Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Palace of Illusions. By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Picador. First published 2008.

    This is relatively brief retelling of the Mahabaratha, from Draupadi's point of view. It is interesting to read, but rather light. The author relies almost solely on the fresh viewpoint for any novelty. Thus it can be only called a retelling - it neither a new interpretation, nor an attempt at 'feminist' literature using the epic as peg to hang modernist views. So the emotions are about the same as in the various versions of the epic I have read, and the almost the same set of events are emphasized. It remains faithful to the original in all essential aspects.

   It would probably be unfair to really expect anything else. It would difficult, if not impossible, to impose 21st century sensitivities on literature of about 3000 years ago. However, despite this seeming difficulty, rather surprisingly, some of the cultural values are not really so different, and some interpretations could actually bring at least some of the values of those times closer to recent ones than to those of say a couple of centuries ago. Divakaruni does not try such interpretations and remains largely faithful to the 'standard model' handed down largely by right-leaning scholars.   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Bleak House. By Charles Dickens

Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Wordsworth Classics. First published (serialized) between March 1852 to September 1853

I bought this book as soon as I read on the Internet that Time magazine's critic Radhika Jones rated it the best Dickens novel. 'Can it be really better than David Copperfield (DC)?', I wondered. But no. When I went through all 760 pages of it, I found it good, even great, but not really as good as DC. There are no thrilling passages which one can read again and again, and no characters to match Micawber or Heep or Betsy Trotwood. The story line is a little confused, and there is no properly established motivation for many of the important actions. For example, there is a murder which occupies a good 200 pages of the book, but the solution, when it comes, is unsatisfactory. This book is probably a more 'serious' book than DC, and therefore, perhaps, more beloved of the critics, but is not the better for it.

There are two chief story lines. One deals with Lady Dedlock, her 'dark' secret (i.e. an illegitimate child) and her trials and tribulations due to that. This part of the book has most of the personal stories, and not a great deal of social comment, except for some sarcasm about doings in 'high' society. The other  line is the socially relevant story about a civil law suit, Jarndyce v/s Jarndyce, regarding the terms of a will, which drags on for years and years in the Chancery, which, at that time, was the place where civil suits, mostly regarding wills and the division of property, were decided, or rather, not decided. Dickens heaps abuse upon the entire institution of the Chancery, holding it a rotten, corrupt, self-perpetuating system, responsible for decades of deliberate delay, during which the lawyers, judges and the other officers enriched themselves at the cost of the helpless suitors, who were often seduced by hope to continue with the suits, and ended up losing their all. (Coincidentally, the same week I completed the book, I received a letter from the High Court, Hyderabad, summoning my father, who's been dead 21 years now, as a witness in some civil case! I guess we are 150 years behind UK in this respect). The two story lines intersect mainly in the person of Esther Summerson, who writes some of the book in the first person. She appears a rather exaggerated version of Agnes of DC. But while Agnes was saintly, Esther appears a parody of a saint, if we take her writings about her thoughts and feelings seriously. But if we take, as apparently the critics I mentioned above do, whatever she writes as a study by Dickens into the psychology of an illegitimate child, then the overpowering emotion apparent in the writing is one of guilt, and expatiation of this guilt in trying to be overly servile to all around her, and responding to the slightest kindness with unnatural gratitude. Looked at this way, she comes across not as a very nice girl. However, then that portion of the book can be considered a powerful characterization by Dickens of a complex personality - though I still I prefer his characterization of Heep!

The book of course is filled with all the intricate details and grotesque cartoon characters, some of them nice, some silly and some evil, that we expect in Dickens. There is also a great deal of anger when he describes the inequity of the Chancery and its doings. He is especially hard on the efficient and emotionless lawyers, as also on the insensitive judges, who, according to him, run the courts not to serve justice, but their own interests. He describes the case of a farmer, who, in a dispute with his brother about a sum of 300 pounds, ends up losing his entire estate of 12,000 pounds as 'costs' to the Chancery and the lawyers. I found this however more of an indictment of the farmer - could he not just withdraw the case and hand over the sum at some point when his losses were mounting up? Likewise the suit that forms the core of one of the story lines - Jarndyce v/s Jarndyce. We are never told what the dispute is, but just that it had been going on for a long time and that both parties to the suit well-meaning, even innocent people. But one of them, Mr. John Jarndyce, is shown as a rich man who is willing to do virtually anything to lessen the sufferings of the people he knows. In fact he initially acts as guardian to the other party in the suit, the very young Richard. But though John finds Richard getting more and more obsessed with the suit, he never offers to end it by simply offering Richard whatever he wants, maybe even more than his fair share of the property at issue. But of course, if he had done that the book would not have been written. [If Rama had sensibly not gone to the forest to satisfy a silly whim on part of his stepmother, there would have been no Ramayana!]. The most (re)readable part of the book is the description, over about 50 pages, of a chase, over the deep winter country and town landscape of Lady Dedlock, by Esther and a detective, Mr. Bucket.  

Among the Dickens I have read, Bleak House ranks below DC, of course, but also below Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and perhaps even The Pickwick papers. These are books I would like to read, and have read, again and again. Not Bleak House.     

There are few quotable quotes.

"...a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked  this boastful island together."

"Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject."