Thursday, June 27, 2013

The lovely shall be choosers...

Elder sister told me one day that waiting at the doctor’s, Leela Naidu had said to her, I want to be as slim as you. Someone wanted to be slim like my sister? I picked my bike and rode off. Neither slimness of girls interested me nor some Leela whoever.

Then one day this woman in a red saree, her gray hair stylishly swirled back in a French roll looked out of the pages of some Femina or Illustrated Weekly, advertising kitchen appliance or food. Sisters whispered, ‘elegant-elegant’. I was transfixed by her beauty and air of quiet dignity.

Jerry Pinto who I admire for his writing and for his heart in the right place, its ‘Leela-shaped hole’ and all, the SRK of writing in so much that I haven’t seen another writer blow such effervescent ‘I love yous’ at his audience, collaborated with her on this. So ‘Leela - A Patchwork Life’ by Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto was picked up with much gladness. 

The Foreword by JP was a letdown. Leela was among the world’s ten most beautiful women and he had the good fortune to know her intimately but the way he runs down other journalists when they have to write about her and ask him to share/whet/correct/fill-in disappoints. Our stray-loving, bucket-bath-bathing-to-save water journalist-teacher I expect to understand the job of journalists better. His tone is almost of a kid holding a doll close to himself  refusing to share it with other kids. But otherwise he chooses his nuggets to write about well and is at his evocative best. So I will not hold it against him. People evolve.

Leela takes over and draws us into her wonder-full life lived in Bombay, Geneva, Paris, London. Beginning with the sensational story of her grandmum hosting a naked Count – the Count Yousoupoff who was among those that killed Rasputin presumably; she tells us how her aunt Sarojini Naidu handing her a box of chocolates and a bunch of gladioli, sent her off to the outhouse to ‘see Mickey Mouse’. 

‘I knocked on the door and was called in...sitting on the bed was Mahatma Gandhi.
“You are not MICKEY Mouse!” I said.
“No?” Gandhiji asked.
“Your ears are big but they are not big enough.”
“Is that all?” he asked and turned around to put on the side light.
“And you don’t have a tail.”
He laughed at that and put on the light.
“So I am not Mickey Mouse.” Gandhiji said, “but who am I?”
“You are Gandhiji,” I said.
I put the flowers down and gave him the chocolates. He took them and began to eat them immediately, as happy as a schoolboy with a box of tuck.
“How do you know who I am?” he asked.
I don’t remember if I had explained....But I do remember his strong arms around me as he hugged me.’

Her tone is friendly, the descriptions candid. The men! Oh the men! Roberto Rossellini suggests a doctor for her; she’s ‘adopted’ by Jean Renoir and his wife, M Cartier gets her rani haar restrung when it breaks suddenly sending the beads rolling in the hotel lobby, Salvador Dali sketches her and takes her to a private showing  of his sketches... and none of this seemingly affects her! The ‘men’ come first and the ‘discovery’ of who they are later.

Overall it isn't quite where my other idol’s memoirs are – A Princess Remembers, Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur – with JP’s ‘collaboration’ and all. Written almost as if for academic reading – chapters as ‘facets’ of Leela Naidu –the translator, the Editor.. film maker. 

She does come across as very intelligent, witty and full of the milk of human kindness, never able to stop herself from standing against injustice, confronting the wrongdoers but there is no mention of Leela the wife, the mother... personal joys and heartbreaks. She’s most often a victim of cruel, self-
centered people. The skips and jumps do not make it a fluid read. That got a little tiresome. If she had started as she ended, telling JP that the book, ‘would have nothing to do with my life. ...It’s only about the funny anecdotes and sad historic ones I came across.’ I would have been less disappointed. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Colour of Words

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs.

Rao Uncle was visiting. Almost 20 years ago, we used to exchange books as neighbours in Delhi. But this time we were caught in the catching up of where is who, some more chai, cracker, cutlet. As he slipped his feet into his shoes to leave, he asked, ‘But who’s your favourite writer?’ 

‘Nabokov,’ I chose one.

Shocked eyebrows shot up and then his face fell in folds of disappointment, disgust almost. Did I say something that’s not to be said to elders? I bit my tongue and smiled. Like when Papa chanced upon Z and me together-alone between the book aisles in the library, I presented without being asked, at dinner that day, my defense – the reads Z had been recommending. Papa’s eyebrows shot up, but in his calm, typically understated and almost talking to himself manner, he said, ‘He was suggesting D H Lawrence?’ That only sent me scurrying post haste to grab a DHL.

If you said ‘Nabokov’ at Word Association, the first, only, fastest response would be ‘Lolita’! Its ‘depraved’ theme makes readers overlook the aesthetic bliss of its delightful telling – the almost-dream sequences, the lilting, lifting prose, dazzling images softened by his nuanced brush strokes of memory and passion. But we are judges of human failings first.

I read Lolita later. I loved him first for his autobiography, Speak, Memory – the Bible on my bedside that constitutes my ‘spiritual reading’ as opposed to the ‘carnal reading’ famously distinguished by the literary critic, Frank Kermode as, ‘the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet and ‘spiritual reading’, reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth.

I came upon Speak, Memory while reading about minds, working of minds, wrong wirings and wiring into my major love – synaesthesia*. 

Nabokov, a synaesthetic, could see and feel colour, a faculty that equipped him to create word images that breathed. I cannot read more than three pages of Speak, Memory at one go, on good days. So suffused with sensory delight it is that one has to stop to soak it in. Like chocolate, I leave some for later. 

If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a 'ch' sound. And you would appreciate my radiant 's' if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child.

The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r’ (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal ‘n’, noodle-limp ‘l’, and the ivory-backed hand-mirror of ‘o’ take care of the white. . . . Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see ‘q’ as browner than ‘k’, while ‘s’ is not the light blue of ‘c’, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

And here are indisputably the most beautiful lines in English Literature that I have read (I have read little) and read over and over:

I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors, in an alley of birches, limes and maples at its debouchment on the smooth sanded space of the garden proper that separated the park and the house. I see the tablecloth and the faces of seated people sharing in the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage, exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return, that makes me always approach that banquet table from the outside, from the depth of the park —as if the mind, in order to go back thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement.

Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts. I note the small helicopter of a revolving samara that gently descends upon the tablecloth, and, lying across the table, an adolescent girl's bare arm indolently extended as far as it will go, with its turquoise-veined underside turned up to the flaky sunlight, the palm open in lazy expectancy of something —perhaps the nutcracker. In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling, transformations is repeated.

And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties —smiling, frivolous duties —some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.

In the same vein, another piece that I often refer to and badger others into reading, is from Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier. 

"What have you been doing here, Griet?" he asked.

I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. "Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup."

I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

The man tapped his finger on the table. "Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?" he suggested, studying the circle.

"No, sir." I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.

"I see you have separated the whites," he said, indicating the turnips and onions. "And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?" He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.

I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.

* Synesthesia is a neurological condition, often described as a sensory cross-wiring in the brain. In its most common manifestation, people see letters in colour. Some also see numbers in colour, hear music and speech in colour, taste shapes, smell sounds ...