15 June 2007

Preserving the past is not easy

We don’t have to be historians or archaeologists or anthropologists or psychologists to know that the past has a grip on us. Almost everyone I know (including me) is troubled by it in some form or the other. Parental correction, sibling rivalry, lack of love, loss, humiliation, oppression… there’s no end to the list of human experiences and emotions which leave us scarred with memories of the past.

It’s not always negative or unhappy experiences that trouble us about the past. Memories of happy and exciting moments, too, have vice-like grips on our minds and our emotions, influencing our responses to the present. No matter how wonderful our pasts have been, it’s the absence of those happy moments that create a vacuum in our lives and cause pain in the present. I guess that’s what loss is all about.

Most of our contemporary fiction and films contain strong, and repeated, elements of memories (strangely, I can’t think of too many Classics which do that) to connect the fragmented narratives. Often, filmmakers and authors use devices such as dreams and photographs (Ingmar Bergman in ‘Wild Strawberries’), letters and diary (Amitav Ghosh in ‘The Hungry Tide’), audio tapes and video (Atom Egoyan in ‘Next of Kin’, ‘Family Viewing’, ‘Exotica’), or, simply, other shorter narratives in the form of recounting a version of the past (Milan Kundera in ‘Identity’).

What I found interesting in these films and novels is that they brought to surface a complication. These devices – images and words – far from being a solution to the filmmaker and the author in recording or narrating the past, actually ran aground when their recordings and narratives disagreed with the actual (authentic) recollections of memories of the persons involved… sometimes catching them by surprise.

Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher, whose treatises on literature, film and fine arts (besides philosophy) are exemplary, had once proclaimed that preserving the past on film is not easy. That, ‘filmic images’ compete with our ‘recollection images’ – i.e. our memories of events not captured on film or audio – making a ‘truthful’ narrative presentation on film rather difficult.

Milan Kundera, in his slim novel, ‘Identity’, seems to suggest that, when recollecting, particularly memories of loved ones, our own version of the past varies abominably, sometimes with drastic differences.

13 June 2007

Piecing together a narrative

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”
“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”
“…but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”
“I’m sure mine only works one way.” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things before they happen.”
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.

(Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Chapter 5 – Wool and Water)

Memories are an important part of our lives. They give us meaning, linking our past with our present, explaining our lives. They seldom come to us as one long story, beginning to end, explaining everything in one narrative; but appear in fragments, many a times triggered by cues from our daily lives which are unknown to us.

It is this mysterious, fragmented and episodic nature of memories that fascinates me. And, this piecing together of fragments to make a whole – a story, a picture, a life – is what attracts me to the art of storytelling. For, what purpose does my memory serve if not to help me tell my story – to come to terms with my own past, my history, my identity? I see it as something that explains who I am.

Coincidentally, I’m not alone here. When I look around, I see fiction and film inundated with memories – sometimes whole sequences of them, stories within stories, films within films, sometimes appearing repeatedly – filling in what has been denied to the reader/film-viewer, and sometimes even to the characters in the story or the film, explaining the raison d’etre of the longer and larger story that we read or view or experience.

This denial – and the subsequent, automatic filling in that memories do – is an interesting phenomenon. And, what better medium to represent it than film, visually. Although I’ve seen many films which deal with memories in an artistic cinematic manner, the film that comes first to my mind is Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, a B&W film made some 50 years ago, in which the first memory of the protagonist’s, an aging professor’s, childhood was a field of wild strawberries.

Memories, along with identity and history and loss, form an important part of Atom Egoyan’s films (about which I have written in my previous post) as well. The film-viewer’s enjoyment of Egoyan’s films, from his first ‘Next of Kin’ in 1984 to his 2005 film ‘Where the Truth Lies’, is really achieved – completed and even climaxed – by piecing together fragments, much of it in the form of memories, from the various characters’ pasts to form one complete narrative in the end.

