On Happiness: Notes from Pamuk

Brief reflections on reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is an interesting piece of work that creatively uses the novel as a museum of stories. The novel itself which is scant on narrative but rich with life and insightful musings, spans across several years, sometimes a lifetime and even a generation. The story of Kemal who falls in love with a poor distant relation when he is already engaged to Sibel, follows one man’s obsession with love, loss and a lifetime of longing and yearning which finally result in his undoing. Yet, what in the eyes of society is a life wasted and ruined, is triumphantly countered in the end by Kemal’s assertion ‘Let everyone know I lived a very happy life.’

Through this novel, Pamuk delves upon the notion of happiness and in a strange way this happiness is so closely associated with innocence that the novel might as well have been called ‘The Museum of Happiness’ and it might not change the spirit in which the story has been told. Happiness for Pamuk is a retrospective feeling. One always realizes one was happy only when one looks back. Happiness in this sense, can never be lived in the present. And yet, when one looks back it is always through the prism of memory. Happiness and memory seem to be interlinked for Pamuk. The idea of the museum, is then a way of preserving memories through objects and their stories. These objects become portkeys (using a term from Rowling) to the past and one can re-live the emotions associated with them. The reason Kemal steals objects from the Keskin household is that he wants to preserve the time he has spent with Fusun and her family. A museum, Pamuk remarks, is the place where Time becomes Space. The objects are not only a way of preserving the past but of preserving a world into which one can escape. The museum of innocence that Kemal founds with his collection of objects through more than half a decade, create a world in which ‘the living can live with the dead.’

Pamuk interestingly uses the museum as a symbol of difference between the cultures of the East and the West. In the West, the concept of the museum is often associated with a collector’s pride in displaying his collection. In Istanbul, Kemal and other collectors like him are seen with disdain as their passions are regarded as an eccentricity that can only serve as negative examples to deter others. But Kemal decides to build a museum with the hope that he will be able to cope with the shame of collecting these objects throughout the years. It becomes a way of turning shame to a collector’s pride. It becomes an empowering act as he can finally put his story before the world.

Pamuk seems to be more of a feminist than has ever been acknowledged. In recounting the whole story from Kemal’s point of view, he reveals all the misogyny, chauvinism and hypocrisies of a privileged Istanbul male with a Western education. Through the specific male and highly biased perspective he also seems to reveal a lot more about the women characters than he would have been able to as an impersonal third person narrator. Pamuk’s women characters, both the modern Sibel and the traditional rebel Fusun are both stronger than Kemal who follows in the footsteps of his father in his obsessive love for a younger girl. While Kemal’s father wilts away his days in the memory of this girl, looking at her black and white photograph and drinking, Kemal’s story is also similar. The only thing different, as Vecihe, Kemal’s mother remarks, is that while Kemal’s father ‘did it’ quietly, Kemal’s story was fodder for gossip to everyone. One wonders how Vecihe, aware of her husband’s adultery, accepts it for the sake of keeping the family together in the eyes of the society and also still loves her husband. This is also seen in the way Kemal frequents the Keskin household in spite of Fusun being married to Feridun. Everyone knows of Kemal’s true intentions but everyone turns a blind eye and the situation becomes one in which a rich man comes to inquire about his beautiful, poor distant relation.

Fusun remains mysteriously unresolved as a character. We see her mostly through Kemal’s mind through the major part of the novel. In the beginning when Kemal has an affair with her, she is nothing more than ‘a girl who is taken advantage of.’ Kemal is perfectly happy having both, a mistress and a fiancée, at the same time. He even invites Fusun to the engagement party. His selfishness in wanting her to be close to him even as he cannot leave Sibel is likely to irk every female reader. He does not think of Fusun’s reputation or future. But in her resolute will to keep distance from Kemal and not encourage him when she is married, she becomes very much a woman of her own mind. She also punishes him by withholding from him that she found the earring he had left for her on his first visit to the Keskins after her marriage.

