Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for August, 2009

God Bless Mr.Singh!

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 19, 2009

They say that every person has at least one novel in him. I did not believe this till I met Mr. Singh. Mr.Singh stays in our neighbourhood with his son’s family – wife, husband and two children. My interaction with him was on the way to my sons’ school where he too came to drop his grandchildren. He always greeted me with the same one liner “Helloo, you a’right?” It was a typical English greeting shorn of adding a “mate” at the end. Not only the construct but the pronounciation was also typical english. My response was always limited to a nodding smile. I never ventured to extend my conversation with him beyond these routine courtesies. Tall, hefty, bald, pot bellied, mildly limping and with a toothless and kind smile, Mr.Singh was role model of a grandfather. He appeared to know all the parents who came to drop their kids at the school and indulged in small chat with many of them simultaneously even while keeping a watchful eye on his grandchildren. He lingered in front of the school beyond the in-bell, looked to see that his gandchildren were embedded well in the school and then walked back to his residence after having touched base with as many parents as possible. So I was surprised when on returning from a morning jog on a saturday that I found Mr.Singh sitting in our main hall and chatting away happily with my father and my wife

“Ki haal hai puttar?” he said a little loudly in punjabi and smiled at me when I walked in
“Fine, Thank you uncle” was my reply

Among Indians any elderly person is called an uncle till a formal relationship is established. Most of the times even after the relationship is established one continues to be called uncle. If you were a college going student and a child called you uncle before your classmates only God can stop you from being ragged by your friends. Similarly a lady who is referred to as aunty indicates that she is putting on years. Old people are automatic Grandpas or Grandmas. I smiled at the thought of the unique liberty Indians take with relationships – a harmless technique to achieve a quick inclusiveness
“Myself D. Singh. I staying in 44 wordsworth avenue. Ajay and Mani are my grandchilds. .. you see” was a quick introduction from Mr.Singh

“Oh I see. Isn’t it the house right in the middle of the T-junction? Have you been staying here for long uncle?” I asked  to keep the conversation going. I was also surprised at the quality of english he was speaking for my initial impressions were that he was a naturalised citizen of England and hence his spoken english would be flawless

“Long? No. Only phour years in Strafford but I stay in Leamington for long. Phoorty years!” was the reply of Mr.Singh as if extending the word forty would give me an accurate sense of the duration which I otherwise would have missed

“That’s a long period uncle” I smiled. “So you have seen England changing. That must have been very interesting. How was it uncle?” I asked with a genuine sense of curiosity in my tone.

Mr.Singh remained silent for a while looking at me. I had this brief gnawing sense that I touched a raw nerve somewhere and was beginning to regret asking the question when he started speaking again ” I no education. Came to England when I was just like you say eighteen year lad. My grandfather stay in Leamington so I come to Leamington. Leamington a nice town those days. Lot of our Punjabis staying in Leamington “. I was a bit surprised that he mentioned his Grandfather and not his father and since Mr.Singh was comfortably animated I thought I will find out a bit more
“Uncle did I hear you say Grandfather?” I asked

“Yes Grandfather. My grandfather soldier ..world war 1. He was on ship. Singapore, HongKong, China, Malaysia, Indonesia. He see world and come to England nineteen phorty phive. He go back only for visiting relatives and friends you see. My grandmom die when my grandfather was sailing Indonesia. My father not come to England. He liked Punjab and stay back. My grandfather marry a chinese woman in Leamington. They have two child. My uncles half chinese. My chinese grandmother learn punjabi. She speak fluent punjabi. You see all my relatives punjabi and no one speak chinese. So grandmother learn punjabi” I was amazed at this slice of history that had a mixing of unlikely races – a sturdy punjabi with chinese. Now the conversation started to acquire a free flow feeling and I kept my questioning on.

“So Uncle where are your step uncles? Do you meet them now?” I asked
“Yes, yes, yes, I meet regularly on Indian and Chinese festivals… we drink beer together… sometime lot of beer we drink, three pint – phour pint… I like chinese food. My chinese grandmother died two years ago. She like my grandfather lot”.

