Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 28, 2013

Levels of LifeLevels of LifeJulian Barnes’s latest book is a slim and strange one for its ability to knit together coherently three disparate and seemingly unrelated topics viz. ballooning and aerial photography, an un-requited love story and a deep sense of grief on the death of a beloved one. True to its title, Barnes takes the readers through three different levels of life viz. First, “The Sin of Height”: which provides a wonderful history of the rise and romance of ballooning and aerial photography on both sides of the English Channel (a life up in air). Second, “On the Level”: an unrequited love story between Colonel Fred Burnaby and French actress Sarah Bernhardt drawn together by mutual attraction and common passion for the adventure of ballooning ( a life firmly rooted on earth). Third, which is the pièce de résistance in the book is “The Loss of Depth”, a majestic reminiscence on the nature of grief (something that emanates with in us after burying our dear ones six feet deep in the ground).

It is in the last part of the book that Barnes really shows what a good contemporary writer he is. Five years back, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, to whom he was married for nearly three decades died. It is in the sustained experience of grief for over half a decade that Barnes also examines the general nature of grief. Barnes begins his examination with the assertion that “Grief, like death, is banal and unique”. Yet what we get to witness in his writing till the end is a deeply meditative and multi-dimensional exploration of various aspects of this so called subject of banality. The felt grief is personal, yet, Barnes manages to abstract his observations on the workings and mechanics of grief to a level of elevation that it starts to become a human universal. Barnes draws heavily metaphors from the first two parts of the book and that is when we start to understand relevance of those two parts in a clearer light. In doing so Barnes also emphasizes on the weight of grief on an individual and how it internalizes itself till the last day of his life. It appears that Barnes had a premonition about the grief-state he would enter in his future. He quotes from his own writing on the state of widowhood which dates back to three decades:

When she dies, you are not first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all

Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that; it’s just misery as regular as a job….. [People say] you’ll come out of it….. And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life

A wonderfully lucid yet accurate portrayal!

Literature may not be life-giving in first place but it definitely ought to be life-sustaining and life-affirming through accurate illumination of diverse aspects of human condition. That should be the aim of any good literary effort. Julian Barnes’s “Levels of Life” hits the bull’s eye when it comes to this aspect of literature.

Overall, a splendid and memorable read


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Studs Terkel: Will the Circle be Unbroken? Reflections on Life, Death and a Hunger for a Faith

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 22, 2013

Will the circle be unbroken“Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint or condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts. You would buy shares in death, if they were available; you would bet on it, however poor the odd” – Julian Barnes in Nothing To Be Frightened Of

These days I very often think of death and dying. My own ageing and the brushes with death of known people around me takes me to this subject very frequently. Thankfully at this stage I am not terrified of it. Increasingly, I see entire humanity (and myself included in it) as a teeming and yet another biological species in this petri-dish called Earth. And like all other species we have our natural life-cycles divided between living and dying. Sometimes I think we make too little of living and too much of dying. While the subjects of Religion, biology, medicine and philosophy touch upon the subject of death in different ways, I am not sure if they have provided any conclusive and comforting answers. My own approach is not to think and worry about it too much. All I wish is that I be granted a pain free and peaceful death. In a way that is a constant prayer I have these days. In the recent past, along with this wish to have a calm passage, I have also developed immense curiosity towards what others feel about death. I would like to know and understand how others see death and how do they reconcile themselves to it.

In literature I have come across very few books that have exclusive focus on death and dying. As an adolescent I remember reading Tolstoy’s “Kruetzer’s Sonata” where the predicament of a man on his deathbed is described brilliantly. Tolstoy left me with a stunning impression as if he has had a special acquaintance with death. Similarly, Julian Barnes’s “The Lemon Table” and ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of” are two other books that have had an exclusive focus on death and dying. Contrary to my expectations, the latter two were joyous reads so much so that I have included them in my list of books for re-reading. However, nothing prepared me for the wonderful experience I have had while reading Studs Terkel’sWill The Circle Be Unbroken – Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith” – a collection of 62 straight talking and bone honest conversations by men and women from all walks of life who tell what they feel about death and living in a manner that is deep and moving

