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Showing posts from February, 2022

Cleopatra’s Lovers

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra I was in love with Cleopatra as a young man. Yes, the same Egyptian queen who lived and died a few decades before Christ. The one who enticed many a great man including Mark Antony, the Roman General. I had a cat named after her until a few months back, a tabby with seductive eyes and who loved to lie in my lap. My feline Cleopatra could not survive her third litter. Shakespeare portrayed Cleopatra as a royal seductress. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Shakespeare made one of his characters describe her. Mark Antony fell in love with that variety of moods and passions. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra could laugh and weep, love and hate, chide and exalt as she pleased and all of that suited her. It is that kaleidoscopic Cleopatra that I fell in love with. That Cleopatra once inspired a short story of mine in which a young soldier of the ordinary rank falls perilously in love with the queen. He is aware of the dangers of his lo

Ulysses @100

  First edition (1922) Probably no other book taught me humility as did Ulysses by James Joyce. I read it in my late 20s just because it was one of the most discussed works of literature among literary intellectuals and geniuses in those days. I can’t even say that I read it though I did reach the last chapter which nearly drove me crazy. I can say with much confidence that I understood very little of the novel then. I never laid my hands on it again. I didn’t dare to. The book has completed a century of its existence now. It was originally published in 1918 as a serialised work in the Little Review , but appeared as a book first in Feb 1922. The serial had already created quite a furore and hence the book was published from Paris. Copies of the first English edition were burned by the New York post office authorities while the second edition copies were seized by the Folkestone Customs authorities. It took ten years for United States District Court to decide that the novel was no

Look on my works and despair

Image from literaturemini ‘Ozymandias’ is one of Shelley’s popular poems though it is not a typical poem of his. It presents a mighty ruler of some “antique land.” Ozymandias is his name and his statue, which is now in ruins, can still be seen in the desert sands. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” stand erect on a pedestal while the head lies in the sand wearing a sneering frown on the wrinkled lips. On the pedestal is the inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works… and despair.” But all his might now lies in utter decay. He is nothing but a “colossal wreck.” All conquerors, however mighty and contemptuous of others, will fall to dust one day. Even their conquests won’t be remembered. What the world wants are not conquerors but redeemers. That is why Ozymandias and his type are destined to lie broken in some distant sands of forsaken history. What Russia is doing to Ukraine is yet another inhuman deed through which Putin seems to cock a snook at the

When symbols replace values

Symbols “Are you a good Muslim?” A student asked Ziauddin Sardar. Ziauddin Sardar is a writer born in Pakistan and living in England. He is a multi-faceted personality who has made a mark as a scholar, cultural critic, and an intellectual who specialises in Muslim thought. [Now don’t ask me whether Muslims think. Some of them do, I assure you.] The above question was hurled at Sardar when he visited a madrasa in Pakistan in 1985. Let me quote a part of that conversation from his book Desperately Seeking Paradise. [The quotes are not verbatim.] Student: Are you a good Muslim? Sardar: I am a Muslim. Good or not, I don’t know. Student: If you are a Muslim, why don’t you grow your beard? Sardar: A beard is not a necessary mark of a Muslim. Student: The beard is an essential part of the Prophet’s Sunnah. Those who disregard the Sunnah are not good Muslims. Sardar: Do you use a camel for your travels? Do you ride on a camel’s back? Student: What do you mean? Sardar: The

The Futility of Revolution

One of the shortest but classical works of fiction on the futility of revolution is George Orwell’s Animal Farm [1945]. The animals on the farm revolt against the oppressive human master and seek to establish an egalitarian society where all animals are equal. The revolution is driven by very noble ideals which have the potential to create a paradise on the farm. But sooner than later, the ideals give way to venality and the new rulers among the animals become far worse than the erstwhile human master. The human master only exploited the animals for labour. Now the animal masters are utterly vicious. They enjoy the highest forms of luxury at the cost of the other animals which are treated as worse than slaves. There is not only inequality but also injustice, cruelty, violence, government’s surveillance on the citizens, and plain butchery. It was the aftermath of the Russian Revolution that inspired Animal Farm . The Russian Revolution sought to replace the dictatorial Tsar with a

