Sunday, March 26, 2023

Tiny Stone, Bigger Ripple or the Weight of a Minor Incident

Street parking where I live is cruel and the sight of a car carelessly or inconsiderately parked makes me upset sometimes. Sometimes it's not a big deal because one can spot  and claim empty spots. Certain times are bad. That's how the minor incident unfolded. After having dropped my son off at school, coming back, crossing Mission Street, going east on10th, I turned right on a neighborhood alley. As I neared the 12th Street, I noticed, with frustration, a white car parked wasting space behind and front. I was about to lift my foot off the break and move on when I noticed a man approaching the white car. I hoped he would be leaving. He reached car, opened the back trunk and fished out what looked like architectural sheets (there's a lot of construction going on around my neighborhood). So reversing my car by a few feet, thinking, ah, godsend, an angel, I ask him politely if he could either move his car a bit forward or backwards, so a space could be made for another car. He acknowledges me before giving me the most bogus answers anyone could've come up with. Here, I'm thinking, here's an educated-looking man, perhaps an architect, or a draftsman, even electrical engineer, someone with a civic and rational sense, and probably with a bit of respect for someone his father's age, but no, none of that seemed to be part of the equation, his moral education. First he says, there's a yellow line and that he doesn't want to get a ticket. I tell him it's fine as I know there's yellow in patches and is not enforced. I park here almost everyday, I tell him, and add, that the little stretch from the garage to the end of the street accommodates three cars. They way you have parked is wasting a space someone could've used. No, nothing doing. He apologizes, Sorry, man! and excuses himself, closes the back trunk of his car. As he walked away, I felt angry and couldn't resist calling him an idiot. Thank you, he replies as he walks away. I drive to a whole different part of the neighborhood and finally park my car. On my way back, I leave a note on his windshield: That was a very selfish behavior! 

I said to myself, Not the first time and not the last time. By the the time I got home, or when left for work later, I'd hoped to put the incident behind me. 

One could say the world is what it is or has always been. A little worse or a little better. At a given moment in time. On a given day. One could agree. One could disagree and move on. No need to waste emotional energy on a minor incident. On a fairly normal day, one might run into a nice person and perhaps one will remember the kindness of the stranger or forget it since memory, especially human memory, has been known to fade from time to time. On the other hand, one might run into an obnoxious person, have one's day spoiled, feel sorry for both. By the time one hits the sack, the obnoxious person has been left behind obscured by the day's dust clouds. The next sunrise brings a new start, love of family, strength of friends, empathy of coworkers, neighbors, pleasure of books, music, emails, phone calls, coffee, food, walks. Remember, I'm talking about incidents of minor nature, not something that's serious, life threatening, spirit breaking. 

Minor incidents, too, strangely, occasionally, have the power to expose their full weight and flex their intimidating muscles.

The anger I'd felt towards that uncaring person wasn't fizzling. I wasn't sure how to process my anger, but I took a couple of photographs and further realized how bogus his answers were because his car was already on a yellow zone (the zone is not enforces here and it's broken and choppy). If he had moved the car forward to the end line, his car would've been a little less on yellow. I couldn't help thinking about the motives of his callousness. Was he confused? Did he act on a racist impulse? Was it arrogance (which often comes from being educated, with a degree from a good college)? Was it callousness/selfishness courtesy of American-style capitalism? 

With all those questions sloshing around my head, I realize we're living in a very sensitive time. The level of distrust is high and so is the feeling of otherness. That doesn't mean that kindness and caring has totally gone out the window, but an individual's sense of safety and belonging has worn thin. If that unfortunate man had simply moved his car, that would've gone a long way in making me feel that he and I were part of the same society and part of the process of repairing the broken system. In times of stress and distrust, it is imperative that we act with kindness towards others. As I write this, I'm trying to forgive that person and forget the incident. But I know it won't be easy as every time I walk past that spot of our minor confrontation, I'm reminded of his selfishness! 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Three days of almost bliss in Seattle for AWP!

I had gone to the AWP conference last year in Philadelphia and realized how exciting it was to be around other writers, to run into old friends and make a few new ones. Last year I was on a panel with other South Asian American Writers. I managed to attend a few interesting panels and spend time with friends, especially my old friend Vivek Narayanan. I was determined to visit AWP again in 2023 and so on March 8, I left San Francisco 5:45 AM to reach Seattle the same day and I did despite some nervousness towards the end as darkness and rain appeared all around.


I stayed with my wife Amna Ali's nephews in a nearby city of Redmond. 


Amna Ali was initially supposed to come along, but decided not to because she didn't feel right leaving our fairly confident 12-year-old boy home alone. That meant I had to sit at the Weavers Press table all by myself, all day long. I had friends at a nearby table though, wonderful folks running the combined space for Chicago Quarterly Review and Catamaran Review. But before I settled down, my neighbors on the right-hand side table Word Crafters in Eugene introduced themselves and offered to look after my table if I needed food or bathroom break. It started slow making me wondered if the rest of the day and the days after that were going to be as boring. 


