Friday, March 16, 2018

Writing Nepal - Scaling Tense and Voice

Nepal is a hot tourist destination. Be it the casinos, the temples or the mighty Everest, the land lures and traveler tales must surely be aplenty. However, unlike the case with Malaysia, we have no classic author, such as Maugham, to tell us about the place.

In my childhood, English literature managed to foist a set of desirable destinations upon me - El Dorado, Shangri-La... The first one had little hold on me as gold never grew on me. As for the second, a pile of Lobsang Rampas fed the fire and Herge's drawings took me a sherpa closer to the real thing.

In India, I realised, a bit late in life, we mostly find it easy to treat all Nepalis, even those who might just look like Nepalis to us, as 'gurkhas'. I discovered that it was not a flattering term as one might have assumed from Kipling's painting of loyalty. Nor the Tensing courage of the Everest scale. But then, alas, my people are about as prejudiced and petty as any other. And, given my age, it is highly probable that I'm speaking of a reality which no longer exists.

While tourists flock to Kathmandu, the humbler peoples - for, like, India and many other places, it is a hodgepodge of races - of Nepal trudge out of the land in search of a living. India is near and sometimes dear. Nepalis read Indian regional fiction and Indians read Nepali fiction which is Indo-centric. However, neither you nor I have much chance of hearing those voices. 

The artificial political boundaries created by colonialism have fostered much internecine discord in the region. What gets published and read widely becomes the voice of the Nepali writer who received English education and, most likely, now lives in Canada or other Timbuktu. Though, we are all citizens of free countries today, the descendants of those bandit colonisers continue the work of disempowering our voices in the guise of aid - and most literature that the outside world has about Nepal is from those voices.   

Nepal, landscape - By U.S. Department of Agriculture [Public domain]

The tourist paradise is harsh and inhospitable to many of its inhabitants. Political upheavals further enhance life's instability. Not the best of conditions for literature to flourish?

So I was pleasantly surprised to find Manjushree Thapa's Tilled Earth.

"MANJU3" by Alemaugil - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
This set of short stories from Nepal have a quality of live reporting at times - the writing seems transcribed from jottings. An interesting effect. While the book is, surely, a must-have if you want to visit Nepal, that is basically because there is little else of the sort. The mood is heavy with all the tales being slightly sad. NGO work/offices/employees form an almost constant background.

This critique holds good for the entire region - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well. Short story writers from these places tend to want to play to one gallery. The voice and the reality it portrays feel like an echo in the past tense. The faded, frayed misery reads ploddingly. And one sometimes has the impression of drowning in an Alice in Wonderland pool of tears. 

For, the truth is that the poor of these regions, around whom these stories insist on revolving, are actually cheerful, impertinent and their lives manage to dwarf circumstances. Their stories would read lusty, even bawdy but, most of all, bear entertaining and truthful evidence of the human spirit's glow when it is shorn of the tawdry gilt of middle class pretentions. Now, however, fiction continues to eclipse fact, though the credibility of NGOs is no longer so burnished as once. Recall Paul Theroux and aid workers?

I would rather prescribe the one below, both for a Manju read as well as to get a quick insight into the literature of the country but some reviews bemoan the quality of the translations.
Manjushree Thapa is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction about Nepal, and a literary translator. Her translation of the work of 49 Nepali writers was published in The Country is Yours: Contemporary Nepali Literature.

Having been a translator of sorts for donkeys years, I, perhaps naturally, appreciate the work of translators. Most often it is thanks to the profession that one can read literature from around the world. Even relatively shoddy translating sometimes opens us to a new realm.

For this post, I had initially chosen 5 BOOKS ABOUT NEPAL THAT YOU MUST READ to see what's on offer - alas, Thapa's book, mentioned there, is not on yet. It sounds promising: 
This book is an account of the two trips that Manjushree Thapa took to Mustang. It is a combination of history and geography culminating into a rich mosaic of interwoven stories of character that feel out of place and yet find relevance in a remote corner of a Himalayan country. The book is narrative, portraying the vast beautiful stretch of Mustang from the perspective of a perplexed newcomer. The writer uses conversations, analogies and anecdotes while also providing her reaction to the entire ordeal of living in the northern tip of the Himalayan country. The book is also part historical and provides a fresh social perspective on the culture, customs and pathos of the people of Mustang.

