Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Miracles of a Resurrection: Review of Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'

(Published in i-Witness, The New Indian Express on 25th April, 2010)


When the title was announced, the first thought in everyone’s mind was “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Pullman!” While some were horrified, his fans could only smile. Philip Pullman has done it again, and this time from within. What happens when a man perceived to be an atheist, quoted as saying, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and believed to have written His Dark Materials as a counter to the religious overtones of Narnia, is asked to rewrite the Gospel?


This is what the author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ replied:

Yes, it was a shocking thing to say, and I knew it...But no one has the right to live without being shocked. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it. And if you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent. You can write to me, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the paper, you can write your own book…But there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.

There is a reason Dr. Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury, is reported to have suggested His Dark Materials be taught at schools. Philip Pullman’s lyrical writing is compelling, but his books would not be as successful if his imagination were not enhanced by scholarship. The blurb claims this book “is about how stories become stories.” In his quest, Pullman explores the interweaving of truth and history as he deconstructs Christianity. He ponders Biblical sayings freethinkers have so much trouble with, such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” He deals with the themes of Truth vs. History and The Church vs. God, turning the concept of ‘The Gospel Truth’ on its head. Pullman plays with the idea of a scientific, credible explanation for the miracles described in The New Testament, right up to the Resurrection.

And he does this by breaking Jesus Christ into two – Jesus and his twin, who is only identified by the moniker ‘Christ’ (meaning ‘Messiah’), though we do know he has a given name. The brothers are tormented souls, questioning themselves, even displaying bipolar tendencies. In a narrative that alternates between fable-like and irreverent language, Pullman portrays a human Jesus for the first time. Where else could you find Jesus saying “damn”, “bloody” and “smartarse”?

The title strikes one as ironic. While we tend to prefer Jesus over Christ when the boys are children, the latter’s appeal grows even as his power diminishes. The brothers seem to share an equilibrium, which alters for the first time when they meet John the Baptist. But one thing doesn’t change – Christ seeks to protect Jesus, from his own misdeeds as a child and from the misinterpretation of his sermons as an adult. And even after the final twist, one finds oneself thinking of Christ as the wronged one.

Listening to Jesus’ vituperative speeches against Gentiles, observing his contempt for those seen as virtuous, Christ is troubled. What Jesus seems to be saying with these stories was something horrible: that God’s love was arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery.

The reader is moved by Christ’s unconditional love for his brother, even as the shades of grey shift between them. Jesus’ self-righteousness, his belief in saying it like it is, is placed in contrast to his brother’s keenness to mould the truth into a marketable form, to “magnify [his] brother’s name.” There are three particularly poignant scenes in the book – one, where Christ has a slow epiphany while speaking to a prostitute (“More than anything, [I want to be like my brother]. He does things out of passion and I do them out of calculation.”); two, where the rejects of society discuss the concept of goodness at the Pool of Bethesda (a scene which ends in irony); three, Jesus confessing to God that he doubts His existence, in the Garden at Gethsemane.

This book must be read if you want to wave goodbye to a Goody-Two-Shoes-Jesus. It must be read if you have wondered why one prophet stood out enough to have a religion started in his name. It must be read if the four gospels struck you as growing in fervour from Mark to John, but never questioning the fundamentals. It must be read if you want to know why so many bishops have spoken in favour of Pullman. And if you do pick it up and open it and read it, whether you like it or not, the last sentence will haunt you, bringing to mind the end of His Dark Materials.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Erudite Jaishi Way of Getting Offensive

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 17th April, 2010)


The worst thing about doing my bachelor’s degree at a reputed convent college in Chennai wasn’t being made to buy five-hundred-rupee tickets for its forgettable annual play. It wasn’t being called “chile” or asked about “getting friendly with boys”. It wasn’t even being asked by one of my lecturers whether ‘Measure for Measure’ was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe.

Oh no, the single worst moment of my college life occurred soon after I had dressed up prettily to receive my gold medal on graduation day. I stepped into campus, a song in my heart and a skip in my step as I passed through its forbidding gates for the last time, only to be told I had to pay twenty rupees to rent a hideous yellow gown that would make the picture of my receiving the imitation gold an eyesore. To say nothing of rendering the twenty kilograms I had shed through the year pointless.

Two years later, the incident repeated itself. Only, I had to pay twenty-five pounds, the gown was black and I was glad to hide the extra layers my daily flapjack and panini had contributed to my frame. And November in London was cold enough for me to go so far as to envy the Vice Chancellor, who was wearing something the Queen wouldn’t venture out in.

The same can’t be said of June anywhere in India (except the regions that would rather not belong to us). Which is why, Jairam Ramesh has become my hero since his historical feat of shedding the vestigial gown. Of course, as any sensible action or honest opinion in this country is bound to, it has had almost exclusively negative repercussions.

