Monday, July 27, 2015

Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell, who in this photo looks somewhat like a stout twinkly-eyed wizard, happened to be born in India. He was an English naturalist who believed that zoos should primarily act as reserves for endangered species of birds and animals. He founded a unique zoo to capture, collect and raise rare animals facing extinction, aiming to breed and perhaps eventually release them back into the wild. The wikipedia page of the Jersey Zoo, now called Durrell Wildlife Park, is worth a perusal. 

Summary: In this memoir-like book, Durrell has returned from a trip to Australia, only to find his zoo in shambles. In Catch Me A Colobus, he recounts how they set up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, found sponsors and eventually built the zoo back into shape. The first half of the book is a compilation of vignettes expansing about seven years at Durrell's Jersey Zoo. From escaped chimps, pregnant tapirs and bullying parrots to stories of the strange characters that visit the zoo, like a woman who sat on a bird. Durrell and his staff care deeply for their animal cohabitants, which shows how his zoo is a long way off from the cruelty that is commonly seen in such places.

The second half of the book follows Durrell's expedition to Sierra Leone to collect the rare Colobus monkeys and make the eponymous BBC series. The travelogues detail the conservation efforts or lack thereof across the world, the lives of tribals and forest officers, the customs problems Durrell faces when transporting animals across oceans and the difficult job of adapting the wild to a life of captivity. When Durrell speaks about conservation in the final chapters, he speaks with an admirable passion. 

"The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider's web, and like a spider's web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we're not just touching the web, we're tearing great holes in it... 

When asked why I should concern myself so deeply, I reply that I think the reason is that I have been a very lucky man and throughout my life the world has given me the most enormous pleasure. People always look at you in a rather embarrassed sort of way when you talk like this, as though you had said something obscene, but I only wish that more people felt that they owed the world a debt and were prepared to do something about it."

My thoughts: Durrell's dedication to his zoo is remarkable. In this pre-internet age, he conducts his research through a vast library of books on flora and fauna. He highlights the shortcomings of most books of science and explains how he combats them by maintaining intricate journals on the behaviour of the animals at his zoo. He also often reaches out to his contacts for assistance, from veterinarians and human surgeons to other zookeepers. Their readiness and the lengths they go to help out say a lot about Durrell himself.

I had read a book in my mother tongue once about a similar conservationist's zoo, and I had a few issues with it. The main problem was, the writer kept attaching human qualities to the animals that made their behaviour a little misleading to the uninformed reader. The leopard threw a tantrum, he would say, and purred to me that he was upset with me. It was cute, but not quite scientific enough, and I kept wanting to remind him that it was a wild animal he was referring to. Durrell, on the other hand, displays his love for animals and their unique personalities quite well, while explicitly reminding the reader not to mistake a chimpanzee for a friendly little pet. 

Disappointingly, the book has no pictures, only cartooney illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. An annoying unnecessary addition are some rather absurd fan letters that beg the question - do people put in any thought before they put pen to paper? 

But Durrell more than makes up for both shortcomings. He has some engaging writerly tricks up his sleeve. My favourite is how he attaches animal qualities to the humans that populate this book. So we see someone "spread out in his chair like a ship-wrecked giraffe," or another "clung to his bed like a limpet," and we get these profiles of the BBC crew - 

"Chris has heavy-lidded, green eyes, which he tends to hood like a hawk when he is thinking, and in moments of crisis retreats behind his nose like a camel. And there was Howard who was short and stocky with dark curly hair, and enormous horn-rimmed spectacles which made him look like a benevolent owl."

Now, I would not have called an owl benevolent myself, but I can totally see it. It is silly and very entertaining, and only the tip of the giant iceberg that is Durrell's warm, endearing humour. The glimpses of his personal interactions with his wife Jacquie and his assistants make him out, perhaps self-flatteringly, to be a thoroughly lovable guy.

Durrell is also pretty good at imagery. I mean, the man can really write. He sees the world with the eyes of an expert, notes even the tiniest of details, and yet, his conversational tone assures that we never feel overwhelmed by factual information. Check out these few passages on Durrell's first sighting of the Colobus monkey. I have never seen a tree or a monkey described with so much care and fascination.

