Go to Matilda, She Knows.

Here it is, Nigel said.
Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY. That spells difficulty.’
‘How perfectly ridiculous!’ snorted Miss Trunchbull. ‘Why are all these women married?’

The above scene takes place when ‘the Trunch’ decides to teach Miss Honey’s class a lesson for putting a newt in her glass of water. Matilda, the book’s protagonist makes a spectacular show of her power of telekinesis and swoops ‘the Trunch’ in mockery and fear in front of the whole class. Miss Honey, like her sweet and feeble name, urges Matilda to control her powers so that she doesn’t end up in the ‘choky’, where all the ‘despicable’, ‘lilliputian’, ‘rugrats’ go for punishment.

Matilda is a beautiful and intelligent tale of a precocious child (6 and a half to be precise) gifted with extraordinary powers, who is not valued and loved by her own family. She finds comfort among books and wishes to meet people and have friends like the characters of her books. Mind you, it’s more than you read when you were 6 and a half. By the time she reaches 6 and a half, she has read and re-read most of the English classics that you forced yourself to rummage through in your reading class (provided you had one). Matilda goes to ‘Crunchem High’ (what names!) where Miss Trunchbull is the Headmistress and the lovely Miss Honey her class teacher. In the end Miss Honey and Matilda find an affectionate family in each other, with Miss Honey deciding to adopt Matilda, and both of them getting their happily ever after. Since Mr Wormwood was involved in the business of illegal spare car parts, the Wormwoods abscond to Guam for fear of being caught by the authorities. They happily agree to hand their ‘different’, ‘weird’ daughter to Miss Honey. Miss Trunchbull haunted by Matilda’s powers disappears into oblivion and never attempts to darken the corridors of her student’s lives again.

This wonderful story was made into a motion picture by Danny Devito (Yup! the same wiseacre from Batman Returns, The Rainmaker, Tin Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and many other prominent movies) in 1996. I remember it being screened in my school. The famous child actress Mara Wilson portrayed the role of Matilda Wormwood and Devito himself played the role of her father, Mr Wormwood. The movie is a stockpot of laughter, wisdom, humor and love trimmed with a great screenplay and perfect editing. Whenever I am down in the pits, I end up watching this movie, just to find solace in the fact that all of us have a hidden power waiting to be triggered. One just has to wait for the right moment. The seed that triggers Matilda’s telekinesis is the harsh way in which she is treated by the Wormwoods. A bibliophile like her is scolded for not watching adequate television, for reading ‘too much’, for wanting to go to school and obviously for being smart. Mr Wormwood’s retort- “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” wrenches Matilda to such a degree that she finally discovers her faculty to move objects (even people) as per her will. Armed with smarts, intelligence and telekinesis, she sets out to make right most of the wrongs in her life and in the lives of the people she loves.

The movie still crinkles my lips to smile and exude a homey feeling. How wonderful is childhood! you play in the mud, get yourself dirty and dream of the zillion almost impossible things that can happen in your make believe land. When you grow up, life is about a ‘suit’, aspirations are tailored to ‘suit the world’ and not yourself and life’s meaning is also ‘suited’ to those around you. There are many lessons to learn from the bright and affectionate Matilda. She believed in the stories she read and acted upon the lessons of goodness and bravery learnt from the classics. Matilda stood up for what is right and formulated her own sense of justice (Atta girl!). In a time when moral science has only become a subject taught in kindergarten without relevant application, such movies/books inspires kids and ‘grown-up-kids’ like me to think the unconventional and go the distance. In fact talk of being good and standing for what is honorable has become a laughing matter (No, I am not starting a sermon). Instances like these make me wonder that the reason the world has a vast repository of such charming parables is because the authors are unable to live those experiences in reality. I started this blog for my love of writing as it allows me to paint my own universe with multicolor hues. Most importantly, I hardly care whether somebody likes my universe or not.

