Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

This Navroze I didn't actually go down to Calangute to sample the famed Parsi fare at Zuperb restaurant at  Gauravaddo run by Zubin, Porus and Bryan -- all lads who came down from Mumbai and set up the restaurant -- but I did nudge a colleague to lend me her copy of Corpse Bearer. The title of the book somewhat repelled me at first but after reading it I realize it is actually a way of life. Sensitively portrayed Cyrus Mistry rises above his station and make Phiroze Elchidana a victim of the human condition -- not just a khandia (corpse bearer) condemned to live beside the Towers of Silence for his love for Sepideh, daughter of a khandia. It shows to what extent a man can go to be able to cherish the company of the woman he loves.

Corpse Bearer (2012) is a reflection on death. The writer has misgivings about the hereafter and whether these elaborate rituals really signify in the afterlife. His scepticism comes through particularly in his dialogues with his father, the high priest and preserver of the faith:
Personally Papa, do you really believe it matters how we go out of this world? I mean, whether one is a Hindu or Muslim or Parsi, after we die in what manner our corpse is disposed of? I mean does it make a difference to the soul that survives the body's destruction? (204)
It is only in the final pages that Phiroze can stand up and question the beliefs of his father. Soon after, his father dies and it is his son himself who is his corpse bearer.
Father was eighty-six when he died, still in good health, and able to manage his personal needs and chores without assistance. . . As a child, I had been very close to Father. Later the rift between us widened, and for a while I felt we had become adversaries. (234)
It is curious that after this deferential allusion to his Father in the quote above, in the next paragraph Phiroze refers to his father by his impersonal first name: 'Vispy [his brother] had been speaking to Rutnagar notifying him about Framroze's death.' (234)

The book is a chronicle which condones the leeway the writer enjoys in not keeping to a taut narrative. This would be historical fiction in a sense --a window to a very private community yet not without pathos. It is loosely an autobiography and has the quality of a personal memoir.

Like Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, Corpse Bearer is also set at a time in Mumbai when India is wresting Independence for herself from the British. Section One is titled 'Present Tense, Bombay,1942.' Gandhiji's Salt March of 1930 is referred to (122). The line 'Appeasement of legitimate national aspirations was flatly denied to us Indians,'(123) seems to be almost the words of the nationalist Tobias in Lambert Mascarenhas' Sorrowing Lies My Land set in Goa chaffing under the yoke of the Portuguese. The machinations of the colonial powers and their deployment of Indian forces willy nilly also rumbles through the pages of Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh in the South East Asian theatre at the time of India's freedom struggle.

Sepideh's death through snake-bite seems contrived. When the mourners gather and simply stare helplessly, it reminds one of Nissim Ezekiel's 'Night of the Scorpion.' The frantic 'faqueer' fails to invite the cobra again to suck the poison out of Sepideh and the writer simply adds as a coda 'So much for the miracles of faith.' (153)

The hilarious romp in the Sewree cemetery presided over by the dubious yet avaricious Gomes questions our beliefs of internment. In a gnawing way it recalls the scene in the movie Simone where the fake Simone is sought to be buried -- for appearances sake -- as people will not believe this digitized creation does not exist!
All references from Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Publishing, New Delhi, 2012.

Monday, 27 October 2014


Brian Mendonca

Thunder Down Under --
India -Australia match

Modi wins by slender margin--
Gujarat polls.

Taming the Dragon --
Indo-Chinese forces
Embrace at Tawang.

Super Sunday --
Arsenal beat Chelsea 1-0

Bomb blast at Imphal--
7 dead in bus proceeding to Imphal.

(Dimapur 2005)

At yet another reading of poetry organized by Vasco Watch and the mercurial Commander Narayanan and Janani, poetry lovers read their lines at the Narayanan residence last Sunday. The exquisite, intimate space at Ranghavi estate,  Bogmallo road, Goa seemed perfect to wax eloquent as the rain outside provided the score. Janani served up hot pakoras and steaming cups of coffee -- this could only be 'Coffee with Kavita'! -- an event organized by VW to promote poetry and the writing of verse. The exuberance was infectious as after I read my poems I couldn't help picking up the forlon guitar in the corner and strum the good old Konkani dulpods opening with  Undra Mhojea Mama. At which point all who could shake a leg, did!

On request from the audience I read my poem 'An Evening in Paris' (on this blog) written for Queenie as we romanced by Worli sea face, Mumbai. The title is taken from the name of a perfume she was wearing at the time which provided an example of what could be the sources of inspiration of a poet. A poem was requested on Orissa. I acknowledged that though I had visited the place I had not written a poem yet and was not going to force it. For:

To force the pace, and never to be still
Is not the way one studies birds --
                              or women
The best poets wait for words.