She never passionately proclaims her love for him, the way he always does. Her desire to become a film star and make something of her life is more important for her than a life of love. And in this desire we see her need for independence, a need that is thwarted by both Feridun and Kemal who prevent her from interacting with the ‘wretch’ of the film industry even though Fusun is clearly able to handle her share of anything in life. But it is perhaps this desperation, of not being able to achieve anything that she had wanted, of being ‘used’ by Kemal that ‘she could kill him’ and finally of not being able to hate him completely either that she deliberately rams the car to her death in an impulsive moment. Even in the moment of the crash, Kemal romanticizes the death of two lovers dying together. One wonders whether he has really ever understood Fusun. In spite of her tantrums and her moodiness, Fusun remains a character we empathize with, while Kemal although his suffering is strikingly poignant at times, remains in general ‘a sloshed lover’ who needs to be shaken out of his obsession and megalomaniac self-pity. Sibel as a character also commands admiration in the way she stays with Kemal in the hope of helping him out of his desperation. When she realizes her efforts are in vain, she has the courage to break off the engagement even as Kemal cannot. In the end, this monumental story about love, loss, innocence and happiness transcends its superficial love story of a jilted lover and comes alive in the details, in its nuances which contain the world and the human condition in its most vulnerable rawness.

Prendre Le Large: Un Récit Initiatique

Prendre Le Large (2017) un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel sur un thème inhabituel.

A Still from the Film
Photo: Bonnaire et Fettu. Credit: lepetitjournal.com

Prendre Le Large (2017) est un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel et incarné par la formidable Sandrine Bonnaire, Mouna Fettu et un aimable Kamal El Amri. C’est un film qui c’agit d’un sujet plutôt non-conventionnel. Il nous raconte le parcours d’une femme d’âge moyen, Edith Clerval, ouvrière textile, qui laisse sa vie confortable dans un pays développé pour travailler dans des conditions atroces à Tanger, Maroc.

Tandis que certains ouvriers decident de partir en grève pour protester la délocalisation de l’usine à Maroc (où la main d’œuvre est moins onéreuse), d’autres préfèrent le chômage et acceptent les indemnités. Seule Clerval, refuse le licenciement proposé par son entreprise textile et à la surprise générale, décide d’être reclassée au Maroc comme couturière.

La seule justification qu’offre Morel pour cette énorme invraisemblance est la profonde solitude de la cinquantenaire, veuve, rejetée par son fils gay et qui veut ‘prendre le large,’ une expression qui se traduit en Anglais comme ‘Catch the Wind.’ Elle est tellement affamée de connexion humaine qu’elle voyage au bout du monde à une ville sulfureuse et inondée de mer où, comme nous le dit le Musulman au volant, ‘il y en a autant de fous que des chats.’

Il y en a déjà dizaines de films à propos des voyages des immigrants aux pays développés dans l’espoir d’une vie meilleure. Mais ce film prend comme prémisse le voyage à l’envers. Enfin, il devient un récit initiatique d’une femme qui va se confronter à une autre culture et d’autres mœurs que les siennes et dans un pays où la religion a un poids très fort sur la vie des femmes. Le film se fait l’écho aussi du fossé entre deux manières de travailler dans des usines qui sont bien différentes. En effet, il réfléchit sérieusement sur la notion du ‘travail’ elle-même, qui chez Edith est une question d’éthique et de principe, mais chez Mina, la logeuse Marocaine, c’est une réalité incontournable.

On apprécie aussi comment le film met en relief le privilège que jouit Edith à cause du couleur de sa peau et aussi la vulnérabilité simultanée qu’elle expérience comme femme et ouvrière dispensable. En effet, ce qui avait commencé comme une simple balade finit par des expériences d’être agressée, malmenée, accusée à tort et renvoyée de son travail et finalement d’être ramenée à un hôpital en raison de l’épuisement.

S’il y a quelques baisses de rythme dans le dernier tiers et un passage un peu exagéré, ce film aborde des sujets épineux d’actualité avec subtilité et cette balance et son dénouement heureux charment durablement.

Haikus for the Pandemic

The simple elegance of the Haiku as a poetic form is intended to slow us down and live a more contemplative life. An important lesson for our times.

Haikus are well-known poetic forms from Japan renowned for their striking visual suggestiveness and their brevity of expression. They explore themes of life, nature and the impermanence of the world. Called haikai until the 20th century, haikus are usually defined as three-line poems of 5-7-5 syllables with references to the seasons. But with the experimental free-verse Haiku, this definition is fairly variable. Also, the freedom from syllabic restriction is useful for haikus composed or translated in languages other than Japanese. English for example has a different rhythm from Japanese. Where the former emphasizes stress, the latter marks its syllables.

