A Review of “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

A long time back, when I first became active on the fora of the Joseph Campbell Forum website, I downloaded a list of books which the renowned mythologist had given his students as required reading at Sarah Lawrence College. I found this book among them. But it was out of print at that time, and I could source a copy only now – with Rupa Publishers reprinting it.

Coomaraswamy’s metaphor of the cosmic dance of Shiva is well known to many, even to those who don’t know him: I first came across it during the late seventies, in Fritjof Capra’s seminal book on New Age science, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. At that time, to my teenage brain filled with grand ideas of the ultimate merger of Indian mysticism with higher physics, this was a revolutionary concept worth tripping on; you just close your eyes and meditate on all those atoms, protons, neutrons, quasars, planets, galaxies and whatnot dancing around the space-time continuum and – bingo! Niravana.

Well, I have been disabused of such naive imaginings as I grew older, and learnt more about Indian history and culture – and that it was not the one mystical love-fest the New Agers and the hippies made it out to be. True, India had a lot of great philosophical thought; a beautiful and colourful mythical heritage; and perhaps the world’s greatest epic literature. But the societal system, built on the strict hierarchy of caste, was horrendous: with the top layer existing parasitically on labours of the downtrodden bottom one. Which is why when I finally got around to reading Coomaraswamy, I was sorely disappointed.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

This book was first published in 1918 – and sadly, it shows. This was the time when the Indian pride was on the upswing as a reaction against foreign domination and its consequent westernisation. For the apologists, anything Indian was divinely sublime. It was not a question of accepting her, warts and all; but exhorting those same warts as the epitome of beauty.
This blind admiration of Indian culture runs as one of the main themes of this book – the other being the ‘divine’ nature of Indian art, where there is no separation of devotion, myth, and the artistic insight. While I largely concur with the second (Campbell’s argument that the artist is the myth-maker in modern society resonates with me), the ‘superiority’ of Indian (or Eastern) culture to that of the West is highly debatable.

The book comprises fourteen essays. Of these, seven deal in totality and one partially with Indian art; four are paeans to Indian culture; and one each is in homage to Shakespeare and Nietzsche respectively. The essays are of varying quality – from extremely well-expressed to boringly repetitive. Let me start with the key one, ‘The Dance of Shiva’.

Shiva needs no introduction to the well-read person. He is the God who dances. When he is happy, he does the ‘Ananda Thandava’, the dance of happiness – and in anger, he dances the ‘Samhara Thandava’, destroying the universe in totality. He is full of esoteric symbolism: he wears the moon and the river Ganges in his matted hair locks; wears serpents as garlands; wears cloths made out of tiger and elephant skins; and his body is covered with the ash from funeral pyres. In his avatar as Nataraja (‘The Lord of Dance’), he dances within a circle of fire, trampling on the demon Muyalaka with his right foot, the left one raised, drum in his right hand fire in his left. He is the patron god of dance.

Commaraswamy does a detailed analysis of the five types of dance Shiva does, with extensive and fascinating quotes from mythical literature. This fact itself makes it worth reading. However, it is when he comes to the metaphoric analysis of this dance that we understand how this essay has stood the test of time and influenced a number of people over the years.

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

Coomaraswamy sees it essentially as the interplay of the feminine Prakriti, matter, nature, symbolised by the fire circle – the dancing God, touching it at four points with his head, arms and foot, is Purusha, the masculine omnipresent spirit animating it. He writes:

The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

(For those of us who have had our tryst with mysticism in the post-Fritjof Capra era, this may be old hat. Shiva’s cosmic dance has been done to death across a lot of platforms – literary, religious and mystic. But it is when we realise the Coomaraswamy’s vision is from a century ago, that we begin to appreciate its originality.)

He gushes on:

How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

… In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.

Yes indeed. As a connoisseur of art, dance and literature, I will emphatically say that this image is worth tripping on!

***

Now, coming to the essays on Indian art and music: it would be tempting to analyse each one in detail, but the exigencies of time and space compel one to economise. So I would just elaborate upon the common thread running across them, so as to emphasise the author’s intentions.

One must bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this book, India was an area of darkness to the majority in the West: it was all “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” stuff. So Coomaraswamy is at pains to justify the beauty of Indian art, mostly abstract and non-representational, to a largely unsympathetic European audience (it is amusing in some cases, as in the essay ‘Indian Images with Many Arms’, where he is at pains to point out that these are metaphorical and not meant to represent reality: elementary school stuff nowadays, in the age of ‘Guernica’). Similarly, he points out the difference between Indian and Western music; the former is purely melodic while the latter is harmonic.

