Book Review: The Museum of Literary Souls

The Museum of Literary Souls, John Connolly, ebookHave you ever noticed that extraordinary things only seem to happen to ordinary people?

In real life. In films. In books. Especially in books.

Take for example, Mr. Berger of “The Museum of Literary Souls” by John Connolly (ebook, StoryFront, 2013). Mr. Berger, the protagonist of this story leads a rather dull existence of unvarying routine.

He is single, never been married, and lives alone in London. He works for the housing department of a rather minor council as an Assistant Registrar.

His position as registrar paid neither badly nor particularly well but was enough to keep him clothed and fed, and maintain a roof above his head. Most of the remainder went on books. Mr. Berger led a life of imagination, fed by stories. His flat was lined with shelves, and those shelves were filled with books that he loved…

Mr Berger might sometimes have been a little lonely, but he was never bored and never unhappy, and he counted his days by the books he read.

In all probability, Mr. Berger might have continued living his life in a similar manner for the rest of his life, if not for his mother’s death. Her bequest, though not a great fortune by any standards, was enough for him to resign from his job, move into his mother’s house in the countryside, and attempt to live out his dream of becoming a writer. A new routine developed, another unvarying one that included reading, writing, walks in the countryside and an occasional visit to the local pub.

One evening something happened. Something that shifted the equilibrium in his carefully ordered life.

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Book Review: Silent Cinema in India

Watson Hotel, Historic Hotel, Mumbai

Watson’s Hotel / Esplanade Mansion

In the busy Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai is a run down, decrepit building called Esplanade Mansion. Once upon a time, it was known as Watson’s Hotel and is India’s oldest surviving cast-iron building today. Fabricated in England and assembled on site between 1867–1869, Watson’s has quite a bit of a history attached to it.

There are many stories about Watson’s, but the one I’m going to share here is in the context of the book being reviewed here — Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey (Harper Collins, 2012, Price: Rs.4,999/-) by B.D. Garga. It was at Watson’s Hotel that the Lumeire Brothers’ Cinematographie was screened on July 7, 1896, to an all-white audience for an admission fee of one rupee.

“Cinema arrived in India like an itinerant traveller, unannounced” (pg.15).

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Govinda: Book 1 of The Aryavarta Chronicles

A couple of pages into the “Author’s Note” in Book 1 of the The Aryavarta Chronicles: Govinda (2012, Hachette India) by Krishna Udayasankar, I came across these lines:

We are the stories we tell. The Aryavarta Chronicles are neither reinterpretation nor retelling. These stories are a construction of reality based on a completely different set of assumptions… I am simply one of those innumerable bards who passes the story on, contexualized and rationalized but not lacking in sincerity or integrity. It is you, the reader, who shall infuse it with meaning and bring it to life as you will. (pg. vii)

Govinda, Aryavarta Chronicles, HachetteHa ! That’s what nearly every author of mythological fiction claims, I grumbled to myself as I settled down to read Govinda.

458 pages later, when I closed the book shut, I was no longer grumbling. Instead, I was keenly aware that I had just finished reading a book that had turned out exactly as Udayasankar claimed, particularly the last sentence.

Govinda was no “old wine in new bottle”, as I had initially feared, but a completely fresh perspective on the most timeless of all epics — the Mahabharata. It was a perspective that delighted me, challenged me and, more importantly, made me think.

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The House of Fear by Ibn-e-Safi

The place: Allahabad. The year: 1948. Twenty-year old Abrar Narvi was a fairly well-known Urdu poet, a sometimes writer of short stories and satires, and with a wish to write in other genres as well. One day, someone told him that Urdu novels “would not sell without an element of sex in them”. When Narvi said that no one had ever tried, the same someone retorted that until this was tried no one would know, would they?

Narvi took this remark very seriously, changing the course of his life and that of a whole legion of his readers. In 1952, under the pseudonym of Ibn-e-Safi, he produced his first novel in Urdu without an element of sex and with an emphasis on originality and newness. This novel, in the crime fiction genre, was the first of a series that came to be known as “Jasoosi Duniya”. And in 1953, when Narvi migrated to Karachi in Pakistan, another series was created in the same genre that came to be known as the Imran Series.

Ibn-e-Safi was a prolific writer and wrote 3–4 novels a month at the peak of his productive period. When he passed away in 1980, he had written about 245 novels across both the series. Published simultaneously in India and Pakistan, his novels were hugely popular as they were the type that everyone in a family could read. In fact, Ibn-e-Safi’s publishers (on both sides of the border) claim that no writer of Urdu crime fiction has broken his sales record till date!

It is this popularity which prompted an attempt at translating Ibn-e-Safi’s novels into English to enable a larger number of readers to become acquainted with his works.

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The Red House

Take two families, related families actually, and have them holiday together. They spend a week together in a neutral place, a holiday home, and interact and relate to each other, and attempt to be one big happy family. This is the plot, in brief, of The Red House by Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape, 2012, pp. 264). But families are never simple are they, and the families here are no exception. And therein lies the extraordinariness of this book.

Richard and Angela are brother and sister, siblings who have buried their mother recently. Estranged for many years now, they don’t really feel like “brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline” (p. 6-7). A week after their mother’s funeral, Richard invites Angela and her family to holiday with him and his family. A surprised Angela accepts.

For Richard and Angela, this week gives them a chance to try to put their estrangement behind them and forge a new relationship. It is a week where 4 adults and 4 children try to “bond” with one another. So who are these 8 “family” members?

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Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli was finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it was put in a mixture of lye and water. Then, this mixture was kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would be repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

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