For both Bergman and Egoyan, this heavy reliance on memories leads to complex films. With Bergman, memories represent dream-like sequences which tend to freeze time; and in ‘Wild Strawberries’, for example, Bergman uses dreams and photographs to a great extent to piece the narrative together. With Egoyan, using metaphors (and media aids) such as videos, audio tapes, fairy tales, and even colour, memories fill time and space, providing a continuity which is necessary (for the film-viewer) to piece the narrative together.

10 June 2007


One of the most critical (literary) devices for the émigré author is the act of remembering. For, much of the content of immigrant writing is derived from memories… from material dug up from the author’s past and, perhaps, personal experience. Not all of it is literal, of course. An author’s keen observation plays an important part in recording facts and human behaviour, and then fictionalising them.

For instance, it’s unlikely that J M Coetzee had lost his leg in a bicycle accident to have written ‘Slow Man’; or that, Amitav Ghosh had waded through the swamps of the Sundarbans to chase river dolphins in West Bengal, India, to have written ‘The Hungry Tide’. But, using metaphors – in these cases, the inability to adjust (or re-adjust) to a new life after a loss or displacement or when fate deals a blow – émigré authors have a tendency to lure themselves into creating fiction based on personal experiences from, and memories of, their past.

Of course, most authors of fiction use similar devices, but the émigré author’s story has a haunting connection with the real past. Much of it is personal. Sometimes, it is difficult to separate the real from the fictional.

When the weaver of such émigré fiction is also a talented film director, then the stories seem more real. They take on a more solid hue, playing on the screens before us in words and pictures. One such film director, and a favourite of mine, who has adapted many of his films from his own émigré material is Atom Egoyan.

An Armenian-Canadian, Egoyan’s greatest achievement is his film ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ – a tale of adjustment (or re-adjustment) of lives when a bus-load of school children die in a road accident, soon followed by the arrival of a lawyer trying to compensate their loss with money… forcing them to remember their past lives, their loss and their grief.

While Nicole, the girl permanently crippled from the bus accident in ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, refuses to give in to the destructive forces of the lawsuit and changes the course of the lives of everyone in the film, Paul Rayment, J M Coetzee’s protagonist in ‘Slow Man’, crippled from the bicycle accident at the beginning of the novel, refuses to change the course of his life and live in its sorrow.

Such is the power of remembering, and Egoyan’s later film ‘Ararat’ thrives on it. ‘Ararat’ deals directly with the loss of a homeland and an identity that result from a historical and a political event – the Armenian Genocide, when the Turkish government overran the Armenians in 1915-18, killing one and a half million Armenians. But, that’s not all.

‘Ararat’ also deals with the coming to terms with this loss at a distant future (the present), where generations of émigré Armenians are trying to adjust (or re-adjust) to a new life in a new country. Egoyan seems to say that Armenians (like himself) cannot help but remember their past, with generations of Armenians intricately connected with it, weaving in this aspect of Armenian life through multiple characters and multiple layers in this complex film.

In ‘The Hungry Tide’, Amitav Ghosh presents a similar scenario, but in a far complex manner. He presents three generations of Bengalis from different walks of life, interconnected through their past and their Bengali identity, subtly touching upon an event from Bengal’s history – an uprising by homeless Bangladeshi refugees in Morichjhapi in the Sundarbans which was overrun by the West Bengal government in 1979, killing hundreds of Bangladeshi refugees.

While the significance of the historical event is central to Egoyan’s film, in Ghosh’s novel it is only incidental. But both, film and novel, raises a moral question of how we deal with history and our personal remembrances of it. Egoyan is unable to provide an answer to this question. Ghosh simply doesn’t offer one. So, we are left to form our own conclusions.