My father and my wife remained silent through the conversation. They were listening to what was getting poured with polite smiles on their faces

“Uncle how about a cup of tea or coffee?” I asked
“No coffee. No english tea. Chai I like. English tea very weak.. like hot water. I not like it” replied Mr.Singh.My wife walked into the kitchen quite relieved at this diversion
While we waited for the chai to come I asked “So what did you do here Uncle? In England……….. I mean”

Mr.Singh laughed a little loudly and replied ” You see I no education. Grandfather told “puttar there is lot work. Work hard and make money”. I work. In factory… car factory… in foundry at Coventry… you see life very tough… lot of dust and smoke in foundry.. dust go into eyes, ears… I do many things… work in car paint booths… too much dust…everyday I drink two pint or three pint… all dust go away in toilet… some white workers call me boy.. boy get this… boy get that… I do get… they like me and I drink with them beer…. they drank lot… phor pint or five pint in one sitting…. pub just in front of factory…. meeting take place in pub. Beer cheap. Now beer expensive. Too much tax now. Grandfather get me a car… I was boy but I have car… I drop all white men in Coventry, Leamington, Redditch. I pick them in morning…. I charge them for car ride… I make good money you see…. Grandfather do business… he does this house buy and house sell business.. real estate… I learn business in the evening… very fun… I start side business… house buy and house sell…. in 1960 lot of factory in Coventry… lot of worker looking for house… I buy and sell house… make money… I get in trouble with a white girl… grandfather send me Wales. Nice place but less money… no good life… I work in pharmacy in morning and in evening I buy and sell house… I make money there too. Grandfather say I am good at properties… I have the trick for houses. White girl go away from Coventry and I return after five years. I marry a punjabi girl. I’ve two boys and lot houses in Wales, Leamington and Coventry. My wife die long ago. I go Punjab once a while… My father still alive…. old man..he still walking…. my mother die before my wife die… I stay with my second son… grandchilds like me a lot… daughter-in-law like me too…. You see I no education… but my son study well… go to Birmingham university… he now work as manager… Marks & Spencer you see….speak good english… he is busy… I too busy you see… all property here…there… and I busy with repair and collect rent you see…”

My wife returned with steaming cups of chai. Mr.Singh asked for a tumbler and poured his tea into it and held the tumbler in between his palms and started rolling it gently as if to cool it. He sipped his tea with a mild slurp and asked for more sugar. Once he mixed sugar he started drinking his tea quite lustily.
Now that we had all warmed up to one another, I asked him another question “Uncle did you see the British motorways getting built? What was it like?”.
Mr. Singh was focused on his tea. He quickly quaffed the remnant in his cup, cleared his throat and said “You see..all motorway come in 1960 and 1970… lot of work and no workers..shortage.. they get worker from Ireland you see… Irish… they are good people and drink more…lot….. one small room and large family you see.. seven.. eight.. nine child you see….British say “Irish man good to build road but no good to drive car on the road”…..I make good friend with Irish… I sell them rooms you see… I trust them more than punjabis you see.. after motorway there were lot of car on road. Mostly big car… strong car… everybody have a car… people go all place in England in car you see… lot of tourism… people go, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Lake District and all places in car…”

Interrupting Mr.Singh in between I asked ” Uncle, this kind of drinking that we see in pubs and the pub cluture was it there always or is it a new thing?”
Mr.Singh did not get the question and I had to ask him again. He laughed, paused and said ” British drink a lot from the beginning. Beer very cheap initially… now very expensive.. when I a boy.. 2 pence you get pint you see… lot of work… lot of money.. work very hard and people drink a lot. All worker go play football or go football club.. sport very important… less and less church on sunday…. more sport, drink in place…”

As if he remembered something Mr.Singh suddenly called out for his grandson”Mani! Mani! u ready? We need go home. Mum waiting” Mani came rightaway. He looked bored playing with my sons and Mr.Singh got up to go away. He gave me a bear hug and blessed me with a warm “Bhagwan da kirpa tere sar pe”. He reached out to my father and shook his hands and left to go. It looked as if he knew my father was leaving for India and he said without an iota of poignancy

