Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Book of Bhima ( Krishnavatara IV ) - K M Munshi

The fourth book of the 'Krishnavatara' series, came into hand after a while. Surprisingly, it failed to impress me. Unlike the earlier ones ( especially the second), this was way too light and least insightful of those read thus far. It appeared as a plain and simple retelling of the story, with Bhima being the action man, as the name suggests.

Starting off from where the previous book was left, K M Munshi takes us through the intial days of the Pandava clan with Draupadi. Having to face the reality of five husbands, each a hero on their own right, Draupadi quickly had to device a system and method, to prevent the disintegration and infighting among the brothers. A method, did she device, in the form of time-share and had her way with Yudhishtira to get that accepted by the brothers.

Bhima stood out from the rest, not only by his physical strength and the gigantic size. He was the most innocent, most lively, full of pranks and notorious, despite his age. He has his way with the world, which goes beyond people of his stature. He managed to win over the man-eating  'Rakshasa tribe' ,married to Hidimbi , ruled them as King Vrikodara, single handedly rescued his family and protected them against all the forces. He believed that his role in the family is that of the protector and he takes pride in it, which often makes him upset with his elder brother for his decisions which he does not in agreement with. However, behind the facade of the giant structure and often ridiculous shows, remain a shrewd and highly intelligent mind. A mind constantly work towards the betterment of the family. It was his clever maneuvers that won half the a forces of his father-in-law , accompanying them on their march towards Hastinapura. It was his handy work, that saw Krishna and the Yadava leaders to join the journey. It was his ploy and work that saw Bhanumati's sister and brother from reaching early to Hastinapura.

The meticulous plan laid by Bhima seems to have worked well on the Pandava's arrival at Hastinapura. There was only one man, who could think beyond the measure of Bhima. Krishna, went a step ahead and made sure that the Kaurava King made announcement of Yudhishtira as the new King. He, in order to fulfill the promise he gave to Bhanumati, to retain Duryodhana as the king of Hastinapura, managed to rally the opinion around moving the new Capital to Khandavaprastha, not before securing the large number of resources towards this goal. The book ends with the new city of Khandavaprastha  being in force.

The book does have few interesting moments. What strikes me the most is the 'adolescent like' love affair between  Jalaandhara ( sister of Bhanumati) and Bhima ( Bhima with all the lovers traits) and the Krishna-Bhima rendezvous and the way he managed to persuade Bhima to return to his brothers. The writing in general was a continuation from the previous books. This did not have the same impact of the previous books.
The Book of Bhima - Krishnavatara IV  ( 1967 )

K M Munshi

Bhavan's Book University

253 Pages

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Voices from Chernobyl - Ingrid Storholmen

I was fooled by the title. Never knew there are two books with the same title. The one I was keen to read was the one by Journalist Svetlana Alexievich, which is the accounts narrated by people affected by the disaster. The error was realised only later. I understand that the original title is "Chernobyl Stories", but the clever business tactics got the book released with the same title as the former one in India by Harper Perenniel ( I havent seen any reference to this book on the internet apart from India) But, the fear was unfounded. Ingrid Storholmen's book is intense and hard hitting.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl reactor, had far fetched repercussions. The effects of the disaster was felt  at countries 1000s of kilometers away from the site. Ingrid Storholmen, 10 years when the disaster occurred, herself was a victim of the radiation. Two of her sisters had to undergo Thyroid removal operations ( who carry the marks like a necklace, she mentions) as the wind carried the impacts to Central Norway, where she belonged to.

To bring back the memories of one of the worst nuclear catastrophes in the modern world, the book starts:
On Saturday, 26 April, 1986, at 01.23 am, something went terribly wrong with Reactor Four at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukraine. Due to an experiment to try to produce electricity from the residual energy in the steam generator, several safety precautions were out of operation. Uncontrollable heat was produced, which caused an explosion of steam in the core of the reactor. The explosion blew away the reactor’s roof and the graphite in the core caught fire. The blaze went on for several days, casting huge quantities of radioactivity a thousand metres up into the atmosphere. To quench the fire, five thousand tonnes of lead and stones were dropped from helicopters. It was a long time before the local people were given warnings and evacuated. Later a concrete sarcophagus was built around the reactor and a zone three miles in radius was established around it, within which nobody was allowed to stay.
Stroholmen's book is a work of fiction. I've seen the mention as a novel somewhere, which I am not too sure. She spend nearly two months at the site, resulting in the writing of this book. It is constructed in the forms of multiple voices, directly or indirectly affected by the disaster. Each voice, given the feel of authenticity, by the writer. The intensity, the inner anger, despair or sense of loss is maintained as though it is from the mouths of the sufferer.  There is no standard format, few are short paragraphs, few are detailed. The span is over 20 years. The images are powerful, the after effect of reading are profound and few of the pages are written fabulously.

