Ragi mudde

I could barely smell anything and had to blow my nose every ten seconds as we walked to the place. It wasn’t far from home. “just here”, “just here” Neil kept saying. Naffah was being grumpy, upset that we kept talking about his receding hairline.

It wasn’t out fault. What would you do if the old class jock turned in a eternally exhausted, almost bald 18 year old engineering student? Naffah has an odd face that never stops smiling, so you can never tell if he’s angry just by looking at him. The waiter gave him a weird look, as he grumbled. The place smelt bad and Naffah grumbled about Neil’s’ terrible taste. Thanks to his face, we weren’t sure if he was really upset. There were a lot of people around but we found a wobbly bench and wet steel topped table before anyone else did. It was probably a house before it was tuned into a restaurant. Naffah was convinced the walls were made from mud.

Neil kept shouting to people he knew or at least claimed to know. The military hotel which lacked any signboard or name was just called ”the military hotel”. It was a small place a little away from the local temple, which meant that a crowd was always around. Thankfully we didn’t have to look at our feet and pretend not to know Neil for long. The service was fast. Naffah was convinced that this was because they were giving us yesterdays’ food. I told him to find a toothpick and jab at his Ragi mudde to make sure there weren’t lizards in there. He smiled, but Neil  insisted Naffah was annoyed.

We all ordered the same thing. My food tasted bland, maybe it was because I was sick. Neil told me to soak it in chutney, so I did. The experience improved considerably. Naffah smiled and asked me if I wanted a spoon to check for grasshoppers in the chutney. I decided grasshoppers were delicious and really should be used more often if that means food will be so cheap.

Neil started calling out to people again and Naffah tried to borrow through the table with his forehead. He got some bits of food on his head but I didn’t say a thing. He doesn’t like it when people remind him that he’s balding you see. Neil ordered another plate that took a lot longer than the first order. The place had gotten more crowded as the school nearby closed and mid day sun waned. We ate everything on Neil’s’ plate as revenge for his repeated public hollers.

Naffah got a call and left early to do engineering things and loose more hair. Neil called some of his friends over and wanted to order more food. I thought the food was kind of bland, or maybe my cold made everything bland, so I left before Neil realized I hadn’t paid for my food.

Advertisements

Jude The Obscure

Its not hard to see why criticism of Jude The Obscure was so severe Hardy vowed never to write another book again.

In Jude The Obscure Hardy points out flaws in religion, morality, marriage, education etc. He doesn’t leave much to imagination and the things he argues for wold be controversial even today. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started the novel. A happy tales of a man overcoming all odds? Something that would tell your all is right with the world and no hurdle was impossible to overcome.

When it was implied that women could use their sexuality and a little victim blaming was thrown around, I shook my head and though I knew where this was going. It was great that Hardy acknowledged sexuality existed, but he was still a Victorian after all. It was too much to expect him to deal with sexuality in a manner agreeable in our modern age. Boy was I wrong.

Sue Bridehead is easily one of the most surprisingly strong and interesting female characters I’ve ever read.  She better read than half the men around to begin with. Its tragic Jude can’t educate himself, but its more tragic that a person who is less interested but more capable than half the scholars around her doesn’t even consider an education. She is able to reason and debate better than anyone around her; she throws away superstition, tradition and religion. She does what she wants regardless of what the men around her say. The fact that her strong will is finally broken by an unhappy life and social pressure is in my opinion the most tragic part of the novel.

Jude himself is a more passive traveler. His determination to study, marry,find a sort of employment is often hijacked by other matters he gets himself into. You can’t help but sympathies with him and all he goes through. His kindness gets him no where, all his efforts at educating himself are futile and are made during the wrong time. He never finds happiness and dies a drunk failure who can’t stand what he used to believe in.

What the many tragic characters do is highlight the problems with Victorian society. The desire to learn means nothing is you aren’t wealthy. An act of kindness such as separating from some one who cant stand you is damnation. Marriage is a bizarre entrapment that contains little love. Sex is sold,exploited or forced. People are also often cruel and judgmental.

The world isn’t a very nice place for non-conformists. Jude and Sue might have found happiness after breaking away from the many expectations and roles they were obligated to fulfill but it doesn’t last long. Social persecution is immediate and the pair are soon outcasts. They become semi-nomadic and struggle to find work. What little comfort they found was lost once Jude could no longer work and poverty seemed imminent. All their children die as a result and Sues spirit is destroyed. She goes from a strong willed, free thinker who saw no need to conform to the popular ideas of marriage, to a broken woman who desperately tries to find solace in religion and forces herself to marry a man she can’t stand- even going so far as to forcing herself to sleep with him even though the idea used to make her jump out of her window.

Jude is constantly hounded by poverty and class difference. He loses faith in religion, becomes alcoholic and is sickly till his end. Nothing ever comes from all his struggles. Other characters like Richard and Arabella are interesting in their own right.  Richard is also a tragic figure although he is not as prominent in the story. His kindness and unorthodox views cause him to lose all his prospects and Sue never reciprocates his feelings towards him.

