Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for October, 2011

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 31, 2011

In matters of literature covering sea faring traditions and adventures, Indian literary landscape is surprisingly disappointing (or is it my ignorance?). Surprising because there is no reason for it to have been so. Historically, India had some great maritime traditions and kingdoms, evolved ship building industry and a strong heritage of sea trade with various parts of the world. Yet none of this became a basis for producing literature of the nature that one gets see in English and American writing. I suspect that this rich history has been simply lost to the indiscipline of poor documentation and the debilitating impact of British rule in India.  As an Indian reader, I long to have vigorous writing of the nature of Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Middle Passage, Lighthouse, the oeuvre of Conrad and the generic pirate literature to have come out of India. Notwithstanding the origins, I have always enjoyed books dealing with adventures on high seas and into my reading list of sea adventures, I can now add Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie

The book caught my attention after it made into the Booker shortlist of 2011

Set in Victorian London, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an expansive and imaginative story woven around a real life character Jamrach – an animal trader and Jaffy Brown – a child whom Jamrach saves from the jaws of a royal Bengal tiger belonging to his menagerie and fosters him for a career in managing a menagerie. Instead, Jaffy along with his friend Tim opt for a career of sailing on high seas in a whaling ship leaving behind his mother and Tim’s sister Ishbel whom Jaffy loves. The ship itself has an additional commission of capturing dragon like reptiles found in South Seas. The crew is successful in its mission but gets shipwrecked while returning to England losing their catch and in succession the lives of crew members in circumstances which are inhuman, degrading and hopeless. The lack of food and water force the sailors to draw on lots to eliminate members of the crew to conserve resources. Jaffy is forced to kill his close friend Tim with his own hands and use his carcass as food. In near hopeless conditions Jaffy and another sailor friend of his return to England via the coasts of South America. Jaffy marries Ishbel and settles down for a life as a bird tamer running an aviary of his own but not before making multiple trips on high seas. The lure of the sea remains with him like the song of a siren

The novel starts on a lighter note dealing with the sights, smells and sounds of the poverty of Victorian London, the pleasant bonhomie of Jamrach, the camaraderie of men in his menagerie but gradually descends into a world of debilitating horror of high seas with a deep sense of desperation against the indifference and adversity of nature, unhinging of the minds, madness, hallucinations and the final descent into cannibalism. Even in these adverse conditions a part of the crew displays streaks of indomitable spirit, dignity of a code and a sense of fairness. Birch does a credible job of portraying this world of horror with well researched facts and a strong imagination.

However, there are a couple of aspects of Birch’s writing that struck me as unusual. First of them is the language of the characters: since the setting was Victorian England, I expected the language to reflect turn of phrases with an inherent sense of that bygone era. Instead I found that the language employed in conversations to be modern and something that is current. Second: Jaffy does not come across as an authentic omniscient narrator instead he talks, acts and sounds like a participant outsider.

Two Comparisons:

Another book of similar setting, plot and storyline is Charles Johnson’s ‘The Middle Passage” and when I compare ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie” with that, I find that the relative magnitude of verbal energy and authenticity that Johnson brings to the narrative is simply missing in Birch’s writing. I remember reading “The Middle Passage” with a gusto and enthusiasm which I missed in this read

Although of different genres, plots and temperaments, within the Booker shortlist I found, Julian Barnes’sThe Sense of an Ending” a far more satisfying read than Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie”.  However, I did enjoy large parts of the book. Overall, for anyone interested in adventures on high seas “Jamrach’s Menagerie” can be a decent choice

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Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 10, 2011

INTERVIEWER : Do you do much rewriting?

 THORNTON WILDER: I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly curious about and fascinated by the mechanics of writing. My fascination is especially around the creative process ingrained in it. From the fairly large body of writing about writing, interviews by writers, and literary criticism that I have read over the past four years, I am coming to realise that a writer enters a mysterious zone while at his work and dives deeply into the sea of his sub-conscious to bring forth pearls of reality and his particular understanding of the world he lives and operates in. This process of dredging appears to be involving both his inspiration and his perspiration.

