Books

The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that  I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.

I have been fortunate in the recent past to have read books of such magnificent literary quality that I am still grappling with a sensation akin to breathlessness long after the moment has passed, the last page turned. It may be a “mere” hundred and eighty pages, but the Great Gatsby is almost poetic in its prose. Quite unlike other American novels that I have read and curiously similar to Mahfouz, Shafak and Hamid.

Not a word seems out of place, the actions are meticulously crafted to reveal character more than words or descriptions and each symbol, from Gatsby’s ‘circus wagon’ to T.J. Eckleburg’s ominous bespectacled eyes glowering down on the Valley of Ashes, leaves a lasting impression on the reader. It reminds me of R. K. Narayan and his delicious description of “the fire-eyed Vedanayagam”  in Malgudi Schooldays, though of course the symbolism isn’t quite as psychologically thrilling as Gatsby. There is a haunting quality to them much like the green light on Daisy’s dock.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Perhaps what I enjoyed about the novel is New York. For a city that is so fascinating and rewarding, it was a pleasure to read about how it came to be what it is today. And that description of the first sight of it from the Queensboro bridge is probably one of my most favourite quotes in all of literature.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

It’s true. Every time I see the rise of the buildings, the Empire State, Chrysler, Freedom Tower, the glow of the tip of the Statue of Liberty – the lights, the magic of New York: it’s in the air and especially, especially, on that bridge where the entire vista reveals itself all at once.

And then there is the man himself, Jay Gatsby, and for all his incredible antics shrouded in mystery, he was but human, swept up by the hopeless optimism of falling in love. Through the novel, Nick’s ambivalence bordering on suspicion, Gatsby’s melodramatic flair and half-truths, even outright lies, make you wonder whether he deserves the appellation of greatness presumed by the book’s title. And yet, by the end of the novel, I understand why this selfish, affected rich man with questionable morals  is “great”. It’s undefinable, like something that you can’t quite put a finger on, but true nonetheless. Clearly, Nick has the same dilemma.

When I came back from the East last autumn I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

The end is as beautiful as the beginning, and perhaps even more so. It speaks of the hope for unbounded happiness that we strive towards with unrelenting optimism, often not realizing that the moment we seek is long past. If we did realize it, would we then still be brimming with the starry-eyed longing with which we chase down our dreams?

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning–

 

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Film

Thoughts While Watching WONDER WOMAN

    1. My friend is freaking out about us not getting to the theatre on time even though AMC famously starts the show after TWENTY WHOLE MINUTES of advertisements and trailers. Double whammy of shameless capitalism inside and outside in the popcorn queue. THIS IS WHY YOU NEED AN INTERMISSION, AMERICA! But I’m grateful for the buffer. Thanks AMC.
    2. Gah, the dude at the door forgot to give us our 3D glasses. Minutes before the start of the film I’m running down the escalator to the ground floor. But that’s OK because trusty ol’ AMC also devotes three hundred seconds to turning off cellphones. And really driving the point “we’re awesome” home.
    3. And so it begins! I have goosebumps.
    4. The wide angle camera shot of what looks like the Great Wall of China. Oh it’s Themababababa. OK island. You are cool because your name is complicated.
    5. THE AMAZONS! Such a time-waster this back story is. WHERE IS CHRIS PINE?
    6. There he is.
    7. “We are the good guys, the Germans are the bad guys”
      Heh heh heh.
      *slowly sinks into popcorn and avoids making eye contact with German friend*
    8. The Amazon warriors kicking some major dude ass is oddly satisfying. I was concerned about Wonder Woman wearing a skirt-armour but looks like the frock-uniform was all the rage in the early 20th century.
    9. Ah, 20th century Britain. You are beautiful.
      Must. Remember. Not. Think. Of. The. Indian. Blood. Spilt. Building. It.
      Is that treachery? Nah, probably just sedition.
    10. This woman is breathtaking. Come on Chris Pine, GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER.
    11. I’m told that Chris Pine has an actual name in this movie that is not Chris Pine.
    12. Wonder Woman, Amazon with no knowledge of the human world, bedecked in American colours and symbols. Uncanny.
    13. Wonder Woman’s dress is very very distracting because her derrière, protected by three tenuous pieces of fabric, is constantly threatening to moon the audience.
      Side Note: A quick search says that the radical idea of Wonder Woman wearing pants was tossed around and then tossed out. I think it was to ensure that I spent at least part of this movie in equal parts cold sweat and amazement that neither the (strapless!) top slips nor the bottom slips up. She really is magical, isn’t she?
    14. THE LASSO OF TRUTH!! And the special effects are brilliant.
    15. I love the moment where he’s all, “Come damsel, let me protect you”. Then Wonder Woman beats up everyone and his expression changes to an astonished, “Please damsel goddess, protect me!”
    16. The actress is amazing, so I shudder to say this, but in some scenes she looks so demure and dainty rather than powerful. I wish they had done a little less getup and a little more Geeta.
    17. They stop at a village along the way to find Ares and take The Most Convenient Photograph in DC History. It means someone, most likely Chris Pine or everyone, is going to die. He does.
    18. Why is Remus Lupin bothering to reveal himself as Ares when he knows that Wonder Woman is the God Killer? She’s going to beat you, dude!
    19. And she does.
    20. What does Batman have to do with Wonder Woman? Should I have watched Batman v. Superman?
    21. Update: I watched Everything Wrong With Batman v. Superman instead.
Art · Language

