Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year's Poem

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Les Poissons

Mémoire des poissons dans les criques profondes,
Que puis-je faire ici de vos lents souvenirs,
Je ne sais rien de vous qu'un peu d'écume et d'ombre
Et qu'un jour, comme moi, il vous faudra mourir.

( Memory of fish in the deep-water coves,
what can I do here with your slow-moving recollections,
I know no more of your than a hint of foam and shadow,
and that one day, like me, you will have to die.)

Alors que venez-vous interroger mes rêves
Comme si je pouvais vous être de secours?
Allez en mer, laissez-moi sur ma terre sèche,
Nous ne somme pas faits pour mélanger nos jours.

(Why then do you come and gaze questioningly into my dreams
as if I could be of help to you?
Go away to the sea, leave me on my dry land,
we are not made to mingle our days.)

- Jules SUPERVIELLE (1884-1960)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Fairy Tale

On winter nights beside the nursery fire
We read the fairy tale, while glowing coals
Builded its pictures. There before our eyes
We saw the vaulted hall of traceried stone
Uprear itself, the distant ceiling hung
With pendent stalactites like frozen vines;
And all along the walls at intervals,
Curled upwards into pillars, roses climbed,
And ramped and were confined, and clustered leaves
Divided where there peered a laughing face.
The foliage seemed to rustle in the wind,
A silent murmur, carved in still, gray stone.
High pointed windows pierced the southern wall
Whence proud escutcheons flung prismatic fires
To stain the tessellated marble floor
With pools of red, and quivering green, and blue;
And in the shade beyond the further door,
Its sober squares of black and white were hid
Beneath a restless, shuffling, wide-eyed mob
Of lackeys and retainers come to view
The Christening.
A sudden blare of trumpets, and the throng
About the entrance parted as the guests
Filed singly in with rare and precious gifts.
Our eager fancies noted all they brought,
The glorious, unattainable delights!
But always there was one unbidden guest
Who cursed the child and left it bitterness.
The fire falls asunder, all is changed,
I am no more a child, and what I see
Is not a fairy tale, but life, my life.
The gifts are there, the many pleasant things:
Health, wealth, long-settled friendships, with a name
Which honors all who bear it, and the power
Of making words obedient. This is much;
But overshadowing all is still the curse,
That never shall I be fulfilled by love!
Along the parching highroad of the world
No other soul shall bear mine company.
Always shall I be teased with semblances,
With cruel impostures, which I trust awhile
Then dash to pieces, as a careless boy
Flings a kaleidoscope, which shattering
Strews all the ground about with coloured sherds.
So I behold my visions on the ground
No longer radiant, an ignoble heap
Of broken, dusty glass. And so, unlit,
Even by hope or faith, my dragging steps
Force me forever through the passing days.

-Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

There was once upon a time, in a big city, a colony of fish who lived in a pretty plain little aquarium on a bedside table. There were three couples - goldfish, angelfish and shark. They lived in mutual harmony, swimming around the tank peacefully, with no reason for any discord. They were fed, they had plenty of fresh water, air and light.

Then one day, they were shifted to a smaller city (a hamlet really) and two new fish came to live in the aquarium. They were smaller in size but they immediately started marking their territory. The earlier residents of the aquarium were startled by this aggressive approach, having lived happily for so long without every thinking on the lines of property dispute! They huddled together discussing this new turn of events. The goldfish thought they could act as mediators since the new fish were from the same community as them. But the shark warned them that the new fish were from a small hamlet where such issues as sub-caste were of great importance. 'Might is right' said the shark. 'From now on, it has to be to each his own.'

The next day brought even more alarming changes in the tiny colony. The goldfish, being gentle creatures decided to try and talk to the new residents. But much to their complete horror, the aggressive goldfish turned on them, attacking them viciously! By nightfall they had pecked away at the fins of the male and he had to be quarantined. Though he was admitted to the ICU, and they took good care of him, he did not survive very long. A few days later, he had to be sent to his watery grave. Pining for her soul-mate, the female slipped away and was found one day, lying dead on the bed of the aquarium.