I have known the writings of Terkel for over a decade now and through him I have understood the power, importance and beauty of oral histories. His books on the experiences of Great Depression (The Hard Times), Feelings about nature of work (Working) and II world war (The Good War) and on singers and singing (And They All Sang – Adventures of a Disc Jockey) have been my all time favourites. To that list I now add his “Will The Circle Be Unbroken…” What makes the book a memorable reading experience is Terkel’s ability to bring out the most honest and fearless thoughts of men and women on death. Through these conversations one gets to see the grandeur of being human, the nature of the fear of unknown, resigned indifference,  raging frustration, philosophical equanimity, a bubbling pride, concrete practicality and some rib tickling pettiness. There is much in this book that is very reassuring, comforting, practical and elevating. Some of the views expressed are closer to the one I have and some I have never thought through but can pretty well may own and imbibe in time to come

If there is one thought in the book that is very close to my own thoughts on death and dying it is by one Peggy Terry – a passionate civil rights activist from Chicago

I’m not sure what happens to us when we die. But why should we be so concerned about it? Think of it as a flower, or a tree that dies and adds its whatever, vitality, to the earth. Flowers die every year, Trees die. All living things die. So why are we so much more than the animals of the Earth, or the foliage, or any of it? I don’t know why we should all be so afraid of it. It’s a nuisance knowing you won’t be here anymore. The one thing I hate about thinking about dying is I won’t be able to read. If I could take books with me, I wouldn’t care  

Yes, even I would not worry about death if I could take books along with me

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Notes of a Nobody: The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 13, 2013

Thinking ManPaan Singh.. jal laayiye

It was an unexpected but a pleasant baritone voice that I heard from the table oblique to me in the mess hall of Jubilee hostel a month after I took up residence there as a student to pursue my post-graduate studies. What really grabbed my attention was the effortless use of the pure Hindi word “jal”. Normally, even the most fluent, fanatic and native speakers of Hindi language use the word “paani” instead of “jal” for water. I looked at him involuntarily and he noticed that he was being observed and smiled at me. I too smiled but did not say anything. He was of medium height, with a mop of thick black hair on his head. As if to match this he also sported a thick beard. The beard failed to hide a strong jaw-line that made his face look unduly flat. I made a note that had he allowed the hair and beard to grow longer, he would surely have a budding philosopher’s look. His brief smile indicated to me that he was in the habit of chewing betel leaves. He was surrounded by a group of friends who did not pay much attention to what he said indicating they were used to the way he talked. I completed eating the drab fare more as a routine exercise to keep hunger at bay and left the mess hall. Barring rare occasions of festivals and weekend meals, the food was never well made at Jubilee Hall and like others I learnt to supplement my mess food with sandwiches, bread- omelet, samosas, maggi noodles and tea from a shop outside the hall.  Since I was new and have not yet made any friends, I quite often frequented this shop alone. Actually, I preferred it that way for it gave me time to be myself and think through the adjustments that I needed to make to settle down in the newer environs which were pretty far away from home.

It was on one of those sojourns to supplement food that I met my bearded man sitting on a bench laid in front of the shop. There was a mild chill in the air and my hunger was sharp. I ordered for a bread-omelet and tea combination and sat opposite to the man waiting to be served. For want of anything better, I smiled at him. He smiled at me and said in chaste Hindi:

“Which faculty do you belong to?”

“Management,” I said

“Oh! Your life is all set then” he said. There was a tinge of envy in his voice. I smiled at his observation. I especially found the traces of envy a little bothersome and dismissed it in an amiable way “Oh! nothing like it”

My omelet and tea had arrived and before I started on it I offered the plate to him. He refused saying “whatever we have we should have in full but I too am very hungry”. I kind of guessed his situation which appeared to be the situation of many students in that place, called the canteen boy and ordered a full bread omelet for him along with a cup of tea. Waiting for his plate to arrive, I offered my plate to him once again and said “take half… I will take half from the plate I ordered for you”. He took a portion and started munching it hungrily. I looked at him carefully and asked him

“Are you in the Hindi department?”

He stopped his munching and looked at me and said “Why Hindi? I am in pure math. I am pursuing my Ph.D – number theory he said” I did not at first get the pure Hindi translation of the subject “number theory” he employed in his sentence. He had to reiterate it inserting the necessary English words. Following on that he said “what made you think I belonged to Hindi faculty?”

