& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rabbit at Rest

For me the biggest differentiator of people is their interest in books. I tend to like people who like books.

That is perhaps why I will not forget my former colleague
Arun Ohri easily. On my gmail's draft folder I still have John Updike’s Rabbit novels in electronic format in the drafts folder. Arun, when he got to know of my craze for Updike, got these novels in soft format for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to read them in that format.

Pranav Joshi, son of Suresh Joshi, the litterateur who changed the direction of Gujarati literature, introduced me to John Updike in the early 1980s when he lend me his Rabbit Redux, the second in the Rabbit series.

It was a strange book. Strange because it was a confusing mix of sex, race relations, drugs, Vietnam and the waywardness of the 1960s. But the manner in which Updike wrote was absolutely marvelous and compelling. I borrowed Rabbit Run, the first of the Rabbit series, from the American Center library in Mumbai. I have followed Rabbit to his grave through Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. I haven’t read Rabbit Remembered.

Though Updike is talking about suburban America, in so many different ways, Rabbit is all of us. At this phase in my own middle ages, I feel I’m living Angstrom’s life during the Redux phase.

On a trip to Baroda with Pranav and Surbhi, I was reading Couples, much to the amazement of Pranav’s father. He said, in his inimitable contrite style: “I like your choice of the author, but not of the book.” That comment stemmed from the overtly sexual content of the novel.

Updike’s preoccupation with sex is legendary and has been commented upon by many. For the uninitiated, it may appear to be obsessive.

Over the years, fame brought about a change in Updike’s status as a writer. He became the establishment. A role he seemingly relished, but wouldn’t admit openly.

Another of my heroes – Salman Rushdie – had a public spat with Updike over his review of Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. Rushdie, as always acidic, exclaimed: “I don't subscribe to the very predominantly English admiration of Updike. If you take away Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and some of the short stories, there's a lot of ... slightly ... garbage. Think of The Coup! The new one [Terrorist] is beyond awful. He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."

Notwithstanding Rushdie’s diatribe, John Updike’s universal appeal and relevance as a novelist is unquestionable. He will be remembered because he changed the way in which we think and talk about ourselves.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I guess there is a particular period in everyone’s life when she reads more than ever before and ever after. For me that time was my late teens in the 1970s. It’s a period that stays etched in my memory and everything associated with that period has acquired a halcyon hue.

It’s a different matter that almost all of the retained memories are reconstructed, and did not really unfold the way I remember them.

I remember Noorsultan Daruwala. She must be close to 50 now. For me she’ll always be the 16-year-old school girl. I never did meet her ever in my life after we left school, which I think is the way it should be, or maybe not. Every time I think of her, I have this melting feeling in my heart that is similar to having a Ferreror Rocher chocolate – it melts in your mouth just when you want it to last a bit longer. Sigh!

I remember those terrible Hindi movies that were a complete waste of time. Can you imagine I saw the Subhash Ghai-Reena Roy starrer Gumrah three times? You have a lot of time when you’re young.

And I remember reading Alex Haley’s Roots. The novel was fiction, of course, but Haley had done tremendous research on the subject of his ancestry and termed the book faction (mix of fiction and facts). Many years later, Haley was involved in a law suit where Harold Courlander alleged that many sections of Roots were plagiarized from his The African. Haley settled out of court, and admitted to being inspired by Courlander’s book.

It is impossible not to be moved to tears when you read all that Kunta Kinte, the main protagonist, has to experience. Some descriptions from the book stay with the reader forever. The gruesome conditions on the ships that transport the Africans from their homeland to the new world have a sort of mesmerizing effect on the reader. The ‘smell’ of the White kidnappers in the African jungles; the quiet dignity with which the slaves rebuild their lives; ‘Chicken George;’ all made for riveting reading.

It was a true epic that gives the reader an unrelenting story of the unbelievably horrible treatment of the African slaves by the United States. It is an eloquent introduction to one of America’s most sordid chapters that has only partially been remedied with the election of Barrack Obama as the president of the United States.

