Wednesday, 20 June 2012

the one with the mulfi

The one with the mulfi

As monsoon lashes against the Kerala coast, and rains creep up the sub-continent following their usual trail, I decide that I too in my fashion must address the Indian obsession with the mango. Clichéd it is, of course; bordering on oral fixation, true; but, well, cultures perhaps owe it to themselves somewhat to live up to their stereotypes, especially if said stereotypes were first generated-for and subsequently were seen-through-and-analyzed-as-thus-by goras.
Ergo, the mango.
Or rather, if we were to go with the flow, the magical mangoes from Dharamtallah, which played a critical role in pushing me from one side of the blogosphere (foodporn-viewing) to the other (foodporn-contributing or whatever). But long before these magical mangoes, came the train journeys to Howrah, at the end of the summer holidays. So that is where the story really begins.
Every June, when Mummy would return to Calcutta from the glorious environs of what is now Jharkhand, she would be accompanied, alongside a scrawny child (me), by several baskets bursting with fresh vegetables and fruits, several gunny sacks full of rice grown on my grandfather’s land, several bags stuffed with local delicacies – I remember a particularly delicious home-made snack called jhilkut – and several canvas thailas full of sundry other items that, like the rest, were far superior to any Bengal produce, sweetened as they were by the quaint properties of the Jharkhand water-table. I might be exaggerating slightly – but that, more or less, was the general picture. Co-travellers were no problem. They were won over with mountains of food that my grandmother would pack as though for a troop of soldiers going to Siachen, and if I remember correctly, some of them even went home with a few goody bags of choice vegetables.
My father, who is somewhat of a posh sort, would be most annoyed at the spectacle we presented at Howrah. But he would have no choice but to stuff it all into our creaky fiat premier padmini.
                These days, when I return from Calcutta, my mother clamouringly packs a massive quantity of stuff for us. Mostly I put up with it. Believe me, it is far easier to just go with it than explain otherwise to her. Earlier this month, for instance, I ended up paying through my nose at the excess baggage counter. But yes, the five kilos of gobindo bhog rice she had packed was comforting; it is, after all, supremely expensive in Delhi. 70 rupees a kilo! (No, no, don’t do the math. Apparently, the excess baggage does not count; she has even offered to return it to me.) And the magical himsagar mangoes of Dharamtallah do not even fall into this category: they cannot be had in Delhi for love or money.  The spouse was not amused.
                With the last of the above mangoes, I decide, extremely uncharacteristically I’ll have you know, to do something special. Mango kulfi did seem appropriate, but I was faced with a couple of problems: I had neither my usual recipe (that had been twice tried, with mixed results) nor kulfi moulds. The consequences of moving in and out of cities with random casualness – one part of one’s worldly baggage is always elsewhere.
However, my Julie Sahni classic cookbook – Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery – suggested that muffin moulds might just as easily be used, a possibility that appealed for its sheer quirkiness. And Julie Sahni’s recipe, you would have guessed from all the tautology, was a classic. So there was no need for condensed milk, evaporated milk, cornflour, milk powder or even whipping cream. One only needed a litre of regular milk (I acquired two packets of full-cream from Mother Dairy) and a dash of nutmeg powder, preferably freshly grated, and some sugar. The mangoes, you would recall, I already had.
In the traditional mode, I sliced off the tops and soaked them in water for half an hour.                

According to Sahni, “It is the slow cooking of the milk that imparts that distinct characteristic rabadi aroma only classic kulfi has. Also, because the milk mixture is frozen without being churned, the kulfi develops a special grainy texture not unlike that of Middle Eastern halwa, something between ice-cream and sherbet.”
Luckily, electricity in my Council House-ish kitchen is subsidized, so I could guiltlessly thicken the milk slowly, on my non-traditional induction cooker. Simmering the litre after it reached boiling point, and continuously stirring it (well, okay, one is ideally supposed to stir it constantly – I did my best) I achieved a rather aromatic slightly-coddled creamy-texture result, sweetened slightly. To that was added the mango puree, the dash of nutmeg, and subsequently, in clingfilm-lined muffin moulds, it was frozen inside generous aluminium foil packets.
It was delicious, even if I say so myself. The mulfi.  

