A Suitable Book

I have recently finished reading Vickram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ and have thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a huge tome and I was really quite frightened by its magnitude.  I picked the book up from Oxfam in Hereford for £3 last year, not sure if I would ever actually read it.  I had been meaning to get a copy because I remember my paternal grandmother reading it when I was 12.  I don’t know why, but that she and my Aunt were talking about the book one evening when we visited has stuck in my memory although I don’t remember the specifics of their conversation.  My grandmother was Indian and came over as a nurse during the second world war where she met and married my grandfather and hence settled here.  She died while I was married and not in contact with the rest of my family, about 9 years ago now, and it will always be a source of regret and shame for me that I was absent.

So, I spotted a copy of the book in Oxfam and bought it.  When I started reading the book (around February, I think) I quickly found myself lost in the vastness of the story unfolded by the turning of each page.  It is the first book I have found myself truely, happily absorbed in reading since I finished my MA.  Of all the books I might have predicted to do it, this was not the one.

As is my wont, I am not going to write a book review or anything predictable and sensible like that.  I just wanted to mention one really little thing that nagged at the edges of my thoughts and stuck out in my memory. I am always disproportionately curious about the emotional resonances that attach themselves to small details when I read.  I find myself much more motivated to sit and ponder why these details might have lodged themselves in my awareness than to try and create a grand unifying thesis on the meaning of the book.  That is how my mind tends to work.  I blame my Adorno fandom for this habit of picking out minutiae and finding in them an interesting lens through which to view the whole.

“And poor Meenakshi! thought Mrs Rupa Mehra. … Meenakshi the cold-hearted medal-melter was replaced for a while with the image of Meenakshi the vulnerable, tender, broken vehicle for Mrs Rupa Mehra’s third grandchild, who she felt was bound to have been a boy.

If Mrs Rupa Mehra had known the truth about Meenakshi’s pregnancy or her miscarriage she would doubtless have been less than sympathetic.” (p1030)

Meenakshi is Mrs Rupa Mehra’s daughter in law and relations between them have never been good, the melting of family medals to produce a pair of earrings being the most heinous but by no means only crime.  Despite this, Meenakshi’s miscarriage stirs tender emotion in her mother in law.  The truth Mrs Rupa Mehra does not know about is that Meenakshi induced the miscarriage in fear that the skin colour of her unborn child might announce undeniably that she has been having an affair with an Englishman.

“Kabir’s remarks were not addressed to anyone in particular, but Amit felt – for no very good reason – a strong sense of sympathy for him.

Had Amit identified him as the ‘Akbar from As You Like It’ of Meenakshi’s imaginative description, he may not have felt quite so sympathetic.” (p1142-3)

Amit and Kabir are two of three potential suitors of the book’s heroine (Lata) and have met by chance at a cricket match.  They do not realise they are rivals and their conversation proceeds amicably.  For Amit at least, there is recognition of some thread of shared human experience between them, even if the reason for the sympathy he feels is not clear.

What struck me about these passages is that they encapsulate the complexity of human relationships.  Firstly, they suggest the propensity for people to sympathise with one another and to consider their common ground.   However, they also shade in the reliance upon contingency for this to occur.  We don’t tend to set aside energy for sympathy (or tender feelings generally) towards those whose aims we perceive to be in competition to our own.  Lastly, both indicate ways in which the intricacies of how much or little we understand of another’s drives or motivations are a key factor in how we weight our feelings towards either sympathy or hostility.

These very specific interactions are set against a backdrop of significant political and religious unrest found within the novel (including catastrophically violent riots).  That our tendency to seek common ground with another can be so quickly undermined by the apprehension of rivalry between values or goals, even on the level of individual relationships, is a sobering thought. It gave me cause to consider how easy it must be for good will between bonded groups to evaporate, where group identity makes the tensions and rivalry with those outside the group all the more obvious.  Hence the relevance I found in my musings to the wider themes of social and political change in India at the time in which the novel is set (shortly after the end of the second world war).

If any one I know is interested and would like to borrow my copy for a read then please send me an email or ask me next time you see me as I’d be happy to lend it.  It would interesting to think that a book I have enjoyed, that has its own distinctly non-straightforward link to my own story and past might be enjoyed by someone I know on the basis of my writing about it.


This week I have been mostly listening to …

In fact not so much what I’ve been listening to this week, but this year. I’ve been meaning to do this for ages and have only just got round to it. As I write I am listening to the radio, but it is just starting to jar with my thoughts so I’ll swap it for listening to bits and pieces of what I’m writing about. I feel slightly anxious about writing about the music I listen to just in case anyone reading decides to judge me negatively as a result. However, I feel that way about everything I post to my blog so I might as well just get on with it.

I last created a playlist in the middle of February (Feb 2011 playlist) and was listening to it regularly until the beginning of April. It starts with ‘In the House in a Heartbeat’ which I love for its foreboding and its sense of accumulating unease, very much in tune with how I was feeling at the start of this year. I first heard that track as part of the soundtrack to 28 Days Later (the ‘orrible zombie film) and it stuck with me despite not hearing it again for several years. My thoughts when I made the playlist were very much on the recent break-up of a relationship. I can see clear links between the overall sense of this playlist and my attempts to work out my thoughts about feeling adrift, both abandoned and liberated. Back then listening to it was a good way to create a bit of space to ponder what was bothering me as well as putting boundaries around it. By the end I was usually ready to come back to the real world and do something useful in it again.

Back in March I bought Adele’s 21, which I love. I had heard ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and also ‘Rumour Has It’ on the radio and really liked both. My Mum gave me a copy of 19 a couple of years ago and that gets played a lot. One of the things I particularly like about 21 is that many of the stories of the songs narrate a strength of character and tenacity, even if this is not immediately apparent. I feel that the music accords with this and carries it through. Also she has a fantastic voice, which helps! I often listen choose to listen to this while I am in the bath and it is a favourite on the bus to work as well.

I have, by now, also been persuaded to use spotify and I thoroughly approve. I love being able to explore music I wouldn’t be willing to buy on the off-chance that I like it. Being able to share music through spotify is also brilliant. A couple of weeks ago I played spotify tennis with @rblandford after he put an open invitation on twitter. For an explanation of Richard’s spotify tennis game check his blog, here. Here is the playlist we created. I found his turns fascinating and I enjoyed the discipline of trying to make mine relevant but not too obvious. My most memorable point in the game was finding the theme from ‘Ghostbusters‘ in my inbox, having posted ‘Cloudbusting‘ by Kate Bush on my previous turn. I was giggling away to my laptop as I listened, it was a masterful stroke on his part. I hope he enjoyed playing as much as I did and didn’t think my choices of music too pedestrian. You can find Richard on spotify by searching for spotify:user:rblandford and you can find me under spotify:user:pinkyandnobrain, if you fancy a game then send one of us a track. If it’s me and you decide you hate my taste in music … well sod ya then! 😉

There were two other albums I wanted to mention. As the weather has improved I found myself reaching for Ladyhawke’s album of the same name. I like its 80s feel with the mix of synthesiser and voice and the fact that the balance of the two will vary considerably through the duration of each track. This is a favourite for on the way to work as it wakes me up and gets me ready to tackle the day ahead. I have a really vivid memory of listening to it several weeks ago while sitting on the top deck of the bus, the world through the window bathed in gloriously bright sunshine, as it sped along the A27 and feeling ready for anything the day could throw at me.

Lastly, I have been listening to ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ by The Divine Comedy. I’d not actually listened to any of their albums before and only heard the chart hits,but I have resolved that I must buy a copy of the album as it is wonderful. I love its whimsical timbre; the lyrics are intelligent, witty and insightful; and I could listen to Neil Hannon’s voice for hours on end. Each track seems to be a reflection on things that I find so very recognisable. Some are quite gentle, many are satirical and some have a real edge to them. The upbeat sound of ‘Neopolitan Girl’ sets up a serious discord with its lyrics, parts of which bring me to the verge of tears if I dwell on them.  The sounds and layering on this one work really well and it has really grown on me.  I’m also very fond of ‘At the Indie Disco’ and not just because it is about some guy musing on fancying a girl. I like the tangible story of it, the gentle self deprecating humour (especially the dated references) and its simplicity. The Guardian has a great video of Neil playing a piano version. I will leave you with my favourite lines as they never fail to gently amuse me.

“And when its over and I’m freezing on the night bus home/I think of her and I sing the words to my favourite song, oh yeah/She makes my heart beat the same way/As at the start of Blue Monday”

Playing it by ear

How best to spend my time is a constant preoccupation of mine. I worry a lot about being productive and I mean this not in so much in an economic sense, but in a wider sense of simply doing things that are of value to other people. Do I spend my time wisely enough? Are the things I am doing with my time (both in my work life and my spare time) worthy? Do they make enough positive contribution to the world? Will they ultimately harm me and my plans for my life? Will they harm others? Since finding myself on the other side of 7 years of marriage a few years ago I have worked back-breakingly hard to establish who I am again and it would seem this involves a lot of self questioning.