Sunrise in Darjeeling

In a park in Darjeeling Maggie and I were two among scores of people who got up at 3.30 am to go and watch sunrise when the rain was lashing the windowpanes of our room in a hotel in Darjeeling. It was the summer of 2010. We had spent three days in Gangtok already. Gangtok was a cheerful sunrise while Darjeeling was like a gloomy sunset, Maggie would say poetically later as we sat in the leisurely toy train that moved from Darjeeling to Kurseong.   Our tour of Darjeeling was to start with the sunrise seen from Tiger Hill and our hotel had arranged a taxi to take us to Tiger Hill at 4 am. The sunrise would be at 4.45, we were told. But it started pouring right after midnight, a kind of rain that didn’t sound quite characteristic of a hill station. When the reception rang us at 3.30, I asked how anyone would see a sunrise in that weather. “Your taxi will be ready at 4.” The answer was terse and the call was over. Most people of Darjeeling were equally terse and morose, as we would le

Books waiting on my shelf

T hese are hectic days for me. The Board Exams are around the corner and that means feverish revisions, completing project works, model exams, and paper valuations. So my reading has become the first casualty. A Man Called Ove , the book I started reading last month remains half-read on my table. It’s a delightful book about a 59-year-old man who belongs to the species that “checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.” I discovered something of me in him and hence began to hate him as much as love him. Something of my old self, I should correct myself. I am not a quarter as grumpy as Ove now though I tend to share his view, occasionally at least, that most people are banal if not idiotic. Return I will with a renewed passion as soon as I complete preparing the next model question paper, check the project works, and then check the model answer sheets. The next book waiting is a 1000-page mammoth of a book which I bought just because I once knew the author personally

Media in Modi’s India

Freedom of the press is dying in Modi’s India rather quickly. The World Press Freedom Index ranks India very low at 142 out of 180 countries. The rank deteriorated consistently from the time Modi became the Prime Minister. The Press Council of India, a state-owned body, accepts that there is unwarranted censorship of the media in the country. There are various types of “intimidation” of journalists and news agencies. Both human rights and press freedom have crumbled in India faster than in any other country. “Freedom of expression is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” The Nobel Peace Prize Committee said while awarding the prize last year to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia.” The Committee went on to say that these two are “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.” India has

Mountains and I

When you have conquered certain heights you can’t descend any more. You spread your wings and fly. Richard Bach said something similar in one of his two famous books. He was speaking metaphorically about the quality of your life, of your thinking, of your attitudes. But when you are on the mountains, that axiomatic saying holds good literally too. When you conquer one peak, the next higher peak beckons you bewitchingly. You want to climb that too. And the next one too. And it goes on. The mountains urge you to go higher and higher. I spent the most worthwhile period of my life on the mountains of Shillong. Fifteen years. They should have been the happiest years of my life. I loved the mountains. I still do. But Shillong turned out to be the bitterest part of my life. That’s one of the ironies of life. When you’re only conquering peaks, the same ones, ad infinitum, from home to workplace and back, from home to water source and back with buckets of water in both hands, from home out

When turtles die

From David Troeger There is a Malayalam story in which the protagonist tells another character, “You know, the female turtles are the most unfortunate creatures on earth. They are denied the delights of motherhood. They can’t lay their eggs in the ocean where they live most of their lives. They rush to the beach to lay the eggs and rush back to save themselves from men. The eggs hatch under nature’s care. The mother won’t ever see her little ones. She can’t love them, can’t fondle them, won’t even see them. They are the saddest mothers among all creatures.” There are seven different species of sea turtles now. They are all endangered species and three of them are critically so. All of them are born on some beach where their mothers lay the eggs only to depart instantly in horror of the human species for whom turtle soup is a delicacy, turtle shells become decorative items, and turtle eggs are “absolutely delicious” low calorie meals. Nature’s temperature hatches the turtle’s eggs


Miracle is a change of attitude. This is something that I tell my students frequently especially when we deal with the theme in two lessons. One of the lessons is a short story by Selma Lagerlof titled ‘The Rattrap.’ A beggarly rattrap peddler who resorts to stealing occasionally in order to make both ends meet is transformed by the kindness and generosity extended to him by a woman who is adding a deeper meaning to her Christmas celebration in the process. Her goodness, which is something new for the peddler, strikes a chord with him and changes his attitude to the world radically. From being a beggar and an occasional thief he raises himself to the standards of a regimental captain. Such a transformation of character is a miracle. A whole continuum of attitudes turns upside down. A rogue becomes a captain. Miracle. A similar miracle happens in the second story that I teach in the same class, the story of a 14-year-old boy named Derry who hates himself and the entire world. The re

The Eye of Ayurveda

The old building of the hospital - Supercool M ost people are metaphorically blind. The world would have been a far better place if people could really see. See. See the folly of hatred and that too in the name of gods. See the little child dying in the hut because of starvation while the country is spending enormous wealth on advertising its GDP. See the bloodstains on the walls of temples being built by a dictator. See the monstrous ego of that dictator who hoodwinks you with a tea stall story. A tall story and a distorted history. When everybody around you turns blind, you begin to suspect your own sight. That’s how I visited an eye hospital and discovered that I was afflicted with cataract. “Nothing but a surgery can restore normal sight to your right eye,” I was told. I nodded assent to the prescription instantly because I wanted a proper vision in a country of apparently blind people. I longed to see. See clearly. The surgery was done and my right eye got back its pristine 6/

The Story of a Dictionary

My first dictionary was a gift from an uncle who was a teacher. He gave it to me when I passed the first Board examination of my life at the age of 15 with a total score that was comparatively good. Good in the family, that is. It was a Concise Oxford Dictionary which served me well for many years. In due course of time, an Advanced Oxford took its place. I was in love with both these dictionaries, so to say. I loved words. I loved them so much that I didn’t love anything else apparently. Words are drugs. You can get addicted to them. I was intoxicated by them. That’s one of the reasons why I leaped at the opportunity when a Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary was offered to me at a discounted price in 1991. When I look back at that opportunity, it appears more like fiction. I was giving a party after I passed the master’s in English language and literature while working as a schoolteacher in Shillong. The party was arranged at a friend’s house since my own rented house was a ba

To change or not to change

The cover of a project paper by Athena, my student Charles Darwin [1809-82] was a mediocre student at school. His father was a successful and wealthy country doctor who had high hopes for his son. But Charles seemed determined to shatter his father’s dreams. Books and theories did not charm him. He loved the outdoors. He was fascinated by rare beetles, flowers and birds. He watched them for hours and made notes. His father was not at all amused by all that. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching,” the father scolded the young boy and predicted in no uncertain terms, “You will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.” The father was not going to let the son become such a disgrace, however. He packed him off to a medical school in Edinburgh to study medicine. But Charles soon dropped out. Then the father sent him to study for a degree in Cambridge so that the young man could become a parson. A parson is a respectable member of the society and could easily earn a

The hegemony of dress

Who should decide what you will wear? India has a Prime Minister whose sartorial elegance is world-famous now. No other Prime Minister of India including the stylish Indira Gandhi – and arguably no other leader of any country in the world – has displayed an ardour for dressing up as Modi has. He has appeared in hundreds of various styles of dresses including something that looked like a sari. But, ironically, in Modi’s India certain people are denied the freedom to choose their dress. The present controversy about hijab in Karnataka’s colleges is just one example. Why should any political party decide what a community of people will wear especially when that party’s topmost leader keeps changing dresses and colours according to situations? I am not a supporter of the hijab and the burka. I am of the firm opinion that women should be free to display their identity. Someone who is covered up from top to bottom looks more like a piece of baggage than a human being. Even the hijab, w

The Charm of the Brontë Gloom

    Bront ë  Museum, Haworth Leading the list of the umpteen places that I would love to visit is Haworth of the Bront ë s. Haworth is a village in England where the three illustrious Bront ë sisters lived until their premature deaths. Two of the sisters and their only brother died when they were only 29, 30 and 31 respectively. The other one managed to live to the age of 39. Their unfortunate father, Rev Patrick Bronte, endured all that along with the death of his wife much earlier. It was a gloomy life for all of them. On a gloomy landscape. The landscape where Charlotte Bront ë’ s Jane Eyre, Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Catherine lived out their passions, dreams and frustrations. All the four Bront ë children were brilliant. The boy, Branwell, was considered to be a genius by his father and sisters. He was tutored at home rigorously by his religious father. His poetry earned much praise. He painted admirable portraits. A talented man he was. But he ended up as a drifter. Addi

Two kinds of Paradises

A view of Sawan's library Libraries are archives of longings. Both the writers whose books are stored on the racks and the readers whose souls delve into those racks are dreamers of sorts. Books belong to people with infinite longings. The death of a library is very painful to those who love books. One of my beloved libraries was killed in 2015. Who would want to kill a library that was pulsating with life and that too young life? Such questions have become redundant in India, especially after 2014.    One religious cult called Radha Soami Satsang Beas [RSSB] killed the library I’m speaking about here. It was Sawan Public School’s library in Delhi. The entire school was killed by a godman and his followers just because they wanted to create parking spaces for devotees. I have narrated that story in detail in two of my books: Autumn Shadows and Black Hole . Writer Borges was of the opinion that Paradise would be a kind of library. What else can Paradise be for those whose h