Mr. Bond and His Ladies: Tales of Seduction and Espionage

It is nigh impossible to save the world from megalomaniac villains and romance seductive sirens on the same beat, but let’s face it, Mr. Bond succeeds in accomplishing the impossible with panache. During my childhood, I remember my father being extremely confused as to whether I should or should not see a Bond film. You see, Star Movies used to be an “adult” channel back then. But he also wanted me to know about the heroes from his youth, likes of which included Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and later, Sir Sean Connery. Yet, at the same time, he was worried that the sexual scenes would demolish the last remaining shreds of innocence in my childhood. So, like every other child who does exactly what he/she is told not to do, I endeavored to watch every single Bond film by the age of thirteen. Pierce Brosnan was the reigning box-office money-churner back in those days, the beach shots of a near-naked Brosnan and Halle Berry in an orange bikini advertised in almost every single trailer for Die Another Day (2002)Suffice to say, I had developed quite the infatuation for the casanova spy, only my affection leaned more toward Connery than Brosnan.

 

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The British spy over the ages; from Left to Right: Sir Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Sir Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig. Absent: David Niven (Casino Royale, 1967).

It was after almost a decade, in the beginning of 2016, that I once again went back to watching all the Bond films, all thanks to a certain Austrian by the name of Christoph Waltz, who portrayed Blofeld in the latest Bond venture, Spectre (2015). And it goes without saying that disappointment was the word of the day. Gone were the days of idolizing seductive femme fatales who set the screen on fire with their backless dresses and beach frolicking in bikinis; or for that matter, staring at the screen, dazed by the superhuman ability of the spy surviving almost anything, be it a bullet to the heart or radioactive rays. The woman I turned out to be in my adulthood could not help but be appalled at the disuse of every single one of Bond’s love interests in the 60s, 70s and mid-80s as nothing but an object. Their plotlines were sadly more predictable than the daily soaps, and after their initial dilemma about helping the spy, they effortlessly slipped into the roles of the damsels in distress, until of course everything ended with one big fat happily-ever-after of snogging and making love in exotic locations, until the next installment, of course.

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From Left to Right: Holly Goodhead (Mookraker), Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), Mary Goodnight (The Man With the Golden Gun), Pussy Galore (Goldfinger), Dominique “Domino” Derval (Thunderball).

Be it the breathtaking Ursula Andress as Honey Driver (Dr. No, 1962), Barbara Bach as the dangerous KGB agent Anya Amasova (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (Goldfinger, 1964) to Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (Moonraker, 1979), all these women have become half-remembered faces lost in the cold heart of time. With blithe honesty, I confess, I had to spend hours myself, gathering information to find the names of these ladies. Because, let’s face the bitter truth here, we all know Mr. Bond will save his ladylove at the end of the day and kill the vicious villain, not to mention deliver that punchline that makes the whole film a visual display of a double entendre. And they, may I remind you, were the leading ladies of the films. Even, Maud Adams as Octopussy (Octopussy, 1983), who became a sensation in a single night, was in the end turned into nothing more than a damsel who needed a gentleman to rescue her, when in the beginning she started off as a mysterious, but deadly, businesswoman-cum-leader of a tribe of battle-hardy women. And whatever happened to the supporting cast, namely, the ever-present Miss Moneypenny, who seemed to spend all her time daydreaming about Mr. Bond, helping him skip the routine health checkup exams for the organizations, and being a generally unprofessional employee of MI6?

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Jill Masterson’s (Shirley Eaton) iconic gold-paint suffocation death scene from Goldfinger (1964)The scene was given homage to in Quantum of Solace (2008), where MI6 agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arteton) was murdered in a similar fashion, only this time by the use of crude oil instead. 

An image here: If one has been a follower of the Bond films, the image of a certain gorgeous woman smothered in gold paint and suffocated to death is still etched in the back of one’s mind. And yet, her name has long since escaped our minds, even if she used to be the partner of Mr. Bond himself in Goldfinger. But, let me not rant about the discrepancies; instead, the observations made from this phenomenon has baffled me much more. Back in those days, when femme fatales who either wanted to kiss or kill Mr. Bond, the British spy had been nothing short of a superman without a cape. He had defeated giants such as Christopher Lee (the eponymous man with the golden gun), and escaped radioactive explosions with a still-unbesmirched tuxedo.

