Saturday, October 14, 2017

How I Came to Write a Paper on The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

I took up History for my undergraduate studies because I love the subject. But in the last two and half years I have not written almost anything related to my subject, despite Baba urging me time and again to do so, and even supplying me with ideas about what I could write on. Hopefully I will  get around to working on one or two of them before I wrap up my formal education in History. Today though, I want to post something rather special and very dear to me. 

Term papers and regular written assignments should be a part of every academic curriculum. It isn't in my college though, particularly in our department, adding to an ever-growing list of complaints that many of us have against the department. But I don't want to gripe today. We did finally get a chance to try our hands at writing a term paper this semester for one of our papers on Modern Europe. The paper spans the time period between 1789 and 1848, a time of epoch making changes that the historian Eric Hobsbawm so rightly termed the Age of Revolutions. Our professor asked us to submit a paper on any event or aspect that would fall within the purview of our course.

The task was as daunting as it was thrilling. It was quite difficult narrowing down on any one topic from a period as intense and diverse as this. On top of that there were constraints of practicality - as an undergraduate student trying her hands at her first term paper with limited access to source material, and more importantly, time, there was only so much that could be done. Many of us came up with grandiose paper ideas in the initial excitement of the task and our race to impress the professor with originality, but these were quickly dashed when the paucity of time and resources as well as expertise dawned on us. 

How I came about writing on this topic is itself a funny story. This was in fact the first paper idea that had sprung to my mind; I have a distinctly easier time working with literature-oriented ideas, so this is hardly surprising. But my seniors warned me that the professor had a reputation for actively disliking the use of literature as source. I reluctantly gave up my plan and set about planning a paper with a rather convoluted theme involving deep history, environment and colonialism. I did not understand the idea very clearly - it was suggested by a senior - and went on postponing the work. So imagine my delight when the professor made a casual remark in class one day about how nobody in my batch seemed interested in working on literary topics. I literally jumped up from my seat with my hand in the air, and within five minutes it was fixed; I was going to work on Brigadier Gerard after all. Talk about lucky breaks!

For the next three days I worked harder than I had in the previous two years combined, and by the fourth day I was done, and in the nick of time too.I am rarely completely satisfied with my writings, but this one is an exception. I feel this is one of the best essays I have ever written. I was so pleased when I went through it, I realised that it did not matter to me whether or not the professor liked the paper and graded it well. He did in fact like it though, and while I generally find self aggrandizement distasteful, for one I will say that getting the highest marks in class was well deserved.

I hope some people will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Baba has to be thanked of course, not merely because I consulted him constantly while writing the paper, but also because my love for literature as well as my inheritance of books comes from him. 

Also, it is Baba who suggested I put this one up on the blog. Thank God he is constantly after me about keeping this blog alive!

 History Through the Lens of Literature:
The Napoleonic Era as portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

There is much debate among scholars over the appropriateness of treating literature as a historical source. Historians of the realist imperialist school of thought refuse to accept literature as a valid source, while liberal post-modernists are more open to the idea. However, sometimes the best practice may be to draw one’s own conclusions about such matters. For that, making a study of a famous piece of literature in terms of its historical validity is a useful step.   

Napoleon Bonaparte once commented “what a novel my life is”. Indeed, the Napoleonic era continued to colour the brightest minds of the world throughout the nineteenth century. The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a wonderful example of Napoleon’s impact on literature. Based at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these are tales of adventure as narrated by the protagonist Etienne Gerard, now an old man living in Paris, about his days in the Emperor’s army. Across seventeen short stories, Conan Doyle, claimed by many to be the greatest storyteller in English literature, brought to life a period of great turmoil and flux making use of one of the most quintessential aspects of war: the soldier who tells tales to the enthralled civilians back home.  The tales work as a reflection of real battles fought by Napoleon’s army across Europe. Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in the Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars, originally from Gascony like Dumas’s d’Artagnan, spent the most glorious days of his soldiering life with the Hussars of Conflans. The young and dashing Gerard was the bravest soldier and the most gallant gentleman in all of France, or so he believed. The most outstanding quality about Gerard was his vanity, but his courage made a close second. Brigadier Gerard is probably the most loveable character created by Conan Doyle, and his astonishing conceit and remarkable thick headedness is not only forgivable but even enjoyable for the reader who savours a jolly good yarn based in one of the most exciting periods of human history.

The concern of this paper, however, remains the validity of the book in terms of its historical accuracy and content. And this is evident in almost every individual story in varying degrees. We learn about how Brigadier Gerard came to be a part of the Hussars in the story ‘How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans’. The war having come to a halt in Germany but raging fiercely in Spain, Napoleon sent Gerard from the Hussars of Chamberan to serve ‘as senior captain to the Hussars of Conflans, which were at that time the 5th Army Corps under Marshal Lannes’1 as reinforcement for the army in the Pyrenees. Here, Conan Doyle gives a very realistic picture of the second siege of Saragossa under Marshal Lannes, Napoleon’s personal friend about whom the Emperor commented that he had found the man a pygmy and left him a giant! The siege of Saragossa was symbolic of conditions throughout Spain. Doyle’s description of the city filled with hordes of Spaniard ‘soldiers, peasants, priests – all filled with the most furious hatred of the French, and the most savage determination to perish before they would surrender’ and the difficulties that the French soldiers faced in overpowering the city2 is as accurate as any historian’s. Napoleon’s peninsular conquest is considered by many scholars as one of the early signs indicating his eventual downfall. As Gunther Rotherberg points out, the great general failed to take into account the potential of a popular resistance supported by the armed forces with a secure supply route, while also being deluded about the precarious food supplies for his own army and the difficulty in movement and communication in Spain3. Ultimately, Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’ played a significant role in his inevitable demise.

