Monday, February 12, 2018

On Albert Camus

"Each time a writer writes, he puts a little of his soul into his work.
As his work grows, a spectator is allowed a peek inside his mind.
It is kaleidoscopic. Shards of glass seen in white light. 
Bedazzling! So the reader must be careful, 
Shield his eyes from time to time. 
As he goes about writing, in some he puts a little of his spirit, 
In others he dips these shards into hues 
Of other peoples reality and personality, 
Thus giving us a reflection of his heart, 
And inadvertently a picture of the life and times 
Of which he is an inextricable part. 
And this is how he stands at the center of it all, 
A witness and narrator, 
Retelling our stories, critiquing, romanticizing life and art.

Anchal Sharma

Courtesy: Ehnemark, Jan via Wikimedia Commons

A beautiful line comes to my mind as I think of this. 

"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." 
-Albert Camus

I don’t think that I would be able to go on here without mentioning Camus and his contribution to literature and philosophy.

Born into a poverty stricken pied noir family with a cat named Cigarette, the professional quirk of writing while standing, and Jean-Paul Sartre as a friend turned lifelong rival, Albert Camus was the second youngest person and the first African born writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for his work "Reflexions sur la Guillotine" (Reflections on the Guillotine) against capital punishment.

There is no teacher like Life, because she lives with you from the moment of your inception until your dying breath. “You cannot create experience, you must undergo it”, he said once and so Life taught him much. It was a different world then where people led strange lives during a difficult war time.  And so, Camus wrote much about human frailties, exposed the internal working of man’s psyche, and became a firm proponent of the concept of ‘Absurdism’ which finds speech in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus’.

Armed with naked language that needed no support of extravagant words, and thoughts stripped away of all superfluity, Albert Camus was a writer whose works till date are an exposè on the veritable ramblings and musings of a common man.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Under The Jaguar Sun

Book: Under the Jaguar Sun (Sotto il sole giaguaro)
Author: Italo Calvino
Translated by: William Weaver
First Published: 1986 by Garzanti Editore, English translation copyright in 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
No. of Pages: 86
Genre: Speculative fiction, fiction

Under the Jaguar Sun is a collection of three short stories: Under the Jaguar Sun, A King Listens, and The Name, The Nose by the Italian author and journalist Italo Calvino. An exploration of the senses, the tales delve into a world of flavors, sounds, and fragrances. Each story is an exquisite journey, thoughtfully crafted with a powerful language so engrossing that the moment you start reading it, you are caught up in a web of vivid imagery.

It was in 1972 that Calvino began working on a book about the five senses. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1985. By that time, he could complete only three stories. As a note at the end of the book, Calvino’s wife Esther tells us that had Calvino lived, the book would have transformed into something different, and he would have provided a frame and structure to the stories, and added the “missing senses”. She tells us that before he succumbed to his illness, Calvino was thinking about the importance of the frame and wrote:

“Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls-and somehow stands for-everything that remains out of the picture.”

Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, Translated by William Weaver

The titular story “Under the Jaguar Sun was first published as “The Jaguar Sun” in the New Yorker (English translation copyright 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). On the surface, it is a story of a couple vacationing in Mexico. On a deeper level, it is a rich gustatory exploration that reconnects a husband and wife going through a relationship that seems to have lost all flavor, all taste. There are three areas of the couple’s trip that the writer has woven brilliantly into this tale: experiencing the bold and exotic Mexican cuisine, exploring the ancient temples and excavations at Monte Alban where they learn about human sacrifices and cannibalistic elements in the Aztec and Olmec culture, and last but not the least how the narrator and his wife Olivia’s experiences on the outside impact the dynamics of their strained monotonous relationship.

For both the characters, the trip has significant value. This vacation acts as a bridge that brings them together. Unlike her husband who at first seems apathetic, and the kind of fellow who goes along with the flow, Olivia, is interested in observing the history manifested in the art and architecture of the country. For her the trip is much about reveling in the profusion of taste, and being in complete communion with the extremely hot Mexican food, new to her palate. This is perhaps her way of communicating with her husband and trying to involve him in how she feels. Olivia is not at all shy when it comes to vocalizing her wants. There is a point in the story where she complains,

“You’re always sunk into yourself, unable to participate in what’s going on around you, unable to put yourself out for another, never a flash of enthusiasm on your own, always ready to cast a pall on anybody else’s, depressing, indifferent—Insipid”

To this the husband replies, “I may seem insipid to you, but there are ranges of flavor more discreet and restrained than that of red peppers. There are subtle tastes that one must know how to perceive.”

