For the past month or so, I have been quite busy. I wanted to write about a lot of things but ended up missing them. So, here I am trying to pen them down, in no particular order.
The Madras I had ignored: August is the month of Madras. If there is an ideal month to visit this southern coastal city, it is August. The city turned 377. There were several events lined up. I happened to attend a session called Houses of Mylapore based on L’s suggestion. We had met at a spoken word poetry event. She had invited me to be a part of this unique program where a group of architecture students from the city would explore the architecture of the houses in Mylapore. We often convince ourselves that we pretend to know the city we live in for a considerably long time until we venture to discover things we have failed to notice. There were about forty of us on an early Sunday morning. We started with an individual house constructed somewhere in the 1930s. The house with a curved motif and a hexagonal balcony seemed heavily influenced by Portuguese architecture. I wish I could delve on this longer for I would have to speak about the Burma teakwood or the Mangalore brick tiles or the Art Decko font style but for now, they shall stay in my diary. But there were a few things to take away from that event. I came to understand how the Indian architecture was more influenced by being open-faced and welcoming than European architecture, which was more self-centered and closed. Unlike what others presume, Mylapore isn’t a Filter kaapi preferring – The Hindu reading – TamBrahm community either. Muslims and Jains have lived peacefully over centuries. On the other hand, I also realized how architecture is essential in preserving the cultural history of a city. In a few months or a few years from now, most of these ‘old’ houses would be gone. Unfortunately, not many seem to care about it. How can a city cut ties with its past? Where would the memories of a city be preserved? Photographs are merely a way of escapism. Shouldn’t we look beyond religious places of worship to keep the ‘old’ Madras intact?For raising awareness and provoking questions we have failed to ask, I loved the session.
Taking control of my Phone: I happened to meet my online friends in Bangalore back in July. We have known each other for more than a year now but never had the chance to meet. We had fun (the kind of fun that ought to be better preserved in the treasure chest of memories). But S, a dear friend of mine, mentioned that I spent a lot of time checking my phone. And so, I have had it at the back of my mind to restrict my phone usage. There were other reasons too. Most notably when I noticed a disturbing pattern that has always been existent but one which I consciously admitted to myself just recently, as kind of misleading. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, there was a news item doing the rounds that when P V Sindhu won the silver, Indians were googling for her caste. I understand that my country is caste-sensitive and no matter how hard filmmakers like Nagraj Manjule and Pa. Ranjith try to fight the caste oppression through their films, the problem is not going to run away soon. Later, my friend M pointed out to me a blog which said that the news item was false. Now, why does the media think it can ‘handle’ the truth? Why does it have to take sides and create divisions? To top it all, the conversations on social media clearly polarized Indians. On the other hand, the Facebook and Twitter feeds are such that a sensitive issue being reported in the media is followed by a meme targeting a section of the society.
One fine day in August, I found this wonderful photo on the Internet and decided to pull the plug. We have been tuned to focus on the unimportant and inessential things in life that we seemed to have misplaced our priorities. I am reminded of a dialogue from Richard Linklater’s 2014 Oscar nominated coming-of-age drama Boyhood. Mason Evans Jr. is driving with his girlfriend, who is frequently checking the phone. He gets annoyed after a few minutes and they have an argument where he tells, ‘I finally figured it out. It’s like when they realized it was gonna be too expensive to actually build cyborgs and robots. I mean, the costs of that were impossible. They decided to just let humans turn themselves into robots. That’s what’s going on right now. I mean, why not? They’re billions of us just laying around, not really doing anything. We don’t cost anything. We’re even pretty good at self-maintenance and reproducing constantly. And as it turns out, we’re already biologically programmed for our little cyborg upgrades. I read this thing the other day about how When you hear that ding on your inbox, you get like a dopamine rush in your brain. It’s like we’re being chemically rewarded for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. How evil is that? We’re fucked.’ Come to think of it! Social networks have been operating like sugar companies. Now, Facebook has come up with a Live Video feature on its mobile app. Mark Zuckerberg wants you to share more intimate details from your life. He wants you to be more open. Seriously Mark? Therefore, I wiped my mobile clean of all the social media apps. I still use Social Media but would rather control my use rather than have it dictating terms.
