Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 31, 2016

Childhood'send

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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 1, 2015

Ennui: A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Heart of Darkness

Number9dream Thousand acresTraindreams

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What Does Telangana Mean To Me?

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 26, 2015

Telangana

Telangana State with 10 districts and its new emblems – Resuscitating a lost identity

Come June 02, the 29th baby of Mother India – The State of Telangana – will complete an year. Looking back, there is a disquieting sense of wonder in me as to when, how and why I have developed this deep passion and anxiety for the well being of this fledgling. For till about 2009, I was indifferent to the issue of the statehood of Telangana and somewhere in 2010 without my own knowing my interest turned towards it and since then it has just been building in me to have reached a state where it has become an integral part of my thought process. Not a day goes by when I do not think about Telangana, its progress, future prospects and possibilities. At a personal level this obsession with Telangana is puzzling and I have been seeking answers to understand this state of mind of mine

I am not sure if I have all the answers to this puzzle but one convincingly satisfying answer that I have arrived at is that in itself Telangana is simply a powerfully fascinating idea – an idea which stands to represent three fundamental aspects viz.

  • A distinctive identity that was almost lost and miraculously regained by the collective efforts of its people

  • The possibilities for accommodative justice in our federal polity

  • A renewed hope in the strength of constitutional provisions and democratic processes of India

The region of Telangana has had a rich culture and long chequered history spanning over 1300 years leading to a distinctive identity. The place and its people have demonstrated originality in every facet of their existence with a wonderful temperament for accommodation. However, for over six decades since its merger with Andhra, it is this identity and this sense of accommodation that was subject to progressive belittling, sustained emasculation and forcible subservience with a conscious purpose of usurping the resources of the region and extending a permanent hegemony in every sphere of life. This hegemony was nothing short of internal imperialism in a democratic milieu. It is this threatened identity that was regained through the collective efforts of people of Telangana against many powerful odds. At one level this awakening to the existence of a collective identity was also deeply personal and liberating. That I have a unique identity which is also part of larger collective identity and that it can be asserted and liberated from hegemony is extremely reassuring and soul satisfying in its nature. Without sounding exaggerating, the struggle for the statehood of Telangana in my view is one of the greatest people struggles of 21st century for reclaiming a losing identity. And that it can be achieved with collective human endeavour, sacrifice and commitment is hope inducing

Secondly, the formation of the state of Telangana also points to the vast spaces for justice in our federal polity. The run-up to the formation of the state preceded destabilizing protests, raucous debates, wicked machinations, political maneuvering of the ugliest order, gambled political fortunes, horrifying glimpses of individual and collective integrities of political leaders and the parties they represented, intellectual treason (Oh! there was tonnes of it !!), wicked and malicious intents to distort political processes. Despite all of this, justice prevailed to a large extent giving immense hope and faith in our federal system and its overall logic. Had this been otherwise the consequences would have been hard to imagine

Thirdly, this prevalence of justice would not have been possible without the inherent strength of our constitutional provisions and processes. That I live in a country which has a constitution with deep capabilities to protect the legitimate interests of its people enhances my faith in the system and in turn enhances my commitment to the system itself. There are many who feel the way I do which at a certain level is wholesome for a maturing democracy like ours

Having said all of the above, the new born baby is not without its share of threatening challenges and alluring possibilities. In rising above these challenges and realizing the potential of these possibilities lies the real duty of all who are committed to Telangana and who have made this powerful idea a possibility in the first place

Happy Birthday !!!!

(An article written for the magazine Singidi )

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Notes of a Nobody: In The Music Store

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 18, 2015

Barring an uncle from my father’s side, there was none on either side of my family who could lay claim to proficiency in music of any degree. My father often claimed that he was a good singer although I have never heard him sing a full length song either to accept or deny his claim. Once or twice, I heard him hum a hindi song arrestingly well. He often claimed he lost his singing to a bout of bronchitis which he suffered from for a while. I can vouch for this suffering though. The wheezy, tinny, heaving metallic breath in the calm nights from his bed and the resulting sleeplessness to him and to us are all familiar memories even to this day. In his early fifties he was miraculously cured of his bronchitis. Along with it, we also saw the vanishing of his claims of him being a singer. Looking back, it appears that in general music never figured in things that was a priority in our families. None spared energies to rise above the humdrum of life to achieve anything noteworthy in music. Part of the reason was also due to the lack of financial strength. Lack of notes of one kind suppressed the rise of notes of another kind in our houses

But things have changed

Kids of younger generations have started to learn music. It is as part of this change I found myself in a music shop one evening trying to buy an electric guitar for my son. It would probably be a more accurate description, if I had said that I was there to pay the bill for an electric guitar as against applying myself to the tasks of evaluation and a final selection. Peers of my son and hours of sifting information on the internet have already done all that had to be done. For every ignorant question that I had, my son had a ready answer making the need for a shop assistant redundant. Despite feeling embarrassed at his father’s lack of basic knowledge, my son grit his teeth and answered all the questions patiently. It was then I realized that besides knowledge, money is also power. It was decided that it would be a black Ibanez electric guitar with a clunky amp as its companion that would force its way into our flat and stay with us for a few years. For a brief while there was a discussion in the shop about RMV, maximum output and clean output reminding me of the grueling stuff I went through in one of the mandatory electrical engineering courses that I had attended as part of my education.

But what really caught my attention was the degree of technological sophistication the instrument and its companion amplifier oozed from their beings. Sitting among dozens of varieties of other musical instruments in the shop, they looked like a gleaming pair of shiny sci-fi beasts with impeccable builds – both part of a larger attacking horde of an unknown and malevolent power. The tautly stretched alloy strings of an evolved metallurgical process, the beautiful chrome plated supports for the strings, the electrical sockets which appeared hungry for a connection, the array of rotatory knobs – each a master in its own right to control some aspect of sound and the minion LEDs eager to indicate the performance of their masters imparted a transcendental touch to the instrument beyond the material. Here was something that represented a technology sophistication which will always be subservient to the call of human heart.

There was almost a sense of reverence with which my son touched the instrument and started playing a riff a bit hesitatingly. Very soon he looked as if he was ready to get transported into another world without his own knowing. I was a little surprised at the felicity with which he played the riff: it was coherent and demonstrated a confident sense of control which I was under the impression never existed in him. It also reminded me of the fact that our children may grow in front of us but the exact nature and content of that growth is without our complete grasp, knowing and understanding. How accurate Kahlil Gibran was when he said “children may come through you but they do not belong to you” ! I kept wondering at the riff which to me was a pleasing product of a human heart, mind and passion delivered through a musical instrument which was a product of highly evolved agglomeration of technologies. For a brief moment, I experienced the fleeting beauty of the wholesome balance of inspiration and technology. And in that same moment I wished my son sustain his interest and learn a skill which he can claim his own till the end of his life. A skill which I wish I should have explored in my younger days

Despite the hole it burnt in my purse, I paid the said amount and walked out of the music store gladly

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Notes of a Nobody: A Thing About Grief

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 11, 2014

Grief

I have started to realize that human grief has a strong gender orientation. Men and women grieve very differently and for very different reasons. A man’s grief, I suspect, mostly has a material basis. Loss of job, property, money and wealth affect a man more than other kind of losses. Whereas a woman is affected the most by the loss of relationships. Material things do affect them but they do not go to pieces the way a man does. The most certain litmus test for ascertaining this orientation in grief is the unfortunate death of a child or an off-spring in a family. I have seen men recovering and carrying on with their lives after some time as if nothing has happened but women get shattered completely. In time, the tragic incident becomes an “avoidable memory” or better still an “avoided memory” for men but for women it acquires a nature of “essential memory” which they carry with them fresh to their graves

I lost a maternal aunt of mine in her childbirth (she was one among the nine siblings of my mother) and it pushed both my grandparents into an extended period of grief. Gradually and over a period of time my grandfather recovered but my grandmother never did. She lived for another two decades after this incident yet there was not an occasion my grandmother did not remember her lost daughter. A festival when we all gathered together, a sweet dish cooked, a voice heard, a specific sound, a particular coloured saree bought, a song on the radio, an actor or actress on the TV were all triggers for teary remembrances. It was a common occurrence with my grandmother that pointing to one of her other daughters she unintentionally called out the name of my dead aunt and inevitably burst into uncontrollable tears. There was a time when I deluded myself that she has overcome her grief. But that was not to be. Her grief was like a smouldering ember covered with ash giving a deceptive sense of forgetfulness, making peace or worse still a complete recovery. I have a distinct memory of the dying days of my grandmother: she was crippled and down with osteoporosis and even on her death bed, in a voice that was growing incoherent, she used to call out my aunt’s name. This was always accompanied by either the sad sardonic smile of my grandfather or his frustrated gentle chiding of her inability to not let go of things of the past. For him, my aunt became a thing of past but somehow my grandmother managed to keep her memories of my aunt fresh and ready on call.

Not surprisingly, memories of grief and how they get handled have become the rich raw material for writers of stories and books. A very fine treatment of this essential difference in the capacity to handle grief and distress is to be found in John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath” where Ma Joad says this to Pa Joad:

 No, it ain’t “ Ma smiled. “It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed  that. Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is going on – changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on….. Ever’thing we do – seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on. Seems that way to me. Even getting’ hungry – even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live that day. Jus’ that day”

And on a very arbitrary note, I also suspect that it is in this essential difference in the way both sexes handle grief, lies the survival and adaptive instinct of the human species. For the exact dynamics of it… well… that is the topic for another day

 

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Notes of a Nobody: The Power of Ellipticism

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 27, 2014

On the way to office the other day, I spotted a young school girl having a hurried breakfast in a crowded bus. There were people milling around her seat and yet she proceeded with her critical morning chore with a need driven sense of defiance and a self-imposed pretension of oblivion of her surroundings. Similarly, driving early to airport on another day in the very recent past, I spotted kids slouched in their school bus having a nap. It was at about seven- thirty in the morning and I expected kids to be chatting away with one another or throwing paper balls at one another in the bus. Instead, I found them slumped in their seats catching up on their sleep. Something about both these sights made me queasy. There was a feeling of discomfort on which I could not lay my finger on. Much later, I realized that the roots of my uneasiness lay in the recognition of how pressing our modern society is becoming which manifests itself in rushed breakfasts in crowded public spaces and power naps to fill in the deficit of sleep hours. There was nothing elegant about my thoughts and the words I was employing to describe my feelings were clumsy at best. However, I have come across similar scenes in my reading described in a way that is beautiful and memorable. And what makes these descriptions attractive and memorable is the employment of ellipticism in narration – a way to say everything with a sense of depth and profundity without actually saying it. Consider the following two descriptions: The first is from Ian McEwan‘s “Saturday” where the author introduces us to the protagonist of the novel Dr. Henry Perowne:

“Forty- eight years old, profoundly asleep at nine thirty on a Friday night – this is modern professional life”

The second is from Zadie Smith’s article “The North West London Blues” –a nice piece about the place of libraries in current day and the state of libraries in UK:

Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay

In both the cases there is a brilliant damnation but in a way that is roundabout – in one instance it is the damnation of busy professional life which today is seen as the apex of individual success and in another instance of the modern economic state which constantly forces you to consume something or the other.

