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.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Thirst - Amélie Nothomb - Strangers

I don't read books while walking as a rule. Only very rarely, something I've done recently when I picked up a book, very slim, by an author I have quite warmed up to in the last couple of years. I can't read the same author back to back even if they are one of my favorites. But I keep them on my radar.

  So I thought it was time to see if a new title by Amélie Nothomb had showed up on my San Francisco Public Library's fiction shelf or not. There I found Thirst, detailing the time Jesus is condemned to be crucified to the point he actually is. In her unique, irreverent yet cold humor style, it's a brilliant book and I found myself reading it while traversing long blocks until the next traffic light. I'd begin once I'd crossed the road.

   Last Wednesday, as I got off from work, I remembered to visit the Farmers' Market in the shadow of the library. I opened the book and began reading while ambling on Hyde Street, the backside of the library facing the market. From the corner of my eye, I noticed an approaching man slowing down and then stopping. I became cautious, gave a quick look to his Asian looking face, his short, slim, lanky body and tried to find the line I had left midsentence due to the uninvited intrusion. But finding the man non-threatening, I also realized he might have been looking at the book, curious to know what I was reading. This sort of thing used to be common when the cafe culture was (more) alive. That used to be San Francisco. But no more. I decided to show him the front cover.

   "It's a great book. I have read it," he said excitedly.

   I said something in a concurring manner, adding I have read her other works also.

   "I have too . . . I have read everything by her. The one that takes place in Japan."

   "Fear and Trembling and Tokyo Fiancée," I said.

   "Yes, very good!"

   "And the really weird one Strike Your Heart," I offered as a bonus.

   He nodded fervently, incanting yeah, yeah, yeah!

   He was grinning uncontrollably now. I felt a rare joy at being stopped by someone who was willing to connect via literature. I bowed gently, signaling I had to go and buy spikey bitter melons, red and white onions, and fuji apples. He nodded and, smiling, moved on. If I were younger I might have exchanged phone numbers to have coffee. After all, that was how I met one of my closest friends Jeff White, and then through him John Smalley, in 1986 or 87 discovering a mutual passion for foreign cinema and women straight out of Godard's films. But I was much older now and with limited energy. If I see him again, I'll be sure to say hello, ask if he's seen Kiarostami's cinema, read Toomer's Cane or Rulfo's Pedro Paramo, and also find out what he's been reading lately. 

   Call it a friendship in the time of covid!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Literature, Cinema, and Life


I recently found myself drawn to finding out how many (major) films in the US had been made with a direct link to Tennessee Williams' plays. Although I don't have the exact answer, it seems the number may fall around 16, some of screenplays Mr. Williams himself collaborated on. I had seen some, the famous ones, all classics, but there are some I haven't, so my wife and I decided to get more of those under our belt. Therefore, last night we watched Summer and Smoke, directed by Peter Glenville, with high class performance by Geraldine Page, who in recent popular memory is associated with her performance in Sweet Bird of Youth. I further plan on investigating if anything has been written on whether or not Geraldine Page decided her performance to bounce off Vivian Leigh's iconic presence in A Streetcar Named Desire, made exactly a decade ago. 

Anyway, midway through the film a discussion takes place between the characters played by Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey as one of them asks if the other knew who said, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,' and to everyone's surprise, the other replies Oscar Wilde. That innocent moment in film reminded me what had occurred the day before at work. A youngish white man with a boyish face, a bit blemished, approached our reference desk and politely asked, a rarity indeed, if he could have his library card number by looking into his account. This request has become quite common with the rise in homeless population and/or opioid crisis engulfing the US. All of those problems were writ large on his face, especially eyes. After I said, welcomingly, "Of course! Can I have your last and first name please?" the fact that despite appearing and sounding not being fully there he wore his mask correctly, I further warmed up to him, and as I typed his last and then first name, mentioning his middle initials to extract a nod from him, I informed that his name read as if it belonged to a poet. I could not see his lip, only his eyes offering a smiling glint. Then I asked if he was a poet. He said, "I am!"

