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Out of the delirium

It has been a long time. My mains exams are over. And all other mundane official work and shuttling to and from Kolkata. Blogposts have been long overdue. I have taken to writing short stories, which I wish to but I can’t publish here.

The winter may not have been cold enough, but it was all gloom, with ailments and disappointments, as if dementors were breeding.

This is my last attempt. I lack the perseverance and patience and stamina for another gruelling mains exam. I have been so exhausted after this one that I have stopped expecting anything about the results, and right now, concentrating only in reading books and writing.

And it is best not to expect.

Of anything. From anyone. Said many a wise men.

 

Books. The only solace. I have completed Anne of Green Gables series by L.M Montgomery, finished the fourth book of George R. R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and The Storyteller’s Tale by Omair Ahmed. Now, I have begun with The Far Pavillions by M. M Kaye.

Anne series ended tragically with one of Anne and Gilbert’s sons, Walter, an aspiring poet, dying in the First World War. It reminded me of Wilfred Owen.

Omair Ahmed’s book is a fantastic rendering of different persons telling and retelling the same tale. A short yet profound novella, it explores facets of diverse emotions from the eyes of various narrators.

George R. R Martin’s series portrays various characters in a world of Westeros and Essos teeming with various houses and lords and castles fighting over the possession of the Iron Throne. There are intrigues and conspiracies, and no character is purely good or bad. Everyone is endowed with a hamartia that brings about his or her fall. There are dragons and white walkers (kind of zombies), mysterious priests/priestesses and savage tribes, and yet I feel the world portrayed is no different from our world. If you think otherwise, just think about the Peshawar carnage. Once I complete the fifth book, I plan to write a complete post on this series.

 

With this post, I hope to break out of the delirium.

P.S: Some happy tidings. A batchmate from the economics department and a junior from my department of college have together published a poetry book called Prelude to the Horizon. Kudos to you Arindam and Monami.🙂

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Tales from beyond the Indus

I noticed that I am lagging miserably in my Goodreads challenge of reading 36 books this year (I guess I was too complacent about my reading speed). And it has been too long since I wrote about books, so this post is about two books that I completed in the last two weeks.

The first one is Raiders from the North, the first book of Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford (penname of Michael and Diana Preston). The book is based on the life of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. A convincing piece of historical fiction, it is adapted from Baburnama with precise details of dates and events. However, it is not just about history. Reminiscent of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s treatment of history, the authors take the liberty to introduce a few imaginary characters to capture the zeitgeist of medieval times.

More than Babur’s victories and defeats and power struggles with the external enemies, it is also about his internal conflict as he feels burdened by destiny. From childhood, he hears the tales of his glorious ancestors Timur and Genghis and sees his father wallowing in self-pity of having failed Timur. With the death of his father Umar Shaikh Mirza, Babur ascends the throne of Ferghana at twelve.  Babur’s ambitions are fuelled by the astute Esan Dawlat, his maternal grandmother. She narrates the history of Genghis Khan and guides Babur in taking the right decisions even in the face of adversities. It is inspiring to see a lady of Esan Dawlat’s character in the medieval times, a shrewd judge of both politics of the times and human nature. Later on, Babur’s sister Khanzada takes up the role of Esan Dawlat as she guides Kamran in ruling Kabul while Babur and Humayun battle it out in the plains of Hindustan. It is interesting to see ladies of these times, who despite being severely limited in terms of freedom, are so resilient and strong in the face of adversities and so knowledgeable about the affairs of the state.

The setting of the story revolves around the quaint Ferghana and the glorious Samarkand in the beginning of the story and later shifts to the rugged, stony Hindukush mountains with dangerous crevices and ravines and arduous passes and the beautiful pomegranate gardens of Kabul and finally to the hot, dusty plains of Hindustan and Delhi with its magnificent structures of red sandstone. Babur has a strange yearning for Ferghana despite winning Samarkand, and later a longing for Samarkand. A sense of failure works within him throughout his life as he thinks wistfully of Samarkand, a city he failed to keep despite conquering. Despite conquering Hindustan, he never feels a sense of belonging to the place and wishes to be buried in the gardens of Kabul which he had laid. He tries to satiate his desires for Samarkand by beautifying Kabul. Babur’s descriptions of Hindustan are interesting, as India is shown from the eyes of a foreigner marvelling at its wonders. Things that we have taken for granted are suddenly shown in a different light. He misses pomegranates and melons of Kabul and yet is awed by the beauty of bright red tropical flowers blooming around. The heat of Hindustan distresses him, yet he stares with awe at the customs of the people here and tries to understand them.  It shows both the cruel and humane side of Babur, kind and patient with men of courage while boiling with fury towards men who show the slightest signs of betrayal.

