Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for April, 2008

The Shipping News — By Annie Proulx — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 30, 2008

The redemption of a book, probably, lies in its widespread reading and acceptance by discerning public. I wonder what would the behaviour of books be if they had voices like human beings and somebody dinned into them with a messianic zeal that the purpose of their existence is to find their own redemeption?  I mean, lying on bookshelves, unable to move, helpless, anxious with a desire for their own nirvana they would probably scream at their owners to be read. I am happy that books dont have voices (real or imaginary), for if they really had, I think my house would have been worse than a fishmarket and I probably would have been one of the most shouted at person around. Even the limited collection that I have with me are so under read that a bibiliothical babel would have been an inevitable outcome.

Somewhere between Sept 2003 and June 2005, the London edition of Times ran a promotional scheme for nearly three months where along with the daily edition of the paper on Monday came a free and well written but probably not a very popular book. For want of saving cash while satisfying the need to swell the ranks of my library, I collected almost all of these. The collection included titles by writers like Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower), Andrea Barret (The Ship Fever), Doris Lessing (The Fifth Child), Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Carol Shields (The Republic of Love), Ann Patchet (Bell Canto), Sebastien Junger (The Perfect Storm). Among this list was also included Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News”. I had made a couple of lazy attempts to start on this book but never managed to proceed beyond the first few chapters. Then I happened to watch the movie based on the book and that prompted me to have a serious go at this book. Over the weekend, on a personal trip to be at a family gathering, I appear to have silenced the imaginary voice of this book. Proulx was no new writer to me for I had read a collection of her short stories called “The Heart Songs” long ago and was definitely impressed with her style, plots and astonishing command on language. Despite the familiarity and regard  it took time to sink my literary teeth into “The Shipping News“. Of the few modern writers that I had read, the only other writer I was equally, if not more impressed was Zadie Smith for her sheer command over language. (…very soon I propose to write my views on her book “White Teeth”)

At its core “The Shipping News” is a book about the journey of the hero Quoyle to his ancestral home at Quoyle point and also his ancestral roots. The journey back also provides Quyole with what appears to be true love and happiness in the presence of simple and honest people who have their minor blemishes and lovable idiosyncrasies. The ancestral home has a strange history and is held in place on a large rock with the help moorings on ocean front.

After multiple attempts at having a steady career, Quoyle ends up as a reporter in a local news paper Mockingburg Report in Brooklyn, New York where his education in reporting begins and it is at this time that Quoyle gets married to Petal Bear and very soon their marriage is on rocks for…. Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like rubber glove turned inside out. In another time, another sex, she would have been a Genghis Khan. When she needed burning cities, the stumbling babble of captives, horses exhausted from tracing the reeling borders of her territories, she had only pretty triumphs of sexual encounter. Petal walks out on Quoyle and both their daughters —- Bunny and Sunshine and ends up dying in a car accident. It is during this time Quoyle also loses his parents.

Into this situation enters his aunt Agnes Hamm urging him to start life afresh  — “You can look at this way,” she said ” You have got a chance to start all over again. A new place, new people, new sights. A clean slate. See, you can be anything you want with a fresh start. In a way that’s what I am doing with myself“. The new place is Newfoundland — a predominantly fishing and sea faring community on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The aunt too has her dark and sad past.

Despite the reckless behaviour of Petal, Quoyle continues to deeply love her and at one point time confesses that “I never really knew her,” he said, “except that she was driven by terrible forces. She had to live her life her own way. She said that a million times”…. “Some people thought that she was bad, but I think she was starved for love. I think she could not get enough love. That’s why she was the way she was. Deep down she didn’t have a good opinion of herself. Those things she did — they reassured her for a little while. I wasn’t enough for her“. It is this thought that haunts Quoyle for a long while

With the help of friends Quoyle finds a job in Newfoundland as reporter covering shipping news in Gammy Bird a local paper in which…  the editorial played a stream of invective across the provincial political scene like a fire hose. Harangues, pitted with epithets. Gammy Bird was hard bite. Looked life right in its shifty, bloodshot eye. A tough little paper. Gave Quyole an uneasy feeling, the feeling of standing on a playground watching others play a game whose rules he did not know. The paper is owned by Jack Buggit and run by Terd Card an eccentric and sharp tongued managing editor. Quoyle’s other colleagues are Billy Pretty – a very gentle and knowledgeable man and Nutbeem – a britisher with passion for ships, music and sea food —  You know one of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music……. You know the Chinese have forgotten more about sailing than the rest of the world ever knew. They invented the compass, they invented watertight compartments, they invented stern rudders and the most efficient sails in the world………… It is with the help of these understanding colleagues Quoyle wins the heart of Jack Buggit and earns a standing as reporter despite some hard time given by Tert card