A tremor of shocked silence rocked the aquarium and the shark and angelfish bid their sorrowful goodbyes to the goldfish as she too, was taken away. They were still grieving when the goldfish took possession of the square inches that belonged to the deceased goldfish, claiming blood relation! Not content with their increased property they next turned their attention to the gentle angelfish. Within days both angelfish were found slinking in corners nursing their injured fins...they had to be rushed to the hospital where they too breathed their last.

Now it was just the goldfish and the shark remaining in the aquarium. The male wanted to get rid of them as well, but the female warned him not to cross swords with the shark. 'They may seem quiet, but they have a true predator's instinct. Let's not be too greedy. After all we have increased our property three-fold. We don't need anymore darling,' she pleaded...she was being tormented by nightmares and couldn't seem to wash her fins clean. Day and night, she heard the feeble cries of the goldfish and the angelfish, begging for mercy! The male, indifferent to her plight, could only think of his evil plot and he didn't realise that his girlfriend had slipped over the edge. One day, unable to take her guilt anymore, she jumped out of the aquarium, commiting suicide.

The next day, at the solemn prayer meeting held for the deceased goldfish, the shark rounded up the male and asked him if he was satisfied. 'The colony, once such a happy place has become a graveyard now thanks to your evil greed. Are you satisfied now?' The male finally realised what his plotting had done but it was too late for regrets...his conscience ate at him and soon he fell ill. But there was no one to take care of him. Diseased, he soon developed a strange disorder and his whole body was covered with a repulsive fungus that ate away at his body and he died a tormented death...

Alone now in the aquarium, the shark swum around the deserted colony wondering what awaited them, till one day the aquarium cracked in the middle of the night and they were shifted to a make-shift refugee camp in a bucket till a better solution was found and they were released into a nearby pond, free at last...

(Inspired by a true story which I narrated over lunch recently, to the amusement of my companions. I've added some more mirch, masala and twist to the story but respected the main events and characters)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Une Vie de Boy - Ferdinand Oyono (1956)

Une Vie de Boy (Ferdinand Oyono) - a beautiful novel - has been written in the diary form, making it much more realistic and lending it a more personal touch thus making the reader feel like he's privy to the innermost thoughts of the main character, in this case Joseph Toundi a.k.a the Boy.

Houseboy or Une Vie de Boy narrates the story of a young Black who runs away from his tribal village, enamoured by the Whites and gets himself "adopted" by a White priest and taken to the Missionary in Dangan, Cameroon. Educated by the priest he starts recording everything he experiences, sees and thinks vis-à-vis his life in colonial Africa as a young black servant. When his benefactor, father Gilbert dies due to an unfortunate accident in the bush (which nevertheless marks him as a martyr for having died in Africa while trying to civilise the savages) he becomes the "Boy" of the Commandant of the colony.

Serving the Whites at the Résidence, the opulent city of the Whites, while he lives in the Quartier Noir (Black Quarter) provides him a vantage point to observe everything around him and slowly his illusions about the Whites are stripped away as he sees their naked truth. The author uses an incident as obviously simple and transparent as the first time Toundi sees the Commandant naked and realises he is not circumcised to illustrate how Toundi's illusions of the nobility and grandeur of the Whites start being stripped away. We see, through Tondi's eyes how the two societies so drastically different are forced to co-exist and are blinded by their stereotypes of the "other."

The novel explores the various questions connected to colonialism and the impact it had on the lives of the natives, especially those like Toundi who tried to cross over and found themselves straddling the fence, having lost the right to return to their native world. Not welcomed into the world of the white coloniser either, they are drawn inextricably into the world of servitude, oppression and eventual obliteration. As Toundi says on his deathbed:
" My mother used to say my greed would take me far. If only I had been able to foresee that it would take me to the cemetry..."
An extremely riveting read, this is the second French novel I've read this month and will definitely recommend for its subtle analysis of European colonialism and the resulting clash of cultures, the beautiful descriptions as well as the underlying silence which speaks volumes. F. Oyono has used the African oral tradition masterfully, using it deftly to present the reality of the colonised.