But then, times changed, as time always does. When the screens bid adieu to the golden era of Bonds, including Connery and Moore, and the forgettable stint of Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, Brosnan became the face of the lethal spy. And with that, a new era of femme fatales came in. This time, however, the story was a little different.

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From Left to Right: Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye), Miranda Frost (Die Another Day), Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough), Paris Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies). 

You see, Brosnan’s Bond was not impervious, even if he had his fair share of super-heroic victories and nick-of-time escapes. Sure, he did succeed in peppering his ladies with kisses after saving the world, but he never did end up as unscathed as his predecessors. Brosnan’s Bond showed his humanity; he was vulnerable with his trust, going so much as to trust the wrong people in more than one situation. And for that, he had paid the bitter price of loss. The thing is, Brosnan’s Bond was not left unbroken, and perhaps that set the stage for Sam Mendes to explore his indecision, his personality’s depth, and his relationship with the first female M in the series (the irreplaceable Dame Judi Dench) in the later installments. In GoldenEye (1995), Brosnan’s first endeavor to be the British spy, he is shocked to see the betrayal of his presumably dead former partner, Alec Trevelyan or 006 (played by a stoic Sean Bean), and even after he wins the day and waltzes away with Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova, he does mourn the loss of his former friend in his silences. Another interesting development in this movie was the introduction of a dangerous and ruthless lust murderer as the female antagonist Xenia Onatopp, played stupendously by Famke Janssen. In what might be considered a curve ball in the history of Bond film directions, Brosnan’s expressions are not held back like his predecessors. In spite of all his punchlines, he openly shows expressions of pain (and later a subtle brand of existential crisis in Die Another Day) when he is tortured by Janssen’s Xenia. And you are suddenly thwarted by the realization that this British spy is only human. Taking a page out of this motif, the following films with Brosnan delved deeper into the depths of his character sketch. An iconic example of that is Sophie Marceau’s brilliantly portrayed Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough (1999). In this film, Bond goes on to almost admit to M that he had developed feelings for King, in spite of her revealing herself to be the manipulative mastermind in the end, having played both the hero and the villain. Perhaps this same motif was a tad bit stretched in Brosnan’s last, Die Another Day, through Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost, but the split second loss-stricken expression of Bond as he looks at Frost’s corpse is enough to establish the gradual yet much needed evolution of the spy’s almost two-dimensional character sketch.

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From Left to Right: Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale), Camille Montes (Quantum of Solace), Eve Moneypenny (Skyfall), Sévérine (Skyfall), Dr. Madeleine Swann (Spectre).

And this prelude itself set the ball rolling for our most recent Bond. In what can only be considered as a distinct aberration to the previous Bond films, one that created quite the controversy, Martin Campbell went on to cast and work with Daniel Craig as the British spy. Not stereo-typically handsome, yet uncannily fascinating, Craig’s Bond was a far cry from his predecessors. In spite of the burgeoning legacy on his shoulders, Craig broke form to portray a never-befoe-seen Bond. He was vulnerable, passionate, and even broken by his actions. In spite of his superficial cockiness, he didn’t shy away from dreaming a life with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, going so far as to severe his connections with M and the MI6 in Casino Royale (2007). And going hand in hand with this sudden sprout of character growth, there were even added multitudinous layers to his counterpart antagonists. From Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) to Christensen’s Mr. White (Quantum of Solace, 2008), and later, Bardem’s iconic Raoul Silva in Skyfall (2012), the interlinked plots were added with newer and more profound dimensions, each leading to the steady development of Bond’s character. With the rising complications in each of the Bond ladies to the constant juxtaposition of Bond’s human vulnerabilities over his familiar brash overconfidence, newer textures were given to the franchise. The two most memorable proofs of such observations are Bond’s plotline in Quantum of Solace as he leaves no stones unturned in his brutal quest for vengeance over Lynd’s death, and his choice of a reclusive life when he survives, albeit narrowly, from a fatal gunshot in Skyfall. This reinvention of Bond, a departure from the usual overuse of unrealistic plot tropes in preceding Bond films, was a refreshing take from the overtly familiar entertainment quotient of the franchise—something which inevitably led to the fervent establishment of Bond’s relationship with M.

 

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A dying M (Dame Judi Dench) in Bond’s (Daniel Craig) arms in Skyfall (2012).