  There are several reasons why I can relate to Matilda’s distaste for authority. I wasn’t a very obedient kid myself and would often end up in trouble at home and in school likewise. My parents have often been called to the Principal’s (she is the sweetest lady in the world) office on a number of occasions, primarily for telling them that their daughter is a chatterbox and that she could run her own talk show, without a guest that too (how I wish!). I was pathetic in mathematics in school (family gene) and barely passed the finals. Once the Principal told my dad that my relationship with numbers is rocky and needs severe mending. During a Physics viva for a final term paper, I peered through the physics lab onto the auditorium and kept staring at the stage (I had recently directed a play which was a mix of all the Grimm’s fairy tales) when the teacher, glared at me with a murderous look and chided-“My dear you don’t know the difference between a concave and convex lens because all you want to do is sing and dance all day”. With the cheeks turning into an embarrassed shade of crimson, I  hereon became watchful of curious eyes whenever I wafted into the creative universe of song, dance and theatre. The gang of trouble makers that I commandeered, were made to sit in different corners of the class as far away from each other as possible. Of course that never stopped us from flouting authority. I guess the tradition continued in law school and even in my career per se. Had I not been a lawyer and had we been living in medieval times, I am positive I would have made an excellent explorer or a legitimate vagabond (if there is such a term!), discovering new land and traversing limitless oceans. Aha! what a splendid life of discovery that would have been. I would have been a Marco Polo in my own right, peppered with a wee bit of our very own Ferdinand Magellan.

I turn to Roald Dahl for most of my answers in life. His statement espousing the importance of frivolity and nonsense rings a bell for the light hearted spirits. In a time when maturity and adulthood is becoming more of a headache than an answer to life’s problems, ‘a little nonsense now and then, ought to be cherished by the wisest men (and women)’. Roald Dahl himself was a trouble maker and lived with relatives who were greatly annoyed with him. All his famous stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG and Matilda have been my most cherished childhood stories. Even now, when I feel clobbered up in the stupidity of adulthood, I go to Roald Dahl to add zing to the mundane existence of donkey-hood survival. I took up law as a profession because I don’t have superpowers like Matilda to get justice. Law infact is more liberal and gives the felon a benefit of doubt to prove his/her side of the story. Matilda was merciless in meeting out punishment. If only I could twitch my nose and twinkle my eye to wrestle and arm tie the offenders, I am positive I would have turned out to be a bigger trouble maker than Matilda herself.

Before I end this midnight literary sojourn, I will quote a couple of my favorite lines  (almost a para actually) from the book-

From then on, Matilda would visit the library only once a week in order to take out new books and return the old ones. Her own small bedroom now became her reading-room and there she would sit and read most afternoons, often with a mug of hot chocolate beside her. She was not quite tall enough to reach things around in the kitchen, but she kept a small box in the outhouse which she brought in and stood on in order to get whatever she wanted. Mostly it was hot chocolate she made, warming the milk in a saucepan on the stove before mixing it. Occasionally she made Bovril or Ovaltine. It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

Go grab a copy of Matilda and discover the enchanting world of conviction, uprightness and telekinesis. (“wink”)

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

The curtains open, the quaint 1951 stage is set in the cities of Brahmpur, Delhi, Calcutta, Lucknow and Kanpur, the bibliophile is seated smugly in front of her window with a Hellenistic mug for the sake of cosiness, and the papiha swaying on a leafless branch is waiting for a tale to be hummed by Vikram Seth’s beautifully crafted characters. A pot pourrie of sorts, diffusing its sandalwood-like fragrance into the bibliophile’s grey cells.

Lata Mehra, the 20 year old heroine of the Khatri’s magnum opus is attending the wedding of her beloved and ‘fair-skinned’ sister Savita to Pran Kapoor, a pragmatic English Literature professor at Brahmpur University. He also happens to be the Minister of Revenue, Mahesh Kapoor’s son. This match was predestined by Mrs Rupa Mehra who insists everybody to call her ‘Ma’, and who is also the paradigm of an Indian mother ‘blessed’ with ‘daughters’. She reproaches her ‘difficult’ daughter Lata by stating that she too will marry a suitable boy of Mrs Mehra’s choice. Mrs Rupa Mehra , with the unfortunate suicide of her husband Raghubir Mehra, became a worrisome widow at a young age and had sacrificed immensely for the sole happiness of her children Arun, Savita, Varun and Lata. Arun, an authoritative, anglicized, pseudo-intellectual married the love of his life Meenakshi Chatterjee, an amorous and materialistic woman. Their prodigious daughter Aparna is ardently loved by Mrs Rupa Mehra. Varun is peopled as a pessimistic, under confident wino, incessantly bullied by his brother who astonishingly manages to ornament himself by becoming an IAS officer towards the end of the tome. Lata is an English literature student at Brahmpur University, who luxuriates in the company of Jane Austen, Wodehouse, Shakespere, Joyce. Branded by the Khatri ladies as ‘dark-skinned’, she stubbornly follows her heart till she realises the dangers it can produce on her tranquillity. Savita has been best described by her affectionate sister as one who was born to be married. Savita is a beautiful devoted wife who loves Pran inspite of his tiresome asthma and the uxorious –ness is returned by Pran.

