Harsh Times – a review

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After a very very long time, Mario Vargas Llosa has written a novel that reminds us what a great writer he once was.

“Harsh Times” plays with time, simultaneous and disjointed at once through a collage of episodic narratives to recall the coup that overthrew the Guatemalan October Revolution in 1954. Both in form and content, Llosa makes a comeback with this novel that intersperses factual history and imaginative fiction to expose the role of the CIA and the United States in destabilizing democratically elected governments and in propping up dictators to serve the cause of US corporations in Latin America (The United Fruit Company in this case). The last La Dictadura novel that Llosa wrote was The Feast of the Goat (2000) and there are some characters from that work that show up in this novel too, most prominently Rafael Leónidas Trujillo and his henchman Johny Abbes García.

Continue reading “Harsh Times – a review”

The Wardrobe, Old people and Death by Julio Ribeyro

The wardrobe in my father’s room was not just another piece of furniture; it was undoubtedly a house within the house. Inherited from his grandparents, it had followed us from place to place, gigantic, embarrassing, until it found a permanent place in my parent’s bedroom. 

Continue reading “The Wardrobe, Old people and Death by Julio Ribeyro”

Barbara by Julio Ribeyro

For the last ten years, I’ve preserved the letter from Barbara. For a long time, it was in my wallet, while I hoped to find someone who could translate it for me. Later it was left in a folder along with other papers. Finally, one afternoon, it fell prey to one of those sudden acts of destruction, in which one puts in that special type of ferocity to annihilate all traces of one’s past –I destroyed it, along with all that one destroys in such cases – train tickets of long voyages, bills of a hotel where we were full of joy, theatre programs of some forgotten production/ opera. Of Barbara, there remained nothing of consequence, and I will never know what she said to me in that letter written in Polish. 

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The Eucalyptus Trees by Julio Ribeyro

Between my house and the sea, there was an open land twenty years ago. One just had to follow the aqueduct along the Dos de Mayo Street, cross the pasture area and the vacant piece of land, to arrive at the ravine’s border. A concrete tunnel through the hills led to the La Pampilla, a mostly deserted beach, frequented only by the fishermen. 

We went there on Saturdays, accompanied by the housemaid and the dogs. The beach was narrow and rocky – there was barely a thin band between the ravine and the sea. We spent long hours exhuming dead ducks, picking up sea shells and snails. The dogs ran around the beach, happily barking at the sea. Moss and wild weeds climbed over the side of the cliff, and we drank the fine water that fell down in the cove of our palms. 

Continue reading “The Eucalyptus Trees by Julio Ribeyro”

The Rooftop by Julio Ribeyro

At the age of ten, I was the monarch of the rooftops and peacefully governed my kingdom of destroyed objects. 

The rooftops were airy enclosures where a number of people sent things that were no longer of any use – one could find chairs with missing legs, crushed mattresses, cracked flowerpots, coal stoves, and more such items that had arrived at this life of purgatory, midway between posthumous use and oblivion. Among these junk objects, I was omnipotent, exercising an authority that was denied to me in the house downstairs. I could now paint a moustache on a portrait of the grandfather, wear old paternal boots, or brandish a broom that had lost its straws, like a javelin. Nothing was outside my private preserve – I could build and destroy and with the same freedom of the insufferable life of a punctured ball, presided over the capital execution of the mannequins. 

My kingdom, at first was limited to the rooftop of my house, but little by little, thanks to my valorous conquests, was extending its frontiers to the neighborhood rooftops. On these long campaigns, which were not without danger, I had to cross fences or jump over abysmal corridors always returning with some object to add to my treasure or some scratch that added to my heroism. The sporadic presence of a servant hanging out the laundry or someone repairing the chimney didn’t cause me any trouble; I was firmly entrenched as the sovereign of a land in which all others were either nomads or temporary migrants. 

Continue reading “The Rooftop by Julio Ribeyro”

The Banquet by Julio Ribeyro

After two months of anticipation, Don Fernando Pasamano had prepared the details for the grand event. First, his house needed to undergo an overall transformation. As one treats an old house, it was necessary to bring down the walls, enlarge the windows, change the wooden staircase and paint the walls afresh.

