A Review of “The Holy Door and Other Stories” by Frank O’Connor

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

During my “Pre-Degree” days in college (that’s grades XI and XII in these days, folks) we had something called a “non-detailed” text in English. It was either a novel or a story collection which we were supposed to study and provide book reports (maybe that’s where my love of reviewing started). It was in such a collection that I met Frank O’Connor, through his beautiful story My Oedipus Complex – and I loved it.

However in those days interests were varied and there were much more exciting stuff out there; so I forgot all about him until a few days back, this title caught my eye at a garage sale. I immediately picked it up. It did not contain that beautiful story, alas – but it more than made up for it through ten excellent stories, each one better than the other so I’d be hard put to choose a favourite.

O’Connor writes with a disarming candour and a dry wit which stops just short of full blown sarcasm; he is too sympathetic towards his characters for that. However, he can’t help but note their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities – and that of mankind in general – so that he cannot ever take them seriously (or himself, for that matter). The result is an extremely readable set of stories which analyse profound philosophical conundrums as though they were the subject of the idle talk in an Irish pub.

The three themes that run through Irish literature, I’ve found, are: the breakdown of homes (due to absent or wastrel fathers), the abject poverty of most of the populace and a puritanical Catholicism, shot through with constant guilt of sin and the exceeding urge to commit it. This is evident in the title story about two girls, Polly Donegan and Nora Lawlor, and Charlie Cashman who falls for Nora but when snubbed by her, marries Polly. Their union is less than ideal, however, as Polly is not inclined to enjoy sex: that, coupled with the fact that she does not conceive and Charlie’s increasing need to prove himself as a man leads to an illicit liaison, scandal, and the untimely death of his wife. To compound matters, there is his mother who hates him and actively wishes that he dies intestate so that the shop he inherited from his father will go to his brother’s children after death. It has all the trappings for a dark and brooding tale – but in O’Connor’s hands it becomes so lighthearted that I actually chuckled in a couple of places! Evidently, the world is a comedy to those who think.

But not all stories in this collection are so pleasant, mind you. Four of the stories are written from a child’s point of view (something which O’Connor does very well, as evidenced in My Oedipus Complex) and all of them are pretty dark: especially Christmas Morning which details the sudden loss of childhood and Babes in the Wood which shows us the utter despair of abandonment. Of course, to balance the scale, there are comic gems like News for the Church and The House that Johnny Built.

I conclude the review with two samples, one tragic and one comic, to show the power of O’Connor’s prose.

From Christmas Morning:

I understood it all, and it was almost more than I could bear; that there was no Santa Claus, as the Dohertys said, only Mother trying to scrape together a few coppers from the housekeeping; that Father was mean and common and a drunkard, and she had been relying on me to raise her out of the misery of the life she was leading. And I knew that the look in her eyes was the fear that, like my father, I should turn out to be mean and common and a drunkard.

From The House that Johnny Built:

…He had a red face, an apoplectic face which looked like a plum pudding you’d squeezed up and down till it bulged sideways, so that the features were all flattened and spread out and the two eyes narrowed into slits. As if that was not enough he looked at you from undr the peak of his cap as though you were the headlights of a car, his right eye cocked, his left screwed up, till his whole face wrinkled as a roasted apple.

Can’t you just see the guy as if he was standing in front of you?

A Whimsical Review of “At Home” by Bill Bryson

“If you had to summarise it in one sentence, the history of domestic life is the history of getting comfortable slowly.”

Whew… Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent an exhausting yet exhilarating ten days with Bill Bryson at his Norfolk home. When he invited me to take a look at this former Church of England rectory, I hardly expected spend more than an afternoon there – a spot of tea, maybe a couple of beers in the evening, along with the promised tour of the house. But I got much more than I bargained for.

Initially, Bill took me up to the attic (we had to clamber up a stepladder and wiggle through a ceiling hatch – an extremely uncomfortable exercise, mind you) to show me a small door which opened out into a curious rooftop space, which afforded a view of the countryside which was breathtaking and panoramic. As I stood entranced, drinking it up, Bill asked me whether I would like to chat with him about domestic life – and I agreed.

What followed was an expedition through the house, starting with the hall and ending, once again, in the attic. But I must confess I had little time to notice the features of the domicile in particular, as Bill was filling my head with an absolute avalanche of trivia connected with domestic life in Britain and the United States of America.

After giving me a general background on the era on which he was going to hang his exposition of domesticity (the Victorian Age, with the 1851 Great Exhibition as its pivot) and the development of English clergy in general, Bill Bryson properly got going on how the British forgot all about the civilised Roman Era and started from scratch once they left England. In the hall, he told me that most homes were just that – a big hall – until the 1500’s, when the fireplace was invented and people could think of building upstairs; till then, the people all lived together communally and slept, ate and copulated around a roaring fire in the middle of the room. He gave so many fascinating details (though some of them were definitely unsavoury) that my head was hopelessly spinning by the time he pulled me into the kitchen and started to talk about how eating habits developed and changed. The things he told me! I am extremely glad that I did not have to visit England prior to the advent of ice in 1844, let me tell you (though being something of a trencherman, I would have been perfectly at home in the eighteenth century – if I was able to ignore the quality of meat an fish on the table, that is).

Going now into the scullery and ladder, the discussion turned to the subject of domestic servants – how great a workforce was required, and how they had to be punishingly overworked, to keep the gentry in comfort. I was so blown away by the account that I asked him why there hadn’t been a revolution. Bill then told me that even though life was tough for a servant, most country houses were lived in only a two to three months a year, so they had a relatively calm life for the rest of the year: and considering the circumstances, they made good money.

Under the fusebox, Bill waxed lyrical about electricity, and how it changed domestic life for ever – about how unsafe it was initially, but how ultimately this elemental force was tamed by mankind. Happily here I could contribute something to the conversation, as I work in the field of safety and am aware of how the concept of electrical safety is improving day by day.

Now he took me down to the cellar. I was expecting to be treated to some vintage wine, but no: Bill started on giving me a lecture on the building of the Erie Canal! It was quite some time before I caught his gist – he was talking about house construction in general, and about bricks in particular. The exposition was so interesting that I forgot the damp and mustiness, I must tell you.

Then we came up to the passage. Here also, the subject was only tenuously connected to the room: we talked about the Eiffel Tower (of all things!), the development of architecture and civil engineering (a subject which interested me), concrete and the invention of the telephone, based on an instrument of this particular family sitting quietly in an alcove in a corner. We moved on to the study then, a dark and dingy room, which was never used for the purpose it was named for – or so Bill said. Here, he began to expound at length on mice, rats, bats, locusts, microbes and myriad other pests until I was on tenterhooks, expecting a rat to take a bite at my ankle at any moment!

By this time, I wanted a breath of fresh air very badly, so Bill took me out into the garden. He told that my apprehensions were quite understandable: it was the same obsession that Britons had for fresh air (and the rather mistaken belief that all maladies were the product of bad odours) that led to so many of the beautiful gardens and parks we see in England. He then gave me such a fascinating history of parks and gardens in England and America that left me spellbound. This was undoubtedly the most pleasurable part of the tour.

After a while, we went in again, and visited the “Plum Room”. Bill confessed that he did not know what it was used for – they called it that because the walls were painted that colour. He hazarded a guess that the original rector, Mr. Marsham may have used it as a library. It was built in great architectural style: and the mere mention of the fact sent Bill into the history of ornate architecture. It was originally conceived by an Italian stonemason named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola – better known as Palladio – in the sixteenth century, and copied by stately homes in England and America in later centuries. The most famous examples are Monticello in Virginia built by Thomas Jefferson and Mount Vernon in Colombia built by George Washington.

We climbed up to the bedroom now; and on the way, Bill explained to me the dangers of staircase climbing (the main safety hazard in any home) and the history of paint, through an extremely toxic past to the relatively safe present. But in the bedroom (one my favourite places in my house), Bill treated me to such stories of horror that I was almost sick. Beginning with the extremely uncomfortable nature of old-time mattresses, he proceeded to sex and how it was seen as a lamentable necessity; the horrific devices employed to stop “self abuse”; the travails suffered by women because doctors knew nothing about their anatomy; the ravages of syphilis; and finally about surgery without anesthesia, the disposal of dead bodies… well, you get the point, I guess.

But these were nothing compared to the stories of squalor he related in the bathroom. It seems that up until the eighteenth century when Dr. Richard Russell popularised his water cures, Britons were strongly opposed to exposing themselves to water. (There was the story of a lady who had not bathed for 28 years, and the Marquis d’Argens, who wore the same undershirt for so many years that when it was removed finally, pieces of his skin came along with it.) As if this was not enough, Bill started talking about toilets, and… no, better hear that yourself; just the memory of that scatological exposition makes me sick.

When we entered the dressing room next, however, Bill came off this morbid thought stream and started discussing about fashions – about how Victorians made dressing a sort of torture with the men’s wigs, women’s tall hairdos, and impossible dress items such as the corset and the crinoline. He also educated me on the history of cotton – a fascinating subject.

Then we came to the nursery. I thought this would be one of the areas for discussing the pleasantest subjects – but guess what? Bill took me to streets of Victorian London: the filth, the squalor, and the inhumanity. This was the world of Oliver Twist and the chimney sweeps, where poor children could hope to survive for a maximum of twelve years with backbreaking labour. Even though not life-threatening, however, life was no cakewalk for well-to-do children also: they lived in a loveless world of strictures and duty, with frightening stories and the ever present cane to keep them in line.

I thought then that the tour was over. But no: Bill hauled me up to the attic again, and gave a scholarly lecture on Charles Darwin and Sir John Lubbock, the man responsible for the preservation of most of Britain’s archaeological heritage and also the creator of the secular public holiday. He also talked wistfully about the stately homes which disappeared due to the agricultural crisis of 1870.

As we were climbing down, he said:

“Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet’s other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand to have what we have, and to get it as easily as we got it, and that will require more resources that this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield.”

Sobering thought, that.

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Well, Bill, I really enjoyed my visit with you. But pardon me if I do not make another visit in the near future. I need some time to digest all these information that you have poured into my head!

A Review of “Malabar Kalapam” (Malabar Riots) by K. Madhava Menon

The revenge of Hindus and the police against the attacks of the Mappilas; the horrendous revenge of the Mappilas against that revenge; an even more horrendous revenge by the police and the army – this, in brief, is the history of the Malabar riots.

We studied it in school as “Mappila Lahala” (The Mappila Rebellion). In 1921, as Mahatma Gandhi took up the Khilafat cause of Islam (demanding the restoration of the deposed Ottoman Sultan as the Khalifa of global Islam) against the British and joined it along with India’s freedom struggle, the Eranad region of Malabar (coinciding roughly with the district of Malappuram in Kerala today) erupted in bloody riots. The Muslims in that area (known as Mappilas) went on a rampage, attacking the British and Hindus at will and leaving a bloody trail of dismembered bodies, torched houses and destroyed public property. The police retaliated brutally – as can be expected of colonial gendarmerie – and many a times, the punishment was way in excess of what the crime warranted. However, instead of quelling the riots these retaliatory measures aggravated the situation, so ultimately the army (comprising mostly Ghurkhas) had to be called in: and they acted with such ferocity that not only was the rebellion extinguished but so were most of the Mappila families.

The official history (which I learnt) put the blame squarely on the British; it was the politically correct attitude in that era. The Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi, was the hero and the English were the despicable villains.

But my mother told another story about the murderous Muslim, always waiting for the chance to cut Hindu throats and rape Hindu women. According to the folk narrative among the Hindus, the Mappila rebellion was an unprovoked attack of an intolerant religion on a tolerant one – and Gandhi was responsible in part for it, by taking up the Khilafat cause unnecessarily.

As I grew up, I learnt the third version: maybe we can call it the leftist narrative. According to this, it was the rebellion of an impoverished Muslim serfs against the cruel upper caste Hindu landlords which soon degenerated into a religious pogrom.

Which is correct? Well, looking back from 2017, I think all three narratives are partly correct – especially viewing it in tandem with Islamic terrorism in many parts of the globe today. This view is confirmed by this book, written by K. Madhavan Nair, a freedom fighter and the first managing director of the daily “Mathrubhoomi” (‘Motherland’ – the mouthpiece of the Congress during the struggle for independence) almost immediately after the event. Even though the author does not have the advantage of hindsight, he has the one of immediacy and intimacy – as a congress leader he was caught up in the riots, was arrested and spent time in jail, and was in danger of his life many a time. But the most important thing is that the modern sense of political correctness does not apply – so he can say this about the impoverished Mappila:

He has got courage, strength and the capability to do anything: but he has no sense, no education, and no relief from poverty. From his experience, he sees no comfort in living on this earth. He has grown up hearing the songs praising martyrs for the faith. This has created many desires in his mind. What a difference between the sorrow on earth and the ecstasy of heaven! No burdens, no dependencies, no hunger. Countless celestial virgins embrace the one who dies by the sword! If the thought of the pleasures that follow influence their mind, is there any wonder? Poverty, fanaticism and the superstitious belief in the pleasures of heaven makes him ready to embrace death.

Well, this could be definition of the ISIS fighter today!

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The Hindu and Muslim communities of Eranad coexisted peacefully until Tipu Sultan of Mysore started his invasions into Malabar, according to the author. This could well be true, because the Muslims of Malabar are the descendants of Arab traders who settled down with the blessings of the indigenous rulers – there is no bogey of the “marauding Muslim” as it existed in North India before the start of the Mappila uprisings. The riots of 1921, though the only ones known widely across India, are hardly the first. K. Madhavan Nair states that there has been more than fifty such uprisings before the one under discussion. The reasons? Well, they are given in the passage quoted above.

“The” Mappila Rebellion was triggered by the ill-advised move of the District Collector Thomas and Deputy Superintendent Hitchcock to raid a famous mosque in Tirurangadi to arrest Ali Musalyar, a Mappila leader and a participant in the Khilafat movement. After the raid, there were a couple of skirmishes in which members of a largely peaceful march were killed – three policemen also lost their lives. This slowly spiralled into a carnage which lasted six months.

Even though the aim of the collector was ostensibly to preserve the peace, the hidden agenda was to scotch the non-cooperation movement of Gandhi which had found renewed vigour after bonding together with the Khilafat; also to sow discord between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Well, he was not successful in the former endeavour but delivered with a vengeance; the jinn of violence he let out in Malabar roamed across the countryside for days on end.

The author is at pains to clarify that initially, the riots were not religious in nature. Most of the Muslim ire was directed against the British Government. Most Mapplilas who were influenced by the Khilafat took special care to protect Hindu lives and property (Variyankunnan Kunhahammad Haji, who would turn the scourge of Hindus later, is a prime example). However, after Ali Muslyar surrendered in the beginning of September, instead of trying to establish peace, the army let loose a reign of terror against Muslims – even those who were opposed to the riots – which unfortunately many Hindus supported. This resulted in a resurrection of the rebellion – and this time, it was a jihad.

Most of the Eranad area was cut off from the rest of the country. The police was no match for the death-dealing jihadis; even less were the Hindus, divided by caste and weakened by soft living (especially the upper caste landowners). The Mappilas ran riot, looting, converting and murdering at will until the Gurkha brigades were brought in. Then, the army went on an even more murderous spree until the whole sorry episode came to an end towards the end of January 1922.

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This book does not make exciting reading (I read this as a part of my resolution to devote part of my reading time to history, especially that of India and Kerala). Madhavan Nair’s Malayalam is of a previous era, and I found the archaic grammar and construction difficult in some areas. The book is a bit patchy, as it makes big leaps over time and place in many places without continuity – maybe because it first appeared as a serial in a magazine. Madhavan Nair is no historian; he simply records events as a journalist, providing commentary on them from his political viewpoint.

Still, the author’s candour, his impartiality even with regard to his enemies the English, and his sympathetic approach to all the participants in this terrible piece of history makes this a worthwhile read.

Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!

 

Love in the Digital Age – A Review of “Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari

heart_PNG691I got married in 1989. In India in those days, “love” marriages were still exceptions rather than the norm: when you had to look at the religion, caste, family background, and age of a possible partner who was to share your life (divorces were absolute stigma!) before hitching up, falling in love was like solving a mathematical equation with too many constraints. For a nerdy, uncouth, shy and bookish youngster who got tongue-tied in presence of a halfway-pretty girl, this was even more of a nightmare.

Fortunately, as an educated young man from an aristocratic family, with a good job to boot, my prospects on the marriage market were bright. In the world of arranged marriages, I was “hot property”. Like Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, mothers with daughters of marriageable age who knew my mother or father considered me as the rightful property of their daughters. Discussions of “possible alliances” were rife, and my mother was having to fend off quite a few of her more aggressive friends.

Even though it gave my ego a sort of boost to be so sought after, in my heart of hearts I was intimidated by the thought of marriage. On the one hand, I was an incurable romantic, always falling in love with a pretty girl and writing bad poetry; on the other, my cynical and sarcastic self continuously mocked me. Also, as a rebellious liberal, I was against the whole concept of “arranged” marriages. So I shied away from all the proposals, giving the excuse that I was not ready.

One day in February 1989, I went into my favourite bookshop and came across an unbelievable book sale where I picked up a bunch of absolutely awesome books for a pittance. I came home, drunk on my luck, when my mother told me that a marriage proposal had come from her classmate and close friend, for her daughter. In the euphoria of getting all those cool tomes, I agreed to see the girl’s photo.

I got it a couple of days later, just took one look at it, and fell head over heels in love. A meeting was arranged the coming week; we talked to each other for around 20 minutes and hey presto! I was engaged. We got married that December.

We have been together ever since. So I always wonder: is romance all it’s cracked up to be?

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modern romancePardon this lengthy episode about my marital journey. I was continuously reminded of the “good old days” while reading Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, especially when I read this:

People in arranged marriages start off lukewarm, but over time they really invest in each other and in general have more successful relationships. They are more invested in the deep commitment to the relationship, rather than being personally invested in finding a soul mate, which can tend to lead to the “Is there something better out there for me?” mentality.

In the current world of internet dating, I would still probably be “swiping right” on a dating app, looking for that perfect girl waiting out there for me.

Aziz Ansari has done a wonderful job of explaining how the digital world has invaded the romantic arena. In olden days, the only hope of meeting a possible partner was out in the real world. If you were a caveman, you just banged the nearest attractive female on the head and dragged her into your cave: in more modern times, you met her in family gatherings, at the workplace and later on, in singles bars. However, since you were geographically limited, there was a limit to your romantic territory. The upside? People got married with someone they found reasonably attractive and settled down.

Now, with the advent of the internet, the sky is literally the limit. People can visit dating sites; with dating apps like Tinder, just swiping right on an attractive picture is enough. If the other person also swipes right, you are practically hitched.

(This is happening a lot in India too. We have marriage sites where you can filter down the choices caste and state-wise, and pick up a romance which will be easily approved by family. People have started calling them “arranged” love marriages. Talk about oxymorons!)

However, the downside of this infinite choice that one keeps on window-shopping. Less and less people settle down – they remain digital Casanovas throughout their life. The relative anonymity provided by computers have a helped a lot of nerdy types get in on the act: so while romance has flourished, marriage has taken a hit. And it does not help that even adultery has become easier with the advent of sexting!

My main problem with this book is that Ansari continuously tries to do his stand-up comedy act. It is not needed – the subject is fascinating by itself. And the jokes fall rather flat in the print medium, I must say.

 

Another Quiet Interlude

Hello friends: I have been away from this space for too long, I know: many of you who visit this quiet corner of the internet regularly would be wondering what happened to your host.  The fact is, too many things.

First of all, even though “Sacred Space” has been quiet, my life has been anything but.  I have been travelling almost continuously since February 20th, up to March 17th, on official business (I visited six states in India!) – even weekends were not available for quiet introspection and writing.  Secondly, in the midst of this discovery of India, I handed in my papers.  I am quitting this job and going back to Kerala, on an assignment near my hometown.  Hopefully it will be more restful, and give me more time to spend with my thoughts.

So you must bear with me until the third week of April – when hopefully I will be ensconced in my new job and in the mood to write again.

