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.

Four Plays by J. B. Priestly

Time is an entity writers, thinkers and scientists have struggled with ever since… well, the beginning of time! (Sorry for the bad pun.) Well, not exactly, but the nature of time has been an indispensable part of creative literature ever since stories began to be told. In Indian mythology, time is cyclic, with past, present and future recurring ad infinitum whereas in the Occident “time’s arrow” – its apparently unidimensional movement in the forward direction – is an absolute concept with an “end of days” fast approaching. As science progressed, time’s apparent rigidity was first destroyed by Einstein by the theory of relativity: with the arrival of quantum theory, it became a very fluid concept. (According to Stephen Hawking, time is spherical, but wrap my head around that concept I need to go back and read his book once again.)

In the present collection of four plays by J. B. Priestly (<i>Time and the Conways and Other Plays), time takes centre stage in three: in three different ways. The title play, Time and the Conways, uses the possibilities of the stage to mishmash time: in the second one (I Have Been Here Before), the possibilities of static or cyclic time are explored in a narrative which borders on fantasy. In the last play, The Linden Tree, the effect of the passage of time on human beings and families is explored in a conventional manner, making it the most “ordinary” of the lot. An Inspector Calls, the most powerful play among the lot (in my opinion) does not play with time but with possibilities.

Time and the Conways

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Courtesy: World Stage Design

The Conways are prosperous family comprising the charming but shallow Mrs. Conway, her sons happy-go-lucky son Robin and quiet and perceptive Alan; daughters Hazel (pretty and rather silly), Madge (serious and political), Kay (creative and sensitive) and Carol(an exhilarating free spirit). We meet them at Kay’s twenty-first birthday party as the family are playing a game of dumb charades. It is 1919 and the first world-war is ending: Robin, who has been away in the army is due to arrive. There is also Joan Helford who is in love with Robin, Gerald Thornton who is a young man who is a friend of the the family and Ernest Beevers, Gerald’s friend, who is enamoured of Hazel who can’t stand his sight.

This could be any drawing room comedy of the fifties: pleasant and mediocre. But Priestly expertly wrong-foots us by breaking the scene in-between and taking nineteen years forward in time in the second act. It’s once again Kay’s birthday party, this time the fortieth, but the occasion is far from pleasant: the Conways have lost their wealth, relationships have formed and broken down, and most of the family (except Alan) have become disillusioned and embittered. The euphoria of the roaring twenties have given way to the despondency of the forties, and a second war is looming on the horizon.

This itself would have provided a stunningly good play: but the playwright tricks us yet again! In the third act, we go back to where we have left off in the first act – but now, each and every line becomes loaded as we see the shambles of the second act being foreshadowed: and we realise how little events leave long shadows on the path of time. But according to Alan, the trouble is due to how we view ourselves.

Alan: …You know, I believe half our trouble now is because we think that Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.

Kay: As if we were all in a panic on a sinking ship.

Alan: Yes, like that.

Kay: [smiling at him] But you don’t do these things – bless you!

Alan: I think it’s easier not to – if you take a long view.

Kay: As if we’re – immortal beings?

Alan: Yes, and in for a tremendous adventure.

I Have Been Here Before

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Courtesy: Theatremania

 

Literally, this is the feeling of deja vu: where you know that you have never been in a place or situation before, but still it all seems all too familiar. Reincarnation and cyclic time all have been used as explanations for this phenomenon which modern science sees as an anomaly of memory. In the hands of a gifted writer, it makes for the premise of an intriguing play.

The concept of seemingly insignificant events of the present which can have lasting impact on one’s life examined in the previous play is used here too, but with the question asked: if we knew what could happen, can we change it? Or in another sense, can we go back and change the past?

Doctor Gortler, a displaced German scientist, arrives at the Double Bull Inn run by Sam Shipley and his widowed daughter Sally Pratt in Grindle Moor, North Yorkshire. Apparently, he seems to know that the industrialist Ormund and his wife Janet are due to arrive there – and also about the drama to be played out between them and Oliver Farrant, a schoolmaster teaching at one of the Ormund schools. As the events play out in their inevitability, Dr. Gottler acts as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve them.

