Monday, July 17, 2006

American Pastoral and the Circle of Life

A couple of days ago, I watched a film called Samsara and read a novel by Philip Roth called American Pastoral. Samsara is a film in Tibetan and Ladakhi languages about a monk who believes that he should experience life before forsaking it. Samsara is the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. While the book is a classical tale of the American Pastoral (Pastoral being defined as charmingly simple and serene) degenerating into the American berserk. The break down from the idyllic to the deranged is a story told through the life history of the central character Swede Levov.


Both the book and the movie, which I read and watched in the same week, examined the attrition that life forces on us. The books maps an entirely different world and so diametrically removed from the life of a Buddhist monk in an entirely different continent, culture and values. Yet, they both focus on the human cogitation about life, its trials and tribulations that life leads us through. The Monk who was sent to the monastery at a precocious age and despite undergoing three years of fasting and meditation is seduced by the charms of women and yearns for the life of a house holder. His reasoning being that even Lord Buddha had indulged himself in the sweet pleasures of life before forsaking it. The point being, how can he give up something he is never had. A similar though different ambition is Swede Levov's to have a perfect world with a wife he loved and a daughter he cherished. Both these central characters are on a quest of protection and discovery which defines most of human life.


The movie Samsara was on the International Movie circuit since the year 2001 but got a theatre release only this year in 2006. The movie has been highly acclaimed and gathered accolades from all corners of the world. It is shot in the beautiful pleatue of Ladakh, a land which resembles Tibet, in all its forms from natural landscape, culture and religion. The sheer majestic ness of the landscape and the ugly barrenness with the mighty and clear blue sky makes Ladakh a photographer’s paradise. It would take a lot of effort to actually come back from Ladakh with bad photographs. The over arching beauty of the land is a central part of the film and to me it signified the desolateness of life amidst which we humans conduct ourselves within our limitations and aspirations.

The many awards garnered by the film is a reflection of the West's fascination with Tibet, where anything resembling Tibet or Tibetan culture is highly valued irrespective of its quality and the further 'commodification' of Tibetan culture.

In Samsara, a monk who despite years of meditation seeks to leave the monastery to become a householder. The monk finds a girl and lives as a resident son-in-law in the household partaking in the simple pleasures of life like running household and breeding children. In this process the monk goes through the basic emotions known to man such as anger, lust, violence and more obviously boredom. Finally the monk decides to forsake his householder life and go back to the monastery.

On his way back, he is visited by Buddha (I suppose so!) in the form of his wife who remarks on his selfishness and who voices the feminist concerns regarding Buddha's sudden desertion of his wife and kid to search for enlightenment. What if Siddhartha's wife had decided to leave the household and search for enlightenment, wouldn’t she have been accused of neglect of her wifely and motherly duties but the man's sacrifice of the same duties were eulogized as that of a man who sees through the illusion of life. The point so true of eastern or let me say Hindu and Buddhist faith that have for long subordinated the woman to domesticity while the men search for enlightenment.

Philip Roth, the author of American Pastoral is probably the biggest and the best writer of this generation of Americans. Roth is an extremely verbose writer with a complex narrative technique which has left me more confused then enlightened. I have read just two other books by Roth which are, The Dying Animal and Portonoy's Complaint. American Pastoral has three essential narratives; the first is the narrator who grew up in the shadow of Levov's legendary reputation. This first narration is an awe inspiring introduction and build up to Levov's reputation. Levov, is a super jock but a kind, humble man inherits the glove factory his Jewish father build up with his hard labour and marries a catholic ex-Miss Jersey. The pretty couple and Roth's amazing characterization is such that despite emphasizing their superficial beauty he actually builds a kindred and humble soul in the couple. This part of the narration titled, Paradise Remembered, has a lot to say about ageing, memory and how we examine nostalgia. It is the next two narratives which were are central to the book. The first titled, The Fall, is the narrative of beautiful Swede Levov and his rather human ambitions. The final and the crucial narrative is titled, Paradise Lost, which tells us Levov's daughter Merry's tale.


