Book of the Week

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Title: The Lost World & Other Stories
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Lost World & Other Stories is a collection of five tales of adventure, fantasy and imagination from the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He has created a bunch of characters who people all these stories. The eccentric Professor Challenger and his group of friends live through all the adventures.

The Lost World, first published in 1912, is about an excursion into the wild unknown of South America. They explore a plateau in which dinosaurs, prehistoric man and man exist together. It is exciting and bizarre, wrought with danger and adrenalin. The story also reflects how similarly professors and intellectuals have continued to respond over the decades. It is an excellent study of human nature and an entertaining adventure…man against dinosaur…a much explored theme in Hollywood.

The Poison Belt is about a world in ‘catalepsy’ in Professor Challenger’s words. The whole world is poisoned by a strange ‘ether ‘ and becomes comatose and rigid for a day. The only ones who ‘live‘ to tell the tale are Professor Challenger and his crew. They sit in a room filled with oxygen and watch the world go through a cataleptic seizure. It is a strange tale. What would happen if the whole world died and only five people survived? It is very well written and gripping till the end. The world waking up to normal life is as much a relief to the readers as to the characters in the book.

The Land of Mists is a story of spooks and ghosts. Some have criticised the story for being discursive and spiritual. However, I found it interesting to see how diversely people view afterlife and the act of invoking spirits through mediums. It is a strange tale but, in my opinion, quite entertaining. Objectively, the preachy parts give views which seem rather like the you tube uploads on the Hadron Collider and the doomsday predictions.

The Disintegration Machine is the shortest of all these stories. Challenger traps a scientist in his own disintegration machine which can destroy the world when the scientist, immorally and irresponsibly, tries to sell his machine to the highest bidder, for war. The machine could disintegrate and put back together anything or anybody, even Challenger. The machine as described reminded me of the machines that teleport people in Star Trek. The ones in Star Trek are of course more sophisticated and used constructively for transportation.The interesting dilemma that grips you at the end of this story is, is it right to destroy the destructive so that they cannot harm or annihilate others?

The last is a story called When the World Screamed. This story is truly fantastic where Challenger does an experiment to prove the world is an echinoderm. He drills a deep hole to puncture the Earth and the planet screams for a while. It is an unusual and imaginative theory that all the planets are living that Challenger proves. It is a very compelling read as you really want to know what happens at the end.

Doyle could definitely think out of the box and maintain suspense! The most compelling thing for me is the imagination that has gone forth in the telling of these tales. They have the same flavour as Tintin’s adventures and are related very well. They raise valid questions in one’s mind like : Can the same science be used for construction and destruction? Is taking a life which we cannot return ever justified? Are cultural biases that existed in those days still prevalent today under a different garb?

 

Book of the Week

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Title: Ping-Pong Diplomacy
Author: Nicholas Griffin

Ping-Pong Diplomacy is an eye-opener. The action of the book is like a thriller. The narrative highlights the feeling of terror generated in the course of history. That a sport could be used to bring a country to the fore and to manipulate a whole generation of people is amazing. That a number of countries and politicians, like Nixon and Kissinger, were party  to helping a communist China reintegrate and move forward in history is absolutely astounding. In the author’s own words:

“The real history of table tennis is a bizarre tale of espionage, aggravation, and reconciliation, of murder, of revenge, and exquisite diplomacy.”

The story starts in England with Ivor Montagu, an aristocrat with communist leanings. Griffins writes:

“This is the story of how Ivor Montagu molded the game, and how the Chinese came to embrace it and then shaped it into a subtle instrument of foreign policy. Chairman Mao was fond of quoting ‘Let foreign things serve China.’ Little has served China as effectively as Montagu’s very British game of table tennis.”

Most of the book is located in Mao’s China. One gets a close-up glimpse of what the regime did for the population and the country. Now, after fifty years, the only traces one gets to see of the regime in China are the ‘restored’ monuments and artefacts that had been destroyed by the Red Army. Also, there is an interesting museum in Shanghai that has Red Army books, artefacts and posters.

Table tennis was a part of the ‘cultural history’ of Mao’s China. That sports, like culture, are treated with extreme importance by the country is very well projected in the book. Griffin brings out that winning for the country and not for personal glory is important.

The violence and horror of mob violence is highlighted in the actions of the Red Army. It is truly frightening. The bleakness and violence reminded me of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The suffering of the people for propagating an ideology and an ‘image’ is portrayed in amazing details. It is like a surreal depiction of what goes into making an ideological nation materialise. One also gets to see how China became a major player in world politics over a period of time, how communism and capitalism combined to the benefit of the power brokers of the world and to push nationalism to the fore.