In the meanwhile Agnes starts a ship upholstery business and makes a minor success out of it. Quyole gradually learns the history of the place and in the process also of his past –uneasiness came over him, that crawling dread of things unseen. The ghastly unknown tinctured by thoughts of pirate Quoyles. Ancestors whose filthy blood ran in his veins, who murdered the shipwrecked, drowned their unwanted brats, fought and howled, beards braided in spikes with burning candles jammed into their hair. Pointed sticks, hardened in fire. He also learns the horrible events of the molestation of his aunt by his own father and his respect and love for his aunt takes new intensity

Jack Buggit’s son Dennis Buggit becomes a close friend of Quoyle but he too has his history — Jack does not allow Dennis to go fishing for the fear of losing him as he lost his elder son previously. Dennis while being an excellent carpenter also longs to be a fisherman  “I wanted to fish too,” he said dreamily. “Proper . There’s something to it you can’t describe, something like opening a present every time you haul up the net. You never know what’s going to be in it, if it will make you rich or put you under the redline, sculpins or dogfish. So I wanted to fish. Because the Buggits are all water dogs, you know. All of us even the girls.” Dennis’s family provides Quoyle a great support with his daughters and almost end up providing a foster home

In the meanwhile Quoyle gradually falls in love with Wavey Prowse – the widow of Herold – a man with a gory past of womanising and starts to get a sense of what true love could possibly mean —  On the stairs an image came to him. Was love like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers  as bitter as gall. some blednded honey and poison and some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s eye and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart,another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?

Despite all the precautions he lays for others Jack Buggit drowns in the stormy, cold atlantic waters and survives miraculously. It is this same storm that sweeps Quoyle’s ancestral home into the ocean without a trace. For Quoyle this augurs a fresh beginning and Proulx knits various incidents that happen through the book into a hopeful ending –  if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood. mountain tops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of the hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in abit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

If this is in a nutshell the plot of the novel why was I impressed with this book so much? I think there are five elements in the book that really collared me from the word go this time around

Firstly, it was the outstanding use of language. Proulx weaves magic with words. The control and abandon with which she employs language to evoke the sense of place, people, pettinesses, prejudices is one of the finest I have seen so far.

Second is the characterisation — one has to be an insensitive reader to be not able to remember the characters in this book for years to come after the first read.

Third is the overall sense of story telling — coherent and absorbing

Fourth has been the extent of research into various aspects especially about the absorbing history and fable of the setting. For example Bill Pretty at one stage narrates his past to Quoyle and here is what he says : You ask me, Canada was built on the slave labour of those poor Home children (of whom his father is one), worked to the bone, treated like dirt, half starved and crazed with lonesomeness. Or talking about his father….. And if he got a bit of money he’d order books for us. I’ll never forget one time, I was twelve years old and it was November , 1933. Couple of years before he died of TB. Hard, hard times. You can’t imagine. The fall mail boat brought a big wooden box for my father. nailed shut. Cruel heavy. He would not open it, saved it for Christmas. We could hardly sleep nights thinking of that box and what it might hold. We named everything in the world except what was there. On Christmas day we dragged the box over to the church and everybody craned their necks and gawked to see what was in it…Dad pried it open with screech of nails and there it was, just packed with books. There must have been a hundred books there, picture books for children, a big red book on volcanoes that gripped everybody’s mind the whole winter……. The last chapter in the book was about ancient volcanic actvity in Newfoundland. That was the first time anbody had ever seen the word Newfoundland in a book. It just about set us on fire — an intellectual revolution. That this place was in a book. See we thought we was all alone in the world. The only dud was a cookbook. There was not a single recipe in that book that could be made with what we had in our cupboards. ….Or…

Ar, that? Let’s see. Used to say there was four women in every man’s heart. The Maid in the Meadow, The Demon Lover, The Stouthearted Woman, The Tall and Quiet Woman. It was just a thing he said. I dont know what it means. I dont know where he got it

The fifth, may sound a little crazy, but is the extent of research that Proulx has done into the local cuisine — Any weak willed vegetarian would take to seafood post reading this book

After I read the book I could not but recall the words of Bill Pretty’s father ” Count your blessings that you are in a snug harbour” (and in my case) to have access to the literary output of a writer like Annie Proulx and the inclination to pursue it

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Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny — By Amartya Sen — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 21, 2008