Merry was a troubled child, mildly obsessive and Levov traces it to Merry watching five Vietnamese monks self immolating during the Vietnam War. It is through Merry that Roth creates the machinations by which the post-second world war idyllic pastoral rural world of Swede Levov passes into the berserk. Merry shows signs of being obsessed about particular objects, events but she also grows out it. With the flower generation taking roots in American schools through the 1960's and protesting French action in Algeria and American action in Vietnam, Merry joins the movement and accuses her father of being a immoral capitalist. To cut the story short, Merry bombs the village's postal office and ends up killing a person to disappear and then re surfaces as a Jain, the svetambara jains who don’t wash for fear of killing insects and eat to a minimum in their efforts to die of starvation. Thus devastating, Swede Levov who lives with the affection for his lost daughter and the guilt of her being a murderer and he is further devastated when his wife on her way to recovery from Merry's disappearance starts having an affair.

The movie, while not being decidedly brilliant was important enough for me to write about it because it’s a remarkable movie to have actually made it to the theatre’s in Delhi. It was also important to me due to the fact that my leisure affords me enough time to actually consider and think about the issues that might have plagued Buddha’s mind and to an extent plagues us all in our disappointments that life offers. Is life worth it? How do you handle the pressures that surround us, laying bare one of the core dictum’s of Buddhism, that all life is maya or Illusion? In our fateful journey in life so far we have all expected love, ambition, material comfort, peace of mind and in our quest for security in various garbs we have all been disappointed, most in failure and some even in success. Under such extenuating circumstances, when the modern urban existence is merely a rat race, the thought of escape to a more natural environment and with just the ‘thought’ of leaving it all, appears extremely illuminating. It was so to me and a few of my friends. But remarkably all these friends of mine had leisure time on their hands to actually think of these options. The people, who were in the rat race, either didn’t get the time to do it or well, never mentioned it to me. Samsara also added a dimension to it self with the feminist perspective or interjection that the film accorded in its closing moments, sometimes, I think as an after thought.

The lead actors of Samsara are all borrowed; Christy Chung is a Hong Kong actress and does a remarkable job as the ex-monk’s wife. The lead actor, Shawn Ku, is some sort of an American and doesn’t do to bad. But the movie in an older reading is a classical marketing of the exotic east intermixed with liberal doses of nudity and one sequence of what I suppose was tantaric sex. Pan Nalin, the director of the film is an Indian and most of the supporting cast was from the Ladhak region in India. Pan Nalin’s new film, the Valley of Flowers, had its opening show in the Osian Film festival in New Delhi on 15 July’ 2006. I failed to procure tickets for it. Pan Nalin has made it to the newspapers these days and he goes on and on about the ghettoisation of Hindi films (the song and dance musical that the Bombay film industry gives us. Samsara would be in Indian parlance categorised as an 'art' film and non mainstream for its linguistic choice as well as subject matter) abroad. He says that Hindi films abroad are mostly seen within the NRI ghetto. Partly, I think he is right, but only partly. Because there actually exists a vast swathe of land east, west, north and south of India which are ardent followers of Hindi cinema even in its mediocrity. The other day, someone mentioned to me that he met an Ethiopian family in the US of A which was crazy about Hindi films. A lot of Nalin’s criticisms are very true and especially the way he compares Hindi films to other Asian cinema but Nalin should keep in mind that his movie and more specifically, Samsara is a ghettoisation of a worse sort wherein, anything remotely Tibetan gets acclaimed for a number of reasons irrespective of quality or value.

Back to the topic, in a similar way Swede Levov’s effort to preserve and protect his world was something which was very tender in its portrayal and something identifiable to a householder. The fact that his world gets in the way of the American berserk through his daughter is also reflective of the breakdown of idyllic America to the current America. The books strength’s lie in its sensitive portrayal of Swede’s humble ambitions despite his genius and in its tale of the break down of the post-war boom world illustrated through the Levov family. And Levov’s struggle as a man, is also about how the life of a worldly man is full of its share of sufferings and how being a monk would have been so much saner. This thought while not reflected in Swede Levov’s character is something which I think flitted across the author’s mind and it is in this scheme of things why Roth lets Levov re-discover Merry in her new avatar as a Jain monk.

