[Book Review]: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian , Han Kang.

There is no easy way to say this. This is a complex book that dwells in the abyss that is the human mind. It toys around with emotions and is rather cold and stoic in the way it settles to narrate the tale of two sisters , Yeong – Hye and In-Hye.

Yeong- Hye leads a pretty normal life. The term normal is an understatement. If I had to trivialise a loveless marriage, emotional impotence, suppressed insecurities, passive aggression, masked intolerance, manipulative relationship, pretend smiles as a BAU normal of a life, then yes, Yeong does lead a normal life. One fine day, she decides to become a vegetarian. She rejects meat of any kind into her diet. This leaves her husband unhappy.

The choice of being a vegetarian, given the Korean context, we are led to believe that the choice is an unpopular one in the society. Yeong’s husband, Mr Cheong is left alone to fend off the snide remarks from the judgemental society. This decision adds tension to their marriage. The family meet up with Yeong’s wider family over a get together and things get worse. Her family feels ashamed of her decision to shun meat. Her dad manages to slap some sense into her.

Push comes to shove and plot details later Yeong gets committed into a mental institution. Oh boy, this is a hard book to review without giving away the plot. I shall have to adopt a different strategy to review the book.

Lets focus on the themes instead.

What is beauty? What one finds ugly is someone else’s white swan. The age old word that says beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, while that makes sense, it’s also worth the while to note that the eyes that see you as beautiful, do they belong to the people in your immediate world? The book establishes the reality of an unsatisfying relationship. The lack of emotional and physical satisfaction and it’s effect on a relationship is horrifically screamed out in a gentle whisper.

Then comes the whole big bang around the nature of oppression. The tale is about oppression. The tale is about violence. The tale is about the might of the will of a few to crush and stamp on the voice of the others. This is a tale of how fractured people and the way they cope up with a flawed life. What choices do we have? Are we strong enough to even make choices? The helplessness of the circumstance would leave us with thoughts and a tinge of depression.

And then comes the theme around choices. There comes a point in time when we have a moment of pristine , demented, twisted catharsis. We act on that impulse and that action goes on to define the way of our life. How far would one go on that conviction? How far would you defend the honour of your choice? How far would you go? What is the extent of what you’d endure and survive in order to hold on to that singular, one and only hope-like thought of a choice? Our protagonist’s choice to be a vegetarian is one such choice. It spawns from a nightmare and Yeong does what she thinks is the right thing to do. The entire tale is her testament to that choice.

The whole book is a glance into the psychology of a person. From a nightmare to a choice. From a choice to an Action. From reasons around that nightmare to the mind’s projection of what it experienced to what it presents as a nightmare? The whole world of interpretation of intent, cause, symbols and their meanings, this book effortlessly tosses all of that out of the window. The book doesn’t pretend to be a super smart , slick dissertation of the human psychology. It does manage to beautifully outline the consequences of gradual and consistent fracture of the self over prolonged duration of time.

The other big theme in the book is Violence. This is a tricky subject. The violence that Yeong endures is almost a 360 degree wrap.

From physical to emotional, from carnal to exploitation, the violence again this woman comes hidden behind masks of varying socially accepted norms.

It makes us question the status quo of right versus wrong. It holds a big ugly mirror that reflects the archaic values ingrained into a patriarchal society.

What stood out in the book is the history shared by the two sisters. It left me numb through implied pain. The little things that had no significant value , the way the little things add up and in retrospect, turn out to be a series of massive life changers, the tale of the two sisters is a culmination of what ifs and regrets. The subtle horror would run chills down your spine.

The rest of the book is around life, death, and death that one endures through each day of a life. The book also elaborates the soul’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. There is far too much going around in this book. The beauty of this is that you get to take what you want to take away from the book.

It is a definite read, if you are used to reading between the lines. There is so much said across everything that is left unsaid.

Karthik

Coming up next : Shantaram.

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[Book Review]: Fatherland

Fatherland , by Robert Harris , is an fictionalised alternate history view of the world. It’s a retelling of the world on the premise that Hitler’s Germany had world the world war. That event in history does change the shape of the course that the world takes.

The year is 1964, Herr Hitler is all set to celebrate this 75th birthday. This is the day that both Germany and the world celebrates in an unified way. The day also goes by the name of Fuhrertag. A body of an old man is found floating about in the river and officer Xavier March gets the call to go and investigate. Investigate he does.

One murder leads to uncovering a string of murders. March connects the dots and realises that the murders are connected and the victims are dead for a reason. There are a few big questions that still go unanswered. Who is killing these blokes? What were these blokes doing? What is so precious that it requires blood to preserve its secrecy ?

Xavier March bumps into an American actress, Charile, in course of his investigation. These were interesting times for the two countries. Hitler was finally welcoming the Wicked JFK. Two nations were at the cusp of coming together, cementing their bond through hate , greed and anti Semitism. March and Charlie team up to solve the mystery to the murders. The rest of the story is a gripping tale of politics, murder and adventure. It’s not the greatest of the ‘Who did it’ tales, however the story manages to retain its momentum and pace to keep the readers engaged about the consequences of the final reveal.

The Germany beyond the war is an interesting place indeed. A nation, the way it builds itself, it’s architecture, they all reflect the sentiment of its citizens. The new fatherland is a one party nation and Mr Fuhrer still it’s heralded champion. Everything about Berlin is a direct comparison to prominent architectures around the world where the version in Berlin is both bigger in size and grander in setting. This is a subtle nod to the lack of imagination and originality of the nation and it’s head. Germany, as I perceive through the words, is on a spree to compensate it’s insecurities. All of it’s achievements are mere comparisons at best. The insecurity of a nation is beautifully presented. A nation that has capabilities but lacks creativity and imagination.

The next theme explored in the book is about the effects of one party leadership. The state of perpetual fear and propaganda governing the daily lives. I no longer see the distinction between fiction and life. We do have one party leadership in a few regimes today. The quality of life, the magnitude of lies that shadow and distort the minds of the millions of citizens who are caught unaware. Then again, masses under delusion of supremacy is not restricted to dictatorship. We do have our Trumps and Modis ­čÖé

Couldn’t resist that snide retort!

Then comes the big white elephant that wears a florescent green shirt in the room. What happened to the many million jews ? In the fictional world of the Fatherland, it’s people are not fully aware and enlightened to the history of Fuhrer’s actions. A million people who look the other way when asked about what happened to the other set of million who just vanished. Denial and disillusioned. Yet again, this was a slap on the face of modern age living. We, the modern citizens of the world, live in that delusion that everything is alright and nothing is out of place. Yes, casual sexism is alright and it does not ‘corrupt’ the society. Oh yes, discrimination is a birth right as long as we sensitise ourselves and mask our ugly intent. I don’t blame us for what we have become. It’s just that the mirror reflects things that exist and not of things that could have been. The book focuses on one example to exemplify the million other examples that nobody wants to sit down and talk about.

There are a few characters in this crisp tale. We have the hero, Xavier March. Broken, duty bound, an SS officer. All that is left of his life is now work and work he does. There is Charlie, the American actress. Young , Wild and perfect yang to March’s ying. There is Max, March’s best bud from many years. He worries a lot about March’s attitude towards the fatherland. March does not gel well with the fear-laden society. No Heils, no subscription to the party. March , Max believes, is destined to be silently executed in the middle of the night by the gestapo.

Then there is Globus. The chief of Gestapo. Ruthless and a proper Bond Villain of sorts. While none of the characters stand out and can ever hope to capture your imagination in a spellbinding way, they are the best fit for this tale and they serve their purpose perfectly well. I’d like to blame the tv series, Man behind the high castle for my obsession and addiction to pronouncing SS ranks like Sturmbannf├╝hrer , Obergruppenf├╝hrer , KriminalPolizei. Leave it to the Europeans to inspire fun into spelling and pronouncing words ­čÖé

The book is not a serious dive into social welfare and mass psychology and behaviour. It stays truthful to the story that it intends to narrate. It’s a fun , thrilling ride and hope you enjoy it too.

Karthik

Trains and coffee

“I don’t know. I don’t see a way out.” the sadness of my voice made its plea with words. I discretely wiped a gentle river of tears away from my eyes. I did hope that it would go unnoticed. Clearly, it wasn’t my day of luck.

“I’ll figure something out. Please don’t cry. I’m here now. We’ll find a way and do what needs to get done” he assured. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a girl could manage to get a break from the cruel talons of life.

Now that I think about it, it only takes mere moments for people to stop being strangers. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to know someone. I didn’t know David for all my life. The first time I noticed him was the morning train to work. He stood by the door, facing me. I glanced at him without an afterthought. That was that. I got off my stop and made it to work. I didn’t have a reason to spare a thought about him.

My life is a little complicated. I’m a simple girl and I’ve had a rather humble beginning. I walked into this land with hopes of a better life. I did find a better life and it was good for a while. I met my future husband at work. We both felt a mutual spark and we married soon. The troubles started slowly. There were days when my darkened glasses would mask my bruised face. The loving tender and care had soon vanished and had left behind booze fuelled rage and resentment. There were days when I saw more of his roughened fist than his caring face. I had quietly accepted my fate and had opted to succumb to the cruelties of destiny. This was my life and I couldn’t do anything about it.

It was one of those days when I noticed David. He had been taking the same train, always standing at a safe distance away from me. I was always in his line of sight, as was he on mine. I had seen enough of him to find his face familiar. He had the same kind blue eyes. I secretly wondered if he also had demons locked away behind his innocence.

A good two weeks later, he managed to muster up the courage to approach me. We had been neighbours on a train all the way. The one off glances had changed to acknowledged smiles. It wasn’t long before he had braved to speak. It wasn’t much. A generous offer for a cup of coffee. I didn’t see a harm in that. Sharing a cup of coffee with a stranger wasn’t the same as cheating. It wasn’t the same thing. It was always going to be an innocent cup of coffee.

A few cups of coffee later we realized that we had become friends. The Friday was sunny and the clouds had made way for the sun. It was a beautiful pleasant day to be outdoors. I had carried my dark sunglasses with me that morning. Things had gotten rough the previous evening. I needed someone in the world to know what I was going through. I needed someone to see me for what I was. I wanted someone to hear my trapped misery. David was all that I had.

I told him the horrors that I had accepted into my life. He was deeply saddened by it.

“I don’t know. I don’t see a way out.” the sadness of my voice made its plea with words. I discretely wiped a gentle river of tears away from my eyes. I did hope that it would go unnoticed. Clearly, it wasn’t my day of luck. It was all that I could manage to do. I had given my life the best that I could.

I do believe that in a world where Karma catches up. It wasn’t long before David came up with the solution. In his mind, a murder felt justified. It justified my pain. It justified a revenge and the most important thing to it , he knew it couldn’t be traced back to us. The simplicity of his plan terrified me. I couldn’t have imagined a sinister mind hiding behind his innocent eyes. I had made up my mind and had accepted to let fate take its course. I had to endure my cursed life for a month. Liberation was waiting for me on the other side.

It wasn’t long before David popped a proposal . It was the same coffee shop. It was the same David. I felt newer and livelier. Of course I said yes. I was always going to say yes. For good and for worse, David was the one that set me free. He had both my heart and my gratitude.

Now that I think about it, it only takes mere moments for people to stop being strangers. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to know someone.

“I don’t know. I don’t see a way out.” the sadness of my voice made its plea with words. I discretely wiped a gentle river of tears away from my eyes. I did hope that it would go unnoticed. Clearly, it wasn’t my day of luck. I had broken down in front of him.

Six months of a marriage later, I had met Michael. Same blue eyes. Same innocence. I knew there was a demon hiding away in plain sight.

“Please don’t cry. I’m here now. I mean it’s fate now aint it. We met on the train and now you have a problem and I think I know how to get that sorted” , Michael tried to console me.

As I said, I’m a simple girl with humble beginnings. Our coffee had arrived. A murder was in the horizon.

Karthik

T’was a good day

“Local youngster found brutally hacked”.

It wasn’t the best of the headlines to read out loud at seven in the morning. I did so nonetheless. I’m habituated that way. I’m 70, I live with my son and his family. The nice comfy cane chair is mine for the taking and I take to it everyday without fail. The routine is the same. I sit and read the paper. I’m usually quiet, but there are those few headlines that I make a point to read out loud. It’s an old fool’s cry for attention. My son and daughter in law don’t have the time for me in the morning. Peak hour rush to the office. They usually don’t have the time when they return from their offices tired. Their weekends are packed. They don’t have kids.

I’m not the kind of a person who enjoys complaining. There is no point. I’m only making an effort to call spade a spade. I had never imagined my life to take this shape. As a kid, I aspired an education. As an adolescent, I aspired a good job. As a man, I aspired a good wife. As a husband, I aspired a good son. As an old father, I don’t aspire much. I hadn’t thought of a life post retirement before. The slogs of the daily rat race had kept me too busy to sit back and contemplate about the life beyond a job. The day I lost my wife was a stark wake up call to my evolving reality. These days, I’ve accepted this way of life. And so I sit on my chair. I call out a few headlines and hope it attracts a few words of a conversation either my son or my daughter in law.

The bait worked today. The headline caught my daughter in law’s attention.

“Oh that’s bad appa” she stoically replied. “Don’t go out alone. Stay away from deserted roads”. That was the extent of her concern. I knew I shouldn’t expect much.

“Don’t be silly pa” my son joined in. He usually joins in whenever she has something to say. “Things happen. If it’s meant to happen, there is nothing we can do about it. Stay in the house. Why do you have to go out”.

My son’s words were for me to hear. He didn’t have the time to hear what I had to say. His words conveyed, I saw him pick the car keys that were dangling on the keys holder that was mounted near the door. Like always, no goodbyes. And just like that, he had vanished. Soon after my daughter in law left for work too. She always has been kind enough to tell me when she leaves for work. Today was no different.

For a man my age, most days are no different.

I ate my breakfast in silent loneliness. I was used to the quiet. It funny when I look back now. I had always assumed that the words peace and quiet coexisted. I thought the two words were a pair made in heaven. It happens that they aren’t. I’ve embraced the quiet. Peace continues to remain elusive. With the breakfast done, the dishes cleaned, I stepped outside. I have a nice little routine of sorts. Temple, that’s a few blocks away from the house. Then I hit the little shop by the corner of the street. There is a school, a few minutes away. I enjoy walking past it. I don’t have distinct memories of watching my son play in his school’s playground. I like to see the energy and enthusiasm of the kids. The noise brings me a momentary peace. Not the quiet, the noise.

I then walk a bit longer before I make a U-Turn and head back home. The roads are usually empty. It’s fine during the day but it gets rather dark at night. The lamps don’t work well here. A man’s got to make due with what he has. A routine is an old man’s companion. It keeps me alive. It keeps me moving. It is the only thing that helps me maintain a sense of purpose to waking up every day. Don’t let literature and movies fool you. One doesn’t quit on life that easy. While I have harboured a few suicidal thoughts in the past, they have always been just thoughts. It’s like wishing upon a million bucks or a fancy car or that dreamy vacation. It’s fun to think of an exit from the misery. But that’s all there ever is it to. I lack the conviction to see things through. I’m well accustomed to stay in the land of the living. I’m neither immortal nor eager to end my time. When it’s time to go, I shall go without a fight.

