A Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

There is a special kind of emptiness in a marriage, when both the partners long for a child without success. Their private moments change from solitude to loneliness: intimate chatter degenerates into monosyllables before ultimately descending into dark silence. The carefree laughter of a child, the picture of a smiling cherubic face, or the pitter-patter of small feet on the road all become exquisite torture – reminders of some esoteric happiness forever out of reach.

I know… I have been there.

It must be (at least in part) to tackle this anxiety creatively that fairy-tales use the trope of the childless couple quite frequently. The story is quite formulaic: there will be an old couple (mostly on the edge of a wood) who would have been longing for a child without success for ages. Finally out of desperation, the woman (or in some cases, both the partners together) would fashion a child’s likeness out of some unlikely object such as wood or mud, treat it like a human child for one night, and – hey presto! – it would become human overnight. The overjoyed couple would raise it as their own, but the story would usually end badly, with the breaking of some taboo resulting in the child going away.

“Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden) is a Russian fairy tale where the child is fashioned out of snow by a childless woodcutter and his wife, and subsequently brought to life by Father Frost, the spirit of the winter, who takes pity on them. The snow maiden lives with her foster parents quite happily until she falls for a human boy against the express admonitions of Father Frost – the warmth inside melts her, and she fades away bringing spring to the countryside in the process.

From myths.e2bn.org:
sneg-teachAs the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.

As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.

But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.

But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
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Eowyn Ivey has taken this bittersweet story, transplanted it to the rural Alaska of 1920’s, and woven a tale which is every bit as magical as the original. Her protagonists are Mabel and Jack, who are trying to make a living on their farm, fighting against the unforgiving climate as well as life, which has given them only the memory of a stillborn child to live on. The couple are slowly moving apart, and Mabel is on the verge of suicide when, in one blustery night of mad gaiety they a fashion a girl out of snow in front of their cabin. Next day, the child is gone – and a wild girl starts visiting them, clandestinely at first, then more and more openly.

The girl, Faina, is more or less adopted by the couple soon. Their close friends George and Esther initially consider the unseen girl as a hallucination conjured up by Mabel, but after the initial shock of meeting her in person, comes to accept her as she is. Their youngest son, Garrett, a boy of the forest himself is initially antagonistic. Well, as so often happens, antagonism changes to fascination, mutual attraction and love… and the story moves towards its expected climax (and no, this is not a spoiler!).

The beauty of this novel is that it does not follow the trope of the fairy tale blindly. Faina (the child) has a mysterious past as the daughter of an eccentric trapper who died in the forest. She lives off the wild, hunting and eating animals in a strangely feral manner. It is left to us to decide whether Faina is real or a phantasm. While such a style could easily become contrived, Ivey walks the tightrope expertly. There are times when we feel that the novelist is slipping into the realms of fantasy, but every time she pulls back just in time.

Contrasted with Faina are Mabel and Jack, who are very real. Mabel, with her cultured upbringing and artistic tendencies, is the bridge that links the gritty and unromantic world of rural America to the poesy of the snowy slopes of the far north. In fact, the story is almost self-referential in the sense that Mabel owns a book telling the story of the snow maiden, which her father (a literature professor) used to read to her: however, she learns as an adult that he only pretended to read, because the tale is in Russian! Only the pictures make sense, including the terrifying last one of the melted maiden.

We follow the characters with bated breath as they move along their pre-ordained paths – but the end, when it comes, is refreshingly different from yet absolutely faithful to the original. I will leave it at that.

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From myths.e2bn.org:
vasnetsov-snegurochka-teach

In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.

Birth, death, rebirth – these are the themes of ageless tales. There are no full stops in life, but an endless cycle of seasons through which we eke out our existence – brief candles, whose flames are ephemeral yet eternal at some level.

(All images courtesy myths.e2bn.org)

A Review of “The Martian” by Andy Weir

The art of engineering is finding solutions.

Engineering is applied science. The scientist will find out that a high enough force applied over a small area will provide tremendous pressure: the engineer will use the knowledge to fashion the sword. The scientist will discover that magnetic fields, when cut by cables, will produce electricity: the engineer will design the generator with this information. The scientist will posit e=mc2: the engineer… (Well, you get the drift. No need to go into that.)

