a goose attack myself. I do not recall with relish or pride the time when a daddy goose flew several yards to hiss and spit at me. Recollecting my pathetic sputterings of “Hey! No!” before I ran in a random direction does not do good things for my self-worth. It didn’t end too badly though – while my kindly neighbors prepared to launch their own attacks, armed with heavy driftwood sticks and black shawls, to save my hysterical self, the goose decided to land a few inches from my head and waddle back to its brood. Apparently, this is typical goose behavior – geese never wander too far from their offspring, even when they are being mean. I was guilty of trying to take a picture of his day old goslings, though. In my defense though, goslings are cute, I was a good distance away from the family when I tried to take the pictures, and I did stop when I got the sense that daddy didn’t appreciate it.

The point of that little anecdote was not to one-up Brosh (her story is funnier, and she is way funnier), but only to point out that I share her goose-love and I was able to relate to her terror.

Brosh also writes (and draws) about depression, and uses the same stick figures and very little else  to talk about how debilitating her depression was, and difficult it is for “normal” people to understand what is going on, and how difficult it is for depressed people to explain how they are feeling, or even to conceal their true feelings from aforementioned “normal” people.

And then there are stories that I confess I didn’t fully understand or find very funny. Perhaps, my humor IQ is not very well developed.

Whether you want to spent a few hours reading some side-splitting stories that feature some mean stick figures, or if you are looking to read, laugh and ponder, Brosh might have written just the book for you.

Plus, if you own dogs, or are attracted to dog stories that are the opposite of warm and fuzzy, then you have no excuses not to read the book. She really does have a “simple dog” and a “helper dog”. If you are intrigued, run to your library or head over to her site.

purple hibiscus

If you are into that kind of thing, reading can be a habit where fate seems to dictate who, what, where, how, and if you read. Unless you know what you are looking for, what makes your fingers pull out a specific book by an unknown author, from rows of books whose covers have been specifically designed to draw you in, and whose titles have been deliberately chosen to sound intriguing? Would you have picked that very book if it was on a higher shelf? If the cover was a different color?

It is so delightful when a book selected serendipitously  proves an enjoyable read. It does not happen very often.

In the case of Purple Hibiscus (2004), my eyes would’ve likely not strayed to it if the author had a different name. Let me explain. Some time ago, I watched a TED Talk: The danger of a single story by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is a beautiful woman, and I was impressed by how articulate she sounded.

I need no convincing about the importance of diverse stories. As someone who depends on books to convey images of people and places, I am always aware how much is left unrepresented, and how much can never really be represented. No matter how much I read about another part of my own country, I know I will only get a part of the picture, but the real scene, evolving, changing, and complex, will always remain elusive. And so, yes, there is danger in learning your lessons, or forming an opinion based on just one story.

However, as I was listening to Adichie talk, I realized that she was also talking about something very different than what I had in mind. She speaks about visiting her poor domestic help as an eight-year old:

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

While I was thinking more about the danger of a single perspective, Adichie speaks here about the danger of knowing just a single dimension, poverty in this case. I’ll admit I am a little confused. While her talk was extraordinary and powerful, I wasn’t sure how or if this little snippet belonged there. After all, surely people are more complex and have more to them than just ‘rich’, ‘poor’, or ‘can make beautiful raffia baskets’.

While I was pondering about if I had misunderstood what was obviously a very successful talk, doing the rounds on social media sites, I got another chance to raid my neighbor’s bookshelf. My eyes went past the title ‘Purple Hibiscus’ (I don’t generally pick up dreamy titles like that), but went back to the book when my brain registered the author’s name after a second’s delay. While listening to her talk, I had noticed Adichie’s (first?) name Chimamanda, and it stuck because it looked close to ‘Chinmayananda’ (an Indian name), but on closer look was distinctly African.

Adichie might not forgive me for comparing a country and a continent above.

…I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in  “India, Africa, and other countries.