What does come across to me after reading the book is that the politicians worldwide craved for power for the ‘benefit’ of their respective countries. You have China, USA , UK, Pakistan and USSR involved in the politics that pushed world economics and politics into it’s current state. The book is a behind the scenes glimpse into China’s meteoric rise in today’s world.

I love the concluding sentences of the Epilogue.

“Other sports have evolved in China over the decades. A richer country has a boundless horizon to explore, but table tennis remains the nation’s one perfect specimen.”

It seems to sum up the spirit of the whole book. That sports is used for reasons other than fun, sportsmanship and character building is clearly spelt out by Griffin.

At the end of the book, I am left wondering what is more important, a human being or patriotism?

Book of the week

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Title: Man and Superman and Three Other Plays
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw(1856- 1950)

 

My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world,” stated George Bernard Shaw. That is exactly what he does in all his writing…tell the truth as he perceives it. And most of it is really funny.

In Man and Superman, you have a writer of The Revolutionists Handbook and probably Shaw’s mouthpiece, John Tanner; a woman full of vitality who is in pursuit of a husband, Ann, and a bunch of English ladies and gentlemen with a couple of Americans, French and Spanish thrown in. Tanner has been appointed a guardian of Ann and her sister by her father, who has just passed on. He tries to rebel and run away from Ann. She is bent on marrying him.

Tanner, a believer in Life Force, sets out on his motor with his driver and ends up getting kidnapped by a brigand, Mendoza, who talks of working in office hours, socialism and his love with a passion. Mendoza, an ex-savoy waiter, has become a socialist kidnapper after being disappointed in love. He and his gang have Robin Hood-like pretensions. They rob rich motorists (as only the rich could afford cars at the turn of the nineteenth century when this play was written) and give to the poor, they say… They do not use guns or knives but throw nails on the roads and puncture the tyres. Then they capture the motorists and demand a ransom.

Ann follows literally in another car and they are rescued by soldiers. Tanner rescues Mendoza from the law by claiming that the troop of brigands are his companions, which in a sense thet are as they are all socialists at heart. Ann finally wheedles Tanner to marry her.

The most interesting part of this play in my opinion is the time Tanner spends with Mendoza as his captive. The dialogues and situation are witty and hilarious. Mendoza is a philosopher of sorts as are his crew,which includes anarchists and social democrats. Mendoza is also a poet who bores the party to sleep with his love poetry, literally. They all have a strange, allegorical dream of afterlife in hell. The Devil resembles Mendoza and is a lover of fine life. He has walked out of heaven voluntarily. The other characters in the dream are Don Juan, who resembles Tanner, The Statue, who resembles Ann’s father and Ana, who resembles Ann.

The Statue, who has been designated to heaven has taken a transfer to hell as he finds heaven tedious. Don Juan, bored by the pursuit of fine life in Earth and hell, is thinking of a transfer to heaven, which is filled with uninteresting philosophical people. Don Juan thinks the pleasures are a mirage. He is more interested in pursuing the contemplation of Life Force, the passion which drives men. Most people who are contemplative prefer heaven. Ana, who has just died and been sent to Hell wants to go to heaven as she feels it is virtuous to do so and ultimately in quest for the right father for the Superman. The concept of Life Force and Superman as opposed to an erring, fallible man are discussed in the dream sequence. Tanner also observes;

“That(art, culture etc) is the family secret of the governing caste; and if we who are of that caste aimed at more Life for the world instead of more power and luxury for our miserable selves, that secret would make us great.”

Written more than a century ago, I think this observation is valid in the present day context too.

The other three plays, Mrs Warren’s Profession, Candida and Devil’s Disciple are shorter, very Shavian in their perceptions and humour. Each one has a protagonist who perceives the world a little differently from others, who looks beyond money, culture and art to something more vital. Each of these characters are unconventional in their thought process and bring out the decadence of certain social norms.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is to do with prostitution, Candida with middle class morality and romance, Devil’s disciple, set during the American War of Independence, is to do with a man’s sudden discovery of goodness and leadership in himself…if I may, I would like to say getting in touch with the Superman in himself.

My favourite out of these four is Man and Superman. I find the banter between Tanner and the other characters really amusing and interesting.

Shaw is perhaps best known for his play Pygmalion, which was made into My Fair Lady, a hollywood classic with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925 and the academy award for best screenplay( for My Fair Lady) in 1938.

Perhaps, a revival of his values and thought process might make this world a happier place to live in… His plays are like sunshine, witty, bright, cheerful, warm, honest and happy…a wonderful read for all and sundry.

