Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Kipling’s “AKBAR’S BRIDGE” – A fascinating mix of history and legend

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 24, 2020

Akbari Bridge

HISTORY
Shahi Bridge or Munim Khan’s Bridge or Akbari Bridge or Mughal Bridge or Jaunpur Bridge is a 16th-century bridge over river Gomti in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, India. Jaunpur was established by Feroz Shah Tughluq in the late 14th century on an ancient site along the Gomti River. The town is known for its interesting architecture as many 14th and 15th century mosques in the town were built in a style that mixes Islamic, Hindu and Jain influences. The Akbari Bridge pictured here was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century and still stands today. It crosses the river on the northern side of town (Wikipedia)

LEGEND
Legend has it that Akabar wanted to construct a mosque on the banks of River Gomti like the one never seen before by mankind and ordered his Munim/Viceroy to get going with the work. Bored one day he was strolling on the banks of River Gomti incognito when a sharp tongued potter’s wife began lamenting the absence of a bridge, a boat and boatman to take her across the river. Akbar offers to take her across with the help of a small stow boat which he himself begins to row… On the journey and not knowing that it is Akbar the lady heaps a mouthful of vilest abuse on Akbar and his Munim… Akbar senses the correctness of her need and intention and upon returning to the palace orders the Munim to cancel the mosque and construct a bridge instead with that money and that is how the Shahi Bridge or Munim Khan’s Bridge or Akbari Bridge or Mughal Bridge or Jaunpur Bridge got constructed.

KIPLING
Out of this mix of fact and legend, Kipling weaves a nice long poem which I enjoyed reading. I especially loved the verse where the old woman is heaping absue which goes like this:

“Oh, most impotent of bunglers! Oh, my daughter’s daughter’s brood
Waiting hungry on the threshold; for I cannot bring their food,
Till a fool has learned his business at their virtuous grandma’s cost,
And a greater fool, our Viceroy, trifles while her name is lost!

( The fool is Akbar because he is not able to row the boat properly)

“Munim Khan, that Sire of Asses, sees me daily come and go
As it suits a drunken boatman, or this ox who cannot row.
Munim Khan, the Owl’s Own Uncle-Munim Khan, the Capon’s seed,
Must build a mosque to Allah when a bridge is all we need!

(A capon is a castrated domestic cock fattened for eating)

Chastised Akbar takes this same abuse back to his Munim and tells him the following:

And he ended, “Sire of Asses-Capon-Owl’s Own Uncle-know
I-most impotent of bunglers-I-this ox who cannot row-
I-Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind-
Bid thee build the hag her bridge and put our mosque from out thy mind.”

It was fun reading this poem

The bridge still exists

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 21, 2020

Kim

Done reading Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” today… Truly a great and complex work of fiction for the layered richness of its setting, the story line, the characters, the absorptive power of narration and the overall fun element.

Historical works of fiction are by their nature rooted in a sociological context (in this case it is the undivided India open all the way through to Afghanistan where British are consolidating their authority) – and it is in handling and portraying the colours, the sounds, the scenes, the ethos and people of this context that Kipling does a job which in my view has very few parallels. As I read through the book, I could not help but marvel at Kipling’s insight into the Indian society of his times seen with the eyes of a complete outsider which is startlingly accurate and at places mildly shocking. It is this same feeling that I remember experiencing while reading Ruth Prawar Jhabvala ( Heat and Dust and numerous short stories), Willam Dalrymple (The City of Djinns and Nine Lives), Mark Tully (No Full Stops in India), Forester (A Passage to India), V.S. Naipaul (The India Trilogy) and Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar).

But each of these writers had very different emotional takes on India: Jhabvala is critical and at places disparaging, Dalrymple is curious and exploring, Forester is wry and ambivalent, Tully is understanding but journalistic, Naipaul out rightly critical and despairing (looks like he is turning out to be true and saw the present day India in making long ago). On the contrary, Kipling comes across as sympathetic, invested, curious, admiring and at places even openly adulatory. The sweep of the syncretic culture of the then North India with its rigid caste system, co-existence of religions, races, languages, traditions, cultures, ethos and native wisdom that Kipling has absorbed during his stay in India is astonishingly well reflected in KIM and makes for a memorable reading experience.

Kim also has strong philosophical parallels to Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Gita Mehta’s “River Sutra” especially the journey of Kim as chela to the Tibetan monk as his Guru who is on his quest for salvation in the finding of the mythical River of Knowledge.

Undoubtedly one of the best works of fiction in English I have read till date.

A trivia: There are hundreds of Urdu words and expressions and their translations into a piquant English which Kipling employs in his narration which make for the fun element in the reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Detailing in Fiction – Rudyard Kipling

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 14, 2020

Detailing in fiction is a knife edge act for writers… too little and things escape readers’ attention.. too much and things tend bore the readers. In either case the expected impact is lost.

