Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making a Break with the Past with Enid Blyton

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enid Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction - picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of his books.)

Back then I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation or whether someone was a commercial or literary writer. I developed these pretensions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enid Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years ago why I didn’t try out Enid Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I was age conscious. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s author just wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was naturally out of the question. But my indifference to Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with her.

In my earlier reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enid Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enid Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English - where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play with. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

The plot is simple and straight forward with a moral and social justice angle to it. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for occasional derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and mostly over weekends.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

I have read several trilogies but with almost all of their later versions in the series I got the feeling that the narrative had run out of steam, that there was hardly a second or a third installment and one was made only to capitalize on the success of the earlier books. Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the third and final book in the Ibis trilogy, which started about seven to eight years back with Sea of Poppies, never made me feel the same way.

The first two books in the series deal with the period leading to the Opium War and the third one – Flood of Fire – with the war. The Chinese authorities alarmed at the damage opium has caused to the youth of the country has decided to stamp out the British merchants dealing in opium from its shores little knowing that about a year or two later the merchants will manage to get the British government to invade China to force opium back on the Middle Kingdom.

And when the invasion comes the Chinese find themselves ill prepared to face the might of British attack. The period leading to the onset of war is revealing in many ways. The man responsible for upsetting the apple cart of opium trade, Commissioner Lin, an upright and incorruptible high official sent in by the Chinese authorities to deal with the menace of opium, is abruptly removed from his position under fabricated charges of foul play and replaced by his deputy, a pliable man, who is also awarded the responsibility to conduct an inquiry into Commissioner Lin’s wrong doing. 

What a humiliation! But what is the actual reason for Commissioner Lin’s ouster? The British opium merchants had petitioned the local Emperor that Mr Lin had been obstructing free trade (by preventing them from carrying on their opium trade). Defense of free trade, free will, God's will etc are the ruses used by the British to justify the campaign of war. This is the larger point behind Ghosh’s trilogy: unsavory means imperialism uses for its sustenance and expansion. 

Ghosh had turned down the Common Wealth Prize because, as he later said in an interview, it’s a commemoration of the Empire. Ghosh is one of those writers whose subjects change but the central muse remains the same. Take any of his works, and you can trace it back to the effects of imperialism, which includes his latest nonfiction offering – The Great Derangement – where he has blamed imperialism (or its less extreme version capitalism) for the environmental challenges we are faced with.

Despite this larger theme in the background, however, Ghosh has dealt with his character and events with an ideological detachment, just narrating the events as a raconteur avoiding getting self-righteous about anything. As a result, the opium merchants come across not as evil souls but men of their times using a business opportunity.

Almost all significant characters have been carried forward from the second installment – River of Smoke – and some are a continuity of the first. Ghosh has brought them and their related sub plots (and there are many of them) to conclusive end in Flood of Fire. In doing so, however, he has sometimes tried too hard, reading a little contrived in the process.

He has put three important characters to death because their prospects beyond the plot were not too bright or clear. He has made two characters - who had existed in the second version but hadn’t met - fall in love and marry because there was no other visible possibility arising out of their meeting. Many characters which had been given a short shrift in the first and second installments have found sizable space in Flood of Fire.

But that hardly takes away from Ghosh’s strength of characterization. In fact, Ghosh has established his characters with his readers so well that it took me only one or two introductory sentences to recall them upon their first appearance in this edition. 

Neel a scion of a feudal family who started off as a debauch in Sea of Poppies and is arrested for being a defaulter goes through a range of experiences in China where he had ended up after fleeing the ship – the Ibis – which was transporting him to Mauritius to be an indentured laborer – completely redeems himself. Zachary a poor but personable American sailor, in the first book, becomes a wealthy businessman in the last. Aaa Fatt an opium addict and a love child of a successful opium merchant gets killed by a mafia don who had started looking for him in River of Smoke – the second book in the trilogy - to avenge the fact that Aaa Fatt had seduced his lover. And like them there are other characters too whose lives are transformed in the course of the trilogy.