                I’m including the recipe in case you wish to attempt it.
Aam Kulfi
(Adapted from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery (1999). London: Grub Street, 2003. P.428)
1 litre/1 ¾ pints milk
4 tablespoons sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg: one-eighth of a teaspoon
250 ml mango pulp

1. Bring the milk to boil over high heat, stirring constantly to make sure no skin forms (as that shall deter evaporation). Subsequently, lower the temperature to medium and cook the milk, gently bubbling and boiling, until it is reduced to 400 ml. Stir often so the milk does not stick or burn. Add the sugar and cool thoroughly.
2. Fold in the nutmeg and mango pulp.
3. Pour into kulfi moulds (or, at a pinch, muffin tins lined with cling-film and covered with aluminium foil) and freeze.
4. Unfreeze and devour.

Notes: As someone with no culinary sense of proportions I did splash the thickened milk around in my measuring cup once or twice in between to check if it was thickened enough. Though it’s a bit of a dangerous process, I would recommend it.
                It is important to keep stirring regularly if not continuously. The last time I’d attempted it, the milk for the kulfi had got slightly burnt – and though my Russian gourmet-cook friend, the unfortunate one sampling it, said making it “smoky” was a good French twist – it is a situation that is not easily rectifiable.
                It tastes far superior (at least to my untrained palate) to the recipes that use condensed milk, evaporated milk, cornflour, whipping cream  etc.
                Finally, point 4 does not take from Sahni’s book. But works pretty well.

the one with late reminiscences of summer

Unfortunately, as one who is still working on a manuscript that was to have been completed and submitted last year (or was it the year before?), I cannot really complain about the heat in Delhi. If anything, it is forcing me to remain indoors, undistracted by the pleasures of gallivanting here or there and get my ass moving on what is, with ironical aptness, called “The Heat and Dust Project”.  
                The afternoons outside our tiny flat are filled with the solid quiet intense white-heat that stands like a handsome asura, the guardian of the Delhi summer; the neighbourhood dogs rush about busily in the sun with a frenzy that is part sexual. There is a water booth for them where they mill around at lunchtime, bossing over the thirsty mynas who wait patiently in queue; and then, suddenly, they vanish. To sleep beneath the green benches, stretch under limpid shadows by the mini-forests that intervene our campus.  But dusk is long and lazy and by the time the dogs are roused and heard barking again, the four neem trees outside our Council Housish block – where the Cornell-red brick façade has been leached to a dull gentle redwood by the years in extreme temperatures –  the four neem trees that cast their shadows on our walls go shee shee shee.

                Sometimes in the late afternoon, there is a lull when the sky seems to darken. The peacocks call out to each other. The neem trees sway their branches madly in the wind.
But mostly one is disappointed – there comes but a brief spell of rain.

When I was a girl my mother and aunts would assemble at my grandparents’ country house in Jharkhand for the summer holidays. In hindsight I know those were probably the happiest holidays possible for a child, though at the time I used to be extremely jealous of my quintessentially Bengali friends who, ably carrying the mantle of Bengal’s famed wanderlust, went on fancy holidays to exotic locations. My Bihari (now Jharkhandi) parents, au contraire, would pine for the smell of the reddish lands they had grown up in, the unique green of its landscape, the sweetness of its water.
My days on holiday would begin with homework (in that matter, my mother combined the worst of Bengali and Bihari strictures) and a glass of fresh cow’s milk. I hated both with passion. But then, after a while, I would be let off – and then I would spend the entire day roaming in the sun with my holiday best-friends, local girls who knew every nook and cranny of the valley behind the house that led to a large pond and then, further away, to hills. But we were not allowed to venture that far, to any place really interesting.  So we would walk about aimlessly, laugh and gossip, collect small ripe mangoes in handkerchiefs, bite them at the top, and then suck the juice. We would visit neighbours. We would laze. I would lose all my citifications and relax into bliss.
                After a few days, my usual impulse of over-reaching would rear its head, and my friends and I would decide we should stage an entertainment for the benefit of our families and sundry others – mostly my grandfather’s tribal friends, associates and lackeys – who might want to drop by. I would usually be the director. My friend Jyoti would be the chief star. If my youngest aunt’s daughter was visiting too, then there would most definitely be another rival director. The stage would be the inside red verandah of the house that led to the yard. The audience would sit in the yard, the actors would grace the verandah, my grandmother’s best bedsheets would be the curtains, and my eldest cousin R’s tape recorder would provide filler music. (The songs from “Phir Teri Kaahaani Yaad Aayi” were the rage one summer I remember.) The local bank manager’s wife was the guest of honour. There was a play (my piece de resistance), some Bollywood dancing (Jyoti’s piece de resistance) and some Rabindra nritya (the rival director’s piece de resistance).
                And then the summer holidays would end and we would travel all evening to take the train from Ranchi at night, eat luchi and potato curry in our compartments, and in the morning, reach Howrah almost alongside the monsoon. My heart would expand slightly at the sight of the gracious red buildings of Howrah station, and my father waiting for us.