This book also enlightens about the workings of the mind of a ruler. Babur uses all kinds of strategies to motivate his soldiers and resorts to using religion when he needs to. He is a shrewd commander who knows how to rouse his men to war. The book reminded me how since ancient times, men of such calibre have driven fellow men to war by manipulating their emotions. Be it the famous conquerors of yesteryears or the wily politicians of today, all use prevailing sentiments to provoke people into action, who often follow up without thinking.

The second book is called The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, a Pakistani civil servant who worked in the remote areas of Baluchistan, Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He captures the essence of nomadic life of these remote heartlands through a series of nine short stories all linked by the character of Tor Baz, the falcon who wanders about, without a nest. The stories do not directly relate to the protagonist, but he is always there in the fringes of each story. It reminded me of Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which too follows a similar pattern.

The stories are more about the people of these areas, showing both the pros and cons of life of the tribes, torn between two nations and how the imposition of state machinery impoverishes them and interferes with their life. Despite being a telling depiction of troubles created by the post-colonial overdeveloped state. Alongside, it shows the obsolete practices of the tribes, the plight of the women who search for any agency available to escape, the prevalence of honour killings and other ugly truths. The new fate is accepted with resilience despite the strains of nostalgia. The fortitude of the people living in a barren land, their struggle for survival and their simple wisdom is admirable, which I find lacking in most ‘educated’ people of today.

When a child asks an old man, how he grew so old, the man replied it was raw onions. “What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.”

Or for example, the eccentric character of Mullah Barrerai who acknowledges that he does not believe in the fables of Paradise, but narrates them only to soothe the plights of people who have nothing. “These are not lies. These stories are like ointment, meant for healing, or like a piece of ice in the summer, with which water in a glass is cooled.” Then there are men like Sardar Karim Khan who has doubts about the efficacy of conscience. “…do not talk to me of conscience. What kind of a guide is it when it comforts the evil man in his labours no less willingly than another who struggles against wrong. Never have I seen a man truly troubled by his conscience. Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house. It has to remain cheerful at all times for fear of being thrown out. Our cause is right, because we think it is right—but never depend on conscience, yours or another man’s.” This one reminded me of the lines of The Second Coming about how ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

There are instances of wry humour. When a poor man names his daughter Shah Zarina, the author remarks, “In these mountain areas, the poorer the family, the more high-sounding names it gave its children.”

The tales move from the arid sands of Baluchistan to the jagged peaks of Chitral interspersed with clear mountain brooks flowing across pebbly beds and melting glaciers. The locale is drawn adroitly to show both the beauty and ferocity of the terrain, qualities which seem to have seeped into the character of the people inhabiting these lands.

Tor Baz is not just the protagonist but a symbol of the pastoral life here. Orphaned as a child, he travels from village to village, associates with different kinds of people and finally decides to settle down, symbolising that way of wanderings must come to an end and the tribes too must settle down and adapt to the structures of the state.

 

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Treasures discovered

 

My first attempt and first failure

‘Dil na umeed toh nahin , nakaam hi toh hain/ Lambi hain gham ki sham magar sham hi to hain’
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This one is a self-introspection post. A reminder to awake me from the complacency whenever I feel lazy. I had worked hard for the civil services examination and yet could not make it, falling 46 marks short of the cut-off. I had not expected to make it this time because I wasn’t satisfied with my mains examination and my fears were true, I had just marginally passed the mains. Although close, I shall not sugar-coat it, a miss is as good as a mile. And it hurts.

I am now aware of my strengths and my weaknesses, and can channelize my hard work better this time. I can pull off an impromptu essay pretty well and my understanding of ancient and medieval Indian history is something I am happy about. And now for my faults.

1. I had not written enough answers for practice

2. Piling up newspaper cuttings which I could not revise properly

3. I had planned to finish the syllabus before beginning revision. The syllabus is so vast that it never finishes off. I need to revise simultaneously as I read.