Similarly, Indian art is non-representational. There is no perspective, no attempt to render ‘reality’ as such; and ultimately, there is no individuality to the work of art, or the artist. This total self-effacement of the creator is peculiar to Eastern art because the artist is not important. He does not create, but just renders what is divinely inspired in him through meditation. He is just a conduit for the art to flow through; the source is the Brahman, the essential Godhead that exists within one and all.

Religion and art thus names for one and the same experience—an intuition of reality and of identity.

…When every ascetic and every soldier has become an artist there will be no more need for works of art: in the meanwhile ethical selection of some kind is allowable and necessary. But in this selection we must clearly understand what we are doing, if we would avoid any infinity of error, culminating in that type of sentimentality which regards the useful, the stimulating and the moral elements in works of art as the essential.

Coomaraswamy’s insights on the concept of beauty in art, linking with the rasa concept of Indian aesthetics, is also enlightening.

Only when we judge a work of art aesthetically we may speak of the presence or absence of beauty, we may call the work rasavant or otherwise; but when we judge it from the standpoint of activity, practical or ethical, we ought to use a corresponding terminology, calling the picture, song or actor “lovely” that is to say lovable, or otherwise, the action “noble,” the colour “brilliant,” the gesture “graceful,” or otherwise, and so forth, and it will be seen that in doing this we are not really judging the work of art as such, but only the material and the separate parts of which it is made, the activities they represent, or the feelings they express.

… Beauty can never thus be measured, for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika who enters into his experience.

There are no degrees of beauty; the most complex and the simplest expression remind us of one and the same state. The sonata cannot be more beautiful than the simplest lyric, nor the painting than the drawing, merely because of their greater elaboration. Civilized art is not more beautiful than the savage art, merely because of its possibly more attractive ethos. A mathematical analogy is found if we consider large and small circles; these differ only in their content, not in their circularity.

Another essay which was interesting was on the concept of ‘Sahaja’ – amorous love that transcends the physical, typically represented by Radha’s love for Krishna in Indian mythology. In his lectures, Campbell also talks at great length on this, albeit in a different context – the love of the troubadour for his lady. In the field of poesy, we can see this in the concept of the muse, exemplified by Dante’s obsession with Beatrice.

Radha and Krishna

***

Well, now for the negatives. Even with all these superb, pioneering insights into Indian art and aesthetics, I cannot love this book for its unabashed endorsement of the Indian caste system and the subservient role of women. The author sees the stratified Indian society as the epitome of social engineering, with the Brahmins at the top the equivalent of the philosopher kings envisaged by Plato. He feels that the Indian woman, whose career comprises solely of her husband and family, is the ‘ideal’ to strive for: for him, the emancipated western woman is an aberration. He considers the obnoxious ‘Laws of Manu’ as the absolute gospel. I will let Coomaraswamy speak for himself:

On the caste system:

The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others—it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi—but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.

…We must not judge of Indian society, especially Indian society in its present moment of decay, as if it actually realized the Brahmanical social ideas; yet even with all its imperfections Hindu society as it survives will appear to many to be superior to any form of social organization attained on a large scale anywhere else, and infinitely superior to the social order which we know as “modern civilization.”

…it can hardly be denied that the Brahmanical caste system is the nearest approach that has yet been made towards a society where there shall be no attempt to realise a competitive quality, but where all interests are regarded as identical. To those who admit the variety of age in human souls, this must appear to be the only true communism.

On the status of Indian women:

The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been perfectly comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite, and which is still very little removed from that of Roman or Greek Christianity, is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities—regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self. The industrial mind is primarily sentimental, and therefore cannot reason clearly upon love and marriage; but the Asiatic analysis is philosophic, religious and practical.

… It is sometimes asked, what opportunities are open to the Oriental woman? How can she express herself? The answer is that life is so designed that she is given the opportunity to be a woman—in other words, to realize, rather than to express herself.

…The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, but certainly an universal type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type. Nobility in women does not depend upon race, but upon ideals; it is the outcome of a certain view of life.

And as if this was not enough, he justifies arranged marriage, and even ‘Sati’ – where the wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband!

The industrial revolution in India is of external and very recent origin; there is no lack of men, and it is the sacred duty of parents to arrange a marriage for every daughter: there is no divergence of what is spiritual and what is sensuous: Indian women do not deform their bodies in the interests of fashion: they are more concerned about service than rights: they consider barrenness the greatest possible misfortune, after widowhood. In a word, it has never happened in India that women have been judged by or have accepted purely male standards. What possible service then, except in a few externals, can the Western world render to Eastern women? Though it may be able to teach us much of the means of life, it has everything yet to relearn about life itself. And what we still remember there, we would not forget before we must.

… The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertion of rights. Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism, therefore, leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest or a merely utilitarian demonstration of futility. We do not object to dying for an idea as ‘suttees’ and patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.