Flood of Fire is not bad but the second one of the pack – River of Smoke – is the best of the three books, with its unhurried and intricate narrative without any attempt to be a thriller.   

Friday, August 26, 2016

Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told - a Collection of Bengali Short Stories

A collection of short stories written by writers writing in the same language and coming from the same place can often cover the past and present of a place more widely than it is possible for a novel which, even those moving back and forth in time to cover a long period, mostly takes a linier trajectory. 

The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told translated by Arunava Sinha do something similar: the collection brings together the work of the most famous and not so famous Bengali writers coming from different periods and places of Bengal and covering a huge landscape from Bengal’s past and present.

Alas, it is hard to understand whether it is by design or accident. Sinha informs us, in the introduction, that his choice of stories isn’t based on any scholarly or thematic consideration; instead on what he considers best stories or stories he has been able to place himself.  On a more informative note, he informs us that Bengali short stories can’t be traced to any particular period or group of practitioners of the form; they were always being written; they were always there, evolving with time.

The first story in the collection is Rabindra Nath Tagore’s famous Kabuliwallah. Having seen its movie adaptations, which were lengthened by songs, I felt the story ended too soon, although it  read surprisingly fresh.  Mahesh, by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, tells the story of a Muslim man who owns a cow called Mahesh and takes care of the animal with fatherly affection and care. One day, due to Mahesh, misfortune visits him and enraged he hits Mahesh on its head killing the animal. The village turns against him accusing him of cow slaughter. It was written around a century back.

Einstein and Indubala deals with our preference for entertainment over scholarship. Einstein visits a small town to deliver a lecture. On the day the lecture is scheduled, there is another event in the town which everyone is awaiting: a live performance by Indubala, a cine sensation.  When Einstein arrives at the lecture venue he finds all the seats empty. 

The guard informs him that everyone would have gone to watch Indubala perform.  Finally the scientist goes to the place and finds the organizers of his lecture sitting there. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay had written it based on a report he had read in a newspaper.

I found Sunil Gangopadhay’s Post Mortem too incoherent. It reminded me of what the writer had once told about writing short stories. In his initial days as a writer he was reluctant to try out short stories, until a friend told him one day that writing short stories was easy: write what you do in a day, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed, and stop somewhere, and you have a short story.

Swapan is Dead, Long Live Swapan by Udayan Ghosh deals with Naxalism, the only story in the collection to deal with the socio-political issue which had rocked Bengal in the 70s. I also liked Mahaswtha Devi’s Urvashi and Johnny which is about people who call streets their home. There are a few more in the collection.

The literary merit of the stories notwithstanding, the book’s title -The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told - could be a little more understated as also the title of its introduction where Sinha justifies putting together the collection – My Love Affair with Bengali Stories.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gachar Gochar - the Problems Wealth Brings

Usually we blame our problems on lack of wealth. Gachar Gochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag in Kannada and translated into English by Srinath Perur argues the opposite: wealth brings problems it its wake. Gachar Gohchar manages to make its point very succinctly, in only 115 pages through the story of a Kannada family which goes from lower middle class existence to prosperity following the success of a spice business the family starts with the corpus received from the forced voluntary retirement of its sole earning member.

The narrator, a member of the family, takes you through how the family gradually loses its coherence as wealth comes in. The spontaneous family gatherings stop, the dependence on each other goes, minor differences which had found scant attention earlier start developing into prominent fissures, some of its members scuttle their responsibilities and settle for easier choices money and power can provide; gradually middle class values, which had held the family together earlier,  erode. The narrator makes timely interventions stepping back from the story and giving observations on the happenings to press home the point: that it’s the new entrant money which is behind the changing complexion of the family.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Shanbhag manages to make you laugh for most part of the book with situations that are common to all middle class joint families. But what impresses you the most is the rootedness of Gachar Gochar into the world that it belongs to. 

