(‘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 Yakshihad been a mix of awe, dread, and allure, in a children’s version of ‘Aithihyamala’ by the Malayalam author, KottarathilShankunni, that had one story which went by the name ‘ YakshiyumNamboodiriyum‘ . 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 ‘YakshiyumNamboodiriyum‘, 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 Yakshibeing 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 bedazzlingYakshi, 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.
Category/ Genre– Nonfiction/ Essays/ Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
Awards/ Recognitions– Nobel Prize in Economics(1998)
First published– 2005
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 ”
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).
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.
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 froman 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.
MajorCharacters 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.
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“.
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.
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 “TheHunger 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.
Category/ Genre– Nonfiction/ Essays/ LiteraryCriticism/ Personal Essay
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead, turns himself into a monster.”
– James Baldwin
Speaking of JamesBaldwin, a few things that immediately cross my mind are his novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, the 1941 oil on canvas painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ by the American Modernist painter Beauford Delaney of Baldwin seated as nude, his trenchant quotes and the incisive anatomization of race and identity through his spell-binding essays.
I had read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ years back, as a young reader, and had been fixed since of the impression that I had gleaned of him as an author confessional of his sexual identity, candid and forthrightly in exploring homosexuality at a time when the very term made for moral bankruptcy and anti-Christian bearing. Then, amidst the passing years, I happened to read his quotes, essays, and most notably the critical reviews of authors about his works, Giovanni’s Room one among them. I realized its dimensions and shades that I had missed as a young reader. The reviews reminded me of the depth of his observation and experiences of the social dynamics, something crucial for a novelist and essayist, that I had failed to take note of all those years back.
Likewise, my interest in paintings and the painters and my love of painting brought me to read the articles about American modernist painter Beauford Delaney and his works. I was literally stunned to learn about his oil painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ of a seated male nude. Stunned, since, one- I had never known him painting nudes, two- that the painting was of his protege James Baldwin, three- the regality of the figure emanating confidence, and four- the dynamics of colors, red, blue, green, pink and yellow that swirl in such a manner that we are able to distinguish the figure in an entity, still inseparable from the surroundings that flow and merge with the figure. (((A slight detour…..For those interested in paintings and art, a fair and perfect foil could be found in John Singer Sargent‘s male nude study of his African- American muse Thomas E McKeller, a bellhop and elevator-attender and believed to have had intimately associated with Sargent. Sargents muse seems stressed, evidently posing as an object/ subject for the painter, while Delaney’s protege seems to confidently pose gleaming in the rainbow colors. Sargent is said to have had never openly admitted his relationship with his muse and he was casually racist as evidenced by his letters. Their intimacy could well be just a matter of conjecture, we don’t know for sure. His black male nudes are still a subject of racial tension owing to the manner in which he had represented them. Delaney was a mentor and father figure to Baldwin and the creative point where their artistic and intellectual talents intersected in mutually beneficial ways. It seems their relationship was platonic, from the available records))))
Personally, I love Baldwin’s essays. He was a playwright, poet, social critic, and activist too. His works dissect the complex racial, class, and sexual identities and questions the entrenched inequalities in society and the psychological trauma of the bleakness of societal acceptance that an individual has to bear by dint of these. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement (1950’s and 60’s), an outspoken proponent of gay and lesbian rights. Born in Harlem, NewYork, he was the son of a minister and became a preacher at the age of 14 ( References to the Black Church are scattered in his writings). He moved to Southern France in 1948, where he wrote ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, the protagonist, an American white homosexual who struggles with his sexual identity and other characters predominantly white as opposed to his other works featuring blacks. He had to contend with the ire of the Black Community due to the exploration of gay themes in his works. He died from stomach cancer in 1987 in France and was buried in Hartsdale, near NewYork.
The book is a collection of ten essays that had appeared previously in different periodicals.
Through them, he searches his identity as a homosexual American black and a writer, explores his experiences, criticizes the works such as protest novels and movies, discusses the socio-cultural milieu of Harlem, the strained relationship with his father, his own contradictory views that clashed with himself, the origins of racial prejudice through the mirror of his self, the definition of being a ‘native son’, and his experiences living in Europe.
The ten essays belong to different genres of literary criticism, social analysis, and personal memoir. His works are ever relevant notably at present when we read daily in the news about the institutional racism and atrocities that the black Americans encounter, movements like Black Lives Matter at the forefront of fighting these ills, putting forward the uneasy question, why after all these decades of the postbellum era the racial prejudice is hard to be wiped off completely.
