Sunday, March 23, 2014

Shame- A novel by Salman Rushdie

What a novel!!!

The fifth one that I've read of his works till date and he continues, as always, to enthrall me with his sheer lack of fear in expressing thoughts.

'Shame' is full of metaphors that draw inspiration from and cumulatively point finger towards the real life situation of our neighbour to the northwest, being a country built with a single religion as its solitary foundation stone. The tale revolves around a metaphorical town referred to as Q. of Peccavistan wherein the characters are based and the plot unfolds.

The esteemed author leaves no stone unturned in expressing his disbelief and utter disgust at the fact that a nation can claim itself as cleansed of all wrongdoings and sin because all our doings are the sacred word of God and how can God be wrong? It is on account of this self-proclaimed belief, being literally rammed down its citizens' throats, that the shame of not having truly succeeded in curbing any wrongdoings goes unexpressed. What is unexpressed does not, by default, have any existence- is the propaganda of the rulers. So the pertinent question here is-where does all that unexpressed and bottled-up shame go?

It has to overflow some day! It has to lead to a rupture somewhere, does it not? The sense of pride, that all encompassing, blanket-like emotion which is felt when mouths lips tongues wag of their land protecting the dignity of women, of all women, by covering them up from-head-to-toe, by declaring such covering up from-head-to-toe as a mandate sans deviation, oh! that shroud of pride that makes nostrils flare and eyebrows part because outsiders are watching and when outsiders are watching the nostrils must flare and the eyebrows must part, the pride must be shown, no matter how much the heart knows of the arithmetical progression of the number of whorehouses and the geometrical progression of the number of rapes and abuses, the pride must be shown, the achievements must be expressed, for if not expressed then how can pride exist? and if not spoken aloud of then how could it be that we have achieved anything at all?

I could go on ranting till day end but, unlike the characters in the book, I do not like imposing my views on other people so bluntly. It is all for you, my dear reader, to decipher to understand and ultimately to execute atleast in your own life the need to abstain from combining Religion with Being good at all times, for you may or may not speak your heart, but it is the naked truth that neither mirrors the other completely.

Religion has its own bowl of villainies; Being good its own pitcher of weaknesses.

Philosophy aside, the writing flows, as I have experienced before, like water from the author's pen. Especially in a five paged part where Rushdie describes with such beauty and skill the embroidery-work on the eighteen shawls sewn by Rani Harappa that depict with exquisite detail for her disbelieving daughter to see, the darker side of Iskander Harappa, her husband, whom their daughter refuses to consider as anything but great. The pictures are etched into the reader’s mind with such pain and passion, each word oozing with the love to express and the fondness of writing prose.

In a manner of speaking, the characters are themselves metaphors that are used to describe the phenomena of shame and shamelessness. The protagonist, Omar Khayyam Shakeel, as he himself admits somewhere before the end, is a peripheral hero, a chief character who looms at the sides of the story as the side-characters prove more a cause of the end, through their heroic deeds and chief-characterly actions, taking Omar Khayyam alongwith them, as a repercussion rather than a source.

The pace of the novel deplores you of any time at all to comprehend that what you are reading is actually fiction, that the characters are only made up of words, and that the story employs magical realism to move ahead. I would not go to the lengths of calling it breathtaking, but it does have its moments that might justify it being called so.

Halfway through the novel, I felt like I was reading in a trance, the wordplay making me melt completely at places. Nowhere did I feel that the philosophy had become greater than the characters and overtaken the narrative. Nowhere does the author resort to the ramming-up-the-throats strategy of his criticizees.

All in all, a dark satire, an excellent blend of truth and fiction, a deserved read for all.

PS: Despite the praises that I’ve showered till now, ‘Shalimar the Clown’ continues to be the best of Rushdie’s five that I’ve read. Just go through it and tell me that you beg to differ, I bet you a million bucks!

PPS: Two reasons for me being so confident in my bet: 1) I know for sure you won’t beg to differ; 2) I don’t have a million bucks on me right now : )

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review:1408 by Stephen King (Collab-Post)

(For 1408 (film) review click here)

Overview –
For a guy who has written titles such as Ten nights in Ten Haunted Houses, Ten . . . Haunted Graveyards and Ten. . . . Haunted Castles, Mike Enslin is barely of the believing kind. His series, as the titles imply are adventure/ horror narratives of his one-night stay at places that have been termed as haunted. All three titles are on the list of New York Times Bestsellers and Mike’s upcoming volume in the series revolving around haunted hotels requires him to spend one night at the not-so-coveted room 1408 of Hotel Dolphin. 