Mark Watney is an astronaut, a botanist and an engineer – but primarily an engineer, as evinced by his sheer glee of fiddling with machinery and recording his antics faithfully in a laconic fashion, even when faced with the prospect of a lonely death on Mars. The Martian is Mark’s valiant tale of survival in an inhospitable terrain beyond imagination. I would have called it Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but old Rob had nothing as challenging Mark had in odds against survival – so calling Mark Crusoe would, I feel, be sort of demeaning.

mars-curiosity-rover-msl-horizon-sky-self-portrait-pia19808-full
Watney is part of the Mars mission Ares 3, and is left for dead when the crew does an emergency evacuation in the face of a sudden deadly dust storm. The good news is that he does not die – the bad news is that he is the only person in the universe who is aware of it.
Actually, this is the backstory. The novel properly begins with Mark alone on the red planet, opening his log with the following passage:

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Of course, being the engineer he is, Mark is not willing to let go of life without giving it a shot at staying alive. What follows is his attempt to do so, and makes up pretty much the lion’s share of the story.

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From an engineer’s point of view, the novel is terrifically exciting – as Mark ponders each problem threatening his continued existence and works out solutions to each one of them. I was pulled into the tale, and literally devoured each technical tidbit, rooting for Mark as I did so. But I think someone with a non-technical background might get lost unless they skip all the details and take it on faith that whatever the protagonist did was within the realms of possibility. With my Chemical Engineering background, I can assure you that almost all the engineering described in this book is not even stretching the imagination – most of it is business as usual (I especially loved the making of water inside the hab).

Suspense is maintained throughout by making the survival neither too difficult nor too easy – and the helplessness of NASA, even after spotting their man on Mars, to do anything urgent due to the sheer distances involved. Andy Weir has put in a lot of effort to make his world believable.

And therein lies the novel’s major weakness – it’s all Mark Watney and Mars. The other characters, even though tantalizingly sketched, are never fully fleshed out. We don’t know what makes them tick. Commander Lewis, Martinez, Vogel, Beck , Johanssen, Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Bruce Ng – we feel that these characters have a life, but that Weir was not much interested in showing it to us.

Oh well – maybe it’s too much to expect characterisation in SF.

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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.

Fantasy and Allegory – A New Reading of a Timeless Favourite

Narnia1I don’t think there will be many who do not know the story of The Chronicles of Narnia, even if they have not actually read the books. The stories of the four Pevensie children who discover the magical land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe is the stuff of legend in literary circles – a land which they rule over as kings and queens after freeing it from the enchantment of the White Witch, under the benign yet firm supervision of Aslan the lion.

As fantasies for children go, this is a terrific universe filled with possibilities. There are talking animals, magical creatures from Greek mythology and English fairy-lore, and suitably satisfying and mysterious landscape worthy of exploration again and again. So one feels that if only the author in C. S. Lewis had let himself go he could have produced something similar to the The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, he does not do that. The author sublimates himself to the Christian, so that the story becomes allegory – and mostly allegory. The spirit of gung-ho adventure is coated over with sickly-sweet preachiness which becomes so cloying towards the end that one almost feels like throwing up.

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The edition I read contained all the novels in the chronological order as regards the story:

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

However, the actual order in which the books were published is:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Magician’s Nephew
6. The Horse and His Boy
7. The Last Battle

It seems that there is a hot dispute going on about the order in which the books should be read. After reading them in the chronological sequence, I would advise reading them in the sequence of publication. In my personal opinion, the last two – The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle – are better left unread, especially the last one. More about that later.

Aslan2005Aslan the Lion is Christ – this becomes evident in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself. The White Witch (and later, the Queen of the Underworld) are embodiments of Evil with a capital E.

(I was a bit surprised that there was no sign of the gentleman with the horns and the forked tail. Evil is entirely feminine – that too, with a perverse sort of sexual attractiveness. It seems Lewis was genuinely frightened of woman’s sexuality: Susan becomes a “non-friend of Narnia” the moment she becomes a nubile young woman. Lewis’s protagonists, like that of Lewis Carroll, are prepubescent girls.)