Vivek has captured the idiosyncrasies of a middle class family excellently through their day-to-day habits and practices, like a discussion started at the dinner table far outlasting the food and the family members hearing engrossed even as the remnants of the food is caking up on their fingers or a member absent-mindedly picking up grains of rice from his plate and putting them in his mouth one by one as he his listening to what’s being told.

The story is inconclusive, in that the family doesn’t lose the acquired wealth and return to poverty; but towards the end, a sudden outburst by the narrator’s wife, Anita, the only daughter of a professor, and ill at ease in the atmosphere of new money that is her husband’s family, against the patriarch of the family (Chikkappa) who takes care of the spice business and whose authority in the family never suffers a dissent - throws the faultlines into sharp focus: that new money also creates a certain power structure of which others live and to ensure continuity of their vested interests they avoid challenging it, however unscrupulous be its way of ensuring that continuity.  

Following the outburst by Anitha the suffocating silence maintained by the family members on Chikkappa is broken – and in a throwback to the old times, the family gets together again around Chikkappa to hear his stories.

The end is like outpouring of rain following a parched day. Gachar Gochar is another example of the gold mine that is our vernacular literature. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The New Type of Leader in the World of Politics

There is a new type of leader finding acceptability in the world of politics. Political rhetoric has always been one of appropriateness where conventional or traditionally acceptable views are considered safe. Issues change but how they are talked about by the conventional political leader remains the same. 

The new type of leader is breaking this mold. They don’t care about traditional views. They are blunt. They say the unsayable. They often put their foot wrong with their comments and earn all round derision, but get up, shake off the dust and start walking again. They apparently don’t care about their image but end up creating one for themselves. And surprisingly, this new type of leader is finding political success.

With every passing day, Donald Trump is inching towards becoming the Republican candidate for presidency. And as the silver-haired American millionaire spouts one politically blasphemous statement after another, Indians are saying: “Doesn’t he remind us of someone closer home?” 

Conservative French politician, who is now an MP, Marine Le Pen, who is often called xenophobic, is another example of modern day politicians who are not afraid of expressing unconventional (or even unpalatable) views.

A general brashness, though, is not the only attribute characterizing all of them. Some of them, in fact, may appear like a chip off the old block, in terms of general behavior, but occasionally, when an issue warrants, they show scant regard for tradition. Roughly six months ago, David Cameron said ‘it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.’ And despite the instant disapproval of British intelligentsia, he never apologized or tried to explain himself.

However, if you see beyond the bravado and examine the comments of the brave hearts in the light of current global realities, the brave hearts will appear less foolhardy and more pragmatic. You will realize they are making unconventional statements because they know they reflect the opinion of masses, that even if they are lambasted by the cognoscenti, they will gain politically. And it is working. People feel these leaders are less pretentious, that they say what is obvious but unsaid. When they speak people feel heard. Elections after elections have shown that these sentiments convert into votes. 

This trend is a fallout of mainly two geopolitical realities. One is growing Islamic extremism and global financial crisis – which none of the conventional political leaders and parties have been able to handle very effectively. Growing Islamic terrorism has meant many things – security concerns (as a direct effect of the phenomenon), cultural insecurities (due to immigrants from Muslim countries pouring into Western countries that they culturally share very less in common with), opposition to a common currency in Europe, etc.

To address the fallout of some of these issues, conventional parties have been seen shifting their ideological position. Conservative European parties have shifted towards the left from their right ideological position, and vice versa. Angela Merkel, in a move inconceivable of a conservative leader, opened the gates of Germany to immigrants from Muslim countries. Hollande, the French president, his socialist ideological moorings notwithstanding, has had to resort to war mongering and strict security measures (affecting the Muslims). In Britain, the Conservative Party led by David Cameroon has had to go soft on some of the traditional conservative values. This shifting of ideological position, particularly by the conservative parties, has left a vacuum on the far right, which, many say, has led to the rise of far right leaders.

