My thoughts on finishing A Confederacy of Dunces.

 

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For the longest time, I did not want to finish reading A Confederacy of Dunces. I had around 20 pages left and I just wasn’t able to bring myself to accept that it’s coming to an end. Very few books in recent times have touched me so deeply. Be it the big, clumsy, slobbering Ignatius, the unemployed scholar who lives with his alcoholic mother or Constable Angelo Mancuso and his aunt Santa. And the way she grabbed her deceased mother’s photograph and kissed it. Mr. Clyde, the “mogul of the meat industry”, who is actually the owner of a dilapidated hot dog vending business and Burma Jones, the “coloured cat vagran” seeking gainful employment to stay out of jail and his stint at the Night of Joy bar where the owner, Lana Lee is carrying on a pornography ring.

Myrna Minkoff, the “musky minx”, the fiery Jewish beatnik who strongly suggests sexual healing to Ignatius and suspects him to be a closet homosexual. Throughout the novel we get to read their correspondence via letters.  How Ignatius finds her (and most of modern society) “an offense against taste and decency”. I can go on and on…

And what can I say about Ignatius? Underneath his faulty valved heart that despises all things modern and commercial, lies a man who is more than an obese, hulking lump of apathy. There’s a boy hidden somewhere in that lazy, flatulence riddled man who dearly loved his departed pet dog Rex and fought with his mother and the priest over his proper funeral rites. Between his “Crusades for Moorish Dignity” and his violent consternation against modernity, between his fevered advocacy for Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and his tryst as a hot dog vendor in a pirate costume, replete with a mock cutlass, a billowing white smock and a gold earring, there’s a boy who never got accepted and never really wanted it as well. His strong opposition against this century lacking “theology and geometry” is rooted in his love for all things medieval. He’s a misfit and he doesn’t really care. But shocked? Yes. He’s shocked by everything, from the crude Broadways and commercial cinemas he so meticulously follows, simply to note and remark on the degeneracy of society to the lack of “taste and decency” among today’s youth. He hates it all. Shocked by it all. As is frequently expressed by his “Oh my God!”s.

“When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life.”

Fortuna has not always been favourable or fair to Ignatius. Whose fine psyche cannot be scrutinized by those with pedestrian pursuits, whose sagacious and sensitive worldview, as he puts it, cannot be gauged by those less refined. He belongs in his messy lair strewn with suspiciously yellowed sheets and Big Chief tablets where he meticulously pens down his scholarly views.

“My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.”he says,

The suburban streets of New Orleans, with its neon bars, idyllic porches, middle class and deeply suspicious neighbours like Miss Annie, or the elegant, quirky, frivolous homosexuals of the French Quarters cannot handle him. Nor can his masochistic, self pity filled, maroon haired, bowling loving, alcoholic mother,Irene who finally commits to put Ignatius in a mental hospital as she plots with Santa to remarry, finding a potential groom in Mr. Robichaux as a slap on the face of unfeeling failure of a son who says about hs mother:

“It’s not your fate to be well treated,” Ignatius cried. “You’re an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you.”

This book I shall remember for a long, long time and I strongly urge you to read it.

Read it for Ignatius and his belches and gargantuan appetite. His billowing figure, his huge paws and black, moist mustache and green hunting cap as he waddles from one misadventure to another. Read it for the inimitable humour and style of writing.

For a good laugh, for a few tears, and a million unforgettable moments. For example, his exchange with the good looking queer Dorian Greene (yes, quite reminiscent of Dorian Grey, just more colourful):

“I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate façade there may be a soul of sorts. Have you read widely in Boethius?”
“Who? Oh, heavens no. I never even read newspapers.”
“Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age,” Ignatius said solemnly. “Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.”
“You’re fantastic.”
“I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”

 

But most of all read it for the sheer genius of the author John Kennedy Toole, whose first and last masterpiece this is. Who took his life for not being able to accept the heartbreak of his book not getting published. The irony of him winning a Pulitzer Prize for the same book, posthumously. I wish he had been more like Ignatius in his apathy. I wish he had written more.

Do read A Confederacy of Dunces simply for the joy of reading.

 

Theatre of Fragmentation and Myth : In Search of an Identity

Modern theatre in India, as we know it now, saw its birth in the colonial ports of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and catered to a largely bourgeoisie, English educated, westernized audience. Much of the theatre in this era copied the British drama that toured the country, and therefore took on to some extent the aesthetics, dramaturgical structures, and even the architecture of Western drama. The theatre of this time was, quite expectedly, heavily influenced by the norms that defined British dramaturgy and aesthetics. Post independence, Indian dramatists such as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, and Girish Karnad, among others, began to feel the need to emerge out of the colonial hangover that Indian theatre was facing at that point. These playwrights, who are often called members of the “Theatre of Roots” movement, experimented with traditional Indian forms of performance such as Kathakali, Chhau and Yakshagana, to compose drama that was truly “Indian” in essence.

folk1(Yakshagana performance)

folk2

 

folk3(A Chhau mask)

 

In Karnad’s plays Hayavadana (the horse faced one) and Nagamandala (the realm of the snake), he folk traditions, mythology, and a language that is simple yet filled with connotative richness, and show the playwright’s enduring love for myth and history, or “itihasa”. His interest in the performative style of Yakshagana can be seen in his liberal use masks and dolls in Hayavadana and animals such as the snake, mongoose, and dog in Nagamandala. It is important to note also, that the basis of both the plays is oral tradition which acts to enhance their performative potentialities. This is especially true in case of Nagamandala, which is an open-ended play, highlighting the unrestrictive and mutable nature of folk-tales. Such mutability is found in the characters of the plays as well, who undergo transformations in order to reach the semblance of an organic whole. Karnad interlaces ritual and performance, and provides us with a holistic unit combining dance, music, poetry and drama. 