"I was standing, looking out over the misty forest, when I heard some noises in the valley just below the house. I knew it was monkeys because there was that lovely sound as they leap into the leaves, like the crash of surf on a rocky shore. They were heading for a big and rather beautiful tree that grew a couple of hundred yards from the veranda just below us. It had a sort of greeny-grey trunk, the leaves were a very vivid green, and it was covered, at this time of year, with bright cerise-pink seed pods about six inches long. 

There was another crash and rustle amongst the leaves. And then, suddenly, it seemed as though the whole tree had burst into bloom, a bloom of monkeys. They were red and black Colobus, and they were the most breathtaking sight. They had rich, shining, chestnut-red and coal black fur, and in the morning sun, they gleamed as though they had been burnished; they were magnificent. 

When I looked back at the tree, they had all disappeared. As I sat sipping my tea, I remembered a stupid woman I'd met at a cocktail party in Freetown, who'd said, 'I cannot understand why you're going up country, Mr Durrell. There's absolutely nothing to do or see there.' I wish she could have seen those Colobus.

I cannot believe this is the first I have heard of this man. Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell is a treat for animal lovers, amateur naturalists, ornithology enthusiasts, and pretty much anyone with a liking for wordy English humour.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On simple pleasures and a long overdue day-trip

This post is not about books. Let us call it an answer to, "What do you do other than read?" - an annoying question that is often popped my way. Last week I took a much needed day-out - a tiny road trip to a place called Mahabaleshwar, about a three hour drive from home, with many stops along the way. Mahabaleshwar is a hill station that attracts loud partying crowds through the weekends so we went on a Thursday, desperately hoping to have it all to ourselves. A good idea, it was quiet and soothing. I always have all sorts of fun with my mother no matter where we are but the rain made this day most special.

Lately I have had a curious obsession with references of rain in books. And there aren't as many rainy good-times in literature as I expected. No kissing, dancing, playing scenes. It's all power, destruction or simple hassles. Disappointing, really. Last Thursday, it rained quite a bit and the whole time there we were walking through clouds. It was dreamy and very fairy tale. The mist made it nearly impossible to take pictures, but I tried.




Rain is such a nature's prank. Half of my state has landslide-causing downpours right now even as the other half suffers a drought. And even in the most urban of places, we can only pretend to have it under control. Roads turn slippery, wind upturns umbrellas and puddles leap up to splash trousers, coolly impervious to fancy raincoats and gum boots. The child in me delights in watching a sudden shower make prim grown-ups lose composure, hopping over puddles, grabbing at each other, arms flailing for balance, a screaming bunch. 

A favourite childhood pretend-game was jumping around in muddy red puddles with friends, calling for help, a group of pixies who had fallen into cups of chai. Thank you, Enid Blyton! Of course, the romance of rain for me may simply find its roots in iconic Bollywood rain-dances (worth a watch for the fun of it if you have never seen any) but I think there is more to it than a six-year-old's choice of fandom. 

I read a quote somewhere about how rain alters everything it falls on. And it does wash away both literal grime and figurative - leaving us with that peculiar scent of churned mud and humid air, and trees that have cast off their ashy olives and jades for a lush shimmery hue, and if we just embrace the water splashing on us, a thoroughly relaxed mood. It also gives an excuse to stay in and watch this transformation, with a steaming cup of tea to fight off the cold, revelling in the comfort and guise of control. More power to you if you extend the comfort to that neighbourhood stray, there is no thank you like a vibrating purr.

I found a cute, silly little rhyme by Charles Bukowski that I must quote here,

“I think that the world should be full of 
cats and full of rain, that's all, just
cats and rain, rain and cats, very 
nice, good night.” 

Another highlight of our day-trip were the seven temples we saw along the way, possibly more than I have visited in the entire year. My interest in religion is mainly mythological. Hindu mythology has all the charms of the Greek and about ten times its scope. We have all manner of gods - powerful, weak, blue, elephant-headed, anthropomorphic sun and moon deities, who all have multiple earthly incarnations, egos, clashes and feisty goddess-wives. They have many demons to fight and are accompanied by everyone from angels and saints to ginormous talking eagles, apes and bulls. 


