Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for May, 2008

On having a son and after…..

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 22, 2008

Being a father  Is quite a bother. 
You are as free as air  With time to spare, 
You’re a fiscal rocket  With change in your pocket, 
And then one morn  A child is born. 
Your life has been runcible,  Irresponsible, 
Like an arrow or javelin  You’ve been constantly travelin’. 
But mostly, I daresay,  Without a chaise percée, 
To which by comparison  Nothing’s embarison. 
But all children matures,  Maybe even yours. 
You improve them mentally  And straighten them dentally, 
They grow tall as a lancer  And ask questions you can’t answer, 
And supply you with data  About how everybody else wears lipstick sooner and stays up later, 
And if they are popular,  The phone they monopular. 
They scorn the dominion  Of their parent’s opinion, 
They’re no longer corralable  Once they find that you’re fallible
But after you’ve raised them and educated them and gowned them, 
They just take their little fingers and wrap you around them. 
Being a father Is quite a bother,
But I like it, rather
 

    ———- Ogden Nash

Jay, my good friend on campus was always teased for making oracular statements. When I was getting married he told me: “Once you get married your life is going to change for ever”. The bachelor that I was, I almost laughed at him. However, life did change for me. In fact it did change a great deal despite my ability to resist and comprehend and aided by a few simple tricks to maintain a marital harmony. I followed a simple principle which kept my married life blissful:

To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.

Two and half years later I broke the news of our impending parenthood to Jay again. Once again his oracular instincts were up and he made a similar statement. This time round I was cautious and refrained from making any snide remarks. It was the case of once bitten twice shy. It is true. Life does change once you have a child and in my opinion it changes for the better. For many, marriage and children are positive checks. If at all anything they instill a sense of responsibility, a sense of wholeness, a sense of joy, a sense of purpose and above all a sense of apprehension

When I saw my son in the hospital for the first time I was awash in a flux of emotions and thoughts which ran as follows:

Be it a girl, or one of the boys,
It is scarlet all over its avoirdupois, 
It is red, it is boiled; could the obstetrician
Have possibly been a lobstertrician? 
His degrees and credentials were hunky-dory,
But how’s for an infantile inventory?
 

My first reaction was a sense of cautious hesitation in touching him. Yes hesitation!. A tiny little ruddy mass with uncoordinated movements, sporting the contours a human being squeaking and crying for attention and nutrition. Then it turned into a sense of guilt for entertaining such thoughts about a helpless little infant who is my own. Immediately after this I was inundated under a gush of indifference.  Then there was a rush of love. (While the first three feelings cumulatively lasted for at most half an hour the last feeling has persisted and is growing by the day).  It was at this point I started observing my son carefully, oblivious to the stream of congratulations that were pouring in. I started telling myself the following:

Here’s the prodigy, here’s the miracle!
Whether its head is oval or spherical, 
You rejoice to find it has only one, 
Having dreaded a two-headed daughter or son; 
Here’s the phenomenon all complete,
 It’s got two hands, it’s got two feet, 
Only natural, but pleasing, because 
For months you have dreamed of flippers or claws. 
Furthermore, it is fully equipped:
 Fingers and toes with nails are tipped; 
It’s even got eyes, and a mouth clear cut; 
When the mouth comes open the eyes go shut, 
When the eyes go shut, the breath is loosed 
And the presence of lungs can be deduced. 
Let the rockets flash and the cannon thunder, 
This child is a marvel, a matchless wonder. 
A staggering child, a child astounding, 
Dazzling, diaper less, dumbfounding, 
Stupendous, miraculous, unsurpassed,
 A child to stagger and flabbergast, 
Bright as a button, sharp as a thorn,
 And the only perfect one ever born

Honestly, I could not make out anything of his resemblance to me. The confusion aggravated on account of various interpretations of my near and dear ones. Towards the evening I left the hospital with a feeling bordering almost on certainty that he resembled my wife more than he resembled me. I was a relieved lot for they say that a son who resembles his mother is lucky. And as Somerset Maugham once said “In the long run it is important to be lucky than to be clever or intelligent or rich”.  My parents were ecstatic to see their fourth grandchild and I overheard my father say to himself:

Senescence begins
And middle age ends 
The day your descendents
Outnumber your friends

I returned to my place of work with the thought and shared the good tidings with friends and colleagues. The inevitable distribution of sweets followed. It was after two weeks that I returned to see my son. I was amazed at his transformation. He was different from what I saw of him at the hospital!! There was a perceptible weight gain and now he was not looking like my wife anymore!!. Whether he resembled me I still could not make out. The first thing that I noticed to my horror was that his sleeping patterns were exactly 12 hours out of sync with my sleeping patterns. His nights were our days and his days our  nights. Then followed a saga of soiled clothes, sleepless nights and diaper changing till I returned to work

