Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for May, 2009

Nothing To Be Frightened Of – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 31, 2009

If “Space” is the final frontier then what should we make of “Death”? While our understanding of the former has increased quite dramatically in the recent past, the latter  remains stubbornly elusive – as it ever was since we have become conscious of it. It continues to evoke a primal sense of fear, fascination, resignation and acceptance unmatched by any other phenomenon known to mankind. Maybe it is for this reason that since the dawn of civilization and across cultures some of the greatest names among us have applied their minds to it, many continue to apply their minds and many more will continue to do the same, resulting in a fascinating body of  speculative knowledge. Nothing To Be Frightened Of – the latest book of Julian Barnes is his take on this subject

What starts as an autobiographical sketch covering two generations, quickly turns into a deep personal meditation on the fear of death and dying, god, religion, art and the role of free will. As one goes along Barnes introduces the reader to a rich tapestry of thoughts of some of greatest minds like Flaubert, Daudet, Renard, Montaigne, Maugham, Russell, Camus, Dawkins, Stravinsky and Koestler. The quality of his meditations are intensely personal, intellectually stimulating and carry with them a pugilistic vigour. Written with a sense of gentle humour and endearing irony, the book is an absolute pleasure from the word go. Consider this brilliant reflection: “Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint of condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable ; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts. You would buy shares in death, if they were available; you would bet on it, however poor the oddsor  “We may allow Death, like God, to be an occasional ironist, but shouldn’t nevertheless confuse them. The essential difference remains: God might be dead, but Death is well alive“. There are many pages in the book I turned to again and again for the sheer beauty and originality of Barnes‘s thoughts.

As one reads through the book one gets a sense of Barness’ own position which is a feeling of an overarching sympathy at the predicament of human beings and their consequent behaviour faced with death, an open hearted acceptance of its inevitability and an ineluctable touch of sadness and resignation

Nothing To Be Frightened Of without a doubt is a tour de force and places Barnes as one of the pre-eminent writers of our times. It is one of those rare books which is thought provoking, enjoyable, deeply satisfying and liberating – lending credence to the statement that literature is the truest form of assisted living

Don’t I have any quarrels with this book? I do and it is this: The brilliance of this book is one sided. In the sense that there is a rich body of thought in Eastern religions like Hindusim and Buddhism where the premises of  Life, Existence, Death and its dynamics have been treated in a soul stirring fashion. I hoped to see some of this reflected in the book and was disappointed that there is not even a whiff of it for consideration

As I turned the last page of the book, I was inevitably drawn to my favourite soliloquy on death from Macbeth

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

Nothing To Be Frightened Of  has reinforced the spirit of the soliloquy in me shorn of its resignation and despair.

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The Lemon Table – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 24, 2009

As one grows older, I guess one’s mind starts wandering towards death. Not that one desires and embraces it wholeheartedly, but one starts to move towards accepting its inevitability. While the eventual outcome may be a resigned and despondent acceptance, an individual’s journey of growing old and moving towards this position can be extremely idiosyncratic, quirky and worthy of narrating as stories. That is exactly what Julian Barnes has delivered in his wonderful collection of short stories “The Lemon Table

But why the title “The Lemon Table“?  In Chinese belief system a lemon symbolises death and a lemon table a place where people discuss death and dying without any restraints and hesitation. All the stories in this collection revolve around growing old and thoughts around death. Barnes never allows the morbidity of this theme to come in the way of his narration. With a brilliant combination of humour, irony, pathos and originality of plots, Barnes make these collection of eleven stories into a wonderful reading experience.

Paradoxical it may sound but I have had a grand and joyous feast at “The Lemon Table

In the story “A Short History of Hair Dressing” the protagonist Gregory, revisits his whole life in terms of the haircuts and the displayed behaviour of barbers while giving a haircut. In the process one also gets a glimpse of the subtle changes in the profession of hairdressing over six decades and the softening of the protagonists attitude towards them indicating a growing degree of forgiveness. In a larger sense will this not be the predicament of all of us who grow old? –  from agressive passions and headstrong persistence towards a mellowed sense of forgiveness to all things gone by and all people who tresspass us?

