Wednesday, May 29, 2013 0 reflections

The Thing Around Your Neck

Many years ago, seated atop a lush green mountain as part of an office picnic, my friend Carlos had said to me “Books are a good reason to continue living”. Now, Carlos was a singular individual. Without having left the confines of his country any time during his lifetime he had traveled the world through books. With such affluent finesse he would speak of the different tribes in the Middle East and the grass root issues that hounded them under the arid sun. He would educate us about the peculiar customs of the Japanese and the internal struggles they have faced in leaping onto the future without letting the string of their past slip from their hands. He would narrate for hours the complexities in religion and the human need to create different variations of a supreme being. It made for fascinating sessions. And even as someone who considered himself a pretty avid reader I would often wonder at the depth with which the words Carlos was seeing had penetrated his untraveled feet and made their way silently to his nomadic heart taking him to places he was yet to visit.

Reading Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” rekindled that feeling in me. Of having never set foot in Africa’s generous landscape but of having had the good fortune of partaken in her many hues. It has been quite a while since I have read a collection of short stories (perhaps the last one being Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” many years ago) so I began the book hoping that each story would be sculpted with a closure that wouldn’t make me yearn for more. Alas, that is what did not happen. Right from the first story “Cell One”, a story of young Nigeria rebelling against the system desperately wanting to handcuff itself to freedoms of expression, the sense of wanting more had settled in thick. As the stories tumbled forth – “Imitation”, “A Private Experience”, “Ghosts”, “On Monday Last Week”…  - the itch to follow these characters further down the road, just a little bit more, to see which way they would go, what they would do, what they would say…intensified. It is this art of stitching a fine layer of humanity – under the guise of men, women and children who eat kola nuts, enjoy jollof rice, climb avocado trees, indulge in palm wine, revere their ancestors and understand the prejudice the world hands them mercilessly– that makes Adichie a most relevant voice of Western Africa.

Right from the days of reading her “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Purple Hibiscus” I have found a bizarre sense of longing to that region. I often wonder if one of my ancestors was from there since a unique blot of melancholy and nostalgia engulfs me when those lands open up their wares with care and kindness. In the long shadows of the sun that somehow seems bigger and brighter, in the breeze laced with the fragrance of a thousand different flowers, in the smell of earth peppered strongly with herbs and spices of a dozen kind, the want of digging my fingers deep into that soil and letting it fall gracefully back down like a majestic waterfall grows stronger.

Perhaps this is Adichie’s genius. Perhaps it is because she is able to capture so much with so few words that makes her writing so addictive. Hidden behind those words, perhaps, is the knowledge that if she has to make the continent’s thick and misguided cobwebs come apart, if her vision is to fling open the windows of misconceptions to let the big bright sunshine flush out the birds of lies…then her weapons are to be simple. This is what she does best. Emboldens her characters to come loose from word cocoons and through action and dialog bring to life a heritage, a civilization, a story that is as grand as the planet itself. Be it in the struggles of the Nigerian caught between two cultures, struggling to escape his reality, be it in the silences filling up a widow’s life haunted by traditions of her tribe, be it in the mute observations of a girl awaiting the spring of adulthood yet unable to escape the loud crimes of life around her … Adichie injects such power into the narratives that the reader has no choice but to surrender.

“The Thing Around Your Neck” is such a collection of short stories. Stories that showcase a wide array of characters caught in turbulent times yet unwilling to negotiate with their inner self. People from various walks of life constantly crisscrossing across the haphazard labyrinth of political, personal and historical decisions in constant need for a validation to their existence. People caught up between fast changing times unable to stand steady against the ravage storms of religion blowing from outside their lands. And in the end, when the storms are done blowing and people are done mourning, the land of Africa will remain just as strong and grounded as it has always been. It is through their inner and outer struggles both as a continent (so unique in every aspect yet cursed to be painted with the same African brush) and as a collection of traditions, that we get to see perspectives that would have elluded us if narrated by a foreign voice. Someone who goes deeper than writing of Igbos and Hausas. Someone who digs each word out like a hidden flower to create a garden of such unique learning. And for this constant realization I cannot wait to read her latest work “Americanah”.

My mind floats back to Carlos and that picnic. That day I had little to say in response to his prophetic words but today I would certainly join him in celebrating the power of words and writers who, like djinns with a magic carpet, transport you to worlds that may seem alien but might just have been the source of your roots.

Sunday, May 19, 2013 2 reflections

Love in the time of cholera

I decided to finally read, from the first page to the last, Gabriel Marquez’s “Love in the time of cholera”, as a novel way to inaugurate my new Kindle. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least for a few vital reasons. One; this was the first time I have ever completed reading a novel using a hand held device. Two; this was the first novel I had read by Marquez after reading the first few chapters of “One hundred years of solitude” a few years ago (something I intend to remedy soon). And three; had I read this book a few years ago as an unmarried man my thoughts about the characters and their decisions would perhaps have been radically different. What I also realized was that I would definitely like to re-read this book in another ten maybe twenty years to see if the journey of marital accomplishments would have given me enough fuel to rethink my beliefs about the basic idea this book seems to project.