In the first part of the book are three critical essays. Baldwin stresses the point that artists should better represent their work through their own personal experiences than trying to champion a social cause generally, such that the subject could be dealt with honestly and with integrity. Here, he is not telling all artists to produce autobiographical works or memoirs solely, but exhorting to mint the work through the machine of personal experience, so that the final result would be more beautiful, candid and genuine. He criticizes ‘Native Son‘(1940) a novel written by the American author Richard Wright in which Wright attributes the crimes of the youth Bigger Thomas, a black man in poor southern Chicago to the systemic degradation and ills of the society. Similarly, the anti-slavery novel by the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘ has also been criticized. The author was a white American abolitionist. But, I, for one, think that though personal experience counts, even authors without much of that in a specific area or subject could make a whole world of difference through their works highlighting social ills. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘ is famed to have laid the groundwork of the Civil War and helped to change the attitudes of at least some of the whites towards the blacks. Though white, she was ardently abolitionist.
Baldwin is incisive about the characterization and plot of the 1954 American musical film, ‘Carmen Jones‘ produced and directed by the Austrian -born theater and film director Otto Preminger. The screenplay was based on the stage musical by the same name. The plot compares and seeks the parallels of an amoral gypsy and an amoral black woman. The fact that there are no white characters, the seemingly parodic speech of the black characters, and the absurd set designs are criticized by Baldwin as nothing but condescending. He brushes off the notion in the film that the opera has something to do with the present-day life of African Americans, As per him, the translation is false, the film lacks artistic credibility and concerns much less with African Americans than the other Americans. ( The film is available in YouTube, but I am not interested in musical operatic films and so it was difficult for me to get to his ideas and criticisms about the film)
The second part has three essays about Harlem ghetto, sociopolitical issues, and African American musicians. The last part is personal and concerns with identity, the fraught relationship with his authoritarian father, his experience living in Europe, and the race issues in Europe and America. Here, I am only expounding on the personal essay that deals with Baldwin and his relationship to father.
Worth mentioning is the manner of unflinching honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his father. Though he does not explicitly relate his father’s cruelty, anger, and alienation to the oppression and inner turmoil that haunted the black Americans, it is clear that such a relationship does exist. Baldwin lives under the constant shadow of paranoia about the inheritance of paranoid delusions from his father. Thus he makes a point that even though different disposition-wise and experience-wise, trauma is transferred through generations.
The paranoia is significant in that it creates a self-destructive cycle spoiling the relationship to the society, slashing even the altruistic and munificent arms of help from the outer world. Baldwin’s creativity was recognized first by his white teacher who encouraged him to write, but the act ironically distancing him from her and snatching the opportunity to get ahead due to the ingrained mistrust that his father had towards all the whites. We cannot blame his father here.
Another important point that he projects is about how racist societies force people to suppress their emotions. As an example, he writes about the white waiter, who though sympathetic to him could not express it due to the perceived embarrassment of serving a black diner. Similarly, so as to survive the blacks would need to suppress their rage. It is not just the alienation from society that is worrisome, but that from oneself which creates a conflict within the individual. At the same time, he feels the emotional turmoil and murderous rage that overwhelms his and other’s safety, conflicting with the guilt that he feels towards a white friend.
In his beautiful statement,’ Harlem is waiting‘, he conveys many meanings like waiting for a climactic event, for the war to end, or for racial equality since the moment of their abduction from the heart of Africa. Baldwin is brutally honest in his interpretation of hatred towards his father. As a wise sage, he understands that hatred is self-destructive, though as a common man he nurtures it since he could avoid the pain of losing his father thus preventing the establishment of a genial relationship with him.
He refuses to see his father’s body after he passed away, he could not find suitable clothes and interprets the preacher as dishonest, all alienating him from the process of mourning. Still, he experiences a sudden connection when he hears the song and identifies it as the only moment of connection that he had with his father. He realizes the freedom to be enjoyed by his father’s newborn baby, something he was denied and sees a ray of hope through a part of his father that is still alive.
He empathizes with the Harlem rioters, all the while denouncing it as only an exit of rage and a self-destructive process by attacking businesses thereby wounding the blacks and not the white oppressors. Overall, he characterizes hatred and anger as negative forces, that would only be helpful if it motivates one to oppose injustice.
Though the essay could be generally interpreted as bleak by some who are not big fans of essays, it has so many eye-opening moments of truth that stir the reader to think about the implications that the racial and other inequalities and prejudices impart to the minds of the victims.
Incidentally, while I was reading this book, I happened to watch a video of a black man gunned down by two white men, a father and a son, with a shotgun. As I read the news report from the NYT, I was shocked to learn about how the men were set free first, the institutional inertia and apathy when black lives were concerned, favoritism and cronyism in law enforcement, the manipulation of the storyline making the black man seem a menacing burglar to vindicate a criminal act carried out in broad daylight, policies promoting ingrained xenophobia and nativism and the uttermost abyss into which humans could fall while placing human life and dignity in a hierarchical system. All these, while a two minute video played the act beyond the wildest of doubts possible.
We live in the 21-st century, we are far more ahead from the old eugenic theories and practices, we exhort that we are an educated lot, that we are at the zenith of the evolutionary process, wonder when will we evolve into human beings!