The same story also brings to light other factors of interest to the historian. In describing his adventures, Brigadier Gerard made repeated mention of the reputation of the Spaniards as cruel and prone to torture and mutilation. It is significant that of all the various reconnaissance missions that the brigadier carried out, this was the only one where he was given a vial of poison which he could use in case of capture. The Spanish reputation was borne out when Gerard found Monsieur Hubert, the French soldier whose mission Gerard had been instructed to complete, crucified to the walls of a house. The stories based on the Emperor’s peninsular conquests bring out various aspects of war as a whole, particularly the dark and inhuman sides of it, the side that the protagonist remained blissfully unconcerned about in the most part, focusing rather on the glory and honour of war. In Spain Gerard met some opportunists of the lowest order, ‘bandits, who embody atavistic values that enlightened Europeans thought they had seen the last of, and which can be seen in Goya’s paintings, the Disasters of War.’ In Spain he met El Cuchillo or ‘The Knife’, an ordinary man whose inner monster had been awakened by war, who was now a notorious guerrilla chief who found pleasure in blank verse and torture, such as burying French soldiers alive.4 Characters and events remained close enough to the reality to be an honest reflection of the experience of the Grande Armée in its peninsular encounters.

Throughout his stories, Conan Doyle placed his brigadier in battles and events the accuracy of which would make the historian proud. In ‘How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshall Millefleurs’ Gerard was seen taking orders from Marshal Massena after his 1810 offensive was stopped by the English army at the Lines of Torres Vedras, lines of forts built in secrecy on the order of the Duke of Wellington to defend Lisbon from French conquest. The Marshal’s frustration at having to retire from a failed conquest is likely to have been very close to what the real Marshal must have experienced.5 It was to Torres Vedras that Gerard was sent by Massena to ascertain the distribution of  Wellington’s troops in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’, and in ‘How the Brigadier Saved the Army’, he saved the troops of General Clausel from annihilation by lighting up the signal beacon for the general to fall back upon the main army, while himself coming face to face with the infamous guerrilla chief named Manuelo,‘ The Smiler’, and just about escaping with his life.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are a fascinating study of the prevalent view of the French and the English of each other, particularly to a student of cultural history. What is interesting to remember is that the author himself was an Englishman, and yet his hero belonged to the opposing camp. Gerard was excessively vain and conceited, a perception that Christopher Coker calls ‘a stock trope for a Frenchman in English literature, particularly in the late nineteenth century’6, and yet the Englishmen found in him a greatly loveable hero. Throughout his adventures, Gerard displayed admiration towards the English in various ways, particularly to individuals who he found honourable and came to consider as friends. In ‘How the Brigadier Held the King’ Gerard was rescued from the murderous El Cuchillo by ‘Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart.’ with whom he struck up an easy camaraderie, a camaraderie that turned to partnership in the adventure of trying to capture Marshal Millefleurs, where the Bart had come with the same orders from Wellington as Gerard had from Massena: to hang the troublesome marshal. His disposition towards the English continued to stay unchanged even when he was captured by Wellington and sent as a prisoner to Dartmoor, from where he broke out and tried to escape before being recaptured and informed that he was in fact to be released and sent back to France in exchange of a Colonel Mason (How the King Held the Brigadier). The brigadier was particularly appreciative of the Englishman’s ‘sportsmanship’ even though his complete inability to understand English customs made him a source of extreme irritation to the English; in ‘The Brigadier in England’ he injured his English hosts while playing cricket and boxing through his misinterpretation of the rules of the games, and in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’ he inadvertently destroyed a traditional English fox-hunt by killing the fox, earning for himself ‘a deep, steady and unchangeable hatred’ from Wellington’s army! And yet he earned the begrudging respect of several Englishmen for his heightened sense of honour.7 In the study of war, literature can sometimes be the best instrument to bring out the nuanced and contradictory interplay of human emotions between opposing camps, usually through the interaction of individuals.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are surprisingly accurate in the placing of some of Napoleon’s greatest Marshals. One learns about the various charismatic leaders from Gerard’s eloquently expressed admiration for them. There is repeated mention of Marshal Massena, ‘a thin, sour little fellow’ who was not a favourite with his men or his officials for he was a miser, who ‘clutched on to his positions as he did to his strong box, and it took a very clever man to loosen him from either.’8 Of Marshal Ney’s bravery in the Russian conquests Gerard said with great respect ‘one man above all rose greater as the danger thickened, and won a higher name amidst disaster than he had done when he led our van to victory’, calling him ‘Ney, the red-maned Lion’.9 Of Marshal Lannes he spoke highly in context of the siege of Saragossa. And yet despite the ample praise for their courage, there is sneaking criticism where it is due, worthy of any self-respecting historian. About the failed attack on the Lines of Torres Vardes, the brigadier made no bones about admitting that internal feud between Napoleon’s marshals led to missed opportunities. In his words, ‘Ney hated Massena, and Massena hated Junot, and Soult hated them all.’10 Of others one finds scattered references throughout the stories: Murat and Berthier and Mortier and Grouchy to name a few.

