Category Archives: Books

Sylvester

Going down memory lane, I stumbled across something I wrote some years ago… Indeed, a book review about Sylvester’, one of my favorites from Georgette Heyer. Perhaps one day I should add more tributes to that master of Regency romance and ‘their cynical Lordships’, but until then, I leave you to read a short recollection of the book ‘Sylvester’.

Sylvester, Front & Back Cover (Arrow Books)
Sylvester, Front & Back Cover (Arrow Books)

 

The trials of arranged marriages are heartfelt. But what happens when the head of the noble household of the Raynes travels to the wilds of Wiltshire to offer for his childhood bride? If the bride is a headstrong, hoydenish miss, revolting against the conventions of teachings of womanhood; quite simply, utter disaster. Such is the cleverly constructed plot of one of my favorite novels of all times; ‘Sylvester’ by Georgette Heyer. This brilliant artist of societal portrayal in its humorist and gayest of forms manages to steals hearts yet again in ‘Sylvester’.

Sylvester, the head of his household at Chance was born to responsibility, wealth and privilege. His earliest days were spent under the aegis of an honor-obsessed uncle, old matrons and tutors who drilled in him the vestiges of obligations, pride and dignity. Losing what was close to him at the mere age of twenty-six years, Sylvester sets out on his mission to find a suitable bride who would take care of his disabled mother, his orphaned nephew, and provide companionship for his widowed sister-in-law. As per Heyer’s conventions, it is not a simple journey for Sylvester. He finds out from his godmother that he and Phoebe Marlow were destined to marry since their birth, as the plan was made and much cherished by both their mothers, who were best friends. But leading to the death of Miss Marlow’s mother, and her father’s second marriage to a rigid lady not liked by relatives, the plan was pushed away, and eventually forgotten. Now Sylvester, with determination and purpose, heads out to Miss Marlow’s estate, but finds her completely inappropriate to his taste. To a man of Sylvester’s birth and handsome looks, accentuated by cynically arched eyebrows, Miss Marlow was but a wraith of a girl, brown skinned and utterly dominated by her mother-in-law. What this unusual exterior hid, of course, was spirit, and the soul of an artist of great satirical skills, which expressed themselves in the form of writing. Miss Marlow, who had taken a dislike to Sylvester on occasion of her visiting London before, was extremely angered and insulted to find Sylvester as a house-guest for the weekend, especially when his purpose was made clear to her.

Undeniably, no girl wants to be overlooked ‘like a filly’, according to Miss Marlow. Thus, her scheme of running away, all the way to London to her grandmother’s protection, emerges. Aided by her childhood friend Tom Orde, she accomplishes this journey, but not without its mishaps, to find out that her grandmother is actually Sylvester’s godmother, who sent Sylvester to Wiltshire for the same purpose of offering for Phoebe Marlow!

It is Heyer at her best indeed. With sophisticated plot development, and the const ant arrival and departure of much loved characters, she keeps me enthralled to the pages of her novel. Laughing one minute, and anxious the next, I feel like I’m whirling around in the twisters of Heyer’s world with every page I turn. Sylvester is no doubt one of her masterpieces, and one of the all- time winners of Regency literature.

Advertisements

The Two Portraits of Johannes

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' (2003)

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Tracy Chevalier) – the book:

Vermeer is more of a thought than an actual person. He is like a very important reminder scribbled on the margins, never on the page itself, but teasing the reader’s consciousness throughout. His presence is skillfully brought to attention from the very start, by attributing to him a few but indelible qualities such as the steady sound of his voice and his minimal but resolute gestures. His two most prominent movements, for example, are grabbing a wrist to save a painting from being torn, and stating simply that the children have not been brought up well, to save a girl her job. He is a stranger in his own house, a cloud or moth or waft of something that seems to have drifted in, unable to form a relationship to anything or anyone else.

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Peter Webber) – the film:

Vermeer is less of a stranger and more of a prisoner in his own house. He is depicted more as shackled creativity than detached creativity. The air of barely controlled frenzy about him deviates from his calm bordering on impassivity in the book. In the book, one almost feels like probing the painter to take action at many points; in the film, the re-invented and somewhat Byronic persona assigned to him curbs that urge. It is, however, to be wondered at what works best; the poignancy is sharp, very sharp, in the book, when Griet discovers, a decade later, that the same painter whom she had given up as a glittering shard from a dream, nothing more, had managed to procure her portrait to look at her again. In the film, Vermeer is shown to be very blatantly snagged by her in comparison, and so the revelation to Griet at the end leaves a different impression.

Oompa-Loompas and that Role-Switching

Mr. Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory claims of having visited a land called Loompaland, from where he has conveniently ‘imported’ these interesting natives called Oompa-Loompas. The Oompa-loompas used to live in thick, dark jungles faraway, they fed on caterpillars, poor things, and were being systematically eaten by wicked creatures with a weirder name than theirs when Willy Wonka, of course, saved them, bringing them back to England and his chocolate factory, promising them an unlimited supply of cacao beans and the security of the factory walls. The Oompas complied, for no one can resist that benign face of civilization, beaming like a sun that never sets over the wilder races of the world (the Oompas, by the way, have unkempt hair and are scantily dressed in animal skins and leaves- by way of consideration, Mr. Dahl adds the information that they are never dirty…they change into a fresh coat of leaves everyday).