Awards– National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Criticism (2003),
Susanne K.Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form (2004)
On June 24, 2019, an extremely heart-wrenching photograph by the journalist Julia Le Duc was published by the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, of the bodies of two Salvadorans, Oscar Ramirez and his two-year-old daughter, Valeria Ramirez lying face down, her tiny body tucked inside his T-shirt and her arm around his neck. Oscar was trying to cross the river Rio Grande to reach the US. The poignant picture painted the plight of Central Americans trying to reach the US and sparked charged debates among the US polity.
On September 2, 2015, the Turkish photographer, Nilufer Demir hauntingly captured the limp, lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish-Syrian child, who died off the coast of the Greek island of Kos while seeking refuge in Europe.
Nick Ut’s 1972 “Girl in the picture” of the screaming 9-year-old Kim Phuc, her clothes and body burned by napalm bomb dropped in South Vietnam by the US military became the defining image of the Vietnam war and exposed the horrors of war to the American public. There are many examples like the 1989 “Tank Man” refusing to move away from Chinese military tanks, during the Tianmen Square massacre, by the American photojournalist, Jeff Widener, a 1993 NYT photograph of a plump vulture stalking an emaciated Sudanese child on her way to a feeding center in Sudan by Kevin Carter(1993) opening the world’s eyes to a crisis few were aware at the time, “The Hooded Man” picture(2004), one of the many leaked from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, of a hooded man posed with outstretched arms holding electrical wires, standing on a box, and tortured by the American soldiers which tore the facade of human rights advocacy of the US…… ..and many more. And there are photographs that have not become iconic like those mentioned above but still captures the grim reality, like the long walk of migrant laborers on feet treading hundreds of kilometers with their sparse belongings and children on the shoulder to reach their villages during the unexpected lockdown post corona in India. A reality baring the extent of inequality and inhumanity that exists on and below the surface of societal fabric.
What do all these photographs have in common? They are a powerful graphic portrayals of suffering and they stir the empathy of viewers and rouse the policymakers into action. Ideally, things should drastically change for good, from the visual impact. Though, this may not always be the case.
Susan Sontag in her 2003 book-length essay ‘Regarding the pain of others‘ explores how far and to what extent the medium of photography effects changes in the mind and policies. This is an addendum to her “On Photography“, another essay collection on photography, though both convey radically differing views.
She begins the book with a discussion of”Three Guineas” by Virginia Woolf, reflecting on the roots of war. Woolf wrote the essay as a response to a letter received from a London lawyer who asked the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” She wrote the essay while fascism was on the rise in the European continent and it was published in 1938. Her perspective on the answer is a feminist one. She writes about the photo of a mutilated human body in the newspaper, that could as well be of a pig. She writes about the emotional and intellectual realm of a woman that inevitably delayed any political or military action as the consequence of the evil that the photo represents. She concludes that such an action was open to men only, women being limited by their household realm. Towards ending the essay, Woolf points to a photograph of Hitler in military uniform and asserts a responsibility from the part of common humanity to identify with the perpetrator among us, along with the victims.
Sontag intends her essay as an epilogue to Woolf’s essay and looks at length if photographs could be used as tools to prevent wars by public protest against human misery. She tries to answer how these photos make us feel and act. She gives a brief history of photojournalism, discusses the Crimean war and other civil wars, Operation Iraq, pictures manipulated for a greater dramatic effect, the staging of photos for emotional appeal, and so on. She concludes that we see only what the photographer wanted us to see since we are only as much nearer to the tragedy as the newspaper or the TV screen and could not feel that in its actual horridness.
Though she has debunked some common misconceptions about these photos and underscored the importance and chipped away at attributing too much hope as to the lasting effects of these photos, she does not give definite answers to questions like the extent of the impact these photos have on people, the understanding of the limits to which democracy or human rights could erode, about the photographer in the specific environment like a warzone or the site of a tragedy, etc.
Sontag explains how the media enjoys and gloats over the horror and disaster, training the readers to transform intolerable reality to tolerable fiction. She gives the example of 9/11 pictures that seemed more unreal and fanciful, remote from reality. Sontag mentions how the Pentagon creates an aura of apocalyptic scenarios of events, like giving titles such as Operation Desert Storm for their military incursions. She blames the eyes of the viewer for the lust shown for horrid pictures. A comparison is given of the perverse philosopher Georges Bataille who was obsessed with the photo of a Chinese criminal rolling his eyes heavenwards in transcendence while being flayed.
The falsification of visual images from war zones is exemplified by the actions of Roger Fenton in Crimea, who supervised the cannonball placement on the road through which the Light Brigade charged while deftly avoiding evidence of the carnage. Similarly, after WW II victory, the famous photo of the Russians hoisting the RedFlag over the Reichstag was directed by a Soviet war photographer. Amidst, such a culture of spectatorship, Sontag wonders if we have lost the power to empathize. So long as we are at a safe distance, according to her, the victims are people we do not know as Neville Chamberlain famously said about the Poles. We have seen the pain inside the incisive eyes of the Afghan girl photographed by Steve Mc Curry for The National Geographic Magazine, but as long as we do not personally feel her pain, we fail to empathize with her.