The subject of productivity came up in conversation with a dear friend recently. I can’t remember how we got on to the topic now. We were sitting on a beach on a lovely afternoon, which would seem like an unlikely time to start talking about productivity and we agreed that the feeling that we were productive was linked to happiness for each of us. I have discovered that being busy generally is a good thing and I feel at my most relaxed when I am absorbed in something. When I am busy the relentless chattering of my mind quietens. I stop worrying about what I should be doing and thinking and I just get on and do. The tricky bit when this applies to my free time is deciding what it is I should do that will absorb me enough. It is not just about being blindly busy. For a start, if I don’t really want to do something then it will be a struggle to motivate myself to do it and arguing with myself about this will then destroy any sense of absorption in the activity. Also it ideally needs to be something for which I can measure a positive outcome.

Judging whether or not I use my time wisely has an objective component. To want to create things of value to others inserts my activity into a progression of things outside me. It engages me with other people and leaves a mark in the sand that I was here, I did something and it created some happiness (mine and possibly even someone else’s). Examples of things I do that I consider to be productive are writing my blog, baking/cooking to share with other people, going to work and earning a living, helping other people out or supporting them in some way and singing in a choir. An appreciable something is achieved by the expenditure of my time, thereby at least partially fulfilling my criteria for measuring a positive outcome. Put simply, the feeling that I am doing something productive with my time gives me with a sense of security around my experience of happiness.

Unfortunately I can quite easily turn the objective bit, the bit that gives that nice sense of security that what I am doing is worthwhile, into a tool of torture. I have this nasty habit of latching on to the more objective outcomes of my activity and bashing myself in to them and this feels somewhat like throwing myself in to a brick wall, repeatedly. I get so busy with the producing that I forget that in the first instance I was trying to be happy and gain enjoyment from living. Without this very important human bit at the core of my activity I exhaust myself, get miserable and lose all motivation. I have done it time and time again and then I berate myself for losing motivation, which doesn’t do much to make me feel better about myself.

For example, I really enjoy cooking dinner to share with a friend. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy sharing food with a friend and I enjoy the company that comes with it. At some point I decided that the making of food bit must be the most important. So I got myself in the habit of making a huge performance out of cooking. It had to be something complicated and stressful, it had to be something I had never cooked before, it all had to be presented perfectly. Funnily enough I stopped enjoying the cooking and found myself bad company as a result of all the stress I was putting myself under. I have since learned that just the offer of cooking food and sharing with others is valuable enough in itself. Forgetting the less tangible reasons why I do something can undermine the whole endeavour.

As I have discussed this with friends, mused on it for the purposes of trying to be a better and happier person and wrestled with it to try and explain it in this blog post I have learned a lot about my impulses towards what I have labelled as productivity. While creating and doing things of value is important to me, it is more complicated than just that. The social element, of contributing to a collective effort of some kind is especially important as I have discovered through recently joining a choir. To be contributing to a shared project where each voice adds something to the whole without needing to be individually distinguishable is uplifting and pleasantly humbling. The importance of the community aspect of the other things I do has become more apparent to me of late. Writing and blogging for example is about my individual creations and getting recognition for my work. However thinking of it in terms of being part of a community of people who write, who read, who share, who support and who between them create a whole body of works that reach out much further than any individual writer could do makes the experience of writing more valuable for me. It is also about acceptance, that by doing things I value and enjoy it is possible to contribute socially because other people share my estimation of value in these activities.

Thus far, it would seem there are other people who feel some of the things I do are a worthy use of my time, who might even find what I do interesting or useful. For someone who is constantly questioning whether their perspective on the world and the things they want are correct, useful, harmful to others or not, worthy, responsible (and so the list goes on) this is immensely reassuring. I am learning to trust my own thoughts on what I should be doing with my life and to ask for feedback or help when I still can’t decide. Slowly I am building up a picture of who I am and what the benchmarks for navigating how I run my life nowadays are, which means that not every decision is invested with as much uncertainty as they used to be. Naively, I didn’t realise just how much work figuring out who I am was going to be. I always thought life was going to be a lot more cut and dried than that. I now consider this to be the grand work of art of my life, something I work on every day (regardless of all the things that invariably intervene in my carefully laid plans) and yet will never exhaust. I find that immensely reassuring as well.