What can only be described as the most emotional, if not the most heartbreaking, sequence of the Bond franchise, as M lies dying in Bond’s arms in Skyfall, makes the very essence of Bond’ restructuring of character. Although M can never be considered as a “Bond Girl” so to speak, she has been the driving force behind Bond’s professional and personal ethics since GoldenEye. She was a mentor, a friend, a superior, and most importantly, as much as it makes me cringe to write this sentence, was one of the few women who earned the unequivocal respect of Bond. Time and again, Craig’s Bond has fallen off the wagon, but Dench’s M had been the force on the other end of the string to bring him back into symmetry. And although such a heartfelt relationship dynamism was not researched at all in the previous films, since Dench’s introduction as M in 1995, this subplot has been subtly and steadily developed over the series of films. Perhaps that itself is the greatest proof of Bond’s reinvention, ergo evolution, of character through the presence of all the Bond girls.

And the most fascinating truth is James Bond is a timeliness character whose very existence in the 26-film franchise is a singular graph of evolution through the woes of time. The process itself is a gradual rise-and-ebb tidal undertaking, spanning over decades at hand, mirroring the consumer-driven aesthetics of entertainment in each era. And being a peddler of art, and a follower of the British spy’s many adventures, it has also been my unique journey of viewing his astute metamorphosis from the hay days of my childhood to my adulthood.

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Odyssey of Ten Thousand Lifetimes: A Review of Reincarnation Blues

I have always envied the people in bookstores, the ones who can pick a book at an impulse and not think twice about their purchase. They are the risk-takers, the ones with the courage to free fall into stories without a second thought as to whether they are any good. Ever since my childhood, I have suffered from the dread of dying someday, my one regret being that I shall run out of time to ever read the wonderful books that are being written, or the ones published already, because I had spent too much time in a bad book, stubborn as I am prone to be to finish something that I have started.

Perhaps that is why Reincarnation Blues was a change of scenario for me. I had been listlessly strolling across the humongous Round Rock Library in Texas on one cold wintry morning, when I had been spellbound by just the cover of a book, with all its patterns of blues, and reds, and yellows. And for what had felt like the passage of a dreary lifetime, I had stood there, just gazing at that beautiful hardcover and trying to muster up the courage to take a chance. And so I picked up the book, and came home, settling under the covers while winter raged outside my window, snow and winds twirling in tandem.

Reincarnation Blues spins the tale of the oldest soul in existence, a man named Milo, who has lived almost ten thousand lifetimes, and still not achieved what is referred to as Perfection—emancipation, if you must. And he only has a handful of chances left, a handful of lifetimes so to speak, before he is obliterated from existence permanently, if he cannot achieve Perfection. To further add to his list of problems, he is in love with a personification of Death, a woman who goes by the name of Suzie. And so the story begins with a motley of his lives lived, and the ones he lives from then onward. Michael Poore, the author, takes you on a journey thrown across lifetimes, across the construct of Time itself, across universes, and planets, and pasts, and the present, and the plethora of futures to show you a single man’s journey to find himself.

Reincarnation Blues is an ambitious novel. It may have been borne from the vast infinities of imaginations in a single man, but it reads like the admixture of a thousand voices speaking to the reader at once, thwarting them with information, and still being gentle in the process. Michael Poore, with what can only be described as something akin to a miraculous ingenuity, has successfully achieved the quality to make and break a character sketch of a protagonist. With every sifting lifetime of Milo, he has strove to create a new character, even if the backlog of the initial character existed in the core. And in doing so, he has minutely weaved the memories, and the touch of the previous incarnations in the newest life of Milo. Each chapter thus reads like a new short story, only with the added bounty of being an extension of something lived prior.

And so the author spins tales and anecdotes, sewing in information and realization on the same beat, and still maintains a symmetry in the act itself. He weaves in thousands of years worth of philosophies, and sometimes breaks said ideals to portray a level of evolution in Milo himself. From lucidly describing nihilism in more ways than one, through each of Milo’s lifetimes, to actually thwarting the idea itself through a sense of nirvana, Poore has actually taken you into the flesh-and-bone journey of showing the development and thus, the evolution of Milo. For this form of writing, some of the chapters that still rivet in my mind include “The Hasty Pudding Affair”, “Lifting Elephants, Juggling Water”, and “Buddha in Winter”.

