“Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

Author: Douglas Stuart

Genre: Fiction/ Coming of age novel

Awards: Booker Prize 2020, National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2020)

 The winner of this year’s Booker Prize is Douglas Stewart, a Scottish- American, for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain. An autobiographical novel, this is about the lonely gay son of an alcoholic mother in 1980s Scotland.

After 30 rejections from different publishers, Stuart sold it to Grove Atlantic and Picador, and now, his debut has won the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world. The novel is gripping, poignant, and dark that would leave deep scars in the readers mind. It is a tribute to Stuart’s mother who died of alcoholism when he was 16. Stuart describes himself as a working class Scottish kid .

The story unfolds in 1980s Glasgow and is centered on the boy Shuggie who takes care of his alcoholic mother. His awareness of being gay and heightened sensitivity to precociousness makes him an easy target of school bullies. Shuggie and his siblings had to take the additional burden of caring for Agnes, their mother who descends into alcoholism. Her husband, a taxi-driver, is a philanderer. Thatcher’s policies force him and the children out of work and the family descends into poverty and substance abuse. Agnes keeps her pride by trying to look good with make-up and and pearly-white false teeth. The older children finally distance themselves from their mother leaving her under the care of young Shuggie. She oscillates between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Though she loves her son, alcohol blinds her and eclipses the love she feels for him. The story is about the relationship between the boy and his alcoholic mother.

The novel includes many themes like abuse, addiction, rape, sexuality, and poverty. In a world where the term sexual consent is absent, Agnes is repeatedly being raped by men including her husband. The plight of the children forced by their circumstance to bear witness to the marks left on their mother’s body after rape, and to religiously wipe the bile and vomit from her body is heart wrenching. Though the read is pretty grim and poignant, the novel draws the reader deep into it and the atmosphere it creates around the reader is hard to shrug off.

Two things that could be off-putting are heavy prose and wide spread use of adjectives.

‘Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair’ by Pablo Neruda

Neruda wrote in a variety of styles such as erotically charged love poems as in
his collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair, surrealist poems,
historical epics, and overtly political manifestos. In 1971 Neruda won the Nobel
Prize for Literature. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called him
“the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Neruda always wrote in
green ink as it was his personal color of hope.

In the wave-strike over unquiet stones

“In the Wave-Strike Over Unquiet Stones”, is a poem which expresses how romantic love fades. Like the waves of the ocean, Neruda expresses romantic love ebbing and flowing. As Neruda says: “the brightness bursts and bears the rose”. In other words, Neruda is saying we sometimes meet a unique romantic love interest in life which shines so brightly; however, love does not always last. It collapse and “destroys its continual forms”. Obviously, something so beautiful and strong like the waves of the ocean will dissolve and disappear, which is how Neruda sees romantic love.

However, despite the lovely metaphors of the poem, the flowery nature of Neruda’s poem overwhelms the senses of the reader. It is as if the imagery is too rich and disturbs the flow of the narrative. Despite this flaw, Neruda’s poem is still fascinating and compels the reader to create their own meaning about love.

In the wave-strike over unquiet stones
the brightness bursts and bears the rose
and the ring of water contracts to a cluster
to one drop of azure brine that falls.
O magnolia radiance breaking in spume,
magnetic voyager whose death flowers
and returns, eternal, to being and nothingness:
shattered brine, dazzling leap of the ocean.
Merged, you and I, my love, seal the silence
while the sea destroys its continual forms,
collapses its turrets of wildness and whiteness,
because in the weft of those unseen garments
of headlong water, and perpetual sand,
we bear the sole, relentless tenderness.

Pablo Neruda

courtesy: https://pablonerudaproject.tumblr.com/PoetryReview :

Lord Byron’s Insanity

Lord Byron, English poet, aged 25 in a painting by Richard Westall (1813)

This is a poem by me about the turbulent and gloomy thoughts and moods of the famously infamous 19 th century English Romantic poet, George Gordon Byron, simply known as Lord Byron.

Believed to have had Bipolar disorder(controversial), he suffered for all his life time with frequent mood changes, fiery tempers bordering on violence, inebriation, licentious practices and a whole lot of odd behaviors.

The bright side of his malady happened to be his poetical genius. He was a prolific writer who has magnum opuses like ‘Don Juan‘ and ‘ Childe Harold’s pilgrimage‘ to his credit. The beauty and brilliance of his verse is unmatched. Though a Romantic poet, each of his biographers stresses the degree of realism evident in his verses. I have read only excerpts from Don Juan and Childe Harold’s pilgrimage, the ones given in his biography. The wit and satire he had used in most of the lines is so brilliant. This is exactly so, as to the emotional intensity in his verses.

Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with possible Bipolar Disorder posthumously from existing historical records and he never received the proper treatment or empathy from those around him.

I happened to read this short biography of Lord Byron recently and thought it a good idea to present his mind as a poem instead of writing a book review.

This is my short trip through the mind of the temperamental Lord Byron, a poem about what could have been going through his mind during the 36 years of his existence.

                                   Lord Byron’s Insanity

Whom should I blame for making me lame?

My blood, fettle, stars or Him?

To whom shall I whine, for warping my mind?

My blood and blood only by a grim twist of fate.

A savage beast bolting rampant, unfettered,

The row of the brutes ring unbroken,

Out of sense and out of nerves‘.

Rein in, O’ racing mind,

Thy wild whims and heathen rage

Mellow down, O’ beloved bosom,

Thy passions, vile and fierce.

Once, the soul fluttering like a thousand vibrant butterflies,

trembling and shaking, powdery colors spilling in the voids,

Of which I pine for the peacock blue shimmering in the muted shadows,

the grass yellow smeared in streaks of summery light,

scarlet red forged from glowing embers

And the grays and purples of cold, hoary November dawn.

Wraith visions of this passionate dreamer,

whirling in cyclonic eddies, in vertiginous spirals

sink down to infernal abyss of ferny hemlocks,

chastened in the murky, baleful waters of the Styx .

Hover over,O’ lucid mind, buoy up with the fragile sanity

Or the forked tongue of hellfire waits to tear you asunder

in the underworld, a hairsbreadth from here.

Why the soul once sublime been leached of the splendid colors?

Like a veined autumn leaf changing it’s hue.

Unlit and sinking, morbid dead ball of shadows.

The grays hiding all the warmth

How the dreary arms of gloom spread inside the vast space?

Once again, it’s bare me, my sinister shadow and the infinite solitude .

Drain my soul of these direful woes,

Of the fleeting shadows, of the faceless primal fears,

Of the ponderous fog clogging the mystifying senses

and the looming maelstrom brewing in the calm of bosom.

A blissful sleep is all I crave for,

Which not Laudanum, nor one singular water of life,

Nor Rahab and the strumpets could ever gift.

I would sooner die a thousand deaths.

Let me pour this settled lunacy into words,

in verse and prose, through the life of Don Juan,

and upend that unchaste Lothario with my unbridled wit.

Let me raise the glass castle of spirit

for, many a pietistic man peer,

before it shatters in my inner light.

The whole universe is warring with me, one that I won’t win

and the homeland loathes this rebellious,perverse poet, an unredeemable defect.

With a heart of stone, I embrace my offences

Though I have nothing to do with the masses.

But, Anabella dear, my ‘princess of parallelograms‘,

my brilliant Lady, O’ thou sharpest among women,

threw my sibilant whispers to the winds,

never once looked through the glass,

to single out the vile frenzy in me.

Let me not hold on the spirit, long splintered ,

letting loose the angels and fiends alike,

but not before uttering these final words to thee.

Detest me, O’ my virtuous wife, as long as you like,

but be done with my phantasm, by punishing or pardoning.

And for Ada, my lovely daughter, touched with the fury and fire

as her blood will tell, let not the venom of verses spread in her veins.

All I yearn for is eternal sleep, a dreamless, painless sleep

deep in my daydreams felled by broken wings.

O’ ferryman, accept the coin and row me across the Styx

To the shore where Hemlocks grow aplenty

And hellfire doles out eternal damnation

For, die I must, a loss no one would lament.

I let loose the last string of sanity ,

tying me to the morbid world

To enter the netherworld,

devoid of fears, angst or vile

For, this is the penance I pay for my blood

To purify my soul in the wrath of Inferno.

The dark side of moon

Meera’s FB post got me to write this and think through the term ‘self-defense’ when it comes to women. I don’t think any of us women have had the rare luck of evading the unseemly behavior from boys and men, be it insistent taunts, jeering catcalls, seemingly unintended touches or worse, at least for some, the gratuitous and vicious violence.

Unless a man steps into the lady-shoes and experience the unease, they would never be able to understand the anguish, whoever they might be, be it a father, brother, son, or any male for that matter. It is not easy for a girl to stride away with meek, downcast eyes and insecure, diffident steps while someone or a group jeer at her persistently or to stay away from prying eyes or indecent touches in a crowded bus routinely. All of us might have gone through these, but we were wont to ignore them and be on our guard all by ourselves, lest it would be worse and provoke them more. Beyond this wisdom, or carrying a safety-pin while inside a public transport or later, displaying the white doctor’s coat on the forearm hoping that ‘respect for doctors’ would ward off the evil behavior, I do not remember any sort of self-defense that I had practiced when young. Thus, the girl avails those only skills at her disposal. And early on she gets the taste of being vulnerable, powerless, capitulating, and gets to see the darker facets of the world. Far removed from my place for the past many years, I do not know if the situation has changed now in Kerala.

Whenever possible, I was accompanied by my father or brother, but that was not a constant. And after my marriage, I was entirely left to defend by myself in risky situations, something that I had learned the hard way. I learned to drive, but still the fear of ‘what if’ never ever left me. After finishing the 9 PM duty in a hospital at Kerala, I had to pass through a deserted place to get to my parent’s house and take my toddler son back home. The fifteen-minute drive was literally a sort of daily adrenaline-soaked adventure trip. I would make sure that all the four side-window panes were rolled up, locks intact, check the tyres and set my old Nokia mobile to a ready-to dial my husband’s number mode, but the dread of what if a glitch or flat tyre happened at exactly the same spot was always there with me. I do not know how other women would feel under similar circumstances, but it wouldn’t be this dreary for a man driving at night. I would say my inanimate companion never failed me, and hence my feelings for this twenty-five-year-old Maruti 800 are akin to those for the animate beings, it is still with me in good condition.

The Gulf years were not very smooth either in terms of my dread and paranoia, initially, though the strict laws in favor of women there checked transgressions to a limit ( Those laws were routinely misused too, as I later observed). The difference was that my afternoon duty would stretch until 12.00 AM. But the city never sleeps, taxis, people, police cars and ambulances plying the road all through the night. And that slowly gave me the confidence to fearlessly go to and come back from work, and travel alone. But the dread stays and to this day one thing that I would always do to pre-empt an anticipated incident is the only self-defense that I know of, I try to avoid. The one and only one element that could be factored in for me or anyone else to have escaped any of those incidents until now would be just ‘pure luck’.