” You come England again… maybe I am no live… old you see… but you come England….. it is a nice place… may be I am live… we talk more again… I take you Leamington in my car..show my first house and my chinese uncles… may be we drink bitter ” He hugged my father too, shook his hands lingeringly and started walking towards his car with his grandson in tow

As I was waving my goodbye, I could not help thinking about Mr.Singh and his funny way of speaking, swallowing his verbs, prepositions and conjunctions where it suited him. Yet what a life story it was and continues to be !! He is one of the innumerable stories of the great Indian diaspora but in its own way his story was a story of courage, belief, a noble demonstration of life’s urge for living and above all worthy of documenting. In comparison, I felt my life lacked that vigour, it was too predictable, too sheltered and too bland. I couldn’t help say inwardly “God bless you Mr.Singh! May you live long!!”  I don’t know why but as I shut the door, I felt sad for him and this snippet from A.E.Housman’s poem floated into my mind:

To think that two and two are four
And never five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be

I could not help saying to myself once again “God bless you Mr.Singh!”

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Child’s Garden of Verses – R.L.Stevenson (RLS)

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 17, 2009

Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday makes this brilliant observation ” It is novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping youself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire and old fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling“. Poetry has a form and capacity to make an impact on the reader and elevate him beyond ways that he can anticipate and understand.  In my mind, this aspect of poetry is beyond debate. While presently, I am not a great poetry aficionado, through my own erratic reading of poetry, I have experienced this elevation time and again. In the recent past I have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s (RLS) “Child’s Garden of Verses” and was taken in by the utter beauty and appealing aspect of his poetry.  For a man whose pen produced such adventure classics like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and macabre horror classic like “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde“, this collection struck me as an unusual deviation. Tender, touching and with full of love, longing and nostalgia, the poems are a wonderful tribute to childhood – a childhood as recollected by an adult

RLS has this wonderful ability to string together very simple words yet produce a depiction of reality which is extraordinary. Consider the poem, The Hayloft

Oh, what a joy to clamber there,
     Oh, what a place for play,
With the sweet, the dim, the dusty air,
     The happy hills of hay!

Look at the way the air around the hayloft is characterised: “sweet”, “dim” and “dusty” — I wonder if there can be a more accurate description! Alternately look at the poem: Bed in Summer

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Would this not be the universal lament of all the children living in countries where in summer the daylight extends well past ten in the night engendering a desire to play till the daylight extinguishes? There are many poems in this collection that demonstrate this extraordinary ability of RLS to depict sharply observed objects or situations with a clarity that is effortlessly elevated. As I read through the collection, I also observed that RLS recreates a world that has now become extinct. Consider how well Leerie the lamplighter and his ritual of lamplighting is recreated:

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

One also gets to see this ability to recreate a bygone age in the poem “Farewell to the Farm

Probably the most endearing quality of this collection is that all the poems without exception lend themselves brilliantly to a sing song rendition and there by transform themselves into  near perfect substitutes for lullabies. Consider the poem Singing

Of speckled eggs the birdie sings
     And nests among the trees;
The sailor sings of ropes and things
     In ships upon the seas.
The children sing in far Japan,
     The children sing in Spain;
The organ with the organ man
     Is singing in the rain

or the poem Nest Eggs

Soon the frail eggs they shall
     Chip, and upspringing
Make all the April woods
     Merry with singing

As I soaked in this enormously joyous read of mine, I could not help recall Kahlil Gibran’s thoughts on children “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…..You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts……………” . While this is utterly true, I think that RLS is probably that rare artist who came quite close to capturing the thoughts of children in a way no other artist did. For anybody interested in the complete collection it is available on the web at the following link: http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/stevenson/collections/childs_garden_of_verses.html