The game changed the moment Syed Afzal Haider showed up with his wife Janice. I cheered up. Soon after my friend Elizabeth McKenzie and her husband Steve had arrived too, assisting CQR and Catamaran, waving hellos at me. Just when I thought I'd faint of hunger, Janice showed up with pizza and insisted that I eat half of the pie. Godsend! As my body regained energy, a nonstop stream of fellow writers kept pouring in. Syed Afzal Haider accompanied me several times and we caught up on many personal and literary issues. Many young students of writing of South Asian background stopped by to chat, wondering about the motive behind having a press dedicated to publishing South Asian American writers. I had a wonderful time speaking with them. Vivek Narayanan showed up on Friday and spent many hours with me at the desk.


Writers from South Asian and other backgrounds made a stop to say hello. There were San Francisco and Bay Area folks and there were those whom I had either not met before face to face or had only met once or twice. I may not remember everyone who came by to hug or shake hands but the ones I remember include my old friend Cesar Love (poet), Maw Shein Win (poet), Heather Bourbeau (poet), Shadab Zeest Hashmi (poet), Zeina Hashem Beck (poet), Deema Shahabi (poet), Chris Cook (journalist/prose writer), Sarika Mehta (interpreter), who introduced me to her friend Allison deFreese (poet/translator), Tauheed Zaman (prose writer), Torsa Ghosal (fiction), Kathleen Wood (fiction), Rajika Bhandari (prose writer), Kate Jessica Raphael (mystery), Nawaaz Ahmed (fiction), Priya Subberwal (fiction), Mira Vijayann (fiction), and Christine Marie Lauder (fiction), who teaches at Habib University in Karachi. Then arrived Chaitali Sen (fiction), Oindrila Mukherjee (fiction), Faisal Mohyuddin (poet), Rooja Mohassessy (poet), Karla Heubner (fiction) and Douglas
Kearney (poet). It was nice to run into Kazim Ali (poet) and be introduced to Malvika Jolly (poet) at bar by Vivek and Faisal. 

The funniest moment, I believed, came when a man in his late thirties arrived at the desk and after a brief conversation, I asked him where he'd come from. When he replied Colombia, I overacted and exclaimed, From the land of Senor Marquez? While he smiled, nodded, I pretended to get and said, Can I touch your feet? I was honored to meet one of the sweetest poets I have ever met, Claudia Castro Luna, who was the WA State Poet Laureate (2018 - 2021) among other feathers in her cap. The high point came when Vivek and I noticed that Charles Johnson, whose Middle Passage I had recently finished (and Vivek being a big fan of his Oxherding Tale), had finally arrived at the Chicago Quarterly Review table. Vivek didn't mind parting with his magnum opus After for Mr. Johnson's pleasure who gladly accepted the book and quickly took our picture to text it to the distinguished Prof. Amritjit Singh, a common friend. I texted him and it seemed he never got our photo. I had briefly joked with a passerby, a man with an amazing handlebar mustache, on the first day. Two mornings later I spotted him outside a cafe near the Convention Center. He came to the table to buy a few titles and I told him I saw him working his magic on a woman. He corrected me that it was the other way around. It told him he should've thanked his mustache. 


It has taken me thirty plus years to start exploring North West when I took a trip to Portland by car, stopping along the way in small towns and big towns such as Ashland and Eugene. I have developed a small-time affection for a very small town called Weed. One of the three exits the town offers, there's a tiny espresso cubbyhole that I like to stop by while refueling. But on my way, I ended up taking a different exit and to my surprise found a young woman actually reading a book behind counter when not serving a customer. I asked for her permission before taking her picture for future generation who may not know the phenomenon of reading a book while at work instead of gawking at the phone.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

A Footbridge to Hell Called Love

The evening of February 8, 2023 turned out to be a special one. Not only it was the inaugural reading from my newly published novella, the room of one of the best Green Arcade Bookstore was packed with with my closet friends, fellow writers, musicians, film people, library coworkers, neighbors, and my dear wife. The scene was a spitting image of the First Movement of the novella, which opens with the protagonist arriving at his friend Jerry's place for a party with food, music, reading, flirting, making out and heartbreaks.
   I spoke a little bit about the seeds and growth of the novella and the San Francisco Quartet, hinting at three more novellas to come, all ready to be published. I spoke about the San Francisco of the late 80s and early to mid-90s, especially the Mission District, and how my literary, artsy friends and I witness its decline due to city's corruption and techie invasion. Then I read from four different parts of the novella to give the reader a sense of the text's and by default the main character Aslam's evolution. There followed a discussion about my characters being composites of people I have known. There was an interesting question from a fellow writer friend about why not choosing to write non-fiction. To which I replied that fiction was my main modus operandi. There was another related question about whether I'd ever write poetry. The answer was same that fiction was my primary lens. I may, like anyone else, write poetry someday, but I am not a poet, though I have tremendous respect for poets and find it essential that prose writers must read poetry on an ongoing basis. At the end of the evening, Green Arcade had sold all copies of the novella. I felt, after all, San Francisco was still alive as a literary city, crippled, but fighting back, with all the angst and anger, tricks and tools at her disposal, the corporate onslaught.

Andrew Gillis emailed the following message after my reading and I share it here with his permission:

Hi Moazzam,
   You were busy on your way out this evening so didn't tell you how much I enjoyed your
reading and how it really evoked my long gone Mission of the 90's - or mostly gone? I
arrived in SF in May of '96, so in time to still catch some of the wonderful weirdness
leftover from the previous decades that hadn't been corporatized and monetized out of
existence as it pretty much has by now.
Your descriptions of the party and the dialogue of that era somehow reminded me that it
was a time where people were more courageous, more experimental than they are now.
   The clothing was much more colourful, body piercings and tattoos were still edgy and
not just an expensive fashion accessory. I've said this before and sometimes people say
those are just superficial trappings but I think it takes real courage to wear weird clothing,
to cut or colour your hair in ways that few people have done (green hair doesn't make
you a radical in 2023), so I think these were emblems of the desire not to push one's own envelope.
   Today's tech crowd seem to be interested in aggressively conforming with their thoroughly homogeneous GAP look. They also really seem to want not to stand out. Once they were
filling the bars, restaurants and apartments of the displaced, it really did change the
character, the energy of the city.
   And even in the dialogue of your reading I got snippets of the energy and excitement of
being in a place where you could experiment with your sexuality, your spirituality, or
drugs, music, art, politics and you would have plenty of company and you would be
supported in your adventures. Years ago a young woman I met said she moved to SF
from some small Midwest town, in her words, to be a lesbian because this is where
freaks from all over the world come and feel like they've found a home.
   I know it's easy to idealize that time and it had its issues, and there are still a lot of great
people and events here - a surprising number of my pals have hung on - but a lustre and
a feeling has surely left. Maybe some other city somewhere in the planet is taking up the
mantle - Berlin? Barcelona? Some Asian cities I'm too ignorant to know about?
   So thanks for the visit back to my past through your past Moazzam and for telling good stories.


Thank you, Andy, for your detailed feelings so similar to mine! In a way, this novella is (and the following ones too ) a lament, a love letter, and perhaps a bit of retaliation, and also testimony to our collective fight back!

May I share your comments with others, like on my blog? With or without your name? With your initials?


Hey Moazzam,

We are undeniably of a certain SF era, a certain phenomenon of The Mission (largely). And yes, let's keep fighting back to protect what little is left of that spirit or at least to maintain the possibility of something else experimental and beautiful to blossom for the young people who are here and continue to come here who are interested in pushing their own envelope rather than just for a "good job"!

And by all means share my comments on your blog and using my name is fine.

Thanks for articulating the way you do,


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Tomb of Sand - A Review

This review was first published in News International November 20, 2022 under the title "a celebration of langauge" in somewhat mangled form. Here's the original version.

Every once in a while, a literary event occurs, nudging the readers, critics and writers to accord it an extra weight. Whether that imagined estimation is accurate or not, that judgment falls inside the domain of time. Having read one-third of Ret Smadhi in Hindi and the rest of Tomb of Sand in English, I assume that the publication of the novel in Hindi might have been a watershed moment, whether the Hindi literary establishment saw it that way or not. I am also somewhat on shaky ground regarding the health of the modern Hindi novel, but my general impression remains that though the novel in Hindi is stronger than in Urdu - one language separated by two scripts primarily and by a bit of artistically and/or politically imposed word choice - it still has a bit of distance to cover. Still, it’s generally acknowledged that the Hindi novel, compared to its counterpart in Urdu, experiments more with language, its grammar and syntax, stretching and snipping words, I suppose because of its contested terrain, a jolt I received when I read my first ever novel in Hindi, Dil-o-Danish by the great Krishna Sobti. Ret Smadhi/Tomb of Sand is dedicated to Krishnaji.

Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize in 2022 and the credit goes equally to Geetanjali Shree’s vision, word play and language experimentation, and Daisy Rockwell’s near flawless translation of a complex and layered work. The task of translating a work that continuously shrivels and bloats itself up of its own volition summons a unique hurdle as the translator has to constantly stay in sync with the shift in the novel’s moods and pace, to keep her ear attuned to the multiplicity of voices jostling for attention. For example, when, out of the blue, a non-character suddenly injects her/his ‘I’ into the narrative, a lesser translator could easily fall into the faulty assumption about the writer’s clumsiness. As an aside, Dostoevsky pulls the ‘I’ trick on his readers in his Brothers Karamazov. An excerpt to share Rockwell’s challenge and mastery:

And what is understanding, anyway - no one really gets that - where does it dwell?
In the brain, which plays its tune as we smite our brows? This is what we’ve all 
been taught. That the rest of our mind and body and soul just hang loose like goop 
from that jalebi-shaped brain. You’re like Alice and you go missing, and only 
your brain remains, suspended in the air as a smile? Nose eyes lips neck shoulder 
elbow knee ankle fist thigh runny funny tummy back plague sac, all of it knavish 
slavish, all of it clueless mindless useless. If only we knew that all our other 
parts were so much finer than the tiny curly jalebis.

As translation itself is an act of flattening and bloating the original into the target language text, how well a translator accomplishes that task will make or break the translation. Rockwell’s translation reads smoothly in English, is often imaginative and succeeds in keeping its Hindi milieu simmering beneath the surface. For example, in a sentence where Geetanjali offers a play between the words baji and baazi, Rockwell recognizes the need and finds a way to keep the Urdu/Hindi words in the English version without making them appear awkward. Concerning how the elder son of the central character, Ma, should be referred to in English, Rockwell makes a risky, complicated yet necessary choice by retaining the Bade of Hindi instead of opting for Elder or Senior because Rockwell comprehends the weight of its usage when the name of the music maestros such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan is mentioned in English print. True that native English speakers might be tempted to read it as the past tense of the English verb ‘to bid’, but I admire the fact that she takes a risk, recognizing that Geetanjali Shree’s novel ushers itself onto the world stage as a challenge to the non Hindi reader and, as some have noticed, some reviewers as well. The decision to go for the uneasy complements the original Hindi novel, which is full of risks - both in terms of the plot (or the lack of it) with its postmodern structure and its rootedness to local, nonwestern literary references, though the author is equally at home with invoking western allusions as well. This the author exhibits, for instance, when she pays homage to Attar’s The Conference of the Birds and Calvino’s The Baron in the Tree as Ma’s son climbs up a tree to spy.

Those who have an access to the Hindi version may detect Geetanjali Shree’s deliberate usage of words which inflect the novel towards Urdu, words such as baji, baazi (although baazi too becomes baji if the sound ja in devnagri doesn’t carry a bindi underneath it) shauher and khavind among others, and even though the word Bade belongs to both registers, it’s usage is more prominent when concerning Muslim musicians. As the novel, or to put it more appropriately, its interiority progresses, it becomes evident that the author via Ma intends to reclaim her connection to Urdu, the land that exiled her and the Muslimness of being an Indian - pre-and-post partition - even if it dares her to visit Pakistan at the age of 80 and at the cost of her life. But Ma defeats death, symbolically speaking, - a very different vision than Bergman’s in his classic The Seventh Seal - because before her death, she has achieved her goals: to reunite with her first love, whose memory had caused the old woman, after getting lost in New Delhi, to utter a Fruedian slip: telling the police that her shauhar’s name is Anwar, meaning luminous; and die, face up, looking at the sky, in the land she was born in.

It’s not an easy novel to engage with. That’s why its delightful language is a requisite tool to keep the reader engaged. Under a different style, the reader could lose interest while waiting for Ma, who, after the passing of her husband, keeps her back towards her family members and the readers for close to a hundred pages. Thankfully, the chameleon-like narrator keeps a tight grip on the reader (sometimes by keeping chapters as short as a quarter page) and before Ma finally slips out of the house, gets stranded, is found, moves in with her daughter, hurting her son and daughter-in-law’s feelings, the novel has turned into a python forcing the reader to wrestle with it. In the process, several doubles have been created. Two husbands, one Hindu, the other Muslim, frienship with Rosie the hijra who can at times metamorphose into a tailor with a Muslim background, the reversal of traits between Ma and Beti, the invocation of Urdu and Hindi writers throughout the text, from Sara Rai to Krishna Sobti to Manto to Intizar Husain to Mohan Rakesh to Jogindar Pal to Faiz to Ghalib to Mir just to name a few; and finally herself mutating into Manto’s Bishan Singh, who wreaks total havoc at the Wahga border as the writers from both sides meet amid the vacuous exchange of military guards buffoonery.

Geetanjali Shree deftly and loudly does away with what some of us associate with the male conventions of writing a novel. Hers is a feminist structure, full of patience, call it oceanic, cyclical highs and lows, chapters devoted to action and non-action, characters and omnipresence, dialogues and ruminations. The author turns Ma’s back into her canvas and it’s not just a canvas of screen where the stories of hers and her relative’s lives are unfolding but it’s also the back of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved carrying scars unleashed by patriarchy, religious bigotry and nationalism. One simply cannot read Tomb of Sand without noting metafictional hints and nods.

Along with metafictional sounds that add to the chamber music of Tomb of Sand, the novel defies a single narrative style. On the bedrock of non-western feminism, the novel tests black comedy (when Ma commands Paksitani soldiers to kick her repeatedly despite their pleading), magic realism (think of butterflies), romance (Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera comes to mind), postcolonialism (anticoloniality of Ghosh’s Shadow Lines) and Buddha’s jataka tales (Intizar Husain’s stories influenced by jataka tales) among others.

