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Archive for August, 2018

I was in the bookshop a few days back, when I saw this book nestled deep in the bookshelf. The cover was beautiful and the blurb was interesting – it was a story of a father driving a long way across a snowy landscape to get his son back home. I love stories set in snowy landscapes and this one had a road trip tucked in – what is not to like?

Tom is a photographer who lives in Belfast in Northern Ireland. He is happily married to Lorna and they have two children, Luke and Lilly. Luke is in college in a city called Sunderland while Lilly is in school. It is Christmas time. It is snowing all around. Luke is stuck in Sutherland and he is not well. The flights have been cancelled because of the bad weather. Lorna asks Tom to take his car and go and bring Luke back. As Tom embarks in his long drive, he narrates the story of his life. The narration flits between the present and the past as Tom tells us about the people whom he meets during this present trip and the conversations he has with them, while also switching back to the past, frequently, when tells us about how he met Lorna, how they fell in love, and the challenges they faced before they got married. During his narration we encounter a mysterious character called Daniel, whom Tom refers to occasionally, and we wonder who he is. Two-thirds into the story the mystery behind Daniel is revealed slowly. Who is Daniel? What is the mystery behind him? Is Tom able to get to Luke in the snowy weather? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

Travelling in a Strange Land‘ is a beautiful story about love, family, and the relationship between parents and children. It is filled with joy in some parts and is heartbreaking in others. It is also filled with descriptions of music and photography which are a pleasure to read. David Park’s prose is spare and poetic. It is 164 pages long and it is amazing how much the author has packed in such a slim book. I loved the book. I have always had a soft corner for Irish literature and this book makes me love it more. I hope to read more of David Park’s work.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Parenting

“…bringing up a child isn’t like driving this car where I have the voice to guide me and, despite the snow, the tracks of other cars to follow, signals to tell me when to stop and when to go, warnings about possible hazards. Instead what you have is a kind of blizzard of conflicting and confusing ideas where, despite thinking you know the best direction to take, it soon becomes obvious that you’ve lost your way and the familiar landmarks that you put so much store by have disappeared in a white-out.”

New Born Baby

“The hands are most incredible, sculpted perfect and made from still-wet clay so when I touch one with my finger I’m frightened it might puddle out of shape and then they tighten on mine and nothing has ever felt like that before or since.”

Photography

“And I come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said : that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera, but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

“People don’t understand photographs. They think they always freeze the moment in time but the truth is that they set the moment free from it and what the camera has caught steps forever outside its onward roll. So it will always exist, always live just as it was in that precise second, with the same smile or scowl, the same colour of sky, the same fall of light and shade, the very same thought or pulse of the heart. It’s the most perfect thing that sets free the eternal in the sudden stillness of the camera’s click. I find a comfort in that and I’ll take comfort anywhere it offers itself.”

Have you read ‘Travelling in a Strange Land‘? What do you think about it?

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Last week I thought I will read a Tamil book. This book, ‘The Collected Plays of Sujatha‘ leapt at me. I thought I will dip into it and read one or two plays – it is a massive book at around 830 pages – but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I finished reading it yesterday.

Sujatha was one of the great Tamil writers. He is known in some quarters as a science fiction writer – he was probably the first writer to write science fiction in Tamil – but he wrote in nearly every genre – science fiction, thriller, murder mystery, literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, short stories, nonfiction books on science, literary essays, essays on language, music, philosophy, contemporary translations of ancient Tamil classics – he was a true allrounder. I didn’t know that he wrote plays till one of my friends recommended his plays. And yes, that is Sujatha’s picture on the cover. If you are wondering why he is called Sujatha, his actual name was Rangarajan. He used his wife’s name Sujatha as his nom de plume (pen name).

This book has 22 plays – 7 long ones with multiple acts and scenes and 15 short ones, which are all one-act plays. Most of them look at a contemporary social or family situation and depict things in insightful ways and offer commentary on the human condition without being prescriptive. Many of the plays don’t offer the all-loose-ends-tied-up happy ending. Some of the plays are humorous while others are intense. There are three plays which can be classified as science fiction. In one of them, a man from the future comes to the present and stays temporarily with a family and witnesses what can only be called the complex, silly drama of contemporary human times. In another sci-fi play, a scientist brings a robot home to help his wife with household work. This robot looks like a pre-teen boy. Before long, this robot starts thinking like a human and developing feelings. What happens then is the rest of the story. In the third sci-fi play, two people are going on a mission from earth to another planet. At some point, the robot which is with them, takes over the spaceship, lies to them, and tries to change the mission. It also talks to the two humans and tries to turn them against each other. We have seen this kind of stuff in Stanley Kubrick’s2001 : A Space Odyssey‘ and Ridley Scott’sAlien‘, in which the computer starts thinking and refuses to listen to humans. This literary territory has been ploughed enough times by other sci-fi writers. But it was fascinating to read it in Tamil.

