Sunday, February 7, 2016

Middlemarch By George Eliot- Book Review

Rating: If you are a writer, Must read.
If you are not- Still, a must read.

I have just finished reading Middlemarch. It is quite a heavy and voluminous book. The story slowly rises, very slowly, spread across so many deeply developed and intricately engaging characters- the people of a fictional rustic town of Middlemarch in the 18th Century England. The narrative and the story is strong, well-built with huge shoulders to carry various causes which it alludes to.
The beauty and charm of reading a classic of those times is that while these stories were written when Europe convalesced under the forces which were to set it on a path to glory; it is to the credit to wonderful writers like George Eliot (Real name, Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880)), that they never allow the narrative to surrender to their causes. While the story deals with love, marriage as prime theme, it is not a romance novel, as is evident by the male pen-name taken by the writer in those times. There will of course, be allusion to social themes like widow remarriage, love outside of marital boundaries, social divisions and woman emancipation, but there will always be the story which stands supreme. This is the skill of the writer that the story is the message. Author does not, for a moment, sit at the high pedestal to preach. From that perspective, this is another of Writer’s book (like Orlando, or Lord Jim or The Insulted and The Humiliated, for that matter).

There are no judgement which the writer makes on behalf of the reader. In that sense, the writer doesn’t misuse his exalted position as the creator and narrator of the story. The characters are exactly as they are supposed to be. They thrive and bloom in the thin land of reality which exists between the good and the evil. Therein lies the success of the Novel, it doesn’t preach or screech ever. Just as the oft said- Show, don't tell, this is another lesson, illustrate, don't preach.

The message is subtle, the build impeccable. Virginia Woolf called MiddleMarch as one the few English books written for grown-up people. One needs a degree of maturity and patience to let this book grow on you. By the time one ends the book, (which will be a long time, this being a longish book), you almost feel you have been to this small town, know all those inhabitants and are almost saddened when you close the finished story and miss them sorely, sadly and surely.

The story looms about the small town politics, with Nicholas Bulstrode, as a wealthy and overtly righteous banker, Sir James Chattam, Mr. Brooke and his nieces, Dorothea and Celia Brook, Clergyman Edward Casaubon, Vincy family and the young Doctor Lydgate, before it delves deeper and looks into lives of people, their relationships and evaluates, addresses their parallel stories which run side-by-side.  Much like life, no story is subservient to any other story and it takes special vastness of vision on the part of the writer to ensure that each story is dealt with as delicately as any other.

The Plot is very complex, mostly on account of multiple story-lines and makes one ponder about relationships, customs and conventions, without being judgmental about them. As a reader, it opens layers of your understanding about the world and at no point in the story, the writer tries to impose his vision, his idea on to you. The characters emerge as real people of flesh and blood with their very human weaknesses and strengths arising out of the story.

The story begins with Sir James Chettam wanting to get married to Dorothea, a lovely, young and intellectually awakened woman, searching for her moorings. Dorothea, is much impressed, instead with the wise, and self-effacing Rev. Edward Casaubon, who is much older than her. She however, feels that life would find purpose in the intellectual pursuit, rather supporting the intellectual pursuit of Casaubon. In the process, she spurns James Chettam, refuses to listen to her sister Celia, who is practical and intellectually superficial, and gets married to a much older man. Soon, on their wedding journey to Rome, she realizes her folly and finds herself into a lonely existence on the other side of the wall, beyond which Casaubon is busy in the pursuit of his own elusive intellectual glory. She, a sharp and wise soul, soon realizes the futility of her husband’s pursuit, as she finds the limitations of his mind. Nothing can put this disillusionment more eloquently as the author herself when she writes, 

the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither.

And as time passes, it comes to a point, when Casaubon asks her regarding whether they should leave or stay, 
It seemed to her as if going or staying were alike dreary. 

As I wrote in the beginning, this is a writer’s book, it is an education for a writer. It takes you to such great pinnacles of glory of language, one bows the head in awe. 
She writes the loneliness of young Dorothea, searching for way to enter into her husband’s intimate life, 

The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low-hanging uniformity of cloud. The very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: The stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world….her religious faith was a solitary cry, the struggle out of a nightmare in which every object was withering and shrinking away from her.

