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.

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For Whom Does the Goddess Arrive?

When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.

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When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.

 

When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.

 

If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.

 

When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.

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And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.

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There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.

 

And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.

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But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?

 

Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.

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So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.

 

I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.

Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.

 

And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.

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Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.