In the story “The Story of Mats Isrealson” one gets to see the reminscence of a dying manager of a sawmill in 19th century Sweden, who revisits his life that passes between his tarmagant wife and some of the expectant moments that he spends with his silent lover who is the village pharmacists wife. Barnes evokes subtle sadness and pathos which takes over gently and leaves the reader pensive

As one grows older some of us become punctilious and pernickety. The story “Vigilance” is about an aging gay whose love of concert music is so pronounced that he justifies and relishes insulting all those patrons who do not behave themselves during the concert. Every man and woman have their indiscretions which remain as secrets. These secrets are either hermetically sealed or revealed only towards the fag end of their lives – the stories “Hygiene” and ” The Fruit Cage” are about extra marital affairs that have been kept as secrets till the end. The stories “Knowing French” and “Appetite” are about senility and the cantankerous edge it assumes. The former written as a form of letter exchanges between a very educated lady and Julian Barnes and the latter as a narration of conversations between a retired doctor and his former nurse and lover and current wife. One gets a glimpse of the tragedy that senility includes

The story “Silence” is about a famous composer who is past his creative prime and who actually awaits his death with an equanimity much to the chagrin of his wife. As I read this story I was reminded of “Interference” – a story from Barnes other brilliant collection of stories “Cross Channel” which is about a self exiled British composer dying on the French soil. Both I would say are brilliant stories

Do I have any complaints about this book? Yes, there is one and it lies in the answer to the opposite of a baker’s dozen –  it is that there are only eleven of these gems available for ones reading. All the stories in this collection are worth reading many times over and in a strange way are life affirming for the sympathy and understanding they engender for the inevitable autumnal phase of our lives. In many ways these stories are a reflection of Barnes genius for short stories

I am told that Barnes has written another book “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” which are his deep meditations on death. I am looking forward to reading this as soon as possible

Afterword: After I have written my impressions on this book, I managed to read a series of reviews by various well known critics on the same. The one written by Ms.Kakutani of NYTimes was peevish with a grudging acknowledgment of the merits of the book. To such learned people there are a couple of things I would like to say:

  • The bulk of readers read books to enjoy, escape, educate and elevate themselves into other dimensions that extend beyond themselves. Any fiction that meets these criteria, in my opinion, is good fiction. What a writer does to meet these criteria belongs to the realms of artistic liberty. Any commentary beyond this stretches a critics’ remit and I am inclined to view this trespassing as mere quibbling and display of hidden jealousy
  • There is no city in the world where statues have been built for critics

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The Importance Of Personal History

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 20, 2009

The tradition of charting and maintaining a family tree is dying a gradual death. My eight year old son while unlacing his shoes after returning from the school hurled a question at me “Nana, what did your great, great,great, great, great, great, great, great, grandparents do?” I replied to him laughing out aloud that they lived in caves. He was puzzled and told me that it was not true. Yes it was not true and I do not know and will never know who they were, how they looked, what they did for a living and what their times were like. The real import of this question did not hit me till my parents came to stay with me after a gap of two years

I was surprised to see how much my parents have changed in the interim – both shrivelled and slowed down a lot. The shock of white hair on their heads was complete. There were times just a few years ago I used to teasingly search for white hairs in my mother’s hair and now I have to search longingly for the opposite. They have aged a lot and quite suddenly. The feeling of suddenness probably was on account of my own unchanged mental image I had of them from my previous meeting. As they were settling down with updates on all the relatives and family friends including details on a couple of deaths and generous additions, I could not stop thinking that one day they too would be gone, leaving some traces for my children and probably none for my grandchildren and their progeny. Looking at my parents sitting and chatting up with their grandchildren, it struck me that they are not mere representatives of lives lived but lives that witnessed some momentous convulsions of modern India. In their own way and like millions of aspiring middle classes of India, my parents did their bit to building modern India. My father with his diligence in his job as a vet and my mother with a superbly refined emphasis on the education of her children. As I sat there thinking about my parents with a deep sense of gratitude and their enormous love, patience and sacrifice in shaping us, it struck me how little I know of their childhoods and their times and what of this will I be able to convey to my children and grandchildren when the time arrives. And even the very little that I know, I appear to be forgetting quite fast. In a sense, I was beginning to lose a huge slice of personal history to the vagaries of memory. I felt a little despondent that there is nothing much that I can do at this stage in terms of recovering the personal past that is rapidly getting lost, except, start building a richly descriptive family tree with the best of available information and keep passing it down the generations which hopefully will be enriched as it goes along

