Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lewis Galantière (Translator)

Exupery

Winner of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is universally acknowledged as one of the most popular books on flying. However to cloister this indispensable Palmarium within the narrow confines of aviation would tantamount to causing absolute injustice, for Exupery’s work is a book on courage, confidence, catharsis and above all a memorable exploration of the very essence of being alive.

In 1926, Antoine de Saint-Exupery enrolled himself as a student airline pilot with the Latecoere Company, the pre-cursor to Aeropostale (now Air France). He was entrusted with the operation of the line between Tolouse in Southwestern France, and Dakar, in then French West Africa. Exupery chronicles in precise detail and perfect verve, his experiences as an airline pilot responsible for carrying passengers and air mail over skies that are at times benevolent and at others brooding; over mountains that are at once malevolent and magnificent and over landscapes barren and breathtaking. Exupery’s respect and reverence for the predictable performance of his craft as well as the unpredictable behavior of the elements of Nature forms the crux and core of the book. Even when being buffeted against raging storm winds and being tossed around in his flight like a ragged doll, Exupery neither traduces the gale force winds nor tamely surrenders to its treacherous demands. He just flies his conveyance in a matter of fact manner riding what he views as a temporary discomfiture – an elongated hiccup almost!

Exupery during the course of his tryst with the Latecoere Company was exposed not only to awe inspiring wonders of nature but also to the anguish and agony of humanity. These were the times when slavery was still an acceptable societal more and the story of a slave commonly known as Bark who was until his paid release (courtesy of Exupery and his friends magnanimity) in the captivity of the nomadic Moors, makes for some introspective, beautiful and rejoicing reading. Freedom we understand is not merely the release from physical chains but the very unshackling of a desolate soul struggling to find its deserved place under the rays of a bright and radiant sun.

Exupery instills in the reader an encouraging faith in humanity and a perennial belief in hope by recounting his near death experience following a crash that found Exupery and his navigator Prevot in the middle of a vast and scorching African desert. Lack of water and food, exhaustion, the outcome of mindless wandering, myriad mirages, a combination of heat and hunger, all but made certain that the two aviators would soon mingle in body, soul and spirit with the sands of the desert in the perennial sleep of life. The miraculous appearance of two inquisitive Bedouins however ensured that the contrivance of fate had kept the Grim Reaper at bay.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a book of hope, humility and humanity. It is a tribute to the ceaseless symbiosis between Man and Nature; life and death; and agony and ecstasy. It is Exupery’s amazement at both the constructive and destructive facets of mankind, as what has been painstakingly nurtured by a pair of hands comes for some wanton destruction by yet another pair of identical hands. It is a precious lesson for all homo sapiens to view with benediction what they have been bestowed with – a chance opportunity to experience life in a wide expanse termed Planet Earth.

On the 31st of July, 1944, Antoine de Saint Exupery took off in an unarmed P-38 on his ninth reconnaissance mission from an airbase on Corsica. To the great consternation of the squadron compatriots who revered him, he did not return, dramatically vanishing without a trace. The wind, sand and stars which was so dear to this magnificent literary genius had claimed him for their own deciding that he was now for and of the elements. Exupery met his end doing what he loved doing the most – sailing serenely, with the skies above, the sea below and the wind all around him for tranquil company. But not before imparting to us a few invaluable, indelible and inextinguishable tenets of life.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 23 ALPHABET W)

The Hip Flask

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(Photo Credit:  Matt Bowden on Unsplash)

Uncorking the top of his reliable hip flask, Venky tilted back his head and in a swift and surreptitious gesture downed a generous swig of Scotch before quickly replacing the lid and putting the flask back to its rightful place. This practiced maneuver was until the past one year not even a possibility let alone a habit. Things had changed in an impromptu, impetuous and imploding manner, just like the trajectory of the roller coaster he was witnessing. This particular one was a bright green elevated railroad track designed with tight turns, steep slopes, and the inevitable inversions. There were yellow multiple cars for the brave hearted to buckle themselves into before they screamed and shrieked.