My alma mater –  FMS Delhi – boasts the presence of some venerated educational institutions like Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and St.Stephens in its neighbourhood. It was natural that students of these institutions also came to FMS to pursue a business degree and this resulted in an informal network of friends in these places. DSE and Stephens had a great culture of guest lectures and interested parties from FMS gate crashed these lectures. One such lecture into which some of us gate crashed was Prof. Amartya Sen’s lecture on aspects of Game Theory. The problem that Prof. Sen was tackling that day was: What happens to a rational donkey equidistant from two haystacks? He then went onto resolve the “assinine” problem through techniques of Game Theory. It is a different matter that I did not understand the lecture beyond the initial proposition.  He was not yet a Nobel Laureate then but carried a whispered respect of being next in line for Nobel in Economics. This was in 1994 and we had to wait for another four years to see the Nobel prize being awarded to Prof. Sen. Personally, I felt a surge of pride for all the obvious reasons when I got to hear that Prof. Sen won a Nobel in economics. Barring an article here and there and his penetrating essay “Tagore and his India” — I did not venture to read anything of Prof. Sen, although I managed to collect a few books of his. Then came “Argumentative Indian” (and a superb introduction to it by Sunil Khilnani (..of The Idea of India fame) in The Hindu) and this was followed by “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny“. I managed to read this book over the weekend and should say that it is one of those rare books that is perspective changing.

9/11 is part of our collective lexicon now. Among the many other drastic negatives that it wrought on the world, the most important has been sharpening and thrusting the role of identities of individuals and communities to the centerstage in a much more forceful way than it is necessary and warranted. What this seems to have done is to provide a toehold or platform from where violence, discrimination and stereotyping based on selective identities has started to get legitimised. The progress of this legitimisation has been at the expense of suppressing the natural tendencies for people and communities to have multiple simultaneous identities. It is the role of these identities and the need for understanding and vigorously getting them into the mainstream as a remedial measure for a lot of world’s ills, the subject matter of Amartya Sen’s book “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny

The first three chapters viz. Violence of Illusions: Identity based thinking, Making sense of Identity: Pluraltiy of Identity, Civilizational Confinement set a firm context for the book and the subsequent chapters elaborate and discuss the themes in detail. Prof. Sen makes it clear from the word go that an individual can have multiple identities simultaneously and none of them be mutually exclusive. However, in dealing with plural identities people have adopted 2 extreme approaches. The first extreme of pendulum being Identity Disregard — where all identities get relegated to non existence. This is very evident in the fundamental assumptions and generalisations one gets to see in the area of a majority of social science theories especially in economics around rational agent or economic man. The other extreme of the pendulum being Singular Affiliation where only one identity gets a continued emphasis despite the context alteration. Both lead to problems i.e. of vapid generalisations or straightjacketing of people in society. Even while acknowledging the importance of plural identities, Prof. Sen goes out of his way to emphasise that a specific identity need not have a durable importance and will have to change along with the changing social context. And that in almost a majority of situations people do have freedom in choosing the relative importance of a specific identity. Having said that Prof. Sen quickly acknowledges that there are specific situations where the freedom of choosing ones identity in the eyes of others gets very limited leeway e.g. the perception of a landless labourer in the eyes of his armed landlord in Bihar.  Prof. Sen goes onto emphasise that choices can also be made from encumbered positions that one happens to occupy and that one needs to be aware of the ability to exercise choice.

In the lively essay Civilizational Confinement, Prof. Sen goes onto discourage in no uncertain terms the approach to limiting identities to civilizations as was popularised by Samuel Huntington in his now famous book viz. “The Clash of Civilizations“. There are multiple bases that Prof. Sen points out to debunk this approach of which the most important being that there has been a continuous exchange between civilizations and so no one can and should claim exclusive ownership for what have come to be ideas that are now believed to have originated from their civilizations. For example there is an impression that Tolerance, Democracy, Science are typical values having origins in so called Western Civilizations. Prof. Sen debunks this as a myth and emphasises that many of these values have also been practiced in civilizations that thrived in Asia (India, China), Iran and Africa. On specific conflicts that one gets to see today e.g. Tamil vs. Sinhalese, Prof. Sen goes onto say that it has become a sort of fashion to abstract  what should be limited to contemporary political processes and machinations into higher historical paradigms — ascribing weight and intellectual soundness which they do not deserve in the first place. Cultivated theory, Prof Sen, feels can bolster uncomplicated bigotry. His words on the mistake of seeing India as a Hindu Civilization and thereby denying the syncretic nature of various influences are an eye opener. In a very gentlemanly manner Prof. Sen disagrees with both the approaches of theorists who believe in inevitable clash of civilizations and proponents of civilizational amity — for both in his view have accepted and given into identities that can be firmly tied to civilizations

With this as a background Prof. Sen turns his eye on the topic of Religious Affiliations and Muslim History — where he provides the reader with any number of examples from the past where Muslim rulers despite being Muslims have subscribed to the right of people to have multiple identites and thereby gently draws the reader to the point of futility of a religion centered analysis of people as a helpful way of understanding humanity. He also castigates the American approach to fight Islamic radicalism especially while undermining of the role of civil society all over the world. Also he specifically  deplores the role of western Goverments in not going beyond the Shia and Sunni differences in the muslim world when actually the diversity, outlook and temperament of the Muslim world is vastly wide.

