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.

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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.
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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.

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.