Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Initial Encounters with Tolstoy

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 15, 2018

Been reading Anna Karenina for the past couple of days. I have read many good prose writers but Tolstoy is of a different order. Extraordinary ! Nothing escapes his gaze. Every minute detail is absorbed and presented as if it is a slow moving real picture. The writing bursts with attention to detail and yet nowhere did I feel bored or suffocated due to the abundance of detail (till now) nor has my attention sagged. Some books, if they have to be understood, enjoyed, internalized and respected ought to be read after a particular age.. Happy to have reached that age.

Terrific job by translators Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Two of the numerous examples that I have encountered and quite liked:

Vronsky followed the conductor to the carriage and at the door to the compartment stopped to allow a lady to leave. With the habitual flair of a worldly man, Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society. He excused himself and was about to enter the carriage, but felt a need to glance at her once more – not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet–looking face as she stepped past him. As he looked back, she also turned her head. Her shining grey eyes, which seemed dark because of their thick lashes, rested amiably and attentively on his face, as if she recognized him, and at once wandered over the approaching crowd as though looking for someone. In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile

Internal, external, movement, flow everything is captured as if it is a slow moving picture

When Anna came in, Dolly was sitting in the small drawing room with a plump, tow– headed boy who already resembled his father, listening as he recited a French lesson. The boy was reading, his hand twisting and trying to tear off the barely attached button of his jacket. His mother took his hand away several times, but the plump little hand would take hold of the button again. His mother tore the button off and put it in her pocket

Hope to write a full piece after I am done with it…Anna Karenina


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Kingdoms and Crowns

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 16, 2017

It is said that books are made from books. Looks like even book titles are made from books…Here are some famous book titles sourced by their authors from the writings of other authors whom they held in high regard:

Vikram  Seth – An Equal Music 

…… to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one “equal music”; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity  – John Donne

Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into “unaccustomed earth”  – Nathaniel Hawthorne

James Herriot – All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings

—————–A Hymn for Children by Cecil F Alexander

A.J.Cronin – A Song of Six Pence and A Pocketful of Rye

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

—–          A Famous Nursery Rhyme

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Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 7, 2016

chatwinI came to most of the writers and books I know now through recommendations of better read folks and book reviews in various magazines and newspapers (NYTimes, NewYorker, Paris Review, The Hindu etc). The joy of discovering writers this way is an inherently inferior one. The question is: it is inferior to what? I think it is inferior to the joy of discovering a writer and his work completely unaided, out of blue and when one is not looking for. I have discovered Bruce Chatwin and his writing the latter way – At a second hand book shop in London, one of the numerous Oxfam shops that dot whole of UK to be precise. Standing side by side were three of his books – “What Am I Doing Here”, “The Songlines” and “The Viceroy of Ouidah”. Although I have heard his name before, I had no faintest of ideas as to who he was and what his writing covered. As is my habit, I flipped a few pages of his”What Am I Doing Here” and  the first two essays did me in. Doing me in was an understatement. I was in thrall. Bought all the three. The whole of the following few days I feasted on words: Brilliant essays and some astonishingly high quality travel writing  Eventually I came to his best work and a classic in travel writing “In Patagonia”. I read and re-read his books regularly with a joy that remains undiminished till today and I am certain even in future. Mine was the luck of a habitual second hand book shop frequenter.

Reading ought to be the function of access and serendipity. Without well stocked libraries which are accessible to public how are we going to make this priceless joy of reading and discovering good writing possible? This has to be a job of Govt. No private institution can take this role

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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 31, 2016


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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 1, 2015

Ennui: A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Heart of Darkness

Number9dream Thousand acresTraindreams

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What Does Telangana Mean To Me?

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 26, 2015


Telangana State with 10 districts and its new emblems – Resuscitating a lost identity

Come June 02, the 29th baby of Mother India – The State of Telangana – will complete an year. Looking back, there is a disquieting sense of wonder in me as to when, how and why I have developed this deep passion and anxiety for the well being of this fledgling. For till about 2009, I was indifferent to the issue of the statehood of Telangana and somewhere in 2010 without my own knowing my interest turned towards it and since then it has just been building in me to have reached a state where it has become an integral part of my thought process. Not a day goes by when I do not think about Telangana, its progress, future prospects and possibilities. At a personal level this obsession with Telangana is puzzling and I have been seeking answers to understand this state of mind of mine

I am not sure if I have all the answers to this puzzle but one convincingly satisfying answer that I have arrived at is that in itself Telangana is simply a powerfully fascinating idea – an idea which stands to represent three fundamental aspects viz.

  • A distinctive identity that was almost lost and miraculously regained by the collective efforts of its people

  • The possibilities for accommodative justice in our federal polity

  • A renewed hope in the strength of constitutional provisions and democratic processes of India

The region of Telangana has had a rich culture and long chequered history spanning over 1300 years leading to a distinctive identity. The place and its people have demonstrated originality in every facet of their existence with a wonderful temperament for accommodation. However, for over six decades since its merger with Andhra, it is this identity and this sense of accommodation that was subject to progressive belittling, sustained emasculation and forcible subservience with a conscious purpose of usurping the resources of the region and extending a permanent hegemony in every sphere of life. This hegemony was nothing short of internal imperialism in a democratic milieu. It is this threatened identity that was regained through the collective efforts of people of Telangana against many powerful odds. At one level this awakening to the existence of a collective identity was also deeply personal and liberating. That I have a unique identity which is also part of larger collective identity and that it can be asserted and liberated from hegemony is extremely reassuring and soul satisfying in its nature. Without sounding exaggerating, the struggle for the statehood of Telangana in my view is one of the greatest people struggles of 21st century for reclaiming a losing identity. And that it can be achieved with collective human endeavour, sacrifice and commitment is hope inducing

Secondly, the formation of the state of Telangana also points to the vast spaces for justice in our federal polity. The run-up to the formation of the state preceded destabilizing protests, raucous debates, wicked machinations, political maneuvering of the ugliest order, gambled political fortunes, horrifying glimpses of individual and collective integrities of political leaders and the parties they represented, intellectual treason (Oh! there was tonnes of it !!), wicked and malicious intents to distort political processes. Despite all of this, justice prevailed to a large extent giving immense hope and faith in our federal system and its overall logic. Had this been otherwise the consequences would have been hard to imagine

Thirdly, this prevalence of justice would not have been possible without the inherent strength of our constitutional provisions and processes. That I live in a country which has a constitution with deep capabilities to protect the legitimate interests of its people enhances my faith in the system and in turn enhances my commitment to the system itself. There are many who feel the way I do which at a certain level is wholesome for a maturing democracy like ours

Having said all of the above, the new born baby is not without its share of threatening challenges and alluring possibilities. In rising above these challenges and realizing the potential of these possibilities lies the real duty of all who are committed to Telangana and who have made this powerful idea a possibility in the first place

Happy Birthday !!!!

(An article written for the magazine Singidi )

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Notes of a Nobody: In The Music Store

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 18, 2015

Barring an uncle from my father’s side, there was none on either side of my family who could lay claim to proficiency in music of any degree. My father often claimed that he was a good singer although I have never heard him sing a full length song either to accept or deny his claim. Once or twice, I heard him hum a hindi song arrestingly well. He often claimed he lost his singing to a bout of bronchitis which he suffered from for a while. I can vouch for this suffering though. The wheezy, tinny, heaving metallic breath in the calm nights from his bed and the resulting sleeplessness to him and to us are all familiar memories even to this day. In his early fifties he was miraculously cured of his bronchitis. Along with it, we also saw the vanishing of his claims of him being a singer. Looking back, it appears that in general music never figured in things that was a priority in our families. None spared energies to rise above the humdrum of life to achieve anything noteworthy in music. Part of the reason was also due to the lack of financial strength. Lack of notes of one kind suppressed the rise of notes of another kind in our houses

But things have changed

Kids of younger generations have started to learn music. It is as part of this change I found myself in a music shop one evening trying to buy an electric guitar for my son. It would probably be a more accurate description, if I had said that I was there to pay the bill for an electric guitar as against applying myself to the tasks of evaluation and a final selection. Peers of my son and hours of sifting information on the internet have already done all that had to be done. For every ignorant question that I had, my son had a ready answer making the need for a shop assistant redundant. Despite feeling embarrassed at his father’s lack of basic knowledge, my son grit his teeth and answered all the questions patiently. It was then I realized that besides knowledge, money is also power. It was decided that it would be a black Ibanez electric guitar with a clunky amp as its companion that would force its way into our flat and stay with us for a few years. For a brief while there was a discussion in the shop about RMV, maximum output and clean output reminding me of the grueling stuff I went through in one of the mandatory electrical engineering courses that I had attended as part of my education.

But what really caught my attention was the degree of technological sophistication the instrument and its companion amplifier oozed from their beings. Sitting among dozens of varieties of other musical instruments in the shop, they looked like a gleaming pair of shiny sci-fi beasts with impeccable builds – both part of a larger attacking horde of an unknown and malevolent power. The tautly stretched alloy strings of an evolved metallurgical process, the beautiful chrome plated supports for the strings, the electrical sockets which appeared hungry for a connection, the array of rotatory knobs – each a master in its own right to control some aspect of sound and the minion LEDs eager to indicate the performance of their masters imparted a transcendental touch to the instrument beyond the material. Here was something that represented a technology sophistication which will always be subservient to the call of human heart.

There was almost a sense of reverence with which my son touched the instrument and started playing a riff a bit hesitatingly. Very soon he looked as if he was ready to get transported into another world without his own knowing. I was a little surprised at the felicity with which he played the riff: it was coherent and demonstrated a confident sense of control which I was under the impression never existed in him. It also reminded me of the fact that our children may grow in front of us but the exact nature and content of that growth is without our complete grasp, knowing and understanding. How accurate Kahlil Gibran was when he said “children may come through you but they do not belong to you” ! I kept wondering at the riff which to me was a pleasing product of a human heart, mind and passion delivered through a musical instrument which was a product of highly evolved agglomeration of technologies. For a brief moment, I experienced the fleeting beauty of the wholesome balance of inspiration and technology. And in that same moment I wished my son sustain his interest and learn a skill which he can claim his own till the end of his life. A skill which I wish I should have explored in my younger days

Despite the hole it burnt in my purse, I paid the said amount and walked out of the music store gladly

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Notes of a Nobody: A Thing About Grief

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 11, 2014


I have started to realize that human grief has a strong gender orientation. Men and women grieve very differently and for very different reasons. A man’s grief, I suspect, mostly has a material basis. Loss of job, property, money and wealth affect a man more than other kind of losses. Whereas a woman is affected the most by the loss of relationships. Material things do affect them but they do not go to pieces the way a man does. The most certain litmus test for ascertaining this orientation in grief is the unfortunate death of a child or an off-spring in a family. I have seen men recovering and carrying on with their lives after some time as if nothing has happened but women get shattered completely. In time, the tragic incident becomes an “avoidable memory” or better still an “avoided memory” for men but for women it acquires a nature of “essential memory” which they carry with them fresh to their graves

I lost a maternal aunt of mine in her childbirth (she was one among the nine siblings of my mother) and it pushed both my grandparents into an extended period of grief. Gradually and over a period of time my grandfather recovered but my grandmother never did. She lived for another two decades after this incident yet there was not an occasion my grandmother did not remember her lost daughter. A festival when we all gathered together, a sweet dish cooked, a voice heard, a specific sound, a particular coloured saree bought, a song on the radio, an actor or actress on the TV were all triggers for teary remembrances. It was a common occurrence with my grandmother that pointing to one of her other daughters she unintentionally called out the name of my dead aunt and inevitably burst into uncontrollable tears. There was a time when I deluded myself that she has overcome her grief. But that was not to be. Her grief was like a smouldering ember covered with ash giving a deceptive sense of forgetfulness, making peace or worse still a complete recovery. I have a distinct memory of the dying days of my grandmother: she was crippled and down with osteoporosis and even on her death bed, in a voice that was growing incoherent, she used to call out my aunt’s name. This was always accompanied by either the sad sardonic smile of my grandfather or his frustrated gentle chiding of her inability to not let go of things of the past. For him, my aunt became a thing of past but somehow my grandmother managed to keep her memories of my aunt fresh and ready on call.

Not surprisingly, memories of grief and how they get handled have become the rich raw material for writers of stories and books. A very fine treatment of this essential difference in the capacity to handle grief and distress is to be found in John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath” where Ma Joad says this to Pa Joad:

 No, it ain’t “ Ma smiled. “It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed  that. Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is going on – changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on….. Ever’thing we do – seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on. Seems that way to me. Even getting’ hungry – even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live that day. Jus’ that day”

And on a very arbitrary note, I also suspect that it is in this essential difference in the way both sexes handle grief, lies the survival and adaptive instinct of the human species. For the exact dynamics of it… well… that is the topic for another day


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Notes of a Nobody: The Power of Ellipticism

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 27, 2014

On the way to office the other day, I spotted a young school girl having a hurried breakfast in a crowded bus. There were people milling around her seat and yet she proceeded with her critical morning chore with a need driven sense of defiance and a self-imposed pretension of oblivion of her surroundings. Similarly, driving early to airport on another day in the very recent past, I spotted kids slouched in their school bus having a nap. It was at about seven- thirty in the morning and I expected kids to be chatting away with one another or throwing paper balls at one another in the bus. Instead, I found them slumped in their seats catching up on their sleep. Something about both these sights made me queasy. There was a feeling of discomfort on which I could not lay my finger on. Much later, I realized that the roots of my uneasiness lay in the recognition of how pressing our modern society is becoming which manifests itself in rushed breakfasts in crowded public spaces and power naps to fill in the deficit of sleep hours. There was nothing elegant about my thoughts and the words I was employing to describe my feelings were clumsy at best. However, I have come across similar scenes in my reading described in a way that is beautiful and memorable. And what makes these descriptions attractive and memorable is the employment of ellipticism in narration – a way to say everything with a sense of depth and profundity without actually saying it. Consider the following two descriptions: The first is from Ian McEwan‘s “Saturday” where the author introduces us to the protagonist of the novel Dr. Henry Perowne:

“Forty- eight years old, profoundly asleep at nine thirty on a Friday night – this is modern professional life”

The second is from Zadie Smith’s article “The North West London Blues” –a nice piece about the place of libraries in current day and the state of libraries in UK:

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 both the cases there is a brilliant damnation but in a way that is roundabout – in one instance it is the damnation of busy professional life which today is seen as the apex of individual success and in another instance of the modern economic state which constantly forces you to consume something or the other.

This leads one to the essential question: why is ellipticism employed in the first place? The simple answer is that it carries within it an inherent power of expression which is jolting and hard hitting in nature. However, the real question one has got to ask is what is it that makes ellipticism so inherently powerful and attractive? I believe there are no easy answers and my guess is that the power of ellipticism resides in its ability to forge an elbow room where a reader can allow his imagination to expand. As a case in point, what defines the “modern professional life” is left to the reader’s imagination. Using ellipticism, all that the author does is to point to his reader that such an entity with all its warts exists and any sensitive and responsible reader is forced to imagine it for himself. It is in this creative process of fleshing the imaginative space with material details lies the charm and power of ellipticism in narration

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The Collected Stories of Isaac Asimov – Volume I

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 30, 2013

asimov“In an infinite number of worlds, anything can happen….. Everything must happen – from the story “Living Space

It took time for me to realize that like how travel writing is not just about travel, science fiction is also not just about science. If science fiction is only about science and travel writing only about travel, then well written science text books and travel guides (although both potentially very interesting) would joust with writing in both genres of fiction. Even while there is a substantial reference to science in science fiction, most of the times the genre is intensely focused on humans, especially: on our nature, condition, concerns, predicament, failures and challenges.

Very often, the diverse settings in science fiction (inter planetary travel, human like robots, time travel, all-knowing and powerful computers, aliens, lonely planets, distant stars, vast galaxies, time-bending, hyper space (do not yet know what that means though )) act as a form of isolating backdrops – a necessary fictional artifice created by the author –  against which the core human concerns can be portrayed with sharper relief and greater clarity.  I have seen this in the writings of Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. Bradbury’s masterpiece “The Martian Chronicles” is less about mars and martians, instead, it is about the nature, psyche and mindset of colonization and the consequences thereof. Bradbury uses the untrammeled lands of mars and the insinuated annihilation of martians (he never mentions it explicitly) by humans as a backdrop against which to examine the nature of colonization.  Similarly, Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness” is about the journey of discovery of “otherness” in human sexuality: the male-female dichotomy and the need for empathy. It is this same aspect that I have experienced once again in volume 1 of collected short stories of Isaac Asimov – 24 brilliant stories with ingenious plots, capacious imagination, superb inventiveness, absorbing narrative power all culminating in a delightful reading experience. A few stories were so good that I read them twice over in a single stretch.

I have come to Asimov very late in my reading life with an impulsive self-introduction to his “The Foundation Series” to realize his greatness as a writer and his deserving cult stature among lovers of science fiction. Asimov’s exploration of the “nature of power” and how it drives a society (on earth or elsewhere in the intergalactic vastness) is thought provoking and fascinating.

