Monthly Archives: June 2011

The White Tiger

The White Tiger has been lounging on my desk for over two months now. Since Danica lent it to me, it has changed addresses twice: from her house to mine, from my parents’ house to my apartment. The book consists of ten letters dictated by Balram Halwai—self-proclaimed Thinking Man, social entrepreneur, murderer, eavesdropper extraordinaire. Addressed to the Premier of China, these messages contain Balram’s life story, a tale of an aberrant Indian servant who—by hook and by crook—rises above caste and class to become part of a new bourgeoisie.

Pages flipped quickly, but I didn’t feel invested in this story. Actually, I was more interested in the plot than in the characters. It’s not that Balram isn’t an intriguing enough fellow (or an engaging narrator, for that matter). It’s just that this novel isn’t about Balram, really. It’s about the system (otherwise known as the “Rooster Coop”), the social mechanism that chains a whole nation of Indian servants. Balram just happens to be the man Adiga chooses to tell this tale. “The face of half the men in India,” our protagonist says of his wanted poster.

Thinking Man, Balram calls himself. But as a driver, he spent nearly all his time coming up with plans to cheat his employer and eventually murder him. The system of slavery is bigger than both servant and master, but it’s so distressing that even with a relatively kind employer, Balram still had to murder just to have a fresh start in life. If the Rooster Coop is indeed India’s greatest brainchild, then it is a most horrible invention. Crime is the only way out, and only then if you’re willing to sacrifice your family.

Balram separates India according to Darkness and Light (the provinces versus the cities), but is there any real difference? In both areas, life hardly goes beyond material concerns. Even post-murder Balram knows that he cannot beat the system, so he merely positions himself where it is most advantageous. “We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.” Until the end, he asserts: “…it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.” Who can blame him? In a world where the man with the “biggest belly” wins, only one rule prevails: eat or be eaten.

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.

Here’s a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his foetus, but you know his corpse.

Anthills of the Savannah

I am not proud of this—and it’s something I try to remedy—but I am no political animal. I bought Anthills of the Savannah because it was on sale, and because it’s by Chinua Achebe. I didn’t know what it was about until I started reading it. The book opens with Chris, Commissioner for Information in a fictional West African country. But the point of view quickly (and frequently) changes to center around two other characters, both close to Chris: his childhood friend Ikem and his girlfriend Beatrice. Their stories create a narrative of their nation’s current affairs—a tumult of coups and suspensions and failed referendums. Our protagonists ride these troubles with relative safety; but when things escalate into a full-blown crisis, the three make a last scramble to keep their lives—and dignity—intact.

Although I refer to it as a narrative, Anthills of the Savannah offers not a straight story but a portrait of politics in Africa (and everywhere else)—with hints of delightful narrative to save it from the tragedy of tedium. In this book, characters go beyond interesting; they become alive. Through them, Achebe shows his knack for describing tiny personality quirks (best seen in the mechanics of group dialogue). Often, while reading, I caught myself wondering at the writer’s capacity for perception, how skillfully he infuses his text with real observations. All these contribute towards cultivating in the reader an unwavering faith in the heroes and heroines of this tale, even after their death. They make you believe and long for a happy ending (which the book does give, in a way).

Achebe also uses his characters as lenses through which the reader is made to perceive African politics. Admittedly, I at first found the book’s lack of structure confusing. The writer’s uncommon language, combined with shifting perspectives and a non-chronological arrangement—all this made the novel difficult to digest (one section exhibits an essay within a conversation within a flashback narrative). But I soon realized the deliberation behind this: it is precisely in this way that the novel chooses to present its subject matter, through mosaic, and—looking at the state of politics everywhere now—it has good reasons for doing so.

Full of wit, and rich, earthy wisdom, Anthills of the Savannah strikes with the force of a parable. Teeming with valuable insights, it leaves you sad and hungry for more.

‘Passion is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.’

‘…the most awful thing about power is not that it corrupts absolutely but that it makes people so utterly boring, so predictable and…just plain uninteresting.’

‘Free people may be alike everywhere in their freedom but the oppressed inhabit each their own peculiar hell.’

