There are so many things I wish to tell you and for some reason, I feel I have run out of words today, at least the words that carry the weight of my thoughts at this moment.
My father would always tell me, “When you do not know how to tell a story, start at the beginning.” So the story of the The Indian Bibliophile started when on this day last year, my colleague and my full-time-nonsense-tolerating friend cajoled me into opening this blog. And now, here I am, wiser and stupider over the passage of 365 days, scribbling something she knows nothing about in this letter.
Stilted winter sunlight, the scent of old books, the touch of a warm cup of tea on your lips, the feel of newly-worn socks, and the sound of words—The Indian Bibliophile began as a home to all these images wrapped into one concoction of imperfection a year ago. Perhaps it began with my desire for a shelter, or perhaps it started because I wanted to scribble witless sweet-nothings for this boy I had once loved. Winter does make you believe in love and her thousand possibilities, does it not? Whatever it was, it grew into something more than shelter, something akin to home instead.
There would be words of appreciation for the poems I scribbled in the beginning, even so I could not help but believe that something lacked in them, as if the very soul of the words had long since bid adieu and now only the bittersweet lull of their sounds remained. And in search of their souls, I had traveled miles upon the meandering roads of the city that I had once loved, and now grown to un-love. But as time passed, and as is wont to Time himself, the words came by and the words went by, until the soul became a part of me, and inked only to bleed in bits through whatever I tried writing.
It was personal, this blog has always been so. Some held the memories of a love story that could only happen in another reality, while the others sheltered the fragile embers of a has-been. Whatever it was, it carries the scent of me, meager and unwound as it is, in this constructed and deconstructed world that we bear upon our shoulders as the weights of our respective realities.
They say it is nigh impossible, to open your doors and let the world view your elusive secrets when your blog is a reflection of the words you would often scribble only in the dark envelops of the nights. Yet melancholia teaches you, does it not? That whatever you hold as your own never truly belongs to you in the end. There is no I, nothing is about you, and your words are here to be given, until only they stay even after you have long since turned to dust.
So why does this sentimental, and somewhat childish, need to possess them still remain? Why is there still an itch to be answered, to be appreciated, to be needed, to be wanted, to be adored enough, so that my desire of acceptance is satiated in one form or the other? Because this is not just “my” blog, this is also an impression of the woman I have tried to become.
The Indian Bibliophile is not just me, or you, or the words between us. It does not comprise of the time it took to come to the crossroad where I can pen something that unravels so much of me that I now only have my meager hands to cover whatever I still wish to remain unseen. Whatever it is, it is a story nonetheless. And I promise, this one is just beginning.
So I thank you for reading my words, I thank you for loving my words, and I thank you for piecing me together until the woman I was on December 2016 now only stands as an unrecognizable poltergeist somewhere in the precipice of the past and present.
So I go on, somewhere in the recess between two consecutive waves, in a land where strangers become lovers, and lovers become strangers, until I reach the shores of another year once again.
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.
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.
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.
Father had always taught me to look at the bigger picture.
I would come from school, the itch of my dried-up tears begging to be scratched out of existence, my mangy hair disheveled from the hours spent in fighting my bullies.
Father would say, “One day, these memories will drown, and you will only remember its littlest fragments.”
Of course I refused to believe him then, stubborn little wild child that I used to be.
Now I only remember the strands of brown in her black hair, her raging beady black eyes, and the scratch of her nails in my arm, the scars long gone.
I was a miniaturist long before I discovered love.
I was searching for memories long before I lost myself in remembrance.
The little lane behind the assembly hall of my school, the one that witnessed me devouring the words of a hundred stories,
The golden intaglio of a hardcover’s title, its touch still sheltering the first moments of a childish smile that would often bloom in between my lips,
The taste of the first fruit in summer, its yellow-orange pulp finding little corners to hide in between my still-milk teeth,
I realize I have been collecting pictures long before I knew how to capture them.
So when he strode in between sixteen and seventeen, his towering frame overshadowing my little self effortlessly, I remembered the warmth of his embrace, his ever-encompassing arms still etched into my skin.