The problem is, perhaps, that he did a Tharoor. He should probably have left the mediaeval vicars and popes out of it. Heaven knows they have their own problems (no wordplay intended), from witch-burning to paedophilia. One has to feel sorry for the minister duo, whose resemblance is more than skin-deep. Two educated, well-read, well-written Southern gentlemen, trying to fit into a group whose pastimes include slipper-throwing, table-banging and money-garlanding.

Jaishi’s problem, one must conclude, is language. They’ve both been accused of not speaking enough in the vernacular. While Shashi Tharoor addressed a gathering in Malayalam to prove his critics wrong, Jairam Ramesh decided to answer Mulayam Singh Yadav’s challenge in Hindi. Ironically, though, the language they struggle with most is the one they know best. Perhaps Jaishi should put down a glossary of terms and link it to their Twitter pages. If they do decide to, here’s a list of non-neglectables:

Cattle class (noun): slang for economy class, humorous, non-offensive

Holy cow (idiom): expression used to indicate surprise, non-offensive

Interlocutor (noun): person whom one is addressing in a conversation, a listener who is allowed to speak to the addresser occasionally, not a mediator, not a conductor of tripartite dialogue, non-offensive, non-humorous, undiplomatic

Barbaric (adjective): cruel, savage, offensive to the perpetrator but not to the victim of barbarism (noun)

Colonial (adjective): belonging to the coloniser (noun), who is an illegal occupant of a host country, a conqueror, non-offensive, occasionally complimentary, less occasionally snide

Snide (adjective): sarcastic, mean
Relic (noun): souvenir belonging to times long past, offensive when mentioned in connection with people, but NOT with objects

Mediaeval (adjective, US medieval): belonging to the Middle Ages, a period of European history lasting from the 5th to the 15th centuries, non-offensive

Perhaps Jaishi should meet up for a cuppa every other day, and display their erudition where it’ll be appreciated. Mr. Tharoor would nudge Mr. Jairam, “hey, think the High Command got who Priya Duryodhani is in The Great Indian Novel?” and Mr. Jairam would grin, “oh, don’t worry. You’re not Sikh enough for that skeleton to fall out of your cupboard!”

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Five-Step Plan to Win Love

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated April 3rd, 2010)

As I look forward to matronhood, relatively confident that the days of men throwing poorly-composed love letters at me, requesting me for “frandship” and sending me anonymous Valentine’s Day gifts (to what end, I wonder) are now done with, my brother reminds me of how fortunate I am to be a four-year cycle ahead.


  
“I am supposed to pim…I mean…uh…,” he holds out his mobile to me, as my mother pretends not to have heard, “read this.”

  
“Machi, plz mingle wt hr as a fren…or better, a brthr. N gt her no. 4 me. Thx, da, machi.”

  
“This girl he likes,” my brother grunts, “she got placed in my company.”

  “And you’re supposed to mingle with her as a brother? Why, exactly?”

 

“Read the next message.”

 
"Now she thnk I m porukki, da. But u r Peter. She wl gt impress I m ur fren.”

 

 “But machi, plz dnt be 2 Peter. Thn she wl gt feelings 4 u.”

 

"So you’re supposed to be posh, but not too posh, because this girl who thinks your friend is a wastrel will fall in love with you,” I translate to myself.

  “Deepak!” my mother can’t contain herself any longer, “what work are you doing?”

 
“Why does she think he is a porukki?” I ask.

 

“Because he is. She got her brother and father to call him up and threaten him.”

 

“Did you remind him?”

 

“Machi, gurlz always say no 1st time, da. U nt seen n e tamil film-aa? What, u r that much Peter-aa?”

 

“Best of luck getting out of this,” I tell him, as he soulfully wears his software-giant ID card and sets out on his mission.

 

This is the new breed that is taking over the world. The ones who get their machis to lull their stalkees into thinking they are as good as their friends. And I thought I’d seen the worst in a guy who called me twenty times during my three-hour radio show, and then waited outside my house to introduce himself to my father.

  I wonder what the next step to this new methodology of courtship is. What do they do when they get hold of the numbers (which were changed because of them)? Do they make the mingler the third person in the relationship, interpreting their advances into something more gentlemanly? Do the mingler’s duties include befriending the father and the brother? And what if it backfires, and the minglee decides the mingler is like his friend and therefore not worth mingling with?

 

The last was the loophole my brother was hanging on to. Executing his counter-plan, he texted his stalker-friend, saying the stalkee was not interested in mingling. Bang came the reply:

 

Machi, frm tomorow sit near her … Talk wt her , try to know about her …. If she insults means , tolerate it…tell me what lunch she eats, machi…I want all news abt her…even silly news…plz start working for me.

 

An email outlining the plan followed the series of messages:

  Sub: plan to correct my luv 
  1. Gt 2 knw her well, machi. She must trust u fully.
  2. Start sayin’ gd things about me. Eg. I dnt drink, no smoking etc.
  3. Tell her some gurl is after me. She wl gt jealus
  4. Tell her u will convince me to come after her
  5. U r invited to my mariage, machi!

The day after he received this five-step plan, my brother changed his number. Apparently, a common friend of his and the stalker’s has been trying to mingle his new number out of him.
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