“The way you speak Hindi. It is so pure. It is as if you are reading from a good text book” I replied

He chuckled loudly for a while and then said “Oh that! I love Hindi. It is a wonderful language when spoken in its purity. I do not like Hindustani which has many Urdu words mixed in it. But I would not hesitate to say that pure Urdu is as wonderful as Hindi. Both languages carry a magic in them”

I could not agree with him more. Coming from the region of Telangana, I have a deep sense of what he meant. In the meanwhile the other plate came along with two teas and we had our shares. He thanked me for the fare and we walked to our respective rooms. This was the beginning of our friendship. We used to meet each other at the canteen, talk about various things. I loved the way he spoke his Hindi which was pure and musical. More and more I started to look for these meetings to hear him speak his Hindi. However, with the onset of winter, I started to see him less and less. Once in a while I met him at the tea stall outside but he appeared serious and lost in himself. The usual chatty self was gone and after a while he was not to be seen completely. In the meanwhile, I had developed a set of friends of my own and settled quite well. The possibility of having good career prospects after my management studies had changed my own confidence. About a couple of months later I spotted him at the canteen and I walked up to him. He looked gaunt with long hair and beard. I walked upto him and said

“Is all well? I do not see you at all these days. Any problem?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said “No no major problems. I am preparing for Civil services exams and delayed my Ph.D work. They have stopped my scholarship and that is turning out to be a problem”. He paused for a while and said hesitatingly “Can I borrow 300 rupees from you? Can’t say when I will return it to you. But will return it certainly”

I couldn’t say no. I gave it to him although it was a big sum thanks to the financial support I was receiving from my father. I ordered something for both of us and we started to chat up on his preparation efforts. He had let me known that he was confident of success as his preparation was on track and he is in a revision mode now. After this, I did not see him for nearly five months. By this time much had changed at my end. I had found a nice summer job with a well sought after new-age financial services firm. My posting was in Delhi and I most probably would end up in the same company for a permanent slot in future. I started to love Delhi and had wanted to work there for a while before I made my next moves. Life looked rosy and bright. I was busy wrapping the loose ends at my institute for the year. It was during this period that I had gone all alone to our canteen for a cup of tea

After about 10 minutes at the canteen I found a clean shaven man standing in front of me trying to grab my hand. It took 10 seconds for me to realize that he was none other than my bearded friend who has now shed his beard. He was smiling at me and all the beetel stains on his teeth were gone. He was in complete formals including well polished black shoes. There was a quiet dignity in the way he looked.  I grabbed his hands in recognition and said

“You surprised me ! Don’t see you anymore these days. How are you? How did your exams go?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said sheepishly “I did better than expected. I secured 11th in the overall merit list and opted for Indian Foreign Service”

“Congratulations!!” I said. I was in a mild state of disbelief but smiled and said “Look even your life is set”

He nodded his head. We ordered for more tea and started to exchange developments at our respective ends. He told me that he was going to Mussorie the following week for a six-month long training and then will be in Delhi for another six months before being attached to one of the Indian embassies abroad. He also told me he always had a desire to be in Indian Foreign Services and become a top notch diplomat. All of this he poured forth in his usual chaste Hindi

I said “Look you will not have a chance to speak like this anymore once you go abroad. You will have to speak mostly in English”

He laughed and said ”Yes I will miss that. “Perils of profession” you see”. That was the first time I saw him using an English expression with me and coming from him I found that a little odd. I felt like pulling his leg and asked him what would that expression in Hindi be. He thought for a while and said something in Hindi. It was beyond my comprehension. I let him go with that. We sat there for about another 30 minutes in which he told me how hard he worked for realizing his objective. It was time for me to go. I got up  and told him that I needed to get to my institute. He too stood, took my arm and quickly hugged me and said “thanks for all the help especially that money. I was really in a bad shape then” He took out his purse and pulled out 300 bucks for returning. Strangely, I did not feel like taking it. I told him that I did not want to take it back and would want to have it as a fond remembrance. I added jokingly “in future I can always tell my family and friends that somewhere in the upper echelons of Indian diplomatic circles there was a person who owed me money”. We laughed for a while. Despite his insistence I refused and requested him to let it be that way and not rob me of my remembrance. He relented after a while. We shook hands once again and parted.

That was the last I saw of him. Now I have even forgotten his name. Surely, it is not very difficult to trace him if I want to what with the ubiquitous search engines around. I am sure he must be quite a senior diplomat somewhere trying to maintain good relations between India and whichever country he is posted in presently.