I cannot bring myself to talk of the second book on the list - the raving review I'm scanning convinces me to avoid the book like the plague. Apparently, it tells you what to buy in Nepal. Not works by contemporary or past literary figures of the land but antiques.  So Buddha, whose philosophy means so much to many, dwindles into a tourist souvenir. A definite do-not-buy.

In my quest for this post, I find that there is a lot written but less is translated. As for what we can find in English, here are a couple that I would like to read:

Narayan Wagle's book sounds enticing:
It tells the story of an artist, Drishya, during the height of the Nepalese Civil War. The novel is partly a love story of Drishya and the first generation American Nepali, Palpasa, who has returned to the land of her parents after 9/11. It is often called an anti-war novel, and describes the effects of the civil war on the Nepali countryside that Drishya travels to.

It tells the story of an artist, Drishya, during the height of the Nepalese Civil War. The novel is partly a love story of Drishya and the first generation American Nepali, Palpasa, who has returned to the land of her parents after 9/11. It is often called an anti-war novel, and describes the effects of the civil war on the Nepali countryside that Drishya travels to.

The nine stories of this new book continue Samrat Upadhyay's journey from his earlier works and further explore the terrain where personal lives intersect with history. These are stories of ordinary people grappling with their individual turmoil even as a society's own turmoil impinges on their everyday lives.

I would rather find books such as the ones above. However, while contemporary Nepal has been writing in English for readers more close at hand than the usual audience, such stories are rarely on Amazon. The work of locating them or articles about them also becomes laborious as Google has ensured that it is a Himalayan climb for any who dare to seek outside its own lamplight.  

All I could find, to offer readers, even on Writer Rites when the theme was Nepal, was Four Nepali Short Stories. Wishing you happy reading, then, till we meet again.

On a more hopeful note, I note that Nepali novels are being shared around in audio format - a brave new way to bring literature to the people! 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Somerset Setting - Maugham's Magical Myths

A Somerset Maugham story often pulls a rabbit out of a hat. The hat is real. But what about the rabbit? Many myths begin with a tale. That twist in the tail, eventually, turns into a truth of sorts. This post peeks into Maugham's bag of tricks.

With the week's theme as travel, Maugham is very 
à propos as veteran voyager. Years back, as I set out for Malaysia, scenes from his stories, read long ago, flooded my mind. His body of works is voluminous, though! So we restrict ourselves to a small selection of stories involving the region.

Read Of Human Bondage, the elders said to me. Or The Moon and the Sixpence. But, for me, as for many, it was his short stories that did the trick.

Maugham is now old hat to many.  Yet, even today's reader will be delighted with the many tricks his stories have up their sleeves. With his magic wand, Maugham can make you jeer at a character, only to have that underdog emerge glowing in the end.  

His stories lay bare all manner of human foible in enchanting and merciless detail. But that talent is not all. He remains an exemplary and worthwhile writer because
He also sprinkles in many references to literature and the books he has read and authors he prefers.
When I visited Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, my mind was full of images from those stories. With open eyes, many myths from that groundwork were delightfully undone by the real people of the lands. Nevertheless, I enjoyed those places so much the more thanks to Maugham's vivid descriptions. 

In the stories of those regions, he weaves the myth of the colonials - European and American men and women who found themselves in the exotic East.

The following excerpts from Maugham's mythical Malaya will make things clearer:
He was fascinated by the ironic ways in which whites in Asia interacted with other whites whether it be a husband and his wife or a superior and his subordinate.
In his own words, these tales are about 
"the English people who live in the Malay Peninsula and in Borneo

Of the others, the 'natives', he proceeded, more or less, along the lines of existing prejudice. However, these 'colours' intervene only to hue the dramas of the others. 