The Christian world view is evident from the word go – for example, the animals and birds can all be killed and eaten, provided that they are not “talking animals”! (They have been specially blessed as such by Aslan, we are told, in the story of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.) This evidently comes from the Bible where Man is given dominion over every living thing on earth. In case we don’t get it, Aslan continuously addresses the boys as “Sons of Adam” and the girls as “Daughters of Eve” and says that only they can rule over Narnia. As the story progresses, it becomes more prevalent – and now racism and intolerance of the heathens also come into play.

The Calormenes – dark-skinned foreigners who worship a savage god Tash, wear turbans and carry scimitar-like swords – are an Englishman’s fantasy of the bloodthirsty and lecherous Turk. In their country, young girls are routinely married off to old codgers, and they wage war on the free countries like Narnia to rape and pillage. Their God Tash, however, is a pagan deity who is loosely associated with the gentleman I mentioned earlier – the guy with horns.

The unlikeable brat Eustace Scrubb is the son of liberal parents who are pacifists and vegetarians. He studies in a school which does not have corporal punishment and which does not teach the Bible – and is therefore full of bullies who are encouraged by the Principal! However, Eustace reforms after a visit to Narnia, and returns back to the school and hammers the living daylights out of the bullies. The Principal is removed from the school and ultimately becomes a Member of Parliament, where she lives happily ever after (note the point: M. P. ‘s are failed schoolteachers who fail to put the fear of God into children).

It is in the last book that Lewis outdoes himself. There is an ape who presents a donkey as Aslan. The ape is part of a conspiracy with the Caloremenes who present their God Tash and Aslan as the same, but don’t believe in either. Also, the ending is patently silly and for me, it was disgusting.

But…

If you can ignore the allegory and the preachiness, there are some pretty interesting adventures here. The first three books are rather well-written (although a bit simplistic) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is your classic sea adventure. The Magician’s Nephew is extremely funny in parts. One advice to prospective readers though – please give the last book a miss.

To a Bloodthirsty God

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On the first of July, terrorists took over a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and brutally hacked 20 hostages to death.  This has (understandably) shook the country and the world at large: especially since attacks against atheists, liberals and religious minorities are on the rise in the country since the past one year.  Predictably, posts lamenting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (from the non-Muslim Right) and those stressing that this has nothing to do with Islam (from religious apologists) have swamped the social media.

This particular incident, in a world which is growing more and more xenophobic and violent, has set me thinking deeply: for the perpetrators of this outrage were mostly educated youth with middle class backgrounds.  The standard arguments about terrorism among the youth repeated ad nauseum by liberals (including yours truly!) – that mainly impoverished youngsters get sucked into terrorist outfits because it provides them sustenance; that terrorism arises mainly as a reaction against Western imperialist intervention – fall by the wayside here.  This was terrorism in the name of religion, pure and simple: a personal religion based on the hatred of the “other”.  And before my Muslim friends begin to take umbrage, let me reiterate that this kind of interpretation is possible with any faith.

Why?  Why do young people choose this path of hatred?

I have a theory.

I am an atheist for all practical purposes – I consider the concept of a personal god, sitting up there in the cloud distributing blessings to his sycophants and raining down thunderbolts on sinners and non-believers indescribably silly.  So also are the concepts of Indian gods with a multitude of faces and arms and gods who combine traits of animals and humans.  Taken literally, that is.  Once we consider these as metaphors, however, religious myths have an exquisite beauty.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Joseph_Campbell_circa_1982.jpgI discovered Joseph Campbell in my early twenties.  Sadly, I don’t think he is read much now in India.  Campbell allowed me to look at myths, and thereby religion, in a new light.  I could suddenly understand why mythical stories thrilled me even when my rational mind refused to accept them; why I felt rejuvenated when the temple opened the doors of its sanctum sanctorum for the twilight aarathi.  Campbell put me in touch with my inner godhead, where all the journeys lead to, whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or atheist.  This is the seat of the atman, the anatman, the immortal soul.  The various religions and their paraphernalia are all metaphors for the same inexpressible mystery of living – all different masks for the same God.

