November 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Thank you very much for landing up here at my site.
Perhaps you’ve been here before, and have now returned. If so, thank you. Those who return to my site do me the incredible kindness of attaching value to my words and thoughts, and for this I am grateful.
Or perhaps you’re here for the first time, in hot pursuit of some search engine result that promised a great deal and delivered…well, this. In which case, please continue exploring these pages; I hope you find what you are looking for here, but if you don’t, I hope you find it elsewhere. Go in peace.
130 posts in 55 months (May 2009 to November 2013) means that I have not been particularly prolific, and so it will be a few weeks, or even months, before someone notices that I haven’t posted in a while. Allow me to pre-empt this uncertainty, and inform you that I have decided to take a sabbatical from the blog, to devote my attention to a slightly different project. I will still be reading, and writing, just not here, just not for six months, until around May 2014, when I will resurface, and either pick up from where I left off, or completely revamp the format and style of the blog, or shut it down forever and move on to other things.
Until then: stay warm, surf happy.
October 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This, then, was war in the northern seas. No death and glory heroics, no roaring guns and spitting Oerlikons, no exaltation of the spirit, no glorious defiance of the enemy: just worn-out sleepless men, numbed with cold and sodden duffels, grey and drawn and stumbling on their feet with weakness and hunger and lack of rest, carrying with them the memories, the tensions, the cumulative physical exhaustion of a hundred such endless nights…
The Family Book Swap event (for details, see here and here) was meant for my son, my wife and me to develop an appreciation for the reading tastes and opinions of the other two, to broaden our outlook, to step outside our reading comfort zone. In that sense, being given Alistair Maclean’s HMS Ulysses by my son was a bit of a con job. Maclean is no stranger to me – much of my teenage years was devoted to a World War obsession that saw me work my way through piles of Commando Comics and much of Maclean’s output. Of course I read his spy novels too, but it was at war that Maclean excelled. And war meant completely different and exciting things to my silly teenaged self than it does now to me now.
October 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Origin of Species is an interesting book. It is very rare to come across someone who hasn’t heard of it, or who isn’t strongly convinced of its truth or falsehood. It is even rarer to meet someone who has actually read it.
Like a fecund fish, Darwin’s book has spawned thousands of books, articles, films, lectures and papers both in support and in refutation of it, and these in turn have been quoted and twisted in a thousand ways by their successors; each replication carries a slight tweak to its message, and what we call Darwinism today is just a collection of his original ideas that mutated and survived.
I don’t have an awful lot of clever things to say about the book that haven’t been said before. Actually, I don’t have too many clever things to say about it that HAVE been said before, either. Biology, Zoology, Botany – these have never been my thing since high school, not after that time I was brutally subjected, without the least bit of warning, to the diagram of a toad’s alimentary canal. I still wake up from time to time in a cold sweat, screaming o my eyes my eyes.
OK, here’s one. After reading Darwin, I am fine with the teaching of evolution along with creationism in schools in some of the more religious fundamentalist parts of the world, and with evolution being taught as ‘only a theory’ and along with criticism in others. In fact, I am convinced that it is the only logical way to teach evolution.
If you feel uncomfortable with that, let me tell you that there is a lot to feel uncomfortable about with evolutionary biology. For instance, what exactly is a species? Apparently, no one definition is accepted by all naturalists. There are at least two schools of thought in the matter – taxonomic (involving a set of resemblances) and reproductive (involves interbreeding capability). Neither is satisfactory, and both have exceptions. What precisely makes us accept a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard as variations of a single species, but be equally confident that a lion and a tiger belong to two different species? As Darwin puts it, every species is connected to every other species through a ‘chain of affinities’, some relating to form, others to function, breeding habits, food preferences or survival strategies. The classification into species and variations is not inherent, it is just a matter of linguistic convenience. To paraphrase Judge Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court, we know a species when we see it. We will disagree with one another a million times, but broadly we will all agree, without agreeing on a single definition, that a poodle is completely different from a Siberian tiger (hint: only one of these reacts well to petting).
September 28, 2013 § 4 Comments
As I write this, there are two gender controversies churning up froth in the popular media. One is about a woman who has been blogging about her mission to make 300 sandwiches for her man, at the end of which he has promised to propose to her. The other is about a professor of English in Toronto who has declared that his course will only cover male heterosexual authors. My immediate reaction, like that of any self-respecting modern-day person of a liberal persuasion, has been one of incredulity and moral disgust. But then I decided to pause and examine the matter further before rushing to pronounce judgment.
