Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Poetry Session – August 4, 2017

Pamela, Ankush
The poetry session began with a surprise phone call from Kumkum in Boston, wishing the group a great session. She was sad she could not participate and her health issues did not permit her to submit poems in the Dropbox via a voice file, as Joe managed.

Onion Bhajjis for refreshment

Priya took the notes for this post and administered the session, and Hemjit contributed many of the live pictures of the readers during the sessions. Ankush showed up having missed the previous one on Pnin for family reasons. Onion fritters, tea and coffee were served.

Saras

Thommo informed the members that the tea and onion bhajis would be his treat for his belated birthday, which he shares with George Bernard Shaw! Saras suggested that KRG should have a birthday list of its members and we could celebrate birthdays at the reading sessions. Pamela made a note of the birthdays of members present – many of whom share theirs with literary personalities: Shoba with Shakespeare, Thommo with GBS, Hemjit with Muhammad Ali, but Priya would like to hide hers for it’s an infamous date in modern times.

Thommo, Priya, Zakia, Pamela, Saras, Ankush, &  Hemjit (seated)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Independence Came Seventy Years Ago



I belong to the generation born just before World War II, who arrived at the age of awareness around the time of India’s Independence. I was in the school bus being ferried to San Thome Convent when I first heard the word ‘Dominion Status’ applied to India (it was splashed in huge font on the front page of the newspaper a teacher was holding). The term conveyed little to me beyond the sense of a new era beginning. I didn’t know yet that I had been living in a subjugated country all my life. Lord Mountbatten, and then C. Rajagopalachari, were to be the Governors General before India became a Republic.

Lord & Lady Mountbatten with Gandhi

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari


Uncle Louis, in whose house we stayed in Madras, had spent time in Alipore jail in Calcutta as a political prisoner after he was a student at Scottish Church College. The morning routine for the warders was to call out to the inmates, “Sarkar ko salaam bolo!” to which they would defiantly respond in unison “Jail ka darwaza kholo!



From his house we all bundled into his cream Chevrolet to go to the Island Grounds in Madras, because Gandhiji was coming to speak. There wasn’t enough seating for my uncle, and aunt Kuttiamma, my mother and sister, my portly ayah, Dhanammal, our man Friday, Munuswamy, and our erudite driver, Damodaran. So my sister and I sat on stools at the back. I remember nothing of the speech or the voice, but can see the posts on which the loudspeakers were mounted, and the bamboo partitions to corral the crowds. It was a sea of vermilion and green, with white Gandhi caps on nearly every head. I don’t remember what songs were played, but there was music relayed to the furthest expanse of the grounds.


When Independence actually arrived there was a celebration at school. I was clad in white shorts, a collarless shirt and Gandhi cap and stood somewhere along the West Coast of the outline of India painted white on the long sloping flight of black granite steps rising from the playground to the Form classes (Forms I to VI) above. We had little paper flags pinned to our chest and a rousing chant of the Jana-Gana-Mana arose as we held candles in our hand — there on the steps, we enclosed the virtual extent of Bharat, that is India, metaphorically uniting the whole country.


Deep in the south we knew nothing as children of what went on at the borders. The vast population migration, and the towns and villages being cleansed of the people who had been living there for centuries was unimagined, unknown. Being children we were insulated from the savage surgical pain by which two countries came into being, cast adrift by a feckless colonial power.


Of all that I came to know only later when we transited to Calcutta in the summer of 1948 and witnessed the tail-end of the bloody riots in that city. The internecine killings were only doused when the army came out in flag marches with infantry and armoured cars. Periodically there would be an eruption, but never again on a thousandth of the scale that happened at Partition.


Much literature has been contributed by those who experienced the birth pangs of India (and Pakistan) — from Pakistani writers like Manto and Indian writers like Khushwant Singh. Later, others who grew up with no consciousness of Independence have brilliantly imagined aspects of it: Salman Rushdie, for example.


In South India there was joy and a blissful distance from the tragedy up North and in the East. Independence was only good news for the millions south of the Vindhyas. There was a rebellion by the razakars in Hyderabad (Deccan) attempting to make the province accede to Pakistan. It was quickly put down by a ‘police action.’ But we heard nothing of the massacres, and I do not recall any shadow cast on Independence Day by the hatred and pogroms that convulsed the Punjab and Bengal. Later in my youth I learned Partition caused the largest migration known to humans in recent times, perhaps ever.



