The Remains of the Day

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I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style in modern times. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is ostensibly to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married and to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to show it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a penchant for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- in that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

It was a long and excruciating wait for the fans of Arundhati Roy’s fiction, dazzled by The God of Small Things, her Booker prize winning debut novel. It was not a literary hibernation as it is made out to be. Roy had never stopped writing. She was just delving into a different genre. She had turned her attention to people’s movements in India and published articles and books on political topics ranging from environmentalism to government corruption and land rights of tribal communities. And now after a hiatus of twenty years, the publication of her second work of fiction is taking the literary world by storm just like its predecessor. Everyone who has read it has a strong opinion about it. Most people either love it passionately or hate it vehemently. Some have gone as far as  comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez and La Condition Humaine by Malraux.  I fall somewhere in between the two categories of readers and have mixed feelings about it just like I did about The God of Small Things.

Roy’s lush and lyrical prose in The God Of Small Things instantly transported me to the personal and private world of Rahel and Estha’s Ayemenem in Kerala. I soaked myself in all the sights and sounds made alive by her sensuous imagery but the ending ruined it for me ( It’s not a trope I’m comfortable with) although I understand her reasons for concluding the story the way she did. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy of her new fiction at The Old Church in Boston earlier this year where she read an excerpt from her book and participated in a question answer session beginning with a quip :”There is a Hindu nationalist movement in India and I’m talking from the pulpit of a church.”

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The Hindu nationalist movement has been the butt of her criticism and the new novel doesn’t spare it either. In fact the fiction feels in parts like non-fiction. And therein lies the failing of what could have been a powerful work. It’s an ambitious but disjointed novel with a plethora of plots and characters- a kaleidoscope of a huge diverse nation with huge and diverse issues and she seems to have addressed them all- the caste system, Hindu- Muslim rivalry, the Kashmir insurgency , cow vigilantism, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Gujarat riots, the riots of 1984 to name a few.

There are two distinct plots: one, the story of Anjum, an intersex individual born as Aftab and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist presumably modeled after Roy herself. Anjum, is a Hijra ostracized by society for being neither boy nor girl. She eventually retreats from the ‘duniya’ or the outside world to live in Khwabgah ( dream house)  in the company of other hijras. She starts raising a child called Zainab,  has a series of surgeries and revels in her femininity by wearing sequined clothing, flashy jewelry and bold makeup. Eventually she moves out of the khwabgah and constructs a home on a graveyard aptly named as Jannat ( Paradise) Guest House as it becomes a sanctuary for other outcasts living on the fringes of society. One of them is a dalit ( ‘untouchable’ ) who assumes a Muslim identity by changing his name strangely to Sadaam Hussein after his father gets lynched by a crowd who accuses him of killing a cow.

I enjoyed the story of Anjum as it shed light on a community shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Hijras are cross-dressers, intersex and transgender individuals who make up what has recently been recognized as the third sex by the Supreme Court of India. The stereotypical image of a hijra is a somewhat aggressive and intimidating person who accosts you for money at traffic signals. They have been part of the subcontinent long before labels like transgender became de rigueur in the West. They have a paradoxical position in society- they are revered and considered auspicious and are invited to dance at weddings and bestow blessings on the birth of a child but at the same time they are discriminated against and are one of the most marginalized communities in India. The conflict within the hijras who defy binary constructions of gender is a metaphor for the religious struggle and identity crisis within India. As one hijra in the novel tells Anjum: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.” The novel could have been a brilliant one if only Roy had stuck to Anjum’s poignant story.

But the story abruptly shifts to Tilottama and the three men in her life who have all loved her at some point. Tilo, Musa, Naga and Biplab called “Garson Hobart”  have all known each other from their theater days in college. Years later their paths cross again. Garson Hobart is Tilo’s landlord in Delhi and later becomes an officer in the Intelligence bureau. Naga becomes an incendiary journalist. Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets her old flame Musa whose wife Arefa and daughter Miss Jebeen have been killed in a riot. Musa supports the separatist movement in Kashmir with the aim of overthrowing Indian rule. He butts head with the ruthless Major Amrik Singh, the Indian military officer who represents the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir in handling counterinsurgency efforts. The two disparate plots converge when Anjum and Tilo wish to save an abandoned newborn baby, Miss Jebeen the second.

Apart from the two plots, we have a dizzying number of secondary characters. To that mix, Roy throws in poems, slogans, songs, letters, entries from dictionaries, quotes and even a Kashmiri English alphabet and an entry from the Reader’s Digest book of English Grammar. She has taken many liberties with the writing style which would never be forgiven in a novice writer. To put it simply, there is more telling than showing. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the penetrating gaze of the omnipresent narrator ( the kind who interrupts the flow of the text with asides in parentheses) whose presence we never forget. Interestingly, there is one section in the book where Tilo remarks on writing a bad novel.  In The God of Small Things, I marveled at Roy’s striking and unexpected metaphors. Here the writing is visceral and raw especially when she depicts the chilling never-ending bloody conflict in Kashmir but we also have passages that are passionate and poetic:

Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the line of control … it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully and then put down their books and implements … they stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new pied pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give ever so slightly, … only then did they allow the rage and the shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The book is fittingly dedicated “To the Unconsoled”, The story begins and ends in a graveyard- the in- between world which seems to be the fate of many in India, hanging precariously between life and death. As Musa says, in India only the dead are living and the living are dead. The necropolis becomes a symbol of hope for the abandoned, the marginalized, the misfits in a country whose wounds are still festering. I found the book to be an engaging read in spite of the flaws. Kashmir is an emotional subject for anyone from the sub- continent. For me it was an eye-opening account of the atrocities but I can imagine it to be a frustrating read for people unfamiliar with the political scene in India as there are too many culture-specific allusions with no explanation.

If Roy had just stuck to the personal plight of Anjum and the story of Tilo and let the characters and the stories speak for themselves, it would have been a compelling read. But the digressions into diatribes about the general political scene in India make it read like a history text book or a didactic political pamphlet. I would have liked to see more of Roy the artist than Roy the activist. Her work is as fascinating, incoherent, chaotic and complex as the democracy she writes about. It makes me wonder then if she flouted rules of structure and narration to mirror the sprawling mess of the country. Her novel can be compared to the beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets she alludes to often. She has threaded together her own carpet made of many interesting and intricate motifs in eye-catching hues but in the end it makes for a very busy pattern.

All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments. 

 

A Trip Down Bougainvillea Lane!

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Happiness is bougainvillea! Is there anything that fills the heart with as much delight as the sight of a brilliant bougainvillea in bloom? This tropical beauty makes such a grand and striking statement that I can even forgive it for having no fragrance whatsoever. To me it is also synonymous with nostalgia as in New England I can only grow it in containers and hope at the most for a few sporadic blooms to console my tropically deprived heart. Alas, my measly plant is nothing like the showy and striking vines that grow profusely in warmer regions of the world. This poem was written spontaneously on a trip to the Cayman Islands where I was greeted with a plethora of bougainvillea in a riot of colors- crimson, magenta, scarlet, blush, yellow, coral, orange, gold, white and cream- cascading down roofs, trailing over pergolas and spilling over fences offering a veritable feast for my eyes and satiety to my soul. The creeper evokes bittersweet memories of a bygone time and maybe even takes on the traits of a bygone beau or belle.

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Beguiling Beauty with an exotic name!
Magenta Goddess
clambering over fences
to greet me
with bright bewitching bracts,
hiding the dainty white blooms
to pose as papery blossoms.

Fluttering on my cheeks like butterfly kisses
as I reach out to admire you
but grazing my thigh with thorns.
At least the queen of flowers sprays me
with a dab of perfume
but Tropical Empress
you are fragrant free

Fragrant free but stirring memories
of scented summers by the sea
of sun -warmed villas
with inviting verandahs
and a nearly forgotten love..
A jolt wakes me
from wistfulness

and there you are again
beckoning me
in the boldest shade of pink
And I, besotted,
reach out to you,
the bruise of your spike
still on my skin.

~ Jayshree ( Literary Gitane)

The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

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The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

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“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

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“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.

Quinceañera

Quinceneara

April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.

Quinceañera

My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.

 

A Book About Books

1967-Scatter-the-old-world
Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.