 

A depiction of ‘Sati’

I can now hear people saying: “Come on! You can’t judge an early twentieth century text by today’s sensibilities! Coomaraswamy was a man of his time, and we have to cut him some historical slack.”

Uh-huh. Nothing doing. This sugar-coating of the dark underbelly of India’s so-called ‘Arsha’ culture over a period of time – this refusal to call a spade a spade – has resulted in where my country is standing today, with atrocities against Dalits and women so commonplace that they are most of the time relegated to footnotes in the newspaper. Sorry, Mr. Coomaraswamy, I put you in the dock with other apologists for traditional Indian society. You don’t get even judicial mercy in my court!

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A Review of “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History” by V. D. Savarkar

sixVinayak Damodar Savarkar is the philosophical fountainhead of Hindu ‘nationalism’ (I would call it fundamentalism or even fascism) and his works are supposed to be founts of wisdom, at least for the right-wingers: even among the general Indian populace, he has the sheen of a freedom fighter who has been unfairly blacked out for his ‘politically incorrect’ views. So even though I stand diametrically opposite to his philosophy, I decided that I had to read him, because criticism without knowledge is the failing of many an intelligent person.

I accordingly read his seminal ‘Hindutva’ – the guiding philosophy of the Hindu Right – and my impressions are already provided in my review, available on these fora. This is my second attempt, and it has prompted me to say “NEVER AGAIN!”

In the beginning itself, Savarkar says that this is not a book of Indian history but a critique of it, based on his own viewpoints on certain parts of it. I would say it is not a critique, but the selective distortion of history to promote one’s own agenda.

The six glorious epochs, according to the author are:

1. The reign of Chandragupta Maurya, ably assisted by Chanakya (and the Maurya dynasty in general up to Asoka, who is excluded for reasons we shall come to later);
2. The reign of Pushyamitra Sunga;
3. The reign of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya;
4. The reign of Yahodharma who fought against the Huns;
5. The age of the magnificent Marathas (who else?) who rid India of Muslim domination; and
6. The freedom struggle (only those who fought against the British using violent means, mind)

savarkarThe moment one gets into the book, one understands the author’s intent: to extol the valour of the ‘Hindu’ nation and denigrate everyone else. For this he uses clever twisting of words (for example, Alexander letting Porus go is not magnanimity, but cunningness; while Porus accepting the terms of surrender is clever strategy of biding his time), half-truths (Pushyamitra Sunga killing Brihadratha Maurya in a coup is described as a sort of revolution desired by the population in general) and outright lies (Buddhists being traitors and promoting casteism). Thus this so-called ‘historical’ book is utter drivel: however, it would have remained harmless drivel had it only been an attempt to create a historical fantasy. But Savarkar’s real agenda, which shines through in the chapters on the fifth glorious epoch (the longest in the book) makes it extremely toxic drivel.

For the agenda of the author is to enhance the otherness of all religions other than Hinduism, and to positively demonise Islam and Christianity – and to advocate the annihilation of Muslims and the rape of Muslim women.

I will let Savarkar’s words speak for him:

An effective way of liquidating the Muslim religious authority could easily have been availed of by the Hindus of those times, if they had but done what the Muslims had been doing in their hundreds of offensives against Hindu states. The Muslims went on slaughtering wholesale the Hindu population. Similarly whenever the Hindus gained an upper hand, they could have retaliated by massacring Muslim population and making the region Muslim-less ! Devoid of Muslims ! Even their ban on re-purification would not have prevented them from doing this. For in doing this there was no question involved of eating or drinking or of having any dealings with the Muslims! But—! But if not the ban on re-purification, the suicidal Hindu creed of religious tolerance was certainly a major obstacle! From the very ancient times, the Hindus had been boasting of their high ideals of religious tolerance, of the equal status they conceded to all the religions of the world, of preaching the sameness of Ram and Rahim, of allowing everyone to follow his own faith! This they considered to be the height of their religion!

Instead of massacring en masse the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who from time to time fell in their hands completely vanquished and utterly helpless, in order to avenge the untold wrongs and humiliation heaped by them on Hindus, the Hindus in their turn refrained themselves from doing the Muslims even the slightest harm because they were in minority, and belonged to another religion. On the contrary, the Muslins were allowed to enhance the glory and scope of their own religion without the least possible hindrance. Not only like the Hindu citizens, but even more leniently and with more facilities were the Muslims allowed, by Hindu states of those days, to enjoy the legal rights—a fact which is borne out by pages after pages of Indian history.

Is it necessary to add that these ‘cow-faced’ followers of Hinduism, proud of their utmost tolerance of other religions were not (in the least) likely to hit back the tiger-faced Muslims on religious grounds?