With the Emperor himself the brigadier had few encounters, but they were enough to set in stone his love and loyalty for Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was a charismatic leader who had the power to draw the allegiance of the French not merely to the state but to him personally, through the Imperial Catechism, creating an almost cult status among his followers. He issued grandiloquent statements before and after battles, paying little heed to the truth and often fudging facts and figures to suit his conveniences. In the words of Gregory Fremont Barnes, ‘Napoleon was an unashamed self-publicist whose power rested on his extraordinary capacity to captivate his soldiers with his undoubted charisma and to win the hearts of the French people at large by feeding them on that heady diet whose appeal the revolutionary generation could scarcely resist: la Gloire - glory achieved on the battlefield’11This feeling of absolute loyalty is evident in Brigadier Gerard, who considered laying down his life for the Emperor a matter of great honour. Napoleon himself chose Gerard for certain mission because of his unquestioning loyalty, such as in ‘How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio’, where the Emperor needed to assassinate in secret some men from his Corsican past who had come back to haunt him, and in ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’ where Napoleon decided to test the loyalty of his men before setting them on a very delicate and dangerous mission. And yet the unequivocal devotion of the soldier to the Emperor remained unfortunately lopsided in its depth of emotion. There is an evidence of Tolstoyean irony in Gerard’s stories, in his lifelong faith and service to an Emperor who had little respect for him.12 Napoleon chose Gerard for some of the most sensitive missions because he perceived the latter to be simple minded despite his enormous courage, even awarding him the special medal of honour along with the dubious honour of calling him the man with the thickest head and the stoutest heart in his army.13 Napoleon was callous towards the suffering and losses his army faced for him, and remained unmoved by the fact that his conquests cost France the flower of a generation.

Napoleon’s Russian invasion of 1812 was the beginning of the end of the great French empire that he had envisioned. The invasion was riddled with various problems from the start. The most prominent were the lack of supply lines; nine large depots had been laid from Konigsberg to Warsaw, but available means of transportation could not keep up with the advancing army. Also, the massive size of the army and its frontage required the creation of new command structures and army groups. The technical limitations of the era prevented either problems from being resolved.14 Brigadier Gerard and his Hussars never went to Moscow, staying back at the communication lines of Borodino. In ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’, Gerard spoke in sorrow and resignation of the squalor and devastation he witnessed all around. Conan Doyle used a Tolstoyean eye to describe the long, black lines of retreating soldiers, snaking their way across the white plain.15 It was in Russia that the French army faced the ruthless Cossacks, who laughed at them in their misery and hung around them like wolves, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. This air of gloom makes this one of the saddest stories of the collection, with Gerard’s own despondency almost a signal to the imminent downfall of his beloved emperor.

It is a fitting end to the adventures of the brave brigadier that he would be given an important mission in that final hour, the Battle of Waterloo – a mission that he failed to carry out due to fateful turn of events – eventually bringing a close to his glorious days in the Grande Armée with a final valiant effort to protect his Emperor from capture at the hour of defeat by impersonating him to detract his English pursuers. Though history dictates that this effort had to be in vain, the brigadier earned what was possibly the greatest compliment of his life from his enemies; the Englishman failed to realise he was an imposter and exclaimed in admiration that the French Emperor was “such a horseman and such a swordsman I have never seen.”17 By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was well past his prime. He was wearied from years of campaigning and a year of exile, and ill on the very day of the battle. Waterloo led to Napoleon's final downfall, restored the balance of power in Europe and ushered in an era of nearly four decades of peace on the Continent, unquestionably qualifying the battle as one of history's most decisive.16

The last of the Brigadier Gerard stories holds that poignant note marking the end of something great. In ‘How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to His Master’, we read of an attempt by an old faithful servant of the Emperor, with Gerard’s help, to rescue Napoleon from his exile in St. Helena, only for Gerard to arrive at the moment of his master’s death. It is the last tale that the old soldier told his eager audience before going back to Gascony in his twilight years. This is the condition of many soldiers spanning age and space, veterans unable to let go of the past, civilians but ‘with an air and manner’, relics of a time long gone. In his closing chapter, Conan Doyle successfully brought to light the human cost of war, not merely in terms of those who die, but those who are forced to reintegrate into civilian society, a mere shadow of their battlefield selves.

 Like all works of literature, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard was essentially written to provide hours of enjoyable reading to the lay person, not to serve as a tool for scholarship for the historian. The tales are not a fair and balanced exposition of the Napoleonic wars or the French society of the time. The chronology is not linear, and there are so many fictitious incidents that sieving out fact from fiction is a tedious exercise. One glaring shortcoming of the stories is that the human cost of the Napoleonic epic is completely ignored. In his blind devotion to his master, the brigadier overlooked the fact that Napoleon, having extinguished liberty by enslaving half of Europe and fraternity by declaring war on the other half, had only just paid lip service to equality, even in his army.17 The stories are fundamentally action packed adventures of one soldier and not a representation of the army as a whole.

However, a student of history may yet do well to pay some attention to such works of literature in one’s studies. As has been adequately illustrated in this paper, Brigadier Gerard is an excellent example of all that literature has to offer to history, if only one knows how to extract reality from the generous coating of imagination that is any good work of fiction.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

GoodReads Review: My Name is Red

My Name is RedMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rating reflects more on my personal lack of interest for the subject than the quality of the book itself. Based at the end of the 16th century in Istanbul, My Name is Red is a murder mystery, a love story, and a picturesque account of life in the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. But essentially it is a story about art. It is the story of miniature painting, the Islamic art of embellishment, and the increasing influence of the Western artistic ideas on miniature artists.

