A Different Viewpoint on a Much-Maligned Monarch

Aurangzeb book coverAurangzeb has been cast as an unmitigated villain by the British, a myth which has been enthusiastically adopted by Hindutva apologists to further their agenda of projecting Muslims as cruel bigots and ruthless killers. The truth, as usual, is much more nuanced.

The casual reader and scholar alike, however, should be wary of what constitutes historical evidence and a legitimate historical claim. Individuals that claim to present ‘evidence’ of Aurangzeb’s supposed barbarism couched in the suspiciously modern terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict often trade in falsehoods, including fabricated documents and blatantly wrong translations. Many who condemn Aurangzeb have no training in the discipline of history and lack even basic skills in reading premodern Persian. Be sceptical of communal visions that flood the popular sphere. This biography aims to deepen our remarkably thin knowledge about the historical man and king, Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Thus concludes Audrey Truschke the book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, and we would do well to heed her words. So much of what we have been taught as history have been infected by politics: originally by the designs of our colonial masters, then by the political outlook of the “brown sahibs” who took over our country from them, and lastly by the strident (if illogical) claims of our aggressive Hindu right. Unfortunately, all three found it expedient to demonise Aurangzeb – the British to create the myth of centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict, the Congress to prove their historical role in solving that conflict and the BJP to to sustain the myth of the marauding Muslim and the tolerant and long-suffering Hindu. This is the myth that most of us grew up with, and this is the myth which still proves remarkably resilient.

No person is uni-dimensional (other than comic book heroes and villains). This is why narratives which run counter to the popular one are important; why articles describing Gandhi’s racism and Mother Theresa’s religious fundamentalism need to be read (though not necessarily agreed with). Only when we try to look at historical personages in all their complexity shall we be able to see the past in all its multi-hued glory – which in turn, will illuminate the present.

Audrey Truschke has produced a very readable book (though rather short on substance) on the Emperor which does a laudable job of debunking the myth. Though one expects a more detailed analysis, this book should serve as a starting point for any interested reader on the controversial sovereign.

Equestrian_Portrait_of_Aurangzeb.The charges levied against Aurangzeb are mainly two: (1) he was a bloodthirsty monster who treated his enemies savagely and murdered his kin to gain the throne and (2) he was a religious bigot who relentlessly persecuted Hindus and destroyed temples. The author shows that both of these charges are rooted in half-truths which are more dangerous than lies, because they can so easily fool the gullible.

As to the first charge: yes, Aurangzeb did that – but it was no more than any other Mughal prince would do. Wars of succession for a vacant throne was the norm in the dynasty. There was no primogeniture – the popular saying was ya takht ya tabut (either the throne or the grave). Although Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son has been treated very kindly by history, in the matter of squabbling for the throne, he was as good (or as bad) as the other three; Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. All four wanted the kingship and were willing to do away with their brothers. Aurangzeb was the one who won out.

There have been many recorded instances of Aurangzeb treating his enemies cruelly (Shivaji’s son Sambaji is the example which immediately comes to mind) – but then, there are other instances when he proved lenient. Again, there is no evidence to prove that he was more savage than any average medieval king.

Now the biggest charge – that of the religious bigot who systematically tried to wipe out Hinduism – has to be examined. Ms. Truschke provides convincing evidence to illustrate that he was no bigot: only a strict and pious ruler, obsessed with an idea of justice. Obviously he would have considered Islam the true religion and all others as false, but it is clear that politics trumped faith on most occasions. The author quotes Richard Eaton, the leading authority on the subject, to establish that the number of confirmed temple destructions is just over a dozen . And many of those acts had political roots. (We must bear in mind that even Hindu kings sacked and pillaged the temples in rival’s domain – the Shaiva/ Vaishnava conflicts are obvious examples.)

F1996.1There are also ample examples of the emperor continuing the Mughal system of patronage of Hindu and Jain communities. Also, Aurangzeb had a number of Hindu officials under him, some of whom enjoyed very high ranks. Hardly to be expected of a fanatic Hindu-hater! However, it is clear that he was no Akbar, as he reimposed the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) even though it is very doubtful whether the order was implemented in practice.

(Here I must say that I do not accept what the author says without a pinch of salt. I have read other believable sources, notably the Malayalam author Anand, who claim that Aurangzeb was more fanatical than most. Instead of swinging to one or other end of the pendulum, we must weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves.)

Ultimately, Aurangzeb was a strong king who ruled for more than five decades and who expanded the Mughal kingdom across a major part of the subcontinent. Instead of a cartoon villain, he was a complex character who was composed in parts of the good, the bad and the indifferent, much like all of us.

Aurangzeb nonetheless defies easy summarization. He was a man of studied contrasts and perplexing features. Aurangzeb was preoccupied with order – even fretting over the safety of the roads – but found no alternative to imprisoning his father, an action decried across much of Asia. He did not hesitate to slaughter family members, or rip apart enemies, literally, as was the case with Sambhaji. He also sewed prayer caps by hand and professed a desire to lead a pious life. he was angered by bad administrators, rotten mangoes, and unworthy sons. He was a connoisseur of music and even fell in love with the musician Hirabai, but, beginning in midlife, deprived himself of the pleasure of the musical arts. Nonetheless, he passed his later years in the company of another musician, Udaipuri. He built the largest mosque in the world but chose to be buried in an unmarked grave. He died having expanded the Mughal kingdom to its greatest extent in history and yet feared utter failure.

A complex character indeed – and one worthy of more attention than that which has been given.

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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!

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.

 

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 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.


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!

poirot

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 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.