 These days I realize what it was that made summer so special those years. For summer was about my mother and aunts becoming girls again, at their parents’, a peculiar condition that I cannot explain – but which I always slip into myself when I visit my Mum. But there was something about the voice, the step, the telling of sorrows, the discussing of futures, the unique mix of tensions and joy. It has been long since I have been able to fashion that long languorous sense of happiness out of my now adult summers.

The town remains; the house remains against the backdrop of Maoist realities; May and June come and go; my grandparents are now gone, though in my mind they remain inextricably linked to still summer afternoons and my theories of joy.     


Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Dying Art of Prem?

Let the French celebrate their ménage de troi, the Americans, their prom, we Bengalis have always championed our own original contribution to the global vocabulary of love and sex, thank you very much.

It is the much serenaded: prem.

Amply inspired by the rain and slush filled afternoons of our parts, the particular colours of our smoke-stained greenery, the sounds of our rumbling buses, and the competitive pricing of our cinema-halls-to-make-out-in, prem flourished robustly in Calcutta for decades. As late as 2002, that is, about ten odd years ago, when I joined college towards the middle of a singularly hot August, I quickly found that prem had yet retained all its characteristics as a seventies institution – long smoky hours at the Coffee House, tiny budgets, college fests, much drama, disapproving parents, passion metamorphed into (bad) poetry over endless cups of mud-coloured coffee and sad little egg sandwiches, vague longings at revolution, and, of course, a delicious old-fashioned nerve-wracking sense of waiting. 

The hall-of-fame love stories were narrated to us by Promod da if we found him in a good mood (or if one had not budged from the canteen in the last three days, ordering historic amounts of food therein).  There was, for one, the millionaire’s daughter R-di who married the commoner P-da – and agitated happily ever after. There was the Naxal leader who adored the Police Commissioner’s daughter, the economist who eloped with the Bangla professor’s son, the internationally famous scholar of postcolonial thought who had exactly fifty-three memorable prems in her three undergrad years. There were several other inspiring tales, and one or two sorrowful stories – of preme-e paagol (in a literal asylum-bound sense) and worse, suicide. 

 You’ve guessed by now that I have had a fair degree of hands-on experience in said matter.

Therefore, when my editor instructed me to do a piece chronicling the changing nature of romance with a decidedly Calcutta theme, I smugly informed the spouse (the other half of the prem escapades chronicled above) that it would be a cakewalk. I was already a veteran, an insider if you will. In typical spouse-ly manner he threw a few grim terms at me immediately: post-communist society, liberalization and its consequences, decline of institutions as we knew them, rise of consumerism like never before. “Blah blah blah blah blah,” I mimicked, pulling a face. Without pausing, he pointedly suggested that perhaps it might be better if I actually talked to a Few Young People first. 