If one leaves aside the fantasy/ science fiction premise, this play is rather insipid to read. But one can easily appreciate the power it would have had on stage when it was staged in 1937.

Dr. Gortler: You say that you have been happy here?

Sam: Yes, I can’t grumble at all. I have never made much out o’ this place, but I’ve had all I want. I’d ask for naught better – If I had my time over again.

Dr. Gortler: [interested] Do you often say that?

Sam: Say what?

Dr. Gortler: [slowly] If you had your time over again.

An Inspector Calls

This play uses the advantages (and limitations) of the proscenium stage to the maximum extent possible: to produce a play which is a very good mystery (in the Agatha Christie tradition), a social statement (very much like Ibsen) and a final twist which takes it into the realm of fantasy. I read the play, then watched the BBC adaptation… you have to see it performed to appreciate the power packed into ninety minutes of stage-time.

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Courtesy: Little Baddow Drama Club

Warning: the following passage is a spoiler.  Read only if you are familiar with the play.

The Birlings (the industrialist Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, daughter Sheila and son Eric) are having a quiet little dinner at their home to celebrate Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Sir George and Lady Croft. Gerald is also present. For Arthur Birling, the occasion is doubly joyful, as Birling and Company are the less powerful competitors of Crofts Limited, and the marriage will mean a profitable business deal as well as a social coup d’état. It is the pre-World War I era, and Birling is acutely consciousness of his social backwardness-something he is trying hard to rectify through his financial and political clout. He has been rather successful as he hints to Gerald, because a knighthood is on the way.

Into this haven of bourgeois comfort and security walks in Inspector Goole, unannounced, and goes about destroying it piece by piece. He is apparently there to conduct an enquiry into the suicide of a girl, Eva Smith, who has been admitted into the infirmary after drinking disinfectant. According to the inspector, the Birlings have a hand in the girl’s death. Initially Birling is haughty and superior; being still “on the bench” and a friend of Chief Constable Colonel Roberts, he can afford to be short with a mere inspector. Goole, however, goes about his business ruthlessly and ultimately succeeds in grinding them down, one by one.

It comes out that the girl has been mistreated by all of them. Birling initially fired her from his factory for organising a strike; Sheila got her dismissed from her subsequent job at a dress shop out of pure jealousy and Gerald “kept” her for a year at a friend’s flat, after picking her up from a bar which she was frequenting in her desperation. This last revelation leads to Sheila breaking off her engagement, and Gerald goes out to be alone for a while. But the Birling’s evening of woe is far from over.

Inspector Goole establishes that a couple of weeks before, Eva Smith had approached Mrs. Birling in her capacity of the chairman of a charitable society. She was pregnant and in desperate need of assistance. Initially she had lied that she was a married woman and that her name was Birling (!); however, the truth soon came out that the baby was out of wedlock. Eva did not want to approach her lover because he was an immature boy who is an alcoholic and had stolen money to support her. Mrs. Birling, however, was adamant that the baby’s father must be made solely responsible, and succeeded to influence the society to turn her out without a penny.

However much the inspector bullies her, Mrs. Birling is adamant – now that the woman has committed suicide, her lover must be dealt with very severely. Then Goole drops his final bomb: the culprit is none other than Eric, her son, an accusation which the young man accepts. He also admits stealing money from his father’s firm.

The family is in a total shambles now: a son who has committed adultery and theft, a daughter whose engagement has ended the same day it started and a father in the hope of a knighthood, faced with public scandal and disgrace. Eric is almost ready to murder his mother, because as he says, she is “responsible for the death of her own grandchild”. It is at this point that the inspector begins to behave very peculiarly. After rubbing in the fact that they all have got blood on their hands, he makes this speech and leaves.

 


One Eva Smith has gone… but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men do not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. We don’t live alone. Good night.

