Saturday, 26 April 2014

When the Son Plays Boss: Hanif Kureishi’s ‘My Son The Fanatic’

It is not quite often that a short story is picked by a film director. It is hard to add flab and make a ten page story to a full length movie, just the way it is hard to compress a sprawling novel to make it fit in a two or three hour movie. It may be worth comparing the results of such attempts and see whether the likes of Le Miserables, Midnight’s Children and Life of Pi work better or Brokeback Mountain, The Japanese Wife and My Son the Fanatic do, as movie adaptations.
Hanif Kureishi’s short story ‘My Son the Fanatic’ is ideal material for a movie adaptation and the director Udayan Prasad must have known it at the first reading itself. He explored the flexible portions of the action packed story imaginatively, and the outcome is a brilliant, engaging movie that interprets the story in a very interesting manner. But a reader who approaches the story freshly may have a different interpretation which is equally, if not more, relevant. I had that privilege, but I enjoyed the movie version as well, when I saw it a couple of years later.
The story starts with a quick paced description of how Parvez, the father of Ali, notices that his son has become remarkably tidier, and weary of worldly possessions. The third person narrative flows unobtrusively to show how Ali, the young Pakistani man in England has stopped seeing his English girlfriend. His regular friends have stopped ringing too. Parvez is a taxi driver, and though he finds it difficult at first to share his worries about his son to his colleagues, he breaks his silence once. His friends assume that Ali is into drugs and is selling his possessions to pay for the drugs. Ali opens up to Bettina too, who works as a prostitute. She gives him some tips, on how to examine Ali’s habits and physical symptoms to see whether he is really a drug addict.
The relationship between Parvez and Bettina is presented in a unique way. They are really close – Parvez has known her for three years and they share almost all that happens in their lives. There is no hint that they are physically close, as the movie version suggests. But it is possible to interpret it in whatever way a reader likes, when the narrator says, “[O]nce he had rescued her from a violent client, and since then they had come to care for one another” (Kuresihi, Collected Stories 118). Parvez finds out that his son is not at all a drug addict, and that he was not selling his belongings but just throwing them out. And one day he realises that his son has started praying five times a day. Parvez had avoided all religions ever since he had some bad experiences related to religious education and expectations in his childhood in Lahore.
Parvez takes a reluctant Ali to a restaurant where he hopes to give the boy a piece of his mind. But Ali assumes power quickly to tell his father that he is breaking the rules of Koran when Parvez takes an alcoholic drink. And he accuses Parvez of eating pork pies and forcing his wife to cook pork sausages at home. He says that Parvez is “too implicated in Western civilization” (122). He starts praising some radical attitudes related to his religion and reveals his idea that “[T]he West was a sink of hypocrites, adulterers, homosexuals, drug takers and prostitutes” (122). He also talks about the persecution of Muslims and the imminent jihad if the situation doesn’t change. On their drive back home, Parvez tries to persuade the boy to believe that it makes sense to enjoy the English life. Ali does not come down from his moral high ground to take any advice by Parvez.
Bettina dissuades Parvez from throwing his son out of his home, as he confesses that he was planning to do it. Taking her advice, he even tries to pass on his philosophy of life to Ali, but in vain. One evening, while Bettina was sitting in Parvez’s car after visiting a client, they spot Ali on the street. Paying heed to Bettina’s request, he lets Ali in the car. But Ali uses harsh words against Bettina’s 'profession' and insults her. She gets out of the car even as it is moving. Parvez gets really angry after this incident, and he beats up Ali at home, while he was praying. The boy doesn’t cover himself or retaliate, but says “through his split lip: ‘So who’s the fanatic now?’ ” (127).
It can be said that Kureishi is not too harsh on any of his characters. He allows them the freedom to stick to their convictions. Parvez is not a Western man, but he tries to fit in there, despite the fact that he is a Pakistani immigrant. The movie version shows the father speaking English with a Pakistani accent, and the son speaking English like a native. Paradoxically, it is the father who is more at home with the Western culture while the son is brainwashed to such an extent that he hates the very concept of Western culture. The intolerance shown towards the West and his blinkered view of the world qualifies him to be a fanatic. Kureishi uses to good effect the response from Ali when he gets beaten up by Parvez. The ending of the story is ambiguous, and prior to watching the movie version, I was tempted to cook up my own extensions of the story. There is a hint that the blind advocacy of all things Western may also lead to some sort of fanaticism. 