Annoyedly, I picked up the phone and summoned my most available brother (of two) who immediately agreed to be interviewed. “In any case,” he said, “I’ve meaning to come over and see you guys.” I murmured sympathetically. A doctor in making and student leader, he has been involved in a classic ek-phool-do-maali kind of love triangle in the past one year.  Every time Doc tells us about it, S and I end up fighting over the radically different solutions that we both insist he follow – but he doesn’t really mind. (Naturally, he doesn’t follow either’s advice, but that is a different matter.)

Doc arrives in the evening, and armed with a notebook and pen, I accost him immediately. His brother-in-law tries to sneak him some chocolate before the grilling session begins but, like a jailor, I rush him through it. “What are young people thinking of prem these days?” I thunder. He pauses to think. “There is no prem these days to think about,” he finally answers, nibbling his chocolate absently.

“Come on,” I counter, “you know what I mean. The tradition of prem in Calcutta can’t not be there anymore. It’s as ubiquitous as the Calcutta biriyani. What are you saying?” He nods sagely. “I know exactly what you mean. Coffee House, Lake-er dhaar, dreaming about a future together, screwing up exams, fighting with parents, etc. etc. etc. The whole deal. I know. But it’s just no longer happening. It’s gone out of vogue.” Then, after gravely uncrossing his legs, he comments darkly. “And if you want to know, it’s all because of the girls.”

Now, my feminism and Doc’s sensitivity are both family jokes. If anyone else had said something to the effect, they wouldn’t have heard the end of it from me for the next ten years, but Doc is different; if anything, since babyhood he has been a Shakta, a worshipper of only goddesses, and generally he’s very politically correct. He is always winning elections and stuff. So I wait for him to elaborate.

“The boys are still willing to commit to relationships these days – the girls are absolutely non-committal. Really, not joking!” He warms up to his theme. “For instance, they may spend the whole afternoon and evening hanging out with you at the mall. They’ll hold your hand. Allow you to whisper sweet nothings in their ears. Anyone who sees you will think you’re a couple madly in love. But then you drop her home, and after that you’re not even allowed to call her for the next few days. Apparently, that’s infringement of her space. Then she’s AWOL for days! Even if she agrees to be your girlfriend, there are problems. For one, at any given time, most girls have at least three leading men in their lives. The boyfriend. The best (guy) friend. And another interesting guy who is not-a-friend-and-not-someone-special. It drives one crazy! Believe me – I am always having to counsel my friends on these matters.”

My eyes pop wide. Three! Sheesh! And what happened to the best girl friend? The one the boyfriend was supposed to buy coffee for, the one who played peacemaker during fights? The contemporary of the sakhi. She was very much there when I’d checked last!

“And before you know it, the best (guy) friend has become the boyfriend, the interesting guy is now the best friend, and the ex is, well, still a facebook friend. He can come back into her life anytime too. It’s a lot of drama.”  He shakes his head tiredly. “And you can’t be possessive or anything. Then she’ll throw a major tantrum and say you’re not liberal. But you can’t hang out with your friends that much either, or keep in touch with your ex. You can’t smoke, you can’t drink – the new breed of girls are very anti-smoking, anti-drinking. It’s very hard. The tension of the hochhe-hobe na phase is actually better for guys. It’s a lot of stress, but overall better. I tell you, some of my friends are having nervous breakdowns!”

S proceeds to pour him a stiff drink while I digest all this silently.

I think fleetingly of Bridget Jones – hadn’t thought that emotional fuckwittage in Bengal was primarily the preserve of girls. Talk of having it all. The fight for the fundamental right to choose who to love (that generations of feisty women had waged for years) has been fought and won, it seems, and subsequently declared completely irrelevant. As a hopeless romantic, I feel a little cheated. 

“How’s A-?” I ask, changing the subject. A- is a charming young thing, the unwitting phool of the triangle. “Fine,” Doc replies, his face softening instantly, “She said hello to you two. Shall I bring her over next weekend?”


