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

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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.

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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.


The Concept of Reality

The other day, I had a debate with a conservative friend on Facebook, on the relativity of truth.  In order to justify many of the Hindu right’s silly claims about cows (i.e. cow urine contains gold, cow dung can be used as protection against radiation, cows exhale pure oxygen…), he was forced to say that even science was manipulated.  This was amusing, because it was usually me arguing for the relativity of religious ‘truth’ against right-wing absolutists!

A few days after this, Kellyanne Conway came up with the terminology ‘alternative fact’, and things became purely Orwellian.  If one can dispute recorded facts based on one’s political conviction and force people to support it based on muscle power, then ‘facts’ become whatever you want to believe – or in an authoritarian society, what the government wants you to believe.  We have come from a “post-truth” world to a “post-logic” world.

The Phenomenal World

This took me back a few years.  In the most excellent discussion forum available on the Joseph Campbell Organisation website in those days (alas, no more existing), this was one topic which was hotly debated – and ironically, I was on the side which was arguing that an absolute reality did not exist!

Before you start carting me off to the loony bin, let me elucidate.

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The classic example of this is colour.  There is no way to prove that the ‘red’ I see and the ‘red’ you is the same, unless you can inhabit my brain or vice-versa; this is very evident in the case of a colour-blind person who sees everything in shades of grey.  The same thing can be said for taste, smell etc. It is all subjective.

There are three movies which look at this philosophical conundrum in creative ways: The Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Inception.  In The Matrix, the narrative is very straightforward; reality is an illusion created by an oppressive authority which has to be transcended to see the ‘actual’ reality.  In Vanilla Sky, the protagonist is living in a fantasy world; he has to take a ‘leap of faith’ to ‘open his eyes’ to reality – but we never see what it is.

Inception is easily the most intriguing film of the three.  Here, we have a team of people diving into recursive layers of reality within a person’s mind –dreams within dreams within dreams – and planting an idea inside.  However, by the time these multiple levels are negotiated, the characters and the audience are both left with a bewildering sense of disorientation.  And the film abruptly ends with a tantalisingly open-ended scene.

Truth vs Facts

In the discussion referenced above, somebody came up with an iron-clad argument for the existence of non-subjective truth – verifiable facts.  For example, even if we want to believe that Stephen King wrote Slaughterhouse Five, we cannot – because it can be verified for a fact that Kurt Vonnegut did.  In fact, the evidence of our senses here will compel us to accept something our brain does not want to.

But there are other things like the existence of God, the relative merit of communism vs capitalism, women’s rights etc. which are, indeed, matters of opinion.  Our problem is that we club these also along with ‘facts’ – and the line between fiction and fact gets blurred.

It is at this point of our discussion that we came to our most prickly issue – scientific facts.

The Method of Science

The majority of people who claim to be spiritual look upon science with some distrust.  They believe that science is too reductionist, too dismissive of individual experience, to provide a comprehensive picture of reality.  They are quick to point out that science relies on sensory data of individuals to arrive at results and conclusions – sensory data which is necessarily tainted with the individual’s bias.

While this argument is valid, science bypasses it by its method of experiment and observation.  Multiple experiments are carried out by different individuals, the results are recorded, and conclusions are arrived at based on the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis based on observations.  So scientific ‘truth’ is in fact based on verifiable facts.

All right, so far?

Well… not quite.  What about the interpretation of facts?  It is also done by fallible human beings.  And facts are open to interpretation in different ways.

So I choose to call science ‘Constructive Falsehood’.  Even with the knowledge that we are relying on imperfect interpreters, the sheer number of independent observations gets it as clear to objectivity as we can.  So generally, we can accept the results of scientific experiments as ‘truth’ – with the understanding that this can be overturned the moment new knowledge comes to light.

Interpreting Reality

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Even to this, the naysayers have their argument.  How does one conclude that something is chance?  How do we accept that human mind cannot influence the outcome of an experiment?  This argument is especially pervasive in cases of New Age fads like ESP and precognition.

Unfortunately, science cannot answer this, because science does not deal in absolute certainties but reasonable ones.  The ideal scientist would say that “the argument has no reasonable scientific evidence.”

It works the other way, too.  Evolution is currently the only scientific theory which explains the origin of species, without positing an a priori cause. However, it can point only to reasonable evidence in support of its claim – it can never ‘disprove’ that God was behind it!  (Which is why theories like Intelligent Design still have followers, I guess.)

Once we dig deeper and deeper into the mechanics of the reality we see and feel, however, we see the safety net disappearing from underneath us.  At the quantum level, what is matter?  Not the solid thing what we have come to experience, for sure.  What is an atom?  What is an electron?  Is light comprising particles or waves?  What is time?

No absolute answers…

An Empirical Model

In engineering, we do a lot of mathematical modelling.  Fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, chemical reactions… all are modelled mathematically based on experience, and the empirical equations derived out of the models are used to predict the physical and chemical behaviour of substances in the ‘real’ world.

And it works.  I can use a fluid flow equation quite accurately to predict the flow of a fluid through a pipeline.  When the pipeline is actually built and operated, the fluid behaves remarkably like the equations did in my computer.

So – this is what science does: it gives us an empirical, workable model for the universe which can be used to interpret and predict phenomena.  In their different paradigms, each scientific model is valid insofar as its interpretative and predictive powers are accurate.  So at a macro level, Newton’s classic physics works: at relativistic level, we have to use Einstein’s equations: at quantum levels, we have to take the help of Max Planck.  None of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they are ‘useful’.

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So, to sum it up – no, we don’t know what reality is in an absolute sense (we may never know).  There is no absolute truth.  But there are verifiable facts within a paradigm; and as reasonable individuals, we need to accept these facts even if they go against our belief systems.

This is how we have come so far.  If we let go of it, we slip over – into ‘La La Land’.

Life Etched in Spare Lines – A Review of “Dear Life” by Alice Munro

alice-munroYou know, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Alice Munro so fascinating. Her writing is without frills – she does not use flowery language or dazzling metaphors. Her stories can be read by any schoolkid without referring a dictionary. Ms. Munro does not write about extraordinary events; her characters are middle class men and women of Canada, going about their humdrum lives. It is Ernest Hemingway plus Jane Austen.

The first story in this collection sort of had me saying: “Is this the Nobel Prize winner? Oh come on!” but something in that bland narrative pulled me in, enticing me to try one more – then one more – then… well, you know. It was like a box of chocolates when you promise to stop after the next, and soon the box is empty.

The power of Alice Munro is not in what she says – but what she leaves unsaid: and that is quite a lot. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps, and I think most readers would do it in their own particular way, moulding the story to his or her own fashion. In most stories, the narrator is a child in the first person; a child who grows up as the story progresses. As we all know children see more of life and interpret it less. There is a disconcerting truthfulness to their viewpoints which makes adults uncomfortable. And when the child grows up and understands what she has experienced before she put on her adult glasses, this dichotomy of vision provides the tension which keeps the story on a knife’s edge.

The unwritten story was what had me returning again and again to this collection.

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The “child’s-eye-view” is most effectively used in the stories “Gravel” and “Voices”. In the first, a broken-up marriage is described in the voice of a child too young to form clear memories of events but has vivid recollections of things. When the story suddenly escalates to tragedy without warning, the kid suddenly grows up; and we realise that we have been hearing this child-woman all along – because in a sense, she has been trapped at the point of her tragedy. Her vision is crystal clear until the actual event, but the moment the adult takes over, analysis starts and we are now dealing with conjectures instead of concrete certainties.

In the second, the situation is more prosaic. In a country dance, the narrator and her mother meet a prostitute. The child is entranced by the elegant lady but the mum is understandably outraged. Sent upstairs to get her coat so that she and her mum can leave, the girl meets a girl called Peggy, who is visibly upset and crying, and her two suitors on the stairs. Peggy is part of the prostitute’s entourage and the men are quite obviously trying to pacify her. They are talking to her as the child-narrator had never heard a woman talked to before.