Mahesh Kapoor, is caricatured as a Gandhian at heart, who had passionately fought for India’s Independence in the freedom struggle. Post-independence he is pictured to be in a forlorn state with the loose hangings of the Congress party and the dwindling condition of the nation. He is the chief architect of the Zamindari Abolition Bill which forms the backdrop of the story, traversing the territory of Constitutional Law. His wife Mrs Kapoor is a gentle lady immersed in her blooming garden and poojas. Their daughter Veena is married to Kedarnath Tandon who lost a fortune and a home in Lahore post-partition. They have been blessed with a mathematical whiz of a son named Bhaskar, justifying his name exceptionally. Unfortunately his bisexual ‘mama’ Maan Kapoor ruins the family, later in the novel, with his wayward and imbecile ways into gloom and misery, by having a torrid affair with a ‘reputed’ courtesan named Saeeda Bai, so not keeping up with his name. Such was the saga of the Kapoors who were soon to Mehra-ise themselves and, of course vice-versa.

Lata’s mother had commenced the odyssey of finding a suitable khatri match for her daughter by invoking the topic at Savita’s wedding and writing to all her relatives across newly independent India. But fate had a few roadblocks in Mrs Mehra’s plan. With her ‘modern’ and ‘forward’ friend Malati Trivedi, Lata stumbles across one of the suitors Kabir in a bookshop. Kabir Durrani, a strikingly handsome, curly haired, cricket-freak eager to join the Diplomatic Services is a student at Brahmpur University. He is the son of Dr Durrani, an unorthodox mathematics Professor at the University. A wave of undying emotion springs in the unripe hearts of Lata and Kabir as their eyes entwine for the first time. Lata is enchanted by Kabir’s boyish charm whereas Kabir is captivated by the depth of Lata’s eyes. Much to the chagrin of Mrs Mehra, starts a stubborn affair between the two literature geeks. Cupid-cum Vikram Seth strikes Lata so mercilessly that she is swooped into a mental vertigo of love and passion. All limitations are transcended when she unflinchingly pleads Kabir to elope with her as this match would never be approved by her mellow mother. Kabir, being the reasonable one of the two refuses, which is taken by Lata as a sign of Kabir’s convenient amity. But it has to be noted that despite Kabir’s refusal, he adores Lata zealously and asks her to wait for him till he joins the Indian Foreign Services. To add to Lata’s wretchedness, Mrs Mehra discovers her daughter with ‘that Muslim boy’, and is straight away transported to Arun’s swanky pad in Sunny Park, Calcutta.

With the second stage in the classical masterpiece enter the bizarrely funny Chatterjees. Arun’s father-in-law Mr Chatterjee is a ‘just justice’ at the Calcutta High Court who has been ‘glorified’ with 5 distinct brands of Chatterjees – Amit, Dipankar, Meenakshi, Kakoli and Tapan. The bibliophile believes that Vikram Seth has sketched himself as Amit Chatterjee, Lata’s suitor no.2. Amit aged 27 studied law in England but relinquished it to pursue his passion for writing poetry. He is considered one of the most eligible bachelors of Calcutta society having won accolades for his work outside as well as in India. Dipankar can be termed the most knotty Chatterjee, who believes he has overpassed the mundane affairs of day to day life and has thus devoted himself entirely in finding the ‘abominable truth’. The flirtatious Kakoli is the epitome of blatant impudence and her notorious Kuku-couplets, which she throws at all and sundry are seriously like titillating vinegar splashed onto a bland salad. Vikram Seth weaves a shocking chapter for 12 year old Tapan Chatterjee as well. Meenakshi is one step ahead of Kakoli who melts Mr Mehra’s gold medals into jewels much to Mrs Mehra’s annoyance and woe. Mrs Mehra immediately frowns on a Chatterjee courting ‘Luts’ a.k.a Lata but our heroine finds a soulmate in Amit who takes her out of the lost island she was abruptly marooned on. The Chatterjee paragraph is incomplete without a Kuku-couplet. This one is unabashedly sung by Kuku to the tune of a Tagore song at Lata’s wedding towards the end of the novel, escalating Mrs Rupa Mehra’s already deep-infested culture-shock.