The following morning, Sam and Roo come over. They are budding filmmakers, students of Jadavpur, around 22 or so. He is an exceptional photographer, she sings the blues. In short, they are very very cool. Confronted with such momentous changes to document and analyze, I am doubly charged up and waylay them as soon as they enter. Notebook in hand, I volunteer, even as they are divesting themselves of various tripods and lenses and other shooting paraphernalia. “Would you say there is a clear before-South City and an after-South City in the terrain of south Calcutta in general and Jadavpur in particular? Has that changed the nature of prem?” (For those who don’t quite know, South City is a humongous gleaming-shining siren of a mall, a veritable temple to the buying-and-spending economy, spawning a particular race of new mutants: the South City mall rats.) 

Sam and Roo are caught unawares by this sudden attack.

After settling down, and safely stowing away their equipment, Sam ventures, “I think that is more or less true. Though, of course, we can’t possibly know what it was really like in the before-South City days. I mean, I know where people used to hang out and stuff – they still hang out at those places – but I think everyone comes to South City all the time.” Roo runs a hand through her gorgeous hair and says, “If you want to know honestly, I think prem is totally different these days. It’s very casual, very non-committal.” She looks at my expression and says comfortingly, “Don’t be too disappointed but things have changed.”

I say, “But the quest for love is eternal, isn’t it? Don’t people want love anymore? And what about hormones?” 

They pause to think. Then Sam says, “There is a lot of falling in lust of course. A lot of heat, a lot of interest.” I perk up. “That early phase of bliss is very much there. But after that, there are fights. And people break up immediately. Nobody wants any hassles anymore. Who wants a relationship with so much chaap?” Roo replies, a little sadly, a little grow-uply, “I think our generation is just plain lazy. They don’t want to work at anything other than their careers. One fight after that month of bliss, and bam, they are over. I mean, if you want percentages, only about 10 per cent even believe in prem,” she looks at me earnestly. “Most of them aren’t looking for anything serious, they say.”

Sam adds, “Plus, there is the matter of long distance relationships. Even if people have been together for two or even three years, before one of them leaves town, it is understood they will break up.”
“You mean,” I ask, “they don’t even give it a try? They break up even before the viraha sets in?”
“Ya,” Roo confirms, “I don’t approve, but people are quite shallow ish. They need to be surrounded by new friends in the new place; it’s understood they’ll get a new boyfriend or girlfriend close by. Some girls, in fact, look out for a boy with a motorbike or preferably a car in the new city. It’s very convenient.” We burst out laughing. “It’s true though,” Roo smiles. But this is an old joke – only now it was probably advice proffered in all seriousness. Everyone knows how difficult public transport is in Delhi. (And most intellectuals-to-be of Calcutta are now bona fide residents of Delhi as it were.)    

I’m going to do the unpardonable and say, in our time, most people, while in a relationship, would be more hopeful of a happy ending; not necessarily marriage because I’ll have you know, there were radicals among us too, not even of an ending-ending, but of happiness together. Even when they went off to different cities, when they went abroad. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t. But nobody was cynical enough to end it simply because they already knew that unless the significant other was sitting on their head or hanging out of their pockets, the relationship would be over.

Evening falls outside the verandah, the birds chirp noisily and it begins to softly rain. We’ve chatted all day, and now, Sam and Roo begin to leave for home in a flurry of umbrellas. He’ll drop her and then go home. Are they a couple? I wonder aloud. Should I ask? But S twinkles at me, “Don’t bring it to the particular. Let them be.” 


In an organized fashion, I list the following general points in my head. To Be Thought About Regarding Prem:
1) Consumerism. Has it killed the socialist dream? Nobody wants to be poor together anymore. And it is probably easier trying to get rich with no premful complications in one’s head.
2) The illusion of too much choice, the super-market syndrome. (People should commission some studies on this.)
3) Extreme academic pressure. (If 100 per cent is the cut-off in leading colleges, then what can anyone say?)
4) Women’s lib? (So this is what freedom came to? Not to glorious liberty to love dramatically outside religion, against all rules but to a dwindling nothing – the freedom to dilly and dally, to dhori jol na chhui pani? It’s most unhappy).
5) Safety? The great Indian fallback option. At 30, parents will find, through or similar a nice marketable boy or girl, with whom there is much greater security. For the values assigned to individuals at 20 and 30 are markedly different, in the eyes of the word. At 20, the hottest guy in college is the singer, and nobody likes the dork. At 30, the dork lives in NY, has an MBA from ISB, works for some MNC and can effortlessly pay several EMIs at once. The singer has just been thrown out of the 13th band he had co-founded and is now thinking of opening a photocopy shop by the roadside.