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History Boys – Alan Bennett

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 10, 2009

I owe in equal measure a large part of my education to the kindness of my teachers and parents. A smaller portion of credit will have to rest with me for my efforts around application of capabilities, diligence and sincerity. The now lost world in which I received my education was markedly different from what exists today. The commitment of my teachers to impart the best they had and the role of state in providing the necessary infrastructure to draw upon have been two vital contributors. This hindsight gratitude is an all too familiar mode of thinking among a majority of my co-evals. As we moved along, somewhere the intensity in meaning of education started to get diluted: In the place of a noble aspiration, a higher percieved value and a richer outlook which emphasised education and learning as an end in itself, one started witnessing the display of an aggressive tendency of acquiring monetarily enriching degrees that diluted the overall spirit of education. I myself was on this declining continuum. Especially in the realm of humanities this decline was much more pronounced than on the side of technical or vocational streams. Literature, History and other social sciences became the refuge of the percieved dregs of the classroom. In a way children who opted for these subjects were treated as failures in academics

The world I came from still had a handful of inspiring instances of children arriving at the hallowed portals of esteemed educational institutions despite economic and other disadvantages. The entry criteria included evaluation on attributes that had a touch of completeness. There was an emphasis on a well rounded generality and less emphasis on technique. That balance has changed quite dramatically in the recent past and has started leaning more towards the technique of tackling an exam or undergoing the rigorous drill that positions one well in the tricks of the trade. I think this decline is not just a India or developing world centric change, even west appears to have witnessed this decline – although gradual in relative terms. It is this general shift in orientation of education and the predicament of eight bright students of a local school aspiring to make it to one of the various Oxbridge colleges to pursue history the theme of Alan Bennett’s wonderfully entertaining play ” The History Boys

The triumvariate of teachers viz. Mr.Hector, Irwin and Mrs.Linnot have different philosophies of education. Irwin is a disappointed pretender to the heritage of one of the Oxbridge colleges and believes that more than the content, one needs to have technique to appear intelligent and clever in front of the examiners.  Hector believes that education should prepare an individual in a holistic way to face the vagaries of life and Mrs.Linnot comes out as a feeble balance between these two positions. They all are driven by an ambituous headmaster who is intent on improving the position of his school among the popularity league tables. His own position and priorities are best summarised when he says: “Mr.Hector has an old fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier. After all, it’s not how much literature that they know. What matters is how much they know about literature“. The alignment of views between the headmaster and Irwin lead to alienating of Hector leading to a subtle tremor of staff politics

The eight students who while keen on getting into one of the Oxbridge colleges to study history and align with Irwin for the purpose are sympathetic to the approach of Hector and realise its inherent merit.  It is this portrayal of the tussle of philosophies towards education and the ensuing hilariously irreverent conversations that bring out the wonderfully appealing quality of this play. Bennet does a wonderful job of bringing out the liberal ethos prevalent at the school through these conversations. Consider a few of these conversations:

Timms: Sir, I don’t always understand poetry
Hector: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever
Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet
Hector: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you’ll have antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you are dying. We’re making your death beds here, boys


Mrs.Linnot: ….. Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? Why do you think there are no women historians on TV?
Timms: No tits?
Hector: Hit that boy!

Bennet believes in the humanising power of literature and one gets to see that portrayal not only in “History Boys” but also in his subsequent novella “An Uncommon Reader“. The discussions around poetry and literature in general are pointers to that:

Dakin: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers
Scripps: No
Dakin: It’s a consolation. All literature is consolation
Scripps: No it isn’t. What about when it’s celebration? Joy?
Dakin: But it’s written when the joy is over. Finished. So even when it’s joy, it’s grief. It’s consolation. That’s why it gets written down. I tell you, whatever Hector says, I find literature really lowering


Hector: The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours

Through the conversations between the boys and Mr.Hector, Irwin and Mrs.Linnot, Bennet introduces the readers to the significance of some of the great poets like W.H.Auden, Philip Larkin, A.E. Housman and even the poetical side of Thomas Hardy (what a superb poem Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” is!!)

Bennet moves the play between the present and the future and the boys make it to various Oxbridge colleges. The teachers in their own ways are redeemed and rejoice in the success of their students and yet the reader is left with a lingeringly sad feeling about the decline in the quality, approach and purpose of that noble and vital activity of education. The gravity of some of the conversations, the humour and the overall theme of “History Boys” demonstrate a touch of Bennet‘s genius. It is one of those rare pieces of modern literature that I would unhesitatingly classify as a masterpiece

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