‘Roly poly Mr Kohli

Walking slowly up the stairs.

Holy souly Mrs Kohli

Comes and takes him unawares.

Mr Kohli base and lowly,

Stares at choli, dreams of lust,

As the holy Mrs Kohli

With her pallu hides her bust.’

Terrified that her Lata would also start singing couplets, Mrs Mehra takes Lata to Kanpur and Lucknow to meet suitor no.3 Haresh Khanna. Haresh Khanna is a fair-skinned, enterprising, self-made, optimistic ‘khatri’- a glistening lagoon in a ‘Muslim and Chatterjee’ desert. Haresh graduated from St Stephens, Delhi and went onto to study non-conventionally about shoes in Middlehampton, England. In the masterpiece he switches jobs from ‘Cawnpore’ to Calcutta as he vehemently disagrees to compromise on his ethics. He is taken in a storm by Lata’s simplicity and seraphic beauty, which compels him to bury his unrequited love for a Sikh girl named Simran. Haresh is furiously rejected by the Calcutta party and is snorted at for his alleged ‘cobbler ways’ and pan-chewing habit, which he later leaves to impress Lata. The two heart-broken individuals start writing letters to each other at the behest of Mrs Mehra and our heroine steadily sees the ‘cobbler’ in a non-judgmental light throughout the novel.

Who would Lata end up marrying? Will the passionate love for Kabir take over ‘khatri’ propriety?  Will Amit’s eccentric ways with words bewitch Lata into matrimony? Will the optimistic ‘cobbler’ be able to navigate through the unyielding doors of Lata’s heart?

The yarn of imagination spun by Vikram Seth is worthy of unending applause. Keeping the title in mind a surprising political backdrop of post-independent India is given which in a way influences Lata in deciding her life-partner. The tale touches innumerable chords from Zaminadari, feudalism, bisexuality, religious strife between Hindus and Muslims to Constitutional law, Property Law and the Civil Services. It elucidates the difficulties faced by the courtseans, musicians and the royal household when the government decides to pass the Zamindari Abolition Bill affecting their livelihoods drastically. The blazing affair between Maan Kapoor and Saeeda Bai forms the basis of Lata’s decision. A number of pages have been dedicated to Maan’s Kapoor’s saga, the constitutionality of the Zamindari Abolition Bill and the Hindu-Muslim riots has been often questioned by many to be redundant. If one only patiently reads the 1400 or so page novel he/she will definitely understand how each story is sewed together to make the perfect calico of an English classic. The only real characters in the book are Jawaharlal Nehru, Kidwai, Jayprakash Narayan; all depicted to paraphrase the political turmoil the country was facing in 1951.

It took me a month to complete this paragon of English Literature. When I finally finished reading the last words of the book, the only string of alphabets that came out were-‘Gee! I worship Seth’. The most distinguishing feature is that every chapter is numbered in the contents page with a couplet. To maintain the lucidity of the novel Seth provides a family tree for each family so that the reader does not get clobbered up with the vast number of characters sculpted. The Times magazine has proclaimed Seth to be the best writer of his generation and I undoubtedly agree with the statement.For those interested souls Vikram Seth will be coming out with the Suitable Girl in 2013.

As of now I terribly miss reading the magnum opus. It has taught me a lot on the flickering nuances of human nature. It took me to a dazzling world furnished with human delirium and dilemma. This review does not do justice to Vikram Seth’s toil and sweat; in fact no one can ever review such a classic- It simply has to be read.

I shall end this ode to my favourite writer with a Mrs Rupa Mehra letter to Lata when she was on the threshold of deciding the suitable companion-

“When the world has been unkind, when life’s troubles cloud your mind,

Don’t sit down and frown and sigh and moon and mope.

Take a walk along the square; fill your lungs with God’s fresh air,

Then go whistling back to work and smile and hope.

Remember, Lata darling, that the fate of each man (and woman) rests with himself.”