My final two interviewees prefer the phone. It is the less available brother, the one who’s studying engineering in an industrial town outside the city. He is a thinker, this one. Has been bruised in love and now reads a lot of Sartre and Murakami; he has modelled himself somewhat on Ted Mosby of How I Met Your Mother. The other is an extremely opinionated bright young girl, M, who has just completed her masters in literature and is applying abroad. She is always interested, always honest, and sometimes prefers women to men. They are asked to answer briefly to the same set of questions.

1) Would you consider us post-prem?
Yes. It saddens me, but that is, indeed, the case.
Not really. But it’s a different kind of prem. Prem, above all, of the self.
2) Why do you think this is so?
Nobody reads anymore. If one doesn’t grow up reading Pride and Prejudice, Love Story or Tungabhadrar Teere, and only watch stupid serials then what will they know of love? We don’t make romantics anymore.
Girls are less willing to continue in relationships that do not fulfill all their demands. It’s not that girls don’t want to commit, but they now want a lot more. And men don’t seem to be willing to give more. Not that they can’t, they just don’t want to. So… Plus, there seems to be a lot of choice – nobody wants to be an early bird and choose wrong!
3) Is it ultimately a matter of career first?
Often. Most people will leave West Bengal anyway. In interviews people are asked if they are willing to be posted anywhere in the world, anywhere in India – and nobody wants to be tied down. Not boys, not girls.
Everybody wants love but it is too luck-dependent. Economic choice, though, is something I can control myself. So, naturally, bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Girls think that if they work hard and play their cards right, there is a huge world out there for them!
4) Any comments.
Don’t judge by Calcutta though, or its premier institutions. The deep suburbs are not that cynical – and prem flourishes in colleges there.
We see it this way: school and college prem have nothing to do with adult life and adult choices.


In spite of that tiny sliver of hope offered by Ted Mosby, I am greatly in the dumps; S suggests a walk. It doesn’t work. So he promises me a chocolate boat at the end of the walk and I agree.

And while we walk, we see couples, and groups of friends, and couples again. We see old people and young women with children. Shopkeepers and office-returnees. Absorbed in their worlds. There is comfort in watching strangers from afar.

We then walk down to the metro station, and girls and boys, in twos and fours, laugh and chatter, and their voices are like birds in the sky. And the rain is scattered in the wind, and the puddles by road reflect the passing headlights. And it fills my heart with something like relief. Because it is there – in the air – the essence of the unchanged; of youth, passing. That is enough in its own right; that is plenty.

We walk down to South City. And S tells me, “Today, let’s just walk around and observe the young people here. Not the ones who are buying but the ones behind the counters.”

And we do.

On days that one does that, one is blessed by the sight of Sanjay. One sees the Starmark non-fiction guy chatting with the Spencer’s perfume girl, just outside the foodcourt, hands glued to each other’s, oblivious to the world around. They don’t have many breaks but every time they do, they find each other, rushing up and down the four floors. They have long long hours on their feet, but they always lunch together – and take the train to the suburbs together too.

I have my chocolate boat happily, and go home, and promise not to fight with S for at least a week. I sleep soundly enough.

I have my answer for now. Like the French proclamation at the coronation of a new monarch, we Bengalis can safely conclude, for now.
The prem is dead. Long live the prem.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Hours: the film, the book , the history