It has been nearly three decades since this happened. My life too had gone many ups and downs and at every stage I was helped by friends. But more than friends I was helped by strangers. If not pure strangers by temporary acquaintances who had tendencies to become strangers rapidly. In moments of reminiscence, I always felt guilty of not keeping in touch with these good Samaritans (and there were many in my life) and being forgetful of their kindness. However, over a period, life also taught me that it is in its nature to throw strangers at us as much as it makes strangers of us and throws us at others. And therefore it is important for us to be kind and grateful to others for we never know, in life, when we will receive the kindness of strangers as much as we get an opportunity to show kindness to others

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Notes of a Nobody: The twenty-twenty-sixty crisis in our reading culture

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 10, 2013

Man Reading a book 3I can sum the growth of my awareness of the world around me in four phases, each underpinned by an altering equation between “Faith” and “Reason”:





In that period when reason was on the ascendancy, I believed and even argued with acquaintances in my close circle that there are no absolutes and that every aspect of our existence gets determined by a context and therefore it is very difficult to determine what is right, what is wrong, what is good and what is bad with certainty. I notice that the pendulum has swung again. I now believe that there are a few non–negotiable absolutes in our lives and one among these is about the need for inculcating deep reading habits in children and adults alike.

Everyone one on this planet must read and read extensively

I now have enough reasons to put my faith in the belief that the overall effects of widespread reading are salutary. And at its minimum reading humanizes and tempers the many rough and unwanted tendencies in us. In a way I have started to concur with the views and thoughts expressed by the fictional Queen Elizabeth in Alan Bennett’sThe Uncommon Reader” where she says:

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”


 “Books did not defer…. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night, when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who has led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised”

Although reading is an anonymous and personal activity by nature, there is an urgent need for universalizing it. Here too, as in other places, the early bird catches the worm. Therefore it has to start with children when they are fairly young. However, the constraints for universalization are many and not uniform in their influence. In generic terms, these constraints fall into three broad buckets viz. Guidance, Discovery and Availability distributed approximately in the ratio of 20:20:60 from the impact they can have on the life-long reading habits of an individual

Children should be guided within loosely defined boundaries of what they ought to read even while leaving room for an element of guided self discovery. For this to happen parents themselves have to be avid readers and should be aware of a broad range of books that they can introduce to their children as they grow. By their very nature children are curious and have a natural tendency to gravitate to books. Rare is a child who is not excited by books, pictures and stories. In an insightful essay in Paris Review magazine, noted writer Julian Barnes stated that Reading is a majority skill and a minority art. In a world full of gadgets with hyper-focus on pixellated information and where there is an urgent need for making reading a majority art, reading is moving in the direction of being a minority skill. Yet the distractive power of the devices can be used imaginatively for effective discovery. Hook a child to books and it will be a life long addiction.

Knowledge of what to read goes hand in hand with the widespread availability of books to read. Like in economics even in the world of books supply creates its own demand.  In the past there were public libraries which made books accessible to common public. World over these public libraries are dying a death of thousand cuts. In India, thankfully, Govt. has managed to put libraries out of this misery by swift hacking of budgets. In the city of my stay, which boasts itself of being the knowledge hub of the country, there is not even a single public library that can match up to the standards of a decent county library in UK. This is not on account of lack of resources but due to a lack of vision and imagination. In the west, while governments were active in sustaining libraries, a large part of the impetus also came from wealthy philanthropists who donated generously to build libraries which their nations could be proud of. Some of the richest captains of the world industry are in India but I know of none who has donated to the cause of libraries generously. Some may have but definitely not enough to create long sustaining institutions. As in other places, here too, there is room for innovation in building a network of libraries: crowd sourcing, public pooling may work but we need some solid foundations laid before these approaches can become effective. And Govt. should be the central force in laying the foundations. In a time and era when Govt. is withdrawing itself from many essential facets of public life and private enterprises are taking its place, this urging for Govt’s role is in all likelihood a cry in wilderness. The result of this withdrawal is a lack of access to books to common public and reading which is one of the most egalitarian activities in human sphere is increasingly becoming the privilege of individual economic affordability – ala education and healthcare. And that in my view is a depressing development. Good public libraries are memories of nations. In our neglect of these memory banks we are allowing our society to slip into a state of collective amnesia.

There are numerous instances of brilliant endorsements of what libraries mean to individuals. If Ray Bradbury claimed that “he graduated out of a library”, Jorges Luis Borges believed that “library is his imagined version of heaven”. Writing in New York Review of Books on the issue of closure of libraries in UK, author Zadie Smith posed one of the most relevant questions for our times:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell

Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay…. In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible

What a brilliant and eloquent damnation of the modern economic state !!

Library as a plurality of personal places and technology’s invasion into a collective common good of the society which defies the logic of conventional economics is a new dimension worth thinking about. The sad part is that in India our intellectual energies are so petered out and our priorities are so narrowed down that asking questions about these critical public institutions has ceased to be a priority.

Therein, I think, lies the crisis in our reading culture

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Notes of a Nobody: Beauty and Tears

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 9, 2013

Traveling back from Nepal, I sat in the flight with a growing sense of disappointment looking at the never ending billowing milky white clouds that have blanketed our flight. My diminishing hopes of not able to see the Himalayan range up from the sky (a desire that I had for a long while) was the cause behind my disappointment. I gave up and closed my eyes till I was gently nudged by my colleague. I opened my eyes to see my colleague pointing silently to the window. I looked in the direction and gasped. There was the Himalayan range shining brilliantly in sunlight. It was a sight that was so majestic and so beautiful that I was moved by its transcendental grandeur. The flight took almost 10 minutes to cross the range – rows and rows of giant snow clad mountains with the bright sun glittering and golding their tops. I was overwhelmed and without my knowledge I had tears swirling in my eyes.

Something very similar happened to me at Haridwar. It was in the afternoon of a hot scorching north Indian May summer, I had reached Haridwar from Delhi via Roorkee engineering college. It was in the still heat which had acquired a quality of viscous fluid we reached the banks of Ganges. The water was flowing at a ferocious pace. I sat on the stone bank and casually dipped my feet into the water simply to recoil at the coldness of the water. It was such a dramatic contrast. On the top of my head was an intensity of heat that had a capacity to loosen the skin from the body and at feet was a sensation of coldness that could curdle skin. I looked at the river carefully once again and started to understand the ferocity with which the river was flowing. It was a power at display that was beyond words.. For how many thousands of years was it flowing and flowing with this ferocity? There was grandeur in its ferocity that was humbling. And once again I experienced an emotion that overwhelmed me and once again there were swirls of tears in my eyes

Grand beauty of nature and a human being’s tears – what is the linkage? Is there an answer for this? Someday, I am sure I will understand this phenomenon

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Notes of a Nobody: In the shadows of a vague personal philosophy

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 29, 2013

Thinking ManIt is my belief that for most part our life is perplexingly unfathomable to the point of being meaningless. “What is the purpose of our life? Why are we here? – are two questions that confront any thinking individual.  I doubt if any school of philosophy, thought or religion has addressed this question conclusively. Maybe, it is this frustrating aspect of our existence that has prompted Albert Camus to suggest that the only serious philosophical question is whether or not one ought to kill oneself. “Suicide,” he believed, “is merely confessing that [life] “is not worth the trouble.” Writing on the topic of suicide in Harper’s magazine columnist and writer Clancy Martin says:

 “Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering”.

Overall a pertinent observation and the last word in the observation in my view the most critical one – “suffering”.  I think it is for this reason Buddhism, the most psychologically astute of all religions, proclaims cessation of human suffering as its banner line objective

An indisputable aspect of human life is the suffering that is associated with it. It is integral to life. I do not think there is even a single human being on earth who would confidently proclaim that he has not suffered in his life – ever. Every one suffers in some form or shape. It is the degree that varies. Human suffering is a solid reality beyond contention. Therefore, I think a critical purpose in our life should be to reduce this suffering around us to the best of our ability and capacity. Does this approach of reducing overall suffering around us bring meaning to our lives? I am ambivalent about it. However, what it definitely does is increase potential for spreading happiness and make our lives more tolerable and hopefully a joyous one for some for some time if not for all for all the time. This is an objective which can be an end in itself.

Unwittingly this approach will also tackle two other thorny questions in our lives viz. need for God and need for leaving a legacy. Reducing human suffering is a god-neutral activity. For it, the presence or absence of God really does not matter. Anybody from any walk of life can try and attempt it without taking recourse to God and still feel spiritually uplifted. Secondly, a measure of life well lived is the one which leaves a lasting legacy. Anybody who contributes to reduction of human suffering also contributes immensely to building this personal legacy.