This conversation clearly shows the presence of a void, a missing element at this stage in their marriage. They are both unsatisfied and are looking for something to satiate their hunger. As we progress, we find a note of self-awareness and sexual tension that is very well interspersed with the savoring of the gustatory sensations. As the couple try the traditional delicacies like tamal de elote, chiles en nogada, ''wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender,'' guajolote con mole poblano “turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce”, the narrator realizes that his wife wants his complicity in shared emotions, showing he was indeed indispensable to her. It heartens him to know that by the very act of eating, she is sharing all of her with him, and he starts noticing her more and more. He reflects,

''I realized my gaze was resting not on her eyes but on her teeth . . . which I happened to be seeing for the first time not as the radiant glow of a smile but as the instruments most suited to their purpose: to be dug into flesh, to sever it, tear it.''

Later, as they explore the Monte Alban, the site of the ruins of ancient Olmec, Zapotec, and the Mixtec civilizations, the guide informs them that these temples and ancient ruins were once the sacred platforms where human sacrifice rituals were practiced. The sacrificial meat would then be offered to the gods. But it is obvious that the food would not be consumed by the stone statues, and was left for the vultures to devour. This arouses Olivia’s interest and she questions the guide about the fate of the leftover meal, that surely not all the meat would be consumed by the scavengers alone. She wonders how the high priests would consume the “ritual meal” of the willing human sacrifices. She asks another guide back at their hotel, if the priests used any special seasoning to mask or perhaps enhance the flavor of the human meat. The guide defers the question saying that the lives of the priests was shrouded in mystery and they left no instructions for the sacred cuisine.

The narrator (later as they eat) makes a note:

''I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines… The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body.''

The next day, they leave Oaxaca, and see a stone statue that catches their attention: A little chacmool (half reclining human figure) with a tray on his belly. This statue with the tray represents the utter reciprocity of a victim willing to sacrifice himself to the gods, offering them his heart. Basically, you eat and you are eaten. We are all part of this universal cannibalism.

This makes the husband discern something important:

“Meanwhile I understood: my mistake with Olivia was to consider myself eaten by her, whereas I should be myself (I always had been) the one who ate her. The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh. It was only by feeding ravenously on Olivia that I would cease being tasteless to her palate.”

As the narrator becomes more mindful of his wife, and opens himself to the experience of the food, the spell of monotony is broken. He realises that only by completely surrendering himself could he gain her whole self. So, when they taste the gorditas pellizcadas con manteca, ''plump girls pinched with butter'', they go back to their hotel room and for the first time during their trip satisfy their sexual appetite.

The story concludes with some food for thought when the narrator feeling completely as ease under the Mexican sun and in tune with newly kindled palate, observes:

“…our teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’- serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated  ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies and sopa de frijoles, huachinango a la vera cruzana, and enchiladas.”

A King Listens

As far as literary masterpieces go, this short story takes its place rightfully among the best. My favorite of the three, A King Listens is an intense ride into the mind of a tyrant who now that he is king is besieged by fears and paranoia of retaining his usurped powers. From the very first line we get the picture of a king troubled about his scepter, worried about the position of his forearm on the chair, and petrified of holding his head in any but an immobile way so that the gold filigree and diamond studded crown doesn’t fall off his head in case he happens to doze off or let his chin sink. Even though everything is under his control, he is plagued by anxieties.

“If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you lose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? Perhaps someone who resembles you, identical to you. Go ahead then and try to prove you are the king, not he! A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.”

The captor becomes the prisoner, and soon feels caged in the palace of his dreams. It is difficult to pass time in a place where everything moves like clockwork in a preordained manner established by you. Sitting on the throne, his sense of hearing becomes acute. He listens to the sounds and the silences, the slamming of a door, a stifled cry, he listens to the spies posted by him behind every curtain, and frets about secret whispers and conspiracies being hatched to dethrone him while he empties his treasury paying that very staff.

Brilliantly written, it reveals the insecurities of a ruler. The palace becomes a symbol of his body sending him signals and messages which he receives with fear and apprehension. He believes there is always danger lurking in some part even when everything moves as it is should. Every now and then, he hears a sound— the sound of somebody knocking at a door perhaps. 

He wonders if it is a prisoner trying to establish a dialogue with him. He knocks on the wall and hears a sound in response. Terrors gnaws at him, and the “formless reverberations” turn his imagination into a living nightmare. Paranoid, he tries to ascribe every rap or knock with some meaning.

“Your Majesty…we… your loyal subjects…will foil all plots…long life”
“Bastard dog usurper…vengeance…you will be overthrown…”
“The coffin… your coffin... I will emerge from this coffin…and you will enter it…buried alive…”

He tries not to get tormented by these interpretations, and thinks of the city stretched out in the night, rumbling at the bottom of his ear. He rationalizes,

“It is within you that the ghosts acquire voices.”