The story develops around a group of miniature artists in the royal workshop of Istanbul who are commissioned by an ambitious old ambassador to create a 'secret' book for the Sultan influenced by the Western style of painting, considered sinful by Islam. The inner turmoil of the miniaturists egged on by a popular orthodox Muslim preacher who is against all paintings, storytelling and coffeehouses leads to the murder of one artist by another, soon to be followed by a second murder. The book wonderfully depicts the rising influence of Western thought in the Ottoman empire that eventually leads to a loss of identity for them as a whole, and particularly the miniature form of art. There are several parallel themes that run in tandem, a particularly evident one being that of motherhood and the love for progeny. Shekure, the main female character of the novel has two sons, Orhan and Shevket. Interestingly the author took these names from his own family; his mother and older brother are called Shekure and Shevket. My Name is Red is a brief introduction to the philosophical outlook of the Turkish people, with their overwhelming awe for their Sultan and their constant preoccupation with Islam at every aspect of life.

The book will serve as an art lover's paradise with its focus on painting and embellishment. It is an enlightening introduction to the world of miniature painting, and the description of the miniaturists at work are vivid. One gets a glimpse into the lives of miniature artists right from their apprenticeship which began when they were mere children, the lengthy and strenuous training that they underwent, often coupled with harsh punishments from their masters, before becoming masters themselves, and their inexorable loss of eyesight with age due to the extreme strain the fine painting put on their eyes. The relationship between masters and apprentices is explored, and the various aspects - that of student, son, friend and even lover - are brought to the forefront. There are extensive and minute word pictures of different works of art that are sure to delight all art enthusiasts. Unfortunately, this was the very aspect of the book that I found exceedingly tedious. I enjoy looking at works of art as much as the next person, but repeated descriptions in intricate details tire me out and take away from my reading experience. I would recommend this book only to those who are keen on reading about art for its own sake; otherwise you are likely to be as exasperated as I became halfway into the book. 

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Maximum City

I have a theory that with cities like Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai, you cannot be unemotional; you will either be strongly attracted to them or detest them equally heartily. These cities are living organisms by their own right, shaping and in turn being shaped by the lives and minds of their inhabitants. So when I read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, a sprawling, grandiose narrative about Bombay, I could understand where his passion was coming from.

Having left Bombay as a teenager when his family shifted to the US – the most defining event that charted the course of his life decisively, including his turning to writing in order to come to terms with it completely – Mehta came back to the city after twenty one years in search of the home he had left behind. By the time of his return though, the city of his childhood seemed to have vanished. When Bombay became Mumbai, it lost much of the serene and idyllic character that the author’s childhood memories were imprinted with. It was now a city of breathless pace, of immense wealth and power and corruption, a city of gangsters and slum-dwellers, of mad cops and madder politicians, of ravishing dancing girls and cross-dressing men, of penniless poets and millionaire businessmen on their way to diksha and denunciation. It was a city bustling with energy and aspiration, a truly cosmopolitan haven attracting millions each year with the tantalising promise of a better life.

Coming back to Mumbai after his long absence, the author realised that he was now an outsider. He was more American than Indian to his friends and acquaintances and it would take him and his family a long time to fit in to the Bombay way of things. His experience brought to my mind the lyrics of a song – “so, here you are too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both”. Yet for all those feelings of being left out, it was the American card that opened a lot of doors for the author.  A lot of people wanted to be written about by the ‘American’, from the goons and rioters to the notorious politician Bal Thackeray and even dangerous gangsters close to Dawood Ibrahim. They all wanted the same thing: that he should write about them honestly and let the outer world – the world of Americans – know of their true characters. It is this very sense of duality, paradoxes and contradictions that make the book come alive.

Mehta’s Mumbai is really two cities. There is the glitz and the glamour of celebrities and businessmen, the top echelons of the city, those living in ultra modern sea-facing bungalows and penthouses worth hundreds of crores. And then there is the Mumbai of the chawls and the jhopadpattis. This is the Mumbai of the masses, of the vast ocean of people who live hand to mouth through all sorts of dhanda. This is the Mumbai that the rioters and gangsters and bar dancers live in. This is a parallel world, a world that is often antagonistic towards the other, and yet sometimes the dividing lines get blurred. Every time there is a demand for extortion, every time an ‘encounter’ takes place, every time a director comes down to the slums to shoot an authentic scene for his or her movie, there is a coming together of two separate universes.

With Maximum City you get to visit ways of life you will probably never know yourself – the women’s committees in different slums petitioning for clean toilets, the seedy pleasure houses that cater to all sorts of often bizarre tastes, the inside stories of a high risk IPS officer’s career, the aspirations of an ordinary salesman who dreams of going to America not for himself but to bring prosperity to his family, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to the world of cinema, the world where you visit Amitabh Bachhan’s home late at night for a script reading and are on first name terms with director Vidhu Vinodh Chopra.

It may be the exotica of a world unknown and vastly different from my own, but it was the lives of the aam admi that attracted me most in the book. The strange mentality of the jhopadpatti dweller who would not shift to an apartment because he felt part of a community in the very din and squalor of his slum, the hired assassin who pulled the trigger without batting an eyelid but was unable to sleep alone at night, the gangster who philosophised about God and the universe while doing his ablutions – these are men so far away from my world as to seem almost fictional. Yet they are very human with their own joys and dreams and fears and sorrows. Their aspirations are often very simple; a better life for their family, assured meals every day, a cemented house instead of a thatched one. Their daily lives are fraught with danger and distress; in many areas Hindu-Muslim relationships are like live wires, ticking time bombs waiting to go off any minute. Yet there is still a palpable wave of hope, a promise of better times ahead. These people are as enamoured of Mumbai as their chronicler, and that is what comes through most strikingly throughout the narrative.

Almost every emotion, every situation that the book expresses remains subjective. As you progress with the narrative, you become less and less certain about distinctions. The book is all gray, with only rare glimpses of black or white filtering through the uncertainty. The same man who is hero to one group of people is Satan incarnate for another. Ideas about life and death that offer one character solace remain absolutely reprehensible to another. You become increasingly aware of the relativity of good and bad, and are cautious about tagging anyone as evil. Your mind is opened to alternative explanations, and you are slow in forming opinions.

In a lot of ways, Suketu Mehta’s Mumbai is a microcosm for the Indian way of life as a whole. There is the coming together of a motley mix of religions and cultures that is so peculiarly Indian. There is the simultaneous existence of the frivolous and the dead serious, the riches and the rags, the East and the West, the absolutely materialistic and the intensely spiritual. The binaries of life and death, of good and evil, of the mortal and the divine are omnipresent. Indeed, Mehta’s Mumbai is Maximum City, city of extremes, more city than many others taken together.

You have to give this to Suketu Mehta, the man worked hard for his project. He left no stones unturned to get first person accounts from these people, people who very often live in the peripheries of civil society. He visited the slums to know their living conditions first hand, interviewed seasoned gangsters and killers at considerable personal risk, pulled all sorts of strings for all sorts of people and amassed a treasure trove of experiences, stories that he then wove together with infinite finesse and sensitivity, giving the text a throbbing, pulsating life of its own.

Suketu Mehta’s style of writing is very pleasing. There is the perfect blend of humour and solemnity that makes you laugh at the right places and ponder often. The undulating account of the many lives gives a sense of movement, a certain restlessness inherent to the traveller, making the book as much about the author’s own state of mind as about the characters he portrays. He has remained true to the people’s own ways of speaking, so that each character is brought to life through the dialogues. The titles to the chapters are strikingly evocative – from ‘The country of the No’ to ‘Powertoni’, ‘A City in Heat’ to ‘Sone ki Chidiya’ and ‘Goodbye World’, the names stay with you long after you have finished reading the book, like a pleasant aftertaste.

Ultimately, Maximum City is a book about the urban noir. It is a book about polarities and peculiarities and extremes. You will not find the stories of ordinary middle-class people, whose lives are safe and predictable in their regularity. These people with comfortable jobs that allow them to live in comfort and occasional luxury. The middle class professionals who form a major part of every Indian urban space are significant by their absence in this book. The author must have found too little matter of literary interest in their lives to include them – in fact, the occasional mention of this class comes when he talks about his own school days and some of his friends around the city, but only in passing compared to the study he has made of the others. For this reason, Maximum City fails to be a complete and authoritative work on the city of Mumbai. For all its intensity, it remains a selective account.

A fitting conclusion to this review would be a quick reverting to what I began the essay with. Cities like Kolkata and Delhi and Mumbai, you either love or you hate. And your feelings about the place are likely to translate on to any book you read about them. When I finished with Maximum City, I was mighty pleased and strongly recommended the book to my father. My father is the one person who has overwhelmingly shaped my own tastes in literature and we very rarely disagree on books. Yet he tells me he is finding the book quite revolting. Never one for big cities, he hates the long descriptions about the heat and the crowd and the criminals and the dirt and grime, and says that he might have to give up on the book before long. Funny how these things happen!

Sunday, June 18, 2017


When I started blogging seven years ago I used to write much more often. Over the years the number of posts have dwindled, and I can offer no better excuse than to admit rather shamefacedly that I have grown lazy. However, in my defense, I do write in a couple of other places on the Internet now. And seeing as I still apparently have a number of faithful readers who seem to wait for my posts even when they appear only about maybe twice a year, I think they might enjoy going through  some of my writings in these other sites. I will probably link them all here, eventually. For now, I will start with my Goodreads reviews. I discovered Goodreads many years ago, and I must say it is a useful website for those who enjoy reading. They let you keep a track of the books you are reading, have read, and want to read in future. I've even found a couple of good recommendations via Goodreads, which is saying something since I already have Dad and his vast personal library. I have lately taken to reviewing each book I read on Goodreads, partly so that I can come back to these later, and partly to keep up my writing habit. These reviews are between two-liners and a few short paragraphs, so all serious reviews are still kept as proper blog post material. Still, I think some of my readers will enjoy reading these short updates, and hopefully discover a few books that they want to read themselves.

I am not one who worries too much about readers' comments in general, but for these book related posts I will break with tradition and urge you to comment. I would love to hear from anyone who has already read these books or even plan to anytime soon. Do drop in your thoughts, even if they are just a line to mention when or why you read these books, what you liked or disliked about them, or if you have any book you might want to recommend to me, or anything at all that crosses your mind really, as long as they are book-related thoughts!