Tight turns, steep slopes and unpredictable inversions. Venky did not even know why he deposited himself in this park every week vacantly gazing at the upturned hollering homo sapiens. He never purchased a ticket himself. He just placed himself directly underneath the biggest roller coaster and as the railroad track spun, weaved, wobbled, and rocketed before coming to a shuddering halt, watched the movement with unblinking eyes. There was a void in those eyes and a vacuum in his heart.

But he was used to roller coasters without riding one. Ash, his own, personal and unrepentant roller coaster. On a blisteringly hot April day, she left him. Left him to navigate tight turns, negotiate steep slopes and reconcile with inversions.

Unlike the temporary yelling crowd above him, he had to do this daily!

(Word Count: 246)

#TellTaleThursday with Anshu & Priya

For more stories for the week, please click HERE

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

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Written by Evelyn Waugh in 1930, “Vile Bodies” is a scathing indictment of a decadent society that ran amok in London during the intervening period between the two World Wars. The excesses indulged in by the ‘bright young’ (as Waugh prefers to address the boisterous and raucous youth) ranged from various bouts of inebriation to profligate employment of resources. Evelyn Waugh’s stunningly sarcastic style cock snooks at this derisive bunch of ‘Vile Bodies’ who go about their revelry in a completely indifferent and unfettered manner.

Adam Fenwick-Symes is a struggling young novelist who aspires to attain fame and fortune with the publication of his autobiography. His dreams however literally go up in flames as subsequent to a tormenting boat ride to Dover, an asinine Customs Officer burns his final manuscript on the grounds of it containing incendiary material unsuitable for the palate of the English populace. To make matters more complicated, Adam is hopelessly in love with an inveterate socialite Nina Blount, the charming daughter of the forgetful Colonel Blount. Adam’s marriage with Nina depends upon Adam ascending the ladder of affluence sooner rather than later. How Adam goes about this seemingly impossible proposition forms a bulk of this laugh riot.

The frenzied procession of eccentric characters is sure to leave the reader in fits of unhinged laughter; the imposing evangelist Mrs.Melrose Ape and her retinue of girls named Chastity; Discontent; Fortitude etc. the tragically comic Agatha Runcible; a bevy of party animals all entertained by the ever obliging Ms.Lottie all coalesce to create a magnificent mayhem of chaos, confusion and cacophony. Every page is soaked with irreverent wit which at first proceeds to highlight before thoroughly demolishing the notions of impudent vanity. The fact that Evelyn Waugh was himself going through a bout of contrasting emotions (as revealed by himself in the preface to the book) is starkly evident from a reading of his work as the plot is a cleaved creation of two halves. What begins as a rib-tickler transforms into an apogee of apocalyptic tribute to greed, vanity and pretentiousness.

Waugh dazzles with his extraordinary style of narration and impeccable sense of humour. The telephone conversations between Adam and Nina, forming part of a few passages in the book are a veritable work of unrivaled art. The struggles of the Vile Bodies as they desperately try to confine themselves within an elusive moral compass, only to fail and plunge themselves willingly into a whorl of decadence is captured with breathtaking clarity by Evelyn Waugh. Although “Vile Bodies” does not join Waugh’s “Scoop”; “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” as 3 of the 100 greatest works of the Century, it’s absence is more of an aberration than a deliberate excision. For this is a book that deserves to read, re-read and guffawed over until one’s jaws ache with the effort!

Unguarded: My Autobiography by Jonathan Trott with George Dobell

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While some autobiographies constitute an exercise in monotonous trumpeting of the self, there are some that traverse the path of introspection. However rare are the ones that lend a clear perspective regarding life itself. Jonathan Trott and George Dobell have successfully written a book, which, although primarily revolves around the game of cricket, transcends the sporting arena, to touch a raw and uncompromising nerve. The confluence of sport and mental pressure is a subject that has unfortunately and undeservedly not received the coverage and visibility that it deserves. The assiduousness of Marcus Trescothik’s moving autobiography being an outstanding exception. Trott and Dobell however have taken a huge step in the right direction with “Unguarded”.