07 June 2007

Intellectual allegiance

South African writer J M Coetzee, winner of two Booker Prizes, makes no bones about it. Soon after winning his Nobel Prize in 2003, Coetzee, in an interview with David Attwell, stated that his “intellectual allegiances are clearly European, not African.” And that, all his life, his writing has faithfully responded to this DNA. Even in Australia, where he moved a few years ago, Coetzee has maintained a European sentimentality while lamenting over his immigrant status, documenting it in his 2005 book ‘Slow Man’.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born Japanese but now living in England, and another Booker Prize winner, expresses similar views. In his January Magazine interview with Linda Richards (which I also cited in my previous post), Ishiguro stated, “That’s how I kind of branded myself right from the start: as somebody who didn’t know Japan deeply, writing in English whole books with only Japanese characters in. Trying to be part of the English literary scene like that.”

Like Ishiguro, who had moved to England as a child, Michael Ondaatje, also a Booker Prize winner, had moved to Canada from Sri Lanka at the age of eight and acquired Canadian citizenship along with his family. He has grown up in Canada and currently resides there with his Canadian family. Apart from a touch of Sri Lanka here and there (such as in ‘Running in the Family’ or in ‘Anil’s Ghost’), Ondaatje’s writing has always been peppered with an international flavour.

When I think about these authors, I often wonder how strong their intellectual allegiances are. I ask, how faithfully can these authors return to their pasts, to their countries of origin, in their novels and reproduce characters and scenes of native reality. Ishiguro seems to have a perfect answer for this: “it’s not really about describing a world that you know well and firsthand. It’s about describing stereotypes that exist in people’s heads all around the world and manipulating them engagingly.”

If this wasn’t enough, Coetzee gives another fascinating explanation. Speaking of Samuel Beckett (in the same Attwell interview I’ve mentioned earlier), Coetzee says: “Beckett was an Irishman and a European with no African connections at all. Yet in the hands of a dramatist of the sensitivity and skill of Athol Fugard, Beckett can be transplanted into South African surroundings in such a way that he seems almost native there. What does this show? That the history of the arts is a history of unceasing cross-fertilization across fences and boundaries.”

Wow. Can literature, or the arts, be any more delightful!

05 June 2007

A new internationalism

In the last thirty years, the contemporary Indian novelist (writing in English) isn’t the only one who has prospered. There have been others, with similar émigré backgrounds, who have acquired fame outside their home countries through works of great literary importance in the late 20th century… with some of it spilling over to this very moment. In my previous post, I had named three such authors – J M Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje – but my favourite would really be Brian Moore.

Brian Moore, Irish by birth, is not the typical émigré novelist. He is white and from the United Kingdom. The reason I remember him today (he passed away in 1999) is because, to me, Moore displayed many of the attributes of an émigré novelist, leaving his home in Ireland and migrating to Canada while in his twenties. He roughed it out as a journalist for several years before turning to writing novels. All through his life, he was haunted by guilt, loss of faith, alienation and isolation and, from what I’ve read about him, he was never at home anywhere. Moore could have been a character in his own novels.

However, Moore did set the trend for the émigré novelist which Salman Rushdie, much later, defined so eloquently as the writer looking back and seeing life through a broken mirror. Or, the characters with broken lives coming from divided worlds, and with divided loyalties, which Coetzee, Ishiguro and Ondaatje (among others) created and described in their novels a quarter of a century later. As far as the English-language novel goes, I tend to think Brian Moore’s immigrant writing paved the way, and set the mood, for a new kind of international novel.

Rushdie was one of the first authors to ride on this road, but it was Ishiguro who actually voiced this sentiment – this new phenomenon – in the international literary world clearly. In an interview by Linda Richards in January Magazine, Ishiguro had said that, in the early eighties, there was “a great hunger for this kind of new internationalism.” That, “publishers in London and literary critics and journalists in London suddenly wanted to discover a new generation of writers who would be quite different from your typical older generation of English writer.”

This new phenomenon clearly put aside (some of my favourite) English authors such as John Mortimer, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Angus Wilson, and introduced a new generation of authors who wrote about the world as they saw it – not as an Englishman, but through the multicultural eyes of an émigré. It introduced a cultural blend which only émigré writers writing in English could offer its readers, critics and publishers.

