Category Archives: Commentary

My mind now smells of garlic

A few days ago, rather reluctantly, I finished the final chapter of one great novel. Beyond a shadow of a doubt lingering on its luminous pages, this book, without mincing any words, is Nobel Prize material. According to Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, “If I were to choose a Nobel Laureate, it would be Mo Yan.”

The final chapters sent my spirits soaring into another country, another realm. The narrative is laced with a raw and unique blend of magic realism, vastly distinct in its handling from Kafka, Marquez, or Murakami. Each chapter begins with a short ballad sung by the blind minstrel  Zhang Kou (strictly an observer rather than a participant in the story) that is reminiscent of a Greek chorus. This simple literary device allows the drama to gently unfold, urging its spirit forward, and aptly summing up the mood of the moment. The precise and telling opening lines reflect deeper poetic sensibilities.

Poetry in narration

Layered, lifelike, and never linear, the plot moves seamlessly back and forth in time, bearing allegiance to overall significance rather than to a time-bound order of development. The plot structure unfurls architectural subtlety that is truly the work of a master. Racy,  compelling, and liberally steeped in romance and adventure from the very start to finish, the narrative is almost thriller-like in its un-put-down-ability.

What makes Mo Yan’s brand of surrealism unique is that the string of events leading up to the sad end is firmly grounded in reality. The story, played out by a handful of credible, well-rounded characters has an aura of authenticity and realism that makes it eminently believable. The bawdiness of the dialogues too — interspersed with gems of folk insight and wisdom — comes out of the mouths of common village folk. A “ring of truth” chimes throughout. A skilled story-teller is like a clever little spider spinning yarns apparently out of nowhere, to mesmerize and captivate the reader. The magical patterns shine like silver gossamer threads in the sunlight and in the moonlight.

The entire story is sprinkled with dream-like sequences. While the reader may often be transported to a magical realm, both his or her feet are always planted firmly on the ground. Towards the end of the book Gao Yang, one of the main characters,  is led away by two policemen, paraded through the town, handcuffed and in excruciating pain from his swollen, pus-filled ankle. A rooster appears from nowhere and starts to peck at Gao’s injured ankle. The dogged bird continues to peck unforgivingly, but Gao’s excruciating pain goes unnoticed by the callous policemen escorting him, until the rooster manages to pluck a long white tendon out of the open sore. It pulls the tendon a foot or so more from its source and swallows it whole like one big noodle. One of his tormentors, a fat cop, whispers into Gao’s ear, “He’s plucked the root of your problem.”

People struggle on

The Garlic Ballads sing in defense of peasants who have toiled ceaselessly under crushing government directives to grow garlic in their small fields, their only available source of livelihood.  Unable to sell their produce, and betrayed by the treachery of mindless bureaucrats, the peasants finally rise up in revolt.  Their honest labor reduced to naught, they have nowhere to go in the end.

Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Noble Prize for Literature is a supreme story-teller, who like  Scherazade in The One Thousand and One Nights, keeps the Sultan (you, in this case) whispering “What next?” from chapter to chapter. I wish someone would ask me, “What’s the best novel you’ve read in your life?” While my common sense will argue with my better judgement all night, in the pale light of dawn my heart may really have only one answer. Maybe there’s a very good reason nobody has asked me that question yet. So far, not about “my best novel,” “my best film,” or “my best song.”  So ruefully, it is here that I must rest my case.

4 Comments

Filed under Commentary

Here’s half the truth

Young people spend a lot of time looking down at the ground. Old people spend a lot of time looking up at the sky. People in the middle look neither up nor down. They look straight ahead — at waves in the sea bobbing up and down, at the ebb and flow of tides, at the ever-changing flow of life in its myriad manifestations — singularly focused on their bright, future prospects! Looking into the distance, being mindful of society’s pros and cons: this is what gives rise to conventional wisdom. As in organized religion, you never question its merits. If you do, you may be asking for endless argument.

Now, if you’re neither an optimist nor a pessimist — that is, if like me you see the bottle as neither half empty nor half full (never even stopping to ponder at which end the better half may be esconced) — you could be the only one looking in vain for the whole truth, some strange wispy cloud that flies across the sky at the speed of light. In which case, conventional wisdom is not exactly your cup of tea, nor is it mine, to be honest.

