Tag Archives: Literature

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan- A Review

It takes some time for the film to sink in, but when it does, Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) has mastery written all over it.

That Anhey Ghorey belongs to niche contemporary cinema is not insignificant, even more striking is that the film is in Punjabi. This is a dissonance- the film in every way is far removed from what one expects from a Punjabi movie, or even the Hindi movies that Punjabis make.

Isn’t any movie in Punjabi about a Jatt on a revenge spree? Isn’t every Hindi movie with Punjab in the background about lush green fields swaying with bright mustard crops? If not about the big fat Punjabi weddings, isn’t it supposed to be about the valour of militant patriots like Bhagat Singh?

Based on a novel of the same name by Gurdial Singh, Anhey Ghorey presents a contrarian perspective- something that isn’t found in the Bollywoodized versions of Punjab. The story is not about the revenge of the Jatts, it is not about a militant valour either. It is a life that at best is stoic, and at its worst is impassive in the face of hardships. It shows one day in the life of a Mazhabi Sikh family that lives on the fringes. The characters don’t jump into a frenzy of song and dance every few minutes- instead they eek out a  precarious existence against a a volley of brutal attacks on their daily existence.

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Links…

A very comprehensive essay on The Dreyfus Affair that split French opinion in the 1890s- 1900s.  (wikipedia link) and which in literature is most remembered for the references it finds in Proust’s works. I found the following observation to be quite insightful though it is tangential to the topic.

In any modernized country, the backward-looking party will always tend toward resentment and grievance. The key is to keep the conservatives feeling that they are an alternative party of modernity. (This was Disraeli’s great achievement, as it was, much later, de Gaulle’s.) When the conservative party comes to see itself as unfairly marginalized, it becomes a party of pure reaction…

Githa Hariharan has a fine column in The Telegraph where she writes about the ‘kitsch in everyday life‘:
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Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture

This year’s Nobel laureate Le Clézio gives an impassioned Nobel Prize lecture, in a sense taking off from where Doris Lessing had left it last year. He quotes a passage from Stig Dagerman that influenced him as a writer and touches on many themes including a call for re- claiming the word “globalization” as well as for reclaiming a place for literature in face of the audio and visual media. Among others, he dedicates his lecture to the Mauritian Hindi writer Abhimanyu Unnuth, Qurratulain Hyder (for Aag Ka Darya) and the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.

A few excerpts from the lecture: (link via Literary Saloon)

How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.” (from Stig Dagerman’s The Writer and Consciousness)


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Tamil Pulp Fiction


Mukul Kesavan in the Outlook in a superb review of an anthology of Tamil Pulp fiction, wonders why India apparently lacks popular ‘pulp’ fiction.
This has something to do with the narrowness of the social class that reads English for pleasure in India. But even within this sliver, publishers seem to aim their books at the tiny minority that’s willing to be bored witless in the name of art. The idea of fiction as guiltless diversion where the reader turns pages in search of reliable narrative pleasure, doesn’t seem to exist.

This is because all the popular fiction produced in India is published in Indian languages.

Which brings me to this anthology, a riveting collection of stories written by 10 bestselling Tamil writers. They are real professionals who make Stephen King and Barbara Cartland look like amateurs. Indra Soundar Rajan, who is represented here by a splendid story on the theme of reincarnation, has written 500 short novels. If that sounds like fiction manufactured on an industrial scale, wait till you get to Rajesh Kumar, who has published 1,250 novels and 2,000 short stories in 40 years.

Related Posts:

Tamil Dalit Poetry
Rajan Iqbal

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Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

Continued from here:

That day, too, the workless man stood on a side.

The girl asked, “What do you want?”

He said, “I want more work from you.”

“What work shall I give you?”

“If you agree, I will make a ribbon for your plait by knitting together colourful threads.”

“What would that do?”

“Nothing at all.”

A ribbon of many different colours was made. Ever since, it takes the girl a long time to tie her hair into a plait. Chores are left undone, time passes by.

4

On the other hand, with time, big gaps started appearing in the working people’s heaven. Tears and songs filled those gaps.

The heavenly elders became deeply concerned. A meeting was called. They said, “Such a thing has never happened in the history of this place.”

The heavenly messenger came and admitted his mistake. He said, “I have brought a wrong man to the wrong heaven.”

The wrong man was brought to the meeting. His coloured headgear and waistband were enough to tell everyone that a grave mistake had been committed.

The chairman said to him, “You will have to return to earth.”

He tucked his bag of colours and brushes to his waist and with a sigh of relief said, “Off I go then.”

The girl came and said, “I will go too.”

The elderly chairman became a little abstracted. This was the first time he had witnessed something that had no meaning at all.

THE END

Image source: http://threadsofatattinggoddess.blogspot.com/

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

The man was totally out of work.

He had no occupation, just many different hobbies.

He would stuff mud inside small wooden cubes and decorate those with little shells. From a distance, those appeared as a haphazard painting with a bunch of birds within them; or a patchy field with cattle grazing on it; or undulating hills, out of which a waterfall or a trodden path peeked out.

There was no end to the chastisement he received from his family members. At times, he vowed to drop all this madness, but the madness never deserted him.

2

There are some boys who are lax with studies the whole year, but still pass the exam for no reason. The same happened with this man.

His entire life was spent without doing anything, yet after his death, he heard he had been approved to ascend to heaven.

But even on the way to heaven, destiny doesn’t forsake a man. The messengers put a wrong sign on him and took him to the working people’s heaven.

This heaven has everything except leisure time.

The men here say, “Where’s the time to breathe?” And women say, “I am going, dear, there’s a lot of work to do.” Everyone says, “Time is valuable.” Nobody says, “Time is priceless.” They all lament by saying, “We can’t take it anymore.” This makes them very happy. The music here plays to the refrain of the grievance “Oh, I am so tired!”

This man doesn’t find any space, he can’t fit in. On the road, as he walks absent-minded, he blocks the path of busy people. Whenever he he tries to rest by spreading his sheet at some spot, he learns seeds have been planted at that very place for cultivating crops. He has to always get up and move.

3

Every day, a busy girl comes to the source of the heaven to fetch water.

She darts through the path like the quick gat of a sitar.

She has tied her hair into a hurried rough knot. Even so, a few restless strands of hair bend down her forehead to get a peek at the black stars of her eyes.
The heavenly unoccupied man was standing on one side, still as Tamal tree standing beside a sprightly waterfall.

Just like a princess feels sorry for a beggar passing by her window, the girl felt sorry for this man.
“Aha, so you don’t have any work to do?”

Letting out a sigh, the workless man said, “There’s no time to work.”

The girl couldn’t understand any of his words. She said, “Do you want to share some of my work?”

The unemployed man said, “I am standing here only to share your work.”

“What work will you take?”

“If you can give me one of those earthen pots you bring to carry water…”

“What will you do with the pot? Will you fetch water?”

“Nah, I will paint on it.”

Irritated, the girl says, “I don’t have time, I am going.”

But how could a working person beat a workless one? Every day, they meet at the waterfront, and every day, the man makes the same request, “Just give me one of your pots, I will paint on it.”

Finally, the girl accepts defeat and hands him a pot.

The man began encircling the pot with layers of different hues and strokes.

When it was done, the girl lifted the pot and looked at it from all sides. With a raised eyebrow she asked, “What’s the meaning of this?”

The workless man said, “It has no meaning.”

The girl returned home with the pot. Hiding from others’ glances, she viewed it by moving it at different angles and shades of light. At night, she would get up from her bed to light the lamp and look at the painting. At her age, this was the first time she had seen something that had no meaning.

The next day, when she came to the waterfront, her brisk feet seemed to have hit a pause. As if while walking, the feet were carelessly thinking of something–something that had no meaning.

…To be continued

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

Literature from the Evil World

The London Book Fair this week celebrates Arabic literature. As Ahdaf Soueif states, there may be a crisis in the Arab world, but there is no crisis in the Arabic literature as such, though I must admit that I have seen very little or read very little of the same. Perhaps this has to do with the relative lack of availability of its literature in translation. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has, if that is any consolation, turned some attention to Arabic literature.

My own limited excursions are confined to some early readings of the Lebanese- American poet Kahlil Gibran and Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo trilogy. Here is a poem from Gibran’s most well known work The Prophet.

Children

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

source

The Assistant by Robert Walser

The Assistant was first published in 1907 in German and has been translated for the first time in English by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions last year.

It caught my eye when I saw a reference to Kafka in a blurb about the novel. Apparently Kafka admired Robert Walser, and looked forward to his writings each week. After a spate of novels and short stories, Walser’s writing career ended quite grotesquely when in 1928, he was admitted to a mental asylum, where he was confined till his death in 1956. He is supposed to have remarked to one of his visitors that ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad’, a statement that to my mind makes his madness suspect. As in the case of all those who blossom early but are then ill fated, he leaves behind a sea of mournful conjectures of smothered possibilities.The Assistant is marked by a minimalist plot. Josef Marti- an alter ego of Walser when Walser himself worked a similar job once- joins an entrepreneur to work as his assistant. A veritable Man Friday, he helps out in the household chores as well. The novel follows Marti’s days as the entrepreneur falls into decrepitude, and his enterprise fails to take off. Marti is not paid for months but lives with the family and shares their bourgeois lifestyle, even if it is lived on borrowed money.The novel is an ode to the little man, the minor character of the everyday wage worker, a clerk in Walser’s time but could be anyone who works for a living and has someone or the other for an often domineering boss.

If the plot is minimalist, the action is still more so. Indeed, the lack of action in the novel might have been nauseating were it not for Walser’s exquisite prose peppered with insights into human behavior that transcend a century between when it was first published and now. I was constantly reminded of Anton Chekhov’s deep humanism while reading the book, especially of a story called The Clerk, though there are obvious differences between Chekhov’s short story and Walser’s novel. Chekhov’s clerk Ivan Tchervyakov is a self- effacing and apologetic character who tragically dies when he is unable to get a forgiveness from a general on whom Ivan had inadvertently sneezed in a theater. Marti, on the other hand, has a series of intermittent and hesitant bouts of rebelliousness, ending in his parting of ways with his financially ruined employer.

Yet, the concern for the small man and the travails of everyday life are the same in both the stories. Vasiliy Grossman, in one of the more unworthily obscure novels of the last century, Life and Fate, had remarked that Chekhov was the most democratic writer among the Russian classic writers. Walser, at least in this work, certainly shares a similar honor.

“Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice”, Walser observes at one point when describing the children in his employer’s household. Elsewhere, when Marti’s employer Tobler is presented with yet another bill that he cannot pay, Walser describes it quite imaginatively thus:

The steep amount presented in this bill was so clearly expressed in the furrows on Tobler’s brow, expressed with almost mathematical precision, that one might have been asked to read the exact figure presented there.

Marti has, at one time, even had a brush with the most modern and provocative ideas of his age- socialism. They, however, hardly spark his imagination or make any impact on his mind and life. Great ideas, great movements of history, even great moments in life bypass the inhabitants of the Tobler household, yet there is a magic of life that weaves itself through the routine banter and the changing seasons.Cross Posted at desicritics
***
Read an excellent review here, and via the same site, a wonderful blog dedicated to Robert Walser.

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

The classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature, it was more often than not a means for communicating ideas and for philosophical discourse. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and taking them forward.

In that Andrey Platonov followed in the footsteps of the other great Russian novelists and used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. Once its enthusiast- he came from a working class background and immediately after the revolution graduated as an engineer and worked towards the electrification plans, he was sensitive to the brutality of its implementation.

His enthusiasm was soon to be curbed and his disenchantment was to be reflected in the novels that he subsequently wrote. His major works were to be published decades after his death in 1951. He was working as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writer’s building when he died.

The Foundation Pit
is the most well known of Platonov’s novels. It describes the impact of the forced collectivization that Stalin introduced in 1927. There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.

The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”. Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.

He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a “kulak” woman and therefore of “capitalist scum.” But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.

She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: “I didn’t want to get born- I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois.” Later, as she is taken to school and where she “learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse”, she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:

Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.

At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.

Platonov’s style is very direct in this novel, it was to tone down dramatically in later works like The Soul and Happy Moscow that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods and where his style is more implicit (specially in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.)

The Foundation Pit reflects the confusion of the 1920s that unleashed a great deal of creative energies among the intelligentsia specially of those coming from poorer and working class families. It also showed them the limits of that euphoria. By the 1930’s the State’s control was firmly established and by 1937 Stalin was to confidently go and finish of the bulk of the Party leadership, including “Lenin’s son” Nikolai Bukharin- something that led another disillusioned communist Arthur Koestler to chronicle in Darkness at Noon.

Platonov brings forth the Party slogans that were established and were executed with meticulous haste by the rank and file, only to be rescinded later with a different set, if not opposite ones. Former local leaders, once decorated for their result effectiveness, were now identified as having misinterpreted the Party Line and hence he is “liquidated.”

These are indeed themes that have occured in many works about Russia of the last century- what lends crecedence to Platonov his is physical presence during the times (unlike that of Western writes notably Koestler and Orwell) but also his ability to both write objectively on a progress of which he was a sympathiser of and maintain his belief that communism needs to proceed on a more humanistic basis than it did under Stalin. That rescues Platonov from succumbing to the disillusion of a Koestler and the propagandistic overtones in Orwell and enhances the authenticity of his work.

His own subsequent treatment and his elimination as a writer in the Soviet Union make him out as a martyr.

The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post- revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.

The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital’s thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.

Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.

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