Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

I’m making my way back to book blogging by linking to my review of Empires of the Indus on the Lonely Planet website. Do read!


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One of the great joys of unravelling the skeins of history, I think, is definitely the process of linking causes with effects and understanding how something that happened several centuries ago led, however indirectly, to something that happened today. Alternate universes with “might have been” scenarios based on one change in the history we know are always fascinating.  To think of how different Indian history would have been is a little intimidating; but without the British and the Portuguese landing in India in search of spices, would I have been an English-speaking, baptized but lapsed Catholic, fond of bebinca and the architecture of colonial Bombay? And would any of us ever have sat down to eat a humble aloo parantha?

John Keay’s history of the Spice Route starts us on the trail of “might have been”, asking and answering questions about how the spice trade changed the history of the world. Drawing on maps, ship’s logs, travelogues, histories, and other documents, he pieces together this long and complex story, starting from more than a thousand years before Christ and continuing until the late eighteenth century, when spices finally became commonplace; as Keay says, the end of the mystery has finally come in our time, when we can pick those once-rare commodities off supermarket shelves. Lost the mystery may be, but his narrative remains alive to it, of what these strange, exotic substances were, where they came from, and how they travelled the world.

Keay sets out the background to his narrative with the Banda Islands of Indonesia, whence came nutmeg and mace, two of the rarest of spices. These islands he compares, quite directly, to paradise; an untouched Garden of Eden in his writing. But, we are aware, if this is the Garden of Eden, there must be a fall. The entire book leads up to the history of how that fall came about, when the Dutch laid the islands waste and spilled blood savagely all over them, in their quest to control the trade routes.

It starts out quietly enough, with Keay painstakingly taking us through piecemeal, fragmented accounts of trade routes so early that they are only sketchily mapped out and no particular names are associated with them. We know only the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks. Perhaps the only specificity here is Pliny, who comes in for a good deal of witty snark from Keay.

But as the marked routes extend and start to link continents to each other, Keay gives us a taste of the violence of greed, as it focuses on controlling the trade and rivalries start to come up, and other concerns, such as those of religion and its dissemination, come into play. The Portuguese in Kerala, under Vasco Da Gama, are particularly brutal. And slowly, as the trade routes of the world are mapped out and discovered, as continents are rounded, oceans crossed, and the very globe itself circumnavigated, the famous names appear on Keay’s pages — Columbus, Magellan, Alberquerque… until the power finally shifts to the hands of the British and Dutch East Indian Companies.

Nobody could accuse this book of not being scholarly enough; it is erudite, precise in its wit, and highly readable, but never self-indulgent. Presenting its reconstructed history lucidly and intelligently is its paramount aim. Its points of view are simultaneously cultural, sociological, economic, and historical, approaches that it perfectly balances, while always retaining some measure of lyrical fascination with the spices themselves.  But this is a dense book, which is why it is hard to summarize Keay’s narrative; each page, if not each paragraph, brings forth a new name and a new voyage of discovery, a new account of some spice and a new route attempted. It is not, therefore, a fast read; I must have taken three weeks over it.

Still, it was three weeks very well spent. To understand in some measure exactly how the world changed because of the yen for bits of dried vegetable matter and how globalization and its discontents are not entirely new to humanity, you could do no better than this engaging history.

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Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

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Finally! I was beginning to think I would never reach the end of this book. I’ve been reading it steadily, on-and-off, for almost a year. That’s a new record for somebody who usually ploughs merrily through books in a day or two, if not less.

However, the book: It’s a memoir of childhood and the development of Pamuk’s imagination as an Istanbullu artist. The first chapter brings up, among other things, the little Orhan’s fear that there was another Orhan, a twin of sorts, in another part of Istanbul, living in another house. The last chapter ends with the 19-year-old Orhan’s decision to be not an architect but a writer. In between these two ideas is a meandering narrative that talks sometimes about Pamuk’s family and his life as a child and a student, sometimes about the city as a place of events, sometimes about how artists and writers from Europe and from Turkey saw the city, and sometimes about the city as if it were a picture.

This is an extraordinarily visual piece of writing, though the images Pamuk uses are smokey and grey, much like the black-and-white reproductions of photographs, etchings, and paintings that are interspersed in the text. Incidentally, I’m not sure if Faber and Faber has a larger format version of this book (I have the paperback), because I’m sure that would be a better read–less squinting at tiny-sized pictures. And definitely more visible detail, to go with what Pamuk says in his text. He is given to long lists of images of Istanbul–descriptions of buildings, of crowds, of people on the street, of windows, of alleys, of old mansions, of ruins, of the Bosphorus, long sentences full of these. They all have a certain texture that can only be called “atmospheric.” Melancholy, shadowy, slowly moving, they drift onto and off the pages.