Arabella clearly knows how to use her sexuality and is also rather independent. She is shallow and manipulative but she doesn’t really invoke much dislike. Old father time is one of the less believable characters. He seems almost too tragic and depressed to be real -I don’t think children are competent enough to kill two of their siblings and themselves let alone willing. But that doesn’t take away much from the novel.

Jude The Obscure is a dark tragedy that is ruthless in its criticism of Victorian morality, marriage and social divisions. It is a very gloomy novel but engrossing all the same.

The French Lieutenants woman

Reading John Fowles The French Lieutenants woman after George Elliots masterpiece was an excellent decision.

Its quite easy to see how they’re comparable- both take place during the same time period and in a way are quite similar in what they aim to do. Elliot and Fowles both have stories that take place in Victorian England and a ensemble of strong male and female characters. So what difference do you find between an 20th century American man and a 19th century woman who write on similar themes?

The obvious and cosmetic similarities first. Both use references/extracts from other authors/poets to give context to chapters. Elliot uses Classical literature apart from poets and authors from her time, Fowles uses scientists  apart from poets and authors from his time. Both involve love, marriage and ideas about righteousness. Both include slightly tasteless remarks about Jews and  seem a bit orientalist.

The most obvious differences are the ones that arise due to the fact that the author of the French Lieutenants woman is someone who is looking back on what is to him – history. He ,unlike Elliot, is able to look back without as much attachment or biases that arise from living during a particular age. So unlike Elliot he is not restricted to the niche that she is [That of the upper class]. This is not to say that Elliot is oblivious to the poorer sections of society, but she is more comfortable and concerned with the gentry,the clergy and merchants. Or maybe Fowles is just able to see things that would not have been though of being worth mentioning back then.  Fowles has the ability to look back, knowing what is going to happen and is aware of statistics and facts about the Victorian era that might have shocked most Victorians.

The most important tools he seems to have in his possession are his understanding of science and Marx. Science is used to address the way of life, religion, lifestyle and various Victorian habits. Since the novel is set in a time of change where technology was uprooting old styles of life, Fowles use of science is essential to let the reader know about the world the story revolves around. Fowles incorporates everything from evolution to psychology in a love story. A no mean feat.

Fowles is also able to sneak in some criticism of science, psychology in particular, arguing for the need to be more humane in its approach. He makes a good case for why not everything can be chalked up to insanity or hysteria.

There’s a lot of talk on morality and changing social hierarchy too. This is where Fowles seems to use Marxism the most. I think it was rather brave of Fowles to quote Marx and go about talking about class divisions during the era of McCarthyism. He uses it effectively adding his already excellent description of Victorian England. The differences between lower and upper class, the attitudes of the employers and social hierarchy are all elaborated on using Marxist critic.

Both authors are rebels- or nonconformists if your feeling really miserly. Elliot is breaking away from the expectations of the stories that women were supposed to write, from popular morality,happy endings, and criticized certain aspects of society. I’d say her novel is better because of characters and a story so intresting its almost hypnotic. However Fowles is clearing trying to do more with his novel. Elliot seems a softer rebel, she does break away but not radically.

Fowles regularly breaks the third wall, appears in the story [literately] and is at the mercy of where his characters want to go. Fowles is able to say a lot about the role of the novelist in a story, the way he/she plays god and what the novelist must do. The novel includes three very different endings.

The first is a very safe and Victorian one, the one you might have seen coming. The second is not as expected since it does involve quite a lot of moral decisions [and sex] Victorians disapprove of. It is still a very pleasant ending. The final ending is the one that seems to break from tradition the most. It isn’t a very happy one and you wonder if Sarah was crazy,Charles bitter or deluded etc. The last two endings are equally likely according to Fowles.

Offering the reader endings to choose from could be called lazy from any other author. Here it is done masterfully. You realize the book was only disguised as a Victorian novel. The author enters the story and explains his position, the traditional endings he is expected to write, the godlike role he occupies and he plays/ experiments with all these rules. Each ending throws up questions about authorship, traditional styles in writing.

Sex and women empowerment are the most important themes in the novel. Sarah is clearly struggling to cope with the rigid formality and repression in Victorian society. She longs for more freedom and her affair with the French lieutenant is an act of rebellion. Historical anecdotes repeatedly make it clear that few Victorians where as chaste as they claimed to be. Fowles at times seems to suggest that the Victorians had better sex than anyone in his century, I don’t think that’s really true. But it is interesting to see why he makes the argument. Sarah whatever her intentions is clearly a very strong woman who is an intellectual equal to Charles.

Watching Charles ,a Gentleman who exists in an age where Gentlemen are quickly dying out, deal with the rebellion against gender roles that Sarah causes is both an engrossing story and a very accurate description of the outlook towards changing Victorian morality during the time period.

The only real weakness I saw was his description of America. It seemed a little too idealistic and reeked of patriotism. It doesn’t really harm the novel it just makes you roll your eyes a little too often.

The French Lieutenants Woman is a fascinating read. It is a Victorian love story but more, it is a story about an Gentleman  in the 19th century but the story is driven by the strong female characters, its can be both a tragedy or a pleasant happy ending. Fowles has done quite a bit with a simple story and has done it masterfully.

