Monday, September 26, 2005

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) - Selected Short Stories

Bengali poet, novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, painter, philospher and nationalist - Rabindranath Tagore is almost synonymous with the Indian Literature, being the first Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He is also known as the founder of the experimental school, Shanti Niketan, in which he tried to impart an education that was a blend of Indian and Western traditions. The school went on to become the Vishwa Bharati University in 1921.

His collection of verse, titled Geetanjali, Song Offerings, was hailed by W.B Yeats and André Gide, bringing him the much deserved attention from Western Critics and paving the way to his Nobel Prize.

I've read many of his poems, particularly from the collection Geetanjali and it won't take a genius to guess what motivated that choice ;-) I've also read a couple of plays. Recently I finished reading a volume of selected short stories.

Tagore, known best for having liberated Bengali literature from the shackles of traditional rules and models based on ancient Sanskrit literature, is said to have been greatly influenced by his contact with the "humble life and their small miseries" of the village folk he was in contact with, after taking up residence near the Padma river. His stories have a distinctive poetic lilt, poignantly capturing those elements of their lives, laced with a gentle irony at times. Most of them deal with life of the middle-class family man, and often with the position of the not-yet emancipated Bengali woman in a patriarchal society.

Despite his apparently supporting stance towards women, his stoires have a rather one-dimensional view of women classifying them under the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. Many of his stories seem to be attempting to lift the veil from the hypocrisies of Bengali (and thus, Indian) society, yet their rather simplistic and one-dimensional view, in my opinion, restricts the goal from being achieved. Yet, when I think of other short-stories I've read dating from the same era (or before) that attempt similar reforms in ways of thinking, I have to accept that the trend in short-story writing was rather simple and one-dimensional.

Another possible reason, for what I perceived as a rather soft-handed approach in exposing the evils of a class-ridde, superstitious society, is the fact I am reading a translated work, and it is a well-acknowledged fact that translation robs most, if not all, the essence of the original. You only need to compare the impact of Tagore's Amaar Sonaar Bangla in its original and in its translated English version to understand this - you don't need to understand Bangla to feel the difference in the rhythm, tempo and most importantly the soul of the song in its two version. (Having said that, let me add that I'm still glad to have access to the translation - and feel rather grouchy when denied access to such translations of other pieces of literature and thought in vernacular languages that I come across!)

Tagore's collection of short stories didn't exactly lift me to ecstacies of literary delight, but I'm glad to have finally read the volume that has been on my Must-Read list for as long as I can remember! I guess I can now move on to other such works on that ever-increasing list :-)

(You can read more about Tagore on Wikipedia Here's what Brittanica online has to say about him and what the Nobel society says about him. )

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Lord of the Flies has been on my “To-Read” list ever since I first studied about it way back in FYBA…I went onto graduate, complete my Masters and a Diplome Superieur in French, before I finally picked it up. And once I did, I found it difficult to put it down unfinished. Deepak once remarked that it’s a book to be devoured in one go, a slim novel that has you engrossed in the twists and turns of its plot as soon as you have commenced reading it. With most books, it takes time to settle into the intricacies of the plot and familiarize yourself with the labyrinth of its plot – not so with this one. Golding didn’t have much time to waste with this slim novel and so he mesmerizes in the first page itself.

Golding had described the theme of the book as “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” And so with Ralph, Piggy and Jack leading the way you enter the ravines of an isolated island where a plane carrying children has crashed. Left to survive on their own wits, the children choose their leader, divide themselves into groups (Biguns and Littluns, hunters, fire-protectors and so on) and struggle to survive on the island. Not surprising is the conflict between the strongest of them, the hunger and the eventual fight for power, that assumes greater importance once the initial charm of their adventure has flickered out.

The title, weaned from a Hebrew symbol for the Devil, and thus decay, demoralization, destruction, hysteria and panic, fits the theme perfectly. Apart from this symbol, the many allegories, in what seems at surface level an adventure story, reveal Golding’s supreme control over his form and matter.

Disturbing and terrifying at times, almost gruesome in certain portions, yet the novel is beautifully written and held me rapt till its climactic end.

Would I recommend it? Definitely – if it is already on your list, bump it up; if not, shove it in the top-ten!

P.S. My Penguin copy of the novel includes a critical note at the end, by E.L.Epstein that not only analyses the novel but also draws very interesting parallels with another classic “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. If you can lay your hands on that, then go for it.

Bluebeard's Egg - Margaret Atwood

Handmaid’s Tale was the first book by Margaret Atwood that I read, and as I posted in my review, I was a riveting work. As I resolutely put back a Peter Mayle and an André Gide I mentally crossed my prayers that I wouldn’t be disappointed by Bluebeard’s Egg. That this was a collection of short stories assured that I wouldn’t abandon the book mid-way, letting it languish uncompleted on my bookshelves because it failed to excite my literary palate.

