Synopsis-“Capital in the Twenty- First Century” by Thomas Piketty

Piketty defies left and right orthodoxy by arguing that worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. He argues that the degree of inequality is not just the product of economic forces, it is also the product of politics.

AuthorThomas Piketty

GenreNonfiction/ Political Economics

About the Author

Thomas Piketty is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is the director of studies at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS) and professor at the Paris School of Economics. He is the author of the best selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), which emphasizes the themes of his work on wealth concentrations and distribution over the past 250 years. The book argues that the rate of capital return in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this will cause wealth inequality to increase in the future. To address this problem, he proposes redistribution through a global tax on wealth.

Piketty was born on May 7, 1971, in the Parisian suburb of Clichy. He gained a C-stream (scientific) Baccalaureat, and after taking scientific preparatory classes, he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) at the age of 18, where he studied mathematics and economics. At the age of 22, Piketty was awarded his Ph.D. for a thesis on wealth redistribution, which he wrote at the EHESS and the London School of Economics under Roger Guesnerie.

After earning his PhD, Piketty taught from 1993 to 1995 as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1995, he joined the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) as a researcher, and in 2000 he became director of studies at EHESS.

Piketty won the 2002 prize for the best young economist in France, and according to a list dated November 11, 2003, he is a member of the scientific orientation board of the association “À gauche, en Europe”, founded by Michel Rocard and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

In 2006 Piketty became the first head of the Paris School of Economics, which he helped set up. He left after a few months to serve as an economic advisor to Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal during the French presidential campaign. Piketty resumed teaching at the Paris School of Economics in 2007.

He is a columnist for the French newspaper Libération, and occasionally writes op-eds for Le Monde.

In April 2012, Piketty co-authored along with 42 colleagues an open letter in support of then-PS candidate for the French presidency François Hollande. Hollande won the contest against the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in May of that year.

In 2013, Piketty won the biennial Yrjo Jahnsson Award, for the economist under age 45 who has “made a contribution in theoretical and applied research that is significant to the study of economics in Europe.”

Piketty specializes in economic inequality, taking a historic and statistical approach. His work looks at the rate of capital accumulation in relation to economic growth over a two hundred year spread from the nineteenth century to the present. His novel use of tax records enabled him to gather data on the very top economic elite, who had previously been understudied, and to ascertain their rate of accumulation of wealth and how this is compared to the rest of society and economy. His most recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, relies on economic data going back 250 years to show that an ever-rising concentration of wealth is not self-correcting. To address this problem, he proposes redistribution through a global tax on wealth.

( Goodreads author information:



Piketty has used data covering three centuries and more than twenty countries with the help of theoretical framework and statistical studies. This book is accessible to all people , even those without technical training or an economics background. The basic reason for inequality according to Piketty is :

when the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income as it did in the nineteenth century, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values in which democratic societies are based“.

He recommends that,

democracy can regain control over capitalism by ensuring that general interest takes precedence over private interests, preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist tendencies”.

Debate on Wealth Distribution

Intellectual and political debate on wealth distribuiton is prejudiced and facts are scarce. Novels by Jane Austen and Balzac, films etc exposes wealth distribution, hierarchy and its implications on men and society. The significance of inequality is it’s visibility and political conflict arises from the subjective perception and judgment of each class of people. Social scientific research systematically and methodically searches for facts, patterns, informs debate and scrutinize facts, even though it is tentative and imperfect. But for a long time this was based on a limited set of firmly established facts and a wide variety of theoretical speculations. Some of the previous thinkings are given below.


Though it seems that the old economic theories of the classical school are ridiculous in retrospect, the political, social and economic changes in the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries were huge and traumatic for the contemporary economists and observers to foresee doom for wealth distribution and class structure. And they were right too in several respects.

Thomas Malthus, (English economist and demographer, one of the most influencial members of the classical school of Economics, best known for his theory that population growth will always tend to outrun the food supply and that betterment of humankind is impossible without strict limits on reproduction) in his 1798 essay, ‘Essay on Principle of Population‘ attributes reasons for upheaval to overpopulation. His source was the diary of the traveller, English agronomist, Arthur Young who chronicled the poverty, overpopulation and French Revolution while travelling through France. The overpopulation of France in the 18 th century that led to decrease in wages and increase in land rents was one of the reasons of resentment towards the aristocracy and the political regime that led to thhe revolution in 1789. He was convinced that mass poverty would lead to political upheavel and worried about the inclusion of commoners to sit along with the aristocrats in the French Legislativve Assembly in 1790. Thus wealth distribution could be seen entangled with politics, class privileges and interests. Malthus borrowed these ideas and somewhat more radically and prejudicially argued to halt welfare assistance to the poor in England and to scrutinize reproduction by the poor, lest overpopulation would lead to a political upheaval in England too.

The two most influential economists of the 19 th century, David Ricardo and Karl Marx believed that a small social group- landowners for Ricardo and Industrial capitalists for Marx- would claim a steadily increasing share of output and income. There also were optimists, liberals like Adam Smith who dismissed that distribution of wealth would be unequal in the future and Jean Baptiste Say who believed in natural harmony. None of these people had any credible statistical data as empirical source to base their observations on.