Light of My Soul

प्यार में जुनून है पर दोस्ती में सुकून है ।

Love is passion but friendship is peace.


Farewell, remember me in your dua as I depart,
Savour the taste of my name on your tongue,
Treasure our moments in the vaults of your heart,
Cherish my salam in every missive that is sprung.

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
My beloved, my beloved.

My absence in your mehfil
Isn’t cause for sadness–
For to the brim it’s filled,
With paeans of our closeness.

How many of my morning suns
Basking in the warmth of your angan,
Did sink below the horizons?

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
Oh my darling, oh my beloved!

From your beautiful face away
My twisted path wends
Many miles must I stray
For now, for us, The End.

Sandal am I,
A fragrance in my wake.
My dearest possessions are last
A lifetime of dreams amassed,
Left under your pillow; your keepsake.

It is time.
I take the cloth.
And leave you behind
My heart, my soul, my beloved.

 

“Unrequited love is different.
It’s a love that isn’t shared.
It is mine. Only mine.”

Books · World

The World in Books, 2016

 

 

2016 is almost long gone but not quite.

Cups of hot adrakwali chai accompanied my quest last year to try to read more books from around the world.

before-2016

The more I read, the more I was chagrined at my surprise at finding similarities among people from countries that were not my own. I was often disillusioned about the news, that tends to focus on the worst of us, and lumps together large tracts of land whose cultures are quite distinct.

countries-after-2016

The highlights of my journey were:

10. The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkey

A book by Elif Shafak, an author so eloquent that she’s featured on this list twice! A beautifully written book that is a personal narrative of two girls and their parents set against the backdrop of Turkish and Armenian relations. The book was in equal parts a joy to read and a treasure trove of historical perspective.

9. Maus

Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a sensitive and personal narrative of Jews in Nazi Germany. The German Jews are characterized as mice and the German Nazis as cats. It is also a biography of Art Spiegelman’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany with a combination of quick-thinking, sheer grit and a healthy dose of luck.

8. The Kite Runner

A heart-wrenching story of two boys and their lives together and apart. If there’s ever a book that I have wept over, it is this one.

7. I am Malala

Who is Malala Yousafzai? Why did she win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why does the Taliban have a death wish for a (then) fourteen-year-old?

“Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”

The story of a brave young girl fighting for education and the peace and the problematic appropriation of her story to continue cultural stereotypes.

6. Wonder

How does one describe Auggie Pullman?
The most real character, the most heartwarming story, the best pick-me-up to convince yourself to Never Give Up, Never Give In.
I got Wonder for my little sister and ended up falling in love with little Auggie too.

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

5. The Forty Rules of Love

Love and history. Elif Shafak masterfully intertwines the two again in parallel stories that mirror each other. And guides you to an appreciation of the great poet and Sufi saint Rumi, not just for his wisdom, but also as a person.

“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”

4. Nehru: The Invention of India

If politicians were meant to be leaders and leaders are people who are meant inspire you, whose actions are meant to be examples, who you look up to and hope to emulate, then both the subject and his biographer would top my list.