I am sorry to disappoint all those who ardently wished for my success. My parents, Suvro Sir, my dear cousin Moonie, my dear friends, especially Pritam, Suchandra, Paulami, Vaagisha, Reeti, Saurabh, Shishir, Shikha, Rajarshi and a few others ( I am sorry if I miss out any of you :-P) and most of my relatives. Among the ones mentioned last, there were many who discouraged me as well. I shall get back to you when I succeed, now I do not have much to say. For the rest, I shall strive hard to succeed this time and mention all of you again next year in my Oscar speech.🙂 My special thanks to Sir for taking out time and painstakingly preparing me for the interview, where I was confident and happy with my performance. I hope to better it next year.

I did not want to include the following part. But suddenly, there has been a spurt of ‘friend’ requests on Facebook, all wanting to know the secret recipe for cracking civils.

To all those who have been asking me about tips to crack this examination, I am sorry that I have no such tips since I couldn’t crack it. I can only share my experience.

My preliminary examinations had gone well so I hoped to crack it. I had studied NCERT textbooks (history, geography, political science, economics) of Class XI and XII (available here), India Year Book by Publications Division, General Studies Manual by TMH and the Economic Survey (in full). The Year Book and the Economic Survey are very boring to read, but I had completed them. For paper II of prelims, I had only solved previous years’ question papers. I am good at English comprehension and also reasonably good at reasoning and data interpretation and basic mathematics. If you are not, you may require more practice. Do not follow me blindly, judge on your own.

The mains examination had a completely different pattern this time. I scored dismally in General Studies, so I do not know how to prepare it. I am myself trying to figure out the right method. You may check this website, which provides numerous topper interviews that can guide you better. For my history optional, I read Bipan Chandra’s books on modern India, Satish Chandra for medieval India, IGNOU notes and DN Jha for ancient India, Jain and Mathur and LN Mukherjee and IGNOU notes for World History. IGNOU notes are available in the egyankosh.ac.in website and also in College Street. I did not attend any coaching or mock tests because it is difficult for me to travel and stay in Delhi/Kolkata. I like to study at home and self-study makes me more confident than coaching. I have always been against tuition since childhood. However, it may not suit everyone, so do not blindly follow, I repeat. I read The Hindu daily and Yojana and Kurukshetra magazines. Check Publications Division’s website for the procedure to subscribe them. You can get previous years’ question papers and syllabus in the UPSC website. That’s all I can tell you as of now. If I succeed this year, I may give you the details of GS preparation next year.

A piece of advice: Please go for it only if you have a strong desire and not just a plain whim. Chalk out your own strategy assessing what you are good at. To each, his own.

And now all that haunted me put to rest. Back to my books.🙂

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2014 in Life and Times

 

‘I had a dream’

“Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”

― George R.R. Martin

I used to believe in this statement. Not any more.
(The first part, I mean. I am a die-hard crusader for fantasy fiction. Period.)

The last three months have been quite eventful for me. I discovered that I am ending up doing things I had never imagined myself doing ever. I have stumbled upon Joycean epiphanies in unexpected corners, which have both made and marred my joy. Mostly, I have been happy, and hence, I am not complaining.

From fabulously spun yarns to pretty castles in the air, from whispers that I chanced to hear to the seeming matters of consequence that I was prodded about, I conclude that grown-ups are an amusing species.

And that reality and fiction are too close to be separated. I had no doubts about it, but this time what I experienced was too direct. I did not expect that things can be so similar. That reality can turn out to be so fantastic and fiction so real.

Do dreams really become smaller? If taken literally, yes. But what about the joy that comes with it? Isn’t it the philosopher’s stone that changes the drab colours of reality into gold and azure?  Is it the length of the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality that makes the dreams smaller? But that’s for hollow men, who perhaps have a wrong vision. When the sun is at its peak, the shadow disappears. The elation itself turns the dreary parking garage into the ancient ruins of a vanquished fortress. Glimmers of fantasy are already entwined in reality.

Sadly, the reverse is true as well. The wings did melt. And Icarus fell.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Life and Times, Uncategorized

 

‘The mind-forg’d manacles I hear’

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
– W. B. Yeats

I was a feisty eleven-year-old rebel in that winter afternoon. The winter sun shone down temptingly in the garden and the terrace. But all had given the afternoon siesta a miss. So had I. We were all glued to the TV. Doordarshan. A test match was in progress. Indian batsmen were at the crease. A few more runs needed to defeat the archrivals- Pakistan. Sachin was in excellent form.