PS Yes the review in french shall soon go up on Accros de Français

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett (1949)

A play that can be interpreted at many levels, I've always favoured the existentialist interpretation which deals with the meaning of human existence and the onus of each man to carry his own burden and make of his life what he can, however difficult it might be...
An excerpt I once knew by heart and could recite at the drop of a hat and to me, perhaps the most important part of the text...
VLADIMIR: But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come–
POZZO: Help!
VLADIMIR: Or for night to fall.
(Pause.) We have kept our appointment and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?
ESTRAGON: Billions.
VLADIMIR: You think so?
ESTRAGON: I don't know.
VLADIMIR: You may be right.
POZZO: Help!
VLADIMIR: All I know is
that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which —how shall I say— which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abysmal depths? That's what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning?
ESTRAGON: (aphoristic for once). We are all born mad. Some remain so.
POZZO: Help! I'll pay you!
ESTRAGON: How much?
POZZO: One hundred francs!
ESTRAGON: It's not enough.
VLADIMIR: I wouldn't go so far as that.
ESTRAGON: You think it's enough?
VLADIMIR: No, I mean so far as to assert that I was weak in the head when I came into the world. But that is not the question.
POZZO: Two hundred!
VLADIMIR: We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tanguy - Michel del Castillo (1957)

An autobiographical work by
Michel del Castillo, a Spanish born writer who writes in French, Tanguy is a powerfully moving novel highly reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank (due mainly to the child's point of view as opposed to that of the adult). Narrating in first person, the story of a young Spanish boy, Tanguy, the novel is set against the backdrop of the war.

The novel starts in Spain in 1939, during the Spanish civil war, when Tanguy is forced to flee the country with his mother because of her political affiliations. They find themselves in France, which is no less hostile. Forsaken by his father, Tanguy and his mother are arrested by the police and sent off to a camp for political refugees where life is difficult and they face many a hardship and insult. Finally able to escape, Tanguy's mother now decides to flee to London. In order to escape unnoticed from France, they must travel separately and Tanguy is thus separated from his mother. Discovered by the German troops he is packed off to a concentration camp where he endures a life of hunger, cold and forced physical labour that break his body and spirit, the only respite being in a young German pianist who befriends him and reminds him time and again not to hate for hatred breeds nothing but hatred.

After the war, Tanguy is sent back to Spain, Barcelona where he learns that his grand mother has recently passed away and there is no one else to take care of him. He is sent to a reformation school for juvenile delinquents and orphans, run by priests who are no less cruel and sadist than the Nazi "kapos." Bitter, Tanguy believes they are worse than the Nazis because these priests hide their sadism behind the facade of religion and confession, but that makes their sin no less. He succeeds in escaping along with a companion, but is forced to separate from his as well. This time around, he finds himself in a school run by a group of priests but unlike the reformation school, here, Tanguy is able to grow, learn and live comfortably. It is here, that he truly flourishes and finds friends and solace. But he is still not completely at peace and sets off again in search of the parents who had abandoned and forsaken him to such a bitter destiny. He does find them eventually, but only to realise that the years of hardship and horror experienced by him have built an impenetrable barrier between them.

An extremely poignant novel, Tanguy made me relive the horrors of the World War, the holocaust and the aftermath which was no less difficult but few talk about. On a more personal note, this is one of the very rare French novels that I've read completely and I think the rhythm, fluidity of prose and style of narration helped me just as much as the subject being dealt with...for me, the most noteworthy aspect of the novel was the poignancy of Tanguy's situation nuanced by his frantic efforts to lead as normal a childhood as possible in his circumstances and his hunger for human relationships, be those with the parents who cared naught for him, or the friends he makes on each step of his journey but is forced to leave behind and move on in his quest for answers and peace. A depressing read indeed, but an extremely moving one that I strongly recommend.

