A Review of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The above poem by Maya Angelou (not from this book, by the way) encapsulates in a few lines why the voices of protest are the loudest, and the literature the most powerful when it is forcefully suppressed. Because the only thing the caged bird can do is sing, he will keep on doing it, lest he go mad. Poetry will keep on flowing out of the decapitated head of Orpheus.

I understand that this book has been banned multiple times. Not surprising, considering that the words of the poet have more power than swords or bullets, as proved time and again by history.

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Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when their parents’ marriage fell apart. It was the early thirties, and the North and the South of USA were poles apart as far as coloured people were concerned; in the North, they were part of the society (albeit an insular one) while in the South, they were the despised ‘niggers’.

Maya spent most of the formative part of her childhood down south. Her grandmother (‘Momma’) was a singularly resourceful woman who owned a store: they managed to live in relative comfort even during the Depression era. However, this material comfort was offset by the fact that they were always the hated ‘other’ – the ‘whitefolk’ who lived apart (almost a mythical race, in Maya’s young mind) were powerful and whimsical gods who could visit death and destruction any time on any black man or woman. Even the ‘powhitetrash’, the drifters and squatters who had the fortune to be born into the Anglo-Saxon race, could insult even the propertied black people with impunity.

When she was eight years old, Maya’s father took her brother and herself to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here the incident which was to become the turning point of her life happened. The eight-year old girl was raped by her mother’s current boyfriend, Mr. Freeman: he managed to wiggle out of jail only to be murdered, presumably by Maya’s maternal uncles who were also the town toughs. As a result of this, she became a virtual mute for almost five years.

Sent back to Stamps, Maya continued her zombie-like existence until she was brought back into the world of the living by Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend – she did this by the expedient of introducing the girl to books. Maya found refuge in the world of imagination, and slowly came back to normal.

She again went to live with her mother in California when she was 15. During this sojourn, she visited her father in Southern California where another traumatic event in her life took place. After a frightening journey across the border into Mexico along with her father (when she was forced to drive a car back to the US in the night with him passed out in the back – even though she was not a qualified driver!), Maya was attacked and stabbed by her father’s girlfriend. She quit home and lived for a month in a junkyard, with similar social drop-outs, before returning to her mother.

A month of living in the rough had emboldened the shy and withdrawn girl. Maya decided to get a job as a streetcar conductor, even though the occupation was closed to blacks, and succeeded: the activist and rebel were just emerging. The first installment of this extended autobiography ends with the picture of Maya as a teen mother, of a child conceived out of a casual sexual encounter which she had just to satisfy that she was ‘normal’ (that is, heterosexual)!

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Maya writes with a disarming honesty and a genuine sense of humour. Even the most distressing events are discussed casually – the child’s eye view is done really well. The book is eminently readable. Still, is this a great book? I would not say so. Good, yes: genuinely great, no.

The causal tone, for me, took away most of the poignancy. Even the extremely distressing rape incident – though described in gory detail – fails to really make an impact. My personal feeling is that this is the author’s way of coping with personal trauma: you take the emotion out of it. However, it might come across to people that her mother never cared much (I have found this view expressed on one or two of the one-star reviews for this book on this site).

However, I salute Maya’s courage in writing this explicit memoir. Being a black woman, she feels disadvantaged thrice, as she says:

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

So maybe, the best defence is to attack. Throw the hypocrisy of society back in its face. Say: “This is I. Accept me for what I am, whether you like what you see or not!”

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A Review of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverI have seen a lot of contemptuous reviews of Gaiman’s books, by reviewers I respect. What is so great about them? They ask. All of them are simplistic stories using the same motifs again and again – trite fantasies about little children up against mythical monsters. Enjoyable, sure, enough to while away a holiday afternoon, maybe… But great? Come on guys, aren’t you exaggerating a bit?

As a fan of Gaiman’s prose, there was a time I would have been furious with them. How can you not see the poetry of language? I would have asked. How can you not see the richness of the imagination? How can you not sense the profoundness of what Gaiman is saying? But not anymore – because now I understand that it is a fundamental difference of perception: one you can’t explain or substantiate, like the taste of a particular curry one loves and another hates.

The unnamed narrator of this novel says:

…the patterns in the headboard of the bed at my grandmother’s house, which, if I looked at them wrongly in the moonlight, showed me an old man with his mouth open wide, as if he were screaming.

I know what he means, oh yes: I similarly saw the face of an old hag in a dead leaf when I was two or three (reading this passage jogged my memory, and I suddenly recalled this long-forgotten terrifying incident), and had a very difficult time explaining it to my parents (they still don’t know).

It is a fact: only some can see with the eyes of a child.

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The country of childhood is a strange and exhilarating and (yes!) frightening place.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences.

It is on this path, off the beaten track, that Gaiman takes you in this novel (as in many others), as you accompany the seven-year-old protagonist on a frightening and exhilarating journey to the end of the lane, where three generations of female Hempstocks (who are perhaps older than time itself) live in their farmhouse – a farmhouse which also houses a duck-pond which is really an ocean. You watch with bated breath as he battles an evil out of time which appears in the guise of an ordinary governess, and pray for him as the hunger birds descend upon him ravenously. Of course, you do this if you can enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to find the meanings hidden between the words.

