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Archive for December, 2007

Some Aspects Of Kipling’s Poems — Part I

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 28, 2007

Man: “Do you like Kipling?”
Woman: “You silly, I do not know, I never Kippled”
— Conversation on a postcard that held Guinness record for maximum sales

I always wondered why poems – atleast some of them — appeal more than the best of the prose that we have ever read? I think it is so because poems carry with them four important qualities that make them shine viz. the power of imagery, the power of abstraction, the power of rhyming and the power of brevity. As a consequence of the combination of these four qualities in various degrees, the job and purpose of a detailed and descriptive paragraph is very well met by two lines or a single stanza of a poem. Also the power of rhyming aids in holding an image in mind – probably some sort of visual mnemonics at play. The appeal of abstraction is because it takes us to a higher plane of existence although it may be momentary – equivalent of an emotional high. However, in all this one should not downplay the importance of the cultural context that is necessary for understanding and enjoying a poem. The cultural context very often forms the backdrop or setting against which these four powers show their strength.

Personally, I am a prose lover and like the majority, I need to force myself to read poetry. But whenever I did read poetry, I came back happier, satisfied and with a lingering feeling of being more humane and with a hint of existence of a greater wisdom that is outside of me. Also there is a very assuring sense that some thing that I felt and desperately wanted to say but could not for want of appropriate words got said by others who I do not even know. More importantly they resonate as if they were my own thoughts. This to me is the ever present demonstration of life’s interconnectedness which is a wholesome and exhilarating feeling.

Consider two examples of the play of the poetic powers that I referred to above:

We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease,
We lay on the mats and were filled with peace,
And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south,
With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth

                                          – The Ballads of King’s Jest

What a great way to describe the post dinner state of a human being! There is rhyming, there is brevity and there is superb imagery but is there abstraction? – I am not sure. What is the cultural context here? Beards, mats, mutton-grease and hookah  — where are they to be found? Most probably it will be Middle East or Afghanistan – the picture is complete.  Imagine what an effort it would be to come up with an equivalent description in prose

Alternately consider this

What chariots, what horses
Against us shall bide
While the Stars in their courses
Do fight on our side

                            – An Astrologer’s Song
The above is a marvelous piece that is describing the power of an individual’s fate as an assurance against potential adversities. Once again there is rhyming, brevity and superb abstraction. But what of imagery?  While it is alive, it appears a little weak. Does it need a cultural context to understand what is being said? The answer is a NO

What has all that got to do with this article?
Of late I have been browsing through a complete collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poems and it dawned on me that Kipling was not only a great novelist but also an impressive poet in his own right. Jungle Book and Kim were two of his novels that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. However, his poems are an area where his capabilities come out in full play. In his poems Kipling deals with a vast variety of themes that constitute universal essentials of life’s ordinary struggles. Given his time and place, the life’s struggles that Kipling deals in his poems play out in three distinct spheres. First is the sphere of the lives of English (The firangis) who came to India as part of the Raj. Second is the sphere where the citizens of Raj and natives operated – the former as rulers and the latter as ruled. Third is the sphere where the lives of the natives are seen through the eyes of the English adapting to the conditions of the sub continent. Of course there are many other spheres which I am not considering here

Kipling’s sense of humour was truly outstanding. Consider the poem “The Betrothed” (this will be an all time favourite of mine). Here a young man under the duress of an ultimatum from his fiancée to choose between her or his smoking habit is musing the options. Serene and high quality humour — all for ones taking. Note the following stanzas:

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out
We quarreled about Havana’s — we fought o’er a good cheroot,
And I knew she is exacting, and she says I am a brute
Maggie is pretty to look at — Maggie’s a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass
Maggie, my wife at fifty — grey and dour and old —
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!
Which is the better portion — bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?
This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee’s passion — to do their duty and burn
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba — I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

Alternately, consider the poem Pagett M.P. Out here a prig of an official with assumed notions of promise of life in India arrives with pomp and boast only to beg to return to England within a few months of stay on account of the difficulties he faces  

Pagett M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith, –
He spoke of the Heat of India as “The Asian Solar Myth”