Even today, the beads of wisdom from people including the world-wise men and women do not amount to anything positive but mostly to parse the situation to finally find a grain of fault with the girl, if ever something happens. The onus to pre-empt an untoward incident is placed on the shoulders of the girl or woman, on her choice of restraint or freedom. These concepts of avoidance behavior, choice, and non-choice went completely over my head after having to examine an eight-year-old girl, a case of sexual abuse at the hospital there, where I had worked. What choice does an eight-year-old have when incidents happen under her own roof? There was no dearth of unfortunate events there too.

A confidential survey done in one of the private schools there a few years back revealed that a good many of the students((boys and girls) had confronted some form of abuse, a minority opened up about the sexual abuse they had endured. They started educating the children and included self-defense training for them(both boys and girls). Karate classes and other self-defense training are a common sight there, and so many girls train themselves to fight back. That was another new for me then.

Which brings me back to some habitual and some strange responses to the gravity of the problem, and the significance of self-defense for women, from the parents and others. Sad to say that most are either in denial or complacent or unintentionally blind to the status quo or callously indifferent and flippant. Even though aware that the world out there is a den, there is a pervading aura of overconfidence that ‘such events’ would not happen to me or mine and as such distancing from taking ‘extreme measures’ to defend those.

‘The girls should try to avoid dangerous circumstances.’ That was the response of one of my colleague’s husband, years back, and a widely prevalent one at that. He is a professional, well-read( if he is to be believed), cognizant and aware of what is going on around him, is the father of a teenage girl, still he expects the fourteen-year-old girl to codify circumstances into a whole gamut of potential hazard from a scale of zero to ten and plan accordingly. Sadly, this is not a singular male opinion, many women go with it full-throatedly. The girl would have to mingle with her male-peers in a multi-cultural, multi-national crowd, or to travel with male colleagues as a part of her work or study in the future. When danger lurks everywhere, even among the routines of work and sleep, the first and the most important thing that would aid her would be her confidence to defend herself.

‘First, teach the boys to behave ‘- Another commonly heard response and true too. The onus should be on both. But, waiting for the ideal romantic vision of a social utopia where all the boys and men turn over new leaves and morph into chivalrous knights overnight would be as good as a charming fairy tale or an unrealistic, self-deluding fantasy. So, prepare her along with teaching the boys.

‘Age-old and incipient feminichis molding the future ‘feminichi warriors‘- This interesting response was an eye-opener for me, originally a covert one in Malayalam in a men’s only whats up group, that somehow turned overt and turned up at the doorstep of another females only group, some time back. The paradox and irony of it all were that the culprit, a father of two daughters, was a strong supporter of women’s rights on stage. Understandable that locker room banter works differently within groups with pack mentality instincts, each one supporting or competing to be an alpha male. Still, the dichotomy inside such a double-faced strategy is hard to come to terms with, since ensuring the safety of women, including his wife and daughters, should not be pigeonholed as a feminist rebellion but it is a duty of each one of us, himself included, and safety is the birthright of every individual. And additionally, a word of caution when it comes to people who go to great lengths to establish their liberal bona fides.

‘Let women be knowledgeable and kind instead of taking up arms‘- Knowledge and wisdom are essential and highly welcome, for sure, but a girl confronting a psychotic assailant about to tear her apart would have little use with kind words or Solomonic wisdom. She needs to have the presence of mind and confidence for a counterattack with whatever object at her disposal.

This is not to incite girls or women to violence or goad them to take up martial arts lessons asap. These pieces of training would definitely add up the confidence of the girl if they are accessible. It might not be possible for a girl to overthrow a man or men single-handedly, but the confidence it gives is worth it. The possibility of misuse of self-defense gadgets is an often- referred concern. Teaching responsible use after weighing the event and outcome could help. The first time that I had seen a can of pepper spray for real was one year back inside the bag of a girl I had met in the apartment lift in India, a smart, young techie staying alone. She struck up a conversation with me and was friendly enough for me to ask how she would come back from work fearless, at wee hours sometimes, since the tech company was a bit far. And she showed me the can and a small pocket-knife with the phrase “just in case“. Something unthinkable for me while I was her age.

As long as the ‘what if’ and ‘ just in case’ phrases remain as doubts, questions, tensions, feelings, and uncertainties the girls need to see the dark sides early on, be confident, learn to say NO, and practice to defend themselves.

The following advice is from a lawyer friend. I do not know anything about the legal facts, so please correct if there are any mistakes.

( Right of private defense is given under s.96 to s.106 of the Indian penal code.

It stipulates that every person has a right to private defense, but three conditions must be fulfilled:

1. Imminent danger
2. No recourse or option to reach police station or police help
3. The defense must be proportionate to danger (e.g if someone coming to slap you, you cannot take out a pistol and kill him. It will be disproportionate.
Carrying pepper spray is legal in India and nothing in law classifies pepper spray as an illegal substance. But while using pepper spray, just remember the above three conditions.

One cannot randomly use pepper spray. The use of pepper spray is not immune to legal prosecution. Anyone upon whom the pepper spray is used can proceed against anyone who uses it upon him/her. However, its use for self-defense and defense against imminent danger is allowed ( any reasonable action is allowed for defense). One, however, if by mistake is subjected to pepper spray, they can proceed for civil damages. Responsible use must be ensured since the possibilities of misuse should be considered )

 

Book Review”സുഗന്ധി എന്ന ആണ്ടാൾ ദേവനായകി” by ടി ഡി രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ

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Author–    ടി ഡി രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ

Genre-     Historical Fiction/ Political Fiction/ Post Modernism

കേരളസാഹിത്യ അക്കാദമി അവാർഡും വയലാർ രാമവർമ അവാർഡും കിട്ടിയ ടി ഡി രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സാറിന്റെ ഈ നോവൽ ഒരു ഹിസ്റ്റോറിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനാണ് . പൊളിറ്റിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനിലും പെടുത്താൻ കഴിയുന്ന നോവലിൽ ഒരു വിപ്ലവചരിത്രം പോസ്റ്റ് മോഡേൺ രീതിയിൽ വിവരിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു. ഈ സ്ത്രീപക്ഷ നോവലിൽ  LTTE എന്ന വിപ്ലവ സംഘടനയുടെ പൈതൃകം ചരിത്രത്തിലൂടെയും മിത്തിലൂടെയും അദ്ദേഹം പറയുന്നു . സച്ചി ദാനന്ദന്റെ ആണ്ടാൾ എന്ന കവിതയിൽ നിന്ന് പ്രചോദനം ഉൾക്കൊണ്ടു എഴുതിയ കഥയാണ്.

വായിച്ചു കഴിഞ്ഞപ്പോൾ ഒരു കുഞ്ഞു review എഴുതാതിരിക്കാൻ കഴിഞ്ഞില്ല. ഇത്രയും പിടിച്ചിരുത്താൻ പറ്റുന്ന ഒരു പുസ്തകം ഇടക്കൊന്നും വായിച്ചിട്ടില്ല. അമ്മയുടെ പുസ്തക ശേഖരത്തിൽ നിന്ന് പണ്ട് വായിച്ചിട്ടുള്ള ചരിത്രം പറയുന്ന പുസ്തകങ്ങൾ വായിക്കുന്ന അതെ ഫീൽ. കൂടെ അറബിനാട്ടിലെ ആശുപത്രിയിൽ ജോലി ചെയ്ത ആദ്യ നാളുകളിൽ ഞാൻ പരിശോധിക്കാനിടയായ ഒരു എട്ടു വയസ്സുകാരി പെൺകുട്ടിയുടെ ഓർമ്മപ്പെടുത്തൽ കൂടി.

സുഗന്ധിയുടെ കഥ  ശ്രീലങ്കൻ ചരിത്രമാണ് പറയുന്നത്. ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിന് ശേഷമുള്ള ശ്രീലങ്കയാണ്‌ കഥയുടെ പശ്ചാത്തലം. പ്രസിഡന്റിന്റെ പൂർണ്ണനിയന്ത്രണത്തിലുള്ള സ്വേച്ഛാധിപത്യരീതിയിലുള്ള ഭരണമാണ് അവിടെ. രജനി തിരണഗാമ എന്ന മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകയെ പറ്റിയുള്ള വിവരങ്ങൾ അന്വേഷിക്കുന്ന ഒരു കൂട്ടം അന്താരാഷ്ട്ര ചലച്ചിത്ര പ്രവർത്തകരും ഇതിനു നേതൃത്വം നൽകുന്ന മലയാളി പീറ്ററിന്റെ ഉദ്ദേശവും കണ്ടെത്തലുകളുമാണ് കഥ മുന്നോട്ടു കൊണ്ട് പോകുന്നത് . സുഗന്ധി എന്ന തന്റെ കാമുകിയെ അന്വേഷിക്കുന്ന പീറ്ററിലൂടെ, രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സർ ഈ നോവലിൽ ഉൾപ്പെടുത്തിയിട്ടുള്ളത് ചരിത്രവും, യാഥാർഥ്യവും, ഫാന്റസിയും,ഐതിഹ്യവും, കുറെ ചോദ്യങ്ങളുമാണ്.

ഇത് വായിക്കുമ്പോൾ , തൊട്ടറിയാനാകുന്ന ഒരു വേദന പല സന്ദര്ഭങ്ങളിലും അനുഭവപ്പെടുന്നുണ്ട്. Fascist ഭരണകൂടങ്ങൾ അടിച്ചമർത്തുന്ന ജനങ്ങളുടെ മാനസിക ശാരീരിക സംഘർഷങ്ങൾ, അതിലൂടെ ഉരുത്തിരിയുന്ന വിപ്ലവം, ഫാസിസിസത്തിലും വിപ്ലവത്തിലും common denominator ആകുന്ന ഹിംസ, അത് അനുപാതമില്ലാതെ ഏറ്റുവാങ്ങേണ്ടി വരുന്ന മനുഷ്യർ, പ്രത്യേകിച്ച്
സ്ത്രീകളും പെൺകുട്ടികളും, ഇതെല്ലാം ഇതിൽ പ്രതിപാദിച്ചുട്ടുണ്ട്. സ്ത്രീകൾക്ക് എതിരായ അതിക്രമങ്ങളെ ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെയും മിത്തുകളുടെയും ലെന്സ് വഴി കാണാതെ യാഥാർഥ്യത്തിന്റെ കണ്ണാടിയിൽ കൂടി കാണിക്കാൻ അദ്ദേഹം ശ്രമിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്. ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിൽ ബലാത്സംഗത്തിനും പീഡനത്തിനും ഇരയാകേണ്ടി വന്ന സ്ത്രീകളെ ആയിരം വര്ഷം പഴക്കമുള്ള ദേവനായകി എന്ന അടിച്ചമർത്തപ്പെട്ട mythical കഥാപാത്രത്തോട് സമാന്തരമായി അവതരിപ്പിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു .

1989 ൽ LTTE യുടെ വെടിയേറ്റ് ജാഫ്‌നയിൽ കൊല്ലപ്പെട്ട രജനി തിരണഗാമ എന്ന ശ്രീലങ്കൻ തമിഴ് മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകയും ഫെമിനിസ്റ്റും, സുഗന്ധിയെപ്പറ്റിയുമുള്ള ഓർമ്മകൾ ആണ് നോവലിൽ പ്രതിപാദിച്ചിട്ടുള്ളത് . രജനിയെ ചലച്ചിത്രപ്രവർത്തകരുടെ പേജുകളിലൂടെയും ആക്ടിവിസ്റ്റികളുടെ ഓർമ്മകളിലൂടെയും  , സുഗന്ധിയെ പീറ്ററിന്റെ ഓർമ്മകളിലൂടെയും നോവലിൽ കാണിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു. രണ്ടു സ്ത്രീ കഥാപാത്രങ്ങളെയും പീറ്ററിനും വായനക്കാർക്കും ഒരുപോലെ അപ്രാപ്യമാണ് . ഒരിക്കൽ LTTE യുമായി ബന്ധമുണ്ടായിരുന്ന രജനി ആ സംഘടനയുടെ ക്രൂരതകൾ തിരിച്ചറിഞ്ഞു, അവരുടെയും സൈന്യത്തിന്റെയും അക്രമങ്ങൾ ഡോക്യുമെന്റ് ചെയ്യുകയും അങ്ങനെ കൊല്ലപ്പെടുകയുമാണുണ്ടായത്. ദേവനായകി എന്ന mythical കഥാപാത്രത്തിലൂടെ ആണ് നോവൽ ആരംഭിക്കുന്നതെങ്കിലും ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെ ഭാഗമായ രജനി എന്ന ശക്‌തയായ യഥാർത്ഥ സ്ത്രീയെയാണ് നോവലിന്റെ ഹൃദയത്തിൽ കാണാനാകുന്നത്. ചെറുത്തുനിൽപ്പിന്റെ അടയാളമാണ് ദേവനായകി. യുദ്ധം നശിപ്പിച്ച സ്ത്രീ ജീവിതങ്ങളെ കാക്കാൻ ഉയിർത്തെഴുന്നേറ്റ പോരാളിയുടെ ആത്മാവ്.

ഒരു അജ്ഞാത ബ്ലോഗറിലൂടെയാണ് ദേവനായകി എന്ന സുന്ദരിയായ റാണിയുടെ കഥ പീറ്റർ വായിക്കുന്നത് . തന്റെ ജീവിതം നശിപ്പിച്ച സിംഹള രാജാവിനോടുള്ള പക തീർക്കലാണ് കഥയുടെ സാരം. പീറ്ററിന്റെ കണ്ണുകളിലൂടെ സങ്കൽപ്പകഥ യാഥാർഥ്യത്തിലേക്ക് നയിക്കുന്നു, myth ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെ പ്രതിബിംബമാകുന്നു . മൂന്നു സ്ത്രീ കഥാപാത്രങ്ങൾ ഉണ്ടെങ്കിലും അതിൽ രജനി എന്ന യാഥാർഥ്യം മാത്രമാണ് വായനക്കാർക്കു ഉൾക്കൊള്ളാൻ കഴിയുന്നത്. ദേവനായകി ഒരു ഇതിഹാസ കഥയുടെ ഏടിലുള്ള സ്ത്രീയായും, സുഗന്ധി മങ്ങിയ ഒരു ഓർമയായും, കഥയായും, ശ്രുതിയായും, കിംവദന്തിയായും നിലനിൽക്കുന്നു, കഥ അവസാനിക്കുന്നതിനു തൊട്ടു മുൻപ് വരെ. സുഗന്ധി ആര് എന്ന ചോദ്യത്തിനൊപ്പം വായനക്കാരെ ചിന്തിപ്പിക്കുന്ന പ്രധാനപ്പെട്ട ഒന്നാണ്, വിപ്ലവത്തിനായി ജീവിതവും ജീവനും ബലിദാനം ചെയ്യുന്ന സ്ത്രീകൾ അഭിമുഖീകരിക്കുന്ന നീതികേട്‌.

ഫാസിസിസത്തിലും ,വിപ്ലവങ്ങളിലും യുദ്ധങ്ങളിലും കാണപ്പെടുന്ന അക്രമരീതികൾ, കൊലപാതകത്തിന്റെ ക്രൂര ശൈലികൾ  ഓരോ രാജ്യത്തിന്റെ കാര്യത്തിലും,വിപ്ലവ, ഭീകര സംഘടനകളുടെ കാര്യത്തിലും ഒരു കൈരേഖ പോലെ ആണ്. ശ്രീലങ്കൻ ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിന്റെ വാർത്തകളിൽ നിന്ന് മനസ്സിൽ ഇന്നും തങ്ങി നിൽക്കുന്ന രണ്ടു വാക്കുകകളാണ് necklacing and suicide bombing . നെക്‌ലേസിങ്ങിൽ റബ്ബർ ടയറിൽ പെട്രോൾ നിറച്ചു കഴുത്തിനും നെഞ്ചിനും ചുറ്റും ഇട്ടിട്ടു കത്തിക്കും. ഇരുപതു മിനുറ്റിൽ ആൾ വെന്തു മരിക്കും. എന്നാൽ ഏതു ദേശമായാലും നൂറ്റാണ്ടുകളായി ഒരുപോലെ ചെയ്തുപോരുന്ന ഒരു അതിക്രമം , ഒരു വാർ ക്രൈം, ഒരു instrument of terror ഉണ്ട് – എതിർപക്ഷത്തെ സ്ത്രീകളെ മാനഭംഗം ചെയ്യുന്നതും, ബലാത്സംഗം ചെയ്യുന്നതും. സിറിയയിലും, ലിബിയയിലും, ഇറാഖിലും, അഫ്ഘാനിസ്ഥാനിലും, ഇന്ത്യയിലും, യൂറോപ്പിലും ഇത് ഒരുപോലെ നടന്നിരുന്നു, ഇന്നും നടക്കുന്നു. യുദ്ധങ്ങളിൽ ഇങ്ങനെ cannon fodder ആയി, സ്വന്തം ഗർഭപാത്രം നിറക്കേണ്ടി വന്ന, മനോനില തെറ്റിയ, പിച്ചിച്ചീന്തപ്പെട്ട അനേകം സ്ത്രീകളെയും, പ്രായപൂർത്തിയാകാത്ത പെൺകുട്ടികളെയും ഈ നോവൽ ഓർമിപ്പിക്കും. ഈ സ്ഥാനങ്ങളിലും അവസ്ഥയിലും ജനിച്ചു പോയ സ്ത്രീകൾക്ക് അക്രമവും അക്രമരാഹിത്യവും ഒരു നാണയത്തിന്റെ രണ്ടു വശങ്ങൾ പോലെ സാധ്യതയുള്ള അനുമാനം മാത്രമാണ്.

രാജപക്ഷെ ഗവണ്മെന്റിന്റെ പൊള്ളയായ ജനാധിപത്യത്തിൽ പൊതിഞ്ഞ ഫാസ്‌സിസത്തിന്റെ പ്രതിബിംബം നോവലിൽ കാണാനാകും. ഫാസ്‌സിസ്റ് ഭരണകൂടങ്ങൾക്ക് എതിരായ ഒരു സാഹിത്യ വിപ്ലവം കൂടിയാണ് ഈ നോവൽ.

നോവലിന്റെ വിമർശകർ പ്രധാനമായി ചൂണ്ടിക്കാട്ടുന്നത് മൂന്നു കാര്യങ്ങൾ- racy language ,objectification and over-sexualization of women . ഇത് കുറച്ചൊക്കെ ശെരിയാണെന്നു തോന്നാം. പക്ഷെ എനിക്ക് മറിച്ചാണ് തോന്നിയത് . നോവലിൽ പറഞ്ഞിരിക്കുന്നത് പോലെ ഭയരഹിതരായ ഡോക്യുമെന്ററി ഫിലിം ക്രൂ, മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകർ , ദുരന്തമുഖത്തുള്ള നിന്നുള്ള survivors , എന്നിവർ ലോകത്തോട് തുറന്നു കാട്ടുന്ന സത്യങ്ങൾ പോലെ തന്നെയാണ് സത്യം ഫിക്ഷന്റെ രൂപത്തിൽ പറയുന്ന ഒരു സാഹിത്യകാരനും, അത് വരകളിൽ ഒപ്പുന്ന ആർട്ടിസ്റ്റും. ISIS എന്ന പ്രസ്ഥാനത്തിലെ ഭീകരവാദികൾ മാസങ്ങളോളം ബലാത്സംഗം ചെയ്തു sex slave ആക്കി മാറ്റിയ നാദിയ മുറാദ് എന്ന യസിദി ഇറാക്ക് പെൺകുട്ടിയുടെ ചില ഇന്റർവ്യൂകൾ ഉണ്ട്. അവർ എഴുതിയ ഒരു ഓട്ടോബയോഗ്രഫി ഉണ്ട്, ‘The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State ‘. അത് വായിച്ചാൽ അത് പോലെ fodder ആകേണ്ടി വന്ന പെൺകുട്ടികളുടെയും, സ്ത്രീകളുടെയും അവസ്ഥ കുറച്ചൊക്കെ മനസ്സിലാകും.

ഏകദേശം പതിനഞ്ചു വർഷങ്ങൾക്കു മുൻപ് അറബിനാട്ടിലെ ആശുപത്രിയിലെ ആദ്യനാളുകളിൽ എന്റെ അടുത്ത്  ഒരു എട്ടു വയസ്സുകാരി അറബി പെൺകുട്ടിയെ ഒരാൾ കൊണ്ടുവന്നു. കംപ്ലൈന്റ്റ് vaginal bleeding from fall . പരിശോധിച്ചിട്ടു സംശയം തോന്നി , റെഫറൽ കൊടുത്തു. കുറച്ചു നേരം കഴിഞ്ഞു ഇറാഖി ഗൈനെക്കോളജിസ്റ്റിന്റെ ഫോൺ കാൾ വന്നപ്പോഴാണ് കാരണം sexual abuse ആണെന്ന് മനസ്സിലായത്. ആ പരിശോധനയുടെ നടുക്കവും ,  കുട്ടിയുടെ മുഖവും പൂർണ്ണമായി മറക്കാൻ ഇത് വരെ കഴിഞ്ഞിട്ടില്ല. ഈ നോവൽ വായിച്ചപ്പോൾ ആ കുട്ടിയെ  പരിശോധിച്ചതാണ്  തികട്ടി വന്നത് .