The true power of a haiku as a form comes from its economy and the simplicity of the image that it evokes. This open-ended image made visible as a glimpse of a scene or into a landscape, taps into larger philosophical and often existential questions of the human experience. The haiku is also indicative of a more contemplative way of life and thought that emphasizes looking at the world, seeing process of transformations in their depths and slowness. In a world reeling under a pandemic and forced into isolation and introspection, the haiku is a reminder that a slower way of life is never irrelevant. It is centered on those experiences, explorations and sensations that essentially make us human. Here are a few haikus describing beautiful scenes of seasonal change and with them kernels of universal truth. The haikus have been taken from Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, published by Shambhala Publications in 2011.

   The spring sun
shows its power
    between snowfalls
           -Shigeyori

   Not in a hurry
to blossom-
   plum tree at my gate
           -Issa

   The warbler
wipes its muddy feet
    on plum blossoms
           -Issa

   Is the dawn, too,
still embraced by
   hazy moon?
          -Chōsui

   Over the violets
a small breeze
    passes by
          -Ontei

   Each time the wind blows
the butterfly sits anew
   on the willow
           -Bashō

   Spring chill-
above the rice paddies
    rootless clouds
          -Hekigodō

   Crazed by flowers
surprised by the moon—
    a butterfly
           -Chora

    Misty day-
they might be gossiping
    horses in the field
            -Issa

    Out from the darkness
back into the darkness
     affairs of the cat
            -Issa

     On the temple bell
perching and sleeping
      a butterfly
            -Buson

     Flower petals
set the mountains in motion—
     cherry blossoms
           -Hōitsu

     Summer rains—
leaves of the plum
     the colour of cold wind
           -Saimaro

     Alone, silently-
the bamboo shoot
     becomes a bamboo
           -Santōka

      At the sound of the sea
the sunflowers open
      their black eyes
           -Yūji

     Dragonfly on a rock
absorbed in
     a daydream
          -Santōka

     On a withered branch
linger the evanescent memory
     of a cicada’s voice
          -Kagai

     A rinse of vermilion poured
from the setting sun, and then
     autumn dusk
          -Taigi

     Snow
falls on snow-
     and remains silent.
         -Santōka

     In the abandoned boat
dashing sliding-
     hail
         -Shiki

     Sharing one umbrella-
the person more in love
     gets wet
         -Keisanjin

     Having given my opinion
I return home to
     my wife’s opinion.
         -Yachō

The Left Hand of Darkness

Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-award winning science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) that is breathtaking in terms of its world-building and deceptively simple given its slimness. Le Guin is a well-known name in the world of fantasy writing and children’s literature. Writing primarily in the 60s and 70s, she was one of the few women who wrote in a field largely dominated by mostly white men. Le Guin’s writings, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which came out in the year of the Stonewall Riots, added a different perspective to existing literature. Most of all, it tackled larger human, social and philosophical questions through science, calling attention to an ideal of humanism, understood in its best sense, and of the need to rally beyond barriers of race, ethnicity and culture.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, an Envoy named Genly Ai from an advanced humanoid race is sent to the land of Karhide on a planet called Gethen to propose an intergalactic alliance with the Ekumen, a coalition that seeks to forge unity between the far flung planets of the universe and to unite them. In a land of political intrigue and vendetta, the astute and exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven is the only one who believes in Genly Ai’s cause and eventually dies for it after saving him and making an incredible journey across snow, mountain, forest and ice.

Each state in Gethen has evolved into its own society, politics, language and custom which the Envoy observes and analyses in an anthropological manner typical of Le Guin’s writing. Among these, one of the most striking aspects of Gethenian society, is the notion of gender understood by the term ‘kemmer.’

Gethenians are androgynous and ambisexual and become female across a cycle of 28 days at the end of which they go into ‘kemmer’, a few days in which they are sexually active while any partner in kemmer can conceive. This idea about cyclic gender was incredible for its time and had important implications. It envisaged a society in which continuous sexuality was no longer a norm which meant that a person could be on any point of a gender spectrum at any time. It also put forth the idea of ‘men’ sharing the reproductive labour of child-bearing and rearing so that gender was no longer one of the most prominent organising principles of a society. This reproductive serendipity is novel even for today’s times.