The love has long departed from my home, only its dwindling memory sometimes knocks at my doorstep, unwelcome yet unrelenting.
Yet Love never failed to thrash upon me after,
Sometimes, it was the lingering smile of a beloved,
In another, it was the lilt of his voice when he called me Red.
Time, my enemy in each story, has robbed me off the fervor,
Choosing only to leave a heart-shaped box of memories in his wake.
But the faraway caress of a past lover,
The kisses shared in the lovelorn lonesome evenings of an age-old staircase,
The softness of a lover’s wrist, wrapped in a hairband, the one never used to tie her crimson curls,
They have remained.
So when you arrived today,
My new guest, my newest curse, my new reason to crumble once again,
You asked me, “Why do you say you shall be gone?”
And I wished to offer you a thousand words,
I wished to tell you that I will remember the rebellious brown that glimmered underneath a golden street lamp in your black beard,
I wished to tell you I will remember the hapless smiles you would often offer me in between my chaotic words,
I wished to tell you I will remember you in the million similarities you found in me and the phantom memories of women you once knew,
I wished to tell you I remember the sound of Red, the color of her raging mane, the warmth in his arms, the image of her bare feet upon grass still covered in morning dew,
I wished to tell you that I have long since loved pieces of you,
Yet, I could only say, “A miniaturist’s curse, my friend. You shall be another memory I once knew.”
Isn’t it strange, that we only have a handful of memories as father and daughter, and a thousand more as friends? I am sitting here, staring at a blank word document, as I scribble these words in Calibri, because of course, writers write in Calibri and add an extra dollop of esoteric gravitas with it.
Perhaps it was time, perhaps fate, maybe it was sheer bad luck, whoever knows? But by the time you came home, I was already seventeen, a woman, a little chipped at the corners, but still standing.
Of the handful of memories I still have of us as being family, my favorites are fortunately still existing somewhere in the celluloid tapes inside a handy-cam cassette. I remember your years in Kosovo, how every three months you would send us a bunch of cassettes, then a privilege really, to own a handy-cam and a Whirlpool microwave, the latter still functioning in our dysfunctional family kitchen in a miraculous manner, and how Ma, my sister and I would sit, cooped up in front of the dilapidated television set, after cautiously connecting the wires of the two machines.
I remember your voice, still distant and unfamiliar, as if the voice of a guest we would often wait for, from a time when your appearance at home meant closed books, the utter rejection to study and eating the most delectable meals that Mom cooked, a time when it meant that the clock was not set at 10 PM sharp to go to sleep.
I remember how you had shown me the Parthenon for the first time through your eyes, how the statue of Athena resembled Durga, and how you were so desperate to show me the similarities with that tiny little video camera. I remember when you had visited the ice museum, and said that the father polar bear was embracing the child bear, just like you would often embrace me. And I had been young, so very young, that I had not realized your voice breaking a little, I had not realized you had been heartbroken, and I had only basked in the happiness, foolishly, of being the center of attention instead of my sister.
And then you came home, came home to your family, your visit did not beget a festival, a birthday, a grand celebration, because why celebrate the homecoming of family? Why, indeed. I was fifteen, the first time I had been so angry and disappointed at you. It had been a trivial reason, really. Something about you not being around on my birthday at a town where you were then posted. And I had been sad, a little distant, and unhappy even at times, cuddling mongrels in your bungalow, when you had sent the biggest rohu I had ever seen. A fish! A fish, because you knew I was really a kitten with mangy little claws and I could only be calmed by the tastiest fish in the river. I remember you coming home at 11:45 that night, just 15 minutes until Christmas would set in, and I had not noticed how exhausted you had been, as I finally decided to cut my birthday cake in your presence.
But one evening, somewhere between eighteen and nineteen, you had found me broken, crying, wallowing into depression little by little, and cried with me. And perhaps, on that evening between eighteen and nineteen, we became friends, as we crossed the threshold of being father and daughter. I remember the words you always say, that I am your God-gifted child, and most of the times, I do not wish to believe a single word of it, but sometimes, just sometimes, it feels good to be considered a hero instead of a sub-plot, doesn’t it?
I have had many heartbreaks ever since, I have cried buckets over failed love, failed happy endings, failed bliss and failed identities, and you had embraced me tight, not even wanting to put my broken pieces back together, and been broken with me.
I am not your ideal daughter, far from it. I am unpredictable, irrational, impulsive, too headstrong and stubborn for my own good, too lost in the grand narratives of life to actually concentrate on a single person in life, until you shake sense into me, before sanity leaves the building again.
I have been troublesome, tiresome and a handful. Also, I promise you that I have no intention of being perfect in the near future either. But I am glad you do not try to fix me, I am glad you do not try to fit me into a box, I am glad you see me as the unsuitable wild child that I am, and I am glad you love me as the imperfect little goblin that I generally am prone to be.
I am glad, Dad. I am just glad to have you in this post-apocalyptic narrative that I am often forced to call my life. And I guess in my own way, I love you as much as you love me too.
Two half-broken people. Spouses, then lovers. A dying sun. The Ganges flowing with her majestic waves in front of them. And a projapoti biskut, the epynomous sugar-encrusted butterfly-shaped biscuit that is a faithful companion to a cup of piping hot milk tea for every Bangali in Calcutta. Somewhere in the ending sequences of Projapoti Biskut, you stumble across such a scene, and you cannot help but feel an inadequate happiness towards it.
Projapoti Biskut tells a simple story of an ordinary middle-class couple in Calcutta, who have lost their words along the flow of their marriage, their mundane life suddenly bombarded by the appearance of a Karthik idol at their gates.
Now what does the appearance of a Karthik idol mean? According to our colorful, and borderline lovably ridiculous, Bangali culture, Karthik is the son of Shiva and Parvati. His idols are left at the doorsteps of childless couples at times, and a ritual for his Pujo is often promised to give a boon that they shall soon conceive a child of their own. However, the appearance of the idol is a conflagration to a chain of irreversible changes that make the aforementioned couple question their identity in each others’ lives, in their own perspectives, and their relationship as well.
Projapoti Biskut is a modern man’s perspective of the extraordinary art of living an ordinary life, as seen from the eyes of director Anindya Chattopadhyay. Shot in interloping montages that overlap the sequential events of the film, Chattopadhyay spins an overtly simple story in the layers of his artful perception. From the imagery of the eponymous butterfly biscuit to the shots of North Calcutta, from train lines to the rusted gates of a house, the cinematography of the film boasts of creating the aura needed for this story, before it drives you into its intricacies.
However, that just where it begins, and sadly ends. Projapoti Biskut succeeds in being a beautiful film, as if watching a life in a series of forgotten photo albums, but somewhere, it lacks the heart to drive its point home. From poignant opinions about child adoption to women empowerment, the director tries to sew in every modernist thought into his story, unfortunately creating an utter hotchpotch of mixed messages.
Bangalis create a grand vegetable preparation with coconut, milk and vegetables, something called a Shuktoh. But the reason why Shuktoh is such a delight is because it enchants you with its perfect admixture of flavors that intermix and inject its tastes into the bland participating vegetables, the milk boiling to a beautiful dense broth in between.
Unfortunately, Projapoti Biskut is no Shuktoh. It is blessed with a plethora of subjects, but neither of them mix or intermix to create a savory homogeneous solution. Instead, every subject, every thought, stands out as a separate sentient concept that holds ground, at the cost of the characters that think of it.
Antar, the male protagonist, played by Aditya Sengupta, is an indecisive man beside his wife and the female lead, the headstrong Saon, played by Esha Saha. Their conflicting personalities were supposed to create a magical concoction of grandiose chemistry of epic proportions, however, reality was not that kind. Although an adorable factor in the storytelling, the monotony of their conflicts is predictable at best and monotonous at its most vulnerable. The use of a deux-ex-machina-like twist in the end does not help the plot in any way, and somewhere, even the characterization of the brave Saon falls short as the director forces her to fit into the box of Bangla film making aesthetics, in order to metamorphose the tepid housewife into the bold young woman she is portrayed to be in the last leg of the film. Singularly, however, both the actors try their best to sail true to themselves in the rather undulating plot sequencing, and that is something worthy of admiration, especially when both are making their debut with Projapoti Biskut.
