It is an early winter morning in the Pink City. The gentle fog soon dissipates, but a quiet peace lingers, wraps around us, protecting the sensations of having listened first to the harmonies of a full-throated choir, then to the words of two very different but equally affecting poets. The world focuses and refocuses here on the grounds of the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, captured by the words, by the sounds and the spaces of and between them. In a huge tent on the main lawns, a calm, well-spoken, but no less passionate gent starts to talk about his experience of adapting a Pulitzer Prize winning book into an award-winning film.
The gentleman in question is Sir David Hare and the book and film The Hours. The occasion is the 2017 edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival, the largest free literary event in the world.
As Sir David talks about the “satisfying circle between literature and film” (he gives the example of Mrs. Dalloway becoming a bestseller in Los Angeles after the release of the film), I can’t help but reflect on how true it is.
Rewind to 2002. I was 14 when the film came out, unaware that it was based on a book, much rather such a famous one. I never got around to watching it (the era of multiplexes was still some time away and it wasn’t easy to find non-Bollywood, non-mainstream/blockbuster films playing everywhere that easily…the situation has changed only a little since, but I digress), but the only thing that stubbornly attached itself to some hidden part of my brain was Virginia Woolf and Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose for the role (though for quite a few years later, I confused between The Hours and The Others, both starring the Australian).
Fastforward to the summer of 2016. The Harvard COOP. Nestled between a book on finance and Sarah Scribbles’ Adulting is a Myth, on a table of reduced price books, was The Hours. Over the years I’d forgotten about the existence of the film, and the small aside of it being based on a book. It struck me only after I’d bought it and taken it back to my sister’s, where I was staying. This was that book.
Once I returned to Mumbai, it found a place on my shelves, patiently waiting its turn in a long line of unread/to-be-read books. Until a few months later when I saw Sir David’s name on the speakers list for JLF 2017. (Despite him having nothing at all to do with the book, it was good motivation to finally read it and then watch the film!)
One would like to imagine a similar soft day in the early 1920s, in a suburb outside of London, when a certain Virginia Woolf sat down and wrote the now irrefutably famous first line of what is still regarded as her best work – “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” It’s harder to imagine that it might have been a similar day, 16 years later, when she wrote her husband, Leonard a note, walked out of their house in London, weighed herself down with a rock in her pocket, walked into the river and killed herself.
You might wonder why it matters, why any of it matters. Why does it matter what kind of a day it was, what was written or said, what they might have been thinking? What does it matter how I read, or when, or how so many years and events conspired until I finally read it? 1941 was a long time ago. 1925 even more so. What does it matter that a 27-year-old girl from Mumbai read this particular book in January 2017 and connected it to something said later that month in a different city by an old British gentleman?
Michael Cunningham shows us just how much it can and does matter, maybe more than even we immediately realise. He shows that it matters to an LA housewife in the early 1950s who, outwardly, has everything to be happy about – a young son, another on the way, a healthy, caring husband. She finds a kindred spirit in Clarissa Dalloway, the enigmatic leading lady of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness experiment (oh but what an experiment!), just as Clarissa Vaughan, Cunningham’s early 21st century New York City Dalloway finds herself, sub-consciously or otherwise, living out parallels from her alter-ego’s life (about as meta as you can get).
Yes, it’s a fictionalised account with a pre-determined agenda, but the underlying mediation, throughout the narrative, is about connections and the lasting legacy of collective human consciousness; what Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry in 1923, called “digging out beautiful caves behind her characters” that will hopefully connect with each other. There are certain things passed on through the fabric of our social DNA, inheritances if you will, and what, if anything, does that better than stories and literature?
Stories remain one of our main avenues of making sense of the world, of questioning our reality. JLF 2016 was about preservation and remembrance, a “sea of stories”. JLF 2017, to me at least, felt like the natural extension of that – we know books are important and they matter, but why? How can they continue to remain relevant? And in troubled times like these, why are they even more important? Richard Flanagan put it rather succinctly – it all comes down to integrity and courage and the responsibility of writers to touch human institutions and, under current instability, work to restore the meaning of life.
But how can one ignore the darkness? Virginia Woolf, for all her brilliance and vision, killed herself, there’s no getting away from that. And her shadow looms large over all three storylines of The Hours, with the author’s deliberate use of her end as the beginning of his book, showing us how her spirit lives on, all of it, good and bad, popping up when one least expects it.
Similarly, there’s no getting away for Richard Flanagan from the fact that his father was a prisoner of war and suffered through darkness; one that his son continues to find “overwhelming and impossible”. What then is the point of it all if bad things happen and happen even to good people? What’s the point of literature? Flanagan believes that one doesn’t ignore the darkness, one lives with it, faces it…but with hope. It all boils down to hope, according to him, and I have to agree. It isn’t just a very useful delusion like Nietzsche said, it’s our reason to get out of bed, and it’s far from sentimental to believe in what is essentially the mechanism to a life where there will always be unanswered questions and unfairness and hurt and suffering…and death.
It’s something echoed by The Hours for all its preoccupation with death and suicide. It treats them as essential parts of a life where they rub shoulders with the possibilities of those perfect, happy moments, those ephemeral hours that we will remember long after they, the people in them, even the person that we were then evaporate into the ether.
“We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.” (The Hours, Michael Cunningham)
Great literature is about these fundamental, spiritual truths, however unpleasant, and the bridges formed by them. What Sir David Hare, Richard Flanagan, Alan Hollinghurst and Neil Jordan, in their panel on novel versus film, called, in their different ways, a passing on of the baton. Or an Olympic flame, if one is inclined to be dramatic. Whether it’s between people, the writer and readers, the filmmaker and the ones who watch it; even between mediums (the characters in three separate storylines in The Hours pass on the baton to each other, and the book in turn passes it on to the writers and actors in the film, who lie in wait for their audience), the narrative’s being shared and added to, made all the richer and deeper for its troubles. Isn’t that also the point of a literary festival like the JLF? Whether it’s a conversation with an author, a discussion with a fellow attendee on something as simple as a favourite book, every time something’s shared and absorbed, it’s passed on. Allowing for the possibility of a deep communality based on literature, a universal connection through time, space, situation and character.
It’s also about personal connections, and it’s funny how it happened as if the organisers specially arranged it just so. For me, JLF 2016 was about favourite authors and needing reaffirmation and grounding at a particularly uncertain, difficult time in my life. JLF 2017, celebrating its 10th year, was about reading, writing, inspiration and craft, about new discoveries and different perspectives about seemingly mundane things. Just a few months away from a new phase in my life, I was bestowed with a luminous hope that I never even knew I wanted, or needed with such fierce resolve. Now if that isn’t passing on the baton and creating memorable moments, I don’t know what is.