And then he hears a love song carried by the breeze through some open window. He becomes drawn to the woman’s unique and inimitable voice, and deliberates if he would want to summon her to his court to hear the throbbing of her throat. His imagination runs rampant to no end. Trapped in the palatial maze of sounds, drawing one conjecture after another, we see the metamorphosis of the captor into a fugitive, and his descendance into a captive. By the end, the identities blur, and it is a treat to read Weaver’s translation of how the monarch fails to reckon if he is a king or a prisoner.

 “The night is all breathing. A low wind has risen as if from the grass. The crickets never stop, on all sides. If you isolate one sound from another, it seems to burst forth suddenly, very distinct; but it was also there before, hidden among the other sounds.

You also were there, before. And now? You could not answer. You do not know which of these breaths is yours. You no longer know how to listen. There is no longer anyone listening to anyone else. Only the night listens to itself.”

The Name, The Nose

The Name, The Nose (Il Nome, Il Naso) was first published in Antaeus (English Translation copyright 1976 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). Shortest of the three tales, it focuses on the olfactory sense.

“When the olfactory alphabet, which made them so many words in a precious lexicon, is forgotten, perfumes will be left speechless, inarticulate, illegible.”

This story has three characters: a French man named Monsieur de Saint Caliste, a prehistoric man, and a musician. Written in three parallel narratives, the characters chase the scent of a female that’s completely taken hold of their senses. In their quest to find the one captivating scent, all three find that the odor they had been searching for was in fact Death itself.

“I go from one skin to another, hunting for that lost skin that isn’t like any other skin.”

Though at par with the other two in terms of its linguistic flair, it definitely lacks the kaleidoscopic insight into the king’s psyche in A King Listens, and the raw flavor of Under the Jaguar Sun.

I give it 7/10.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Prophet

Book: The Prophet 
Author: Kahlil Gibran
First Published: 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf
No. of Pages: 107
Genre: Prose Poetry

I believe that the greatest gift a man can give to his fellow beings is the unadulterated joy that his work is. 11 years it took the Lebanese American Gibran to craft 'The Prophet': A perennial classic, with millions of copies sold worldwide. It has never been out of print since the first time it got published in 1923To string together such beautiful pearls out of the sea of our consciousness requires a conscientious spirit working in God's realm. This book is a teacher who guides one to the threshold of his/her own mind. It does not tell you the destination, but shows you the way. It teaches you to discover and find meaning in the very ordinary and mundane.
Here’s what I think:

"Though words are needed to communicate, they can never perhaps give expression to the delights of a liberated soul.
For a spirit that knows how to soar, needs not the crutches words are.
For words render feelings bound, contained and defined;
Yet my heart feels a gladness that his very words gave wings to my own thoughts, which rose in humility to acknowledge the elegant design, simple truth and beauty of life."

My copy of the Prophet

The Prophet, masterfully fashioned in Gibran’s prose-poetry style, comprises twenty-eight chapters. A rich poetic concoction of allegory and metaphors, this wholesome soup for the soul conveys his musings through a prophet named Almustafa. The protagonist of the story, Almustafa has spent 12 years in the city called Orphalese. As he prepares to embark on the voyage back home to the city of his birth, he is met by people at the city gates. The people of Orphalese leave their work in the vineyards and gather around Almustafa to ask him what lies between birth and death. Almustafa’s answers to the common men and women of Orphalese have been transcribed in 26 of these chapters. These ruminations are a journey in themselves because they cover so many aspects of life such as love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. From my personal experience, every time I read it, I understand it a bit more. Suffice it to say that it is a book for all ages.

Here are some of my favourite verses from The Prophet:

On Marriage 

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of Love. Let it be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow."

On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

On Giving

You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

On Joy & Sorrow
·         Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
·         The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

·         Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. 

    On Reason and Passion:
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

On Pain:  
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun,
So must you know pain.
Every word was a joy and every sentence a knowledge that was always there. The Prophet is a work of pure love, is a way of life, and teaches one many things, the most important of all:

On Religion:  

"Your daily Life is your Temple and your Religion.
When you enter into it, take with you your all."

Last Chapter:
"And what is word knowledge but a shadow of wordless knowledge?
Your thoughts and my words are waves from a sealed memory that keeps records of our yesterdays,
And of the ancient days when the Earth knew not us nor herself,
And of nights when Earth was upwrought with confusion."

A Weary Wanderer Seeking Rest,
A hungry Spirit Finding Food,
A Treat for the Eyes,
A Feast for the Soul...
his book is a celebration of so much and more. 

I give it 9.5/10
And, I am closing this review with my thoughts about the creator of this literary masterpiece.