 

It is into the situation that Gerald comes back, and he comes with some welcome information – he has just confirmed that there is no Inspector Goole in the police department! With cold logic, he establishes that they have no reason to believe that the girl in each of the incidents mentioned by Goole is the same one – true, he produced a photograph, but it was shown to each of them individually. The hoax is confirmed when they call the infirmary and confirm that there has been no suicide that night.

It is time for a pat on the back for Gerald, a sigh of relief from Mrs. And Mr. Birling, and a jolly round of drinks. Sheila and Eric, though initially reluctant to return to “normalcy” are on the way to being persuaded when the phone rings.
It is from the infirmary. A girl has just died on the way there after drinking disinfectant, and a policeman is on the way to question them… and the curtain descends. (hide spoiler)]

The depth of the play is truly amazing. Only when we encounter the conversation again can we understand its depth, and how cleverly it is constructed. The story takes off smoothly from a drawing room farce to a darkly philosophical tragicomedy, which is sure to draw the viewers into the middle of it without them noticing: and to leave them drained at the end.

The Linden Tree

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Courtesy: Vanemuine

This is the most straightforward play among the lot, describing a situation similar to the one in Time and the Conways, but with a much nicer family, and relatively a more pleasant resolution.

Professor Robert Linden is a history professor at the university in the provincial town of Burmanley. The new vice-chancellor wants to retire him – the play opens on the day of his sixty-fifth birthday, the official retirement age – and the professor’s wife also agrees: she wants out! Linden’s wheeler-dealer son Rex has managed to buy a county estate, and she wants to move there to spend their declining years in peace. His daughters, the serious Dr. Jean and the social climber Marion (married to a French aristocrat), agree – only his youngest daughter, Dinah, is with the Professor who plans to fight tooth and nail to stick on.

Dr. Jean here is a rehash of Madge in the first play, and Dinah is Carol. Marion is a more aggressive Hazel and we can find shades of Robin in Rex. For this reason, reading the plays in succession, it felt repetitive to me – maybe it’s different on stage, however.

Again, time makes its entrance here in the form of history, on which Professor Linden has his own refreshingly different views.

‘History, to be worthy of the name, should bring us a stereoscopic view of man’s life. Without that extra dimension, strangely poignant as well as vivid, it is flat and because it is flat, it is false. There are two patterns, endlessly being superimposed on one another. The first pattern is that of man reproducing himself, finding food and shelter, tilling the land, building cities, crossing the seas. It is the picture we understand now with ease, perhaps too easily. For the other pattern is still there, waiting to be interpreted. It is the record of man as a spiritual creature, with a whole world of unknown continents and strange seas, gardens of Paradise and cities lit with hell-fire, within the depths of his own soul. History that ignores the god and the altar is as false as history that could forget the sword and the wheel…’

Thankfully, we have the artists and writers to record the second pattern.

Searching for My Space

I have been away for a long, long time from here – know why? I lost my space.

In May of this year, I had to shift permanently from Abu Dhabi to Kerala, India. I lost my job in the UAE; and with oil prices being what they are now, a new job was almost impossible to come by. Thankfully I could find admission for my son in a school in my home town, and we uprooted ourselves, lock, stock and barrel.

I used to write my weekly blog on my old desktop, squeezed inbetween three bedrooms in a corridor nook, on Saturday mornings.  Well, when that space disappeared , I found that my space for creativity had disappeared along with it! I couldn’t find a place to sit down and arrange my thoughts before dumping them on to paper.  Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages – these were OK: they could be done from my smartphone without much of cerebration.  Not so this activity, which is what goes for sacred in my largely atheistic universe.

It’s OK, I told myself – I will settle at home and create a new space for me.

Well, things didn’t work out exactly like that.

I got a job within days of reaching Kerala: that too, in the field of safety consultancy.  Something which I have been searching for a long time.  Talk about serendipity!  I joined the company and relocated to Mumbai  (alone – my wife and son have to stay back in Kerala).