She contends that war photographs of Robert Capa or David Seymour belong to newspapers and not magazines which juxtapose them with glossy advertisements and images. She asserts that photographs are more helpful than verbal slogans as the totem of causes as photos can arouse strong sentiments. (But, even before photography, slogans had lent their power to many famous revolutions and battles in history)
In the end, she proposes that serious images like the walking cadavers at Buchenwald and Dachau photographed by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller,Matthew Brady‘s dead soldiers from the Civil War or Nicholas Nixon‘s Aids victims should not be exhibited in museums like an art that could be viewed or ignored, but solemnly honored in a book.
Coming back to empathy and policy change, psychologists claim that our empathy and responses are short-lived, especially when we feel helpless in changing a situation. Though, one photograph is much more powerful than statistics. 250,000 Syrians were killed before Kurdi’s lifeless image made its round in newspapers, but the numbers did nothing to effect any significant policy change. This is due to the inability of numbers to convey meaning when compared to graphics. Kurdi’s image changed the migration policy at least for a short time. Merkel opened the borders of her country enabling more than one million Syrian refugees to enter from Turkish refugee camps. The public opinion was galvanized that led to donations to humanitarian organizations and the topic of migration was given importance in many summits. The trajectory of the Vietnam war changed after the public had seen Nick Ut’s and similar pictures. But, change and a permaenent one at that need not always be the case.
The book does not answer the questions clearly but provides statements for us to think about third-hand viewing of disaster and how that affects us when we are only as close to the newspaper or TV screens, without actually feeling the event.
Shashi Tharoor is a member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. He previously served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and as the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs.
He is also a prolific author, columnist, journalist and human rights advocate.
He has served on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. He has also served as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and the Advisory of the Indo-American Arts Council, the American India Foundation, the World Policy Journal, the Virtue Foundation, and the human rights organization Breakthrough
Tharoor has written numerous books in English. Most of his literary creations are centered on Indian themes and they are markedly “Indo-nostalgic.” Perhaps his most famous work is The Great Indian Novel, published in 1989, in which he uses the narrative and theme of the famous Indian epic Mahabharata to weave a satirical story of Indian life in a non-linear mode with the characters drawn from the Indian Independence Movement. ( Ref: Good Reads author information)
Tharoor mentions what the American historian and philosopher Will Durant wrote about Britain in 1930, ‘Britain’sconscious and deliberate bleeding of India… [was the] greatest crime in all history’.
In this book, Tharoor has made an impressive case against the empire apologists giving the lie to their claims on benevolence to the empire subjects, and the purported dividends accrued by Indians over the period of colonialism and post-colonialism, shattering the myth of ‘enlightened despotism’ of the empire through his concise, well-scrutinized, trenchant and to the point onslaught. This book followed his famous Oxford speech advocating the cause of reparation by Britain, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by his opponents, daring Britain to take on board its historical responsibility of colonial excesses and depredations.
The British Empire in India began in 1600 as a commercial project in trading silk, spices, and other commodities by the East India Company and which changed into a rapacious and savage enterprise subjugating the natives, misappropriating their wealth and land and trampling their self-respect, identity, and honor under the jackboot of colonialism. What ensued, later on, was organized plunder thrusting a rich civilization into the edge of a precipice, engendering a yawning gap of pecuniary disadvantage with its world share of GDP going into a free fall. When the British acquired the reigns from the Mughal empire, India’s share of world GDP had been 23% and by the time they left, this dropped down to a mere 3%.
Britain’s industrial revolution flourished from the ashes of Indian industries. A well planned and systematic de-industrialization of the textile and steel industries was carried out which put an end to the manufacturing while force-feeding Indians with British exports. Similarly, India’s pioneering shipbuilding industries were forcefully shut down and done away with completely. The ryots(peasants) were saddled with exorbitant taxation, and the local princes were extorted in return for tutelage. All the while, the drain of resources continued unabated to London. India continued to be the gold mine of the empire, the officials vying for the coveted ICS post, ensuring an extortionate salary and pension, all fleeced from the Indians. Whatever developments, in the form of railways, bridges, dams, etc were meant for the commercial benefit of the empire. History provides us with the axiomatic corroboration, the Jallian Wallah Bagh massacre, forced displacement of the masses, and the Bengal famine to name a few.
Two hundred years of pillage, chicanery, liquidation, and deindustrialization is patently writ large in the annals of colonialism for any cognizant soul, let alone historians and Indian nationalists, to take the apologists for granted in all their conscience. Thus, the import of an adroit orator, wordsmith, and a debater like Tharoor who can deftly weigh in on, driving a coach and horses through the vindicatory assertions of empire apostles by the tenor and trenchancy of his debate substantiating his counterpoints through good sense, wit and researchful sedulousness.