The trouble is, they have also a certain soporific quality. This might be because the book isn’t quite as anecdotal as you might expect from a memoir, so it sometimes turns into montage without story or clear argument. Much of this montage is used by Pamuk to illustrate what he sees as the essence of Istanbul–“huzun,” a Turkish word for “melancholy.” This, Pamuk explains, refers to a feeling of deep spiritual loss that is simultaneously a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish felt because the soul is not sufficiently close to the divine; and Saint John of the Cross has it that this anguish causes the sufferer to fall so far that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. The absence of huzun is the cause of misery. Pamuk’s interest in huzun is that it is not individual but collective — it is a feeling shared by all Istanbul. It is a feeling that the people of Istanbul have when living amongst the detritus of a dead civilization, the Ottoman Empire, an identification with something that is no longer alive and is decaying, an identification that is ultimately their essence.

I think Pamuk’s prose when he describes his huzun-drenched city is intensely beautiful and sad, like a (here I go again with the cliched metaphors) record playing in a building down the street, barely audible but haunting. But it could, sometimes, have done with a ruthless editor, somebody who would cut it where necessary, make it seem more concrete and more the memory of a living people. There, I said it–sacrilege saying that about a Nobel laureate, or maybe not. Maybe the shadows are Pamuk’s point, his refusal to go into historical fact-listing. But I don’t care entirely for them.

I did enjoy Pamuk’s writing of his family. His brother, his rival; his beautiful mother, whose love he desperately tries to gain; his dapper father, more of a dreamer than he comes across at first. Though I bet they were all insulted to read what he has to say about them. It’s a frank narration, not precisely barbed, but certainly not white-washed either; and it’s even possible that Pamuk’s memories are more weighted with alienation than his life was. Either way, these sections of the book do have a point–they tell us what Pamuk’s relationship with his family was like and part of the reason he starts to identify as strongly with the city as he does. The process of his coming to understand his family is also one of him coming to understand what the world outside has to offer. I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t that many people coming out of the crowd on the street into the book, few specific characters of his childhood, but then realised that Pamuk is presenting a very truthful version of how a relatively wealthy, Westernized, apartment-dwelling Istanbullu child would relate to the city as he grows up–he would read about it and look at it and walk through it without necessarily having the confidence or the skill to engage with it as an equal. And I do appreciate the truthfulness, though sometimes I wished his childhood had been a little more peopled.

But his narrative is peopled with writers and artists whose work contributed to the burgeoning of his imagination of the city and himself in it. Pamuk writes critical essays of a sort, discussing what they wrote/painted and when, what they focused on and what they left out, how he came to access their work, and what it made him think of his city. Not so tidily presented, of course, but highly readable. And at each juncture you understand a little more about the writer’s imagination and his inspiration.

All of these threads, it seems, get tied up in a chapter toward the end of the book, which is simply the story of Pamuk’s first love (he calls her the black rose). My interest was flagging again when I got to that chapter, and then, I couldn’t put the book down. It’s dizzyingly lovely, terribly sad, and so delicately written. I haven’t read any of Pamuk’s novels other than My Name is Red, but his tale of the black rose and how he loved her and lost her makes me understand how he came to be a novelist, a storyteller. There is a flurry of happening and he has to become a storyteller so that he can make sense of it. You can understand from the book that he never needed to be one before–he could be a painter and viewer of scenes. It’s a chapter that pulls the rest of the book together so effortlessly, making the memoir finer than it would have been otherwise.

Oddly, after reading Istanbul, I have no increase in my desire to travel there. This isn’t a travelogue, it’s a memoir by someone who has always lived there. It tells of things that are long gone, of views of the city that are no longer possible. Going there wouldn’t open the gate of Pamuk Apartments to me. There are some things that the tourist will never see, some depths of understanding that leaving would not allow. What Istanbul does do–and Pamuk hints at the same about his city and its changes–is make me regret that I left Bombay, regret that it is so difficult to live there, regret the fact that it has sprawled out in a way so unrecognizable. I realized long ago that I love “old” Bombay. Like Pamuk, I want to go home, but like his, it’s a home I never actually lived in, a shadow of a life that dwindles every day.

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