Games Children Play and Book #12 Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day

YEARS ago, when I was 15 years old, I read a short story by Anita Desai called Games at Twilight. It was about a group of cousins, playing hide and seek, told from the point of view of Ravi. During the course of the story, Ravi feels a range of emotions – the sheer joy of being outdoors and playing with his cousins, the fear of being made ‘it’ during the game, the panic of being found out when he’s hiding and the deep desolation of being so insignificant in the scheme of things for the other children, that they don’t even notice his absence. It was a stunning concept to encounter at the age of 15 – the world as viewed from the eyes of a young, unsure, insecure child. Of course, I had read books told from the child’s point of view before – Enid Blyton had been a particular favourite. But her children were merely little adults, full of a sense of honour and courage and eating such unimaginable things as tongue sandwiches. I loved reading about the adventures of the Famous Five and the midnight feasts at St. Clare’s, but the world of those British children was alien to my world. After a certain age, I felt the distance and saw the same character stencils being used to outline different children.

In Games at Twilight, however, I encountered real children. With real characteristics. The older, bossy children are affectionate and domineering by turns. Not bad at heart, but so casually cruel. Of course they forgot the existence of little Ravi. They have got a hundred other things going on in their imaginative, busy little heads. If Ravi is slow enough to fall behind, is it their fault? But the story is mostly told from Ravi’s perspective, and you get a sense of his emotional tumult. He loves playing with his cousins, and they include him in their games. But then, they also frequently ignore him. He’s a sensitive child, eager of attention and adulation, like all children are and it’s easy to feel his heartbreak at the end of the story.

What’s not easy, however, is to be able to negotiate the complicated psychological landscape of childhood and write about it. Certainly not as a child, when you’re too young and inexperienced to be sure of what you’re feeling and most definitely not as an adult, when you’ve all but forgotten the little hurts and slights of your childhood. But it’s just as difficult to really understand how a child transitions to adulthood, growing up and changing in many ways, and yet staying fundamentally the same. How certain qualities, visible in a child, remain the same when she’s all grown up and yet they feel somehow distorted. Anita Desai, one of the best writers India has ever produced, has a very sure hand when dealing with these quagmires of the mind and heart. The only other writer I know of who can do it so well is Margaret Atwood (If you haven’t read her Cat’s Eye, do so immediately). I’m sorry to use a banality here, but Desai really does put herself in her characters’ shoes.

I realised this very strongly when I recently read her Clear Light of Day. Briefly put, it’s the story of the four Das siblings: Bim and Raja , the older siblings, ambitious and smart and like two peas in a pod. Their younger sister, Tara, is passive and dreamy and clearly under the shadow of her brilliant older sister and brother. And then there’s Baba, a late and perhaps initially unwelcome addition to their family, whose slow development and emotional distance hints at autism. There are many themes that Desai addresses here: there’s a lament for the loss of an old, more cultured Delhi, where poets and intellectuals gathered regularly to read and appreciate poetry; where classical music had active patronage, and where life was lived at a more languid pace.

There is also a lament for the loss of childhood. Which is strange, given that the children don’t really have an idyllic childhood. They live in a big, mouldering mansion in Civil Lines, with few things to occupy them. Their father is practically a stranger to them; their mother is too ill to bring them up; their Mira Masi – a distant, poor relation – initially comes as the maternal figure they desperately need, but gradually unravels into drunkenness and psychosis. The children fill their time dreaming, imagining games, and planning their eventual escape from the stifling inactivity of their lives.

I don’t want to give away the whole plot here. There really isn’t one in the ‘did he-didn’t he’ sense. It’s more like a book-length contemplation on the story of one family, but I don’t want to reveal what sort of adults the children become and how that informs their relationship with one another. All I’ll say is that Desai makes us live their dreadful, passive days, she gets us to feel the same despair they do, and the same sense of abandonment. When the children run to the watermelon fields across the hot, dry bed of the Yamuna and split open the hard green shell, you can feel the joy and relief that the they feel when they plunge their hands into the cool, red flesh. You also feel their depression, as they lie underneath a lazily whirling fan and ask each other inane questions, simply to pass the time. She’s a master conjurer of atmospheres. Part of the reason is probably because this is one of her most autobiographical works (or so it is rumoured). But a big part is surely played by her shrewd observations of human behaviour. This is isn’t the story of an idyllic childhood, but it offers a wealth of insight into the minds of children and is supremely well-told.