That’s how Adichie’s book came to rest on my own book shelf for a few weeks. I enjoyed the book, and I am glad my book-fate brought us together.

Purple Hibiscus is not the delicate romance its title might imply to some. On the contrary, it deals with themes that are sensitive, disturbing and often unexpected. The story is told in the voice of 15-year old Kambili Achike, who lives a privileged life with her mother, father and older brother. Her father, Eugene, a wealthy, successful and influential businessman, is staunchly Christian, and despises the native “ungodly” traditions of the Igbo people; so much so that he only speaks in Igbo in the frenzy of anger. He does not visit his father who has refused to convert, and worries that his children (Kambili and her brother) might get influenced by their grandfather’s heathen life. Eugene somehow conveys an impression of intelligence, and is undoubtedly compassionate and generous. But he is also fanatically oppressive, brutally violent and abusive, causing Kambili’s mother to have at least two miscarriages.

While one major theme throughout the book is certainly the link between religion and persecution, another important subject is colonial influence and the divide between the traditionalists and the tradition-rejecting, English-speaking Nigerians (like Eugene, only Eugene, in fact), and the general exclusion of ethnic practices.

Purple Hibiscus is also a strange coming of age story, in which Kambili learns to laugh and to cry. Kambili and other brother, Jaja, have a rigidly structured life, and a timetable for every day of the week. Kambili lives her sombre, Christian life unquestioningly, always seeking her father’s approval, always eager to prove her loyalty to him. Every time Eugene bestows an approving smile upon her brother, she wishes she had done what her brother had, and it was her Eugene was pleased with. Kambili loves and admires her father. She is proud of him and secretly terrorized by him.

When Kambili and Jaja stay with Eugene’s aunt and her children for a few days, they are shocked by their aunt’s exuberance and open warmth. Kambili wonders how her aunt “laughs so easily” and realizes that she has never heard herself laugh. As Kambili  slowly emerges out of her cocoon, Jaja rebels openly, but quietly. Life changes for everyone.

I loved Adichie’s writing. It was clean and unfussy, peppered with Igbo phrases that I sometimes looked up. I did smile when Jaja inquires of his grandfather,”Papa-Nnukwu, are you well? How is your body?”. How is your body is a rather peculiar way of asking ‘How is your health?’. Interestingly (to me at least), the Tamil way of talking about health is very similar. We say “odamba pathukko” or “look after your body” to mean “take care of your health”. I noticed another striking similarity when Eugene asks Kambili to do well at school, “Read well”. That’s how we Tamil folks do it too.

I read Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart a lifetime ago and reading this made me want to read Achebe again.

The lives of Salma’s women

The Hour Past Midnight
The Hour Past Midnight (2009) is the English translation of Irandaam Jaamathin Kadai, originally published in Tamil . I was unfamiliar with the author, Tamil poet Salma, whose extraordinary life and struggle against subjugation have been chronicled in the eponymous film, Salma, which premiered at the Sundance festival this year. I borrowed the book from a neighbor who has been kind enough to open up her bookshelves to me. I am especially grateful, because this book, which seems to be a gift from the author herself to my neighbor, is apparently out of print. I am fortunate that I got to read a book that I would have otherwise been ignorant about, or would have been unavailable to me in any case.

The Hour Past Midnight is a women-centered novel set in a conservative Muslim business community in rural Tamil Nadu. Most of the men are away in Singapore, Sri Lanka, or even Saudi Arabia, visiting their home town every few years to marry, procreate, or marry again, bringing gold, sweets and imported Lux soaps. The girls are allowed to go to school until they hit puberty, at which point they are forced to stay indoors,  away from the eyes of men who are not family. They also graduate from wearing the traditional blouse and long skirt (paavaadai), to a paavaadai – daavani (a piece of cloth, much like a dupatta, which is draped over the blouse). The girls are now deemed ready for marriage, often to much older men, always arranged, often to maintain kinship or retain property within the  extended family. The daavani now gives way to the saree.