These alterations brought with it, as with other things – like those people who when they buy a pair of shoes, decide it’s necessary to try them out with a pair of new socks and then with a new shirt and then a new suit and so on until they buy new underwear to go with it – Don Fernando was obliged to renovate all the furniture, from the console in the salons to the last bench in the kitchen. Later came the carpets, the lamps, the curtains and the frames to cover the walls which, since they had been cleaned, appeared much larger than they actually were. Finally, since he planned to have a concert in the garden, it was necessary to construct a garden. Within fifteen days, a squad of Japanese gardeners had built, where before there had been a wildly overgrown vegetable garden, a marvelous rococo garden with carved (or sculpted) cypresses, alleys without exits, a lagoon with red fish, a cavern for the deities and a bridge made of rustic wood that crossed over to an imaginary waterfall.

Continue reading “The Banquet by Julio Ribeyro”

A Mixed Up Address by Julio Ribeyro

Ramon left the office with the dossier under his arm and walked towards the Avenida Abancay. While he was waiting for the omnibus to Lince, he was contemplating the demolition of the old houses in Lima. Not a day passed without the demolition of a colonial-era house, a balcony of carved wood or simply one of the gentile republican villas, where in the years past, more than one revolution had been forged. At each site, haughty impersonal buildings, identical to the ones in hundreds of cities all over the world, rose up. Lima, the adorable Lima of adobe and wood, was becoming a kind of a barrack of reinforced concrete. The little poetry that remained sought refuge in the abandoned little plaza, a church and in the windows of the princely mansions, where old families languished between parchments and yellowing daguerreotype. 

These reflections evidently had nothing to do with Ramon’s firm: a detector of hardened debtors. That very morning, his boss had ordered Ramon to undertake a thorough investigation in Lince to find Fausto Lopez, a dubious client who had signed a forged paper for 40 million soles. 

When the omnibus dropped him in Lince, he felt depressed, like he did every time he went around such neighborhoods where the common people, without a history lived. These places were born 20 years ago through some speculative art, dead after filling the pockets of some ministers, poorly buried between the grand metropolis and the luxurious spas of the south. One could see the bedpan-like one storey houses, dirt roads, dusty tracks, straight misty streets where no tree grew, not even weed. Life in these lively neighborhoods throbbed inside the corner stores that were frequented by regular customers and drunkards. 

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Julio Ramón Ribeyro: The Meringues

Julio Ramón Ribeyro: Source

Julio Ramón Ribeyro  (1929-1994), a Peruvian short story writer of the El Boom era, has been less known outside the Spanish speaking world as he was not translated into English till recently.

As one trying to learn Spanish, I attempted a translation of a few of his stories, including five that I believe have not been  translated before. These will appear on this blog over the next one week.   

This is how Mario Vargas Llosa, his contemporary and friend summarizes Ribeyro’s writings :

All his stories and novels are fragments of a single allegory about the fundamental frustration of being Peruvian: a frustration that is social, individual, cultural, psychological, and sexual.

History of a Friendship: Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa by Jorge Coaguila

All the stories are taken from: La insignia y otros relatos geniales by Julio Ramón Ribeyro

(Thanks to Carlos D, my friend and guide in learning Spanish and who patiently helped with the translations over many weeks).

The Meringues 

The Meringues

Barely had his mother closed the door, when Perico jumped from the mattress and listened, with his ear to the door, the steps fading away in the long corridor. When they had completely disappeared, he pounced towards the kerosene stove and rummaged through one of the burners that was no longer functioning. There it was! Pulling out a leather bag, he counted the coins one by one – he had learned to count while playing marbles – and to his astonishment, discovered that he had forty soles. He put back twenty soles in his pocket and returned the rest into their place. It had not been in vain, when during the night, he had pretended to sleep to spy on his mama. Now he had sufficient money to achieve his grand project. He had no excuse now. In those alleys of Santa Cruz, the doors were always ajar so the neighbours could poke their nose around. Putting on his shoes, he scampered off towards the street.