Amid a nascent critique of South Asian English writers in the US and UK unwittingly indulging in neo-orientalism, I’d advise my fellow writers to read Tomb of Sand in Rockwell’s excellent translation to recognize the dangers of simplifying a complex culture for western consumption. Even Rockwell flirts with something similar when in two places she inserts the names of two authors, Faiz and Joginder Paul, not found in the Hindi version, but she withholds Iqbal assuming, rightfully, everyone in India knows the poet. The author herself limits her embrace of ganga-jamani to Urdu/Hindi authors without summoning Punjabi authors although the ghost meeting of authors takes place in Punjab. These are very minor issues, though, when reading a mammoth work of art rendered into English so wonderfully.

Finally, I have always maintained that there should be a vibrant presence of Hindi fiction in Pakistan. Ajmal Kamal of Aaj has done a remarkable job in introducing Urdu readers to Hindi fiction and writers such as Nirmal Verma, Alka Saraogi and Uday Prakash are household names. But one person alone is not enough to bridge the gap. In the same vein, I believe unfamiliar Hindi words should be retained while transliterating from Hindi into Urdu so the Urdu readers, especially the writers, have a shot at increasing their brain muscles. Having said that, I look forward to the availability of Ret Smadhi and/or Tomb of Sand, not to mention other works by Geetanjali Shree, in Pakistan.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Loss and Grief

 I grew up knowing that I was given a different name when I was born. That name was soon changed to the name I have grown up with, my mother told me, on my grandfather's request. I wasn't particularly fond of either one, but grew to like them for both have interesting sounds. My birth name, Zaheer, easier on the tongue, carries a gentler ring. Moazzam, on the other hand, is tricky, the full extent of which I only discovered when I moved to the US and many had fun with it.

I was much older when I learned that my birth name initially belonged to a son, from an earlier marriage, my mother had lost, when he was one year old or younger. I have been very close to my half-sisters, but the mention of their brother never came up and it was almost as if he never existed. To make matters more complex, my mother also lost a daughter, Mushtri, who she occasionally called to remembrance. Having lost a few children, I retrospectively understand now why my mother worried about my safety. It is plausible that my mother choose the name without my father fully knowing the reason. 

It was towards the last few years of her life, just before dementia struck her, did she openly mention Zaheer's presence, with or without mentioning his name. Often, it seemed, she was talking to herself. But, then, one time she pointed up and informed me that he'd been up there beckoning her. 

It was decided, considering her mental state, she'd be better taken care of in Lahore by her daughters, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren, not to mention neighbors - because of the culture's overall intrinsic kindness towards elders. She finally left us to be with her dead children a couple of years later. My short story Cafe Le Whore was an exercise in comprehending my loss of her.

She left me with a few piles of her papers saved in a couple of plastic bags consisting of letters (mine and from others), receipts, addresses, postcards, invitation cards, brochures and newspaper cuttings about the plays she had acted in - and photographs, many of which I'd seen before, but not all, wondering if she had kept a few of them hidden. Or perhaps, despite being very attracted to the stories photographs tell us, I might not have paid attention to those which now suddenly drew my attention. One of the pictures among those, black and white, faded and crumpled in places, is that of Zaheer. I have a habit of going through her photographs as a hobby and I look at Zaheer's occasionally, not because I feel jealousy or a deep connection with him, nor does his face reminds me of my mother. I can remember her based on my own memories! I look at his face to feel my mother's sense of loss and grief she must have carried in her head and her hazel eyes all those years. Is that even possible? 

A dear friend of mine, a fine writer based in Bombay, lost a sister in an automobile accident a few days ago. And his mother a daughter. My eyes have been flitting from his face to hers, though they are thousands of miles away, while I try to understand the desire in us to map the loss and grief etched or hidden on the faces of others. My mother's face, always busy with the worries of day to day survival, didn't allow me a peek at her camouflaged pain numbed with the passage of time. She also witnessed partition; yet it is not my place to guess if a callosal collective tragedy can lessen the impact of personal suffering. 

When my cousin and one of my dearest friends - we were only 6 months apart - fell victim to a robber's bullet in Lahore, I learned that my close American friends lacked the means and culture to grieve with me for one reason or another. I don't hold it against them, but I keep on trying to fathom the DNA of that posture. Not a day goes by when I don't think of him. Losing him became a very private feeling. 