PS The novel in its English translation goes by the title of Child of our Time. I have simulataneously published a review in French on Accros de Français.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell (1956)

I like animals. I understand their importance in our ecological system. I even admire and appreciate certain species. But I wouldn't go as far as calling myself a generic animal lover, because frankly there are some whose existence is quite beyond my grasp. Lizards for example, or snakes, or crocodiles...basically the entire gamut of animals that are categorised as reptiles. And thus when I spotted a lizard in class one day I turned into an embarassingly nervous skittish foal who quickly hopped over to the other side of the class and ended up providing much more entertainment than usual to my students...and the very next day I was given a copy of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical My Family and Other Animals.

Skeptical at first, I started reading it not quite sure if I'd like it or even finish it. I did finish it, just a few days later, after having spent a few nights laughing and chuckling in bed at the anecdotes narrated by Durrell about his sejour in the Greek island of Corfu from 1935 - 1939, his colourful family and extended group of friends and above all, his adventures and experiences with animals. Gerald Durrell (younger brother of the far more famous Lawrence Durrell) spent several years in Corfu with his family, where he roamed at liberty in the countryside observing, absorbing, collecting, learning...often appalled and outraged with the latest animal he had decided to adopt, his family mostly supported his love for animals. The novel is full of interesting, entertaining and educating anecdotes that made me view animals in a whole new light. For instance, I would have never thought of a fight between a mantis and a gecko as anything worth watching, but Durrell presents it like a heroic episode between two mighty warriors and I must admit that despite my complete horror and skirmish disgust at the excruciating details provided I was impressed. His presentation of the turtles and their mating ritual tickled me pink, as did his descriptions of the rather aggressive bird they adopted.

My reading informs me that Gerald Durrell who later went on to become a very famous naturalist and is responsible for having recognised and saved some endangered species, apart from setting up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust for his animals, wrote mainly because his brother urged him to do so. Lawrence Durrell, the established writer urged him to pen down his experiences as a naturalist and narrate the anecdotes as a means of financing his expeditions and sharing the knowledge he had gathered over the years. Had I not known this, I would have pegged the younger Durrell as just as talented a writer as his famous elder brother. I wish I had discovered Gerald Durrell earlier, but then as they say in my mother tongue (tongue-in-cheek) der sahi, andher nahin. Having enjoyed this one throughly, I do believe I am going to try and hunt down more of his fictional writing.

PS The customary excerpt is missing because I returned the book immediately after finishing reading it and am posting this nearly three weeks after...

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood (2005)

Margaret Atwood, steals yet again and presents us a delightfully tongue-in-cheek feminist version of an otherwise accepted, rarely questioned and highly glorified tale. Re-interpreting the Greek myth of Odysseus as a part of The Myths series, Atwood presents The Odyssey (originally written by Homer) from Penelope's point of view, in The Penelopiad.

Unlike her beautiful cousin, Helen of Troy, Penelope has never been a popular character in Greek mythology. Married to Odysseus, she is known mainly for having woven a shroud which she undid every night, for nearly 12 years in order to fend off her many suitors who wanted to marry her and usurp Odysseus' kingdom and her son, Thelemachus' inheritance. Synonymous with intelligence and fidelity, Penelope, otherwise didn't have a major role to play in Greek mythology. Atwood changes this, presenting to us Penelope's (untold) story right from her neglected childhood, to her marriage and the years she spent at Ithaca without her husband, struggling to survive against all odds, depending on her wit and pragmatism. Atwood thus presents Penelope as much more than merely a faithful wife. Interestingly Atwood does not paint Penelope as the flawless heroine but as human with flaws such as sibling rivarly and jealousy (towards Helen), vanity which makes her enjoy the flattery poured on her by the suitors and even the urge to give into the temptation and yield to her carnal desires.

Above all, Atwood brings to us the voice of the maids, who were hung by Odysseus and Telemachus. Guilty of disloyalty, the maid servants, who entered a life of slavery at childhood and were raped or forced to sleep with their master and any man he dictated, were condemned to death for having slept with Penelope's suitors in Odysseus' absence. In The Penelopiad they are given a chance to present their case and argue their innocence in a ballad as well as an extremely rivetting parody of a court room scene.