I enjoyed both the experiences. While the movie, precociously moves through its pace in the land of the broken moon, Swede Levov's story is told at break neck speed by Roth. The narration jumps back and forth covering aspects of American life we sometimes glimpse superficially in American cinema. There is Levov's Jewish father mocking the drunkard and neglected wife of one of Swede's neighbours, there is a character who claiming to be Merry's friend and confidant blackmails Levov and ultimately wants him to make love to her. I decided to write about the book and the movie together because their essence was similar to the way I received both of them. The fateful or accidental impregenation of a egg by a spermatozoa, nursed for nine months and after a few years the little life grows up to shoulder the responsibility of an individual tying himself in knots in the process of his/hers life, in relationships, ambitions, duties and not to forget the sheer boredom and mechanical nature of life in some phases. The story of the monk and Levov meant the same struggle to me, just the flip side of a single coin.

15 comments:

xanjukta said...

wow...satya babu...very profound.. very buddha like...
how can you give up what you do not have???

satya said...

I am sorry, meri maar rahe ho kya?

Samajh na aaya, chori....

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on to your blog by chance, now reading it regularly by choice. You bring such passion and enthusiasm into your writing. I have not been exposed to the movies or books which you write of but after your reviews (some new and some older ones) I have picked up some of the books and have begun reading them. When I read I often only see the surface, you see so much more….oh, to be in that mind of yours….what else might I see?

xanjukta said...

Ahem...anonymous comment on your blog too??? Kindly confess...
"Forgive me Father, for i have sinned..." ;-)

Now to elaborate on my earlier set of words...i remember telling you once that Gautam, the Buddha, had certain criteria for wannabe monks before they could join the Sangha. One, they had to be married, two, they were to be 'snatak' which roughly means a graduate, depends on what education system they had way back then, three, they had to have a certain amount of wealth in their name, namely house, cows, gold, etc...and four, they had to go spend three months in a 'samshan'. They last was designed to show them the futility of the trappings of life. The idea behind all of this was so that the man could have something to leave behind. It is quite similar to the Hindu ashrams, Brahmacharya when the boy learns to retain his sensibilities, Grihastashram, where he expends his worldly duties, Vanaprastham whence he learns to give up...and finally sanyas, where he learns to live with himself (yes! because the sandhi vicched of sanyas is Swyam + Nivas)

However, modern vitiation of religion, in this all religions are at par, has rendered it other way round. Buddhist monasterys have little boys chanting without any knowledge or inclination. Christian priests and Hindu yogis (mentioned in one of my posts) also are a case in point. To further substantiate the coruption take Jainism for instance. The story goes that The Mahavir wore one piece of cloth. A beggar ask for something to wear and Mahavir gave him half of his dhoti. Later, one evening while walking to some place, Mahavir's half of the dhoti snagged on some thorns of a plant. At that, Mahavir thought that perhaps the plant needed the cloth and thus he gave up wearing anything altogether. Key idea: the Mahavir was enlightened already when that happened. Today, Digambar Jains give up clothes and believe that it will enlighten them...

I really like the idea of enmeshing the movie and the book. It reiterates an idea of mine, that no matter where we are, where we come from, where we want to go...all life raises the same questions. The answers are all around us, we just need to find the right questions to ask. And boy! take that Abhigyan... this is definitely a better review, in my humble opinion!

satya said...

Hello Anon,Thanks for your comment. I will learn to savour such adulation even if my blog mates actually think that I wrote that comment myself.

I confess that for the past few weeks or more accurately since two of my blog mates had anon commenting upon their blogs, I felt strangely left out and to remedy matters thought about and discussed that maybe I should leave anon comments on my own blog!

But honest, that comment is rather incisive and had I posted it myself, it would have been way too blase than the one this reads like..

Thank you once again. Enjoy your anonymity, its so much more fun than being fixated in the multiple identities life forces down our throats.

Abhigyan said...