Book of the week

 

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Title: Nineteen Eighty-four
Author: George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-four is a well-known and much-read classic by George Orwell published in 1949. It is a post World War scenario. Life is ruled by poverty, fear and hatred. In reality, the year 1984 has come and gone and we still have the old order of things. Have we actually evaded all the realities faced by the post World War society projected in the novel?

In the novel, as an outcome of the World Wars, the world has been divided into three parts, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Each zone has the same ideology but the ideology is given a different name by the political party that runs the show in that region. To retain power, the three regions always play at being at war. People are obsessed with hating their enemy and bringing them down. Citizens of each zone are kept apart so that none discover that all mankind thinks in the same way.

“Even the official ally of the moment is always regarded with darkest suspicion. War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, as he is forbidden the knowledge of foriegn languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself…”

Winston Smith, the protagonist, finds it difficult to conform to the ideology which is summed up in three slogan-like statements:
 

                                  War is Peace
                            Freedom is Slavery
                          Ignorance is Strength

He also commits the error of falling in love with a woman called Julia. The Thought Police tracks them, breaks them up, brainwashes them and kills them at the end. When the prisoners are annihilated in mind and spirit and love only  Big Brother, the supreme leader of Oceania, are they allowed freedom through death. Winston’s spirit is finally broken and crushed after years of torture and brainwashing and he looks forward to his annihilation at the end.

It is a society based on ‘hate’. The emotions encouraged by the party are “fear, rage, triumph, and self abasement”. The politicians or the power brokers of the three states encourage these emotions and an endless war to keep people busy so that they can retain their own power, supremacy and wealth. They live in luxurious homes, with cars and servants, whereas the rest live in squalid conditions ruled by terror.

History is re-written to suit the party needs. The past is said to be mutable and is changed often to set up the realities the politicians want to project. Buildings and roads are all re-named beyond recognition. No one knows what happened before the party took command. People have been terrorised into having short-term memories. So, if the enemy switches from Eurasia to Eatasia, all the newspapers and journals of the earlier times are re-written. People suffer from hunger and shortages as during wars. To maintain ‘peace’, a state of war is maintained all the time in all the three regions.

The power brokers of the three regions have given three different names to the same ideology and have created barriers of culture, language and hatred to keep the citizens apart. People of each zone hate the citizens of the other regions and can tear apart their ‘enemies’ with their frenzy of hatred and anger. They celebrate ‘hate’ week. The identity of the enemy is immaterial. They just need someone to vent out their anger born of hunger, frustration and fear.

Children spy on parents. They are bred on violence…their entertainment involves watching people hang, beating up people, betraying adults. Blood and gore and squalid living is the norm of such a society. Beauty and  nobility have been eradicated from this society. All history and literature from the past has been wiped out. The fabric of family and decency have been completely demolished. It is in my view a terrifying book. In certain ways, the catharsis we experience after coming to the end of  the book, would inspire us on to reaching out for the positives around us. I would say it is a must read in today’s conflict-riddled world.

Sometimes one wonders if the terror which has started invading a large part of the world, our obsession with borders, the flux of refugees, the anger and helplessness of people is bringing Orwell’s nightmarish vision closer home to us…

Book of the week

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Title: Three Cups of Tea
Authors: Greg Mortenson and Dan Oliver Relin

Three Cups of Tea is an amazing, real life adventure of a philanthropist among the mountains of what most consider  “terror- ridden” areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson was a mountaineer who failed to climb the K2 in 1993. He was lost and hurt when some Balti villagers located him. They took him to their homes and heart and healed him. Touched by their kindness, Mortenson tried to take to them what they most needed, a secular education. This book takes us through his gripping adventures to open schools in the Korphe region of Pakistan.

Mortenson lives with the local people and takes education among all children, especially girls who had been banned from schooling. Jean Hoerni, the multi-millionaire scientist, helped fund his dreams. Mortenson’s was an amazing life!

I like and agree with some of his perceptions about terrorists and tackling them. They are very relevant in today’s world. He says in an interview about the reporters who went to Afghanistan after the 9/11 bombing:  “I tried to talk about root causes of the conflict — the lack of education in Pakistan, and the rise of Wahabi madrassas, and how that led to terrorism… But that stuff hardly ever made it into print. They only wanted sound bites about the top Taliban leaders so they could turn them into villains in the run-up to war.” He received hate mail in USA in response to his perspectives. Mortenson met a Taliban soldier who took to terrorism because that was the only available job. He was paid 300 dollars by the Taliban to terrorise people. He had wanted to be a telecommunication technician but there was no such job to be had!