Despite receiving several fore-warnings against his visit, Mike arrives at the Hotel wearing his lucky Hawaiian shirt and a habitual cigarette stick stuck behind his ear, and proceeds with his stay, confident of a smooth sailing through the night. But as it turns out, Room 1408 has its own plans for Mike.

Review –

1408 is a short story that began as a three-paged sample piece as part of King’s non-fiction book ‘On Writing’. The excerpt was to be used to explain how the story evolves over a number of drafts but as the tale progressed, to the reader’s good fortune, King couldn’t help himself and decided to write till the end.

The story begins as Mike Enslin walks through the doors of Hotel Dolphin, a not-too-grand-yet-elegant-and-sophisticated-in-its-own-way-hotel, where he is about to spend a night in room 1408 that lies on the fourteenth floor of the building which is actually the thirteenth. He is met by the hotel manager, Mr. Olin, a pudgy little man who knows too much about room 1408’s blood-spilling history to allow Mike to carry on with his plans. 

Escorting him to the manager’s office in one final attempt to dissuade Mike from proceeding further, Olin begins describing, first the effects that the room has had on the people who have been in it for brief periods, then moving on to the chilling and gory details of the dozen or more unnatural deaths that have occurred in the room right since the year it was thrown open to public.

This conversation between the hotel manager and Mike forms a major part of the story and here lies, I believe, the King’s real strength, as inch by inch he raises the bar of terror and intrigue with each description of the room’s unpleasantly mysterious past in both Mike’s and the reader’s mind. By the time Mike walks out of the office, into the elevator and up to the fourteenth floor of the hotel, the inimitable aura of gripping tension is already in place like an open can of fuel waiting for the brush of a lighted matchstick for the main event to take place. Even as the doors of the elevator shut slowly with Mike having gotten out of it, Mr. Olin standing inside it pleads- Please Mike, don’t do this

But Mike Enslin, doubt-ridden, his confidence shaky, still continues walking lying to himself that all this build up the manager has given is an act.

Akin to the narrative style which he deployed so effectively in his first book Carrie, King runs back and forth in timelines, describing in places from the POV of a narrator who is speaking after the events have transpired and then quickly jumping into the scene for a live feel of the so called paranormal happenings that take place right from the moment when Mike sets his eyes on the door of room 1408. 

And I must admit, despite the inclusion of a few “orthodox” scare tactics, the overall impact that the account creates in one’s head is scary at an altogether different level. It is only for a mere seventy minutes of the night that Mike actually succeeds in his quest albeit he will never call what happened with him inside the room as a success by any means. The plot is unfolded to us in small portions based on what little legible recordings the pocket tape recorder that Mike carries with him has been able to capture. 

I found the descriptions of the degrading quality of the recordings and also the rise of absurdity in Mike’s tone with the passage of time to be more intriguing than the actual physical transformations that take place inside the room such as changing portraits, images of the room’s previous victims, etc. Perhaps it is the combination of both that eventually pays dividend but the horror that takes place inside Mike Enslin’s mind moved me to shivers when I put myself in his place. 

Of the many scare tactics put to use by the esteemed author, the one that stood out and the one that literally made my hair stand was the lines that Mike hears in the voice of a talking electrical hair clipper when, in his attempts to escape from the room, he picks up the phone receiver- This is nine! Nine! This is nine! Nine! This is ten! Ten! We have killed your friends! Every friend is now dead! This is six! Six!

Eventually having accepted that the room is indeed what Mr. Olin has described to him and perhaps much more, Mike tries to escape from it even as his thought process gets derailed and the room shows its true self to him which is that of an organism that feeds on its occupants. There are no ghostly presences in room 1408, Mike realizes, -ITS JUST THE FUCKING ROOM THAT IS DOING IT!

Now, as an ardent Stephen King fanboy, it is at this stage of the review that I would go to any extent possible. . .  seriously! Any extent possible to keep my fingers from typing. But the collaboration demands honesty and so I move on to the section of what didn’t work for me. And I think, there was just one thing that I found to be a. . .  how may I put it subtly- a shortcoming. I felt that the author invested such great an effort in building up that terror-inducing aura during the conversation that precedes Mike’s stay at the room only to reduce the actual stay time to a paltry seventy minutes, which albeit being a very good way of asserting the room’s strong effect on people, gives very little time for the reader to react to the events. I felt that there could have been more in this than what was written before Mike finally gets out.