A cheeky play on the title Nehru’s autobiography, “The Discovery of India”, Tharoor once again writes an eminently readable book on the history and politics of India.


This is it. The inner sanctum. The top 3. All of them were equally brilliant in different ways and did what a great book is supposed to do: Change one’s life.

3. Palace Walk

Literature is an art and you see why when Mahfouz writes. Every word is a brushstroke, every carefully crafted turn of phrase observed with painstaking precision the edging of detail, and the story blooms into an exquisite masterpiece, a work of art.

The story of Egypt on the brink of forcefully ejecting the ruling squatters.

2. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.”

His words and paintings speak for themselves. Is there anything left to say?

1. Persepolis

The book that started it all. The revolution in Iran, the internal struggle of a liberal population stuck in a conservative country, a love note to a land of immense history and culture, and in the midst of all that, the ecstatic highs and depressing lows of growing up and figuring life out. Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of her memories of her beloved homeland, flaws and all, love and torture, too-quick marriages and political coups, Iranian autocracy and British-American chicanery, is a must-read.

Read one book this year. Make it this one.

Art · Books · World

A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In the morning it was so beautiful on the road to Turnham Green – the chestnut trees and the clear blue sky and the morning sun mirrored in the water of the Thames; the grass was sparkling green and one heard the sound of church bells all around.”

Vincent had been an art dealer in The Hague at 16. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, who was secretly married to the previous lodger. He grew lonely and religious, was transferred to Paris at 22, was fired at 23, moved to England as an unpaid supply teacher, which is where he wrote this letter from to his beloved brother Theo.

Soon after, he followed the proprietor of the boarding school to Middlesex, had a falling out, became a Methodist minister’s assistant, worked at a bookshop where he translated passages from the Bible to English, French and Dutch because he was bored, decided to become a pastor at 24, failed a theology exam in 1878, became a missionary in Belgium at 26 and said wrote this to Theo in 1880:

What the molt is for birds, the time when they change their plumage, is what adversity or misfortune is for us humans, a difficult time.

Does what happens inside show on the outside?
There is such a great fire in one’s soul, and yet nobody ever comes to warm themselves there…

05540ddfc943fd10f329ffdcccc5d18eHe spends much of his time talking about figures, constantly criticizing his own work, practicing and copying great artists, observing the world around his with a keen eye and sharp pencil. He even goes to a local veterinary school “to get hold of the anatomical illustrations” of various animals so he can draw them better.

But I hope that these thorns will produce white blossoms in their day

In 1881, at 28, Vincent proposed to Kee, his recently widowed cousin who was seven years his senior and had an eight year old son.

“nooit, neen, nimmer,” she replied. No, nay, never.

Poor Vincent and his heart filled with passion!

Vincent’s unflinching dedication to his craft is an inspiration.

I feel and know for sure I will make progress. But it is only by working hard; “not a day without a line,” as Gavarni said.

In October 1881, Vincent finally felt like he was getting somewhere with his art. Funnily enough, this is what he says:

The battle with nature sometimes has something of what Shakespeare calls the “taming of the shrew”. In many things, but certainly in drawing, I believe that holding on tight is better than giving up.

Do you ever feel like History is just one big blob of The Past? Like everything before your Watercolors Van Goghlife happened in an almost coexisting parallel whole, so it’s strange to think of a great painter like van Gogh referring to a great playwright who had been dead about two and a half centuries before he was born! Vincent probably regarded Shakespeare like you or I, a famous name, to be read and quoted but not quite flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, emotions and frustrations, exactly like us.

Vincent was spending quite a lot of time at Mauve’s, a cousin who was a successful painter and one whom Vincent hoped to emulate. Mauve seems to have supported Vincent a great deal, encouraging him to experiment with sketching and watercolours.

Mauve says that the sun is beginning to shine for me, but it is still hidden in the mists.

Vincent went to visit his parents for Christmas and argued with them over his continued pursuit of his cousin Kee, to which they said his “persistence is disgusting”. He also fell out with Mauve  over the direction of his work and moved to The Hague by early 1882. There he met Sien, a pregnant alcoholic prostitute with a five-year-old daughter.