Religious tolerance! A virtue! Yes, It can be a virtue only where the other religion is tolerant of our own! But to tolerate the Muslim religion, the followers of which right from the Sultans like Mahmud of Ghazni and Ghori and others to the various Shahs and Badshahs thought it their religious obligation to massacre the Kafiir Hindus to celebrate their accession to the throne and had been carrying on horrible religious persecution of the Hindus for nearly a thousand years, was tantamount to cut the throat of one’s own religion! It was not tolerance towards other religions, it was tolerance of irreligion! It was not even tolerance, it was impotence! But this truth never dawned upon the Hindu society of those days even after the horrible experience of a thousand years or so. They on their own part went on tolerating even such a hideous religion as the Islam and considered it a glorious virtue of their own—a special ornament in the crown of the Hindu community!

O thou Hindu society! Of all the sins and weaknesses, which have brought about thy fall, the greatest and most potent are thy virtues themselves.

So ‘tolerance’ is the cardinal vice of Hindus – whole sale murder of Muslims is advocated.

And what about the women?

Savarakar keeps on ranting about ‘beautiful Hindu women’ being abducted and ‘living hellish life’ in the ‘prison-like homes’ of the Muslims – at the same time he laments about the ‘beautiful Muslim girls’ walking free. This is repeated again and again, ad nauseum, on page after page that I got a feeling that the author was harbouring serious rape fantasies. Especially when he writes:

Even now we proudly refer to the noble acts of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Chimaji Appa, when they honourably sent back the daughter-in-law of the Muslim Governor of Kalyan and the wife of the Portuguese governor of Bassein respectively. But is it not strange that, when they did so, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa should ever remember, the atrocities and the rapes and the molestation, perpetrated by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Alla-ud-din Khilji and others, on thousands of Hindu ladies and girls like the princesses of Dahir, Kamaldevi, the wife of Karnaraj of Karnawati and her extremely beautiful daughter, Devaldevi. Did not the plaintive screams and pitiful lamentations of the millions of molested Hindu women, which reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country, reach the ears of Shivaji Maharaj and Chimaji Appa?

The souls of those millions of aggrieved women might have perhaps said, ‘Do not forget, O, your Majesty, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and O! Your Excellency, Chimaji Appa, the unutterable atrocities and oppression and outrage committed on us by the Sultans and Muslim noblemen and thousands of others, big and small. Let those Sultans and their peers take a fright that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women. Once they are haunted with this dreadful apprehension, that the Muslim women, too, stand in the same predicament in case the Hindus win, the future Muslim conquerors will never dare to think of such molestation of Hindu women.’

But because of the then prevalent perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa could do such wrongs to the Muslim women.

It was the suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry to women which saved the Muslim women (simply because they were women) from the heavy punishments of committing indescribable sins and crimes against the Hindu women. Their womanhood became their shield quite sufficient to protect them.

If one has any further doubt that political rape is being advocated here, the following passages may remove it.

The same law of nature is instinctively obeyed by the animal world. If in the cattle-herds the number of oxen grows in excess of the cows, the herds do not grow numerically in a rapid manner. But on the other hand, the number of animals in the herds, with the excess of cows over the oxen, grows in mathematical progression. The same is true of man, for at the core man is essentially an animal. Even in the pre-historic times the so-called wild tribes of the forest-dwellers knew this law quite well. The African wild tribes of to-day kill only the males from amongst their enemies, whenever there are tribal wars, but not the females, who are eventually distributed by the victor tribes among themselves. To obtain from them future progeny to increase their numbers is considered by these tribes to be their sacred duty!

Kill the men, capture the women to use as baby-making machines. According to Savarkar, it’s the natural law.

***

Savarkar’s view of Indian history is that of a continuous struggle of Hindiusm (by which he means the Vedic religion, ignoring all the diversity) which he considers the only legitimate religion of India against the demonic outsiders: the Mlechcha Greeks, the Christians, and the Muslims. A struggle which has to be through the use of arms with blood and gore aplenty – he denigrates the concept of ahimsa in the vilest terms. The emperor Asoka is seen by him as the root cause of the ‘decline’ of India, by enervating the populace through the Buddhist principle of non-violence.

There is no good Muslim. Being a Muslim is equivalent to being a fanatic. Even when Muslims do benign acts towards Hindus, it is seen as an act of low cunning: even Akbar is described as a fanatic! The exact opposite applies to the Hindu (means basically a Brahmin or a Kshatriya) – they are all the epitomes of chivalry and valour, and the atrocities committed by them arise out anger at continued oppression even in the face of extreme forbearance (ring a bell?)

In conclusion: a hate-mongering, lie-spreading, abomination of a book, which is extremely badly written to boot. Read it only to understand the venom of a racist mind.

