Shantaram Book Review

Since I am a little bookworm and received a Kindle for Christmas, I thought I had little excuse to slack off reading this year. Following this good intention, I thought why the hell don’t I read 15 books in 2015 AND review them on my blog?

I love books. There’s so much beauty in novels and I find it’s a real way to get close to someone’s ‘inside’ and to experience for a brief while what it’s like to be another human being. From a practical perspective, I also hope that doing this will help me to actually remember what I’ve read and stop me from dating too many books at once.

So the first of these reviews will be Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, a repetitive- strain-injury-inducing novel of over 900 pages based on a fugitive’s life in Mumbai following an escape from an Australian prison. The point must be made that this novel is a Roman à clef, a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The narrative is based on the cinematically epic life of the protagonist Lin’s life as a fugitive, convict, heroin addict, mafia convert and slum dweller in Mumbai.

My first point on this book is that the editor must’ve been asleep at the switch. I found that there were so many powerful and beautiful images in the novel that lost their influence due to far too much ‘purple prose.’ There was also far too much unimpressive philosophy in the book that didn’t really add up to thought provocation.

However, having spent six months in India myself, I found Roberts’ depiction of the underworld of Mumbai absolutely captivating. India is the sort of place that has its own rhythm and logic that is so far from our own that it appears ludicrous to a firangi. Indeed, the characters and incidents in Shantaram feel absolutely authentic and are lovingly brought to life on the page from the writers’ sensory memory. Prabaker. Abdul Khader Khan. Even minor characters such as Gemini George and Scorpio George.

I found Roberts didn’t get under the metaphysical skin of his female characters. This was disappointing since so much of the novel is centred round a woman called Karla, the elusive and utterly unattached woman on the run in her own way. I couldn’t believe her character and I didn’t like her either – especially her pretentious philosophical musings. I think Roberts sets himself up for a fall when implying an epic unravelling of events that will finally ‘show us’ who Karla really is (without giving away spoilers), the real woman wasn’t the heroine I was expecting.

Still going back to some of the most lucid moments of the book, the standing babas “who’d taken a vow to never sit down or life down, ever again for the rest of their lives” was a moment in the narrative where I had to put the book down and really think. Some of the descriptions of life in the Indian prison also deeply terrified me, particularly the portrayal of the small but certain degradation of the human spirit and the unimaginable plight of inmates there. The description of the body lice that crawled over the inmates in in the prison each night as they slept on the urine soaked floors will haunt me forever:

“Even when I knew I killed the lice, and rid myself of them temporarily, I still felt their wriggling, itching, crawling loathsomeness on my skin. And little by little, month by month, the horror of that creeping infestation pushed me to the edge.”

As one last point, aside from the successful embellishment of the thrilling plot with tiny, astute details, Roberts also left me with thinking about one large concept. This is the idea of necessity in such a profusely overpopulated subcontinent that is steeped in poverty. One of the most powerful scenes that brings this to life is a train journey where passengers are savagely fighting with one another for seats until they settle and become loving and gentile towards one another.

Didier explains how India is such a unique place for having its own heart that unites so many people: “That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the heart. Two hundred fuckin’ languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”

Thinking back to my time in India one of the things that really surprised me was grown men holding hands in the streets and napping holding one another. Shantaram has helped me to understand the importance of loving one another in order to survive in the fascinating and wild world that is India.

Read this novel? What do you think?

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Vagueness

I was looking through some of my university coursework the other week and saw some comments from my professors that made me ponder. There seems to be some commonalities right from my year five report telling me to “focus my efforts” to my master’s degree essays telling me to not be afraid to “drive the point home” and “stop being vague.”

Truth be known I often feel vague. And in a world of passionate “go-getters” with suitcases full of spunk and ruthless pragmatism (quote House of Cards), I don’t feel I’m driving much home. But this got me thinking about whether there is any value in being vague in a world full of decisiveness.