March came in with the koil. Pagett was cool and gay,
Called me a “bloated Brahmin,” talked of my “princely pay.”
And I laughed as I drove from the station, but the mirth died on my lips
As I thought of fools like Pagett who write off their “Eastern Trips”
And the sneers of the traveled idiots who duly misgovern the land
And I prayed to the Lord to deliver another one into my hand

In the same league of comic master pieces is another poem called The post that fitted – where a crafty fellow uses the services of his benefactor to get a good job with the promise of marrying the benefactor’s daughter and ditch the daughter for his own former love feigning epileptic fits where the froth during the fits gets created using shaving cream

Did he, therefore, jilt Miss Boffkin — impulse of a baser mind?
No! He started epileptic fits of an appalling kind.
Of his modus operandi only this much I could gather: —
“Pears’s shaving sticks will give you little taste and lots of lather.”
Four weeks later, Carrie Sleary read — and laughed until she wept —
Mrs. Boffkin’s warning letter on the “wretched epilept.” . . .
Year by year, in pious patience, vengeful Mrs. Boffkin sits
Waiting for the Sleary babies to develop Sleary’s fits

Imagine what the Indian sub continent would have looked like during the times of Kipling! There was no India nor Pakistan and no borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Burma too was part of the empire. Migration for the purposes of trade and livelihood was rampant. And there was a great intermingling of races, tribes, religions, language, people and practices. Kipling had a great eye for the nuances of the lives of natives and this manifested in his poems so very vividly that it unfailingly evokes a haunting nostalgia for a land that has changed forever due to the ravages of time and history. Consider the following extract from the poem “What Happened”

Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, pride of Bow Bazaar,
Owner of a native press, “Barrishter-at-Lar,”
Yar Mahommed Yusufzai, down to kill or steal
Chimbu Singh of Bikaneer, Tantia the Bhil
Killar Khan the Marri Chief, Jowar singh the sikh
Nubbe Baksh Punjabi Jat; Abdul Huq rafiq
He was a Wahabi; last, little Boh hla-oo
Took advantage of the act – took a snider too

Note that just the names of the natives becomes rich material for poetry in the hands of Kipling. Alternately consider this brilliant observation of Kipling on the practice of animal sacrifice in the poem “Man and Beast in India” where a goat laments as follows:

I bear the sins of sinful men
That have no sin of my own,
They drive me forth to Heaven’s wrath
Unpastured and alone.

I am the meat of sacrifice,       
The ransom of man’s guilt,
For they give my life to the altar-knife
Wherever shrine is built

Kipling seems to have had a great ear for the native language for he employs a lot of Urdu words in his poems with an uncommon dexterity and ease.

Doubled taxes, cesses, all; cleared away each new-built thana;
Turned the two-lakh Hospital into a superb Zenana;
Happy, happy Kolazai! Never more will Rustum Beg
Play to catch his Viceroy’s eye. He prefers the “simpkin” peg
When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass

Over a period of time Kipling seemed to have developed a sympathetic view of the East: its people, culture and practices. There are many poems of his where he dwells on these topics. Consider this outstanding poem titled The Ballad of East and West – a near soul stirring poem where the robbery of a horse of an English Colonel by an eastern chieftan is set right by the colonel’s son involving life threatening adventure and in the end the colonel’s son and chieftan become friends with an immense respect for each other 

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

The imagery is quite cinematic  in nature 

Alternately look at his poem titled Buddha at Kamakura and one finds a definite respect for the ways of East:

O ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!

To him the Way, the Law, apart,
Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
Ananda’s Lord, the Bodhisat,
  The Buddha of Kamakura
And whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither creed nor priest,
May feel the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura

As I conclude Part 1 of this musing of mine about Kipling, I am reminded of a wonderful quote from Dorris Lessing – a compatriot – who won the Nobel Prize exactly after 100 years after Kipling which runs like this: “We have a treasure-house – a treasure – of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come on it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be” —

True how empty we would be!! — Well I do not want to think about it

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Trying to Save Piggy Sneed — John Irving — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 24, 2007

“If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” — Frederick Nietzsche

Do Men find books or books find men? This question always nagged me in the past. Over years my own experiences have kind of led me to believe that as long as men try to find books, books also find men. I think it is kind of a reciprocal and continuous process. Maybe there is an undiscovered science to this process which I can’t get my head around, but it seems to work — at least in my case — it appears to. Here is why I am saying this: 