മിത്തും ചരിത്രവും യാഥാർഥ്യവും കൂട്ടിയിണക്കി ഇത്രയും ഭംഗിയായി എഴുതിട്ടുള്ള ഒരു നോവൽ ഈ അടുത്തിടെ ഞാൻ വായിച്ചിട്ടില്ല. പൊതുവെ വായിച്ചിട്ടുള്ള ഹിസ്റ്റോറിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനുകൾ വളരെനീട്ടിവലിച്ചു എഴുതിയിരിക്കുന്നത് പോലെ തോന്നാറുണ്ട് . വെറും മുന്നൂറു പേജുകളിലൂടെ രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സർ ഇത് എത്ര എളുപ്പമായി narrate ചെയ്തിരിക്കുന്നു എന്ന് അതിശയം തോന്നി. അതിനായി ചെയ്തിട്ടുള്ള ഗവേഷണവും ചില്ലറയല്ല . ചരിത്രവും, ഫാന്റസിയും, യാഥാർഥ്യവും കൂട്ടിക്കലർത്തി പല കാഴ്ചപ്പാടിലൂടെ വായനക്കാരെ കൊണ്ട് നോക്കിക്കാനുള്ള അദ്ദേഹത്തിന്റെ ശ്രമം നന്നായി വിജയിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്.

Dear Lisa…

smile

 

Dear Lisa, do you see?

Your smile lancing through a million hearts,

many a quick wit fuddling over its riddle,

daubing colors from artful brushstrokes.

 

It took eons for the master Creator, long agone,

to tenderly mold you, dotingly groom you,

a subtlety so perfect, the marble smoothness,

blending and smudging shades and forms,

enduing you with the mystical charm, death-like calm,

yearning for one final vision of lips that smile and eyes that shine.

 

Lisa, do you see?

From your lofty perch,

the flowing brook of passions,

darting eyeballs bobbing and weaving,

singing rapturous paeans to your beauty.

 

Your glory sailed across seven seas,

Artistry of gaiety captured in line after lines of weighty tomes,

Do you hear the footsteps, diligent, awestruck, flowing

and halting, just to take one glimpse of your grace?

To see you in flesh and blood, life beating on your throat.

 

Lisa, tell me, are you happy?

Tell me the truth, for, I know you are not.

I could see the congealed woes, muddy within the golden frame,

deep beneath the transparent paint layers of your smile,

You seem to be hiding behind that smile,

living a cautious covert existence.

Or, are you dreaming something enigmatic?

 

I could sense you cowering in the darkness,

lonely, eyelids fluttering, at the leering ghosts

of ruthless Dukes and monarchs,

murderous, eldritch horror in terrible Ivan’s eyes, and

the ruby-red dripping from Artemisia’s vengeful brush.

 

Are you not aware?

Half a millennia crept by silently, age is slowly catching up,

The crimson blush fading from your cheeks,

the lacquer melting from the hushed rage of anguish, and,

the pewter shades are turning dark and stormy.

 

Do you hear that, Lisa?

Songs of your worth being sung, but you are not free to fly,

They sell and sell you till your smile dissolves and fades,

and cover up the tear stains in fresh tones of somber hues.

 

Nothing will change, Lisa,

You are flesh and earth tones on a rag of cloth,

A cagebird in a diamond cage,

splintered porcelain mannequin in a glass case,

paper doll with a moldy, damp core,

a strangled cry painted beneath the shroud of smile.

 

In Search Of Lost Time.-.-.-

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(‘Silent Night‘-  Acrylic painting on canvas, of the temple pond and ‘paalamaram’)

This one is an acrylic painting done by me four years back. I painted it from my memory, from the indelible scorches and scalds left behind from years back. Thus, it is a story, a fine thread parsed from the mesh of memories, a revisit to the past, as much as a painting I cherish. I love the somber, dull hues, the darks, Greys, pewters, and earth tones than the bright, visual flamboyance in paintings. At that time, almost all the paintings that I did were somber ones that I liked to hoard. I remember my husband, disapproving of my aloofness and choice of somber shades. Still, he is well aware of the narrative details of this painting just as my mother does. And she was prompting me to write down the experience. When I reflect back now, I wonder how events and stories impact the minds of children and how ignorant adults are about what is brewing inside the mind of a child.

Some of the elements of the anecdote, I can relate to young Marcel anxious of sleeping alone in Proust’s ‘Swans Way‘, the first volume of ‘ In Search of Lost Times‘. Proust’s masterpiece rings a bell when I try to read it, a challenging read given the profoundness and immensity of the volumes. I own the first one of the seven volumes, ‘Swans Way’  a dog-eared paperback that I had surprisingly found in a used-book store at LMS junction during one of my routines, visiting new and used book stores with my mother during the vacation time. When at his low ebb he feels that time and past has been lost forever, he starts out searching for the lost time, racing against death, writing seven volumes of his own life, exposing them to the reader and proving the eternity and beauty of the past.- ‘Swans way’ was inspired by the memories that flooded him as he dipped Madeleine in hot tea. He describes his fear of going to bed at night and his nervousness of sleeping alone at night.

We don’t need to be anyone like the great Proust for trying to tread the path back into the past. For us, the ordinary conflicted creatures, letting go of the mists and steams of the past serve to release the gratuitous, vicious, and the obscene, thus balancing the pressure within, a sort of studied revisit coupled with blissful ignorance of past. Yet, some are more conflicted than others, with the mist imprinting joyful colors and heat of the steam scalding the insides leaving lasting immutable shades and scars.

I am a ‘creature of the past‘, as my son addresses me, boring to the hilt, morose and taciturn, nose buried in books and paintings, moody like a dark sepia painting with gloomy pewter-grey clouds hanging overhead, about to pelt down and strike and soak everything on its path. Revisiting the past, to me, is in one way letting go of somethings that incline to cling on tenaciously, at the same time taking in the fragrance of a forgotten and lost spring. It is the same sort of fond, poignant or vague remembrance, seeing the tranquil Bosphorus, Blue Mosque or the labyrinth of colored, covered markets in Istanbul or the specters of innocent lives taken by the Grim Reaper in the concentration camps,  things that had flashed clearly through the fine prints years back. Thus this painting is a remembrance, restoration, reclaim and retaining of the past.

Our present links itself to the past through the conduit of the senses. Of all, the olfactory one is potent. We follow our nose down the memory lane and stumble upon the deep-rooted stumps strewn on the path. For me, the long walk back in time, where I had met the ethereal and terrestrial, heard the truths as well as myths, whiffed the angels and fiends, is ushered by the sweet-smelling devil, ‘palamaram‘, or the Indian Devil Tree. Call it science, the brain chemistry of olfaction which opens up the floodgates to the past or the mystery that reminds us of the origin of our identity guiding us back in time through the bygone path or sheer happenstance, the tangy, heady, celestial aroma takes me along the drifts of wan childhood memories.

Palamaram‘ had been part and parcel of the storybooks of fantasy and mythological tales in Malayalam that my mother would bring home in heaps. As much as the storybooks, our lives were entwined in the atmosphere of the ancient temple nearby, one where my mother’s family had been worshipping, with its consecrated idols of peaceful ‘Devi‘ and irate ‘Bhadrakaali‘, a historical place in the city. My mother had been a devout believer, so we children used to take part in all the religious festivities and activities of the temple without fail.

And anyone who had been lucky enough to spend time in the company of grandparents would never forget the rich and vivid experience in their lifetime. My maternal grandmother was a cache of mythological tales about ‘Yakshi‘, ‘Maadan‘, ‘Gandharvan and so forth. As in many Hindu homes with such an atmosphere, all these experiences played their own roles in molding and finessing the obscure inside me. Every child is different, so the way such things impact each is different too. Both I and my brother grew up in the same environment, still, I don’t think he had any kind of bleak effect from any of these, as opposed to me. He was into science and sports like all the other boys of his age. But, it was an altogether different one for me.

My first ever encounter with Yakshi had been a mix of awe, dread, and allure, in a children’s version of ‘Aithihyamala’ by the Malayalam author, Kottarathil Shankunni, that had one story which went by the name ‘ Yakshiyum Namboodiriyum‘ . The book, which I still recollect vividly, a hardbound one with a white cover, the front-cover picture of a super-pretty, voluptuous ‘Yakshi’ in an iridescent white flowy saree, her sable hair flowing like waves on the ground, jet black kohled eyes sparkling in fury, petaline lips like scarlet berries and a ‘namboodiri’ in a dhoti, a tuft of ‘kuduma’ on his pate, a sacred thread across his chest, eyeballs ballooned up in fear, and the chill of a shiver visible along his somewhat bent spine, in a broad backdrop of heavily bloomed ‘paalamaram’. That was one of my first picks among the Malayalam and English books, which my parents used to select for us.

Coming to the story of ‘Yakshiyum Namboodiriyum‘, what bits and pieces I can recall now is not much more than a generalization of an encounter between evil and good, the vile intents of the evil Yakshi being forestalled by the sagacious ‘namboodiri’, who gets the better of the evil spirit by literally nailing her into the ‘paalamaram’, where she languished for decades and centuries. The storyteller might only have had the intention to imbue this moral into a child’s mind. But, as a kid,  rote learning and pushed to buy into the variety store of moral story ragbag, from CBSE moral science textbooks since the time I had set foot in the kindergarten premises, the moral side of the ‘namboodiri’ story was relegated to the back burner of my mind. And I was obsessed with the fantasy of the bedazzling Yakshi, her magnetic individuality that draws in everyone to her, unobtrusive existence, the ability for intricate polymorphism and camouflage, but above all the dexterity to inhabit the branches of ‘paalamaram’ without incident. I painted her, dreamed about her, felt her presence. I believed to the core that she did exist.

There were many ‘Yakshi Paalas’ near the ‘Sarpa Kaavu . My visits there increased in frequency to catch a glimpse of the ‘paala’  bloom and the live Yakshi emerging from the ‘paala’ tree. Months of waiting to catch sight of that VIP in my life turned out to be futile, but all the same, she appeared as a diaphanous apparition in my dreams. That was when I had learned that these nocturnal citizens of the world existed in two forms, a venerated benevolent one and a dreaded malevolent fiendish one.