In the chapter called West and Anti West, Prof.  Sen focuses on the role of colonialism in defining identities. The natural fallout in the colonised mind is to have both disaffection and admiration for the colonising power and thereby developing a reactive self perception. This perception has a tendency to gravitate towards rejection of democracy and personal liberty, distorted reading of intellectual and scientific history of the world, support for growth of religious fundamentalism and even international terrorism. In a nice example he dwells on the behaviour of leading lights of the earlier stages of independence movement of India in limiting the intellectual identity to the spiritual dimension leaving out the material dimension. This has been so because in a sense they have accepted the superiority of the colonising power in the area of material. The fall out of this being the neglect or rejection of critical areas related to education, science and development. Elsewhere in Asia this reactive self perception has led to the articulation of so called “Asian Values” of discipline, obedience and order as distinct from the western values of personal liberty and freedom. Prof. Sen argues that this kind articulation does not have any firm basis. He also cautions the western nations that they have immense responsibility for their past deeds as colonial powers in Africa and the need to help Africa build institutional mechanisms to enable root taking of democracy and freedom

In the chapter, Culture and Captivity, Prof. Sen debunks the myth of cultural determinism which in his opinion has been engendered by hazy perceptions of cultures combined with fatalism about the dominating power of culture. This led to ( in Prof. Sens words) the creation of imaginary slaves of illusory forces. The identities that got created on account of this cultural determinism have unleashed tremendous amount of cruelty all over the world.  Prof. Sen points out 2 classic examples of imagined truths and real policies. Firstly, the behaviour of Britain during the Irish Potato Famine, driven by the impression that women in Ireland cannot cook anything beyond potatoes and hence their over dependence on potato as the main ingredient in a Irish meal leading to shortages coupled with the perception of laziness of Irish people. Or that of the tendency of Indians to multiply in uncontrolled numbers leading to famine situations in Bengal. However the reality as we know today lies elsewhere. While acknowledging the role of the potency of culture, Prof. Sen also explains that culture needs to be placed in a broad framework and that culture is a) not uniquely significant factor in determining identities but that it is one among the many factors b)  is not homegeneous and hence a need to have a caution in broad brushing c)  is not still d) interacts with other social determinants. Given these Prof. Sen cautions that it is important to be able to clearly decide before swaying between either extremes of complete cultural liberty and cultural conservatism

In another chapter called Globalisation and Voice, Prof. Sen talks about the progress of globalisation and various voices against and for it. I have kind of understood that Prof. Sen talks about compassionate globalisation which should be combined with judicious policy making. However, I could not understand the linkages between globalisation and identities despite reading this topic twice over.

The penultimate chapter deals with the experience of various western countries with multi culturalism. Prof. Sen deplores the idea of practice of plural monoculturalism as a virtue when the need of the hour is true multiculturalism. While praising Britains’ experimentation with multiculturalism, Prof. Sen also deplores the British Govt’s attitude to encourage faith based schools for people and also putting the religious leaders of different faiths as spokepersons for the respective practitioners leading to automatic association of identities with religion. In an inspiring section in this chapter, Prof. Sen also elaborates the insistence of Gandhiji on the need for plural identities and equal representation to all involved in his negotiations with the British rulers. It is my conjecture that India’s predicament of the past and present with respect to managing multiculturalism can also become a pressing predicament for Britain (if it is already not) or for that matter any other western country with signifcant migrant populations

The last chapter ends with a caution around the penalities of solitarist identity illusion and also a very hopeful message of creating a harmonious world

The only aspect of the book that disappointed me was the lack of reference or citation to specific public policy instruments that have been successfully employed in combating the deleterious effects of identity politics.

All in all “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny” is a illuminating and sensitive book and Prof. Sen comes out as a great mind, a great academecian and humanitarian. It is a tragedy that such humanising views never get the wide attention they deserve in public discourse, forums or media.

An afterthought: I wonder what would the reaction of right wing politicians be when they read this book

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Ten Short Stories of Irwin Shaw I Liked the Most

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 18, 2008

To me a novel is like a marathon and short story a sprint. Both have their difficult sides and both have their grace. I love short stories because the effort associated with them is limited. You can read a few, drop them for a while, pick them up later at convenience and still not lose the joy of reading them. Novel is a one stretch job and in that sense demands a commitment that can at times get sapping. Having said that I always felt that a great novel needs a much grander artistic effort than a great short story. But whoever said that nutritious food is always tastier than snack food despite being more healthgiving?