The Magic of the Mask

joe-closeupAll who are familiar with Joseph Campbell would be aware of his massive four-volume work on mythology, titled The Masks of God.  In it, Campbell explores how myth is connected to our innermost core, wherever the world we are from – it is a comprehensive compendium of world myth as well as an in-depth analysis of its psychological roots and historical development.

In the very beginning, Joe gives us the lesson of the mask: where everyday reality is stripped away and we enter into the world of make-believe.  But this is not the delusional world of the mentally disturbed, but the fantasy land which exists within all of us; where the extremes of religious rapture and artistic ecstasy reside.  This is where we put on the mask and play at being God.

The Lesson of the Mask

Hansel-and-gretel-rackhamCampbell quotes Leo Frobenius about the “daemonic world of childhood”, about a child who plays with three matchsticks, imagining them as Hansel, Gretel and the witch.  After sometime, the child’s father hears her shrieking in terror.  When asked the reason, the child says: “Daddy, Daddy, take the witch away!  I can’t touch the witch any more!”

Frobenius goes on to say that this “eruption of emotion is characteristic of the shift of an idea from the level of sentiments to the level of sensual consciousness.”  The match was not a witch at the beginning of the game.  However, it becomes so at the level of sentiments, while remaining a match at the level of rational thought: “the phase of becoming takes place on the level of sentiments, while that of being is on the conscious plane.”

To quote Campbell:

This vivid, convincing example of a child’s seizure by a witch while in the act of play may be taken to represent an intense degree of the daemonic mythological experience.  However, the attitude of mind represented by the game itself, before the seizure supervened, also belongs within the sphere of our subject.  For, as J. Huizinga has pointed out in his brilliant study of the play element in culture, the whole point, at the beginning, is the fun of the play, not the rapture of seizure.

Yes indeed: playing at “make-believe”, as we say about childhood, little knowing that it points to some of the core needs of our mythical psyche.  The mask, while remaining a mask at the level of conscious thought, becomes God at a much deeper level.

How a Grove Became Sacred

20161229_164353.jpgPeople who follow this blog might remember an earlier post on a Sarpakkavu, a sacred grove for serpents, that my sister (an artist) created.  Though done in a totally secular manner, the “consecration” of the grove created a mythical atmosphere and our cleaning lady, a believer in the snake deities, went into a trance.  While discussing the matter, two viewpoints surfaced – the “rational” one condemning the ritualistic aspects, and the “traditional” one acknowledging the power of the deities.  Curiously, my sister and myself, both practically atheists, found ourselves in the minority by accepting both the viewpoints partially while rejecting their exclusivity.

To explain, I found myself taking up an analogy of a tennis court. On one side is the rationalist, and on the other, the believer.  For them, the net is real: as well as the match as they keep on hitting the ball into the other court, trying to score points in endless rallies.  The agnostic sits on the net, sometimes cheering one, sometimes the other.

For the artist as well as the connoisseur, however, the net doesn’t exist. The two halves of the court overlap in different dimensions of the mythical realm.  The match is an illusion, which is why it never ends – it’s “play”.

Playing at Make-Believe

All these thoughts came up afresh in my mind as I watched a series of plays as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) 2018, here in my hometown of Thrissur in Kerala. I watched plays ranging from the traditional ones presented on the proscenium stage (Palestine: Year Zero), plays incorporating elements of farce and epic theatre (Mundo Mozart, Bad City), a Chaplinesque comedy discussing the unbearable reality of refugee camps (Borderline), a couple of plays performed by single persons (My Body Welsh, Notes on Chai), a street-play of sorts by the children of sex workers (Red Light Express), a disturbing play from Manipur, depicting violence using a mix of dance and martial arts (Nerves) and a unique production without any noise based only on sign language (Say, What?). Diverse as they were, these plays had one thing in common: they were playing at make-believe.

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(Images courtesy: http://theatrefestivalkerala.com)

Campbell once said that the myth-makers of the current age are the artists, and I have to agree.  Nowhere is this more evident than in drama – no wonder we call a dramatic production a “play” (perhaps not surprisingly, my native language of Malayalam uses the same term – “Kali”, meaning play – for most stage performances of a dramatic nature). Also, masks are integral part of drama in many parts of the world – indeed, the iconic Greek masks of comedy and tragedy have come to symbolise drama in toto.

No play is ever realistic in the sense a movie is.  Even in the plays where the proscenium stage is used and the audience looks onto a set approximating a real-life setting through the absent fourth wall, the unreality is evident; in the modern play, even that semblance is not there.  In all the plays I saw, the set decorations were either minimalist or the stage was entirely bare.  The acting, in most cases, was stylised. The aim was not to make the audience feel that they were watching a real event – the aim was to emphasise that they were not.  The viewers were thus forced to move to a different plane of perception, to the “level of sentiments”, where the matchstick became the witch.

Drama and Ritual

Getting transported to a mythical level while watching a stage performance is second nature to us Keralites, because most of our plays are rituals, and our rituals, plays.  The highly stylised attire of the Kathakali dancers (Katha-Kali – “Story-Play”), the Koodiyattom artists and the Koothu performers are not much different in style from the ritual players who perform the temple arts of the Theyyam and the Thira. As Arundhati Roy says in The God of Small Things, even when the stories are known to everybody, we keep on watching these performances.  She says it is due to the greatness of the story.  While I agree, I feel it’s only partially correct.

The real reason, I feel, is the magic of the mask.  As we enter into the spirit of play, we willingly transport ourselves beyond the limitations of the reasoning mind into that magical realm where a matchstick can truly become a terrifying witch: where the rapture of artistic seizure awaits.

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Alone of All Her Sex

You are my light; my life’s illumination: you are my refuge, O mother!
Please don’t forsake me, Virgin Mary, you abode of kindness…

So runs one of the popular film songs from my youth – and it pretty much symbolises what the Virgin means to me.

Lourd_metharapolitha_cathedral_thrissur_(2)

The Lourdes’ Cathedral, Thrissur

Kerala, unlike other states of India, contain a sizeable Christian population who trace their pedigree back to Saint Thomas, who is purported to have come to the state in A.C.E 52. So Christianity as a religion is as common for us Keralites as Hinduism or Islam. And in the districts where the Christians are mainly Catholics – like the town of Thrissur, where I reside – the Virgin Mary is as important an icon as Jesus Christ. Many a time I had gazed at her smiling visage, beaming down upon all human beings in unadulterated benevolence from her pedestal: for a mother’s boy like me, she was infinitely preferable to the frightening image of the crucified Christ. Also, as a Hindu, the Mother Goddess was part and parcel of my mythical orientation. It was only natural that I would identify the Virgin with her, as one of her avatars.

It was only later that I came to know that the Virgin Mary is not part of Christianity as a whole, but particular to Catholicism – that in fact, Protestants actually frown upon her worship! This was a shocker; but then I also came to know that she was worshipped even greater fervour in many other countries, like Latin America and Ireland. This whetted my appetite to learn more about her cult, especially after I discovered Joseph Campbell and the field of comparative mythology. So this book by Marina Warner was a godsend.

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Ms. Warner, in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, gives an exhaustive historical analysis of the cult of the Virgin Mary – how it started, spread, was opposed, fought the opposition and triumphed. What it lacks is the mythological perspective, except for tracing the connections between Osiris, Isis and Horus to the Virgin and the child and for the casual references to Jung’s concept the divine feminine (which she actually debunks). For Marina, Mary is the conscious creation of the Church to sublimate the feminine into the fold of patriarchal religion.

In the gospels, the mother of Jesus is practically nonexistent. Marian knowledge is concentrated only in the two gospels of Matthew and Luke – later additions in the opinion of most scholars. Matthew crafts the story of Jesus to closely resemble the tale of the great prophet of the Old Testament, Moses: however in his gospel, Mary does not play centre stage. For that, we have to look to Luke: as the author says, “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin; the only time she is in the heart of the drama in the Bible is in Luke’s beautiful verses.” Historical information (to the extent that we can call the Bible history) regarding Mary is meagre.

The Virgin

The cult of the Virgin was enhanced in the west was the apocryphal Book of James, “the Lord’s brother”. It is this book which sets forth the story of the mother of Jesus in romantic detail, adding flesh to all the bare bones of suggestion in the principal gospels: it is also the one which gave rise to the enduring myth of Mary’s intact virginity.
3ece4bff44ad4a68a29b0b2b155d9140
The virgin birth of heroes is actually adapted from the Hellenistic world: Pythagoras, Plato and Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit (one can see this pattern also in the birth of the Buddha). While the pre-Christian faiths were happy with the metaphorical nature of this belief, Christianity had to concretise it, to contend that Mary was a virgin both before and after childbirth. While a virgin begetting a child was an acceptable belief in the ancient days (when the male contribution to conception was not well understood), a woman remaining a virgin after giving birth was problematic. This dichotomy is still rampant within Catholicism.

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Why this insistence on virginity? Well, it’s all due to Eve.

According to the Church, sexuality and desire were the fatal flaws which lead to sin, the gateway to hell – and these entered human destiny when the first woman enticed the first man to eat the forbidden fruit. The Fathers are quick to assert that sex is not sinful in itself; rather, concupiscence which leads to lust and the “tendency to sin” is. This is the original sin not remitted in baptism, and Eve was responsible for it. (This leads to the curious conclusion that sex is OK as long as you don’t enjoy it.)