But even in the South we experienced loss, the terrible loss which came so soon after freedom, when Gandhi was assassinated. At this distance of sixty-nine years in time I can see Uncle Louis sitting forlorn, head bowed, hand over forehead, in the living room of our Mowbrays Road house. All India Radio was announcing the death of Bapu, as he was called. From Nehru’s lips, in words more moving even than his Tryst with Destiny speech, issued the words: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”



The difficult days of Independence lay ahead.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin, July 7, 2017


Pnin - first edition cover, 1957

Pnin is the novel that most nearly reflects the life experiences of Nabokov: as an émigré from Russia living in Europe, an immigrant to America, and a professor at an upstate New York college. Pnin and Nabokov are both possessed by an intense nostalgia for the Russia and St Petersburg of their youth, and a revulsion for the totalitarian regime that followed.

Vladimir Nabokov, lepidopterist

The novel also allows Nabokov room to indulge some of his pet peeves, such as psychiatry (Pnin‘s first wife is a psychiatrist). He lampoons the ridiculous investigations that go by the name of research in academia. This novel belongs to the campus genre, but its unique feature is the character of Pnin. The reader will sympathise; Pnin is not a fool but a victim, partly of his own eccentricities and obsessions, and partly of the strange land in which nothing comports with prior expectation.

Thommo & Pamela

There is a rich vein of humour, accompanied by a quiet sadness, and relieved by an optimism nowhere revealed as well as when Pnin meets Victor, the son of his ex-wife. Pnin delicately welcomes him with a football. Without any obligation he is going to take care of Victor's pocket money at the expensive prep school.

Hemjith & KumKum

This novel which Nabokov wrote as a sequence of stories for the New Yorker magazine, beginning in 1953, became a successful English novel when published by Doubleday in 1957. He was writing Lolita during this time, and when that novel came out, Nabokov could give up his teaching at Cornell (aka Waindell) and retire to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Geneva to devote himself to writing, lepidoptery, and composing chess problems, for the rest of his life.

Hemjith & Shoba

 There are many memorable quotes:
Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam.

There is an old American saying ‘He who lives in a glass house should not try to kill two birds with one stone.’

Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?

No jewels, save my eyes, do I own, but I have a rose which is even softer than my rosy lips.

The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.

I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.


Joe, Pamela, Priya, Thommo, Hemjith (seated) Sunil, KumKum, Shoba, Zakia

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Romantic Poets Session – Jun 15, 2017



It was a record attendance – all but one of our readers attended and we had a lovely guest, retired professor of English from St. Teresa's College, Betty Kuriyan.

Shoba, Betty, KumKum

We all enjoyed the occasion, which was celebrated with sandwiches and cakes with tea and coffee. Our special thanks go to KumKum who proposed the happy idea of a session of poetry devoted to the English Romantic poets. She then followed up with the readers to ensure attendance. Kudos to her; and to Priya for arranging the splendid refreshments.

Saras (back) Hemjith, Kavita, Shoba, Betty, Joe, KumKum, Zakia

Although Thommo and Ankush were recovering from medical issues, both participated with abandon.

Saras, Hemjith

In our family I am allowed to decide whether Keats or Shelley is the greater poet, but there is no evidence from this session for a conclusion either way. Other contenders among the Romantics seem equally eligible. What a marvellous group of poets to have arrived in one place within a generation and elevated poetry to Himalayan heights!

Priya, Saras, Hemjith, Kavita

This time Sunil was missing; his absence has a generally downhill influence on the gathering for lack of wisecracks and laughter. As we are reading a humorous novella next time (Pnin) his attendance is a must if we are to derive the full experience.

Betty, KumKum, Zakia


Zakia, who came but did not read, is missing from the group picture below.


Ankush, Saras, Thommo, Priya, KumKum, Shoba, Pamela, Betty Kavita, Preeti, Hemjith (seated)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Paul Beatty — The Sellout May 24, 2017



The cover of the novel depicts Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher who allegedly carried around a lit lantern in broad daylight, saying he was “looking for an honest man”. But the Diogenes shown here is black, jauntily clad in pink shirt and white trousers.


The reading was poorly attended and a couple of readers had not managed to read the novel. Nevertheless with a bit of urging they too read from passages others had selected.

Paul Beatty - ‘I wanted to be a psychologist. It taught me how to look underneath the rock’

There's a lot of drollery and sheer extravagance in the use of language, sprinkled plentifully with mother-fuckers, bitches and psychology jargon. The characters are often denizens of the absurd: Hominy Jenkins who volunteers as slave to the narrator (‘Me’) and calls him Massa in the manner of a pre-Reconstruction era slave; a punk pretender called Foy Cheshire who lives by publishing the ideas of Me's father and heads the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. And Marpessa the attractive bus-driver Me yearns for, who seems unattainable.

Preeti

Me goes about his life work of
a) Re-creating the erased town of agrarian Dickens in LA County, the largest and most diverse county in USA whose population of 10m is larger than that of 42 states; and
b) Re-segregating its society so people may regain a sense of community, identity and self-worth.

Thommo


Miraculously he succeeds in both ventures, and the rejuvenated Dickens scores higher on measures of social and educational progress than it ever had before. However, he runs foul of the Civil Rights Act and ends up facing judgement in the Supreme Court of the United Staes, refighting the ‘separate-but-equal’ battles of the 1960s.

KumKum & Joe


Though Me wins Marpessa by novel's end, since the case is unresolved, there's scope for a even crazier sequel.

Almond Nougat

Here we are at the end of the reading after consuming the sweet almond nougat Hemjit brought along:

Joe, Thommo, Sunil, Preeti (back row) KumKum, Hemjit (sitting)


Monday, April 10, 2017

Poetry Session – Apr 5, 2017


Seven readers attended, but several more would have come but for last-minute exigencies.

Karutha halwa

KumKum brought halwa to offer readers for the forthcoming Vishu celebration; Easter too is around the corner. Thommo ordered coffee for us and we were seated this time around two tables covered with elegant white tablecloths in a boardroom setting.

Two of the choices were novelists who turned their hand to poetry. Poets ancient and modern, famous and unknown, excited the senses of our readers.

Readers bring their wide experience to the poems and provide insights and appreciation. It is rare that a finely turned line misses an expression of relish. Often there are humorous sidelights to add a topical flavour to the readings.


From the relaxed comfort of the boardroom setting Joe forgot to use his camera to go around and capture the readers. Hence, there is only this final group picture:

Joe, Shoba, Thommo, Zakia, (seated) Saras, Hemjit, KumKum

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie — Americanah Mar 10, 2017

 Americanah cover, first edition May 2013

Chimamanda Adichie says in one of her talks that she did not realise she was black until she went to America. The fact that this novel says a lot about race is primarily on account of Ifemelu's similar journey to America as part of her growing up, and Obinze's experience of England as a migrant without papers. Some of the most thoughtful writing is within the posts of Ifemelu on her blog Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

But it was the author's goal to write an old-fashioned love story too. Ifemelu takes a shine to this cool guy, Obinze, at school and over time he completely falls for her, and she becomes the first and last love of his life. This overhang is always in the background of the novel, but in the foreground she obtains her liberation in America, all but forgets Obinze, and lives with two other men in succession. They too hold our interest. Meanwhile the reader thinks: what will happen in the end?

Pamela, Kavita, KumKum

It ends a little too fast as though the publisher had a deadline and the author had to come up with the best ending she could in the time available. In the process she forgets the cardinal rule of classic love stories: they have to end tragically, or at least unsatisfactorily.

Ankush, Shoba

There are many memorable quotes:
You can love without making love.

Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look.

I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black.

Ankush, Thommo, Shoba, Kavita, KumKum, Pamela, Joe

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Poetry Session – Feb 10, 2017

Thommo, Hemjit
Eight of us met for a session of poetry and we had a guest, Martin Enckell, a poet from Finland who was spending time in India. Priya met him for an interview and invited him to join.

 Priya, Preeti

The Dropbox is gaining ground as a way of sharing poems so everybody has an electronic copy before the session. In case anyone is having a problem, please send the links to the poems, if not, just the titles of the poems and the poet name to Joe and he will try to scare up the poems from somewhere and put them in the folders of the KRG Dropbox.

Martin Enckell, Pamela, KumKum, Priya

We had some all-time favourite poets like Vikram Seth, and some lesser known performance poets who are making the current scene in England and elsewhere. Amid them we had a novelist and a playwright trying their hand at poetry.

Zakia, Pamela

Poetry gives us a wide sampling of writers and enables us to enjoy at a single session the cultural contributions of a diverse group. Invariably, in coming to grips with new writers there is a difficulty but the readers advance ideas to clarify points, and others come up with alternate interpretations. Poetry with its characteristic requirement that the sound and the sense amplify each other, offers an open field for the human voice.

Martin Enckell, Pamela, KumKum


We heard from one of our old readers, Ankush Banerjee, that he is back in town and may put in an appearance soon. Old readers are welcome to drop in if they are in town. We miss them all.
KumKum, Pamela, Priya, Thommo, Preeti, Martin Enckell, Joe, Hemjit (seated)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Paul Beatty Interview at Kolkata Lit Meet - Jan 25, 2017



Paul Beatty's Booker Prize winning novel, The Sellout, is the fiction selected for reading at KRG in the month of May. KumKum and Joe were in Kolkata for a week and it so happened the Kolkata Lit Meet (Kalam) was on at the same time

They took the opportunity of attending a session at which the author was interviewed. 

Sandip Roy (SR), author and interviewer, sat down with Paul Beatty (PB) for a chat. A few hundred people attended the evening session in the eastern lawns of the Victoria Memorial under a billowing shamiana, as the sun was going down behind the VM. While the conversation turned on several issues, including the election of the US President (Mr Trump), it was mainly about Mr Beatty's latest novel:


The cover shows Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher who, legend has it, went  around with a lit lantern in broad daylight, saying he was ‘looking for an honest man’. In the book too there is a black man with white trousers and a pink shirt, and the reader will wonder what he is searching for.

KumKum gets a front-seat audience with Paul Beatty
(Beatty's wife, Althea Amrik Wasow, is behind KumKum's left shoulder)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Tracy Chevalier — Girl with a Pearl Earring Jan 13, 2017


First edition, London 1999

After early neglect Johannes Vermeer's ascendancy in the world of art has been rapid. He painted what are regarded as some of the most precious paintings of northern Europe. People admired his colours and his compositional technique which produced quiet genre paintings of women going about everyday tasks. Every painting draws the viewer in, yet does not yield its mystery no longer how long one views it.


Jan Vermeer van Delft from the figure at left in black beret of the painting ‘The Procuress’, which critics hold to be an authentic effigy of the young Vermeer

He remained poor all his working life and never left Delft, his hometown. He had but one major patron (Van Ruijven) who left his own daughter a legacy of 20 paintings by Vermeer. 

Vermeer had eleven children to feed and depended on rents brought in by his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, for pursuing his passion to paint. In the end a ruinous war destroyed the art market and a defensive measure by the Dutch to flood the lowlands by opening the dykes inundated his mother-in-law's rental houses. That brought on destitution for the Vermeer family; he descended into despondency and mania and died, leaving behind 34 works, now considered priceless.

Meera, KumKum, Zakia, Saras

Tracy Chevalier mentions she must have seen three of Vermeer's paintings at the National Gallery of Art growing up in Washington, D.C., but none evoked a response at the time. It was later when she saw a poster of the Girl with a Pearl Earring in her sister's apartment that she was stirred and got one for herself. 

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Vermeer

Slowly the idea grew to write the story behind the painting as a historical novel, rooted faithfully in the times. It was to be Ms Chevalier's second novel, the one that made her famous and got her a film contract in addition.

Sunil, Thommo, & Hemjit

The novel is not literary, but there are several quotes that stand out:
But what is the story in the painting? — Griet's father asks her
I would never stop working on a painting if I knew it was not complete.— Vermeer to Griet

During the session the women readers graciously posed in the way Vermeer had Griet pose for his famous painting, the GWAPE pose. Here is the first by Priya:

Priya in GWAPE pose with nose-ring

The readers gathered for a picture after the enjoyable session which concluded with Hemjit's spread of sandwiches and cutlets, to celebrate his birthday on Jan 16:



seated - Pamela, KumKum, Hemjit - standing Joe, Thommo, Zakia, Sunil, Saras, Meera