This leads one to the essential question: why is ellipticism employed in the first place? The simple answer is that it carries within it an inherent power of expression which is jolting and hard hitting in nature. However, the real question one has got to ask is what is it that makes ellipticism so inherently powerful and attractive? I believe there are no easy answers and my guess is that the power of ellipticism resides in its ability to forge an elbow room where a reader can allow his imagination to expand. As a case in point, what defines the “modern professional life” is left to the reader’s imagination. Using ellipticism, all that the author does is to point to his reader that such an entity with all its warts exists and any sensitive and responsible reader is forced to imagine it for himself. It is in this creative process of fleshing the imaginative space with material details lies the charm and power of ellipticism in narration

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The Collected Stories of Isaac Asimov – Volume I

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 30, 2013

asimov“In an infinite number of worlds, anything can happen….. Everything must happen – from the story “Living Space

It took time for me to realize that like how travel writing is not just about travel, science fiction is also not just about science. If science fiction is only about science and travel writing only about travel, then well written science text books and travel guides (although both potentially very interesting) would joust with writing in both genres of fiction. Even while there is a substantial reference to science in science fiction, most of the times the genre is intensely focused on humans, especially: on our nature, condition, concerns, predicament, failures and challenges.

Very often, the diverse settings in science fiction (inter planetary travel, human like robots, time travel, all-knowing and powerful computers, aliens, lonely planets, distant stars, vast galaxies, time-bending, hyper space (do not yet know what that means though )) act as a form of isolating backdrops – a necessary fictional artifice created by the author –  against which the core human concerns can be portrayed with sharper relief and greater clarity.  I have seen this in the writings of Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. Bradbury’s masterpiece “The Martian Chronicles” is less about mars and martians, instead, it is about the nature, psyche and mindset of colonization and the consequences thereof. Bradbury uses the untrammeled lands of mars and the insinuated annihilation of martians (he never mentions it explicitly) by humans as a backdrop against which to examine the nature of colonization.  Similarly, Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness” is about the journey of discovery of “otherness” in human sexuality: the male-female dichotomy and the need for empathy. It is this same aspect that I have experienced once again in volume 1 of collected short stories of Isaac Asimov – 24 brilliant stories with ingenious plots, capacious imagination, superb inventiveness, absorbing narrative power all culminating in a delightful reading experience. A few stories were so good that I read them twice over in a single stretch.

I have come to Asimov very late in my reading life with an impulsive self-introduction to his “The Foundation Series” to realize his greatness as a writer and his deserving cult stature among lovers of science fiction. Asimov’s exploration of the “nature of power” and how it drives a society (on earth or elsewhere in the intergalactic vastness) is thought provoking and fascinating.

In the collection of short stories that are currently under consideration, the concerns that get addressed are so diverse and yet so relevant to us that one cannot but marvel at Asimov’s range and richness of imagination. His treatment of the subject of man’s invention that enable him see his past and how it destroys individual privacy in the story “The Dead Past” and linking it to what is an ever ongoing debate on the extent of governmental control of research makes for a thought provoking plot yet a joyous and absorbing read. In the story “Kid Stuff” an elf makes way to the house of a fantasy writer and takes complete control of his and his wife’s mind with the intention of using them to rebuild the lost glory of elfdom which is attributed to the advent and evolution of humans. The elf’s thrall on the writer is broken when he is squatted to death by the writer’s son who does not believe in the existence of elves and fairies. The disbelief is embedded into the child due to the rationality induced on account of the progress of science and technology. And the writer who is hitherto a little embarrassed about embracing the genre for a living regains the forgotten pride but concludes with an insightful observation:

Modern fantasies are very sophisticated and mature treatments of folk motifs. Behind the façade of glib unreality there frequently lie trenchant comments on the world of today. Fantasy in modern style is, above all, adult stuff

I especially loved this story for its inventive quality of the plot . In the lively story “Living Space”, Asimov explores a distant future in which there is overpopulation, the age-old notions of private property; inter galactic settlements and problems thereof. Even while making an interesting story out of it Asimov also throws light on human mindset towards property and ownership attitudes:

“When probability patterns had first been put to use, sole ownership of a planet had been powerful inducement for early settlers. It appealed to the snob and despot in every one. What man so poor, ran the slogan, as not to have an empire larger than Ghengis Khan’s? To introduce multiple settling now would outrage everyone.