Mumbai is a city always on the go.  And it is a place where getting a space yourself is damn difficult.  Mumbaikars who are attuned to the beat of this human ant-hill are accustomed to carrying their space with them – whether it’s the metro, the suburban train, or the street.  Being born and brought up in Kerala which is much less crowded and where the pace of life is more sedate, I am finding myself at a loss.

But I will find my space, never fear.  Then I will be back here regularly, to commune with letters and like-minded individuals.

A Brief Interlude

Dear friends,

I have not published anything for a couple of weeks. I shall be away from this space until the end of this month, as I am undergoing the stressful process of relocating from the United Arab Emirates to India. I should be back latest by the beginning of July.

Please stay with me and don’t go away!

Sabbatical

Those who have been following my blog would have noticed that of late, my posts have become rather sporadic, and many of them repeats of previously published reviews.  The fact is that I am going through an extremely stressful period in my life: I have lost my job in the Middle East, and have to relocate to India by end May.  I have to shift my son (who is going on to Grade 10) to a school back home, and settle my family there – a very hectic schedule indeed.

I will be on a sabbatical from this space for the period of a month.  Hopefully I will be back in May.  So I ask all my friends to bear with me, and send good thoughts.

Au revoir!

A Review of “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

“You have control over only your karma: never on its fruits. So because of [concern over] the fruits of your karma, never shirk from it.”

This is most probably the most quoted, used, misused, praised and maligned verse from the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna on the Karma-yoga. It has been praised as the epitome of virtue to do your duty regardless of the consequences: it has been severely criticised as the upper caste Hindu spiritual drug to force a person to follow his caste duties without contemplation. Both views have their merits: but what they ignore is that, spirituality aside, this is what keeps most of us sane – having very little control over where we are placed as a cog in this huge machine of the universe, the best thing is to bite the bullet and press ahead, and do the best you can.

Hemingway’s old fisherman, Santiago, would not have known the Gita. But he echoes its philosophy when he says:

Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.

Being born as a fisherman, his karma is to fish – it does not matter whether he manages to land anything. Everyday he keeps on returning to the sea, because

My big fish must be somewhere.

Yes, indeed.

old man and the sea
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This slim book is Hemingway’s testament to the eternal struggle of man against nature, a dance of life and death, enacted by Santiago and the marlin against the backdrop of the sea and the sky. Even while intent on killing one another, the contest is one of love as well as antagonism.

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

There is nothing personal in it, no pleasure or pain – just the inevitability of karma. And it does not matter whether one wins or loses, whether one has the catch to show for one’s victory – for the act of fishing is what is important, for a man who was born to be a fisherman.

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

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Something attempted, something done, has earned a night’s repose. Tomorrow is always another day.

One of the real gems of world literature.

The Legendary Creator of Kerala

According to popular myth, Kerala was created when Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam. The sea moved away along the trajectory of the axe, and a fertile strip of land came out.

ParasuramaI located a book (പരശുരാമൻ: ഒരു പഠനം – “Parasurama: A Study”) on Parasurama at the Kerala Sahitya Akademi bookstore this December. It was a serendipitous find! I never knew such an in-depth study existed.

This book explores the myths and legends about this enigmatic mythical figure. It’s a fascinating read.
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Kerala has a way of taking Indian myth and making it local (I suppose all parts of India do this). Accordingly, the powerful Asura king Mahabali, who conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the nether regions) becomes the benevolent potbellied Maveli, erstwhile ruler of Kerala who bears surprising resemblances to aboriginal fertility gods: similarly Parasurama (“Rama with an axe”) becomes the creator of the region.

According to Hindu myth, Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, was a Brahmin who behaved more like a warrior: he is mainly known for the mass annihilation of Kshatriya kings, as he traversed the world 21 times. His animosity towards Kshatriyas was born when his father, the sage Jamadagni, was murdered by the kin of King Karthaveeryarjuna. After the genocide, the repentant Parasurama forsook his axe, donated all the captured lands to Brahmins and is currently spending his days in meditation (Sanyasa) – there is no death for him, as he is an immortal.

Parasurama also has the dubious distinction of murdering his mother at his father’s behest. Renuka, Jamadagni’s wife, supposedly was attracted to a Gandharva and therefore guilty of adultery (though only in spirit). Her husband, however, was adamant that she should be killed – among his sons, only Parasurama agreed to do it. The happy sage granted his son whatever boon he wished – and he promptly asked that his mother be restored to life, which was granted.

The above stories illustrate why my mother was wary of telling me stories of Parasurama as a kid. My father belongs to the Royal Family of Cochin (being matrilineal, I don’t, but that’s not relevant here) and my mother apparently did not want her son to grow up hearing stories praising the sworn enemy of her husband’s family. And more obviously, she was highly disturbed by the episode of matricide.

Obviously, Parasurama is an icon of Vedic Brahmanism, and recounts the mythologised history (to a certain extent, at least) of the victory of clergy over royalty. And the story of him killing his mother might be taken as a metaphorical statement of the matriarchal societies of the Indian subcontinent being subdued by the patriarchal Aryans.

However, Parasurama is linked by folklore to many parts of India, most notably the Western Coast and Himachal Pradesh. This fascinating book explores these stories, and try to formulate an image of this bloodthirsty sage, both mythical as well as historical.

Himachal Pradesh and the North
Nirmand
It is in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, it seems, that Parasurama is most revered. The locals believe that he was born there, lived there and is still meditating somewhere in the hills. In Nirmand, a village 150 km northeast of Shimla (the state capital) on a hill, is where the famous “Parasurama Kothi” is located. This is a sacred room housing a sacred urn filled with water, which is supposed to represent Parasurama. It also houses a three-faced idol, the face of the sage flanked by “Kala” (Time) and “Kama” (Desire). It is the belief that Parasurama is meditating somewhere inside the Kothi: every twelve years, the “Bhunda” ceremony is carried out with much fanfare.

Legends tell of Parasurama coming here after the death of his parents and meditating for 12 years; and finding no Brahmins to do sacrifices, bringing them from elsewhere and settling them there. There are also stories of the antagonism between the immigrants and the locals, and the assignment of other castes to do the service of Brahmins. These, I found as I moved through the book, is a common theme of the Parasurama legends.

There are also folkloric myths about this sage in Kashmir, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The West Coast, Konkan, Goa and Karnataka

The legends on the west coast regarding Parasurama have mostly the following in common:

1. Parasurama donated the land taken from Kshatriyas to Brahmins.
2. He was instrumental in reclaiming land from the sea in various places.
3. Whenever there were no Brahmins available, he elevated the locals to Brahmins (in some cases, even rejuvenating corpses and bones).
4. Many Brahmins lost their status later due to Parasurama’s curse.

The stories reveal an aggressive proselytizer. One could almost say that this was the history of the Aryan migration to the West Coast – but the “Brahminisation” of locals smacks more of a give-and-take affair. Also, in most cases, Parasurama is said to have been abetted by local kings: In contrast to his enmity towards Kshatriyas as mentioned in the Puranas, here we find a man who is hand-in-glove with the local aristocracy.

(A curious fact: Parasurama’s mother Renuka is linked with many Dravidian mother goddesses of South India. Was she the icon of a mother cult which was subjugated by Brahminism? The metaphorical beheading and the subsequent reincarnation seem to point to this.

Renuka_temple_2Another interesting piece of information is Renuka’s identification with Yellamma, a goddess of Karnataka who is now known as a patron of Devadasis, the traditional temple courtesan’s of India. But it seems that Yellamma was originally a goddess for women who wanted freedom from their abusive husbands, and also for those who wanted to live their lives as they liked, without being tied to domesticity. Another example of patriarchal subversion?)

Kerala

Kerala is where Parasurama is really special – because he is supposed to be the creator of the region, and of donating it to Brahmins. According to the local version of the myth, Parasurama threw his axe in disgust from Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of India to Gokarnam in the north. The sea withdrew from the areas traversed by the axe, and threw up the state of Kerala. The whole area was donated to Brahmins by the sage.