And so the story follows Rabia, Zohra, Rahima, Madina, Amina, Firdaus, Fatima, Nuramma, Khadija, Farida, Saura, Sherifa, Mumtaz, Nafiza, Sainu, Wahida, and a handful of men – their brothers, husbands, and sons, as they participate in the complex rituals of fasting, feasting, and praying in the holy month of Ramzaan. There are young girls, older girls of ‘marriageable’ age, young divorcees, young widows, young wives, young mothers, older mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.  The story follows the younger girls as they try to make sense of the often stifling world they live in, and hesitantly ask often forbidden questions; older girls as the begin to accept the rules of the community, or in some cases decide to flagrantly break them, and older women who perpetuate the subjugation.

The busy narrative weaves the lives of the women together , but the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who is who and I often found myself flipping pages to see if Shainu was Mumtaz’s mother-in-law or Madina’s mother. A family tree at the beginning of the story would have been helpful.

Also, a little more detail on the year(s) in which the story is set would have provided more context to it. Salma does repeatedly mention the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, but since the riots have a long and protracted history, the reader is left uncertain if the year is 1953, 1958, 1977, 1983 or as recent as 2006 (unlikely). The village setting is timeless, and rural life is often unencumbered by technology, and there are little clues in the every day lives of the people.

The story has a Tamil Muslim atmosphere, which is both unique and universal. I think that many can identify with Ismail who…

…knew his mother and Amina [his wife] didn’t get on. Most certainly this was not Amina’s fault but his mother’s. She could not endure it that Amina enjoyed the happiness she herself never experienced.

This bitterness and the resulting feud is neither Tamil nor Muslim, but perhaps Ismail’s realization is especially perceptive.

Some of the practices Salma describes are surprisingly familiar, and being Tamil myself, I can relate to Rabia, whose aunt tells her that…

A girl should not be lying down at lamp-lighting time.

My own mother has rebuked me thus on countless occasions.

The language is peculiar too. The translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, who has considerable experience in translating Tamil fiction into English, has tried to maintain the unique Tamil flavor, which I presume the original is brimming with. For instance, what may seem to some as an awkwardly constructed phase – “lamp-lighting” time, is actually the literal translation of “villaku ethra netram“, which in colloquial Tamil means “the time at which lamps are lit” – at dusk. But sometimes, I wondered if some of the meaning was not quite lost in translation. Take the many times characters begin their dialogue with “that is..”, as in…

That is, I want to ask you something…

That is, how many husbands can a woman have?

That is, I’ve decided to wear a davani from tomorrow…

“That is” is, again, a translation of “adhu vandhu” (I’m guessing), which is used as something of a filler in colloquial Tamil. Though there is no perfect translation, I am unsure if “that is” means anything to the non-Tamil reader. Also, consider this exchange:

“…See if I don’t find the same bridegroom for the two of you and see you both married.” Rahims teased Rabia.

“Go on, Periamma,” said [Rabia], covering her face shyly.

The “go on” here is not an invitation to continue the banter and the teasing. It is a literal translation of “ponga” which is used to politely and playfully ask someone to “just stop it”. Rabia is actually shyly asking her aunt to stop teasing her, and not go on with it. The novel is also peppered with a lot of Tamil words, which I didn’t have to stop to think about, but I can’t say the same for others. The book made me realize the thin line between maintaining the cultural tone and feel, and being unintelligible or even misleading.

I enjoyed the story. I particularly appreciated the characters, whom Salma paints as neither black or white, but a very human grey. Even as she highlights the suffocation that her women experience, some quietly protesting, others welcoming it and even imposing it on their kin, she portrays the community, the lives and marriage as the way they usually are – a mixed bag. Salma also examines how women come to have beliefs, especially those that are generally considered to be repressive, and perpetuate them to posterity.

I recommend the book to fellow Tamils and those interested in regional lives. I wish I get a chance to read the Tamil original.