A Room of One's OwnA Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the greatest pieces of feminist writing of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own should be on the to-read list of everyone who wants to get a balanced, well-thought-out feminist point of view on women's intellectual life preceding and up to the early 20th century. As somebody who rather dislikes much of the so-called feminist ranting that is so rampant all over the internet today - ranting that reeks of privilege and misandry and showcases very little commiseration to their truly oppressed sisters - I found Woolf's writing not only refreshing, but greatly enlightening. The book, an extension of a lecture titled 'Women and Fiction' delivered at Newnham and Girton, explores the very many interpretations of the title; the myriad meanings and interpretations that 'women and fiction' can hold fascinates the author and gives rise to a chain of thought where she explores women's intellectual lives - real and as represented by men - over the centuries. Starting out with examples of the widespread barriers to women's liberation still very much present in contemporary England from her own experiences in Oxbridge, Woolf goes on to talk about the overflowing of literary opinions about women and their activities as expressed by men and the unfortunate lack of women's writings till before the 17th century. She explores the contributions of early playwrights like Ephra Behn and the effect her courage and enterprise had on later generations of aspiring women writers. Moving on to the 19th century, she compared the relative skills of Jane Austen, the Bronte sister and George Eliot, commenting on how their oppressive prospects often marred their geniuses. Eventually the conclusion she reaches, or rather, an idea that pops its head every now and then throughout the narrative, is the idea of economic emancipation of women as vital to their creative proliferation. And so the idea of a room of one's own and 'five hundred pounds a year' come alive in their urgency.

The narrative is a wonderful read and a delightful study in stream of consciousness. I might even go so far as to say that this surpasses The Old Man and the Sea in that respect, though it may be unfair to draw a comparison between works of so vastly different subjects. It is a page turner in its own way, and at a hundred odd pages, this can be finished over the weekend or even one long evening if one puts one's mind to it. This is a book that should definitely not be missed.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017


Yesterday was the first official day of my summer vacation. I say first ‘official’ day because we have been on vacation since end of April for all practical purposes. Classes started dwindling since mid April and eventually got dissolved by early May, and after a brief ‘study leave’ our end semester examinations started on the 17th of May. I use the important sounding name – end semester examination – out of habit and to lend some gravitas to the situation. In reality, there were examinations on four days. Yes, just four days, and yet it had to be spread out across nearly three weeks. I have to give this to the private schools across the country, for all their endless problems and shortcomings they do usually manage to get over with examinations within a week or two, and that with nearly a dozen subjects on average. What does this say about our ‘elite’ public universities, and our national psyche in the matter in general? If there was ever a social decision to function according to the very antithesis of the ideal of “do it now”, it is the principle that guides our nation.

Examination days leave me feeling unsettled. I don’t think this has much to do with my level of preparedness. Even when I know that I have worked hard throughout the year and only unforeseen disasters could possibly make me fare badly in the paper, I cannot help feeling jittery and restless. I have a definite point of saturation beyond which I cannot revise, the words bounce off my head without making sense to me any longer. And yet I cannot concentrate on anything else either. Examinations seem to put my life on hold; they make me feel like I am in purgatory. If I ever have to spend any period of my life solely focused on preparing for any examination, I wonder whether I will be able to do it. I seriously fear that I will crack under the strain of preparations and revisions long before the actual tests come up.

As I walked out of the examination hall on the 5th of June, I realized with a jolt that I had officially finished the second year of my undergraduate course. Come July I will be starting on my final year here, the senior year in the Indian scheme of things. I don’t think the thought has sunk in quite properly yet; it seems like yesterday that I was walking in as the confused fresher who lost her way around the campus at least thrice a week. I look back and I realize the true import of the saying “the days are long but the years are short”. All those early classes with the attractive old professor, those initial days of bonding with seniors, that certain idealistic spark that formed our political inclinations and made us feel good about ourselves, the first tastes of the real world and the quick realization that followed about how inept our generation is at ‘adulting’ – the memories that threaten to flood my mind are bittersweet and each an engaging story by itself. The past two years have helped me grow and embark on a journey of self discovery, and I know I have only just started. I have a lifetime of exploration ahead of me, and that is one exhilarating thought.

Jadavpur has been home to me in ways I could not have thought possible. It has given me what I have always craved for – space. In Jadavpur I can be me, I can function within my own tastes and preferences without worrying about any external restrictions. I can be mad or composed, well turned out or bedraggled, a bookworm or a social butterfly, or an alarming mix of them all, and still find a cozy nook for myself there. I may or may not find like minded friends, but chances are I will not be actively shunned or made to conform to the tastes of anyone else. In a world that demands standards and norms and regularity, a short sojourn in this haven of disorderly but generally well-meaning people may well turn out to be soothing memory of a lifetime. I have met so many types of people here, strange and outlandish, starry eyed and optimistic, frivolous and forlorn, often quite eccentric. Some of them I have become close to, others I have only briefly come in touch with. A few I hope will continue to be a part of my life long after we have crossed the boundaries of college and gone on our very different paths. These two years have been wonderful, and I hope to have a terrific final year here, but now I am ready to leave. I can sense a certain loosening of ties, a certain longing for newer pastures, an urge to go out and explore. Just as I know that after the end of school, getting admitted to Jadavpur University had been the best option for me, I also know that I need to move on from here for the next step.

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what I want to do next, after completing my graduation. I do not want to carry on with History for my Masters, not because my love for the subject has dwindled, not at all, but because I have almost made up my mind not to pursue a career in the academia. I cannot see myself spending years writing theses and teaching reluctant college goers. I did not take up English for graduation, much to the astonishment of many of my peers, because I felt that reading literature as a part of my coursework will kill my love for it. Lately, I have begun to feel the same way about History as well. There is a sense of restriction that I suffer from; in spite of studying the subject I love I am often not able to study according to my own interests. My coursework needs me to focus on economic theories about modes of production when what I really want to read about is the history of modern Israel. I do feel set curricula suffocate academic curiosity; at least they do to me. I have this little personal joke where I think of my love for history or literature or any other academic subject to be like a man’s love for his mistress, which is based on sheer attraction and not social norms and legal expectations, and burns deep for that very reason. Once I am beyond the requirement of coursework, I feel I will be able to continue reading history as a passion for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I am on the lookout for anything interesting and unusual, anything that challenges my intellect and pushes me to learn. I am ready to go into the professional world and try my luck in different fields until I find something that suits my abilities and temperament.

This year has been a difficult one so far, and I can sense that there are more troubles lying in wait in the coming months. But there have also been many happy days and peaceful days. As time passes I get more and more convinced that life is nothing if not a mixed bag. It is on every individual to make the most of what they have, without worrying too much about all that they don’t. Tragedies will have to be faced, sadness will have to be dealt with, but it really does no good dwelling too much on them. Worrying just makes you suffer twice. And so I have decided to take each day at a time and make a conscious effort to enjoy myself as best as my situation allows. It was with that spirit that I began my vacation, taking myself out to a movie after the examination ended – the last movie of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a fun watch by the way, a fitting end to a successful series – and enrolling on an interesting online course about the ancient Egyptian civilization. I am looking forward to a fulfilling month, a refreshing break before starting out on the final leg of college life. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Weekending at Digha

Over the last couple of years, I have been trying to convince Baba to take more frequent breaks from his routine and go away for short weekend tours. He went on three such breaks last year, and January 2017 started on a good note with another weekend trip, this time with me tagging along. After much deliberation and changing and tweaking of plans we zeroed in on a two-night sojourn to Digha and its surrounding beaches.

Baba came over to Kolkata on Friday morning. It was a freezing winter day in Durgapur, Baba tells me, and he spent the first hour shivering in the car. His day started before sunrise, and he was at Kolkata by ten. A short freshening up later we were ready to set off.

Kolkata traffic can be annoying; we took nearly fifty minutes to get out of the city and start on the highway. To our utmost delight and not a small amount of surprise, the road to Digha turned out to be fantastic. It was wide and smooth as glass for long stretches, reminding Baba of the roads he had found in the ’States. We passed a little town called Nandakumar on our way, and I could not stop giggling at the name. I think of the ubiquitous chubby Bengali mama’s boy when I hear names like that. Then there was Contai – how the British had managed to turn Kanthi into Contai is a mystery to me. As we left the national highway and moved to the Nandakumar-Contai road, one thought that kept coming back to me was the striking similarity between different regions of India. At different points of the journey I found strange resemblances with the Kalimpong bus depot, the road towards Malan Dighi from Durgapur, and even the road from Srinagar to Pahalgam! But of course, travelling through Bengal’s countryside has a flavour of its own, something that has to be imbibed with all one’s senses.

We reached Digha at around three thirty in the evening after a four-and-half hour drive, including two short stops for refreshments on the way. Before checking into the hotel, Baba and I decided to stop at the Old Digha beach for a short stroll. The late afternoon winter sun and a mildly chilly seaside breeze made it a wonderful experience, and a particularly lovely photo that I took of a starfish embedded in the wet sand added to the charm. Around this time, Baba and I realized that neither of us had packed in appropriate clothing for romping around in the sea. We could only look at each other and grin sheepishly, but as it turned out eventually, the water was far too cold for any serious frolicking among the waves anyway, so we had not missed out on much.

We took a wrong turn and wasted some time going in the wrong direction, but Google maps came to our rescue, and soon we reached the hotel where I had booked our room. It was Hotel Seagull, and it was actually right next to the beach we had first stopped at. The hotel has to be reached through a narrow alley, and though it has a shoddy looking façade, the room turned out to be decent enough. There is a large “No outside cooked food allowed” notice at the entrance, a funny rule which I have no idea how they plan to enforce. Another notice read ‘Card swipe machine out of order’.

Soon enough we were back on the beach. The beach at Digha has been embanked to prevent erosion of the shoreline. The long promenade – aptly named Saikat Sarani or ‘beach lane’ – was a veritable shopping arcade and park rolled into one. Hawkers lined the walk with all sorts of beachside wares – faux pearl jewellery and shell artefacts to metal instruments and bag stalls. And there were a wide variety of scrumptious looking seafood on display; fried shrimp and pomfret and lobsters and crabs. My mouth kept watering at the sight and the aroma, but Baba pointed out that fish were the commonest source of food poisoning, so we decided to keep away from the fare. There was also a Madur Mela going on, a ‘mat fair’ where the indigenous mat makers of Bengal were displaying and selling the beautiful mats. As part of the fair, there was a cultural fest underway, and we saw the performance by a group of Raibenshe dancers. Raibenshe is a traditional form of Indian folk martial dance performed by males only. Their show included a number of hair-raising acts of acrobatics and complicated structure formations involving standing on top of each other and even on poles and earthen pots. It was a fascinating performance quite worthy of international recognition; it is a pity that we Bengalis have chosen to forget so much of our cultural heritage in our constant aping of Western practices.

We got to witness the changing of tides in the sea. As the night progressed, the waves came closer and got louder and bigger. Soon, the shoreline was under water and the waves travelled up the embankment. Looking out at the dark expanse of water before me, I felt a deep sense of peace and contentment. That is the magic of nature; the closer you get to it, the more comfortable and content it makes you feel. And yet, it holds the power to destroy life within moments. It is a small wonder that man has always feared and worshipped the forces of nature.