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

YES.

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As a shy and socially backward youngster, I found refuge in books at a very early age. As I grew up, the stories changed, but a bit of the boy who lost himself between the pages of a novel stayed.

I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.

I do not know about all adults, but I definitely fit the bill. If you think you do too, please take some time to visit the ocean at the end of the lane.

I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

A Review of “Dangerous Laughter” by Steven Millhauser

CoverDangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser is a difficult book to rate. It is a collection of short stories, but one has stretch the definition of “story” by quite a lot to call some of them by that name. Many are what can be called “sketches” – of an idea, of a person or of a situation. All of them are idea driven: the characters are placed there just to serve as vehicles for the ideas (in this aspect, and with respect to the weirdness of the tales, Millhauser resembles Lord Dunsany to a great extent).

These stories are weird – seriously. The author does not want to present us with a set of believable characters and describe a situation in which they develop; rather, he throws us an idea which is taken to its logical extreme by the characters involved. This method, while it provides some startling reading experiences, pales after a time and begins to feel seriously gimmicky.

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Millhauser has structured the book in four parts: the first one, a prologue of sorts, containing one story and the remaining three four stories each. Each of these three sections have a certain thematic unity, and encourages the reader to explore various aspects of the same meta-theme.

Free-Wallpapers-and-Screensavers-for-Computer-Tom-and-JerryThe first section is an “Opening Cartoon”, the familiar Tom & Jerry animated short I used to love before each MGM movie as a kid. The story, titled “Cat and Mouse”, gives a blow-by-blow description the endless rivalry between Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse. The language is simple, and one can visualise the scene with each sentence. However, as the tale progresses, both the mouse and the cat begin to introspect and bring their existential angst on to their Sisyphus-like antagonistic existence. This is a fantastic story, and pulled me into the book.

The second section, “Vanishing Acts”, is about human beings and their existence in the temporal world. In a sense, this is also an existential analysis. There is a vanished girl, who slowly fades from the communal memory but comes to haunt the memory of the narrator, even though he is not sure he knows her; the asexual relationship between a boy and a girl in a totally darkened room, relying only the verbal and the tactile; dangerous infectious laughter which kills off its addicts; and a person who gets increasingly alienated from the physical world through the perceived insufficiency of language.

miniatureThe third section (“Impossible Architectures”) is about the relation of man to the structures he builds up. They contain the unbelievably large (a climate-controlled dome covering the whole of the United States of America, an engineering analysis of an alternate Tower of Babel), the impossibly small (miniatures so small as to be totally invisible) and the totally meaningless (a town which is a carbon copy of the one inhabited by the protagonists).

The last section, which is titled “Heretical Histories”, gives us four tales of impossible historical happenings in what must be a time stream totally different from our own. The first story in this section about a historical society which is obsessed with preserving history down to the last detail, because the past is the only thing that really “exists” – the present is ephemeral and the future, nonexistent. Of the remaining three stories, one talks about a weird fashion fad where the dress grows in opacity and size and ultimately ends up concealing the woman totally and taking on a life of its own; one is about a painter who apparently discovers a way to incorporate time and motion into his creations; and the last one is about an alternate Edison, one of whose assistants invents a machine which can simulate the sense of touch.

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This book made me think a lot about my experiences as a human being – about time, objects, experiences and emotions. Lacking sympathetic characters, one is immediately drawn to the idea behind the tale. The stories are very readable and enjoyable as a sort of brain exercise. However, they felt repetitive after a while.

An enjoyable read, if you are a person who reads with the intellect.

Hindutva – Fascism, Indian Style

As a student, I was attracted towards the BJP: in an aggressively secular democracy which stressed non-religiosity of the government to the extent of purposefully rejecting the common Hindu culture, fearing that it might hurt the sentiments of the minority, perhaps it was only natural. At that time, I understood Hindutva to mean the common inclusive culture of India, which was rejected by many aggressive Muslim clerics. I was upset at this, and did not want the rich literature, art and culture of our country (which is Hindu in nature) to be abandoned to favour minority sentiments.

However, as the ruling centrist-right Indian National Congress weakened, the BJP grew in power: and its cries of Hindu pride grew shriller. Riots started happening sporadically across the country. In 1992, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a centuries-old Muslim Mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob, alleging that it was built by the Mughal emperor Babur on the site of a destroyed temple of the Hindu deity Rama. Atrocities against minorities increased in frequency and ultimately peaked in the mindless carnage of Gujarat in 2002. As I watched, I slowly moved away from the party which contained the Hindu fanatics responsible for this atrocities.

The writing was on the wall, however. The Indian National Congress, lacking any coherent political ideology or leadership was thrashed soundly in the recent parliamentary elections. The BJP swept to power under the man who was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. For all practical purposes, the ideology of Hindutva had triumphed.

In this context, I thought I should read the slim book which is the root of it all – Hindutva by V. D. Savarkar. Understanding a fascist philosophy is the first step in defending oneself against it.

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fascism3
For Savarkar, Indian civilisation starts with the arrival of the Aryans. In fact, he dismisses all those existing in the Indian subcontinent at the time of their arrival as “scattered tribes”, whose languages were the “Prakrits” (uncultured tongues) which evolved from the immigrants’ Sanskrit, which means “cultured”. He is also at pains to establish that these original inhabitants were also most probably known as Hindus because Hindu is derived from “Sindhu”, the river Indus. Thus, at the outset itself, he establishes Hindutva as tied inseparably to the land. He also makes the astonishing statement that it is certain to have predated Egypt and Babylonia!

 

 

Although it would be hazardous at the present stage of oriental research to state definitely the period when the foremost band of intrepid Aryans made it their home and lighted their first sacrificial fire on the banks of the Sindhu, the Indus, yet certain it is that long before the ancient Egyptians, and Babylonians, had built their magnificent celebration, the holy waters of the Indus were daily witnessing the lucid and curling columns of scented sacrificial smokes and the valleys resounding with the chants of Vedic hymns – the spiritual fervour that animated their souls.

 

 

Emphasis mine.

Savarkar conveniently forgets the Indus Valley civilisation which had a settled city life, apparently some kind of government, and complex art and religious belief; and which was born, thrived and perished much before the nomadic Aryans ever reached anywhere near India!

(Also, India had a rich collection of Dravidian languages which was in no way linked to Sanskrit. A language of Dravidian origin, Brahui, is still existing in modern-day Pakistan! So the claim that all the languages of India are uncultured versions of Sanskrit is offensive and silly.)
Mohenjodaro_Sindh
Thus at the outset itself, the intention is clear – the falsification of history to create a false identity for the “Hindu” – the purposeful rejection of pluralism in favour of an identification based on a fabricated story of a mythical “fatherland”. And Savarkar says that he is treading on the “solid ground of recorded facts”!

But it is when the author veers off into areas of conjecture that the whole thing becomes seriously eccentric. He first of all sets out to discredit the Maurya civilisation as the first great Indian civilisation: for him, a great Hindu civilisation as delineated in the Hindu myths preceded it. Recorded history means nothing to Savarkar: he considers it all misreadings (at best) or outright fabrications (at worst) by the West. Rather, he considers the Buddhist era a period of decadence (!) when Hindus were totally enervated by the concept of Ahimsa which left them easy fodder for the Muslim invaders.

(For his examination of the “history” of the Hindu people, Savarkar uses dubious sources like the “Bhavishya Purana”. It seems that he accepts any text which is supportive of Vedic Brahmanism as the gospel (!) truth. Whether this is due to genuine belief or political agenda, we can only conjecture.)

Now the author goes on to establish that, in spite of all the differences of caste, creed and colour, Indians are one people – which is true and what is beneficial for the country, anyway – but then, puts the final spin on the ball when his fundamentalist agenda suddenly comes out baring its claws and teeth, casting aside its mask of patriotism. Savarkar writes:

 

 

But can we, who here are concerned with investigating into facts as they are and not as they should be, recognise these Mohammedans as Hindus? Many a Mohammedan community in Kashmir and other parts of India as well as the Christians in South India observe our caste rules to such an extent as to marry within the pale of their castes alone; yet, it is clear that though their Hindu blood is thus almost unaffected by alien adulteration, yet they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because we Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood which courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of common homage we pay to our great civilisation – our Hindu culture, which could not be better rendered than by the word Sanskriti suggestive as it is of that language, Sanskrit, which has been the chosen means of expression and preservation of that culture, of all that was best and worth preserving in the history of our race.

 

 

In short – Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains are in: Christians and Muslims out. Why? Because they don’t consider India as their “Holy-land” (Punyabhumi) in addition to their fatherland: for them, the Holy Land is Jerusalem or Mecca. So, as long as they remain tied to their Abrahamic religion which traces their origin from the Levant, they cannot be accepted as Hindus.

(Interestingly, Savarkar leaves the Jews and Farsis out of it. Jews mostly, I think, because the RSS have been supporters of Zionism since day one, and vice versa: also because Jews and Farsis were not proselytising religions so he did not perceive them as threat.)

Now Savarkar launches into his real agenda. He says that he is not criticising or lamenting, but stating a simple fact. Christians and Muslims cannot be accepted as Hindus (according him, this means Indians) unless they accept India as their Holy Land, by forswearing their allegiance to their “foreign” origins – this effectively means abandoning their religion in the current format.


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Thus, the philosophy strikes at the roots of secularism. If India adopts “Hindutva” as its guiding principle and starts rewriting the constitution, Hinduism may not become its official religion: minorities may be allowed to practice their beliefs in private. But the nation will be governed by laws based on the principles set forth in this venomous tract . All people who do not toe the “Hindutva” line will have to live as second class citizens.

From that to the concentration camps is only a minor step.

Think I am overreacting? The events of the past two years should set every intelligent Indian thinking.