The focus automatically shifted to the post-colonial world – the Commonwealth for a start – for its bevy of writers. And the rest, I suppose, is literary history. This new generation of international writers went on to win the Booker, the Nobel and other literary prizes around the world… and adorn the bookshelves of millions of readers like you and me.

[Although Brian Moore had won several literary prizes in his life, he did not win the Booker. He was nominated for it thrice.]

03 June 2007

On foreign land

It’s interesting to note that although many Indian authors writing in English live in the UK, the US and Canada, their stories are mostly about India. Typically, there are three themes that run through their stories:

One, stories in India about Indian life. Two, stories in India about Indian life where Indian immigrants return to India from their new home for a brief spell. And three, stories about Indian immigrants in their new home on foreign land.

This is true because of the authors’ familiarity with both cultures… and the histories and geographies of both countries. Without this background, it is difficult to accomplish their tasks as Indian writers telling the world about India. It actually enables writing of this immigrant kind. My guess is, these writers draw heavily upon both (a) their memories of their old countries and (b) their personal experiences of, and responses to, their new homes.

This qualification gives them an edge over India’s home-grown writers who depend entirely upon their Indian experience. Indian home-grown writers not only lack the magic of immigrant experience, but, because of their lack of knowledge of foreign land, the people there and their customs, they desperately fall short in their ability to relate to, and please, Western readers.

Western readers, in turn, are enamoured by Indian writing in English – particularly by the works of those writers who are able to showcase the best of both worlds.

Mind you, this is true not of Indian writing in English alone, but encompasses writers of other countries as well. By that, I mean writers who share the experience of the immigrant kind and, yet, are able to relate to readers of both countries, old and new. J M Coetzee (South Africa, Australia), Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan, the UK) and Michael Ondatjee (Sri Lanka, Canada and the world) are three names that come to mind immediately.

In doing so, they emerge as global writers whose writing appeals to a much larger global readership. They may live on foreign land for the moment, but their writing endears them to a much larger audience.

01 June 2007

Look back

In one of my recent posts on the contemporary Indian novel, I had mentioned a point raised by Salman Rushdie. That of the tendency of Indian authors living outside India to look back at their old country with a sense of nostalgia, with “some sense of loss.” As expressed in their writing, this feeling seems to be common among all immigrant authors – ‘immigrant’ from the perspective of the new country – and is perhaps because they wish, as Rushdie suggests, “to reclaim” what they no longer have.

This may be true for Salman Rushdie, and more so for authors like Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth who were born and brought up in India, but I am surprised when people include V S Naipaul and Jhumpa Lahiri in this list of Indian authors. After all, to reclaim, you must possess it first; and neither Naipaul nor Lahiri were born, or ever lived, in India. So, when Naipaul and Lahiri “look back” what do they see? Do they see the India you and I live in? What is it that makes them “look back” and see India, a place they have never lived in, nor experienced the way you and I do everyday?

This reminds me of an interesting comment that Amitav Ghosh had made at the 2002 International Festival of Indian Literature at the Neemrana Fort Palace in Rajasthan, which I quote here from a February 2002 News India Times article ‘Two worlds of Indian writing meet, hesitantly’ by Anindita Ramaswamy:

“...Amitav Ghosh, who is equally at home in New York or Kolkata, told IANS that he sees himself clearly as an Indian writer. “I think an Indian writer is one who is willing to be called an Indian writer. For example, Naipaul, who has never lived in India nor has written much about India, I am sure feels that he is an Indian writer.” Ghosh said that the definition of Indianness surfaces more prominently when one is abroad.”

Mr Ghosh, I am an ardent fan of yours, but I cannot agree with you here entirely. In fact, I’m not even sure if you are 100% sure of what you are saying. Having been an immigrant myself, I can confirm that the ‘consciousness of being Indian’ surfaces when one is in a foreign land. But, to include in it people who have never been Indian is a fallacy. I believe Mr Naipaul’s writing is a product of his imagination and his skill. I applaud him for that. I cannot call him an Indian writer.