Another little detail that I admired in Poore’s storytelling was the development of Milo’s ladylove, Death herself, in Suzie. Unlike what is often observed in singular-narrative storytelling, Poore takes it upon himself to not refrain from showing the character sketch and thus development of Suzie herself. That a personification of a phenomenon or an idea itself can be made to go through the nerve-wracking process of character development has already been done by the likes of Neil Gaiman in the Sandman graphic novels and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief. Taking a page out of their literary oeuvre, Poore crumbles the iron curtains of surrealism and magic realism to actually approach Death as a character and not as an idea. He puts flesh and bones on her, makes her almost human, without the use of sentimentality and inessential vulnerability, and still makes her appear as stranger, just outside the edges of reality. Hence, Suzie’s observations of mortality, although not holding the same magnanimity of Zusak’s Death, is characterized more through a bystander phenomenon, rather than the all-powerful omnipotence of an universal overlord. And although the proclivity of inconsistency in the narrative, thanks to the motley of realizations that go hand-in-hand with the actual actions of the novel, may be a letdown for certain readers, it does not actively harm the passage of the story in general. Moreover, it paces the way of the stream of consciousness throughout the narrative frame.

In the end, as I sit writing this review, bombarded as I am with the voices of the other customers speaking at Starbucks, I realize the essence of Reincarnation Blues, of how a chaotic mind is the beginning of a singularity. And I remember one of the many memorable quotes of the novel, “It’s dangerous, applying hindsight to something as complex as why someone wrote a poem, because the temptation is to try and make it make sense. We can apply reason, but what we can’t do is apply the storms and variations that govern a human mind moment to moment.”

And I cannot help but think that maybe the storm is the passage of a lifetime, that silence means the end of something, until beginnings take you somewhere again, in some new story, in some new universe where you shall be born free.

Oh, Aronofsky! The Art of Perfection

As an adolescent, I had nurtured myself with the idea of being an over-achiever. And whenever my dissatisfaction wedged gaps between my desires and my dreams, my father had always calmed with honey-sweetened words, such as, “Perfection is an unreachable concept. It is a state of imprisonment that you are constantly searching.”

At the age of fourteen, such words didn’t hold much worth to me, laden with insecurities as I used to be, and I do not proclaim that I understand the magnanimity of them a decade later. All I do understand is the innate need of the human species to achieve something more than their present state, call it perfection, call it a mere rise from the summation of mundane moments. Whatever be the case, we are constantly in an act of motion, in an act akin to thriving. Perhaps that was what attracted me the most about Aronofsky when I had watched Black Swan for the first time.

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The one sequence and quote that propounds the psyche of Black Swan

Aronofsky’s capability to create a monument of over an existing art form has always attracted the audience. In Black Swan, he enlivened Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, only to modulate it with realism and a touch of obsessive surrealism. Lacing what might superficially appear as nuances of the psychological thriller genre, he constructed Nina (Natalie Portman) as a character suffering from schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. In my very first watch of Black Swan, I was too lost in the artistic visuals, frames and the lithe grace of Portman to actually comprehend the audacity of Aronofsky’s ambitions. Afterward, I was flabbergasted by the conceptualization of Nina’s character sketch, of course. Aronofsky creates a schizophrenic protagonist to deconstruct Nina into two separate mirror halves, just as Tchaikovsky’s Odette (White Swan) and Odile (Black Swan) were. But instead of two separate entities, he merges the two into a climactic conjugation of ballet and sequestered cinematography, thus giving a resolution to the eternal trope of postmodernism, that of the unreliable narrator.

Aronofsky repeatedly plays with the motifs of doppelgangers in Black Swan, and even though the presence of an unreliable protagonist is constantly upheld through Nina’s interactions with her mother and her ballet academy director, he still toys with the audience as to whether the mirror halves are created in lieu of the original Swan Lake or for the psychological thriller genre of the film. But where does the presence of a mentally disturbed protagonist collage into the bedrock of perfection? Perfection, after all, is supposedly an unreachable linear concept, right? Sadly, wrong. And that is what Aronofsky sews in through the leitmotifs of not one, but two of his films. Perfection, to him, is an act of completing a full circle. Nina starts as a partially formed canvas, but when she performs her dramatic fall in the end, the myriad spectrum of colors and feathers now completed, she still etches herself on that canvas, only this time, the canvas holds itself grounded into realism. Does this break the fragmented narrative, so very salient in postmodernism? Yes, it does. And hence, conflict arises. From flaying herself to actually stabbing a version of the Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina breaks ground that is structured enough to uphold her perfection, the open ending only propounding the act further. The sheer genius of Aronofsky, however, does not lie on the fact that he could present a psychological thriller inspired from Swan Lake, but the fact that he could present the original in a postmodernist narrative and still break each of its tropes in the end. Perhaps the same concept applies to his newest and most ambitious project till date: Mother!