Walking is fun. I’ve never really walked much before. I used to drive in my youth. The time came to pass the baton to the next generation and along with it, I passed the keys to my cherished car. Truth is, it was a car that my wife loved. It was her very first car. She wanted black but her beliefs wouldn’t let her live with the shade. She chose grey instead. After her, I didn’t feel that bonding attachment to the car. It was just a bucket of metal and plastic with wheels. My son took it. He complains about it from time to time. I’m sure he’d pick a new one too.

Walking has been a different experience. The world treats me with smiles and hostility. I’m usually called a nuisance on the road. Angry drivers honk and remind me to stay locked indoors. A few nice folks greet me every day. It’s a balance of smiles and frowns. I like the surprise that the world brings every day. Today was no different. Unlike yesterday, today has been relatively quiet.

Yesterday was an inconvenience. I saw this boy stalk a girl. As the distance between the two narrowed, I could see the girl feeling apprehensive. I stepped in to remind the boy that what he was doing was wrong. The rascal shoved me away. An old man takes a fall, a girl walks home safe. I could live with that. I collected myself and made it back home. I sat restless through the day. What could an old insignificant invisible man do anyways.

As luck would have it, I spotted the boy again on my evening walk. As I said, the roads are empty and the lights are dim. I continued my slow paced walk. The boy was busy on his phone and hadn’t bothered to register my existence. That was that.

I smiled thinking about the headlines today. Insignificance and invisibility are an old man’s friends. T’was not the first day of the kind. T’was a good day. The things I did for a little attention! Another day to look forward to. Another headline to read out loud.

Karthik

*Inspired by this old man that I met on the tube.

Macbeth : A curious peek into the ides of march

The mere mention of Macbeth brings out fond memories of the humour around ‘ Out damned spot’. The tragedy , till date, has transcended the boundaries of time, those of culture , has broken barriers of language. In fact, the context of the tale still holds well. I must admit that I’ve not dared reading the works. I’ve not watched the play. I settled for the second best. Vishal B’s Maqbool. It’s a take on the story and is set in the backdrop of crime family.

It’s not the tale that got me thinking. I got distracted by the sub plot that fuels the pace of the narration. The three witches got my attention. The three witches, or as I remember them, the sisters of fate are central to the plot. They prophesize the fall of Duncan and also the rise and fall of MacB. While their existence in a tale sure does authenticate the existence of a supernatural, it was not the surreal that caught my attention. There was something simpler and far sinister at play that got me wondering.

If one were to hypothesize the validity of the supernatural, accepting the existence of such powers also does acknowledge the fact that premonitions are a way of life and observed norm. If one were to dispute such an existence, it also throws the prophecy off the window. To sum that up, prophecies are either real or delusions.

With a level playing field set around the context of the supernatural, let’s now take a closer look at the man of the hour, Mr Macbeth. He bears audience to three predictions. The first of the lot occurs and this fuels him to contemplate the murder of the king. He eventually becomes a king himself. The predictions turning real, he also accepts his inevitable fall that he awaits. He does try to mitigate that and we are left with logistics and word play to usher a little misdirection to keep the plot rolling.

Is this all a little too much fantasy to trivialise and rubbish?

A wonderful argument is that Macbeth ‘did’ and acted on an impulse. His deed resulted in a murder and that resulted in him being a king. Prophecies are words and it’s the actions that determine the course of things to come. Without the act of murder, the fates would have remained the same.

Another peek into the event is the source of inspiration from which MacB drew courage. He put his faith into words, a kind of faith that helped him overcome his apprehensions and gave him a purpose to pursue. Would he have killed if not for the words of fate? Would he have killed even if the sisters didn’t mention his fate to be? Guess this swings along the case of to be or not to be.

Choices, and I smile at them today. Choices are an outcome of a determined will. The degree of determination, the grit to a conviction are both an outcome of a choice made, fears mitigated and risks weighed. Which brings the role of the sisters to a possible placebo effect.

We are all a Macbeth in many ways. We hesitate to act on days. We yearn for that word of future to assure us that our actions would yield results. We place the free will of our choices to words of fate. The contradiction is astounding. An assurance of fate warrants an action that goes ahead to alter that fate. In that respect, fate is a derivative of action.

I could argue that words have the power to change too. Words that inspire courage, which alters destinies. Words that fuel a crippling fear that renders us inactive. When that’s the case, words still do alter destinies. Such fear to such words results in us staying in a state of inertia and never quite reaching the pinnacle of our destiny.

It was this conundrum that kept me intrigued about the tragedy. Maybe it does take a little water to wash away the bloodiest of sins. More quite so when one realises that the magnitude of a sin is not measured through actions, but by thoughts that traps us in guilt.

Karthik

La Belle Annabelle

What should have been a fun movie review outlining how good the movie is, how the scares and the scare tactics work, how the movie’s subtle plot points connect well with the Conjuring universe, Unfortunately, it was not the kind of horror that I thought I’d be watching.

The day started off nice and easy. The I-Day. It felt nice to celebrate the day in a way that I could. Spur of the moment decision and I opted to watch a movie, Annabelle : Creation , later in the evening. A quick hop to Leicester Square later, I knew I had arrived an hour before the show could start .It was going to be a good evening after all. I loitered the streets, shot a few pictures, the smiling faces of Londoners was as pleasant as they have always been. With a little time to go, I made it to the movie hall. A large bag of salted popcorn later, the show was all set to begin.

This was a first of many kinds. I’ve been a purist when it comes to picking movie halls. BFI – IMAX. Period. Unfortunately, BFI was still showing Dunkirk, a movie that I seem to be avoiding for no warranted reason, I made that choice to try Super Screen in Cineword Leicester Sq. Italian leather seats, Oh I picked the balcony, which made it even more flamboyant. The balcony was smallish and cozy. I knew I’d enjoy the show. I had picked a nice strategic seat. Bang on Centre to the screen. The horror was all that I needed. Like a junkie after a fix, I was excited about the show that was to begin.

The funny thing that added to the sense of horror in that balcony was the simple fact that when people walked in, the entire room would feed shock waves. Two false jumps later, I had gotten used to the movement and the aftershocks. The ads had started. There were a dozen people sharing the balcony with me. Small crowd. That enhanced the eeriness to the movie watching experience. Perfect.

The floor rattled once again. I had grown wiser to it’s rumble. I ignored it. It rattled and rattled some more. The rattling persisted and I realized that something was going on a few seats away. I slowly turned away from the screen towards the side to see what was going on. Two blokes had kick started a fist fight. They were about 10 seats away from me, a row above.

My initial thought was that they were just a bunch of kids, teasing each other and landing soft punches to kill time. With the clock ticking, the punches didn’t sound soft any more. Yes, I could hear each thud landing. I could hear each fist getting in contact with a body.

Lets just say things escalated really quick. I’ll skip through the gory details. Watch American history X instead. I saw the same thing. Thank god, it wasn’t an execution.

I sat frozen in fear. I didn’t want to be on the path of the two idiots hell bent on killing each other. I made a split decision to run down the stairs and notify the manager , or flag it to the cops who were there on the streets. The message now conveyed, the cops now engaged, as I walked back to the hall to collect my bag, the victim walked past me. The horror still remains in my head and his blood remained splattered across my shirt. I didn’t realize it when he walked past me.

Testimony and witness account narrated to the cops, the movie resumed. With the movie now watched, only when I walked under the lights of the street did I notice streaks of red plotting fashionable tangent across my white shirt. I grew sicker and sicker on the train ride back home. I knew I was hallucinating the smell of blood. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t real. It felt all too real to me. The sanctity of my sanity had been breached.

It was the moment when the horror had finally caught on.

What drives us to deliver horror in real life? For what it’s worth, the movie was good and it’s horror was pale in comparison to the one which I didn’t volunteer to witness.