Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Great Old Albion and the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I originally posted the following sometime in April, 2010. Later, I decided to delete it because I wasn't sure anyone was actually interested in reading such a long piece of writing about something so specific. However, I've now come to know that a few people at least may actually be seriously interested in posts of this sort. So I'm re-posting it.

Monday, August 02, 2010

I've decided to submit this post as my entry for the writing competition announced by The Banyan Trees. Yes, it's old, more of an essay than a short-story et cetera, but if anything that I've ever written represents Home - Home, as different places I've seen, as my creative roots, as my literary journey - this is it!

This post is about two countries that are so unlike each other, literally worlds apart, yet are, in more ways than one, similar. They also happen to be countries both possessed of and possessed by historical, linguistic and literary sensibilities that have, over the years, come to determine my personality. I've inhabited England only in my imagination. Through its literature, the history of its imagination and most significantly through its language that I've adopted and adapted as my own. Japan, on the other hand, is a country that I've actually lived in and, though I was only a child then, imbibed a part of its culture and collective imagination.

It was Japan that gave me the sublime animated movies of Miyazaki. It was Japan that presented me with a civilization that had, in the past, imbued in itself the very essence of the sparse, minimal yet beautiful primal surroundings in which it found itself. And it was in Japan that I was faced with the contradiction (though I understood this only in retrospect) of a society that derived its strength from modern technology while at the same time being inextricably rooted in its past and steeped in folklore. It is this inextricable link with the past or, more specifically, with the imagination of the past that lies at the heart of the similarity between England and Japan.

In ancient times England was known as Albion. People considered it an ethereal land shrouded in mist and legend. Being an island with a language and imagination all its own, detached from the mainland must have surely contributed to this image. I believe this is a more or less accurate description of ancient Japan as well. So here we have the first set of similarities: unique geographical location relative to the mainland and resultant quirks in the language and the imagination.

Beowulf, the epic Old English poem exemplifies every aspect of the English imagination. There's the darkness. There's the element of surreal fantasy that flows out of the harsh, unforgiving, atmospheric surroundings. Somehow, the battle against the monsters, Grendel and his mother, is (for me) representative of the struggle against cruel, capricious nature itself and the complexities of a fragmented world. In some strange sense, by the very act of being imagined, transmitted and eventually written down, the tale signifies acceptance as well. The Japanese never struggled against nature; they reconciled themselves to it. This is epitomised by early Japanese architecture that emphasised merging unobtrusively into the natural surroundings. Houses were built so as to be easily and harmlessly dismantled in the face of a natural threat like a forest fire or an earthquake. Japanese literary forms possess this quality as well. The Haiku poems, for example, represent moments frozen in time and so do Zen gardens. They represent an acceptance of the fact that natural beauty and beautiful moments in Japan do not last long. So we see an emerging pattern: the struggle against and eventual reconciliation with the ebb and flow of nature through art.

As the next, final and relatively light hearted link I offer Lewis Carroll! Martin Gardner notes in his Annotated Alice that the Alice books have a large following in Japan and that the most number of Lewis Carroll societies are to be found there. How are we to explain this phenomenon? As I've said, the Japanese imagination has a lot in common with the English imagination and if you look close enough you'll find Alice everywhere in Japanese popular culture. For example, in one of Miyazaki's most successful movies, Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro, in English), there is a scene in which the younger of two sisters goes chasing behind a small, white, rabbit like creature into a hole in the ground and falls on something huge, furry and soft. She then falls asleep on it. And then there's Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, in English) in which a young girl enters a spirit world centred around a bath house for the Gods and ruled by a wicked witch who also happens to have a benevolent twin sister. The thing to be noted here is that it doesn't stop with the Alice books or Lewis Carroll. Most genres that came out of the glorious period of the English imagination have found a place in the popular Japanese imagination. Detective stories, ghost stories and fantasy, for instance. England brims with fantastic creatures and spirits of nature (Hobbits, Pixies, Imps, Elves, Dwarves....) and so does Japan!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Left Cold...and Warm by Reading

It's summer in South India and in last week's Bookwise column, Latha Anantharaman wrote about books that left her cold in spite of the sweltering heat by sheer power of suggestion; the same suggestive power, she says, that warms one's body and soul, on a cold winter evening, just by watching a sitcom set in a centrally heated apartment in Manhattan. Here's an extract —
I tried that same power of suggestion this past month, while sweltering under a
whining ceiling fan. I fingered the bookshelves and poked through the towers of
unread books on every table, and I constructed a new stack of summer reading.

The first thing I happened on was a volume in a stash from Scholastic,
Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater. It had a snow-white cover, with wintry branches
and one small dot of blood. It was a story about a golden-haired girl and a
wolf, as so many good stories are. It called to mind Red Riding Hood, bleak
winds, starvation, and yellow eyes lurking in the pines of the Black Forest.
Most of all, it probed the female fascination with wild animals, especially the
ones we're warned against.

However, I have, summer or otherwise, never felt the need for a book that could leave me chilled, being the sort of person who goes after books that radiate warmth. And nothing warms me like the first few chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. Of course, there are other favourites too. Give me Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Sunday Philosophy Club anytime!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Post!

I read Latha Anantharaman's column, Bookwise, in yesterday's The Hindu: Metroplus with that unmistakable sense of joy that I always experience on reading a fellow bibliophile's account of her love affair with books. In this installment, she talks about the joy of receiving books by post. Here's a delectable extract from the column in which Latha places an online order for the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and waits in suspense over the sort of tastelessly produced edition she might end up with —

For Rs. 250 and free delivery I expected a cheap India-only edition, with some
typographical errors. What I got was an impeccable Norton critical edition, and
the supreme happiness of getting a book in the post. Since then, editors have
sent volumes by post for review, sometimes in slender packets, sometimes in a
hefty cardboard box. Generous friends send book parcels.