Ricardo‘s “Scarcity Principle” was explained in his ‘Principles of Political Economy and Taxation‘ (1817). Population and output increase would lead to scarcity of land which inturn would lead to increase in land prices and rent, thus increasing the share of national income going to the landlords. Ricardo suggested a steadily increasing land rent tax to offset the resulting inequilibrium. Though, his prediction did not materialize in the long run as the share of agriculture in national income decreased during the industrial revolution. But his principle explains the effect of price system in destabilizing entire economies and societies. In the 21 st centuries, the principle holds true, we just need to replace the the land with booming real estate and oil prices. Two solutions to this supply and demand mechanisms are- one, if price increases due to reduced supply, switch over to alternate ways which inturn might decrease the price , two- increase the supply of the scarce good. But both these take a long time to achive the desirable results. Thus this interplay between supply and demand affects distribution of wealth linked to extreme changes in certain relative prices.

Karl Marx explained the theory of “Infinite Accumulation” in his work, ‘Capital‘ in 1867. Rise of industrial capitalism in the second half of the 19 th century caused the national economy to grow, but inspite of that and also due to the urban migration and population increase, the proletariat wage stagnated. The sordid reality of poverty and urban misery, child labor were caught in literature such as Oliver Twist, Les Miserables, Germinal and Engel‘s ‘Condition of Working Class in England’. The economy of France and England boomed, but in spite of or because of that worker’s wage stagnated( Historian Robert Allen calls this wage stagnation, “Engel’s Pause“”) from 1800’s to 1870’s. Wages caught up with the growth and economy slightly declined in the final third of nineteenth century, but inequality remained the same. From 1870 to 1914(WW 1), the inequality just stabilized at an extremely high level and wealth accumulation shot up. This inequality was reduced by the powerful economic and political shocks of WW1.

The first communist and socialist movements grew around 1840’s when the capital contnued to prosper while the labor incomes stagnated. After half a centruy of industrial growth from the 1800′ suntil 1840’s masses remained poor. All the politicians could do was only the prohibition of child labor. It was at this time(1848) that Marx published his Communist Manifesto on the eve of ‘ the spring of nations‘ (revolutions across Europe). Over the next two decades Marx proposed the first ever scientific analysis of capitalism and its collapse through his work Capital. Like Ricardo, Marx also explained the internal logical contradictions of the capitalist system. He explained the unlimited accumulation of capital in a few hands. Marx’s conclusion was that capitalism is doomed to an apocalyptic end either by reduced returns which inturn cause conflict among capitalists or inexorably flowing returns which cause the workers to revolt.

Marx’s prophecy was derailed in the last part of 19 th century until 1914, when wages increased, purchasing power increased, but inequlaity still worsened. Communist revolution took place only in the poorest part of Europe, Russia where industrial revolution had only scarcely begun. The richer parts of Europe introduced new social democratic changes benefiting the people. Like Ricardo, Marx was also mistaken and did not take into account the technological progress in future that could to some extent offset the accumulation of wealth sometimes. The probabale reasons are lack of proper research, and statistical data, hasty pronouncements due to political fervor etc…He did not give much thought to politicoeconomic, social situations when capital is abolished, a complex and tragic one as shown by the totalitarian governments abolishing capital.

In the 20 th century magical post war period( “Trente Glorueuses” in French- 30 glorious years from 1945 to 1975), economist Simon Kuznet proposed a theory(1955) directly antithetical to the apocalyptic theories of Marx and Ricardo , that income inequality would automatically decrease in advanced phases of capitalist development regardless of economic policies until it is stabilized at an acceptable level. The economist, Robert Solow(1956) also put forward a balanced growth path where all the variables of capitalism grow at an equal pace thus reducing inequality. These optimistic predictions mirrored the optimism of Adam Smith, Jean Baptiste Say and Proudhon of 19 th century.

Kuznet, an Ukranian -American economist, Harvard educated was the first one to postulate an inequality study based on statistics of income distribution in the US over aperiod of 1913 to 1948, . In 1953 he published his ‘Shares of Upper Income Groups In Income And Savings‘. It used two groups of data- US Federal Income Tax Returns(income tax was created in 1913 only) and Kuznet’s estimates of US National income ( two indispensible data for assessing inequality). Thus he became the first person to study the national accounts of US and the first to publish a historcal data on inequality. His optimistic theory was well received in the 1980 s and 1990 s and even today by some. The data on national income became available in many countries in the period between WW1 and WW2, when income tax was introduced to tax a certain segment of the population.

Kuznet noted a sharp reduction in income inequality between 1913 and 1948. With the data available, he calculated that the top 10% of income earners claimed 45 to 50% of the national income while the rest 90%( middle and low income earners) claimed 30 – 35% of the national income in the initial part of the time period. Calculations done in 1940 showed a drastic reduction in inequality with the top 10 % claiming 30 -35% of national income and the rest 90% claiming 65- 70 %. This decrease of 10% points in the top 10% earners amounted to half the income of the poorest 50% Americans. The reduction in inequality was objectively and empirically shown by Kuznet for the first time with the positive news that inequality in US was decreasing in the 1940′ s. While the 19 th century economics were just theoretically postulating hypotheses.

But Kuznet himself was aware that the reduction in income of the top 10% between 1913 and 1948 was due to the multiple shocks triggered by the Great Depression and WW1 and WW2 that reduced the fortune of the rich and not due to the mobility of wealth from top to bottom. Though he warned people not to generalize his interpretations in his 1953 book, he gave a much more optimistic explanation for reduction in inequality in a 1954 Detroit meet of American economists. He formulated a bell curve called ” Kuznet’s Curve” ( Inverted U- Curve) which shows that in the early stages of industrialization inequality increases and then in later stages it decreases. In a 1955 paper, he reminds readers to interpret data cautiously and note the importance of exogenous shocks in reducing inequality, he suggests that the economic development could also naturally follow this optimistic path without policy interventions or external shocks , not withstanding the speculative nature of the theory. The phenomenon was thought to be reproducible in underdeveloped and developing countries too, thus it became a powerful political weapon. Kuznet reminded the listeners in the meet the optimistic predictions were intended to maintain the underdeveloped countries within the orbit of the free world. Thus Kuznets Curve was a product of the Cold War, created for the wrong reasons. Since the 1970 s inequality has been increasing in the rich countries.