Perhaps the toughest day of my professional life as a librarian occurred a week ago when a woman around thirty sought help securing two books, one on bi-polar disorder, the other on PTSD. As I pulled out those books off the shelf, she whispered she needed help with another book. After a pause, barely audible, she managed, On child loss. Thrown off, I asked, mostly to find my own balance, if she meant miscarriage, disappearance or abduction. She said, her eyes downcast, No, as in loss of a child. I remember mumbling, That's heavy. We walked back to the reference desk to do research. I found her a title that dealt with healing and trauma, containing a chapter on losing a child. She thanked me again. I don't know if I did right or wrong by asking. Are you trying to help a friend or something personal? Personal, she replied. Murdered! I inhaled, then told her how sorry I was to hear that and I hoped that she'd find the strength to deal with her loss and grief. She heard me and said thank you again before she turned away. I suppressed the urge to tell her about my mother and the children she'd lost as if another person's loss could lighten one's grief. I wanted to tell her about my cousin and about my writer friend and his mother and many other tragedies that have ricocheted me. Perhaps I wanted to say that one person's grief belongs to others too and must be shared. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

A review of the novel The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone by Shawn Rubenfeld

The review originally appeared on the website of Compulsive Reader:

Before the reader has turned the first page, Josh is already a mess while grieving his mother’s passing. Also, Josh has always been burdened by self doubt and it doesn’t help that he begins collecting retro video games, a metaphor for being stuck (chasing nostalgia) in the past and zoning out. That speeds up the break up between Josh and Heloise, the love of his life, as they move towards divorce. Even worse, he has zero motivation left to finish his dissertation on Yiddish dialectology, which he cautiously equates with his dead mother. The sudden onslaught of addiction to collecting (and playing) retro video games plunges Josh into a sizable debt as well. He hasn’t talked much to his father since the funeral. His only sibling, his brother has dashed off to a kibbutz on a soul-searching mission. His addiction, Josh tells one of his therapists, is a result of hours and hours of playing them as a kid – a sarcastic nod to parental negligence!?

Shawn Rubenfeld has written an impressive debut novel. It explores the travails of having to step across from being a boy-man to a proper adult, taking responsibility for one’s actions. It also meditates on that unique institution of American loneliness. Only an American fiction writer, and I hope I am not putting too fine a point on it here, while sketching an American canvas can draw a life without extended family that should include aunts and uncles, loving or mean-spirited, first and second cousins, not to mention neighbors and childhood friends one grows up with and may stay in touch with despite moving away. I have lived in the US long enough to know that it’s possible to have that gift, but I also know that it is not a common feature of American life, a literary void that often sets up the mise-en-scene of white American novels, the invisible ghost that haunts the main characters – call it the quintessential curse.

Mr. Rubenfeld employs metaphors/images from video games, especially the retro world, light-heartedly yet with philosophical underpinnings. I was initially intrigued by the novel because I wanted to understand my own children and my own apprehension. Although Joshua Schulman turns out all right in the end, The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone serves as a cautionary tale. It is not a stretch to say that everyone grows up with an eggplant curse and a warp zone of his/her own. Joshua Schulman, too, is no exception. The novel under review is about how he overcomes the curse and discovers the hidden.

Just when it seems Josh couldn’t avoid his downward spiral, reminiscent of Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas with his addiction to drinking, he’s given a chance to put his life back in order. He accepts a teaching position at a boarding school in rural Iowa, but his appointment is based on deception. There Josh encounters a cast of characters and eccentric rituals. His addiction, his lies about his ex-wife and deception about his PhD lead him to a dilemma until he can’t take it anymore and ends up confessing everything to Natalie, a married woman, who feels a mutual attraction towards him. Natalie, Rubenfeld seems to suggest, has a moral spine and that becomes the catalyst for Josh’s own moral reckoning, which the author situates in direct clash with his addiction. Unbeknownst to Josh there’s another Josh within him, an inner dialogue ensues via cyberspace, triggering the collapse of the house of cards, an important development Josh can love anew. The novel ends on a positive note since Josh overcomes fear and allows self discovery. It’s not just the fear of losing his family and Heloise, his ancestors’ language or his beloved New York. There’s also a burden of being Jewish and persecuted, despite assimilation ( because of white skin) – like a curse. Only the possibility of love, a possibility (the warp zone?) one is not aware of unless one tries, can liberate one. That seems to be the central point of the novel.

There’s a hint early on that Joshua may be suffering from depression as Heloise begs him to take medication. There’s no clue whether he ever took medication. His resistance, thankfully, is not explained. There are therapy sessions which yield little to no result. It is possible that Josh’s addiction is one way to deal with depression, which his mother’s death has exacerbated. We find no discussion of it once Josh moves to Iowa, except one casual remark one-third of the way. Change of scenery can help fight depression sometimes for a short period of time, it cannot cure it completely. It’s also plausible that he does not have depression and he’s simply suffering from something called dissertation fright or something similar, which Heloise fails to understand. Whatever the malady, it cannot be easily cured. Running away might, just like his father and his brother did. I may be stretching a point here, but if we read along this bend of thought we cannot help but invoke the myth of the Wandering Jew. Could Mr. Rubenfeld be suggesting that the curse the modern (western) Wandering Jew carries is simply his presence among his fellow white Christian citizens, a presence which mocks them and reminds them of their history of brutality?

