Recent additions to my book collection

English: MT Vasudevan Nair

Image via Wikipedia

These are some of the books I bought very recently. They are Randamoozham by MT Vasudevan Nair, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, The Meaning of it All by Richard P Feynman, Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant and Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. I have not read any Malayalam novels till now. My malayalam reading was strictly restricted to Catechism and very rarely newspapers. I recently realized that I was missing out on some classic works whose charm can never be captured by a translation.

One of my friends recently happened to mention that she found malayalam novels to be better than English ones. While I did not agree with that I could understand why someone would think that. A language is not merely a tool for communication. It is, in a manner, a representation of a particular culture and way of life. Of a particular style of thinking. Of a particular way of seeing things. Closely tied to the geography, food, culture, values and sensibilities of a particular people.

A work written in a language conveys depths of information that are visible only to the people who are from that culture or have deeply studied it. No one can relate to the ideas and understand the subtle meanings that the author tries to convey as well as a native speaker of that language. This could be the reason why a person would consider books written in his/her language better than books in other languages.

Sometimes, it is not just the language that matters. People tend to have a bias towards authors from similar surrounding as themselves. For example, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a book that I simply adore. Obviously, it is a very well written book that has a captivating style. But, over and above that, when I read it I remember my childhood in Kerala and it brings back memories of the rural lifestyle in my state. These recollections make the experience a more enjoyable one.

I have received some recommendations for some more must-read malayalam books. Planning to acquire them soon! Any recommendations that you might have are welcome!

Advertisements

Harischandra- Edited

It has always been my desire to read at least a concise version of the Indian epics. This desire was slowly kindled by the stories that sometimes my friends related to me.

Most recently, I was reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and the references to Karna and the accompanying imagery she conjured with her expressive words made me extremely curious of the full story. I like stories which deal with moral and ethical dilemmas and which contain subtle hints of a particular philosophy of life. Also, the stories themselves offer a glimpse into the mindset of a certain era and helps you understand better people who are raised surrounded by these stories and myths. Myths and stories have a very subtle way of influencing thought and morality and I think understanding them is crucial to understanding some aspects of a culture.

I just read this story about the King Harischandra. He is often touted as the golden standard that a man should aspire to and is an example of virtue and uncompromising morals. He was once confronted by the great sage Vishwamitra who told him that the he had made a promise once (in the sage’s dreams or in some forest sometime) that he would hand over his entire kingdom and belongings to the sage. Vishwamitra had come to redeem the promise. Harischandra, being the sort of guy who never breaks promises kept his word and handed over the whole kingdom and his belongings to the sage. He then set out with his wife and child. But, before leaving the sage told him that he needed a dakshina as well. Harischandra, thus, being the very epitome of goodness, sold his wife and child and himself into slavery and used the money to give dakshina to the sage. The rest of the story is a tale of their hardships and of course, how in the end, the Gods reward his goodness.

I had a few problems with the story. They were with the part where he sells his wife and child into slavery for the sake of his virtue. There are mainly 3 problems I see with this part. First, who should be paying the price for his idea of righteousness? Shouldn’t he have figured out some way of pacifying the sage that did not involve his wife and child? I mean it was he who made the decision to not even think of refusing to satisfy the sage’s whims.

Secondly, the way in which the woman meekly agreed to be sold along with her child for the sake of her husband’s idea of fairness deeply disturbed me. If I were in her position, I would have told the king, ” Listen Mr., if you want to really please that guy, that is perfectly alright. But, I don’t belong to anyone and it is not up to you to sell me and look good at my expense. I am going to take my child with me, go now, find someone with a less screwed up moral compass and live with him.”

This notion that the suffering of a woman is inferior to the righteousness of a man is pretty idiotic. Say, my wife went to a beauty parlor and made some stupid bet about whether one brand of henna is better than another with a crazy nun there and agreed to give everything away if she lost. What if she finally loses the bet? How will it look when she comes home and tells me, ” Dude, I am really sorry, but I just lost us everything. But, it is okay, I have safe guarded my honor and virtue. Oh, and btw, I also sold you and our child into slavery. I also sold myself into bonded labor, just so that you won’t think that I am unfair or anything, you know! I knew you wouldn’t mind!”.

Somehow, despite this story being very similar to the one in the myths, I have a feeling that my imaginary wife won’t be considered a model of virtue. But, that won’t be her fault. It is simply because our society has grown up listening to stories like this which have a divine aura about them. They belong to a bygone era and espouse a set of morals which are somewhat biased and out-dated..

Also, it is rather obvious that the story tries to sow the insidious seeds of irrational reverence of sages and priests and an idea that the ideal man should be completely subject to their whims and fancies. It would be very understandable if this story was actually written by a sage or a priest.

Marriage

This story does raise some interesting questions about boundaries and commitment in a marriage. I guess it is perfectly okay that one spouse might want to cover for the other. But the credit for that should go to the spouse going to the unnecessary trouble for the other’s sake. It should not be something that should be taken for granted. Here, somehow, Harischandra is the guy who gets all the credit despite the greatest hardship being born by his wife and child. Their suffering magnified by the fact that they are doing it for someone else’s sake!

