Thus Spake KJ

Composed of binaries and never ending contradictions, intensely moody, stubborn, firefighter, genius manque, identity hunter on the prowl for stimuli, occasionally given to verbal diarrhoea

Monday, March 27, 2006

Why the colour of FEMINISM is PURPLE

Reviewing The Color Purple, is a little like interviewing a celebrity. The reputation of the person precedes the person himself, leaving the interviewer nervous with anticipation. A thousand questions rush through your head, you keep second guessing and there is a considerable loss of your cognitive-conative abilities. Reading and reviewing the highly acclaimed and lauded The Color Purple has been an experience akin to the above. My heart is in my mouth as I write this, but I decide to take the plunge anyway.

Ok, what is the book about? At an overt level, the story of Celie, a black American girl in the South (where racism, by the way, is still extant). The introduction plunges you straight into Celie's life and the violence that she goes through, every single living day. Strangely, the violence being spoken about is not perpetrated by another community. Instead, it comes from within the community, indeed from within her home. Thirteen year old Celie, is raped repeatedly, by the man she calls 'father'; she even bears him two children who are cruelly taken away from her. Leading a life of utter drudgery and depravity, her cage is exchanged for another, when she is married off to a man, years older than her, who fancies her younger sister, Nettie. Incidentally, her husband, referred throughout the book as Mr. - (my guess is, this is an authorial stroke to derecognise the man, who derecognises all the women in his life. Or perchance, by not naming him till the very end, the author tries to paint every man with the same brush), agrees to marry Celie, only because a cow would be a part of her dowry. Celie's life seems to be a vicious circle of drudgery, derocgnition and disrespect until she meets her husband's part time mistress, Shug Avery. Shug Avery is representative of all that Celie isn't. Beautiful and talented, Shug Avery, in every sense a liberated woman, lives life by her own rules. After the initial friction, Shug Avery gives Celie the much required push, to take the reins of her life in her own hands. Eventually, Celie discovers the power of her own spirit, which liberates her from the shackles of her past and helps her reunite with her beloved family.

Yet the book is not the story of Celie. It gradually and seamlessly moves from the personal to the political. From the personal tragedy of Celie, the book marks a transition to the state of mankind in general. The book makes several damning statements in one go – against racism, against the status of women in general, against insularity and intense xenophobia and suspicion of one community for the 'other' (real or imagined).

The novel also marks a reclamation of African history. It attempts to, and successfully attempts to, contextualise black history right from the days of slave trade to the abolition of slavery in America. And minus all the glorification. Celie then, becomes a transcriber, a medium as well as a tool to accomplish this.

Where doe the merits of the book lie? In the reconstruction of Celie's world. The style is a first person account, through letters to God. The language, the grammar and the enunciation, is typical of an uneducated black American girl from the South. Yet the sheer simplicity of the directness is heart rending. The act of writing becomes both a revelation and a cathartic experience – for both Alice Walker as well as Celie.

The book also made out into a movie, has been lauded the world over by feminists, and places Walker amongst an illustrious array of black American women authors like Toni Morrisson and bell hooks. Surprisingly, the feminism of the book does not lie in the portrayal of the victimisation and brutalisation of Celie. It lies in the strength and never-say-die spirit of the other female characters in the book. In the power that Shug Avery wields over all the men in the book. In the almost militant individualism of Celie's step daughter-in-law, Sofia. In Nettie's stoic refusal to buckle under the pressure in the wilderness of Africa. It lies in all of this and the lesbian relationship between Shug Avery and Celie – probably the only relationship in the entire novel to have been formed out of love.

On hindsight, it is easy to say that some books are meant to be written. But some books just write themselves. Alice Walker, 'author and medium', of The Color Purple couldn't agree more.


Few books blow your mind away. Many others disappoint thoroughly. And then there are the middle-of-the-road ones that neither shock you out of your seats nor leave you entirely disgusted at having spent precious time on something entirely worthless. Anita Nair's Mistress belongs to the last category. The "searing new novel about art and adultery…" is decidedly impressive. But literary tour de force, it is not.