As all good stories could, ‘My Son the Fanatic’ hints at a few sociocultural issues as well. It predicts the growth and spread of fanaticism in places like England. Kureishi had done a lot of research among the young Pakistani men/boys in England in order to present things that are factually correct. His playful and clever approach to the theme of the story and the powerful language he uses makes it a treat, to be savoured in leisure. One may even close her/his eyes for a while after reading it and start playing an individual movie version of the story, putting all the good bits together in the inner mind. That is what I did, and my movie version was very different from that of Udayan Prasad, but as I said earlier, I liked the latter version as well. I may even like ten other versions by discerning movie directors, or even more.
Kureishi, Hanif. Collected Stories. Print. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Notwithstanding Christmas

Longing Beyond Life in Louis de Bernieres’ 

‘This Beautiful House’


This Beautiful House’ by Louis de Bernieres opens in a direct, yet curious way: ‘I love it at Christmas. I just sit here at the end of the garden on top of the rockery, like a garden gnome’ (195). There is no gimmick, bait or philosophical observation to force readers into the complexity of the story. However, it is not the typically cheerful Christmas story that the apparently simple opening lines suggest. The unusual mix of the gleeful and the gloomy, the soothing and the eerie, the expectant and the disheartening, makes it a story worth reading again and again.  Each time, the reader stumbles upon new discoveries.

 Louis de Bernieres: Photo by Jose Varghese

This is the story of a man who keeps watch over his family’s house, and reflects upon the lost bliss of childhood, family togetherness and the celebratory atmosphere of Christmas. As he views the house from a distance, the unnamed narrator explores the unusual attachment he feels to his childhood home and revisits the relationships he had within it.
There are no clear boundaries with regard to time and space in ‘This Beautiful House’, and it is this fluidity that makes the surprises in the story so effective.  It may remind one of a well-edited movie with deliberate time shifts: a Hollywood classic that experiments with stylised understatements or an art house film that explores the inner workings of the human mind through select images.
The story is from de Bernieres’ most recent collection, Notwithstanding (Vintage, 2010), a book which takes its name from the fictional English village where the stories are set.  Here, strange yet endearing people, often with an outlandish sense of dress, roam the streets, and bizarre occurrences are the daily norm: birds crash into windows by the droves, a senile General goes shopping without his trousers, and Mrs. Mac happily interacts with the dead. Yet amid the many unfortunate events that take place in Notwithstanding, a spirited playfulness permeates the landscape. As is often the case in British humour, it is the idiosyncrasies of the not-so-perfect characters that saves the stories from tipping into gloominess.