I think our stories and myths need to either be enjoyed purely for it’s literary value or should evolve with the times to reflect our changing sensibilities.

The following paragraph is the result of a long debate that I had with a commentator:

This story is meant to demonstrate the value of dharma and satya. Harischandra was a king, a husband and a father. He had several rules to follow and commitments to keep. To satisfy the sage’s whim he decided to violate his dharma as a husband and as a father. If the story was intended to demonstrate the value of rule-based ethics, then  I don’t think it has been very successful at it. It is possible that the story was okay. But, maybe the rules in those times placed greater value on the desires of sages and Gods than on promises and commitments made to one’s family. In that case there is something wrong with the rules themselves. In either case, we need to be wary of imbibing morals from them and seeing them in a spiritual light. It is also likely that there is the less than holy intention of reinforcing the hierarchy of the varnas and encouraging uncritical acceptance of the divine behind it. In my opinion, these are not healthy tendencies.

Also, to see them as a factual record of history and/or as a divinely inspired story does little justice to the imagination and literary prowess of the people who actually wrote it. It is an amazing work and all the triumphs and failings of the human spirit are reflected in stories like these. I think that instead of teaching us absolute truths, they should make us think, reflect and question.

P.S. I was a little hasty with the first draft of this article. There are several versions of the story and I had mentioned unnecessary details of it. This prevented me from being clear about what I really found troubling about the story. Also, I think I was a little harsh then. So, I edited out some sections of the post.

Broken Republic by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is one of my all time favorite writers and when I saw this book in the latest arrivals section, I couldn’t resist from buying it immediately. I had to pay a premium of 170 rupees over the price offered on flipkart.com. But, it was totally worth it.

We are constantly bombarded with news of various acts of violence committed by various insurgents in certain areas of India. I found it hard to understand why ordinary people would find it necessary to take up arms, sacrifice their peace, families, familiar lifestyles and commit such heinous acts of violence. I looked for information and understanding in the newspapers. Even The Hindu which I respect for being impartial and relatively more rigorous couldn’t fill in all the details. It regularly reports their crimes. But, very rarely their motivation.

How can tribals and poor, peaceful people who have been around for so long and used to a relatively settled lifestyle  get enamored by Marxist or Maoist ideas to such an extent that they dump everything that they and their ancestors believed in and suddenly set out to engage in an armed insurrection that they hope will overthrow the Indian state and eventually lead to the promised people’s state? Is the Indian state really battling an evil and potent force out to destroy it? Or is it waging war against it’s own people to deny them their freedoms? Are the maoists a bunch of crazy misfits who came into being out of nothing and who have no support among the tribals? Or are they part of the people and merely a face of our society? If that is true what sense does it make to try and destroy them using military power?

One question that has always bugged me is why revolutionary ideas never take root in educated, developed and prosperous societies that have struck a balance within themselves and with their environment. Why is it that communism, despite being considered as an intellectual ideology find so little real support among the better off people. It always takes root in disturbed societies that are facing the pressures of extremes of class oppression and exploitation. Doesn’t that indicate that the tribals may really be suffering from some form of oppression and/or exploitation which makes them vulnerable to revolutionary ideologies?

Arundhati Roy in this book describes her experiences with members of these movements and tries to provide answers to the above questions and more. It is written in an extremely passionate and imaginative manner and has that feminine touch that evokes such vivid imagery and powerful metaphors. It has the ability to touch you and make you feel what she is feeling. After reading the book, I am sure that I fell in love with her for a while. Despite that, the book does not compromise on reason and rationality and is a sort of running debate. After reading it, I was deeply troubled and confused because it made me rethink everything I knew about democracy and communism. I was battling each page of the book in my mind because it took me an effort to see things in the new light and try and accept them.

What happens to people on the fringes and outside the system in a system of rule of the majority, by the majority and for the majority? I never really considered that question and exactly how important that question is to the tribals. Arundhati Roy is no romantic revolutionary and has a  complete and utter grasp of the downsides of communism and maoist ideas.  This understanding is conveyed best by her statement that if the maoists were to come to power she would be the first person to be killed. She understands that and she is still able to identify with their feelings.

Her question is,”What alternative does the Indian state offer to to tribals?”.

Some time ago, I was deeply struck by the works of Daniel Quinn. Those same questions are raised again, but this time in a more potent and human voice. Not using maths and stupid graphs. Is ultimate sustainability possible in the Industrial era? Are we living a lie and digging our own graves? Are the tribals wrong in asking us to leave them and their forests alone? These are questions that I always try to suppress. But they again raised their ugly heads in my mind after reading this book.

She has  a canny way of being bang on target with her predictions. She is almost like a prophet. I got a taste of her deep and personal understanding of things when I read her essay “The Algebra Of Infinite Justice”. Everything she said in it, eventually came to pass.

Sometimes I wonder… when will everything stop being so fucked up!?