Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for December, 2011

I Too Had a Dream – Dr.Verghese Kurien

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 30, 2011

Environment and life experiences – both engender empathy while reading which sometimes is a critical pre-condition for appreciating a book. As the third son of a talented and committed veterinarian, I could get a ring-side view of various facets of animal husbandry. It is probably because of this, that I have grown fond of the writings of James Herriot. He was unique in his ability to tellingly portray the life of a vet in the dales of Yorkshire. The medley of real life characters of farmers and their families with their lovable idiosyncrasies he so sincerely and accurately outlined have always been a pleasure to read. I am not sure if there is any other writer who wrote so generously, so eloquently and so appealingly about the subject of animal husbandry as Herriot did. His ear for Yorkshire patois was second to none and was a delight to read. Herriot’s writings, while bringing out the charms of bucolic existence, also tellingly outlined the English village society and its interaction with the fast changing world outside. But the charms he portrayed are the charms of a first world farmer. In developing and third world countries, the life of an ordinary farmer is fraught with difficulties, frustrations and hopelessness. In India, despite all the pious noises one gets to hear about the efforts to make the life of farmers better, the on the ground reality is vastly different and hard to digest. Three individuals who have tried to make a fundamental difference to the lives of Indian farmers are Dr.Norman Borlaug – Father of Green Revolution, Dr.Verghese Kurien – The Father of White Revolution and Dr.M.S.Swaminathan

The book “I Too Had a Dream” by Dr.Verghese Kurien – is a brilliant and inspiring memoir from the man who transformed milk production and milk marketing landscape of India over five decades. It is a direct, honest and thoroughly readable account. For anybody interested in understanding grass root institution building and the challenges therein this is a lucid reference. The book is also a wonderful document which covers a facet of modern India’s developmental history and movement towards self-sufficiency in some areas of its basic needs like milk and dairy produce. Men who make a difference to society at large are obsessed by a certain thought, philosophy or idea and Dr.Kurien is no exception to this. His extraordinary achievement is driven by an unflinching faith in the inherent strengths of co-operative movement, a deep belief in the sagacity of the Indian farmer. Time and time again one gets to hear this message in the book. What makes the book appealing is the candid, unsparing and directness of the narrative. In the process of telling his story, Dr.Kurien throws light on very interesting tid-bits of history especially around some of India’s well known leaders and personalities.  Some interesting citings are: Nehru’s indifference to Sardar Patel’s daughter, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s simplicity, Morarji Desai & Indira Gandhi’s unstinted support to the efforts of building India’s dairy industry, TTK and Rajeev Gandhi’s enthusiasm to make a difference, agriculture minister Rao Birender Singh’s one-sided politics.

There are areas in the book which come out as a tad self-congratulatory. In an age and time when pygmies are parading as giants, Dr.Kurien’s giantish achievements and contributions deserve to be celebrated not only as an inspiration for all future generations but also as a reminder to the fact that there have been unsung heroes who contributed to nation building without any great expectations or motives of self-promotion.

Overall, a well-structured narrative and an inspirational read

Afterthought: In the recent past there have been demands to award India’s highest civilian award “The Bharat Ratna” to people whose achievements have had no major impact on the people of India. For all those ill-informed clamourers, here is an example of a well-deserved candidate to measure against

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Pecan Nuts and a Christmas Memory

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 23, 2011

“Pecan Thieves in Georgia Enjoying a Windfall, at $1.50 a Pound” – screamed the article in NY Times. Till I read the complete article, I did not know that pecan nuts were grown on a commercial scale in the US in the state of Georgia. I first heard of pecan nuts in Truman Capote’s brilliant short story titled “A Christmas Memory”:

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard owner’s, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk glass bowl.

 “A Christmas Memory” is a strange and touching tale of two cousins – one a young lad of seven years and another an old lady of sixty years who despite their isolation, rejection and poverty go about celebrating the festival of Christmas with gusto and cheer away from the indifferent eyes of the world around them. Capote evokes the festive air of Christmas and the atmosphere of a cold country in a manner that is deeply touching and a great joy to read. I may not be wrong if I were to say that in this one story he transcends the work of Dickens in ‘A Christmas Carol” . The roar of the late November stove set to bake cakes, the baking of thirty delicious cakes full of pecan nuts, the yearlong effort to make and save money to buy the ingredients for the cakes, the procurement of whiskey for cakes in difficult times of prohibition from a scary, scarred and murderous looking bar owner (Ha! Ha! Jones – what a name!), the make-do gifts which they give each other on the eve of the festival hiding their disappointment of not being able to afford simple but heartfelt desires, the efforts in cutting, lugging and decorating the Christmas tree, the hustle and bustle to the run up of the actual day of Christmas, the love and bonding of two lonely relatives in the face of neglect and their eventual separation draws tears to one’s eyes.

The story is full of beautiful sentences and conversations which demonstrate Capote’s exquisite and effortless mastery over words. The description of the Christmas tree and the envy it evokes in a small town environs is by far the best that I’ve read:

“… we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long treck out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched on our buggy: what a fine tree and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

It is hard to believe that a pen which produced novels like “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” could produce a tale of enormous warmth, affection and human generosity. It is an effortlessly fantastic, memorable and moving tale that reinforces the spirit of Christmas in whoever has the good fortune to read it.

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Book Closing For 2011

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 22, 2011

 2011 has been a satisfying year for my book reading pursuits. The gratifying development is that I edged forward on maturity, taste and consequently my choice of books to read. There is an amorphous but growing clarity on what literature should mean to me. In general, I am able to recognize what on an overall basis is good writing and differentiate it from not so good writing. My approach is increasingly aligning with what Oscar Wilde had to say about books and writing, which is that as a rule there are no good books or bad books; it is that books are well written or badly written. This distinction allows me to assay the material I read on ever refining, self-defined criteria of evaluation.  More importantly, I have begun to develop an independent view and courage to say boldly what of I read is to my liking and what is not. This has had a liberating impact in selecting books of my choice and reading them with a prior conviction and purpose which I am realizing is an often ignored but important prerequisite for any serious reading. I have just one life, so I have decided to take my chances and 2011 will go down as the year of acquiring this awareness

Wallace Stegner, Andrea Barret, Annie Proulx, Thornton Wilder, William Maxwell, William Styron, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Susan Sontag, Bernard Malamud, Ray Bradbury are some of the new writers that I have read in 2011. Looking back this was also a year of scratching the surface of modern American fiction. To focus on this genre of fiction was a conscious choice. In non-fiction, Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s Pulitzer Prize winner “Emperor of All Maladies” has been a delightful read. Mukherjee writes this biography of cancer with an uncanny finesse of a historian despite being a medical man. This is an exhilarating book written with a narrative flourish that is rare, passionate and an endearing sense of compassion. Equally impressive was Sontag‘s “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors“. Sontag writes with a clarity and passion that is breathtaking. I enjoyed this particular book immensely although at places the message tends to get repetitive

Somewhere during my engineering days I lost interest in science and kept away from reading anything that had to do with science. However, E.O.Wilson’s “The Creation” was a great read which reawakened my hunger for reading in science. I followed this up with five fantastic lectures of Prof. Vilayanur Ramachandran on the complexity and workings of human brain. Hopefully, 2012 will see more of this

Throughout the year my hunger for a well written word remained sustained and on some blessed days it almost bordered on a craving. Unless I read something intellectually and aesthetically stimulating, the restlessness remained unquenched. On such days I kept feeling like, Tony Castello, the out of work, odd jobs, hang-around-the-town alcoholic from John O Hara’s classic short story “We’ll Have Fun” who at one point declares poignantly  ” I’ve the rams”. I did too, but in my case the rams were strictly literary!

Newyorker, Paris Review, Guardian, NYBooks remained my favourite hunting grounds for literary material covering essays, short stories, book reviews and blogs. Truman Capote’s article on Marlan BrandoThe Duke in his Domain”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Village After Dark” were two pleasurable reads that I will remember prominently

The two literary prizes I followed closely this year were The Man Booker and The Hindu Literary Prize. From the shortlist of Booker, I found time to read Julian Barnes’sThe Sense Of An Ending”, A.D.Miller’sSnowdrops”, Carol Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie and Patrick Dewitt’s “Brother Sisters”. Of these “The Sense of an Ending” was by far the most moving, ruminative and thoroughly enjoyable read. The Hindu literary prize went to Rahul Bhattacharya for his book “The Sly Company Of People Who Care”. I especially liked the fanfare around this prize for it will go a long way in developing a platform which will encourage a lot more people in India to read and also write. There is some fantastic talent that is flowering here. I have no doubt in my mind that a decade from now there will be a rich crop of talented writers and a substantial body of writing coming out of India.