The bull called Nandi is the vehicle of the great god Shankar or Shiva. He is one of my favourite creatures in mythology. He stands as gatekeeper outside every Shiva temple, but is deliberately poised facing the shrine. First disciple, then guard. In more intricately sculpted temples, you can see both Nandi's mellow, wise eyes and powerful musculature in the stone - a juxtaposition that really captures the spirit of a gentle but strong bull. Sadly, I can only find photos from one temple in which no one has photobombed my Nandi. 

At the main temple at Mahabaleshwar, I read the fascinating legend that gave the place its name - the story of a mighty demon named Mahabal who gave up his immortal life in exchange for the privilege of sharing his eternal resting place with his god. And the compromise made him godly too, it seems. They had even put up an English version of the story. I could post it, but the translation is clumsy at best. The temple is some five hundred years old, while the idol inside claims a life of perhaps more than a thousand years. 

Road trip, however small, means awesome street food. As someone whose vacation at home is on the brink of its end, I jumped at this chance to gorge on everything homey I could find. I give you, a collage of some of our colourful choices - onion fritters, strawberry with cream which is a Mahabaleshwar-speciality, a spicy curry with bread called misal and that steaming cup of tea that we know adds an extra flavour to rain. 


Phew, that's quite a long post for someone apparently only used to writing about books. I hope to branch out more often on Tabula Rasa, rather than trying to keep two blogs. Meanwhile, I would love to read your thoughts on rain, food, mythology and such days-out!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the movie)

The film begins so - "The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years."

Never Let Me Go is set in this alternate reality. It follows the lives of three children, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who grow up together in a typical English boarding school. Except, Hailsham is not an ordinary school. The children are "duplicates" or clones whose lives have a special purpose - to make organ donations, a fate clear to the viewer from the start, but not to them. A coming-of-age journey like no other, Never Let Me Go is a search for identity, hope, a tale of friendship and unrequited love, as Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up to face what the world has in store for them. 

Two years ago, I wrote a rant-review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the book (read more about the plot there.) The movie, directed by Mark Romanek (who unsurprisingly I had never heard of), is also a beauty. Like the book, it made me scared and weepy. Ishiguro writes a blend of Japanese and English styles, somehow both melancholy and impassive. This book had some failings, an odd arrangement of plot here, a convenient tying off of loose threads there - but its powerful composition made me let them go. And this is a rare adaptation that so closely follows the story while doing justice to the sentiment.


Never Let Me Go has a tone of helpless silence that is most striking. No reader or viewer is new to dystopian fiction - from Hunger Games to 1984, there has been a lot in this genre. Doesn't the word dystopia conjure dreadful provocative images in your mind, the kind filled with torture chambers and riots? Never Let Me Go is not that. It is much closer to home.

Do not watch the movie expecting a story about three friends teaming up against circumstance, to overthrow an awful authority, if only to end up squashed by the system. Ishiguro and Romanek have penned a far likelier version of the future for the vast majority of us. It is a world where you accept what is thrown your way, because that's what most of us would do. The quiet resignation in Kathy's voice makes the movie most haunting. 

And what makes the story most effective, irrespective of medium, is this - you never meet the bad-guy. The normal people, who are not duplicates and organ donors, are the teachers at Hailsham school. And they never outright mistreat the children, they do nothing that doesn't happen in schools now, nothing you want to shout at and protest against. You see the injustice in the little things, the rundown cottages the kids move to after school, the deliverymen who can't quite meet their eyes. The sad truth of the story is it makes you empathize with both sides of the coin - the main characters, who are little more than experiments created to serve others, and the rest of the world that reaps the benefits of invention, guiltless, so long as they don't know what goes on behind closed doors. 

The cast is great, just like I had pictured them. There should be a word for finding out the book adaptation you really want to watch stars Keira Knightley. In this movie, unlike her others, I actually liked her in the role of sassy, headstrong Ruth. The book gets its title from a fictional song that little Kathy dances to, imagining herself an impossible future. The scene in the movie, somewhat different, is still touching, and the young actress who plays Kathy conveys a multitude of emotions through her little swaying dance. She brings this light to the first half of the film that is just charming. Her bond with Tommy is precious. And she looks uncannily like Carey Mulligan, who plays grown-up Kathy. 