To the question of what happens to a writer or what does she go through when she is at work, the emergent responses are as varied and as diverse as the number of writers one interrogates. The more accomplished these writers, the more fascinating the insights. Two books that I have read in the recent past that deal with craft of writing are Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating With The Dead” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Zen In The Art Of Writing”. Both are absorbing and joyous reads and deal with diverse, complex and unplumbed aspects of writing. They also simultaneously reflect the enormous understanding, scholarship, love and insight these two accomplished and world class writers have about their vocation. The former is a collection of six lectures delivered by Margaret Atwood at Cambridge University as part of the Sir William Empson lecture series while the latter is a collection of 12 essays by Ray Bradbury written at various points of time in his long, rich, fertile and impressive career as a writer

In reading, as in life, one ought to be extremely careful of unfounded biases and prejudices. These slants not only set one on mistaken paths till terminated in graves but also divert us away from the riches that one can rejoice in. This happened with me with respect to the genre of science fiction. I entertained this ignorant notion that science fiction is esoteric and alien to the core questions, predicaments and concerns of human beings. As a result I neglected this genre completely and also wore this attitude on my sleeve with a minor sense of pride. In some sense, I have been saved from my self-created biases by the reading of Ray Bradbury’s collection of stories in “The Illustrated Man” (Thank God for that !!). It is while reading this collection that I became aware of the existence of his book on writing and grabbed it with both hands. The reading experience needless to say was rich and rewarding

The single biggest appeal of these essays is the ability to outline points of view on writing which are not only genuine, passionate, insightful, scholarly, backed by vast experience but are also full of generous advice and a large hearted eagerness to share these insights with younger writers or for that matter anyone who ever cared about the vocation of writing.

The twelve essays can be broadly classified into two buckets. Into the first bucket one can place essays like Drunk and in charge of a bicycle, Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451, Just this side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine, The Long Road To Mars, Shooting Haiku in a Barrel – these in a way are autobiographical in nature explaining the manner in which some of his most well received novels, short story collections and plays have come into existence. The last essay especially talks about Bradbury’s re-initiation into playwriting and his views on the idiosyncrasies and creative processes around scriptwriting for movies.

 The second bucket consists of essays that deal with the creative process of writing and deserve a closer merit. These are an absorbing bunch which is so lucid and insightful that I read them again and again for the sheer joy they gave me. In the opening essay titled “The Joy of Writing”, Bradbury grapples with the basic question of the purpose and relevance of writing and clarifies it brilliantly when he says:

And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation. So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all. Secondly, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

In this same essay Bradbury offers some wonderful advice to writers of all hues, shapes and maturity which only a writer of his caliber has the privilege to offer:

Thomas Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava. Dickens dined at a different table every hour of his life. Molière, tasting society, turned to pick up his scalpel, as did Pope and Shaw. Everywhere you look in the literary cosmos, the great ones are busy loving and hating. Have you given up this primary business as obsolete in your own writing? What fun you are missing, then. The fun of anger and disillusion, the fun of loving and being loved, of moving and being moved by this masked ball which dances us from cradle to churchyard. Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto. With them, traveling to the grave, I intend to slap some dummox’s behind, pat a pretty girl’s coiffure, wave to a tad up a persimmon tree.

 In a glowing essay titled “How To Keep and Feed a Muse”, Bradbury deals with the aspect of intellectual nourishment needed for the sub-conscious and urges all aspirants to read with abandon including poetry, essays and novels. Especially on poetry he has some very valid and deep observations:

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile

 He explains how his own gluttony for reading material of diverse kinds, movies and wandering circuses and carnivals helped him write some of his popular stories much after the impressions have been absorbed by his sub-conscious

Bradbury along with Asimov, Clarke, L. Frank Baum, Heinlein, Van Vogt, and Sturgeon had come to be recognized as one of the greatest science fiction writers of the world. However, this recognition had not come to him and these writers easily and naturally following the merit of their output. In the essay “On the shoulders of the giants”, Bradbury pays a tribute to the children of America for having recognized and restored the proper place of science fiction in popular imagination. The then prevalent attitude towards science fiction is extremely well outlined when he says:

 Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That’s for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is daydreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world’s problems. So said the snobs who did not know themselves as snobs. So the shelves lay empty, the books untouched in publishers’

 And the resurrective impulses of children are also equally well portrayed

 The children sensed, if they could not speak, that the entire history of mankind is problem solving, or science fiction swallowing ideas, digesting them, and excreting formulas for survival. You can’t have one without the other. No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will. No impossible dreams: No possible solutions

 In the essay “The Secret Mind”, Bradbury deals with the core question of what is good writing and what should a writer aim to do? I especially liked the simple yet comprehensive sweep of his views. Consider this:  

Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all. Here’s how my theory goes. We writers are up to the following: We build tensions toward laughter, then give permission, and laughter comes. We build tensions toward sorrow, and at last say cry, and hope to see our audience in tears. We build tensions toward violence, light the fuse, and run. We build the strange tensions of love, where so many of the other tensions mix to be modified and transcended, and allow that fruition in the mind of the audience. We build tensions, especially today, toward sickness and then, if we are good enough, talented enough, observant enough, allow our audiences to be sick. Each tension seeks its own proper end, release, and relaxation. No tension, it follows, aesthetically as well as practically, must be built which remains unreleased. Without this, any art ends incomplete, halfway to its goal. And in real life, as we know, the failure to relax a particular tension can lead to madness.

