Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Many Lenses, One Home

My favorite painting is a fresco by Rennaissance artist Raphael called “the School of Athens.” It depicts Plato and Aristotle in its center holding a discussion as they walk, while around them a dozen or so other philosophers hold discussions, conversations, and arguments of their own. In this painting I feel there are two important facets of a homeland which Raphael has managed to capture. The first part is the importance of the orality of a culture; the second is that though two people may call the same place home it will be an entirely different view, one from the other.

The painting depicts the oral tradition of the Grecian philosophers who taught the privileged of Athens through lecture and seminar, though records of such “classes” do not really exist. Writings are few and far between, the earliest and most prominent we have being those of Plato and supposedly Socrates, Plato’s teacher. What is critical to remember here is that anything that we have written was once delivered through word of mouth and remembered as such. Many can be seen in the painting to be copying away at parchment, it can be safely assumed that they seek to capture the power of the words spoken at the moment. Rather than seeing this as an irreverent treatment of oral tradition, it can be seen as a tribute to the power of the words spoken. Such is the dedication to the oral tradition as depicted in the School of Athens.

The final point to remember is that of the philosophers depicted in the painting, not one of them completely shared the other’s opinions. Each one had their own way of thinking and of viewing the world, begging the question: living in the same city, how does one man think so radically different from another? But this shows us that a homeland is the same: one person sees his homeland through one lens, while another may view the same place with a very different light.

Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay can be compared quite favorably to Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Both of the elements of homeland that Raphael depicted with brush, paint, and plaster were captured just as surely by Chandra’s ink on paper. His beginning with the oral retelling of a ghost story concerning a famous general Jago Antia sets the stage for the rest of the novel, each aspect of the plot supposedly being a story told by Subramaniam; thus, for the large part, the novel’s narrator is this Subramaniam though the “listener” and initial storyteller is another man depicted in the first person. The entire novel is as an oral tradition dictated to paper much like the ancient Grecian philosophies, a tribute to the narratives of Bombay. Each story’s magic is in its narration, where not a single detail is spared and the thoughts of all are known, much in the way a legend grows so that every detail, no matter how unbelievably, is unquestionably known.

And yet, though the three stories of the first half of the novel each take place in Bombay, drastically different homes are depicted. For the Major General, he is returning home to a foreign yet comfortable land and is haunted by the memories of that homeland which he tried to forget. Another, the inspector, lives in a rain-soaked dreary world moving from case to case unable to separate himself from the memory of his ex-wife. Still another, an ambition woman seeking to climb the social hierarchy which dominates her home only to discover that her son will ultimately dictate how she views her home. Altogether these stories fit perfectly with Raphael’s image of Athens: dozens of thinkers, all born of the same blood and city yet none of which can claim to see their own home as another’s. In this way is a homeland defined, created from the minds and lenses of the many so that it can be a home for one and all.

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