Continue reading “Julio Ramón Ribeyro: The Meringues”

Mexico City in Christmas Time

In Search of Macondo

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There are few places, known to us through literature, that let themselves be re- discovered. One of them is the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the site of some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century- the   novels of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It is easy to fall into the trap of missing the actual place when visiting a place that one has known through literature. This is not true,however, when in Colombia that Gabriel Garcia Marquez made immortal through his works, as a re-fabricator of its facts. Some of his greatest works, particularly his best known work, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as well as ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘Of Love and other Demons’, derived much from two places that he lived and grew up in- the mofussil, and a rather nondescript town of Aracataca and the colonial city of Cartagena in Caribbean Colombia.

If Latin America found its literary voice in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ it is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ in which Latin America found its hope and destiny. It was also the book and Macondo, the fictional place inspired by Aracataca, that encapsulated the whole of Latin America. Macondo became a byword for the school of writing that Garcia Marquez came to be associated with- that of magical realism. While his knowledge of Aracataca was deeply personal that of Cartagena was based on his knowledge that he gained while working as a journalist in that city from 1948 to 1955.

Like most readers of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I was bewitched by the place that he created his little universe in the fictitious land of Macondo. Almost three decades after I discovered ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on a samosa wrapper made from the previous week`s newspaper  drenched in oil, I had the opportunity to visit the town that has renamed itself Macondo, and where reality seems to aspire to its literary image.

In Search of Macondo

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”

 – One Hundred Years of Solitude

The two of us travelled to Cartagena and Aracataca in March of 2019 to discover some of the places where Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works are based. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, affectionately called Gabo in his native country Colombia, shot to worldwide fame with the publication of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in 1967, winning the Nobel Prize for literature fifteen years later. Continue reading “In Search of Macondo”

The Year Gone By – 2018

It has been a year of ‘reading’ audio books and books from the local used book store.

The former has made it possible to ‘read’ books during my drive to work and enabled me to read books that I found difficult to read before. Picking up books from the local used book store has made me discover forgotten or unheard of books, besides the fact that they cost practically nothing.

Audio books have constituted a majority of the books that I ‘read’ this year and the few non- audio books are marked to indicate otherwise (* indicates a paper book and ** an e-book). I have also used ‘listen’ and ‘read’ interchangeably when referring to audio books.

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Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2018”

Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life

Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, provided not merely a philosophy of the world and how to change it, but also a philosophy of life and how to live it.

The influence of Karl Marx and his ideas was a matter of course for many of us who grew up in the 20th century. How they affected us was a matter of degree, but the influence itself was inescapable. After all, even a character as insignificant and ordinary as the one in Robert Walser’s novel, The Assistant, has a brush with the ideas of socialism.

IMG-0957My earliest recollection of this influence, which went almost unnoticed, goes back to class 6, when I had to transcribe a page in English as part of my homework during the summer vacations. I picked up a book that had been lying around the house. It happened to be the biography of Karl Marx by E. Stepanova, which my father had received as a prize in school in the late fifties.

I slogged through the transcription with little interest, intrigued by unfamiliar words, such as proletariat, plebian, capitalism and socialism, understanding very little. These words came back to me in class 10, when I read the NCERT books by Arjun Dev that referred to Marx and the Russian Revolution. In a couple of years, I was to begin a journey that isn’t quite finished. Continue reading “Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life”

A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition

A Time of Madness by Salman Rashid 
Aleph, 2017

Salman Rashid in his slim memoir about a visit to his ancestral house, has also written about many more among the two million displaced by the Partition of 1947.

As someone whose grandparents migrated to Indian Punjab from what became Pakistan, I grew up on a healthy dose of family recollections about Partition. All my relatives who I know made their way from places like Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi – to Delhi, Jalandhar and as far as Gwalior. In all those stories, the overall sentiment was that of having made it in life despite losing almost all material possessions. Consequently, I grew up without much sentimentalism or curiosity about the event.

The silence was not just mine; I noticed how in several films, references to the Partition were replaced by metaphors like an earthquake. Waqt and Ek thi Ladki come instantly to mind. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is a rare exception. It was not until 1997, fifty years after the event, that the Outlook magazine carried a special issue on the Partition on August 15, which opened a floodgate of discussion on the topic. The online oral history initiative ‘1947 Partition Archive’ is of even more recent origin.