In the end, Projapoti Biskut is a film worth watching, if not for anything, but to view the evolving perspectives in Bangla film direction, cinematography, music composing and storytelling in reference to all-encompassing subjects, from marriage to the conception of a child. After all, once the curtain falls, even the inadequacy of happiness is not enough to stop you from humming “Tomake Bujhina Priyo” to yourself, the magic of insufficient melancholia tuning the melodious rendition.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.
Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.
Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.
The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.
But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.
Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.
The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.
Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.
I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.
However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.
Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.
Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.
“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.
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.
“The night was shadows and wind and the smell of a storm on the way, for crying until the tears were gone but the ache was left. A night for imagining that you could step out onto the windowsill and say hello to the dark, say I am sad and have the wind say I know. You could say I am alive and the trees would sigh back We are too. You could whisper I am alone and everything ends and the stars in the sky would answer We understand. Or maybe it’s ghosts telling you all these things, saying. We know, we’re alone too, we understand everything and nothing ends.”
Summerlost, Ally Condie
Somewhere in between the childlike innocence of a twelve-year-old’s narrative of loss and belonging, Ally Condie uses the voice of Cedar Lee to speak the above monologue, of storms and shadows and winds and stars in the night befriending you, holding you, and although the sense of loss is never truly gone, it is shared.
I started reading Summerlost last night, and soon, there was this bludgeoning ache inside of me to finish it by today. And even if the novel is set in the beautiful summer haze of Utah, far away from the hustles of overpopulated cities, when I closed the book after the last words, I couldn’t help but say hello to the gray gloom that it leaves behind, as if even in the mist of melancholy, loss can be perceived as something beautiful, tangible and bearable.
Summerlost is about a child’s journey to deal with loss, the absence of family, death and newly found friendship; it is about the hollowing gap that only the loss of a loved one can leave behind and the repercussions of the same.
The story begins when Cedar, along with her mother and younger brother Miles as they settle in the small town of Iron Creek, after the deaths of her father and youngest brother Ben, in the summer months at a new house while the Shakespearean Summerlost festival commences. Befriending the quirky “nerd-on-a-bike” Leo Bishop, the two friends start working in the concession stand, selling candies and programs to the visitors of the festival before the plays begin every evening.
Alongside, bonding over loss and silence, Cedar comes closer to her brother Miles, as the shadow of Ben looms overhead, while her borderline neurotic mother concocts newer schemes of revamping the house to deal with the loss of a child and her husband.
Ally Condie merges past with present like beads on a string as the novel pushes forward, using the fictional memory of the life and times of an actress who made it big in Hollywood before dying under mysterious circumstances. Initially used only as a recurring symbol of memory overlapping time lines, Lisette Chamberlain, the actress, slowly merges into the plot itself, as if her growth traced in the story is a mirror image to Cedar’s own character alignment throughout the events of the novel.
But what outshines every other factor in the novel is Condie’s lucidity in using everything, from trees to bad soap operas to turkey vultures and little things left on Cedar’s windowsill, as an imagery of loss and new beginnings. The juxtaposition of every symbol over the underlying sense of loss is not fleeting either, it persists across pages, sometimes only found as the most thwarting of one-liners and in others as a monologue that rises and dwindles rhythmically to the beat of its words, making Summerlost a book which is better left perceived rather than read word by word.
Another brilliant use of language is the characterization of Ben, the late youngest brother of Cedar, who throughout the book has been described with suffering from symptoms of autism, without actually mentioning the term itself. Contemporary young adult novels have used mental illness as an ongoing plot motif throughout the scale of the story, sometimes going in for page by page descriptions of the illness in depth. Yet, Condie uses the innocence of Cedar’s childlike narrative to describe an almost inscrutable disease in the simplest of terms. That itself is quite an achievement.
The only spot in the sun is the climactic end of the story, perhaps considered anti-climactic by many. However, I feel I must defend that too, because a novel like Summerlost doesn’t necessarily need a bombastic climax to weave together its plot as a whole. It should beat, drift and dwindle by her own terms, leaving only a promise to return after.