Until then, Au Revoir!

SF in All Its Glory – A Review of “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction”

My first introduction to SF was Flash Gordon – an old black and white movie my parents took me to, in our tacky local theatre. I think I was five at the time.

It was not a grand success. As soon as those aliens started attacking Flash, I started bawling. I continued this throughout the movie until they were forced to take me home.

But when I met Flash again, in Indrajal Comics, I started liking him despite ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘The Phantom’ being more popular titles in the franchise. Apart from the superhero Flash, I loved the spaceships, the outlandish landscapes, the weird aliens, the obsessive Zarkov, the beautiful Dale Arden – even Ming the Merciless. This was a totally new experience: imagination need not have a boundary.

I was in love with Science Fiction.

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Now I understand that Flash Gordon was nothing but ‘Space Opera’: somewhat looked down on as not sufficiently intellectual by serious purveyors of the form. But it pulled me into the magic of this genre, as it must have thousands of other youngsters.

I learnt that SF can be serious too, however, when I came across Isaac Asimov in my late teens. For a bookish, socially awkward youngster (I don’t know whether the term ‘nerd’ had been coined then) this was the perfect escape – stories written with the precision of science, very less of character conflicts, romance, sentiment and other time-wasting side avenues: there was a problem, there was a solution. Period.

Well, gradually my reading universe expanded, and I found out that the genre contained writers of much greater skill than Dr. Asimov (but I’d still give him top marks for sheer imagination) and it was much more than robots and space exploration. Instead of a genre, SF was a whole new way of forging literature, of tackling philosophical and existential questions, of analysing the impact of science on the human condition… above all, it was exhilarating. It was escapist, yes, but the escape was to a more sharply defined reality.

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The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction examines science fiction under three aspects. The first section examines the history, from its genesis as stories of wonder, through the ‘pulp era’ of American magazine SF, through the intellectual ‘New Wave’ when the boundaries between SF and Fantasy were blurred, on to the current ‘postmodern era’. The second section examines the genre through various critical approaches: Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodernism and queer theory. The last section examines the various tropes of SF: its icons such as space ships, robots etc; various sub-genres such as space opera, alternate history, utopias, dystopias etc; and how politics, gender, race, religion etc, are handled in SF. Each section contains various chapters, written by well-known authors and critics, and presents a fairly comprehensive view.

The History

The origins of SF can be traced back to the fantastic voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels and dream journeys, where the authors tried to break the shackles of the requirements of realism. However, it was arguably Mary Shelley who wrote the first novel which could be really termed science fiction: Frankenstein is the tale of the quintessential mad scientist, tempting fate by trying to create life and playing God, and quite predictably coming to a sticky end. Edgar Allan Poe also used the tropes of science to expand the horizon of his fantastic stories. And most readers know Jules Verne, the purveyor of extraordinary voyages and H. G. Wells, whose stories are also social statements.

But it was the availability of cheap paper made from wood pulp, which made the publishing of magazines very cheap in the USA, that really contributed to the rapid growth of this genre. The so-called ‘pulp magazines’ gave birth to and nurtured many of the latter day greats like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Hugo Gernsback, whose magazine Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, was the pioneer in the sense that it restricted itself to publishing only SF; the flame was carried forward by the iconic editor John W. Campbell in Astounding Stories, who mentored most of the American greats.

Later on, SF moved away from the blood-and-thunder stories and adventure yarns of yore into more thoughtful fiction, with literary quality and speculative exploration given more importance than action, the so-called ‘new wave’. Currently it has reached the level of meta-fiction and ‘cyberpunk’ (where the action is mostly within virtual realities).

The section also examines film and television, with such iconic shows as ‘Star Trek’, and the still-continuing saga of ‘Star Wars’.

Critical Approaches

This section was a first for me. I never knew one could analyse so much within this genre which – well – most of us consider primarily entertainment. But consider this: from a Marxist viewpoint, isn’t each society imagined in SF conducive to a political analysis? For example, Wells’s The Time Machine is clearly a criticism of bourgeoisie society taken to its logical extreme: same way, his The War of the Worlds is an indirect criticism of British imperialism. However, on the whole, SF believes in a technology-driven society which provides a just society where everybody can thrive – in that it mostly follows the American ideal of free market capitalism. But of late, social criticism has become one of its significant aspects.

SF initially had women only for the aliens to kidnap and be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. But slowly, writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ (to mention two of the prominent authors) brought a distinctive feminine outlook to the field; and now, more and more novels and stories which can be interpreted from a feminist viewpoint are emerging.

This section also analyses postmodernism, where SF moves away from scientific exploration into societal exploration in the current turbulent world – moving beyond the boundaries of the genre itself: and queer theory, where SF’s obsession with the ‘other’ (as different from the normal) is analysed to examine the changing attitudes of society towards ‘deviant’ sexual practices. (I must confess that this section went a bit over my head!)