Although American politics is a little simpler than Europe with only two parties occupying the entire ideological space, America shares some problems with Europe, mainly those related to security and economy. And its conservative party – The Republicans – being an establishment party, has not been able to veer too much off the beaten path on these issues.  Donald Trump is a result of that.  

The number of the new type of leader will grow and the number of people feeling represented (or their views and sentiments reflected by them) by them will increase too if mainstream politicians and political parties continue to be wishy washy when it comes to certain issues that directly affect the lives of citizens. Conversely, it is also true that if these leaders become part of establishments they will acquire a political sobriety which now typifies the conventional politician. Either way the new type of leader will leave the political firmament transformed in many ways.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is my first exposure to Stephen King’s fiction. But not my first exposure to his writing – I read his ‘Stephen King on Writing’ some years ago where he advocates a workmanlike attitude to writing instead of an esoteric approach the other books I had read on writing and related subjects had advised. Does a writer stands stripped before his reader if he reveals the tricks and methods he employs to spin his yarns? Well, King, among the most successful authors in America, doesn’t think so.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of short stories King has written over a period of time and some poems, marks a re-manifestation of that belief. Every short story - some of them are sometimes not exactly short running into enough number of pages to be a novella - is preceded by an author’s note on the source of inspiration of the following story and sometimes the author’s reflection on the subject the stories are based on. I found these notes very interesting and truth be told sometimes more interesting than the stories. He explains how an incomplete idea, a rough idea, even a thought string - has the potential to be developed into a full-fledged story.  

Some of the gems are. An idea can sometimes remain in the depth of an attic (of your mind) and requires retrieving from there. Another is an idea sometimes come as a cup without its accompanying handle – and the handle can come to you from the most unlikeliest of situations without any outward appearance of being the missing handle to the cup. 

Once, when King was shopping in a departmental store, he was approached by an elderly woman who asked him why he didn’t write stories like Shawshank Redemption. When King said Shawshank Redemption was written by him, the woman refused to believe. Fame can be so limiting!

One of the stated purposes of the book is to show that King’s quiver of creativity has more variety to offer his readers than scary stories to which King owes his fame as a writer. I agree King can offer much more than ghost stories, which is quite evident from the stories, but almost all the stories show a tendency to return to King’s familiar turf: horror, some subtle, some a little gross, but horror. But of course, they have a lot else to them than that.

None of the stories is bald horror. They have properly developed characters with their world explained in detail. And horror is not a persistent theme with most of them. In some of them it’s just a ruse to end a story. In some horror is a plot possibility King slowly builds up towards.  And even those with the express intent to scare have an interesting body of narrative which works without the smattering of horror moments.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Many Threads of Hinduism - Evolution of a Faith

There are many views on Hinduism and Many Threads of Hinduism, essays on Hinduism by Bankim Chandra, the famous Bengali novelist, compiled by Alo Shome, doesn’t contest or confirm them but mainly aims to inform the reader about how Hinduism evolved over time. The earliest texts of Hinduism, their hierarchical order, how different political and historical forces have altered the position of Hinduism in the society, the other spiritual strain of thoughts Hinduism has had to share space with, the thinkers who have influenced it, the concept of one god, all find place in the book.

The essays were written by Bankim Chandra for a magazine and they essentially reflect his views on Hinduism and as it stood vis-a-vis the society and polity of his time, the end part of 18th century. Bankim is one of the most famed Bengali novelists who probably is among the earliest practitioners of the art form in India.  His novels are on social conditions and reforms with some dosage of religion. One of his novels, Anadamath, where a group of militant Hindu monks rise against the misrule of Mir Zafar, dealt with militant Hinduism and earned the writer the reputation of being anti-Muslim. Alo Shome has argued that the writer was anything but: militant Hinduism came in for criticism in Anadamath towards the end.

There was probably another reason why Bankim Chandra was unlikely to be out rightly supportive of Hindu extremism – his rounded education. He went to a convent school in Medinipur - and had a balanced world view.