Apologists’ claims of giving India political unity, endowing liberal democracy, freedom of the press, the Parliamentary system, and rule of law are extirpated by his political arguments and Argus-eyed spadework. The most consequential and lingering legacy of the empire in India indubitably is the partition of India, which is a corollary of the British policy of ‘divide et impera‘(divide and rule) on the basis of communalism and politicization of religion and is a case in point. Also, the myth of enlightened despotism advocated by the apologists has been thrashed by counterclaims on the contrary, and their absurdist contentions laid bare. The statements of bequeathal of the alleged British properties like railways, tea, English language, British education, and cricket, as a means of enriching and civilizing a motley amalgam of paganistic wogs, is anatomized, and their alleged altruistic intentions debunked by statistics that run athwart professions.
The arguments against the empire are as blunt, incisive, and muscular as they are equitable. He has objectively endorsed the obvious positives of the Raj, unintentional and corollary to the colonial prosperity though, in the coda. There, still, are Indians oblivious to the dimensions of colonialism foisted on their ancestors and how most, but not all, of the current strifes, ill governance, and policies are a direct sequel of colonial misrule, for whom this book could be a reference work. The ideologies of Gandhism are brushed past in relation to its unrealistic nature in the context of present-day conflicts, concomitantly emphasizing its relevance as an abstemious force that triumphed in defenestrating the imperial regime.
Though conversant with the historical facts, there is a minority of empire sympathizers who turn a blind eye to it and condones this Milton’s Satan of sorts rephrased as ‘The Brown Mans’s Burden’. Nostalgia for the yesteryears of the empire has been a significant contributor to the 52% YES vote for Brexit, which is hauling the nation to a cliffhanger, being condemned to the uncertainty of dallying in the back of the queue being laid out by some allies.
However sublime the tenets of Gandhism, yet, an average man in the street belies pretensions of moral high ground or political correctness and might even savor the frisson of schadenfreude while he catches wind of what could be perceived as the day of reckoning in the form of TATA steel’s pull out of Britain or the looming misgivings post-Brexit. For exposing us to a game like cricket, even incidentally, Britain has scored a point in Indian minds, though the rules of the gentleman’s game had never been emulated by the empire in the real-life experience.
Each and every one of us has unique backgrounds and experiences that play a major part in molding the person we are. Some of them cling on to our inner psyche, build up like the mould on a damp, receptive surface and remind you again and again that you are sometimes inferior in an uncanny way that lacks a sound explanation. And almost always they are the negative experiences that you have had as a child.
To give the perfect example, I should be going back to my own girlhood experiences that had the most formative influence and impact on me, which made me shrink into the tiny world that I had created with books, a set of watercolor and fantasies. What egged me on to write this piece is a somewhat similar adulthood experience recently.
Not many know how I used to be back then, other than my parents, brother, and some of our closest friends and relatives. I was a reclusive, tongue-tied, edgy girl who burst into tears the moment I smelled any sort of encounter. It was so effortless to make my eyes well up with tears that my father used to call me a ‘touch-me-not’, someone that waits for the sight of touch to explode. And he used to advise me day in and day out to stop nurturing the sense of victimhood and to react bravely. He was a junior engineer working for the telecom department of India at that time and my parents cultivated the habit of reading, not just books but articles in newspapers and magazines about whatever was happening in the world. They were well-read too.
He used to get diaries as a compliment from his department and he would give them to us to write short reviews about the books or the newspaper articles that I had read. The reviews teemed with grammar mistakes and blunders, that I was reluctant to give the diary back to him for correction, fearing that the slightest smile from the corner of his mouth would be perceived as a mockery in disguise. But, he not only patiently corrected the mistakes but discussed and explained as if I were an adult, though I did not at first understand the political terms or hard English words. Then, he would give me another diary to write the meaning of the words and definitions of the political/ history/ whatever indigestible terms there were in the books and newspapers, by myself. He instructed me to learn a few things daily in this manner, apart from the school exercises. Naturally, apart from the fairy tale stories and fantasies, my interest in humanities-related topics was piqued. When I grew up I started reading history, art, and politics related books, travelogues, and biographies apart from the classics. He was a strict disciplinarian, though. I used to resent at those times, that I was being made to do this kind of unfair reading and writing exercises, while my friends were going on vacation trips and enjoying their free time and not having to touch the books especially during school vacation.
I used to ask him why I should do this, was it not enough to learn the school books only and pass the exams? And the answer that he had given me still stays fresh in my mind. ‘Studying is not meant to pass the exam only, studying is learning new things, exposing our mind to the outside world, imbibing knowledge by the process of osmosis when you discuss what you have learned or read with someone. The person at the opposite end, no matter who that is, they might not even be properly educated, might be an expert or not even one, but you will get to know more and more things unknown to you from them by the mere process of an open discussion and it ought to be a two-way process. You might be blundering, but you gain the wealthiest asset in the universe- knowledge’.
I was lucky to be around the most celebrated and revered literary men and women during the 80’s and early90^s.. My mother’s family is related to one of the literary giants of Indian literature, the critic, journalist, and orator, Professor M Krishnan Nair. Most of them were members of a literary society, ‘Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham’ which has book shops throughout Kerala by the name National Book Stall. My mother worked there and later managed the one in Statue junction, opposite the Secretariat building, for a long time until she retired. Her duty there extended to 8.30 PM, so I and my brother alighted from the school bus after school to the bookstall, since there was no one at home( my father used to work in another district and so arrived late by train). The evenings at the bookstall are the sweetest memories that I hoard of my childhood and teen years. By evening, some of the eminent people in the literary and cultural world including Professor Krishnan Nair, UA Khader, Vettoor Raman Nair, ONV Kurup, Sreekumaran Thampi, Chemmanom Chacko, TN Gopinathan Nair, Narendra Prasad(actor), Sugathakumari, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, Dr. George Onakkoor, Professor Madhusoodhanan Nair, Bichu Thirumala, Sarah Thomas, PR Shyamala, GN Panicker, Professor M Achuthan ( there were many more from the time, some from Trivandrum and some on their visit to Trivandrum ) would confer there shortly during most of the days over tea and snacks from the nearby vegetarian hotel and would discuss serious and casual matters. The groups changed from time to time, sometimes only two or three people, sometimes they would come alone, buy a bundle of books, sit for some time reflectively staring onto the street and just leave after that. Some of them, I had only seen once or twice from a distance during the literary events by the SPCS or during book exhibitions. But, our routine evenings in the bookstall after the school hours which extended for many years made it possible to interact with many of those who frequented the stall. My mother, though only a reader and not a writer or some giant of any sort would also be included in their casual talks sometimes, however small, by some of the down-to-earth souls.
The little me would, after finishing my homework, try to hear what they were talking from a distance. They would call me sometimes whenever I balked at the perceived intrusion. Not to mention that I did not understand their literary language then. I remember, once they were discussing about something. In the midst, I heard a familiar word that my father had said in one of his discussions with me. The usually silent me impulsively uttered that I had heard this word( I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I forgot what word it was, it was some English word). Chemmanom Chacko sir( he was a gem of a man and so down-to-earth, also my school headmistress Baby teacher’s husband) stopped in the midst and asked me the meaning of the word. I proudly remembered it from my diary that my father had always encouraged me to keep, and the people around were impressed, I shone like a pole star from their verbal applause, a small moment though it was, it happened to be such a motivating act of kindness and encouragement. What I had noticed during their discussions, was the respect and acceptance they were giving to the views and voices of their female peers. My mother is still close to most of them, and many of them had come to bless me during my marriage, some have passed away since.
Some of these people have given me, as a gift, or suggested reading books to me, English and Malayalam. I have still with me the dictionary from them, an English-Malayalam one(the picture above). I have cherished it as a treasure. The first gift that I had got when I got through the medical entrance was the huge tome of Grey’s Anatomy from the novelist K Surendran sir. One thing I had noticed back then was the way each of them talked, smiled, laughed or stood watching the street. I would draw them with ink or pencil in their respective postures quickly before they changed the posture( My mother still talks about the way they used to laugh seeing themselves on paper). Some of them encouraged me to draw, paint, speak out, and read. Stars from the universe they were, still I wonder now, how easily they talked to and treated common people like me.
Because of the cultivation of reading and most importantly the writing habits, one of the things which I used to excel in was essay writing, and I used to participate in school competitions. Sometimes I won the first place, sometimes second or third or sometimes none at all. Once, my father prompted me to participate in an elocution competition. He was very specific that it was not meant to win anything, but to ward off my anxiety and fear of facing people. So did I. The school was a mixed one and as in any school, bullying was very common, especially by the boys towards the girls. I was heckled and told off to go do some girl-thing like the classical dance. The bullying remained a fixture until I shifted to a girls-only school later on. Already hurt beyond repair, I never participated in any public competitions that needed one to face an audience and I became more and more a recluse. I remained an introvert in my medical school too, later and learned to avoid bullies.
With social media, nowadays open discussions could be done virtually without having to face the opponent and I still love to read a lot and discuss what I have read. I keep my father’s advice in my mind, the osmosis that would happen from the other end when you discuss. But instead, what I sometimes find is one-upmanships, condescensions, patronizing behaviour, misogynistic rants, and schoolyard bullying. I am not a member of any Whatsup groups since I do not want to relive my school experience, I would rather be a recluse. I very rarely talk to people (by nature and not by design), only to those with whom I feel comfortable, and that too thinking about the osmosis that is imminent when something sober is being talked about. But, I stop the moment I get the air of having made to feel trodden down and get on with silent ‘likes’ only.
Almost all these gentlemen are proud fathers of daughters who need to tread the unfriendly, alpha male-dominated, rocky terrains and sail through the shark-infested stormy seas in the future. Be sure and make no mistake, children watch the people sorrounding them carefully and learn from their parents. Boys would normalize the misogynistic behaviour in the schools and colleges in the future. Girls would try to be silent sufferers or go on combating and they would incur the wrath of the men for the sin of speaking their minds. I have only a son. But I make sure every single moment, that he learn to respectfully talk to a woman and to hear what she has to say and respect her opinions, however different from his. I do not have a daughter. But, I am a daughter and I know well, how fathers behave will have a deep impact on how the girl expects a man to normally behave to them. That would normalize the art of browbeating and misogynism from men in the minds of at least some of those girls with their fathers practicing this not-so-subtle act. And the rest of those brave souls would have to fight their own unique battles in little-known waters. As for me, I am lucky to have married a man who, like my father, encourages me to read, write, paint and speak out.
Author– Stanislav Zamecnik ( Czech historian, Holocaust survivor)
Genre– Non-fiction/ History
(‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’….. Primo Levi)
I bought this book while on a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site( created in 1965), Bavaria, Munich during the 2016 summer. A must-see place for history lovers. The camp is a bit of a harrowing repository of the Dachau archives, houses a museum which really is a time machine, whereby one can hark back to Third Reich and it’s barbarity. I could literally feel the terror while being guided through the camp( the museum is set in such a way). One of the sites which made me stuck as if in a nightmare, was the crematoria where the gassed and poisoned prisoners were burned up. Words definitely fall short for the kind of utter insensibility and cruelty of The Third Reich.
About the book, the author, Stanislav Zamecnik, himself a Holocaust survivor, has stunningly captured the details, shored up by statistics and ample evidence. He has done a painstaking and arduous job of research which is commendable. The fact that he had done this despite the sanction imposed on him by the authorities in the wake of The Prague Spring, which prohibited him from working as a historian, in itself is one of the reasons which make it a must-read for all, in particular, The Third Reich history pursuant. He was imprisoned in Dachau for almost four years. His mission in life was to preserve the memory of Dachau, and he committed himself to the redevelopment of the Dachau Memorial and the permanent exhibition there recreating the realities, leaving his indelible mark on the International Committee of Dachau.
The camp was opened on March 22, 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, 2 months after Adolf Hitler took power, the first one of a series of death camps to follow. It went on to become the instrument of the Nazi extermination regime and the prototype for the other death camps. Dachau was the only camp that remained in operation from 1933 until 1945. Located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory, it was intended to house political prisoners at first and later expanded for forced labor and to house Jews from Germany, Austria and other countries that Germany invaded. There were more than 40,000 documented deaths (murders plus death from hunger, malnutrition, overwork, and diseases) out of the 200,000 imprisoned from all over Europe at the site and its subsidiaries.
The entrance gate carries the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free). Dachau’s close proximity to Munich, where Hitler came to power and where the Nazi Party had its official headquarters made it a convenient location. Initially, Hitler imprisoned intellectuals, artists, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, handicapped and homosexuals for the slave labor for manufacturing weapons for Germany’s war efforts. Later, some of the prisoners were used for brutal medical experiments by the Nazis( There is a touching book about how the Nazi doctors ruthlessly did irrational, unethical, inhumane and brutal experiments- Doctors From Hell by Vivien Spitz- I had read this some time back, hope to re-read and write the review sometime soon).
The first commandant of Dachau was the SS officer, Hilmar Wackerle. A Munich schoolteacher Sebastian Nefzger was killed by the SS officers, who reported the death as a suicide. The Autopsy revealed the cause of death as strangulation and the public prosecutor in Munich, therefore, charged the camp commandant Hilmar Waeckerle and other SS officials in the camp with murder. Himmler was forced to remove Wackerle from his post. But on May 25, 1933, Hitler exempted Dachau from judicial oversight and authority and the SS were given unlimited authority over the camp prisoners. Later, all the camps would be removed from the judicial oversight.
Theodor Eicke, who replaced Wackerle as the camp commandant on October, 1933, brought in severe punishments including systematic beatings and summary execution for rule infringements or escape attempts. Any attempts at sabotage, escape or political agitation were met with summary execution. Later, this system would be followed for all the other concentration camps run by the SS.
Dachau camp was expanded in 1938 by the construction of an SS military training base by demolishing a WW I era munitions factory. The prisoners were made to work 24/7 for the reconstruction. During the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, about 30,000 Jews were summarily arrested and incarcerated in the three concentration camps, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed, burned or vandalized and they were dragged off the streets and homes to the camps, almost 11,000 of them ending up in Dachau.
In 1939, all the prisoners in Dachau were transferred to Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Flossenbeurg camps. The facilities at Dachau were used by the Waffen-SS for training the Death-Head’s Division. The camp would resume operating again in 1940. From 1941 onwards, the SS doctors started selecting the weak, ill and disabled prisoners, who would be transported to Hartheim and get killed there. As more numbers of prisoners started getting executed in Dachau, four crematoria were built along with the construction of a gas chamber. As a part f their plan to Germanize Occupied Poland and undermine the Catholic Church leadership there, more than 2700 clergy were arrested and incarcerated in the “Priest barracks” of Dachau.
SS doctor Sigmund Rascher conducted his infamous cold water freezing experiment on the prisoners, with methods of reviving them after they had been forced to remain in ice- cold water for hours. This was meant to help revive the German Air Force pilots whose planes went down in cold water. Out of 300 test subjects, one-third died. Numerous other prisoners were used for other medical experiments as well. A 1943 Typhus outbreak in the camp forced the SS to quarantine the prisoners and stop the forced labor. Almost 1000 died as a result of the disease.
While the prisoner numbers increased many subcamps sprang up around Dachau in Southern Germany and also in Northern Austria. On April 26, 1945, just three days before the liberation of the camp, the SS forced about 7000 prisoners on ‘The Death March’ to Tegernsee. It lasted for 6 days, while the SS shot the weak on the way, while many died of exhaustion, hunger, and exposure. The surviving prisoners who arrived at Tegernsee were liberated by the American Forces on May 2, 1945.
The Dachau Camp was liberated by the US Forces on April 29, 1945. As they arrived in the camp, they found more than 30 coal cars filled with decomposing bodies and more than 30,000 prisoners in the camp.
As a part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution‘ to ‘The Jewish Problem‘ many more were exterminated in the other concentration camps. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site was opened in 1965. The International Monument at the Memorial Site holds a sculpture by Nandor Glid, the Yugoslav sculptor and Holocaust survivor whose father and many other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. The sculpture is a poignant pointer to the Holocaust. It is made of dark bronze. It features short strands of barbed wire on which skeletons are hanging with their heads dangling sharply. On either side of the sculpture are concrete fence posts which closely resemble the ones actually used to support the barbed wire fence around the camp. Underneath the sculpture is the dates 1933 – 1945, the years that the camp was used as a concentration camp for anti-Nazis.
On the west side of the monument is a wall whose inscription in English reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”
The letters on the east side of the monument wall say “Never Again” in five different languages. In front of the wall is a box of ashes of the victims of the Dachau concentration camp, which was placed here on May 7, 1967, the same day that the Jewish Memorial building was dedicated. These were ashes that were found in red clay urns when Dachau was liberated.
The International Monument has a wide ramp which slopes down to the base of the sculpture designed by Nandor Glid. On the west side of the ramp is another sculpture which features a bas relief depicting three links of a chain held together by bars in between. This signifies the unity among the prisoners, many of whom were left-wing political prisoners who shared the same beliefs. On the links are enameled triangles in the colors of the cloth badges worn by the prisoners on their uniforms to identify their prisoner classification.
Red triangles were worn by the Communists, Social Democrats and other political prisoners and blue by the foreign workers, mostly Poles, who were brought to the Dachau camp. The Jews always wore two triangles with a yellow triangle on top of another color, usually red which signified a political prisoner.
Why we should read about the Third Reich and the Holocaust?
The Italian- Jewish Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi, in his autobiographical trilogy ‘If This Is a Man‘, tries to find the reasons for the human barbarity.
Logical thinking and reasoning prompt us human beings to ask questions. Discerning the answers cogently and sizing up the present and future, linking them to the past, requires one to dig deeper into the graveyards of history.
I admit that the read was depressingly bleak. Yet the pages sufficed as steps of knowledge, as answers to how a civilized nation could descend into savagery of this magnitude, how complacence and denial are akin to abetment of organized crime, why only a few were audacious enough to stand up to the ordeals, how a far-right ultra-racist minority could amass the instruments of governance to systematically mass murder an entire race by kindling the smoldering hatred with the aid of warped history, spurious politics, and apocryphal pseudo-science, or, how the social, political and economic environments join forces in the origin, re-incarnation or morphing of one among us into a Frankenstein’s monster.
The answers teach us many things. We learn to pay heed to the forewarnings from society, we try to respect diversity, fend off ‘otherization’, above all to question the unsavory, shady deviances. We learn to react individually and collectively. To teach is to learn and to learn is to question. And learning about the Reich and the Holocaust invariably prepares our mind for questioning, to understand the responsibilities in crimes of not only the men at the top of the ladder, but also the nameless, faceless cohorts at the lowest rungs of the society, to have the courage of our convictions, to speak out when something is not right. The German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller‘s post-war confession stays ever- relevant, in particular, in the present times. The following poetic form of his quote is engraved at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.
‘ First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’.
As Primo Levi observes, ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’.