Rapid growth of China and some other poor and emerging countries have contributed to the reduction in inequality at a global level. The “balanced growth path” where all economic variables are supposed to grow at the same pace is disproved by the disequilibria in different economic sectors like oil, finance, real estate etc. Piketty has used an extensive set of historical data for understanding past and present trends, patiently establishing facts and patterns comparing different countries to get a clear idea for the future.

Sources used

One – sources of inequality and distribution of income.

Two- Sources of distribution of wealth and relation of wealth to income.

Piketty has challened Kuznet’s relation between economic development and distribution of wealth. As per himself, nobody has systematically pursued Kuznet’s work since the tax historical record statistics he had used falls in a no- man’s land, too historical for economists and too economistic for historians. Piketty maintains that income inequality can only be studied in a long- run perspective which is possible by making use of tax record. The household income and budget studies by the national statistical agencies rarely date before 1970 s and also tend to seriously underestimate the upper income groups’ income. But tax records tell more about high incomes and we are able to look at it at least a century back. Piketty has used the same method, sources and concepts as Kuznet to retrospectively analyse the tax records, national and average incomes and chart the patterns in France and all the rest of the 20 countries. The income tax returns allow us to study changes in income inequality and estate tax returns studies the changes in inequality of wealth. In some countrie studied, estate tax predates income tax and so wealth inequality data is much more than income inequality data. Picketty deals not only with the level of wealth and income inequality, but also the structure of inequality(their origin i.e, inherited wealth or savings) among social groups and the systems of economic, social, moral and political justification for defending or condemnng these inequalities.

One reason the book stands out from others is the long historical data to study the dynamics in retrospective, available to the author. Sometimes dating back to 18 th century as in the case of France and Britain. Some long term changes did not emerge clearly until data for the 21 st century became available due to the fact that certain shocks due to the world wars persisted for a very long time. Until the 70 s and 80 s such studies were done manually, but technological advances has made it possible to use a better and quick mode to study these.

Major Results of the Study

The first conclusion: To be wary of, i.e, economic determinism( a theory suggesting that economic forces determine, shape, and define all political, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological aspects of a civilization.). The history of inequality and wealth distribution had always been deeply political. Example: The reduction of inequality in developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was due to the policies adopted to cope up with the consequences of war. The resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due to the changes in taxation and finance, again political decisions. Thus inequality is the joint product of political, social and economic factors combined.

The second conclusion: The dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternatively towards convergence(reduction in inequality) and divergence(rise in inequality). There is no natural. spontaneous process to prevent the destabilising forces to prevail permanently.

Knowledge and skill diffusion is the key to overall productivity growth as well as reduction in inequality both within and between countries. By adopting the modes of productivity of rich countries and acquiring skills the less developed countries have increased their productivity and national incomes. eg. China.

From a theoretical standpoint, other forces can push towards greater equality. For example: requirement of greater skills of production will lead to more empowerment and income of skilled workers thus increasing the human capital over financial capital. A scientist or reasearcher or engineer who is highly skilled would make inequality meritocratic and static. Thus technological rationality leads to economic and democratic rationality.

No matter how potent the forces of skill and diffusion of knowledge is in promoting convergence between countries and within countries, powerful forces can thwart this. Eg: Educational policies, lack of investment in or access to training, availability to acquire skills and of instituitions in turn affect societal groups. Some groups benefit, while some others do not.

Deriving Picketty’s r>g as the fundamental equation of inequality

Taking two worrisome forces of divergence, Piketty tells us that the first one is less worrisome than the second. First, top earners suddenly separate from the rest by a wide margin, means they get into the top 10%. The reason according to Picketty is either the sudden increase in the skills and productivity leading them to be top earners or more plausibly that they acquire the power to set their own remuneration in some cases without limit or in many cases without clear relation to their individual productivity. This is seen mainly in the US. Second, the accumulation of wealth and capital returns when growth of economy is weak, which has the most potent destabilizing effect of the two.

To explain the divergence, Picketty has extended the Kuznets curve over a period from 1910 to 2010. Taking the income inequality of the US first, the top 10% earners claim 45 to 50% of the national income during 1910 – 1920, drops to 30 to 35% at the end of 1940, remains static from 1950 -1970, then a rapid rise in inequality after the 1980’s until the present. By 2010 it is 50% of the national income. After the Kuznet’s Bell curve, it leads directly to an U-shaped curve from the 1940 s to 2010. The rapid rise of inequality after 1980 s in the US is due to a veritable separation of the top managers to the top 10% from the rest of the labor force as mentioned before.

He plotted a second graph of the total value of the private wealth in Britain, France and Germany expressed as ratio of national income in years (capital: national income) from 1870 to 2010. In the late 19 th century, the private wealth is 6 to 7 years of national income, very high. It becomes 2 to 3 years of national income following the shocks of war during 1914 – 1945( inequality decreases). It rises after 1950 and in the twenty first century the private fortunes in al the three countries seem to be on the verge of 5 or 6 years of national income( inequality increases). We get the same U- shaped curve. The return of high capital to income ratio over the past two decades is due to slow growth of economy according to Picketty. Those already having wealth only needs a slight flow of savings to increase the stock of wealth steadily and substantially.