So I had a little look at what is defined as vague in academia to help. Here is the definition:

“A proposition is vague when there are possible states of things concerning which it is intrinsically uncertain.” (Peirce 1902, 748)

The words “intrinsically uncertain” quickly started to sum up how I feel about many things in the world. This also explains why I make little attempt to say anything definitively and often change my mind depending on how I feel at any given time. I basically realised when reading these words that everything could be “intrinsically uncertain”.

I think the issue with vagueness is not the thing in itself, but rather, the time we spend trying to change our vague feelings about something/someone into affirmative action. Feeling vague is not perceived to be a positive trait and it seems to me that we are taught to not be vague about anything but to express strong positions on our likes/dislikes and wants/don’t wants.

I’ve found that being creative hasn’t helped with this. Creativity is the result of a flexible mind, one that refuses to stagnate by perching in one position. Creatives see things from many angles and possibilities and this can be become mind-boggling where there is no compass point and only open roads and what-ifs.

With such a head on my shoulders, I have an addiction to moving around. Not necessarily physically, though I love to travel, but metaphysically. I’ve dabbled with pretty much all orientations of myself as I could’ve mustered in my humble 27 years on the planet. Party-goer, philosopher, big child, serious adult, traveller, journalist, corporate lady – the impulsive deliberator, etc.

We all have a million reference points that we find from our own lives. Moments that fundamentally change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. And each one of these moments will move so swiftly and intricately that may not notice their long-term impact on us at all. Major and minor life experiences, over-inflated egos, losing at football, depression, wealth, ugliness, love and support, the homeless man on the street, that one who broke your heart – the list is perpetual.

Still, there are some things that we know without needing to think. Those gut feelings about who we want to become and what’s important to us. For example, from the year dot (well after wanting to be an Olympic gymnast), I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Not particularly sure why or what good it will do me or anyone else, but this has stayed true for as long as I can remember and this “hunch” is the one of the few only things I know for sure. A lot else is vague and I’ve started to think that it’s vague because it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things.

So going back to my initial question of whether being vague is useful, I’d say yes to a certain extent. It makes us realise that perhaps when we don’t feel strongly about something we are just barking up the wrong tree in our pursuits. Often we feel vague when we simply don’t care enough about what we are trying to shed light on, or if it’s a relationship that we feel vague about, perhaps it’s just not serving us anymore.

I realised I often had these moments in a board room discussing technical things. Some of my colleagues would be totally “in the zone” giving valuable opinions to topics and I would be floating about in my own world unable to really form any opinion on what was being discussed. Not only did this make me feel that I just didn’t comprehend what was going on fully enough to contribute, I also felt that I couldn’t relate to those around me.

Since then I have changed jobs to work in a more creative and content specific role where I feel I “know” what I am doing. Though I always wanted to feel passionate 100% of the time, I appreciate that there will be times in any job where I will feel vague. I understand that this helps to define the certainties for each of us personally: what we care about, what draws those raw feelings of excitement, love, joy, anger, pain etc.

With all this in mind, I have successfully written a vague article about vagueness. So I must drive the point home: if you feel vague it’s time to pinpoint the things you waste energy on deliberating. Instead find the dots of personal certainty in your life and focus focus there.

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Learning to Let Go – to Travel and to Stay Seated

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After 15 hours on a train from Jaipur to Delhi – back in 2010 when I was 23.

Sometimes I beat myself up over not having got to where I had wanted to be in life, but in my more mature years – currently 26 of them, I have a different approach that isn’t race to the end of something. At 21 I was working for the Civil Service and I was bringing home a good wedge of wonga, but I knew from the outset that I didn’t want to stay in that kind of job. I also had a burning desire to travel so I saved up my wages for a year and threw in the white card (login card for Civil Service systems). I still remember the computer guy at work hesitating over my choice to leave,

“Now you know once we wipe this, that’s it?”

