Someone highly inebriated once said that in wine lies the greatest secret, that all life is fermentation. A small glass sits gracefully on the rough textured top of a wooden table, its heart filled to the brim with the greatest sanguine truth of them all. There is a lamp to its left whose diffused yellow light has created swirling patterns on the foot and the stem of the glass: flecks of deep blacks constituting the shadow of the dark red wine above mingle with the bright strokes of golden brilliance as the light of the lamp is squeezed into nooks and crannies by the unyielding will of the formed glass, and in the translucent surrealism which is the hyperbolic crystal stem there are impressions of the wood behind. If I were to describe these impressions I’d describe them in light vague ideas with rounded corners and soft textures, akin to how the world appears in those dim orphan moments when I have woken up by an unwelcome noise; in broad brushstrokes of confusion, muffled sounds and out of focus vision. The liquid itself is dark red, almost black, and it conforms silently to the whims and contours of the bowl of the glass. It ends about half an inch below the brim of the glass in a thin translucent ellipse where the light of the lamp, having refracted through the walls of the glass, gives up its own essence and reduces the deep black of the wine to a red hue. The glass casts a long dark shadow in which I can barely make out the vague shape of the majestic glass and the forgotten shades of deep reds – perhaps there is a final poignant point to all this, to this 2 dimensional and bland final act to an otherwise exhilarating tale...
Not at all.
Now what is it that makes great characters and a great story? And why is Ayn Rand such an awful writer? I have often wondered why my bile starts boiling at the thought of some writers who are so widely regarded. Ayn Rand is one such writer. The interesting thing is that when I actually read The Fountainhead at the age of 15 I was completely enthralled by it. I was swept away by the character of Howard Roark and saw in him all that was pure about the human spirit and noble about the human struggle. I saw in him what most people see, an inspiring and uncompromising man who was ready to go to any lengths of sufferings to stay pure to his own principles and just like other people I hated the mediocre world which was being an impediment to him in his pursuits of perfection. I saw the world in the black and white colors that Rand wanted from her disciples and I really did believe that pure characters like Roark existed in real life and even if they did not exist, I felt that Roark was an ideal which must be aspired for. What a bunch of bollocks, I have since realized.
I must say that Rand must be admired for the success that her creations have achieved but if one really wants to talk about her on artistic terms, she must be flayed and with vengeance. So what is it that really makes a great character? George Carlin, in one of those rare moments of overt sympathy, once said that you can see the universe in everyone’s eyes if you really look. I really do believe that each one of us is potentially a great character just waiting for our stories to be told by a competent and observant enough storyteller. What makes each of us fascinating has less to do with what we end up saying in conversations but has so much more to do with all that we never mention. What we say and what we feel are tremendously dependent upon a host of factors that would be hard to list. From our general upbringing to specific instances in the past, from the current company that we keep to our economic situations, there is almost an infinite number of factors which go consciously or subconsciously into explaining why we chose to keep quiet when a heated discussion on, say, the Palestinian conflict was going on. We snicker in disapproval and we are smitten with envy, we applaud inwardly and we dismiss with contempt but often we say only those things which would keep the wheels of social interaction in motion. We think about betrayal and we think about the ghastliest of things and we often do not mention all the sentimental love that we feel for the fear of ridicule. Against this background of the tremendous emotional turbulence we try to put up a face which is proper and graceful and strong and self-confident. Some of us are better than others at hiding our imperfections and some are better able to ignore the presence of such imperfections but they are present in all us and those character flaws are precisely the interesting bits in each of us.
Who wants to hear the story of the perfect being? We heard it a few times in the past and they still plague so many of us with their unreasonable ideals. The really great characters, I feel, are the flawed ones and especially those who are confused and contradictory in their flaws because that’s what people really are like. The great characters differ from boring people in the conviction that they have but they often do not understand the repercussions of acting upon their convictions. They are driven by true passion, just like Howard Roark, but there is none of that pathetic moral high ground in them which Roark seems to suffer from. Unlike Roark, they are not faced with a world whose sole purpose of existence seems to be stopping them from achieving their goals. They live in a world which is merely and appropriately apathetic and which has other characters as ‘right’ as them. They lead lives which are unfair to them despite all their best attempts and which often do not even compensate in the last few pages. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, creates easy worlds which appeal to our easy sympathies and automatic ideas. She creates worlds for those who want merely an escape and who are fine with missing all the variety and all the color of real life for the certainties of the simple stories which we have been fed with since time immemorial.
I hate her books so much that I had to rage delete my accounts from Orkut and Facebook because of all the people who had Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead in their favorite books list. Rather than going around the city and bashing kittens to take my anger out, I thought it was just better that I ignored that such people actually existed. There, I think those few lines of irrational anger make me incredibly interesting. I’m just waiting for a Tolstoy now!
I was talking to a friend recently about what makes a movie or a story really tragic and was marveling at the power of art to evoke such deep emotions in the first place. I started wondering what movies and stories had I watched and read which I found especially poignant. I got reminded of this silent movie called Pushpak which featured Kamal Hassan as the protagonist. There is a scene at the end of the movie which I find immensely moving. Obviously the scene is so strong because of how the characters are developed throughout the movie. The protagonist is essentially an everyman with limited resources at his disposal which he tries to utilize as best he can to achieve the little goals that he sets for himself. He doesn't aim very high and his ambitions are very modest and yet he often finds himself compromising even on those. Is he the loser of our parlance? Perhaps, but then he is a loser in a sense that so many of us also are. We differ from him in the scale of our ambitions but we are similar to him in all those ambitions that go unfulfilled. We are similar to him in the little heartbreaks which we suffer as we try to re-evaluate and reconfigure and rearrange our dreams which are forever at the beck and call of the mercurial circumstances. And yet he tries to live through it all with a humorous disposition. The movie, for the most part, is a comedy but it has a very poignant undercurrent of tragedy about it. Nothing overtly sad is ever mentioned and yet you can feel that all its brilliant color and all its music is set against a backdrop which is plain and quiet. And it has an amazing scene at the end. The guy is in love with a girl but she is leaving for a new place. She hands him a note wrapped around a rose which is presumably her new address and leaves. And as he is standing there watching her go, a sudden gust of wind blows away that note. That's the end.
I wonder why is it that I find it so moving. I love stories without obvious heroes because there are no obvious heroes in life. At least no heroes who have not had to pay dearly for their heroism. And in some sense there are many heroes. People who have had to undergo struggles of various kinds and who still manage to smile and be helpful and not bitter. And who lose in many ways and yet find the courage to try and make something out of the hand they have been dealt. The protagonist is just such a person. A bit like the characters of Chekhov or R.K.Narayan, he is the everyman that most people, including me, would identify with.