art of resistance, India

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven (Unaccustomed Earth).

Jhumpa Lahiri has a great talent of writing genuinely, writing about everyday, writing about common, but still making it deeply revealing, interesting, and – finding wonders in it. The following is an excerpt from her short story Hell-Heaven (the story can be found in Lahiri’s collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth). Here, once again, Lahiri deals with the experience of Indian immigrants in the USA, cutting through the delicate tissue of place and time, memory and identity.

ja/Jhumpa Lahiri, photo via media.npr.org/

He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at MIT. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of the week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day and instructed  always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge. My parents agreed that it was a terrible situation, and if they’d had a bedroom to spare they would have offered it to him. Instead, they welcomed him to our meals and opened up our apartment to him at any time, and soon it was there he went between classes and on his days off, always leaving some vestige of himself: a nearly finished pack of cigarettes, a newspaper, a piece of mail he had not bothered to open, a sweater he had taken off and forgotten in the course of his stay.

I remember vividly the sound of his exuberant laughter and the sight of his lanky body slouched or sprawled on the dull, mismatched furniture that had come with our apartment. He had a striking face, with a high forehead and a thick mustache, and overgrown, untamed hair that my mother said made him look like American hippies who were everywhere in those days. His long legs jiggled rapidly up and down wherever he sat, and his elegant hands trembled when he held a cigarette between his fingers, tapping the ashes into a teacup that my mother began to set aside for this exclusive purpose. Though he was a scientist by training, there was nothing rigid or predictable or orderly about him. He always seemed to be starving, walking through the door and announcing that he hadn’t had lunch, and then he would eat ravenously, reaching behind my mother  to steal cutlets as she was frying them . before she had a chance to set them properly on a plate with red onion salad.

In private, my parents remarked that he was a brilliant student, a star at Jadavpur who had come to MIT with an impressive assistanship, but Pranab Kaku was cavallier about his classes, skipping them with frequency. ‘These Americans are learning equations I knew at Usha’s age’, he would complain. He was stunned that my second-grade teacher didn’t assign any homework and that at the age of seven I hadn’t yet been taught square roots or the concept of pi.

He appeared without warning, never phoning beforehand but simply knocking on the door the way people did in Calcutta and calling out ‘Boudi!’ as he waited for my mother to let him in. Before we met him, I would return from school and find my mother with her purse in her lap and her trench coat on, desperate to escape the apartment where she had spent the day alone. But now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for lunchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me, or putting up new curtains she’d bought at Woolworth’s. I didn’t know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out ‘Boudi!’ from the porch and that she was in a foul humor on the day he didn’t materialize.”

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art of resistance

The World of Ramin Bahrani: Man Push Cart & Goodbye Solo.

Ramin Bahrani is a truly magical film director (born in North Carolina, USA, to Iranian parents). The world of his films is a world of nighthawks, immigrants, trashy motels, road houses, cabs on call, broken families,  loneliness and unusual friendships. In other words  – welcome to the USA!

Concerning the themes of his films and the general atmosphere of his cinematic work, Bahrani’s USA would be the same USA as that of Tom Waits – poetic, melancholic, an irresistible growling from the streets. Bahrani has made four films so far, and all of his films were highly praised by ciritics and loved by the (indie) audiences, particularly his second film – Chop Shop (a little side note – Roger Ebert listed Chop Shop as the 6th best film of the decade and hailed Bahrani as “the director of the decade“).

Still, that is not to say his other films are less valuable or less wonderful. To prove that, or rather to show my appreciation for Bahrani’s work, I am writing about his first film – Man Push Cart, and the third one – Goodbye Solo, both lovely and heartwarming.

mpc4/Man Push Cart – snapshots/

Man Push Cart is a simple-story film (like all Bahrani’s films) showing a night in the life of a former Pakistani rock star who now sells coffee from his push cart on the streets of Manhattan. Ahmad is a Pakistani immigrant, struggling to drag his heavy cart along the streets of New York to his corner in Midtown Manhattan. Ahmad Razvi is so natural as Ahmad and his story feels so genuine, so real. Ahmad is in a new phase in his life, but it rather feels like a totally new life, where his past is nothing but a series of flashes of a life so distant, of a former-self that he might never get back.

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He is a stranger – a stranger to this life, a stranger to the city around him. Every day he sells coffee and donuts to a city he cannot call his own. He wonders about his life, but doesn’t lose his mind over it. He seems as a man ready to accept his fate, and whatever tomorrow brings. His calm and lonely ways are presented to us with a background of New York’s darks streets and yellow street lights that speak of poetry with no need for clarification. We feel Ahmad is lonely, even when he bonds with lovely Leticia Dolera who plays a spanish immigrant, but we also feel he is kinda ok with it. Does this speak of his weaknesses, or maybe his wisdom? What is the right way, and is there a right way, a universal one, at all?

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Throughout the film, the director is always coming back to the image of Ahmad pushing his cart through New York, the perfect illustration of loneliness in an overcrowded place. Brilliant photography helps in creating an atmosphere one inhales and keeps in his/her lungs for a long time after seeing the film. A beautiful experience!

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Goodbye Solo is the story of two men who form an unlikely friendship. Solo is a Senegalese cab driver working to provide a better life for his young family and William is a tough Southern good ol’ boy with a lifetime of regrets. One man’s American dream is just beginning, while the other’s is falling apart.

gs/Goodbye Solo – snapshots/

Still, their differences aside, both men soon realize they need each other more than either (William more than Solo) is willing to admit. It is a story of friendship, but also a story of America and the ruins of American dream(s). Solo is on a cretain quest to save William (from what is clearly a suicide trip), but is at the same time trying to gain control over his own life, in terms of providing for his family, getting a better job, preparing for a new child and raising his step-daughter.

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He has a big shiny smile (Souleyman Savane is a natural, so great at this role), and is full of dreams for tomorrow, but still – somewhere deep inside, silently, he is fully aware of his position as a second-rate citizen (maybe hoping that the silence will make that fact disappear). On the other hand, William is an old man, always grumpy, with many hardships on his path of life, but still – too bitter for a life that can still offer surprises and inspiring moments.

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In a beautiful and almost seamless blend of the story and photography (once again), Bahrani tells a tale of persistence, but also – of learning to let go. All of that with a spark of mystery, always present in his films, for he is on mission to make us see, but also – make us wonder and keep us wondering.

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