The novel brings into play, several themes apart from art and adultery. Issues of rooted ness and rootless ness, the orientalisation of Kerala, the excitement of new found love and the ennui of conventional relationships, the squalor and ugliness of life, abuse, dashed hopes, dark family secrets haunting you later in life…everything an Indian writer in English, worth her/his salt, must talk about. At a superficial level it is one man's (Chris) search for his true paternity, which makes him seek out Koman, illustrious Kathakali dancer and Radha's uncle. Chris comes to Kerala on the pretext of writing a travel book, which will include the life story of Koman, hoping that in the course of his story, Koman will reveal himself to be Chris' father. Radha and Chris are soon besotted with each other and embark on a torrid love affair, much to the grimace of Shyam, Radha's husband. As Chris draws out Uncle's life story, he spins one of his own, with Radha and Shyam in tow. Their lives spin so out of control, that in the end the only way, Radha can bring some semblance of order into her life, is by taking flight, while Shyam is put out to pasture.

Issues of identity and self definition remain uppermost in the novel. For Koman, whose mother's Muslim past is at odds with his father's Hindu present, the only way to define himself is through his art. Not surprisingly, he can be himself only when he is playing someone else. Radha on the other hand, prefers to fashion herself as the wronged one. Her perennial self victimization leads her to constantly wallow in her self pity. She keeps blundering from one thing to the other, sometimes playing the socialist wife-of-the-master for her husband's workers, to the dutiful housewife, in the process failing miserably. Even her affair with Chris, seems less like a "shrugging off of ennui" and more like an attempt to validate her existence. Shyam, though comfortable with his sometimes boorish and unapologetically materialistic behaviour, never quite fits into Radha's upper class hoity toity world. Just the way, Saadiya, Koman's mother, can never fit into Sethu's part Hindu, part Christian world, away from her cloistered Muslim existence. So much so, that death seems to be the only escape from her identity neurosis. Chris too like his mother Angela before him comes to India, to 'discover' himself and his identity.

However, the most important theme that the novel dwells on is the idea of art, and its importance in the contemporary world. Is the value of art, indeed of the artist itself, measurable in terms awards and recognition? Is art an escape from reality and a way to accord one selfhood? The book doesn't stop here. It goes ahead and questions the elitism associated with art. Through the figure of Aashan, Koman's teacher, Nair damns the aura of exclusivity and inscrutability that artists tend to build around themselves. Nair subtly offers a justification for the commercialization of art. It is indeed impossible for an artist to cling to his art's purity on an empty stomach. She also, simultaneously, indicts fake connoisseurs, for whom art is the surest way to get a picture on page three, as well as those who think that art appreciation is the preserve of the intelligentsia, who have nothing to do with the material world.

Nair tells her story wonderfully well. The story begins in medias res. And unfolds slowly. The text has multiple narrators, apart from the omniscient one, each of whom reveal themselves infinitely more than the characters in their story. The technique is reminiscent of Tagore's Ghare Baire where there is interplay of several narratorial voices. Each chapter in the book is preceded by a discursive piece on one of the Rasas, from the Navarasas. Each of the Rasas is indicative of what is to follow in the chapter.

Disappointments? There are a few including the characterization of Chris. The blurb sets your expectations differently and leads you to believe that the narrative is about Chris. It is just we don't see enough of him. And whatever little we do, he reveals himself to be a one-dimensional cardboard figure. Nair's language too falters in places. Phrases like "her flame fanned her fire" makes you wonder if you are reading a two bit Mills and Boon novel. One also wishes Nair had dwelt a little more on her central theme.

Last word about the title. Nair exploits the metaphor of "mistress" very well. At the superficial level, the novel is full of enough illicit relationships to justify the title, yet the real relationship is between Koman and his art. Even though, the narrative says, at one instance, that "art is indeed, a jealous mistress", it validates just the opposite – that the artist in fact, the mistress of her/his art.


Gacela del amore desperado

the night does not wish to come
so that you can not come
and i can not go
but you will come
with your tongue burnt by the salt rain.
the day does not wish to come
so that you can not come
and i can not come
and i can not go
but i will come
thru the muddy waters of darkness.
neither night nor day wishes to come
so that i may die for you
and you
die for me.