 She meets in her days of loneliness in Rome, Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young cousin with little fortune to his name. She feels Will has been wronged and is sympathetic towards him. Right at the time, when one feels it is getting into Madam Bovary mold, the story soars as one understands Casaubon, even in his failures, as a human being. As one discovers the deeply distrustful husband in Casaubon, one also feels for him as his impending death is announced. 
She writes, 
when the commonplace, “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into acute consciousness, “I must die and soon” then death grapples us and his fingers are cruel: 

Edward dies amid the disputed request by Dorothea to support Ladislaw. One doesn’t hate him, one does not love Edward. One does feel a little sad as if someone real had died. Dorothea shrinks into the shadows of young widowhood, under the admonishment of her dead husband’s will that she was never to re-marry and not to Will Ladislaw at least.
Another story which runs in parallel is of the young doctor, Lydgate who arrives in the small town of MiddleMarch and while gains affection of Rosamond, the daughter in Vincy family, while helping her brother Fred Vincy recuperate from his sickness, and marries her. A romantic marriage is soon withered in the warm winds of poverty which brings out the vulnerabilities of their happy lives. Fred Vincy on the other hand, is in love with Mary Garth, a conscientious, wise girl and a daughter of Caleb Garth. Mary wants Fred, who is her childhood sweetheart to get out of his aimlessness, and find stability in life, before she could consent to marry him.

This is a wonderful story of man-woman relationships, of marriage, where love helps the three people survive their on fractured moralities, whether it is Fred Vinci’s view of life devoid of any seriousness, Lydgate whose marriage braves both poverty and selfish attitude of Rosamond to finally settle down and apathy of his in-laws, or Dorothea, who helps Lydgate come out of the unreasonable blame of death of Raffles . Raffles arrives late in the scene and carries secret regarding Bulstrode and Ladislaw. At the end, Dorothea marries Ladislaw, contrary to the will of her deceased husband and advise of her presumptuous and haughty brother-in-law, and erstwhile spurned suiter, Chettam. As a consequence, the relationships with Celia is broken. However, as they would say in Eighteenth century English, by-and-by things would come around all would fall in place. The best thing about this story is that it takes no side, and tells you that left to their own design, in the long run, truth prevails, love prevails. As VS Pritchett would write in 1946, No other writer has represented the ambiguities of moral choices so fully.  Emily Dickinson, when asked about what she thought of MiddleMarch responded by saying, “What do I think of glory?”

While in most Novels, no character except the main protagonists, Ms. Eliot attends with affection to each character in the story. While this lengthens the novel, it ensures that one gets into the skin of MiddleMarch. This explains why the novel still captures the fancy of modern readers, more than a century after it was published (it is an 1872 novel), ranked 21st among the 100 best novels ranked by The Guardian in 2014.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Politics of Religion and Identity

Photo Courtesy Gettyimages
There was a Supreme Court directive which banned traditional bull racing festival Jallikattu in Tamilnadu. Today, as I write this, women groups are storming into a small temple in obscure town in Maharashtra. Media is in overdrive. Times Now seeks the rationale behind why women aren’t allowed in Sanctum Santorum of the temple. Yesterday they covered a Member of Parliament, sworn to the same constitution we celebrate today, who urged people to vote for their party, else they will lose their right to eat beef, which he posited, is a way of life for Muslims and Dalits. The rationale of it? Well, nobody would ask that. The same tribe which fights for the well-being of the animal also fights for converting the same animal into their dinner. But no, we don’t have it in us even to question such inept political positioning.

Left, always boastful of being atheist, jumps in gleefully. The people who have no faith in religion, step in to modernize the religion. I am not much of a religious person. That possibly diminishes whatever position I am here to take. If anything, I am borderline atheist. But possibly that gives me a viewpoint which is more objective, as I would like to believe. I care two hoots either way. These women are neither fighting for women reservation in parliament nor are they arguing for combat role for women in Indian Army. They want to get into a temple far 0ff. They won’t storm the TN assembly for three girls who committed suicide in Chennai or UP assembly where a man convicted of raping a girl was let off with five slaps as state sat impassive, or where a Dalit girl was raped and killed as political revenge.

They are neither perturbed by the cause of the women, nor by the cause of the religion. They are pursuing symbolism. Our politics is today the politics of symbolism. There was a student, who suicide had all politicians rally around. He was a symbol which carried political weight. We did not find the same politicians rally behind the IAF personnel mowed down by an influential politician in Bengal, nor found them asking higher compensation for him from the state.