To Kahlil, With Love…

Courtesy: Simon Howden  

If I could meet you,
I’d stand before you and say nothing.
Words won’t do a thing.
But if I remembered in future having loved you in the past,
I’d stand in future,
Someday, I’d stand naked in front of you to say nothing,
Hoping you’d know what I wish to convey,
Because we've been fashioned from the same clay of the one you like to call ‘Unseen’.
When that blessed silence would enclose us,
Your heart would resonate with mine,
And you’d know that I love you…
That I have always loved you, ever since I saw your picture in your work.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Life in France

Book: My Life in France 
Author: Julia Child, Alex Prud'Homme
First Published: 2006 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
No. of Pages: 317
Genre: Autobiography (Hardcover Edition), Non Fiction, Memoir, Biography

There comes a moment in everyone’s life, that defining magical moment when you realize who you were always meant to be. Such a moment is very precious and must be carefully held, never to let go; and Julia Child never did let go, not for a moment, from the time she docked at Le Havre, France on a Wednesday morning, on November 3, 1948 till she passed away in 2004. And so, "My Life in France", is just that: An enchanting memoir of that magical moment and her subsequent years in France where she became besotted with French food and found her “true purpose and vocation” in life.

My life in France takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey of a 6'2" thirty six year old loud and unserious Californian." As we read, we see an American woman trying to carve a place for herself in the beautiful Parisian landscape all the while learning, blossoming, and transforming from a secretary to a happy housewife whose sole aim in life becomes to cook well and to write a cookbook. 

My Life in France by Julia Child, Alex Prud'homme

The book is essentially divided into two parts containing four and five segments respectively. The first part gives us a vivid picture of Julias’s life in La Belle France (which is also the name of the first chapter). The other three chapters include Le Cordon Bleu, Three Hearty Eaters, and Bouillabaisse a´ la Marseillaise.

While introducing the book she says, “I was lucky to marry Paul. He was a great inspiration, his enthusiasm about wine and food helped to shape my tastes, and his encouragement saw me through discouraging moments. I would never have had my career without Paul Child.” This speaks volumes about the love, warmth, and affection that Julia and Paul’s marriage had. This little note of acknowledgement shows how a supportive partner can really bring out the best in you. For Julia, it was her husband who brought her to France (Paul Child worked for the US Information Service in the visual presentation department and spent over 5 years in France,) encouraged her to follow her newfound passion for cooking, and take it to the next level.

Reaching France, Paul and Julia first looked for a place to eat. With a Guide Michelin they were directed to an establishment called Restaurant La Couronne (“The Crown”), built in 1345 in a medieval quarter-timbered house. Julia recalls that Paul strode ahead full of anticipation, but she hung back, concerned “I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.”

Julia’s first experience of Sole Meuniere at La Couronne which she describes as a “morsel of perfection” was actually “the moment” that defined her course of life as a celebrity chef and writer.

Julia says,

“In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French good is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn't use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture--a gummy beef Wellington, say. But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.

Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.”

From here on Julia shows single minded focus on learning how to cook well. After settling at 81 Ru de l’Universite, she enrolls in a professional restaurateur’s course under Chef Max Bugnard. Her struggles become very real as she competes with her fellow course-mates and tries one recipe after another at home. The book is dotted with some lovely reminiscences where she introspects and makes observations about herself. There is a particularly lovely paragraph where she comments about her own self:  

“Upon reflection, I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which cause me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, 'scientific' though. I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.”

The second segment of the memoir focuses on Julia’s life years at her new home at 3 Steubenring, Plittersdorf, Germany and subsequently in the United States. The chapters are titled French Recipes for American Cooks, Mastering the Art, Son of Mastering, The French Chef in France, and From Child’s Kitchen.

The book in itself is very well composed indeed. I do not believe there is any aspect of Julia’s life that has been left untouched. Though spanning a mere 317 pages (which also include beautiful black and whites captured by Paul) it is a testament to a woman who worked hard enthusiastically perfecting recipes and writing them down for all. This book also gives us a picture of the wonderful friendship she shared with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle with whom she co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Some of the best lines from My Life in France:

  • “You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made,' Chef Bugnard said, 'Even after you eat it, it stays with you - always.”
  • “I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me...," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed -- eh bien, tant pis! Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile -- and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “The German birds didn't taste as good as their French cousins, nor did the frozen Dutch chickens we bought in the local supermarkets. The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine-looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside of a teddy bear.”
  • “I discovered that when one follows the artist's eye one sees unexpected treasures in so many seemingly ordinary scenes.”

One thing that this book will definitely give you is the sense and feel of a different kind of time, when life in general just moved slowly and people spent quality time balancing both professional and personal life. This makes me realize something simple: We go through life never realizing that we are the ones who give meaning and pace to time.

I believe that you don’t go through life, you take it along with you. And looking at Julia’s life you can see how she veered hers into a tour de force of celebration. As I think about the book and think about Julia, I cannot help but feel immense happiness in having found an ordinary yet extraordinary person who made sure she spent every day doing something she loved to do. Such a simple thing really, yet a feat truly remarkable!

I give this book 8/10