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Sex Prose As It Should Be: The Erotic Realism of James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime

One word that I kept encountering whenever I read about James Salter was ‘luminous’. “His prose is luminous” says one review of his book A Sport and A Pastime. Another calls The Hunters his “luminous first novel”. One admirer says his novels left him “breathless with admiration for their luminous prose”. And for the life of me, I couldn’t get that word out of my mind when I was mulling over this post in my head. Because you know what? His prose is luminous, dammit. Take for instance, his description in A Sport and A Pastime of an early morning in a non-descript French town called Autun:

I am awake before dawn, 0545, the bells striking three times, far off and then a moment later very near. The most devout moments of my life have been spent in bed at night listening to those bells. They flood over me, drawing me out of myself. I know where I am suddenly: part of this town and happy. I lean out of the window and am washed by the cool air, air it seems that no one else has yet breathed. Three boys on motorbikes going by, almost holding hands. And then the pure, melancholy, first blue of morning begins. The air one can bathe in. The electric shriek of a train. Heels on the sidewalk. The first birds. I cannot sleep.

These are words of pure genius. What is the colour of early morning, if not blue? And of course, the shriek of a train is electric! You’ve seen it and you’ve heard it, but not until you read Salter’s prose do you know exactly how to describe it.

Having read this book, it surprises me that Salter isn’t more famous. I have rarely seen his books stocked in Indian bookstores – not even his most accomplished work, Light Years. His is a name that rarely crops up in literary discussions in India. But then, American literature seems to get so little attention in India. That is a perennial grouch of mine, which I shall address in another post.

It seems in the US, though, he has a small but very dedicated readership and is a very respected name in literary circles. I first stumbled upon his name in Sonya Chung’s brilliant article for The Millions. There, she discusses how Salter depicted sex as well as, or perhaps, better than Great American Novelists like John Updike and Norman Mailer. She says:

There is no “about” in Salter’s feverish reality-dream, dancing or otherwise, no distanced atomization of the physicality of sex, the intimacy of physicality. The nakedness of these characters is soul-deep, and the novel demands no less of its reader.

She goes on to ask:

Are Dean and Anne-Marie’s “amorous exercises” raunchy, violent, aberrant, empty, farcical, magical, loving, religious, lyrical, beautiful? I can’t answer that for you; and herein lies the novel’s profound meaning: that it will require courage – maybe even epic courage – for you to answer for yourself.

It truly does. This is a book that deals with sex head-on. There is no, pardon my pun, pussy-footing around the subject. No beating about the bush. No metaphors – breasts are breast, not honeydew melons. To fuck is to fuck, it’s not the quasi-religious rapture that Ayn Rand’s cardboard characters feel, and nor is it the heads-banging-on-wall rumpus that Updike’s characters engage in. It’s direct. It’s sex, for God’s sake – essential, vital, living anf throbbing sex.

And yet its not divorced from love. For Dean and Anne-Marie (the protagonists) sex is, quite simply, how they react to the attraction they feel for each other. It’s a powerful attraction and one that explodes in, what for both of them, is probably the most intense experience of their lives. They travel around small-town France in Dean’s borrowed car, rent hotel rooms and have sex. And their encounters are beautifully rendered by the unnamed narrator. Of course, we’re warned again and again by him that most of what he’s saying is fiction. Who really knows what Dean and Anne-Marie did behind closed doors? As you read further, it becomes harder and harder to tell dream and reality apart. The narrator weaves such an attractive web of deceptions. There’s no real reason for him to describe their time together in such loving detail – at least, he never mentions it. But as the reader, you get a sense of him. Perhaps he’s half in love with Anne-Marie himself, or perhaps he envies Dean, a Yale dropout from a privileged background, his carefree, seemingly endless tour of France. Or he envies both Dean and Anne-Marie their burning romance.

Please read this book. Ditch that horrible rape fantasy scene in The Fountainhead and the smutty, grimy encounters in all those Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon books. I leave you with this evocatively described scene, Dean and Anne-Marie’s first sexual encounter. Maybe that will convince you?

He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath – it is almost a sigh – leaves her. Her white throat appears.

PS – For further reading on James Salter, check out The Paris Review’s essays for their James Salter Month

Just for fun…

I always look forward to Tehelka’s BookWednesday thread on Facebook. It’s a stimulation conversation to be part of, if one is a reader. The themes range from favourite Shakespeare plays to fictional meals that made one’s mouth water. One week’s thread asked readers to put up pictures of their bookshelves (sadly, I never got around to doing that). This week was an especially good challenge: writing short, short fiction – in no more than 50-55 words – on the theme ‘revolution’. As is usual with Tehelka’s threads, this got a great response too. My humble contribution is below:

“She was paying good rent, wasn’t she? Eggshells in her trash were the initial, hesitant declaration of rebellion, reported by her maid to the building committee. Harsh words were exchanged, but unholy ham and beef followed. Pungent bombil was the final, glorious act. But her rented house became the ultimate casualty.”