Some new hobbies: It has been a long time since I played Chess and so, I actually bought a Chess board. I only watch TV for Wimbledon and Cricket. Occasionally, I give company for my parents when they watch comedy scenes during our family time. Now, I pulled my dad into playing Chess with me instead. We are trying to play it every night and schedule it into our daily routine. I have also taken a liking to Podcasts. I realized that I will never get to read all the interesting books out there. So if you are unable to read books, listen to interesting people discuss ideas instead. I downloaded this wonderful app called Pocket Casts which is all of just 99 Rupees. And once you download, you get to listen to any Podcast of your choice. My favourite ones so far being:-
Design Matters with Debbie Millman — It is a wonderful podcast where she talks to writers, artists, educators and change agents on their work and ideas. I happened to love her podcast with philosopher Alain de Botton on his books on Love and his philosophy.
The Frame — This podcast is hosted by longtime LA film writer John Horn who talks to the people from the Hollywood Universe, art, and music. The reason why I have come to like his podcasts are because they are more centred towards the profession/arts.
Scriptnotes — Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss screenwriting and related topics in the film and television industry, right from the writing to topics like copyrights. If you are a screenwriter or even a writer, this is a podcast you must definitely listen to!
The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins — I have been following Jeff Goins on Medium and read his articles on writing regularly. I have tried to put into practice his words of advice for writers. In this podcast, he helps you in trying to make a difference with your art. He engages in conversation with interesting people from different walks of life. While this may sound like a boring self-help talk, Jeff Goins at least doesn’t take a boring approach to it and makes us feel inspired. here are many more interesting ones to listen to
I find that listening to podcasts as a liberating and enriching experience. I generally listen to it right after I wake up or after work. It makes me feel inspired as there is always a thing or two inspiring to take away from. A 16-minute podcast of John Horn with Amy Adams at the Telluride Film Festival where she was awarded for her body of work taught me how theater played an important role in making her self-dependent and how she goes methodically preparing for her role. There are many more interesting ones to listen to and I am trying to unearth some really good finds. Will post about that in my next post.
But for now, I shall have to make time for my Podcast Hour and solitude! 🙂
The boy looked at the people praying in front of an idol at a temple. He didn’t understand why men would worship a stone sculpture. Being a kid who was yet to be schooled the limitations of dreams, he asked his father repeatedly ‘Who is God?’. Since they were expected to be silent, his father pointed towards the idol. But the boy continued asking the question. The father was annoyed and just as he was about to hit him, the priest stepped out and said, ‘Little man. Listen! Whoever catches the flame in a jar is God.’ The boy went insane. He stopped from school. He stopped playing with friends his age. When they asked him why he was carrying a glass jar always, he only told them one thing — that he was trying to catch the flame in a jar. One day, the other kids marked him. They pelted stones at him because they felt he had been possessed by a devil. The boy ran away, tugging the glass jar to his chest. Soon, the elders came to know and the feudal lord called for his father. The feudal lord said, ‘There is no room for lunatics here. I shall call the vicar and he shall drive the devil away from your son’. The father nodded in agony. The vicar took chilli powder and rubbed the boy’s eyes. The boy didn’t cry in pain. But his voice grew louder. ‘I shall catch the flame in a jar for I am God.’ The vicar then took a knife and cut a cross on the boy’s head. He bled profusely. His mother began to wail and the other women tried consoling her. His father began to mutter prayers. The vicar continued to cure the boy from the illness. Finally, after many hours, the boy collapsed. His body was placed on the funeral pyre and long after he had turned to ashes, people started thronging to the little town. Right on the place where he was burnt to ashes, they found a glass jar with its lid closed. But that was not a strange sight. Strange was the flame burning in it. They thought it was magic but the moment the jar was taken away from the place, the flame would die. The moment it was taken back to where it was found, people could see the flame. And so, they let the jar be. Soon, they began circumambulating the place. A temple was built around it. People began to worship the boy who caught the flame in a jar.