What we call spirituality is nothing but a name for this inner quest.  In Jungian terms, it is known as individuation; Campbell calls it the “Hero’s Journey”.  This spiritual side is essential to human beings, and in our current times when religion is no longer prominent in society, it is expressed through art and literature.

Bhudevi.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.kalibhakti.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Bhairav-Attributes-Kali.jpgBut the spiritual side is not all “good” – in fact, there is no good/ bad dichotomy there.  Everything is accepted.  One of the main aims of the spiritual quests is to go beyond good and evil.  This realm of the divine hosts both the ever-suffering Bhumi (The Earth Mother) as well as the bloodthirsty Kali.

One feature of our current society is the total abnegation of spirituality.  We have become a race of consumers, bent only on the satisfaction of sensual pleasures.  Success and failure are measured only on the basis of material gains: the growth of a country is evaluated solely on the basis of its GDP.  On the educational front, the humanities are frowned upon, seen as a refugee camp for those who cannot make it in the professions or hard science.

In this context, our thirsty spiritual side is desperately hunting for sustenance – and finding it in the call of a bloodthirsty god, worshipped by bigots of all colour.

CGJung.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Wotan_Abschied.jpgC. G. Jung famously wrote an essay on Wotan, the Norse god of war, which frighteningly foretold the rise of Nazism and its link with the warlike mythology of the Germanic races.  Hitler was but a natural outgrowth of a warrior god who took over the psyche of a disenchanted people – and we know what level of destruction was wreaked on the world.  We do not want such a thing to happen again.

 

But to prevent that, we must reconnect with Indra, Wotan, Zeus, Kali… not in the public sphere but in the realm of the collective unconscious, without the intervention of bigoted middlemen, the self-proclaimed “spokespersons for God”.  We must recognise these entities within ourselves and sublimate them into our psyches.  Otherwise, the bloodthirsty god will carry away his pound of flesh – and this time, humanity may not recover.

 

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!

When Vengeance Walks the Town – A Review of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Recently, a group of students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and the political and religious conservatives in India went virtually mad. Soon, any criticism of India was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. The JNU, a leftist stronghold and a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu Right-Wing government at the centre, was termed a positive hotbed of crime and vice and a recruiting ground for terrorists. Many a Muslim, unless he wore his love of India on his sleeve for all to see, was branded a Pakistani agent – the refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) resulted in intimidation and even physical abuse in many places.

What is interesting about this phenomena is that it is not only an orchestrated move from the right-wingers: many Indians are genuinely frightened that Pakistanis are in our midst, bent on destroying the country with the support of the leftists. There is a paranoia that is being exploited by the political vultures.

I am frightened by how much this resembles McCarthyism – the madness that gripped America from 1950 to 56 and destroyed many lives and careers. Wikipedia says

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

It seems that human beings don’t learn anything from history, and therefore keep on repeating it.

But then, according to Arthur Miller, the Red Scare of the fifties was a repeat of a much darker event from the seventeenth century – the Salem Witch Trails. He wrote this play in 1953 to remind fellow citizens on how mass hysteria can engulf a society and demolish civilisation.

in 1692, a group of children in Salem were afflicted by diseases which showed classical symptoms of hysteria, but were soon diagnosed as demonic possession by the church authorities based partly on the children’s own confused utterings. Soon, people were being denounced left and right as witches and executed. Malicious people with revenge and other material interests (such as grabbing a condemned person’s property) seems to have contributed enthusiastically to the madness. As John Proctor, an accused, says in the play:

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

These words are chillingly applicable to both McCarthyism and the events I quoted at the beginning: common vengeance is writing the law. Anybody can be accused – proof is not required, accusation is proof enough. Any kind of fair dealing and neutrality would be seen as potential collaboration, so the safest thing is to side with the accusers. Verily, the term “witch hunt” has entered the English language with strong credentials.

A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud – God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!