But, overall, I must admit that this is one hell of a horror short story! An expert mixture of the classic plot of a haunted hotel room and the absurdly unique narrative style of the master of horror. A must read for all.

(PS: Stephen King has himself admitted to the audio book of 1408 being much scarier than the print version. And that is going to be my priority for today : ))

Interpretation of the end –
                             ******* Spoiler Alert ********
The story concludes in a simple fashion leaving little scope for multiple interpretations. In the delirium that his mind is entangled in with more than an hour spent inside room 1408, Mike Enslin lights his shirt on fire. The flames burn his chest skin, perhaps awakening him from the confusion just as the walls of the room are opening up, making way for whatever it is that feeds on the occupants. Mike manages to unlock the door and run out of the room just as the room has almost caught up with him. He gets doused in ice water by a passerby and is eventually rescued.  

However, like the other people who have lived beyond their visit to room 1408, Mike faces several health problems after getting out, he knows that he will never be able to write and has developed an acute fear of the colour of sunrises, that distinct colour that haunted him inside the room whose digits add up to the number of the devil.

A collaboration of sorts

Quite often it is the case with me that a hint of prejudice surfaces inside my mind as I am watching a film that has been adapted out of or is based on or is loosely based on or (depending upon how risk averse the producers of the film in question are) is inspired by a previously published and well received piece of literature. It could be a work of creative non-fiction, a fiction novel, novella or, as is the case here, a short story picked up from a collection of short stories.

The prejudice that I am referring to does not mark its entry into my head with an explosion like that of a nuclear detonation in the exact centre of a deserted piece of arid tract that has been left unoccupied for good reason; unless the person detonating wants to have a view of something more dreadful than the sudden burst of white fumes going up in the air, forming a dark cloud over the spot followed by a blast of hot chemical air rushing in all four directions from where the bomb that detonated so successfully was buried beneath dry soil; unless the man observing from his place in the dugout of cement sacks stacked against each other a few safe miles away from the spot with a pair of binoculars stuck on his eyes, cap on his head and cigar in his mouth. . . the man who decides on whether civilians are to be informed of the testing beforehand or be left to fend for themselves. . . the big man, just so happens to enjoy the sight of skin melting away from unwary faces and finds the view of flesh and bone thawing, dissolving into thin air like a block of camphor set on fire to be spectacular and exciting and maybe even a tiny bit arousing.


The prejudice that I am referring to does not make itself visible with so much of blatancy.

It is more like the pus that oozes out of a wound that has felt squishy and moist for hours together before the ultimate rupture and the subsequent trickle of fluid actually begins, silent and ignored, lest you reach out to it with an unsuspecting thumb and wince with disgust.

The prejudice that I am referring to is slow in its entrance and takes its sweet time before you become aware finally that your thoughts and views are marred by it so much so that your judgement of the film just watched is most probably flawed and biased.

Quite often it so happens that despite being aware of the presence of this prejudice (that I have explained to the audience well enough and to such squeamish effect), I find myself feeling foolishly confident that I am right in my view and that the film was mediocre or at best average.


I believe it is due to this prejudice that many of us, like myself, fail to differentiate between the power of wordage and the power of audio-visual media, the former being far more subjective in its interpretation than the latter. We end up critiquing a film not on the basis of its individual merits but merely on the basis of how it is similar to or differs from the plot and the setting and the characterization that could be imagined while reading the original work.

And thus, it was one fine day that a friend of mine, bugged by the same issue, suggested an idea that might assist in doing away with this prejudice towards different formats of story-telling employed for the same story. He opined and I agreed that a collaborative post was in order, the two contributors critiquing separately on one format each without even slightly resorting to any form of comparison between the two. That way, it is left to the audience and not the prejudiced mind of a reader-turned-viewer to make out how similar and different, book and film are, the ultimate quest to achieve here for the contributors being-
‘Doing justice to well-executed content, original or adapted’.

The post that follows is the first of what I would like to be many such collaborative posts.

As is evident from the fact that I prefer books over films, I will be reviewing the former whereas my friend, a self-proclaimed movie buff, will cover the latter in his blog (will post the link alongwith my review for your consideration).

PS: 1408 is one of the best horror genre short stories that I’ve read till date.