The intricate and peculiar caste system of Kerala Brahmins – the Namputhiris – is partially ascribed to Parasurama through the book Bhargava Smrithi, purportedly condensed by Jagad Guru Adi Sankara as Sankara Smrithi. What is curious is that there is a caste hierarchy within the Brahmins themselves, which is detailed out in another book, again by the sage! Surprisingly, however, there are very few temples dedicated to the sage in this state – the only famous one is the temple at Thiruvallam.

(There is a curious fact I remember from childhood. Parasurama sits in one corner of the famous Vadakkunnatha Temple, dedicated to Siva, at Thrissur. When we used to visit the temple, my father never used to worship there – being a Kshatriya, he was forbidden! Due tour matrilineal system, my mother and I could, because we were technically non-Kshatriyas. Old enmities die hard!)

Conclusion

Parasurama has many facets: the warrior Brahmin, the proselytizer, the yogi and even as creator (in Himachal Pradesh). However, this incarnation of Vishnu remains strangely mysterious, compared to the more famous Rama and Krishna.

I have given only a brief overview of the depth and breadth the Parasurama myths explored in this slim volume. It is an excellent introduction to the subject and has left me gasping for more. I would recommend it to anyone who can read Malayalam. (Being a publication by the Sahitya Akademi, it could get translated at some point of time – but don’t hold your breath.)

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PS: Parasurama is perhaps the only deity in the world who has a train named after him. The Parasuram Express runs from Thiruvananthapuram to Mangalore, tracing the path supposedly taken by Parasurama’s axe.
Parasuram Express

Another Year… Another Beginning…

It seems that we human beings cannot live without breaking the time stream down into discrete chunks.  Maybe it’s because of the repetition of night and day over twenty-four hours, or the repetition of four seasons over 365 days.  As a species, we are indubitably temporal – our existence made up of repetitive cycles.

Each new year is a new beginning. It is a time to renew oneself, as one looks at the dying year and the newborn year at the same time, Janus-like.  The past is dead, dying in small bits even as I type this – and the new year is already 8 days old.  Here I sit in front of the computer, blaming myself for things still left undone, and promising to do better this year – yes, the old business of New Year Resolutions.  Thankfully, I have stopped making them publicly.

Looking back, the past year has not been that bad on the intellectual front.  I completed one hundred blog posts – though most of them were embellished book reviews which I had already posted on Goodreads – and have established my presence here on the blogosphere to a certain extent.  I managed to read a hundred books.  I wrote a play and submitted it for a local competition (it did not win anything) and I have started work on a novel, which I hope, will not die a premature death.

In 2016, these are the resolutions I have made to myself:

  1. Read more Malayalam books.
  2. Read more on mythology and explore its intimate connection to the human psyche and creativity.
  3. Read some classics (both fiction and non-fiction) which have been on my list for quite a time.
  4. Write regularly.

Knowing myself, it’s quite likely that these resolutions may be honoured more in the breach than in observance.  However, it’s always advisable to set targets so that one will have something to strive for.

Belated Happy New Year to all my friends!

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A Quick Post to Round Off the Year

2015 is on its deathbed: in just over seven days, it will fade into history and the young 2016 will take its place.  As years go, it has been turbulent both nationally and internationally.  India has been at its divisive worst, with Hindu fundamentalists bent on “going back to the roots” on one side and leftists and liberals on the other side: the idea of a secular India is facing its greatest challenge.  Internationally, the rise of Daesh (the ISIS) and the turbulence in the Middle East, wars and atrocities leading to the displacement of millions and the worst refugee crisis in recent times, rising xenophobia in the west and the probable collapse of the European Union all seems to be heralding a period of prolonged unrest.  This, coupled with the falling oil prices and a possible worldwide depression around the corner, does not augur well for the future.