In the story, “Jokester”, a Grand Master explores the origin of jokes and humour with the help of an omniscient computer and the conclusions he and his immediate team end up with leave them with dismay and mild horror. In the story “Franchise”, Asimov paints a mildly disturbing picture of the state of democracy when the citizens of USA give away their independence of franchise to an omniscient computer. In the story “Spell my name with an S” two supra beings (we do not know if they are Gods) decide to play with the career prospects of a Russian immigrant physicist in the US unknowing to their supervisor and take bets. By forcing him to approach a numerologist (in whom the physicist does not believe) and take his advice to change the first letter in his name (from Zebatsinsky to Sebatsinsky), they set about a chain of incidents which improve the physicist’s career prospects. The physicist is thrilled at his changed prospects but the supra beings are worried that what they have acted beyond their official remit and hence start to reverse the changes unknowing to the physicist. The beauty of this story lies in the way Asimov builds a chain of credible events across cold-war US and USSR that end up altering the future of the physicist. In the story, “They had fun” Asimov creates a world of nostalgia in which humans have forgotten conventional ways of learning and schools remain schools no more. In “All the troubles of the world”, a super computer develops a refined sense of intuition and man puts so much burden on it to run the affairs of the world that the computer expresses a desire to die. In a really fine story “The Last Question”, Asimov paints a world in which humans have achieved immortality, cracked the twin problems of harnessing energy from stars and intergalactic travel. However, now they face the problem of growing entropy of the universe and running out of energy sources. The sources of energy in the universe are dying out. Humans hand over the problem of reversing entropy to a super intelligent and omniscient computer which cracks the problem but by that time mankind becomes extinct. All that is left is the computer and the vast universe with energy restored. I kept thinking about what attracted me to this story and realized that through some seemingly simple wordplay, Asimov creates an illusory understanding of not only the vastness of the universe but also a sense of inestimable eons

An appealing aspect of almost all of the stories in the collection is a scintillating quality of intellect that pervades through them. Asimov writes with a deep sense of erudition and ensures that there is not a dull moment in any of the stories. In addition, there is a great sense of tongue-in-cheek humour which enlivens our reading experience. However, if there is a singular and stand-out quality to these short stories it is their parable like nature where Asimov, without being preachy, is constantly cautioning us of the consequences when science and technology run ahead of humans and how it creates challenges to the very essence of human nature

A marvelous read and a great way to close my reading endeavours in 2013. I now look forward to reading the second volume of his collected stories which I expect will be a great way to commence my reading endeavours for 2014

Welcome 2014 !!

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Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 28, 2013

Levels of LifeLevels of LifeJulian Barnes’s latest book is a slim and strange one for its ability to knit together coherently three disparate and seemingly unrelated topics viz. ballooning and aerial photography, an un-requited love story and a deep sense of grief on the death of a beloved one. True to its title, Barnes takes the readers through three different levels of life viz. First, “The Sin of Height”: which provides a wonderful history of the rise and romance of ballooning and aerial photography on both sides of the English Channel (a life up in air). Second, “On the Level”: an unrequited love story between Colonel Fred Burnaby and French actress Sarah Bernhardt drawn together by mutual attraction and common passion for the adventure of ballooning ( a life firmly rooted on earth). Third, which is the pièce de résistance in the book is “The Loss of Depth”, a majestic reminiscence on the nature of grief (something that emanates with in us after burying our dear ones six feet deep in the ground).

It is in the last part of the book that Barnes really shows what a good contemporary writer he is. Five years back, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, to whom he was married for nearly three decades died. It is in the sustained experience of grief for over half a decade that Barnes also examines the general nature of grief. Barnes begins his examination with the assertion that “Grief, like death, is banal and unique”. Yet what we get to witness in his writing till the end is a deeply meditative and multi-dimensional exploration of various aspects of this so called subject of banality. The felt grief is personal, yet, Barnes manages to abstract his observations on the workings and mechanics of grief to a level of elevation that it starts to become a human universal. Barnes draws heavily metaphors from the first two parts of the book and that is when we start to understand relevance of those two parts in a clearer light. In doing so Barnes also emphasizes on the weight of grief on an individual and how it internalizes itself till the last day of his life. It appears that Barnes had a premonition about the grief-state he would enter in his future. He quotes from his own writing on the state of widowhood which dates back to three decades:

When she dies, you are not first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all

Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that; it’s just misery as regular as a job….. [People say] you’ll come out of it….. And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life

A wonderfully lucid yet accurate portrayal!