In the Christian world as well as the Roman Empire before it, the evils of sex were particularly identified with the female. As childbirth was woman’s function, and the pangs of the same God’s special punishment after the fall, the womb was evil and any child born of it was tainted with original sin. Therefore, to prevent the Son of God from being tainted by it, the Church hit upon the brilliant solution of removing the taint of sex from his mother.

Thus the elevation of Mary to purity was not due to any victory of the divine feminine: rather, it was to invest Jesus with purity not accorded to the rest of mankind, especially in the face of Gnostic threats which claimed that Jesus was just another human being.

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The obsession of the church with the “sins of the flesh” was so severe that it virtually revelled in abnegation and self-torture. There is no other faith which has revelled so much in the distress of its followers. Marina writes

In Christian hagiography, the sadomasochistic content of the paeans to male and female martyrs is startling, from the early documents like the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity into the high middle ages. But the particular focus on women’s torn and broken flesh reveals the psychological obsession of the religion with sexual sin, and the tortures that pile up one upon the other with pornographic repetitiousness underline the identification of the female with the perils of sexual contact.

So the solution for normal women, if not to attain the status of the virgin, was at least to forgo the main failing of the human race – sex, for which she was held responsible – in the hope of bliss in the hereafter. Hence – the institution of the nunnery.

Thus the nun’s state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. It is, in this regard, a mirror image of the Virgin Mary herself, the sublime model of the virginal life, the inventrix virginitatis, according to Hroswitha, and the patroness of countless orders of monks and nuns. She is a preeminent and sublime example of woman, who excites love and awe.

Thus, the myth of the Fall and the need for redemption from the same are the main drivers of the creation of the myth of the Virgin.

The arguments operating on the idea of virginity control the entire structure of the myth of the Virgin Mary. For after the Fall, God did not only curse womankind to suffer childbirth in sorrow; he also sentenced all mankind to corruption in the grave. Since Adam and Eve’s sin, sex is tainted by concupiscence, and death disfigured by mortal decay. As a symptom of sin, putrefaction is concupiscence’s twin; and a woman who conquered one penalty of the Fall could overcome the other.

The Assumption

Another crucial pillar to the myth Mary, in addition to her perennial virginity, is the belief that she ascended to heaven bodily. As with all things concerning the virgin, this is also mostly apocryphal. Yet over the years, the Catholic Church enthusiastically adopted it – and it is not difficult to see why. Death and its accompanying putrefaction of the physical body is one of the worst nightmares of the devout Christian. The final judgement, during which all the dead bodies will be made whole again, is an article of faith. So it is unthinkable that the Mother of God, who is without sin, will be subject to the same indignity.

In a precise and literal way, the Virgin embodies the Christian ideals of homogeneity and independence. Through her virginity and Assumption, she expresses the particular interpretation of wholeness of the Catholic Church, and reflects two of its most characteristic aspects: its historical fear of contamination by outside influence, and its repugnance to change. In Buddhism created things at their highest point of fulfilment merge and flow back into nothingness, where all form is obliterated. This is one view of wholeness. The Catholic world’s view could not be more opposite. It longs for the formal, immutable, invincible, constant, unchanging perfection of each resurrected individual. For its most sublime example, it looks to the assumed Virgin.

So the Virgin, whose tomb is still practically untraceable, is said to have been resurrected after her death by Jesus himself, in a sequence of events closely resembling his own resurrection. There she reigns as queen beside her son.

Assumption

‘The Assumption’ by Titian

This royalty was conferred on Mary due to strictly utilitarian needs of the Catholic Church, according to the author. During the Middle Ages, the clergy was facing many threats from a variety of sources such as the iconoclast heresy. To enshrine its place on earth as God’s mouthpiece, it identified itself symbolically with the Virgin, placed her on a throne in heaven, and started pulling their theological weight. However, this policy backfired.

Secular imagery was used to depict the Virgin Mary in Rome by the popes in order to advance the hegemony of the Holy See; and her cult was encouraged because she was in a profound manner identified with the figure of the Church itself. But this triumphalism fostered by the Church was turned on its head in the later middle ages, when temporal kings and queens took back the borrowed symbolism of earthly power to enhance their own prestige and give themselves a sacred character. The use of the emblems of earthly power for the Mother of God did not empty them of their temporal content: rather, when kings and queens wore the sceptre and the crown they acquired an aura of divinity.

The faith which took off from the ideas of the seer who was against all forms of authority and money power had been appropriated by the followers of the people who sent him to the cross.

