Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

One of our book groupies has been to India and fallen in love with it. Now, back in grey skied England, she enjoys books about India instead, revelling in their colourful, magical quality. And The Death of Vishnu- her choice - certainly gets that across.

Vishnu – in this case no God – is homeless and lives on a landing of a small block of flats. He relies on the owners – four families – to keep him alive in return for errands. Unfortunately, they are not very successful because he lies dying on the landing. As he lies comatose he relives, as in a dream, his past: his mother, his lover and his life.

In alternating chapters of the book we are introduced to the families and how they interact with each other, and how they react to Vishnu in his dying state. Apparently, in Indian mythology, the God Vishnu is there to establish order when there is friction: in this story the man Vishnu – or rather his imminent demise – creates disorder where there is friction.

The inhabitants of the apartments represent a microcosm of life in Mumbai: Hindu and Muslim living in close proximity to each other, with all those unable to afford a flat living wherever they can, doing whatever they can to survive.

Mrs Asrani and Mrs Pathak share a kitchen but this close-proximity causes tension. They are arch rivals and vie for one-upmanship but their efforts are doomed. Both have ineffectual, hen-pecked husbands who constantly have to subjugate their finer feelings to agree with the petty demands of their wives. These are comedy characters, and although Sunil illuminates the small time mentality of these people and their lives it is difficult to empathise with them.

Their respective offspring, looking for romance and escape, rashly decide to elope. Their disappearance causes much speculation and leads to the most interesting part – and denouement - of the book. Mr Jamal, the boy’s father, is a Muslim but has a Hindu vision. This religious awakening leaves him more oblivious than ever to his wife’s feelings, which eventually has serious results.

The Death of Vishnu was not badly written but the characters were stereotypical caricatures that did not develop: it read like a TV sitcom. No-one felt any warmth towards the characters and many felt this was because they were not well drawn. However, the novel did give the reader a glimpse of how the different castes and religions rub along in India and, to its credit, ‘politics’ were refreshingly missing.

It was the dream sequence chapters – steadily more surreal and lurid as the book progressed – that annoyed many of the book group. They were rambling – as many dreams are of course – and some thought too odd to bear any resemblance to what Vishnu’s life could have been. Fortunately, those who did quite enjoy this aspect of the book reassured our host – who was feeling a little unsure of the wisdom of her choice - that the book had been worth reading!

The Death of Vishnu had certainly been wildly hyped: it is a poor man’s Midnight Children, a pale God of Small Things. Perhaps in Manil Suri’s next novel he will manage to balance creativity with believability and pull it off. I hope so.


Sunday, 20 July 2008

Summer: picnic and open air concert time

Only the Brits would do something this daft: I ask you, would any sane person pay good money to sit in the open air - freezing cold, rain drizzling down their necks – to eat a picnic and listen to music? Are we a nation so in love with the idea of al fresco music and meals that we will suffer for it? I’ve been to two operas and a jazz concert this summer so I should know.

Going to these concerts is like embarking on an artic expedition and takes at least half a day to organise all the gear necessary, even if you’ve decided to cheat and just buy the food already prepared. It takes all day if you’ve decided to show-off, prepare the dishes from scratch and serve them in style.

Firstly all the stuff you’ve been storing in the car boot (a suit for the cleaners, several sample tiles to return, various M&S articles of clothing too small or too large to go back when you next pass the store, a soggy box of ├ęclairs that must have fallen out of the supermarket bag and some old shoes for the re-cycle bin) has to be taken out.

Then in go the wellies, brollies, waterproofs and plastic sheet: that’s just the ‘cater for all eventualities’ weather bit. Next it’s folding table (if they’re allowed), collapsible chairs, picnic rug and rubbish bag. An ice box to hold all the food and a bag for the picnic set and cutlery, paper napkins and glasses are next. If you’re showing off, its lanterns, tablecloths and china too.

Booze is a category all its own – insulated bags are essential with plenty of water for the lucky person who draws the short straw and has to drive back. Forget a bottle opener at your peril. When you get there you have to lug all this stuff at least a quarter of a mile and do battle to find a space where you can see the stage. Because all this takes so long you will probably only have time to eat one course before the music begins.