For a substantial period of time, Jonathan Trott was the undisputed spine of the English batting line up, shoring responsibilities galore. He blunted many a fierce bowling attack, standing firm like a Colossus at the batting crease. Trott was a veritable mendicant unaffected by either cause or consequence and unmoved by neither circumstance nor calamity. He was the perfect ascetic amongst batsmen, whose concentration remained firmly cloistered between the 22 yards that was his home and his possessed turf. When this formidable monk however lost his preternatural Mojo in the year 2013 in an Ashes series Down Under, things turned ugly. Serene calmness metamorphosed into roiling confusion and the art of batting was but an architecture collapsing without reason. Within two years Jonathan Trott’s international career was done and dusted. What was it that led to this extraordinary tumble from a pinnacle that was scaled with patience, purpose and perseverance?

(Jonathan Trott’s sublime Boxing Day Test ton at Melbourne in 2010. Courtesy: You Tube)

Trott and Dobell tackle the reasons underlying the downfall of Jonathan Trott as a batsman head on without mincing words or professing a litany of excuses. In the process, they demonstrate with clarity and lucidity the fact that while cricket or any other chosen career may be for a livelihood, it need not be for life. Trott’s debilitating state of mind and progressive deterioration for the love of the game reveals more than what meets the eye. It also serves as a clarion call for all those involved in the game, players, management and the pundits alike to sit up and take note of an indispensable facet which although seeming extraneous to the game is a integral part of the very heart of the sport. The authors elucidate the pompous and impetuous manner in which the words “mental make-up” is used to describe alternatively the success and failure of a cricketer instead of trying to understand the emotional state of mind of the man behind a helmet or a player rushing into the popping crease with a cherry. The nonexistence of a support infrastructure that fails to initially recognize player anxiety and consequently to treat the same with care and caution has led to the pristine game of cricket treading dangerous grounds.

The courage displayed by Jonathan Trott in bringing his sordid story to the whole world is to put it mildly, exemplary. While he might not have achieved the heights which the whole cricketing world expected him to achieve as a world renowned Number 3, he has certainly distinguished himself from being a mere cricketer to an extraordinary human being. In this he has succeeded beyond all imaginable measures. On a personal note, “Unguarded” landed in my hands only a couple of days after I met with a horrific automobile accident. The taxi by which I was travelling with a couple of colleagues (and driven by a particularly reckless driver) crashed head on into an oncoming vehicle leaving me with a shattered femur, dislocation and compound fractures of the hip. Six hours of emergency surgery later, I lay in bed with aching limbs and creaking bones or rather broken ones. Only a book could have diverted the focus off the pain and it was Trott’s biography that I resorted to. Where I was seeking relief, I got succor and where I was seeking sympathy (involuntarily) I received a morale boosting dose of strength. More than everything else I clearly realized the full import of the word – perspective.

For this I thank Jonathan Trott and George Dobell!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 21 ALPHABET U)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean Dominique Bauby

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Jean Dominique Bauby was a former journalist whose career stints included working for the likes of the Quotidien de Paris and Paris Match. He was also a very well acclaimed editor of Elle for four years ending December 1995, before fate decided to intervene in a cold, ruthless and merciless manner.  On the 8th of December 1995, Bauby while driving his son in a gun metal BMW suffered a massive stroke. Waking up 20 days later, in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital, Berck-Sur-Mer, Bauby was left to reconcile with his circumstances. Diagnosed with what is known as the Locked-in Syndrome, Bauby’s entire gamut of physical faculties was restricted to merely blinking his left eyelid. While his mental faculties remained unimpaired, he lay paralysed. In the first 20 weeks after his stroke he lost a whopping 27 kilograms. He was all of 45.

