September 7, 2005
watching the english
laugh about it, ridicule it, tear your hair in frustration or just listen and learn from it, you just cannot ignore english behaviour. let me add, especially if you are an outsider in the uk. their fixation with the weather, an awkward formality towards everything, their incorrigible humour at the worst of situations… are just few of the attributes that leave me amazed everytime.
so as soon as i saw this book on the stands one evening, i bought it. not only was it a genuine desire to learn about why the english are how they are, i thought of it as an interesting historical, social, research, documentary all-rolled-into-one promising book by anthropologist kate fox. not that i’d heard the name before, but experience tells me if there’s one thing exclusively ‘made in britain’ that they should be proud about, it is the way they make documentaries. i also bought the book as an investment into my masters’ course beginning next month, where one of the main subjects is “writing london.”
46 pages through the book (aptly subtitled ‘the hidden rules of english behaviour’), i think kate fox is not only brilliant with her witty, informal style, but also mature and intelligent to laugh at her own people, without causing them the least offence. one by one she tackles ‘conversation codes’ beginning, of course, with the weather, rules of introduction, awkwardness, and rules of gossip, humour and so on. here are some extracts:
on embarrassment, and the ‘pleased to meet you’ problem:
“…They just have a vague sense that there is something not quite right about it. But even among those having no class prejudice ‘Pleased to meet you’, who believe it the correct and polite thing to say, this greeting is rarely delivered with ringing confidence: it is usually mumbled rather awkwardly, and as quickly as possible – ‘Plstmtye’. This awkwardness may, perversely, occur precisely because people believe they are saying the ‘correct’ thing. Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing.”
on the rules of privacy and gossip:
“…as a result of the inevitable forbidden-fruit effect, we are a nation of curtain-twitchers, endlessly fascinated by the tabooed private lives of the ‘members of our social setting.’ The English may not gossip much more than any other culture, but our privacy rules significantly enhance the value of gossip. The laws of supply and demand ensure that gossip is a precious social commodity among the English.”…This is one of the reasons why foreigners often complain that the English are cold, reserved, unfriendly and stand-offish. In most other cultures, revealing personal data – your name, what you do for a living, whether you are married or have children, where you live – is no big deal: in England, extracting such apparently trivial information from a new acquaintance can be like pulling teeth – every question makes us wince and recoil.”
well now you know…
August 12, 2004
for someone who is yet to read her first pulitzer prize-winning story collection ‘the interpreter of maladies’, jhumpa lahiri’s second book and debut novel the namesake, comes as a refreshing literary surprise. here is something less ‘magical’, but poignant enough nevertheless, for you to pick it up again.
lahiri’s novel revolves around four members of a family and single event(s) that change the course of their lives. the book that saves ashoke ganguli from the train accident, his life with ashima in america where, torn between duty towards her new husband and her roots in india, she chooses the first and lives a life of compromises…right from altering favourite (indian) recipes to choosing friends, and having to maintain a social ‘bengali’ group with frequent parties for every birthday or ritual.
an official formality in the hospital forces the new parents to name their boy after ashoke’s favourite author nikolai gogol; something that the (less indian and almost american-) boy grows to despise throughout his life – only to understand its significance and want go back to it much later.
through its very plausible conflicts and situations, lahiri’s narrative carries you through two generations of a family split by the lifestyle and cultural differences between two continents 8000 miles apart. every character in the novel has been given an individual-short-story-like treatment, letting you mature along with them as the pages turn. her just way of handling the finale leaves you wanting to read more, yet pleasantly satisfied when you put the book down at last.
May 16, 2004
the last song of dusk
…bit by bit, sounds of the train, its metal rancour and romantic whistle, the awed gasps of passengers, the sweet traces of the roving flute-caller — in fact, all sounds — were doused by peacocks unfurling a melody one would not normally associate with such pavonine braggarts.
anuradha’s father looked at her…”i suppose they have come to say their farewell?”
“actually,” she clarified, her hand on her breastbone, “i called them.”
this is anuradha. the main protagonist in bombay-bred siddharth dhanvant sanghvi’s debut novel. engrossing, witty, and very song-like, siddharth’s first book fulfills all the expectations (and more) one would like to have from an ‘indian’ writer. his mature, flowing style and characterisation make the plots in the novel seem very very real…especially the 1920s’ house-that-turns-wicked with its sad history; the rich-widow-turned-high-society-hostess radha-mashi; the orphan nandini’s feline connection and how her art grows with her; the true colours of khalil muratta and libya dass, vardhamaan’s inefficiency to cope with his loss, and how it affects his marital life. the best of all… anuradha, whose mother’s parting whisper before her marriage, echoes throughout the book and takes us through the highs and lows of her life…
“in this life my child, there are no mercies.”
this story is about the symbiotic relation between all these characters, the love they share, their fears and truths, and years later, the liberation of the gandharvas’ silent son from his mother’s songs, and the collective past. yeats’ poems and schumann and mendelssohn’s music play in intervals in the book too, pretending to soothe harsh realities.
being an indian myself, and a girl, it was easy to relate to the mother’s wise words as the book began; it reminded me of haunting stories in my own childhood, and i could justify the events as the pages flew by.
like some of the books by chitra divakaruni banerjee, siddharth sanghvi ties future incidents to the present situation in many places in this tale. though sometimes this might prompt you to create your own questions and answers about what will happen in the end, it is sure to cleverly bind you to the novel, till the very last word.
August 2, 2003
dinu and i have just discovered about father’s first wife. that dinu is her child is a fact that both she and i still hold wonderingly like a glass marble. then we rotate it, and pocket it once again… – mrinal pande, from the story abdullah.
life-like and very visual, mrinal pande’s childhood narratives even reminded me of a few of my own. the author comfortably takes you through her experiences growing up as a girl among her many cousins, most of them boys…and the differences in their lives just because she’s a daughter’s daughter. the wars among the cousins, the superstitions she does not understand, her fears on understanding that her only dear sister is her step-sister, the loving servant in her grandmother’s family are all innocent funny, gripping, and likeable experiences that are sure to strike a cord somewhere in you.
mrinal pande is known for her bi-lingual literary activities in india and a television personality.
more stories by mrinal pande:
August 1, 2003
the quilt and other stories
everybody knows its wicked, but how delicious it is sometimes to steal a little something when no one’s looking… — ismat chughtai (1915-1991), from the story chhoti apa.
loveable, ticklish, yet very intelligent and mature; for the first time i’ve come across a writer whose style i can relate to, and so badly want to imitate.
ismat chughtai wrote at a time when women writers were under the purdah of society and tradition. she shot to fame and controversy with lihaaf (the quilt), where she cleverly narrates the story of a (sexual) relationship between two women, observed through the naive eyes of a child, not to forget, belonging to the times of pre-independant india.
also commendable is the translation from urdu by tahira naqvi and syeda s hameed.
what are you reading? mail me