During the interval you will pick your way to the loos and, if the queue was not too long, find some of the second course left when you get back to your party. When the music starts again you and every other person there will spend the first five minutes donning every article of clothing they have with them, finishing off with the picnic rug.

With luck the sound system is man enough to cater for an enormous space with nothing to bounce off and you can actually hear it. And perhaps your luck is really in and its clap-along music, which will at least keep your hands warm: this is an English summer. What fun!

Picture this: a day out in the country in the 1960’s. A green Morris Minor pulls up on a roadside verge, just beside a farm gate. Dad gets out, and from the boot comes a folding melamine topped table, two low canvas fold-up chairs, a rug, a thermos flask and a picnic basket. Mum gives instructions and everyone gives a helping hand to construct a little picnic scene.

Mum and dad drink tea, the children sip squash and everyone tucks into the fish paste sandwiches whilst the wind flaps the corners of the rug that the children now sit on and grey clouds scud over head. Every now and then a cow moos, a horse whinnies and they hear a bird sing. The portable radio is tuned in to family favourites. It is downright uncomfortable and the quality of the country chorus and the music is dubious but they sit it out. Our parents weren't quitters.

For several years my daughter went to Glastonbury: I don’t think there was one year when it didn’t rain – it usually poured - but it didn’t put her off. She just took her tent and kettle, her gumboots and lots of black plastic sacks. What was a little bit of rain and a river of mud when you could listen to bands all day and all night and eat on the hoof.

Thus are the next generation of ‘open air concert and picnic’ lovers born. The reason we keep going to open air concerts in spite of the weather may just be the triumph of hope over adversity or it could be plain old tradition. Either way, only the Brits who would do something so daft.


Sunday, 13 July 2008

The green, green grass of home

I’ve just spent a wonderfully lazy week in the south of France and it was great. I loved the picturesque sea views, the craggy coastline, the neat vineyards and colourful flowers. But arriving back I realise one of the things I love most about England - the green landscape. And after all the rain we’ve had here it’s a very GREEN landscape.

One of the pleasures of travel for me is to see the gardens of the area I’m visiting. We were staying about half an hour from St Tropez but, although well known for its lavender and olives, it's not an area well known for gardens.

In the small hillside towns you can glimpse the most charming little courtyards – all the more intriguing for having to peer over walls to see them. Clipped evergreens grow in containers, geraniums on doorsteps or in window boxes, bougainvillea smothers walls, oleander bushes line the roads, plumbago tumbles over fences and wisteria clothes facades: all very colourful and pretty.

But there are few, if any, gardens open to the public, unlike further along the coast near Nice. Before I left I did check in my little book on the gardens of France if there was anything close that we could visit and the only thing that came up was a garden on the Iles de Porquerolles, close to Hyeres.

Of course we did visit it and an excellent day out it was too: very worthily the French State has bought up most of the island of Porquerolles and it is now a Parc National. The island – which has woods, orchards and vineyards as well as beaches, a marina and village with a beautiful place and lots of restaurants and cafes - allows no cars and no development. The Conservatoir Botanique National de Porquerolles protects the environment and also the ecology of the island. They are doing everything they can to be as ‘green’ as they can, including using only organic methods of weed and pest control.

The island is on the same latitude as Cap Corse (daily sunshine and very mild winters) and a ‘Mediterranean Garden’ has been established there to show what plants can be grown in such a climate. If you want to find out what plants will survive and flourish then this is the place to find examples of them. But, although of horticultural importance, it is not a pleasure garden that anyone would visit to see how beautiful French gardens can be.

It’s the bare, brown earth - parched and dry - that leaves me cold, that and the lack of lush greenery. But it doesn’t have to be green underfoot: I can happily live with only gravel instead of grass but there has to be plenty of other green - whether on trees, plants or hedges - to fill the space. I’m obviously conditioned to green.

Before I went away I was desperate for some sunshine, it’s so very cheering as well as warming. And I got plenty of sun - recharged my battery – and loved opening the windows each morning to a beautiful blue and cloudless sky. But, returning to the inevitable rain I gave a very Gallic shrug, tans pis, this is why it’s so very refreshingly green here. There’s nothing quite like the green grass of home.