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The plight of an extreme existential crisis is apparent in the figure of Hayavadana-half horse and half man-as well. Both plays are a sociological study of the “other”. From a feminist point of view, the identity of a woman is shown to be forced into subordination by a society defined by unequal power relations. The female subaltern becomes a double victim owing to her gender and is prevented from realizing her creative potentials. In the play, a woman’s alienation from her spouse and her unrequited desires culminate in her deliberate mismatching of heads, with the validation of an indifferent mother-goddess. Folk-tales depict the perception a person can have regarding their own identity as can be seen in the case of Hayavadana, who is perplexed by his incomplete, part human-part beast identity and states how neither religious devotion nor an interest in social and political affairs helped his cause.

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Similarly, the naming of characters in Nagamandala acts as a signifier of problematic identities- for example, Rani’s husband is named “Appanna”, which literally means “any man”. Karnad’s reconstruction and re-interpretation of oral traditions and myths seek to deconstruct age-old customs and beliefs.

Hayavadana opens with a ritualistic evocation of Ganesha, as can be seen in many genres of Indian performance, and shows Karnad’s process of decolonization. A commentary on the deity, who provides a contrast to the figure of Goddess Kali, provides crucial insight on the theme of identity and fragmentation:
 “An elephant’s head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly-whichever way you look at him, he seems an embodiment of imperfection, incompleteness. How indeed can we fathom the mystery that this very ‘Vakratunda-Mahakaya’ with his crooked face and distorted body is the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection? Could it be that this Image of Purity and Holiness, this ‘Mangala Moorty’ intends to signify by his very acceptance that the completeness of God is something no poor mortal can comprehend?”

In Nagamandala, Karnad uses folk traditions such as supernatural elements, and infuses his human and non-human characters with magical qualities. The process of a woman’s deification from her prior status as an abused housewife, as well as Naga’s quest for a tangible identity, fall within the framework of oral narratives.

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(Nagamandala)

Fantasy and myth are used as tropes to address pertinent psychological and social concerns. Just as the sutradhar or Bhagavata is an important entity in Hayavadana, the prologue of Nagamandala portrays the existential conflict faced by a writer or sutradhar, who is caught in a state of limbo where he can neither sleep nor stay awake. He is shaken out of this inertia by lamp flames that become symbols of creative energy, who aid him in transcending sleep and death.

naga2

Love Loves to Love Love

love1

“Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentleman. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschole with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody. ”

– James Joyce, Ulysses.

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Death of a Salesman

salesman

“You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.” 

― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Well, we are all about selling and being sold, aren’t we?

 

“A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”

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Yorick. Evoking monologues since 1599. Memento mori.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

(Hamlet, V.i)

Yorick. The could-have-been talisman. The most-certainly-dead jester. Reminding us of our own mortality, and providing chuckles along the way.

I took that photo in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was sketched on an ice-cream truck. It was a beautiful, sunny day with a gazillion swans splashing about in the river. There were children feeding them bits of bread crumbs. There were old couples sitting on park benches. And then there was this ice cream truck with Yorick on it.

Oh and then I found this on the internet. Sigh.Yes, cats own the internet. Evidently.

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A Cloud in Trousers

vladimir mayakovsky
“Your thoughts,

dreaming on a softened brain,

like an over-fed lackey on a greasy settee,

with my heart’s bloody tatters I’ll mock again;

impudent and caustic, I’ll jeer to superfluity.

Of Grandfatherly gentleness I’m devoid,
 
there’s not a single grey hair in my soul!

Thundering the world with the might of my voice,

I go by – handsome,

twenty-two-year-old.”
 

– Vladimir Mayakovsky

Book Wishlist

I just ordered Bitter Fruit, a collection of short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto. Had greatly loved his writing during my Narratives of Nation Formation and Rupture course, last year. A couple of weeks back I bought Shonku Samagra  and Chander Pahar, two childhood favourites that I had unfortunately misplaced. I always note down books that I want to get, but in my head. And inevitably forget. So it’s best I note them down here. Here’s a tentative list, in no particular order. There’ll be more of these:

  • Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis
  • Ice Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa
  • The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  • Lifting the Veil, Ismat Chughtai
  • An Equal Music, Vikram Seth
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Tales of the Jazz Age, Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinback
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • In Other Rooms, Other Wonder, Daniyal Mueenuddin

The Lord of the Rings (the trilogy, together, in a set), JRR Tolkien

Many, many more on the list. But these, for now. The ones marked in red are the ones I want maybe before my birthday. Which happens to be next month. I need a compassionate and large hearted patron.

Maximum City

“ALL GREAT CITIES ARE SCHIZOPHRENIC”, said Victor Hugo. Bombay has multiple personality disorder. During the riots, the printing presses were running overtime. They were printing visiting cards, two sets for each person, one with a Muslim name and one with a Hindu name. When you were out in the city, if you got stopped your life depended on whether you answered to Ram or Rahim.

Schizophrenia became a survival tactic.

(Reading Maximum City)