For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s. I know now that some of the Air Force men stationed at Port Albert early in the war had come out from England, and were training there to fight the Germans. So I wonder if it was the accent of some part of Britain that I was finding so mild and entrancing. It was certainly true that I had never in my life heard a man speak in that way, treating a woman as if she was so fine and valued a creature that whatever it was, whatever unkindness had come near her, was somehow a breach of law, a sin.

It is obvious to us adults who read the story that Peggy has been somehow slighted by the “respectable” ladies at the dance – the child sees only the consideration she obtains from men, something that is forever withheld from her.

Nameless child narrators (who seem alter egos of the novelist herself) are central to the stories “Haven”, “The Eye”and “Night” also; and other stories such as “Leaving Maverly”, “Pride”and “Dear Life” also deal in part with childhood. In fact, most of these stories involve the shifting of human relations as people grow up, and they seem to wander all over the place without coming to a point. Many contain snippets of information that are seemingly irrelevant to what the author is trying to convey but then, as Ms. Munro’s narrator says in “Dear Life”

…And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I am writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.

Life, unlike a story, is never neatly rounded off. Life leaves a lot of its story on unwritten pages – like Ms. Munro.

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dear-lifeThe characters in this author’s fictional universe are often jarringly disconnected from one another. In “Train”, the protagonist (unusually, a male) is on the run from a relationship: but not for the reason one thinks, as becomes shockingly clear at the denouement: in “Amundsen”, a relationship develops and unfurls with frightening speed. The characters seem to take it all in their stride, especially when narrated in Ms. Munro’s extremely spare prose. Sometimes, this alienation results in unlikely alliances too, as in “Corrie” and “Pride”. Many a time, core plot elements are hidden or only fleetingly mentioned. In the hands of a less skilled author, it would have been a disaster; here, it is what gives the stories their pith.

Because at the centre of it all, there lies hope. As Neal, a character in “Gravel”, says:

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”

 

Yes, indeed.

A “Biblio-Centric” Look at the Year That Was

As far reading goes, this year has only been so-so: mainly because of upheavals on the personal front.

I lost my job of ten years in the United Arab Emirates. The blow fell in February, when the management told me that I would have to leave by end of May. It was literally a catastrophe: my son was moving on to grade 10, and the last thing we wanted was disturbance in his studies. However, it had to be, as it is impossible to stay on the Middle East without a visa. Thankfully, after two months of turmoil, things were settled by the end of April, with my family settled back home in India and my son admitted to an excellent school in our town. I also managed to land a job in Mumbai by June, so things all worked out in the end (like an Indian “family” movie).

On the reading front, I was surprised to find that my average rating on Goodreads follows an almost perfect normal distribution, a bit skewed towards the upper limit: 4 1-stars, 7 2-stars, 23 3-stars, 32 4-stars and 4 5-stars. My arithmetic average for ratings this year (3.36) also closely matches my all-time average, 3.46. So statistically, this has been just another average year. However, my reading has dropped considerably since July – maybe a natural effect of settling down in the new job and city. I have just only rediscovered my reading groove.

It has been a mixed bag of reading material, Fiction and Nonfiction almost equally distributed. I managed to read 9 Malayalam books, which is way beneath my target – but at least I’ve made a start. The heartening thing is that I have read a lot of plays, and a lot of Indian books in translation: a trend which I plan to continue in future.

Books

The best:

ആരാച്ചാര്‍ AARACHAR by K.R. Meera -no doubt about it. This book was an absolutely mind-blowing experience, truly deserving the Sahitya Akademi award it won. For those who can’t read Malayalam, it has been translated as “Hangwoman” in English. I’d recommend it to all who love good literature.

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Alan Light

The Silver Locusts (better known as “Martian Chronicles”) by Ray Bradbury. I was able to pick this classic up for a song at a charity sale, and it did live up to all its hype. This one is a real SF classic.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home should be a must-read for all fiction lovers. Susan Hill loves her reading, and it shows in the passionate way she writes about them.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell increased my esteem for this author who likes to hunt off the beaten track (however, his The Bone Clocks left me rather cold).

