Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chandra- Tradition versus Modernity

“Cooking fires, hearth fires, hey fires, Funeral fires. Ceremonial fires. Even the firing of refuse, of things that are thrown away. Home fires and factory fires.” (72)

Vikram Chandra is an interesting author to say the least. His book, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a collection of five short stories that, although at first glance don’t seem to be related beyond the physical setting, fit together to create a panorama of life in Bombay. He blends old with new, tradition with modernity, and lastly but probably most important stylistically- Sanskrit with English. His writing style and main themes encapsulate post-colonial ideas. The short story in which many of these elements can be seen and adequately discussed is “Shakti.”

The quote above illustrates the theme of traditional Indian lifestyle coexisting with modernity. Fire is an important part of Hindu religion and life. Instead of burying the dead, Hindus believe that the body should be burned in funeral pyres. That is talked about in the quote. Also in the quote, there is reference to cooking fires as well as fires for heating. This shows that, even though Bombay is a modern city, there are still parts of it that are poor and cannot pay for electricity or heating. But the final words of the quote, “factory fires” illustrate how the traditional ways of Bombay life are living side by side with factories and modernity.

“Shakti” also illuminates the inner workings of upper Bombay social circles. “The women in the Lunch Club met once a month for lunch at one of the member’s houses. After lunch they played cards. Then they had tea and went home… but if you knew anything you knew that that was where marriages were arranged and sometimes destroyed, deals were made…” (37) Social status is an incredibly important aspect of life in Bombay. Whether it is a holdover from the caste-system or an influence of British colonization, it is clear that it is inextricably linked to everyday life and everyone, rich or poor, is concerned about improving or holding on to their status. Chandra makes this evident by devoting an entire story- “Shakti” to describing how it all worked.

A literary device that Chandra employs to give the audience and his writings more authenticity and power is the use of Sanskrit. He constantly includes singular Sanskrit nouns to describe clothing, food, or anything else that is particular to India and its customs. He even includes entire sentences or songs in Sanskrit and does not translate them so that reader does not feel like the book is a dictionary or lexicon but instead an accurate portrayal of life. “Ramani Ranjan Das wore all white, white ‘mogra’ in her hair and a white ‘garara’ suit and a silver nose ring, and she came with a director twenty years younger.” (56)

An example in our everyday life of one of Chandra’s themes- old coexisting with new- can be seen in downtown Baltimore. There are vestiges of the founding days of our country in the Inner-Harbor with the USS Constellation sitting right next to incredibly modern ships like a Coast Guard cutter. Also, just looking at the unique Baltimore skyline shows almost every single era that the city has seen. Old buildings sit side by side with new skyscrapers. Architecture is varied and illustrates what was seen as important in each of those eras, along with different influences on the city. Reading Love and Longing in Bombay and discussing those themes highlighted above have made me notice and appreciate things like this.

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