                           -Nissim Ezekiel

I dwelt on irony in 'CNN IBN' where a foreign news channel pays scant regard to a bomb blast in the North East in its reportage in Dimapur. I ended with 'Deep South' -- my poem rooted in Mahabalipuram, Coimbatore and Bangalore which had Janani promising to serve me 'rice on a banana leaf' -- one of the lines in the poem. What else does a poet need?!
All poems from A Peace of India: Poems in Tansit (New Delhi: Self-published, 2011); Pix taken at 'Coffee with Kavita' at the Narayanan residence, Ranghavi Estate, Bogmallo Road, Goa on Sunday 26 October 2014.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Face of Kachchh

-Brian Mendonca

On the Anjar road
the ceiling hangs like a curtain.
Kamal ke phool
Raste ke us paar.
The pir of the wayside
Overlooks the Rann.
In the tremor of tomorrow
A hand reaches through the dust
Allah ko pyare.
Kukma's biscuits
Wean smiles at Bujori
On the Surajbari bridge
The blue ribbon of Sayaji
Lignite from Panandro
On the Sarkhej road
A caravan of camels
stitches in kantha
Mandvi or Bhuj
'Koteshwar is not going anywhere.'

(Kachchh, 2006)
Published in A Peace of India: Poems in Transit (New Delhi:Self-published, 2011); Pix of Jesal-Toral samadhi, Anjar from hoparoundindia(dot)com; 9115 Bandra-Bhuj Sayaji Express

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Clear Light of Day

Clear Light of Day (1980) has an old world feel about it. You almost don't expect the redemption it affords -- somewhat tacky, I felt -- at the end of the novel to rescue it from its morass of misgiving. While I was thrilled it was an alaap by Mulk the failed musician who offers the insight into Bim's life, I was wondering why he was waiting in the wings for so long. His master who musters up a rendition which fails to ennoble seems to afford the obvious realization that youth and old age are two sides of the same coin.

The novel has the girth to push it to another 200 pages -- what with just finishing the gargantuan Glass Palace (2000) by Amitav Ghosh. Still, Anita Desai's cameos of her characters are compelling. But the novel is clearly written for Bim. Her self-knowledge and her openness to meet Raja shows her rising to maturity. But does the novel only hinge on reconciliation?

This is a kunstellroman is it not? Which is a tale of a girl's growing up to be a woman. In the novel there are 4 or if you like 6. The Das's daughters, the Misra's daughters and Tara's daughters. Raja's daughter Shabana in Hyderabad does not really qualify as she is hardly seen. The love-hate relationship between Tara and Bim is fraught with guilt, anger and painful reminisces of childhood memories. The absence of their parents who go to play cards in the club make the sisters lean on each other not always successfully. But the psychological complexity could be plumbed more, something that her daughter Kiran Desai seems to do with more vigour in The Inheritance of Loss (2006) (see this blog for a review). In a sense the two novels belong to two different moments in India's history. Clear Light of Day  is set at the time of the partition; Inheritance is about independence in the fractious frontier of Darjeeling. The latter is understandably more modernist.

It is sad to see how the close bond Raja and the sisters shared in childhood is riven in adulthood, by what one suspects is Raja's marriage to Hyder Ali's daughter.  Ultimately it is Iqbal and Eliot who provide the coda to life -- if we don't count Aurangzeb. The light offers its commentary on the blindness of obstinacy in the characters in the novel: 'The light of the full moon was so clear, surely it could illuminate everything tonight (247). It is the soft light of the night, not the clear light of day to which Tara implores to for healing.

Old Delhi is certainly a character in the novel. How time hangs heavy on an afternoon with the turntable rasping Baba's songs is lyrically portrayed. The soirees at Roshanara bagh invoke an old world charm safely tucked away from the horrors of Tamas or Train to Pakistan. Gandhiji's murder in 1948 raises the tempo of the novel in the middle (148) and is what causes Hyder Ali to go underground. In the end sanity prevails and Raja marries his daughter affirming Hindu-Muslim amity.

Some of the long sentences are tiresome. Mira Masi tethers on being a caricature inextricably linked to the dead white, 'bride-like' (156) cow whose cause she championed. Her pathetic end is a resounding indictment about the state of Indian women who are at the receiving end of their in-laws. The Misra daughters also have absent husbands to leave their wives to forget their wedded status in their frantic ministrations. Tara is the only one who seems to find fulfillment -- if only by leaving India with Bakul.

It is difficult to escape the pessimism of the novel. Lawrence's Ship of Death is quoted at length (155) where we are advised to prepare for the final voyage. Birth, childhood, adulthood, death are all contained in Clear Light of Day. Through a process of self-effacement we realize our meaning in this life. Time the destroyer, is time the preserver. (283)
Citations from Random House edition with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie. Pix courtesy flipkart.


-Brian Mendonça

It was 7 years ago that I wrote my first blog post. Returning from a performance of Meera at Kamani auditorium, Delhi, I simply had to share how excited I was from the viewing experience. Living alone in a barsaati in South Delhi, friends who would share my tastes were not always easy to come by. So I ventured out writing about it all on the internet! I named my blog after my first book of poems, viz. www.lastbustovasco.blogspot.in.