Long ago a good friend of mine handed me over a couple of books of John Irving and urged me to read them. I think the books he gave me were ‘The World According to Garp’ and ‘The Cider House Rules’. Not to disappoint him I took them home and after a fortnight returned the books unread saying that I did not find Irving interesting.Then I happened to see the movie ‘The Cider House Rules’. The movie left an impression on me and ever since I was ambivalent about exploring the work of John Irving. I was sure that I would explore but when and where were questions to be answered in future.  One thing was clear, whenever that future occurred I wanted it to start on something light, something that is gradual, something that is convincing and more importantly the books had to find me. With the reading of ‘Trying to Save Piggy Sneed’ –  which I found while browsing for another book – it appears that the future has come and has all the signs of it being gradual. Convincing and light? I am not sure yet.

The book is a collection of eight pieces of Irving’s writings and include: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Interior Space, Almost in Iowa, Weary Kingdom, Brennbar’s Rant, Other people’s dreams, The Pension Grillparzer and The King of Novel – the last piece being a truly passionate introduction to the life and work of Charles Dickens. Irving is a great admirer of Dickens and admits elsewhere ( in an interview to Powells ) – the influence of the work of Dickens on his own being as an author

For anybody who wants to test Irving this book can be a good (?) starting point

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed

A touching piece about a would be author trying to be kind to the affected party (Piggy Sneed) only in realms of imagination when in real life there is actually a lot of indifference, insult and cruelty. Consider this climactic conversation between the author and his grandmother

‘Why in the heavens name have you become a writer?’ I was ‘her boy’ and she was sincerely worried about me. Perhaps being an english literature major had convinced her that being a writer was a lawless and destructive thing to be. And so I told her everything about the night of the fire, about how I imagined that if I could have invented well enough – if I could have made up something truthful enough, I could have (in some sense) saved Piggy Sneed. At least saved him for another fire — of my own making.

With more pity than vexation, she patted my hand, she shook her head. ‘Johnny dear’ she said, ‘Surely, you could have saved yourself a lot of bother, if you only treated Mr.Sneed with a little human decency, when he was alive.’

Interior Space
An enjoyable one about a urologist and his architect wife, their newly purchased home and its dying owner, a smug neighbour, a common walnut tree and the troubles around it all set in a university town rampant with unchecked spread of vinereal diseases in the student community there in – all woven together in a very imaginative and serenely funny way. Allows us a glimpse of Irving’s capabilities for imagination and putting diverse people and situations together very coherently.

Almost in Iowa

A frustrated husband’s attempt to run away from his wife in his fragile Volvo sedan, the travels across multiple states in the US, his experiences along the way and decision to retun home. A poignant piece that is enjoyable too. First class writing.

Weary Kingdom
What happens when a strong minded individual with independent views and no strict rules of living her life is introduced to a staid place where life is organised and runs according to rules and a well defined power structure ? The story is told from the perspective of the person who is at the top of the power structure and watches the place break away in front of her own eyes helplessly

Brennbar’s Rant
A drunks attempt to justify why pimples can become a form of discrimination more vicious than normally what one experiences when one is a black, weak, poor or intelligent. It is a potent but brief rant well crafted into a situation. Enjoyable

Other people’s dreams
What happens when one has a gift of experiencing other people’s dreams? A sad tale of a recently divorced person experiencing the dreams of his separated son, wife and also parents

The Pension Grillparzer

I have never read anything like this.  A whole lot of improbable things get mixed up in a fantastic way. A tourism bureau inspector on his job to assess and rate hotels, reaches The Pension Grillparzer, along with his family including his mother-in-law where they meet an ageing bear that rides a uni cycle, a man who narrates dreams, a man who walks on his hands and a hungarian singer — all providing strange experiences to the visiting family. It was a hard read and I am not sure if I enjoyed this piece in its totality.

The King of Novel

One of the finest introductions to Charles Dickens – his life and work — mostly centered around his novel ” Great Expectations”.  It is very evident that Irving holds Dickens very high in his esteem. Irving brings out the mastery of Dickens in creating characters, his powers of description, plot and his overall purpose of fighting the social ills of his time through the medium of novel. An essay like this will straightaway earn a A+ had it been submitted for a dissertation for a master’s degree.


As an aside one thing that really attracted my attention in this book was Irving’s view of what it takes to be writer:

“This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writers memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened, the most truthful detail is what could have happened or what should have. Half my life is an act of revision, more than half the act is performed with small changes. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you have not had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation” 

By the way Charlize Theron looks like an angel in ‘The Cider House Rules’. Worth watching for some great acting by Micheal Caine and Toby Maguire

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Our Films, Their Films — By Satyajit Ray — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 15, 2007

It is said that all through our lives we are continuously preparing to live and not actually live. In matters of collecting books this is true as far as I am concerned. I collect books in the hope that I will read them on some leisurely day in future when the sun shines bright and the air is pleasant and all the bothers of life have receded to a distance. Unthumbed they remain on my bookshelf waiting for their day of redemption. One such book is Satyajit Ray’s masterly collection of essays on various aspects of the craft of movie making titled “Our Films, Their Films“. The book was collected long ago but redeemed only recently.

For many, Ray is one of India’s greatest film makers. He painstakingly built a great standing for himself at the national level and also has his place among the pantheon of the best and brightest of movie makers internationally. That his was a life completely dedicated to the profession of movie making is evident from the breadth and depth of issues he touches in this book. The breezy style of analysis, insights, admonishment, references, and views garnished with a dash of humour while making the book an enjoyable read also point to 4 critical aspects of Ray’s relation to his profession viz. 

  1. A deep love for the craft
  2. Independent and original views that have been based on careful observation of trends and nuances of his trade
  3. Fine awareness about the strengths and limitations of the medium
  4. His belief that filmmaking is an artform with a purpose and power second to none other traditional artforms — and the need for it to be treated that way

Structurally the book is a collection of 25  essays divided among various topics covering Indian and Western movies and a few notable personalities related to movies. There is an extremely insightful introduction that sets stage for the rest of the book. Running in parallel to the treatment of the topics, Ray also unobstrusively manages to sketch a history of his own development as a film maker and hints at the various influences and episodes that enriched his perspectives as he grew along. Throughout the book the reader cannot but notice a serene, gentlemanly, unagitated and refined voice of an accomplished scholar of cinema holding forte

I think that for any one interested in understanding the craft of movie making, the history of its development both in India and abroad, some of the notable movies and people behind them this is a must read. While discussing any of these, Ray maintains a continous focus on his beliefs about film making and educates the reader about the theoritical aspects of the world of films. The first 13 essays deal with various aspects related to Indian films including a few of Ray’s experiences in making movies like Pather Panchali and Jalsaghar. In the essay “Four and a Quarter” — Ray brilliantly analyses the work of four of his contemporaries viz. M.S.Sathyu, Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. What really appeals to one in this analysis is that Ray leaves not the slightest of a trace of professional jealousy despite some severe criticism of the artistic merits of their output. In multiple essays Ray also deals in great detail the ills, short comings and constraints faced by Indian film makers. Despite the constraints Ray firmly believes that a film maker should stick to the depiction of centrality of human impulses in his/her films. In a fine essay titled “What is wrong with Indian films?” Ray identifies the ills as follows:  “What Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity and more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium”… and “our cinema needs above everything else a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and reconizably Indian”.  In conclusion Ray neatly summarises that “the raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open and his ears. Let him do so”

Similarly in the balance 12 essays on film world outside of India, Ray introduces the readers to some great personalities like Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Within these there are seven essays in which Ray covers the movie oeuvres of five countries that seem to have made their mark in the world of films (and also on Ray the film maker)  viz. US, UK, Japan, Italy and Russia. For any one interested in exploring the movies further, these essays undoubtedly would be a fine starting point. In a truly brillaint essay called “Hollywood Then and Now  ” — Ray displays an astonishing grasp of the history of emergence of Hollywood over five decades. Similarly in the essay – “Thoughts on British Cinema” – the reader once again gets to understand the rise and fall of British cinema and social setting that enabled it

I hold a belief that books should lead one to more books but in this case this book will lead any curious reader to more movies

A word of caution: the last of the essays in this book is dated 1972 and much has happened in the world of cinema since then. The scale and innovation have changed quite dramatically. For example one does not see much of a commentary from Ray on animation and science fiction movies. Ray with his strong views around the need for centrality of human impulses in movies would not have probably preferred to consider them seriously — but that is anybody’s guess. Notwithstanding this “Our Films, Their Films” makes an extremely interesting read and gives a very fine introduction to Ray the film maker, film scholar and a great artist of our times.