Middle March

When I realized Middle March was 3000 pages on my mobile reader, after I had just put off finishing Anthony Trollope Barchester towers, I was terrified.

Barchester towers wasn’t uninteresting, it’s just that the language and style of narrative made it difficult to finish. Since I had to finish Middle March before the vacations ended I thought it would become a cause of much pain and struggle.  Halfway through the first chapter I was shocked at how wrong I was.

Middle March felt very different from what I expected a Victorian novel to be. The characters seemed like archetypes at first, but Elliot manages to show us their complexity and inner struggles in a way that makes nearly everyone of importance in the novel likable. You could sympathize with everyone from Celia to Raffles. Ever character was given some back story that let you understand why they behaved in the ways they did. Even when they behave badly you understand why they did so.

Mr. Raffles who is the closest thing to a villain in the novel, is a man who has clearly suffered a lot and is haunted by his past. He has nightmare, debts, drinking problems and seems to have made many enemies who force him to flee for his life. Mr. Causbon who is the cause of Doretha’s suffering is also a character who is easy to sympathies with. You understand that there motives that are quite understandable for each character. This humanization of all the characters makes the novel more engrossing.

You might be able to predict where certain subplots like the one with Mr Causbons’ nephew and Mrs. Causbon are going fairly easily. But the fact that it is so easy to care for these characters makes their stories more engrossing. You sympathize with them and even if you know exactly what’s going to happen next, you can’t help but hope that they don’t run into the calamities you see them walking into.

The ending might seem like a fairly safe one with most of the main characters getting a happy ending, but since you have seen so much of their anguish and suffering-along with the fact that they are so easy to sympathize with- make their endings seemed deserved. They have actively worked towards and fought for the endings they get.

When you really think about it the endings don’t seem all that fairy tale like. Quite a few have suffered- the doctor knew he was mistaken in marrying his wife and died early. While she lived to a very long age and never seemed to have done anything about her own issues. Mr. Bulstrode and his family were driven away from Middle March. They might have found comfort in each other, but they still suffered a great deal and Mr. Bulstrode had blood on his hands. What effect would that have had on a man who wished to be so righteous? Mr. Causbons suspicions were well founded and he never got his life’s work published.

Few achieve what they really want and even consider themselves failures. The reader might find better satisfaction in the conclusions of the story rather than in the conclusion of their [The characters] lives. Despite the fact that not everyone got a happy ending, all the development the characters go through make the ending seem satisfactory.

A person who might not have known all that we do might assume that nearly everyone ended up with unhappy endings and had lowered their standings and happiness. But as Elliot explains in the final chapter many of us crate harmful perceptions when we judge people without knowing about the struggles they go through. The novel is extremely effective in arguing for that final suggestion by Elliot.

It must have been very forward for a woman in those times to write a novel that questioned [and sometimes mocks] most of the values and beliefs held at those times. I can’t shake the feeling that the novel is daring in the way it seems to suggest that everyone from gentlemen and clergy to doctors and peasants could, from time to time,  be wrong, mislead and cruel. The comparison she makes between Doretha and the Virgin Mary, apart from being a great argument, must have been very blasphemous/dangerous.

The fact that several characters are encouraged to go against so many social norms must mean that Elliot was quite the rebel. Although the novel deals with a lot of relationships sex is never mentioned. This isn’t surprising given the more conservative time during which it was written but I think Elliot compensates for it by showing so much intimacy. Intimacy being the best word I can think of to describe the delicate bonds and weaker/romantic moments between the characters.

It is clear everyone is aware about their gender roles, the sort of behavior expected from them etc. but they seem to break these barriers placed on them where no one else see them. Eliot shows us the humanity hiding beneath formality. Their weaknesses, their ungentlemanly / unladylike qualities are all laid out. And for everyone one of those qualities she makes arguments telling you why those should not give you cause to condemn any of the characters.

Middle March is also interesting because of the history it reveals. Elliot makes it clear that she is talking of a time before she began to write the novel. 40 years if I remember correctly. But looking back on it from out time it seems even more historical and fascinating. Much more has changed since Elliot wrote her novel. It is impossible to think medicine was considered a low profession and one that would not leave you wealthy. It’s also interesting to see the standing the clergy and priesthood held, with most of the scientific minds of the time, being from the clergy. The fact that there seemed to be so much wealth in the clergy is also interesting.

The contrast between Mrs. Causbons’ orthodox Christianity and the more worldly and liberal Christianity she finds in Rome seems in opposition to the sort of attitude to religion you’d find in those places today. The political events that occur in the background are interesting, but the way everyone reacts to it is the most fascinating part.

The talks on the coming of railways, industrialization, cholera etc all links up Middle March to the rest of England, letting it comment on the changes that those things brought. The book might take a while to finish, but it is impossible put down. You’ll never find yourself unwilling to read through the huge descriptions and digressions because you’re so engrossed with the story and can’t wait to find out what will happen next. The deliberations that the characters drag out make reading a nail biting experience at some points. Elliots’ detailed and sympathetic study of country life is a fascinating read with likable character, many tense moments, much rebelliousness and a very interesting plot.