The mother, who visits the rescue center office every day enquiring about her missing son ( knowing that he is dead, but the purpose of her existence is the waiting for the return of her dead son),  a father ( member of the ruling regime at the local level) , who escapes with his two daughters, leaving his wife and mother to the fate, only to protect the kids, the young scientist, locked in the single room, dying of cancer, but not before assembling his own version of Atom Bomb, and many more.

People are moved en-mass ( after many hours of the incident)as  the air and water are contaminated with high radiation. The crops are poisoned, the fodder is useless, every child in the womb is aborted, every cancerous organ has to be removed. People are "untouchables" to the rest of the world. Even after moving to safer zones, the rest of the world do not want to have anything with them for the fear of radiation. The effects of the radiation continue to torment many many years since the disaster.

The book is full of these varied narration, each has the same tale to tell. A rather loose collection of pages with no particular order. You can start anywhere and skip any, as they are all the same. Its all a single perspective and a single view or opinion. The disaster destroyed a 'town' of their homes, their land, their beloved, their own self. The memories, the love, the life, the human-ness , changed over night. The new realities, helplessness, sense of cheating ( to the authorities, to the world in general and to the God), heroics and sacrifices become part of the life, all of a sudden. Though it is repetitive at times and monotonous , the book is able to recreate the days of human disaster, after all these years.

As our country continue to debate the future of Koodankulam ( the opinion is divided in favor and against, where people oppose are branded as anti-government and anti-development ), it is important to read these books. The recent event at the Fukushima plant, about which there aren't many data available, is still fresh in mind. 

Voices from Chernobyl ( 2009 )

Ingrid Storholmen ( translated from Norwegian by Marietta Taralrud Maddrell 2013)

Harper Perennial

175 Pages
Excerpts at Pratilipi, Hindu, Business Standard

Monday, May 27, 2013

HHhH - Laurent Binet

It is difficult to put many things together in one book:  fiction, history, investigation and research, documentation and the process of writing, yet making it read as one wholesome work. Binet, cleverly tries to mix all these in his first novel, to some good effect, not flawlessly though. What he did well, was to rally around all that he was trying to do , within the central theme. Despite the various devices he deployed, the voice was always the same. A narrator, taking the readers through the pages of history, through his story telling as he is experiencing them. Thus, as a reader, you are part of the journey. Obsessed with the German Occupation of Prague and the death of the head of German Leader Heydrich, the narrator tries to get into the detail of the assassination and the unsung heroes of this episode.  However, around him he sees enough and more details in historical texts, in fiction as well as in the visual media ( documentaries and movies). Now, to write a book which surpasses all that was told earlier is a difficult task, hence he write about the process of writing the book. Thus, an amalgamation of all that was above, part fiction, part history part his own process of gathering evidences and documents and his own frustration and disappointments.

Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich"), was the talk among the Nazi members during the second World War.  One of the most feared figure, the head of SS, the right hand man of Himmler, a favourite of Hitler. Every key functions , the SS ( intelligence) and SD were under him. He had a say in most of the decision making of the Nazi regime and the notorious decision on the "final Solution to the Jews Question" is also linked to this person.  "The Butcher of Prague", "the Blonde Beast",  "the man with the iron heart" ( by Hitler), there are innumerable citation for this dreaded person. He was assigned to the post of the commander of the newly conquered land of "Moravia and Bohemia" ( The present day Czech Republic) and made sure that the opposition was suppressed with evil and cruel means. On the 27th May 1942, two soldiers trained by British, one Czech (Jan Kubiš) and the other Slovak (Jozef Gabčík), had attacked Heydrich in broad daylight after some meticulous planning ( under the code name Operation Anthropoid ) , in Prague street.. Haydrich, despite being injured bravely fought the attack,  succumbed to the injuries a week later in a hospital.

To get the basics in place, Binet starts with the early life of Haydrich. His childhood ( his spurious surname with a Jewish connection), his early days with Navy from where he was sacked, his entry into the world of SS, his fast growth in the regime ( gaining the  "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" honour). Binet, even describe the physical features of his character "“Heydrich is the perfect Nazi prototype: tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient and deadly efficient". The general background of the early days of the raise of the Germany, the acquisition of territories, the strategic geographical position of Czechoslovakia, the clever political maneuver by the SS think tank, to get Czech into submission, the nationalist government in exile trying to re-establish themselves through sabotage operations with the help of England ( mostly) ; you get an idea of what is happening during late thirties and early forties, in the form of historical texts, before he get back to the key theme of 'operation Andropoid'. The build up , the attack and the combing operation are read like a typical thriller, with necessary glorifying, as expected. The atrocities by the German authorities post the attack ( almost cleansed two villages for their apparent connection with the attackers), the traitor amongst them, the siege and the last hours all can be read like thriller.

The narration is not flawless. The free flow is often interrupted by the narrative intrusion. Despite the changes in the narrative techniques, it was a gripping read. The historical part , especially towards the end were the action was at its best was very moving. What makes this book different. probably, is the approach. There are enough and more books themed around second world war ( not necessarily with holocaust theme) and almost everything takes the often paved path. Binet, tries to take a different path, fresh and not mundane as the rest. In the bargain, it often drifts towards historical texts or to silly personal notes ( intended) , a bit off-putting at times.  He wonders towards the end that " "I think I'm beginning to understand. What I'm writing is an infranovel".

HHhH  (2010)

Laurent Binet ( translated from French by Sam Taylor in 2012)

Wintage Books

336 Pages
Wiki Entry, NY Times, Guardian, The Millions, New Yorker, Shigekuni

Thursday, May 23, 2013

ഉണ്ണികൃഷ്ണക്കുറുപ്പ് : വിടപറഞ്ഞ ദിവ്യഗായകൻ - C M Narayanan

One of the advantages I had of growing up is that we never escape some conversation on Kathakali almost every day, a padam hummed by elders, a reference to some story, some anecdote or some visit . Despite your ability to grasp and understand the nuances, you were pulled along to those cold , shivery nights ( Jan /Feb ) for a full night Kathakali. There were preferences in the choices of elders. Most of them were drawn to the established names of traditional "Kalluvazhi" style and its propagators like Ramankurtty Nair, Padmanabhan Nair, KR Kumaran Nair ( note the use of KR against more popular Keezhpadam) Vellinezhi Nanu Nair etc. When it comes to singing I found the majority preferred Neelakandan Nambisan and Unnikrishna Kurup ( the combo had guaranteed audience).  It was during those half asleep nights, I've used to listen to the some what flat, very distinct , often difficult to differentiate the words from the music singing of Kurup.  As young boys, we were awake and see the first 'katha' mostly of the Nalacharitam , Santhanagopalam and Kuchelavruttam types and when it comes to the meaty second ( heavy weight kathi), our eyes defy the elders and our own wish and find itself shut from the rest of the world. However, the return journey typically have the in-depth critical analysis and it is through these discussions, we formed some of the limited understanding that we gained over the period of time.

I have, always found an admiring remarks about the music especially of Unnikrishna Kurup. It can be safely said that the Kathakali Padam came into prominence during the era of Neelakandan Nambisan and his disciples most notable among them being Unnikrishna Kurup. Though I had the luck of attending many Kathakali events where Sri Kurup was performing, it is only now, after many many years, that I'm able to appreciate the music.  He was different. A rebel by all means. A versatile singer who sings to the stage. Who gets to the depth of the character and the actor on stage and sings to the occasion. Often moving the listeners and the artist in its mesmerizing beauty. Marimankanni from Nalacharitam 3rd Day, is the benchmark of dwijavanti. No other rendition be it akhilandeswari or Chetasri Balakrishnam or any other had the same impact as 'mariman kanni'. The reference to me is the version from Unnikrishna Kurup.

All these are to talk about the recent read I had on the life and Music of this gifted singer. While most of the leading exponents of Kathakali had their own memoirs ( mostly the actors), there was no such on the other artists of the great art form. It was left to the fans and well wishers to organise the remembrance. Unfortunately, Unnikrishna Kurup, did not have any of these. A prodigy, left us 25 year ago, at a relatively young age of 57, had no written pages on his name. C M Narayanan, a second generation desciple of Unnikrishna Kurup, came out with a book, a collection of various writings, on his grand-guru, in 2006 , 18 years after the death of the singer.

The book dwells very less into the details of his biography. It does touch upon his family, his early days, his days at Kalamandalam ( he had no formal training in Kathakali Music, after running away from Kalamandalam) , his days in Darpana Ahmedabad, the teaching days at Shanti Niketan were mentioned. However C M Narayanan himself spent his effort on looking at his music especially that of Nalacharitam in detail. In a very scholarly fashion, he explain the nuances and specialities of the singing style of Kurup, his improvisations, some memorable performances. The second part is largely a collation of various writings about Unnikrishna Kurup by critics, by Palanad Divakaran ( his prime disciple and torch bearer of Kurup-style) and reproduction of relevant pages and paragraphs from articles and books published.

While this is not a comprehensive book on the life and times of the master singer, it did bring out , for the first time, a collection of writings on Kurup and for the fans of his music, it provided a place to reminiscent the golden days of Kathakali padam.

ഉണ്ണികൃഷ്ണക്കുറുപ്പ് : വിടപറഞ്ഞ ദിവ്യഗായകൻ  ( 2006)

C M Narayanan


158 Pages

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Bridge Over the Drina - Ivo Andrić

One of the master pieces of the twentieth century literature. I had been having the book for last 10 years and haven't read it until now.  I like books that cover a large canvas and period in history.

The Bridge over the Drina was built in the 16th century,  on the orders of Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović.a Bosnian soldier, who moved up the ranks in the Ottoman Emperor to reach the all powerful post of the Grand Wizier. The order was issued and the construction begun. These were hard times. People forced under slavery made to work on the completion of the bridge which took nearly 6 years. There were attempts of sabotage, which was dealt with cruel punishment.  Having completed, it continue to attract attention as it become the center of every activities of the town of Višegrad. The town sprout around the bridge, as this became the meeting point of lovers, of spies, of merchants, of old people during their evening walks. Over the years, the control was moved from the Turkish to the Austro-Hungarian empire as the political fortunes of the Balkans went through major changes.

The bridge is the symbol of many things. Its the demonstration of the might of the ottoman empire, the Turkish influence on the eastern Balkan which withstood all the trouble and turmoil for more than 3 centuries. Its is also the history of the Balkan states, divided between three believes and multiple conquering forces. The Islam with the huge Turkish control and connection, the Catholic  Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Orthodox Serbian. Bosnia, a connecting point or rather the 'bridge' of these three regularly fighting civilizations. The Bridge, thus us the meeting point of the East and West, the Islam and the Christianity, the developed modern Europe to the Mystic East.

For a subject with cover more than 400 years, it has to be kaleidoscopical. We move from one generation to the next, one historical event to the next, one ruler over the other but remain truthful to the ever-lasting monument, which not only bridges the civilisation of east and the west, but the story from one century to the other. In these pages we come across a whole lot of memorable characters,  communities and often unconnected events, which on a larger scale is the history of the Eastern Europe for 400 years,  It's an interesting contrast of the ever-lasting, constant, all enduring bridge against the flurry of changes that takes place in the town and the world in general . The bridge is the omnipresent force. It was always a center of attraction, from technological leap in the 16th century to the exotic location in the 20th century.

The world was changing around this time. As the 20th century dawned, the power of Austro-Hungarian empire was on the raise. The new ways of thinking influenced by the Bolsheviks were a hit among the youths. The Bosnian young, who went abroad and studied in the universities of Vienna and other parts of the world, came in with the fresh thoughts and energy. The second decade of the century saw larger levels of activities among these youth and it was during these days, the Heir apparent of Austro-hungarian empire was murdered in Sarajevo, resulting in the out break of the Worls War I. Višegrad , close to the capital of  Bosnia, had the highest amount of devastation. The town was deserted as it was occupied by the forces and large scale murder of Serbs were targeted. A few who refused to leave were victims of the attacks from both the sides. Bomb, shells and stray gun fire took away the remains of the lives. To complete the devastation, the once mighty and ever lasting bridge was destroyed by a bomb, bringing down the fine balance of the ethnic and religious fabric of a region.

An outstanding work of fiction by a master story teller. The events and the people who come and go through out the book are the real symbols of the era. Everything revolves around the bridge, as a catalyst. Ivo Andric, with the clever use of the lasting monument, gives us a gem of a story.

Ivo Andric, wrote the book during World War II while he was under house arrest in Serbia. It was published in 1945 who went on to win the Nobel prize in 1961, largely for this work. Epical, such a sensitive portrayal of the people, with acute vision and sensibility. An extraordinary book.. Stunning.

The Bridge over the Drina  (1945)

Ivo Andrić ( translated from  Serbo-Croat by Lovett F Edwards)

The Harwill Press

314 Pages
The Bridge , Wiki Entry , Independent