This balanced view becomes more apparent towards the later part of the book where Bankim Chandra’s own Bengali tutor Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, another iconic figure who contributed to the development of the Bengali language, come in for criticism for his insistence that  the Hindu society be monogamous. Why? Just because our scriptures have no mention to the contrary (taking their silence as their disapproval of polygamy). 

I reread this to make sure I was reading right – that Bankim was in disagreement with his former tutor because of his insistence on monogamy – but later I realized it was not because of his former tutor's insistence on monogamy, which is obviously a more socially acceptable and progressive thing to do, but because of his insistence of a practice just because it was in agreement with the scriptures. In other words, following the scriptures for guidance on how we should lead our lives. 

This, according to me, underlines Bankim’s attitude towards religion. In the essays, he tells several times that Hindus don't follow what’s there in the scriptures nor is it possible to do so – because, he reasons, these books were written based on the existing realities and beliefs of the times in which they were written – and realities change over time. He says the very way the society conducts itself or its hierarchy is structured, is at variance with what’s recommended by the scriptures. And no one is going to change anything to put them in sync with scriptural recommendations.

Bankim Chandra says the idea of one god never and many gods has coexisted in Hinduism without one cancelling out the other. What has helped them coexist is worshipping various gods or powers representing different elements (like vayu, rain etc) has always been seen as a means to reach out to one supreme being. In the Vedas “sometimes the master of universe has been addressed as Indra, at other times he is addressed as Varuna, Agni or Surya”.

Although commonly four Vedas are believed to exist (Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), some ancient books hold that there are only three Vedas (Rik, Yajur and Sama). There is another school of thought on the Vedas, that all of them were once one book – and later they were divided into different parts. The fact that parts of mantras of one Veda are often found in another Veda strengthens this belief.

Each Veda (Rik, Yajur or Sama) is not a separate book, but a class of knowledge. “Actually a Veda contains so much material that each one can fill a library.” However, each Veda has three parts – Mantra, Brahamana and Upanishad.

Through the book, Bankim’s attitude towards faith, in general, and Hinduism, in particular, comes across as tentative and questioning one which is devoid of any rigidity. This is only to be expected given his scholarly temperament which would have led to the tendency to engage with the ideas of faith and reason that were being dealt with by Western thinkers (he quotes John Stuart Mill, 1806 - 73) of his time. 

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, which argued species evolve through natural selection debunking the god as creator theory forced many Western thinkers to realign their thinking about faith and religion.

However, Bankim didn’t completely throw away his faith in view of Darwin’s theory, although he makes generous allowance for it. “But even if Darwin’s theory is true, it does not prove the non-existence of God. Lack of evidence about something or somebody’s existence doesn’t prove his non-existence.”

The Gita remained his soulful book (a moral navigator) and he had started writing his interpretation of the Gita only to die before he could finish it.

Bankim Chandra lived from 1838 -1894…and for most of his life the Indian society was in a state flux…with big social and political changes taking place. Supoy Mutiny in 1857, a historical event which marked the flashpoint of religious acrimony festering with the natives for several years caused by multiple factors - faiths jostling for space in the society, aggressive evangelism practiced by Christian missionaries, the declining Mughal empire, the administration and governance of India moving from the East India Company to the Queen of England,  the first faint clamors  for independence (which would lead to a nation-wide crescendo with Mahatma Gandhi emergence as a national leader about 12 to 15 years after the death of Bankim) among the educated elite of India.

Understandably, these changes had left the Indian society flummoxed with questions concerning identities (national, religious etc), one’s loyalty to society and nation and a search for a common anchoring (moral, religious, national). These essays, in a way, try to find answers to some of these questions – not in Hindu religious text but from within Indian societies, from past precedents and ideas of foreign origin like nationhood and nationalism (nationalism comes in for considerable criticism because of the example of hostility and warfare it was setting in Europe) which had not reached the Indian mainstream until then.
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