The Oompas laugh at the foreigners who visit the factory, and have a keen interest in singing and dancing. Drums are mentioned casually as part of the preludes of their many songs. And one image at once innocently drawn and disconcertingly historical is of the humungous pink toffee boat of Mr. Wonka pulling up the chocolate river, a hundred Oompas driving the oars. And though the Oompas are giggling at the visitors and in no way seem burdened, it is a funny way of arranging transportation…using a populace of living beings, however short and pixie-like, to weave in and out of the waters by exerting their small strengths on the cruelly long, wooden oars. Children who read the story are obviously always too enthralled by the wonder of it all to even pause at the image, and their imaginations, of course, do not include stray references ever made to slave-trade, or glimpses from a darker literature, a sadder literature, or paragraphs from history books, elucidating how grim and not funny this business of people ‘importing’ people actually was. Yet something that pleased me particularly is an alteration usually made in the modern editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory concerning the Oompa-Loompas: they now have skins that are a rosy-white, and hair that is a golden-brown.

The original description of the Oompas seemed problematic to Mr. Dahl’s publishers. It smacked too much of the Heart of Darkness, perhaps. But now, giving them fair skins and fair hair has led to an interesting amalgamation. The Oompas are, for the first time in history, uncivilized whites. They may seem to take on, now, the position of the white other, the funny little (literally) man that exists even inside the whites, for Mr. Wonka tells of how he could not communicate with the Oompas in English and had to speak in Oompa-Loompish to make himself understood. But that he trains this rosy-white other inside him is clear when he adds that now, however, the Oompas can speak and understand English perfectly.

It is, on the whole, a lovely story, complete with morals, cleverly hidden beneath hilarious incidents: how stoicism during poverty pays off, how good, little kids never starve for long, how bad, little kids are paid off for greed and obstinacy and disobedience. But, coming back to the argument, I must admit that I was expecting the Oompas to be black. Sad, isn’t it, how years of Imperialism alter your thinking and create stereotypes in your mind, so that when you read of a mass of people pulling ship-oars, your mind unhesitatingly throws up this image of black skins for you to catch? And you do catch it and hold it tight, not because it’s dear to you but because you can conceive no other. So it is that when the text distinctly tosses rosy-white skins at you, you’re taken aback. I was taken aback. But since then, this question has been both haunting and slightly gratifying me (haunting, because it threatens to rattle all history that has been grounded into my mind and gratifying, because I, too, am colonized and coloured): what if the universal role of white-over-black supremacy had been the other way round, and slaves through history, like the Oompas, been ‘rosy-white’?

Reminiscentially Eerie: Fatima Bhutto’s ‘Songs of Blood & Sword’

f.bhutto
This is not necessarily a review. It’s essentially a an opinion about what’s been written in one of the most controversial books of the season. I’m not aiming to criticize, or to tell you what’s wrong with it. I’m trying to understand what’s behind the eerily chilling historical re-encounters and at times recollections of a passionate and loved childhood by another ‘Daughter of the East’. Although the initial recollections of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto do begin to sound like a repetitive account from a history book; the main charm of the book is when the ‘Daughter’ breathes life into the pages if her own past. Those sections, I believe, are the best parts of the book. People, of course, have claimed that the historical account is biased. If the book was meant to be written as a factual account of what ‘really happened’, I don’t believe it should be read with this in mind. History always has a point-of-view from the sides of all the different actors who are involved in creating it. This is merely one of them; it’s up to people to decide which one they would like to follow; but at the same time, to keep their mind open to all possibilities.
Personally the story-telling nature of the book is what keeps the interest alive. The fact that the subtext on the title does state ‘Memoirs of a Daughter’ is enough to support the nature in which the book is presented to its readers. It is a story; it is a recollection of the past from memory, not only of the daughter of an assassinated leader, but his friends, family, partners, associates, supporters and even bodyguards. That it sheds lights on encounters of history; yes, it does, but merely from the writer’s point of view; not from facts alone, not as an objective writer. But maybe it was never meant to be objective. That it contains emotions, grievances, diatribes of accusation, pain and raw sentiment is what has turned the book into an instant best seller. The whole account is gutsy and courageous; it is human, it’s believable; it attaches the reader to the author; it is like a persistent voice, whispering incidents from Pakistani history that were hidden, but not completely buried. The sense of excitement resembles walking through a timeline from the author’s eyes. It is great, sensational writing in essence, I have to say, storytelling.
My father was the one who bought the book to me, soon after its release since I enjoy non-fiction political writings. I wasn’t excited; I said, “Why are we plagued with so many Bhuttos’ and their internal strife as a family?” I decided not to read it. Then, days after it had been sitting on a forgotten shelf in my house, I happened to pick it up while having tea, leafing through the pages, and I came across the pages describing Shahnawaz’s murder. I have to admit, I couldn’t put down the book after that. I began reading from the middle, flipped back to the start, and read it from start to finish. The perspective from which the words are written; it feels like a daughter’s writing, looking up to a beloved father. And of course, the story is tragic. The tragedy of Pakistani politics is displayed clearly; dirty politics; unanswered questions; suspicions and accusations- it is truly the downfall of the political system in Pakistan. It is chaotic and it is anarchic. It is truly a semblance of a dark period in history. The story of Murtaza Bhutto is a perfect example of a fall from grace; a desperate struggle of a son who grew up with inspirations of revolutionary heroes. But, didn’t every revolutionary attempt spring from desperation? In this story, the assassination of a father; exile from his homeland; and once amidst the dangerous and unforeseen battleground of dirty politics was the oath to be revenged; the tale is perhaps shaped to resemble an epic. And whether it was an epic is something that is yet to be decided.