“Yes”

“And you are sure this is what you want?”

“Yes”

But I looked down on him back then as I couldn’t for the life of me understand how people could just sit in the same spot doing the same old job, day in, day out. I had thought he was a fool at the time, for not seeing the spotlights of travel and adventure. In fact, I was quite arrogant about my apparent courage to cut all ties (which I did a lot back then) when I could just get up and go and wave back at the people I thought were ‘stuck’ in their own lives.

I am not sure what changed me, or at what point exactly, but I know that going to India had a fundamental impact on the way I look at life. It’s a cliché to say it, but stepping outside of your normal framework really does shake you up and for me, somehow quite ironically, I found myself appreciating the art of sitting still and facing the mundane when travelling.

My romanticism for travel quotes, Buddhism and Jack Kerouac novels all took on a form of predictability when in India and Nepal that I had tried to resist back at home. I wanted to be different, the traveller, the one who resists conventions. But as a twenty-something traveller on the road wearing the same Ali Baba linen trousers and a 20 litre back pack as all the other Europeans, I felt really unremarkable.

This is why I now look at travelling not to be different, or to be impressive (mostly to myself) but to simply go on a journey. And I really think this is how I am trying to look at life in general, I still absolutely love seeing new countries, tasting new food and meeting people – especially holding unique conversations. But it’s more important to me to feel that I am content at home and away.

It’s interesting to think about some of the Buddhist philosophy that I read in Nepal when trekking up the Himalayas. It spoke about the mind and meditation and that we can only come to realisations and spark great ideas when the mind is still. When the mind is too busy we become disabled in the sense that we can’t focus on deep thought and making good changes and decisions for ourselves.

With this is mind, I think it’s all about getting the balance right in our lives, to all have a place where we can just be; zone out; dwell; dig; think. But also, we need things that fire us up and inspire new thoughts and dreams. I have come to realise it doesn’t have to be huge things like a round the world trip that causes great change in the way we look at life.

It can be a book, a conversation with the colleague you’d never really spoken to or a coffee in town that leads your thoughts to stray. A whole load of things happen to us in life and I’ve come to realise that it’s not the big trips we plan, but the small and delicate things we see and feel on those trips that make a difference.

For me, in the Himalayas it wasn’t the huge mountains that made me feel that the moment was special, but the little walk on the last night with my friend where we saw fireflies dancing in the dark and we had a conversation about life.

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A Review of Northern Ballet’s A Christmas Carol at the Marlowe Theatre

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Arriving fashionably late for our first ever ballet experience at the Marlowe Theatre had consequences. After rushing to receive our tickets for Northern Ballet’s performance of A Christmas Carol, we neglected the bar to plunge straight into the dark depths of the theatre in search of row R.

With the performance in full swing, we squeezed past the middle aged ballet groupies to locate our seats that couldn’t have been further in the centre of everyone. As we got stared at, my boyfriend couldn’t help but comment on how the new theatre had done away with a central aisle, meaning that every hapless schmuck would be forced to squeeze their way past those savvy enough to arrive on time.

Our first view of ballet framed Ebenezer Scrooge clipping Bob Cratchit ‘rawnd the ear’ as he tried to warm his hands and feet on a candle. Both in period costumes before…

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A Review of Northern Ballet’s A Christmas Carol at the Marlowe Theatre

Image

Arriving fashionably late for our first ever ballet experience at the Marlowe Theatre had consequences. After rushing to receive our tickets for Northern Ballet’s performance of A Christmas Carol, we neglected the bar to plunge straight into the dark depths of the theatre in search of row R.

With the performance in full swing, we squeezed past the middle aged ballet groupies to locate our seats that couldn’t have been further in the centre of everyone. As we got stared at, my boyfriend couldn’t help but comment on how the new theatre had done away with a central aisle, meaning that every hapless schmuck would be forced to squeeze their way past those savvy enough to arrive on time.

Our first view of ballet framed Ebenezer Scrooge clipping Bob Cratchit ‘rawnd the ear’ as he tried to warm his hands and feet on a candle. Both in period costumes before a magnificent stage set, Cratchit, played by Javier Torres produced some fantastic slapstick comedy behind his grouch of a boss. This scene was more Punch and Judy than Swan Lake until Bob burst into life, pirouetting across the stage with an elegant solo performance. 

I had been wondering quite how ‘A Christmas Carol’ would be adapted to ballet after seeing many of its other incarnations on film, television and in the theatre. The period costumes, vaudeville music and slapstick was giving the impression of a twenties silent comedy, akin to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. And with very little dialogue (besides Jacob Marley’s appearance), the importance of the fine balance of theatre, dance and music was clear, especially in communicating how the characters were thinking and feeling.

As the familiar plot continued, with Ebenezer leaving the office of Scrooge and Marley, the scenery folded in on itself again and again like a theatrical Rubik’s cube. From a clerk’s office, to a narrow alleyway that then opened up again into a bustling street, we were accosted by a scene of London, straight out of the film adaptation of Oliver, complete with Beadle and street urchins. 

Despite the characters’ silence during the production, the cast unexpectedly burst into song for me spoiling the essence of what ballet fundamentally should be, creating mood and atmosphere through movement and physical rhythm. At this point, I decided to stop being the ballet snob and went with the flow of all things stage.

The set continued to impress as the plot went on, particularly with the creation of Scrooge’s bedroom and the unsettling proportions of the tall sash window from which the beautiful ghost of Christmas Past would appear in a light wind and glimmer of snow. 

The ghost of Christmas past took Ebenezer back to Fizziwigs, his former place of work where the cast created some truly fantastic set pieces, echoing the Christmas dances of Scrooge’s youth. This was interspersed with some more truly fantastic character acting from Ashley Dixon and Victoria Sibson who played the Fizziwigs.  

As the cast moved off stage leaving Scrooge and his former love Belle, the music and atmosphere changed, becoming more romantic with the two embracing and swaying in synchrony with the poise and elegance that real experts of ballet surely long to see.  The strength and accuracy of the two dancers was expressed in how they moved apart across the stage. Shifting slowly at first, the couple clearly represented the fraught emotions of the characters as they jarred to separate sides of the stage in a classic state of heart and head (or for Scrooge heart and wallet).

For anyone who has never been to see ballet like myself, even the most cynical who may doubt ballets ability to portray emotions and represents narrative through dance, I assure you, you would have been as thoroughly captivated as I was.

I can’t help but think A Christmas Carol was an odd choice for a ballet, but we thoroughly enjoyed the performance and would go again for the upcoming tour by the Russian state ballet troupe. And although we may not have needed to be introduced to ballet through more popular productions such as this, it certainly worked!

For more information about the Northern Ballet’s production of A Christmas Carol, or to book tickets for the show you can visit the Marlowe’s website. 

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Paris with my old digital camera…

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Paris is the city for snapping. I wanted to share these photographs from a few years ago when my Nikon D6O was still but a dream. I like these photographs because they are incredibly raw and show the city as … Continue reading

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Roberto Kusterle

This gallery contains 3 photos.

  As I vacantly scanned my bookshelf this evening, I found a flyer advertising a photography exhibition in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was only a postcard I picked up in the capital last April while roaming the cafes and shops by … Continue reading

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Cramped Living Spaces in Hong Kong

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The home is an extension of ourselves, a space that is completely our own and the piece of land that fixes us to the earth. But in Hong Kong, the human rights group Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) has captivated … Continue reading

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sLOVEnia

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Imagine Julie Andrews with her open arms crying out: “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” and you’ll get a little sense of Slovenia. When we arrived in the land of Slov in April, the weather was changing … Continue reading

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Petra, Jordan: Ten Photographs

All photographs  Copyright © Chloe Boulton 2010

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