Supply, it is said, creates its own demand and this was true for books in 2011. Despite grumbles and complaints for lack of space to store books, I continued to buy books. My shelves have begun to creak and groan. I bought in excess of 40 books this year, thanks to http://www.flipkart.com which has grown in leaps and bounds in its ability to provide the books of my choice. May it remain profitable, healthy and continue on its path of progress!! . Books, I am coming to realize will be my amulet against the twin blights of ignorance and boredom

I resurrected the long paused work on my novella. Among other things, I realized that writing can be hugely cathartic. While I am near certain that it will join the ranks of the countless, nameless, mute, exhausted and defeated millions of mid-way abandoned attempts, the work I’ve done in stringing sentences together to make them coherent and meaningful has magnified my respect for the written word of others. There is a visceral realisation that creation and criticism reside on either end of the difficulty continuum and that a tablespoon of original creativity is far more valuable than a ton of erudite criticism

Noted with sadness the death of Christopher Hitchens. The few essays of his that I read and the numerous YouTube videos of his I have seen confirmed the exceptional mind and eclectic knowledge this man carried with him. Combative, sharp and ready for an informed debate he was a treat to watch. Hope to read more of his writings in 2012

It is said that there is a place and time for everything. Reading is no exception to that logic. Looking back, I realize I have wasted tremendous amount of time in my younger days which I could have gainfully employed in reading. I realize that I have not read many of the well-known classics and am determined to make the needed amends. For sure, I will read some works of Dickens, Hardy, Dumas, Stevenson, Melville and Bronte Sisters. The unread books and wasted time add to the suffocating burden of guilt

To reiterate, 2011, by and large was a satisfactory year for reading. However, there have been a few disappointments too and the notable two were: I wanted to start a book club but was not able to do so. I think, there are a lot of closet book lovers and I wanted to find a way to draw a handful of them out and get going. I have offset this disappointment by joining an online book club at Guardian (can’t fight? then float). As part of that group I read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” which I enjoyed immensely. As an extension, I also read a collection of his short stories viz. ‘The Illustrated Man” which was brilliant to say the least and also his “Zen in the art of writing” – a collection of essays on the craft of writing which I must say was a stunner. The other big disappointment was not being able to read any of Shakespeare’s plays which I was keen on doing in 2011. Hopefully, I will cover some ground beginning 2012

What do I look for in 2012? Barring a few chosen classics which I will cover without fail, in general, I would like to remain wayward and uncontrolled in my reading. In the world of reading that is the surest approach to remain steady, heady and ready to tread a gainful path

Welcome……  2012!!

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Miscellaneous Murmurs – Some Thoughts on Reading and Books

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 2, 2011

Over a period of time reading acquires a biologic trait akin to hunger. After a sumptuous read, there is a period of cud chewing followed by temporary inactivity and the cycle begins again. Moving through these cycles, the quality of hunger changes greatly. One starts to become choosy and almost certainly opinionated in picking what one opts to read. For every book I complete, there are atleast two I sample or leave mid-way.This is not bad in itself. It is helping me become a better selector of books- being able to pick good books for reading is an envious faculty to have in ones possession

In matters of literature and fiction, the world is willing to help in a big way those who want to educate themselves. Thanks to the web, there is a cornucopia of high quality archives, websites and digital content that is available for free which can last not just one lifetime but many lifetimes. All one needs is awareness, hunger, focus and curiosity. Put these things together and with a bit of luck the results could be magical

There is an indescribable pleasure in re-reading books especially books we classify for ourselves as classics. Not withstanding the great writing which in our eyes makes it a classic in the first place, a re-read also gives an opportunity to reassess the relevance of the book in a changed context. It is not the book that changes but we as readers who would have changed with time. There is a refreshing joy and an element of wonderment in assessing this personal transformation. It is similar to the joy we get when we look at our childhood photographs

The mark of all good fiction is that it has to be transformational in some form or other. We live our lives in certain loosely defined but concrete boundaries (societal and workplace rules, responsibilities that come with our place in the society etc.) and in that sense we are limited or confined. Fiction allows us to become aware of the areas where we can stretch these boundaries. Because in fiction you are peeping into someone else’s life and see what happens to them and how they address it. And the purest form of embracing fiction is through reading it. In that critical sense reading is life nourishing

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