There are seeming exceptions to this, in which novels or plays end at the height of tension, but the release is implied. The audience is asked to go forth into the world and explode an idea. The final action is passed on from creator to reader-viewer whose job it is to finish off the laughter, the tears, the violence, the sexuality, or the sickness. Not to know this is not to know the essence of creativity, which, at heart, is the essence of man’s being.

 In the essay “Zen in the art of writing” one gets some wonderful advice on the how to go about writing, the need for hard work, commitment and his own views on art and the artistic approach. I especially enjoyed this:

Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration……The artist learns what to leave out……His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.

 Work and imitation go together in the process of learning. It is only when imitation outruns its natural function that a man prevents his becoming truly creative. Some writers will take years, some a few months, before they come upon the truly original story in themselves. After millions of words of imitation, when I was twenty-two years old I suddenly made the breakthrough, relaxed, that is, into originality with a “science fiction” story that was entirely my “own.”

 Each of the dozen essays is written with verve and abandon which anybody who is even remotely acquainted with Bradbury’s writing will recognize immediately. There is a grand confidence in the content, deep understanding of the writing process, genuine sympathy for the aspirant writer and above all a transcendental love and commitment to the vocation of writing. One can read these essays not only for their insights but also to acquaint oneself with the thought processes of a lively, successful and bubbly artist who forms and lives by his own rules. Truly engaging and entertaining

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Close encounters of the third kind

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 2, 2011

The smile that was about break out on my face on account of the very interesting turn of the phrase in the book got stopped mid-way by a gentle and unexpected tap on my shoulder. I turned sideways to find a smiling old Sikh gentleman looking at me. He shoved the boarding pass held in two very pudgy yellowish fingers at me tapping with yet another pudgy left index finger at the place where the time 7:45 was printed and asked in thick Punjabi accented Hindi:

“Is this the time we board the plane or is it the time the plane takes off?”

I glanced at the boarding pass for a while and said “that’s the time to begin boarding”.

I was in no mood to continue the conversation and had wanted to return to my book but something compelled me to take a closer look at him. He was an old thickset man and instead of a full turban had a small piece of cloth covering his hair. The mustache was occasionally black and for a Sikh he was clean shaven. If there was one striking feature in his face, it was his eyes: there was a thin film of water in those eyes which I suspect is a characteristic of really very old people or people who are used to hard work involving manual labour and whose face has never been properly protected.  I could not say why but he was full of industrious rusticity. I began to marvel at his courage to do air travel without being fully in the know and concluded this as yet another example of the enterprising nature of Sikhs in general. Armed forces, agriculture, industry, emigration, sports, high spirits – literal and abstract, delicious cuisine, good looking girls, a general zest for life, material progress, martial past, the pains of partition, vigorous music, Bhindranwale and the turbulent 80’s, occasional target of mild jokes, Kushwant, Manmohan, Montek and Milka – this is what Sikhs have come to represent to me.   

It was clear that I had to bid my reading good bye for a while for the man appeared intent to extend our conversation. I did not want to come out as an indifferent and self-absorbed youngster. (The reference to self as youngster is in a relative context)

“I see you are off to Bangalore. I will let you know when the announcement gets displayed on the TV screens” I said

“Hai jee, where are you off to? He replied in Hindi warming up the conversation. There was an acknowledgment of my offered help in the way he spoke to me

“I too am off to Bangalore but I am on the 8:45 flight”

“There is time for you. I need to be off in another 45 minutes” he said looking at his watch. It was an old watch of HMT make and appeared to be ticking well despite its age, like some old people who continue to tick with dependable vigour despite the ravages of time and number of years under their belts

“How come Bangalore?” I asked

“Hai jee, I am visiting my distributor in Peenya. I supply machine parts to him”. I’ve started to realise that this placement of “Hai jee” at the beginning of every sentence was more a habit built over a period of time to give him time to collect his thoughts and structure his answer

Machine parts? I said

“Haan, haan, I manufacture small mechanical printing presses and the machine parts are spare parts” he replied. The existence of mechanical presses in this age of desk top and software fueled publishing appeared inconsistent. I wanted to quiz him about the industry dynamics of his trade but waited and allowed the curiosity to die on its own.