Let us look at the professor first. David Gilmour apparently said in an interview that he would only teach the works of ‘serious heterosexual guys’ and this has earned him the wrath of practically everyone. All of Canadian academia is up in arms, as is the entire Canadian literary world, and possibly most of Canadian womankind. His employers have distanced themselves from his position and his peers have roasted him roundly. My question is, how many of us have actually read the interview in question? What he seems to have said, in a fairly muddled and inarticulate way is the following:
- I teach the ‘stuff I love’, not what is on the curriculum.
- The people I love are Chekov, Proust, Elmore Leonard, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Philip Roth. As a middle-aged man, I relate to their material very well, and I believe I do best as a teacher when I relate well to the material
- None of the people on my favorite author list happens to be a woman. Well, except Virginia Woolf, and she is too sophisticated for third year students.
- If people want to study these authors, I ask them to go down the hall to other professors
I don’t think Gilmour is saying that he has picked Chekov and gang because they are male and heterosexual (Proust was a homosexual, of course); he says he picked them because he loves their work, and they all happen to be male and heterosexual. I think this is a critical difference. Bear in mind that Professor Gilmour teaches an elective undergraduate course in modern short literature. He is not a high school physics teacher who refuses to teach students Newton’s Laws of Motion on the grounds that he has an acute dislike for 17th century Englishmen wearing wigs. In literature, as opposed to physics, you can teach Maya Angelou, for example, without ever having to build up to her by teaching William Shakespeare. And it is possible for someone to relate to Angelou more than to Shakespeare, or the other way around, and still be credible as an expert.
Presumably, Gilmour does not make assertions to his students about why the authors he teaches (and only these) are the best in the world of literature – he makes no such claim in the interview. (If he has done so elsewhere, he is obviously an idiot) Presumably as well, alternatives exist in the same college, for students who want to study other authors.
At any rate, in my mind, what is up for debate is Professor Gilmour’s professional competence– is his course of any use to his students in its present form? Are the authors he has chosen meaningfully representative of modern short fiction? And if Gilmour cannot articulate a position clearly to an interviewer, how does he get through to his students? These are questions for his employers and his students. In my own opinion, someone who can teach a few things passionately and well can be a better teacher than someone whose knowledge is all-embracing, politically correct but flat – but I can understand there being two schools of thought on the matter. But is this debate really about whether the Professor is sexist, racist, anti-gay or any of a hundred epithets that have been hurled at him? Today, happily for him, I read at least one article from a student of his, who has stood up for him. Perhaps Professor isn’t at fault, but nor are those who have been quick to condemn him. In a world where true equality has existed for a while, we would be less conscious of differences, less sensitive about omissions, and less judgmental about personal preferences. This is why nobody is berating the professor for not having Canadians on his list – the worth of Canadian writers is not at stake.
September 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Everything about this hardbound second-hand copy of Shaw that I have in my possession is an anachronism, from its austere auburn jacket with the dull gold lettering, to the slanting, extravagantly flourished cursive greeting on the first page:
“With Birthday Congratulations
To My Dear Friend
From Herbert. May 15th 1931.
When each time you read this book, think of me!”
How delightfully antiquated to present a friend with a book on his birthday! Even more out of date is the fact that the 1931 publication is presumptuously titled, ‘The Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw’, though we know now that Shaw continued to churn out plays until a few months before his eventual death in 1950.
Of course, one of the most anachronistic things about this book is the fact that I was reading Bernard Shaw at all, sitting in a subway train in New York, in 2013. His plays were all the rage when I was growing up in India 30 years ago, admired equally for his wit and his politics. Fabianism’s fall from fashion and favor has taken toll on the popularity of Shaw himself. Some of his other causes, like workers’ and women’s rights, have become a commonplace; a few, like his flirtation with eugenics, communism, vegetarianism and the creation of a phonemic language, were eccentric to begin with; the rest, like his commentary on British class discrimination and conservative politics, have over time lost the relevance they once had. Like his contemporary, Brecht, and Ibsen before them, many of Shaw’s plays are nothing without their social and political messages; they are stern sermons with a strong sense of humor. The wit takes the edge off somewhat but cannot disguise the didacticism. Taken without the wit, the pedagogy is a hard pill to swallow; without the messages, the wit would ring hollow. It is no coincidence that George Bernard Shaw remains the only person in history to have won both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Literature: he was a stand up comedian on a pulpit.