Succesfully manipulating several genres to serve her purpose of subverting a popular myth, Margaret Atwood comes up with another winner.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Slowness - Milan Kundera

Rare is it that I devour a book within a couple of hours. Rarer that I find myself unable to lift my eyes from a book when I am in a moving bus. Yesterday on my way back from the Tinsel Town I started Milan Kundera's Slowness and before I knew it, I had turned the last page, having spent two hours nodding in admiration at the weight in the words chosen to weave this delightfully tongue-in-cheek oeuvre!

A philosophical treatise that raises more questions than it answers, Slowness analyses slowness and speed, memory and speed, hedonism and exhibitionism, the art of (amorous) conversation and orgasms with a brilliantly cold detachment. At the same time, Slowness narrates two intertwined tales of seduction juxtaposed against another midsummer night's seduction in the 18th century...and all this is staged in the same castle where the narrator is spending the weekend with his wife and an entomologists' conference is taking place.

I loved the wicked humour in the exchanges between the two couples, especially in the scene between Vincent and Julia and was completely bowled over by the philosophical arguments on the various subjects.

A novel that fills you with grotesque horror at times yet forces an unbridled laughter out of you and succeeds in making you think and realise how shallow and pretentious and sordid modern civilisation can be and is, Slowness delights, enthralls and makes you bow down to the sheer genius that is Milan Kundera.

I leave you with the customary excerpt, though the urge to type out half the book is great:

Being among the elect is a theological notion that means: not as a matter of merit but by a supernatural judgement, a free, even capricious, determination of God, a person is chosen for something exceptional and extraordinary...

...the feeling of being elect is present, for instance, in every love relation. For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you're intelligent, because you're decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don't chase women, because you do the dishes, then I'm disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I'm crazy about you even though you're neither intelligent nor decent, even though you're a liar, an egotist, a bastard.

The Patriot

I am standing for peace and non violence
Why the world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi
I am simply not understanding
Ancient indian wisdom is 100% correct,
I shuold sayeven 200% correct,
But mordern generation is neglecting-
Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.

Other day i'm reading newspaper
(Everyday i'm reading Times Of India
To improve my English Language)
How one goonda fellow
Threw stone at Indirabehn
Must be student unrest fellow, i am thinking.
Friends, Romans, Cuontrymen, i am saying (to myself)
Lend me the ears.
Everything is coming-
Regeneration, remuneration, contraception.

Be patiently, brothers and sisters.
You want one glass lassi?
Very good for digestion.
With little salt, lovely drink,
Better than wine;
Not that i am ever tasting the wine,
I'm the total teetotaller, completely total,
But i say
Wine is for the drunkards only.

What you think of prospects of world peace?
pakistan behaving like this,
China behaving like that,
It is making me really sad, i am telling you.
Really most harassing me.
All menare brothers, no?
In India also,
Thuogh some are having funny habits.
Still, you tolerate me,
I tolerate you,
One day Ran rajya is surely coming.

You are going?
But you will visit again
Any time, any day,
I am not believing in ceremony
Always I am enjoying your company.
Nissim Ezekiel

Read some of his other poems here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Life Without Books Would Be A Mistake