I liked nearly all the plays in the book. My most favourites were these :

(1) Adimaigal (Slaves) – This is the first play in the collection and one of the best, in my opinion. The story happens in a big estate. There is a patriarch who owns everything there, he is single, and his relatives live with him and serve him. They take any kind of insult which comes their way, quietly without protest, because they hope that the patriarch will give them his wealth after he passes. But one day a young woman comes to visit the estate and the patriarch is attracted towards her and falls in love with her. Whether the relatives are able to handle this threat to their future and how all the characters react to this situation forms the rest of the story. Most of the characters in the story were imperfect and flawed – in other words, they looked real. I have seen two types of Tamil plays before – one which has a lot of comic situations and comic dialogue and has a happy ending, and the second which offers commentary on a social situation but which also uses the medium of humour or satire to do that. In most of these plays, we could divide things as black-and-white, good-and-bad. But this play was different, because it was complex, the characters were flawed, and it was impossible to do the good-and-bad binary thing here. Sujatha was clearly breaking new ground here, atleast in the Tamil theatre scene. This play reminded me a lot of Lillian Hellman’s play, ‘The Little Foxes‘, which was made into a film starring Bette Davis. It also had complex characters who were flawed and imperfect.

(2) Oonjal (Wooden Swing) – The ‘Oonjal‘ in the title doesn’t refer to the swing which is found in parks where children play, but refers to the wooden swing which is hung from the middle of the hall in traditional south Indian houses. In this story, the main character was a great achiever once upon a time but has fallen into hard times now. He tries to revive his and his family’s fortunes by trying to do something big one last time. But life, people, his family hurtle past him as time flows inexorably in one direction, washing away everything and everyone with it. Sujatha says in his introduction that he wanted to write a play about the tragedy of the common man and this was the one that came out of his pen. It is beautiful, it is tragic, and it broke my heart.

(3) First Play (A Murder) – This is Sujatha’s first ever play. In it, a manager drops one of his younger colleagues, when he is going home in the evening. She invites him inside for a coffee, one thing leads to another, and before we can come up for air, a man is dead, and our main character is accused of murder. How the mystery is resolved forms the rest of the story. I loved the ending of the story – it was beautiful, unexpected, perfect. It gave me goosebumps. This play also reminded me of one of my favourite Martin Scorsese movies, ‘After Hours‘. Sujatha wrote this play forty years back and he hit the ball out of the park in his first play itself.

(4) Krishna! Krishna! – A man works in a toy company. He makes dolls by carving them out of wood. His family has been doing it for generations. One day his boss calls him and tells him that his job is going to get redundant, because they are going to get a machine which is going to do his job, faster and more efficiently. How this man, who is an artist, a sculptor and an artisan, responds to that, forms the rest of the story. A beautiful story about how industrialization and automation can kill art.

(5) Maarudhal (Change) – There is a small theatre which stages plays. A young man walks in to sit on his allotted seat in the front row. There is no one in the theatre yet, as it is early, except an older man, who is sitting in the exact seat that this young man has been allotted. The young man asks the older man to find a different seat, but the older man refuses to budge. While they are waiting for someone to come and resolve the issue, they sit next to each other and have a conversation. It turns out that the young man is the playwright who wrote today’s play. The conversation turns to the theme of the play, and the history of theatre. What shape the conversation takes and how the seating issue is resolved forms the rest of the story. The ending of the play is amazing and mind-blowing – I didn’t see that coming. It was like reading a Borges short story or a ‘Black Mirror‘ episode. So awesome.

(6) Idayan Magal (The Shepherd’s Daughter) – This play is based on a short story by William Saroyan. In the story, a prince falls in love with a shepherd’s daughter. She sets a condition to accept his love. What the prince does about it and the interesting things that happen after that form the rest of the story. Beautiful, heart-warming fable.

(7) Sarala – Two sisters meet. One of them has the traditional life – arranged marriage, husband, kids, homemaker for life. The other one has had an adventurous life – fell in love, fought with parents, walked out of her family, got married to her beloved, travelled to many places, has had many adventures. But the husband of this second sister, suspects her often and beats her up. The two sisters talk about their lives. Incredibly insightful, thought-provoking, eye-opening and even tragic. An amazing commentary on the Indian marriage.

(8) Muyal (Rabbit) – A story inspired by J.P.Miller’s play ‘Rabbit Trap‘. A man works hard for his company. As the popular adage goes, while his smarter colleagues get promotions and pay raises, this man is given more and more work. It is hard for him to even take an annual vacation with his family. Once when he does take a vacation, his boss calls him back after a day. His wife and son are upset and disappointed. This man feels that he is spineless and doesn’t have the guts to confront his boss. He decides to do something about it. What happens next forms the rest of the story.

I loved this collection of Sujatha’s plays. Though the latest plays in the collection are 22 years old and the oldest are 40 years old, they feel fresh and new today. Sujatha was clearly a talented playwright. I loved the fact that he didn’t play to the gallery and write the kind of mainstream plays which were in vogue during his time, but broke new ground and introduced new ideas and new ways of telling a story. I wish he had written more.

Have you read this collection? What do you think about it?

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