But on the birthday of one prophet and the eve of the birthday of another, I prefer to be optimistic.  After all, there are small rays of hope like the Paris summit on global warming.  Like William Faulkner said, I believe that man will not only endure – I believe that man will prevail.  Because optimism and the dogged determination to go on is all mankind has left: if we lose that too, we lose everything.

On that note, I am signing off for the year with this brief post.  I am going for a short and sweet vacation to India and shall be back on the blogosphere by the first week of January.

Au Revoir!

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A Review of “Willful Creatures” by Aimee Bender

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

In an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez I read way back in the late eighties, I remember the author saying that this one sentence started him on the road to literature. Until then, he had not known “people were allowed to write like this”!

This is what sets literature apart from all other arts – infinite freedom. The medium lets one create what one wants. Because the written narrative is a meeting of minds – the mind of the writer and that of the reader – imagination is the stage where they come together. They may watch two entirely different shows, and enjoy it all the same. The very abstractness of language proves its greatest strength.

CoverAimee Bender, in this collection of weird short stories, takes off from where Kafka stopped. Where in Kafka’s stories strange things happen in a normal world, here the strangeness is taken for granted. Kafka’s abnormal is the new normal.

A boy born to pumpkin-headed parents, with an electric iron for a head (Ironhead).

A universe in which little men are captured and kept as pets by big men (End of the Line).

A man with a set of keys for fingers (The Leading Man).

Potatoes who attain sentience (Dearth).

These are some of the inhabitants of Aimee’s literary universe.

The prose is economical to the level of terseness. There is no emotion: the narrative is akin to the way fairy tales are told. Some examples are given below:

Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. Five men cry. Three men rage. One man smiles. The last man is silent, meditative. Okay, he says. He has no reaction. The raging men, upon meeting in the lobby, don’t know what to do with the man of no reaction. They fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands.

The doctor comes out of his office and apologizes, to the dead man.

(“Deathwatch”)

 

The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company. The pet store was full of dogs with splotches and shy cats coy and the friendly people got dogs and the independent people got cats and this man looked around until in the back he found a cage inside of which was a miniature sofa and tiny TV and one small attractive brown-haired man, wearing a tweed suit. He looked at the price tag. The little man was expensive but the big man had a reliable job and thought this a worthy purchase.

(“End of the Line”)

 

Two of us hold Debbie down against the passenger door. Two others grab her feet so she can’t run or kick. The one with rings strikes Debbie several times-a few times hard in the stomach and one fist in the face so it will show, tomorrow. So she will have to explain. Debbie is screaming and crying.

We rip the skirt off with our bare hands and her underwear is almost too much to bear, with that pattern that is the knockoff of the expensive one, and a giant maxi pad weighing down the middle. We rip the skirt into pieces, which is what all the mothers have wanted to do, because it is rags anyway, it is a rag skirt, made of rags. The one with the rings slides her hands down Debbie’s arms and the rings she bought at the street fair cut lines into Debbie’s skin, where drizzles of blood rise freely to the surface.

(“Debbieland”)

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Photo Courtesy: huffingtonpost

The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys. All except one, the pinkie on the right hand, had sharp ridges running along the inner length, and a point at the tip. They were made of flesh, with nerves and pores, but of a tougher texture, more hardened and specific. As a child, the boy had a difficult time learning to hold a pen and use scissors, but he was resilient and figured out his own method fast enough. His true task was to find the nine doors.

(“The Leading Man”)

By creating strange, unfamiliar worlds and divorcing emotion from the tale, the author succeeds in forcing the reader to look at the big picture. The structure of power within human communities (“End of the Line”), bullying (“Debbieland”), the outcast changeling (“Ironhead”), the stifling nature of religion (“Job’s Jobs”)… this method is Brechtian in its conception and execution, and works very well, as these stories are extremely short. I do not know whether they will hold up in a longer version such as a novel.

“End of the Line”, “Fruit and Words” and “Ironhead” turned out to be my personal favourites in this collection, but I loved all these weird vignettes. If you are a connoisseur of the strange, you will too.

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