The study of the polis between Karhide and its rival state of Orgeryn run by a Commensal instead of a king, is another scintillating piece of writing. It traverses the gulf between a monarchy and communal governance touching upon notions such as Shifgrethor or personal prestige in Karhide to Orgeryn’s group conditioning and the boundaries between love for one’s motherland and nationalism as a political tool for power.

Amidst all this, Le Guin throws in mystical narratives about spiritual cults (inspired by her interest in Taoism), stories of origins about places, people and names from the points of views of different characters. There is also a breathless nightmarish account of the Envoy himself, describing his experiences to the Farm which eerily echo the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.

What is especially stunning is the journey that Estraven and Genly Ai take together, a journey that is both metaphorical and spiritual in order to meet halfway across their cultural differences and to forge a friendship and loyalty for a greater cause. The ecological descriptions of snow, forest, mountain and the terrain they traverse are vivid and detailed as is the empathy with which societies and polities are described.

While the novel is majestic in its sweep, it does have a few setbacks. The most striking of which is the representations of gender itself. Although we are reminded that Estraven is both a man and a woman, even in his/her mysterious elusiveness s/he appears largely ‘male’ both because of the travesty of language and of a template of femininity that has itself come into question in recent years. But The Left Hand of Darkness is a world by itself like most of Le Guin’s novels and seen in the context of its own time, it certainly spoke to a different age.

Patal Lok: Unleashing Hell

A Review of Patal Lok, a new crime thriller web series on Amazon Prime

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Recently India has seen a rise of metropolitan crime thrillers on digital platforms like Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime. Starting with the trend-setting Sacred Games which came out in June 2018, many others followed such as Mirzapur, Delhi Crime, The Family Man and Criminal Justice. Patal Lok (The Nether World) easily fits into this crop of web series. Produced by Anushka Sharma and written by Sudip Sharma, this gritty and graphic series is directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy and stars seasoned actors Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Gul Panag, Swastika Mukherjee and Mairembam Ronaldo Singh.

Patal Lok, which released in the middle of the Lockdown this May, cashes in on its huge urban home-confined viewers with a tale that is a heady mix of all that we have seen before and banalised-crime, violence, and testosterone- along with a portrayal of society’s dark underbelly, its middle-class and its elites in almost what can be seen as a formulaic manner.

This representation is one that viewers have now come to recognise as a politically correct and complex representation of the ‘real India.’ Patal Lok, while belting out tremendous performances and keeping alive a wide ken of social representation and nuance, suffers from too much judiciousness in trying to cover all the liberal bases. These formulaic frames of the ‘real India’ with its stuffy allies and crowded slums, its liberal dose of women-centred expletives, its grim realities and toxic family dynamics, the worst forms of caste oppression, transphobia and xenophobia, all appear to be milked for violence that can be packaged on celluloid as verisimilitude for urban viewers. It seemed authentic with Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games in parts but when one is merely invited to look upon graphic and grisly violence as a spectacle, then one wonders what is there to take away from it all. However, watch it for the scintillating performances of Ahluwat, Kabi, Bannerjee and an utterly unexpected Gul Panag.

The first season of Patal Lok has nine episodes each of which is around 45 min. At first sight, it appears to be a story of four suspects, a Muslim man Kabir M. (Aasif Khan), a Nepali woman Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), a serial murderer from Chitrakoot, Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee ) and a Dalit Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) who are all from the furthest fringes of society and arrested in connection with a failed assassination attempt of a high-profile Delhi journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Kabi).

The protagonist, Inspector Hathi Ram (Ahluwat) lands the case of a lifetime as he has to find out the motivations of each of these suspects to commit the murder and in that journey encounters characters from different walks of life. His investigations and the slip-ups of his juniors get him suspended while the bad blood between him and his boss, his brother-in-law’s freeloading and his teenage son’s maladaptibility in a posh school, add to his woes. After his suspension, the case is taken up by the CBI and is given a cross-border twist that serves a statist agenda while missing out on crucial pieces of evidence before painting the suspects as terrorists. Moreover, the journalist himself uses the media hype to get a new sponsor for his media house.

In the end, it turns out that the four suspects were planted unbeknown to each other for the sole purpose of facilitating the encounter of Vishal Tyagi, or Hathoda Tyagi under the orders of Bajpayee (Anup Jalota), a local politician. Bajpayee fears that the murderous Tyagi could be turned against him after the death of the only man who could control him, Masterji (Akshay Sharma). The other three suspects are merely dispensable distractions for this motive while Hathi Ram discovers that his own seniors such as DGP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) are involved in the conspiracy and are unable to carry out the encounter as a media van appears at the spot at the crucial moment.