So when I chanced upon a review of Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness, I would have moved on had my eyes not fallen on this sentence: “Rashid travels to the land of his forefathers armed with a grainy photograph of a house on Railway Road in Jalandhar.”

My heart skipped a beat. Continue reading “A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition”

The Year Gone By – 2017

Without doubt, the best read of the year was Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, a result of the young Indian journalist’s investigation into the extrajudicial killings of Sohrabbudin and others and its cover up by a network of government functionaries, civil and police officials and the majority of the mainstream media. Indeed, the key change in the last few years has been the throttling of the media as it has become corporatized and aligned with the government in power. Ayyub took on the identity of an Indian American filmmaker to gain access to middle and senior level officials.

Her own employer recalled her just when she was about to get direct access to the Chief Minister of Gujarat (and now the Prime Minister of India), Narendra Modi. The key person allegedly involved in the execution of the extrajudicial killings by the police was the then Home Minister of Gujarat and the current national president of the ruling Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s not just the courage of the journalist and the depth of her findings but also the breezy narration, which reads like a crime thriller, that makes Gujarat Files such an engrossing read. In more open times, a book like this would have shaken the government.

On a related note, the 84 page booklet The Amit Shah School of Election Management by another young journalist Prashant Jha provides a number of insights on how the far right Modi- Shah election machine continues to roll on- with the BJP being the ruling party in 18 out of 29 states in India this year.

Random Picks

A book I picked up randomly just because I haven’t read recent Russian literature for a while was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. The novel is about the late Soviet period, a time that hasn’t inspired any great works of literature. The Queue is a notable exception. The book is a subtle take on the dreary years of scarcity in the last few years of the USSR and an insightful look into the lives and minds of the ordinary citizens. The absurdity of the situation is revealed in the dramatic end, as funny as it is ironic. Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2017”

What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today

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Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and Social Justice
People’s Literature Publication, 2017

It is tempting to think of B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy as a hegemonic one, for today there is no one who contests his ideas and legacy. Just as one was a socialist of one variety or the other in the mid-20th century India (even the Bharatiya Janata Party adhered to ‘Gandhian socialism’), everyone now is an Ambedkarite, or at least not opposed to the man and his ideas. However, in the absence of a coherent ideology that could be identified as Ambedkarism, the term has been pulled in many directions, which has both diluted it and, in some ways, allowed a creative efflorescence. It remains, at best, a nebulous concept.

Much before it became an academic rage, Ambedkar’s thoughts were a beacon for activists in post-independence India. Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and SocialJustice, Vidya Bhushan Rawat’s collection of interviews with the many foot soldiers and friends of what has come to be called the ‘Ambedkarite revolution’, attempts to collate what is sometimes left out of academic studies. It brings together many different perspectives on what constitutes Ambedkarism and, more importantly, what it has meant to individuals and activists working in various spheres.

The diverse selection of the individuals interviewed in this book provides a comprehensive picture of what Ambedkarism is or can be – these include associates and inheritors of Ambedkar who helped keep his ideas alive after he passed away, as well as contemporary activists who are guided by Ambedkar’s thoughts. The ideas debated centre around the connection between caste and class, conversion to Buddhism, human rights, secularism and culture. The personal experiences of those who grew up in Dalit families add another dimension to the discussions and help the reader understand the evolution of their ideas. Continue reading “What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today”

Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions

By Bhupinder Singh

I was 16 when two major political events happened: the first was the Indian army’s assault on the Harmandir Sahib, and the second was Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her security men. Even then, I realized that Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was historic, so much that one of the only two full editions of newspapers I have saved in my archives is dated November 1, 1984, which published the news of her assassination. The other one is the day that Mikhail Gorbachev was deposed in a coup organized by the hardliners within the Soviet Communist Party.

A perusal of the newspaper datelined a day after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination makes for an interesting reading, 33 years on.

bhupinder-singhThe Tribune’s City edition, which used to be the last one printed in the early hours of the day and carried the latest news stories has a huge capitalized headline on the front page, “Indira Gandhi Shot dead”, followed by three more subtitles, “Rajiv Gandhi takes over as Prime Minister”, “Security men involved in killing” and “5-man Cabinet sworn in”. All of the front page is predictably filled with reports titled “Alert in region”, “World leaders shocked”, “Funeral on Saturday”, “Dastardly act: President”, “Shun violence, says Rajiv”, “12-day state mourning”, “Army alerted”, “Eyewitness accounts”, “Anguish, confusion in Amritsar” and “One killed, many hurt in violence”. It is ironic that the event is now associated less with Mrs. Gandhi herself and more with the violence that followed it. Continue reading “Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions”

Om Puri

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Om (18 October 1950 – 6 January 2017)

We are a selfish people.