Welcome to the club maan, of getting anon comments.
In fact, I also have had two left on mine - Fanaa review and the article on cricket just below, but I guess it might be from someone I know, and who stumbled upon the site through recommendations. The chap on your site is obviously impressed, and this piece of yours definitely deserves some adulation.
Xanjukta - I am hardly competing with Satya at all (though am always game if one wants to turn in into one). In fact, it is very strange, in real life, I guess I am the more objective one, whereas all of Satya's actions and thoughts commence from a source so personalised and subjective that it keeps changing every single moment. 'Growth' as he used to put it, and sort of became a joke in our circle.
However, if you observe our writings, it is totally the other way round. In spite of all my pretences of rating movies etc, I write totally by my own personal standards. It is a different thing I want to avoid my mood/company-biases on my reviews, in case can't do so, I admit that in the post.
Satya writes more cutting-edge and dryily, not with the typical dose of his personality (if you guys get what I mean). Satya - the Sansara review is gud (but as I put in the comment at my site, I don't think the climax had Buddha, it was just the flaw of Buddha), but your not-too-happiness with the movie is not-so-obvious. My review screams my displeasure, at least I tried so. Yet if were to discuss the movie in real, we will reverse roles, and you will be taking the movie's trip wholeheartedly.
Anyways, you Corporate review again was so bloody apt, that I have decided to let it pass on my site. No need to replicate efforts, especially if our posts and comments are so inter-linked. Let's see who gets off with 'Yun Hoto To..' first.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have signed into your site under “anonymous”, I was compelled to comment but do not have a blog site of my own. It is amazing how one site can link you to so many fascinating people and articles. The insight in the many articles I have read will keep me pondering for quite some time. I have obviously entered a group of people with a greater or perhaps just different awareness of the world. I wish I had something brilliant to add but I will leave that to your colleagues for now.

xanjukta said...

Dear Anonymous,
what unabashed adulation and entire lack of ego...you seem to be an 'enlightened one'.

Satya-san, your blog seems to be flying high... le nahi rahi hoon. most sincere face bana ke likh rahi hoon...

Abhigyan,
So you're not much into competition (please to be read in thet bihari accent the word competition), but me thinks you justify too much. And obviously you have delienated the lines of penmanship between your good self and satya's basically bad self. ;-)Ab kis kis ko khush rakhun main??
Maybe you're right, may be i am, maybe!
As far as i know satya, there is just one overwhelming 'thing' in his life...and that definitely shows through sometimes..case in point the post on hanif qureishi

satya said...

xanju-ji,
I like that idea of sanyas being swayam niwas...crazy idea...thanks...i didnt know that...and same goes for the jain monks bit...how stupid...ha

yes, I did the two reviews together because apart from watching and reading them in the same week, I thought such different worlds and such simple questions about life...and once the idea took root in my mind, it took me a long time and much effort to actually try to make sense of them. Sometimes points would get lost or come to me when I was outside or I didnt want to make the effort to write.

Thanks everyone for all the comments. I was desperate for them on this post for it was quiet difficult.

And Abhigyan, yes I agree, that I do nto come out more clearly regarding how I judge the movie and I get lost in wreastling with the subject it dealt with.

Well, yeah I agree with that personalised point abhigyan aka manu makes. Did I lose it someplace? Or is it cause I am writing these out and trying to do it professionally? Else I always have growth or my mental evolution to actually use as an excuse.

I think I would use growth to actually find cause in this change, I dont think even when I speak now I get personal about hindi films. Man, were they personal once? Shah Rukh versus AAmir? Even Sooraj Barjatya versus Aditya Chopra?Sanjay Dutt versus Salman Khan?

haha, I dont know if I was arguing this out where I would stand but well yeah, like a well meaning intellectual or pretensions of it, I do enjoy arguing against the dominant theme or opposing someone else's opinions' else there is not much fun beyond ecstatically romantising movies.

I watched that Naseer film today...from the corner seat of PVR theatre 3 first row, not even sure if I 'saw' the film, will do some reactions to that soon.

As far as your own review, I like those turns and twists of Hindu mythology, it is very fascinating to me and I like your cross references. In fact while writing this one, I was hoping I had even any basic knowledge of all that.

And I really wanted to use the quote you use to start your post, it really says a lot to me. You know like one of the few wise things one can trap in our wordly minds. And I also enjoyed that tangent you take to look at how our Gods or atleast some selective ones treat their women. You forgot to mention Hanuman, wtf did he do with women!

satya said...