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India After Gandhi – By Ramachandra Guha — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 5, 2007

I read Ramachandra Guha’s “India after Gandhi” with interest. Without a debate, it is a whale of a book for its sheer size  and a fascinating record of modern Indian history replete with facts, quotes, anecdotes and analysis. Guha starts with an assertion that history of modern India stops after 1947 and hence a need for a book like his — which I think is utterly true

Contemporary history for a lot of people belonging to our generation unfortunately is wrapped in a permanent sense of amnesia and this gives birth to a very peculiar problem: that of leading us away from having empathetic and considered views on the state of very many things around us as they manifest to us. This is partly because of our lack of interest and also partly because of non availability of distilled and easily accessible record of history. A direct consequence of this is that we are frustrated and become judgmental on a whole range of issues. Especially questions like why are we so poor as a country? why have we embraced secularism? why do we have a public sector? why is our education system the way it is? why have politics as practiced in our country descended to gutter level and never ever show a sign of hope of taking a turn for the better? what impulses drove the making of our constitution? why did we proclaim a non aligned policy in the realm of international relations?…. and many more of this ilk beg  considered answers. One needs to have a credible historical context to understand them. However, that crucial historical context and the ups and downs in the progress of modern Indian history are not structured in our minds to be referenced readily. This book does a great job of stacking it up extremely well for folks interested in exploring these areas and understand the gradual unfolding of our modern history.

That it took nine years of hard work indicates that is a wonderful product of a gritty labour of love.

On a personal level, the real brush with events that have been narrated in the book commence with a vague remembrance of me going along with my father to a meeting called for by Janata Party in Warangal to see Morarji Desai. My sense was just limited to the fact that there was a massive change in the political arena of the country but did not know what exactly it was. I remember people talking about “Emergency” and that police could beat you up or arrest you without any rhyme or reason. They confirm that it was so in those days for a brief while. But that’s a deviation from the subject at hand. 

Books among other things should also lead one to more books. “India after Gandhi” does that swimmingly well. It satisified my intellectual hunger in one area even while arousing it in multiple other areas. For example now I am curious and ready to read Granville Austin’s books on making and workings of Indian Constituition, S.Gopal’s biography of Nehru and also know more about some stellar national leaders and bureauacrats who have laid the foundations of Modern India — I especially want to know more about Sukumar Sen — the first Chief Election Commissioner of Independent India, Sardar Tarlochan Singh — the man who oversaw resettlements in Punjab after partition, PK Menon — the man who managed to annex nearly 500+ princely states into India after Independence etc. These were men of great energy, integrity and genuine desire to build a newly born nation. A race that is sadly unsung, forgotton and extinct.

It might not be an exaggeration to say that the history of modern India in some sense has largely been defined by Nehru. Nehru’s role, vision and approach still reverberates even after decades of his absence from the scene.  This book ensured that my respect for Nehru has risen manifold and I would not hesitate to rank him among the greatest of visionaries, humanitarians and nation builders this planet has seen — despite the trying and delicate circumstances he was in on the one hand combined with his own shortcomings and mistakes on the other.

A couple of years ago I had read Sunil Khlinani’s – Idea of India – and was dazzled by his grasp of various aspects of Indian history and the narrative style. The narrative style employed in this book — especially dovetailing quotations from various people as a matter of fact — make it quite enjoyable and gives one a feel for the pulse of things that existed then and constantly reminded me of Khilnani’s work. The riotously funny Shashi Tharoor’s “The Great Indian Novel” — also has started making much more sense than it did when I first read it

Books as they say are not meant for decoration, but unintentionally they are the best decorable things that one can have.  This book – in my opinion – will remain one of the most authoritative introductions to modern Indian history and I am sure will find a permanent place in the bookshelves of many a serious and curious readers all across India if not  all the indophiles across the world. To borrow a phrase from a dated issue of illustrated weekly – “India After Gandhi” is at once “eclectic, prophylactic and didactic”
I strongly urge you to read it.

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