Prayers were being whispered. Someone swore as another wicket fell. The theatrical voice of the Hindi commentators rang across the room and beyond. In the street outside. Only puppies frolicked in the sun out there, oblivious of the drama unfolding in the drawing rooms.

I was huddled in a corner of the sofa. My mother had just called me a ‘traitor’. Deshodrohi. The word stung me. I had a hundred questions, but I preferred to remain quiet. Poker-faced. My intent eyes were fixed on the screen. A day ago, the flamboyant Shahid Afridi, who had stolen my 11-year-old heart, had scored a blitzkrieg century. I was praying to all the gods whose names I knew among our thirty-three crore-strong pantheon. For Saqlain Mushtaq. For the victory of Pakistan.

To everyone’s dismay, the gods chose to answer my prayers. Sachin fell after scoring a brilliant 136, to Saqlain’s off-spin. India needed only 17 to win. But the tail-enders couldn’t pull it through. Pakistan won by 12 runs.

Sighs of disappointment hovered in the air. Only I pranced around in joy as the Pakistani team celebrated the win. I refused to turn off the television as a smiling Wasim Akram congratulated his boys. My mother repeated the word again. Deshodrohi. Traitor.

I hadn’t known what it meant then. Nor the differences. What made them ‘them’ and what made us ‘us’.

A few months later, before I turned twelve, there was Kargil. Images of war flashed on the same screen during news hour.

It has been almost 15 years since that winter. I am much wiser today. Now, I know.

Or do I?

I remain indifferent to outcomes of cricket matches between the two nations.

But…

Conditioned by History, I have lost my innocence.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in The Age of Innocence

 

Why I do not like The Fountainhead

Seldom do I feel like launching a tirade after reading a book. But after reading about 700 pages of The Fountainhead, my temper has flared up and I need to give a vent to it. I have read the book a month ago, but every time I see it on my bookshelf, my temper flares up. More when I see the Objectivist movement in the internet.

This book had figured in the top charts of all my book-lover friends except one. One of them feels that it is a book that can alter everything one has believed. One feels that it is immensely inspiring and has read it six times or more! Two of them have been bowled over by the austere charm of Howard Roark. So when I began to read it, I had great expectations. But I was utterly disappointed. May be I am too old for the book.

I would make it clear that I am no Marxist, I do not believe equality of all can be achieved but I believe that there should be equal opportunities for all. I am a loner and prefer solitude or the company of few to socialising with a large group any day. I was enthralled when a professor told in a class that Joseph Conrad wrote “We live as we dream- alone.” So the book seemed perfect for me, with the back cover saying that it is about the triumph of individualism over socialism.

I agree with individualism to the point that one should set high ideals and ambitions, work hard to achieve one’s fullest potential, not be bogged down by mediocrity, which is often glorified. I believe that one must think independently, instead of blindly following others. I admire Howard Roark’s intense devotion and dedication to his work, the way he forgoes rest and sleep and works till he achieves perfection in the drawings. I admire his determination to move on, not being perturbed by the failures and rejection. The only things I admire about him, and the book.

That is all that I like. And now I don’t know where to begin with what I hate, which one is worse- the philosophy or the literature?

Well, since Rand intended to make it a piece of propaganda, I would consider the philosophy first. I do not believe that a person can live solely by, for and of his own self. Rand’s world is conveniently devoid of babies, because they obviously need someone to nurture them. Even when she shows the past life of her protagonists, both Gail Wynand and Howard Roark are shown as children capable of earning, working at odd jobs. But how did they survive as infants? Even as adults they needed others. An architect needs hundreds of labourers to make his vision come true. How many skyscrapers would Roark build in his lifetime if he had to lay each brick by himself? And the way Gail Wynand runs the Banner. If the editor-in-chief checked every word in every copy of the huge publication house that Rand claims it is, I wonder how the pages of Banner ever reached the press. Aren’t there deadlines in her world? And what about the clients of Roark? How would Roark build if he had no land, labour and capital? And how does one live absolutely by oneself? A person needs food for subsistence and for that he would need to grow crops or hunt animals, all on his own. Are we not dependent in some way to all around us? It is clear that Rand’s philosophy isn’t feasible practically, unless as Aristotle says, one is either a beast or God.