Dear Anon,

I hope so much that you keep coming back to my blog and finding new things for your mind and soul. We are quiet an earth shaking bunch, I dont know how pleasing we would be in real life but trust me the number of disagreements would over rule the agreements by a huge margin.

One of our very esteemed colleagues who used to run a lovely blog and the link can still be found on Xanju's page, Omair, decided to move ahead in life and scrapped his blog altogether, and I am sick of being reminded by everyone on how they miss his blog, so we are trying to fill in the empty space left my Omair.

Yes, I agree with Xanju on the tenor of your comments. Are you the one who wrote that first comment too? Just curious, you dont have to tell me. But I find your comments very 'unconditional' and I doubt it can be a man. I am certain it cant be, but well, thats ok.

And I do hope you continue to have fun and watch the movies we write about and read the stuff we mention. See, I doubt anyone ever showed so much love for anon comments.

xanjukta said...

Satya bhaisaab, itna haath maar liya, par kuch haath nahi aya...i'm going to give up soon...
i'm enjoying the progress on this post..sheesh! what comments and all... gotta think of something better to write next time...

about hindu gods, none of them treated their women badly... the sacred feminine is still the sacred feminine for them. people tout the example of ram and sita, but there are certain things that are overlooked by the over zealous feminist types... that Sita had so much faith in Ram that she never even asked a question... that much trust is so much love or whatever... it is complete surrender... akin to what Krishna said "Sarv dharman parityajye, mamek sharanam vraj" roughly translated: leave everything and take shelter under my feet...
And that is what hanuman did too.. About women, well hanuman is the incarnation of mangal as is Kartikeyan...they are the Gods of war...hanuman, kartik swami and mangal (even in greek and roman mythology mars is the god of war...which is why every time mars come close to earth there are upheavals, political, geographical, economic etc.) Gods of war worship women, they do not mess around and sing love songs.. why else do you think i'm with the ageing warrior????

Anyway, i still have Omair's link as a reminder as to what can happen in the big bad world wide web... ;-)

Abhigyan said...

Well Xanj u sure know ur mytho from the Langdon perspective in Da Vinci, while I know it more from the Amar Chitra Katha, Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra angle. But I surely think our treatment of the sacred feminine has been an issue right from the ancient ages. Read the writings of my namesake Manu and Chankya to figure out what I am saying. Maybe women have been used as a pawn in worldly matters throughout the world - remember in the unverified Uttaa Ramayan, Ram banished Sita to satisfy gossip-mongers only. In the more enlighted era, if we followed the same rules and principles, Nehru would never have managed so many roads and stadiums named after him.
The fact you mention of Sita's unconditional surrender is possibly something similar to what Satya's reaction to anon comments say - only a female is capable of that. Read a blog of a person I know, www.sasri.blogspot.com, then you'll get what devotion and surrender means.maybe i will mention that on my post also.
Sorry guys I haven't managed to take out time to update my posts, I write abt issues which take up a lot of time, so I satisfy my cravings by using the comments column.

xanjukta said...

Dear Abhi,
Well... the sacred feminine that i know of, is not from the Langdon perspective, but from the Tantra one... you see, i come from the land of Kamakhya...where the yoni is worshipped... apropos to that there are many ceremonies where girls and women are worshipped there... what you have, from the BR Chopra, Sagar, nehru angle, including Manu, is the corrupted form of patriarchy which reared it's head about the time Manusmriti was composed. Chanakya, on the other hand, being the realist that he was, mentioned the use of Vishkanyas, the only use of women as pawns in Arthshahstra, only to further his cause of the Raja...

Ever wonder why all the sages have been men...because men need direction. In all treatises, women are considered already on the path to Nirvana, all they have to do is let go of what they love most... men have more baggage to shed.

BTW, Satyabrat, your blog is finally the hotbed of debates... i can see you grinning...

satya said...

yeah, thanks guys. Please keep debating here.

And do you even imagine I could add anything worth while in that....unless you count nonsensical sexual references as enriching the debate. haha

Shalini said...

"It would take a lot of effort to actually come back from Ladakh with bad photographs."...ahem!!

I will hold all comments till I develop my films!