There are many rituals we do not understand. When it comes to many tribal rituals, we do not and we are not supposed to understand. They are not supposed to give explanation. These rituals represent their way of life. If this were made uniform law across all temples around the country, possibly that might call for action. Why one temple singled out? Not that women are not allowed in the temple. They are not allowed in the core sector of the temple. But then most are not.

We are a generation in hurry, and we are great misers. We want our activities and protests and causes to fit in our weekends. We do not have time and patience to step in a do any change grounds up, like for instance, Brahmo Samaj movement resulting in abolition of Sati or child marriages. TRP needs media to move from symbolism to another symbolism. That is why we stay from the substantial work which could bring about substantial changes. Women having a drink and smoke is a larger symbol of women emancipation for us that a woman who shuns cosmetics and go for her morning run in unattractive sport shoes. It is a sad thing to happen, not only because it makes our positions untenable and weak. We seek symbols and we lose, even when we think we have won, those are pyrrhic, empty wins. Our movements are coordinated with the Sundays and driven by media.

It would be hard not to acknowledge, that India was only country to resist being overwhelmed by both Islam and Christianity. That position, that fluid faith which continued to survive both centuries of Mughal and British rule, has done so only because of the tradition of debate and reform. It is not a static, political religion. There are no military postulates garbed under God’s instruction to follow. There are thoughts, on multiple sides of any arguments. With time, the truth loses its relevance and changes happen. But the demand in Shani Signapur Nashik is not for visit to the temple. It is to touch the Shani idol. It is not a good time to be a Hindu. One is almost apologetic of being a Hindu. An intellectual Muslim/Christian is a proud Muslim, but an intellectual Hindu is an atheist. Being a woman, it is hard to stay away from the feminist groups or being Dalit, staying away from the tag. One can of course, but that doesn’t meet the liking of those for whom tags are banners to hide personal and political ambitions behind. One escapes it with difficulty, oftentimes with death, like a young student, who wanted to refuse to surrender his individual thought to mob mind, but ended up being a tag of identity politics in his death. One who is enlightened, refuses to be a tool and therefore is not liked by those who want young to agitate and die, to serve their cynical, old age in the glory of lofty principles, which they know to be untrue, as they settle down to debate with Champaign. That is why they do not support living causes, they prefer dead, for the dead could bring about something disruptive.

We do not have activist who read much to strengthen and evaluate their position. They take the noisiest one and make it their own. On one holiday. When your arguments are weak, you seek comfort in number. That is how it happens even in context of feminism. It is getting so shrill that objective arguments are losing their space. The collective- yes that is what we get from communism. The lofty elusive dream, which sadly has been ably exposed by Ayn Rand. From Intellectual perspective, Ms. Rand might seem low-brow, but one needs to go through We, The Living to understand, how the theory of herding men at the cost of individual, is nothing but a conspiracy to benefit the few, who are first among the equals. What collective decides, individual cannot counter or question, therefore, long list of sentence dissenters in Russia and in China.

If it is such flawed a philosophy, why there are so many left intellectuals? I guess the answer would be, because you need them. Man is inherently, as one would draw from Darwin’s survival of the fittest, capitalist. To make him communist, need aggressive reasoning, if not Gulag. You need lot of intellectual firepower to handle rational thinking which will not surrender reasoning to a little red book. The left thrives on it. The left hates any philosophy which celebrates individual thought. It loves a debate, when it can win it. That is the philosophy which is now ruling our public space. It wants to win, and individual is too little a cost for that win. It carefully picks its causes, causes which can ignite public anxiety. We, hapless individuals, are troubled citizens. We have to align with public outrage. If we don’t, it impinges on their freedom of expression, we are old-fashioned, bigoted, . Embarrassed, we either stay silent or fall in line. There is such power wielded by those who lament being powerless. It is horrifying, one can sense something sinister going on which people like us do not understand.

It is a deep web that spreads wide. And the disruption to that design is barely offered by the democratization of the debating space offered by social media. In this space, one struggles with old satraps of national opinion, the media. Every dissent is responded with you vs. us kind of argument. But that is another debate. For now, about religious freedom, I stand with it. If it is to go, and religious practices are to be changed per-force not by reasoning, in the interest of equity, I will support it. Then it should be without religious discrimination. First step should be uniform civil code, state take-over of all religious institution and enforce uniformity in line with the constitution. Pakistan’s biggest failure was uniformization of state as a uniform theocratic state. Let us not do it. Reforming religion, by all means, do it. But not by storming, I would say not by courts (unless after uniform civil code), but by debate and discussion. Every nation has a way of life. Hinduism is one of the most fluid of religions, where is the need to storm? There is no prophet in Hinduism whose words are the last words. Change is always a possible. That is why it always accommodated opposites like Dvait and Advait. For clarity, Temple in Nashik allows women, only prohibits them touching the statue, which is a matter of faith. Not my faith, but of those who takes care of it. Why mustn’t we value it?  We are OK on the instruction at Archies Gallery telling us not to touch the things. If below 21 are not allowed in bars, is it discriminatory to twenty year old? We must choose the worthy fights and fight worthy evils, like the rapes in UP as political tool. That will go long way in women emancipation, but path will be difficult, may not bring votes. Not now, and maybe not ever, as it will be slow and gradual to catch public fancy and grab votes.

PS- I guess, in this post I do not make much sense, but I am suffocated by righteousness and had to write this. I am a Hindu and not very religious, or as the Christians or Muslims would say, not a practicing Hindu. I believe, existence of all religions in India makes a delicate balance, which is necessary for the character of nation. If one looks at the nations which became religious states, it started somewhere here.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Who Do We Write Poetry For?

Courtesy: Getty Images
I recently in The Paris Review came across an interesting quote by great poet, by Robert Graves (1895-985). He says, “Never use the word “audience.” The very idea of a public, unless a poet is writing for money, seems wrong to me. Poets don't have an “audience”: They're talking to a single person all the time…... All the so-called great artists were trying to talk to too many people. In a way, they were talking to nobody.

I posted it on Google+, seeking the views of people. I got responses, some usual +1, I’d take it that they liked and agreed with the statement. But a dear friend, and wonderful poet Sum James, wrote that the words which are written for audience and is not something of an ante-thesis of poetry, as is seemingly contended here. It runs along. I would however, agree that the term audience here could be misleading. Every poem, I would agree with Sum James, is intended to an audience. Therein lies the reason for disagreement.

Poems are not scalar. Poems are vector, they have a sense of direction inherent in them. They need to go somewhere. They carry emotions. Emotions which are pent up, held in the dark corner, as if they were dead, only they aren’t, ride on the arrows that we call poetry. As all arrows they are directed to some direction and audience sits there. And audience here is not the reader. Audience has no say and the Reader is incidental.

However, I think, I do understand, what Robert Graves meant when he wrote the quote. The poet writes for the audience, which may or may not be a wider audience. The audience might not exactly be the one which is obvious. When the poet writes to an oppressive government, he more often than not, is not writing to the government. He or she is writing to the citizens, empathizing with them, urging them to change things or merely offering them a shoulder to cry on. We fantasize the poet as an eccentric who is so ill at ease with the world in which he would rather not be.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. A poet, or a writer for that matter, is the one who is most impacted by the world around me. Things which other people are not much perturbed with and are easily able to deal with, are the things which trouble a poet to no end. He writes out of that discomfort and poetry is his way of reaching out to the world. He is seldom understood which seldom matters to him.

Thus, it is established that a poet writes to the audience. The audience can be non-human, human or divine. This is where the twist is, which explains what Robert Graves possibly meant. His small discussion is not dependent on the willingness of the audience to listen to him. He writes words directed towards the audience, but he doesn’t care about the readiness of the audience. In that sense, his words may wither down and end up on the ground like dry autumn leaves, but they are there for someone. They are written in hope, in happiness, in horrid sadness, for someone.

I believe, the poet meant that poem cannot be driven by the market. Audience is a passive thing for a poet. Poems are driven by the poet and no one else. He doesn’t care about the willingness, the want or the readiness of the world. His poems are force of nature and they are written because they need to be written, like a river or a flower, or the meadows or the mountains. The poet decides, when and how. Robert Graves was possibly referring to the commercialization which plagues writing today, when he said that poets should not write for the audience. After all, he is the poet who wrote “There is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money” and also gave, what I would say is best advice to a poet, on how to handle commercial failures and even success, when he said that poetry is a condition rather than a profession. I totally agree with him and would further advise writers to write poems, if only as an exercise to prepare themselves for prose. It brings exactness and urgency to writing. Cheers to poetry, anyways, it is a condition and all it needs is love. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Reading and Writing in Year 2016

The year has just past by. Another year, another life, another sigh, another teardrop for the giant eye of the time.