As I look back on my first blog I feel the adrenaline surge through me as it did when I wrote the lines for the first time. I have not looked back since. With a modest 2 posts per month I was doing quite nicely. I drew my topics from the things I was doing. My Portuguese language classes at the Instituto Camoes spawned a blog post on José Saramago, the Nobel-prize winning novelist. A trip to Jamshedpur saw me posting my poems on Tatanagar and naxal-infested Dumka. ‘Goodbye Lalit’ was for Lalit an RTI activist who was murdered in Daltonganj in Jharkhand’s badlands and ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ was about a downspin when I could not sleep. 

Sometimes I wonder what I would have written if I had started blogging earlier. With each blog post I wrote I grew in confidence. Knowing that I was ‘publishing’ my writing made me take it more seriously. I always asked myself, ‘Will someone learn something from this blog post?’ I never whined about things or people however gross they were. Down and out in my blog post titled ‘Until Yesterday’ I meditated on the safeda tree outside my room. Yes, my blog helps me to live life in a creative way. It is a diary which is accessible across the world. Some shrink from this realization, because it is like sharing your life with someone you do not know.

Queenie and me found each other through my blog writing. I am sure she read the anguish with which I wrote of my mum who passed away in ‘Happy Birthday Mum.’ We discussed my blogs together and she came to know the writer in me and the anchorage for my thoughts.

I always encourage others to begin creating and writing their own blogs. It’s a free service at www.blogger.com. I also write blog posts on topics which I think will benefit my students. In an open access e-learning world they are free to read it off-site instead of in the classroom. I’ve added recipes and book reviews, and black and white photographs of the family. Your own blog is a very convenient single source where you can archive your writing, your poems, and your thoughts.

FB and WhatsApp condemn people to be consumers of news. Blogging is more reflective. You hone your writing skills. You make the news in so far as it is relevant to you. You think for yourself. You don’t let others do the thinking for you.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 19 October 2014; pix source: www.prosperouscoachblog(dot)com

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sunday by the Sea

Photo shoot of the Mendonca family, Vasco, includes Brian and Queenie Mendonca with Dwayne and grandpa Alex George Mendonca soaking in the sea. All photos taken at Bogmallo Beach Resort, Goa on Sunday 12 October 2014.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sleepy Hollow

Have been watching snatches of American movies of late. Quiet time rules the house between 4.30 - 5 p.m. when I make the tea. For company I flick on the TV. Recent fare has been Sleepy Hollow (1999) starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. I've also been in on the action at Wall Street starring Michael Douglas and all the double crossing. The latest is Shooter but I was shot out of the film when the lights went out :(.

What has struck me is the fertility of the American imagination to make/produce movies as varied as these. Sleepy Hollow directed by Tim Burton is based on a story published in 1819-20 along with 'Rip van Winkle' by NewYork City-born writer Washington Irving (1783-1859). It is set in the county of Sleepy Hollow, New York in 1799 where Depp as Ichabod Crane is an investigating agent. There is a throwback to the American Revolution of 1776 as the masked marauder responsible for the deaths rides on a confederate(?) horse. I love period movies and the costumes and the macabre took me back to the heaths of Heathcliff. Having seen The Conjuring and noting the release of its sequel Annabelle this week I wanted to see horror in a different guise.

The Gothic is unmistakable in this movie heightened by cinematic effects. The haunted house and horseman; steeds careening wildly a la Dracula (Dir. Milos Forman) set in Transylvania; beautiful women and unbridled sexuality-- and of course, a dark secret. A scarred childhood as a reference is a nice touch and serves as a leitmotif. Shot predominantly in dark tones of black and mostly sepia, Irving's Ichabold is much like Poe's investigator Dupin in his detective story 'The Purloined Letter.' The headless horseman may be overplayed for its sheer shock value and closely parallels Durer's woodcuts of Death as the avenging horseman.

Critics write:
Irving’s take on the classic ghost tale has a decidedly American slant, owing perhaps to the author’s interest in New York history. Written during a time when Americans were trying to create an identity for themselves and their new country, Irving’s stories lent the young America its own sort of mythology. Sleepy Hollow, for example, is set in Tarrytown, a bucolic real-life location along the Hudson River in Upstate New York. The mythic horseman in Irving’s Legend was rumored to be the ghost of a Revolutionary War soldier, tragically decapitated by a flying cannonball. “Crane is also the archetypal Yankee,” notes Catherine Whalen, a professor and expert on American material culture at the Bard Graduate Center, New York City.

Wall Street (2010) directed by Oliver Stone is a much more recent movie about Gordon Gekko (Douglas) trading Wall Street to build his empire. 'Money Never Sleeps' is the tag line for this one and the ruminations over global capital looks like a page from Cronenberg's Cosmopolis.

Shooter (2007) by Antoine Fuqua is a conspiracy film about a shooter who is framed for killing the President. The movie is based on a novel by Stephen Hunter, an American novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning film critic.

Images: Title page of 1899 edition of Sleepy Hollow, quoted text and image courtesy designsponge(dot)com; map idecide(dot)com real estate