The movie appears inescapably English. Ishiguro uses rain as a frequent plot device, most key conversations happen because the characters are stuck somewhere while it's pouring outside. True to the narrative, the film has this drab rainy appearance that makes it even gloomier. The story is brimming with ideas and Ishiguro lets them brim over inside you, leaving a hundred questions unanswered. The movie could have been more dramatic, graphic, but it maintains Ishiguro's subtlety. Don't watch the movie with a closed mind and expect to be taken by the hand and led through an experience. Open your mind, welcome in the discreet flavourless terror and your imagination should suffice to drive you crazy.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Homo homini lupus - man is wolf to man.

Floating on waves of post-book happiness. Blown away. So dark, menacing, so urgent. Painful. Cerebral. Compulsively readable.... an outpouring of admiration, that was me for hours after I finished the book. I had to call my sister to effuse. This review is thanks to her. 

"The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh..."

Picture this. England of the 1520s. As secret wildfires of a new religion are lit through Europe, Englishmen are burned for heresy. Queen Katherine has failed to bear Henry VIII a son. England is on the brink of a civil war. Enter Anne Boleyn, a sly serpent, a shrewd temptress. Henry, desperate in love, seeks to break free of the heirless marriage, to annul it. Scandal ensues; the Roman Church and most of Europe stand staunch against King Henry and his wish to marry Anne, to renounce the law and be his own master. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. He is vastly different from the nobility of the Tudor court, a man with the face of a killer, the only one who can realize the impossible. 

This is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A biography of politics and the beginnings of the English reformation through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and councillor to Henry VIII. Famously chronicled as ruthless beyond redemption, Cromwell slips into the role of a protagonist with surprising ease. In the eyes of those who surround him, he is a bully and a hack, but through his thoughts, his memories, we see a man capable of much warmth, passion and understanding. With a deliberate reassessment of one man's perspective, Mantel brings to our attention the lack of that human element in most dry historical fact. Cromwell's recasting as a hero may be a fantasy, perhaps, but it makes you wonder...

Because Mantel's Cromwell is a person, not a symbol. A loyal servant and a kind father, he is religious in his own way, not orthodox nor explicitly a Protestant. Above all, he is a man who has examined himself and has reconciled with what sin he has found within. Some of my favourite scenes star Cromwell and his wife, their quiet intimacy is very real. The strangest moments are when Cromwell feels surprised by the way he is perceived by others, and is then surprised by his own surprise. He frequently doubts his own beliefs. In his musings on religion and his thirst for knowledge you see an intellectual. His endless displays of cynicism, quick wit and bold plotting reveal the calculating genius that coaxed the Parliament into breaking away the Church of England.

The characters in Mantel's England are all retold from this quasi-villain's perspective. Cardinal Wolsey plays a huge part in building Thomas Cromwell and has hence the most crucial role in this redefining of history. Saint Thomas More, the philosopher and martyr, appears dangerously self-serving. Henry to him is intelligent but a lost lamb. Anne Boleyn, full of surprises, not to be trusted. Mary Boleyn, pretty and feisty, earns his sympathies. Katherine of Aragon he finds proud to the point of foolish. Princess Mary, frightfully but perhaps deceptively weak... the list is long and I'm afraid I am running out of adjectives.

The sheer scope of the book inspires wonder. Six hundred pages and never a dull moment. Mantel has garbed the story in intricate detail, converting research seamlessly into plot. No clunky dumps of information. It takes great narrative skill to flesh out the story like that. Stylistically, the book is odd. It has colons and hyphens where none are necessary and a noticeable dearth of quotation marks. For the most part of the book, Mantel refers to Cromwell not by name but as "he." Cute. Except, with a cast of some fifty characters and at least five Thomases, her copious use of the indefinite pronoun does get a little trying. Truly hen-peck-ish of me, I know, to call that a flaw. The story is narrated entirely in the present tense and it feels as if you have been placed right in the middle of the action. 