We will. We, the conformists who let the madness continue to save our own islands of comfort in this burning sea of paranoid anger.

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From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

1.1 A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new

It is evident that Arthur Miller put a lot of thought into the naming of his play. He wanted to emphasise the heat and the fire, the hatred and the horror: at the same time, he also wanted to point out that after the melting process, a refined product would come out. Times of extreme tribulations in society are usually followed by a period of rejuvenation.

The playwright takes a lot of liberty with history to make his point. This is nothing new: Shakespeare regularly did this, it seems. So in the play, the historical 11-year-old Abigail Williams, the niece of the puritan minister Reverend Parris of Salem is transformed into an oversexed teen. She has seduced John Proctor in whose house she was working as a servant, and has apparently tried out some black magic to kill his wife. During such a magic session in the woods with Tituba and other kids, the Parris’s Caribbean servant, they are surprised by the minister. Betty, the minister’s young daughter, falls into a dead faint and cannot be cured by the doctor. Abigail immediately shouts witchcraft, and others join in; and soon the subterfuge becomes mass hysteria.

Miller has chosen John Proctor to be tragic hero of this play; haunted by guilt at his infidelity (even more so because his wife forgives it), he seeks punishment for himself, at least inside his soul. His torment is further compounded as his wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by Abigail. To make matters worse, there is the cunning Thomas Putnam, abetting the hysteria to settle scores against old opponents and grab their lands. As the roller-coaster of paranoia rolls on towards its destructive end, Proctor himself is sentenced to hang for witchcraft but Elizabeth ironically escapes as she is pregnant.

At the insistence of friends and a few sane people who want to stop the madness, John Proctor confesses at the last moment: however, he immediately sees the falsehood and cowardice in it and immediately withdraws it.

HALE: Man, you will hang! You cannot!

PROCTOR [his eyes full of tears]: I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.

Yes indeed: the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right is ultimately the refined product that comes out of the crucible.

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The character who impressed me most in the story was Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to confess or refute when faced with charges of witchcraft. He was subjected to a horrendous form of torture called “pressing” (thankfully it occurs offstage in the play) where more and more rocks were piled on his chest in an effort to make him speak. Giles endured this for a whole two days before he died – his last words, reportedly, were “more weight”. There’s guts for you!

Antisocial Media

I am having a phase of withdrawal from Facebook, and social media in general.

While the main reason for this is that I want to avoid wasting time on pointless browsing and facile discussions, I think that there is also another, deeper motivation – the amount of hostility and verbal violence I see there disturbs me.  Each and every opinion running counter to one’s political philosophy is a reason for some people to simply attack the proponent of that opinion in the vilest terms (that this is done mostly by conservatives is no surprise).

Vigorous debates with people arguing on both sides of a question is the sign of a healthy democratic society, and is to be encouraged.  However, our so-called media debates focus entirely on personalities, and all arguments are ad hominem.  For example, when Kamal, a prominent leftist movie director from Kerala criticised the actor Suresh Gopi’s decision to join the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, he was immediately targeted as a Muslim on social media (his full name is Kamaluddin, which was used throughout the posts insulting him to pinpoint his religion).  In such a scenario, any healthy debate becomes impossible, and the core issue is bypassed.

Another worrying factor is the “information” shared by people on FB as though this were the gospel truth.  Half-truths, hearsay, urban legends and outright slander are posted by amateurs who want to play investigative journalist.  This is immediately shared enthusiastically by their friends and people of a similar political persuasion until they attain a certain veracity in the minds of the uninformed, who never bother to check the credentials of the original poster.  (On the converse side, experts who are quoted on FB are sometimes attacked – I saw a post in which the poster urged the eminent historian Dr. M. G. S. Narayanan to go and learn history!)

Social media can be a live force – in the recent Jisha murder case in Kerala, outrage on FB caused police to wake up and launch an investigation with vigour.  But more often than not, it degenerates into a town square where bullies slug it out.

My reason for withdrawal is not that I am afraid of the bullies.  I am afraid that, the more I interact, I will slowly turn into one of them.

 

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!