As I was thinking of the ways to document an elaborate family history and more specifically construct a family tree with the finer details of the actors there in and the hurdles I am going to encounter in the process, an unavoidable question around the utility of having a documented family history popped into my mind. How does it help me in knowing who my ancestors were and what they did? Does this exercise have a utility? The dictum that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it may well be applicable to aggregates, but is it applicable to individuals who are mere parts of a historical process? If some great, great grandmother or grandfather of mine was a right wing extremist or a brilliant mathematician or a failed business person or a successful artist, what is it that I am going to derive from it? What is it that I am going to gain deep diving into the past when the whole urge is to drive forward and achieve progress in the worldly sense of the word? These questions puzzled me a bit and I became ambivalent towards the utility of a personal history. I felt I needed to think much deeper than simply brushing off the idea. I allowed all my thoughts to ferment knowing well that anything that ferments will eventually rise up to provide something heady. Eventually it did and I found my answers in two simple but powerful words : Curiosity and Gratitude.

To know what my ancestors were like, what they did, how they lived, what challenges they went through, what were their times like and most importantly what has been the trajectory on which we all stood over a period of time will be an interesting and humbling facet of a personal continuum to explore and understand. In the same breath, to stand where I am standing today, I owe it to successive generations of my ancestors who took it on them – knowingly or unknowingly –  to relay the best they had to their successive generations with the finest of intentions 

Attaching a utilitarian angle appears belittling my own past and not to feel a sense of gratitude would reflect on my own ungratefulness – either of which I loath to be attributed to me

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Grandpa’s Matriculation

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 8, 2009

Grandpa belonged to a generation whose extinction is near complete. He had grown into a young man when India was awakening from centuries of slumber to the idea of nationhood. His was a time when the demands for Indian independence were becoming more strident, confident and the birth pangs of a nation had just commenced. It was by any measure a momentous period. I would give anything to be a part of such extraordinary times.  Yet from what he told me and what I remember of what he told me, he was vaguely aware and relatively uninvolved with this emerging political climate in the country. At best he was on the fringes of the flux. Looking back, I now understand why he was on the periphery of the situation: Our ancestors belonged to the Telangana region of India which was ruled by Nizam -an autocratic vassal of the British. The Nizam entertained and the British encouraged the belief that he was independent and had nothing to do with the emergent India. The British ruled the region indirectly through the Nizam and were never seen in a direct role. As a consequence, the fervour of demand for freedom in our region appears to have remained relatively muted in comparison to other parts of the country. The goods and the bads that the Nizam’s delivered (or did not deliver) was more than sufficient for his subjects to cope and be preoccupied with. Unless one belonged to educated and aware families, one never entered politics and fighting for Indian Independence was seen as politics. For Grandpa and his family reaching a point where having a certainty around making a living assumed a special importance and preceded everything. So liberation of the country and its transition into a newer era were perforce kept where they had to. The route to this economic assurance lay in an education good enough to give a steady job with the Government. In India – definitely then and to a certain extent even now – a job in Govt sector meant/s a life time of safety with a steady salary and a pension there after

Class X or matriculation in India was and continues to be viewed as critical milestone in the life of a child. It represents many things — a beginning of child’s independence, the hesitant arrival on the doorstep to a long and arduous journey into a future with uncertain outcomes, the start of a less supervised engagement with one’s fate, an occasion for familial fracas on the direction to be adopted by the child and above all the judgment on your academic orientation in terms of your fitment to biological or physical sciences, maths, commerce or art. In a way it is the the first significant step towards ones educational silo. Consequently, matriculation exams are treated with a trepidation by both children and parents alike. Only in the last decade or so have things started to relax a bit especially in urban areas. In semi urban and rural areas the aura of a “public” exam continues unabated