Literature may not be life-giving in first place but it definitely ought to be life-sustaining and life-affirming through accurate illumination of diverse aspects of human condition. That should be the aim of any good literary effort. Julian Barnes’s “Levels of Life” hits the bull’s eye when it comes to this aspect of literature.

Overall, a splendid and memorable read

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Studs Terkel: Will the Circle be Unbroken? Reflections on Life, Death and a Hunger for a Faith

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 22, 2013

Will the circle be unbroken“Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint or condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts. You would buy shares in death, if they were available; you would bet on it, however poor the odd” – Julian Barnes in Nothing To Be Frightened Of

These days I very often think of death and dying. My own ageing and the brushes with death of known people around me takes me to this subject very frequently. Thankfully at this stage I am not terrified of it. Increasingly, I see entire humanity (and myself included in it) as a teeming and yet another biological species in this petri-dish called Earth. And like all other species we have our natural life-cycles divided between living and dying. Sometimes I think we make too little of living and too much of dying. While the subjects of Religion, biology, medicine and philosophy touch upon the subject of death in different ways, I am not sure if they have provided any conclusive and comforting answers. My own approach is not to think and worry about it too much. All I wish is that I be granted a pain free and peaceful death. In a way that is a constant prayer I have these days. In the recent past, along with this wish to have a calm passage, I have also developed immense curiosity towards what others feel about death. I would like to know and understand how others see death and how do they reconcile themselves to it.

In literature I have come across very few books that have exclusive focus on death and dying. As an adolescent I remember reading Tolstoy’s “Kruetzer’s Sonata” where the predicament of a man on his deathbed is described brilliantly. Tolstoy left me with a stunning impression as if he has had a special acquaintance with death. Similarly, Julian Barnes’s “The Lemon Table” and ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of” are two other books that have had an exclusive focus on death and dying. Contrary to my expectations, the latter two were joyous reads so much so that I have included them in my list of books for re-reading. However, nothing prepared me for the wonderful experience I have had while reading Studs Terkel’sWill The Circle Be Unbroken – Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith” – a collection of 62 straight talking and bone honest conversations by men and women from all walks of life who tell what they feel about death and living in a manner that is deep and moving

I have known the writings of Terkel for over a decade now and through him I have understood the power, importance and beauty of oral histories. His books on the experiences of Great Depression (The Hard Times), Feelings about nature of work (Working) and II world war (The Good War) and on singers and singing (And They All Sang – Adventures of a Disc Jockey) have been my all time favourites. To that list I now add his “Will The Circle Be Unbroken…” What makes the book a memorable reading experience is Terkel’s ability to bring out the most honest and fearless thoughts of men and women on death. Through these conversations one gets to see the grandeur of being human, the nature of the fear of unknown, resigned indifference,  raging frustration, philosophical equanimity, a bubbling pride, concrete practicality and some rib tickling pettiness. There is much in this book that is very reassuring, comforting, practical and elevating. Some of the views expressed are closer to the one I have and some I have never thought through but can pretty well may own and imbibe in time to come

If there is one thought in the book that is very close to my own thoughts on death and dying it is by one Peggy Terry – a passionate civil rights activist from Chicago

I’m not sure what happens to us when we die. But why should we be so concerned about it? Think of it as a flower, or a tree that dies and adds its whatever, vitality, to the earth. Flowers die every year, Trees die. All living things die. So why are we so much more than the animals of the Earth, or the foliage, or any of it? I don’t know why we should all be so afraid of it. It’s a nuisance knowing you won’t be here anymore. The one thing I hate about thinking about dying is I won’t be able to read. If I could take books with me, I wouldn’t care  