I needn’t have worried, for I was hooked from the very first story and devoured the book quickly. The dozen short stories in the collection delivered in a distinctive Atwood style, captured my imagination, intellect (and yes, even feminist sensibility at times) with an easy élan. Themes ranged from childhood memories to the reality of the cruel adult world. Atwood successfully guides you along the journey of emotions that range from warm and nostalgic to faintly disturbing, from humorous to starkly horrifying.

As before, here is a random collection of excerpts from the collection, to tease your curiosity:-

“Some of these stories, it is understood are not to be passed onto my father, because they would upset him. It is well known that women can deal with this sort of thing better than men can. Men are not to be told anything they might find too painful; the secret depths of human nature, the sordid physicalities, might overwhelm or damage them…Men must be allowed to play in the sandbox of their choice, as happily as they can, without disturbance; otherwise they get cranky and won’t eat their dinners. There are all kinds of things that men are simply not equipped to understand, so why expect it of them?”

“She started out re-doing people’s closets, and has worked that up into her own interior design firm. She does the houses of the newly rich, those who lack ancestral furniture and the confidence to be shabby, and who wish their interiors to reflect a personal taste they do not in reality possess.

“What they want are mausoleums,” Marylynn says, “or hotels,” and she cheerfully supplies them. “Right down to the ash-trays. Imagine having someone else pick out your ash-trays for you.” ”

“Why an egg? From the night course in Comparative Folklore she took four years ago, she remembers that the egg can be a fertility symbol, or a necessary object in African spells, or something the word hatched out of. Maybe in this story it’s a symbol of virginity, and that why the wizard requires it unbloodied. Women with dirty eggs get murdered, those with clean ones get married” *

“Should civilization as we know it destroy itself, he informs us, ladling the gravy – as is likely, he adds – it will never be able to rebuild itself in its present form, since all available surface metals have long since been exhausted and the extraction of deeper ones is dependant upon metal technologies, which as you will remember, will have been demolished. There can never be another iron age, another bronze age; we will be stuck – if there is any we, which he doubts - with stone and bone, no good for aeroplanes and computers.”

The London Free Press says that this is “a book to be read and re-read, to be talked about and savoured.” I see no reason not to concur.

* Related reading to this statement, and ofcourse the Bluebeard fable - here

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie on Wikipedia

In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley emphasized the importance of the role of imagination in the discovery and direction of our lives. According to him, laws and conventions derived from ‘ethical science’ may be necessary for the conduct of ‘civil and domestic life’, but it the imagination that unlocks our full humanity.

At the end of the 20th century, many wars, revolutions and anathemas later, it is more evident than ever, that the active exercise of imagination is indispensable to the realization, establishment and defense of those values which define us and according to which we lead our lives. Salman Rushdie insists that the imagination, ‘the process by which we make pictures of the world…is one of the keys to our humanity.’

According to Rushdie, imagination liberates us from the crude ‘facts’ of history and may even absolve us from the unredeemed diary of our own lives. As a postmodern writer, Rushdie recognizes no unqualified fact or absolute fiction; the 2 categories overlap and leak into each other. To illustrate this, he quoted Graham Greene, in his Imaginary Homelands – ‘Novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.’

Midnight's Children won the Booker Prize the year I was born - and ever since I can remember it was an ambition of mine to read (and comprehend) the novel. Several aborted attempts later, I finally read it after having gotten a grip over the genre of magic realism. I also read The Moor's Last Sigh as a part of my masters course. Studying Rushdie is NOT easy. But it's also not boring. The palempsestic nature of his works, the constant blurring of boundaries between myth, fantasy and reality make it, if nothing else, an extremely interesting challenge. A sort of mental masturbation, if you prefer that analogy.

Ask me if I am a fan of Rushdie, and I'll most likely reply in the negative. Yet I can't refute his contribution to the literary world as we know it today. The fact that juries of literary prizes were inclined towards post-colonial authors in the 80s does not and can not belittle his achievement, nor can it belie the fact that his success turned the literary limelight towards India, in a way that even Tagore's Nobel Prize couldn't achieve. Let's face it, you can love him. You can hate him. But you can not ignore him. Naipaul with that gigantic chip on his shoulder, not to mention nose up in the air simply doesn't deserve the kind of warm embrace Indians extended towards him. Brilliant he is, but a bit too pompous for my liking.

And so I find myself rooting for Rushdie in the race towards the
Man Booker Prize 2005.

(Literary Trivia: In 2002 the Man Group became sponsor of the Booker Prize Foundation, and the prize is currently named the
Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It is in no way the same as the Man Booker International which was founded this year in U.S.A. and which will award outstanding literary achievement once in two years. )