Thus if the rate of return on capital is significantly above the growth rate, which is more likely when growth rate is low, the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is high. This fundamental inequality which Picketty writes as r>g, where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital including profits, dividend, interests, rent and other income from capital, expressed as percentage of the total value of capital and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, i.e the annual increase in national income or output, sums up the overall logic of Picketty’s conclusions.

Returns on capital were higher than the growth rate in the 18 th centuries and early 19 th centuries and again after 1970’s. Inherited wealth is important since it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than the output or income. People with inherited wealth need to save only a portion of their income from the capital to see that capital grow more quickly than economy as a whole. Thus inherited wealth dominates wealth amassed by lifetime labor by a wide margin, capital accumulates, incompatible to the meritocratic values and social justice in a democracy. Also the savings rate increases with wealth. Means , the richer one is , the wealthier one gets. This destabilization factor leading to divergence worried Kuznet, who expressed this in his 1953 book, ‘ Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings‘. These forces for divergence was also central in James Mead‘s book, ‘Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of Property‘ and also to Atkinson and Harrison in their ‘ Distribution of Personal Wealth in Britain‘.

To sum up, the process of wealth accumulation and distribution contain powerful forces pushing towards divergence. Though forces of convergence exist, the forces of divergence can attain an upper hand at any time, as is happening now at the beginning of 21 st century. The likely decrease in the growth of population and economy in the coming decades makes this trend all the more worrisome.

Picketty’s conclusions are less apocalyptic than those implied by Marx’s principle of infinite accumulation and perpetual divergence ( Marx’s theory implicitly relies on assumption of zero productivity growth in the long run). Picketty stresses that the main force of divergence in his theory of r>g has nothing to do with any market imperfection . Contrarily, the more perfect the capital market, the more likely r>g. He suggests instituitions and policies that would counter this by progressive global tax on capital . But, they need considerable international co ordination.

The book relies primarily on the historical experience of the leading developed countries- US, Japan, Germany and Britain. British and Frech data are significant, the data for these countries are available as far back as 18 th century. They were the leading colonial and financial powers in the 19 th and 20 th centuries. Their history is indispensable in studying what had been called the first globalization of finance and trade(1870-1914), which was prodigiously inegalitarian. He has given particular significance to the study of France since the French estate records dating back to the 18 th century are probably the richest in the world over the long run. The French Revolution did not create a just society. The population increase over the past 200 years, which was slow also makes it a good subject of study. US when compared to France has a 100 fold increase in population since the Declaration of Independence(France has only 2 fold increase in the last 200 years), less important inheritence factor compared to Europe, a vast change in geography due to the extensive westward expansion, all suggesting that US case is not generalizable.

Piketty critiques the orthodox system of economists churning out theoretical results without knowing what facts needed to be explained. He maintans that the discipline of economics need to get over the childish passion for abstract mathematical theorems and purely theoretical and highly ideological speculations and should focus on historical research and collaboration with other social sciences. Since Kuznet, there was no significant effort to collect the historical data on the dynamics of inequality, a void filled by Piketty with this work. He has presented the data in the book in such a way that anyone with an interest to dissect the question of inequality can easily understand the economics, history and politics of inequality. He uses some elementary mathematical equations , which can be explained in simple ways and understood without specialized technical knowledge. He condemns the preoccupation of economists with mathematics to acquire the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the complex problems posed by the world. He exhorts the economists to work alongside other social science disciplines and the social science practitioners to take interest in economics of wealth distribution and social class and to take a pragmatic approach to avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists .

Book Review “A Rainbow In The Night” by Dominique Lapierre

Author– Dominique Lapierre

Genre/ Category – Nonfiction/ History , Science and current affairs

About the author

Lapierre was born in France and at the age of thirteen he travelled to the US with his father who was a diplomat. He studied in a Jesuit school and later developed an interest in writing.

I am not sure if he is basically a historian or whether his books be categorized as exclusive history works. He is one of the nonfiction authors I love to read, one among the few whose works are as enjoyable as touching. The plus in his books is that you never feel like you are reading about wars or conquests or scanning through years and periods as in the usual history books. You get the feel and curiosity of ‘what next’ as in some fiction. You never get bored reading history from his books.

He was awarded Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award in 2008.


The post- apartheid South Africa after 1994 was called “The Rainbow Nation” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. ‘A Rainbow in The Night’ tells the apartheid history of South Africa. The book reminded me of ‘Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad ( My review-

During 1652, The Dutch East India Company sent a small group of farmers to the southern tip of Africa. The purpose was to establish an encampment to collect fruits and vegetables so as to prevent scurvy, a disease that literally stopped their long sea journeys to the East in search of gold, silk and spices. Their leader was an ardent Calvinist, Van Jan Riebeek. The soil was unbelievably fertile and Riebeek believed that they were the chosen ones, god-sent to the chosen land to Christianize Africa, just like Canaan was gifted to Jacob’s sons by annihilating the races there.

The future generations of Riebeek waged all out wars with the African tribes, whose war tactics and traditional weapons like spears and arrows became ineffectual. The land of the ancient tribes was conquered and the inhabitants transformed to slaves to their ‘white guests’. Ships, Victoria’s armies, merchants from the East and the West in search of gold and diamond mines, and their slaves started reaching the Cape of Hope and in the bloodshed that followed the black soil slowly began to change it’s color.

