Sunday, May 18, 2008

The New Yorker April 21, 2008

Rushdie's novel Midnight's Chidren has a mysterious chapter titled "In the Sundarbans." The New Yorker article on that mangrove forest helped me make sense of the chapter's connection with Tiger, tides, kraits and widows.

From Caroline Alexander's "Tigerland":

At the mouth of the Ganges Delta, the Sundarbans encompasses the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world, of which roughly forty per cent lies in India and sixty per cent in Bangladesh. . . . To the southeast lies the tiger reserve, whose swamp forest and intricate waterways are the improbable domain of the uniquely aquatic Royal Bengal tiger.


The boat arrived at the long jetty of the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary. . . . The river was at very low tide, and a compound loomed above the river and fifteen feet of exposed mud banks like a fort bristling with defences, Stoutly staked at the high-tide mark, a quadruple row of bamboo pylons formed a palisade, patrolled by a tropp of rhesus monkeys. Inside the compound stood a shrine to Banbibi, the divine protectress of the forest, and to Dakshin Roi, the tiger god. . . .

The dashing Dakshin Roi, depicted as a mustachioed, gun-carrying, horse-riding, sporting gentleman, is Tiger incarnate. He is deep yellow, with large compelling eyes. Within this nexus of sometimes contradictory associationsm he is, like Vishnu, the Preserver, principally worshipped for his curative powers: "A god can create life and can take it," as a village woman told me with some energy.


According to folk etymology, "Sundarbans" is Bangla for "the forest of beautiful trees," and the mangroves shimmered in the low morning light--literally shimmered, as the leaves of some species are covered with a glossy protective wax, which is secreted, along with excess salt, as one of their strategic adaptations to the saline water.


Netidhopani Camp stood at the southern limit of the buffer zone and on the edge of the reserve's most protected core area. Unusually, the site had historic remains: the ruins of a three-hundred-year-old brick temple, built to commemorate a young widow whose prayers to Shiva were said to have brought her dead husband back to life. The interior was rumored to house a lingam of Shiva; two weeks earlier, it had also housed a tiger, which had borrowed its convenient shade.


It is not known why Sundarbans tigers have a propensity for man-eating, although theories abound: because the salt water makes them irritable, because human bodies floating down from the Ganges have whetted their appetite, and so forth; more plausibly, Sundarbans tigers, in their remote domain, have never learned to fear man.


. . . an arsenal of hopeful and imaginative tiger deterrents: masks with a painted human face worn on the back of the head to trick the tiger, who prefers attacking from behind . . .


To find honey, you followed the bees, climbing a tee and looking up to sight them. The bees must be full; an empty bee wags his tail and flies erratically, a full bee flies in a true bee line.


Throughout the Sundarbans, it is common for wives to live like widows while their husbands are in the forest, forgoing the prerogaives of married women, such as colorful saris and the splash of vermillion in their hair. There are also villages of real "tiger widows," women whose husbands entered the forest and simply never came out.


From Joan Acocella's "Doll Houses":

Early this month, [Basil] Twist revived his 2001 "Petrushka," and it is an astonishment. . . . before "Petrushka" was a ballet it was a puppet show. Stravinksy and Benois based their libretto on the Punch-and-Judy theatricals given during Shrovetide in old St. Petersburg. In the ballet, fairgoers see a marionette show with three characters, all played by human beings: the Moor (glamorous virility), the Ballerina (brainless beauty), and Petrushka (poetic soul, as in Pierrot, the European Petrushka). Backstage, however, the puppets are undergoing a drama of their own. Petrushka loves the Ballerina; the Ballerina fancies the Moor; Petrushka comes between them; the Moor kills him.

The ballet was a hit, and was widely performed throughout the twentieth century, but time has not improved it. Modern Petrushkas tend to be over-piteous, thus banishing the original's Hoffmannesuqe eeriness, its mixture of human sorrow and lacquered artificiality. Enter Basil Twist, who has turned the show back into puppet theatre. . . .

The basic puppetry technique here is Japanese Bunraku. . . . That means that the puppets are mvoed around by people dressed and hooded in black, and therefore, on a black stage, more or less invisible. But in fact the show's nine puppeteers are seldom wholly invisible. Eyebrows notwithstanding, this is not realism.

And not only because we can see the puppeteers. At times, Twist suspends storytelling and just shows us imagery suggested to him by the score. When a light, fugitive theme scampers through the music, a sparkling veil whips across the stage--Petrushka's soul, if I'm not mistaken. When Stravinsky gives us heavy, plodding music for a tamed bear's arrival at the fair, Twist, too, gives us a bear, but not a whole one--just the jaws and the claws (frightfulness, the coming death). Most subtle of all is Twist's hand imagery. Throughout the show, big, fat white hands--they look like Parker House dinner rolls--appear as puppets. This is a sort of joke--puppets in the shape of hands, controlled by puppeteers' hands--and also a serious comment on the heart of the story: manipulation. But the hands also appear, at the beginning, playing instruments: accordion, balalaika, drums. As in life, what is bad is also good.

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