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The convergence of a thousand emotions through the eyes of “her” (Jennifer Lawrence) along the film’s narrative, accompanied with the haunting silences, create a sequence of ongoing circular patterns throughout the plot.

Aronofsky sped eons into the past with Mother! He unraveled biblical allegories, studied them intently and then presented the same through the simplistic narrative of his newest film. The question, however, was the passage of time. Unlike Black Swan, which can easily be characterized through its modern-day setting, Mother! dwindles between the the past and future, taking bits and pieces throughout the ages. The fact that “Him” (Javier Bardem), the only character with a capitalized pronoun for reference, is a writer, suffering from writer’s block, that he is being celebrated by his mob of followers and publisher (Kristen Wigg), entail that the setting is contemporary. Yet, the structure of the house Him and her live in, its surroundings, the absolute silences succumbing around them, also alienates the setting from the passage of time, as if the place of narration is a sentient being in itself, freed from the constraints of time. Now, what does that remind you of? Well, with all his biblical allegories, simply put, the house is a representation of Eden.

The plot of Mother! is an act of decay. The story begins in silence and ends with rage and fire. In other words, Mother! is a deconstruction of chaos. But, where does, once again, Aronofsky’s perception of perfection fit into the narrative? Mother! is a story of Mother Earth’s (referred to as her. Notice, without any capitals) death. But if it is a case of death, why is it an act of perfection? In old-school pagan philosophy, perhaps death is considered the beginning, and that itself denounces the concept of perfection. But Aronofsky fiddles with the idea further, through Bardem’s Him (in capitals, because he is represented as a version of God, the creator), and makes endless cycles out of a single narrative. Does this, on a higher dimension, construct a singularity? Perhaps, because what is super-intelligence, if not sentient human thought? In the house of Eden, Him and her exist in marital bliss, until uninvited guests come and crowd their home. Adam, referred to as man, (Ed Harris) ushers in Eve, referred to as woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and they usher in Cain, referred to as the oldest son (Domhnall Gleeson), and Abel, referred to as the younger brother (Brian Gleeson). The rise of human thoughts, ranging from lust to greed to wrath, each encompassing the concepts of sin, thus find themselves existent in Eden sequentially. Satan, if exists, dwells, therefore, in the lingering essences of each emotion felt. The stage is thus viscerally set. So, when the guests start increasing, and the house descends into chaos, mother cannot take it anymore. She is suffocated, broken and an alien in her own skin. And when their child, the fruit of the mother, is murdered, his flesh eaten by the intruders, the climatic collapse is thus reached. She brings down the house in flames, something akin to the natural disasters that the planet’s species has often faced. And perhaps that should have been the message, that we, as a species, are murdering the mother, something that any other director would have blindly followed, in order to ingrate into the audience’s minds about a social message. However, Aronofsky, being the mad genius that he is, would have none of that plaintive one-dimensional storytelling.

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The last smile: A laughing Him recreates the world again.

So, he once again inoculates his concept of perfection, wherein after the mass burning, only an unscathed Him and a now broken, burned and near-death her survive. And once Him obtains the crystal inside her’s ripped-out heart, he creates Eden once again, with a new mother. But the question is, what does Aronofsky propound through this act of repetition? Is God inherently merciless? Is God a sociopath who refuses to mourn the death of the mother? Or is God only an idea, who himself is chained to the act of an infinity loop? Whatever it is, he imbibes the deconstruction of Him’s character sketch into the very perception of perfection, once again piecing together the concept of visualizing perfection as a closed circle, an ouroboros, if you will.

Perhaps perfection, thus, is a singularity of a milieu of philosophies in itself. It rises from cogito ergo sum and thwarts upon the boulder of Sisyphus’s curse. Whatever it is, Aronofsky paints upon Black Swan and Mother! his endless shades of fragmented thoughts, and creates something akin to infinity, a place where I believe perfection happily dwells.

A Forest of Crimson Gleam

Images and montages,

Somewhere, the ‘I’ is lost in a star that still rages,

Glimmers here,

A touch of crimson there.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Was there once a a child?

Lost as she was in a forest of dread.

She went in search of adventures,

Blaming it all on her dear grandmother.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Mama once said,

Or was it just another voice in my head?

