Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Autobiographical novel: 'a prosthetic voice' (Alexander Chee). And (films of) Guru Dutt

I recently dipped into Alexander Chee's collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I find reading about writing to be reassuring: you learn things that you already knew but didn't know you knew. It's the kind of book where you want to write down fragments and keep them close to your heart. Chee describes his first (autobiographical) novel as a 'prosthetic voice', which gives voice to those things too difficult to speak about, in his case, sexual abuse. His image of prosthesis is, I think,  quite brilliant.
And so while I wrote this novel, it didn't feel like I could say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both like an autonomic process, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.

The State of Me - hard to believe it was published ten years ago, its message as relevant today - wasn't for me a fictionalisation  about something too difficult to talk about, but rather a representation of the anger and injustice that people with ME have felt for decades due to a wilful reframing/misrepresentation of the illness by a core of the medical/political establishment. The novel had to be written, but the difficulties in writing it were much more the physical/cognitive challenges of ME than an inability to voice the subject. (I also, of course, faced the structural challenges of writing a novel that face all writers, ill or not.)

Chee's concept of  'prosthetic voice' does, though, resonate for me when I go to the project/novella which is partly about my late Pakistani father, the project that often has me thinking of Bernard MacLaverty's description of writing as 'a way of trying out different fathers'. This is exactly what I am doing - when I can - and something in me is a little broken the whole time. The theme of my novella is 'not knowing'.

It's fascinating to learn about writers/artists who would have been contemporaries of my father. I've just discovered Guru Dutt, an Indian director and actor, famous for Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. Dutt died aged only thirty-nine in 1964 from probable suicide, he had mixed sleeping pills and alcohol.  He had attempted suicide before. Knowing Dutt's life story made it even more emotional watching Pyaasa, the story of a shunned poet, who only finds success when he is (wrongly) presumed dead. And Kaagaz Ke Phool, a melodramatic tale of a director's flop (prescient as Kaagaz Ke Phool also flopped) - had me in tears at the end. Real tears rolling down my cheeks.  When we respond to films we are, of course, not responding to just the fictional narrative but to the narratives in our own lives. I especially love the framing of the film - the opening and closing scenes - with Suresh Sinha as an old man looking back on his life.

I thought of Saddat Hasan Manto and wondered if he had ever met Dutt in Bombay (Manto left his beloved Bombay for Lahore shortly after partition). When googling Manto and Dutt, I came across this review, which likens Guru Dutt's Pyaasa to Nandita Das's recent biopic Manto. Manto and Dutt certainly shared sensibilities, a concern for those in the margins, those disenfranchised, in Manto's case specifically those harmed by Partition (on both sides).

Manto was seven years older than my father. Dutt was six years younger than my father. All were in Bombay in 1947. My father was not working in film, or as a writer, he was a medical student, who had interrupted his studies to join the Indian Air Force during the Second World War. What these three  men would come to have in common was an addiction to alcohol, an addiction tragically implicated in all of their deaths. They were not old men when they died, Manto was forty-two, my father was fifty-three (I was eight). I fancifully allow myself to imagine the three of them meeting up in Bombay before Partition, wondering what they would have spoken about.

I've discovered that Nasreen Munni Kabir made a Channel 4 documentary  in 1989 called In Search of Guru Dutt. I have ordered her book on Dutt. The beautiful and luminous Waheeda Rehman appears in all three films mentioned above. I understand that she and Dutt had an  affair, which ended his marriage to Geeta Dutt.  Geeta Dutt was also the hugely talented playback singer for Rehman's songs. Geeta, I have read, had a breakdown and became alcoholic after Dutt's death. She died in 1972, leaving behind their three children, two sons and a daughter, Nina (Nina was just a baby when her father died). It is heartbreaking that Tarun Gutt, their eldest son also took his own life and Arun Dutt - who was involved in preserving his father's legacy - died of alcohol-related illness in 2014.

Having now also seen Chaudhvin Ka Chand I am left with a huge nostalgia for a period in Indian film-making in 1950s I did not even live through. I think the melodrama, the heightened reality, the muted gorgeousness of monochrome all tap into a process in my head and heart (the not knowing). The wonderful singer for Guru Dutt, in these three films, is Mohammed Rafi, who died aged fifty-five (though it is Hemant Kumar who sings 'Jane Woh Kaise Log' in Pyaasa). I also loved the actor 'Johnny Walker', who brought humanity and slapstick (much needed, to balance the sadness) in his role as the masseur in Pyaasa. I have read Johhny Walker and Guru Dutt were great friends in real life.

Reading Chee's essays and watching Dutt's films, something collided gently in me - it reinforced how important art and film and fiction are in understanding our lives, both for those who create the art and those who consume. Making the hard stuff bearable.

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