Prior knowledge of the Henrican reformation is not mandatory to read and enjoy the book - I had only vague recollections from an old obsession with the Tudor dynasty. That being said, an interest in politics, theology and history would certainly make the book more lastingly effective. If you know your history, by the way, you would know that Cromwell had anything but a happy ending. But in Wolf Hall, Mantel has given him just that. The book ends when he is at the peak of his career. So the one thing keeping me from diving for the sequel is the undeniable fact that there is trouble to come. I shall grant me and Cromwell a month more of happiness before taking on Book #2 - Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

"The world is not run from where he (Henry) thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot."

A must read, if ever there was one. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a very frustrating book. It is a compilation of letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her husband about their son Kevin. Who is in jail. For having shot at and killed seven children, one teacher and one cafeteria worker at his school. The setting is a typical American town, only a little while before Columbine. The mother details her relationship with her husband, leading up to the birth of the son she never wanted to have, a child who is loved and pampered by his father and who grows up hating his mother. She hates him too and, she claims, not without cause.

After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that I do not like this book. Not only because it is a hard read filled with distasteful characters and events that make you want to throw up, though that does help. It is grossly overwritten, presumably under the pretext of making Eva, a writer by profession, sound appropriately literary. It ends up bogged down by tedious detailing. The writing is hardly plot-driven and focuses more on its human elements, a good choice, I must admit, considering its theme. The problem is, the book sets big fat goals, and fails miserably to reach most of them.

The aim of the book, reinforced by its title, is to force us to think about some of the questions a high school massacre would inevitably raise - misfits and bullying, if it is the parent at fault, can a person be inherently evil, is it wrong to hope for the best as a parent and push the occasional wrongdoing under the carpet, is redemption ever possible. Shriver is right, we do need to talk about Kevin. It is a very important discussion and the book concerns itself with immensely valid arguments, but here is the thing, it adds nothing of value to the discussion. The story achieves nothing new.

I read an interview about the book on The Guardian titled, "Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin." Witty. This is what the author has to say,

"Book clubs have also powered Kevin as he went viral, and I've visited a few, where groups cleave into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother's coldness was criminally culpable. A fine spectator sport in which I never participate, since what the book means is no longer up to me." 

Spectator sport? How casual. Would it not have been better if Shriver had an agenda? Her own answer to the questions about Kevin. It would be worth talking about if the book wasn't so indecisive. If it did more than show that a hitherto unanswerable question is still, well, unanswerable. If it stated and attempted to prove to us that it is in fact the parent that makes the child criminal. Nurture is the culprit. Or, the other way round. The mother could have been reliably not-at-fault, and Kevin the cold terror she believed he was. The book could have told us preventive counselling can be of no help, for instance. Had Shriver made a statement, picked a side and boldly backed it up, it would have been admirable. A unique perspective to an existing discussion. All it does now is the wasteful job of adding fuel to an already vicious fire.

Incidentally, I was recommended the book at the book club. A club discussion on this book would be a bad idea. As an active participant, I would be on the "she-was-also-at-fault" side. Eva is your classic unreliable narrator. The letter seems like a defence offered by an impassive person now sinking into guilt-driven lunacy; inconsistent and vindictive, at once defiant and helpless. The other camp at the club would be people convinced Kevin was born a sociopath. Neither arguing party would manage to prove their point. Everyone would go home stubborn and drained and somewhere, Shriver would smirk contentedly at all the talking about Kevin she started.

One of the purple, disturbing, discussion-provoking moments,

"Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing- reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths- all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a “turn of the page,” I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very surmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness , was in the end what attracted me to it."

In contrast, the book began with a promisingly pretty moment that actually made me smile,

“Dear Franklin, I'm unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we've been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards."

The rest of the letter and those that followed were vague and disappointing.. It is not enough to write about an important topic. A good writer has something new to say. Lionel Shriver, unfortunately, doesn't. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day: Writing, reading and my father

Every father's day I post about my favourite fathers from books. Today I thought I'll write a little something about mine. My father was a writer. Or, at least, writer was one of the things he was. His writing ventures - in my lifetime - include contributions to books on arthropoda and butterflies, his own health and fitness magazine, monthly travel articles for a Marathi magazine, and I must admit, all my science projects. 

One of my fondest memories growing up involves cuddling up in bed as he read out his articles to us, over and over. Editing nightmares ended up as cosy family laughter-sessions in our house. If reviewer-me had to describe his breed of humour today, I would call it slapstick, but endearing. The charm of his writing wasn't the jokes, but his unerring observations on people, not to mention, the way he played with words. He made me, perhaps more than anything else, love my mother tongue.

I have never met anyone who loved to travel quite as much. When I was little, he used to tell me, his idol was Marco Polo. His favourite word was wanderlust (edit: not serendipity, which he only liked for the story of its origin, as my sister graciously pointed out.) There stood this menacingly messy bookshelf in our living room, with an entire section devoted to travel books. Every Lonely Planet ever written? Little-me thought so. He would sit us down every once in a while with this ginormous world map spread out before us and relate world history, down the ages. He loved reading Charles Darwin. My mother tells me he wanted to travel the Beagle route to Tierra del Fuego. And travel Europe like Subhash Chandra Bose. 

He was never a father in the strict-scary-scolds-you sense. He was as much of a kid as me, possibly more than my sister. My friends would testify for this! He believed in freedom. There was no right or wrong thing to read, in his opinion, he had no snobbish ideas of better or worse books. No age bars on reading, every book in my house belonged to all of us - be it the books on medicine or the novels my sister read. And we had none of the no-reading-at-dinner rules, thank God. I remember times when the four of us sat at the dinner table, each nose buried in a different book, in perfect happy harmony. 

I don't know what happened to all his books. There is one still sitting on my bookshelf. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. It smells of old paper, slippery fading memory. I never tire of looking at it, always hesitate to read it, for fear it will not live up to its mysterious pull. Maybe this father's day I will give in. 

One Sunday after a butterfly-watching trip, I remember he found eight-year-old me poring over a tome from his collection, Butterflies of the Indian Region by Wynter-Blyth. How he beamed! I did not share his love for newspapers or crosswords, unlike my sister. But memories of our Harry Potter mania still make me teary - eccentrically long arguments on time turners, theorizing about the next book, movie marathons. And that was what made him so amazing. The enthusiasm with which he joined me in my little, big obsessions.

It is very easy to be patronizing to a child, wave the occasional experience-card in their face. I see adults do it all the time! There are few people capable of encouraging and respecting the opinions of a twelve year old the way he could. Even ten years later, every time I read something and find myself bubbling with thoughts and ideas, the first person I want to tell is him. He would have loved my blog. I miss him.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reading The Tempest by William Shakespeare #1

I have called the post # 1 because it is only some of what the play made me think about. This does not imply that there will be a second post, though there might. 

(Scene from Shakespeare's Tempest by William Hogarth, circa 1735. There's Miranda with Prospero, Caliban sneaking up on her, Ferdinand gazing at her and Ariel hovering above.)

The other day, wide awake at two in the morning and worrying about life, I decided I needed Shakespeare-therapy. Over the past year, I have come to realize there is no quick read like a Shakespeare and he actually has wisdom for every occasion - I kid not. Why The Tempest? It is one of my favourite Shakespeares. It is a curiously unclassifiable play - a blend of tragicomedy, romance and fantasy, perhaps even horror. It is lyrical and in some parts, truly poignant.

Summary: The play begins with a storm and a shipwreck. On the wrecked ship are Alonso, the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand, the prince, who are on their way to Italy after the wedding of Alonso’s daughter. They are accompanied by the rest of the wedding party, who all get stranded on different parts of a strange island.

Meanwhile, a magician called Prospero tells the story of how they came to be on the very same island to the audience and his daughter Miranda. Now this story is critical to the play, so Prospero commands your and Miranda's full attention. She assures him she is listening, as Shakespeare throws your way cheekily self-indulgent lines like, "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."

Twelve years before the events of the play, Prospero and a three-year old Miranda were put to sea to die by his brother, who usurped his Dukedom. They survived and found exile on the small island.

Now Prospero has forced its only earthly inhabitant, a barely-human savage called Caliban, into slavery. He has imprisoned a cupidlike spirit called Ariel to serve him and it is with Ariel's assistance that he raised the tempest that caused the ship to overturn. Prospero's manipulative plan is to make Ferdinand fall in love with and marry Miranda, and to seek revenge on his brother and the King. Ultimately though, The Tempest becomes the story of Prospero's redemption.

On reading Shakespeare: Shakespeare, I always feel, is wise about a lot of things without the guise of providing solutions. He shows you things as they are, promises and delivers entertainment, and leaves the job of interpretation all up to you. There was a time when I would only read Shakespearean plays in modern-day translation, or pick up copies with word keys, or often, be very doubtful of my opinions on the plays till I binged on academic articles and research papers. Those days are gone. I am the common people he staged his plays for, after all. An MA in Literature doesn't make Shakespeare any more enjoyable.

On the play: Most obviously, The Tempest is a political play on colonization. Prospero is the great big power that has set out to do the world a favour, Caliban the savage monster he means to educate. Prospero enslaves Caliban, tries to civilize him, teaches him to speak and cannot fathom why, after all the help, Caliban loathes him. An old Lit professor had pointed this out once as a favourite dialogue -

Prospero to Caliban, "thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning."
Caliban's retort, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."

Initially, Caliban earns your pity. When he sets himself free, you realize he has gained no insight from his twelve miserable years of captivity. He soon meets two shipwrecked drunkards and even as he celebrates his liberty from Prospero, he has slaved himself to someone new. Caliban has intelligence, no doubt, but no faculty to use it. Your pity for Caliban doesn't take away from the fact that he lets himself be made into a fool. He also lacks conscience, which is essentially a social concept, as is evident in his violent advances on Miranda. And these never allow you to wholly sympathise with him. In a political interpretation, Miranda plays the role of a missionary, helpful and just, but in the end, misguided in her support. She never does care for Caliban, and forgets all her ties to the island once she falls for Ferdinand. The Tempest also talks about noble lies. Politics is deception, Shakespeare seems to say.

But political theory is hardly my turf. And it is only one way of looking at the play. Like with Lord of the Flies by William Golding, my favourite exercise with this allegory involves thinking of the whole cast of characters as conflicting aspects of the mind. The play is set on an island, a fabricated world that exists out of time and space. It may be set within the mind. Dissecting the psychological implications of the events is an unending fascination.

Prospero represents social rationale, a thinking citizen-mind. Ariel the spirit, is ambition, which serves Prospero's motives only with the promise of one day flying free. Miranda is emotion, controlled by civil logic, until she meets Ferdinand, true love, who takes away Prospero's hold on her. And Caliban is primal instinct. It yearns to be set free and you are tempted to let it have its freedom, but it is best held captive. Or rather, when social order is up against natural instinct, things will play out such that eventually somehow the former will triumph - a thought that is echoed in the ending of Lord of the Flies. A thing to note - towards the end, Prospero does recognize his responsibility for Caliban, though he still detests him, saying, "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine." Is this Prospero reluctantly accepting that the savage is an inseparable part of him?

As for King Alonso and his party, they are mere external circumstance, who play no significant role in the events of the day, no matter how much hatred Prospero bears for them. Circumstance is largely influenced by our mind. And through Prospero's redemption, you see that circumstance is more malleable than it appears. Finally, the external obstacles are resolved only after the internal dialogue reaches its satisfying conclusion.

A few of the quote-worthy lines:

Prospero on Ferdinand and Miranda - They are both in either's powers; but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light.

Miranda on Ferdinand - There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple: If the ill spirit have so fair a house, Good things will strive to dwell with't.

Ferdinand on Miranda - Might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid: all corners else o' the earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.

Miranda - I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of.

(Weird. For some reason I have only noted down lines about Ferdinand-and-Miranda. My new fondness for romance may be me making up for the all the love stories I hated for so many years. Anyhow, Part 2 will talk about Prospero's critical concluding monologues. Right now, I will leave you with this little gem and go try to cure my insomnia.)

King Alonso on his inability to fall sleep - What, all so soon asleep! I wish mine eyes would, with themselves, shut up my thoughts.