It is hard to tell,

The masks I wear always spin a different tale.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So there I go,

Stifled and sore,

I walk in a forest of crimson gleam,

Burdened with a thousand splendid dreams.

There she is, the blasted red 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

I search for family,

I search for home,

I find a little hut,

And you see, you see, I am stifled and sore.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And there she is, my sweet grandmother,

The lame old dame,

The one who forever forgets my name,

Oh, what a shame, what a shame!

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

But her teeth are sharp tonight,

And her beady black eyes glow with hunger when she catches my sight.

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

And her skin is warm and covered in wet fur,

Her familiar frail batty skin now marred with scars.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And with her gravel voice that rises from her frothing mouth,

She beckons me, the hag with a wolfish snout.

So I sit by her bedside, those frail hands suddenly too big to fit in my palm,

And for a moment, I lose my little voice in alarm.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

There he lingers, with his claws and his misty breath,

As he whispers to me, “Come closer, Little Red.”

And the darkness looms after,

There is pain, a few broken screams and the cackle of vicious laughter.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And when dawn breaks once again,

In a forest of crimson gleam,

There stands a being,

With blood in its hands,

And the taste of flesh in its mouth,

As it rubs off the last drop of red from its dainty supple skin.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And so you believed as Mama always said,

That once there were the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red,

And one night in a forest of crimson gleam,

The Wolf had feasted upon the corpses of her thousand dreams.

But did she ever tell you,

The story that only I knew,

Of an audacious little girl, so very blithe,

Of an audacious little girl, with a monster underneath,

Who feasted on a beloved old hag until she was nothing but blood and bones in a pile of heath?

So sleep now, little one,

Dream of wolves and little girls in coats of bleeding red,

For deep inside a forest of crimson gleam,

There still sits Red on a wrecked bed, still tearing into the sinews of a thousand lost dreams.

New Orleans: Memories of a Summer Lost

Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.

So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.

Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.

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New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.

I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.

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And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.

And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.

You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.

The Grand Arrival: Mahalaya

Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.

 

In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.

 

And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.

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Mahalaya mornings shall never be complete without catching an early show of the most potboiler presentation of Mahisasurmardini, filled with its horrible special effects and laughable depictions of the gods. (© Image from Google Images)

The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.

 

So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”

 

Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).

 

So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.

 

In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.

 

Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).

 

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Chakyudaan: The ritual of painting the goddess’s eyes on Mahalaya (© Image from Google Images)

But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.

In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.

 

But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.

And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.

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Kash Phool (wild sugarcane grass flowers), the symbol of Mahalaya and the Indian autumn or Sarat Kaal (© Image from Google Images)

Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.

“Still there. Still there. Gone.”

Somewhere between childhood and the pangs of first love, I discovered that I craved nothing more than conversations.

Conversations, heart-wrenching, soul-crushing, alive-in-this-moment, words-existing-beyond-lifetimes conversations.

And in every turn, in every new love, in every new touch, I think some part of me has been searching for words, and forever shall.

Richard Linklater’s trilogy came into my life in such a way, when I had traveled across the lanes and by-lanes of the city, sitting for hours at cafes or by the banks of the city’s mud-worn river banks, it had come to me in silence, in fleeting nudges and somehow I had found myself engrossed, enthralled and enlivened in a matter of some ninety minutes.

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Some movies you grow with, some movies come find you in their own time, and only a few grow with you. The Before trilogy consisted of those few movies that grew with me. Somewhere between watching and re-watching them in the wee hours of the morning, being entangled with Celine’s beautiful accented English and Jesse’s lovelorn eyes, I discovered the secrets of the universe.

The idea that even a day, even a moment, is enough to live a lifetime, when encumbered solely of words, mesmerized me. And perhaps I grew up romanticizing the very idea of it, that two days (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) are enough to decide you want to live with someone till your very last breath, because all you need to do is take the leap.

My words, I realize, are unmeasured in this moment. It lacks the competence of a generally well-researched blog post, but the truth is that no matter how many times I try watching these three films as research, I fail miserably.

From the evening lights of Vienna to the sun-kissed Seine of Paris, I traveled every time with Jesse and Celine’s words, with their reticence, with their longing, with their cynicism, with their dreams.

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And the best part of this trilogy is that it is not fictional, not really. It has the coarseness of mundane reality, it lacks the magic of falling momentarily in love with a person instead of their memories, and it profoundly glistens over the hesitation of two adults fearing to believe in happy endings again.