It was not before another four weeks that I could lay my eyes on the little fellow again. Six weeks and a doting mother can do wonders to an infant. Weight gain was unabated. Now I could identify his facial orientation. The shape of his head was akin to mine but with all the features of his mother. I am now happy that he resembles me a bit

I am introspective by nature. Even as a part of my mind was trying to grapple with issues of resemblance, features and habits of my kid, a large part of my mind was actively planning for his future.   As mentioned earlier bringing up a child instills a sense of responsibility, joy, purpose and challenge. I think that the greatest joy of parenthood is to see a young mind flowering to full bloom under ones guidance. While being a source of joy it is also the fountainhead of one of the biggest challenges of parenthood. How do we as parents imbue our child with a love for education, a passion for knowledge, a general respect for all positives of life and a sense of discernment to separate frippery from fine shine? How do we equip him to differentiate the good from the bad, the chaff from the grain? I and my wife do not have answers for many of these questions. Honestly, not even a nebulous roadmap. To shoulder this responsibility which can result in uncertain outcomes and to succeed at it is probably going to be the biggest learning of our lives. As Oscar Wilde once said: “Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them

I am of the opinion that a lot of parents equate shouldering the parental responsibility with an automatic right to thrust their unfulfilled wishes and desires on to their kids lives. We solemnly vowed that we shall not do this. Responsibility in my opinion is to provide the child with appropriate resources, create awareness of his potential and the numerous possibilities in front of him and equipping him with the ability to choose the right path for himself. Without a doubt this is going to be a tight rope walk demanding for a fine balance from our side. As young parents we only hope we will succeed in this project of ours.  As a parting thought for all the young parents and the parents to be, I quote a poem by Kahlil Gibran about the predicament of parents

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable

(This was a piece I wrote in 2001 and am rehashing it. I was introduced to Ogden Nash‘s poems and also had our first addition to the family at this point in time. I thought I will experiment a bit by rallying my thoughts around some poems of Nash)

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Working — People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do — Studs Terkel — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 19, 2008

Systematic documenting of “Oral History” is a relatively new concept and has become widely popular in the early twentieth century. Oral historians attempt to capture views of multiple people who have witnessed an event or an era and try to figure out some common themes. The predominant recording method is mostly free flow interviewing. It appears that questions are used mostly as props or guides to get the maximum from the interviewee. What is interesting about these interviews is that they provide a reader with raw, unanalysed material and one gets to see a lot of authentic voices, feelings and interpretations of a subject on hand. This diversity of thought about the same subject makes oral histories as interesting as academic or interpreted histories

I am a conservative reader in the sense that I do not display courage in picking up books/authors on my own. Most of my reads have been introduced by some one else. I can never pick up an author whose name I have not heard before. If my memory serves me right the only author I picked up on my own was Martin Amis and it was an effort. I have no complaints about this situation of mine for I do believe in received wisdom. When it comes to reading I prefer the road well travelled

Quite sometime back a good friend of mine suggested that I read the books of a writer called Studs Terkel. During the time of his suggestion I was on an year long assignment at Frankfurt and I was more than delighted to find his books in Frankfurt Central Library. Actually, more than delighted I was impressed, surprised and frustrated — all almost at the same time. Delighted that I had some unusual books on hand to read, impressed that in the small but well stacked section on English literature of the library that Terkel has managed to make place for himself, surprised because I least expected to get his books and frustrated that upon my return to India, I will never have access to the treasue trove that was in the library. The first behavioural signs of an imagined famine I am told is hoarding. It happened with me too. I checked for the inventory of Terkel’s titles in the library and picked up both the books that were available on the shelves for reading. These books were — “The Good War – An oral history of WW II” and “Division Street: America“. Nothing prepared me to deal with a genre like this. Both were fabulous and absorbing reads. After returning to India I happened to chance on another book of Terkel viz.  “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith“. This book is about a cross section of people talking about their views/notions on life, death and faith. I had this supercilious notion that topics like Life, Death and Faith are too vague for ordinary people till I read this book. The views that people articulate are no less sophisticated and well considered than some of the great philosophers we get to read and hear. My affair with Terkel’s books continues and to my collection now, I have added some of his gems like “And They All Sang (A book on the music scene in America. A one liner definition of blues music remains etched in my mind forever. “What’s blues music? It’s nuthin… It’s a good man feelin bad“),”Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” and his crowning jewel “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”

