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.
The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.
In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.
Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.
Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.
The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.
That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.
Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.
But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.
And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.
Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.
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 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.
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.
“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.
The first time Woody Allen realized he was different was when the boys in his kindergarten fell for Snow White and he found himself infatuated with the Evil Queen.
I never found that strong a calling, but when I was five, still crying buckets over Mufasa dying, I found myself conflicted between choosing the library or the prince in Beauty and the Beast.
I assure you, I was no reader back then. I honestly started reading seriously when I was twelve. Before that, I found reading to be a lonely exercise, a wasted one too. I would rather have had my feet strongly settled upon the hardness of reality than let myself be swayed into fantastical lands with gentle beasts and cruel humans.
My tale of reading is just as common as every other Bengali in this city. With my father taking me to the Kolkata International Book Fair, and asking me what I would like to read. Considering myself different from the dreamy and delusional girls in my class, I had picked up Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, because, hell, what could be realer than a murder in a ship?
But the first seeds of my love for words germinated in the heart of an enormous animated library, when the Beast had taken Belle to a world of books. The sheer magnanimity, and perhaps the majesty too, had blown me to bits until I found myself muddled in another object of affection—the Beast himself.
For a five-year-old, the world was still colored in only black or white. There weren’t grey complications in between. Lions were gentle majestic beasts, not conniving and incestuous, and wolves were bloodthirsty, cruel creatures that ambushed Belle and the Beast in packs, instead of waiting for winter.
Life was simpler, fantasy, simpler still. Before fiction, came non-fiction, or rather, studying people with the gods they worshipped, ergo, Greek and Egyptian myths (thanks to Brendan Fraser being my swashbuckling hero).
But that story shall be retold later. For now, I need to face the dilemma that has confounded me for the last decade or so: Will I choose the library or the prince?
I have always prided myself as a realist, someone who is calculative of all the steps she takes, and even though the world may see me as a impulsive creature, perhaps I too have used that as a layer of my being, portraying the person I wished for them to see.
Perhaps I complicated my stories myself; even before all hell actually broke loose.
If you ask me now, I would choose the library in a heartbeat. I would spend hours, watch them turn into days, months, and years, until I could infuse myself with the endless wealth of knowledge that library must have had. I still romanticize a certain motion, a montage of fantasy really, of me seating on a regal antique chair, books scattered around me on a mahogany table, while candles light up the words. I see the wax melt and smile, counting the hours I have spent trying to lessen the distance between me and the words on paper.
And perhaps that is all it is—a fantasy of a child of five that grows more details by the day.
But it is still the most beautiful one I have till date.
And like every other self-serving intellectual, I have studied, dissected and interpreted my fantasy in a hundred other ways. My chair symbolizes my need for stability, the table a symbol of my raised stature, and the scattered books show my thirst of knowledge. Finally, the trickling wax of the candles shows that I am always, always, running out of time.
It has always been a race really. Now that I think about, when did I ever remember to breathe?
But my little fantasy has its secrets too, conniving little secrets that shove me into my decade-long dilemma.
In that little montage, somewhere far off from reality, as I spend my hours reading, lost in the world of words, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I presume I will be scared by the sudden interruption, but I am not. I smile, and when I turn, I see the Beast. Mind you, never the prince. I see the Beast instead.
And I don’t mind as I usually do in my reality, I don’t mind being interrupted from my reading. I am not even a little miffed. A part of me realizes that I welcome this interruption.
And that is also when I know it is fantasy.
But our fantasies, our dreams, the books we read, the words we choose to convey our thoughts, all of these are our mirrors. Only through them can we actually see the kind of souls we really are.
So, perhaps I do want the candle-wax to trickle away, reminding me of my mortality. Only, if only, in the end, someone would interrupt me, take me away from my books, even for the spell of a moment.
Belle fell for the Beast, so did I. And maybe that was why I could never stand the thought of him turning into Adam in the end. I didn’t want a beautiful prince, not when I was five, not when I am twenty-three. I wanted a flawed being, a human who perhaps didn’t bathe in his blemishes but was accepting of them, maybe of mine too. He wasn’t supposed to be a god, not even a humble one, but just that, a beast. Someone who has his scars, his regrets, his sins, his cynicisms, his cruelty, and underneath all of it, his humanity.
The Beast embodied all the souls I have loved, unearthed, seen, and still embraced. Be it seventeen, or twenty, I have found myself falling for the dark spots, the grey limbo, the uncharted waters, and the forbidden fruits. And not for a moment, did it make me want to run back to the prince, to the perfection. I was happy in my misery, I was in peace in my chaos.
So, perhaps the real dilemma never really lies between choosing the library or the prince.
Perhaps it only exists between the audacious hopes of finding a beast with my destined library, and the knowledge that I shall never have it all.
But, c’est la vie, mon ami. After all, it is all about the journey, the trickling candle-wax, and humming while reading secret stories.
All I can do is keep repeating Doris’s words in a litany, wishing someday, in some place between fantasy and reality, I will collide into a Stradivarius that still plays the tunes of Tale as Old as Time.