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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

No luck?

Watching the 10-11 p.m. show on NDTV called Entrepreneurs Extraordinary on December 28, I heard both Ratan Tata and N.R. Narayana Murthy concur that luck plays a critical role in deciding who will succeed in this world, and how much (see this post of mine). While Murthy quoted Louis Pasteur that 'God helps the prepared mind', he also said that he has known a lot of very talented and hard-working men who haven't been able to go far, and their failure can be ascribed to nothing but bad luck.

No wonder trying to change one's luck artificially (through astrology, costly prayers and yagnas, fairness creams and what have you) has always been big, especially in this country. Alas, while I believe in kismet or Providence, I cannot believe that it can be manipulated: 'God is not mocked'! I guess the best we can do, knowing this, is to cultivate the high art of stoicism, in happiness and sorrow alike. And pray...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Signing off, for now

This is to say bye to all my readers and friends for this year (or maybe not...). I'm going on holiday, and might be off the Net for the next ten days. Have a happy time, and stay safe, all. This has been a good year for me as a blog-writer. I hope to get more readers/followers/comment-writers next year, and make more friends. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance! May there be peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. I love you all, though some of you find it hard to love me back...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Fire-bird

Book review: Aagun Pakhi (The Firebird), by Hasan Azizul Huq

Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta, 2008

Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252

Language: Bangla

ISBN: 978-81-295-0820-1

winner of Ananda Puroshkar 2008


A very ‘common’ woman in rural Bengal, who grew up just before World War II, and lived through the weird kind of independence-followed by communal war-followed by partition that destroyed millions of lives and twisted and broke millions of others forever out of shape, narrates her own story. There was joy galore, and peace, and fun and tumult and horror and savagery and sorrow in huge dollops with disconcerting frequency: she has seen it all. In the simplest of rural patois, without the slightest affectation (which is a wonder, considering that the writer himself is a highly-literate male urban scholar) she tells it poignantly, and unforgettably. She has remained quiet, uncomplaining, wondering, half-comprehending, living the life of endless, backbreaking yet strangely-sweet drudgery that is the lot of daughters/wives/mothers in all so-called male-dominated and backward societies of the world, but because she has never stopped observing, thinking and feeling, she has continued to mature lifelong, and though she remains near-illiterate and in a sense simple forever, she simultaneously becomes far more of a sophisticate than most urban, educated, well-off and ‘liberated’ young women can even comprehend today (I am reminded of the quip: “Twenty million Englishwomen stood up and said ‘We’ll no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers.” Today we should read BPO workers). And in the end she does something awful – she chooses, in her habitual quiet way, to be free to live and die absolutely on her own. Her teenage far behind her, she decides to find out who she is. It is time now at last, she believes, and she can handle it, all by herself. Having done so much for so many for so long, she owes the rest of her life solely to herself: not even her husband, whom she has served and obeyed without question all her life may have a share in it against her will, leave alone children and grandchildren and surviving siblings.

In the last page, she says she made that decision to give up all she ever had for the sake of the land she had always known to be hers, because no one could convince her that there was any meaning in carving out Pakistan from India when she had grown up happily Muslim among Hindus all her life till they were told to turn upon one another, and when those two countries still harboured both Muslims and Hindus, after all the horrifying bloodletting. I am sure no man alive is wise enough to convince her that she was wrong. But the mulish determination – despite all her self-questioning – that compelled her to give up even on her family is beyond explanation, and almost beyond belief. In Raja Rao’s short story called Javni, the last line says about the central character that she seemed ‘recedingly real. Who was she?’ That was the question that arose in my mind as I closed the book. But of course, it is an author’s privilege to create alternative realities, and still truth remains stranger than fiction of the most fanciful kind…

Since Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas I cannot think of any other Indian book that has portrayed the mindless trauma of the Partition of India so searchingly, hauntingly, with such disarming yet searing condemnation (if I am missing something, readers, do remind me). Few authors anywhere in the world have depicted the subtly nuanced interdependence of the marital relationship so well either, even where it is outwardly so heavily gender-biased. Since the great Banerjee-s stopped writing, I haven’t known any other who was able to see life so intently and so well in both its glorious highs and its abysmal lows. And the book confirms my deeply held belief (which is echoed not only in the most hoary Hindu shastras but in sources as diverse as Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence) that woman anywhere, at all times, is inferior only insofar as she yields willingly, or under the weight of unendurable restriction, deprivation and oppression, and even then she retains a core of fierce strength and independence which men cannot fathom nor crush, though they might destroy her only too easily. My respect for women is greatly restored: only, my heart aches that I can see so few of the type in my contemporary urban milieu, least of all among the smart set who talk of ‘happening’ lives.

I have long been lamenting the decline of great literature in Bengali, and I hadn’t read Azizul Huq before. I am sorry I hadn’t, and I want to put it on record that my heart is full. I didn’t know that such powerful, wonderful writing is being done in Bengali still. In various ways I was reminded of Tagore’s Strir Patra, and Ashapurna Debi’s Pratham Pratishruti, and Gorky’s Mother, and Llewellyn’s How Green was my valley, and many more profound and beautiful novels which have permanently enriched my life. I wish Aagun Pakhi could be translated by able hands into the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. Professor Huq would then most certainly, even in this grossly deluded and superficial age, be hailed as one of the great authors among us today.

[My earnest thanks to Subhadipta Mukherjee for persuading me to read this book]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reading to be forced?

This recent news item tells me that some educational authorities in India are slowly waking up to the realization that merely cramming a handful of textbooks through school and college cannot make educated and socially valuable citizens, and TV and net-surfing are not solutions, people need to do a lot of diverse extra-curricular reading from books the traditional way since childhood: and given the kind of country India is, maybe even that has to be made mandatory before people will do it (a lot of my pupils have to borrow books to read from me on the sly, because their parents regard it as a habit far more obnoxious than doping, and, unlike TV, the net, shopping and attending parties, a serious threat to what they call 'studying'!) I urge my readers very strongly to visit the thread called ‘Books and the good life’ on my orkut community to ponder over the things that have been said there, particularly the post where I wrote ‘leaders are readers!’
Now contrast that with what is happening in school and elsewhere by reading this and this. I could cite dozens of other examples from what I read and see with my own eyes. Of course, as you will see on those sites themselves, there are dissenting opinions, but judge for yourself.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Invitation

I should like some readers to visit my older posts, if only to look up some recent comments - as for example this one and this one (you've got to click on the underlined words/phrases to go to the indicated article - in case someone didn't know. All those who did, please don't mind: I didn't know myself only a few years ago).

Also, what Rochishnu has recently posted on his blog (and my comment on it) might provoke an interesting discussion.