I came to gather that Terkel shot into real limelight after he published “Working“. The concept behind the book is very simple i.e. make a cross section of people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. The cross section involves labourers, farmers, farm hands, social workers, a waitress, a hooker, sports people, people associated with music, priests, policemen, firemen, security guards, housewives and many more. The outcome of this effort like all his other publications is truly heart warming. Terkel makes people express their innermost feelings about work and their outlook to work. I am not an academic nor am I well versed in the academic theories behind various genres of books and writers. I am an ordinary reader looking for some education and enjoyment from the stuff I read. Going by these measures I would rate “Working” as one of the most wonderful books I have come across so far

So what is the appealing aspect of “Working“? I feel there are many. First and foremost is the authenticity of the voices. Terkel makes people talk freely and without any inhibitions. The feelings and emotions that get poured are truly genuine and humbling. I have had close to 17 years work life and if I had the discipline of keeping a record of what I felt about work through my career, I am sure I could easily match and identify with a majority of views that people have expressed in this book. More than that if only I had come across these early in my life I would surely have internlaised some of them for my own good. This life educative dimension is the one that was very appealing to me.

Secondly, one gets to see uncommon wisdom from so called “common people”. Some of the thoughts expressed by people are so profound and so pregnant with meaning that one stops in ones tracks while reading through the book. And all that they are saying is also being practiced simultaneously. The positive fallout of this will be that here on I will be looking at people in other professions in a different way. I am sure from indifference I will move to tinge of respect and the silent recognition that each one has her own rightful place under the sun

Thirdly one gets to see a fine balance. A balance between the compulsions of making a living through work and the need to live life on ones own terms. It is tough balance and is a tussle that is universal to nearly all working men and women. It is this universality that I as a reader could identify with all through my reading

Fourthly, Terkel makes a nation talk. The breadth of society that he meets is an accurate representation of America itself. Making such a bubbling cauldron speak in a calm, controlled and meaningful way is a rare skill which is only possible for a person of Terkel’s caliber. Real human beings are the core of his book and the human touch that makes a great read is all pervading

Lastly, the most important aspect has been the documenting of changing views on work itself – a wonderful reflection of a society that has seen enormous transformation on account of entrepreneurship, industrial growth and automation driven by technology. All in all “Working” has been a wonderful read and has been very different from any of the books I have read before

On a different note Shashi Tharoor likened India to a fully served thaali. I think that India too would make a wonderful material for oral histories. I am not sure if there have been focused attempts to capture oral histories in our context. If yes, I would like to know some sources that I can explore and I am sure it would be an interesting and enriching experience…. 

______________________________________________________________________________________________   

Afterword: Mr.Terkel passed away on Oct 31, 2008. BBC 4 ran a 30 minute profile on Studs Terkel on Nov 18, 2008. It was a rapturous experience watching this man in action. There was an air of well read, respected, loved, mischievous and wise grandfather about him

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Tom Wolfe’s — “A Man in Full” — The views of an nth stooge

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 16, 2008

Micheal Lewis’s Liars Poker is a “hilarious in bursts” kind of a book about the world of investment banking. It has been an enjoyable read and is a good document about the people and corporations that form part of the esoteric world of high end finance. It puts the spotlight on their behaviour and the animal spirits that come to fore during times good and bad. That this book is a realistic document and provides an accurate picture of the happenings in the world of finance is indisputable. But does its adherence to realism of this nature allow it to be classified as good litarature or even literature? My unequivocal response will be in the negative. That it is not great literature will neither reduce its popularity nor its rightful place in my collection. It is a book that one reads, enjoys and returns to its place on ones bookshelf. And if an occasion demands in an informal gathering, when somebody were to ask you if you have read it, you will nod your head, say a couple of things about it and move onto another aspect of the ongoing conversation. You would not seriously discuss it.  Despite its realism why would such a book not have the gravity that other good books that we read? I think simply because it is topical and will not have a huge relevance to a readers life. It is not portraying life in its full complexity and real human beings are not the center of it. It will not tug any cord in the reader, nor does it humanise, sensitise or enable the reader identify with a larger scheme of things. In that sense it is a soulless book. Therefore in my view it will never ever be a great literature or a great novel.

Now that kind of leads to an important question: What is great literature? It is my view that great literature is something that touches some core pulse in you as you read through it…humanises you by asserting or awakening the importance of time cherished fundamental values in you as a reader  ….makes you complete, sensitises the reader to his position in the confusing scheme of things that he is born into, builds a modicum of acceptance of things at hand and sustains hope and belief in the fairness of things around him… despite the dark forces that she is forced to interact with. That to me is great literature

But why this preamble? I have just completed Tom Wolfe’s highly acclaimed ” A Man in Full“. It was without a doubt an enjoyable read. Immediately after its publication it kicked a literary dust of storm with John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer declaring that this book cannot be considered worthy of classifying as literature. In precise terms each of them had the following to say:
 
John Updike(A Man in Full) is entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.  Norman Mailer : “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” John Irving: “yak”….. “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction … He’s a journalist … he can’t create a character. He can’t create a situation.”