It would be difficult to concoct a greater perversion of the Sermon on the Mount than the sovereignty of Mary and its cult, which has been used over the centuries by different princes to stake out their spheres of influence in the temporal realm, to fly a flag for their ambitions like any Maoist poster or party political broadcast; and equally difficult to imagine a greater distortion of Christ’s idealism than this identification of the rich and powerful with the good.

Precisely.

The Virgin as Bride

The sacred marriage of the Goddess and her lover was a staple of pagan, pre-Christian Europe. The tale of the king of the sacred grove, married to the Goddess for a year after which he was sacrificed is familiar to everyone through Fraser’s The Golden Bough. By the Middle Ages, the Virgin was also transformed into the Bride of God. However, the church cleverly inverted this metaphor, following the methodology followed by the Jews.

Thus marriage was the pivotal symbol on which turned the cosmology of most of the religions that pressed on Jewish society, jeopardizing its unique monotheism. It is a symptom of their struggle to maintain their distinctiveness that the Jews, while absorbing this pagan symbol, reversed the ranks of the celestial pair to make the bride God’s servant and possession, from whom he ferociously exacts absolute submission.

Even the courtly love of the troubadours, explicitly sexual and ribald initially, transformed into the chaste love an unattainable ideal woman in the Middle Ages: this ideal slowly shaped itself into that of the Madonna, and the Virgin had yet another avatar. However, according to Ms. Warner, this transforming of earthly love into heavenly adoration was just another deception of the church, like the transformation of the virgin into the queen.

The icon of Mary and Christ side by side is one of the Christian Church’s most polished deceptions: it is the very image and hope of earthly consummated love used to give that kind of love the lie. Its undeniable power and beauty do not heal: rather, the human sore is chafed and exposed.

The Immaculate Conception

 

Murillo_immaculate_conception

La Purísima Inmaculada Concepción
by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

One of the biggest pillars of the cult of Mary, along with her virginity and the assumption, is the Immaculate Conception – that is, the virgin too was born without the taint of sex like Jesus Christ. From the viewpoint of a literal believer in the Bible, a woman born with the taint of sex can hardly give birth to an untainted son of God, so this transformation is reasonable. However, this became dogma only in the nineteenth century.

First originating in the apocryphal Book of James, which exalts St. Anne, the concept of the Immaculate Conception was brought to the west from the east. Jesuits took it up vehemently in their arguments with Dominicans. If one follows the history which has been fascinatingly set forth by Marina, this was one concept where myth became dogma through sheer political pressure!

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Ms. Warner examines many more aspects of the Virgin as mother, the one who provides milk and tears, who wears the sun and the moon for garments, and who intercedes with Jesus and God on the behalf of sinners… in fact, each chapter of this book can be reviewed separately! The author’s comparison of the virgin with the whore, Mary Magdalene, is extremely intriguing:

Together, the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s idea of woman. There is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore.

However, since I need to close this review at some point, I am stopping here. Hopefully I have whetted future readers’ appetite for this seminal work.

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Marina Warner is not a fan of the cult of the Virgin. As I said before, she does not see Jung’s archetype of the Great Mother in Mary.

Under the influence of contemporary psychology—particularly Jungian—many people accept unquestioningly that the Virgin is an inevitable expression of the archetype of the Great Mother. Thus psychologists collude with and continue the Church’s operations on the mind. While the Vatican proclaims that the Virgin Mother of God always existed, the Jungian determines that all men want a virgin mother, at least in symbolic form, and that the symbol is so powerful it has a dynamic and irrepressible life of its own.

But unlike the myth of the incarnate God, the myth of the Virgin Mother is translated into moral exhortation. Mary establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfil this destiny. Thus the very purpose of women established by the myth with one hand is slighted with the other. The Catholic religion therefore binds its female followers in particular on a double wheel, to be pulled one way and then the other, like Catherine of Alexandria during her martyrdom.

The Virgin Mary is not the innate archetype of female nature, the dream incarnate; she is the instrument of a dynamic argument from the Catholic Church about the structure of society, presented as a God-given code.

She sees the myth of the Virgin enduring in the years to come, but slowly losing its symbolic power.

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This book was written in the seventies. The Catholic Church, and Christianity, has come a lot of way since then. Even though there is still the lunatic fringe of Bible literalists vociferously present in the religious arena, metaphorical readings of the Gospels have gained popularity. Maybe this is why Ms. Warner says in her foreword to the new edition:

It’s a long time ago that I lost my faith in Mary, a long time since she was the fulcrum of the scheme of salvation I then believed in, alongside Jesus the chief redeemer. But I find that the symbolism of mercy and love which her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated and now shapes secular imagery and events; Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolize it or control its significance.

As a Hindu child who stared absorbedly at her smiling countenance, or felt his heart wrench at the site of the weeping mother holding the body of her crucified son in her lap, I can identify with that. Totally.

Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

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.

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.