Of course, conventional wisdom is widespread everywhere, not just where you and I live. It competes surreptitiously with superstition and folklore. (Incidentally, superstition and folklore, as you might have guessed, are modern inventions too.) You may want to run for the hills when rumors fly about, but sometimes you might find yourself stuck. Since I’ve lived in North America for way more than two decades, I must share with you some sparklers of conventional wisdom doing the rounds in this part of the world.

1,2,3,4…there will be more!

First, verbal or written communication is grossly over-rated. Unlike as in the East, silence is openly misunderstood. Surely, it’s not regarded as sacred. To be pragmatic, telephone companies will urge you to call before making a trip anywhere. Of course, calls cost money, and so do wasted trips. They tell you to talk, talk, talk — before you act! No altruistic gesture by any stretch of the imagination, knowing that this practice only puts more money in their pockets.

Such abiding truths are all very well until “communication” is expected to solve all our mortal problems, big or small. You’re urged to talk to every offender (even hardened criminals, if that’s the case) — communicate, pontificate, prevaricate, argue, counsel, cajole, dole out free leaflets, ask them to read up on the Internet — and all your problems, like solar eclipses, will soon disappear. As you rightly guessed, communication implies getting your message across, not in listening to or hearing the other side of the story. At times you wonder, if communication ever had anything to do with silence, or if light has anything to do with darkness?

Secondly, many in this great big democracy agree that it’s just another human being under so many-colored skins. What they haven’t discovered yet (or may still be working on) is that human beings are existentially the same, whether man or woman, white, brown, black, yellow or colorless. With Mars and Venus theories, left-brain/right brain rationale bandied around and assuming infallibility sometimes, gender distinctions become hard to dispel. It’s a man or a woman thing, you’ll often hear said. So much so that boys are associated with the color blue, and girls with pink. You may even be regarded as queer if you beg to differ, resent the straight-jacket, or question the soundness of its limiting logic.

Someday, I might be tempted to extend my tirade against technology and/or foods that fall into the four “primary” categories, but I still have to gather my wayward thoughts on that subject. We may talk about it another day, if  that’s okay with you, just like we may talk about the value of education as we know it. Note, however, that conventional wisdom arises from what each community regards as important for its perceived survival on this planet, and not necessarily on truths that are universal, unchangeable, or transcending existence. It is an animal — loud, sometimes arrogant, with little or no patience for dissenters — that lives inside a box. Beware, gentle reader, the wide open sky could startle it!

Quite easily done

Once again, because Capitalism is just that — money, money, and more money — everything, I repeat everything, can be solved if you just had enough money. With money, you can buy enough food to feed the poor; inject medicines to heal the sick and ailing; reverse the ravages of time; research assorted age-defying paraphernalia; run schools to help kids think inside the box and stay within the tracks; silence your detractors; pump chemicals into Nature for her to produce more; acquire the latest armaments to annihilate your enemies; and enforce laws that even earth, water, and sky must obey. Q.E.D, as you learnt subliminally in Geometry,  it’s Quite Easily Done.

Fourth, in some ways an extension of the foregoing example, comes modern medicine, now exerting a vice-like grip on our mega metropolises. I’ve even heard Homeopathy being derided on TV by celebrity experts. You must really be kidding to think a medicine can increase in potency (in geometric progression too) just by repeatedly diluting it in water! And, Ayurveda?…must be another figment of saintly imaginations fueled by hallucinogenic weeds. Acupuncture, being apparently more tangible, may be more acceptable, especially if the results are quickly felt. We don’t seem to have time for the pain, so it makes sense to deride anything that’s slow, circumspect, or even holistic.  Every knee-jerk, reactionary solution (lockup for crimes, for instance) is the right solution. You don’t want to argue with half the population, do you, amigo? I don’t.

Again, you’re told not to trust strangers. This might be just another face of free enterprise and unregulated profit motives, I’m not sure. You’re encouraged often to suppress your gut. Don’t make friends with people you don’t know, or fall in love with someone brought up different from you (this has more relevance in our particular eastern climes). In short, spontaneity is suspect. But how do you make friends or fall in love unless fences are first broken? Racism and discrimination has to start somewhere. Maybe, this is where it all began…well…

I can go on rambling, and stray into areas that a thousand words fail to explain. But wait a minute. I have to get off my train of thoughts, just to check if there’s something fishy on the tracks. There is. Truth is only half told. Truth also belongs to words unspoken and sights unseen. Seeing has no direction, no end. Alas! what I, a poor scribe, can offer is only half the brimming glass.

Shyam Bhatya

This post is opinionated, no kidding! Please feel free to critique it below, if you disagree. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary