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Monday, November 26, 2007

Those who love: book review

Those who love, by Irving Stone, originally published by Doubleday, 1965, current Signet edition subtitled ‘America’s greatest love story’, priced at $2.65 (as posted at the fantasticfiction.co.uk website)

As most of the readers of this blog probably know, I live a life immersed in books. Many of them have in fact grown up learning to savour the same taste, the same ‘life of the mind’ with me. Some of them urge me from time to time to write reviews of books which have moved me lately. This post should make such folks happy!

I have read countless great love stories from around the world. Among other things, I have learnt that a) one usually outgrows romantic fiction as silly, mushy and unrealistic (or even faintly sick, like Laila-Majnoon and Wuthering Heights); b) that love stories about married couples are very difficult to write (most married people above 30 should know why!), and c) that love stories about real as well as married people are next to impossible – one very great reason being that authors are turned away by the crudeness, emptiness and dreariness of the lives of 99.9 per cent of married folks, and even if a good book gets written, people carry on their real lives only to make a mockery of the book (as I hear Richard Bach did after writing the lyrical and hauntingly beautiful A Bridge across Forever). Nevertheless, knowing from The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Passions of the Mind and Lust for Life that Irving Stone was a master at re-creating intensively-researched historical lives as though he had really lived in those times and inside the minds of his characters, I took up this book eagerly – not least because it was recommended by an old boy whose tastes I respect, because I knew very little about John Adams beyond a few bare and basic facts (such as that he was a lawyer, one of the Founding Fathers, the second President and father of another great President), and because my curiosity was aroused by the fact that Stone should have chosen to interweave a very personal, private story with a very important and involved political (meaning, naturally, public-) life. I expected a good read, and to say that I was not disappointed would be putting it very mildly. This is most certainly the finest real-life love story I have ever read. A wonder that I had to live to be 44 and married for 12 years myself before I got around to reading it!

The story begins in mid-18th century when pretty, vivacious and precociously-educated 17-year old Abigail Smith, daughter of the parish priest of the little village of Weymouth in Massachusetts, encounters a visitor to her father, a scholarly young lawyer who is yet to make a career but has great energy and enormous ambition. It is almost a case of love at first sight (although the courtship is halting and difficult), and they get married not too long after. Presently they settle down in John’s newly-acquired little farm in Braintree (now called Quincy, after one of Abigail’s famous forbearers), not far from Boston, where John is building up a practice. A few years down the line their growing family gets very thoroughly embroiled in one of the greatest events in world history – to wit, the War of Independence (1775-1781) and creation of the United States of America. The story comes full circle almost half a century later, when John has lost the presidential re-election to another (and vastly better-known) titan, Thomas Jefferson, and is sadly preparing to go home for the last time, his life’s work unfinished. He stands on the stairs of the barely-finished Executive Mansion in the new capital, Washington, D.C. (now globally famous as the White House), waving farewell to his wife, who is leaving early to warm the family hearth for him – and she, her eyes brimming with tears of joy, grief, exhaustion and thankfulness, vividly recalls the day young John had turned to face her in her father’s library with arms outstretched, a book in each hand, ‘and their journey had just begun’. Very early in life she had read that a friend is the greatest treasure in the world, for whom no sacrifice and no love is too great, and she was now quite, quite sure that her husband and she had found in each other the most wonderful friends anyone anywhere could ever hope for. It had been a life full of highs and lows, with very long and repeated stretches of extreme uncertainty and every kind of hardship, deserved and undeserved; it had been so fabulous in parts that John had written to her once that with a little embellishment their family life could become the stuff of fairy tales – but over and above everything, it had been a good life, as I understand the good life and have dreamed of lifelong.

I shall not prolong the summary beyond this point. The book is enormously rich in interesting detail, which must be savoured in their entirety, a little at a time, to do justice to the author and the characters in it. It is definitely not a book for those who are in a hurry, and who basically detest books: which, from my experience as a teacher and bibliophile, instantly eliminates the vast majority of contemporary mankind. I shall instead proceed to list the reflections that were aroused in me while and after reading it.

1. That a woman could grow up so free and self-confident and self-assertive 250 years ago in America, despite being brought up in a very ‘old fashioned’ way, in a very puritan social atmosphere, despite being educated only at home, despite having been ‘only’ a housewife and mother all her life, is, to put it simply, incredible: especially when I compare Abigail Adams’ situation with the horrors of humiliation, deprivation and (often self-imposed) narrowness and triviality of mind and occupation that millions of women suffer even today in many parts of the world (as vividly described, say, in Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 book, A Thousand Splendid Suns), including India.

2. That 250 years ago a stay-at-home girl of 17 could, purely by virtue of her own sharp mind and enthusiasm combined with her father’s encouragement, could become so well educated as to be not only capable of but deeply interested in talking about, and holding her own in educated company much older than herself, subjects as diverse as poetry and philosophy, politics and religion, law and economics and medicine, quoting from the greatest artists and authorities ancient and contemporary at the drop of a hat. Having taught for 27 years, I know for a fact that girls of her age, going to the ‘best’ schools available today, as well as 95% of their supposedly educated ‘teachers’, would simply gape if she were to appear among them suddenly for a group discussion: they would either find her an awe-inspiring super-intellectual or a crashing bore, and she would not be able to believe that humankind, with all their pretensions to ‘progress’, had intellectually as well as aesthetically sunk so low! Food for every thinking man indeed: I am haunted by H.G. Wells’ horrible prediction in The Time Machine that technological advancement, combined with the inevitable numbing of the mind and weakening of the body, would eventually reduce mankind to a race of pathetic, helpless brutes surviving only to serve clever and powerful machines!

3. It is a matter of great shame that I knew so little of how great a man John Adams was (with all his faults and follies), and how long, hard and brilliantly he toiled to create the American Constitution and nation (which have not only endured but inspired and struck with awe virtually every nation on the planet since his time) – especially considering that I (and I believe most non-American people) knew so much more about his illustrious contemporaries and colleagues, such as Ben Franklin and George Washington and Jefferson. It was hugely unfair on the part of fate, I think, that this ‘atlas of independence’, the nickname his countrymen remember him by, lived and worked lifelong in the shadows for the most part, and, in addition, suffered almost lifelong from genteel poverty in contrast with the men mentioned above, so much so that his wife was often driven to despair, and had to worry constantly about how to keep her little farm going and afford the parties and school her children and pay off all her little debts even after she had become the nation’s first lady! The quiet, loving, wise and utterly dedicated way she stuck by her man all her life and not merely kept the family going and brought up her children well but provided the only shoulder John could lean upon when all was bleak all around can only be called heroic, and it was only fitting that her husband understood everything and was grateful all his life (although, admittedly, he never made her happy by pushing for the kind of legislation and social reform that she privately wanted as one of America’s earliest advocates of women’s rights). He knew well how right the Bible was when it said ‘A man who has found a good woman has found a good thing’. My God, what a couple! No wonder Stone decided that John Adams’ life could not be retold without telling us about his wife at the same time.

4. I am deeply gratified to learn – beyond what I knew already, and that was quite a bit – how profound a role books and reading and writing played in the lives of not only the Adamses but of America as an idea and a nation-in-the-making. To the extent that the tradition has continued in America, it is no wonder that they still produce most of the Nobel Prize winners even today, and that lots of good books still sell in the millions. What I worry about is that I hear a great deal of how unacademic the mass of Americans have become these days, how obsessed with indolent fun and technology they are, how most of their progress over the last 50 years has been brought about by hardworking and well-educated immigrants from all over the world, and how much of the worst in their popular culture is blending horridly with all that is worst in our culture, so that so many Indians these days no longer read anything (that is to say, anything outside technical cram-books for passing examinations and pulp fiction) and are actually quite happy if not proud about it.

5. I found it most reassuring to find that yet another tradition remains unbroken among the best Americans: despite being terribly busy all their lives, the Adams man and wife managed to bring up their children just as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton did with Chelsea 200 years later, in a much more distracted and frenetic age: and by bringing up children I expressly do not mean merely providing for them everything from a secure hearth to food to sundry tutors to entertainment, things that can be bought with mere money and require investment of neither time nor brains – ‘busy’ parents in India may please note!

Now this is becoming a long post, so I had better stop here. But if anyone takes the trouble to look up John and Abigail Adams on the internet and then reads the book, I do think that he or she might get back to thank me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nandigram and West Bengal politics today

Despite being very upset over the developments centering on Nandigram over the last few months, I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the issue up till now (not that I imagine the comments of someone like me would give the powers that be some sleepless nights!): but now a few words are in order.

Before I launch into my current commentary, I should like to issue a disclaimer, to the effect that I have been politically non-partisan lifelong, avoided politicians of all hues as a matter of principle since I quit journalism back in 1988, I have strong leftist sympathies (as more than one post on this blog will testify); and if compelled to vote I shall still vote for the CPI(M) simply because I cannot see a coherent and credible alternative yet. I think I can clinch my bonafides by pointing out that despite becoming steadily more and more disillusioned with Left politics in Bengal over the last 20 years, I congratulated the present chief minister in the following letter to the editor of The Telegraph (published May 15, 2006) right after his massive electoral victory with a vigorous and seemingly sincere agenda for reform:

“Sir ,
While a decent, intelligent and hardworking chief minister like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his team must be congratulated for having won so convincingly, they should also be reminded of the heightened expectations of the people. The first among them is that the ruling party should not grow too smug and arrogant (especially at the grassroots level); second, that all the deadwood in the government should be removed; third, that we should soon begin to see concrete evidence of the new development programme percolating down to the masses; fourth, that the law-and-order situation will improve; fifth, that power and water might become more easily and reliably available; sixth, that something might be done about the burgeoning population, the root of most of our problems; seventh, that serious steps might be taken to check and reverse the massive environmental degradation that has already taken place; and finally, that many more opportunities might be created for talented people in both the arts and the sciences, so that the exodus of bright young minds to other states and abroad might be checked. This might sound like a tall order, but without these, Bhattacharjee’s dream of Bengal again leading the country will never materialize, and that is sure to take an electoral toll sooner or later.”

Indeed, over the last year and more, Bhattacharjee’s government has been showing some alacrity in at least trying to ensure that a great deal of land is quickly acquired to facilitate the setting up of a variety of new industries and businesses in various parts of the state, which, they claim, is the only way to fulfil the economic expectations of the people – an enormous fraction of whom are unemployed, desperately poor, and increasingly impatient for change. That is as it may be: I shall not join issue with that claim here. They may be quite right (at least from the long-term perspective: even a titan like Amartya Sen seems to believe so); perhaps they don’t even have a choice – if they cannot show reasonably quick results, their political survival might be at stake, and so also Bengal’s best interests. It may also be true that the opposition, such as it is in Bengal, has for its own short-sighted reasons, queered the pitch rather badly over the last year by resorting to less-than-fair and legitimate means of agitation over the land-grab issue, at Singur first and at Nandigram thereafter, pushing the ruling Front towards more and more desperate measures to regain what they perceived to be rapidly shifting political ground. In this context, nothing is more apposite than today’s lead editorial in The Telegraph, and I quote:

“… the alternative was open. It was always possible for any of the warring parties in Nandigram to ask for a full debate on the subject in the Vidhan Sabha. If this was not allowed, they could have appealed to the governor of the state to permit such a debate. This route was never tried; there are reasons to suspect that such an alternative was not even contemplated. Political parties know of the irrelevance of the legislative assembly because they themselves have made the institution irrelevant in West Bengal. Thus the state is that supreme incongruity: a democracy sans democratic institutions.” (Wednesday, November 14, 2007)

But this is not merely troublesome but terrifying as a prospect: it means that we are rapidly moving towards anarchy or some version of totalitarianism, where all notions of right and justice, decency and reason and compromise will be thrown to the winds, only the rule of raw might will prevail: one is automatically and always right as long as one wields the rod (and isn’t that pathetic when it is claimed by those whose only legitimacy comes from being democratically elected?) In such a situation, what difference can it make to very ordinary people like me whether the rulers call themselves liberal or communist or fascist or theocratic? A democratic government must listen, and occasionally defer to, the strident demands of the minority in the opposition: that is the only condition on which the minority can be expected, day in and day out, to accede peacefully to the impositions of the majority! But now it seems that if I do not toe the official line, I am not only bound to be wrong but immediately deserving of being abused, harassed and punished, whether I am a mediaman or a private citizen! Now if we all sadly agree that this is precisely what has happened, it is not surprising (though I find it most heartening) that a separate voice should arise to make the vitally necessary protests against crude highhandedness and callousness on the part of the people in power – that a large number of non-partisan (and normally apolitical) people; civilized, talented people, too, considerable achievers many of them, and held in high social esteem, should have taken (quietly and peaceably) to the streets, demanding that the government get off its high horse and start behaving with responsibility and restraint again. And it is the ruling party/government’s reaction to that development (as evident in the mass media till this evening) that dismays and frightens me. Leave alone the faceless apparatchiks and unlettered strongmen, a chief minister who publicly flaunts his cultural credentials – whom I had all along thought to be a basically decent, sharp and open-minded man – has now not only used strong-arm methods on poor villagers in Nandigram and also on a whole procession of intellectuals of the highest pedigree right in the heart of Calcutta, but blatantly insists that he has been right throughout, that whoever criticizes anything he does is a fraud, a nitwit, a stooge of the opposition, badly deluded – and, worst of all, that they are all apparently ignorant, trivial, worthless people hungry for the limelight!!! In a state where a ‘cultured’ chief minister can get away with branding people of the stature of Mrinal Sen, Sankho Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, Mamata Shankar, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Shubhaprasanno, Mahasweta Devi, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, Bivash Chakraborty, Anjan Dutta, Joy Goswami and Sumit Sarkar like that, what hope do ordinary people like us have of getting fair treatment – leave alone the millions of ignorant and obscure poor in the remote villages when they get into the rulers’ bad books for one reason or the other? And if the whole educated urban middle class (together they should count in millions!) does not rise up in angry protest to compel such a chief minister to apologise unconditionally and promise to behave better in future, how can we ever again boast of being a far more enlightened and free-spirited people than the denizens of many parts of India whom we still privately love to denigrate as ‘benighted’? Given a perfectly free hand, what kind of utopia is this government likely to create for us – what better than a window dressing of snazzy call centres and shopping malls and multiplexes thinly covering up a reign of abject terror and enforced servility? Firing on armed and hostile villagers I could condone, even putting some places temporarily beyond the reach of the media I could wink at – but abusing, ridiculing and manhandling the intelligentsia was the last straw: because that means that only people with deep pockets and private armies and top-level contacts in the ‘right’ party (no matter how stupid, uncouth and ignorant such people might be) can feel safe and live with a modicum of dignity in this state from now on!

And one final warning to the current rulers: anyone who lives by the sword is condemned to die by the sword. If brute force is allowed to decide everything, then some day a far mightier force can boot the CPI(M) unceremoniously not only out of office but in the ‘dustbin of history’ – one way would be to unleash the public’s real anger and bitterness and disgust at the polls after putting the state under President’s rule, thereby taking away control of the police from the ruling party’s hands and keeping the cadre locked up at home under the shadow of army guns and tanks. They have been shrewdly avoiding that horrid eventuality for thirty years now, but how much longer before the central government’s patience breaks, and political compulsions no longer prevent either the Congress or the BJP (or some bizarre combination of the two in the Lok Sabha) from deciding that enough is enough, and the CPI(M) should be permanently wiped off as a nuisance too big for its boots on the national political map by the simple expedient of eradicating it from the only state where it continues to really matter? Hubris leads rulers to their doom: that is one historical rule to which, I believe, there has not been a single exception in 6000 years of history!