Yes, even I would not worry about death if I could take books along with me

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Notes of a Nobody: The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 13, 2013

Thinking ManPaan Singh.. jal laayiye

It was an unexpected but a pleasant baritone voice that I heard from the table oblique to me in the mess hall of Jubilee hostel a month after I took up residence there as a student to pursue my post-graduate studies. What really grabbed my attention was the effortless use of the pure Hindi word “jal”. Normally, even the most fluent, fanatic and native speakers of Hindi language use the word “paani” instead of “jal” for water. I looked at him involuntarily and he noticed that he was being observed and smiled at me. I too smiled but did not say anything. He was of medium height, with a mop of thick black hair on his head. As if to match this he also sported a thick beard. The beard failed to hide a strong jaw-line that made his face look unduly flat. I made a note that had he allowed the hair and beard to grow longer, he would surely have a budding philosopher’s look. His brief smile indicated to me that he was in the habit of chewing betel leaves. He was surrounded by a group of friends who did not pay much attention to what he said indicating they were used to the way he talked. I completed eating the drab fare more as a routine exercise to keep hunger at bay and left the mess hall. Barring rare occasions of festivals and weekend meals, the food was never well made at Jubilee Hall and like others I learnt to supplement my mess food with sandwiches, bread- omelet, samosas, maggi noodles and tea from a shop outside the hall.  Since I was new and have not yet made any friends, I quite often frequented this shop alone. Actually, I preferred it that way for it gave me time to be myself and think through the adjustments that I needed to make to settle down in the newer environs which were pretty far away from home.

It was on one of those sojourns to supplement food that I met my bearded man sitting on a bench laid in front of the shop. There was a mild chill in the air and my hunger was sharp. I ordered for a bread-omelet and tea combination and sat opposite to the man waiting to be served. For want of anything better, I smiled at him. He smiled at me and said in chaste Hindi:

“Which faculty do you belong to?”

“Management,” I said

“Oh! Your life is all set then” he said. There was a tinge of envy in his voice. I smiled at his observation. I especially found the traces of envy a little bothersome and dismissed it in an amiable way “Oh! nothing like it”

My omelet and tea had arrived and before I started on it I offered the plate to him. He refused saying “whatever we have we should have in full but I too am very hungry”. I kind of guessed his situation which appeared to be the situation of many students in that place, called the canteen boy and ordered a full bread omelet for him along with a cup of tea. Waiting for his plate to arrive, I offered my plate to him once again and said “take half… I will take half from the plate I ordered for you”. He took a portion and started munching it hungrily. I looked at him carefully and asked him

“Are you in the Hindi department?”

He stopped his munching and looked at me and said “Why Hindi? I am in pure math. I am pursuing my Ph.D – number theory he said” I did not at first get the pure Hindi translation of the subject “number theory” he employed in his sentence. He had to reiterate it inserting the necessary English words. Following on that he said “what made you think I belonged to Hindi faculty?”

“The way you speak Hindi. It is so pure. It is as if you are reading from a good text book” I replied

He chuckled loudly for a while and then said “Oh that! I love Hindi. It is a wonderful language when spoken in its purity. I do not like Hindustani which has many Urdu words mixed in it. But I would not hesitate to say that pure Urdu is as wonderful as Hindi. Both languages carry a magic in them”

I could not agree with him more. Coming from the region of Telangana, I have a deep sense of what he meant. In the meanwhile the other plate came along with two teas and we had our shares. He thanked me for the fare and we walked to our respective rooms. This was the beginning of our friendship. We used to meet each other at the canteen, talk about various things. I loved the way he spoke his Hindi which was pure and musical. More and more I started to look for these meetings to hear him speak his Hindi. However, with the onset of winter, I started to see him less and less. Once in a while I met him at the tea stall outside but he appeared serious and lost in himself. The usual chatty self was gone and after a while he was not to be seen completely. In the meanwhile, I had developed a set of friends of my own and settled quite well. The possibility of having good career prospects after my management studies had changed my own confidence. About a couple of months later I spotted him at the canteen and I walked up to him. He looked gaunt with long hair and beard. I walked upto him and said