Sub-genres and Themes

This was the section I enjoyed most, as various critics and writers examine the beloved icons and themes of SF. There are rockets, robots and aliens as brave and pioneering adventurers venture outward; there equally exciting challenges within human biology, mutation and evolution, and the mind-boggling possibilities of genetic engineering as the hardy scientists labour here on earth. There is the ever-present threat of environmental destruction and the tantalising promise of terraforming a hostile planet. There is ‘hard’ science fiction where the problems of science are explored in a future setting and ‘soft’ science fiction where the science is minimal and the human aspect is all-important.

There is the “Space Opera” with intrepid heroes chasing diabolical villains across vast swathes of space: there are alternate histories where authors toy with the idea of what might have been – say – had Hitler won the war, and other such interesting speculations. Here we have the utopias where everything is hunky-dory for humanity, and the dystopias (infinitely more popular!) like 1984 where daily life is a nightmare.

This section also examines how politics, gender, race and religion are treated in SF, with iconic examples like Ursula K. LeGuin’s totally anarchic society of Anarres (The Dispossessed), her planet containing sexless beings who become male or female during breeding season (The Left Hand of Darkness), Orson Scott Card’s strange race of the ‘piggies’ in Speaker for the Dead etc. There are many more, and for an aficionado like me, it was pure pleasure to read the erudite analyses of so many old favourites.

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In short: for an SF fan, this is a book which cannot be missed.

A Review of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land where the seasons are inverted from what is usually experienced by the world at large, the flora and fauna belong to an evolutionary niche not seen elsewhere and the original settlers are the descendants of deported convicts. Yet over this, an English-ness has been imposed: the carefully cultivated gardens, the finely turned out ladies and gentlemen, the afternoon teas and the elevenses. This contrast often gives rise to a tension between man and nature which has been explored by countless writers and filmmakers. This novel by Joan Lindsay is an outstanding example of one such exploration.

Hanging Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation in Australia near Melbourne. As the story starts, a group of young girls, boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, is excitedly starting for their annual picnic near it, on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. There is Miranda, beautiful like a Botticelli painting; Irma Leopold, the pretty heiress; Marion Quade, top academic performer; Edith Horton, the college dunce and many others. They are chaperoned by the young and impressionable Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw who lives virtually in a world of equations. They are driven to the spot by Ben Hussey, the owner of the town’s livery stables, in his trap. The only student left behind is Sara Waybourne, the youngest boarder as a punishment for not learning The Wreck of the Hesperus by heart.

The picnic goes well until teatime, when Miranda, Irma and Marion decide to go closer to the Hanging Rock to properly examine it. Edith tags along. They are seen by the young Hon. Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England with his uncle and his coachman Albert Crundall. Fitzhubert, captivated by Miranda’s beauty, follows them for a bit then turns back. That is the last anyone sees of them, however – because all except Edith, who rushes back in an attack of hysteria, disappear without a trace; as does the mathematics mistress. The mystery is never solved.

The novel is the chronicle of the fallout from this event – how the lives of all the people connected with it, even the minor characters, are inextricably changed.

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At the outset, the author writes:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

This is the tone set right at the beginning – that of the “true story” – with quotes from letters and reports peppered throughout the narrative, and even footnotes in some places. In many places the writing becomes reportage; in others, it reads like an inexpert author trying to fictionalise historical characters and events. It is only when we realise that none of this happened that we come to appreciate what Joan Lindsay is trying to do – and we acknowledge her mastery of the medium.

If whether something really happened “seems hardly important”, what does it say about the nature of the “story”? Is truth important here, or is there a truth beyond the phenomenal world which we consider rock solid?

As the story progresses, people’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The college, a solid bastion of English respectability in the middle of wild Australia, slowly unravels – as does the redoubtable headmistress Appleyard. The tension between her and the orphan Sara (whom she subjects to mental torture mercilessly) is like a taut elastic band which is stretched and stretched until it breaks – with disastrous results. It is also to be noted that Sara idolises Miranda, who is almost a myth, an ethereal vision which fittingly disappears.

But the real protagonist of the story is Hanging Rock, the volcanic formation which is millions and millions of years old, standing ominously tall above all the puny humans crawling around like ants at its base – ephemeral beings whose unimaginably tiny lifetimes it must have surely smiled at, mockingly.

…The plain below was just visible; infinitely vague and distant. Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?’

Marion looked out over her shoulder. ‘A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it’s probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.’

The elemental power of the Australian landscape here is what is drawing the girls out of their so very English cocoons. Throughout the narrative, this rough land calls out to us in a thousand tongues: through the hissing of snakes, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of lizards, the wind through the trees – and through the silent and impressive presence of Hanging Rock. It finally succeeds in drawing even the stolid Mrs. Appleyard out.

And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gustsof spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the north wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires…

Nature, in all her raw and pristine glory – nature, come to extract her price from civilisation.

The Divine Charioteer

hitopadesha

One of the forms the Hindu God Krishna is worshipped in is as Partha Sarathi, “Arjuna’s Charioteer”.  This is very curious because we generally consider the job of the charioteer as the medieval equivalent of a driver, definitely not suited to such a charismatic and powerful god.  But this form of Krishna is a key element of his mythos; and we have to dig into the Mahabharata to understand why it is so.

Arjuna and Krishna are inseparable.  According to the Bhagavata Purana, they are the reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, two great sages who themselves are the twin incarnations of Vishnu. Nara (which means “man”) was reborn as Arjuna and Narayana (“god”) as Krishna.  In the Mahabharata, when they join together, they are considered invincible. The concluding sloka of the Bhagavad Gita says

yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama

(Wherever Krishna is there as the spiritual master, and Arjuna with his bow, there will be prosperity, victory, power and justice – this is my opinion.)

In the Mahabharata, it is difficult to see Arjuna and Krishna other than as a dyad.  Arjuna is the action while Krishna is the intention: one is the body and the other, the soul.  On the battlefield of the Kurukshetra, it is significant that Krishna is unarmed: in fact, that is one of his conditions for joining battle.  His role is solely that of guiding Arjuna and the shaping of war strategies.

The Battlefield of Kurukshetra

The epic of Mahabharata climaxes in the eighteen day battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family), offspring of brothers, for the right to rule Hastinapura.  Krishna, a cousin of the Pandavas, is officially neutral – even though he is morally on the Pandavas’ side.  In the war, Krishna reiterates his neutrality by supplying the whole of his army to Kauravas while himself joining the Pandavas in the capacity of an unarmed strategist.  Significantly, Arjuna chooses him over the army.

Many writers and mythologists have expounded upon the symbolic nature of the Kurukshetra – the battlefield transcends its physical nature and becomes a metaphor for life at the metaphysical level.  Arjuna is man, forever spiritually weak even when physically strong – the guiding hand of Krishna is required at each and every stage to egg him on.

krishna_arjuna_gita

This is epitomised in what is most probably the most significant part of the Mahabharata, when Arjuna breaks down while surveying the enemy army, and seeing all his relatives arrayed against him – whom he will have to kill.  It is then that Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita to him – the “Song of the Lord”, a sort of spiritual “pick-me-up” to enable him to go ahead into battle with detachment.

It is not my aim here to analyse the spiritual qualities of the Gita: I am not erudite or qualified enough.  It is the general agreement among historians that it is a later insertion into the epic.  This slim book of eighteen chapters has been elevated to the level of the spiritual text of all time and at the same time, vilified as the mouthpiece of Vedic Brahmanism used to spread their hated caste-riddled religion over the egalitarian Buddhism.  Looking at it impartially, both views have merit.  So we’ll leave the controversy there and concentrate on the roles: the role of Krishna, the spiritual guide and that of Arjuna, his disciple.

Because when the Kurukshetra battlefield moves on to the level of metaphor, we are looking at much beyond a battle of succession of a small kingdom in North India – we are looking at life, and the roles of the self and that of the godhead buried within the collective unconscious.

The Self and the Shadow

I have always felt that Arjuna can never be comprehended without looking at his nemesis and elder brother, Karna.  Arjuna’s equal in archery, Karna is his exact opposite in almost everything.  Born of the sun god Surya out of wedlock to Kunti (interestingly, Arjuna’s father is the rain god Indra) – the mother of the Pandavas – Karna had been cast adrift in the river on a casket (a common mythical motif across the world) and found and raised by sutas, a low caste.  Facing rejection at all points due to his lower social status, Karna is elevated to the position of the king of the kingdom of Anga by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and from then on he becomes his fast friend and the sworn enemy of Arjuna, whom he has taken oath to kill.

Karna suffers from a sense of rejection and (it seems) an inferiority complex throughout his life.  He has a fierce pride which has brought him nothing but trouble: a couple of curses earned due to his proud behaviour ultimately prove his undoing on the battlefield.  Contrast this with Arjuna, who is constantly plagued by self-doubt and has to be given a psychological boost by Krishna at intervals!  They make a strange pair – one the dark mirror image of the other.

In this context, I always like to invoke the concept of the Jungian shadow.

From Wikipedia:

In Jungian psychology, “shadow” or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs). Contrary to a Freudian definition of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow can include everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Here, I like to think of Karna as Arjuna’s shadow. (This is my very own personal reading, of course.  There have been many erudite studies of the epic in which the social aspect of the caste system has been analysed.  I am not trying to negate any of them – this is just my own personal take. Also, I’m no Jung scholar!)  For every plus in Arjuna, there is a minus in Karna and vice versa.  One is a dark mirror image of the other – brothers, unbeknownst to themselves, each oath-bound to kill the other.

Now let us look at another important character – Karna’s charioteer Shalya.

The Reluctant Charioteer

Shalya, an uncle of the Pandavas, has been tricked into acting as Karna’s charioteer by Duryodhana – because only he has the skills to rival Krishna in the job.  Shalya is distraught that he has to do it, when Krishna offers him the solution: do it, but use the position to continuously denigrate Karna and his capabilities, because that is the only way to take this proud warrior down!

See the contrast – the self-doubting hero who is continuously guided by his charioteer (who reveals himself as god incarnate during the expounding of the Gita); and his proud antithesis (who nevertheless hides a sense of inferiority regarding his social status in his heart of hearts) who is continuously berated by his charioteer, who is supposed to be guiding him.

On the battlefield, at many points when Karna could have won, he loses out due to bad decisions.  One such instance is very illustrative.  Karna has Arjuna in the sights of his bow, and he is aiming for the neck, when Shalya advises him to aim for the chest.  Thinking that his charioteer is trying to sabotage him, Karna ignores him – and Krishna on the other side pushes the chariot down, so that the arrow misses Arjuna’s neck and takes away his crown.  Had Karna aimed for the neck, he would have got him.

Here, Shalya has followed a clever strategy.  As charioteer, he has played fair and advised the warrior he is driving on the correct strategy.  However, by ensuring Karna’s antagonism to him through his taunts, he has made sure that Karna will never listen to him – thus ensuring his defeat.

The Metaphor of the Chariot

It is also instructive to note that Karna is killed by Arjuna when his chariot wheel gets stuck in the soil.  (This apparently treacherous act by a great warrior, even though justified by Krishna, has taken away a lot of his glow and has been the subject of any number of debates.  But that is not our focus here.)  If we are looking at it realistically, the question arises – why should this make a warrior helpless?  He still has his weapons.

Here, I would like to provide my own metaphorical interpretation of the chariot as a symbol for the warrior’s psyche.  Then, the rider is the self – and the charioteer, the godhead which resides within the psyche.  When Arjuna faces a real spiritual crisis, Krishna reveals himself as God incarnate, and by showing his Viswa Roopa (himself as the whole of space and time) illustrates the core of Indian philosophy – namely that the whole of the universe is contained within oneself as one is contained within the universe.  As long as this godhead is guiding the self, the spiritual chariot runs fine – but when it turns hostile, it derails.  And when the self is in constant antagonism with the guide, the chariot inevitably breaks down disastrously.

vishnuvishvarupa

When we look at this way, worshipping the divine charioteer does not seem silly; rather, it does make a lot of sense.  Because if you listen to him, at times of spiritual crisis, you may receive your own Gitopadesha – and your chariot will keep on running.

The Search for Meaning in Life

In the film Ikiru (“To Live”), master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat with stomach cancer. Finding that he has only one year left to live, he initially slides into depression and then into riotous night-life. All that is changed, however, when he meets Toyo, a young girl who takes pleasure in making toys for young children – it gives her a purpose in life. This wakes Watanabe up to what he is missing in his life: and he makes it his purpose to build a playground in the city, cutting across all the bureaucratic tangles. The most haunting image in the movie is of him sitting on a swing in the playground, singing, immediately prior to his death.

I was thinking of this movie all the time I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

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I had heard a lot about this book before I actually got around to reading it – and to tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed, especially by the second part. Yet I consider it a significant work, because I think Viktor Frankl has astutely identified the main reason for existential angst – the lack of meaning in one’s life in modern times.

It seems that Dr. Frankl has been engaged in what he calls “logotherapy”, where the patient is asked to concentrate outward rather than inward. As opposed to Freud who wanted people to dig deep into their psyches to locate childhood neuroses, Frankl asks them look into the world they live in to find the root of their existential crisis. The root of his philosophy is that most of man’s existential crisis rises from a search for meaning in life. In this, it is opposed to two other famous theories from the Viennese school of psychotherapy – Freud’s, based on the quest for pleasure and Adler’s based on the quest for power.

Frankl has his gruelling experiences in Nazi concentration camps to prove his theory. This comprises more than half of the book, and is really a torture to get through – not because of bad writing, but because he convinces us to accompany him on that nightmare journey. There is no hope, no mercy and no shred of human dignity in these hells on earth. The inmates are stripped of all their possessions including clothes, underfed to the level of starvation and overworked to the extent that many fall down dead from sheer exhaustion. Apart from this, they live in constant fear of being selected for the gas chambers.

The gateway to the dreaded Auschwitz Concentration Camp

What happens to people in this situation? They lose hope, and many of them give up on life. Others become cruel exploiters themselves (the Capos, the guards who are chosen from the ranks of prisoners themselves). Some try to survive by being smarter than others: and yet others find that extra something to pull them through – a meaning for their suffering, something to look forward to in life even in the midst endless misery. They become the rare beacons of light in the pitch darkness. Most of them don’t survive, because of their altruism – as Dr. Frankl says, “the best of us didn’t come back”.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For Frankl, it was the image of his young wife and his love for her which suddenly gave him a purpose in life.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

He kept on having conversations with her in his mind; even though he knew that she may be dead (she was, in fact). This gave him conviction to go ahead even when death stared him in the face. Dr. Frankl genuinely believes that it is this which helped carry him through, and on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Such a purpose does not necessarily mean salvation – but it does give one the power to endure it until it all ends. Viktor Frankl tells us the story of a young woman, whose vision of a tree branch through the window of the hut in which she lay dying, gave her sustenance.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

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One curious fact I noticed was that Frankl’s concept of ‘self-transcendence’, which seemed remarkably close to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. Also, the three paths which he mentions – through achievement, through selfless love and through cathartic suffering (when unavoidable, not masochistically chosen) – are applicable to the godhead from three different religions. The path of achievement of the Greek hero: selfless love to the level of dissolution of one’s self in god, that of Radha and Mira Bai for Krishna: and the suffering which cleanses, the way of the cross, the passion of Jesus Christ.