Despite being a novel that deals with serious issues plaguing American society, it gives the impression that one is reading a lighter text because the author uses humor so well. That’s partly because the humor embedded within the title The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone anchors the text. The characters the narrator seems to make fun of are never turned into buffoons, dehumanized but respected for their humanity. This allows the reader to have unwavering empathy with the central character.

There’s one area of the novel which, I believe, is a missed opportunity: the Palestine/Israel issue. I bring it up, not because a white author (Jewish or otherwise) touches on it by sending Josh’s brother to a kibbutz in Israel, but also because that freedom/space is not allowed to a writer like me with Muslim or non-western background without consequences. For example, Assaf Gavron’s brilliant novel, Hilltop, makes us evaluate serious issues when the protagonist goes to visit his brother turned religious living on a settlement in Occupied Territories. One of the book’s central points suggests that there’s very little difference whether one lives on a kibbutz or a settlement because when looked at from the victim’s point of view, land theft is land theft. Josh can afford to be oblivious to the issues of settler colonialism, the author cannot. Why the brother, for example, opts for a kibbutz and not a settlement? It was an opportunity for both the narrator, and the author, to place their liberalism under self scrutiny. Most novels have moments where the author could distance himself from his character(s). Call them moral moments. By avoiding to engage with the Palestine issue, Josh risks being seen as condoning the status quo, especially, after a respected organization B’tselem, based in Israel, has finally decided to call Israel an apartheid state. Admittedly, this is an unfair burden for white American fiction writers to carry, but we all know that a novel is a heavy beast. Having said that, I truly enjoyed reading Mr. Rubenfeld’s crackling, witty, modern prose and spending time with fully alive characters. Finally, I wish Mr. Rubenfeld a wider audience for his thought provoking and entertaining novel, and more opportunities to make up for this missed opportunity.

Monday, November 22, 2021

My Review of Murzban Shroff's Third Eye Rising as published in Tiferet magazne's Autumn-Winger 2021 issue

THIRD EYE RISING by Murzban Shroff Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2021 222Pages $17.99 Paperback ISBN: 978-1952419027

Murzban Shroff's recent collection Third Eye Rising is a deeply satisfying effort. In story after story one witnesses not only his compassion and controlled empathy for his characters but his desire to challenge the standard narrative. He keeps on pushing the boundaries of how far and wide he can stretch the limits of storytelling. The real pleasure of reading his stories, almost all of them, however, comes from discovering an additional symbolic layer wrapped around the narrative arc. 

Take, for example, the leadoff story, "The Kitemaker’s Dilemma", which, on a cursory reading, appears as a straight forward story about a kind-hearted kitemaker, who develops a paternal bond with a scarred-skin, motherless boy locked inside his home all day while his uncaring father goes off to work. The kitemaker notices the shy boy behind the window curtain, becomes curious, hopes to connect with him and, failing that, learns the boy's story from another elder in the town: the boy's father not only killed his wife, he also shifted the blame on to the son, who ends up with a burnt skin. The kitemaker tries a new approach, leaving a kite for several days in a row outside the boy's window, which the boy does not touch. Yet by the time the kitemaker must move on, he has won the child's trust, and unbeknownst to his father, the child's kite has soared into the sky for everyone to see. A simple story about love's triumph! But a careful reading allows the reader to find several hints dropped by the author regarding what it means to be a writer/kitemaker: pondering over the kite or story’s size, design, strength and its development. Just as Murzban  Shroff’s stories test their wings and soar into the sky, the viewer realizes the kite has acquired new contours. A story must be a chameleon, Shroff insists. A second layer appears. Just when the reader thinks it is the boy who must seize the center stage after much coaxing from the author, they realize that the story is not just about one kitemaker or one child left unloved, but the entire country of India caught in a tug of war between those who care and those who don’t. His stories become what Dostoyevsky calls "the human heart where good and evil battle each other". 

The second story, "Bhikoo Badshah's Poison", broadens the canvas. !e poison of a beggar king, if loosely translated. A situation, which grows embarrassing for the narrator as it exposes the flaws and innate inequality rooted in India's casteism, shifts the narrative, again, metaphorically speaking, from the kitemaker to the kite-flyer, from the benevolent bank officer/narrator to the clerk named Bhikoo Badsha/ protagonist. !e story, which begins with exploring the bank officer’s gullibility and Bhikoo’s harmless cunning, reveals an extra layer which connects Bhikoo’s actions - to get basic education, leave the conservative trappings of his village, send his son to an English medium school, visit his village on his motorbike and bring gifts - all result from Indian government’s abject failure to provide honorable life to the poor, such as basic health care and good education. !e poison inside Bhikoo is the societal one, which had killed little children after eating contaminated lunches due to the principal’s criminal negligence. 