Achieving spiritual contentment and leaving a lasting legacy can be the twin purposes in an otherwise seemingly meaningless existence

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Notes of a Nobody: Authentic Vicariousness

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 9, 2013

Vicarious: Felt or undergone as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of another

Thinking ManI very often ask myself the question: what is the purpose of art? And within that more specifically I ask the question, what is the purpose of literature? Many minds have applied themselves to this question and have come up with different answers. My answer to this question takes the form of two words: “Authentic Vicariousness”.  And here is what I mean by it:  From birth to death whatever we do becomes the path of our life journey. Despite our vanity and self-justification in thinking that we have exercised choice in defining our life-journey, when we look back all that remains is an immutable trajectory. It is what it is. Potentially, at each stage of our life journey there were possibilities that our journey could have forked into infinite branches. All of them are roads not travelled and will never be travelled by us.  Literature’s essential function should be to illuminate these untraveled paths in ways that is authentic and realistic. In other words it should enable me experience by proxy what I have missed out on in my life trajectory. The impact of experiencing this vicariousness can potentially have life transformative outcomes. It could take the shape of building reserves of empathy, sensitivity, edification, mellowing, restraint and an expanding inwardness in ourselves.  In other words, the possibility of flowering in us all what we broadly consider good and noble

…. and that in my view is the essential purpose of literature

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Notes of a Nobody: What is Maqdoom?

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 23, 2013

MakhdoomWaiting for our company pick-up bus one morning, I asked Sameena “What is Maqdoom in Urdu?”

Sameena was our company receptionist – a gregarious spinster with an infectious smile and a moderate chatterbox by nature. One could make out she came from not a well to do family. She was ordinary beyond the definition of being beautiful but had a quiet dignity and a mild air of authority that was telling. What I remember of her was her disarming smile and her bare, prominent, un-ornamented barren neck which for some strange reason remained etched in my memory. Whenever I looked at her neck, the word “desolate” popped into my mind. The quality of desolation I felt was very similar to the one I experienced watching bad prints of Dali’s paintings. Many a time I was tempted to tell her to wear something but never had the courage to go beyond entertaining thoughts of telling her

“Are you trying to be silly”? she replied to my question rubbing her collar bone with a thin  hand that had unusually long fingers with pale yellowish finger nails. It was an unconscious habit with her. Since she was not one of those who smoked, I guessed that she cooked regularly at home with turmeric as key ingredient which made her finger nails yellow

“Did I ask anything wrong?” I said

“Yes. It is not what Maqdoom is? It should have been who Maqdoom is?”

“Oh! OK. Who is Maqdoom?” I persisted

“Will tell you. But tell me why are you asking this question?”

“Well, I was listening to a song and came across a line which said “Yeh mehki thi hui ghazal maqdoom, jasie sehra mein raath phoolonki.” I understand the meaning of the sentence fully and completely but was confused with the addition of the word Maqdoom”

She smiled and said, “Oh! so you listen to ghazals. Do you?  Well, Maqdoom is a famous poet from Hyderabad and he is saying that his ghazal has a fragrance of flowers strung in a sehra. You know a sehra right?”

I moved my hand in front of my face indicating a floral cover worn by bridegrooms in a marriage and then as an afterthought said

“Hyderabad is it? Amazing!! I should know more about him. Do you know anything about him?” I asked her.

She looked at me for a brief while and said seriously “Try reading Maqdoom. He is a great poet and he is from here.” After a brief pause she added “Abba and he were good friends.”

I thought I did not hear her properly and asked her a little loudly “What did you say?”

“I said Abba and he were good friends.” she repeated

“Wow! I guess you would have seen him person. What was he like?” I asked

“Abba was ill for a period of time and Mohuiddin Saab used to come to our house to spend time with Abba. I was a young girl then. Every time he came home he bought something for us. Sweets, flowers, bangles, books and especially seasonal fruits. Custard apples were his favourite. He was a tall, kind and reticent man. Even with Abba he spoke very less. He used to sit and say something in a soft tone. It was like he murmuring to himself.”

“Have you read Maqdoom?” I asked her with a tinge of envy. I did not read Maqdoom. I could not have without knowing Urdu

“I used to. Lots of him… but now I do not read him anymore. He is very good to the point of being great, but I have moved on”, she said. She paused for a while and then said “he was a mixed bag of great things. He was. He had much in him – a romantic,  a revolutionary, a communist, a politician and a keen observer of human condition.”

