Revolution in 19th Century Bengal

As many of you are aware that for this month, I hosted the The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore Read Along to celebrate the 100 years of publication of this great novel as well celebrate India’s 69th “new” independence from British Raj. I had the greatest pleasure and honor in reading the novel with Stefanie, Jane, Cleo and Brona and as we close this month, it seemed the time was appropriate to share some of my thoughts and ideas about this timeless classic.

Tagore wrote this novel in the back drop of partition of Bengal (for more information, you can refer to the details here) which led to the rise of “Swadeshi Movement”  –  a nationalist movement that demanded freedom from British rule and was a precursor to Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which would yield much more significant results. The novel opens with Bimala the lady of the house giving us a background of the house and family she has married into and more importantly the character of her husband. The family is a rich aristocratic family settled for generations in Eastern India. Nikhil, Bimala’s husband is the scion of the house, running his business and family to the best of his abilities in modern and enlightened lines. He is kind to his poor tenants and genuinely tries to improve their condition and the state of the country by trying out new agricultural techniques, indigenous factories to produce such daily needs like soaps and pens and deploy modern economics like banks. His schemes are not always successful but his kindness and moral standards have earned him the respect of one and all. He has tried to educate his wife Bimala and has had a British lady come and teach her and he hopes to bring her out as an individual, independent of her identity as his wife. The household also consists of his two widowed sister-in-laws, wives of his older brothers who had died young after a life of debauchery and profligacy, leaving these women without any resources and dependent on Nikhil. Bimla is often involved in petty arguments with her two sister-in-laws in domestic matters, while Nikhil teaches her patience and tolerance for creatures like them who have been deprived of practically all basic human joys through choices that were never theirs. Such are the conditions, when the “Swadeshi Movement” sweeps the country. Nikhil is wary of such frantic nationalism, though he continues to fund finances for Sandeep, his friend who is a leader of the movement. Bimala thinks of him as a selfish creature and does not approve of her husband’s financial support to Sandeep. Soon nationalism comes to their county and Sandeep comes to their house as a guest and his oratory inspires Bimala to step outside the inner sanctums and purdah and meet him. This unleashes a series of events which neither Bimla or Nikhil who always encouraged Bimala to come out of the purdah, foresaw with significant results!

Tagore’s literary masterpiece spoke of 3 important elements at once, through the interweaving of the first person narratives of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandeep. First, it acts as an allegory for the nationalist struggle that had spread across India and Bengal, that presents two opposing forces, that is fighting for the future of Bengal and India. Nikhil is the enlightened humanist who asserts that truth cannot be imposed; freedom is necessary for choice, and is critical to individual growth and fulfillment. Sandeep represents himself as a realist, one who brutally confronts the world.He presents all that is passionate and violent, believing that the end justifies the means and that if something is not given to him amicably, he will snatch it if need be. Secondly, it deals with the question of gender when it proposes the figure of the woman as the representative of the nation. Tagore brings out his woman – the central character of the novel and makes her cross the literal and metaphorical threshold between the world of the anter- mahal or the inner chambers, the private inhabited by women in traditional Indian families, and the world of politics, the public. Finally, the novel raises philosophical questions and brings in Tagore’s ever curious questioning of metaphysical conception of truth and see the world as a constantly attempting to ignore truth and believe illusions to be the truths, which cannot be self sustaining. There are some shortcomings in the novel for sure – too much of rhetoric and some very uni-dimensional characters, especially Sandeep, whose brilliance is overshadowed in portraying him as a complete villain. Amulaya’s character is another example of unilateral creation where his goodness belies everything! However despite these shortcomings, I am still in awe of the brilliance that Tagore displayed not only in the narrative but also in the way he could fortell the future and his understanding as visionary which he translated into words for the common man to understand. Well before the rise of Nazi Germany, well before the Serbian or Rawandan civil wars, Tagore could see the utter and complete destructive powers of the “nationalist sentiment” . He wrote extensively against blind patriotism and spoke strenuously from desisting from violence as means to an end. A humanitarian to the very core, the idea of hurting anyone, Hindu, Muslim or British was appalling to him and he was convinced any results achieved on such principles would not stand the test of time – a key of Tagore’s belief system. Sustainable things and not things of the a moment, were the ingredients for success in any endevour. His foresight was telling when he brought forth the unrest among the Muslim populace of Nikhil and other feudal lord’s territories. This unrest and discontentment would fester leading finally to the partition of Indian in 1947 on religious lines, leading to the creation of Pakistan. His humanism demanded that we treat Muslims no different from Hindus, and religion should be the last condition for understanding the value of an individual – a lesson valid now more than ever.His celebration of humanism and individuality is powerfully brought out in the character of Nikhil – the man who believes that true freedom does not restrict but liberate and who honors those principals even when his wife decides to make choices, contrary to him and his belief system. Finally in Bimala he beautifully depicts the confusion of the Indian woman, who is slowly stepping out in the world to try and take her place again after centuries of oppression and purdah. She is confused and dazzeled by the heading feeling of doing some important work in the arena of men. She is awe of the power, all the men around her seem to attribute to her and she thinks she is finally making a difference to her country. Her assertion of character first surprises Nikhil who, despite being hurt, allows her to follow her own path and later Sandeep who tries to dominate her, finally showing her, his true colors. Bimala is representative of many woman, including many woman of today, who come from a strongly male dominated arena and for the first time discover a world of their own. They lose a bit of ground initially, but are soon able to assert their strength. Bimala in fact constantly reminded me of many of my sorority sisters in college. Thanks to the struggles of my great grand mother and grand mother, the former a contemporary of Bimala , in the same age and same socio-economic background, by the time I was born, my family was liberated, educated and got confused when someone said a girl child was a burden. However many families to this day and age believe in restricting the freedoms of their daughters in this country for the sake of honor or some such imagined masculine pride. These girls, for the first time sent to college away from the domination of parents would lose all control, until their innate sense asserted themselves and some of them went on to become lawyers, lecturers and even politicians. Tagore in writing Bimala seemed to fortell the story of all these girls.