‘Man will surprise by his capacity for nobility as well as for villainy. No system can change that. It is built into the core of man’s free spirit.’

‘Contradictions if well understood and managed can spark off the fires of invention. Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity.’

While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.

‘What must a people do to appease an embittered history?’

Norwegian Wood (2010)

Gorgeous, heartbreaking, quietly stunning. I watched this in Mogwai with Mike last Thursday, at a time when it might have been the worst movie for me to see (I’m stubborn that way). When the opening credits started rolling, I thought: This is a mistake. But I went ahead with it anyway, and found out it wasn’t, after all.

Years after his best friend Kizuki commits suicide, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) again meets Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). Drawn together by their shared loss, the two fall in love and struggle to build a stable relationship. But as Naoko’s brokenness draws them farther apart, Toru finds it increasingly difficult to hold on, especially after Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) enters his life and leaves on it the mark of possibility.

What makes Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood different from other adaptations is its recognition of limits. It offers no pretentions, no comparison to the original. Here I am, it seems to say, make of me what you will. I read Haruki Murakami’s novel fairly recently, but while watching the film I seemed to forget the book almost entirely. The general plot remained the same, but seeing Norwegian Wood on screen proved to be a different experience altogether. Apart from the beginning I didn’t even think of comparing it to the book. It was just that different.

Norwegian Wood is a very quiet, very thin movie. Its lapses of silence invite the viewer to fill its spaces, saturate it with thoughts the movie itself provokes. At the same time it is extremely compact, chock-full of silent and verbal ruminations on life, love, death. It is a beautiful film, and not just beneath the surface. So many of its scenarios make the most gorgeous screenshots (its poster variations attest to this). However, other scenes remain debatable. At these points during the movie, I was crying shamelessly while other members of the audience were laughing. In Mike’s words: “There is a fine line between drama and absurdity.” True, true. I was partial to the movie, obviously, but even through the haze of bias I could see where they were coming from. Two scenes in particular could have been cut down a few seconds. Nonetheless, the histrionics still won me over, and for me the film deserves a place alongside the novel: it is different, but equally tender, equally heartbreaking.

‘To me, it seems, people should get stuck between 18 and 19.’

Nothing can heal us from losing a loved person. Not truth, not sincerity, not strength, not kindness. All that we can do is to live while hugging this tragedy. And learn that no other new loss will be any less painful.

Voices of a Distant Star (2003)

Twenty minutes is a short time for anything, especially for a movie. But Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star shows how much you can do within those few minutes. The movie opens with a lonely Mikako struggling to come to terms with life’s consequences. The year is 2047, and she has just finished middle school. Earth has begun a war against an alien race called Tarsians, and the UN Space Army has drafted this fifteen-year-old girl for their forces. And so Mikako leaves everything behind—high school, ordinary life, her friend Noboru. Even after the UN spacecraft heads off to outer space, the two continue communicating through email; but as Mikako drifts farther away from Earth, their messages take longer to reach each other, eventually spanning years and possibly a lifetime.

This movie reminds me so much of Shinkai’s other film, 5 Centimeters per Second. Similarities encompass theme and technique: both films tackle the topic of distance in relationships, and both rely heavily on atmosphere to set the mood. More specific overlaps also occur, like the many train scenes in the middle and the synchronized soliloquys at the end. I liked 5 Centimeters per Second a lot more though, perhaps because I watched it first, and also because it’s much longer. Plus I noticed an abuse of weather-correlatives in Voices of a Distant Star (not sure about 5 Centimeters per Second, but at least I didn’t notice it then). On Earth as in distant planets, always, one of these is falling: rain, cherry blossoms, snow, shafts of sunlight. Despite this, I still felt teary-eyed by the end. Maybe I’m just a sucker for these kinds of films, but there it is. I found the movie’s outer space aspect a fitting representation of the various kinds of distance that plague relationships. When things stretch beyond our control, all we can do is hope. “We are far, far, very, very far apart, but it might be that thoughts can overcome time and distance.” This, this is infinitely sad.

The time between Mikako and I drifts further and further apart. That is why I have made a goal, to make my heart harder, colder and stronger.