I was born in a book. This is not a metaphor. I was born to myself by reading. I was born to rejection, to excess, to enigmas, I was born to the incomprehensibleness of things, I was born to what is called the inner life thanks to a book. I was ten. I remember it well. The book was called "Sans Famille" (Nobody's Boy) by Hector Malot.
I belong to books. All other affiliations reduce me and sut me in. All other affiliations fill me with horror. The soil, blood, race, the family fill me with horror.
I belong to books. To the books I read in my childhood. To the ones that have marked the seasons of my life. I belong to the books of Cervantes, Rabelais, Pascal, Faulkner and Bernhard. But I belong too, to the books that I haven't read and which have founded the language that I speak, its spirit, its colours, its pace.
I belong to books. When the world is noisy, books give me peace. When life no longer makes sense, books know how to laugh at it.
As there is no god to take me in, no master to guide me, no root in the soil to hold me, I fear being crushed in the immanence of things. But the uneasy voice of great books leads me towards an unknown that calls me and keeps me moving forward.
I read, I live. Life without books would be nothing but a mistake. My life without books would be inconceivable. Like an existence with no secrecy. Like day without night.
Books are my day and my night.
-Lydie Salvayre
This quarter's issue of Label France has a special dossier on Books and People and has a special feature "Words of writers" in which 10 authors reacted to the question "What place do books have in your life?"
Read what other writers have to say (in French) at the official Label France site.
Disclaimer - I haven't translated the text. I merely copied it from the English edition I picked up at AFP..

Being Alone With The World In Your Hands

Reading is absenting yourself from the world
reading is finding the world again
reading is being alone with the world in your hands
reading is being alone in the company of others
reading is thinking before acting
reading is taking the time to think
reading is imagining
imagining is putting yourself in the Other's place
reading is an act of humanity
reading is being with the other and with yourself
reading and writing is the beginning of belonging to the world
everyone should be able to read and write in their own language
reading is being alone and yet being part of the world

Writing is responding to this solitude
without filling it
without imagining that you are making up for it
writing is facing the void
writing is being at the reader's side
not in his place or above him
writing is relying on intelligence
writing is also being alone
but not totally isolated
writing is seeking the Other in yourself
you can turn it into an illness
you can turn it into a job
you can turn it into a rapture
writing is uncontrollable but it is grammatical
writing is asking questions with no answer
writing is answering questions that have not been asked
writing is rejecting the words of harmony as well as those of discord
writing is sowing disorder by reviving language
writing is an act of humanity and a curse
writing keeps me upright but also digs gulfs
- Marie Darrieussecq (French Writer, Psychoanalyst)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

From "Slowness" (1995),

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with the footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor : 'They are gazing at God's windows.' A person gazing at God's windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

In everyday language, the term 'hedonism' denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly sceptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure if the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonsim: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus recommends only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world's misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (a God's windows), a caress.

- Milan Kundera

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

La Langue Française

Why is French such a complicated language(with such impossible to conceive pronounciations)?

Oft has this question been posed to me and I've always shrugged in response, saying that the people responsible have long been interred and are by now decomposed to the point that even if you tried tracking them down in hell (they couldn't have gone to heaven, surely, after having been this cruel and come up with such impossible words!), there wouldn't be much of them left to question. An answer that has frustrated many of my students, I'm sure.
I finally have the beginnings of an informed answer, thanks to,
The Story of French, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a brilliant treatise on the evolution of the language I teach and love, but often do not fathom!

According to historian Ferdinand Brunot, members of the Academy steered away from phonetic spellings because they were afraid of looking ignorant of the historical roots of a word. But this orientation was also the expression of a class struggle. The lettered class promoted complicated spellings as a way of holding onto power; by making it hard to learn French, they made it harder for anyone outside their class to enter the circles of power.

Bloody snobs, is the first reaction, isn't it? But to understand this better, I must explain some more, even if briefly. French, as the language we know today, hasn't always existed in this form. Far from it infact...the language of the common people, patois, or the regional languages were consciously removed from first, the courts and then the common parlance by François I in 1593 with the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. Thus began the process of imposing a single language on the people, which gradually became purer in form.

Interestingly, while it is commonly thought that L'Académie Française was responsible for the purification of the language, the entire credit can not be given to them.
François de Malherbe started the process, which was later carried on by his followers. A true tyrant when it came to language, it is said, he spared no one in preaching the "bon usage du mot," not even the King! The process of purifying the language was later carried forward by enthousiasts and purists and thus was formed the Académie Française. Interestingly (again), it is widely and commonly thought that Cardinal Richelieu established the Academy in 1635, but the real founders of the Academy infact were Valentin Conrart and his friends.Richelieu offered his support, which they were obliged to take, coming as it was from the Cardinal itself and thus, they became a public institution from a small, private club that met to discuss the language and create a dictionary for the language. This, in fact, became one of the main missions of the Academy even though the Academy's dictionaries have never really been respected, published as they are after decades at times and often with outdated information.