In the first half of ‘This Beautiful House’, de Bernieres deliberately keeps the heat of the story very low, exploring in minute detail the particular mindset of the unnamed protagonist. This character vividly describes his house and the people he shared it with – his parents, twin brothers, sister, brother-in-law and Tobermory, the cat – as well as the birds, rabbits, model aeroplanes and tin soldiers which filled it in his youth. This special world he describes is clear and colourful, unlike his current existence, which is curiously vague and hard to visualise in any concrete terms. In the second half of the story, one shocking revelation after the other leads to an ending that is both eerie and beautiful.
The narrator’s opening comparison of himself to a garden gnome remains in the mind as he continues to speak passionately about the house: ‘Other people may not think it beautiful, but it’s beautiful to me mainly because I always loved it’ (195). We learn that the narrator was sent to Korea for military service, but returned to Notwithstanding to settle down to the life he was born to. He goes back to his childhood home and secretly pays rent to his mother, even as his brothers and sister move away. Thinking back on his youth, he reveals how he loved his upstairs room where he kept his model aeroplanes and tin soldiers, and how he shared a special friendship with his sister Catherine – on whom he enjoyed playing pranks. He tells us how he would try to scare her in the night, only for her to take her revenge by leaning over the banister and spitting on his head.  In such scenes de Bernieres draws us into the emotional depths of our narrator’s world.
The brooding nature of the narrator is hinted at with the description of the big dusty attic which had been fitted out for a servant to live in. Here, he fixed a dartboard to the wall and spent hours on his own throwing darts, ‘backhand, underarm, over [the] shoulder, every possible way.’ Tellingly, he reveals that ‘I used to go up there when I was miserable as well because no one would know I was weeping’ (198).
He also remembers happier times, as when he and Catherine would ring the doorbell to fool their mother, and how once, when she opened the door, she found Tobermory the cat sitting on the porch looking up at her as if it was he who had pressed the bell. He remembers that Tobermory was named after a talking cat in a story that his father read to them. And he remembers the vivid nights when he would try in vain to impress his girlfriends by imitating his brother Sebastian who could identify the stars and planets.
And then there are memories of that one white Christmas, and of Catherine wearing a lilac coat with white rabbit fur framing her beautiful face. At this point, midway through the story, the narrative moves from touching descriptions of the festive day to horrifying recollections of ‘that dreadful night of the fire’ (200).  Suddenly, the whole perspective of the story changes.  The narrator goes on to describe how the candles on the Christmas tree set light to the curtains, causing the fire that burned down the house.  His memories of waking in his bed, choking and fighting for breath, are recalled in detail up until the moment he passed out.  After that, he can remember nothing more of the night’s events.

In a cinematic way, the scene cuts to our narrator sitting at the end of the garden looking back at the house and its Christmas tree with electric lights. The house has been re-built, and he observes how ‘It doesn’t die, it just keeps evolving. The house is alive. It watches over me always, and it’s watching me now’ (202). Then, in a shocking revelation he tells us: ‘The house may be alive, but my family aren’t’ (202) and we learn that everyone else, including the cat, perished on that fateful Christmas night.  Death, however, doesn’t stop them from coming back.
All of his family members come to him as though they are still alive: they touch him and speak to him as if there is no difference between their existence and his. Concerned about his behaviour, they try to persuade him to stop ‘watching the house’, and his brother-in-law the baronet tells him it is high time that he leaves the place altogether.  The narrator, though, tells his family that ‘[I]t’s really the house watching over [me]’, adding, ‘[A]nyway, you’re all dead (203).’ The next chilling revelation comes as Catherine confronts him: ‘When are you going to understand?’ (203). The possibility that he is also one of the dead strikes us here, and this idea is stressed again when his mother and Catherine kiss him on the cheek.  He observes that ‘[I]t’s surprising how you can distinctly feel the kiss of someone who is dead’ (203) and recounts how his father once took his head in his hands and kissed him on the forehead.  That kiss, too, had felt real. Now, his twin brothers subject him to more claps between his shoulder blades before everyone turns, waves at him and fades away. Only the family cat lingers on for a little while, and just before leaving, ‘reaches up to touch a claw to [my] hand, as he used to when he suspected that it contained a morsel of Cheddar cheese’ (204).
The protagonist lives in a world that is alive beyond the reality of death. Memories bring back an existence that is more real to him than reality. He is perfectly contented with his existence, and as he sits atop the rockery in his garden, by moonlight, the story ends:
I love it here. I love this beautiful house, I love the way it holds me as if it had hands and I was cupped inside them. I sit here and it watches over me, I feel absolute happiness, and there’s nothing I’d rather do. (204)
De Bernières deliberately distracts the reader from the narrative’s main course of events with his stunning descriptions, locating important revelations within these passages in order to take us by surprise. What impresses me the most is the casual, and at times unreliable, way in which the story is narrated.  It is not too perfect to be true, and the narrator, with his fragments of vivid memories held loosely, with a lack of clear organisation of thought, is entirely convincing. That is as real as it gets, I feel. And the eerie Christmas is as beautiful as it gets too, just like the beautiful house and the haunting image of the man sitting on the rockery, like a garden gnome.

De Bernieres, Louis. Notwithstanding. Print.London: Vintage, 2010

First published in 
Thresholds: Home of the international short story forum, 
Chichester University, December 21,  2011.