Before Sunrise was a prelude to the swansong of their love story, it still existed in the mystic land between dreams and reality, of two people connecting intimately without having to touch one another just yet, all for a snap of serendipity. But Before Sunset was rawer, grounded further into the heart of reality, almost lost like their souls, but still withstanding the barrages of cynicism. Yet it is Before Midnight that most lingers in my heart. A film where Linklater masterfully exposes the bare intricacies of the so-called happy endings, of failed loyalties and burgeoning insecurities.

I remember the moment when Celine talks about her fears, how she feels that now, in her fifties, if she sat by the same train to Vienna, Jesse would never come and speak to her, never realize the story that awaited them. And I knew that Linklater’s voice was clear, resounding, and hollowed by the truth that happy endings don’t really exist, that endings are just the oversimplifications of moments still left un-lived and unexplained.

Because Before Midnight thwarts you, it thwarts you to rethink the rose-tinted glasses you cannot stop wearing while watching the two preceding films. And those moments, when Celine confesses that she no longer loves Jesse, or the one where she acutely realizes how very different they are, and their togetherness is just a freakish absurdity, it makes me believe that crumbled realities are still art.

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And love doesn’t really win in this love story, not by a far shot. Reality takes that victory cake, sometimes even at the cost of leaving a bittersweet aftertaste in your mouth. And it is not perfect, it is not the ending you wanted, it is not even something you wish to see, but believe me, you need to. I needed to, because even imperfections can be excruciatingly beautiful.

And this is me. This is you. This our reality. This is flawed. But for now, it is enough. Because in this moment, it is, “Still there. Still there,” until tomorrow, when it is “Gone.”

Beyond Borders: A Review of Exit West

“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

 

Somewhere amidst the clouds that spread like cotton in blue skies, un-bothered by the borders of different countries, and some 30, 000 ft above land, I started reading Exit West inside the uncomfortable metal box called an airplane.

 

I believe that books have a peculiar way of coming into our lives, call it their lovable quiddity, if you please. Some books we choose to read, and some books that choose us to be read by. Perhaps Exit West fell into the second category, because as I drudged through the most mind-numbing eight-hour layover at Newark airport three months ago, I stepped into the rather expensive outlet of Hudson Books to get myself a book to read.

 

Remember those days before college when you felt like the greatest champion for humanity after scoring a rather admirable score in your SATs or high school finals, and then the world thwarts you into the university, and you feel like you are just another brick in the wall? Well, that was me. Here in my country India, I am considered quiet the avid reader, or so I am often told. But there, standing among the rows of bookshelves at Hudson Books, and realizing that I knew exactly ten percent of the books there, a meager two percent of which I had personally read, I realized I am a miserable Alice lost in a Wonderland that she definitely did not anticipate.

 

So I found this book, this beautiful blue hardcover with the most seamless spine and I ran a finger across it. I turned to the cover, and sifting through the pages, I realized it was written by Mohsin Hamid, a writer I had serendipitously come across two years back, after reading Moth Smoke. Resigned, I took my exhausted self to the billing counter and paid a whopping $25 (believe me, that is a fortune in the Indian currency, especially for the forever penniless bibliophile that I am, as I shamelessly satiate my reading pangs with free PDFs and weathered old books found in quaint bookshops) and settled with it on one of the many seats at the bustling airport after my security check.

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My copy of Exit West, somewhere in Newark Airport

The whole imagery that I gave before I begin this review, it is relevant because after some 20 or 30 pages, the surrounding world squeezed itself into an atom, the white noise cut itself out, and all I could do was trace the footsteps of the star-crossed lovers in the book, the fiery Nadia and the restrained Saeed, as they trudged through their lives across an unnamed city.

 

In some 240 pages or so, Hamid spins a tale that encompasses journeys across the globe, only with the bittersweet craving for belonging. Artfully weaving in the most subtle imagery of magical realism, with mysterious dark portals and the act of reaching foreign lands in only a moment’s notice, Hamid persuades you to feel, rather than “think”, the latter of which is often associated to most Man Booker nominees.

 

He tears apart convoluted subjects such as illegal migration, refugee crisis, the sense of loss and disconnect that hits the victims in full force post-migration, and explains them in the voice of two opposing yet simple voices, one of the fiercely independent Nadia and the other with the controlled and more and more religious Saeed. He quantifies the bigger images on a screen through a lens, distilling the excess out of his narrative and singularly concentrates on a plot motif that is driven by emotions alone.