As a schoolboy, I have read parts of a different collection – the Bodley Head Collected Shaw – that contained not just the plays but also their lengthy prefaces. I stuck to the easier plays at the time – Arms and the Man, Androcles and the Lion, Pygmalion, Candida, St. Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, and the like – but I read them with the prefaces and was equally entertained and educated by them, on class issues, religion and the nature of man-woman relationships. One could read just the play and be amused, or read it along with its preface for a richer experience. But the operative word, of course, is ‘read’. I have always believed that Shaw’s plays are meant to be read, not enacted. They often come with stage instructions like this, from Back to Methuselah: ‘The Envoy, a typical politician, looks like an imperfectly reformed criminal disguised by a good tailor.’ A merely mortal actor or theatre director would struggle to convey this precise sentiment to the paying public, and a merely mortal audience would barely register the effort.
When I read Shaw in my youth, I had wisely given his two longest plays (Man and Superman, and Back to Methuselah) a miss, and it was to read these that I picked up the present volume (the one presented by Herbert to Heinz on the occasion of the latter’s birthday in 1931). A major drawback of this edition, apart from its incompleteness as a Complete Works, is that it doesn’t include the prefaces to the plays. This is a pity, because these are two of Shaw’s most ambitious plays, he clearly has much to say in them, and a synopsis in Shaw’s crisp prose could possibly have prepared the reader adequately for them. Absent that, I found Man and Superman a bit of a rambling romantic comedy somewhat in the Bollywood tradition: girl-meets-boy, boy-is-not-interested, girl-chases-boy around the world, girl-finally-gets-boy, complete with a longish dream interlude in period costume, comic relief in the form of a chauffeur and some bandits, social messages on marriage, gender and class, and reflections on the nature of heaven and hell. But Back to Methuselah was something else altogether.
Written in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the play explores the purpose and meaning of human life, achievement, ambition and longevity. It comes up with plausible hypotheses about how human lives may evolve into having progressively longer time-spans, from a few deviant individuals in 2170 AD who live up to an age of 300, to an entire island full of ‘long-liveds’ in 3100 AD, to a completely transformed humanity in 31,920 AD. While Shaw’s evolutionary theories are more Lamarckian than Darwinian, his genius flows through in the depiction of the implications of each situation on society, culture and value system. How would society react to a few individuals who do not age? How would a community of 300-year olds behave when confronted with ‘normal people’? What would life be like, for an 800 year old ‘she-ancient’ in the 32nd millennium AD? What kind of things would she be interested in? What would she find boring? It is in the imagination of these things that Shaw excels. At a time when science fiction was in its infancy, and consisted mainly of sensationalistic speculation into the terrifying strangeness of technological progress and extra-terrestrial monsters, here was an extraordinarily mature work, one that takes characters that we can identify with immediately, and places them in alien circumstances, and draws morals and philosophical conclusions from their actions in that world that are pertinent to our understanding of human nature in today’s world.
Written in 1918-20, Back to Methuselah is way ahead of its time as a science fiction classic. Set largely in the remote future, it is possibly the most timeless of Shaw’s plays, the one that has aged the best, somewhat like the Biblical character in its name. Among the many anachronisms associated with my reading Shaw in 2013, this is possibly the most remarkable one.
August 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Edward James Corbett was born in Nainital in India to English parents in 1875. His father, the postmaster of the town, died when Jim was very young. Consequently, Jim dropped out of school at the age of 19 and took up employment with the Bengal and North-West Railway. Over the years, he served them in various capacities – as fuel inspector, assistant storekeeper, and assistant station-master, until he was designated Trans-shipment inspector at Mokameh Ghat, a post that he held with distinction for 21 years. He was particularly proud of having set an all-time record by handling, without any mechanical means, 5,500 tons of goods in a single working day. Like other patriotic colonial men, he took a break from work and enlisted during the World War, seeing action in France and Waziristan, rising to the rank of Colonel in the Army, returning to his job as Trans-shipment inspector at the end of the war, and finally retiring and leaving the country in 1947. If you only knew this much about him, you could not be faulted for thinking of his life and career as mild and borderline mediocre. But Jim Corbett had an interesting hobby, and he was an extraordinary man.
