Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, though his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.
In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.
Nek Chand‘s Rock Garden was one of the first places I went to see when I moved to Chandigarh in 1981. There were few places to see in Chandigarh — the Rose Garden and the Sukhna Lake being the other two major attractions. What made the Rock Garden stand out was the inventiveness with which everyday waste had been recycled into beautiful creations.
The middle classes at that time had not yet tasted the explosion in wealth that came in the 1990s, and as children our hobbies bore the imprint of the economic necessities that marked our lives. During summer vacations, I would try to make papier mache crafts from old newspaper and jell bits of leftover soap into a soap bar. The melted wax of the candles during Diwali would be patiently collected the next morning and melted again with a wick to create home-made candles.
Perhaps it was this economic frugality in the everyday life that subconsciously attracted us to the Rock Garden and left a deeper impression than most other landmarks in Chandigarh.
Unlike Le Corbusier, whose name we struggled to pronounce and spell, Nek Chand was a common man’s name. “Nek” means “a good natured” person and we imagined a person whose heart was full of kindness. The sculptures seemed to bear that out, too. We were awed by the presence of a local hero, a living legend. There were stories about how he moved around in the city on a bicycle. Kids claimed to have seen him in the garden, and I would not have believed them had I also not spotted him there myself.
Stories about his simplicity abounded and sometimes made headlines.Read More »
The Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War gives a glimpse of the deep involvement of poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes that “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”.
Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure.
I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.
Among the writers who have looked at the impact political dictatorship in suppressing natural human instincts is Manuel Puig (1932-1990). One of the first post-Boom writers, he’s best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Llosa once said about him,
Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig.
The plot of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, Manuel’s first novel in English, is seemingly straightforward. Ramirez, an Argentinian trade union-organizer and revolutionary, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization and is provided an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous stream of dialogue between the two, as the attendant, Larry takes Ramirez around New York.Read More »
(written on 20th November 2015, the 30th death anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a poet much loved in Pakistan and India)
(Picture by Sunil Janah)
21 November 1984. Faiz Ahmed Faiz came to me in an obituary in the newspaper, The Tribune, when I was a curious high school student preparing for a general knowledge quiz.
1987. Faiz reappeared in a communist march, with his tarana, “Hum mehnatkash jagwalon se jab apna hissa maangeygain,” the equivalent of the Internationale in Hindustani – on my lips.
Faiz came to me a year later, in a small booklet published by some radical outfit that is long gone.
Faiz came to me in his collected poems, “Saare Sukhan Hamare” (“All words are ours”). I made a long trip to old Delhi’s Daryaganj in DTC buses to Raj Kamal Prakashan to procure the newly-published book at the then royal price of Rs 100. It was that difficult and that expensive to buy it. The book still accompanies me, along with the “Diwan-e-Ghalib”, a quarter of a century later.
Faiz’s quatrain, “Raat yoon teri khoyi hui yaad aayi” (“And in such ways your lost memories came as night fell”) became my first painting that I created inspired by a poem.
“Raat yun dil mein teri khoyi hui yaad aayi,
Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye,
Jaise sehraaon mein haule se chale baad-e-naseem,
Jaise beemaar ko be-wajhe qaraar aa jaaye.”Read More »
Latin American Literature is like the Amazon river, massive in its expanse and meandering across many thematic streams. The most well known of these is its association with magical realism and what has come to be called the “dictatorship novels.” But there is more to it. It has explored fantasy, the eternal theme of love as well as that of sexual suppression and, of late, the psychological life of the individual as the collective village communities give way to urban angst.
There is a lot more to Latin American literature than magical realism.
My earliest memory of food is eating roshogollas at our neighbour, the portly Mrs. Sen’s flat in Bokaro. Other memories from that age—three—and later, mostly include things I did not like— milk, brinjals, karela, spinach and yogurt. Over the years I’ve made peace with and even begun to like all these, except yogurt, for which I retain a strong revulsion.