In the collection of short stories that are currently under consideration, the concerns that get addressed are so diverse and yet so relevant to us that one cannot but marvel at Asimov’s range and richness of imagination. His treatment of the subject of man’s invention that enable him see his past and how it destroys individual privacy in the story “The Dead Past” and linking it to what is an ever ongoing debate on the extent of governmental control of research makes for a thought provoking plot yet a joyous and absorbing read. In the story “Kid Stuff” an elf makes way to the house of a fantasy writer and takes complete control of his and his wife’s mind with the intention of using them to rebuild the lost glory of elfdom which is attributed to the advent and evolution of humans. The elf’s thrall on the writer is broken when he is squatted to death by the writer’s son who does not believe in the existence of elves and fairies. The disbelief is embedded into the child due to the rationality induced on account of the progress of science and technology. And the writer who is hitherto a little embarrassed about embracing the genre for a living regains the forgotten pride but concludes with an insightful observation:

Modern fantasies are very sophisticated and mature treatments of folk motifs. Behind the façade of glib unreality there frequently lie trenchant comments on the world of today. Fantasy in modern style is, above all, adult stuff

I especially loved this story for its inventive quality of the plot . In the lively story “Living Space”, Asimov explores a distant future in which there is overpopulation, the age-old notions of private property; inter galactic settlements and problems thereof. Even while making an interesting story out of it Asimov also throws light on human mindset towards property and ownership attitudes:

“When probability patterns had first been put to use, sole ownership of a planet had been powerful inducement for early settlers. It appealed to the snob and despot in every one. What man so poor, ran the slogan, as not to have an empire larger than Ghengis Khan’s? To introduce multiple settling now would outrage everyone.

In the story, “Jokester”, a Grand Master explores the origin of jokes and humour with the help of an omniscient computer and the conclusions he and his immediate team end up with leave them with dismay and mild horror. In the story “Franchise”, Asimov paints a mildly disturbing picture of the state of democracy when the citizens of USA give away their independence of franchise to an omniscient computer. In the story “Spell my name with an S” two supra beings (we do not know if they are Gods) decide to play with the career prospects of a Russian immigrant physicist in the US unknowing to their supervisor and take bets. By forcing him to approach a numerologist (in whom the physicist does not believe) and take his advice to change the first letter in his name (from Zebatsinsky to Sebatsinsky), they set about a chain of incidents which improve the physicist’s career prospects. The physicist is thrilled at his changed prospects but the supra beings are worried that what they have acted beyond their official remit and hence start to reverse the changes unknowing to the physicist. The beauty of this story lies in the way Asimov builds a chain of credible events across cold-war US and USSR that end up altering the future of the physicist. In the story, “They had fun” Asimov creates a world of nostalgia in which humans have forgotten conventional ways of learning and schools remain schools no more. In “All the troubles of the world”, a super computer develops a refined sense of intuition and man puts so much burden on it to run the affairs of the world that the computer expresses a desire to die. In a really fine story “The Last Question”, Asimov paints a world in which humans have achieved immortality, cracked the twin problems of harnessing energy from stars and intergalactic travel. However, now they face the problem of growing entropy of the universe and running out of energy sources. The sources of energy in the universe are dying out. Humans hand over the problem of reversing entropy to a super intelligent and omniscient computer which cracks the problem but by that time mankind becomes extinct. All that is left is the computer and the vast universe with energy restored. I kept thinking about what attracted me to this story and realized that through some seemingly simple wordplay, Asimov creates an illusory understanding of not only the vastness of the universe but also a sense of inestimable eons

An appealing aspect of almost all of the stories in the collection is a scintillating quality of intellect that pervades through them. Asimov writes with a deep sense of erudition and ensures that there is not a dull moment in any of the stories. In addition, there is a great sense of tongue-in-cheek humour which enlivens our reading experience. However, if there is a singular and stand-out quality to these short stories it is their parable like nature where Asimov, without being preachy, is constantly cautioning us of the consequences when science and technology run ahead of humans and how it creates challenges to the very essence of human nature

A marvelous read and a great way to close my reading endeavours in 2013. I now look forward to reading the second volume of his collected stories which I expect will be a great way to commence my reading endeavours for 2014

Welcome 2014 !!

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