"Can you recite any one of your poems? I asked

He shook his head and I said that was okay. But as I wrote down his library card number on a piece of paper so he could use one of the library computers, I asked him if he could recognize who wrote the following verse:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow/And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field

Do you know who wrote those lines?

Shakespeare, he said.

You're right, I acknowledged, as he walked away.

If I see him again at the library, I would like to tell him that a conversation between Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey reminded me of him. I would also like to suggest to him that he memorize at least one poem of his for the sheer pleasure of hearing poetry.

Monday, August 23, 2021

In honor of Jack Hirschman, may his soul roam the streets of San Francisco, as he makes a guest appearance in my unpublished novella Postcard from a Stranger

After sitting in the park soaking in the morning heat, we decided to walk 
around the neighborhood and see if we ran into a beat poet or someone 
connected to the movement. We said it as a joke, but as we began walking, 
we’d spot people who fit our stereotype of the beat people, of hippies, their 
diluted versions, often with long and unkempt hair, a beret or a hat on top, 
their general attire scruffy and casual looking, a leather jacket or tweed coat 
with elbow patches. On spotting a person, men in this case, one of us would 
say, Hey, that’s Ginsberg! Then, as we crossed Columbus near the North Beach 
Public Library, Ambika elbowed me gently and drove my attention to an older 
man walking downhill on Chestnut and said, “Now, that’s Jack Hirschman. I 
can’t believe I recognized him!”

“Is he a beat poet?” I asked.

She called his name aloud, “Hi Jack!” waving. He looked across the street and 
without worrying who we are, waved back with a smile. He’s used to it, I told 
myself. But, then, he really noticed us, two young, attractive Indian looking 
women and he visibly cheered up. Good to see ya smilin’! he hollered as he 
moved on Columbus Street.

“Jim Morrison was his student when he taught at UCLA,” Ambika filled me in.

“Oh, wow!” I exaggerated my surprise. I had never like The Doors. Not really. 
Even though I had visited his grave in Paris.

We crossed over and saw Jack’s diminishing back. He reminded me of a wandering 
poet in medieval India, like Kabir, his long hair like a mane, a thick rebellious 
moustache covering his lips, begging bowl in hand.

“He’s a poet of the streets and cafes. I used to see him occasionally at Adobe 
Bookstore on 16th Street. He was friends with the store’s owner Andrew . . .

(An excerpt from Postcard from a Stranger by Moazzam Sheikh)

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Untitled - a poem by Somnath Mukherji

If you love your soldiers,

Don’t send them to war.

If you love your soldiers,

Work for peace & justice. There is more death in war than peace.

If you love your soldiers,

Understand structural violence. Death of the soldiers starts 

long before the battlefield.

If you love your soldiers,

Love them as human beings. Not their uniforms.

If you love your soldiers,

Know that they do not want to die. They love life like you.

If you love your soldiers,

Understand the agriculture policy & its effects.

If you love your soldiers,

Go to a drought-stricken village. A village plundered for coal,

That is where the fodder for your jingoism grows.

If you love your soldiers.

Read history. Have there been parallels? Striking!

If you love your soldiers

Take a breath before you bay for more blood,

Who will fight the war of revenge? Will you?

Can you love the farmer? The daily wager? The poor & the oppressed?

Then you have already loved the soldier, without the uniform.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

My review of The Other Side of the Divide

t’s only after one leaves Lahore, Pakistan, and meets Indians, that one realizes the place Lahore holds in their imagination. I have met several South Indians who had a family anecdote about Lahore to gloat over. So it’s understandable why Sameer Khatlani would’ve pined for a most hospitable, colorful place that boasts of having produced or welcomed famous names, not to mention a memorable time his elders had spent there. But Khatlani has another fish to fry too: to humanize Pakistanis because Indians have changed and they “watch nothing that humanizes Pakistan.” It never fails to amaze me to see how easily normal, decent people can be fooled into hating another religion and a people, even their fellow citizens.

