Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for June, 2012

The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 30, 2012

Powerful atmospherics with brevity of words is one of the many ways in which great poetry manifests itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is a fine example of this. Written in 1845, the poem portrays the mental turmoil, angst and fear of a bereaving lover who on a cold and wintry night of December is visited by a raven. The man is uncertain if the visitor is evil or kind for it is watchful, fearsome and silent except croaking repetitively one single word “nevermore”. The man without his knowing attributes supernatural powers to the raven and implores with the bird to let him know of the well-being of his dead lover and also if there is a respite for him from his sorrow. The raven, perched on the bust of Athena, does not respond leaving the man distraught, hopeless, sad and with the weariness of a heavy soul leading him to conclude:

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore! 

The symbolism in Poe’s choice of agents and references is to an extent revealing. For example, the only bird that can be active in the night and also possess an ability to make sounds that resemble human talk is a raven (Owls and bats could not have fit the bill despite being nocturnal birds and parrots and other talking birds are diurnal), the perching on the bust of wise Athena indicates a sense of wisdom to which the grieving lover is appealing to and the mythological references to Aidenn (Eden), balm of Gilead and Plutonian nights are self-evident

What makes the poem memorable and haunting besides its atmospherics of darkness, loneliness, fear and chill is the generously repetitive usage of words which rhyme effortlessly. The rhyming words are employed through the body of the poem and not necessarily in the ends of sentences which we as poetry readers have gotten used to. Consider this:

Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Lenore.”
 Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Evil, devil, laden, Aidenn, maiden, adore, Lenore, nevermore – are repeated many times over and used not only in a given stanza but through the body of the poem leading to the pinning down of the reader’s attention

It is said that Poe not only became famous throughout America immediately after the publishing of this poem but also attracted both bouquets and brickbats from peers and critics including accusations of plagiarism. However, over a period of time this poem has come to be acknowledged as a masterpiece of American literature and is said to have inspired many modern works, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Parrot Who Knew Papa”

I have followed my reading of the poem with audio renderings by Sir Christopher Lee, James Earl Jones and Vincent Price and all of them were brilliant in their evocation of the mood and atmospherics

Overall, a joyous experience coming into the know of this great poem.

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Throwing Light on Decay and Death – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 24, 2012

The term “Vairagya” refers to a deeply ruminative cynicism arising out of wisdom, knowledge and awareness about the ways of the world especially its perplexing transience and man’s search for meaning in the grand scheme of things. No other topic engenders as much vairagic thinking as does the imponderability of life’s purpose, its relevance and meaning. The manifestation of this thinking can be seen in prose tracts, poetry, schools of philosophy, expositions, sayings and aphorisms. Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat belongs to this manifestation.

In its form and structure a rubai is a quatrain with four lines where the endings of first, second and fourth lines rhyme. However, there is no hard and fast rule on the rhyming order. It is said that a rubai is actually a two sentence composition, which for the sake of poetic effect is broken into four parts. Here is how a rubai looks in both forms:

 “Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.     (Source Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam)

Notwithstanding the form and structure, the rubaiyat are elegant, elevated, questioning, probing, moving, startling, deep, of exceptional literary beauty, poetic imagery and power, full of wry conclusions and above all a great joy to read. Given the syncretic nature of relationship that South East and South Asia had with West Asia, the rubaiyat have been reasonably well known in this part of the world for a long period of time. However, in the Western world the rubaiyat seem to have gained significant popularity through the translations of Edward Fitzgerald. It is said that the soldiers marching to the battlefronts in World Wars knew the translated versions of rubaiyat by heart. With uncertainty, trauma and death staring in face, anybody would have found the rubaiyat a great comfort and full of meaning and relevance

There are many translations of Rubaiyat. The three that I know are by:

  • Edward Fitzgerald first published in 1889 containing around 100 quatrains
  • Peter Avery and John Heath Stubbs in 1979 containing 235 quatrains.
  • Nectar of GraceSwami Govinda Thirta (original name A.M.Datar – before assuming monkhood) containing 1096 quatrains. The book besides having the rubais also has very comprehensive chapters on the history and prevailing social conditions around the period Omar Khayyam lived and gained his fame

All three of them are a pleasure to read. However, in its comprehensiveness, coverage, organization, background and supporting material Nectar of Grace scores really high. Very little is known of Swami Govinda Thirta except that he was a polyglot scholar with depth in Sanskrit, Persian, Marathi and English. The first translation of Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat he attempted was from Persian to Marathi at the behest of his teacher and upon request of his friends then proceeded to translate the rubaiyat from Persian to English. At the time of translation Swami Govinda Thirta was employed as a clerk in the Finance Ministry of Nizam of Hyderabad. He was supported and sponsored by Nawab Hydar Nawaz Jung Bahadur who himself was a great admirer the rubaiyat. The 1096 quatrains are organized topically and cover the following areas: Praise of God, The Wheel of Time, The Youth (Lyrical) , Decay and Death, The Clay and Cup (Matter and Form), The Fate, The Chastening, The Kharabat (Tavern: Open Sufi assembly), The Maikhana (Mystic Shrine), Personal and Polemic, Prayers and Miscellaneous

With death as the final and unyielding reality it was but natural for Omar Khayyam to bring out the perplexing nature of human existence and passions there in for questioning in his rubais. There is a constant reference to impermanence of life and attempt to laugh at the fleeting nature of relationships; man’s craving for possessions and the need to accept death as a natural process of life. I have found a similar thought on the need for acceptance of death in the brilliant essay “Death in the Open” by Lewis Thomas in his wonderful book ‘The Lives of a Cell” where he writes the following:

 We will have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange. We will need to learn more about the cycling of life in the rest of the system, and about our connection to the process. Everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell. There might be some comfort in the recognition of synchrony, in the information that we all go down together, in the best of the company”  

For me it is one of those exhilarating occasions when a modern man of science and a philosopher-mathematician of Middle Ages are tending to arrive at a point of concurrence filled with wisdom on a topic that is bewildering, perplexing and dismaying  

While I have chosen ten of the sixty odd rubais that cover the topic of death and decay as organized by Swami Govinda Thirta, I have found equally wonderful and elegant rubais on the same topic elsewhere which I will cover in my blog some other time. For now here is my selection:

That castle high which scraped the azure blue,
Where princes crept as inmates of a zoo;
I see now possessed by an ugly owl,
I hear it hooting:” Where is Who is Who?”

I saw a quail amidst the battlefield
It nestled safe beneath a broken shield;
It spake to royal skulls in great disdain:
“Where is the pomp ye wield, what is the yield?”

This rosy garden soon will run to waste,
And cotton seeds will vie with pearls so chaste;
Rejoice, this mortar-mill of rolling world,
Will grind our name and fame to finest paste.

This house has lost the comrades and their fun,
And death has trampled on them one by one;
In feast of life they drank the wine with me,
A round or two before me they are done.

Alas! this buxom body is but frail,
This Dome and Candle are a fairy tale;
When life and death are playing tug-of-war,
The rope, our breath, would snap at last and fail

And in this ruined Inn these faces gay,
With wistful eyes desire some time to stay;
But then they read a warning on the board:
“Wayfarers should not stop but clear away”

“A “grew his gardens, but was goaled away, 
“B “built his barracks, but was bowled away;
I asked how “C “is faring, but was told:
“Now here you are! for ‘ C “is sold away.”

A pining fish said:” O my duck! may be,
When brook will cycle back, we swim in glee.”
Replied the duck: They roast us now on spits,
What boots if world be then mirage or sea!”

With thirsty soul no cooling cup I meet,
Desire has roamed but found no safe retreat;
This heart which plied despondent all along,
In sheer despair, at last has ceased to beat.

My youth has passed and all its pomp in haste,
The grapes are sour and yet I long to taste;
My stature’s bent, Ah! what a pliant bow,
And chorded by the staff I drag to waste!

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Sculpting a Beautiful Mind – Rejuvenation via Re-education

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 19, 2012

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it – Aristotle

Another brilliant mind ruined by higher education” was the screaming yellow pin up badge that I encountered on the first day of walking into the cubicle of my mentor on my first job. At that time I could not make out if he was being silly or prescient. By any measure he was one of the most well educated citizens of India, having his bachelors and masters degrees bestowed on him by two of India’s finest institutions. Eighteen years later and given my own experience, I cannot but concede some ground to the hidden truth in the statement I had read then. Well, “ruined” is a harsh verdict. “Incomplete” “Misdirected” or “Inappropriate” could be better characterizations

For a while now, I have been feeling a visceral need for re-educating myself. A complete overhaul of sorts without upsetting what I have already learnt.  This time around I would want education to be on my terms: at a time, place and pace of my choice, containing content that gives me joy, broadening my horizons in ways that have not been done before and above all waking in me the once fascinated and curious child who has long gone into a deep slumber. I want my education to be eclectic, chosen from fields that are diverse, emergent, relevant, wisdom giving and far removed from any material motives. In other words, it has to be education as an end in itself.  From the place, circumstances and time where I came from, my first round of education was largely mercenary. My perceived skills and felicity with academic subjects were matched with those career choices which maximized my chances for improved livelihood and material well-being. This livelihood centric focus persisted till I completed my education

Now, I want my education to have a completely different orientation. I want it to help me explore vistas which I have never seen before. Knowledge, as we all know is intoxicating and liberating. The more I have it, the more I want it in an endless cycle. However, I have always preferred to accumulate my knowledge in a semi-structured and partially guided mode. Autodidactism is not my cup of tea. While the joys and advantages of gathering knowledge in an unstructured fashion are immense, the single biggest disadvantage is its time consuming nature and that is a luxury that I cannot afford. I need the help of a teacher to set the ball rolling with the big picture and help me build momentum. Once done, I chug along quite well with diligence and focus. Till about last year, there was a sense of despair that I will not be able to fulfill my dreams of re-education. But it looks like all that is set to change – thanks to internet and the growing crop of open source education initiatives.

Two professors at Stanford viz. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng along with a couple of venture capital funds in collaboration with Stanford, Princeton, Penn and University of Michigan have launched an open source initiative called Coursera.org where courses from diverse fields are offered on a technology platform with free access to the audio, video and references to exhaustive reading material. This will have to be followed with self-study and evaluation tests with no attendant fear of grades and failing. The objective is to enhance the understanding and familiarity in chosen subject/s and explore it in a way that is not regimented. Self-discipline is of essence

Coursera is offering a growing cornucopia of interesting courses which I believe that money cannot afford to buy – at least in my parts of the world.  As a first shot at re-educating myself, I have opted for the following courses:

  • Greek and Roman Mythology
  • A History of the World since 1300
  • Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
  • Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World
  • Introduction to Genome Science
  • Listening to World Music

There is a method to madness in the choice of my courses and all of them I believe will open new horizons for my mind. Greek and Roman mythology while being enjoyable on its own will create a much needed context for the understanding and enjoying classical poetry. The course on American poetry will introduce me to the likes of Emily Dickenson, Whitman and other American greats, History of the world since 1300 will expose me to the seminal events that define modern man’s progress. To look back on the turbulent journey of humans over a period of 700+ years must definitely be a sobering feeling and all education while enriching should also be sobering. At some level, all writing is exploration and sense making both by writers and readers. The course on fantasy and science fiction in the context of modern world will hopefully expand my awareness of this sense making. The famous biologist E.O.Wilson once said the following:

The twenty-first century is going to be the century of the environment worldwide. And in science, it is going to be the century of biology

Over the last 5 decades there have been some dazzling developments in the field of biology and I have always burned with this silent desire to get know these developments in a greater detail. The small course on Genome science hopefully will be my first step. And lastly, there is an interesting essay that I read recently from Lewis Thomas’s wonderful book “The Lives of a CellNotes of a Biology Watcher” where the author speculates on what should be the most appropriate material that humans should send to extra-terrestrial life as an introduction to our species and then suggests the following in his inimitable style:

 “…. perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later”

Music fascinates me for its ability to transcend cultural barriers and offer a joy which is personal in ways that are unthinkable. Yet music is not static. Musical elements get borrowed from one culture into another. The course on Listening to World Music attempts to explore some of these aspects of world music and it would be interesting would to make myself aware of these things.

Half a dozen courses of great diversity, import and intellectual octane should go a long way in sculpting a beautiful mind and this to me is rejuvenation via re-education

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Rereading Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 9, 2012

The recently concluded diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s unhindered representation of the institution of monarchy in UK managed to elicit a lone article in The Guardian’s book section on Alan Bennett’s gem of a book “The Uncommon Reader” which covers the inspiringly transformative journey of the queen from an ill-read person to a well-read person. That prompted me to re-read the book

Reading can be anybody’s journey. Ideally, it should be everybody’s journey. In reality, it ends up being only a few people’s journey. The inherently egalitarian nature of reading transcends age, class, colour, creed, gender, profession, preferences, penchants, passions, status and vocation. That a royal personage of eminence is smitten by the pleasure of words and propagates silently in her own way the importance and centrality of reading as an essential activity is a symbol that Bennett employs to drive home the point about the democratic and wholesome nature of reading.

Written with a well-balanced tongue-in-cheek humor, this short book is full of wonderfully memorable insights. Some of these that I missed during my first read but liked immensely during the reread are:

You don’t put your life into books. You find it there

… reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. (How I wish every teacher, parent and elder remembered and acted accordingly!!)  

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic

Bennett makes the book interesting to both adults and children alike and drives home the point that the journey in the world of books is ongoing and the horizons ever expanding.

A truly enjoyable and inspiring read

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A tribute to Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 8, 2012

In moments of anguish, I ask myself: what is the purpose of man’s need for permanence and what his duty to posterity is?

Well, Ray Bradbury gave me the answer with his writing: Dipped in immense amount of love, fun, affection and generosity he made our world a more joyous, pleasant, rich and optimistic place to live in

Like many other writers whom I have discovered late in life, I came to know of Ray Bradbury and his books through the book section of The Guardian. The first book of his I read was Fahrenheit 451. Instinctively, I knew that here was a great and important writer whose book I was reading. Then followed his collection of short stories “The Illustrated Man” and the fabulous collection of essays on the craft of writing in his “Zen in the art of writing” and an odd story here and there from his abundant output of short stories. From the word go, I was completely captivated by the imaginative quality, zest and the extraordinary richness that he brought to the art of storytelling. Somebody once said that the world is at least 51% in favour of us and that is why we are able to live. And into those 51% favours, I unhesitatingly count the joys of reading Ray Bradbury’s books, stories and essays.

I believe that one should read with calm but mad abandon till about 55, then choose about 200 books from what one has already read and begin re-reading them till one dies. At least that is what I am planning to do.  Into that precious list of mine, I will have the fattest volume of Ray Bradbury’s short stories included

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray set down a tough yardstick for measuring a writer when he wrote

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies”

Ray not only did touch life but he very often enlivened it. Thank you Ray. May your soul rest in peace

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