Kabali is probably my favourite movie of Rajinikanth in a longwhile. Yes, his age shows. His dialogue delivery falters. But the earnestness in his eyes have remained the same. The film has been quite divisive. Yes, the movie doesn’t appear to be convincing but I am glad that it was made. To label it as a political statement by Pa. Ranjith would be misleading. Here we have a film maker who gets an opportunity at a young age to direct Rajinikanth and he makes a film that focuses on the Tamils in Malaysia (the immigrants who have been made to feel like minorities). But, there is no doubting the movie’s relevance. The Afro-American community have been facing the same issues in USA. But this write-up is not going to be about that. It is about Rajinikanth, the Superstar.
I could not help thinking about Birdman. The movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s had won the Director an Oscar apart from winning the Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards last year. The movie is about an ageing movie star, Riggan Thomson played by Michael Keaton who tries to reinvent himself as an actor by returning to Broadway with a play. Understanding Birdman is essential in appreciating Rajinikanth and Kabali. There is so much of hatred flowing from certain quarters, especially from the pseudo-intellectuals or rather, intellectual clowns who are quite cynical about Rajinikanth and condemn everything about him — his acting, fame and reach.
The Creativity Conundrum
I loved Rajinikanth in Kabali because it was a detour from his usual. There were no stereotypical Rajinisms. It made me think fondly of the Rajini before Basha happened. Just like how as Kabali, he tells a man from his rival gang that he has come back strong after twenty-five years Rajini too had returned to his Thalapathy form.
Coming to Birdman, the movie educates on the finer aspects of creativity — the significance of value, the critics assigning value to the work and the finer differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In case if you haven’t seen Birdman yet, I am summarizing it here for you: Riggan Thomson is struggling, both personally and professionally. He has separated from his wife, Sylvia because he confused ‘love with admiration’. He is certainly past his superhero days of Birdman. He had acted in 3 movies and declined to do a fourth film. He doesn’t want to do another Birdman film because that is what fans and even his alter-ego wants. Thomson wants to challenge his creative self and hence, decides to enter a domain where he is literally a nobody: Theatre. A domain which has a critical audience and hence, success is not guaranteed.
Creative minds constantly face this creativity conundrum phase just before they begin another project: should I stay in my comfort zone and deliver what my fans/followers want? or should I make myself happy? This separates Rajinikanth from Kamal Hassan. Rajinikanth’s Thalapathi and Kamal Hassan’s Guna clashed on Diwali in 1991. Since then, Rajinikanth has largely stayed in his comfort zone while Kamal has experimented.
Therefore you see, it is not easy as it seems. Let me explain why:-
Creative minds are always thinking about creating something ‘new’ and ‘valuable’. Creating something ‘new’ is the easy part. You just have to do something that has not been done before. Pa Ranjith’s earlier film Madras had metaphorically touched upon a lot of issues, the most important being how caste is being toyed with by political parties for serving their own needs. Madras was refreshing. The audience connected with it. This is the tough part. The ‘valuable’. Because, value to a work of creation is assigned by the audience. No creative mind can dictate their terms there. Once you have created something and let it out, the product belongs to the audience.
But the ‘new’ and ‘value’ do not match all the times. When you have been consistently doing a kind of work and then, deviate from what you have been doing, your audience is not going to accept because they hate change. In Riggan Thomson’s case, the audience wants him to do Birdman 4. In Rajinikanth’s case, they want him to do a Rajini film filled with Rajini-isms (Annamalai, Basha, Padayappa). Rajini was a Star earlier too but the films that followed Thalapathy have seen him doing familiar roles and has further accentuated his stay at the peak added with his continued relevance despite crossing the Indian retirement age of sixty-five. The audience has been able to accept Amitabh Bachchan or Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino playing character roles but in the case of Rajini, the audience has simply been unable to picture their star playing character roles.
Forget character roles, the audience seems divided upon Kabali because it doesn’t have Rajini-isms.
Anurag Kashyap’s latest film paints a vivid portrait of a serial killer. The opening title cards establish the connection with the notorious serial killer of the 1960s: Raman Raghav, who had left a trail of 41 murders behind him and immediately affirms that this movie is not about him. The story revolves around two men, the serial killer Ramanna (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and the cop Raghuvendra Singh Ubbi (Vicky Kaushal).