Back to the hotel and a quick dinner later – Hotel Seagull serves rather unpleasant food by the way; the palak paneer we ordered smelled of fish – we were sound asleep. It had been a long day, especially for Baba, and we relished the thought of a good night’s sleep. That was not to be however; we woke up with a start at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, jolted out of sleep by the blaring of the megaphone. We had noticed right at arrival the previous evening that the megaphone kept playing really loud music incessantly. There was a puja taking place. The manager at the hotel told us that they were celebrating Ganga Utsav, which is apparently the only big festival for the people there, and so they would continue playing songs and chanting mantras on the megaphone for three days. So much for a peaceful and quiet weekend!  

Saturday was a very crowded day. It was Poush Sankranti and it seemed that the entire population of Digha had come out on its streets. There were busloads of tourists heading into the city from Kolkata. The electric vans that were the local mode of transportation were constantly on the move. We spent the day exploring the other beaches near Digha. Our first stop was Udaypur, a lovely stretch of virgin beach that has been preserved in near pristine conditions. The sea was calm and the sun was bright and the cold winter air made us shiver as we stood knee deep into the ocean. Udaypur is definitely much better than the Digha beach. In fact, both Baba and I agreed that it was the best among all the beaches we visited. From Udaypur we continued to Talsari, which is in Odisha, though it is within a twenty mile radius of Digha. It is beautiful how seamlessly we crossed over to another state without any noticeable difference in landscape or demographics. In Talsari we found that people had the annoying habit of taking their motorcycles on the rocky pathway along the beach, causing a whole lot of trouble for wayfarers. The meaning of the name is self-evident: there is a palm forest skirting the beach, so it is quite literally a talsari!

Back to West Bengal, and it was time for lunch. We came back to Old Digha and stopped at a snazzy little cabin pretty close to our hotel. I was bent on eating crab, but they had run out of crab, so that is the one regret I have about our trip! Later, we continued on our journey and headed for the Mohona, the place where the river met the ocean. This was a fishers’ colony of sorts. The entire way we could get wafts of the odour of stinking fish. On our way we passed a fish farm where rows upon rows of shuntki fish had been hung out to dry. There were thousands of fish hanging from fences, and the surprising thing was that no crow or hawk carried the fish away though they were out in the open. We also saw large fishing boats being built, and they were named after various Hindu deities. One was called Baba Naru Gopal – the name gave Nandakumar a run for its money!

Next up was Shankarpur, which was another ten kilometres or so away. This too was a pretty beach, but nothing remarkable. What stood out was how we were stopped on the way by a group who were collecting money for some puja or the other. After Baba had made his contribution, they were supposed to let us pass. But there was this man on a bicycle who stood right in front of our car, looking completely unwilling to move. The local men had to physically push him away so that we could continue on our journey. It was a funny interlude and made me wonder how drunk the man had been. After Shankarpur we went on to the last beach for the day; Tajpur. There were a number of homely looking resorts on the way to Tajpur that we decided we could visit some time. The path passed through casuarina forests, and Baba and I found to our surprise that both of us had an irrational fear of bear attacks whenever we saw such forests. Can fears be genetic too, I wonder? The Tajpur beach had a long shoreline, and it being low tide, we walked a fair distance into the sea. The striations formed by the waves were remarkably intricate, giving me more photo ops. The Tajpur beach was my second favourite from the trip after Udaypur. We watched the sun setting into the ocean, and then we headed back to Digha after a tiring but fulfilling day. On our way back, we were stopped by the police for a random check. Baba was asked to produce the car papers, and the cops seemed irate at his producing them easily. The man asked him why he had the papers ready at hand; had we been stopped for another check right before this?!

That night we went out for another walk on the saikat sarani. Baba reminisced about the two times that he had visited Digha earlier, once as a little boy and another time when he was around my age. Digha has changed a lot since then, he said, and the change has been for the better. It is cleaner and better maintained, and the law and order problems that had been rife in the area are now mostly under control. Digha had garnered a bad name for harassment faced by tourists, especially couples. But now it seems it is a safe place to visit even for groups of youngsters. The beach has security cameras and a guard tower where policemen keep constant vigil. A tea seller told us that the beach was open till eleven at night and even after that families often sat there without facing trouble from the authorities. Dinner was at another small restaurant right next to the place where we had had lunch. The proprietor of this restaurant was a garrulous old man who seemed to resent the new restaurant that had recently opened next to his and was now stealing many of his customers with their flashy décor. He grumbled at length to Baba that night, and again next morning when we went there for breakfast.

After a quick breakfast on Sunday and one last walk down the beach, this time on the opposite direction, we checked out of the hotel at around eleven and headed for Mondarmoni. This was our final stop before we drove back to Kolkata. Mondarmoni is a much advertised luxury seaside spot with supposedly the longest beach in the country at fifteen kilometres. We found it to be a gross disappointment. The entire beachfront was covered with construction sites and hotel walls. The beach was nothing to write home about. We wondered at the popularity of the place, and agreed that coming to Mondarmoni by itself would have been a bad idea. The only noticeable thing about Mondarmoni was that we found a variety of dead sea life washed up on the sand – from a leach-like worm to tiny crabs to a torn turtle fin and even a small sting ray!

This concluded our weekend getaway, and soon enough we were on our way home. The drive was as pleasant as the first time, but it seemed to take less time, as return journeys are wont to do. We were back home by five thirty even after a short detour to Park Street. It was a sweet getaway, a welcome change early in the semester. Baba got his much deserved break, and he has gone back to his classes now with a refreshed mind.

Next up is Pondicherry in mid-February, and though that is still a month away, I cannot seem to wait for it!