Explaining his situation to Theo, Vincent remarked that since he was getting nowhere with Kee and as he wanted to help Sien, he “must set about it more seriously”. He wanted to marry her, but it would seem that Theo talked him out of it.

cradle-18821

What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an eccentric, or a disagreeable fellow… the lowest of the low.

… I would like to show through my work what is in the heart of such an eccentric, such a nonentity.

zeegezicht-bij-scheveningen“There was so much wind that I could hardly keep upright and could barely see anything because of the blowing sands.” – Vincent liked to paint out in the open. A classic impressionist technique.

There is something infinite about painting-

By September 1882, at 29, Vincent was getting himself quite a reputation for being a mad, eccentric painter. I almost imagine him as a mad scientist, attacking the streets armed with pad and pencil, leaving behind a flurry of alarmed onlookers.

I am so covered in paint that some has even got onto this letter.

Whether as an aspiring minister or painter, sensitive Vincent had a soft spot for the poor, the downtrodden. He was attracted to helping people out of their misery, which is perhaps why he took to Sien too. “… as the lottery leaves both of us completely cold. But this little group of people – and their expression of waiting – touched me, and while I drew it began to get a greater, deeper meaning for me than at first.”

In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.

Isn’t that what we are all looking for? Happiness, something to live for.

At 30, Vincent in possibly a strange mood, wrote to his brother saying that he thought his “physical body will last out for a certain number of years… say, between six and ten.”

After wandering through many cities, jobs and loves, Vincent ended up in Drenthe. He seems to have found peace there, if briefly.

Coming events cast their shadows before, says an English proverb.

Living alone, desperately trying to hone his craft to such an extent that he could sell it without stooping to paint portraits for rich patrons indoors, the bread and butter for painters in those days, unlucky in love and dependent on his brother’s goodwill, that was Vincent in the winter of 1883. In the end, his loneliness drove him back to his parents.  Taking care of his mother after she had broken her leg led to somewhat of a reconciliation after their long months of rancour over Kee and Sien.
Theo, as an art dealer, mentioned to Vincent the new-age artists who were taking the Parisian world by storm: The Impressionists.vincent_van_gogh_-_avenue_of_poplars_in_autumn_-_google_art_project

… a lane of poplars with their yellow autumn foliage, where the sun makes occasional bright patches on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows cast by the trunks. At the end of the road, a little farmhouse with the blue sky above shining through the autumn leaves.

By the end of the year, Vincent had moved to Antwerp, when public opinion had turned against the eccentric painter after one of his models, an unmarried girl, had become pregnant. “Antwerp is certainly a very strange and beautiful place for a painter. My studio is quite bearable, particularly because I have pinned a set of Japanese prints on the wall…”

rainHe enrolled in an art school while there but disagreed with the teacher, who was focussed on classical drawing while Vincent preferred to exercise his self-taught creativity. He eventually quit and moved in with Theo. “Don’t be cross with me for arriving so suddenly…”

In Paris Theo introduced Vincent to Impressionists like Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. He seems to have added bright colours to his palette, inspired by brilliant Japanese art.

As for me – I can feel the desire for marriage and children slipping away… And there are times when I already feel old and broken…

I hope to progress to a point where you can show what I do confidently without having to compromise yourself. And then I’ll move away somewhere down South so I can get away from all these painters who disgust me as men.

1888-11-1A year later, Vincent stayed true to his word. He moved to and fell in love with scenic Arles in southern France.

The countryside here seems to me to be as beautiful as Japan in terms of the limpidity of the atmosphere and the brightness of the colours.

“I’m having a lot of trouble painting because of the wind, but I fasten my easel down with pegs knocked into the ground and carry on working; it’s too beautiful not to.”

I must also do a starry night with cypress tress or perhaps over a field of ripe wheat…

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“A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with irises with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willow trees, and a strip of blue sky.”

How keenly Vincent observed the world!

A small town surrounded by countryside filled with yellow and purple flowers – you can imagine, very much a Japanese dream.

“I’m totally convinced of the importance of remaining here in the South and of the need to exaggerate colour even more-”

Vincent, when writing to John Russell from Paris talks about the painters that he met in his time there – Manet, Bernard and Gauguin, who are friends and Monet, whose paintings Theo greatly admires and sells. Vincent longs for his friends, especially Paul, to join him in the wondrous South.