Between the years 1907 and 1938, Jim Corbett shot and killed 33 man-eaters – 31 tigers and two leopards – that had collectively killed over 1200 men and women in the jungles of North India. As a schoolboy, I had read about his exploits in his best-selling book The Man-eaters of Kumaon, and I remember being completely mesmerized. I felt the terror, the suspense and the eventual triumph in every pore. I drew many tigers in my notebooks as a boy. They always had angry eyes, bared canines, ragged claws and snake-like stripes; and I always drew a man with a gun shooting them dead.
Older and wiser as I am now, I had several qualms when I picked up this book. Tigers have been hunted nearly to extinction in India, and while I do not have the supporting data, I have a strong hunch that tigers and men have only clashed over the last couple of centuries, in the face of deforestation and gradual depletion of stock of their natural prey. In addition, tigers only become man-eaters if they are old or carry injuries that prevent them from hunting – such injuries, as Corbett points out, often being caused by hunters and ‘sportsmen’ in their quest for a trophy for their walls or a rug for their floors. Was hunting them down ruthlessly necessarily an act of heroism, I wondered. I also found Corbett cheerfully hunting various other animals– deer, mountain goats, game birds – for sport or ‘for the pot’; as a vegetarian and non-gun enthusiast, I disapproved thoroughly. Corbett also routinely set buffaloes and goats as live bait for the tigers he went after, and his preferred method was to allow the tiger to kill the bait and to shoot it when it returned to feed on the carcass. I cannot pinpoint why I feel queasy about the morality of this procedure, but I do.
Finally, there was ambiguity as well in the way he referred to the Indian villagers among whom he moved like a Colossus. From his account, they seem to have worshipped him, and thought of him as a saint, if not a god. He in turn seems to have genuine affection for them; respect, even – but in an avuncular, protective way, not as equals.
I realize I am in no position to judge. Avuncular or not, he did speak their language, eat their food, and live among them in villages with exotic names like Koi Kindri and Katkanaula at the edge of dense jungles – places that I have never seen. And I have lived my entire life without once feeling the physical fear of being stalked, killed and eaten by a wild animal, or the trauma of losing a family member to that fate, so I cannot estimate the positive value of killing man-eating tigers. From the safety of my home, tigers are cuddly, fluffy big kitty cats. And I must not forget that despite his reputation as a tiger killer, Corbett was a tireless campaigner for the conservation of endangered big cats, and saved more feline lives than he took.
August 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The Mahabharata (Subramanian, Kamala)
There’s more than one reason for my obsession with the Mahabharata. At a deeply personal level, it brings back memories of my grandfather, alternately thundering, whispering, roaring with laughter and breaking into song, surrounded by a clutch of his grandchildren, recreating for us the dramatic tension, the poetry, and the sheer magic of mythology in a way that I will never forget. Mythology is inextricably linked to the ancient art of story-telling, an art that has been passed down from the shamans and witchdoctors of the pre-historic world, and one that will never go out of fashion. The Mahabharata is the mother of all stories; there is something raw and elemental about it, something deep and dark that holds the key, somehow, to who I am, or maybe, to who any of us is, as a human. Somewhere in that bewildering labyrinth of plots and subplots is the secret of life itself; you can lose yourself in its plots and subplots, and you can find yourself there as well.
And yet, there is a second reason for my fascination, a more scientific one. Ever since I read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, Joseph Campbell‘s Oriental Mythology and Robert Graves‘ White Goddess and Greek Myth, I have been interested in the intersection of mythology and history; in meta-mythology – the back story, that is, the exact process by which the mythological story has taken the shape that it has today. The story as it appears before us is covered with the mud and grime of centuries of re-telling and embellishment. To carefully chisel off this coating and arrive at the gleaming treasure trove below is perhaps not everyone’s idea of a great pastime, but it is certainly mine. It is a kind of armchair archaeological effort, really – without pickaxes and shovels, but as exciting to me as anything Indiana Jones ever did. The simple premise underlying it is that there must have been an historical event buried somewhere in the depths of pre- or proto-history – the fire without which the smoke of the legend would not have reached us. To trace the contours of that long-gone fire from the shape of the twisting wisp of smoke is a deeply stimulating idea for me, akin to detective work, or medical diagnosis.
In a sense the two reasons are contradictory. One is about story-telling, the art of embellishment and effect, the creative impulse of the story-teller in adding detail to an old story in order to present it in the most appealing way possible to his audience. The other is about peeling those layers of creativity away, and searching for the possibly mundane truth. Is it strange that I find both reasons appealing?