The most macabre elements of my memories, that I would wish to stow away in the hidden repositories deep inside the attic of mind and heart are those resurrecting from the temple pond, down our house built on the same site where my maternal ancestral home had stood. The pond is basically, a step tank system with stairs of stone all around and four ghats on the four sides of the structure, it is not unlike the other sacred tanks, on the face of it. A circular pathway surrounding it led on one side, directly to our house through a flight of ancient stairs carved from huge monolithic stones.

The distinct advantage of the perch offered an uninterrupted view of the pond that appeared placid except for the local people bathing or swimming and the annual festivities of the diety conducted on a special ghat. But, that was just one brighter side of a bucolic abode, atop a pond with its own mind and heart. Legend had it that the pond never dried up even during the harshest of droughts that had struck the area. It also had an ambiguous nature, at the same time offering the elixir of life and luring the oblivious, unwitting souls to the death trap in its bosom. Swimming away from its edges towards the middle was a sure path into death well, so a large circumscribed area around the center was off-limits even to adroit swimmers and divers.

Nevertheless, nothing could have stopped the daredevils and the reckless from calling into question the laws of nature and dousing the flame of life in its waters, before it was even kindled. There was another group, that was dead set on snuffing it, overburdened by worries, who came from even far away places, offering self and sometimes their little ones to the pond with a ravenous craving for souls. Such was the grisly truth that we were not allowed to step inside the bounds of the pond even once, in the decades that we had spent in that perch.

I had been a mute witness untold times, to the pond’s morbid craving for life that had been sucked into its abyss, leaving the fallen angels to rise up to the surface after one whole day. As a kid, at first the death knell sounded by the pond never registered in my heart or reverberated in my head. I was oblivious to the form and substance of the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Again, as young children, we were forbidden by our parents from watching the happenings around, who kept us inside closed doors during that period, under their aegis, until everything had cleared outside. This exercise of household quarantine had only served to boost my curiosity.

I am not sure exactly when I had caught a fleeting glimpse of a floating body, belly up like a veined, dry autumnal leaf. Throngs of spectators were elbowing each other and nudging their way through the assorted congregation around the low walls of the pond, to have a look at the lifeless body. Once again, the edge offered by the perch enabled me to have an unhindered view ( I still remember it vividly).  According to the oral lore and the stories from my grandmother, the pond had a discreet path underneath that bore down to the other end of the earth, a mystical maelstrom carried anything that came on its way, down through the obscure path to the inferno( as it were, another realm). And the malevolent ‘Yakshis‘ were supposed to be the ones taking the soul underneath.

My unwitting Angel might not have meant to scare the hell out of me, but that was exactly what happened ultimately. I had a cold fever with scary chills that same night and I missed school for a few consecutive days. From then on, every time I peeked into the pond at night I would conjure up the ferocious, blood-thirsty fiends hovering over, like a pall of suspended white cloud and ample nightly adrenaline shots was prescribed by the wary brain, the dose increasing gradually on a daily basis.

There was no other option, but to shiver under the bedspread, wide awake till wee morning hours watching over the silent, dreary, wakeful nights, on my bed, worrying about the ill-fated soul that was about to be dragged into the pond and enduring the yawningly indifferent mornings in the classroom that delivered incalculable dose of arithmetics. With the same religious fervor that I had exhibited in invoking the benevolent ones previously, I went all out to shrug off the vicious ones that manifested ever readily without any need at all of invoking them. 

I did come out of that, by a regular rational infusion. I still remember the many medical exhibitions at Trivandrum Medical College, where I had been taken by my father, since the sixth or seventh grade. There, for the first time, I made acquaintance with lifeless cadavers, just a stone’s throw from me, that reinforced my discriminating power by dispelling the spectral mirages. Those educational trips transpired as covert desensitization therapies for my credulous self, like, see for yourself, hear for yourself, feel for yourself training sessions.

Months and years into the medical course reinforced an empirical, evidence-based approach to life. Clinical postings, apart from case studies and an obligatory shock therapy of having to watch postmortem in Forensics, were rigged-up theaters where the spectral enactment of birth to death could be closely watched. Lives reaped by the scythe and those brought back from the brink were studied up close. And the omnipresent devil tree was nowhere to be seen in medical college premises or the premises where we took up residences later on.

My parents sold the property and bought an apartment in another part of the city, later. To this day, I make sure to take the tour through my past, the temple, the pond, the site where our old house had been,  the used-book stores, the place where she had worked, holding my mother’s hand, every time I visit my parents during vacation. The way I would feel at the time of the trip is hard to describe. I watch the springs and winters of the past roll by before me.  And I wouldn’t trade this trip with my mother for anything else in the whole world.

I love to watch the ghost movies in all languages, something that my husband and son dismisses as a stupid waste of time. I tell them, I don’t believe in ghosts anymore, but these phantasms were a part of my past, a sort of lived experience of a fantasy I could never erase. In the place where I stay now in the suburbs of Mangalore, on a forested hillside on the banks of the silent Netravathy, guarded by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, the people revere trees considered sacred. There are ancient temples and dilapidated palaces, dotting the area. Almost a year back, during one of our walks, I and my son wandered inside a somewhat thickly-forested part of the hillside to find a sacred grove with plenty of ‘paala’ trees. During the October- November months, the air here effuses with the musky, heady aroma of the ‘paala’ bloom, felt from our apartment surrounded by the trees, the roadside blanketed by its buttery flowers. I always feel, whoever had associated the tree to the devil must experience the peaceful, relaxed ambiance underneath it.

Even now, myths never fail to amaze me, but they stay just as reminders of the many childhood folktales I had come across in the storybooks and by word of mouth, the sweet and sour experiences that I have had as a child.

Book Review- “The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity” by Amartya Sen

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Author–                         Amartya Sen

Category/ Genre–      Nonfiction/ Essays/ Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Awards/ Recognitions–   Nobel Prize in Economics(1998)

First published–             2005

 

Author Biography

Amartya Kumar Sen, the Indian Economist, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was born in Santiniketan on the campus of Rabindranath Tagore‘s Viswa Bharati(both a school and college). Originally his family is from Dhaka( now the capital of Bangladesh). His father was a Chemistry professor at Dhaka University, his maternal grandfather taught Sanskrit and ancient and medieval Indian culture in Viswa Bharati University, where his mother was a student.

Before choosing to study and research in Economics, he flirted with Sanskrit, Mathematics, and Physics for a while. Much of his childhood years were spent in Dhaka and later his educational attitudes were formed in Santiniketan. The schooling in Shantiniketan, according to Sen, was progressive, co-ed, and emphasized in fostering curiosity and thinking over competitive excellence and grades. The school curriculum included India’s cultural, analytical, and scientific heritage along with Wester, Eastern, South East Asian, West Asian, and African cultures. Later he would write to his friend that it was this kind of diverse exposure that helped him identify himself with the cultural diversities of the world.

Tagore’s “idea of India” was against the culturally separatist view “against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” He resisted the Hindu- Muslim communal identity from the very beginning. Sen saw his teenage years marking a great divide in diversity, a belligerent and divisive communal hatred sweeping through India. The communal violence that engulfed the 40′ s India left a deep mark on young Sen’s mind. He gives an example of a Muslim laborer knifed to death by Hindu mobs, only for the reason of the religion he followed. The unfreedom of poverty that forced the man to seek work in a hostile area, thereby endangering all his other freedoms thus having had to pay with his life devastated young Sen.

Another event that influenced his thinking greatly was The Bengal Famine of 1943. He was struck by its class-dependent nature. Only those at the lowest rung of the ladder were affected. The political convictions that he had subscribed to as a student in Calcutta college and his ideas of constructive political opposition happened to be in tandem with the political liberal ideas of the post-Enlightenment Europe and the tolerance and diversity in Indian culture.   As KingAshoka had put it in the third century B.C.: “For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect.” According to Sen, it was a serious mistake to see tolerance just as a Western liberal idea.

Sen’s research encompassed welfare economics, economic inequality, and poverty, famines as the manifestation of poverty, democratic social choice, cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding him the Nobel. Kenneth Arrow‘s path-breaking study of social choices in his work ‘Social Choice and Individual Values‘ influenced him and his friend. Later, in Cambridge Trinity College, the political-economic debates about Keynesian theory among the neo-Classical Keynes skeptics supporting capital theory and neo-Keynesians against the capital proved to be a victorious battleground for Sen in developing his research.  The genial co-existence and tolerance of the supporters of different theorists were notable in Cambridge.

He did PhD in research and study in Philosophy in Calcutta later and went to work as a professor of Economics in the Delhi School of Economics until 1971. His ideas of the social choice theory were developed here in-depth. In his 1970 book,’ Collective Choice and Social Welfare’, he has tried to explain the social choice theory. He moved to London in 1971, while he had been suffering from serious health problems as a result of earlier radiation treatment to his oral cancer. He developed bone necrosis of hard palate for which plastic surgery was required.

In Oxford, he expanded his research from the theoretical social choice to applied and practical sides of inequality, unemployment, personal liberty, basic rights, and poverty. He worked on gender inequality, causation and prevention of famines, hunger and deprivation, and development. Notable was his studies on the nature of individual advantage in terms of the substantive freedoms that different persons respectively enjoy, in the form of the capability to achieve valuable things.

He moved with his two children to Harvard in the late 1980s after the death of his second wife from cancer. Up to 1991, he was much involved in analyzing the overall implications of the perspective on welfare economics and political philosophy. He is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he previously served as Master from the years 1998 to 2004. He is the first Asian and the first Indian academic to head an Oxbridge college.

Sen heralded the area of Qualitative Economics as opposed to the for-profit Quantitative Economics based on mathematical calculations and taking their cue from Wall Street. He introduced the humane element in Political Economics thus spearheading the branch of Welfare Economics. “The Human Development Index” used to rank countries based on human development was his contribution along with the Pakistani Economist Mahbub ul Haq. Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. In 2006, Time magazine listed him under “60 years of Asian Heroes” and in 2010 included him in their “100 most influential people in the world ”

 

Analysis

The work is a collection of 16 essays on identity, culture, and Indian history. The first four essays explain the principle theme of the book- India’s long argumentative tradition. The focus is on the long history of argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and the neglect in cultural discussions. Sen drives home the point that Indian heterodoxy and dialogue give rise to many convictions and viewpoints.

In the preface, the author contrasts the politically charged ‘ Hindutva’ movement,  – a narrow Hindu view of Indian civilization that separates it into pre and post-Muslim conquest periods invoking holy Vedas and the Hindu epic Ramayana in justifying their actions like a mosque demolition, with the integrationists who view these as unwelcome intrusions into secular society and question the partisan, factional nature of invoking Hindu Classics time and again.

The author in addition to stressing the import of the epics on Indian literary and philosophical texts, folk traditions, and dialectics, points to their role in Indian culture. He gives examples of the fourteenth-century Bengali translations of the Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana by the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal out of pure love of Indian culture. Similarly, he contends, The Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas was first translated into Persian by the Moghul prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Emperor Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, in the seventeenth century.

The epistemological nature of the Vedas paving way for the argumentative and dialectical tradition in Indian culture is stressed. The author writes that such a tradition is in full view in Ramayana itself, where Rama is considered a fallible human and an epic war hero and not divine by the pundit Javali who explains in detail that ” there is no afterworld nor any religious practices for attaining that and the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts, and penance have been laid out in the Shastras( scriptures) by clever people to rule over other people”. According to Tagore, the epics should be taken for what it is- a marvelous parable and cultural heritage than a document of supernatural veracity.

Sen contends that skepticism, dialectics, debates, violence, and wars had been a part of Indian history since the beginning and it would be counterproductive to signify the latter over the former in social and political discourse. Similarly, the long tradition of heterodoxy in Indian thoughts and beliefs, and the co-existence of different religions which were debated are writ large on annals of history not to be ignored into a single orthodox legacy of Hinduism, which is a much later term according to the author. There were Buddhists, Jains, Agnostics, and Atheists in the mainstream that debated with each other and with Hinduism followers. He observes that the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for almost a thousand years, and the Chinese in the First Millenium CE referred to India as a Buddhist kingdom.

He provides two examples, that of the Buddist emperor of India, Ashoka, who in third century BC outlined the principles of tolerance, rich heterodoxy, and rules of debates, dialectics, and disputes. Similarly, the principles of tolerance and separating religion from the state were cemented by a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar, in 1590 s, at a time when The Inquisition was in full swing in Europe.

The essays assert the contemporary relevance of dialectics and heterodoxy n a democracy, public reasoning, secularism, resisting inequities, removing poverty, and in the pursuit of justice. He disagrees with the notion of elitism in arguments, that it is a realm accessible to the literate and affluent in contrast to the common men and points to the way this leads to cynicism and impassivity. He reminds us that the critical voice has always been the right of the repressed and oppressed and an opportunity to be utilized and not a necessary skill. Even though, the documentation of arguments tends to be biased in the route of articulations of the powerful and well educated, many interesting accounts of debates in the past involve disadvantaged groups.

He contends that the nature and strength of the argumentative tradition in India are greatly ignored on the premise that the country is a land of religions, uncritical faith, and unquestioned practices. The practice by some theorists in suppressing India’s intellectual heritage by highlighting the faith-based unreasoning culture of the East does injustice to the argumentative tradition of India in the past by simply contrasting the East-West culture in a fixed and preconceived manner through the prism of religion. A great deal of our past and present is intentionally or unintentionally getting effaced by this practice. The names of the great Aryabhatta, the Mathematician, and Kautilya, the political economist are evoked by Sen during the discussion.

There are four parts, each consisting of 4 essays. The first two essays deal with pluralism and dialogic tradition in the support of democracy, secularism, the pursuit of art and science, and social dialectics in seeking social justice. Essay 3 is about the significance of understanding heterodoxy as against the parochial religionistic approach through the lens of Hinduism. Essay 4 is about the ways to understand Indian identity.

Part 2 is about the role of communication in understanding and development of cultures. Essays 5 and 6 deals with the insights on communication from the works of Tagore and the Indian film director Satyajit Ray. The 7th essay is about the impact of imagined India in Western perceptions on the Indian mind during the colonial and post-colonial periods.  Essay 8 is about the intellectual, religious, and trade relations that China and India had for a thousand years from the early part of the first millennium.

Part 3 has four essays that deal with deprivation and security after the development of nuclear weapons. The last four essays are about the import of reasoning in identity, secularism, multiculturalism, and the calendrical variations that allowed to fix the principal meridian for India at Ujjain(the basis for Indian Standard Time five and a half hours ahead of GMT).

Review

As one of the most influential public thinkers and intellectuals of our times, a Nobel laureate, the very first quality that is seen mentioned about him, anywhere his name or the critical reviews of his works appear, is his humility and humaneness. He is still an Indian citizen, he has not given up the Indian passport despite having been living and teaching abroad since the 1950s. He is a man whom Cambridge and Harvard are said to have fought to offer an appointment. He returns to Santiniketan every year working for a trust he had set up there with the Nobel prize money. A true patriot, he is unassuming and has an unparalleled knowledge in Indian History, Philosophy, Economics, and Culture.

In the book, the author tries to upend the stereotype of India from its exotic, mythical place to a rightful one. He is careful not to overemphasize the past triumphs at the same time criticizing the Western oversimplification of the realities like James Mill‘s History of British India. Sen warns not to oversimplify the notion of democratic India as a Western gift to a country suited to democracy by virtue of its rich history and culture. He disputes the ideas of Hindutva propagated by the Hindu nationalists and refutes the Western idea of India as a Hindu nation.

With the help of a vast array of references, he invokes rulers and emperors like Ashoka and Akbar, dissects the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata to delineate the facts of inclusivity and accommodation to dissent and skepticism in the broad and magnanimous Hinduism and criticizes the notion of bellicosity, divisiveness, and exclusionist sentiments and agendas of the Hindutva movement.

The part where the only Indian literature Nobel laureate in India is being discussed, he is unambiguous in criticizing and vindicating the poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright. Though versatile, Tagore was mainly known for his poetry in the West. The Western judgementalism and revisionism of Eastern writers are being thrown to light through his own prism. Tagore was the recipient of both these while alive. Ezra Pound and WB Yeats were champions of his works earlier, but they pilloried him later on thus making his works oblivious to the world outside India. Sen adds his own vindication for this while he mentions the untranslatability of Tagore’s works. At the same moment, he criticizes the Western literary world in trying to categorize the great author into an Eastern, mystical, exotic, sage-like niche while they missed noticing a liberal, rational, humane thinker.

Invoking the filmmaker Satyajit Rai, Sen draws the conclusion that his triumph in the midst of world movies is drawn from a heterogenic approach, not remaining inside the bounds of what one normally expects as an overdose of Orientalism from an Asian filmmaker, and eclectic experimentation by learning and blending from other cultures.

The relevance of the book in contemporary India cannot be overstated. A well of knowledge and wisdom, the author has, with meticulous research, driven home the basic understanding of ideas like pluralism, heterogeneity, heterodoxy, secularism, and inclusivity by digging into history, identity, religious identity, and culture, while underpinning the significance of dialectics and debates in sustaining these and defenestrating preconceived and prejudiced Western notions of all these with respect to India- ancient and modern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review- “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Author                                      Nathaniel Hawthorne

Category/ Genre               Fiction- Classic/ Gothic Literature/ Gothic Romance/                                                                      Psychological Romance/ Romanticism

 

First published                      1850

 

Author biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His ancestors were Puritans and fierce persecutors of the Quakers. Some of them had conducted hearings during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. His father was a seaman who died of yellow fever when Nathaniel was four years old. His mother sold everything and left Salem to live with her wealthy brothers.

He was a voracious reader right from his childhood years. He was greatly influenced by the allegories and symbolism in John Bunyan‘s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress‘, Edmond Spenser‘s ‘ The Faerie Queene‘ , by the works of eighteenth-century novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet and Sir Walter Scott‘s historical romances. He moved back to Salem after college in 1825 and started writing novels for the next 12 years. His first novel, ‘Fanshawe‘ was published at his own expense, but he later retrieved all the copies and burned them. Similarly, his first compendium of stories, ‘ Seven Tales of My Native Land‘ was burned for want of publishers. His stories appeared in many magazines, some of which he happened to be the editor and he was finally recognized with the publication of stories titled ‘Twice Told Tales‘.

After getting married to Sophia in 1842, he moved to Concord and formed friendships with Transcendentalist writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. The Hawthorne family returned to Salem in 1845 where he wrote ‘Mosses from an Old Manse‘ which brought critical acclaim but little financial success. President James K Polk, appointed him as the surveyor of the Salem Custom House, a position that he lost when Zachary Taylor, a Whig, became president, since he happened to be a democrat. In 1849, he started writing ‘ The Scarlet Letter‘ satirizing the Custom House, its officials and the Whigs who deposed him from his position.

In 1852, they returned to Concord and later he was appointed to the post of American Consul in Liverpool, England. He again returned to Concord in 1860, where he published a collection of English sketches titled ‘ ‘Our Old Home‘ in 1863. He died in 1864, leaving behind several unfinished works.

The historical context of The Scarlet Letter

In order to understand the story setting and themes, a basic knowledge of history of the Church and the Christian religion in Europe is necessary.

The major religion in Europe for 1200 years was Catholicism. A German monk, named Martin Luther in the 16 th century started a movement to split church in Christian Europe into those of Catholics and Protestants. He challenged the authority of the Pope and teachings in Catholicism, that led to a revolt in Europe known as Protestant Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and founded the Anglican Church or Church of England with himself as the head, as the Catholic church denied him permission to divorce. Another figure, John Calvin of Switzerland took Luther’s ideas of original sin further and founded the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination that became the central tenet of the Puritan Movement which flourished in England and English colonies. Some of the Puritans who enforced stricter moral codes did not accept the Anglican Church and facing persecution from the Anglican Church, fled to America where they established colonies based on strict religious principles like the The Plymouth Colony and The Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England.

The Plymouth colonists were referred to as Pilgrims or Separatist Puritans who separated entirely from the Anglican Church, whereas the Bay colonists did not separate entirely from the Anglican Church believing in reforms from within. The latter came to be known as Congregationalist Puritans.

Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter‘ is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1640’s. The Puritan societies were strict theocracies. They believed in the importance of communities, the idea of the original sin, hard work leading to material success and the notion of predestination. Their laws were very strict and punishments stricter that included public ridicule, placement in stockades, imprisonment, flogging, drowning , hanging and crushing under the stones.. The complex notions of strict hard work and morality is known as Puritan Ethics nowadays.

Dissenters were common among Puritans, the famous ones like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from the colonies. The progressives of New England fought to relax the orthodoxy, that led to The Half-way Covenant which allowed direct church membership. The orthodox crowd saw this relaxing as weakness and infiltration of Satan into the communities of Salem that culminated in The Salem Witch Trials which started in 1692, imprisoning, torturing and executing many people. Hawthorne was aware of and embarrassed by the participation of his ancestors in the witch trials. His concerns were aired through the novel Scarlet Letter that deals with themes of sin, punishment and redemption.

Major Characters of the novel

1. Hester Prynne. Hester is an English woman who is sent to live in the American colonies by her husband, Roger Prynne, an aged scholar without much of feelings for the young Hester.

2. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Arthur Dimmesdale, an unmarried man, is the pastor of Hester’s congregation, her lover, and the father of Hester’s baby, Pearl.

3. Pearl. Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

4. Roger Chillingworth. Roger Chillingworth is the name Hester’s husband assumes after he finally arrives in America.

Summary

The story begins with the public judgment of Hester Prynne, a married woman who had been sent by her husband to live in America, for adultery. This occurs in June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston. A crowd has been gathered there to witness her punishment of public humiliation by making her stand on the scaffold for hours and wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest for the rest of her life. She refuses to disclose the name of her child’s father after repeated cajoling and questioning by the Reverend and minister of the church.

Amidst the crowd, she recognizes her husband, who assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth who vows to find the father of the child. He questions her about the father of the child, Pearl, inside the prison where he impersonates as a physician and threatens to kill him if Hester revealed her husband’s identity.

Following her release from the prison, Hester and Pearl settle down in a small cottage at the edge of the town where she sustains herself by commissions of needlework from the townsfolk. As Pearl grows, she becomes fascinated by the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her mother’s dress and becomes capricious, unruly, and intractable. The people assume her to be a witch and the church attempts to separate her from the mother.

Hester goes to speak to the Governor to pre-empt this separation where she finds Reverend Wilson and Dimmesdale with him. When Pearl was asked about catechism, she refuses to answer though she knows it, thus jeopardizing her guardianship. Hester appeals to Reverend Dimmesdale who requests the Governor to let Pearl live with her mother.

Reverend Dimmesdale’s health begins to falter and the townspeople tasks Chillingworth, the newly arrived physician to live with and take care of him. Chillingworth doubts that the reverend’s illness is psychological from some unconfessed guilt and he continues to stress him out psychologically. One evening, he discovers something on the chest of the sleeping reverend when his vestment falls aside- a scarlet ‘A’.

Tormented by guilt, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold where Hester had stood years before when he sees her and Pearl passing by and calls them to join him. Still, he is unable to acknowledge them publicly. He sees a meteor in the shape of A, when they see the shadowy figure of Chillingworth passing by the square. Hester decides to break the vow and disclose the identity and vindictiveness of Chillingworth to Dimmesdale and does so during their secret meeting inside the forest. She removes the letter A for a short while but has to wear it again following Pearl’s insistence. Hester cajoles the reverend to take a ship out of Boston to Europe where they can start a new life and the minister seems to gain newfound energy.

After he returns to the town, Dimmesdale again becomes crestfallen, he recognizes that he is dying and he becomes a changed man and abandons the journey to Europe. Hester is told by the captain of the ship that Chillingworth has also booked a seat for the ship’s journey.

On Election Day, Dimmesdale is about to give a sermon before the townspeople, but he stumbles and falls. Upon seeing Hester and Pearl amidst the crowd he climbs to the scaffold, confesses his sin dying in Hester’s arms. The crowd witnesses the scarlet letter A imprinted on his chest. Chillingworth loses his desire to revenge, dies shortly afterward, leaving his will and wealth to Pearl who moves to Europe with her mother and later marries a wealthy man.

Years later, Hester returns to Boston, starts wearing the scarlet letter A again and forms a solace to other women. When she dies, she is buried near the grave of Dimmesdale and they share a simple slate tombstone with the inscription “On a field, sable, the letter A gules“.

Analysis

The story is rich with symbolism and allegories. Hawthorne was one of the major symbolists in American literature. The Puritans saw and interpreted the world in symbols and allegories. An event as the passing of a meteor had religious and moral interpretations for them, while the places like the scaffold in the story are symbols of sin and punishment.

Hawthorne turns the symbols upside down in the novel. The sketch of Hester, an embodiment of sin for the Puritans, is drawn in the light of sympathy for a human being with heart and emotions and a courageous lady who fights her sin wearing the scarlet letter. Dimmesdale who otherwise would have been saintly is portrayed as morally weak, not able to confess his sins publicly until the last moment. Chillingworth, who would have been a betrayed husband, turns out to be a devilish offender pursuing an evil goal of revenge. The Puritan mentality is subverted through the portrayal of his characters. At the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale confesses his sin, the Puritans deny to see the truth. Hawthorne exposes the grim reality beneath the ostensibly pure Puritan culture. Reverend Wilson is symbolic of the Church and the Governor is symbolic of the State. The scarlet letter A, light and darkness, color imagery, and the settings of the forest and the village all are symbolic.

Hester is symbolic of a sinner who gets punished by the stigmatization by the scarlet letter A. The irony is that despite repressing her vitality for years, she turns from a victim branded by the Puritans to a decisive and sensitive woman helping others. In the course of time, the letter ‘A’ representing “Adultery” comes to be viewed by the townsfolk as”Able” and even”Angel”. The stigma of the letter gradually transforms into something that could inspire awe or even great respect.

Dimmesdale is a symbol of Puritan hypocrisy. His public piety is a facade while the inner torture, shame, and worry of exposure of sins make him a coward and a sinner exactly like Hester.

Pearl is the strongest symbol and allegory in the novel. She is the “living hieroglyphic ” of sin. She is “devil’s work” to the community. For Hester she is both symbol of sin in flesh, she is happiness and reminder of torture, someone who is loved but also someone who is a symbol of retribution to her sins. She is beyond the mind of the Puritans, a natural law unleashed, the freedom of unrestrained wilderness, and the result of repressed passion. Hawthorne uses the mirror and reflection of Pearl on the brook as symbols of the artist’s imagination of Pearl.

Chillingworth is a symbol of evil, and lack of compassion. Hawthorne compares him to a snake, an allusion of the Garden of Eden. Pearl sees him as Black Man and warns her mother to stay away from him.

The scarlet letter A is the most symbolic of all. It is a sign of adultery, penitence, and penance. It appears as a meteor in the sky, a sign of the dying Governor becoming an angel, letter A made of eel-grass by Pearl, on Hester’s dress arranged By Pearl with prickly burrs, the letter A on Dimmesdale’s chest and that on the epitaph of Hester’s tombstone. While the letter A as the meteor is taken for an angel, that on Dimmesdale’s chest is a sign of his secret sin. The letter on Hester’s chest is seen by the community as a symbol of punishment and redemption first, but later as “Able” and “Angel”. The letter literally changes the meaning of Hester’s existence in the minds of the townsfolk.

The contrast between light and darkness, sunshine and shadows, noon and midnight highlights the good and bad sides of the characters as they evolve through the storyline. The dark clouds and the dense, dark forest where Dimmesdale meets Hester are symbolic of the weighed down guilt of the lovers. Though sunshine flickers around, it does not shine on Hester until she lets down her hair, a sign of approval from God for truth, grace, and happiness.

Darkness and grey shades are hallmarks while describing Chillingworth and the Puritans. When Hester comes out of the jail she squints at the brightness outside, the light of the day. Similarly, Dimmesdale’s confession occurs at noon, the bright daylight a symbol of exposure. When previously he stood at the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, it was nighttime, that indicates concealment of his private confession. Their grave is amidst the gloom, the dark Puritan presence, where the letter A on the gravestone shines bright, the only light there.

The symbolism of colors is very strong. Red appears on the scarlet letter A, Pearls dress, meteor, the roses, and Chillingworth’s eyes. Black and grey colors are associated with Chillingworth, Puritans, gloom, death, sin, and the narrow path of righteousness through the dark forest of sin.

The village and the marketplace with the scaffold and the prison are symbols of Puritan rigidity of laws and sin and punishment. The Church and the state are enforcers of the laws to contend with. But the forest is symbolic of freedom governed by the laws of nature, though it is home to the Black Man. Here Hester is free to let her hair down or remove her cap. The village is symbolic of rigid man-made Puritan laws. The brook is symbolic of the boundary between these laws, that Pearl refuses to cross to the Puritan side when called by her mother. The forest could also be taken as the moral wilderness that Hester and Dimmesdale find themselves in. It is also a sign of temptation by Satan luring the souls to sin.

The Gothic elements used in the novel categorize the work under the genre of Gothic Romance. The Romantic authors of the nineteenth century and their successors like Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Stephen King, all use elements of Gothic in their works. In Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the Customs House and the Governor’s house to give the Gothic touch to the novel. Crime, physical deformity in the characters, darkness, shadows, moonlight, and an overall dark and gloomy atmosphere throughout is a characteristic of Gothic novels. Hawthorne has skillfully used all of these here. He imagined the novel as a psychological study of the human mind, of the dark recesses inside the mind, that makes the novel in the genre of Psychological Fiction. Even though the setting of the novel is historic in Puritan Boston, the reality is intersected by Hawthorne’s imagination from the beginning until the end of the novel.

There are various interpretations of the devices used in the novel. Hawthorne’s ability to deploy these devices that contrast and change freely with context and characters is one of the main reasons why this work is a peerless Romance novel, a timeless classic and a creative masterpiece of all times from a genius who sought to define romance in world literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review-“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

Author– Franz Kafka

Category/ Genre– Novella/ Modernist Fiction/ Fantasy Fiction/ Absurdist Fiction/ Magical Realism

Published- 1915

Original language- German

Biography

An icon of twentieth century literature, Franz Kafka is considered one of the most influential authors in Western literature. Born to a brewer’s daughter and a shopkeeper into a middle-class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, most of his works were published posthumously.

The neurotic tension in his writings is a reflection of his autobiographical events, a bullying authoritative, ambitious father and a mother who hid behind the shadows of her husband. His first language was German, though he was fluent in Czech. Some of the writers who had influenced him include Anton Chekhov, Soren Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Gustave Flaubert.

He was an “assimilated” nonbeliever and an outsider in the Jewish community. He ambivalently respected and rebelled against authority and never was able to emerge out of self-loathing and his father’s sway. With a sensitive disposition and slight build, he was berated and bullied by his father for the same reason. His on and off relationships with Felice Bauer and later Grete Bloch, Milena Jesenska and Dora Dymant shows his belief in the importance of marriage conflicting with fear of matrimony.

He first studied Chemistry, but switched to Law later on along with German studies and art history. There he met Max Brod who would become his lifelong friend. Later, he worked as a clerk in an accident insurance office and was responsible for many policy changes which helped the workers’ lives. Most of his writings came to shape during evenings after work, when he learned to place himself in a writing trance blocking the outside cacophony. His writings bear the mark of his strained relationship with his father and his constant urge to escape him. He was diagnosed with Tuberculosis persistently troubling his health until his death.

Much of his early writings is lost. Some of his most famous ones like ‘The Judgement’, ‘The Metamorphosis’ and ‘Amerika’ were written during 1912. ‘The Trial‘, his most famous novel was written in 1914. ‘Letter to His Father‘ was written in 1919, a masterpiece letter elucidating his stories’ and novels’ theme in which the protagonist struggles with a superior power. ‘The Castle‘ written in 1922 shows power as a benign indifference and ‘The Hunger Artist’ is a brilliant depiction of artistic power. The Tuberculosis worsened and he died in Prague during 1924.