So what exactly is detail in fiction?

One of my favourite literary critics viz. James Wood in his book “How Fiction Works” deals with “detail” quite extensively and while elaborating on the topic himself borrows from theologian Duns Scotus’s description of detail as “THISNESS” and goes on to elaborate it as follows: “By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion

Kipling’s command on detailing is of a high order. Two I encountered in my reading of Kim and quite liked are:

“…. a big cobra with “fixed, lidless” eyes….” (It is true that snakes have no eyelids. Each eye is covered with a single, transparent scale. … As a result, snakes cannot blink and they sleep with their eyes open)

“…. the old man, who brought out his cavalry sabre and, balancing it on his “dry” knees, told the tales of the mutiny....” (Spend a day in a village and observe aged men/farmers and you will know what dry knees look like)…. It might look a minor observation but it adds so much to the quality of writing

While this growing ability to sense detail in stuff one reads is a source of great pleasure and satisfaction… it also slows down reading quite considerably… It is a trade off one has to live with – I guess.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Silas Marner – George Eliot

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 3, 2020

Silas Marner

Kept my mind to it and completed George Eliot’s “Silas Marner”

Eliot writes a prose that is gentle, insightful and wonderfully elevating and the more one reads the more one feels like reading it. While telling a wonderfully moving story, she also paints a fascinating picture of the rural life and landscape of early 19th century English village. Her characters are extremely well outlined and carry a distinctiveness that is memorable. Surprisingly, while Silas is the eponymous central character of the novel, his presence is disproportionately limited.

But to me what is really most impressive about her writing is her ability to dwell into the inner realms and the workings of the minds of her characters and through that throw light on human nature. There are many places where I had to pause to understand the gravity and meaning of what was being told. It is a habit of mine to constantly check what I can learn to better myself from the insights and thoughts I come across in a book that I am reading. Silas Marner offers multitude of such insights but one particular insight which will serve a middle aged person like me well is the following:

” I suppose it is the way with all men and women who reach middle age without the clear perception that life never can be thoroughly joyous: under the vague dullness of the grey hours, dissatisfaction seeks a definite object, and finds it in the privation of an untried good” – surely a cautionary rubric that will serve me well ( I hope).

Now that I have completed the novel, there is a small joy in the recognition that I have earned the right to watch the movie version of the novel… Hope to have a similar experience…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Hobson – Jobson

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 2, 2020

Hobson - Jobson

I found this fascinating book in the digital library of Osmania University viz.

HOBSON – JOBSON – A GLOSSARY OF ANGLO-INDIAN COLLOQUIAL WORDS AND PHRASES AND OF KINDRED TERMS

— – BY COL. HENRY YULE, R.E., C.B. AND A. C. BURNELL, PH.D., C.I.E.

It is a 1000+ page tome listing words that through activities of administration, trade, travel, exploration over centuries have crept into English from all parts of the Undivided India ( what now loosely gets called as “Akhand Bharat”) which was the administrative domain/colony of East India Company first and then the British later on…

However, besides the staggering variety of original vocabulary of native languages that the English had to encounter, a portion of the words that seeped into English have themselves seeped into the native languages from various countries like Portugal, Spain, Arab, Malay, Chinese, Persian which either had colonies or were active traders with India for centuries.

Makes for entertaining reading….

A pleasant shocker of a word that I encountered is “basan” which is a Portugese word and means a plate/utensil…. and it is this same word which is also prevalent in Telugu “బాసన్” … very commonly used in large parts of Telangana…. and the sentence “The old Bukshee is an awful bahadur, but he keeps a first-rate bobachee” – we are given to understand would have passed among soldiers of a British mess of those days without raising a murmur of incomprehension… btw.. Bobachee means a “male cook” … looks like it is the Hindi equivalent of Bawarchi

All of this brings me to a reinforcement of a belief I have long held that there is no such thing as a pure language or a pure identity.. we are the products of centuries of interactions and assimilation…. our identities while important to us for navigating the world on a daily basis, may serve us well if only we remember that they are like plants germinating in a soil mass that is constantly in a flux….

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Gustave Dore

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 28, 2020

Gustave Dore

I have come across the reference to artist Gustave Dore in Kipling’s brilliantly descriptive short story ” THE CITY OF DREADFUL NIGHT’…. Did a little bit of googling and found this authentic link to his works. There are 759 portraits in all and each of them worthy of spending some time on…..