The below piece on The Yellow Streak refers to such bias:  
He wrote about the dilemma of half-caste individuals and the prejudice heaped on them by full-blood whites. The "yellow streak" refers to native ancestry and in the famous story of the same name, the character Izzart blames his own cowardice on the streak of native blood in him and is taunted by his nemesis, Campion.
The story is, apparently, based on Maugham's own experience of drowning. And, it seems, he used this memory in other pieces. This is how a great writer weaves what is or was, to bring out a spanking new creation. Read for yourself - you might have to scroll this way or that to get to it:

A Request: The Internet Archive has a lot of his works. It is an excellent site with many superb writings. Please support it by donating - it will be good for your soul and for all humanity.

To return to Maugham and the myth of the yellow streak, in the words of the mighty Anthony Burgess, who has also written about the region: 
"(he) tended to regard them as mere colourful 'extras,' with no opportunity to star in the drama of Oriental life. The forefront of the stage was monopolised by the men who ruled these territories."
There's also the myth about the local ladies - mostly characterised as dangerously over-emotional in contrast to the 'civilised' other:
It would appear that Maugham's discourse is reducible to an obsession with interracial sex which almost always ends in degeneration and despair.One need only turn to "The Force of Circumstance" in which the husband takes a native common-law wife only to disown her when he returns from home leave with an English wife. 
Today's tourist, however, mostly chases the mythical magic of Somerset sundowners in those lands:
Be that as it may, who can forget the gin pahit (bitters), the stengah (local name for a stinger i.e. a whiskey and soda with ice) and leisurely tiffins of the Tuans and Mems who inhabit Maugham's Malay world.
Beyond the fading and dubious glory of old world bias, his use of local words will be handy if you travel thataway: 
Not to mention the picturesque backdrop of kampung, rubber estates, "dark-skinned little people in gay sarongs," chik-chaks (Malay for common house lizards, now spelt cicak), the European quarters and the ubiquitous white man's clubhouse where gossips and bridge games made up the order of the day.
Has Somerset Maugham promoted Malaysia more than Shahrukh Khan?
... the following advert testimonial was announced to introduce Malaysia as a site of destination: –
“When English author Somerset Maugham spun his tales about the fascinating and little-known Southeast Asian colony of Malaya, he invoked an era of tropical opulence, married to the intrigue and drama of hidebound British civil servants and expatriate planters living in paradise." 
 The blogger goes on to tell us that
Maugham also wrote several short stories on Malaya and Borneo, which he visited between 1922 to 1925, set out today in 5 volumes...
Each volume contains 10 or so short stories, spinning in each, fascinating tales of drama about British civil servants and expatriate planters living in Malaya at that time. It is said that many of Maugham’s narration is presented to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire.
Many a story is common to collections of Maugham's tales.

Though there may exist other works of his, related to the region, we limit ourselves to these few books and, in them, to a few stories about which we can share some information.

A fight for the upper hand between co-workers in the Malay jungle is the theme of The Outstation, one of the stories in the above anthology. 

Information was vital to Maugham in constructing his plots:
... an incident in 1911, an English wife of the V.I. acting headmaster, Mr. W. Proudlock, shot and murdered her expatriate-lover, and who she claims tried to rape her in the midst of a romantic dinner sojourn. It was later materialized, that Mrs Proudlock had shot her lover due to jealousy, as he had also kept a Chinese mistress.

Mrs Proudlock was charged with murder and sentenced to death on June 14, 1911 by Mr Justice Sercombe Smith in the High Court, Kuala Lumpur. But public opinion was sympathetic towards the lady, and petitions were organized for her amnesty, the result of which, the Sultan of Selangor granted Mrs Proudlock a free pardon.

The murder trial was a sensation and universal gossip throughout the length and breadth of the Malay Peninsula, news of which were extensively carried out in the Straits Times and Malay Mail. It is also generally believed that the tragedy which took place at the V.I. Headmaster’s house was the inspiration for Somerset Maugham’s The Letter ...
The Letter - Original Theatrical Trailer

Academics love to dissect the Maugham technique. In the spirit of unabashed inquiry, they can be as acerbic as Somerset. They are rarely as enchanting as Maugham but, if you can overlook that, here are some thoughts about the story in question that bring us back to the role of the female 'native' and other locals, in Maugham's bag of tricks: 
A case in point is the story entitled “The Letter,” a barely altered account of the actual murder of a Malay settler by his mistress after he left her for a native woman. ... One may even regret the fact that the promise of a colorfully cosmopolitan outlook made by the opening paragraph – set in the busy streets of Singapore, “the meeting-place of a hundred peoples ; and men of all colors, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis” (1) – is not kept by the narrative. Instead, the only two Oriental secondary characters that play a role in the plot never go beyond the stereotypical image of the sly, corrupt, poker-faced Chinese on the look-out for easy money.

The same essay also shows us how Maugham used existing views of the 'Orient' as mysterious and even malevolent:
At some point in most of these stories a quick reference to snake images is also used, but most interestingly in “Before the Party,” a story set in England and in which the horror of the protagonist’s Malayan murder is gradually impressed into the minds of her parents and sister, before they all set out for a clergyman’s garden party. Mrs. Skinner jumps into the corner of her sofa “as though she had been told that a snake lay curled up beside her” when it is revealed that Millicent cut her alcoholic husband’s throat with a parang, or short sword, similar to that which has been hanging like a framed painting over her couch for years, a gift from her deceased son-in-law. What Maugham stresses in this story is the morbid strength suddenly acquired by familiar exotic objects (like a Malay sword, a toque with egrets’ feathers or a wooden hornbill) when they are viewed in an unusual light. What Mrs. Skinner took to be mere knick-knacks or three dimensional images of the boring colonies – objects/images whose name she did not care to learn and whose power she felt to be neutralized by their new English context, though they did seem to her “a little odd and barbaric” – surprisingly spring to life and force her to examine the human and moral implications of the nation’s empire-building effort.
In P & O, the above themes recur - a man faces the consequences of ditching his local lady. Crimes of passion abound, as we have seen above for The Force of Circumstance. The power of the 'native' overpowers even in her or his absence.
But the best illustration of the inherent moral implications of imperialism is to be found in Maugham’s masterpiece, “P.O.,” in which a Malay woman casts a spell on the longtime companion who suddenly leaves her to start a new life in his native Ireland. Mrs. Hamlyn, a traveler on the same “Peninsular & Oriental” steamship and the story’s focalizer, becomes obsessed with an image that she creates of this Malay woman, sitting on the steps of her deserted bungalow – an image whose recurrence gives the story a striking cadence, as if the seduction then desertion of the Malay woman epitomized the evil that empires do. Though she boarded the ship in Japan and may never have visited the Federated Malay States, Mrs. Hamlyn’s own estrangement from her husband allows her to picture the scene of Gallagher’s departure quite vividly, both from an imaginary bird’s-eye view that allows her to mentally picture the Irishman’s complete drive from his bungalow to the station and from the Malay woman’s perspective.
The piece goes on to quote a paragraph from the story: 
Mrs. Hamlyn saw the bright and sunny road that ran through the rubber estates, with their trim green trees, carefully spaced, and their silence, and then wound its way up hill and down through the tangled jungle. The car raced on, driven by a reckless Malay, with its white passengers, past Malay houses that stood away from the road among the coconut trees, sequestered and taciturn, and through busy villages where the market-place was crowded with dark-skinned little people in gay sarongs. Then towards evening it reached the trim, modern town, with its clubs and its golf links, its well-ordered resthouse, its white people, and its railway station, from which the two men could take the train to Singapore. And the woman sat on the steps of the bungalow, empty till the new manager moved in, and watched the road down which the car had panted, watched the car as it sped on, and watched till at last it was lost in the shadow of the night.  
Images and the Colonial Experience in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Casuarina Tree (1926)

The story draws us into a miasma of superstitious dread, associated by the colonisers with the exotic orient that they are trying to control - as if that region echoes a darkness inside the 'civilised' human. The same article continues: 
The Malay woman’s spell and image, together with the unaccustomed vibrations coming from the ship’s forced engines, diversely affect them and refuse to “pass into each one’s unconsciousness,” as the narrator puts it, as if the community now found it impossible to repress its feelings of guilt and the disturbing images born of its colonial empire.
Find below a movie version of one of the stories set in Malaysia.