Regress in time by seven decades and one can imagine the importance that got attached to these exams in Gandpa’s time. I remember him telling me that not all students could sit for the finals of matriculate exam. One had to clear the preliminaries set in the school to be eligible for the finals and the prelims usually were tougher than the finals. What created an air of haloed reverence for these exams was the process associated with it. There was one identified school for a couple of districts and all the students who cleared prelims from various schools within these districts went to this school to appear for their finals. The answer scripts were marked in this designated school and the fate of the students decided. Students traveling from other districts typically ended up staying at a relative or friend’s place. If you did not have a relative or friend’s place to stay, you ended up staying with your friend’s relatives or friend’s friends. There was no need for setting up appointments or informing in advance. You just turned up at the door and were welcomed with no qualms. Staying at hotels was a taboo of sorts. Grandpa told me that people treated it as a matter of honour to host visiting students only to remark very causally later ” Oh! by the way that boy stayed inour house and studied”. Matchmakers used this an opportunity to assay potential bridegrooms

A wondrous thing about Grandpa’s time was how low the bar was in terms of the academic qualifications to get a meaningful job. One could get a job immediately after completing class 10 or class 12. The income that came along with these jobs allowed sustenance of families without losing dignity. My guess is that in India of those times this was an aspirational state. Grandpa was a matriculate and navigating through the vicissitudes of life ended up being naib tehsildar. By definition a naib tehsildar had  responsibilities revolving around collection of land revenues, settling land disputes and straightening land records. It was an important position with a potential for impact and corruption. He made name for himself as being a sincere and impactful naib tehsildar. Academically Grandpa was not bright but he was worldy wise with a superbly refined sense of earthy humour. This wisdom came from a sharp and careful observation of life and people around him. He could display a kind of leadership that would naturally gravitate his teachers to nominate him to be the monitor of his class. Grandpa’s matriculation and his monitorship are closely linked and here is how it happened….

As part of his exam plans, Grandpa had to sit for five papers viz. Urdu – the language imposed by the Nizam, Science which was an amalgamation of biological and physical sciences, Social studies which included geography, history and civics, Maths and English. He was terribly weak in maths and good at all others. Day one was Urdu. No issues at all. The exam ends and Grandpa being the monitor collects all the answer sheets of all the students in his class, tallies the numbers, seals them in an envelope and hands them over to the invigilator.  Day 2, English – passes manageably. Grandpa hands over the sealed enevelope to the teacher. Day 3 Science — was an uneventful day and Grandpa was dutiful. Day 4 Social Studies – Grandpa’s favourite subject. The day could not have been better. There was a lightness in his step and discharge of duties. The impending doom of the maths exam was spillling poison into what could have been a spectacular day. The sealed envelope reached into the relevant hands in time

The evening and the night that followed was a torture – all attempts of being brave and being sincere could not restore any peace. His mind was in a churn. Then came the brilliant brainwave. Grandpa immediately worked the pros and cons and everything looked reassuring. The sleep that followed was relatively peaceful although not sound. Day 5  and bright as a button but tinged with anxiety Grandpa reaches the hall takes his question paper, walks to his desk and makes a sincere attempt at answering the questions. The first two and half hours were like an eternity. The final bell rings. Grandpa dutifully rises to collect the answer sheets of all others. He promptly tallies all of them, puts them in a envelope, seals and signs on it. The only catch being the number of answer papers in the packet were one short of what has been written on top. He deliberately avoids inserting his own answer paper. It was only much later the examiners discovered that Grandpa’s maths paper was missing. The fact that all his other answer papers were not missing and that he scored well in all of them was taken as a proof enough to declare him as worthy of passing matriculation. After much deliberation the school decided to issue a pass certificate to Grandpa.

Grandpa was now a matriculate ready to take on the challenges of life and that I think he did admirably

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