Tag Archives: hindi

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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Book Review: The House of Five Courtyards by Govind Mishra

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Govind Mishra’s The House of Five Courtyards provides occasion for one of those kneejerk declamations about work in translation on its very first page, when the mellifluous and charmingly Indian “chik-chi, chikh-chikh, tick, toon-tick-tidding, chi-chiya, chi-chi-chi… kutock, kutock” of birds rising in harmony with an ahir bhairav is rudely interrupted by a rooster that actually crows “cock-a-doodle-do”. One decides, as one does in these cases, to shoot the messenger – in this case, Masooma Ali, who translated the novel from Hindi.

This, as it turns out, would have been a grave mistake. The errant foreignness of that rooster is one of the few moments of being snapped to attention in this book, and given the tedium of the rest of it, one is actually grateful. Here is a novel so utterly cliché, so incapable of making up in charm what it lacks in innovation, that to pin its failure just on how it was adapted into a different language would ring hollow.

The novel opens in Benaras in 1940, where a large family share their lives together in a massive mansion of five courtyards, its three lynchpins the advocate Radheylal, the elderly matriarch Badi Amma, and the imposing Badh Baba, the banyan tree. Its inhabitants are not atypical of such settings: Sunny abandons his studies for the sarangi, and then abandons music for the mendicant life. The boy Rajan recites a patriotic Urdu verse in school and is caned for anti-imperial sentiments. The dignified courtesan Kamlabai visits often for musical soirees and is considered one of their own; when an in-law of Radheylal’s house seeks her services as a brothel madam, she turns him away with a subtle reminder that he has married into her family.

Radheylal disappears into the underground of the independence movement. The ties of the next generation to the house of five courtyards dissipate more and more: in Kanpur, Rajan and his wife Rammo occupy a small flat with their children, Shyam educates his children in English and lets their Hindi lapse, and the house is eventually divided up and let out to tenants. All the makings, in short, of a saga about a changing world.

It isn’t that we, as a collective readership, have grown jaded of sagas – there is a timelessness to them that bears, if not begs, many renderings by many voices. It is simply that Mishra has injected no identifiable colour, humour, magic or humanity into this narrative. Its characters lack idiosyncratic appeal, and even the pathos of the end of an era, which the writer says in an afterword is what inspired this book, is not adequately transmitted. Perhaps it is Ali’s interpretation that makes this book so lackluster, but perhaps it is not – as with all translated works, only the sufficiently bilingual will ever know. And who knows, perhaps in the original, the rooster also crowed “cock-a-doodle-do”.

The House of Five Courtyards won the 1998 Vyas Samman (a lucrative award for Hindi literature), the same year in which a plethora of similar novels filled with extended families, sprawling chronologies and nostalgia for “Indiannness” flooded the market in a variety of languages – the Arundhati Roy afterglow. Few matched Roy’s masterpiece; all attempted to. The success of Mishra’s novel seems, at best, to be a product of the same, and as with other such products, its glow has not survived the decade. If there is anything that sets it apart from its numerous counterparts in English, it’s only that it doesn’t resort to the easy exotica that characterized many of them. Ironically, this may have made the book so bad that it would no longer have been boring – which, ultimately, is far worse the crime to the reader.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.