As expected a writer of Wolfe’s caliber and reputation would not take it lying down and especially criticism of this book which took 11 years to write. As a counter punch he wrote a now famous essay called ” My Three Stooges” where he trashed the observations of these three eminents writers of America as people inhabiting imaginary literary worlds and that they have to include realism of their times and life around them into their work. In no uncertain terms Wolfe asks them to get off their high saddles. Besides the literary pugilism that is on display, Wolfe also uses this essay as a medium to present his views on rise, decline and fall of the American Novel in the 20th century and its root causes. The views presented are refereshingly new and quite thought provoking.  Elsewhere Wolfe also warned that if the literary trio don’t embrace “full-blooded realism, “then their reputations are finished.” He also offered Irving some additional literary advice: “Irving needs to get up off his bottom and leave that farm in Vermont or wherever it is he stays and start living again. It wouldn’t be that hard. All he’d have to do is get out and take a deep breath and talk to people and see things and rediscover the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre country around him: America.”

Yet if one were to apply the same judging criteria that Wolfe describes in his essay to “A Man in Full” — I am not sure if his book will pass the test. For example let us take any of the characters that Steinbeck has created in Grapes of Wrath — Ma Joad, Tom Joad, James Casey — one will remember them for a long long time — they are real life characters – full of scars and beauty spots that life has given them.  The question is who in Wolfe’s characters has that sturdiness? A man like Charlie Croker who can rustle up USD 500 Million debt from the banking system increasingly starts looking like a clown making the silliest of mistakes. In the place of a tenacious empire builder you get to see the bumblings of a buffoon and weakling and that to me sounds quite unrealistic. “A Man in Full” is littered with such characters — Conrad is another feckless character that one gets to see. I did not find the depth in many that can be reckoned as great characterisation

On aspects of creating realistic situations too I felt that Irving was correct to a large extent. However, Wolfe does display, at places, a highly refined sense of situation building. One only has to look at the so called “workout sessions” by the bank’s recovery men while attempting to recover debt from Charlie Croker — absolutely hilarious. More appealing are the situations that describe the “post workout session” confabulations of the bank officials — which is how banks are. Contrast the jail situations in ” A Man in Full” with similar situations one finds in say Stephen King’s “Green Mile” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’sOne day in the Life Ivan Denisovitch“. I found that Wolfe’s depiction despite being realistic (read brutal), inexplicably, does not have the human element and anguish. There are any number of examples that can be pointed to in this book where the human touch is not palpable. There is something synthetic in the texture of the book which I could not lay my hands on clearly. In a 700+ page book one expects to a see many more realistic yet appealing situations which are coherently knitted and I did not find them

The plot is fairly well constructuted with multiple threads starting independently and gradually gets knitted into a single coherent scheme

Where I think Wolfe excels is in his ability to accurately portray the diction of a variety of people that he populates his book with — Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites from down south… it is an extraordinary talent at display. In my limited reading I have seen that kind of ability in Anne Proulx, Zadie Smith and to a certain extent in Anne Donovan’sBuddha Da” (scottish accent)

Wolfe has been credited with immense ability to portray the Zeitgiest of America during the 80’s. In the book America comes out as a soulless place devoid of warmth and compunction.  But is America a soulless place that Tom Wolfe makes it out to be? I am not sure. The political and financial systems during the time of writing this book may have descended into that state of soullessness yet the greater majority of average Americans, I am willing to believe are warm and senstive despite what people comment about America. They are the ones who make America the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre place that Wolfe thinks it to be. It is this multitude and their presence that is completely missing in Wolfe’s book.  And that to me has been the most disappointing aspect of this book

John Irving once said that “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…..” Wolfe sticks to what has happened and therein probably lies his failure to make “A Man in Full” from a good read to a great read.

Having said all of the above I still feel that Tom Wolfe is one of the greatest chroniclers of our times. One only has to read his essays in his subsequent book viz. “Hooking Up” to understand and agree with what I am saying

I am sure that when the debate raged about Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” many would have taken sides. Going by the criteria that Wolfe laid out, anyone who has not liked his book for lack of percieved characterisation, situation building and the conventional “literary” touch would have been on the side of the “Three Stooges” characterised as yet another inconsequential stooge. If that has been the criteria then………… I am willing to be Wolfe’s nth stooge in the debate

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