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Posts tagged “book review

The Gaze

The Gaze

I picked up The Gaze after listening to a speech by the author on TED talks. I usually give a   book 50-100 pages to draw me in. And the first couple of chapters were bleak. I didn’t quite understand what was happening and where the plot was headed, mostly because I was busy deciphering a rather confusing narrative. But instead of putting me off, it challenged me to stay on as if to say, ‘see if you can make sense of me’. And I was equal to the task. I decided to let go of the plot- one of the reasons I was getting bogged down was because I was trying to tie it up with the back cover blurb- so I let go of what I had read there. And I just focused on deciphering the narrative. Which was the best thing I could have done. Shafak has a delicious narrative style that sometimes makes you want to re-read sentences/ phrases and sometimes read them aloud (making everybody around you think you are slightly cuckoo). She effortlessly goes back and forth in time and space and has us surrounded not only by people who are stared at but also the quintessential voyeurs i.e. all the rest of us, both men and women.

And it is in this circumstance, when the reader is surrounded by all these fantastic –cum-terrible-cum-wonderful creatures and voyeurs, that she introduces the Dictionary of Gazes. And who better to obsess over it than B-C, the dwarf. The words that go into the Dictionary of Gazes now appear intermittently throughout the novel.

So, in short, I loved reading this novel. And here’s why. The narrator of the story is nameless. This is a brilliant way of telling you that this character is a ‘nobody’. When you name something, you give it that much more importance. In this case, the idea communicated that the character had a really low self-esteem not least because she was obese. The only other place that I have come across the use of the nameless narrator is Ghosh’ s The Shadow Lines.

There are a couple of chapters that go to 18th century Siberia and 17th century France. Shafak is describing the origins of two spectacles that form part of an exhibition of spectacles in 19th century Turkey. Before delving into these background stories she introduces a caveat in the previous chapter suggesting that the reader can skip the following chapter completely if she so wished. I didn’t. Personally, I loved both chapters because it gave a background to something I wasn’t quite comprehending. But more importantly, both of them was talking about some violation that had taken place that had led to the creation of these spectacles. But I also think that her suggestion was interesting. Towards the end she says there are many ways of telling a story and repeats the stories without the key violation. There is no spectacle that is created, rendering both stories useless. One is left wondering if the reader could really have left out those two chapters in her reading. I will never know.

Finally, her language is full of imagery. I also found some ( not too much) similarities with ‘magical realism’. Both of these made the reading so much more engaging. Sometimes imagery is easy to get but this kind of imagery was challenging, and so there was a continuous dialogue with the reader. Her language was also whimsical at times. This was one of the things that took time getting used to. But in the end, it was also one of the things that made the reading challenging and interesting.

A final caveat- this is a translation from the Turkish original. I am not sure how much of the ‘challenging’ aspects of the language of the book comes from it being Turkish and how much from it being an inefficient translation ( if it is). Perhaps someone who knows both languages can tell. But I do wonder how much was lost in translation.

‘Please Sir, I want some more.’

Sometimes the impact of the first sentence in a story or a novel is breathtaking. It just sets such a tone to the novel that it seems unlikely the story should drag. And sometimes the beginning alone sustains the rest of the story. Since I write, I read about writing. There are hundreds of prescriptive websites that instruct you on how to write and what to write. I don’t find their instruction particularly helpful with respect to my writing; but the prescriptions are great for reading. For example, when I read somewhere that it helps to have a beginning that is full of impact, my attention immediately turned to observing and noticing beautiful and momentous beginnings in all that I read ( I also notice not so great beginnings). So here are three of my favourite beginnings for novels and, incidentally, they are all written by the same author. These beginnings make you want to say, “please, sir, I want some more.”

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green islets and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…Fog in theeyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.


–       Bleak House by Charles Dickens

In this paragraph, Dickens has already introduced us to the bleakness. Fog is bleak. The second element of genius is the relevance of the description across time and space. Parts of 21st century industrialising India can also be described in those words. In fact, I was reminded of the paragraph as I walked to work in the morning; as I walked in the smog. And the enveloping ways of the fog is full of constraint, limitations, despair, hopelessness – bleak. The atmosphere is set. Our social strata is set what with ‘shivering little ‘prentice boy’ and ‘ ancient Greenwich pensioners’. We know it is a ‘great(and dirty) city’ that has ‘tiers of shipping’ and ‘waterside pollutions’. We know that this is a story that is set among the working class of a newly industrialised. We know its newly industrialised because ‘people on the bridges (are) peeping over….as if they were up in a balloon hanging in the misty clouds’. An analogy like that demonstrates that this ‘fog’ is new and unexpected much like that balloon in the clouds. There is enough reiteration for the concept to sink in but not too much.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch ofincredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–       A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After the first sentence, we know this is a historically momentous time; a time of contradictions, of polarisations, of dichotomies. Such turbulence can only be brought about by some kind of macro political, social and/or economic upheaval. And again, it is a description that transcends space and time. Parts of 21st century India could be described this way. And the author knows about this universal significance as he says ‘in short, the period was so far like the present period’.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”


–       Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is my favourite Dickens novel. And this is why. The paragraph describes the post-renaisance era’s preoccupation with ‘objective, cold, scientific, rational facts’ (a preoccupation that continues to this day!) So again it describes a situation that transcends time and space. Dickens also lays the foundation for a critique of a system of education that seeks to ‘form minds of reasoning animals’ by ‘plant(ing) nothing else, and root(ing) out everything else (other than facts)’.

The major themes that Dickens introduces in the first paragraphs of each of these novels pervade through the entirety of the novel much like the fog in “Bleak House”. This consistency of genius is what makes books like these read time and again over centuries. Crucial as beginnings are to stories and narratives, it takes genius to see it through in the entire novel. So as a prescriptive for writing, it is useless, atleast for beginners.

The Silent Raga

Ok, I must write about this book. I have just finished reading the Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant. The novel is the story of two Tamil Brahmin sisters, Mallika and Janaki. They are brought up in a strict agraharam in a small town near Madras. Circumstances make Janaki run away from her exploitative agraharam life and she does the unthinkable. She marries a Muslim film star called Asghar from Bombay. In her wake, she leaves Mallika to deal with the repercussions of the step she has taken. Mallika has to deal with an increasingly unscrupulous and unreasonable father, a busy-body aunt, Gayatri chithi and the scorn that the rest of the agraharam has for the family. The story is a narrative that shuffles between Mallika and Janaki who are made to reflect over the happenings of those long years when in a bid to offer the olive brach, Janaki asks to meet Mallika ten years on.

like a dry martini!

like a dry martini

The novel is brilliant because of two characters. The development of the characters of Appa and Gayatri chitti is truly superb. Although one might well ask what I know of Tambrahms, having been brought up in typically non tambrahm areas in different cities of the country, I think all tambrahms, even the city bred ones can identify characters like appa and gayatri chithi in their large circle of tambrahm acquaintances. Appa is the typical patriarchal, obnoxious, know-it-all male prototype tambrahm that one so often encounters at weddings. Gayatri chithi is the loud, outspoken, crass, resourceful and selfconfident female prototype that one might again encounter at weddings. Both these are the typical people we hate to associate with but have to at some point or the other because they happen to be a favourite great aunt’s children.
That a parsi man (I presume Ameen Merchant is one) can so totally comprehend life in an agraharam for two girls is truly breathtaking. I can only imagine what his mental discipline might have been to imagine something so wholly alien to his experience. Thumbs up, for that great effort.
The end of the story was anti-climactic and abrupt. Almost as if he grew tired of it and wanted to finish it off. But I loved every moment of it anyway. It is not often that one gets such a honest, sad and at the same time hilarious account that holds a mirror to ones community.