The Elephant’s Journey – Jose Saramago

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This fascinating piece of fiction from the Portuguese master has to, in my humble opinion, rank amongst the top of the pile of his ingenious and enviable works. This poignant, persuasive and almost polemic narrative describes the journey of an endearing Solomon a pachyderm, who after being anointed as a wedding gift for the archduke of Hapsburg, Maximilian, by King Dom Joao III, has to traverse the punishing routes from Lisbon to Vienna on his stubby feet.

Solomon is accompanied by his able and devoted mahout Subhro, in this daunting endeavor. Although the word Subhro means “white”, the mahout in a paradoxical vein is as dark in appearance as the very animal to which he tends with great love and care. Although an illiterate, Subhro, as the tale unravels is a man of great mystique and mystery as he proceeds to mystify the Portuguese commander and his team of cavalry and porters with stories ranging from the macabre to the magnificent. The Portuguese commander who is entrusted with the safety of Solomon and his mahout till such time the transfer of the elephant as a gift is made is a man of deep integrity and great simplicity. Always at the ready to protect, preserve and ply the cause of his men, he strives to ensure that the tedium of the journey is alleviated by any and every possible means such as requesting a group of villagers to shelter his men from pounding rain or allowing the weary porters the luxury of an extra pair of oxen, requisitioned from another set of villagers.

Although the protagonist of the story is the lovable Solomon, he is merely an instrument for us to fix our gaze and thereby understand the very meaning of life in great incandescence. The elephant signifies the helpless and vacuous nature of the human mind which is subject to and influenced by extraneous convulsions, chaos and catastrophies. This point is bought out in a nakedly stark manner when Subhro states “every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he is taught, and another who insists on ignoring it all”. Jose Saramago has woven a succulent tapestry that provides an eye opener to a variegated nature of human emotions. The novelty factor here is the undoubted ingenuity of having created such a dazzle around an elephant! For instance the act of the archduke of Hapsburg to change the name of the elephant and its mahout from Solomon to Suleiman and from Subhro to Fritz respectively conveys nothing other than a mere gesture symbolic of political one-upmanship. Similarly the greatly moving act of Subhro whispering into Solomon’s ears (whilst the latter is in a serene state of sleep) directions not to obey a new mahout in the event Subhro is to be replaced after the transfer of the gift, signifies the emotions of selfishness and insecurity. Subhro however redeems the wrong by again whispering into the gigantic mammal’s sleeping ears an apology.

Succinct and thought provoking humour also assails the aesthetic senses of the reader. A classic instance being when Subhro narrates the mythological story of the evolution of the elephant as a God head as per the Hindu scriptures. As and when Subhro is enchanting his listeners with the story of how Lord Shiva breathed life into his own son whose head he had chopped off unwittingly, by fixing onto the dead son’s neck the head of a dying elephant, a few villagers plagued by angst and anxiety rush to the house of the head priest in the middle of the night to regale him with this transfixing narrative. Admonishing them for falling into the clutch of such ‘beliefs’, a determined father proceeds the very next day to drive away the evil spirits plaguing the head of Solomon. Armed with an aspergillum and a container of holy water, the father proceeds to chant a great many verses in Latin and at the same time trying to exorcise Solomon of a veritable deluge of demonic spirits that might have taken occupation in him. Solomon, fed up with these antiques slightly lifts his leg and makes contact with a surprised priest who is flung a great distance apart and suffers some treatable damages to his godly hip!

This is a story of human frailties and fickleness, triumphs and tribulations. More than anything else this is a magnificent peek into very life itself and the celebrations and catharsis surrounding it. The tragedy befalling Solomon after he valiantly saves the life of a child on the very first day he enters Vienna also serves to instill unadulterated hope that all is not yet lost for the human race in terms of fraternity, friendship and fostering of a bond of peace for to steal a quote from this marvelous and formidable Noble Laureate – “We are more and more, our own defects and not our qualities”. The Elephant’s Journey – A stirring walk of life!

The Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

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Mikhail Bulgakov proves in a searing and stark manner that more creativity is repressed and stifled, the more it will unshackle itself to transform into a medium that is powerful and picturesque. “The Heart of a Dog”, penned by the Russian author-cum morphine addicted doctor, bears ample testimony to this fact. Full of rambunctious nonsense and reeking of boisterousness, this work of fiction is one which is at once endearing as well as profound.

This weird story features a maverick professor in Moscow, Philip Philipovich who as part of a weird and one-of-a-kind experimentation transplants the pituitary glands and testicles of a dying man into a stray dog. The hitherto neglected and nondescript canine, after this unique scientific attempt, undergoes a hideous transformation both physiological and physiognomic.  Acquiring a human voice and the all the attendant characteristic traits of a human being, the dog begins to experience a huge gamut of emotions. Christening itself as Polygraph Polygraphovich, this latest and inadvertent addition to mankind begins to assert its superiority in ways unimaginable and with consequences undesirable. Polygraph Polygraphovich even complains about his own master to the Secretary of the apartment in which Philip Philipovich resides about the seemingly atrocious treatment meted out to him. The scientist realized with despair and desperation results of his morbid creation and clearly understands the need to stop Polygraph in his tracks before he proceeds to wreak both physical and mental havoc upon him and other fellow country-men. When at some point in time, the man-dog or the dog-man (as may be appropriate) gets a revolver and points the same at the able assistant of the Professor, Dr. Bormenthal, Professor Philip Philipovich realizes that the time has indeed arrived to attempts to remedy his wrong, and for such purpose recourse has to be taken to the same medicinal and scientific path which resulted in the creation of the hideous creature in the first place.

This splendid work, whilst engaging the reader in a great amount of dry and castigating hunour also doubles up as one of the most artful work in the genre of satire. Aimed at the establishment of the pre-revolutionary and erstwhile Soviet Union, it serves to mirror the unhealthy consequences which insensible and blanket sensor can have, if imposed upon the literary and creative arts. The book also takes a dig at the practice of crony capitalism which as per the author creates a huge chasm between various segments of the society. For example, during an altercation between him and Philip Philipovoich, Polygraph nonchalantly remarks “I must be a worker – I am not a capitalist”

The book also portrays in a succinct and delectable manner the rules regarding compulsory conscription into the armed forces/military which every citizen had to undergo even if the same were to have been against his/her wish. For example when Polygraph (since he has adopted a human form literally) is asked to register his services for the military he refuses by pointing to his head and whining “I was badly wounded during the operation. Look they cut me right open”.  The authority in charge of the recruitment responds to this by asking whether Polygraph is an “anarchist individualist”. Maybe this is the author’s personal manner of rebuking and remonstrating against the rule of compulsory conscription for even he had undertaken a vehement, albeit futile attempt to avoid fighting in the civil war of 1918 to 1920. He was conscripted as a doctor for the army of the temporarily independent Ukrainian Republic. He even ran away to the Caucasus, only to be mobilized as a doctor for the White Guard. He eventually ended up serving the Red Army in his medical capacity.

This small but seminal work contains many memorable passages of profundity and pain. At times almost elegiac in its narrative, it portrays in vivid and characteristic detail the many desirable and undesirable facets of the human mind and emotions. At once soul stirring and spiritedly comic, “The Heart of a Dog” makes for one convulsive reading.

“The Heart of a Dog” – A curiously funny and knowing wag of the tail!”

Darkness At Noon – Arthur Koestler

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Along with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”; Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”, Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, has to be one of the most dystopian of novels ever penned in the history of literature. Artfully cynical, lastingly bleak and thoroughly provocative, this book has rightly been described as “one of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it” by New Statesman

Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, a domineering and powerful character, dedicated to the uplift of his “Party”, is aghast to experience a turning of the tables when on one cold evening, he is placed under arrest on the allegations of treason. The once invincible, indomitable and indefatigable spirit that was Rubashov undergoes a veritable catharsis and his momentous and melancholic reflections during the course of his trial form the heart, soul and spirit of this poignant and tragic work.  As Rubashov gets going on his anachronistic introspections, the reader is introduced to myriad handiworks of deceit, dare and deterrent espoused by the Party and executed by its dedicated servant Rubashov. The Supreme Commander of the Party, eerily referred to throughout the book as “No.1” is the monarch of all he surveys, virtually and symbolically as he hangs from  manifold photo frames nailed upon almost every wall of prominence. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Zamyatin’s “Benefactor”, Huxley’s “Mustapha Mond” and Orwell’s “Big Brother”, the leader is extraordinarily determined in his views and decrees that the sole punishment for even a trivial and inconsequential departure from the stance taken by the party is extermination.  Rubashov, seemingly shares an extremely cohesive equation with his much admired and feared (but never adored) leader and the exact moment wherein the disciple veers away from the preaching of his Master is one which cannot be ascertained with exactitude in the book. A revolutionary thus becomes a counter-revolutionary or is it the other way round? As one is left grappling to solve this quandary, Rubashov busies himself in trying to organize a movement to topple the regime of the totalitarian Government of No.1

Once arrested for treason, Rubashov is forced to spend his time in an isolated cell, blowing smoke rings from cigarettes which he chain smokes and being haunted by the deeds of his past. However, his most enthralling moments are experienced when he communicates with prisoners similarly isolated in cells to his right and left. Such a communication is accomplished by tapping on the walls by making use of the technique popularly known as the “quadratic alphabet”.  Such conversations range from the silly to the sublime and it also gives Rubashov an impartial perception of the feelings (or the lack of it) nursed for and about him by his humble and persecuted countrymen. Rubashov is subjected to an intense bout of interrogation, (sans use of physical violence or abuse), by at first, Comrade Ivanov, a former acquaintance of Rubashov and later by Gletkin, a giant of a man with a deep scar on his shaven pate. Gletkin, always attired in an impeccable uniform uses fatigue as his weapon and subjects Rubashov to an intermittent and unrelenting bout of questioning hardly providing the hapless, though illustrious prisoner more than a couple of hours of sleep. As Rubashov is broken down more emotionally, mentally and spiritually, he forces himself to accept the situation that he finds himself in and ruminates about life that has for him come a full circle. He requests for some stationary and scribbles some disjointed but searingly relevant passages and constructs, or rather re-constructs those phases of his life where he acted without rationale not restraint. For example he writes “The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it”

As Gletkin produces witness who concoct and weave a fine tapestry of lies with a single motive to prosecute and persecute Nicolas Salmonovich Rubashov, the latter casts his now calm, still and almost ascetic mind to those times where he himself was almost a veritable epitome of people like Gletkin. He remembers time and again, with a tinge of remorse his remorseless action in sacrificing his beloved Secretary Arlova, who on the allegation of committing great disservice to the Party is arrested and ultimately executed. During the trial, Arlova, who also has an affair with Rubashov, calls out to him for help and redemption, but in vain as Rubashov calmly, allows his devoted and dedicated Secretary to bite the bullet as he perceives his survival and furtherance of a cause to be more important than her survival. But the image of Arlova lying next to him on the bed peacefully asleep with her head nestled over one of her arms continues to haunt Rubashov until the very end. Nursing a bad toothache and consistently cleaning his pince nez on his sleeve, he paces his tiny cell block till he grows tired and reaches a state of exhaustion.

The ubiquitous pince nez plays a prominent role throughout the book. It is as though the personality that is Rubashov changes every time the pince nez comes off and is put back on within a few seconds. Every time Gletkin adjusts the harshness of the lamp in the interrogation chamber with a view to causing extreme discomfort, Rubashov finds solace in gripping the pince nez and concentrating on his answers and statements. But as tough as a man might be, there comes a limit to what he can endure. Rubashov being a mere mortal proves to be no exception to the rule. Tapping his pince nez on the wall, he signals to his fellow prisoner by using the mode of the “quadratic alphabet”, that he is “going to Capitulate” and accordingly signs the dossiers of confession. In one of his nostalgic ruminations, Rubashov scribbles down this stark and reflective passage:

“I was one of those. I have thought and acted as I have to; I destroyed people whom I was fond of, and gave powers to others that I did not like. History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, If wrong I will pay”

Similarly during the conclusion of the trial when Rubashov is asked as to whether he has anything left to say in his defense, at first decides to maintain a stoic demeanor, but yielding to temptation recites a fervent and frank passage of repentance, vitriolic in the chastisement of himself and rebuking all those principles and ethics for which he has stood by till such day, or for which he did not dare to stand, as may be appropriate. Standing in front of a jury which is baying for his blood like a pack of wolves, Rubashov recants

“There is nothing for which one could die, if one died without having repented and unreconciled with the Party and the Movement. Therefore, on the threshold of my last hour, I bend my knees to the country, to the masses and to the whole people. The political masquerade, the mummery of discussions and conspiracy are over. We were politically long dead before the Citizen Prosecutor demanded out heads. Woe unto the defeated, whom history treads into the dust….With that my task is ended. I have paid; my account with history is settled. To ask for mercy would be derision. I have nothing more to say”

This is the story of a man mired in his murky past and facing an uncertain future. This is the story of a man who genuinely believes in his foibles and feats. This is the story of a man who takes his own betrayal in stride with equal equanimity and poise as redemption for having indulged in a few unfair acts himself. More than anything else, this is the story of a man in a pince nez, who is at various points in his lifetime a savior, a sinner and a salvager!

Darkness At Noon – Profoundly Illuminating!!

Bhiwani Junction – Shamya Dasgupta

062In a country where the faint stirrings, resounding echoes and silent consternations involving sport have been the dominant, if not exclusive preserve of cricket, an unlikely sport staked a claim for recognition and a clamour for reverence in the year 2008. When a young Adonis punched, jabbed and jived his way to a bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics, a transfixed nation was not only enraptured by the looks and locks of the young man, but was also enchanted by the type of work which a pair of gloves could accomplish! To employ a much used and abused cliche boxing in India had -arrived. But had it really?

Shamya Dasgupta provides a compelling answer and more to this absorbing question in his book “Bhiwani Junction – The Untold story of Boxing in India”. With a research that is meticulous, reasoning that is methodical and a prose that is meaningful, the author judiciously mergers context with content. The narrative adopted to chronicle the story of boxing in India in general and the town of Biwani in particular is an easy and seamless blend of prosaic matter-of-fact-ness and a dash of compassionate and artful expression. This ebb-and-flow of India’s tryst with boxing coaxes, cajoles and at times even coerces the reader into comprehending the call of the sport and the catastrophe of its administration.

The hospital/healthcare infested ‘district-cum-town’ of Bhiwani, home to the fabled “BBC” the ‘Bhiwani Boxing Club’ and the veritable hotbed of extraordinary boxing talent in India has been brought to life in this enlivening book. As the author reveals, Bhiwani is named “Little Cuba” not for nothing. This non-decrepit part of India famous for its earthy smells of dung and dust is the world’s most populous nation’s indigenous answer to Havana and Harlem.

As the reader is treated to a fascinating perspective of the accomplishments, aspirations and accolades of Bhiwani’s own sons such as the legendary Hawa Singh, Jagdish ‘Sir’ et al, he is also left wondering as to why in-spite of such prodigious talent and innovative training, India has not been able to capitalize on the hotbed of such ‘natural resources’/human capital. The quandary is resolved by the book itself which recounts the existence of an absolutely intriguing maze of stifling bureaucracy, simmering internecine conflicts between myriad sporting associations and unfulfilled political promises all of which contrive to stagnate the prosperity of this noble sport and rend asunder the ambitions of its unflinching disciples. Tracing the origins of unofficial boxing in India to the 1880s, the author weaves an enticing fabric that is the history of boxing in India. Like a formidable water body, events and years meander, twist, and tumble expertly negotiating many tricky bends and convoluted corners before finally culminating into a vast and tumultuous expanse of ocean. The exploits of legends such as P.L.Roy, Buddy D Souza and P.N.Mitter warm the innermost cockles of the reader’s heart.

I have with deliberate intent, desisted from setting out selected excerpts from the book, even though the temptation to do so was inevitable. I only wish to be the purveyor of good claims, if not an out-and-out endorser for the procurement of a copy! At the time of writing, the reputation of boxing in India has been enhanced manifold with the indomitable ‘Magnificent’ Mary Kom bagging a bronze at the London Olympics of 2012. Boxing’s clamour has now been transmogrified into a clarion call and there is no better place to decipher the merit behind it than to read Shamya Dasgupta’s eye-opener.

“Bhiwani Junction” at once provokes and pacifies; exasperates and excites in equal measure. It is a rejoicing of sport and a rebuke of its neglect. It is a riveting ‘ringside’ rendition of the frailties, fantasies and fulmination of a sport which has well and truly unshackled itself metaphorically, symbolically and probably, even literally.

“Bhiwani Junction” – is a knock-out punch!

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout – Philip Connors

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Aldo Leopold, the American ecologist, forester, scientist and environmentalist once remarked thus: “nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings”. Philip Connors in his occupation as a ‘fire look out’ in the serene wilderness of the Gila mountains experienced first hand the splendid and pure salutary experience – an experience recounted in a restorative manner in this fascinating recollection.

Inspired by the experiences recounted by his friend in her profession as a ‘fire-lookout’, Connors packs in his mundane task as a journalist in the All Street Journal and takes on the job of spotting fires and alerting the fire service brigade. What follows next is a season in tranquil solitude followed by many of the same. With his faithful dog Alice for company, Connors is blissfully lost in the very lap of Mother Nature. A profusion of colour, a proliferation of wild life and a panorama of breathtaking landscape compensates more than adequately for the loss of company, chaos and city fervour. Using simple and rudimentary techniques as well as tools, Connors keeps an alert eye for tendrils and wisps of smoke in a distant horizon indicative of a potential fire. A fire that either needs suppression or non-intervention so that it can run its course.

However, a rookie ‘look-out’ can find the going tough perched atop a tower all by himself right in the middle of a dense jungle. Connors lists an incredulous list of phobias that has the power to render a novice helpless and overwhelmed. An illustrative list being:

fear of fire (pyrophobia);
fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia);
fear of fog (homichlophobia);
fear of thunder and lightning (brontophobia);
fear of wind (anemophobia);
fear of the moon (selenophobia)

Connors dazzles and leaves the reader gasping for more. Traversing the same path and blazing the same trail as done by Jack Kerouac, Aldo Leopold and the likes, Connors carves a beautiful amalgam between man and machine, fire and forest, rain and reconnaissance. The immortal Kerouac in his work ‘Dharma Bums exclaims “Hozomeen Hozomeen most mournful mountain ever seen”

Connors’s mountains on the other hand are never melancholic or mournful, they mesmerize, mock and become meaningful.

Fire Season – A searing sermon to the preservation of pristine nature aided and abetted by the improbable ally that is fire!

Herbert Sutcliffe: Cricket Maestro by Alan Hill

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Orphaned at a ridiculously tender age, Herbert Sutcliffe progression from an inveterate cricketer at his home town of Pudsey, to England and Yorkshire’s immortal stalwart puts many a fairy tale to shame. Alan Hill in his unique and extremely readable style, breathes beautiful life to this tale in his inspiring biography.

Immaculate in attire, implacable in attitude and incredible in achievement, Herbert Sutcliffe is one of cricket’s most cherished and memorable characters. A preternatural ability to occupy the crease, an uncanny gift to unerringly detect a bowler’s line and length and a seemingly inexhaustible vault of courage all contrived and combined to distinguish Sutcliffe from many of his peers and contemporaries.

Alan Hill succeeds grandly in his sweeping coverage of Sutcliffe’s amazing partnership with the “Master”, Sir Jack Hobbs (for England), and with the indefatigable Percy Holmes (for Yorkshire). The latter combination once put an Essex attack to unparalleled shame by notching up a world record opening partnership of 555 runs.

The Biography also reveals some surprising aspects thereby giving a peek into the humane side of this magnificent emperor with the willow.

Herbert Sutcliffe channeled his early deprivations into a savage determination. A determination which not only ensured that his exalted place was forever secured in the hallowed annals of International Cricket, but also paved the path for a generation of eager and aspiring cricketers seeking to emulate their idol.

Alan Hill, in turn has done the cricketing world an immeasurable service by bringing to light the exploits of this cricketing phenom.

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Winston Churchill once famously remarked “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
Combining a delectable mix of irreverent wit, dollops of common sense and precocious statistics, Ha-Joon Chang delivers a veritable tour de force scything wide open some of the ‘taken-for-granted’ virtues of unbridled capitalism.

Setting out 23 concrete examples, this intrepid Economist ventures to debunk what he himself terms to be “myths” in the form of neo- liberal ideologies. Ranging from the tickle down effect to the pressing need for regulating esoteric financial instruments once termed “financial weapons of mass destruction” by Warren Buffet, Ha-Joon Chang revels in his methodical, meticulous and meaningful dismantling of ultra-capitalist notions.

The most heartening feature of this book is the fluid language employed to explain even complicated topics. One need not be an Economist to grasp the contours of the logic elucidated by this ebullient economist. For example when explaining the perils and deviousness of excessive immigration control, the author provides a classic example of obscene differentials in the level of wages earned between a bus driver in Scandinavia and his counterpart in India – an unfair scenario especially when considering the fact that the Scandinavian driver in all probability would never have encountered a situation of having had to dodge a cow in stark distinction to his Indian counterpart.

23 Things… is a fervent appeal to the policy makers, public and the proponents of neo liberalism to untangle the global economy from the complicated and avoidable mess that it finds itself in today. And the most realistic manner in which such a liberating deed is by a thorough, clinical and candid reassessment, reevaluation and review of some of the myopic and jaundiced policies being practiced today.