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a brilliant adaptation of a bittersweet Russian fairy tale to the early twentieth century Alaska, without losing any of its poignancy.


Other significant reads:

The Crucible and Inherit the Wind are two plays which have topical relevance today, with the vociferous right hell-bent on snuffing out individual freedoms and inciting religious paranoia.

I have been a fan of J. B. Priestley ever since I read An Inspector Calls. I could locate a collection of four plays by him, and they did not disappoint. Also, I picked up a collection of four plays by an old favourite of mine, Eugene O’Neill: his Desire Under the Elms is a masterpiece of how the play can be structured for the proscenium stage.


I was extremely lucky to find The Thurber Carnival – James Thurber, the creator of Walter Mitty, is an unbelievable wordsmith. This collection contains many of his gems – a delight to read and reread.

Cartoons by James Thurber

Last but not least – you Poirot fans out there, you can’t afford to miss Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot: The Life And Times Of Hercule Poirot by Anne Hart!

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Personal Milestones

I got acquainted with the works of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the first time. His views are a necessary counterpoint to Gandhi’s and repays attention. Sadly, his voice has been buried under the Indian need to deify Gandhi.

I read Indian literature in translation after a long time. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam by Ashokamitran and I Take This Woman (Ek Chadar Maili Si) by Rajinder Singh Bedi were worthwhile reads. Must do more of the same in 2017!

A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

In the Old Testament creation myth, the serpent is the villain: it is he who tempts Eve with the “Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which God had expressly forbidden mankind from eating.  This results in man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (the so-called “Fall”), and the everlasting enmity between man and serpent.

This is true of the Levantine Religions which subscribe to this myth.  But for me, brought up in sylvan landscape of rural Kerala, the snake is an entity to be worshipped.  He is feared, true, but that is because of his power which is enormous when unleashed – a curse from him can affect seven generations, it is said – but he is also revered.  During my childhood, each big house had a corner of their compound set aside for the traditional Sarpakkavu, the sacred “Serpent Grove”.

My family was educated and “enlightened”, so they did not go for this pagan nonsense (they believed in the gods, of course) and I grew up with a healthy contempt for such animistic practices.  As “civilisation” spread and villages became towns and then cities, traditional Kerala homesteads made way for modern terraced villas and multi-storey apartment complexes: and the sacred groves were slowly encroached upon by western style lawns and rose gardens.

Ironically, as I slowly lost my faith in the gods as absolute entities, my creative interest in the spiritual facet of myth grew (helped by the discovery of Joseph Campbell in my early twenties) – and I began to pine for the lost serpent groves: seas of tranquil peace in the hustle and bustle of daily life, where huge centenarian trees stood guard; where the afternoon slept peacefully, and nature woke to lusty and dangerous life at twilight.

The Sacred Grove

The concept of the sacred grove is hardly confined to Kerala, India or the East – It is part of  most of the pagan universe in general.  Sir J. G. Frazer, in his landmark book The Golden Bough, discourses at length about the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, where the priest-king was ritually killed annually and reincarnated in his successor.  From Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

golden_boughThis thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Curiously enough, the temples of the Goddess in Kerala are called “kavu”s (groves), even when there are no trees present within the compound!  I have always felt that we must have “progressed” from real groves to today’s elaborate structures as patriarchy slowly replaced the pagan matriarchy and the Goddess was subjugated as the consort of God.  At some point of time, the Earth Mother was enslaved by the her consort, who was her son as well – and instead of being the offspring of Gaia, man became her master.  (We all know the impact of this paradigm shift on the environment, but that is another story.)

If the Goddess represents the dark and mysterious female principle, her companion in popularity in Kerala, the snake, represents the male principle.  No wonder he also resides in a grove, and is directly linked with fertility.  People sacrifice at famous snake temples throughout the state for getting offspring and for their continued welfare: in the famous temple at Mannarsala, a down-turned uruli (a flat vessel) is the offering, under which a snake comes to meditate until a child is born to the devout couple (the Freudian and Jungian connections are obvious here).

So, going back to the Biblical myth, I always wonder whether the serpent was a benign deity originally, who was recast into the role of the villain as the Abrahamic myth gained traction?  The fruit he offers Eve makes her aware of her sexuality, and she is henceforth cursed (or blessed?) by God to “bring forth children in sorrow”.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was initially the Grove of the Serpent, and the myth had an entirely different form…

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

Our ancestral home in Thrissur is a huge monstrosity with sprawling grounds.  A few years ago, my sister (who is an artist and a connoisseur of artistically eccentric ideas) decided to create a Sarpakkavu in one corner.  Initially, no one was in support. The traditional method of creating the grove being leaving the area totally unattended, allowing the bushes, trees and creepers to grow at will, soon one corner of our compound was choked with grass and bush.  It became a haven for stray dogs, snakes and everyone was aghast at the unsafe conditions: but my sister doggedly persisted.

Soon, nature took over.  As the big trees began to grow and spread their branches, the shade of the leafy canopy slowly killed off the wild grass, and the floor became more even.  The fallen leaves provided the necessary support for the ground to hold rainwater, and as the soil became more fertile, a miniature forest began to take shape.  Most importantly – snakes which were rampant in our grounds seem to have disappeared, apparently retiring to this piece of heaven created for them.

This is how it looks today.

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While I walked around the area yesterday, I felt positive energy flowing into me: both physically from the oxygen-laden atmosphere and spiritually from the calming presence of the gently swaying trees.  I once again marvelled at the wisdom of paganism, where man instinctively understood his place in the grand scheme of things – not as master, but as a humble cog in the machine.  As I stood absorbed by this tiny ecological paradise in a world largely gone to waste, an old mantra to the Earth Mother, which I learned at my mother’s knee, came up in my mind:

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

(O Goddess, wearing the oceans as your dress and having the mountains for your breasts: Consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee; forgive the touch of my feet…)

A Christmas Fable for All Times

18Heart-warming: that is my one word review for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

This has to be one of the most read and loved stories of all time. It works, whether one views it as a Christian allegory or a simple fantasy. I studied it in middle school and loved it: I was laughing along with Scrooge in the last chapter. I was wondering whether the magic would still work with a moderately cynical middle-aged man. It did.

The story could have been maudlin, sentimental, didactic and moralising. That it is none of this is due to Dickens’ mastery of the medium. From the beginning to end, there is hardly a word out of place: and the narrative is structured so meticulously that one simply floats through the story, along with Scrooge and the ghosts.

Take the first paragraph:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This sets the whole tone of the novel. The conversational style with its mock serious tone of voice; Dickens is sitting near to you, with a tankard of ale in front of him, on a cold December day in the neighbourhood pub. He is entertaining you with a Christmas tale. It is not to be taken very seriously, but the teller’s heart is in it-if you listen to it carefully, it may work wonders for you.

dickens_gurney_headThe handful of characters are finely etched: true to its fairytale nature, the “good” and “bad” are strongly bifurcated without any shades of grey, yet we find ourselves loving even the bad characters. Scrooge, for all his miserly and cantankerous nature, can never be taken seriously: his “bah!” and “humbug!”, we feel, are most applicable to the persona he presents to the world. And as we visit the lonely boy in the classroom, we get an idea how Scrooge turned out to be the man he is: the colossal insecurity of the impoverished child, developing into the worship of money for its own sake, and building a barrier of hatred against society so that it can never hurt him.

marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_blLike a five-act play, time and space are compressed into an evening, night and the next day. As we sweep through the narrative at breakneck speed, Scrooge’s character undergoes a tremendous transformation which is possible only in fables and fairy tales: however, the author has already set the stage for it in the opening chapter itself by showing us the chinks in his armour. The development of the miser of the first chapter into the loving philanthropist of the last chapter seems not only possible, but natural.

A perfect Christmas fable for everybody. Recommended for young and old alike.