Yet another interesting anecdote to narrate before I go back to the book:

The word anglais (English) was missing from every edition, but is expected to appear in the latest edition, slated for release in 2010s.
Now that's what you call pure French snobbery.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Booked by the Mother Hen

Tagged by Extempore, a.k.a the Mother Hen, to :-
  1. Pick up the nearest book.
  2. Open to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

She declares having struggled with the choice of book since she often reads more than one book at a time. I must admit, a similar dilemma awaited me, since my bed-side table currently hosts a couple of Penguin's Great Loves series, The Story of French as well as Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad...and then I stopped and asked myself why I was confused. No prizes for guessing which book this is coming from...

"Figuratively speaking, of course. Making up for all those mangled corpses. I hadn't realised you were capable of guilt."

Quintessential Margaret Atwood, this is from an exchange between Penelope and her much more famous cousin, Helen with reference to the battle of Troy and the thousands who were massacred because of her vanity/folly. A detailed review of the novel shall follow in a couple of days :-)

I now pass on the baton to Idle Mind, Jo, Madusa, Pranab and Wandering Dervish.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Robber Bride - Margaret Atwood (1993)

Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, offers us a feminist version of the fairy-tale The Robber Bridegroom. Familiar with the world of fairy tales, this isn’t the first time Atwood has been inspired by one, having spun off the Blue Beard tale in her collection of short stories, Blue Beard’s Egg. While the original fairytale is about a band of robbers with predatory, cannibalistic characteristics, here it is a woman who preys on men and sucks their life force out of them.

The story starts at a restaurant named Toxique, where three unlikely friends meet up for their monthly lunch - Tony, a diminutive war historian, Charis, a flower-child who believes in the powers of the soul and Roz, an entrepreneur with Catholic-Jewish origins. What unites the three is their experience with Zenia, who has over a span of three decades entered and wrecked havoc in the lives of each one of them, draining them on the personal front, making away with their men, as well as financial front, cheating, robbing, embezzling them of money and resources. It is almost apt then, that Zenia makes her re-appearance after having faked her death some years ago, at Toxique, for what is she after all, if not a toxic substance that has poisoned their lives, leaving them scarred?

Justifying her choice of a “villainess” who wrecks havoc instead of the standard fearsome villain (à la Blue Beard), Atwood questions the disappearance of the Lady Macbeths and Ophelias from the gory world of literature, saying that presenting a woman in dark shades doesn’t mean you are anti-female, merely that you truly believe in the equality of the sexes. “Equality means equally bad as well as equally good.” Zenia, is an embodiment of the evil in every way possible – armed with a beauty and an “aura” that men can’t resist, she knows how to work the field (pun intended), choosing her victims carefully, doing her homework well, leaving no chance of failure once she’s on the battle field, slipping through their defenses, disarming them skilfully before launching her attack. The novel, built in a Russian doll structure, slowly unveils the individual tales of Tony, Charis and Roz, revealing a horrifying tale of childhood neglect and abuse that has moulded them into the women they are, as well as their own encounter with Zenia, coming to a full-circle with the death of Zenia.

I embarked on the Atwood journey in 2004, with The Handmaid’s Tale and there has truly been no looking back, for each and every on of her books has held me in their spell. Witty, grotesque, chilling and horrifying, the novels have made me laugh with delight and sent cold shivers of horror crawling down my back moments after. Each and every book has been devoured, leaving my literary senses satisfied and satiated. The Robber Bride appealed particularly for several reasons. Tony, as a character – the tiny woman who faded into the walls but harboured an unlikely passion for her size and gender, and could methodically, unsentimentally chart inquisitions and conquests and recount tales of blood and gore, appealed immensely, making for a strong and rich character. I must confess, the choice of the female villain also tipped the scales - having always found fascinating the idea of the Femme Fatale, the she-devil who twists her victims around, wrecking complete havoc in their lives, Zenia, as the villainess was as perfect as she could get.