This resonates well with me, because I've always lamented the lack of the suspense element in my encounters with books (see my post Bookish Dreams and Other Speculations). The closest I ever got to waiting in suspense for a book was when my uncle mailed me the first volume, The Solitudes, of John Crowley's Ægypt novel cycle from London. It arrived a week later, neatly packed in a padded envelope (lined on the inside with bubble wrap!), and I held in my hand a beautiful, firmly bound paperback edition, published by The Overlook Press. For the first time in my life I experienced "the supreme happiness of getting a book in the post". I knew beforehand what book and exactly what edition I was about to get, having looked it up in myself. Therefore, my satisfaction was predominantly derived from the physical act of holding the book in my hands, ruffling through its pages and taking in the sweet odour. Unfortunately, unlike Latha, I haven't received books by post since then. Nevertheless I'm happy that her column got me thinking about this.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Library of Babel

I've decided to add a new page, The Library of Babel, to this blog. The stimulants behind this effort are the Recommended Reading and Books Read in 2010 pages in Heather's blog, Say the Trees Have Ears. In the Recommended Reading page she maintains a list of short descriptions of books that may be of interest to readers of her blog, apart from being her own favourites. The Books Read in 2010 page contains a list of books that she has so far finished (re)reading this year. She rates these books on a scale of 0-5. One amazing thing I came to know on reading her entry For the Love of Books is that she's read 156 (!) books in 2009 alone and on an average reads 100 books a year! That's truly amazing for someone like me, because I'm not sure if I've finished reading a hundred books in all my years as a serious reader, though I must have read hundreds of books in bits and parts. However, I've always wanted to maintain a list of the books in my collection (library?). So, The Library of Babel will contain the ever evolving list of my favourite books (regardless of whether they've been read in full and digested or only nibbled at!) and maybe, as well, a small list of those books that I intend to add to my collection (and read!) in the near future.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

12 Angry Men: A Borgesian Review

This is one movie that I was desperate to see and in the end, unable to catch it on TV or on DVD, I watched it on my ipod! For those who are not aware, 12 Angry Men is a 1957 movie, directed by Sidney Lumet (who later directed the widely acclaimed Murder on the Orient Express based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name) and shot in black and white.

The premise is simplicity itself. On the conclusion of a murder trial, in which a boy's life hangs in the balance as he stands accused of having murdered his father, the twelve member jury is required to come out with a unanimous verdict. It is understood that a verdict of guilty is tantamount to a sentence of death. The jurors retire to discuss the case and find that all of them except one - juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) - are convinced of the boy's guilt. And on this momentous imbalance turns the plot of what is, according to me, one of the best movies ever made.

The scene of action is entirely restricted to the juror's discussion room. I can't think of a better sentence to describe the closed space than the following quote from Hamlet, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space". As the movie progresses, the metaphor of the closed space becoming infinite works on two levels. On one level there's the obstinately objective and morally imaginative juror #8, trying to pry open the closed, prejudiced minds of the jurors to let them look at the case in an infinitely objective light. And as this begins to happen the room itself becomes a model of human society and grows infinitely larger, encompassing all the good and all the bad that humans are capable of. Mind numbing hatred, mediocrity, rationality, politeness, rudeness, prejudice in all its forms, every vice and every virtue in varying degrees find their place among the twelve jurors. It is comforting, though, that in the end objective reasoning and rationality win out.

None of this must, however, give anyone the impression that the movie is one long sermon about the conflict between reason and prejudice. One of the amazing things about this movie is that director Sidney Lumet and writer Reginald Rose take this simple, morally loaded premise and spin it into a taut, tightly scripted thriller with a mathematical proof of a screenplay! A thriller it definitely is. One that achieves edge-of-the-seat perfection by slowly and steadily building up tension by letting twelve different characters talk amongst themselves and taking the discussion irrevocably to its logical conclusion. Factual thinking and reasoning are all the rage now in corporate sectors. Here's a movie that's a supreme example of just that. For this reason let me reassert my opinion. One of the best movies ever made!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bookish Dreams and Other Speculations

I believe every reader has his or her own unfulfilled bookish dreams. I have quite a few.

To be gifted a book on my Birthday (or on any occasion for that matter) has to be the one on top of the list! Amazingly, no one has ever gifted me a book that I had not myself chosen in prior. Sometimes I would get a gift voucher. The problem is, before I buy a book I tend to do a lot of 'research'. I look at a book and say "Hey! This seems interesting!", but I never buy it immediately. I read up a lot of reviews and quite some time would pass before I decide to read it. The freshness and joy of discovering something new is always lost this way. The Fellowship of the Ring, Three Men in a Boat, Agatha Christie's The Big Four and Asimov's Foundation are some of the few books that I happened to read in a considerable state of ignorance and those experiences are still unbeatable.

So that's the major one. Some of the others are - to form a 'Sunday Book Club', rummage through a second-hand bookshop and discover some unknown masterpiece, get together with another reader and spook each other out by reading aloud M. R. James's ghost stories on Halloween night and so on ad infinitum.

A comment by my Hyper Rational Alter Ego: No! I don't think this can be an infinite series. The number of such fantasies that can be entertained by any given individual must surely be finite.