Many things can happen in an year. Lives can change- a country's life, an individual's life. How does one day differ from another? Does the tide turn, the Earth revolves in another direction? It is a psychological peg we devise to measure our journey. To measure how far we have traversed from where we started. Did we travel farther than others that we measure against? It sounds such narrow-minded to measure ourselves against others around us, but what other way do we have?

This competition make us going, while in our heart of heart we know it will all end into nothing- cipher, a zero and only solace we will have, will be an unproven promise of afterlife. But as spaces around us reduce, shoulders rub against one another, we barely breathe, we sigh, long sighs, as if they would some day grow so big to swallow our whole lives.

We need friends, camaraderie, non-competing acquaintances. Friends in front of whom, we may become nothing, become our broken selves and not be judged, not be measured. Our bald heads, our protruding midriff, our awkward courtesies are adored and not looked down at with disdain.

That's why I have come to discover two things in life- Long-distance running and literature. Both are to a great extent non-competing indulgences. Those who do not practice these will not consider them thus. Both are pretty unforgiving exercises. Cruel, lonely practices both and while doing both, a part of you bleeds, something beyond and beneath the flesh bleeds. But, both, in the end, liberate. In both cases, I have found fellow practitioners encourage and push you to do better. Both in running and in writing. Very unlike anything else we do in life.

I did not do much of both this year. I ran my second half-marathon, rather limped through it. On writing, did not do much of writing this year. Blog yes I did, and very little of what could be serious writing. No, I do not look down at blogging, the way western world does when they want to disrespect writers getting killed in Islamic world by extremists- people and state. But for me, I have not written any good stories this year. Last Christmas, I wrote "A Sad Christmas. No new story since then. It is as if the spring has died off. No, that would be incorrect. I have stories in me. I think of them. One about a writer searching for what Hemingway called One true sentence. But it hasn't happened.

Tired and exasperated of not having written much, I went about and published "Rescued Poems" which was something of cheating. I collected all the poems I wrote, half-asleep, half-weeping on twitter and Facebook and put them together. Then I read some.

Some truly wonderful writing I read this year, though much less than I could and I should have. I read The Book Thief, an amazing book in the backdrop of World war, with death as a narrator. Another was All The Light We Cannot See, again in the same context. We worry, rave and rant about the inconsequential. All great wars have been already fought, all giants are already sleeping under the earth. What else I read? Brilliant Virginia Woolfe .

I have been reading her journals for last two years, but this year could summon courage to finally read her novel. There are some writings that once you come across then you feel betrayed. I do not know, but it did happen to me earlier when I read "The Great Gatsby" and "Notes from the Underground" and most strongly when I read "The Insulted and the Humiliated" or Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness". I felt a deep sense of despair, betrayal that I had lived all my life not knowing someone wrote such glorious words. Similar sorrow surrounded my reading of "Orlando" and "Mrs Dolloway" especially the former.
The lovely thing which I notice is classics (also the one as of now unfinished "MiddleMarch") are so unhurried.

 We are in a hurry. We rush, and drag our souls through our brutal days. These books are unmoved by our sense of urgency. They sit staring at us, unmoved. They don't move at your pace, they slow you down so you can see things for what they are. These are the books about which Neitzsche wrote that one should take of shoes before reading (or something like it). The immenseness of thoughts, the grand divinity of words stretch itself about your being like a canopy of brilliant stars under which everything is strangely vivid, strangely and suddenly. Middlemarch tests you, teases you right till chapter IV. The Heart of Darkness rises to its crescendo right towards end. Love In The Time of Cholera, moves in such enchanting, winding manner that one is almost transport to a different world. That is the nature and power of a classic. That is what makes them timeless.

For a non-writer, these books are the lighthouse on stormy nights in the sea, these are the
stars on a dark night in the middle of sand dunes in the desert. They help you survive life. For a writer, these books are the universities that teach you writing. More than any fashionable course in creative writing. They are the teachers, we will never have, we the moonlighting litterateurs of twenty-first century, walking with unsure steps through democratization of literature with tools as blogs and social media. But social media is a double-edged sword. It gives one a sense of doing productive work while frittering away the time. That is one thing I need to ration. It creeps into writing space and even life and must be curtailed. So, less of twitter and FB this year, more of writing and reading, and God willing, completing A Difficult Love. Happy New Year and Happy reading to you all.

My Book Review:
Book Review - The Insulted and The Humiliated (Click Here)
Book Review - All The Lights We Cannot See (Click Here)
Book Review - The Book Thief (Click Here)
Book Review - Love in The Time of Cholera (Click Here)