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.

Glitz, Glamour and Homophobia

100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.

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Bhandarkar’s Heroine, where homosexuality was openly insulted.

Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.

Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?

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Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, where homophobia was insidiously promoted as a comedic subplot.

Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released. Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.

Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.

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Man-hating lesbians and objectification, as promoted by B-grade films like Girlfriend

In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.

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Bhandarkar’s Fashion promoted a delusion that most of all male fashion designers are closeted homosexuals who publicly promote a heterosexual relationship in order to cover up their sexual orientation.

Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).

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The New-Wave Bollywood Cinema: Aligarh, Margarita With a Straw, Kapoor & Sons

But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.

Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.

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Kolkata Pride Walk 2017, captured by Zoya Khan. Saintbrush

Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.

But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.

Masters of the Universe: A Review of I’ll Give You the Sun

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.

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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.

A Case of Forbidden Something

 

I like to think of you as a basket of starlight lilies. Sure, it is not the most beautiful flower that blooms prettily for her admirers. But so are you, with your half-scathing words that are lathered in sarcasm and served on a platter to fool the rest of the world.

I like to think of you as two hands holding when the sun is not looking at them anymore. I like to think of you, as the warmth that is enclosed in between those embracing palms, remains like the remnant of a story left unspoken. They are not sweat-kissed anymore, not like they were last afternoon when they laid, conjoined, each line, with its separate destination, congruent to the other, as if right there, in that very moment, they whispered to their destinies, fuck you.

I like to think of you as something akin to the bite-marks on my lower lip, the ones that I spend a lifetime giving to myself, when I catch you looking at me, as I try to look away, only hopelessly gazing at you once again.

What would they say? What would they say if they ever read my eyes, peeped into my thoughts, turned a blade through my heart and bled out its secrets?

Will they be ashamed?

Or more importantly, would you be ashamed?

I like to think of you as the interludes between Madonna serenading to some bearded Mexican fellow to ‘La Isla Bonita’, when those unknown instruments go tip-tap-tipper-tapper to the tone of something tangibly untouchable.

I like to think of you as someone I have touched, in some forgotten dream, perhaps in another lifetime, and now, I am just a ghost, retracing those old roads, hoping they would lead me to you. Who knows? Perhaps we will meet somewhere in between and lie to each other, saying they were crossroads, before walking away.

I like to think of you as a forbidden fruit, one that I have already tasted. But the gods were cruel. Their punishment was to make me forget how you did taste in the space between my lips and teeth, the warmth that I must have felt when the droplets of you trickled down onto the flesh below my teeth, warming my mouth, warming whatever was left of my soul.

I like to think of you as the secrets friends share when even the moon hides in the night. I like to think of as those secrets that the stars steal away from them, when those shining tricksters peep out of their cloudy caverns to listen to their words.

And I would keep counting, counting endlessly, until I remember all that I think of you, until you remember that maybe, just maybe, I like you to think of me too.