 

The book takes you from families, from friends, from conditioned identities, and throws you into the foray of unknown countries and strangers, only to incite the longing that sensitizes you to the acute melancholy of unfamiliarity. Smoothing the edges with beautiful descriptions of Mykonos and London, Hamid enraptures you with the visuals of countries that you often visit in your dreams, countries which are far off in reality with their invisible borders.

 

But the uniqueness in Hamid’s voice lies in the fact that he successfully draws a caricature of the characters as they grow, metamorphose, and embrace their new identities wholly, instead of only concentrating on the lingering love in between. Nadia and Saeed are two complete beings, real and tangible, in spite of their torrid love affair and their bittersweet connection, and as you sift through the pages of the book, they familiarize with you, as if breaking a fourth wall in between the reader and the character, and somehow become your friends, instead of the strangers they begun as.

 

Exit West, in spite of its rather enormous grand narrative, is a singular ballad of melancholia, something that seduces you with its undulating rhythm, leaving only the softest hums of nostalgia behind. And flying some thousand feet above man-made borders, the world appearing only as a speck of brown and green in a heart of ocean blue below, I realized that perhaps belonging is not the end of a story, but only the beginning of embracing something far greater instead. Maybe that is what the author wants you to know, even if you are too scared to believe just yet. And perhaps time will show you that secret, someday, underneath the stars in Chile.

Rainy Afternoons and Murakami: A Review of Men Without Women

Serendipity. Magic. Unfinished love stories.

I type these handful of words and somehow, even when I sit scribbling this on a word document with my favorite dessert to keep me company, I am transported into the heart of melancholia that cloud-kissed afternoons leave behind after the rain has stopped falling.

Perhaps that is the power of Murakami’s words, something that I had lovingly named “Murakamishq” a year ago, literally meaning, the love of Murakami.

So, a month ago, when my copy of the much awaited anthology of short stories fell upon my hands, the August rains as unpredictable as the Japanese wordsmith’s stories, I settled with a cup of tea and my beloved hardcover.

Yet, even after reading a hundred pages, I felt the magic strained, the words forcefully woven to tell a story, and the characters almost reticent to touch the sorcery that Murakami inoculates in them.

Men Without Women is an irregular bouquet of stories, and almost all of them hold the thread of capturing a photograph from the life of an ordinary man. From ‘Drive My Car’ to ‘Scheherazade’, the sense of lonesome longing dwells with an almost mythical aura in every layer of the stories.

Yet, where the magic was so predominantly existent in his previous novels, from the enormous 1Q84 to the lucid South of the Border, West of the Sun, Men Without Women sadly lacks the effortlessness that his novels carry.

One particular story, ‘Kino’, personally stands out for me. It begins with the usual tropes of a Murakami tale, with dimly lit bars and fascinating felines, and gradually delves into the individual’s sordid layers, only to thwart the reader into the realms of obscurity, somewhere between dreamlands and realities. And all throughout, Murakami accomplishes what is so beautifully captured in his novels which are neck deep in magical realism, from Kafka on the Shore to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, simply by the use of brevity.

The showstopper of the anthology, ‘Samsa in Love’, however, fails to accomplish the same. Inspired from Kafka’s brilliant Metamorphosis, Murakami flips the situation and writes a tale from the perspective of the infamous bug. However, whereas Kafka’s lucidity melts into each episode like waves on a stream, Murakami’s narrative seems a tad bit forced, something of a surprise from the usually free-flowing vocabulary of the beloved author.

In the midst of the motley, some stories do strike the right chords, if not throughout, but at least in certain sequences. The narrative of ‘An Independent Organ’ arouses the familiar melancholy that his stories demand, and the culmination of said realization in a few lines almost melts into the dwindling pace that might otherwise hinder a reader’s understanding.

Similarly, the incompleteness of ‘Scheherazade’ lingers like the scent of moist soils after the torrents of rain have long since ceased to be.

Among all of such intricacies, mention should also be made of the translations of these stories. Although the translators are different for almost every story, each of them have successfully captured the unique voice of the author as much as possible, which is a feat worth admiring.

In all, although Men Without Women doesn’t stand out to be the best of Murakami’s works till date, his previous anthologies, the undulating Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman especially, having a far greater taste of his sensibilities, it is a poignant read in the end—it leaves its presence persisting somewhere between your reality and the realm of your thoughts, where words dwell in their lonesome.21268348_10212403586058960_283355567_o