Mrs Dalloway, or the story behind the story behind the story:
When Michael Cunningham – author of The Hours, winner of the Pulitzer – was fifteen, a bookmobile would come into his neighbourhood in Los Angeles. One afternoon, chiefly to impress a crush, he checked out a book that nobody had borrowed before: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
In the novel, considered by many to be Woolf’s finest work, it is a delightful June day in London at the end of the Great War, and Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, hostess of some repute and great breeding, wife of a minor politician, prepares for a society party she will throw that evening. Woven around that single strand by way of a plot, appear characters Clarissa has known in the past, and loved – Peter Walsh, a former beau, and Sally Seton, former best friend (one might even suggest, lover). As also, people she has never known, and would not be likely to meet in the highly class conscious English society of the time, the hapless Septimus Warren Smith, discharged soldier, war hero, and patient of shell shock who will, before the party begins, kill himself. Through the curious crisscross of lives and feelings, Woolf tells the history of all humanity – full of light and darkness, and life and deathwish, and sorrow and memory – in the action of a single day.
Fifteen-year-old Cunningham was transfixed by the book. In the nineties, already a writer of eminence if not stardom, he decided to rework Mrs Dalloway into a modern-day retelling; indeed, he had always wanted to do something with it. But, then, as is wont to be in the hands of a writer in his prime, the book quickly became something else.

The Hours: the book
Cunningham’s The Hours is a complex tribute, not only to Mrs Dalloway, the novel, and Virginia Woolf, its writer – but also to the league of extraordinary ordinary women whose suburban everyday lives Woolf had attempted to make worthy of great art, the value of whose lived experiences she had so vigorously defended in her feminist classic A Room of One’s Own. It is thus, Cunningham points out, a tribute to his mother.
Consequently, there are three parallel stories in The Hours, three women living out one day in their lives. Virginia Woolf, in 1920s England, battles bouts of grave depression as she attempts to write her magnum opus, Mrs Dalloway, coming up with its memorable first line in the course of the morning – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – between interruptions by the maid and bursts of vague anxiety about her sister’s visit that was planned for later on in the day. Mrs Brown, a young housewife in 1940s postwar Los Angeles, pregnant with her second child, reads Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway with a searing hunger that throws the banal reality of her life in an off-kilter haze; even as she bakes a cake for her husband’s birthday, comforts a neighbor due to go into hospital – and in a strangely passionate moment finds herself kissing her – she contemplates suicide. Clarissa Vaughan, the contemporary Mrs Dalloway, a book editor, lives in Manhattan with her life partner Sally, and is throwing a party for her best friend and former lover, Richard-the-writer, who is dying of AIDS. In a continuous loop of engaging dialogue with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham’s book begins: “There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.”    

The Hours: the movie
Translating the multi-layered narrative of this novel – crafted as it is, with emphasis on a poetic quality that is both spare and rich – into the medium of cinema is no mean task, but director Stephen Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare have come as close as it might be possible to a perfect compromise. They have pushed the frontiers of collaborative exercise to make a film that while is close enough to the novel, is true to its own form. That is, in my book, a big feat.  
                The realities of Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf, when set against the looming beauty and confinement of their tactile worlds, become powerful presences in the story. That is where the film provides a remarkable canvas to the complexity of sorrow, through its elaborate attention to detail: Virginia Woolf lies down on the soft mud in the dimly greenish light in her garden, beside a dead bird for whom her nephews and niece have arranged a funeral; Laura Brown drives into a posh hotel, in the afternoon, books a room, gets under the perfectly laundered sheets and fingers her little bottle of sleeping pills wondering what it would be like to die; Clarissa Vaughan separates eggs expertly into a bowl while talking of youth and love and the house they had shared one summer, to Louis, an old friend/beau, Cunningham’s counterpart to Peter Walsh.

Why watch?
The powerhouse performances. Nicole Kidman’s inspired performance as the tormented Virginia Woolf, battling with her demons and pining for London, even as she creates and crafts with the effortless felicity of genius which draws from some deep inscrutable pool within, won her the Academy Award. Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan (Dalloway) and Ed Harris as Richard-the-writer are exquisite, underplayed; Streep articulates with sensitivity the glamorous yet resonant banality of lives where freedoms have come by easily – and Harris, essays with aplomb, the poet who at the threshold of fame, realizes, most clearly, the extent of his failure. However, it is Julianne Moore as Laura Brown that, in my opinion, plays the most complicated, restrained and fiddly role. And finally, in one epiphanic moment, her character brings together all three stories in the climax, where Laura Brown’s chemistry with her little boy transcends to the deepest relationship that is suggested but not narrated in the film; the miasma of absences.     

