The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Remembering Hanuman

Hanuman is the most endearing character in the Ramayan. As a child when we were introduced to the various characters of the epic, it is this character that specially excited my imagination by its range of daredevil deeds say jumping across the ocean or flying with an uprooted hillock in hand. I do not remember if I had read then a passion for righteousness or a sign of imperative expediency in the unflinching loyalty of Hanuman to Ram. Maybe I had not thought it any different from other interesting stories I listened to like that of Sindbad the sailor or Sikandar the conqueror.

But now when I feel I should be logical in what I think or write, I cannot be so undiscerning. If I ask myself to list out ten ideas that flash through my mind when I think of this great epic character, I honestly fail to fill in the list. Let me try once again as I key in my words: Hanuman means heroism, courage, blind allegiance, mace (gada), kneeling on one knee with the other raised towards the sky, tearing one's own chest, talking like humans, standing upright more like human than like a primate, a tail in fire…I don't think the list is yet complete. It's like trying to remember the details of a calendar art or the soap opera that entertained the country for a little over two years at a stretch.

When the epic was on the air, a little girl once came to me with a question that bothered her all through.

'Uncle, why is it that the characters like Hanuman and Angad are shown with tails and the female characters of the monkey world aren't?'

This question brought a funny feeling in me. I mused over the matter, 'How can we think of Hanuman without a tail? If we do that at all, how does the director of the epic drama make Hanuman set fire in Ravana's golden Lanka?'

Then I replied the question. 'Look at me, my little friend, I've a moustache, haven't I?'

'Yes, you've a big black moustache and that's what I can see. But that cannot be the answer, Uncle,' she had quipped.

'Hold it for a second and I'm coming to that. Look at your Auntie and tell me if she has any moustache,' I asked.

'Moustache? How can Aunty wear a moustache?' she responded rhetorically.

'So, it's only a natural difference between a male and a female whether we talk of a moustache or a tail. Is that clear to you?' I gave a self-satisfied smirk. My little friend seemed to have understood my explanation, as she did not have to laugh now.

Jokes apart let me ask myself a question that bothers me now: What was the motivation of Hanuman to be so committed to Ram? If Laxman was with him, it was for the fact that he was Ram's brother and even today we find brothers so very faithful. Sita was the wife and a wife giving company to her husband in the days of hardship is also understandable. But what about Hanuman?

People with their minds heavily preconditioned would tell that Hanuman was a devotee and a selfless devotee at that. So what's the big point of confusion?

But there is a little difficulty in accepting this explanation so easily. It is so very otherworldly and esoteric, like explaining this birth as a result of actions of the previous. Here one does not see both cause and the effect; what is presented is to be explained in terms of what is missing. There has to be something in the present, at least something banal and apparent to motivate the instant action. Sugreev offered himself to fight Ravana because there was an agreement to that effect and the first part of the agreement (killing of Bali) was already over. So the episode was understandable in terms of quid pro quo.

But what about Hanuman? Let me go a little trivial here in what I say: since animals by nature are faithful, say a dog for instance, Hanuman acted as per his animal proclivity. But let me not forget it; he was a talking monkey, not the ordinary one we see in our backyard day in day out!

Hanuman was a mere soldier in the army of monkeys and all soldiers have one motivation when they kill the enemy--it is not heroism but an ordinary step of survival. 'If I don't kill the soldier from the enemy standing before me, he will kill me'--it is as simple as that. So Hanuman could have behaved like an ordinary soldier in the army of Sugreev. Then why did he go to the extraordinary extents to help Ram? Didn't he go alone inside the enemy's camp? Was it not like recklessly exposing to danger?

Now let me try to explain the motivation. Hanuman was an ambitious soldier with terrific abilities. He knew what he was capable of. But Sugreev was not a good leader and he could neither know of the ability of a talented follower nor sense the fire of ambition burning in him. Had he known that he could have won the war against Bali without having to seek the help of Ram the mendicant. So on the one hand there was somebody among the followers willing to do extra and be recognised and on the other a totally mediocre leader who was blissfully unaware of the resource he was commanding. Naturally there was a kind of readiness in Hanuman to try something different. Then came Ram. He was a true leader. He knew what secures allegiance: it is not what you pay at present but what you promise to pay in future. A leader dreams for his followers. 'Come, Hanuman come. I'll take you somewhere nobody had ever ventured. Together we will fight and win. We will annex a land of honey and gold and you will be remembered in the future as the conqueror of conquerors, the hero of heroes….'

I don't know if this explains my doubt. Maybe in future I'll have to revise these findings. There is nothing apologetic about it for the Ramayan is such an epic; it invites one to read it again and again.
A. N. Nanda


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On the Fringe of History: “The Glass Palace” by Amitav Ghosh

The last book I read, William Darlymple's "The Last Mughal" concluded in Burma with the exile and demise of last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Now the book I am going to review started in Burma with its last king Thebaw getting defeated and exiled to India. It's only a coincidence, and an interesting one at that. Isn't it?

Tracing history along the footprints of illustrious personages is as easy as writing ‘O’, but to delve deep into it peeping through the lives of the humble commoners has to be a walk through labyrinth. Working with cross purposes, all the time answering the questions of existence, and with no big past to protect nor a clear future to leap, these common folk have always received raw deals in the hands of historians. But where history flounders, fiction takes over. Here conviction matters, a credo that takes one to the realm of sweat and tears of the common folk, the makers of history. Truly, great fiction owes its origin to such a conviction. Or else, how can one narrate the devastating aftereffects of an air raid so movingly without recounting the tribulations of homeless commoners? How does one fathom the distress in the flight of refugees without showing the picture of a ravenous baby suckling the dry breast of its mother or a woman trying to barter the silk sari off her body just for a handful of food? How does one pen the trauma of a nation in turbulence without touching the lives of the common sufferers?

Amitav Ghosh’s magnum opus “The Glass Palace” [ISBN: 978-81-7223-419-5; Harper Collins; 2007; Paperback, Price INR 295.00] is not an historical account, for the author says that in the concluding chapter of the book. To quote him, " 'The Glass Palace' is thus unqualifiedly a novel and I can state without reservation that except for the King Thebaw, Queen Supalayat and their daughters, none of its principal characters bear any resemblance to real people, living or deceased."

With an assertion so categorical, the matter should settle here. But it does not, for there are painstaking details to give the feeling that what is being told is a real story, a genuine historical account of people that would not have otherwise got their passport to history: you have a Dolly growing into her adulthood enduring with equanimity a life in exile while serving the deposed king and the royal family; you have a Rajkumar making the best of the opportunities provided by colonial Burma; you have a Uma, the collector’s wife, metamorphosing herself from a demure womanhood to a politically prominent persona; you have an Arjun overcoming his ingrained inferiority complex internalizing the flamboyant formalities of army hierarchies; you have a Saya John living through the uncertainties that come his way all through…. And all the while the narratives sustain the stories with details that only go to add to the beauty of the plot, with poignancy that heighten the appeal of the book.

The book is of epic proportion where characters pass through all their life stages in their respective ways leaving behind on their trails traces of their struggle, romance, hope, success, failures, and it goes on and on for three generations. Rajkumar brings with him a story of rags to riches, marries her sweetheart Dolly after a long wait, acquires family, and gives his progeny enough. But enough is not enough; the progeny cannot rewrite the story of success, at least not so spectacularly as the patriarch has done. They in their turn acquire families and their families give birth to another and, in a way, all of them play second fiddle. Similar is the case with Saya John, a loner who lives chasing a dream of contended life of familial boisterousness just to be tragically denied that at the end. Altogether the range is quite extensive, but through the steady turn of events and incisive exploration of the characters, the author has greatly saved the work from appearing flat.

What makes the opus immensely readable is the setting, the rhythmic progress of the storyline along the historical time-line. A great mass of information and historical details have been seamlessly integrated into the storyline. The king in Burma is deposed and exiled to India; the colonial rule brings prosperity in the country through timber trade and oil drilling; the tide takes a turn and the colonial British rule is challenged by the Japanese; the country suffers under the occupation of the new colonial power; the Japanese are driven out but the country falls into the hands of military junta; a movement for democracy raises its head and the military quells it with its iron hand; and so on. There is a measured treatment of both the elements—the background gets enough focus yet it never overshadows the journey of the characters from point to point along the march of events in the background.

Just a couple of quibbles. Amitav Ghosh seems to have over-researched for the sake of keeping his references accurate. For example, he has mentioned way too many models of automobiles to appear as if he is narrating the entries in a vintage rally. The question comes to the minds of the readers: are these details necessary? Be it as it may, they’re not all too off-putting though. Rather it is quite informative to the readers while he says things like teak has evolved from species of mint or Europeans taught people in the sub-continent to harness elephants for timber gathering or even the elephant trainers hailed from a lesser known place called Koraput. Whether he is saying about Anthrax menace in the forests of central Burma or a Hindu army officer willingly taking beef to be accepted among the British peers, Amitav Ghosh is trying to do one and the same thing: he is just supplying flesh to his plot, not oomph alone. I’ve read the author’s another work, “The Hungry Tide” and the way he has dealt with dolphins and crabs or researched into the nomenclature of a type of sweet “Ledkin” is still more long-winded there than he has done in this work.

My special quibble is about the way Amitav ends his opus. He does not hesitate to dilute the height of poignancy he has created just by lightening the end with a geriatric love scene. I don’t think it is at all necessary; at least not when he has already said everything he has to.



A. N. Nanda