“This business of yours… is it big?” I asked

“Hai jee, I have a factory in Ludhiana and employ about 20 people. You can call it big. For me it is big. I do about two crore an year” he replied

“It is definitely big” I said

“Hai jee, it depends on how you view things. My brother has a power press factory and he does around 20 crore and my jijaji.. my sister’s husband, he does around 800 crore an year” he said

“wow!” I exclaimed mildly. “800 crore is something”

He was silent for a brief while and then said “It does not matter how big it is. One should know how to manage everything in life well. What is the point about 800 crore? His son shot himself dead one fine day. My bhanja.. he simply shot himself dead” He smiled at the mild shock on my face and kept looking at me while making me uncomfortable. I remained silent.

“What do you do in Bangalore?” Now it was his turn to ask me questions. I was not sure if he asked me with genuine interest or for the purpose of killing time

“I am in the software industry” I said with a touch of pride. That software was eating up his industry was a reality and I was bracing myself for a potential lecture from him

“Badiyaa jee, I have to say one thing about software though. It makes people weak” he declared. “From morning to evening they sit at the computer, have no exercise, muscles become loose and people grow weak” he explained his logic. I did not know what to say at this unexpected accusation of my profession and then he continued “In my younger days I used to regularly cycle from Ludhiana to Bhatinda over two days and still managed to make a living. It is about 120 kms”. I was genuinely impressed with this claim of physical endurance. Later when I checked on google maps the distance was shown as 131 kms. He was not far off from truth if he employed some shortcuts through village roads. Maybe if we had maintained that tradition of cycling we too would have produced a couple of tour-de-france winners, I told myself. The “we” was more a reference to my compatriots in Punjab. In my parts of the world such acts of strain are a rarity and cycling is frowned upon

“But why cycle?” I asked

“Hai jee.. there was no money and what little we had we had to save. On our way we used to stay in jain dharamshalas at Bhotna and Kaisian. The food used to be very good. Eight annas and we used to get two subjis, daal, ghee, a piece of jaggery, unlimited rotis, fresh water from the well and in the morning a large glass of tea. Sometimes we cycled just for the love of the food. These dharamshalas have now become hotels and lodges”

“No lassi?” my hungry stomach forced me to ask

“One anna extra jee” he said. The fact that he avoided mentioning lassi and for that matter other probable menu items which were charged extra did indicate the lack of money and need to save whatever he had then

I suddenly had this inexplicable urge to change the conversation and asked him “You would have been young during the Punjab unrest. What was the environment like?”

“Which unrest are you referring to?” he questioned back calmly

“Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, Khalistan and all that” I said hesitantly providing him with a few clues to jog his memory

“I would not know” his voice continued to remain calm and his eyes now had a mild twinkle

“How come?” I said with a tone of surprise in my voice. This ‘how come” mode of questioning was something that I had developed on my job. It was a catch all question and indicative of the desire to elicit all the responses from juniors without asking too many questions in succession. It was a way of asking them to tell me everything that they know and can think of while on their feet

“Hai jee.. you see I was in jail myself and hence did not know much about what was happening outside” he replied without any hesitation. I kept silent and was almost concluding that like many other young Sikhs he too may have been involved in the movement and hence was not keen to dig the wounds of past, when he said suddenly “aisa hai jee.. I had a domestic issue with my neighbour over property, we had a heated argument, things reached a point of no return and the bullet moved from my gun and I was jailed”

“Oh!” was all I could muster to say.

“The bullet moved from my gun”.. what an expression it was!!! Despite its sinister implications and the entailed misery in families on either side, I found it was full of untold originality from an aesthetic angle. It was as if a vicious monster is lying in its dark, noiseless, damp and comfortable lair undisturbed and then somebody or something goes and pokes to provoke the monster’s rage only to face the unstoppable consequences

We then fell into a thoughtful silence as is the wont with traveling strangers who meet one another and in a moment of inexplicable urge, led by an unexpected flow of conversation reveal a personal secret and then quickly relapse into a no word, no voice and non-acquaintance zone. It is the inevitable starting point they revert to giving them an excuse to leave without any formal farewells and goodbyes. We remained seated for around five minutes and the man got up lumberingly on his ageing knees, picked his plastic briefcase and simply walked towards Gate 14 to board his flight. I kept looking at him but he just kept walking never turning back eventually mingling and vanishing into the teeming crowds

It appeared that my chances of meeting an alien from outer space were far higher than my chances of meeting this man ever again. He was in a way my close encounter with the third kind

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