Would I recommend the book? Indulging in redundant questions are we? After The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, in my opinion is her best work.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

From the Literary Desk

Oft do I miss my Literature days, the thrill of discovering yet another brilliant author, the awe that coursed through my veins discussing the genius behind the words, the complete satisfaction after having discussed, interpreted and analysed a particular work. The module on francophone literature that I had taken up during my stage at Montpellier not only gave me the opportunity to go back to those days, but also made me realise that without literature in my life, it is quite incomplete. While several incidences kept me away from literature after my return, and my failure to read as fast as I used to disappointed me greatly, the persistent prodding by someone whose opinions and advice mean much to me, made me turn once again to the world of literature, to read (steadily and constantly if not as voraciously as before) and to widen my horizons. The Literature Course recently started at AFP has given this attempt a further boost – we are working with Charles Perrault’s fairy tales from The Mother Goose Tales. I wasn’t very sure what I should expect from the course, and I almost backed off (but once again the said person prodded me on and I stuck around much to my contentment) but I am absolutely delighted with what we are doing and what I’ve been exposed to and what has been brought back into my life. Just being back in a class, with a teacher whose knowledge is worthy of much admiration, reading and discussing a literary work is joy enough for me – but when it is something in which I take keen interest, brings back my knowledge and allows me to put that as well as my own intelligence and literary instincts to work…it really couldn’t get better!

I already had some background in the origin of fairy tales having discussed the genre when we studied African, Australian and Canadian folk tales at the MA level, and knew that the fairy tales we know today (mainly those penned by the
Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson) find their origins in the oral tradition of narrating stories (often very grisly and horrifying) around a fire to keep the guards awake and entertained through the night, as also in the famous Arabian Nights. It really is fascinating how these tales have evolved to a point that today we recognise them as children’s stories, despite their completely different origins. While I also knew that many versions of these fairy tales exist (no need to look far – we already know about two such versions, those of Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers) I was really amazed to find out just how shocking (and sometimes feminist) the earlier versions were – for instance, did you know that in the earliest version of the Sleeping Beauty, a married prince rapes her while she’s in her induced slumber and it’s one of the two progeny from this illegitimate relationship that finally wakes her, and not the prince? Or that the oral version of the Red Riding Hood has an ingenious and smart girl who saves herself (and her grandmother) from the wolf and has no need of the Grimm brothers’ woodcutter to do the needful?

Apart from this, the professor, who herself is keenly interested in the origin of languages and etymology, has reawakened my own slumbering interest in the subject and made me finally pick up and start reading
The Story of French by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, a book that I purchased over a year ago and has been gathering dust ever since. Needless to say, the book has completely grabbed my interest and I’m making my way through it steadily, absolutely delighted with what I’m reading, coupled with information I garner in class!

I’m simultaneously working my way through my fifth Margaret Atwood,
Cat’s Eye as well as an anthology of Moroccan poetry. I must admit that the tone of some of the poems took me by surprise, especially those that dealt with the themes of God and carnal pleasures. I was struck by the frankness of Mohammed Achaari’s “Douceur Sauvage” a poem of complete raw sensuality, and the hard-hitting tone of Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi’s “Dieu, l’Absolument Grand” in which God has been stripped bare of his mercy and has instead been presented as someone who is not only indifferent to his believers suffering, but almost cruel and inconsiderate in his demands, and as someone who has imposed a burden of responsibilities on us without so much as asking us our opinion. Perhaps I’m indulging in prejudices, but I found it really remarkable to see such themes being tackled with such frankness and almost brutality by poets from a Muslim culture. Whether they are representative of a small minority of rebellious thinkers in their countries or whether they truly represent a changing trend of thoughts and attitudes in their country, I do not know. What I do know, is that their work is brilliant and worthy of recommendation.