Why read?
The sheer art of Cunningham’s prose. It is a tribute to Woolf alright, with its poetry, precision and jazz-like riffing where you don’t know exactly where the sentence is going to go and exactly how the meaning is going to strike your soul, but it does, and with what intensity.

T-2 pick: Very very difficult choice – but the book.
Ultimately, the writerly voice has the freedom to problematize every little story, incident, version that it narrates – and thereby, give the characters a subtler finesse; that is the limitless possibility of words. The filmmaker who is operating within the genre of beginning-middle-and-end (in that order) cannot compete easily in this regard since he has to tell the stories in three hours or less – and get out of there. Thus the realizations that were profound in the head sound slightly mawkish out loud, as dialogue, and the deep insights into sexuality and memory that the book offers are partly lost in translation. The lines with which the film is drawn are far less blurry, and therein it expresses the impossible beauty, after all, of misreadings.

Monday, 23 May 2011

On Birthdays

or why the spouse, though kindly, is lying

Now, I am turning 27 tomorrow; apparently it’s the new 17, the spouse assures me. And apparently, heat and dust rules are suspended on the morrow, and I am allowed to spend on something completely unnecessary in its scheme. Except, I am always a little suspicious when he says that. He has other ways of getting back – but that is not the first thing on my mind tonight.

I am not going to be 26 any longer; what can I say, I will miss it. It was a good age.

Being in Rishikesh, though, happily offers me a very good turning-over-yet-another-new-leaf symbol - and don't mistake me,  but I love the faddishness that symbols imply. A dip in the Ganga, thereby, expiating the sins of not just the last 27 years but the last 27 lives possibly. It’s probably a good start.


As I nibble my pre-birthday slice of cake, I indulge in nostalgia:

When I was a kid, my mother threw me great birthdays. My friends from the school bus were invited; though the cake was never store-bought she always fashioned what I requested – say, I wanted a rabbit, I’d get a rabbit; she would cook a fabulous array with my grandmums and aunts and once, even made ice-cream ffrom scratch for everybody. There was always room in the neighbours’ refrigerators during birthdays and stuff.

Of course, being born in May, I never had the whole celebrating-your-birthday-in-the-school gig. The summer holidays would intervene. You went to class in what was called “colour dress” with a packet of sweets to distribute and the teachers would be very nice to you and not mention your spelling. Then, in one of the classes after recess you coyly went up to the teacher and asked to be excused so that you could go around school giving two sweets (from the pile remaining after each classmate had been given two as well) to other teachers. You were permitted to go – and wait for it, that’s not all – your best friend could go with you, to carry the bag, and  to generally be helpful and sakhilike.

That was the best part – you just roamed around the campus, interrupting other people’s classes and smiling sweetly as you handed out the two sweets. Some teachers complimented your dress, and ever since that moment, you always loved them. One year, I remember, I got really lucky – not only did I go once with my best friend Joyeeta, as the Class President (believe me, I'm not proud of this phase of my life) also with the new girl who had no best friend yet.

Then when we became teenagers, we would celebrate birthdays with more exclusivity; the best girlfriends would spend the day at home, chattering and drinking iced lemonade while the sun spewed gold over the grey Calcutta streets and trees, and ah, the sweetness of those long long afternoons. We were still so desperate to add on years to our total. And see, that’s why, 27 cannot be the new 17. At 17, I was desperate to jump a year, become 18, embrace adulthood, Baywatch and the vote all at once.

And that's the difference between then and now – I am definitely not going to want to turn 28 a day sooner than I have to.So there it is, the truth.

Of course, I know I know this obsession with numbers is meaningless, and life is all about cyclicity and fullness – not linear progression – yada yada yada – but hell, I know I’d be lying through my teeth if I pretended I like 28 more than 27.  

And therefore, the wise conclusion: the spouse, though kindly, is lying. 27 is the new 27. And that is precisely why I am going to use the prerogative of adulthood and buy something useless to celebrate it!