The sunflowers are progressing;

Vincent frequented a night café, which was a good place for the homeless to stay warm at night. The “night prowlers” he calls them.

I often think that night is more alive and more richly colored than day.

By the end of 1888, after months of pleading, Vincent had finally got Gauguin to come South to Arles.

“Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a very fine picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase but – he prefers mine.” [Monet’s and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Gauguin’s painting of Vincent painting his sunflowers]

Vincent excitedly set up an extra bed for Gauguin and making his two chair paintings: Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair. Things were off to a solid start when they began painting together, but they soon started quarrelling because Vincent wanted the haughty Gauguin to treat him as an equal. He made matters worse because he feared that Gauguin would desert him.

One rainy night, the two of them were shut up in the Yellow House toget1024px-vincent_van_gogh_-_self-portrait_with_bandaged_ear_2818892c_courtauld_institute29her. Gauguin claims that Vincent grew very agitated at the prospect of his leaving and came at him with a razor. Gauguin left The Yellow House that night, never to return. Vincent mutilated his ear with a razor and had it delivered to a woman at a brothel that the two of them frequented. He was found the next morning by a policeman and taken to the local hospital where in his waking moments he asked to see Gauguin. Gauguin notified Theo and left town, telling the officer that his presence would only agitate Vincent further. Theo, who had just proposed to his future wife, jumped on a train to Arles on Christmas Day, rushing in to see his brother. Vincent didn’t attend Theo’s wedding.

His neighbours wanted “le fou roux” (the mad redhead) out of their vicinity. Suffering further lapses, Vincent decided to go to an asylum in Saint Rémy.

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I now have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry night.

“The cypresses continue to occupy my thoughts… I’m amazed that they haven’t yet been done in the way that I see them.”

They have beauty of line and proportion like that of an Egyptian obelisk.

In 1889, at 36, Vincent exhibited his art in Paris to favourable reviews from critics and fellow artists, that he couldn’t accept despite Theo’s reassurances. vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossom_-_google_art_projectHe was also getting tired of his time alone and missed his friends from the North.
A few months later, Theo had a son whom the couple named Vincent. The proud uncle immediately set about painting the almond blossoms to commemorate the birth of his namesake. He exhibited his work in Brussels to even greater acclaim and the only painting that he sold in his lifetime. He moved North to Auvers and became good friends with his doctor and amateur painter, Dr. Paul Gachet. He continued to paint his ‘translations’, his reproduction522 of the works of famous painters in oil paints, in his inimitable style. In the seventy days that he stayed in Auvers, Vincent produced seventy paintings.

“Dr. Gachet says that he thinks it very unlikely that it will return and that everything is going very well.”

Sad yet gentle, but clear and intelligent – that’s how many portraits ought to be painted

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-56-19-pm

“The flowers are an avalanche of roses against a green background and a very large bunch of violet-coloured irises against a yellow background and against a pink background.”599px-van_gogh_-_country_road_in_provence_by_night

“I still have a cypress tree with a star from down there, a last attempt – a night sky with a lacklustre moon, a slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque shadow cast by the earth – a star of exaggerated brightness if you like, shining soft pink and green in an ultramarine sky with clouds scurrying across. At the bottom of the road lined with tall yellow canes, behind them the blue foothills of the Alps, an old inn with windows illuminated orange, and a very tall cypress tree, very straight and very sombre.”

His words, like his brush strokes are in full colour, bright, passionate, emotional, frenzied, and poetic.

I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be other than a mere dealer in Corots, that through me you have your part to play in the actual production of certain canvases, which even in the midst of this disaster retain their calm.

– Unfinished draft of a letter from Vincent to Theo found on his body when he shot himself on 27th July 1890.

Heartbroken, Theo followed him to the grave a few months later. The brothers were buried side-by-side.

Vincent van Gogh’s story tugs at my heart strings.

Why care about a man dead over a century ago? Because his story is a familiar one. Van Gogh is perhaps the greatest painter known today. Yet, he died of hopelessness, guilty for living off his brother who loved him beyond measure. A man of great passion who couldn’t find someone to love. His life serves as a reminder that how ever insignificant you may think you are, you make a difference to someone’s world, more than you can possibly imagine.