We remember others only when they die. It has nothing to do with the people who have passed on. The only reason we remember them is because a part of us dies with them.
It is no different when one reads about Om Puri’s passing on. I remember him not so much for what he was but for a purely selfish reason.

My first memory of Puri is of him being in a dilemma, switching on and off a table lamp in Ardh Satya. Of him reading Dilip Chitre’s poem, on which the film is titled, Half Truth.

In an inspired moment I wrote down the poem, translated it and then showed to a comrade who worked for the Communist Party’s Punjabi weekly newspaper. It so happened that at the same time, Santokh Singh Dhir, a well-known short story writer close to the CPI, was looking for someone to translate his poems from Punjabi into English for the Indian Express. This comrade connected the two of us, and I had my first claim to fame, as a half page supplement of the city’s Indian Express weekend edition carried the poems that I translated. I was in my teens.

My next memory is the film Aakrosh, in which he played the role of an adivasi whose tongue has been cut off. As idealist youngsters, we sympathized with him, his tongueless screech made us wrench and our blood boil. We felt like that bearded, kurta clad, jhola wielding, young man played by an actor whose name we never cared to find out- because we were him.

In those years, I grew up with Om Puri, whose pockmarked face captured the many pockmarks of our young, sometimes scared and sometimes hopeful adolescence.

As the news of his passing on sinks in, I remember him because a part of me goes with him.

It also awakens a part of me that time and age has camouflaged but never been able to kill.

A part that is alive.

Every obituary is also a celebration of what has survived.

The Year Gone By – 2016

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Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.

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My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)

After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection: Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2016”

In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City

Bhupinder Singh and Bhaswati Ghosh

PART 1

A welcoming refuge: Bhupinder

Cuba, and not Mexico should have been the first Latin American country I visited. In my youthful years, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara held a special place in my mind.

Mexico came to me much later — in the murals of Diego Rivera, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the magical realism of Juan Rulfo and other writers like Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes and Mariano Azuela. It was the country that had provided refuge to the leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky, the Indian communist and radical humanist M.N. Roy and later to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Mexico, therefore, held the promise of an exotic land that found a resonance in my literary and political imagination. It seemed like a welcoming home for those who were hunted and ostracised in their own countries.image00

The decision to make a trip to Mexico during the long Canadian winters when ‘snowbirds’ make short trips to warmer lands in the Caribbean was intuitive. What wasn’t as intuitive was our choice of destination. Much to the surprise of friends and colleagues accustomed to take vacations at beach resorts, we decided to travel to Mexico City. A few lessons in rudimentary Spanish provided me with enough confidence to take the plunge. Tripadvisor provided a good enough idea of the key sights to see.

It was with trepidation and expectation that we landed in Mexico City in the afternoon on Good Friday. The weather was perfect for our sun-parched eyes. The drive from the airport to the hotel reminded me of cities in India — New Delhi, Chennai — and also of how much at home I had felt on my trip to Tokyo. Being a holiday, the shops were closed and the traffic was relatively easy. The bright colours — green, orange reminded me of Chennai, the wide roads of parts of New Delhi and the easy walk of the pedestrians, in contrasts to the near-military gait of the Western people, reminded me of Tokyo.

The city purple: Bhaswati

I’ve come to the City expecting to see a riot of colours — bold reds, blues, greens and yellows. Yet, the colour that holds me in a dreamy sway all through my stay turns out to be purple. From the time we land in Mexico City on a warm Friday afternoon, the sky appears canopied on all sides with jacarandas in bloom. I instantly know what love is. It is to be in an absolute new place and not feel like even a traveler, much less a tourist.

Continue reading “In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City”

Fragments of a life

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra (2015)22542595

My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.

All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired. Continue reading “Fragments of a life”