Murzban Shroff weaves micro and macro brilliantly like no other writer I have read in my recent memory. !e fourth and fifth stories, "Diwali Star" and "A Rather Strange Marriage" respectively, show his innate understanding and command over the socio-political fabric of modern day India that he feels is constantly being ripped and only a return to compassion and empathy can save it. "Diwali Star" revolves around an honorable retired police officer and his family. Despite having done everything within his power, he cannot control the disintegration of his family. Consolation comes from letting things go, not having his sons by his side on Diwali, and forging a bond with the night watchman, who has literally lost his only son. There’s a bit of a Nehruvian touch to the story, but the point the author makes is that human connection does not rely on blood or caste or religion. "A Rather Strange Marriage" pushes the narrative a bit further and in Shroff’s somewhat male-centric point of view, (and the author's sarcastic murmurs that belittle hollow patriarchy), women take charge of the action, if not the narrative. Even in this story, Shroff does not lose sight of the connection between the modern day feudal cruelty and debauchery, that comes at the cost of poor peasants (and 75 the free sex their women should provide), and the feudally-minded who insist on enjoying the entertainment cities provide. If the crops fail, the poor cannot pay the feudal masters; if the feudal masters cannot collect the taxes, they cannot pay for the fun in the cities. !e story bravely suggests one way to break the cycle. 

The title story "Third Eye Rising", however, sets the stage for how "A Rather Strange Marriage" would end. Satinder Bijlee reaches a breaking point witnessing his father, a symbol of India’s deeply entrenched superstition and patriarchy, act cruelly and insultingly towards his daughter-in-law. Killing his own father without leaving evidence as the only solution to ending his and his wife’s misery may suggest that India is giving birth to a new kind of man, but it does little to shift the status quo from patriarchy to a more inclusive system. While most of the stories allow hope of a different kind, a fractured utopia of sort, perhaps, the title story says it bluntly that India has a long way to go. 

Shroff’s major stories here use death as a driving vehicle, but they allow a rebirth as well. Except the longest one in the collection. "A Matter of Misfortune", which is most poignantly fleshed out. This is perhaps his ‘mini’ magnum opus. It is about two very close friends, opting different values and goals in life, with one meeting a tragic end because, the narrator, and by extension the author, suggests, is due to chasing an economic mirage, the lure of the American brand of capitalism injected into the veins of a shining India. But the story also offers a character study, and if I am not mistaken, a bit Balzacian. Look at the opening sentence, for example: "I was there the day Amit died. He fell from a height he was unable to handle." 

It is told from the point of view of someone whose love for his friend is immeasurable, hence the name Amit. As the narrator mourns Amit’s death, he recalls the character development of his friend, the one who is driven to achieving his goals, someone who is not willing to settle for small blessings. !e narrator conjures up Amit’s obsession with soccer, especially during rain, the influence of a blockbuster Yadon ki Barat, which works as a catalyst to blur in Amit’s mind lines between reality and fantasy, and a sense of identification with actors larger than life such as Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, and even Jack Nicholson. The story also tests the limits of deep friendships when other players are involved. All in all, it is a master stroke. 

The last four stories are lighter and they serve well to allow a reader a breather. They also allow the reader a peek into the author’s skill at humor such as in "Oh Dad!". Murzban’s diction is rooted in realism and its flow keeps the reader glued to the characters' voices. He also very carefully avoids pontificating, thus raising the level of the stories much higher. Therefore, it is irritating to find easily avoidable distractions such as when the reader is unnecessarily reminded that the conversation is taking place in Hindi. Or when both a Hindi sentence and its translation occur in the same sentence as here: “Dhanda kaisa?” “How is business?” Baba Hanush asked, after the casual courtesies. Or: “They call him chotta bhoot, meaning little ghost.” When two people are talking in Hindi, why would a character feel the need to translate the expression in English? This kind of sloppiness should have been taken care of by the editors, if not the writer himself. While there is tremendous empathy in the stories, there is very little or no romantic love, which is the strongest device to break caste, religious, racial and economic barriers. 

Finally, despite minor hiccups, what lends Shroff’s fiction staying power has to do with his observation that is grounded in moral/immoral reality. While the universe may be amoral, the world that we live in is not. It is laziness to think otherwise. Recognizing morality does not mean it is synonymous with sexual, religious, Victorian, patriarchal or national morality imposed on one by the powers that be. Rather it is something a sensitive artist develops as their own sense of right and wrong, along with several shades in between. If they don't have that, they've got nothing that’s of any real value. Sure, vacuity and denseness can be, and often is, presented as art, but it is the author/artist who cannot detect the morality in or of the work. Of course, I am talking about the author’s moral sense, not their characters, but a good writer learns not to conflate them. When the narrator of "Bhikoo Badshah’s Poison" informs the reader: “Morally speaking, I was bound to advise Bhikoo against the consequences of impersonation. But seeing his face I realized how important this might be for him . . ,” Murzban Shroff must be congratulated for having a moral vision that consistently negotiates his characters’ thews and frailties.