This book is the story of a man who believed in peace without guns or forces, peace through education, pen and paper. It takes the reader to the heart of areas which I would imagine would be inaccessible to most. That is another thing that makes the book very appealing to me. I can also trace cultural similarities between these people and others in the Asian sub-continent. The kindness of the villagers to a lost mountaineer is also very touching.

I have read that Mortenson and Dan Oliver Relin were sued over the authenticity of the contents of the book. Relin committed suicide at age 49 over the allegations, according to his obituary.

I do not agree or disagree with the authenticity of the book, but I do see an unusual visionary and a great philanthropist in the character portrayed by the protagonist, Mortenson, in the book. He is a humanitarian who does not see borders or race but just tries to help people in need. Here, I found an echo of my own voice which believes education rather than guns and peacekeeping forces can solve major issues like terrorism.

My belief is people who think that killing villains will uproot all evil are being very simplistic. Can terrorising into obedience with guns, nuclear weapons, peacekeeping forces, laws and borders be a long term solution to all world problems?

Book of the week

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Title: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Author: Omar Khayyam(1048 to 1141)
Translator: Edward Fitzgerald(First edition 1859)

The reason I decided to write on the Rubaiyat is because I feel the verses stir my heart and soul.

In my twenties, when talking existentialism was fashionable, I tried to link Khayyam’s poetry to the post world war philosophy. I found strains of nihilism in it…anything that I was looking for. Now, at fifty, I find wisdom and truth in it and catch glimpses of a borderless world, where humanitarian concerns have become a major issue.

Perhaps if we all believed in the things he says, there would be no wars, no peace keeping forces and no soldiers. It is truly ironic that we have to live in a world where they need to use cannon fodder, soldiers, weapons and destruction to maintain peace. Where has old Khayyam’s world disppeared? In one of his best known verses, he says

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Is this not what we all are looking for? I find these verses truly inspirational, passionate and profound.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.

Khayyam has been viewed as a hedonist, a sufi, an atheist, a devout muslim. He was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet. His quatrains are like a fresh breath of life. His verses are profound and cover almost every aspect of existence. They span love, religion, philosophy, culture, wine and food…from the mundane to the divine.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

 Shall  lure it back to cancel half a Line

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The fatalistic twist we see in  Khayyam’s poetry is said to have been the handiwork of Edward Fitzgerald, the translator whose translation appeals to me the most. So, what has come down to us is not just the poet’s philosophy but also the translator’s own interpretation, a truly multi-cultural mix. Fitzgerald himself referred to this great creation as “transmogrification“. He wrote: “My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is. Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar’s simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him” (letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58).

I find the mish-mash put forth by Edward Fitzgerald truly rhythmic and it brings out the flavour of mysticism and lyricism in the verses. There have been other translations but I stand by Edward Fitzgerald’s first edition as the best one.

Omar Khayyam is regarded as a great man. In 1970, they named a lunar crater after him. In 1980, a minor planet was named 3095Omarkhayyam. In 2009, Iran donated a scholar pavilion to the United Nations office in Vienna,featuring four great scholars from their culture. One of them is Omar Khayyam.

To me, these verses of Khayyam translated by Fitzgerald transcend all borders of time, nationality, religion and culture.

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Book of the week

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Title: The Travels of Marco Polo
Author: Rusticello da Pisa

The Travels of Marco Polo always cheers me up!

Marco Polo related his experiences between 1276 and 1290 to his prison buddy, Rusticello da Pisa. The prisoners of war collaborated and came up with this fantastic book. It was written in langues d’oil, a language that is no longer in use. My edition is a reprint of the translation by William Marsden in the eighteenth century.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo’s father, Niccolo, and uncle, Maffeo, successful traders, were invited by an envoy of the Mongols and made a trip to the East to meet the Grand Khan. They returned to Venice after seventeen years of adventuring to pick up some holy oil and give the Pope a letter from the Grand Khan. The Grand Khan, being Kublai Khan, desired to introduce Christianity into China. The Khan wanted the Pope to send a hundred representatives to support the spread of Christianity.

The two brothers had to wait a long time as the Pope had died and it took time for the new Pope to come to power. That was when they met Marco Polo the first time for Niccolo had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth and died in the interim.Marco had been brought up by his uncle to be a trader. Niccolo and Maffeo took Marco with them for the next set of adventures and it is from Marco’s recall that this book was created. He wrote this book most likely for the trading community. However, what has come down to us in the translation is a very poetic and interesting account of the East. The description of Shandu in this book inspired Coleridge to write Kubla Khan, one of the most enchanting poems I have ever read. Perhaps, he read the same translation as I did, the one by William Marsden.