I enjoyed Summerlost thoroughly, and one might say it is one of the best books I have read this fall. It was a speedy read, yet also touched with the weight of soulful realizations and melancholic half-smiles in the flow of its words, leaving only an aftertaste of the memory of loss and future promises behind.
A wise woman once said, ‘Even being alone, it’s better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely,’ and I wouldn’t have discovered her words later in life, wouldn’t have been none the wiser if I hadn’t walked out of my home that day and watched a movie alone, forever igniting my passion for watching films by my lonesome.
On a drizzling day of February 2012, when the lovers strode past me, huddled in each others’ arms, towards the theaters, I had taken my cynical self for a movie, something that I would laugh about in the coming years, thinking how I had specifically used the term—“Dating Myself”—to describe that incident in future dinner-table conversations.
I had been bitter, and chewing the corner of lips, as is my habit and that of the characters that I end up writing about. Cursing every last of these oblivious fools, for they were oblivious to life and her many woes, for they were oblivious to the incumbent sadness of never really belonging anywhere.
Because I had never belonged to anyone, especially not to myself.
After all, even my self was just as temperamental as I was. When I tried to woo her, she had made it abundantly clear that she needed to be courted, loved, adored, and given a sense of belonging before she would let her secrets be known.
And so, when all hope was almost lost, I had taken my self to a date.
I had got myself a bucket of the most cheese-infused popcorn, not to mention the overpriced glass of Coca Cola.
Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the name of the movie I had watched that day. I am sure it must been something absolutely horrendous. But I do remember that I had decided to “date” myself on Valentine’s Day ‘12, as is the cliche of every stubborn heart in the world.
The results had been horrible—I had cried buckets over some character dying, I had spilled Coke on my new tee shirt, and I had wasted almost half a bucket of those tasteless abominations when I tried to get up from my seat at the end of the movie.
Soaked and poorer by five hundred bucks, I had returned home from the disaster, promising myself that I shall never let myself be tortured in this way.
Suffice to say, I never really kept my word.
As the years passed by, I befriended myself. And in turn, she showed me my loneliness could be turned into something akin to a pleasant solitude. She gave me words, filled me up with characters from books and movies, and strung up the emptiness of my otherwise silent world with music, even if I was quite disinclined towards the new addition.
Inside us is another person, another self that is waiting for you to only ask, just ask, to show themselves. And believe me, even if you drag them through the worst movie dates, the most tasteless of dinners, and even the worst of heartbreaks of your life, they will never abandon you. They will never say goodbye.
I see myself, I see her and I saw the empty unfurnished room inside my soul that had existed before she welcomed me in. It was a greyscale box of nothingness, with no heart and no memory to treasure in the darkest of times.
And together, we had colored it, painted it with a thousand more colors that the spectrum still hides from our eyes. We had furnished it with love, hope, even our sorrows, and our most secret of memories.
Sure, there were heartbreaks after. My self and I found ourselves decorating our home for guests who wouldn’t stay long enough to call themselves family. That they would sometimes leave with a piece of our furniture, stealing our memories, our hopes, perhaps even our belief that we could love again. And sometimes they would be kind, kind enough to leave a piece of themselves for our safekeeping, a memory, a memento of a scent, a voice, or a phantom touch. And she and I, we would caress it, keep it safe, locked inside the most secure corners of our room until they came to claim it again.
But for you to see all of this, you would have to know yourself first.
Know how beautiful, how wonderfully, heartbreakingly priceless you are.
I found that when I had taken myself to see some film in a lovelorn theater.
Perhaps you would find yourself in the midst of words, or perhaps in the unread corner of a storybook, or even in the melody between choruses of a song.
But that is your story to discover.
So find yourself.
And love yourself.
After all, you are your soulmate.
Hold onto yourself when the storms rage, when the sea seduces you to leave out the rest, when the mountains call you to leap forth, when life whispers your last goodbye.
Hold on, because your strong and fragile heart needs you.
Hold on, because that soul is yours to keep, to protect, and to cherish until it is time to depart, together.