If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A book, a film, and a man

“Part of a reader’s job is to explore why some writers endure.” Francine Prose

The book

Truman Capote was a writer of exquisite style and subtlety. After reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Norman Mailer said Capote was “the most perfect writer of my generation” adding that he “would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's.”

Breakfast at Tiffany's was critically acclaimed, but Truman Capote achieved fame, money, and international acclaim upon publication of his seventh book, In cold blood in 1965. The inspiration for writing the book was unusual.

On a moonlit night in November 1959, a wealthy farmer and three of his family were murdered by unknown assailants in a remote farmhouse in rural Kansas. Two men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were arrested in December at Las Vegas and by January 1960, the case was solved. The accused were sentenced to death swiftly by a local court.

During the next four years Truman Capote stayed in Kansas on and off and talked extensively with the local FBI agent, Alvin Dewy, the killers, and everyone even remotely connected to the victims or their killers. He went to extraordinary lengths to gather “material”, including bribing jail wardens to meet Smith and Hickock. His childhood friend, Harper Lee, author of To kill a mockingbird, assisted him in the research.

The result of all this was In cold blood, a 343-page book that describes the crime, the lives of the victims and the killers, and the social milieu around them. The work, which Capote claimed to be the first of a new genre – the nonfiction novel, apparently combined the authenticity of reportage with the lucidity of fiction.

Some minor details of the book have been disputed. But the eminent readability of the book is beyond dispute. It is a whodunit where the readers know who did it, right from the first page. Yet, it is difficult to lay the book down. That shows Truman Capote’s mastery over story-telling.

The film

Capote had developed a kind of emotional relationship with one of the accused, Perry Smith. Capote and Smith had similar childhood experiences: fathers without steady occupations and alcoholic, unloving mothers. Capote was brought up by cousins and Smith suffered the horrors of charitable homes. They were both men from the margins of the American society who tried to overcome their odds, albeit in very dissimilar ways.

The research leading to the book and the “friendship” between the two men was the subject of the 2005 film Capote (based on a biography by Gerald Clarke). Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal of the title role in the film.

The film narrates how a gritty Capote spent four years of his life on the investigation, although for quite some time, he was unsure if the facts would coalesce into a cohesive story good enough for his purpose. He helped the accused to find better lawyers and partly because of his efforts, their execution was stayed five times.

As the trial dragged on, Capote met Perry Smith again and again to hear from him “what exactly happened that night”. Capote was committed to unravel the tangled threads of the story. He also knew that his work would remain incomplete without Perry’s final confession. He cheated Perry, didn’t reveal his personal interest in prolonging the trial. In fact, he lied through his teeth to tell Perry that he hadn’t even decided about the book’s title whereas, in reality, he had read excerpts from its first three chapters to a packed auditorium in New York!

For a long time, Perry refused to reveal the details. But ultimately, he gave in. And Capote immediately withdrew his hand of friendship.

But Truman Capote did not play the dangerous game without paying a price. The film shows him going into depression, almost on the verge of destruction. He recovered, thanks largely to the ministration of Harper Lee, and was present at the time of hanging of Perry and Dick, to honour their last wish.

In the end, the film notes that Truman Capote did not complete another full length book after In cold blood, and in the epigraph of his last, incomplete work, he quoted Mother Teresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

The man

As one goes to bed after a late night viewing of the film, one feels that Truman Capote was as much punished as Perry Smith was. But do facts bear testimony to the feeling?

Although the case against Perry, who pulled the trigger at all the victims, was watertight, there were serious question marks on the sentence to hang him. Perry’s sanity was questioned through the initial trial and subsequent appeals, as Capote himself noted in his book. A British art critic Kenneth Tynan even implied that Capote wanted the accused to be hanged so that the book would have an effective ending.

Truman Capote, a five feet three inches (160 cm), openly homosexual man from humble origins, was a relentless – and possibly unabashed – social climber. He befriended the rich and the powerful, including business tycoons and Hollywood celebrities.