It is not a chess game where Ramanna and Raghuvendra try to outwit each other. Both are puppets in the hands of temper and self-interest. At a later stage in the movie, Ramanna tells as to how much he enjoys the act of killing just like he likes to eat and sleep. Raghuvendra, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to commit a crime as he is part of the system. Killings happen and they act more as points in a journey of the two men as they get closer to each other. Kashyap splits the evil into two equally insane halves and from then on, it becomes more of an attempt for each of them to be complete.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ramanna is easily one of the most chilling portrayals of a serial killer we have seen on screen. Ramanna loves wearing sunglasses, loves observing airplanes (he keeps count of them), maintains a record of people he killed and at times, moves around wearing his sister’s earrings. His eyes sparkle when he talks about his philosophy. He nonchalantly talks about how he believes Yama, God of Death, speaks to him. That is how he gets to pick people for his acts of killing. He believes that hiding behind the cloak of law or religion to commit isn’t as pure as killing for the sake of it. He enjoys and revels in it. Vicky Kaushal excels as the reckless, drugs addicted cop, Raghuvendra Singh Ubbi. Raghuvendra is a monster courting insanity with his frequent mood swings, accentuated by loss of drugs, makes him commit heinous acts of crime. Being born and brought up in a patriarchal society, they are both victims of it. Ramanna loathes his sister. On the other hand, Raghuvendra uses women for his sexual cravings. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the women meet the meatiest of blows.
What captivates and keeps you engaged is the way the story pans out. It is divided into eight chapters, reminding one of Tarantino films. Jay Oza’s cinematography – the film is mostly shot in the slums of Mumbai along with Ram Sampath’s background score and songs (especially Behooda which has been placed well by Anurag Kashyap) make this a compelling watch and provide a wholesome cinematic experience.
There are a few scenes that shall remain in your memory for a long time. Like how Ramanna surrenders to the cops, confesses to his crimes only to be let off by the Police owing to their collective disbelief. There is an extended sequence where Ramanna prepares himself a chicken curry in between gruesome killings where Kashyap keeps you guessing whether a six-year-old boy would land up as his next victim or not. But the most riveting scene of the movie comes where a couple is slaughtered to death in a slum and Ramanna casually feeds milk to a crying baby that truly emphasises on his unpredictable nature.
Raman Raghav 2.0 is a compelling narrative, an engrossing thriller that keeps you guessing and above all, a captivating study of two characters.
If you can work and not rant about it on Medium,
If you can have food at a restaurant and not burp on Zomato,
If you can travel and not post pics on Instagram,
If you can speak only when needed to on WhatsApp,
If you can think and not post your thoughts on Twitter,
If you can live every moment to the fullest and not let Facebook sync with your life,
You would become worth searching for on Google and may be graced with a page on Wikipedia.
‘Thithi’ is the kind of film I love for the memories it evokes. I am reminded of the short story, A Horse and Two Goats by R K Narayan. No one captures the irony of a human life in a rural setting like R K Narayan does. I am also reminded of the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray. What if the two men were alive today and set out to make a film but wanted to have fun along the way by experimenting with the rawness an Indian rural life evokes to colour its contours.
That is precisely what Director Raam Reddy and Writer Eregowda have done with Thithi. It is no way an exaggeration. We have seen wonderful movies set in rural heartlands in the past. But what truly sets Thithi from the rest is the casting and the place. Nearly all the actors in the movie are from the village with no prior acting experience and the story was developed keeping the ethos of the village in mind, improved upon by the passage of time. The final film that we got to see is what got developed in the editor room. As Indian cinema turns more urban-centred, to create a film in the village suiting to its character, then attempt to capture the nativity of the village and keep its rawness intact is an achievement.
