Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Charles Dickens

About a week ago, the Google home page featured a scene from Victorian England. I couldn’t establish its relevance until I found in the paper next day that it was Charles Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary. Since then newspapers have been writing about Dickens and I was tempted to blog about him but I was hesitant because I felt although I know tit bits about the author’s life and have read two of his novels (Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities) and want to badly read The Great Expectations, I don’t have much to share about Dickens because I have never had the affinity for Dickens you have for authors whose work you like, so whatever I would tell would be impersonal and dry pieces of information.

I liked Oliver Twist and parts of The Tale of Two Cities, but they did not leave me with the yearning to read more Dickens, mainly because of his language - long-winding sentences with a single sentence often running into a paragraph with multiple possibilities packed into it and separated by commas. Another thing about Dickens is over theatricity of everything, the characters, situation, homour. By the time I read The Tale I knew what to expect but I was callow when I tried out Oliver Twist. The climax of The of Two Cities is just like the ending of a Bollywood movie. Perhaps that’s why it’s commonly said his books lend themselves to films very well, because of their strong visual character.

I was not sure of my views about Dickens for some time, but over time I found most of my Dickensian misgivings confirmed by many authors and even when Dickens lived he had enough detractors who attributed the popularity of his works to low art or mass appeal. 

However, what can’t be taken away from Dickens is that he was the pioneer of the novel. Until he started writing and publishing his work in serialized form in various magazines (remember most of his works actually appeared in serialized form in magazines first) and became popular, prose was highly looked down upon; verse was the order of the day.

Melodrama is often a component of popular fiction, but what is surprising is despite the turgidity of Dickens' language, his novels were popular, unlike modern popular works that use a very easy language. Probably the language that reads so odd today was the norm in Victorian England. (If you read Thomas Hardy, who wrote some decades after Dickens, you will find the language far friendlier than Dickens.) I also think it’s a little unfair to blame Dickens for his lack of art because the novel was a new-art form then and it has gone through lot of refinement over 150 years of its existence and anything written so long back, if measured by modern literary standards, would feel deficient.

Albeit, Dickens is liked by many because, unlike many contemporaries of his who mainly wrote on upper class British society, Dickens’ singular muse was poverty and poor, parhaps the empathy came from the fact that his own childhood was one of hardship and impoverishment. And maybe the melodramatic character of his work owed to his own melodramatic life - which went from poverty to fame of the kind which even big movie stars of today seldom enjoy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Twitter Works for Me?

I am among those who joined online social networks very late and even after joining some of them, like Face Book and Linkedin, I wasn’t regular on them. Twitter changed that. I joined even Twitter very late but once I did I got addicted. I found it very different from FB (remember, it was launched as a rival of FB) and other networking sites. What, according to me, separates Twitter from other sites is that it’s not a platform for purposeless chit chat among family members and friends, but informative and purposeful exchange of ideas expressed with a hint of style and snap and lot of brevity, just 140 characters . (Some manage to pull their messages into one- liners really well.)

Another thing that works for Twitter is that it is personal without being intrusive. People connected with you on Twitter may get to know you over a period of time but not through sharing of personal details but purely on the basis of commonality of interests. In fact, if you see the format of Twitter, it encourages sharing personal information only so much as is required for another person to be acquainted with you (a one-sentence bio and photo), underlining the character of networking it promotes: sharing ideas.

Many may complain about Twitter’s restriction on number of characters – 140 – but I find it engaging to contract a complex message into a sentence or two and if you have exceeded the limit, it’s interesting to figure out how you can drop letters from words and words from sentences without distorting the message. In fact, that we understand the message contained even in savagely truncated Tweets suggests that you don’t necessarily need to bend over backwards to explain something to somebody; if you supply the reader with little bit of details, the reader works out the rest. It promotes brevity and precision in communication.

It would be ignorant of me to say there is nothing in the networking world that can match Twitter because there are so many networking sites and I am not familiar with most of them. For example, for a very long time I was not a Linkedin fan; although I had an account I used to seldom visit or update it. Then a friend one day made a strong case for Linkedin and explained how prospective employers or consultants access you through Linkedin and the bigger your network the better your visibility with them, and for last five months or so I have been regular on the site. And I read some time back that there is another networking site like Tweeter open only to people coming from the scientific community.

The net is too infinite and viral a place for any idea to remain restricted to handful of sites, but if you divided the networking sites into two types – say one based on interest and the other on social interaction – I would throw my lot with the former.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Strange Men Strange Places by Ruskin Bond

There are two types of histories, one is about the life of nations and people who decide their course and the other is about ordinary people who live their lives under the cross currents of big events (social, political and economic) that are never of their own making but often shape their lives and circumstances.

I am reading a book by Ruskin Bond which visits the lives of people who live in the backwaters of history, and even though some of their lives and achievements may be extraordinary, they never attract the interest of historians and are seldom remembered beyond the span of their time and space. 

To exhume these characters out of obscurity, Bond visits the early years of British rule in India when the British were yet to establish themselves as a national power and parts of India were still ruled by small-time rajas and chieftains who had their own armies and used to employ Europeans in them, much in demand for their ability to coalesce ragtag armies into disciplined fighting units. Apart from soldiers, the book also documents the lives of European marchants, mercenaries, bootleggers, etc.

Many of these Europeans returned home wealthy men and some of them met with their end in India.

It was a time when lot of social intermingling between the ruling English and natives existed; which stopped following the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny that shocked the British and forced them into a social stratosphere, bringing up a separation from Indians that would last until the end of the Raj. There are stories that give the glimpses of pre-1857 society and social trends.

One of the stories tells the tale of the hukkah, a smoking pipe much in use during those days by English men and women who had taken to Indian ways. But with the passage of time as division rose between the English and Indians, the hukkah fell out of favour with the British.

Bond has had to undertake extensive research to write the book as the material on the men he has written about would have been hard to come by. These men lived in different places in India and served different masters, but some of them knew each other and you will find the recurrence of one character in the life/story of another.

Writers are generally a recluse lot, but modern-day writers are hardly so (at least if you go by the visibility they enjoy thanks to TV shows and literary festivals). However, Bond continues to be a throwback to the idea of the writer as a recluse.

I have never heard him make any political statement or seen him involved in a public spat. He continues to stay in Mussoorie, which is a recurrent theme in his writing, and deals with the ordinary. Therefore Strange Men Strange Places may be an oddity as a book of history, but it sits well with Bond’s general body of work, which is neither about nations nor national heroes or villains, but about ordinary people, places and events.

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