Despite my liking, I find it difficult to write about a collection of short stories,especially, if there are a multitude of sub-themes, seemingly unconnected, but which start with a promise from the word go, grow vigorously and fade stubbornly – all dealing with the vast array of quirks and impulses that make up a grand thing called – LIFE. Fleeting, fugitive, slippery and making you want more — that is what Irwin Shaw’s stories are. An year ago I picked up a smaller collection of his stories – “Love On A Dark Street” – on the hunch that any author with such a name should be a good writer and it is a coincidence that it turned out to be true. I am hooked ever since . I am reading a collection of his stories anthologised from his repertory that spans over 5 decades — a majority of them truly and utterly brilliant with the originality that matches any of the great past masters of short story genre

I have a weakness for human voices and conversations and prefer them to plots and here they are – a lots of them – real, sad, angry, raspy, complaining, cheerful, frustrated, moody, indifferent, peevish, advising, umbrageous — voices without any traces of suggestive morals or hidden messages — but urgent, getting on with life, egotistic, situational, observing and feeling and all from a noisy throng including – writers, thieves, sailors, drunkards, whores, losers, winners, men, women, boys, girls, farmers, hopefuls, hopeless, expectants, brokers, lovers – steady and jilted — all finely balanced by the authors’ sympathetic and tempering voice – appearing sparingly —  once in a while, only when needed – almost invisible to the readers.

Therefore the best way to write about Shaw’s short stories is to write about some of the chosen gems and see if it leads one somewhere.

The eighty yard run: The uncontrollable and inexorable slipping of good life and the growth of gap between him and his loving wife of a former American football star at the turn of Great Depression. What makes this story poignant is the gradual but the resigned  and helpless acceptance of the situation by the protagonist

Borough of cemeteries: The frustration of two new york cab drivers caught in their daily struggle for life and the immense sense of satisfaction they get in wrecking their means of livelihood — the cabs they drive — which belong to their renting companies and the throwing of their wages away on whisky.  The battered jalopies and the view that ” We are high class spenders” for having thrown their wages on expensive whisky leaves them with immense momentary satisfaction despite the blood, gore and injury which they get into while battering their cabs

Main currents of American thought: The story of a bachelor writer trying to keep his personal and all the needs of his family satisfied through the earnings from his writings. The fact that he is too young to be juggling multiple responsibilities dawns on the reader only in the last sentence which is very carefully crafted – His arm hurt at the shoulder when he threw and the boy playing second base called him Mister which he would not have done even last year when Andrew was twenty four — and the story ends

Welcome to the city: A brilliant story that portrays the loneliness of inhabitants of NY city who chance upon in a hotel. The conversation is fantastic

” I know that face” Enders said. “But from where?” “She looks like Greta Garbo”, Wysocki said “That’s where you know her from”

Suddenly Enders realised that he was a stranger in a strange city, a thousand miles from home, that it was raining out, that he had no girl and that no one in this wrangling seven million town had ever said anything more tender to him than “Pass the mustard”

“The papers are full of boys like him” Josephine was saying. “Turning the gas on and stuffing their heads into the oven. What a night! what a stinking whore of a night! They will find plenty of bodies in the river tomorrow morning”.

Through short sentences Shaw manages to paint a picture of a sliver of the oppressively massive underbelly of a city like New York

The girls in their summer dresses: What starts as a perfect day with a perfect plan of being together – all to themselves, the whole day – at the expense of rejecting a friends offer for an outing in the countryside is completely ruined when the husband bares his innermost (harmless??) thoughts and feelings towards other women he encounters everyday — eventually ending up in the couple accepting the offer of their friend to avoid the suffocation of being together

Return to Kansas City: A wife nagging her boxer husband to allow her to go her mother’s place in Kansas City from New York and he helplessly agrees despite the lack of affluence to afford the expenses of the trip. Physically the wife is frail, weak and puny while the boxer is huge, powerful and driven by the need for rest. The nagging prevails and the boxer gives in

I stand by Dempsey: The story is told through a continuous reference to boxers and boxing but has nothing to do with either. It is about two friends different in their physical and mental strengths and how one dominates the other — utterly. One friend stands for the famous boxer of their times  – Dempsey and the other does not. Truly brilliant.

God on friday night: A simple and charming story of a woman who claims to be a non believer in God but becomes a believer for the sake of Grandson. Superb sense of conversation. Some day I would want to meet people like these in flesh and blood who speak like the way they do. Here is a sample: ” I have done things Ma” Sol said slowly, choosing his words with great care ” that were not good.”
” If we were all angels, we would not need airplanes”
Ma said with an air of finality

Stop pushing, Rocky: The desperate and tiring attempt of an experienced and skillful boxer (Rocky) to keep a greenhorn in the ring for 10 full rounds despite the greenhorn’s indiscipline owing to a verbal agreement taken up under duress. Great craftsmanship at display.   Consider this: ” I did not hit him hard“, Joey protested, “It was strictly a medium punch” “He’s got a chin like a movie star. Like Myrna Loy. He should not be in this business. He should wait on customers in store. In a diary. Butter and eggs” – 2 lines and the personality of the greenhorn becomes very vivid to the reader

Through the book one finds this great capability of painting characters in very vivid terms

March, march on down the field:  What starts as a promising protest by a football team against their manager ends up in acquiescence with the team ending up on the football ground ready to play under harsh cold conditions. You feel sad at the end of the story for the players. Consider a clip of the conversation

“Also,” Scheepers said, there has been some slip up in the helmets. The amateur team that was to play here this morning and leaving the helmets didnt play on account of the snow, so you will have to play without helmets.”                                                                                                                              “Good old Scheepers” said Holstien ” He thinks of everything”
“It was an error” Scheepers said ” An unavoidable error. Lots of guys play without helmets”
“Lots of guys jump off bridges too” said Holstein 

I will continue adding and deleting stories that I like as I go along reading the book and refine my choice. However, the plan is to limit them to ten in all….

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The Grain of Sand That Builds a Pearl

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 16, 2008

Every novel, book, short story, play has a theme to start with and gradually gets built. I have read any number of interviews where writers have confessed that a majority of the times they have started on their work with vague ideas, themes and wove their stories as they went along without knowing how it is all going to end. In this piece I am going to think aloud about one such grain of sand around which a pearl got built. A small detour before I proceed:

Jack London is one of my favourite authors. His novels and short stories are characterised by their virility where tough men, women and animals (especially dogs) get pitted against inclement weather, situations or other human beings. The typical story endings are either the protagonists beat the odds or get smothered leading to ruin or death. Despite these endings almost all his stories reaffirm faith in humanity and its immense resilience in facing odds. He has written two famous novels viz. The Call of the Wild and White Fang. The Call of the wild is about a domesticated dog, Buck, journeying through various ups and downs from the sunny climes of California to end up as a wild dog leading a wolf pack in the Klondike regions of Alaska. The journey of the dog is gradual, bristling with extraordinary struggles, harsh adjustments, quick learnings and full of tenacity. I have read this novel many times over for I always, in my mind, cheered and envied Buck’s journey to complete freedom. On the other hand White Fang is the journey in the opposite direction — A wild dog ending up as a domesticated animal.

So what is the Grain of Sand and what is the Pearl here?   Consider this small poem which is given as preamble to the first chapter of the book:

Old longings nomadic leap
Chafing at the customs chain
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain

In these four lines is the entire journey of Buck to wilderness encapsulated. Over centuries a variety of wild animals have been domesticated for use by man. Dogs and livestock have been first of the lot. Then probably came horses. The frustrating chains and customs of domestication are cut free by Buck to be free and wild. The old longings are the atavistic urges to be wild (ferine strain). These wild urges are gradually awakened from the long slumber (brumal= wintry, frozen) that they have been nudged into by the forces of domestication acting on generations of Buck’s ancestors.

I am not sure if this poem has been written by Jack London himself or he has spotted this somewhere and used it as the necessary trigger to build the pearl of a novel called The Call of the Wild.

It would be my endeavour to collect more examples of these grains of sand from which the pearls get made. 

Need I say who the Oyesters are ??

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What Am I Doing Here — Bruce Chatwin — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 12, 2008

I always believed that books should lead to wisdom and more books. Wisdom — I am not sure, but more books — yes that has definitely been happening to me over the last 10 years. The back cover reviews of Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana mentioned that he was in the league of a Bruce Chatwin. That comparison got tucked away in some corner of the mind. While browsing through the shelves of an old book stall, I found two of Chatwin’s books viz. What Am I doing Here and On the Black Hill. I started on the former with a cursory browsing and by the time I realised a third of the book was read. If ever I can write a book, I would want to write it with the ease and erudition of a Chatwin. I guess it is an art to choose a subject to observe and be objective about it in the representation of that observation. The very fact that one has chosen a subject induces a level of bias. Pure objectivity is probably impossible. The strength of Chatwin is that he comes very close to it and that is what imbues a warm sense of respect for him and his intellect as one reads through his book.

What Am I Doing Here is a selection of various essays, portraits and meditations of Chatwin and each one of them gives a glimpse of the richness of his mind. A mind that is full of essential knowledge and at ease handling a diverse set of topics ranging from the mundane to complex.

The noted essayist Elizabeth Hardwick in a brilliant essay titled: Its Only Defense: Intelligence and Sparkle ( this is her essay on the subject of essay and is available on NYTimes book reveiw section) says: “The essay is not the ground of verdicts. It rests on singularity rather than consensus” . Chatwin’s essays are not only singular but have a style that makes even esoteric topics extremely enjoyable and desire for more.