I was a little surprised to this side of Sameena. I least expected her to have this kind of exposure. What did I know then that life has this habit of throwing strange things at us at unexpected times through individuals to the point of spooking us? I wanted to ask her more but as things would have it, the bus came, we boarded and the conversation was left unfinished

This was in the year 1990. A good 21 years after Maqdoom died.  I was a freshly minted engineer and I joined a small company in Hyderabad and among the many I met, Sameena was one. Nearly two and half decades have gone by after our conversation. I do not know where Sameena is now. Hopefully time and the narrow streets of old Hyderabad were kind to her and treated her and her family well

It is 2013 now. The struggle for Telangana is at its peak and there are strong hopes that a solution will be found to this six decade long aspiration with the announcements of the UPA Govt to demerge Telangana from Andhra and form a separate state. Among the many things that contributed to the growing consciousness of a collective identity of Telangana and its people, revisiting all its poets, writers, and artists was a prominent one. It is in this process that Maqdoom Mohuiddin also resurfaced quite prominently into public awareness. I started to learn more about him and found that he was an artist of definitive merit whose work needs to be explored, popularized and above all celebrated.  I also realized that I still have a lot more that I need to do to know his work better and that makes me a bit restless

But one thing is for sure: Now, I do not ask any more the embarrassing questions like; who is Maqdoom? Or worse still, what is Maqdoom?

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Notes of a Nobody: A Giant and an Oaf

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 2, 2013

I have always believed that even the most ordinary folks among us have profound thoughts about core issues that concern our human nature. Issues like fate, life, death, role of chance, love, purpose of life, meaning of relationships, responsibility to ourselves and others are some of these. However, many of us struggle to express our these profound thoughts lucidly.  Some time back, I do not remember precisely when, I got a little disturbed and pensive thinking about the strife that many of the under-privileged  among us mutely go through without a murmur of protest and while a few privileged get away with egregious sins. In a burst of emotion I had written a poem called “The Usual Destinies” where I had placed an emphasis on the indifference of the celestial entities that watch all go by. To call it a poem may also be a dubious claim. However, in the recent past I had come across the poem “Stars” by Robert Frost where the emphasis once again was the blind indifference of stars to the happenings on the earth.

Needless to say that Frost is what he is – a giant with extra-ordinary sensitivity to nature and human condition within it. Compared to his poem what I penned as a poem would look like an oaf’s scribble. However, I draw an extra-ordinary comfort on the nearness and identical nature of our thoughts  – which once again reinforces my belief that whether you are giant of  a poet or ordinary human being, the quality of thought could be qualitatively similar .

Isn’t that a tiny proof of human universality? At least, that is what I think so
A Giant and an Oaf

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Notes of a Nobody: Strangelands

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 27, 2013

StrangelandsNew books, like new beds, do not agree with me at the first encounter.  I struggle with both of them. At first glance both appear inviting but to adjust to them takes time and demands some effort. A good night’s sleep is nourishing; so is a good bout of reading. Somewhere in my adolescent years, the siren song of books had cast a permanent spell on me. Ever since, there has been a magically enchanted and restless hunger for the written word. The need for reading on a regular basis has now evolved into a natural activity almost akin to satisfying hunger. Take away books from me for an extended period and the mind starts to feel restless, famished and a tad depressed. And yet for all this, I struggle whenever I encounter a new novel, a collection of essays or short stories. Page turning in the initial stages of any read is like walking with heavy feet – slow, dragging and cumbersome. I persist and at some stage, magically, I start to get a sense of grip over what I read. The progress becomes palpable and gradually acquires a galloping pace till the last page is turned and the book restored to its rightful place on the bookshelf. This pattern of silent transition puzzled me a bit initially. Much later it dawned on me that it is nothing but a struggle of acclimatization of the mind.

All books of fiction are strangelands to begin with. For regular readers like me, the choice of a book to read is very often a matter of chance. One gets to discover them as one goes along. Sometimes a visit to these strangelands is also prompted by recommendations from previous visitors. However strong the recommendation, the experience of the journey will nonetheless always remain one’s own. The initial signposts that enable one start on the journey are the narrators voice and choice of words, the characters, the setting, the inklings of the story line – all of which demand a need for patience for familiarization. As I plod through, the sense of familiarization grows and along with it the sense of acclimatization. Somewhere along I cross a critical transition point and then the journey becomes smooth, comfortable and very often enjoyable.

And then the strangelands cease to remain strangelands anymore

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