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Posts tagged ‘Inspirations’

Losing & Finding During The Great War

Carl Sagan in his essay “The Path to Freedom” co-written with Ann Druyan, said that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” If there is book that stands for understanding the world and a democratic society, then it must be Vera Brittian’s Testament of Youth. This book which has been in my TBR list for many years now and was supposed to be my December Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge 2018; until Jillian came along with her Read Along and her enthusiasm and some amazing pre-challenge activities that tempted me to move this book up in the TBR Challenge pile and start on it on priority!

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Testament of Youth is a memoir of Vera Brittian’s life capturing the years, from 1900 to 1925. Ms. Brittian who would achieve great success with publication of this work, was a nurse, a writer,a lecturer, a pacifist and a feminist and in this book, we get a glimpse of of events and happenings that went into her making of all the above! The book opens with a brief overview of Ms. Brittain’s family history – a well to do, upper middle class family. Her father, a Paper Manufacturer, and her mother a home maker as were most women at that time. Two years after her birth, her brother Edward was born and he would remain her closest companion through the years! The first Chapter captures her growing years and her schooling at St. Monica’s where she was introduced to History, feminism and politics through an energetic teacher. Chapter 2 continues the narrative where Vera describes her “coming out” year and her dissatisfaction with the lot of young women in those days that limited their lives to home and hearth and her battle with her father to go to Oxford University, in an effort to escape such a future and see more of the world. It was during this stage of her life she would meet Roland Leighton, a senior and a close friend of her brother Edward and with whom she would eventually become engaged. Chapter 3 follows Vera’s first year at  Somerville College, Oxford,  studying English Literature as England is drawn into World War 1 and both Edward and Roland and her other close male friends join the army to support the British war effort. As the fighting gets more and more intense and the hope of a quick victory diminishes, Ms. Brittain decides to delay her degree and starts to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. The next few chapters deal with her VAD years, which takes her to Malta and France, her personal struggles and both her own and her peer’s griefs; those who belonged to that “war generation” as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their youth, idealism and what was supposed to a promising future and finally the deaths of their loved ones! The final chapter of the book, deals with the close of the War, the after effect on the survivors and Ms. Brittian’s evolution as a writer and lecturer, the friendships that helped her heal, her completion of her delayed degree and finally her ability to close the door on the traumatic years and moving on to finding happiness.

There are some very few books in this world, that effortlessly draw you in, force you think and then, challenge you to be a better person. To me, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one such book and now Ms. Brittain’s Testament of Youth, joins that rank! Rarely does one come across writing that is strong and fierce and at the same time so poignantly heartbreaking; but Ms. Brittain achieves this feat and more. In some of the most powerful prose ever, the author takes us through some of the most transformative events of her life, from school years, to her college life to her engagement and the war and her final evolution as a Feminist and Writer; we are moved as readers, we are concerned at the well being of all involved in the narrative and when we close the book finally, we know we have an obligation to feel grateful, that our generation was spared of the searing pain and loss that our predecessors went through first 100 and then 80 years ago. In yet another marvelous first for me, this is the only memoir I have read, whose writing carries a “what-happens-next” feeling with the close of each chapter. Despite being relatively verbose, the pace of the books never slacks and the reader never feels bored with the events as they come through, one after the other! The characters are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Ms. Brittain and you cannot help but wish that you had known them in person. They are all realistic and wonderful, portrayed without any rancor, even the German POWs or the more difficult Matrons, and mankind is shown in some of its most minute lights, with all the kindness, joy, brilliance, anger and vulnerabilities! This book has often been described as a War Memoir, but I felt that it was too narrow a definition; for this book is so much more – it is a history of things we must never repeat so that lives are not needlessly lost, it is a history of epoch making events in Women’s Movement, it is a story of love and friendships and finally it is the story, that once again affirms that even in our deepest, darkest, most traumatic moments, we are not alone and what we are going through has already been experienced by someone else and from that experience also comes the final assurance, that things do pass and get better! To end, all I can say, is that this book makes us attempt to be more more humane and to read it, is critical in our evolution to be better! Read it!!! Read it now especially in this era of mindless chest thumping overt and agrressive nationalism that goes back in time to distinguish between Us and Them instead of an all encompassing understanding that we are all linked and my brother’s loss is my loss!

P.S. Adam I hope you will forgive the disruption in the order list of my TBR, but this one was just too good to pass up!

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.

 

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.

 

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