Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway- A Review

When I first read Virginia Woolf, I wasn't perhaps in the right frame of mind for it; I let frivolity and impatience cloud my first-ever reading of a stream-of-consciousness work in To The Lighthouse, and didn't treat it with the respect it deserved.

Now, having read Mrs. Dalloway, I am in awe of Virginia Woolf. The clarity with which she puts forth the convoluted workings of the human mind are astounding- the various characters who weave themselves in and out of one another's lives as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for her party come together in an intricate tapestry, and how real it seems!

Clarissa Dalloway, recovering from an illness, goes about preparing for a party, reminiscing as she does so over the circumstances that led her to marry Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Walsh, the man with whom she walked the woods and had innumerable arguments. She dwells over her love for brash Sally Seton and ruminates on the kiss they once shared. As she sits mending her torn dress for the party, she is visited by Walsh- now back from his long stay in India, unhappily married, and now in love with a married mother of two. She invites him to her party; he is not sure he should attend. Her husband brings her flowers as he returns from lunch at Lady Bruton's; smarting at not being invited, she asks if she was inquired after. She stands uneasily with Miss Kilman, her daughter's German-born teacher who detests parties and finds solace in religion and food.

Woolf picks people off the streets of London and examines their lives. Fresh from the First World War, people are still putting their lives back together; Septimus Warren Smith, sitting on a park bench with his Italian wife, is pondering over his crimes. He will not get a patient hearing, however, because the two doctors who examine him have diametrically opposing views, and what he does with himself in the course of the day carries its own reverberations to Clarissa's party. She is angered that the misfortunes of a man she doesn't know should inflict themselves on her party in the shape of the doctor and his wife who arrive late, bearing those sad tidings- but she is convinced that the party is a success. Peter Walsh is there, as are Sally Seton and her elderly aunt. Why, the Prime Minister is also present, being talked of with a sort of awe in hushed tones.

The minute examination to which Woolf subjects her characters is admirable. Splitting the day amongst the people who populate Clarissa's life directly or indirectly, she drifts in and out of their heads, tackling the themes of suicidal depression and homosexuality, and life in general. Slights, disappointments, jealousy, inexpressible happiness- the vagaries of life and human reaction to them are duly dealt with. Can't you just see yourself there, in transports of bliss one moment, grappling with trivialies the next? The past presses upon us even as we make our way into the future, the present manufacturing memories that combine and occupy their niches in the subconscious, dormant until roused to sudden activity by the smallest stimulus.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book to be absorbed and dwelt upon- and re-read.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Winds of Change?

I'm sitting by an open window in our several decades-old ground floor house; the rain-cleansed wind bears in the mild fragrance of flowers that have just bloomed. It also carries in the voices that call for change not too far away, petitioning for the valuable votes that could swing the balance in their favour.

West Bengal is in the midst of the Assembly elections, and with just two of six phases completed, Durgapur awaits its turn to vote. Campaigning is on in full swing, and party flags are visible in abundance; loudspeakers broadcast Mamata Banerjee's indignant voice perhaps protesting injustices and calling for change. West Bengal has seen three decades of Communist rule, but the tide just might turn this time around. The trouble with Singur and Nandigram, pitting development against the displacement of large sections of the population, put the government in a dubious situation. It also continues to grapple with Maoist violence and poverty.

As an outsider, I am probably not entitled to sweeping observations. However, from my observations of Durgapur, it is extremely evident that the state desperately needs to change for the better. Development is conspicuous by its absence. The industrial belt of Burdwan district by no means is opulent, and much needs to be done to improve the standard of living. Durgapur boasts an NIT and a new spanking mall endeavouring to bring major brands to the town. Education need not necessarily beget consumerism, and efforts need to be made towards improving the lot of those riding cycle-rickshaws (with corpulent women more often than not, as one cannot help but notice) for their daily wages. The metal buses jostling against one another on narrow streets, precariously teetering under their weight, need to be replaced with effective modes of transport. Vegetable vendors sit under tarpaulin sheets, a single light bulb hovering overhead; where do they go when the sudden summer storms strike the town? Do the party symbols painted on the crudely whitewashed walls of low two-storey buildings promise them any hope?

The campaigners continue to make their winding, fervid speeches; may the best people win, and not renege on the promises they are at this moment making.
This is a house of variety.

Within its ancient walls flourish trees of hibiscus, mango, guava, jackfruit, lime and bel; the straggling grass growing over the hard brown soil has its monotony broken by violet and white asters and yellow wildflowers. Outside the walls, bordering the narrow road, are tall trees with white boles that spread their arms out to the sky in a welcoming embrace. There is a solitary leafless tree, a dark silhouette against the cheer and yellowness of summer sunshine- it has remained so for a while now, surely it isn't dead?

Birds abound; why, you can even spot the lone woodpecker tapping busily on a bark, blissfully lost to the world. Koels call out to one another with cheerful regularity- call and answer- with chirrupping dun-coloured birds hopping across the bed of leaves on the ground adding to the chorus. The backyard is occasionally brightened by a flash of colour; a flock of parrots alighting for a grub, before flying off together to perch on the upper branches of the trees outside.

At times, it isn't difficult to imagine that if I turned around, I would find the house actually perched on a ledge overlooking a verdant valley, watered by a sinuous blue ribbon- and behind me, a looming mountain face, brown and hard but gentle, its slope generously sprinkled with Alpine vegetation. We are about ten hours away from Siliguri and the Himalayas- in winter, icy winds blow through this little town. Now, in these months of heat, clouds creep up quietly (even as we sing the raaga Amritavarshini, hoping to add our prayers) and gather in grey masses tinged with the pearly luminosity of sunset. There is a bit of lightning, a spot of thunder, followed by perhaps a drizzle or two, and just sometimes, a very heavy downpour, sending trees crashing down upon the roads and strewing leaves liberally on parked cars and brave pedestrians. You can see, then, that I'm not too far from a delicious scary story setting either, not in this rambling old house with its blue doors and years of history.

The stock of books laid by for the long summer is being actively dipped into- but because it grows at a faster pace, I do not despair of being left without reading material. Reading The Woman In White has rekindled my romance with thick, winding family intrigues, and I look forward to The Forsyte Saga.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Bus to Nabadwip

Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.

At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.

A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.

The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.

The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened frying-pans. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.

The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.

Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.