Most of the world regard Genghis and Kublai Khan as the worst kind of tyrannic rulers. However, in Marco Polo’s narration, the Grand Khan comes across as a competent ruler who provided security to his subjects. Trade prospered. It was Kublai Khan who popularised paper currency in China. Marco mentions it in his book.

Marco worked for the Grand Khan as an envoy for a number of years. The book is about his travel to and from China to the surrounding provinces and then his return to Europe. It took the party three years to reach China with the holy oil and gifts. The new pope had sent two representatives instead of one hundred. The two monks had absconded during the journey. The Grand Khan did not penalise them for not getting the hundred men but expressed happiness on seeing his old friends and Marco.

The thing that I really like is the open mindset of Marco Polo. He has no preconceived notions and takes people as they come. His father, uncle and he were multi-lingual. They could pick up languages easily. They all picked up tartaric, the language spoken by Kublai Khan, even before they met him. The Polos truly embodied the spirit of a one world society. They could take the best from every culture and survive under all circumstances. They knew no borders where trade was concerned.

The authenticity of Marco’s rendition has often been questioned by erudite scholars. Marco has been represented as a charlatan who made up a tall tale. However, what I do see in the story is an open-minded, large-hearted adventurer who did not acknowledge pre-conceived biases of the medieval world, rose above all pettinesses and recorded a fantastic travelogue with the collaboration of a friend. The retelling is of his own personalised experiences.

That the book has survived seven centuries of intellectuals and is still regarded as worthy of debate makes it an eternal classic in my perspective. Marco Polo’s travelogue has an infectious spirit of optimism and a one world outlook beyond borders.

The travels of Marco Polo helps me dream, imagine and create a fantastic world of my own…

Book of the Week

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Title: The Wreck
Author: Rabindranath Tagore

The Wreck(1921) is a translation by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore of his own Bengali novel, Naukadubi(1906). It has been made into a film in 2011. Though the movie does capture part of the essence of the story, it does not do full justice to the original novel.
The story revolves around shipwrecks( rather boat wrecks) caused by the sudden onset of a storm on Ganges. Two newly married couples get separated and the bride of one party mistakes the groom of the other one for her own. The story revolves around her being united with the real groom. The man she took as her groom lost his bride in the storm to death. In contrast to the surviving bride, Kamala, is her rescuers’s highly-educated and westernised girl friend, Hemnalini. The love and personality of Kamala is unique. She is strong and upright. When she discovers she is with the wrong groom, she leaves him. She doesnot want to live on charity and pity. She has self-respect. She starts working as a cook till she finds her true husband and love.
What I love most about this book is not just Tagore’s lucid writing but also the way in which he brings out the strength of an uneducated, mildly-lettered village girl. Despite having no western-education or formal schooling, Kamala emerges stronger, more courageous and more focussed than the western-educated Hemnalini. Kamala actually proves true what the philosopher Vivekananda had said that education is the manifestation of knowledge already existing in man(woman, in this case).
This book also gives a glimpse of the status of women in the nineteenth century Bengal society. Women were cherished and regarded with respect. They were not objectified or judged based on their appearance or level of schooling.
I love reading and re-reading this book. Each reading gives me inspiration and fresh food for thought.
The book is now available not just in paperback but as a free google download too.

Book of the Week

I am starting a section on books that I love.

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Book Title: Lost Horizon

Author: James Hilton

Written in 1933 and made into a movie in 1937, this book is an adventure in an utopia, called Shangrila. A quartet of American and British expats found themselves on Tibetan landscape when their four seater plane crash-landed near an unmapped area of Tibet.

The four are rescued by members of a lamasery lodged in a remote plateau. Here they come in contact with lamas who have crossed the boundaries of time and death. You have a curate from the nineteenth century who visited the Bronte family that created masterpieces in literature. One of Chopin’s pupil plays unpublished works by Chopin! A Manchu princess from 1855 frozen in youthfulness in the 1930s adds to the mystery and romance of this novel. All these characters are depicted to have ascended the borders of nationality, time and death…and the most interesting thing was that the lamasery was founded by a Christian missionary who defied the throes of death at 108 years of age and continued to build on this utopia. The lamasery was geographically secreted away among the hills in a way that it was impossible to locate even by air. This secrecy was it’s best security from the real world of war, greed, passion and hatred.

I just loved the book with it’s borderless approach to the world and life. The lamas are depicted as visionaries who can see the future and ascend time. The founder tells the protagonist, Conway, that they are trying to preserve the best of civilisation from all over the world to survive the self-destruct mode humankind is headed for. They perceive themselves as a magical world that will survive the throes of bombs and destruction and restart civilisation on a new footing.

I would recommend the book as an excellent read.