& occasionally about other things, too...

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.

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