He was prone to self-publicizing (how many successful men aren’t?) and would bend truth to achieve his purpose. He claimed to intimately know people he had in fact never met, such as Greta Garbo. He accused the people, who questioned his intellectual honesty, of jealousy.

In the years following In Cold Blood, he wrote little and continued living an extravagant life among the glitterati. But he also continued to work on what was expected to be his next major novel: Answered prayers, on the private lives of the jet set.

Publication of the second chapter of the novel in a magazine in 1975 outraged many, because it was a thinly veiled story of the dysfunctional personal lives of a couple, who were his intimate friends. The rich and famous feared more such exposes of their glamorous but often sick lifestyle and they did what Perry and Dick couldn’t. They shut the doors on Capote’s face.

That was a setback from which Capote never quite recovered. Answered prayers remained incomplete and he died in 1984 – before reaching sixty – with a malfunctioning liver and other conditions related to substance abuse.

Returning to the epigraph of this article, Truman Capote has endured for over half a century. I believe he is going to be around for “a few more weeks” not only because of his flair for prose, but also because when he tells a story, he takes his reader deep into the minds of his characters. The reader becomes fictionalized, they become the characters they are reading about.

Kolkata, September 08, 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

A rail coach in darkness

That winter afternoon, the sky had decided to put on a golden make-up. Some time after crossing the Dhanbad junction, a passenger train disgorged me at an unremarkable station and left slowly, almost with a touch of reluctance. The people who got off with me melted into the wheat fields around; I stood on an empty uncovered platform under a yellow sun and a sparkling sky, with my shadow as the only companion. There was a nip in the air; time hung lazily over the horizon like an invisible mist.

I was at college then, eighteen or nineteen years of age. From the station at Kodarma, a small mining township in Bihar, I would go to a nondescript place nearby. My friend, Anirban Mitra lived there, with his parents and a small sister. His father was the station master there. Anirban had told me that the place was a remote outpost of the Indian Railways and there was nothing there, except the rail station, jungles, and a slender river. Only one passenger train stopped there in the morning. In the evening, a railway engine from Kodarma transported railwaymen working night-shifts to different stations along the route.

The engine was ready to start. Several people stood on its side and rear, holding on to brass handrails. I was excited by the prospect of travelling on a railway engine, but it was not to be.

The engine driver had an unpleasant message for me: ‘Mitra saab’s little daughter has fallen seriously ill. She has been admitted to the Railway Hospital at Dhanbad. The entire family have gone there with her. Haven’t you received the telegram?’

A return train was expected much later. Darkness descended quickly and an icy wind blowing in from the Himalayas forced me into the waiting room. As I settled myself in a long reclining chair smelling of the British Raj, I watched darkness and silence through window panes. It seemed I was the only living being in that station.

The ancient, dimly lit waiting room was eager to tell her tales. … I heard the bangles of a newly wed girl tinkling with dreams and anxiety; felt the utterly hopeless mute fear of a lost child; … the happy footsteps of a husband coming home after years.

‘Waiting for the train to Dhanbad?’ A young man interrupted my musing.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘It’s delayed. Not expected before eleven.’

The stranger, Sunil, was in early twenties, with a slim athletic body and a weather-beaten unshaven face. He looked tired. With a warm smile, he introduced himself as a prospector. The unusual profession surprised me. Hadn’t prospectors – who always wore broad rimmed hats – belonged to an extinct tribe that lived long ago in Africa, Australia, or Alaska, and whose stories have been told by Rider Haggard, Jack London, and our own Bibhuti Bhushan?

Sunil explained that he was into mica mining, which was not very different from gambling. One had to take a tract on lease and start digging. If one was lucky, one would come across a large chunk of mica and become an instant millionaire. But millionaires were in short supply, most of the adventurers ended up paupers. Sunil, a colliery owner's son, too had lost a large part of his inheritance in the quest, but was confident to hit the jackpot some day.

We went to a roadside eatery for our supper. Sunil was a frugal eater: he ate just two rotis and daal and didn’t drink tea. We talked and exchanged addresses. Sunil had lost his parents long before in a car crash near Hazaribagh, and had been brought up by his grandma. By the time we finished supper, we became good friends. We were in that magic phase of life when people naturally trust others and when complete strangers can become friends in half an hour.

As we were returning, a train had just arrived from Dhanbad. Some people were coming out through the narrow exit of the station. Sunil said, 'Let's go back to the tea shop.'

'Why? We've just had our food.'

'Nothing, I just feel like having tea. Surely, you can have another cup?'

Sunil insisted that he pay for the tea this time. When we returned to the station, the waiting room was quiet again. I dozed off. I don’t know how long I slept, I was suddenly woken up by a big commotion: the deserted station had been filled chock-a-block by a milling crowd, animatedly discussing something. I thought I was dreaming; how could there be so many people in such a sleepy station so late in the evening? But it was real. The magical transformation had come about because a circus show had just ended nearby. These were the spectators on their way home.

When a passenger train arrived, a real-life circus performance began. The compartments were full and all the doors were secured from within. The men on the train were not bothered about their unfortunate brethren outside, and refused to let them in. The people on the platform banged doors, tried to prise open windows and made full use of their lung-power. The colourful vocabulary of Hindi four-letter words flowed at its charming best. The folk returning from the circus were no mean gymnasts themselves. Every time the train started, a smart young man would jump on to a buffer and pull the brake lever jutting out at the end of the compartment. They seemed pretty sure-footed upon the buffers and about the intricacies of railway engineering. After a while, a few doors were opened and a surprisingly large number went in. Many others hung on to the foot-boards and buffers ignoring the freezing cold. The train chugged out.

Two more trains arrived and left in the same fashion, and everyone, barring a few old or infirm people like yours truly, managed to leave. By then, the station had been enveloped in a dense fog and no other train was scheduled that night.

Sunil and I walked briskly on the platform to keep ourselves warm. Clattering teeth ruled out a chat. For the first time in my adult life, I prayed to God for a minor miracle. Soon God appeared from out of the fog in the shape of a railway porter wrapped in a ghostly blue blanket. Pointing at a rail coach in darkness some distance away, He said that the dabba would be hitched to the first train leaving towards Dhanbad early next morning.

We thanked the porter God and ran. I climbed on to the pitch-dark compartment first, eager to stretch myself on an empty bunk. But I stumbled on something and fell headlong. Fortunately, I fell on something soft. Soon, it dawned on me that I was lying on a couple of sleeping humans. The compartment was packed like a tin of sardines! There was not an inch of vacant space and the air was thick with the smell of bidi smoke and snoring. But no one minded our intrusion. Sleeping bodies were moved willingly to make room, and somehow, room was made.

When I woke up, it was morning and we were at Dhanbad. Sunil was gone and my purse was empty, except for some small change. There was also a chit of paper with a hastily scribbled note.

“Dear Arun,

I am sorry to do this to you. I had no choice. I told you the first part of my story, which was true. But I didn't tell you that I am a fugitive, on the run from my creditors, who have links with Dhanbad coal Mafia. I will be beaten to pulp if I am caught. So I must run. And in order to run, I must eat. The rupee that I paid for the tea was the last I had on me.

The address I have given you is genuine. My granny still lives there, and cries. The Mafia won’t go to the police, but you can, if you wish. I am at your mercy. But I trust in God, I will come out of the mess that has been created by me and me alone. And I will keep your address carefully. I will pay you back, my friend, some day.”

Shortly after I returned from the trip, my father was transferred out and our family moved to Bombay. So I would never know if Sunil ever came out of his self-created mess.

Trumbull / July 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A place of pilgrimage

We got off an auto-rickshaw when the sun was going down. The auto driver cheated us quite ruthlessly. As we approached the main entrance, we found a symbolic policeman with a short-barrelled gun looking wistfully at the light Sunday-evening traffic in the dusky light. There were no metal detectors; no one frisked us as we entered the campus. The peaceful ambience was apt because we were at Sabarmati Ashram where, “rooted in the soil and the sun and people of India, Gandhi grew to full stature as the leader of his nation.”

Gandhi – not Mahatma yet – founded the ashram on 17 June 1917 “at Sabarmati, across the Sabarmati River from the city of Ahmedabad”, wrote Louis Fischer in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Presently, it is within the inner circle of the bustling city. The ashram consists of rudimentary white-washed cottages with tiled roofs, the only exception being the Gandhi Museum, a later addition. Even this modern structure has just one floor and sloping roofs, and blends beautifully with the rest of the campus.

After his final return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhiji set up an ashram elsewhere. He shifted it to Sabarmati because “he wanted to do some experiments in living, e.g., farming, animal husbandry, cow breeding, Khadi and related constructive activities, for which he was in search of this kind of barren land.” At the Ashram, “Gandhi formed a school that focused on manual labour, agriculture, and literacy to advance his efforts for self-sufficiency.” [Source: The Ashram website].

Lous Fischer wrote: “The population of the settlement fluctuated from 2o at the start to a maximum of 230. they tended the fruit trees, planted grain, spun, wove, studied and taught in surrounding villages. … The ashram, in fact, became the navel of India.”

Except for the time spent in prison, Gandhiji lived here in a small room in a cottage, Hridaya Kunj, for fourteen years from 1917 to 1930. A door form the room leads to an open verandah where he worked in the day and “slept even in the coldest nights.” The cottage is near the edge of the river. From there, the bank slopes down steeply into the riverbed. (In late November, the riverbed was almost dry. But it was free from garbage, unlike riverbanks in many Indian cities.) Gandhi used to hold prayer meetings on the open ground between the cottage and the river. As I stood there and looked at the quiet cloudless evening sky, I tried to hear a soft but resolute voice that reached out from here to three hundred million people across India, and tried to see a slender man with a slight stoop who was thought to be an incarnation of Vishnu from the Bihar plains to the hills of Malabar, as noted by Satinath Bhaduri (Dhonrai Charit Manas) and Raja Rao (Kantapura).

Being a regular and avid visitor of temples, Arundhati wanted to contribute something to the ashram. (A cousin too had asked us to, on his behalf.) As we looked round, we found a rusty offertory box on one of the walls of Hridaya Kunj. But a functionary of the Ashram, Kishore Bhai said it was rarely opened. If we wanted to contribute, we could hand over the cash to him and get a receipt.

We did. Kishore Bhai said, ‘The Ashram gets no grant from the state or central government, although the central government has given us funds from time to time for special purposes. And we don’t appeal to anyone for funds. We are happy to accept whatever people give us on their own.’

‘Then how do you run this place?’

‘A fund was set up during Gandhiji’s lifetime. The cotton mill owners of Ahmedabad contributed. The mill workers too donated a day’s salary. All our expenses are met from the interest earned on that fund.’

‘What kind of activities do you have here?’

‘Nothing, except running the Ashram.’

Intrigued by the apparent absence of any activity in the Ashram, I visited the Sabarmati Ashram website later. The Ashram is involved in preserving the history of Gandhi and the freedom struggle and educating people in his teachings. It does not directly participate in any social work, but manages several trusts that run a school, a hostel for Harijan women, and a Primary Teachers’ Training Institute. They promote village industries and run a training institute in spinning-weaving, solar energy, and bio-gas etc. They also run an Environmental Sanitation Institute that conducts research and training in rural health and sanitation; Another trust under Sabarmati Ashram manages cow pens in Bidaj and Lali villages. Besides, they have an organization dedicated to removal of untouchability.

It is heartening that Sabarmati Ashram continues work on the Gandhian path without depending on Government grants. (In Bengal, we have seen what government control can do to a centre of learning, in the case of Visva-Bharati, the school set up by Tagore.) However, it is sad that these activities have neither spread nor reached any depth that would stand out as an example for the rest of the country. A comparison with the Milk Cooperative movement of Gujarat comes to mind.

Also, there is perhaps some symbolism in the fact that none of these activities happen at the Ashram, like it used to, in the time of Gandhi. It seems Sabarmati ashram has ceased to be a nerve-centre of constructive work and has been turned into another place of pilgrimage, just as Gandhi the doer has been forgotten and turned into a deity.

Whenever the countless crooks of this country count their ill-gotten darker-than-black money, the Mahatma smiles his benign toothless smile at them from the currency notes they are counting. One hopes that that is not how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi will be remembered by Indians.

Kolkata, Sunday, 13 December 2009

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

An old tale retold

Long ago, there lived a young king, noble and wise. There was peace and prosperity in his land. On his twenty-fifth birthday, there was much celebration in the kingdom. Houses were decorated with red and blue streamers and yellow pennants. Children came out in colourful clothes and danced on streets. There was a huge community dinner for all.

But amidst all the festivities, the king looked sad and depressed.

‘Your Excellency! What makes you sad on such a happy day?’ asked the prime minister.

‘I am twenty-five today, but I am as ignorant as the mice in the royal kitchen. I know nothing except what lies before my eyes. When I was a child, I never studied. I spent all my time on the saddle of a horse. And that I regret now.’

‘But your Excellency, you are a great king. You protect the innocent and punish the guilty. People are happy. Our granaries are full, and prisons, almost empty. Last year, during the worst drought in living memory, you reduced taxes and gave away grain to the poor. Elders bless you every day, and the young look towards you for inspiration. You know everything that a king ought to. You needn’t learn anything more.’

‘No! I must study history. In fact, I must learn more. I want to study everything about the human race: how they came to be, how they started living together, how they invented the wheel and the fire. Everything! Please make a summary of all the knowledge of the world, so that I may read it.’

The minister knew his master. When the king set his mind on something, he would see it till the end. So he said, ‘Your Excellency! Your wish is my command. I will engage many scholars to write down everything that is there to be studied. I will send writers far and wide to copy every written word that is found.’

Days passed, years rolled by. On the fiftieth birthday of the king, three bullock carts came and stopped at the golden gate of the royal palace. They were loaded with fat books. The prime minister said, ‘Noble King! These three cartfuls of books contain all the knowledge about mankind.’

‘You have carried out my instruction, and I am indeed happy’, said the king, ‘but I have no time to read so many books. Please summarise them, so that I can read them.’

Another twenty-five years passed. On the seventy-fifth birthday of the king, as musicians played the drums and dancers danced in court, three porters arrived at the palace. They carried on their heads three baskets, full of books.

The king said, ‘My eyes are dimmer now. And I am too scared to go for a cataract surgery. I can't read so many books. Please make another summary of them. And bring the summary to me.’

Twenty-five years later, on the hundredth birthday of the king, there were no celebrations. Alas! The noble king was on his deathbed. The queen and the royal physician, an ancient man with a big turban and a long white beard, were by his side. The prime minister walked in with three leather-bound books and said, ‘Your Excellency, I have never failed to carry out your orders. These three books contain the essence of all human knowledge.’

The king replied, ‘I won't live for more than a few days … maybe, a few hours. How can I read three books now? But I wouldn’t die in peace unless I knew everything about human beings.’

Then the royal physician rose slowly and bowed to the king. Said he, ‘Your Excellency, you needn’t read these books, I will tell you everything about human beings.’ After clearing his throat, the old man continued, ‘Humans are born, they give birth to children, and they die.’

[My father, who was a fine story-teller, told this tale when I was small. You will perhaps agree that the story has all the flavours of the Panchatantra and other age-old fables. I have neither read this story anywhere, nor heard it from anyone else. If you came across this story earlier, please let me know. It would be great if you can tell me about its origin / author.]