Even from the ideological point of view, she glorifies selfishness when she denounces all acts of charity and kindness. She thinks all those who dedicated their lives to the cause of others have sold their souls. Altruists and philanthropists of all kinds are despicable to her and she preaches for unbridled capitalism. Someone who does something for love, to her, is the basest of all creatures. What if somebody finds happiness in the happiness of others (that’s called mudita, I doubt Rand knew it) , what if others’ pain makes that person empathetic and he works towards a cause for the betterment of other’s lives? To Rand, that person is a vile creature but the one who blows up homes with dynamite because they have some frilly details which do not conform to his conception is the noblest of all. I am sorry, but I can’t buy this logic at all. And I don’t know how anyone with reason and thinking can buy that. Reason and thinking, two things that Rand herself emphasizes on.

Moving on to the next part, reason is man’s only weapon and she has no place for passion. But when Roark works day and night to give form to his ideas, isn’t he driven by the passion to create? And yes, can reason explain all? Kant believed that, “Reason should investigate its own parameters before declaring its omniscience.” But Rand considered Kant a monster! And she writes as if she is omniscient. No wonder her philosophy has generally been rejected or ignored by the academia. And the conservatives pursue it for their own interests.

I do not know why she detests Renaissance architecture so much when she glorifies the heroic in man. Or the way she condemns Oriental philosophy. May be she didn’t know much about either.

And, it is a bad book. It is difficult to read with cumbersome words and I am quite patient when it comes to reading. That’s a bad excuse, I accept.  But I have lot of good ones, too.

I hate didactic books. And here we have one which does not exemplify simple wisdom as in Aesop’s Fables or Panchatantra. Rather, the author tries to shove down her philosophy into the reader’s throats and hammer what she believes to be absolute and true like a nail in the reader’s mind. While reading the book, I felt Rand is Ellsworth Toohey. Like Toohey, she is feeding her philosophy into our minds clothed in high-sounding jargon. Repetitively. Her characters are like Toohey’s gang, who have no life of their own; they are mere marionettes or mouthpieces who say what Rand wants them to say. The plot is inconsequential, so are the characters. None of them develop, except perhaps Gail Wynand, the only character I feel who has a bit of life. They are all a weird bunch of extreme people, painted in pitch black or stark white, with weirder names.

Howard Roark betrays no emotion, no life and rapes a woman who is exactly like him. I don’t know what is so charming about him either. But I wouldn’t argue on that. Ever since I read Gone with the Wind, I find no hero good enough to swoon for except Rhett Butler. I found Darcy too pale. And Roark is nothing but a stone pillar on one of his avant-garde buildings. Ellsworth Toohey is a megalomaniac who wants the world turned into a mediocre’s paradise. Gail Wynand fails to achieve his ideals and succumbs to the ways of the world. Peter Keating is the typical mediocre, a parasite. Dominique Francon is the most frigid of all. She welcomes the rape, and despite loving Roark, writes columns degrading his work and gets married to Peter Keating and then Wynand and then finally calls herself Mrs Roark. I could never identify with this character. In Rand’s world it seems, the heroine is perhaps not supposed to scale the heights of what she can achieve, but rather search for the man who is completely alike her and support him. That’s strange for someone who professes that self-interest should be the sole aim in life. Again, I am no feminist, I just found it strange. I admire heroines like Scarlett O’ Hara and Jane Eyre and Marji in Persepolis much more. Even Elizabeth Bennett, at least, she had some spark.

So that’s why. Because of a bad plot, bad characterisation and bad readability (that’s the term in vogue, I read).

Because even Howard Roark can’t build it alone.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

An attempt at poetry

I consider myself a very prosaic person and although I enjoy reading poetry, I do not think I can ever write one. But then there is Polo. She is attending a creative writing workshop and intends me to slog as well. She insisted that I write spontaneously whatever I can after reading Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats. Since I had read the poem before, I do not know how much spontaneous this one is, but I managed to pen a poem (?) within 15 minutes. The title is Polo’s. Here it goes:

Bride Red

And then was born the bride
The one whose beauty swept away
Men of realms far and wide,
And Tyndareus failed to keep her away
From Paris’s roving eyes,

With that shudder of force, the gods unleashed
The dogs of war in the ancient times
O Fleeting Beauty! It’s a joy when you flourished.
But you’re ugly! For you turn men to crimes
When you are won or lost in prize.
 
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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Uncategorized