The Dutch migrants who believed themselves to be the chosen people started to feel these invasions unbearable. These parochial religious people who spoke the ‘Afrikaans‘ language called ‘Africaners’ started migrating to the interiors of Africa in search of the promised land. By the 1830’s this trek made by the future generations of the Dutch by encountering and annihilating the local tribes came to be known as ‘ The Great Trek‘.

Many years passed, many wars were waged with the other inhabitants and during the beginning of 1900’s Boer War was fought with Great Britain followed by a truce. By the time the demarcation and chasm between black and white had widened beyond the unthinkable. The minority whites owned majority of land and wealth and the majority blacks lived in suffocation amidst penury, destitution and diseases.

While the end of world war and Hitler in 1948 saw the new birth of humanity and rules of law around the whole world, South Africa lived up to the name ‘Dark Continent’ and was busy molding a barbaric system. In May 28, 1948, the National Party came to power voted in by the white people. Inspired by Hitler’s pure Aryan concept, the National Party leader and Church minister, Daniel Francois Malan, exhorted in parliament, ” At last God has bestowed South Africa to us“. That was the beginning of the system of apartheid as we know today, robbing the natives of their freedom and basic rights in their birth country forcing them to be prisoners.

Apartheid means ‘the state of being apart‘ in Afrikaans language. The term was translated by it’s prophets to the outside world as an opportunity for the black race to live according to their tribal culture and for others to live with their beliefs without chances of intermingling. But, South Africa was divided in all means and respects into black and white. Public places, religious and educational institutions became unreachable for anyone other than the whites. Blacks were forced out from urban areas and segregated into ghettoes. For those above 18 years of age to walk around, they had to carry a document called passbook. They were not given the citizenship rights or considered as citizens of the country.

Voices of dissent started to rise as the people suffocated under poverty, diseases and police atrocities. African National Congress was born under Nelson Mandela. Gandhism and nonviolence were incorporated, but was pointless. Armed revolution called ‘ spear of the nation’ began. Mandela was jailed for 27 years. Riots, dissents and bans by the world nations and organizations brought the Africaner supremacy to it’s tipping point. Mandela was freed in 1990 and ANC rose to power in 1994 under him led to the official end of apartheid n SA.

Lapierre includes glimpses of humanity, white and black, touching anecdotes of some humans who spread their light when SA had gone dark among the world nations. World’s first heart transplant surgeon Dr Christian Bernard, the white lady, Helen Lieberman who had spread hope in black alleys, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela, who had suffered torture and led ANC during Mandela’s absence and a few others many of whom we have seen and heard during our own generation.

Lapierre writes about a wagon rally conducted a few years before apartheid officially began in SA to spread Africaner nativeness and greatness reminding the Great Trek of their forefathers. South Africa was able to slowly transform from a white only view to a rainbow of colors. But there are countries now, like India for instance, regurgitating history and excavating a buried past turning the wheels of time to the graveyard of past instead of into a bright future, a trend that we need to worry about.

“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: :

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


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.

Book Review- ‘Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future’ by Svetlana Alexievich


Author– Svetlana Alexievich

Genre– Nonfiction (Personal narrative/ Biography)


The book is about the Chernobyl disaster, by the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Laureate. At the time of the disaster, she was a journalist living in Minsk. It is a product of interviews with more than 500 eyewitnesses who have had direct experience dealing with the disaster and rendered as monologues in her polyphonic writing.


The book proffers a verbatim account in the form of monologues from the living, breathing relics of Chernobyl, an exceptional product of almost three years of close encounter and interaction with the victims of the disaster, aka Chernobyl people. The author is unique, given her polyphonic writing boring straight through the minds and hearts of readers, proffering fervent accounts that would leave anyone, with no more than a skin-deep grasp of the disaster, totally flabbergasted.

The most consequential technological disaster of the twentieth century has often been linked to Ukraine and Russia, regardless of a fall out of 70% upon a small landlocked Eastern European country Belarus despite it not having any nuclear power stations on its own. The disaster left enduring scars on the future generation in the form of cancers, genetic mutations, mental retardation, congenital anomalies, and many neuropsychiatric disorders.

The area within several kilometers of radii around the reactor was designated as contamination zones where background radiation levels shot off the limits of any conceivable values in the Geiger Counter. One can’t but feel deeply offensive making sense of the egregious and hideous response of the Soviet Union towards the disaster and its own people. Young conscripts and reservist clean up workers were drafted to the contaminated zone for many months to clean up the area without proper protection, where even machines and robots came to a halt. They were given false assurances on the level of radiation but the truth was that most of them were pitifully benighted to the gravity of the disaster, let alone the effects of radiation or nuclear physics gone berserk.

Many statistics are still classified. The communist propaganda machines churned out unenlightened and ill-advised media announcements treacherously providing a false sense of security to the masses. They devoured these along with cesium, strontium and plutonium-laced food washed down with radioactive drinks, inhaled radioactive dust, and splashed around in radioactive rivers and streams.

Most of the cleanup workers died from acute radiation sickness or other long-term effects of radiation. Those that were left behind were afflicted by deep-seated emotional and physical scars. A hasty trial of the perpetrators in Chernobyl during 1986, discernibly without international media presence, settled for scapegoats instead. Even now, nobody knows what is happening inside the reactor number 4 covered by a sarcophagus called Shelter Object and recently replaced by a new one made of high-quality steel capable of withstanding gamma radiation called The Arch.

The poignancy of the monologues is manifest and the barbarism of the regime is abstrusely homicidal into the bargain. A stroll through the zone is striking with respect to the spillage of cemeteries. The masses that had been fed and nurtured by decades of Soviet ideology and upbringing were within easy reach of the regime and they acquiesced docilely to their demands to ‘ contain ‘ the fallout of an unprecedented catastrophe. What these unarmed soviet androids took home from the regime in return were unbefitting and unworthy of life vis-a-vis the intimidating scenarios they would, later on, stand up to.

Two other disasters concurred with the cosmic explosion of Chernobyl, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fizzling out of ‘sovietness’ ingrained in the psyche of the masses. Until the disaster, they had reckoned science, scientists and communism in the upper echelons of their collective consciousness, they were indoctrinated on the amicability of the atom, the immense expanse of the space to be hegemonized and they had unwavering certitude in the Soviet ‘mandarins’. With Chernobyl, the Soviet ethos too breathed it’s last.

The Zone, as it is known, will remain uninhabitable for years to come, carrying the markers of the radionuclides everywhere surrounding it, even more so as a cataclysm of the minds of the Soviet people. This is nothing like the events that are apparently comparable to, far apart from natural disasters or wars that could be consigned to the dustbin of history, where a distinct demarcation is possible between past, present and future.

With Chernobyl, the demarcation is blurred and they blend into the realm of eons inscrutable to us, common men. For that reason this book is synchronistically a requiem for the past and a chronicle of future.

Analysis of Objectivism and book review of “Anthem” by Ayn Rand

It is a sin to write this.

It is a sin to be alone.

It is a sin to think alone.

For, there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.

It is a fearful word, alone.

Still, we must write.

We wish to speak once to no ears, but our own

                                                                                          “Anthem” by Ayn Rand.


Genre-      Dystopic literature/ Philosophical fiction


Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem‘ is a political statement against collectivism and blatant erasure of individualism, attacking the tenets of Soviet Communism, that, according to her, promulgates serfdom and slavery, disguising as and hiding behind the veil of ostensible freedom of the proletariat.  It is a dystopian novel, the atmosphere same as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World‘ and to cite a more recent one, Yan Lianke’s ‘The Four Books‘.My review here(Book Review ‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke).

Rand and Objectivism

Rand was born Russian(1905) to an intellectual and well-off Jewish family and a witness to the Bolshevik Revolution, and a victim (according to her) when the communists expropriated property from the wealthy, nobles, landlords and aristocrats and distributed to the proletariat. ( The Russian Revolution had had many reasons other than this, though inequality was one notable raison d etre. Rand having had to lose everything, we can very well understand her ire against everything that had to do with communism. Yet, the significance of perspective shouldn’t go unnoticed. Thinking from the proletariat viewpoint, the revolution was a liberating force then. The state surveillance and curbing of individual freedom would have had the most negative impact while shaping the judgments and viewpoints of an intellectual like her).

She had done her Bachelors in History from St. Petersburg State University, Russia, where, she wrote later, she had encountered the distortion of history, art, literature, and past to propagate the Soviet communist propaganda. She turned out to be an excellent propagandist herself, later in the U.S, trumpeting her philosophy and capitalist ideologies, that were soaked up by a liberal crowd pining for change, a business flock hungry for profit and a conservative group who savvied its electoral significance.

She fled to the land of freedom, the USA, obliterated everything Russian( her name was ‘Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum’), took on US citizenship, and started writing novels and propounded her unique and controversial brand of philosophy, called ‘Objectivism’. ‘Anthem’ set the seeds of her philosophy, which was then expounded in detail through her other famous works, ‘The Fountainhead‘ and ‘Atlas Shrugged‘ and also her many non-fiction works.

(I was interested in reading Anthem and about objectivism after reading a newspaper article headlined, why ‘Conservatives and Libertarians embrace Randian philosophy while Academicians reject it‘. Texts about the philosophy were beyond my understanding, I just wanted to find out what the fuss is all about and I love non-fiction. Many GoodReads friends suggested reading ‘Anthem‘ first to make out the whats and whys and also many simplified explanations were available on the net. If you are not a fan of philosophical-fiction, better not try this one).

Objectivism has four tenets- reality, reason, self-interest, and individual rights and capitalism. Simply explaining, Rand’s philosophy is rooted in Ego or self-serving/ self-actualizing acts to achieve individual happiness and prosperity and through this happiness, the prosperity of a society. The moral goal of each individual should be achieving happiness as the purpose of life through the noblest activity of productive achievement with an absolute reason, living in a society that respects individual rights and promotes laissez-faire capitalism. Note, the many interesting points here for conservatives and capitalists, but, one thing that stands out in her materialistic philosophy, is, she is a self-styled atheist to a fault, that makes it an atheistic philosophy too, one that might not go well with conservative ideologies.

Conservatism, Rand and objectivism

The 40-th US president Ronald Reagen was a fan of Ayn Rand, as his private letters reveal A pamphlet was written by Rand after the 1960 presidential campaign,’ Conservatism, an Obituary‘ in which she states that capitalism is the only alternative to Statism. Though Rand was never a fan of Reagen( as her many speeches suggest) due to his alliance with the religious right and his pro-life stance on legal abortion. Her words-  “the appalling disgrace of his administration was his connection with the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ and sundry other TV religionists, who are struggling, apparently with his approval, to take us back to the Middle Ages via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.

Though both were anti-communists to the hilt, there were many dissonances in their overlapping views on objectivism. Simply put, conservatism and anti-communism cannot be automatically linked to the Randian objectivism. There were obvious discordances at many points. Certain pieces didn’t fit into these groups that easily. But the 60’s conservative youth and libertarians, most of whom embraced atheism, found in the philosophy an excellent propaganda tool and inspiration for political and social contexts. Many were searching for ideologies to pin their faith on, about the role of individuals and government in a society. They misinterpreted Rand’s elevation of individualism into the extreme and set limits on government interference in the most minimalist terms possible. Many of the old conservatives who were religious and pro-life, later tried to let themselves out of the Randian hook or added their own convenient religious component into it. Both groups added a prophetic hue to her major novels, pointing to the dystopia that might alight upon them, given the consequence of electing a liberal government. Rand was an adamant pro-choice proponent and had warned and argued strongly against religious conservatism.

Rand’s philosophy encompassed the cold war struggle b/w free countries practicing capitalism like the USA and ostensible surveillance states curbing freedom and individualism like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She went on to write novels and was an acclaimed Hollywood scriptwriter.  The novels ‘Atlas shrugged’ and ‘The Fountainhead’ was remade into films, in which she countered and flipped over the communist agitprop of a heroic worker fighting tooth and nail with a sordid capitalist. ‘The Fountainhead’ released during WW-ll tells the story of a self-made heroic architect, Howard Roark, fighting the injustice of people who abuse the labor of others called ‘second-handers’.( Have read the review only. Looks like an interesting read).

Anthem‘ summary

Anthem is a paean to Ego. It is the self-realization of individual potential to the utmost when a person is free.

The novel is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, (yes, that is his name, he does not have a proper name.), a young man languishing in a dystopian, apocalyptic future society under 24/7 surveillance. Not an ordinary society, here individuality has been cleansed right to the level of vocabulary for communication. No one had even heard of the pronoun ‘I’ or if someone knew that, they were not allowed to use. The collective term ‘We” should be used instead. They have been dictated that the reason for their existence, is to serve others. There is no individual existence, but a collective one.  A one- for- all and all- for- one kind.

Our hero happens to be an exception by standing out from the crowd in appearance, intellect, and free-thinking. Actually, there were a few others like him, a minority who had lost the war against a majority, when the era of the Great Rebirth came into existence. In spite of or because of his singularity, he had been assigned the job of a street sweeper, with tedious working hours amidst which he sneaks into an underground tunnel with candlelight and starts writing, thinking and doing scientific experiments, all by and to himself( something that is punishable).

Meanwhile, he falls in love with a lady by the name Liberty 5-3000. Another punishable offense, of giving importance to a person, in particular, a transgression by preference. Time passes and Equality discovers electricity by himself (that is more transgression) and decides to present it in front of the Council of Scholars( unpardonable offense). They freak out and Equality escapes to the nearby forbidden Forest, followed by Liberty and inhales the first air of freedom. They discover a house, an entirely private one and not a collective dwelling, books, and manuscripts from the Unmentionable Times before the Great Rebirth. They see their reflections in the mirror for the first time. From the books, they finally, find out the pronoun, ‘I’ and utter ‘ I Love You’ to each other, instead of ‘We love you’ ( this is exclusively Randian). Equality changes his name to ‘Prometheus'(light bearer, allegorical here) and Liberty to ‘Gaea'(The Earth personified as a goddess)

The climax is when Equality learns that he is extremely happy on his own, the only reason for his existence, tastes freedom and most of all, discovers Ego as the most sacred form of existence of an individual. He decides to go back and fight for the trampled ones in the city. There are other characters going by names like International 4-8818, Fraternity 2-5503 and Solidarity 9-6347. ( You could guess the roles by their constitutional names. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress cited as the first novel written in English in 1678 has characters going by names like Christian, Obstinate, Pliable, Civility, Goodwill and so forth.).

Anthem analysis

It is a short novella(65 pages only), but hidden within are allegories, images, and truth drenched in philosophical viewpoints.  So it takes time since you need to do some significant collateral reading to get to what she means exactly by each sentence.

The philosophical theme is basically ‘egoism’, though she had created the raw materials for ‘objectivism’, that later on, she would expand in her other major works. Collectivism is expressed as nightmarish confinement and subdual and freedom described as the springboard for individual development. Also, with freedom, comes identity( I instead of We) as an individual.

The strained relation between individual and society has been painted in the darkest of tones, as the society tries to control every aspect of individual life from what he should think to when or whether he should procreate.  (Reminds me of China’s one-child policy, now abandoned, censorship of literature in many countries, espionage of apparent dissidents, forced sterilization to limit population in democratic India during the Emergency period of 1976, forced sterilization as a part of Eugenic program in the USA in the first half of the 20th century extending to the 1970s. All of this leads us to the conclusion that this is not just something which happens in dictatorships only, even democracies practice many and more such atrocities. The case of Buck vs Bell, when Carrie Buck was stamped by the Supreme Court as imbecile and sterilized without her consent by Dr. John Bell in 1927, followed by many thousands is a notable one in the US). (For those interested, there is an excellent book about Buck vs Bell case -” Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell” by Paul A Lombardo).

Rand explains the superiority of individual happiness over societal good, freedom to choose what one likes and not to toil for the common good. She makes it clear that progress in any field, science or any other, is possible by amassing knowledge individually and not as a group. Freedom to love has been forbidden in Rand’s dystopia and through Equality and Liberty, she argues that freedom to choose and love should be the foremost, though Liberty’s love has more of a submissive and slavish tinge( I don’t get it. Could be some allegory within allegory, not sure).

Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegories

Anthem is executed in scriptural language with Biblical and Mythological( Prometheus, Gaea) allusions. For eg., we could find the frequent use of the words, ‘ sin, transgression, Unmentionable Times, Unspeakable Word, Evil Ones’, etc.. What Rand is trying to affirm here, is  the frequent adoption of religion by totalitarian governments to emblazon their God-like power on people’s minds and thereby turning them to puppets, who idolize the state and the heads.

Biblical Gospel of Mathew states, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, but Rand( remember, she was an atheist) conducts literal sabotage( sacrilege) by emphasizing her brand of solipsism and not a collective love. Similarly, Jesus’ famous “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”  is mirrored in  Equality’s proclamation,  “I am the meaning…. I am the warrant and the sanction“. There are many hard-to- not notice allusions like these.

Light and water symbolisms and imagery are also striking and brilliant. Equality’s discovery of electric light( knowledge, truth) in the dark tunnel, his renaming as Prometheus( who stole and carried fire to earth), his decision to spread the light on the darkness of fellowmen( he is a light-bearer), Liberty’s appearance as water- bearer, all these point to a new beginning, a rebirth. Again an allusion to the King James Bible, which reads, in context:” In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Look at this beautiful interaction between water and light, when Equality meets Liberty, in Rand’s wonderful imagery,

And the drops of water falling from their(her) hands, as they(she) raised the water to their(her) lips, were like sparks of fire in the sun. Then the Golden One(Liberty) saw us(me), and they(she) did not move, kneeling there, looking at us(me), and circles of light played upon their(her) white tunic, from the sun on the water of the moat, and one sparkling drop fell from a finger of their(her) handheld as frozen in the air”.

Randian philosophy: who needs it?

Well, as per Rand, every human being needs to be philosophical. With this, she doesn’t mean that we should sit still and brood over philosophy. What she meant was that all of us should be aware of the reason for existence. And unfortunately, embraced by the far right, neo-fascists, and neo-Nazis.

Face reality independent of any consciousness and not try to re-write it, understand that all things have their own identity, the highest moral goal of man should be achieving happiness and this needs rational respect for reality. (This is o.k.)

There is some misunderstanding about the role of ego/ selfishness in her theory and many have construed this to suit their own goals, notably businesses and conglomerates. She makes it clear in an essay, ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It?’. She differentiates between selfishness as a virtue and selfishness without a self. Rand sharply contrasts her view with one conventional picture of selfishness: the mindless amoralist who does whatever he wants. According to her, a selfish person without self is one who “has no self and no personal interests, only momentary whims”. Whereas selfishness is forming a self, developing long-range goals, moral values, and standards through one’s own independent judgment, and staying committed despite distractions resulting in a self- confident individual. This has become jumbled. (What I have understood from objectivism is plain selfishness to achieve individual happiness and nothing to be justified morally or nothing that stands on a moral pedestal. )

Regarding faith, she argues that this goes along with brute force and mysticism like reason and freedom. She adds, ” no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts, and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.” ( Theocracy subjugating the masses(outright autocracy) or the poisoning of secular democracies by extremist uncompromising religious ideologues/ fanatics or a conservative sort of apathy in keeping the church and state separate .)

Regarding capitalism, she elevates the capitalist entrepreneur individualist as the true leader of society. Everything said, like socialism, capitalism has major pitfalls, the foremost being economic inequality and hoarding of a significant proportion of wealth by a small group of rich. And the political consequences are right before our eyes in many countries. We read about it in newspapers every day. To cite a recent one, 30 years of laissez-faire capitalism in Chile brought millions to the streets demanding change. Though Chile is considered a Latin American success story, the main reason behind the protest was economic inequality, the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer in a capitalist system with superadded corruption, paving the way to the young neck-deep in debt, a middle-class struggling to meet day to day expenses and an older generation languishing in privatized pension schemes.

{NYT article URL for ref. (}

Political capitalism is something like a never-ending quid pro quo, an economic and political system in which the economic and political elite cooperate for their mutual benefit. Most of the time, this goes on surreptitiously and under the radar of unsuspecting common citizens, but some states practice it in an explicit, unabashed manner rebuffing the very voters who gifted them the mandate.

The economic elite influences the government’s economic policies to use regulation, government spending, and the design of the tax system to maintain their elite status in the economy. The political elite is then supported by the economic elite which helps the political elite maintain their status; an exchange relationship that benefits both the political and economic elite. This happens everywhere, at all times, in India, the US, France, and many other countries.

We might support or reject her theories per se, depending on our perspective. From what I could make out from the understandable texts, the only take-home message for me, is to face the reality of things, seek identity and be SELF- LESS for self- actualization and for reaching the highest potential.

And, speaking to my own ears just for once, I don’t think I am going to like her theories or philosophy.


Philosophy: Who Needs It

Click to access basics.pdf

23 Advantages and Disadvantages of Capitalism

Click to access cj-v35n1-2.pdf 







“Orlando” by Virginia Woolf


Title-                  Orlando

Author-             Virginia Woolf

Genre-              Fictional biography/ historical biography/ fantasy/ satire/                                                             modernism/magical realism

Theme-            Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/                                                              conformity/ flow of time/ identity

Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Through the work, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.

It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.

Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual, so on this account the work is a fiction-biography fusion or autofiction. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare‘s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)

The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.

The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.

Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.

Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).

Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!

A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander PopeRape Of The Lock), Joseph AddisonSpectator) and Jonathan SwiftGulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).

The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. (Sasha is said to the fictional form of Violet, Vita’s former lover) Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.

In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.