The story is about how three generations of men in a family react to the death of the cantankerous ‘Century Gowda’, the 101-year-old family patriarch. There is this good-hearted but uncouth ‘Gadappa’, son of Century Gowda, who is detached from the world and doesn’t want to remain at a place. There is a reason behind it which is narrated by him to a group of sheepherders later in the story. Thammanna, the grandson, is materialistic and is interested only in the agricultural farmlands inherited by his father from Century Gowda. He wants to clear his debts by selling them but is unable to make his father transfer the same to his name. Abhi, the great-grandson, is tasting the colorful days of his youth in his unashamedly relentless pursuit of a shepherd girl. Instead of being preachy and philosophical. The three stories converge on the 11th day of Century Gowda’s funeral, Thithi.
Raam Reddy lets the characters speak for themselves lending more credence to the narrative. The sounds of the village come alive. It is so good to see a movie without background score and instead make the audience appreciate the aural texture of Nodekkapalu village in Mandya district. Even the cacophonous bleating of goats and the village band sound music to the ears.
Easily one of the finest Indian movies I have seen. No wonder why #AnuragKashyap rated it as one of the three recent Indian movies that he wished had directed along with Vetrimaaran‘s Visaaranai and Nagraj Manjule‘s Sairat. Kudos to the writer Eregowda for weaving a narrative out of his village and to the Director Raam Reddy for giving it a celluloid form. Cinematography by Doron Tempert, Sound Designing by Nithin Lucus and Editing by John Zimmerman deserve full credit for their efforts.
Erotica is a genre that is rarely experimented by Indian writers in English. For the average Indian reader, erotica and pornography are similar. And hence, Indians have been quite skeptical in their approach towards books that have delved on erotica. They fail to understand the key difference between the two genres being that in erotica, the author takes charge of the narrative. But things are slowly changing for the good. Credit goes to the shabbily written but popular book, Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. This meant that Indian writers in English could finally experiment with Erotica because it was finally selling.
When Rosalyn D’Mello, a widely published freelance art writer, decided to pen a book on the female body, she was skeptical because of the reactions it could draw from people, especially her family. She was pursuing her MA in English Literature at JNU then and put forth her doubts to her professor.”If you are going to worry about what your parents are going to say, you have no business writing,” he told her. She had initially intended to write a fictional erotica and it was only her publisher who convinced her to write a non-fiction/erotica genre. (Source: Mid Day)
I have been following Rosalyn D’Mello’s articles for The Open magazine. One particular article (Stripped to the Core) caught my attention. This is where the author advocates the reader to engage with the writer while reading the book by highlighting/penciling portions. It led me to several things I loved and therefore when I came to know that her debut book, A Handbook for my lover was out, I decided to read it immediately. I was intrigued to know that this book was a non-fiction/erotica, a genre rarely experimented by an Indian lady writer. The book was to be launched in Chennai on May 15th at Amethyst Cafe and the hard copy that I ordered from Amazon landed on May 12th. I wanted to finish before heading to the book launch as I had never done such a thing before and I managed to do it this, just in the nick of time.
The book is a documentation of the writer’s relationship with an established photographer thirty years older to her. As she constructs his image in the reader’s mind by dissecting him completely, she delves deeper to discover her unexplored parts. Her allusions to Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, Kamala Das, Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya, Alfred Stieglitz, Alain Botton, Roland Barthes, Anne Carson and French philosopher Jacques Derrida are fascinating. I loved how feminism runs throughout the novel without being preachy and she has approached topics considered taboo in Indian contexts such as masturbation, menstruation, open sexual relationships and live-in relationships with confidence and nonchalance. She dispels the myth of beauty associated with fair skin. She isn’t too self-critical and yet allows the reader to judge her through her deeds and relationships with others. There is a music and positivity to her language that makes the reader actively engaged throughout. I cherished reading the book immensely. When I finished reading it, I wanted to read it all over again.
I am producing a few quotes here from the book which I had duly penciled (the quotes follow the respective chapter headings) :-
‘To strip you must first wear your sins like clothes.’
‘To strip you must contend with shame. you must learn to make too much of dust.
Take your time with revelation. Too much, too soon, and the epiphany of naked flesh will be irrevocably lost.
Stripping is a function of movement. Do not unravel in chronological order. Do not be distracted by time. Do not worry about sequence.’
‘To strip is to confess. To lay bare. To expose yourself to a pair of possibly unforgiving eyes. There is no beginning and no obvious end. Beneath the veneer of clothes is not just the naked body but a universe of skin and scars, and the memory of touch.’