“Is all well? I do not see you at all these days. Any problem?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said “No no major problems. I am preparing for Civil services exams and delayed my Ph.D work. They have stopped my scholarship and that is turning out to be a problem”. He paused for a while and said hesitatingly “Can I borrow 300 rupees from you? Can’t say when I will return it to you. But will return it certainly”

I couldn’t say no. I gave it to him although it was a big sum thanks to the financial support I was receiving from my father. I ordered something for both of us and we started to chat up on his preparation efforts. He had let me known that he was confident of success as his preparation was on track and he is in a revision mode now. After this, I did not see him for nearly five months. By this time much had changed at my end. I had found a nice summer job with a well sought after new-age financial services firm. My posting was in Delhi and I most probably would end up in the same company for a permanent slot in future. I started to love Delhi and had wanted to work there for a while before I made my next moves. Life looked rosy and bright. I was busy wrapping the loose ends at my institute for the year. It was during this period that I had gone all alone to our canteen for a cup of tea

After about 10 minutes at the canteen I found a clean shaven man standing in front of me trying to grab my hand. It took 10 seconds for me to realize that he was none other than my bearded friend who has now shed his beard. He was smiling at me and all the beetel stains on his teeth were gone. He was in complete formals including well polished black shoes. There was a quiet dignity in the way he looked.  I grabbed his hands in recognition and said

“You surprised me ! Don’t see you anymore these days. How are you? How did your exams go?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said sheepishly “I did better than expected. I secured 11th in the overall merit list and opted for Indian Foreign Service”

“Congratulations!!” I said. I was in a mild state of disbelief but smiled and said “Look even your life is set”

He nodded his head. We ordered for more tea and started to exchange developments at our respective ends. He told me that he was going to Mussorie the following week for a six-month long training and then will be in Delhi for another six months before being attached to one of the Indian embassies abroad. He also told me he always had a desire to be in Indian Foreign Services and become a top notch diplomat. All of this he poured forth in his usual chaste Hindi

I said “Look you will not have a chance to speak like this anymore once you go abroad. You will have to speak mostly in English”

He laughed and said ”Yes I will miss that. “Perils of profession” you see”. That was the first time I saw him using an English expression with me and coming from him I found that a little odd. I felt like pulling his leg and asked him what would that expression in Hindi be. He thought for a while and said something in Hindi. It was beyond my comprehension. I let him go with that. We sat there for about another 30 minutes in which he told me how hard he worked for realizing his objective. It was time for me to go. I got up  and told him that I needed to get to my institute. He too stood, took my arm and quickly hugged me and said “thanks for all the help especially that money. I was really in a bad shape then” He took out his purse and pulled out 300 bucks for returning. Strangely, I did not feel like taking it. I told him that I did not want to take it back and would want to have it as a fond remembrance. I added jokingly “in future I can always tell my family and friends that somewhere in the upper echelons of Indian diplomatic circles there was a person who owed me money”. We laughed for a while. Despite his insistence I refused and requested him to let it be that way and not rob me of my remembrance. He relented after a while. We shook hands once again and parted.

That was the last I saw of him. Now I have even forgotten his name. Surely, it is not very difficult to trace him if I want to what with the ubiquitous search engines around. I am sure he must be quite a senior diplomat somewhere trying to maintain good relations between India and whichever country he is posted in presently.

It has been nearly three decades since this happened. My life too had gone many ups and downs and at every stage I was helped by friends. But more than friends I was helped by strangers. If not pure strangers by temporary acquaintances who had tendencies to become strangers rapidly. In moments of reminiscence, I always felt guilty of not keeping in touch with these good Samaritans (and there were many in my life) and being forgetful of their kindness. However, over a period, life also taught me that it is in its nature to throw strangers at us as much as it makes strangers of us and throws us at others. And therefore it is important for us to be kind and grateful to others for we never know, in life, when we will receive the kindness of strangers as much as we get an opportunity to show kindness to others

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