To offer a background, he touches on the revivalism of Arya Samaj, hateful views of people such as Gowalkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, connecting the dots with Muslim anxiety and communal riots. Many Indian Muslims insist upon Pakistan being the sole reason for their misery, not the bigotry of other Indians. Khatlani had to deal with the anger of his in-laws. His trepidation mellowed as he reached eastern Punjab, amused that most Sikhs view Pakistan positively, primarily because they’ve been visiting their holy sites and enjoying the legendary hospitality in Pakistan for many decades now.

Sikh invitees to the same conference make him feel at home. Once the author reaches Lahore, things only got better. The sound of dhols welcomes the Indian contingent. Khatlani has been in contact with . . .

You can read the rest of the article here:

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Anuradha Kumar's Sense of Time . . .

Excerpt from Anuradha Kumar’s collection

A Sense of Time and Other Stories (coming soon)

The Entomologist at the Trial

The last time I went to visit my uncle, he was still chasing his dreams of making it big in the High Court. A lawyer in the small district court of Old Town, he dreamt big. He could enact long courtroom scenes, such as the one in the Hindi film, Waqt, or Portia’s defense of Antonio, and one day soon, he always promised, he would assist the great lawyer, Ranganath Singh, in the High Court of New Town, the state’s biggest city. Once, after a particularly affecting portrayal of Atticus Finch, he told me, “That great lawyer, Singh, just has to notice me, then there is no way he cannot take me on.” Uncle had never sounded more sincere.

To draw the attention of the great lawyer whose understudy Uncle wished to become, he took on the cases all his peers refused to take on. Sometimes Uncle’s decisions, driven by idealism, flopped miserably. For example, when he took on the case of the temple dancer who had been cheated out of her savings by the priest, everyone said he was mad and sure to lose. Uncle did lose and was forever barred from the temple.

On another occasion, Uncle came to the rescue of the local rat catcher. I had seen the man a few times. He walked slowly from street to street, silent unlike the other vendors, holding out a shiny colorful placard in front of him. It described with very graphic images, every possible way of killing a rat. You could strangle, poison and drown them or trap them in all kinds of contraptions he had especially designed. Long ago, the rat catcher had a voice, but he lost it one day. 

As the story went, this had happened because the rat catcher had shouted himself hoarse in court when a case was slapped against him by an irate client who insisted that the man never caught a live rat. Rather it was a cat that did so, and hence it was the cat who deserved the heavy fees the catcher always charged. My uncle had tried to defend him, but the rat catcher never gave him a chance to talk. The court fined the rat catcher and Uncle was reprimanded. He considered it one of his most humiliating moments. Something he hoped Ranganath Singh would never get wind of. I think it was Uncle who spread the story that it was not any incompetence on his part that forced the catcher to take up his own defense, but rather the latter lost his voice when the Listerine he used every night to gargle and clear his throat turned out to be contaminated. If the rats had chosen this devious way to get back at the catcher, Uncle never let on. 

Last year, I spent another summer with Uncle. It was cramped in his two-room bachelor set-up because I had to share space with someone whom uncle introduced as the entomologist. A man who studies insects, my new acquaintance told me seconds after uncle had introduced us. My indignant response, entirely spontaneous, was to tell him rather coldly that I knew that. I study botany in school, I told him. Maybe it was my imagination or hindsight now, but I think I saw something like panic cross his face. I do remember with certainty, however, the manner in which the entomologist grasped my hand, clapped me on the back, and called me a comrade. It seemed overdone. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “I am no Brundlefly, and just for the record, I never liked The Fly. Insects really aren’t so diabolical, most of them, at least.” He winked at me, and that gesture contorted his face in a peculiar way. As if he wanted to be jovial, but was in fact nervous. 

Later that night, after the entomologist turned in, Uncle and I sat on the porch outside, watching the stars appear one after another in a rapidly darkening sky. We spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the neighbors. The only sound in that still night was the unending buzz of the crickets and the creak of cane as we shifted in our chairs. “He’s here for a case.” Uncle spoke in the softest whisper and my chair made an agonized creak as I bent forward to listen.