An aspect that appealed to me is his ability to accommodate vast sweeps of history in a very concise and scholarly fashion. One has to only read Volga to get a sense of Russia and the impact  some of its great sons like Lenin, Gorky and Tolstoy had or George Costakis: The story of an art collector in Soviet Union to get a view of the vicissitudes of art in Russia post revolution. They very clearly demonstrate his immense grasp of the subject and also his ability to make it interesting to his readers. I wonder how many professors of history can do this?

In a similar vein are three essays under the heading China viz. The Heavenly Horses — paints a brilliant picture of the impact of horse rustling in ancient China, The Nomad Invasions — explains the rise and spread of Nomads in China and Middle East and Rock’s world – the impact of China on Tibet as seen from the eyes of a Tibetan family even while intertwining it with the life and times of the American botanist  Jospeh F Rock.

Where Chatwin is at his best is in personal sketches. The one on Andre Malraux – the great french bureaucrat and adminstrator and  Madeleine Vionnet –  the high priestess of the couture are a treat. Chatwin has a knack of being able to portray the history of their times very well and also their wisdom and outlook to many issues and themes. Chatwin while discussing the British Empire with Malraux gets the following from him: “You must not run down the Mogul Empire,’ he said and then rapidly outlines how Akbar the Great was the first muslim ruler to break the anathema and encourage the portraits of himself; how this potent symbol proved him a universalist in the manner of French Revolution; how, therefore, like Napolean he was, and how unlike Queen Victoria; and how this explained why the Muslims made a great civilisation on India and the British never did, comparing the Mogul cities like Agra, Delhi and Lahore with Anglo Indian Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, which he described as ‘transplanted British building suffocated by bidonvilles (shantytowns)’ ….or … in retrospect he believes the most significant fact of the century to be Britain’s abandonment of India and one of its most courageous acts of the Labour Government’s decision to leave in 1947. Once British India ‘a symbol of immense importance’ had gone, any idea of Algierie Francaise was stillborn’ 

Chatwin also travelled in India quite extensively and had a warm regard for the country. In the wonderful piece On the road with Mrs.G (Gandhi) he manages to bring out the personality and a slice of her time immedaitely after emergency to life. Consider this…. I was pro Indira that morning: she seemed so bizarre and eccentric. I felt that anyone who aspired to rule India was bound to end up a bit barmy ….or…. Indira’s views on Margaret Thatcher (which brings out aspects of  personalities of both)….. “Quite a different personality!” she said. ” How that woman wants to be a PM! When she came here to Delhi she was so nervous. I felt like telling her, “If you want to be  PM that badly, you’ll never make it” “  or his wonderful observation of elections in India  ” Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Foreign Minister – perhaps the best foreign minister India has had — was addressing a crowd assembled in the shade. He had silver hair, a square intelligent face, a dramatic use of gesture, and mastery of metaphor. His audience clung to every word. The level of discourse made Western electioneering seem like some barabaric rout. This was true democracy.  He was one of the few people to have recognised the challenges of root taking of democracy in India well before it was a fashion to talk about India (A lot of it has been happening in the recent past — India a super power, India the largest democracy, India a this and India a that…)

(A probably irrelevant trivia: Chatwin does not get the names right. Indira’s private secretary was R.K.Dhawan and not R.K.Dharan. It could have equally well been a printers mistake)

Even while talking about others and other things, Chatwin quietly manages to illuminate his own personality and interests. A humanitarian, liberal, enthusiast, scholarly, anti imperial, art loving, accessible and unassuming individual and more than that. It appears that in this world all precious things are supplied in limited quotas and it is a pity that a gifted, restless and vagrant mind like Chatwin died young at the age of 49

If I were ever to be moored on an island or incarcerated and given the option of choosing a few books — Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here will be first among equals. There are in all 34 pieces in this selection and each one of them is a gem.

An afterthought: In the past I have read pieces by V.S.Prtichet, Pankaj Mishra and now Chatwin — all of them seemed to hold the American literary crtic Edmund Wilson in high esteem. Looks like I found the next area for my literary explorations

I am coming to realise that as a genre Travel Writing can be a flexible and a protean entity. A lot is there to be read and enjoyed

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The End of Suffering — Buddha in the World — Pankaj Mishra — A view

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 11, 2008

I have been curious about and attracted to Buddhism as a religion for some time now. In that long gone phase when I indulged in desultory reading, I had read two books related  to Buddhism or more appropriately put, books that had thoughts involving Buddhism viz. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and The Buddhist Way by Christian Humphreys……. Both have vaguely reinforced my respect and interest in this religion. I think some of the important aspects of Buddhism that make it worthy of being a great religion, as I understand, are:

  1. It starts with an axiom that life is difficult: A practical and elegant way to bring in an upfront acceptance to many things that trouble us
  2. It places the responsibility for alleviation of suffering squarely in the hands of an individual who is trying to get his salvation and points an almost (?) rational way to do that
  3. It drives away the need for God, Fate (?) and the attendant concepts 

I have read different views on Buddhism in different sources e.g. a marxist interpretation being that it is a reaction to the brahminical excesses around asceticism and hence the emphasis on middle path or that it is a religion that is based on a deep understanding of human psychology and in that sense a far more people-centric religion than any other etc etc. Whatever be the views, I have a belief that as a body of thought Buddhism offers something that is inherently of value to us and provides a way of making sense of things. Therefore, once in while I dip into any material that deals with Buddhism. In the recent past I was reading an article by Ramachandra Guha where he heaped high praise for Pankaj Mishra’s  — “ The End of Suffering — Buddha in the world“. That kind of led me to this wonderfully lucid book. That a person can write such a charming book at the age of 36 or thereabouts is a definite sign of being gifted and at no stage of reading this book does Mishra allow this perception to waver or dip. A serene rush of prose with an ability to string things in a fascinating way is all there to be absorbed and enjoyed.

‘The end of suffering — Buddha in the world’ is at the same time a travel book, an introduction to Buddhist thought and a historical commentary on the rise, spread,forgetting and the subsequent renewal of Buddhism including the role of west in re-igniting the interest. While Jorges Luis Borges, Schopenheur, Neitzsche are the famous names that have been associated with the renewal of interest in Buddhism, there have been a large number of unsung Europeans including officials from Britain who have contributed significantly in reducing the historical amnesia that this religion has descended into. Mishra does a brilliant job in tracing this renewal. What I found quite interesting was that a religion which had a strong and defining impact on the Indian philosophical thinking, art and architecture and seen some of the greatest state sponsorship lose its base in India and emigrated to other parts of Asia to find a soil to flourish in. The civilizational impulses within India to give birth to but neglect what has been given birth to remain a paradox to me. Mishra attributes a fair share of credit to west for rediscovering Buddhism.

For anyone interested in Buddhism and want to get a nice view of the core thoughts there in, this is an appropriate book

If one were to ask me to divide all that I have read so far in my life into 2 equal halves then Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha occupies one half and the rest the other. I could not fathom why Mishra refers to this great book as a “cult book” –  a connotation that carries a pejorative tinge with it. I read this book in what I think was a temporarily troubled state of mind and naturally allowed for an enhanced appeal. Notwithstanding that I think it is a wonderful book worth reading many times over.

A word of caution: There are many passages in the book which ought to be read a little slowly and are not easy to grasp as compared to normal fiction

Frontline magazine is publishing a 25 part series on the art history of India and there are any number of pictorial references to the art and arhitecture emerging out of the influence of Buddhism

On a tangential note, I some times despair the way history has been taught to us at schools. A tasteless memorising of facts was all that I could remember. I am increasingly coming to realise that History of “anything” (handled well) can be made into a fascinating subject that can be enjoyed.

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The Avoidable Conversation — A Musing

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 5, 2008

The man walked into the airport lounge quite casually. He was alright for what an old man should be except that he was breathing hard through his mouth and once in a while clearing his throat loudly. He was evidently very early for his flight. With a glance that surveyed his surroundings and a wince that was a result of the effort of bending his knees, he squatted side ways on the edge of a seat. With a jolly looking flushed red face and a body that was showing early signs of reducing rotundity he was like a thinned down, clean shaven version of Santa Claus. Within minutes he was napping. He snapped out of his nap when a young girl with a travelers rucksack passed by and dropped her bag on the floor with a loud thud. The girl gradually started removing what appeared to be excess winter clothes and stopped when she reached her T-Shirt.  She was tall, well built, spectacled and with an unusually open smile. There was indecision as whether or not to remove the scarf. Then this conversation followed:

Santa Claus: “Is that a towel round your neck?”
Girl: “No, No, it is not a towel, it is a scarf!”
Santa Claus: “It does not look like that. Cough… cough… cough… it is cold isnt it? I am back from a place warm and full of sunshine. I seemed to have caught a flue ….. it seems to be blossoming in me. cough….cough…cough…”
Girl: “Oh! I am coming from a place where there is this much of snow. What is the weather like in Britain?”
Santa Claus: “Early teens thirteen… fourteen… fifteen… missed my connectng flight to Birmingham in the morning… got a seat on this flight way behind… dont want to spread the flue… I am told this flue is quite popular in dogs… feelin like a dog …”

The girl smiled and kept quite. She tied her flowing hair carefully into a thin neat bun exposing her neck. Took out a book from her bag and started reading. Santa observed her for a while and went back to napping. When the flight arrived, they went their ways

I was wondering what was the need for that conversation? Will anybody understand the human impulses that have prompted them to engage in such a conversation?

 

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