He remained unknown during his lifetime and gained popularity posthumously after his works were published. Many of his manuscripts were unfinished, rough, and written in a disorderly fashion adding to the nervous confusion of his style. At his death-bed, he had famously asked his friend Max Brod to burn the manuscripts after he died. But, Brod ignored the request and went on to edit and publish the manuscripts.

During the period of 1920’s and 1930’s, his works were published and translated to many languages. He mainly emphasized on themes like absurdity of human existence, isolation and alienation in modern society and incomprehensibility of authority and power. The nightmarish, sinister, complex and senseless qualities of Kafka’s fictional world is encompassed by the adjective, ‘Kafkaesque‘, a vernacular in English literature.

Review and analysis

The Metamorphosis is a novella published in 1915, a seminal work of fiction, one of the few works that Kafka published in his lifetime. He wrote this in 1912 after he finished ‘The Judgement and both have many things in common. The novella is highly autobiographical in content with themes of his life, beliefs, ideas, religious views and so forth. After finishing the novella, Kafka wrote in his diary, “I am living with my family, the dearest people, and yet I am more estranged from them than from a stranger.”

The story is that of a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect-like creature. We are not told the cause of this. The story moves forward and we get the glimpses of his life as a vermin, his transformation, effect of this change on his parents and sister who comes to regard him as a burden, the financial situation of the family and ends with his death and a new beginning to his family.

It ironically depicts the pressures that family and profession imposes on individual in the 20 th century. The lack of empathy and understanding of the predicaments of individual in a highly materialistic worldview is told through the unconscious metamorphosis of human into insect. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “In The Metamorphosis, contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.

Typical of Kafka, the story is set in the tenor of hopelessness, though a note of sanguineness is added at the end. The style is an epitome of Kafka’s works. From an impossible, extraordinary and bizarre transformation described in an ordinary, sober, straightforward way we get a taste of reality in the most absurd and chaotic overtones possible. And thence an indication of deeper meanings inside the story. Kafka happened to be the harshest critic of his novella, criticizing it’s imperfections and insisting that the ending was unreadable. Though he had let out the story in a perfect way with ‘ a complete opening out of body and soul’ , it was covered in the ‘filth and slime‘ as a newborn covered in mucus. He alludes to his writing self as repulsive.

The idea of writing about human to insect transformation is scattered in many of Kafka’s works. Notable here are his views on humanity and religion. His ideas of religion constituted marginal views outside the mainstream Judaism. To Max Brod, his long-time friend, Kafka once remarked- ‘Human beings are God’s nihilistic thoughts‘. To Brod’s question if there was any hope elsewhere in the universe, he replied ‘ plenty of hope for God, not for us’. He had always compared the imagery of insect as his ideal writing self. He imagined his body moving around the world, while his writing self remained stationary as a beautiful beetle, contradictory to the repulsive writing self that he had envisioned sometimes . Kafka had always felt like an insect in his father’s authoritarian nature and even developed a stammer from the fear of speaking to him. In the story, Gregor, as an insect cowers in fear and attacks his father.

After finishing the Law studies, Kafka was forced to take an office job, which he did not enjoy, purely out of financial worries and to help his parents pay off their debts. His parents compelled him to do overtime in the evenings, thus cutting him off his creative self. His sister who was sympathetic and understanding initially, turns against him later, something that drove him to the edge of suicide. In the novella too, reflections of these are to be seen, Gregor being betrayed by his sister who insisted that they get rid of the insect.

The idea of the story was taken from a Yiddish play, ‘The Savage One‘ by Gordin. There are many similarities between both. The main character in the play is an idiot son who is unable to communicate with his father and so locked in a room. The play gives the moral of the savage that awakens inside humans when one pursues materialistic things, that forces men to oppose humanity.

Absurdity of event in the form of a huge insect is confronted by the guilt of having cut himself off even before the metamorphosis thus alienating him from the family. We are not told about the source of his condemnation, thus intensifying his personal guilt. His office boss who comes to check on him backs away on seeing the gigantic insect. This illuminates his scruples on God as an always- receding Absolute.

Gregor is the archetypal male character of a Kafka story. He is hesitant to act, fearful of consequences, hopeless, contemplative and self-abasing. He feels guilty of things he had not done than the things that he had misdone. Absurdity of life is the main theme of the novella. He points at an universe that is order-less and without justice. The calm and unquestioning response of his family, coupled with his own indifference to the transformation adds to the absurdity element of the story. Gregor is worried about him getting fired from work and not about the transformation of his body. The only exception is the first maid who begs to be fired.

The second theme is the disconnect between the mind and the body. Though his body changes into an insect’s, his mind remains human at first. He tries to stand upright as a human and go to work, but he cannot. His sister leaves his favorite drink, milk, for him in his room, but he finds it tasteless. He finds it hard to reconcile the insect body with the human mind. Then he gradually start behaving more and more like an insect and start to crawl on ceiling, hide in the dark under the sofa and eat leftovers. Kafka thus making us infer that our physical lives shape our mental life and not the other way around. Yet, the conflict reaches a zenith when the furniture is removed from his room by his mother and sister, making room for him to crawl unimpeded, highlighting the fact that his humanity has not been effaced fully from him. He initially approves it since it would make room for him to crawl freely, but resents it later thinking that removal of his only possessions linking him to a past human life would snatch the emotional comfort from him. He is confronted by a choice, either physical comfort or emotional comfort and not both together, and the last remnants of his human mind forces him to chose emotional comfort, and he clings on desperately to the picture of the woman in fur coat on the wall.

That sympathy is not limitless is the other message in the novella. Gregor’s mother and sister are the most sympathetic with him, his sister trying hard to find out the food that he would like. Even the father who tries to physically harm him never kicks him out and lets the others care for him first. But, his appearance repulses them to the point of speaking in whispers out of fear. Effective communication is nonexistent and his human mind is unseen by them, he is being regarded as a mere insect. The unbearable nature of the stress leads them to think of expelling him from home, the idea put forth by his sister who had showed the most sympathy to him previously.

Estrangement is another theme. He had felt the alienation even before the metamorphosis, due to absence of friends or other intimate people which he attributes to the nature of his work forced on him by his circumstances. He is obliged to do a work without any passion in order to free his father from his debts. He dreams to quit the job after 5 or 6 years, once he has repaid the debts. The estrangement is complete on his transformation, physically and emotionally from his family members and the human race as a whole, as seen in his mention of the condition as “imprisonment”. He hides under the sofa when his sister tries to talk to him. Inability to communicate adds to this. In the end the toll that his labor had taken on him proves not worth the price he has to pay.

Metamorphosis is not only limited to Gregor’s body and mind , but to others as well. His sister, Grete metamorphoses from a girl to an adult physically and emotionally while taking responsibilities such as caring for Gregor and finding a job. The financial difficulties and hopelessness of the family too metamorphoses while they overcome the financial predicaments and the hope reinvigorates them emotionally. The irony of the metamorphoses is clear in the contrast between Gregor’s deterioration and his family’s change from abject horror to a happy climax.

Money, sleep and rest are prominent motifs that recur throughout the story. His existence is a commercialized one, he does the uninteresting clerical job for money only and plans to quit once he had made sufficient money. Though all Gregor thinks is about how to sustain in the job, the chief clerk exemplifies how expendable an employee is when they fail to profit from them irrespective of whether the individual is struggling or not. The Chief Clerk incriminates him of stealing the company money, without proper evidence, still Gregor thinks of how to retain his job in the company. A common interpretation of part one of the story is the Marxist critique of a capitalist system, stressing on ‘alienated labor‘- “What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, that is, that it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel well but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His work therefore is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it.Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that labor is shunned like the plague as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion.

He is a stranger to the the abyss of his”innermost self” that conflicts with the commercialized physical self. Interestingly Kafka pictures this “innermost self” of his heroes in the form of animals in his other works like “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “A Report to an Academy.” In “The Trial“, he represents this inner self that is suppressed.

Some of the critics and commentators point to the incestuous nature of his love for Grete. There are specific lines in the novella and Kafka’s diary entries to support their claims. The delusional nature of relationships, even those that are intimate points to the mutual exclusivity of truth and life. Gregor is mistaken about the senseless sacrifice of his soul for the benefit of the family, he expects untainted love in return, but has to make do with compromises that rupture in his “uneasy dreams”, the truth arising from it as a “gigantic insect”. The callousness and naturalness of the return to normalcy of the family after Gregor’s death adds to the absurdity of fate.

Gregor’s identity is another important theme of the story. While Gregor listens to Grete playing the violin, the narrator asks ” Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?” Only humans could respond the way the insect responds to her music. Another interpretation is his expression of repressed sexual desire for Grete. Gregor’s “animal state” yearns for the “unknown food“. Some critics interpret this as his repressed physical desires and some as spiritual yearning, one from the human mind and the other from the animalistic body. ( In “The Hunger Artist” he has treated the theme of spiritual nourishment not found on earth and in “Investigations of a Dog“, the spiritual food is made available through music. Kafka’s animals like the horses in “A Country Doctor” and the ape in “A Report to an Academy” has lost the divinity of creation. ) Gregor loses identity as man and an insect, not belonging entirely to any one of these realms, but occupying somewhere in between.

The story is in the form of a three part construction – exposition, conflict and denouement. In each part Gregor tries to break loose from his imprisonment. The first part deals with his professional conflict, the second part with his conflicts to the tense alienation from his family and the third part his literal emancipation or liberation with his death.

A major literary device that Kafka uses in his works is time. In this novella, time changes from precisely measurable units at first to a vague concept later on. When he wakes up from “uneasy dreams” in the beginning, he is fully conscious for one hour, beginning at half past six. Then gradually the clarity fades and time assumes a vagueness like “twilight”, “long evening”, ” soon”, “often”, and “about a month”. Similarly, Gregor loses “his last guideline of direction” when the furniture is removed from his room in the second part. According to Kafka, time is just a concept. The Metamorphosis is hapening outside the context of time.

Lastly, none of the sources or study materials could provide a complete understanding of the novella. We see Gregor,s loneliness and tribulations through a narrator’s perspective. The other characters in the story, Gregor included, does not seem to fully comprehend this. We are unaware of the cause of his transformation and finally has to be satisfied with depiction of fate bowing to an unknown. We feel the loneliness, delusions of love, animals inside humans, unrequited love in the form of sacrifice, absurdities, yet, Kafka’s style is so mysterious, not something that could be grasped that simply.