Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Of Barbers and Haircuts – 4 Stories and a Poem

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 6, 2020

Barbers – One of the many categories of self employed whose importance was highlighted for a brief while during the pandemic and then subsided back to its original position once the unlock-down began. With the unlock-down things changed a bit: Higher charges, disposable sheets, sanitizers, extra cleaning, prior appointments, physical distancing of waiting customers and the works….But how this segment of workforce survived for 3 months without earnings, no one knows or cared to know (including myself). Unlike the indifferent real world, the world of fiction has been kinder to barbers. A barber’s shop has been the stage on which some interesting action was made to take place by some high caliber writers. Here is a reference list of 4 stories and a poem (that I know):

Hair by William Faulkner: I liked the story for its poignancy. And the true character of Hackshaw the barber, gets revealed only towards the end. Faulkner makes it appear as if story telling is easy and dialogue easier.

Haircut – Ring Lardner: Lardner brings out a rich slice of middle America through a barber shop. Some awesome storytelling and characterization.

Barber – Flannery O’Connor: Views on Left and Right wing politics gets portrayed brilliantly on the floor of a haircutting saloon in this story. Superb dialogue

A Short History Of Hairdressing – Julian Barnes: A man’s process of ageing is laid in front of us through the protagonist’s visits to a barber shop at various stages of his life. Funny and poignant.

Owl Critic – James T Fields – A cutely hilarious poem set in a barber’s shop

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The Hound of Heaven – Francis Thompson

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 5, 2020

I became aware of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” through a short story of Maugham called “The Pool”… a character in the story refers to this poem to indicate that he is well read and cultured… Spent most part of the day to understand the poem and its significance and in the process got to know a lot more about Thompson, his poetry and his place in English poetry… The poem deals with the concept of God’s love for human and also its ultimate redeeming power…. I learnt that when it was published it was instantly embraced by Catholic Church as a new and major endorsement to their cannon…. Surprisingly it was also picked up and recited by Paramahansa Yogananda (“The Autobiography of a Yogi” fame) for its strong alignment with Hindu scriptures especially certain aspects of “The Gita”….

I also managed to listen to a lecture on this poem by Eknath Easwaran who was a professor of English literature at the University of Nagpur in India, and in 1959 he came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where he taught courses on meditation. Interesting lecture….

As a person whose belief in formal religion is thinning by the day, I was not at all moved by the spirituality of the poem and its reinforcing message but quite liked some of the sentences for their dexterity and thoughtfulness . Here is a sample:

I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.

The “Him” and his “Servitors” did not sound like God … it sounded more like a Ganglord and his chums…  😦

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Rain – Somerset Maugham

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 1, 2020

You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!’

Dr Macphail gasped. He understood.”

Thus, in two short sentences, collapses the entire edifice of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” – a complex and brilliantly written short story of 48 pages set in the South Pacific Islands of colonial times. I read this story almost every year and sometimes twice but the sense of marvel never ceases for me.The story operates at multiple levels but comes together perfectly. Maugham explores the themes of human temptation and its consequences, the power of evil ( if one were to consider prostitution a evil), religious dogma and its ugly coercive power, liberalism vs. conservatism, colonizers and the colonized, Western vs. pagan approaches to life in a way that very few writers could.

That it took 4 years from the germ of an idea of the plot to form in his mind to complete fleshing of it into a gem of exceptional literary beauty ready for publication for someone of Maugham’s writerly talents speaks volumes of the difficulties involved… Maugham has written some great stories of moving quality but nothing comes close to “Rain” – it stands in a class of its own…. And.. Ya.. the sense of rain as a backdrop against which all the sordid drama plays out is simply unforgettable….

I have read quite a few great stories but this one from Maugham is a special favourite of mine….

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Rereading the short stories of Somerset Maugham

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 28, 2020

I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principle action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances”

Somerset Maugham in his introduction to the novel “The Painted Veil”

Having been at his vast collection of short stories for a while now, I can vouch for the veracity of the first sentence of these prefatory remarks of Maugham… One of the few supreme masters in fleshing out characters…… and with such profusion, such diversity and above all with such idiosyncrasies !!

A great pleasure to sit in a quiet corner and immerse oneself into his fiction… and drive all the cares of the world away for a while !!

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William Cullen Bryant – “The Ages”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 1, 2020

My first exposure to the poetry of the popular American poet, William Cullen Bryant was through his two very popular poems viz. “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” – the former – advocating the equanimous way one needs to look at death and the latter a humble lesson of keeping faith in God ( in my case “Nature”) told through the story of a waterfowl. But nothing prepared me for the joyful learning that was in store while I read his long poem “The Ages”

To understand the poem “The Ages” one need to be aware of the theme of “Manifest Destiny” that has been in operation for the last 200 + years and propelled the rise of America. To put it simply, Manifest Destiny is a phrase coined in 1845 and is the idea that the United States is destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. The philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and was used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War…Manifest Destiny was also the ideological underpinning to the purchase of the region of Louisiana, Florida, Independence of Texas and enunciation of Monroe Doctrine that warded of European intervention in affairs of America.

(Source: https://www.history.com/…/westward-expansi…/manifest-destiny read)

Bryant’s poem is an ode to the spirit of America as that free spirited and fetterless land like none existed before. Written in 35 segments, the poem traces human progress through Greek, Roman, European civilizations – their successes and shortcomings and the establishment of America as the new destination for the future. It was a great experience reading the poem and here is the last (35th) segment:

But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
Save with thy children—thy maternal care,
Thy lavish love, thy blessings showered on all—
These are thy fetters—seas and stormy air
Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where,
Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well,
Thou laugh’st at enemies: who shall then declare
The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell.

( fall – all, care – air – where – declare, well – tell – dwell)

I found two of his poetry collections on Gutenberg.org and find that there are some really good poems like The Yellow Violet, Inscription For The Entrance To The Wood, Green River, A Walk At Sunset and The Burial Place ( More to be added as I read his poetic works)

Looks like I have just scratched the surface of the works of this good poet and feel happy that there is lot more left to pursue….

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox – The beginnings of an encounter

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 29, 2020

I came across the poetry of American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox in a collection (which I am reading now) through one of her poems called “Two Glasses” .. a thoughtful poem depicting the conversation between a filled to the brim wine glass and a a filled to the brim water glass on a rich man’s dining table.. with the wine glass expressing its arrogance in the control she has on humanity and her ability to undo them and the water glass replying politely its ability to sustain and resuscitate humanity in the exact opposite way. It is a nice poem and I read it multiple times over for the overall message it carried and conveyed in simple words. Piqued by the quality of the poem, I googled a bit and came to know that she was an American author and poet and lived between 1850 – 1919 and was the one who wrote the famous lines “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.” in a poem called “Solitude”

On checking Gutenberg.org, found that she has written quite prolifically (about 1200 poems and as prolific as the other great poet EMILY DICKINSON) which have been published as collections of poetry titled around the themes that she covered viz. Poems of Purpose, Poems of Cheer, Poems of Experience, Poems of Passion, Poems of Optimism, Poems of Power, Poems of Pleasure and a few others including a autobiography of sorts….

Flipping through the collection, I came across a longish poem called “A Son Speaks” …. the theme of the poem is how woman misuse and abuse their freedom and demand for rights as told by a son who has seen a bit of the world to his innocent mother who has always been at home and begins with the following lines :

“Mother, sit down, for I have much to say
Anent this widespread ever-growing theme
Of woman and her virtues and her rights…….”

As it progresses the poem becomes philosophical, politely argumentative, develops a perspective of the society of the times and also gets to a conclusion which in today’s world would be nothing short of blasphemy. What surprised me were the following:
1. The poem is written by a Woman
2. Written at a time and age when the themes around freedom of women and their rights were just picking up in public consciousness
3. That it got published without much commotion….

I read the poem multiple times and was very puzzled.. more than the theme of the poem it is that sense of puzzlement (సందిగ్థత/उल्जन) that will last in me for a long time to come….

The world is not what it appears…irrespective of the age and time, there will always be rebels and contrarians.

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“Forever—never! Never-forever!” – The magic of poetry….

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 24, 2020

While it unfailingly always informs and entertains, a particular kind of reading can become addictively stimulating. And on that front, the form of writing that can give real.. real highs is poetry… A good volume of poetry can be manifold more stimulating than reading the finest of fine prose. And all it takes is a few simple words, simple rhythms, simple cadences and the effect on the reader can be extraordinary… Today I chanced upon a poem by H.W. Longfellow titled ” The Old Clock on the Stairs”…. Before I began reading the poem I tried guessing what it could be and was expecting something simple, nice and something that could give words to a long forgotten feeling, observation or thought of mine but the actual experience was way too different and way too profound… Through the eyes of a silent grandfather clock standing midway on a staircase Longfellow spins magic with words.. The concluding lines are as follows:

All are scattered, now, and fled,—
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply,—

Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time, shall disappear,—
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly,—

Highly recommend it…

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A Cartoonist’s remorse…

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 23, 2020

Tom Taylor was a leading cartoonist with the famous “Punch” magazine and furnished many cartoons which sharpened the acerbity of opinion pieces that criticized Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln died, he wrote a moving poem admitting his remorse at what he did…. A longish and a bit difficult read for its context… Here is a extract from the poem where he is scolding himself for what he did

Beside this corpse, that bears for winding-sheet
The Stars and Stripes he lived to rear anew,
Between the mourners at his head and feet—
Say, scurril jester, is there room for you?

I quite liked the way he uses the term “Scurril Jester” to admonish himself – scurril is the short form for scurrilous… Tom had the humility to call himself a scandalous clown…

And the poem is called : Abraham Lincoln

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Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 12, 2020

I first happened to read about the Gypsies/Romany folks on the FB wall of Mr. Mohan Guruswamy and felt intrigued by it. The essence of the post was that a sizeable population of Gypsies/Romany that one finds in Europe today are of Indian origin and have migrated from North West India to various parts of Europe and that some of their traditions closely resemble Indian traditions and that their language has a large vocabulary culled from Indian languages Hindi/Marwari/Sindhi etc. While I need to check the overall veracity of the claims in the post, one claim that really took me by surprise was that one branch of the remnant Indian stock of the Gypsies are “Lambada Tribes” who are a very common occurrence in Telangana. There are many villages in Telangana which are exclusively populated by these Lambada tribes and are called “Thandas”. The Lambadas are in general a hardworking, (and in the past) heavy hooch drinking, predominantly agrarian community who also have a big hand in cattle rearing. In summers many of them migrate to nearby towns to work in the construction industry and the money earned during this period goes in as investment into agriculture which they carry on in their thandas at the onset of monsoon. Many have small holdings of land and depending on the place grow Paddy, Maize, Chilli and Vegetables. One can identify them with surnames like Banoth, Naik, Gugloth, Ajmeraa, Rathod, Bhukya….etc… They stiill carry an element of nomadism with them ( go along with cattle for months into the forests for grazing) but at least in Telangana it is all kind of settled agrarian activity. More importantly they have not much to do with Hinduism or any other religion of India…

The above aside, I have come across two fascinating poems written by Rudyard Kipling on the Romany/Gypsy folks. In English the opposite of Romany is “Giorgio” i.e. anybody who is a non-gypsy.

The poem “The Gypsy Trail” describes the trail taken by the Romany across various parts of the world and the second poem “Gypsy Vans” is telling about the lives of Gypsy to a Giorgio and urging him/her how not to be like them. Both are gentle, a bit maudlin and evoke pity/sadness towards the gypsies as a group. The links to both the poems are given below:

https://www.bartleby.com/364/99.html – The Gypsy Trail

https://www.poetryloverspage.com/po…/kipling/gipsy_vans.html – Gypsy Vans

For their word play, rhythm, the overarching themes and portraying the social conditions of the European Gypsies both these poems are top notch and are in a class of their own and deserve to be read out loud with a cadence which will come on its own while reading….

(Guy Ritchie’s two movies viz “Snatch” has wandering gypsies called Pikies and “The Game of Shadows” has Madam Samsa and her band play an important role in the overall story line)


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Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 7, 2020

Remember the movie “Shining” – Stephen King’s eerie tale made into a brilliant movie by Stanley Kubrick with Jack Nicholson in the lead role? But what exactly is Shining?

Shining” is, at its core, a fusion of telepathy and clairvoyance. Being able to shine means being able to communicate with others using the mind, and gives people the ability to see things that have happened in the past, or will happen in the future”

Today I have come across another word called “Sending” in Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Sending of “Dana Da” and it means:

“…a horrible arrangement, first invented, they say, in Iceland. It is a Thing sent by a wizard, and may take any form, but, most generally, wanders about the land in the shape of a little purple cloud till it finds the Sendee, and him it kills by changing into the form of a horse, or a cat, or a man without a face. It is not strictly a native patent, though chamars of the skin and hide castes can, if irritated, despatch a Sending which sits on the breast of their enemy by night and nearly kills him. Very few natives care to irritate chamars for this reason.”

In pre-independence India this also gave rise to a popular saying : ” When the Devil rides on your chest remember the chamar.”

So the words “Shining” and “Sending” have very different meanings…. The world around is not as simple as it sounds/looks…. 

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