Instead of being mentally traumatized and ravaged by his plight, Bauby decided to take the contrivance of fate and circumstances head on and the result is an eviscerating, extraordinary and effervescent memoir that leaves an indelible mark on every reader. What is most incredible about this small book evocatively titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – a paean to the contrasting plight of a body rigidly locked in as though it was within a diving bell as against a mind which was free to flutter around like an unconstrained butterfly – is the technique employed to pen it. Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head. Blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again employing a technique called partner-assisted scanning, he dictated the whole book one letter at a time. Bauby’s interlocutor, Claude Mendibil listed the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an ode to optimism, a tribute to acceptance and a complement to reconciliation. When bogged down by burdens dire, the wont is generally to take refuge in and recourse to ecumenism. Not Bauby though. Going against the expected and prosaic grain, Bauby lets loose his thoughts and imagination in an unfettered whorl which can only be termed liberating. Juxtaposing morbid humour with magnificent narrative, Bauby accomplishes the incredulous task of virtually disconnecting and detaching himself from his motionless body and looking at himself with a mixture of curiosity and candour. Roaming the corridors of the hospital in his wheel chair he immerses himself in sights and sounds that evoke both enthusiasm and exasperation. For example, he terms the temporary occupants of the physiotherapy segment of the hospital, ‘tourists’. “Elsewhere a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sports, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accidents, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes their shattered limbs working again. I call them ‘tourists’.”  These ‘tourists’ with shattered limbs are also reduced to a state of awkwardness upon sighting Bauby with his rigid and immobile limbs, as he lies in a state of suspension tethered to an inclined board, which is slowly raised to a vertical position. “I would like to be a part of all this hilarity, but as soon as I direct my one eye toward them, the young man, the grandmother and the homeless man turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke-detector. The ‘tourists’ must be very worried about the fire.”

There are moments of seraphic poignancy and sobriety in the book. The chapter where Bauby recollects the last time he met his aging father before his accident, and gave him a shave leaves absolutely no room for a single dry eye. Just take a deep breath, read through the following paragraph in silence and ruminate over it:

“I complete my barber’s duties by splashing my father with his favourite after shave lotion. Then we say, goodbye, this time for once, he neglects to mention the letter in his writing-desk where his last wishes are set out. We have not seen each other since. I cannot quit my sea-side confinement. And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year old legs. We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way; myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment. Now I am the one they shave every morning…”

Multiple passages identical to the one reproduce above dot the landscape of this magnificent book. Jean Dominique Bauby’s normal, run-of-the-mill, taken-for-granted routines might have come to a shuddering end on the 8th of December, 1995. But he did not allow this damning calamity to dull his life. He lived, loved and laughed with more vivacity, verve and voluptuousness. Most importantly he lived with a sedate sense of fulfillment that cocked a snook at adversity if not downright showing it the finger.

We would all do exceedingly well to imbibe even a faint whiff of Bauby’s undying spirit, unyielding passion and undiminished courage.

Note:

The book was published in France on 7 March 1997 to resounding success. However Bauby did not live long to bask in its glory. Contracting pneumonia all of a sudden, Bauby died just two days after the publication of his book. He is put to rest in a family grave at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France. A movie adaptation of Bauby’s book was also released to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.  Nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the movie’s Director Julian Schnabel bagged the Best Director award.

 

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations – Thomas L. Friedman

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Just as I was coursing through the final two Chapters of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, a brazen group of white supremacists engaged in a violent clash with nationalists in Charlotsville V.A in the United States. Nazi salutes and Ku Klux Klan tenets strode side by side as bigotry, hatred and discrimination raised their ugly heads. The whole charade finally culminated, but not before a demented driver ploughed his car into the banks of protesters killing one. It also did not help that an inherently abrasive and innately abusive President issued a note of condemnation that was extraordinarily reluctant and barely perceptible.