I have read The Home and The World several times before and each time, I find something new to delve into and think about. If this does not define a classic, I am not sure what will.

To end, I would like to thank you all who participated in this read along and stuck around through my tedious history posts and found time to read this wonderful book. Thank you for your time and constant encouragement. No way could I have pulled off this event, if you all were not standing around cheering me on!

A Homage….

As many of you already know Harper Lee passed away on Friday, 19th Feb at the age of 89. I cannot even begin to describe the debt I owe to Ms. Lee and her fabled book for making me what I am and forcing me to confront truths even when I did not want to. I do not care about her second and more controversial publication, Go Set a Watchman and I do not care about how she has originally intended to portray Atticus. What I do not know is that she alone or in collaboration with someone gave us one of the most humane characters possible and for those of us who took her book to the heart, forced us to look beyond the obvious. I cannot even begin to eulogize about how magnificent or how life changing her writing was. I have in past several times referred to this book and its impact on me and I have often posted about it several time (for instance here and here and here…I think you get my point). Needless to say that To Kill a Mockingbird had a profound impact on me when I first read it at the age of 15 and it still moves me every time I re-visit the book and for me is a novel that defined who I am. I quote from one my old posts to just give you a hint of what this book did to my mind – “This book may not have defined my social or political mores when I was 14. But it did go a long way in making me an egalitarian, an advocating liberalist who believes in equality for all and standing up for what you believe in no matter what the cost. In my small way, I find at times speaking up for what right may cost you something – relationship, money, promotion. But this book made me understand one very important kernel of truth when very young – unless I can look myself in the eye, nothing is worth it!”  I even named part of my blog from this book.

What can I  possibly write to do justice to  the kind of wisdom the book brought forth? I cannot  and decide to let Ms. Lee do the taking instead.  I want to share those epoch moments from the book, which remain life changing to me. These quotes seem even more fitting now as intolerance and divisions across religion and race are bursting forth practically in all nations, dividing us on false fault lines and taking our attention away from real issues, like poverty, climate and other human security issues.

  1. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience
  2. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
  3. I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what
  4. People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for
  5. I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks

RIP Ms. Lee! You helped many of us become better humans.

 

The Summer Home On Isle of Skye

I have been wary of Virginia Woolf for some time. I read Orlando at a very young age and did not like it one bit and since then have been very anxious about any Woolf related works. Though how I could possibly be attempting to read classics, especially Classics written by Women (Women’s Classics Literature Reading Event) without reading Woolf was something I often wondered about and finally Ali came to my rescue with her #WoolfAlong. Now seemed like a good time as any to start reading a Woolf; after all, the stars were propitiously aligned so to speak. I chose what is considered Ms. Woolf best work To The Lighthouse and plunged in.

The novel is divided into 3 sections -The Window, Time Passes and To the Lighthouse. The Window opens with Mr and Mrs Ramsay and some their friends visiting them in the summer house of Isle of Skye. They have eight children between them and there are tensions between them as well between them and the children. James the youngest of the Ramsay children wants to go to the Lighthouse, but his father crashes his dreams by saying that the weather will not be clear enough for the expedition,  a statement that causes James to resent his father and creates tensions between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Lily Briscoe, a young under confident  artist is a friend visiting the Ramsays ,as is William Banks, a scholar and Paul Rayley, a young man about town and Minta Manning, along with Charles Tanney, a young upcoming scholar, whose views that women cannot write, cannot paint, greatly undermines Lily’s confidence. Each guest has their own assessment of the Ramsays and vice-versa. The section ends with a dinner party and an engagement of Paul Rayley and Minta. Section 2 is a series of images of time passing, there are deaths and Mrs. McNab who keeps the house for the Ramsays informs us of the decay in the house over a period of 10 years, that includes the World War I years, during which the Ramsay’s have cease to visit the house. Section 3 opens with the return of some of the members of the Ramsay family and some of their old friends, including Lily Briscoe. The Ramsays, especially Mr. Ramsay and James finally set out for the Lighthouse and Lily Briscoe finally finishes the painting she had started 10 years ago.

I had heard much about Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness approach and the fact that especially in this book there is not too much of an action and I was not sure if this was something I was going to really enjoy! Goes to show that unless you try something, you will never know. I loved the book. I am in complete awe of how the whole process of thinking and thoughts connected and held the entire novel together. I completely mesmerized by the fact that the these thoughts reveal the characters as well move the novel forward. I loved Section 2 where there are no distinct characters and just a sense of time moving and as it moved, my heart broke for the change and the loss; but the ending fortified me and the triumph of reaching the Lighthouse was significant at so many levels.  There are enough philosophical debates for the reader to ponder over, long after the novel is read – for instance the transience of work. Mr. Ramsay is constantly worried that his work will be forgotten once he is dead and oblivion is the inevitable end, no matter how  great you are. The concept that art as portrayed in Lily Briscoe’s painting is only means of truly capturing the memories and happiness.The question of marriage as a means of true happiness – Mrs. Ramsay, herself in a happily married state, despite minor irritations is convinced that marriage is “the” thing for women to attain true happiness; however Lily is convinced that women may have other resources outside of marriage to find happiness and containment and not all marriages lead to happiness.The characterizations are wonderful and  even the inanimate objects like sea and the house and the lighthouse are integral and characters unto themselves moving the story along. Most of all I was completely bowled over by prose, the colors that described an image and at the same time spoke of emotions experience by the central characters – “she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!”Another instance of so,e vivid prose where the natural phenomena describes the agony of the protagonists “The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.” The only thing I felt that kind of stumped me is that we in the end do not know what happened to Mr. Banks or even some of the other children of the Ramsays. It was like being left in the middle of road, without even knowing which direction to head in. But that is only a minor deterrent, not taking anything at all from this brilliant book

What more can I say, except that unless your read it, you can never really experience it. I know I will keep coming back to book again and again!

The Ripping Reads….

I finally finished two of my RIP IX reads and considering both are masterpieces and everything that could be said has been said about them. Therefore I thought of doing a short combined post on both the books and instead of doing the usual reviews, I thought I will just share some observations that have now stuck me, after my re-readings!

The precedence as always goes to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, featuring the greatest of all fictional detectives, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his trusty aide, Dr. Watson. The book begins with Dr. Watson trying to convince Holmes to give up his use of cocaine and other such substances with Holmes replying that these are the only stimulants that keep his brain active, in the absence of work. This conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Miss Mary Morstan , a young genteel woman, who has been employed in the capacity of a governess and whose regular life has been disturbed by a note which asks her to meet a certain person that evening at six, along with two of her trusted friends, so that a great wrong that has been done to her can be righted. Miss Morstan also reveals that her father had been a Captain in the British India army and posted at Andaman Islands, from where he returned about ten years ago. He then wrote a letter to his daughter, who at time was in a boarding school, asking her to join him in London; that was the last she ever heard of him and he had since disappeared. Finally she states that for the last 6 years, she has received an expensive pearl anonymously. She then requests Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to accompany her in the evening to meet the man who wrote to her. Thus begins, the adventure of the Sign of Four, taking the reader from the fogs of London, to Cumberland, to Agra and the Andamans, in search of treasure, truth and in a very non Conan Doyle style, love. It’s a great mystery and the art of scientific deduction is wonderful to read – it makes one wistful and wish that if only one could think logically and deductively as a habit and at all the times. The narrative style is as always in a memoir of Dr. Watson and for once, some of the ending is given away, with allusions to what happened in future. However this does no harm to story in itself and it is a thrilling and nail biting narrative to read (especially the steam boat chase chapter) which has not lost even a tenth of its shine, since being published in 1890. Like I said, I can say nothing more about the novel than what has not already been said and shared; but this time two items stuck me as, well, a bit non-palatable. One was the portrayal of Mary Morstan, sweet, gentle, supportive, fragile, disdaining treasure for the sake of love – I mean Ye!! Gods!! Help me from such virtuous role models; for that’s exactly what she is – a model of ideal womanhood from Conan’s point of view. I know allowances need to be made for that particular time and the social-political rules that governed the society; but Victorian era produced a number of strong women who would disdain any namby pamby portrayal of their characters – these were women of blood, sweat, substance and strength, and while possessing a lot of compassion, they also were practical and sensible. I mean, England was ruled by such a woman at that time, not to mention, other wonderful women like Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Fry. This concept of the ‘household angel’ was enough to throw me off the book, and I cannot believe that I had been so oblivious to this angle during my earlier reads! Sir Conan Doyle wrote of a much better woman, at least vis-à-vis character in Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia“– who is intelligent, loyal and practical to a T! Hard to believe the same man wrote about Mary Morstan. The other item that hit me was the portrayal of non-whites – whether it is Mohmet Khan planning a cold-blooded murder or Tonga the indigenous tribal from Andaman, the natives can kill with no conscience, the only redeeming characteristic being their loyalty! Thank Heavens for that!! I mean as it is the brown man/woman are “savages” but imagine the greatness and generosity of Englishmen, in inspiring loyalty among this unworthy people!! Kipling was a unaplogetic and unashamed imperialist, but to think Sir Conan Doyle also sang a similar tune, is kind of unsettling; as I mentioned before allowance have to be made for the age and I do, but with Kiplings, and Doyles and Haggards, at times, it becomes difficult not to be prejudiced! Everything apart though, it is a great book and Sir Doyle does what does the best, proving time and again he is the master of “detective fiction”.

The second book that I read for RIP IX is “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier. I had originally read this novel when I was 15, through the night, when I was racked with fever and could not sleep. I had deep impressions from that read – all very gothic and creepy. The story is too well-known from me to write in detail – Maxim De Winters, the owner of the Manderley, an estate on the Cornish Cost, brings home a young wife after the accidental death of his first wife Rebecca, in a boating accident, a year ago. The second Mrs De Winter, is a young, shy woman who has great hopes of her future, that come to standstill, as she grapples with the presence of Rebecca in Manderley, whose presence is overwhelming and who continues to run the house from her grave! It could be that fever had induced my brain to be more sensitive, because, when I had read this book the first time I had felt the terrifying presence of Rebecca, I was afraid of Mrs. Danvers and I felt all the apprehensions and illogical fears of the second Mrs. De Winters. I should have waited for another bout of fever, before re-reading this book! I know people rant and rave about this book and I may be offending half a million readers if not more, but only a teenager, with really low self-esteem can like this book! My whole problem with the book is the second Mrs. De Winters – I can understand being shy and I can empathize with the feeling of being left out and not belonging, but Mrs. De Winters made me want to throw up and throw the book at her. She does not even try; for heavens’s sake, she is not even willing to try. She goes around the house like a mouse, when she has no reason to, and is perpetually afraid of Mrs. Danver who is just a big ol’ bully who should be set in her place. She does not even try to manage the house or stake her claim as the mistress – had she tried and then failed, that would have added a complex layer to the narrative, besides adding on to her oh-i-am-so-scared characterization. She is embarrassed in the presence of Mrs. Van Hopper, she is embarrassed with Maxim and she is embarrassed when Mrs. Danver finds her in East Wing! Mrs. Van Hopper is embarrassing and it could be that the second Mrs. De Winters’s initial life may have been a trial, but as Jane Austen had showed us, that one can still act sensible in presence of distressing environs; case to point, Elizabeth Bingley with Mrs. Bingley as a painful dimwitted loud mother or Jane Fairfax with her poor, silly aunt. But of course, no understanding of self-worth, enters the poor little Mrs. De Winters’s head until her lord and master, declares his undying love her and confesses that he never loved Rebecca – I mean what value do we women have unless, it is to be made worthy by the acceptance of the man. Also let’s not forget, that the Lord and the Master is a great man of courage and forbearance, who can murder to save his family name from infamy but cannot divorce for the fear of scandal. Such wonderful choice makes this declaration of love, even more touching; after all who can resist the love of a cowardly soul, who cannot face the truth; no matter how far he would have to go hide it. Only by such love, can one make herself a complete woman!!! By such standards, I should really consider myself an absolute failure and consider becoming a nun!!!! The redeeming feature of the novel, really are the last 100 pages as the body of Rebecca is discovered, and the mystery unfolds to an unexpected and unbelievable climax. This is where Ms. Du Maurier revealed her exceptional brilliance and expertise of her craft and as a reader; you are left breathless and shocked by the sudden twist of the tale!! It is this end, which makes the book in my view a classic and preserves it from the morbid and irritating presence of Mrs De Winter, the second! I never realized how disgusted I was with this novel, until I wrote this piece! Writing I guess is therapeutic!

I know this is one of my longest posts, but I cannot end, without once again urging all of your help in the Indiegogo Crowdfunding project which I am managing. We are not doing that well and your help would really make a difference. Again, there are a couple of ways to support this cause –

  1. We need financial patronage – We need your monetary help to complete this project. Every contribution is of great value and you have our heartfelt appreciation for any amount that you put forth. You can pay via a credit/debit card, directly at Indiegogo’s Website (The project is called Identity on a Palate)
  2. Help us Spread the Word – Please share this campaign on your social network so that more people can become aware of this project. The more people see this, more the chances of us reaching our goal. Please so send me the link or a mail for the same, as we would love to see this live!

Please do help and Thank You again!

A Plea….

I write to all of you on a matter of a whole different nature from my usual rumblings of books! As you all know, I have a day job – of a Project Manager and a night job of a writer. Recently this avatar of a night job took a twist of faith and I found myself as a writer, researcher and a co-producer of a documentary film. (Don’t ask me how I ended up here, it’s a long story and I am sure I will bore all of you off your socks!!) Anyway, I wanted to share some insights about this film and seek some support!!

In the midnight of August 15th 1947, India declared her independence from the British Empire. However this independence was not without its price; West Punjab and East Bengal were partitioned to create the state of Pakistan. In the shadow of this partition, this drawing of artificial boundaries separating one land into two led to an “Indian Exodus”. The Hindus living in these regions left their traditional lands and homes to cross the now effective borders of the Indian state and to live in India, while many Muslims similarly crossed the border to live in the new state of Pakistan. My family, i.e. my grandparents, along with millions like them, moved from the then East Bengal to re-start their interrupted lives across Ganges to what is now called West Bengal. But the transition was not smooth and after the swell of violence had ended, the angst of displacement remained, and with it came the slow awareness that the East Bengal migrants were slowly but surely losing their identity. East Bengal, the traditional land of this migrant population was/is a rich land, thriving in fisheries, granaries and a host of different kinds of vegetation; naturally identity to these people came from the food they consumed and in which they traded. Special foods for special days of the month, festivals celebrating food and songs rejoicing the many kind of dishes! Needless to say, we were one food obsessed tribe! However this migrant population soon realized that they could not replace their original identity across the border, simply because across the border, the things which defined their identity, the ingredients to their exotic cuisine were no longer available. The succeeding generations brought up on this side of the world, assimilated and while they heard stories of the food and culture of their parents, never really knew what it meant. Today, as a third generation East Bengali, my claim to understanding of this unique food and culture is borderline and bare. On the other hand the first generation of these migrants are a fast thinning crowd-many have ceased to live, while some have degenerated beyond remembrance. This film is an effort to record this dying culture that was defined by foods, an effort to collate what is left and to share with the world a unique story of a population which celebrated their joys, sorrows and life itself through food!

This project till now has been completely self-funded which included travel, cost of equipment, purchase of necessary hardware and software and occasional production crew employment charges. We have conducted extensive research for this project, both from primary and secondary resources. We have also garnered a number of first generation interviews to understand the primary narrative and how to integrate it with our core vision of this film. We have logged and organized about 10 hours of footage by speaking with close friends, family of the first generation migrants. Our next steps would include concluding the production work effort with  more interviews and narratives  from second and third generation East Bengal migrants, belonging to different districts as well some scholars and government official to get a 360* perspective of this phenomena. We would need help of a trained camera crew with sound engineers to make sure professional industry standards of documentary film making. Travel would be a part of this effort to gain diverse perspective and enhance the richness of the narrative. To fund for all and more, we have opened a campaign on Indiegogo and need your support and assistance to make this happen!

There are a couple of things that can be done to make this attempt successful –

  1. We need financial patronage – We need your monetary help to complete this project. Every contribution is of great value and you have our heartfelt appreciation for any amount that you put forth. You can pay via a credit/debit card, directly at Indiegogo’s Website (The project is called Identity on a Palate) or by clicking on this hyperlink –https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/identity-on-a-palate
  2. Help us Spread the Word – Please share this campaign on your social network so that more people can become aware of this project. The more people see this, more the chances of us reaching our goal. Please so send me the link or a mail for the same, as we would love to see this live!

I realize my presumptuousness in imposing this on all of you, but I am also aware of your beliefs in things like freedom, culture and identity and therefore seek your help boldly without any inhibition!!

Please do help and Thank You again!

To end, I leave you with a snippet on one of the interviews series of this project, where the first generation migrants recount their journey across the border, the food that they left behind and the festivals that are now almost forgotten!!

At The Very Source…..

The Source” by James Michener is one of my all-time favorites; it’s a book I go back to after years and years and it embraces me like an old friend who still has more tales to tell, despite my having visited it many times previously! It’s one of my personal bibles and stands up there with my absolute devotion for the likes of Pride and Prejudice, East of Eden and To Kill a Mockingbird. While one can debate whether its literary significance is as profound as the other titles that I listed, there can be no denying that the book does come back again and again with some hard-hitting questions, asking us to question what do we mean when we refer to our “God”, the right and wrongs and the journey of two races born of the same land, caught in a quest of independence over 2000 years.

The Source begins with John Cullinane arriving at Makor, an archeological site in Israel to begin digging ostensibly for a Crusader’s castle but actually to find the very foundation of Makor which in old Hebrew means Source. He is joined here by Dr. Vered Bar-EL, Dr. Ilan Eliav and Jamail Tabari. As the excavations get underway, John tries to better understand the history of Jews and Israel and how both could not be taken as synonymous. With the archeologists finding artifacts after artifacts, the novel reverts through the earliest mankind when the cavemen walked on Makor and the family of Ur began a more settled existence with farms and house of mud replacing hunting and caves. As the family of Ur begins to gain more and more success in their endeavors whether its improvement of crops or weapons, the beginning of the concept of “God” and forces that are beyond man’s control start to take root in the family of Ur, thus beginning not only the way of live that would later evolve to modern world but also the concept of religion and fate, that is to grip mankind’s consciousness forever. The novel, in true Michener style, then moves forward by a couple of centuries and each chapter touches upon some of the greatest event in the history of the region, involving the Hebrews, the Cannans and later the Jews, Christians and Arabs – whether it’s the cult of El Shaddai, in the Bronze age or, the deportation of Jews to Babylon, the rule of King David and Herod, the Muslim conquest and the Crusade and finally the in twilight of the Ottoman Empire. All through the ages, the events are intertwined into the story of family of Ur and his descendants and interplay with the present day and the artifacts that are discovered at the site. The novel takes a sweeping look at the rise and fall of fortunes of the family of Ur as they struggled, converted, dispersed and again came together in land of Makor.

To begin with it is a powerful story – in just over 1100 pages, Michener tries to tell the history of the torn land of Palestine/Israel from the point of view of the common man who lived through various ages of cathartic and tumultuous change. The book tries to explain Jewish history and at the same time clearly enunciate that to see Israel through the Jewish prism alone is a mistake, since this land has always been shared by the “Other” – Canaanites, Romans, Christians and Muslims. It is the blending of the two cultures that make the land so special and that is one of main thrusts of the tale. Besides being a sweeping historical saga, it also a very good yarn; each chapter is a complete capsule in itself that tell a gripping tale of not only religion but of everyday men and women, of their courage which may be overt or concealed and the choices they have to make, even the harshest ones for the greater good. The book shows men and women in all their glory, strength, and caprice and constantly touches upon the infinite ability of men to survive even when all hope is gone. What is perhaps an absolute marvel and a characteristic that goes to show the kind of caliber Michener had as a writer is the lack of judgment despite all the follies and failures of all the religions and cultures and the men and women, the book is written with great empathy and understanding – never pointing finger and always showing the white, black and the grey shades of lives as is, without any embellishments. Written in simple language, it is a massive read with several references to Jewish philosophy and a wholly new perspective on the Arab history during the crusades. Despite its volume, it is an easy read, because the tale just grips you right at the start and never lets you go.

If I sound like lunatic ranting on, read the book and you will know what I mean!

Turf Wars and more in Victorian England

I am still very ill so I will make this post short and sweet. While I have some pending reviews,  let me review what I have just finished reading and fresh in my mind so that I do not labor myself too much (Yes! I am reduced to dithering hypochondriac except I really cannot seem to take on too many tasks!)

Therefore without further ado, I present to you Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. I had bought this one way back but for some reason or other I did not get around to it; recently this book came back into view and seemed like a perfect staple for my Century in Books project.

Framley Parsonage is the fourth instalment in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire and was published in 1861. I do not know why I took so long in getting round to this book, because I had so far read three of the Chronicles and loved them – The Warden, Barchester Towers and my personal favorite Dr. Thorne.

Framley Parsonage continues the saga of the Cathedral Town of Barchester and follows the life of Mark Roberts – a young Vicar who is blessed in every possible way when our story opens.  Mark Roberts is a son of country physician who had done well and had sent his son to a private tutor; as luck would have it the only other pupil at that time was the young Ludovic, Lord Lufton. The dowager Lady Lufton impressed by young Mark Roberts and encourages the friendship with her son as a fitting companion including convincing Dr. Roberts to send his son to Harrows and then Oxford and upon graduation, presenting Mark Roberts with a valuable living in the rectory of Framley Parsonage. Furthermore, Lady Lufton also finds him a suitable wife in Fanny Mosell who is the closest friend of her daughter Lady Justinia Meredith. Fortune smiles on Mark Roberts and things are looking up when Mark decides to increase his hold and place in Church of England by interacting with such Nathaniel Sowerby a Member of Parliament in serious financial trouble and Duke of Omnium, an unprincipled libertine and a staunch Whig supporter and an opponent of Lady Lufton. As Mark is taken away from his home and rectory and is implicated in Nathaniel Sowerby’s debt, he also incurs Lady Lufton’s displeasure by consorting with a worldy group whom she violently opposes. In the meanwhile, Dr Roberts dies, and his youngest daughter Lucy Roberts comes to stay with Mark and Fanny. It is here that the young Lord Lufton meets and falls in love with her and though she also feels the same way, she refuses to marry him unless Lady Lufton consents, which everybody agrees will not happen, since she has decided to make a match of her son with the beautiful and wealthy Griselda Grantly, the only daughter of daughter of Archdeacon Grantly. What ruin does Mark’s future hold and what happens to the star-crossed lovers is the core of the novel. Other staple characters of Barchester intermingle with these new entrants including the Proudies, Dr .Thorne, Miss Dunstable and the Arabins.

I am told by Wikipedia, that Anthony Trollope said that Framley Parsonage is a “thoroughly English”. I think this is the perfect description of the novel with only a footnote – thoroughly Victorian English! This novel is Victorian at its best – there are church wars and there are wars raging in the Parliament on India policies and French diplomacy. There is as Mr. Trollope rightly points out fox-hunting and I add seasons in London. It is a beautiful vibrant picture of the golden age of the British Empire in all its grandeur and all its folly. There is never any pedantic voice on the follies but a gentle mocking humor underlining the need that is clear even today of a great nations that stops itself from greater glory because of the pettiness’s of its people. The narration is linear and very straightforward and the plot line though simple touches upon some of the everyday facts of life and the challenges we all face ins resolving them. There is a lot of humor and a subtle irony.

The real show stealers of this novel are its characters. They are wonderfully drawn as usual and like life there are really no black and no real white characters. Mark Roberts is not the hero, though he shows heroic tendencies in the end nor is Lord Lufton the hero, though there is much virtue in his conduct. The heroines and I do say the heroines because that’s what they are; and are an absolute pleasure to read. Fanny Roberts is intelligent bright and sensitive and though not blind to her husband’s faults, defends his character with as much gusto as possible.  She has thoroughly developed sense of propriety and can see the rightness of Lady Lufton’s actions, even if they are against her husband and is a complete champion to Lucy Roberts. Lucy Roberts is one those remarkably fine characters – though to world in general and in terms of Lady Lufton seems insignificant; she had depth, principles and courage of the bravest kind – the courage that requires you live knowing you have sacrificed every happiness of your life for the sake of another. She is a marvelous character and her episodes are a joy to read; I especially enjoyed her interactions with the Crawleys.  Lady Lufton while masterful  is a wonderful woman, capable of great love and it is love in the end that always steers her actions in the right directions despite her pride and her constant urge to take charge. Nathaniel Sowerby though he comes through as dyed in the wool villain is also shown to be capable of honor and even sensitivity. The Arbins, Dr. Thorne and Miss Dunstable are as always delightful to be reacquainted with; with their sense of integrity, delicacy of mind and in Miss Dunstable‘s case a brilliant sense of fun!

I know I promised this to be short and sweet, but remember this is Victorian novel and it is long. Judging by current standards, this novel could have been a 100 pages less; but I am not complaining. This is one of those books that you read and immerse yourself slowly and bit by bit.

I had mentioned earlier that Dr. Thorne is my favorite among the Barchester Chronicles – here’s the postscript – it’s just been replaced by Framley Parsonage. Like a fine wine, Mr. Trollope keeps getting better and better!

Random Notes on Illness, Books and Love…

I have been so ill…for the last two weeks I have been confined to my bed with multiple disorders including a low blood cell count that has led to such weakness that standing on one’s own two feet for more than a minute is risky (On account my loosing balance and falling) I have not been this ill, ever in my adult life – never been this sick to be unable to stand, write or even read. Anything remotely difficult or challenging makes my head ache and eyes water…I mean Shakespearean Sonnets are not even difficult but there, cannot read it!

It is times like this one really misses one’s true blessings – never a very active child (I mean physically! I hated sports, though I was always active enough to run around the house doing all I want!)I was never weak and this past two weeks I am all namby pamby . Make me lift the serving spoon and my arms ache. Make me walk from my bedroom to the drawing-room and my head spins! I hate not having control over my body which in turn impacts how much I have control over my mind and me losing control over my mind – a very very bad thing! But now as I write this post, I miss the strength and the stamina to go on and on. In a brief spell of time, I seem to have become this wishy-washy person who is no longer in charge of her life and this makes feel worse because I never really appreciate good health and stamina as something that makes life better! Now of course, I know better and once I get back to my old self I am going to make sure I never go back down this road again!

What have I been doing these last two weeks – no prizes for guessing: reading? I read Conn Igulden’s War of Roses, I read Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel,  I read Claire Benson’s Murder at Sissingham Hall, I re-read all the Harry Potters (Trust me there is no better antidote to bad humor or ill health) as well as all the feel good classics – Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Jane Eyre and Little Women. I also started on New Grub Street by George Gissing and am loving it. Somebody should do a study in sick room and reading patters – me thinks it will show a lot about the psychology of the person and may even give correct prognosis about by when the sick person will be healed (I know the last part is a very 19th century, but one never knows! These days I am trying to live with a mind over matter principle, because I would otherwise be unable to get through simple tasks of the day like taking a bath!)

The only upside of this illness is again to make me aware how blessed I am. As you can figure out, I am pretty ill and incapable of simple acts like cooking cleaning etc. My parents are very old and 2500km away from where I stay so dragging them so far is out of question. My sister is in teacher’s conference and out of the country….so who is taking care of me at home (I refuse to be admitted at the hospital; I am sure I will become more sick!!!) My flatmate/my best friend/my mentor all rolled into one. Very rarely does one come across in life a friend who puts his or her life on hold for your sake – well I am truly blessed to have her. She has taken care of my meals, ensures I eat the right stuff at the right time, cooking, cleaning and managing my ill humors when they raise their head! She has been an angle though she hates the comparison and would rather be called a mysterious la elegante damsel. Well damsel or not she was my knight in shining armour and I am so blessed to have her in my life. The doctor said that my body was reacting to some unpleaseant shock which may have happened months ago but to which I did not react properly then and its coming out now. I can think of what happened and now that I think back, I did bounce on my feet very early, perhaps a bit too early! However if betrayal and dishonesty were the root of my illness, surely the love and care of my flatmate, my friends and all my well-wishers (and trust me I have many for I was besieged during this illness with cards, flowers, calls and a genuine wish on everybody’s part to actually help me!!) should serve as the protective shield against any such damage.  May be it’s my illness that’s making me maudlin or too much of Dumbldore’s advice (When you read 7 Harry Potters in two days, Dumbledore is as real as it gets! Besides wisdom is wherever you want to see it) but love does make a person a whole lot better!!!

P.S. I will for sure go back to review of all the books I have read from next week – big time catch up needs to be done!!

And Now For Some More Inspirations….

I have been planning to write this for a while, but there have been so many things to write about lately, this kind of got late, but I guess better late than never. This month’s The Classic Club Meme was provided by Ruth and is again one of those questions, that one has to write about those –

Which character from classic literature is most important or influential to you and why? Or which character do you most despise and why?

I could somehow never really despise a fictional character, maybe because I knew they were fictitious and my hope was and is that art here is stranger than reality and mankind is capable of far more goodness than despicable actions. Though to quote Jane Austen, “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” But one cannot help but hope that good will triumph over evil and therefore I always remember characters who inspire me more than the ones I find despicable.

I know I have talked about this in the past and that too several times, but one cannot help but talk about this again and again, because the character is such. No character has had a more significant or profound impact on me than Atticus Finch. When Ms. Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”, she knew what she was writing about; for here was a character who was actually asked to stand up for the values that he professed – honor, integrity, truth, equality, and justice.  There are so many times when in our lives we stand at those crossroads, where there are really two paths – one that is simple and easier to take and the other which has more hardships that one can count, but it is also the path that defines who you are. Atticus Finch is a beacon of light and inspiration for all us who have or will be at such junctures; if you don’t speak up when you should and do not act to what you profess , well then you are not what you are who you think you are! And like I said before Mr. Finch taught at a very young age and Thank God, I learnt this lesson early, that unless I can look myself in the eye, nothing is worth it!

But when you read so much, there are other characters who stand tall and inspire you and while I can write a whole 100 page of them, neither time nor cyber space memory will allow me such liberties, so U restrict myself to only three –

Mrs. March, Jo March and Beth March – Yes I know they are three characters and no they are not “the three” but I club them in one category because they are progeny of one book, the seminal bible of all independent young women Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”.  To begin with Mrs. March, who I think is often overlooked among the glamour or aura or squabbling of her four daughters.  We forget that here is a gentlewoman who is no longer in the comfortable circumstances she was originally born or married to, yet she tries her best to single handedly bring up four,  albeit difficult daughters, manage a household with diminishing funds, and yet instil joy and faith among all. It requires a lot of courage, what I call quiet courage to face the world everyday alone bravely. She is first single mother of modern literature and by far the most intelligent, kind and strongest of them all. Jo March I think almost all of us relate to while growing up, fierce in temper, independent of thought, extremely intelligent and emotional to the T….she is as human as one can get. Most importantly, in the lines of Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennett, she refuses to marry for the sake of convenience and though Laurie is much better candidate than Mr. Collins, the logic is the same – marriage for equality and companionship and most importantly love and not for material or other escapist gains. Call me idealistic, call me foolish (in the light of recent events, trust me foolishness is a strong emotion I feel these days!) however marriage should be because of love and for no other reason. Jo March, in the lines of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse, stands as one of the first feminist of modern literature. Beth March I realize I bore much more affinity to as I grew older and re-read “Little Women” and though I cannot profess to 1/10th of her goodness, nor do I have her gentleness, shyness or lack of character flaws, I do find a lot of joy in the simple domesticity of lives, where there is such joy in doing things for others that your own self does not matter.

Larry from The Razor’s Edge is yet another character who inspires me; he convinces me that there is more to life than acquiring a house, a car and a million dollars. While money is important and necessary in today’s life, one cannot be a slave to it and one has to find one’s identity and belief to really enjoy  and find meaning in life and that no money, no wealth can provide as was evident with Isabel’s meaningless wealth and her uncle’s lonely death.

The one final character who inspires precisely because, like all human beings I struggle to achieve and become a better individual and at times even succumb to the softer options is Andrew Manson from The Citadel by A.J. Cronin .  The book starts off with an idealistic Dr. Andrew Manson who is eager to help the people of small Scottish mining town and is sensitive enough to understand their wretched conditions and wants to elevate them. His research and subsequent success takes him away from his original plans of helping the less fortunate and follow a life of luxury and only a tragedy makes him realize what is truly more important. He returns to his plans of helping others and overlook the immediate selfish gains. This struggle to leave behind softer options for a greater good and its ultimate triumph is something that makes me go on day after day when all things that are more lucrative in short terms is also mundane and mind numbing and temporary and drives focus on what is truly important.

 

A Stormy Night Adventure!

It was late in the day and I had not yet decided the book I was going to read for The Classic Club Readathon 2014. I had specifically declined all social engagement and had cooked enough food to last the entire weekend on Friday, so I could devote January 4th for the Readathon. I had piled up enough coffee/tea/wine and nuts to see me through the day and I was all set – except for the book. I just could not decide on what book to read! I wavered between re-reading Daphne Du Maurer‘s “Rebecca” which I had not re-read in a long time. I also mulled over reading Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone” or I could try something new like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Other Side of Paradise”. While I wavered and thought and re-read the synopsis of all the books and discarded one in favor of the other, only to return to the original again, Fate or God or could be both, I think disgusted with my indecision, decided to take matter in their own hand and raged such a storm that all wires went down and the valley where I stay was plunged in darkness. Inquires reveled that we would be stuck in this powerless/internet less world for next couple of hours to come! Oh! Joy!

Considering the situations, Du Maurer, Chopin and Fitzgerald were out as they were all in my Kindle and the battery was low and would not last me through the night. I could go for Dicken’s  but the print was too small for reading in candle light and I have enough Myopia to last me a lifetime without tempting it more. So it was Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone”. As I hovered at my bookshelf to draw out the Volume in a la Lady with a Lamp style, I noticed a slim volume, right next to “The Moonstone”. I drew it out and realized it was H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solmon’s Mines”. Now shocking as this may sound, I had not read this book. I had read “She” by Ridder Haggard and I had read “The Lost World” by Author Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” but I somehow had missed reading the very first of the lost settlement writing. The original Africa adventure tale! So without further debate, I settled down to read this much neglected and overlooked book, discarding all the original thought through options! Ah! Such is life – man proposes and God/Fate disposes!

Anyway, enough philosophy, here goes the tale of reading the tale –

Allan Quatermain, a nearing 60 Elephant hunter is the narrator of the tale and he describes of an adventure that began about 18 months ago when aboard a ship that was sailing to Durban, he met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. They are in a quest to find Sir Curtis’s brother, who was last seen by Allan Quatermain couple of months ago, heading for the mysterious mountains across the desert in search of the fabled Solmon’s diamond mine. It was said that no man survived the journey and no one returned alive from the mountain. Sir Curtis and Captain Good solicit Allan Quatermain’s expertise in the journey; along the way a Zulu named Umbopa who though acts as a servant and general man Friday joins their journey. It is clear that Umbopa has some mysterious questof his own that he seeks to fulfill through this journey.  Travelling through the desert and after various adventures and desperate condition, they reach the Kukanaland; through some glib talking and the magic of modern science including the set of false teeth and use of a gun, the three white men convince the Kukanaland people of being godly creatures from “the stars”. Kukuanaland though extremely organized and well maintained is ruled by the cruel King Twala with the help of the witch Gogool. Twala gained the throne after murdering his brother and running out his brother’s widow and young son out of Kukuanaland into desert where they both are presumed death. After many blood shedding ceremonies which were apparently in honor of the “white men from the stars”, Umbopa reveals his identity and order is restored in Kukuanaland by killing of Tawala. The original three then continue their quest for the mines and the consequences there off forms the climax of the story.

Needless to say this is one thrilling adventure tale, more so when read through a stormy dark night, especially when cut of s from modern civilized amenity like electricity and internet. However, taking away the ‘atmospheric’ element of the story, there is no getting away from the fact that this is wonderful yarn. I am not generally in favor of hunting Treasure Islandy tales, but this book is so much more than that. To say the King Solmon’s Mines is an adventure tale, is over simplification of the worst kind.

Though written in simple direct everyday language (it is the everyday language of 1880s), the tale grips the reader by the collar and does not let go, with its turbulent highs and lows. There is enough humor to break the tension and it is woven through the tale in such finesse that its breaks the tension just when the reader is about to bite off his fingers (by now you have chewed through your nails!) with some laugh out loud moments. It also raises some very interesting questions that have more than a shade of political and social commentary in it. For instances, right at the beginning Allan Quatermain describing himself, asks “What is a gentleman?” and then debates through this question in some way or form through the tale. Then when talking about African, he writes the word “nigger” and then scratches it out saying that he will never use such a term to describe African race. There is also the question of equality when Allan Quatermain upbraids Umbopa for use of imprudent speech when talking to Sir Curtis and Umbopa replies that how does Allan Quatermain know that Umbopa is not of equal rank as Sir Curtis in his own land and may be enen a superior? Though there is stereotypical barbarism of the Africa in the blood rites and cruelty displayed by Tawala and Googol, it far limited and written from the 19th century perspective hardly any commentary is passed on the superiority of the Europeans over Africans. In fact, there is much to admire that comes through Ridder’s description of the level of organization of Kukanaland Army or the noble conduct of many of its inhabitants. He even includes an inter-racial romance between Foulata a girl from Kukuanaland and Captain Good; but is candid enough to question how it will survive in a conservative 19th century England society, though he is full of admiration for Foulata. There is enough questions raised on the relationship between Europeans and Africans at economic, political and social levels and goes beyond the pale of the standard cliche of superior white race showing civilization to backward communities.

As a predecessor to many such tales and adventure stories, I cannot help but say, it rightly stands out the original masterpiece. I am just very sorry to have read this so late in my life!