Saturday, August 2, 2008

Strains of India

The Teacher by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

This short story appeared in the New Yorker recently, and caught my eye. Not only because Ruth is from New Delhi; she lived next door to my aunt on Flag Staff road. As kids we viewed that house with a bit of awe, which was reinforced when, as teenagers, we saw the movie, A Room with a View.

The story is tightly woven around, unpredictably, a person of Indian origin, an enigmatic Dr. Chacko. He seems to epitomise the multifaceted gurus who haunt the western world with promises of spiritual up-liftment, and to a middle class Indian mind is a well known evil. Some of what he and his disciples do and say in the story is unsprising; over reacting to the preaching, an illusion of attaining moksha, and congregations which are covertly money spinners. The interaction with the narrator is complicated though. She provides a place for Chacko to stay, while his dedicated followers provide the breakfast. The relationship with the narrator gets quite intricate, and one keeps on waiting for a misdemeanour to occur. It occurs, but unexpectedly is one which is classified under section 420 of the Indian penal code. Looks like Ruth has been unable to shrug off her stay in India.

There are shades of prurience in some passages, with a tinge of D.H. Lawrence as one reads:

During these warm months, my evening walks sometimes took me as far as the waterfall at the edge of my property. The precipitous climb to the rock from which it fell was no longer easy for me, but I enjoyed the solitude there, the moss-covered stones, the trees bending toward the arc of the water. One day I saw a figure within that arc, sheathed in its iridescence and turning in its spray: it was Dr. Chacko, naked and singing as he soaped himself. His towel and a pair of rubber flip-flops lay on a rocky edge far enough away not to get away.

The development of the relationship with the narrator takes on layers of development which slowly unpeel at a leisurely pace. Ruth’s sensitivity to this aspect is well recognised, and was evident in A Room with a View and Heat and Dust. Although one is left a bit bewildered at the end. What exactly did Dr. Chacko leave behind in his legacy?

Odds and Ends

The Man Booker long list was unveiled this week, and notable authors from the sub-continent are highlighted below:

Aravind Adiga : The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold : Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry : The Secret Scripture
John Berger : From A to X
Michelle de Kretser : The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant : The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency
Joseph O’Neil: Netherland
Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith: Child 44
Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

One of the judges is Hardeep Singh Kohli, a very English name, a TV and Radio broadcaster.

Delhi Chronicles

It’s yesterday once again

I was stuck in the car yesterday, negotiating a tiresome traffic jam, and had to listen to my driver’s favourite program, the cricket commentary,. The English commentator was salivating and slurping after each ball, and it was painful to listen in. Which reminded me of my school days, when listening to commentary on a hand held radio, while standing on the DTC bus footboard and leaning out to feel the breeze in your 70’s style Rajesh Khanna hair style was the in thing to do. The question “Bhaisahib score kya hai” – “What is the score” ( Bhaisahib is untranslatable, only a Delhi-wallah can capture the essence of this form of address) casually flung at anybody with the contraption stuck to his ear invariably got a reply. The tone of the reply told you the state of the match. An excited reply was rare, and a languid answer was what one got most of the time. Those were the times of the full full five days of test cricket, with a rest day thrown in. India’s score lines were invariably less than today’s T20 matches. The TV sets were rare, and that too in black and white. In fact, the TV commentators were so popular that Dad used to lower the volume on the TV, and the voice over came from the radio, strategically placed on top of the TV. Looking back, this probably gives the best bang for your buck, as we had to pay for the TV and the Radio license! The sight of the giant Tony Grieg standing menacingly close to the batsman still sends shivers down the backs of many old timers.

Aside: Britons still have to pay for a TV license. You poor sods!

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