Personally speaking

On occasions, I’m going to talk personally in this space…You have the choice of going to the next blog.

Immigrating to Canada has done two things to me:1. Reading, writing. 2. Rediscovering life

I have taken myself – willingly – out of the rat race, and have created some time for myself to do things that I always wanted to do, and never really had the time to do these things, or watched television ceaselessly when I did. Read, write.

On occasions, I admit, I have this angst that my life’s turned out to be irredeemable failure, especially when I hear about or see my acquaintances in Mumbai getting awards or getting promoted. 

I'm reading voraciously. I have started this blog. Both reading and writing are genuinely therapeutic. I’m sure all those who enjoy reading also enjoy writing. I certainly do. But not too many readers write, mainly because they don’t have the courage. To develop that courage is to free you from the fear of criticism. It’s such an enlivening experience.  

The other, and far more interesting thing that has happened, is the thrill of rediscovering life and living. I’ve quit smoking after nearly two-and-a-half decades. It won’t help me keep cancer at bay, but it sure makes me immensely proud of myself.

There’s more to life and living. Now, what do I mean by this? Quite simply, it’s the unburdening of the baggage that preoccupies our mind and changes (mutates) us to become something that we are not. For many years now, there is a section of people – my well wishers – have devoted an inordinate (not to say unconscionable) time keeping a track of my life (Sting: Every breath you take…I’ll be watching you). 

It bothered me that people I have considered my own – friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives, family – should do this, and it angered me to an extent where I begun to change as a person. You wonder whether all this really is worth the trouble. The answer is always a comprehensive no. 

Other people’s opinion always matters, but not to the extent where it undermines your values. You cannot control how others behave. You can how you do. In a serious attempt to be the change I wanted to see others (Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world), I have begun to reexamine myself and challenge the reality that I have constructed around myself. 

It’s a hard choice. Harder than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I don’t know whether I will succeed. But if I fail, it won’t be for the lack of trying.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gide & Rolland: Two Men Divided

Smokers Corner in Mumbai is an unusual bookshop. I don’t remember when I visited the place last. Many years ago. 

But a couple of decades back, I was a regular visitor. It offered a good bargain, and very unusual books. Books difficult to find elsewhere.

One of the books that I bought from there was Andre Gide and Romain Rolland – Two Men Divided by Frederick Harris.  

I was familiar with both Gide and Rolland, but had not read their writings. I haven’t even today. Rolland is much admired among a particular set of Indian history aficionados because of his biography of the Mahatma

Gide was a major Marxist intellectual.

Both are Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Rolland in 1915 and Gide in 1947. 

Rolland's book came to our house via a rather strange route. Meghnad had managed to get the book from N.J. Lakdawala. Lakdawala was the father of my father’s colleague at his workplace, and the entire 

Lakdawala library came to us for reasons which I’m not familiar with. But it had incredible books. The six-volume history of World War II by Winston Churchill, for instance.

Gide's books came from Meghnad's uncle Prabodhchandra (Nanu-kaka; more about him a little later). Gide was a regular Marxist and a staunch supporter of Soviet Russia for a considerably long time.

Nearly two decades after Communism’s comprehensive failure, I often wonder what was it about this tendentious philosophy that so fascinated the French intellectual giants of the mid 20th century (1930-1970). Rolland, Gide, Sartre are names we are all familiar with.

Both Rolland and Gide were proud of their Marxist leanings, but developed differences in the manner in which the Soviet Union curbed personal freedom. 

Harris’s book is an interesting account of the differences between them over this and other issues.

The thing about these giants of the last century was the erudition with which they expressed their views, and the civilized manner in which they engaged in a debate over differences. 

Rolland and Gandhi correspondence is legendary, as is the correspondence between Tagore and Gandhi. Rolland's and Gide's differences are also of a similar nature. 

We are in an age when leaders seem so diminished in comparison. Obama’s articulation seems so refreshing and all together old-worldly.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Ode to a song

In 2002-2003 I was involved with The Quarterly Journal of Opinion (TQJO), a web-based magazine that was a mix of ideas, opinions, debate, current affairs, creative writing, poetry, fiction, sketches, and a lot of other things. 

While rummaging through my CDs recently on a cold evening in Toronto, I found the one that had the TQJO files. 

I'm reproducing a poem by Akanksha Joshi from TQJO. Akanksha is a young poet, who I think, must be a lawyer by now. 

It's a simple poem with a stunning first line.


I'd like to live forever in a song,

I'd breathe its notes instead of air,

I would know only its melody,

And live life without a care,

Existence would be a cheery tune,

Whistled skillfully through one's lips,

Or sung heartfelt by human voice,

And played on a piano by one's fingertips,

The dreams woven by the lyricist,

Would be the only words I would know,

And I'd soar when a high note is hit,

And float down when the note hit is low,

And I would always be with the song,

With it my soul would intertwine,

I would always belong to the song,

And the song would forever be mine.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Street Fighting Years -- An Autobiography of the Sixties

Mobashar Jawad Akbar's Sunday and Pritish Nandy’s Illustrated Weekly of India defined much of Indian journalism in English in the 1980s. The post-Emergency (1975-1977) renaissance in Indian journalism in English that ushered in the in-your-face journalism is really the gift of these two Bengali journalists.

It’s really unfortunate that Sunday and the Weekly did not survive in the marketplace of ideas.

This was because both the editors were larger-than-life, and become bigger than their magazines. If Bennett Coleman & Company (publishers of the Times of India) redefined the media by turning newspapers into brands, these two editors turned themselves into brands.

One of the regulars at both these magazines was Tariq Ali, the firebrand Leftist. Ali had a refreshing style, and a controversial point of view, on every subject that he never hesitated to express.

Moreover, his views were relevant then because the world hadn’t yet heard of perestroika and glasnost. Mikhail Gorbachev had yet to take centre stage in Kremlin and sweep away the cobwebs of communist shibboleths.

Ali’s Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties was published in the mid-1980s, and became an instant success in India. Around the same time Akbar’s India: The Siege Within was also published.

Street Fighting Years was (and remains) a fantastic glimpse of the 1960s – the decade that changed the course of social (and political?) history in the West.

For me, it was a one-volume introduction to the turmoil and the excitement that rocked the world and changed it forever.

It was in this book that I read – in great details – the heroism of Che Guvevara.

The story of the brave revolutionary who did not rest after the regime change in Cuba, but wanted to bring about revolutions in other parts of the world.

I can think of only two leaders in 20th century history -- Mahatma Gandhi and Che Guvevara -- who were not satisfied with comprehensive victories in achieving their mission, but were more interested in contunuing the struggle.

The book was pure nostalgia. But it provided a deeper political and social understanding to the era that is even now viewed merely from the Woodstock and Vietnam perspective.

Tariq Ali is an industry today, and much of what he says and does really seems quite quaint. For instance, not too many people will share Ali’s enthusiasm for Hugo Chavez, even if most would agree with his contention that the West has replaced Islam with Communism.

For understanding the 1960s, there's no better book than Street Fighting Years.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taras Bulba

My grandfather Harischandra Bhatt’s obsession – there really is no other word to describe it – with East Europe perhaps stemmed from his relationship with Wanda Dynowska-Umadevi (1888–1971). (The link is to a Polish website, but can be automatically translated).
To me, Umadevi has remained a mystery. Only recently (in Toronto) I discovered a couple of website (http://www.theohistory.org/description-of-issues/descript_of_issues_v5.html) that not only describes her work in some detail but also mentions about her friendship with Harischandra. The earlier link to her name is another one.
Amazon lists a book Scarlet Muse co-authored by them, which is an anthology of Polish poetry.
A couple of years ago, thanks to an opportunity provided to me by Mira Vaidya – my aunt and Hariscandra’s daughter – I wrote an article on Hariscandra’s knowledge and understanding of the region for a book edited by Niranjan Bhagat, an eminent Gujarati poet to commemorate Harischandra’s 100th birth anniversary.
Harischandra’s enormous library comprised a large section on books about East Europe in general and Poland in particular. Besides writing path-breaking poetry and introducing Gujarati literature to the works of European poets, and in general quietly revolutionizing Gujarati literature, Harischandra’s only work on the geo-political situation of the early 20th century was Joesf Pilsudski’s biography in Gujarati.
This large collection of literature from the region (including Russia) also had two books with the most exquisite wood-carvings as the cover design – Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba. I never got around to reading Turgenev, but Gogol’s Taras Bulba I did read, and loved it for the larger-than-life character of the protagonist.
An aside: For some reason, whenever I've tried to visualize Taras Bulba, actor Prithviraj Kapoor’s face comes to my mind. Hollywood made Taras Bulba in 1962 and Yul Brynner enacted the role of the Cossack chieftain. I think Prithviraj Kapoor would have made a better Taras Bulba.
Taras Bulba is now available on the internet on Project Gutenberg. If you haven’t read the story – and it’s quite short – read it at this URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1197/1197-h/1197-h.htm. I read recently on Wikipedia that Hemingway has called Taras Bulba one of the ten best novels of all times.
Be that as it may (borrowing the phrase from Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters), Gogol is more famous for his Overcoat; the short story immortalized by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic quote: “We all come from Gogol’s Overcoat.” The lead protagonist in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake names his son Gogol, played with fine distinction by Hollywood actor Kal Penn.
In the last few months, I’ve got to personally get acquainted with several people whose parents immigrated to Canada from East Europe and Russia. Among them is the angelic octogenarian Mary Spiegel. Her parents came from Ukraine – Gogol’s “Little Russia” that was home to Taras Bulba.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Books that Changed the World & Civilization-2

I'm talking about Roberts Downs's The Books that changed the World (BCW) and Kenneth Clark's Civilization.

On Meghnad’s insistence I had also become a member of the libraries – the British Council (it was somewhere behind the LIC's Yogakshema headquarters in Mumbai), the American Centre and the House of Soviet Culture. Meghnad was already a member of the David Sassoon, and mostly, I used the card to borrow books from there, too (Read earlier entry on The World According to Garp).

I borrowed Downs’s book from the American Centre library, and the Civilization from the British Council.

When one is introduced to new ideas – and books are dangerous because they are particularly prone to doing such things – one grows impatient in searching the source of the new idea, learning all that one can, and acquiring information to build a foundation of knowledge normally ignored by formal education.

The late teens are an impressionable period in one’s life. It isn’t surprising, then, that these two books left a lasting impression on me when I read them. For me the introduction to study of history – not in an academic sense, but in a popular sense – was through these two books. They made me realize that history wasn’t only about dates, it was about ideas. I was so impressed with these books that I decided to buy them.

If one takes away the teenaged fervor, and looks at these books dispassionately today, one can easily find serious faults with them. Both the books are about Western Civilization. It is preposterous and insulting to assume that Western Civilization is the only civilization that matters, though both provide adequate riders that they are consciously doing so and do not have any obvious or hidden intention of belittling non-Western cultures and ideas.

Originally published in 1956, BCW lists 27 books that Downs considers changed the world. These include:

The Bible
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Works of Plato
Works of Aristotle
Greek Playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander)
Greek & Roman Historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus)
Greek & Roman Scientists (Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Archimedes, Lucretius, Pliny the Elder)
St. Augustine: Confessions, City of God
St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica
Nicolaus Copernicus: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
Andreas Vesalius: De Humani Corporis Fabrica
William Harvey: De Motu Cordis
Niccolò Machiavelli:The Prince
Sir Issac Newton: Principia Mathematicia
Thomas Paine: Common Sense
Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations
Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Edward Jenner: An Inquiry into the cause and effects of Variolae Vaccinae
Thomas Malthus: Essay on the Principle of Population
Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Karl Marx: Das Kapital
Alfred T Mahan: Influence of Sea Power upon History
Sir Halford J Mackinder: The Geographical Pivot of History
Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

This is definitely a controversial list, as, I suppose, all such list are meant to be. Also, it ignores several seminal works that contributed to the shaping of the Western mind.

But for a brief introduction to the ideas that have shaped the Western Civilization, I can’t think of a better book than this. Of course, this is an “abridged” approach to knowledge and learning. I doubt if anyone who reads this book – which is essentially meant to introduce these great works – would actually get down to reading any of them. I have read only a few.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilization is actually a television serial that was made for the BBC, and aired across the world in 1969-70. The Museum of Broadcast Communications provides an excellent background to the serial that is all too relevant in our time right now.

It states: “Following the social and political upheavals that marked 1968 in both Europe and the United States, Civilisation teaches that hard times do not inevitably crush the humane tradition so central to Clark's view of Western civilization. Indeed, when David Attenborough suggested the title for the series, Clark's typically self-deprecating response was, "I had no clear idea what [civilization] meant, but I thought it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that this was the moment to say so." That the program offers a personal (and in some ways idiosyncratic) look at nine centuries of European intellectual life is thus a crucial part of its appeal, inasmuch as it argues that to follow cultural matters--and care about them--is within the reach of television viewers."

If I remember correctly (though I’m not sure), the serial was also telecast on Doordarshan in the mid-1980s.

Given the fact that the Western Civilization and its ideas have dominated the world for the last five centuries, and will do in the foreseeable future, these are two excellent books to read to get a brilliantly studied and structured introduction to the ideas that have shaped the most dominant civilization. Both these books are available on Amazon.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Books that changed the World & Civilization-1

Why do we need to buy books? To read them, obviously. But to read books one doesn't need to buy them. I've come around to the view that book buying is an integral part of retail therapy. No wonder then, bookstore chains proliferate around the world.

I recently walked in to one of the Chapters-Indigo chain store at the Yorkdale mall in Toronto. It is a bigger (much bigger) version of the Crossword chain in Mumbai. Many years ago, for a temporary duty assignment at the US Department of Commerce headquarters in Washington DC, I had the opportunity of spending my afternoon breaks at a Borders book store, at a walking distance away from my temporary work place. That place, too, was huge.

I would marvel at the variety and the depth of the books at display inside the store. Crossword really captures the essence of the Borders, Barnes & Noble, Chapters-Indigo style of book retailing.

These chains will eventually wipe out the small book stores. And that would really be such a tremendous loss on two important fronts. The death of the small, independent book shop around the corner is a serious loss to a city’s vibrancy.

For me it would be difficult to imagine Mumbai without Strand Book Stall. I guess, for someone who has lived all her life in Toronto, it would be impossible to imagine the city without Pages Books & Magazines; or there is perhaps an older independent book shop that I haven’t heard of as yet. I’m rather new to Toronto.

More ominously, the rise of box-format large retail chains will also bring about (if it hasn’t already) a substantive shift in people’s reading habits. Retailers will determine taste in books. Books will be judged good because they are bestsellers. Natural corollary: If you can’t write a bestseller, your book is worth reading only if it wins some award/prize. That again is another scam.

This rather long prologue to today’s blog entry is to provide you an introduction to the book I want to discuss – Robert B Downs’s The Books that Changed the World (BCW) and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization.

As far as I can remember, these were the first books that I bought. I had gone to buy BCW at the Strand Book Stall. While I was there, I also saw Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, read the back cover, and bought it, too. That was sometime in the mid-1970s.

Continued in the next blog