While the script is racy and the plot well-paced, at the end of the series one is still confronted with one simple question. Doesn’t such an elaborate set up involving politicians, policemen, and a host of other middlemen seem too convoluted to kill one local murderer? Couldn’t Bajpayee have executed the deed discretely in one shot, the way that Gwala (Rajesh Sharma) gets rids of his henchman Firangi ( Abhimanue Arun) who betrays him?

However, there are some truly memorable moments. Patal Lok clearly establishes its theme in the opening scene with the cop protagonist Hathi Ram teaching the ropes to a junior Muslim cop Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) while driving a police van at night. Hathi Ram captures the segregation of classist and casteist India with the metaphor of the worlds swarglok (Heaven, where the gods live), Dharti (Earth, where the men live) and Patal Lok (Hell, where the vermin and the demons live), a topography described in the scriptures but which he has read on Whatsapp. Both men are from different generations, and different religions yet share the occupation of the law at the Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station, in New Delhi, an area that largely qualifies as ‘Patal Lok.’

Within the opening scene itself, we see the dynamic between the two. Hathi Ram is the more robust, hardy Hindu middle-class cop, seasoned with the ways of the world and later resorts to liberal doses of violence to discipline both his son and the detainees in his police station. Imran on the other hand, is less imposing, and portrays a gentler and more sensitive masculinity almost reminiscent of Ayushmann Khurrana in Article 15, as he tries to go around situations with tact and sometimes kindness instead of the use of aggression. As a younger cop, with access to an English education, he is at an advantage compared to Hathi Ram even as he aspires to and finally clears his Indian Civil Services exam. Yet he has to nevertheless confront the stereotypes associated with his community both at the level of senior colleagues and higher officers who doubt his professional competency based on his religion.

The four accused themselves have their own gruesome backstories each more violent and brutal than the other. Kabir M, a petty thief, lost his brothers to a horrifying lynching and is himself brutally murdered in jail, while Tope Singh, a Dalit from the Manjhar caste, kills his upper-caste bullies and escapes without realising the hell he has unleashed on his mother. He is also further spurned by his upper-caste mistress Chanda who finds a way to get rid of him by getting him to take the assignment that would get him arrested. Abhishek Banerjee plays Vishal Tyagi to eerie perfection with hollow eyes, death glaze, ominous look and all, which we have seen before in his portrayal of the paranormal Fakeer in the brilliant Typewriter series. Tyagi, the son of a farmer, has committed numerous murders with nothing but a hammer and finally finds a mentor in Donullia alias Masterji- a local clan lord. The most poignant character is that of Chini, a transgender orphan who goes through abuse and violence right from a young age and whose wordless presence in the entire series is a little disappointing as more than anything else, it appears to merely serve ticking the box of transgender representation.

As in many crime thrillers, the women in this series are static characters who occupy only a subordinate space be it the anxiety-ridden Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee), Sanjeev Mehra’s wife or Renu (Panag), Hathi Ram’s wife. Both are portrayed in domestic spheres. Dolly never confronts Sanjeev about his affair with a junior journalist Sara Mathews (Niharika Dutt), but instead turns her attentions to Savitri, a pregnant stray dog who she begins to care for. Renu’s way of dealing with her husband’s transgression of slapping her is to slap him back. Even Dutt who gets a significant upgrade from her role of Pearl in Pushpavalli, plays a character who has an affair with Sanjeev (à la House of Cards?) and eventually walks out when her professional integrity is compromised.

The various mythological references in the series from a continuous thread throughout and bring the series full circle. It begins with the description of the different ‘loks’ or worlds and ends with Hathi Ram explaining the importance of Yudhishthira’s devotion to the dog when he refuses to enter the gates of Heaven without it. The trope of the dog is an emblem for Lord Dharma we are told and whether with Donuilla, or Dolly, or Gwala or even Tyagi, the dog emerges as a symbol of compassion and empathy, something which Hathi Ram himself learns at the end of the first season. All in all, the series is watchable (with reservations about the graphic episode 3) for a tight script, a widely cast net of motley characters, racy cinematography and memorable soundtracks such as Kabir’s ‘Sakal Hans Mein Ram Biraje.’