The Back of Beyond

With such enticing cover art, the two below, which have some of the stories discussed above, as well as others, will do nicely on or off a Kindle:

Somerset Maugham, the man, is himself a bit of a myth. He has played doctor and spy and, perhaps, more but the truth is that his writing is legendary! While he has written much else - novels, non-fiction, plays and, possibly, poetry - his short stories are absolute delights and, what is more, there are plenty of them. 

Pick any one of the anthologies above or anything else of his for an engrossing and entertaining travel read.  

Monday, March 12, 2018

When the Travel Bug gets the Bookworm

I grew up in a household of bookworms. We read at table and in the toilet. And on trains or planes. In the early years, when it was mostly my father who traveled, it was he who brought home at least one book per trip. Every time my daughter-in-law's father visits the couple, he leaves a book. The habitual traveler usually conforms to this pattern - one journey, one book.

A typical Indian railway station bookshop. By Abhishek727, via Wikimedia Commons

Airport and railway station book shops attract the book worm. The travel bug is more likely to get book worms than others. The reader cannot resist the book's siren-song - the call to adventure.

Bahrain International Airport (The Bookshop @BIA), via Wikimedia Commons

In Tolkien's fantasy, Legolas, the elf, is warned against the call of the seagull:

"Legolas Greenleaf long under the tree,
In joy thou hast lived,
Beware the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more

In the same way, once a person reads, there is a growing growling hunger in them to hit the road. Thus, many a book worm is bitten by the travel bug. The physical act of transit is now doubly enjoyed because books take us places in our minds and those retained narrative images reinforce the aesthetics of present perceptions.  For example, for me, all trips in lifts have become so very intense thanks to a passage in a Murakami. 

Be that as it may, I regard a traveler without a book with a jaundiced eye. While it is entertaining to watch some video on the smart phone, reading a book wins hands-down. If the question of the eye sight is a weighty matter as we age, the weight  of the book deters some, they complain. 

That is easily addressed with a reading app, a Kindle or clone.  However, if neither of those are concerns, it is a worthy habit to acquire a book at an airport or railway station. That brings us to your next question: what will you read?

Aha! I've already heartily recommended Paul Theroux as a safe bet. However, we can't all read him endlessly however prolific he may be and we need to refresh the palate frequently. Otherwise the being, a creature of habit, seizes the chance to stagnate into preferred reading patterns. 

To cut a long story short, it is better not to squander your travel reading time with familiar authors or genres. Use the time in transit to up the notch. Travel with a classic, an old master or a hefty new hand. 

Sometimes, one book is not enough. Depending on your speed of reading and the time at hand, you can embark on more than one. Where your habitual reading is fiction, venture on a best seller in non-fiction. Choose wisely, though and not just because it is a best seller. Avoid self-help soup for the soul - by any other name as well, they offer poor nutrition. 

Best bets for my next trip: 

Create a book list in your spare time and work through it during journeys. Keep a mix of fiction and non fiction and I would strongly suggest poetry too. 

With poetry, I would start with the collection below simply because it has some Arun Kolatkar and I die to have his Jejuri on a journey. This is for India.

However, it will depend on your destination. Every region has its poetry and it is wise to pick up a translation of some local poet or poets or, at worst, any poetry whatsoever about the area. 

Following such a pattern of reading, you will soon find yourself not only enjoying life much more but also being more successful in life and, most likely, even in your career or profession. 

In the subsequent post we tackle Somerset Maugham, a veteran travel writer whose prodigious output spans continents.