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(White Nationalists marching in Charlotsville. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

There could not have been a more vivid contrast between the values espoused by Friedman in his book and the causes which the protestors in Charlotsville were so unashamedly saturated with. While Friedman calls for inclusivity, embracing diversity and a collegial relationship between the State and its citizens, the white supremacists of Charlotsville demanded racial segregation, discrimination and a bigoted division based on caste, creed, colour and country. This paradigmatic clash of contradictions reflects in no small manner the crossroads at which the world finds itself in this 21st Century. It is this very fork to the end of which Friedman takes us in his very important book.

In this part memoir, part introspection, Friedman identifies three major forces that are currently accelerating and consequently shaping the contours of how an inextricably connected humanity thinks and acts. These three contending and cascading forces are Moore’s Law, Markets and Mother Nature.

While technology has taken quantum leaps with significant breakthroughs littering and embellishing the realms of Artificial Intelligence and Genome mapping, it has also percolated top down empowering every individual desirous of being so empowered. In Friedman’s words, technology is now “fast, free and ubiquitous” and also “fast, free, easy for you and invisible”. When Gordon Moore first formulated his now ubiquitous law – doubling the power of microchips every two years but at a lower cost – it sounded an incredulous proposition. However as Friedman points out: “if you took Intel’s first generation microchip from 1971, the 4004, and the latest chip Intel has on the market today, the sixth generation Intel Core processor, you will see that Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient, and is about 60,000 times lower in cost”.

The Accelerating Moore’s Law also creates a ripple effect on the markets. Using high fibre optic cables, traders now compete for advantages that are measured in nano seconds as millions are made or lost depending upon the vagaries of technology. A rogue trader sitting in London can manipulate the stocks and futures indices functioning thousands of miles away in Chicago or New York and instigate an episode of dances macabres.

Finally the accelerating technology and markets have a colossal impact on Mother Nature as her occupants exploit mercilessly her finite resources in the name of development. Friedman relies on the words of the London based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan who describes global warming as a “black elephant”. According to Sweidan, a black elephant “is a cross between a black swan – a rare, low probability, unanticipated event with enormous ramifications – and the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet that no one wants to address, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast black swam like consequences”
After describing these three unavoidable forces of change, Friedman mulls over the challenges faced by mankind in adapting to this change. The time taken for adapting oneself to such a change is inversely proportional to the speed at which the change itself is being unleashed upon us. Friedman is of the opinion that for the consequences of a new technology to be completely absorbed by the users it would take at least 15 years from the advent of such a technology. But by the time the consequences are deciphered the technology would have ceased to become relevant, being swallowed up by an even newer and enhanced version. Thus adaptability will always be in a catch up mode!

In the second half of the book, Friedman proposes a few nuggets of prescriptive wisdom by which we can not only withstand the accelerating change but also exploit it to make the world a much better, simpler and amicable place to live in. He takes us to his childhood and growing up years in St Louise Park in Minnesota where there was fostered a culture of openness, amiability, cordiality, compassion, equality and acceptance. Banking on an African adage which states that ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’, Friedman passionately makes a case for communities to imbibe responsibility and assume the role of change agents. Using a mixture of top down and bottom up approaches, ordinary citizens and policy makers need to work in tandem to ensure that issues of raging importance such as education, infrastructure and gender equality are given the right degree of attention that they so desperately and richly deserve.

If at all I have any reservations about Friedman’s fantastic book, it is that it is too very inclusive. Although a citizen of the world in its truest and pure sense, I get this unassailable feeling that “Thank You For Being Late” is more for The United States of America in exclusion to the rest of the world. Since the changes of acceleration equally impact every corner of the globe (in some regions the impact is materially greater than that faced by America), I would have expected Friedan to offer a holistic and global perspective.

Then again with a vicious, unthinking, deranged and demented demagogue now at the helm of affairs in the United States, it is the citizens of this world super power who are in dire need of Friedman’s prescriptions. Meanwhile the Neo Nazis still carry on uninhibited expecting to TRUMP….

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 20 ALPHABET T)

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 by Antony Beevor

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Read this only if you have nerves of steel, a temporarily hardened heart and a strong stomach! Stalingrad will go down in history as one of the epochal and seminal books ever penned on the subject of war. With the publication of this tour de force, Antony Beevor has firmly cemented his place as one of the greatest military historians of all time.

Squalor and Sacrifice; Daredevilry and Desertion; Hubris and Hindsight; Massacre and Munificence engage in a joust of hear rending and gut wrenching contradictions as in a prose – that is as ruthlessly unsparing as the happenings on the vast and desolate steppes of the former Soviet Union – Beevor brings to life one of the bloodiest and brutal battles ever fought in the history of armed conflicts. On Sunday the 22nd of June, 1941, the sycophant-perceived-to-be-a-savant Adolf Hitler launched his most ambitious and pride fueled assault ‘Operation Barbarossa’ (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) invading the intimidating territory of the former Soviet Union. This act was primarily the consequence of a demented ideology that had as its backbone, an irrational desire to subjugate and conquer the Western Soviet Union, not to mention the plans to annex the oil resources in the Causcasus. This invasion was carried out by over four million Axis personnel along a 2,900-kilometer front, thereby representing the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, the Wehrmacht employed some 600,000 motor vehicles and between 600,000 and 700,000 horses.

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(The Battle of Stalingrad. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Braving both the unforgiving elements of a biting cold winter and the undying, unbending and unyielding resilience of the Soviet Forces, the German Army in-spite of experiencing a spate of initial triumphs was left to fend for itself in a ruinous state. The huge mass of the much vaunted Sixth Army with their formidable Panzer Divisions were encircled in a pincer like movement by their adversaries. This ‘Kesselring’ or the cauldron ultimately sounded the death knell of the hapless soldiers ravaged by starvation, ripped apart by enemy artillery and riddled with a plethora of deadly diseases like typhus and malaria. However the most insidious killer of them all was the dreaded frost bite which led to the unfortunate soldier losing both life and limb. Antony Beevor dazzles in recounting this fateful Siege of the city named after the Great Russian dictator. Beevor’s research leaves no stone unturned and its meticulousness leaves one gasping and gawking in astonishment. Beevor chronicles with impeccable precision the dire consequences of a mindless battle waged between a psychopath and a despot. The fall out of such an ominous clause could only be calamitous for the warriors plunging headlong into a vortex of death and devastation. Beevor describes in painstaking detail some of the cruelest acts ever perpetrated by man against his fellow human beings. The heartless butchery of captured Prisoners Of War, wanton rape of women and the merciless slaughter of children as young as four years old leaves an indescribably disturbing impression on the reader. The harsh realities of war such as being forced to be clad in lice infested clothing for days together without the prospect of a wash or warming one’s palms by the warmth generated from one’s own relieving depicts in no small detail the perils of aimless aggression and greedy ambition.

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(Battle of Stalingrad as captured by the State Panorama Museum. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Beevor demonstrates his mastery of the genre of his choosing in every page, every line and in every sentence. ‘Stalingrad’ is the closest one can come to experiencing the horror that was the preserve of millions of young and old men and women who were involuntarily pitted against one another in a frightening war of attrition. The urge to annihilate solely due to the desire of preventing being annihilated portrays the meaningless consequence of unbridled pride and unexplained motives. Cannibalism and consumption of carcasses represented just two of the desperate measures resorted to by the starving German soldiers to ward off the steady and unrelenting advances of the Grim Reaper.

When the dust finally settled and the Commander of the Sixth Army, Friedrich Paulus, finally laid down his arms, the damage caused by the Siege of Stalingrad had become incalculable. In addition to the millions dead and missing, a humongous mass of civilian population of Stalingrad, consisting mainly of women and children were laid to utter waste. Mass destruction of property and razing down industrial establishments left a once imperious city in unrecognizable ruins. However what remained intact and consequently proved indestructible was the indomitable Russian Pride.

A pride that could only be paid homage to by the work of Antony Beevor!

Stalingrad – MONUMENTAL!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 19 ALPHABET S)