Kipling is describing a part of Lahore City in the night of stifling and still summer heat… demonstrates his great talent as a writer… Here is a panoramic night view of the city from the minaret of a mosque:

Dore might have drawn it! Zola could describe it—this spectacle of sleeping thousands in the moonlight and in the shadow of the Moon. The roof-tops are crammed with men, women, and children; and the air is full of undistinguishable noises. They are restless in the City of Dreadful Night; and small wonder. The marvel is that they can even breathe. If you gaze intently at the multitude, you can see that they are almost as uneasy as a daylight crowd; but the tumult is subdued. Everywhere, in the strong light, you can watch the sleepers turning to and fro; shifting their beds and again resettling them. In the pit-like court-yards of the houses there is the same movement.

… There is a lot more wonderful writing in the story

Enjoy the pictures at leisure…

https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-dore

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Detailing in fiction – a fine example from Conrad

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 20, 2020

I have seen clothes drying on a clothesline hundreds of times but never observed the whole ensemble carefully. Here is Joseph Conrad describing clothes drying on the clothesline of a small house ship in the story “Falk”

On most days little frocks and pinafores could be seen drying in the mizzen rigging of his ship, or a tiny row of socks fluttering on the signal halyards; but once a fortnight the family washing was exhibited in force. It covered the poop entirely. The afternoon breeze would incite to a weird and flabby activity all that crowded mass of clothing, with its vague suggestions of drowned, mutilated and flattened humanity. Trunks without heads waved at you arms without hands; legs without feet kicked fantastically with collapsible flourishes; and there were long white garments that, taking the wind fairly through their neck openings “edged with lace”, became for a moment violently distended as by the passage of obese and invisible bodies.

Will a mundane thing like a clotheslines ever be same again for me ?

Not for nothing did Oscar Wilde say: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

“Detailing” in fiction is a fine art mastered by very, very few writers….

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2020

Typhoon - Joseph Conrad

“….. And no wonder ! They had had a doing that would have shaken the soul out of a white man. But then they say a Chinaman has no soul. He has, though, something about him that is deuced tough” – Joseph Conrad – In Typhoon

Corona virus and the Chinese response to it is making Conrad look prophetic…

To read Conrad is a deep act of meditation. The quality of his writing, the razor sharp eye for detail of both the physical and psychological, the dense prose, the command on language and knowledge of life on sea has very few equivalents… I was pleasantly surprised to see a strong resemblance of his Captain Macwhirr to Charles Johnson’s Captain Falcon in the novel “Middle Passage” (another brilliant sea book). It is the last chapter that is a big surprise where the real nature of each character gets revealed which has touches of epiphany …. Enjoyed every bit of it.

One more book added to an ever growing list of re-reads.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Tales of Unease by Arthur Conan Doyle

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 8, 2020

Tales of Unease - Doyle

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known for his creation of Sherlock Holmes, his short stories outside of Sherlock are equally good. Besides being interesting, these tales also demonstrate Doyle’s keen eye for his physical surroundings, talent for accurate depiction of an England of his times which has interacted ( in whatever capacity) with other cultures of the world far and wide and dexterity in sensitive characterization. Here is something from his story “The Brown Hand” which I liked:

“The old couple had come round to that tragic imitation of the dawn of life when husband and wife, having lost or scattered all those who were their intimates, find themselves face to face and alone once more, their work done, and the end nearing fast. Those who have reached that stage in sweetness and love, who can change their winter into a gentle, Indian summer, have come as victors through the ordeal of life. Lady Holden was a small, alert woman with a kindly eye, and her expression as she glanced at him was a certificate of character to her husband”

” As I drove from Dinton Station in the waning light of that autumn day, I was impressed by the weird nature of the scenery. The few scattered cottages of the peasants were so dwarfed by the huge evidences of prehistoric life, that the present appeared to be a dream and the past to be the obtrusive and masterful reality”

 

In addition to the above, there are other interesting stories like “The New Catacomb”, “The Ring of Thoth”,  “The Case of Lady Sannox” and “The Captain of the Polestar” which grab your attention from the word go.

Fun reading this collection..

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Ring Lardner’s Haircut

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 4, 2020

In the Barber Shop (1934), oil on canvas by Russian-American painter Ilya Bolotowsky

(In the Barber Shop (1934), oil on canvas by Russian-American painter Ilya Bolotowsky)

You know, in most towns of any size, when a man is dead and needs a shave, why the barber that shaves him soaks him five dollars for the job; that is, he don’t soak him, but whoever ordered the shave. I just charge three dollars because personally I don’t mind much shavin’ a dead person. They lay a whole lot stiller than live customers. The only thing is that you don’t feel like talkin’ to them and you get kind of lonesome.”

Lardner, through the monologue of a barber, is terrific in capturing the small town America in this story.  There is a verve and flamboyance to his prose which is enjoyable. And the very admirable thing is the profusion of characters he packs in this small story while ensuring that none loses its identity… Although late, happy to have discovered this writer.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »