Monday, December 31, 2012

കൈവര്‍ത്തകാണ്ഡം - Mahaswethadevi

Kaivarthakhand may not considered as one of the major works of Mahaswethadevi. Its a short novella , less than 100 pages. This, to my knowledge has not been translated to English, yet. The internet do not have any references to this book and hence might not have been read widely. However, Leela Sarkar has done a neat translation of this into Malayalam and this book happened to be the last book I finished in 2012.

The book is short and comprises of the fall of emperor Bhima of Kaivartha against his enemies, through a treachery and the subsequent destruction of a mighty city build by the dynasty. In a fabulous retelling of the tale, Mahaswethadevi brings out the aftermaths through some great narrative, deploying some mastery techniques and language. It is not the story that is attractive, its the process of story telling. The construct of the whole disaster that hit the Kaivartha. The King was captured and was subjected to witness the beheading of the entire family and clan, before they do the honors to him. However, the women folks decided to end their life on their own instead of allowing the captures and their pimps to kill them, by consuming poison. Emperor himself was a symbol of pride and dignity, refuse to succumb to the imminent fate. The town was deserted with the populace decided to flee instead of being ruled by the new King. The learnt Vidura, the Town Scholar, who did the last rites of the deceased, decided to succumb to the death awaits him, to join his clan. The traitor, who was pardoned by the dead King earlier, found resistance in his endeavor within his group as well as his new friends. As expected, he too fall victim to his own cruel games.

The book is not important for the tale. It is important for the treatment. I am astonished by the style, the language, the clever devices and the deeper sense of events that unfolds. Each character is depicted with clear clarity and sense of purpose. Each integrate their life to the society with such an aplomb, acting their part to perfection. There is a larger implication and interpretation of the tale which the author attempting to indicate. I am not very clear about the background and the time of its writing, but I am sure knowing Mahaswethadevi's reputation, and her stand on various social issues, there has to be a different reading of this work. In short, it was a mesmerizing journey, even though it was less than 100 pages.

Mahaswethadevi ( translated from Bengali by Leela Sarkar)
Mathrubhumi Books

95 Pages

Sunday, December 30, 2012

True History of Kelly Gang - Peter Carey

‘I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.’

Edward 'Ned' Kelly, the notorious bush ranger, is given a new life by the master work of Peter Carey, for which we won the Booker Prize in 2001. Written in an autobiographical form for most of the part and few reports by the officials and articles by press and others, the eventful life, albeit short ( he was caught and killed when he was only 26) is brilliantly given light to by Carey. This is my first book of him and is highly impressed with his style and the way he managed to bring the fictional qualities of otherwise a biographical subject.
Ned Kelly, son of an Irish Settler ( sent to Australia as a convict from Ireland) in Australia was often considered as a folk hero or equivalent to the Robinhood of southern hemisphere. The early life of Irish settlement in Australia had been a constant struggle, against the ruling English big brothers. While this aspect of Irish-English conflict wasn't discussed in this book, one could sense the constant conflicts between the two. The lands and other belongings owned by Irishmen were often confiscated and they were sent to gaols for petty crimes. As we understand the story of Ned wasn't any different. At his young age, his father was arrested and sent to prison for fabricated reasons. Despite his attempt to lead a normal life, his father could not survive the hardship and died leaving a family of 7 children to the mother. In order to survive, His mother started taking suitors ( in order to survive) to the obvious displeasure of young Ned. Ned was thus sent to the apprenticeship under a infamous bushranger Harry Power.

The Kelly family, by now acquired a decent sized property to cultivate near eleven mile creek bordering Victoria, had moved to their new place. His closeness to his mother and siblings, made him desert the mighty Harry Power and come back to his mother. However, his assistance to Harry Power already caused him trouble with his name now being reported for stealing horses from McBean. By now he was declared an outlaw. Moving in and out of gaol, he is now become famous through out the country. One incident involving the murder of 3 policemen, caused the authorities to sent forces for his capture. Now, joined by his brother Dan and two of his friends, the "Kelly Gang" escape the police and authorities travelling by night from one safe place to other. In the meanwhile, his mother was arrested and put in gaol, his brother in law was caught and killed, his family was often subjected to difficulties, all of which makes him against the state. Despite his reputation, we do not see any atrocities he committed against the common man, nor any gruesome act ( apart from the bank robbery) described in the book. He continue to maintain his willingness to surrender and go with the States, if his mother was released and reinstated.

On the request of his wife( who moved to the safer shores of US), Ned Kelly writes his life story to his yet to be born daughter. One can see a loving father, a man who is clear in his conscience, who do not glorify his deeds nor is he upset on his actions. The language used by the writer is apt and true to the style and the voice one expect. Despite the tite "True History" , this is a fictional work, however without deviating from the dates and people. Very insightful account, vibrant, witty and very touching tale of one of the great resistance of the downtrodden. I am not sure if the historians view the storyo f Ned Kelly with an Irish settlers resistance, but Peter Carey wrote a great tale here, of a young boy from the poor background to become a legend. Interestingly, instead of spending his time and effort on his feats and adventure, Carey spent a lot of time on the person behind the 'hero'. His love of his mother, his need to get the facts right ( he tries to write a letter to the Member of the Parliament) wth his daughter, a considerate leader, a gentleman to the others who deal with him, a oedipal son who can not stand the sufferings of his mother ( two of his mother's lovers faces the consequences), a shy lover who jumps to joy and celebrate on the news of the birth of his daughter.

The language is of the 19th century Australian settlers. The use of "adjectival" on every sentence. Structured and styled as a reproduction of 'discovered manuscripts' ( describing the size and condition of the documents) , he tried to create authenticity of his tale. Interestingly, I understand, History of Kelly Gang was the first ever feature film, produced way back in 1906. To use his own style , this is an "adjectival" good book.
True history of the Kelly Gang ( 2000)

Peter Carey

Faber & Faber

424 Pages

Flow - Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi

While this book was in my essential reading list for a while, the urge to take it up soon came after reading Daniel Pink's book "Drive" a couple of months ago. The question of 'what drive people' has its roots to this very book. It had come out two decades ago, and the concept 'flow' has been in discussion ever since. Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi, discusses exactly the same point from a psychological and philosophical angle. What makes people to do what they do. How did the quest for eternal happiness continued through the generations and how has it not been changed significantly over the centuries.

Men ( and women) strives to seek happiness in whatever they do. It is also evident that while they are at it, they seems to be in 'flow' with the universe, with themselves, often oblivious to external surroundings. Calling his theory as 'Optimal Experience' , he says it is "the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement".
"In our studies, we found that every flow activity.. provided a sense of discovery , a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushes the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex."
Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi, builds his concept beautifully through the book. Looking at what is happiness and what constitutes to the 'optimal experience' that we as humans observe, helps us define the concept. From the early ages of civilizations to the present day, the definition of happiness varied through the ages. The concept of community, the culture and religion shaped the early days.
Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience. Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that helps us tackle the challenges of existence.
And he also says quoting examples 'It is probable that many cultures disappeared, because they were no longer able to provide the experience of enjoyment". It is known that the population growth reduced during the war time, the spend on leisure and other activities that provide 'enjoyment' takes a back seat during crisis.

Defining 'flow' as a state of consciousness, he looks at the eastern civilisations and check at the Yoga from India and the Martial art forms of East Asian countries, as a great influencers in the lives of people seeking meaning of life.

When it comes to learning to control the body and its experiences, we are children compared to great Eastern civilizations. In many respect, what the West has accomplished in terms of harnessing material energy is matched by what India and far east have achieved in terms of direct control of consciousness. ... The perfect society would be able to strike healthy balance between the spiritual and material worlds.
The similarities between Yoga and Flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity...Their main divergence is that, whereas flow attempts to fortify the self, the goal of Yoga and other Easter techniques is to abolish it.
Dividing at the 'flow' activities as physical (bodily and through other sensory organs) , he classifies sports, yoga, martial arts, sex , music, tasting food. Continuing the discussion to mental aspects, he looks at science, mathematics, crosswords and other word games are discussed.

Work of art that I personally respond to ...have behind them a lot of conceptual, political and intellectual activity. .. What a person sees in a picture is not just a picture, but a 'thought machine' that include the painter's emotions, hopes, and ideas as well as the spirit of culture and the historical period in which he lived.
Flow is also extended to the hob and work, which is of my interest. Daniel Pinks book 'Drive' looks at this area in detail looking at the motivational aspects in detail. The family, friends and other social setting has an equal and important role in individual. Many a times, being with family or friends are described as the best 'flow' activities by lot of people. The discussion will not be complete unless you look at the derailment factors. The factors that work against the 'flow' or optimal experience. It is amazing to see people finding or seeking flow despite personal , physical tragedies.

This book indeed a result of long drawn experiment and research. While this subject of 'eternal happiness' has been a topic of varied interest and discussion, Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi brings it up all together and gives his own definition to the concept. A concept, for the past two decades have been subject to many discussion and interpretations at different psychological, spiritual and business topics. The subject is deep and engrossing, and to make it accessible to a layman's knowledge , is some task, and one should give credit to the writer. There are umpteen references, and explanations for those who need deeper understanding. He has also written sequel to this book for those who are interested.
Flow ( 1990)

Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi

Harper Perenniel

303 Pages
Flow, Ted Talk on Flow

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Bald Soprano and The Lesson - Eugene Ionesco

One of the masters of absurdist play,  Eugene Ionesco was always a playwright I wanted to read. It was thus important to start with his most celebrated plays. The new translations of his two most important plays , could possibly have been the best way to begin. I'm a great fan of the absurdist plays. Having read this book, I am still a bit hazy about the book. While the Lesson was superb and far too easy to comprehend and appreciate, The Bald Soprano was a bit of cause of concern. May be it demand another read.

The Bald Soprano, apparently the first play written and staged by Eugene Ionesco, has a connection with his learning English. Two English families, the Smiths and the Martins ( who visit the formers at their home) , evidently goes through the 'often irrelevant  conversation.  Joining by the local Fire Chief ( supposedly the lover of Mrs. Smith) joins the conversation of the group with his own stupid tales and the collective recital of some meaningless poems.  The trivial conversation turns into a group chant, post the departure of the fire chief, with the team shouting in unison "Dont say they are there. I hear they are here". The play ends with the Martins taing over the role of Smiths with an evident continuation of the same with a newer set of entrants.

The Lesson is more structured in language and flow. While the end is the beginning ( as in the case of The Bald Soprano), its fairly more straight forward. The timid Old Professor receives a new disciple for tuition. As the 'education' and 'testing of the intelligence' continue, the change of attitude and style of the professor takes gradual change, ending with the murder of the student. To me this is more of an actors play. It's the changes in the character progressively altering from timid to a angry , unhappy man  over a short span of time was brilliant., and the confident youth turning into a meek , quiet student.  The third cast , the maid of the Professor, is a silent witness to the whole thing, although she continue to warn the professor, not to take that path of discussion. As expected, the play ends with the beginning , with professor awaiting his next victim.

Both these are one act plays and have this 360 degree continuation of the plot, thus making it a never ending repetitions. Both these, part of his early stages as a playwright, uses the language and conversations as a major tool.  The Bals Soprano is a funny play ( though it comes to us as an Anti-Play) and is with often ridiculous and disconnected dialogues especially towards the end. May be its the inability with the language, the words, that causes the catastrophe. May be he was trying to imply the limitations of language in communicating to one another. They talk, talk nonsense, to themselves and to the audience. While the Lesson ( called a Comic Drama), is nothing comic about it ( except may be the mathematical lessons of counting).  The professors frustrations with his students inability to understand, the anger on his own inability to pass the knowledge turning his frustration to anger resulting in the death of the students. On the students part, the early confidence of her age and youthfulness is slowly giving way to fear as she is exposed to her own limited capabilities. 

The Lesson is brilliant, The Bald Soprano.. well, I don't know yet.
The Bald Soprano and The Lesson ( 1954)

Eugene Ionesco ( translated from French by Tina Howe 2006)

Grove Press

96 Pages
The Baldo Soprano, The Lesson

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Home - Marilynne Robinson

After 20 years of disappearance, Jack Boughton is coming back to his home. Reverend Boughton( now retired and spending his last days) is in anticipation of his arrival. The youngest daughter Glory is home to take care of the ailing father, after the death of their mother. As each of the inhabitants trying to work their solve own riddle of life, amongst each other, a beautifully woven tale of highly moving, emotional discovery of individuals unwrap. The mid 50s of Iowa, a all white town, as is expected the kids grow up and find their own ways, trying to find their own address and standing in the society. Reverend Boughton is now retired, living alone after the death of his wife. Glory, a graduate and high school English teacher, return home to take care of him. The 'prodigal son' Jack, 5 years to her senior, has dropped a letter informing of his arrival. His dubious past, his troubled childhood, the notoriety around his name in the town makes him a suspicious guest. He too, is uncertain of his welcome, and seems to have postponed his arrival couple of times. However, comes he for sure like a spoilt child wanting attention. Over the days of his stay, trying to bring himself up , loosing his way in between, the trio tries to settle to a routine. Jack find himself occupied in the back yard and with the old car needing repair, as Glory take over the house scores taking care of the elderly gentlemen and old man himself being assisted in and out of his sleep and tiredness.

Jack, the central character of the book, demands closure look. His past is bad and dangerous. He had to leave town under mysterious circumstances. He knows his reputation in the town, and is over conscious of his appearance, to the family, neighbors and the society. We also, realise later that he is now married to a 'colored women' and have a son. A possibility of returning to his home town ( an all white neighborhood) with his new wife and son, could also a potential agenda in his short visit. However, the ghost out of the closet are his own past which has to be closed and buried. The irreparable damage is done to self. Return back to your family or your surroundings for solace, to erase all the bad memories, to find peace with ones past, to surrender to your guilt . Its a trust, a belief that gets you going, but you are always unsure of yourself. Unsure of your integration to the new surrounding, to the old memories that haunts you, your dubious existence. Jack continue to struggle with this. The feeling of "Unsure" about his life. Trying to reconcile with Ames ( the neighbor), with his father and with himself. Despite his attempt, the help of his sister, and the elegant , matured approach of his father he still fails to conquer his self, succumbing to self doubt and old habits.

Glory is fighting her own battle. A recent devastation of a break-up in the relationship. The job as a teacher is non-existent and at an age of 38, she has to find new meaning to her own life. The task of tending to her ailing father was the time to regroup herself. Little did she realised that she will have to tend to two disturbed souls. The little sister/ small kid grow up to a motherly role, to take care of the men, as well as running the house.

Reverent Boughton, is nearing his last days, and have lived with the love and worries about his most notorious son. Despite his difficulties, Rev Boughton, thought this son of his needs maximum attention and care. He continue to have hopes on him, until the last moment. It's as though he was waiting for this return after 20 years, preparing himself. A son, who seek forgiveness, reconciliation and sympathy over everything else. He shares the guilt of his sone, for his own reasons.

The book is around these three characters, their inner conflict to come to terms with themselves and each other. Marilynne Robinson, on her part made these subtle nuances of internal struggle brilliantly. Each of the participants live to the fullest extend of their characters, living their bleeding life, trying to mend themselves with the world. While it is a brilliant story, emotional , absorbing , it might have carried that too long. At times, one get a feeling of deja vu, the predictable. In the end you are left with a feeling of having read a good story.

I haven't any other books of this writer. I understand the book could have links to her acclaimed Gilead. Not sure of the connection, but in itself, this book is complete. There are many moving passages, writing is impeccable. The beautiful undercurrent of Christianity, without hindering to the flow of the narration. Even the pages where Jack argues with his father and Ames ( two ministers with Church) on the pre-destiny of his life, I found she was in control of her writing. There are no short comings per se, but I did not experience anything beyond a beautifully told story.
Home ( 2008)

Marilynne Robinson


325 Pages
Guardian, NY Times

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Du Nombor - Buddhadeb Guha

Leela Sarkar is one of the prominent translators from Bengali to Malayalam,. My introduction to Bengali Literature was through the novels and stories translated by her into malayalam and published by leading literary magazines. From Tagore, to Mahashwethadevi came into my reading list through her translations. It is the name Leela Sarkar as translator, acted as a catalyst in picking up this book for reading. To add to that, the book was published in the "Great Indian Literature" series by SC Books. I am not familiar with Buddhadeb Guha, hence there was no build up of expectation apart from the deceiving "Great Indian Literature" series and Leela Sarkar.

The book, to say the least, was a big let down. It was very mediocre and pedestrian. The style and substance was not I would have spent my time and money for. This may not be the best of his works, and he not necessarily be compared with the might of Bengla Literature. That is the point. It was not worth the effort. Taking through few days of a Calcutta High Court Advocate Sivan Babu, the writer brings our attention to the world of second rate influence in our daily life. From un-accounted money ( black money for common people), the counterfeit goods and articles, the behind the curtain lives of city elite, the un-social behaviour of ladies, the duplicate market of spare parts and goods and the pressure and attraction of the common man to follow the same life is what Buddhadeb Guha is trying to portray. So far , so good. But to make a story a great literature, these ingredients are not enough. There are no elegant passages, no moments of awe , there is no characters or instances that one would recall. A cliched , ordinary narration of the bad influences of the society and a few individuals , despite the personal losses, stood by their belief. It might make a good movie for Indian audience, but even for that the novel is incomplete and with lot of gaps in narration.

I wouldn't know if we have lost anything in translation, but to me , even a good translation may not save this book from its mediocrity. As I mentioned earlier, there is no single point, that one would cherish, even if for a short while. Luckily, the book is a novella and lasted only 92 pages. Subject as this, is often seen in various forms, has to be treated and explored differently, to make an impact. If not, the result will be this.
Du Nombor

Buddhadeb Guha ( translated from Bengali by Leela Sarkar)

D C Books

92 Pages

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Lost River : On the Trail of the Sarasvati - Michel Danino

The myth about River Sarasvati, was imbibed in every Indian. Often described as the underground river, which joins Ganga and Yamuna at the 'triveni Sangam' at Prayag ( Allahabad). As is obvious that around every myth, there are some historical truth, or belief system which existed. Sarasvati, to the Hindus are beyond the river, but of larger influential existence. It is the goddess of all knowledge, its is the power of arts and music, it's the motherly incarnation of the goddess. The speculation about the identity of the river continued to torment the scholars of India for a while.

French Scholar Michel Danino's attempt to narrate the tale of Sarasvati, is thus very interesting and important. Here is an attempt to put together all the knowledge from various facets of information, from vedic to archeological, in a well researched and beautifully presented book.

Sarasvati River, according to new evidences  ran parallelly to the Sindhu ( Indus) originated from the great Himalayas, with tributaries like Yamuna and Satlej. It is now evident that the once mighty river is now dried and non-existent, leaving only traces of its past glory for experts to excavate the theory from various angle. As it was mentioned here, one of the possible reason ( and the best so far) could be the change of the geographical structure of the plains due to the tectonic plate shifts, causing diversion of one of its huge tributary, Yamuna (the geographical evidence gives us sufficient proofs to believe thus), and a shift in the Sutlej's flow , leaving Sarasvati, to be fed by few streams originated from Aravalli.

Michel Danino's research goes beyond the standard, geographical analysis of plains. He then goes through the Rigvedic text of the 'nadistuti sukta', which lists rivers from the west to east ( 19 in total) with great detail. The 'shloka' which describe the  7 rivers ( sapta sindhu) is analysed in greater detail  and try to deduce the importance of the river in discussion. From the Vedic texts, it is evident that the Saravati was flowing between Yamuna and Sutlej and the use of superlatives in describing the river as 'great among the greatest' , 'mother of all waters', and as  a river whch flows ' limitless, unbroken and swift', explains the importance of Saravati to the Vedic people.

However, when the later days, the British and French explorers visited the region for clues, they could only find the evidences of much depleted rivers like Gaggar ( or Hakka as called in Pakistan) , Sursuti and other small rivers. But, it  was observed that Gaggar  had much wider bed than the Sutlej and other existing rivers. This couple with the local folklore about a river that had vanished into the desert triggered further interest in this region. An array of Surveyors, geologists, Army Officers, Government administrators added with a flurry of data. French Scholar Vivien de Sait Martin, German Indologist Max Muller and few other scholar of Indian and Western origin started to identify the Gaggar and its tributaries to the Vedic River Sarasvati.  The progress from then on were remarkable, however according to Danino, the real quest and search had begun long log ago, 

One could argue that this quest and research there on, had its impact on discovering ancient Indian civilization sites at the basin of various rivers in the western India. Unearthing of Indus Civilization sites gave us much larger clues of the territory. Interestingly, Danino points out, that more than 35% of the identified Indian Civilization sites were on the banks of Sarasvati, and a meagre 9% on the banks of Sindhu ( which include the largest Mohanjo-Daro). He goes to the archeological information of the terrain, and the influx of information that paved way to newer insights. The exploration and finding of the Indus Valley Civilization and its various settlements, gave glimpses of the might of the river.

This discovery had caused many other questions un-answered,  According to the estimate ( largely in agreement with various stake holders) , the once mighty Sarasvati, had dried during BC 2300- BC 1900 time frame. Which means, the Vedic texts would have been written, even before the degradation of the Sarasvati's prowess. Which could put a lot of question on the origin of the Indo-European invasion theory ( supposed to be during BC1500) and the development of Sanskrit as a language. That gives a birth to other theories of Vedic Sarasvati to be the Afghan river of Harahvati ( the way its pronounced in the Zorashtrian language of Avestha). There are other theories about people who migrated from the Indus area, moved to the base of River Ganga and brought their memories of their river.

There was also theories that there are no evidence of continuity of the civilization. Danino spend a lot of time and pages on proving the continuity of the civilization into the modern India.From the agricultural techniques of western India, the mathematical geometrical practices of construction etc are discussed to conclude that the vast knowledge of Indian Civilization is not lost. May be this was a digression from the intended topic, but very interesting none the less.

Despite the density of the infornation and the subject of deep scientific nature, the book was a fascinating and absorbing read. At no point, I found it to be dragging or losing its pace. To his credit, Danino does not present this as an authority of the subject. He merely , albeit tactfully, present is case for judgement. The counter points, some of the as interesting as the association of these rivers to Afghan, are also discussed with his own justification and reasons of countering them. One can not but notice the ever debated question of Aryan Invasion. 

In this book of 357 pages, Michel Danino, quotes from various sources to narrate the tale of the River Sarasvati. The world travelers, the Western explorers of India , some of the part of British East India Company and few independent, Indian scholars in the field of History and Archeology, the maps of Satellite images, Archeological Survey reports, Vedic Texts, Historical books and publications. As a reader with little knowledge of the subject, it triggered a lot more curiosity in me about ancient history and civilization. However, I should say, it perplexed me , shaken some of my old beliefs and left me a lot more questions at the end. I think, for that reason, this book was a great read.

The Lost River : On the Trail of the Sarasvati ( 2010)

Michel Danino

Penguin Books

357 Pages
Interview in Hindu, Interview with Rediff, The DNA, VarnamDocumentary