This is my first attempt at fiction in a prodigiously long time. So long, that I think I grew a few inches in height and in waist measurement in the gap in between the last short fiction I wrote and this attempt. I’m grateful for this little mental kick.

Go and join Tehelka’s Facebook page. It will stimulate your mind. And it’s great fun.

 

My fishy history and book #10 Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian

No, I don’t like fish. I don’t like their staring eyes, as they lie stacked in a fisherwoman’s stall. Nor do I think they look any better when they’re lying on ice in a five-star hotel’s buffet, waiting to be grilled or curried, as per your wish. I do not like the peculiar ‘fishy’ smell they have that makes most fish eaters go weak in the knees. What I do like, however, is the in between stage – when a glistening, moist, pink piece of fishy flesh gets itself coated in some batter and sprinkled with bread crumbs and then thuds onto a sizzling pan. It turns the perfect shade of golden-brown and miraculously, hides beneath its crusty, crumbly exterior, flesh that is still soft and creamy – flesh that detaches itself from the thorn-like bones without a protest.

Of course, I’m not fussy in these matters. I also like looking at fish that has been cooked in a curry that is a belligerent shade of red. Or the milder, more inviting coconut-based green and white curries. Or when it is slathered in mustard paste, and steamed in a banana leaf. Or even when it is simply grilled till it’s nearly falling apart and swimming in its buttery, lemony sauce.  But that’s it. If you ask me to eat the morsels I’ve so lovingly described, I’ll decline.  Yes, I know it’s peculiar. You might even – like many have before – wonder at how a Mallu such as myself can NOT eat fish. But honestly, there are only two occasions I remember having actually enjoyed fish – once when I plopped a piece of grilled pomfret into my mouth out of curiosity only to feel it melt away into buttery oblivion. The other time was when I had a piece of steamed hilsa –a dish that has been so eulogized and mythologized that I felt I had to try a piece of it. But those are the exceptions. It deeply saddens me when I can’t eat fish my mom has dished up for my dad and I still look longingly at the fried rawas and thinly sliced salmon that my friends occasionally gorge on.

Anyway, the reason I brought up my peculiar relationship with fish is that I happened to read Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian. I needed a break after the heaviness that was Beautiful Thing, and I couldn’t have picked a better book to lighten my mood. Following Fish is essentially a compilation of nine essays on different coastal communities of India. The one thing they all have in common is fish and the art of fishing.  Subramanian has been quite catholic in his exploration of fish traditions in India – he’s not only explored the culinary aspect, as he does in the essays on Bengal’s beloved ilish and Mangalore’s famous fish curry; he’s also talked about the art and activity of fishing in Goa and the fishing boat industry in Gujarat.

What strikes one the most while reading this book is Subramanian’s immense passion and devotion to fish.  In his quest to uncover the various ways in which fish influences the lives of coastal communities in India, he’s travelled miles in various modes of transport – not all of them air-conditioned –  and has tasted more fish that one can even name. He’s tried scary curries that look like their main ingredients are oil and red chilli powder and has spent patient hours waiting besides Goan anglers.  His enthusiasm is quite infectious and his writing is conversational and breezy, although occasionally he gets positively lyrical in his descriptions.  It’s not just foodies and fish lovers who will appreciate his prose:

“The mackerel in Pravara’s nisot had been cooked so thoroughly that it disintegrated into creamy flakes at the merest touch. Even the heady scent of that steamy broth – aromatic from the spices, piquant from the tamarind and full of that wonderful, fishy infusion – would be enough to raise men from their deathbeds, let alone their sickbeds. On the invalid’s tongue, the strong flavour of nisot must dance like champagne bubbles, homing in on the sinuses and restoring life to taste buds dulled by medication.”

This was an excerpt from his essay on the Koli community of Mumbai and their particular cuisine, which so few of us really know. In fact, this is one of my favourite essays  – combining a great zeal for culinary exploration with a real sense for a community’s history. Another favourite  is the one set amongst Goa’s anglers. If you’ve read The Old Man and The Sea, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu; not in the prose – the lushness of Subramanian’s prose is so different from the starkness of Hemingway’s style – but in way it conveys the special relationship that fishermen share with the fish they seek to capture. Here, the quarry is not the marlin, but the scarily fast sailfish. However the whole activity – unrelenting in its demand for patience, mental alertness and sheer brute force is the same.  It’s fascinating.  And so is the book.