So: what is it all about? The central theme of the book is the story of two stories – one of Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife Fermina Daza and the second of Fermina Daza and a man who calls her the love of his life Florentino Ariza. On the outset it appears to be a love triangle that has been done ad nauseum in Bollywood but once my knees got wet with the word pool emerging from the pages some interesting perspectives began to surface along with them.

The concept of love is often tied to relationships. The ones defined by society, the ones of marriage and the ones we are so often told are “just the right way to go”. But in these opposing stories, with Fermina being the common entity, love’s landscapes seem to go beyond mere definitions. On the one hand there is the unplanned and unrequited love that Florentino finds in Fermina as a teenager. That whole phase of their initial wandering as fresh seekers of love’s eternal potion seems to set up a premise that only marriage would be the ideal end for. But when Fermina, in true masala movie style, is married off to the sophisticated Europe-returned Dr. Urbino it appears her phase with Florentino was “a phase” after all. A harmless little adventure in finding physical union by masking it with the garb of “true love”. But as the married couple begin their fifty year journey together love’s meaning is once again re-defined. From being absolute strangers they manage to strike a relationship, through the caged limits of a marital union, which brings a sort of stability to the concept of love. A sort of evident closure to whatever it was Fermina experienced earlier.

The orthodox part of me felt this was the right way to go. Yes – Fermina needed to understand true love not by the vagaries of a nobody but by the stable hand of an educated, well established man who could bring to her much needed perspective to what real love is all about. In parallel, Florentino’s unending physical exploits in his mad panic of having lost Fermina and using those adventures as a sort of pain killer to his aching heart seemed ludicrous. How on earth could a man who was so easy to be lead into the carnal world of infidelity be faithful to Fermina even if he had ended up with her? But this is where my dilemma as to who I was supporting started to get muddled.

We see Florentino go through one physical heist after another but never once either a) sharing his sorry tale of grief with anyone or b) truly surrendering his heart to any of his liaisons. But as a man brought up by the popular norms of what is ethical and what isn’t I found myself despising Florentino for, without even having touched Fermina, being so monstrously unfaithful to her. But as the story progressed I began to see just how tormented, lonely and pitiful Florentino became as his thoughts, regardless of where he was and what he was doing, eventually found their way back to Fermina. Even after fifty long years, in his twilight age, Florentino still had shivers in his spine when he finally did find Fermina in his radius of existence.

My sympathies to Dr. Urbino (despite his questionable morals eventually) stayed the same through his struggles as a husband, a son and the man of the world. He represented to me a world where everything is pre-planned. A land where every event has a pre and post condition. An institution where even love has a certain rhythm no one can venture to adjust.

But my repulsion towards Florentino, the opposing viewpoint in the concept of love, began to decrease. But why? Once my fury for his predictable behavior of using women as pawns to rid himself of self-inflicted pain grew low I began to admire his consistent need to be in and around Fermina’s life. She was no mere conquest for him – no. She was the one he had given his heart to. Both Dr.Urbino and Florentino were strangers to Fermina when she found them but despite being practically away from her for most of his lifetime, it appeared he knew Fermina better than the good doctor who had stayed with her all the time.

In my days as an unattached man I had often wondered about the various manifestations of love. The way relationships are made and broken based on the changing (and admittedly often misused) definitions of love. And at that time had I read this book then I would have, purely from the viewpoint of someone who thought he knew what was morally right, supported Dr. Urbino without a shadow of doubt. But now, having taken a few steps in the shoes of a husband, I found myself wanting to examine Florentino’s point of view more than the doctor’s. What was his motivation in waiting half a century for just one word of acknowledgement from his love? What made him pretty much throw his life away in mostly meaningless exploits of the flesh? When seen from his eyes the story elevates itself from being a black and white categorization of ethical and unethical and goes into a region I am still not completely familiar with. To tie one’s inner identity with another person to such an extent as to lose sight of everything else and, with age, not letting that lamp of hope to diminish even a bit…yes, love perhaps is that. Something that doesn’t require the square and circle of marriage to stand within. Something that doesn’t need a complimentary force to fulfill itself into reality. Something so independent and random that finding a pattern in it would be just as hard as to stem the rabid cholera outbreak the doctor strives to conquer.

A million songs have been sung in our country that compare love to an incurable disease. This book gave me a first-hand insight into the days of a man who chooses to live with it, grows along with it and finds salvation in his own unmaking. It challenged me to question my belief system on what I thought about love as an emotion. It provoked me to explore absolutely outrageous scenarios by contradicting, in several places, my decisions had I been either the doctor or Florentino. And just for these reasons, I do hope I get to read this book again in a decade or two to check if I am still left with more questions or if I have found answers to a few of them.