If only you’d left me your keys…
‘If an archaeologist were to survey these ruins, he’d have to bring in a collegium of scholars and carbon-dating machines. I wonder if they’d find what I’ve found, remnants of your heart beating wildly with a rhythm that hasn’t yet lost its pace, despite your cynicism, despite your bitterness. A smouldering bit of bloody flesh that refuses to rot, refuses to ash, a thing of terrible beauty, immense and glorious, full of depth and soul. Unbroken still.’
The ‘M’ Word
‘Words are aphrodisiacs. They evoke the smell and feel of the substance they suggest. They tempt and lure with their promise of tangible things, and of worlds outside of my reach. They inflict me with lust, they fill me with want. Words become substitutes for your touch.
Hell is a world bereft of words.’
‘Sometimes I make love to silence. To elusive, wordless sounds; the interstices between raindrops, or typewriter keys, the pauses in lyrical refrains, the soft gasps of breath between syllables, the lines buried between lines, the vacant silence of vacant hallways, the imagined solitude of abandoned cities, the second-long break between the flapping of bird wings, the hush that follows after bells have tolled, the loneliness of crumpled sheets, the wordlessness of the mute, the grand echoes of mountain passes, the curled silence between the ebbing and flowing of tides, the wisdom of angels and the aftermath of their delirious, choral songs. To these and more, I come.’
Still lost in the book hangover. It was great catching up with her at the book launch. I hope to re-read this wonderful book all over again.
Nearly a couple of decades ago, my parents broke the news that we were to shift to a newcity. I hated it. We were in Chennai backthen. My schoolhadjustended. I wasenjoying my summervacation with friends. I don’t remember much of what happened that summer but what I do remember is, I promised that I would keep in touch with this friend of mine through letters. This was the late 1990s. Smartphones and socialnetworkswereyet to find a way into our dailylives. Not many Indian homesevenhadtelephones.
I havealwayslovedwritingletters. While writingletters, we areoblivious to the world around us. There is no worry as to how the otherperson would judge us by the textual narratives. There is no need to worry about typos. Fingersholding the pen aretrustworthycompanions over auto-suggestive keyboards. There is no need to rush. The recipient at the otherendisnotevenaware that you arethinking of him or her and therefore, the interaction would nottake a detour owing to interruptions from the otherend. When the postmanhands over the letter, the recipient is all the more surprised and holds it asdearly as one would a thoughtfulgift. It isdelightful to acknowledge that there exists a person who considers you special to share their thoughts or experiences. We cherish such people in our hearts and the bondgetsstrengthened. This is the reason why handwritten lettersaresaid to comestraight from the heart.
As we moved to emails, socialnetworks and instant messaging, peoplelost their interest in writing handwritten letters. Why wait patiently when you can stayconstantlyconnected with your friend(s)?
But what hastrulybeenlostis the art of communication and delayedgratification. We live in the age of impulsiveactions and reactions. There was a charm in patiently waiting for the response from your friend. Today, we look at the blueticks and the last seen status to see if the friendship/relationship isworth our attention.
Socialnetworks and Instant Messaging Apps havealsotakenaway the mystery quotient involved with a longlostfriend. Since we areconstantlyconnected to our smartphones, the probability of losing our touch with friendshasreduced. Therefore, we don’t get to hearstories of how our friendsmoved on from a heartbreaking relationship or foundlove or sacrificedsocialgatherings to focus and achieve a purposefilledgoal. Facebook Timelines areenough to show you snippets. Where is the fun in that?
Socialnetworkshavemade us obsessive in our craving for attention. We no longer possess the desire to ‘exclusively’share our travel experiences with our friends. We want the world to know what is happening in our lives. We click ‘selfies’ wherever we go and post on Social Networks. We photograph everything but look at nothing. Sigh. That calls for a separate blog post.
A couple of months ago, I happened to write a reallylong handwritten letter to my friend. I went to the extent of telling my friend that there wouldn’t be any interactions on socialnetworks or instant messaging apps till the letterwaswritten and posted. When I completed the letter, it was twelve A4 pages long. The enriching experience left me longing to write more such handwritten letters.
For now, I shall plug in my earphones, listen to the mellifluous voice of Karen Carpenter singing ‘Please Mr. Postman’ and embrace good old memories.
Fictional biography of a Russian Composer who had to compromise his art under state coercion.
Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln was a good movie but it was too long to make you want to re-watch it. I saw the movie in a nearly vacant theatre. One particular scene has refused to fade away from memory. It was where the visually convincing Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln explains the Greek mathematician Euclid’s first common notion, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” Lincoln was, of course, trying to drive home the point that all men are equal. This was 1864. The Northern and Southern States were locked in a Civil War.
But the question that precedes this scene is the one that has intrigued and shall, I believe, continue to intrigue me. Lincoln asks the young stenographer,
“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?”
Julian Barnes returns to fiction after his 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. The book, The Noise of Time, borrows its title from the memoirs of Osip Mandelstam. The poet, Mandelstam was one of the fiercest critics of Stalin. During the Great Purge of the Great Terror, he was arrested and sent into exile. He died in a Vladivostok transit camp in 1938.
The subject of The Noise of Time, Dmitri Shostakovich was not like Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam was courageous enough to stand by what he believed. He never compromised his art. Shostakovich, on the other hand, was coerced into submission by the authorities of Stalin’s regime and yet, his music found a way to flourish.Julian Barnes tries to understand an enigmatic genius.
The book, narrated from a close third person observer’s point of view, follows a triptych structure with each part beginning on a leap year and divided by twelve years each.
The first part – On the Landing begins in the year 1936. It was the time of the Great Terror. Julian Barnes narrates this in a cinematic noir fashion. Dmitri Shostakovich is standing by the lift, with a case resting on his calf, waiting to be taken away to the Big House where he would meet Zakrevsky. He had never heard back from his friends who had gone there.
“All he knew was that this was the worst time.
He had been standing by the lift for three hours. He was on his fifth cigarette, and his mind was skittering.”
An incriminating editorial on Pravda criticising his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” appears “with enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one whose mistakes could never be corrected.” The opera that had been applauded everywhere in the previous two years from New York to Cleveland, from Sweden to Argentina was now criticised because it was ‘non-political and confusing’, and because it ‘tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.’
Shostakovich, therefore, anxiously waits for his first “Conversation with Power” – an interrogation by NKVD which could result in exile or worse, death.
Julian Barnes writes, ‘Why he wondered, had Power now turned its attention to music, and to him? Power had always been more interested in the word than the note: writers, not composers, had been proclaimed the engineers of human souls. Writers were condemned on page one of Pravda, composers on page three. Two pages apart. And yet it was not nothing: it could make the difference between death and life.The engineers of human souls: a chilly, mechanistic phrase. And yet…what was the artist’s business with, if not the human soul? Unless an artist wanted to be merely decorative, or merely a lapdog of the rich and powerful.’
His close association with Marshal Tukhachevsky wouldn’t help his cause either. The Great Purge had already taken away Tukhachevsky and Shostakovich was supposed to recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Stalin.
Death seemed inevitable. ‘His name and his music would be obliterated. Not only would he not exist, he would never have existed. He had been a mistake, swiftly corrected; a face in a photograph that went missing the next time the photograph was printed.’
However, luck was on his side. Zakrevsky himself had fallen under suspicion, interrogated and then, arrested.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, approved by Stalin’s musicologists, is premiered in November 1937 in the Hall of Leningrad Philharmonic. The instant and universal success of his Fifth Symphony was duly analysed by the Party bureaucrats and tame musicologists. They came with an ‘official’ description of the work by calling it ‘an optimistic tragedy’. Dmitri Shostakovich had escaped from the Great Terror but his life under Stalin’s reign had just begun.
The second – On the Plane begins after World War II, in the year 1948. He has returned into the good books of the State after the tremendous success of his “Leningrad” Symphony. Shostakovich has his second conversation with Power, a telephone call with Stalin. Shostakovich leaves for the US on a propaganda tour where he delivers the speeches in “muttered monotone” to make it clear that he is performing the duty of the State. These speeches are filled with criticisms on him and his works, mainly the works of Stravinsky, the composer he admires most.
After one such talk, he is further embarrassed by the question posed by Nicolas Nabokov (the first cousin of the famous Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov), under pay by the CIA. He is coerced to reiterate his endorsement of Zhdanov, the man “who had persecuted him since 1936, who had banned him and derided him and threatened him, who had compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber”.
The third and final section – In the Car begins with Shostakovich in the back of a chauffeur-driven car. It is 1960. Stalin had died years ago and in his place was Nikita Khrushchev. Things were not going to be darker, as they were before. However, things were worse still.
‘All he knew was that this was the worst time of all.
The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time when you were most in danger. This was something he hadn’t understood before.’
He had now become a hunchback “morally, spiritually.”
‘Before, there was death; now, there was life. Before, men shat in their pants; now, they were allowed to disagree. Before, there were orders; now, there were suggestions. So his Conversations with Power became, without him at first recognising it, more dangerous to the soul. Before, they had tested the extent of his courage; now, they tested the extent of his cowardice.’
Here comes his final conversation with Power. One that would make Shostakovich realise that he had committed the greatest mistake of his life — he had lived too long. The unctuous functionary tries to force Shostakovich to head the Russian Federation Union of Composers.
He takes comfort in reciting to himself ‘Career’, a poem by Evtushenko,
‘which described how lives are led beneath the shadow of Power:
In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist
Was no more stupid than Galileo.
He was well aware that the Earth revolved,
But he also had a large family to feed.
It was a poem about conscience and endurance:
But time has a way of demonstrating
The most stubborn are the most intelligent.
Was that true? He could never quite decide. The poem ended by marking the difference between ambition and artistic truthfulness:
I shall therefore pursue my career
By trying to not pursue one.’
Shostakovich then commits the greatest mistake of his life. He agrees to head the Russian Federation Union of Composers.
‘Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits.’
Shostakovich finally comes to terms with himself — that he was a Coward. He comforts himself in the ‘pleasures of irony’.
‘But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment — when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change — which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.’
He betrays himself later as he signs public letters denouncing the great writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, although he admired the novelist and reread his works often.
‘Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by its tail; his head banged against every step.’
He patiently awaits his death for it ‘would liberate his music: liberate from life itself.’
Julian Barnes is a writer who constantly experiments his style. ‘The Noise of Time’ doesn’t quite disturb you in the way ‘The Sense of an Ending’ did. The latter ended like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony fortissimo, and in the major. The former ends it pianissimo and in the minor. This is a masterpiece in its own right.
There are two wonderful scenes that I shall cherish from the book.
One is where Shostakovich asked a girl student, ‘Whom does art belong to?’. Behind him, there was a huge banner of Lenin with a quote written in capital letters, “Art belongs to the People”. The girl failed to notice and doesn’t answer. Shostakovich tried to help her with a suggestion, ‘Well, what did Lenin say?’ but she failed to locate the answer. In his opinion, she had done well. In his later years, reflecting on this incident, he felt ‘Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.’
The other scene is subtle. In his Moscow apartment, there were two pendulum clocks that struck at the same moment. They were made to. His daughter, Galya would be in the dining room holding back the pendulum with one finger while he would be doing the same to the pendulum clock on his study. They would release the pendulums when the time signal sounded. ‘He found such orderliness a regular pleasure.’ Later, he had once visited Cambridge, in England, as the guest of a former British Ambassador in Moscow. The family there too had two pendulum clocks. But, they wouldn’t chime together. When Shostakovich offered to adjust them, the family would politely refuse his offer saying that they preferred the two clocks striking separately. In that way, if you missed the first one, the other would confirm the time. This had no doubt irked him.’ He wanted things to chime together. This was his fundamental nature.’
Unfortunately, for Shostakovich, what he desired from life and what he received from life were completely at odds. You want to know more about his failed love affairs and marriages. You want to know more about the lives of other artists — from the poet Anna Akhmatova to composer Sergei Prokofiev. But this is about Shostakovich, his music and Power’s relationship with them. The Power of its time would try to silence his music. But his music would silence the noise of time.