Book of the Week


Title: The Scarlet Pimpernel
Author: Baroness Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared at the turn of the century. It is a lucid, well written, fictitious adventure set in the course of the French revolution, 1792 to be exact…when Robespierre reigned and the guillotine ruled.

It is the story of a brave, debonair Briton and his friends who rescued French aristocrats hounded out of their lives by their countrymen if they remained where they were born. The leader of the group is nicknamed Scarlet Pimpernel as he always signs his notes with the red star shaped flower. He himself composes a funny doggerel  on his elusiveness, which he recites to the amusement of his countrymen.

“We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven?–Is he in hell?

The demmed, elusive Pimpernel?”

The hero poses as an empty-headed fop and eludes the French spies in pursuit of him with his quick wit. It is a novel filled with suspense,  romance and adventure. Set between France and England, it tells of a group of brave men who out of humanitarian concerns rescued the innocent from the guillotine.

What makes the novel remarkable in today’s context is that countries collaborate to find homes for refugees driven out by mob violence. In the book, help and shelter was given freely to the emigres, individuals displaced from their country, home and hearth and driven to extremes by violence and hatred of others. Orczy makes us think…could masses driven by envy, greed, hunger, outrage and anger ever mete out justice to anyone? Could the uneducated who just wanted a good life and more wealth even understand the concept of Liberte- Egalite-Fraternite the famous motto of the revolution? Here is how Orczy describes France when her French heroine, the actress Marguerite, lands on the shores of her country.

She was back in that country where at this very moment men slaughtered their fellow-creatures by the hundreds, and sent innocent women and children in thousands to the block…The men all wore red caps–in various stages of cleanliness–but all with the tricolor cockade pinned on the left-hand side. Marguerite noticed with a shudder that, instead of laughing, merry countenance habitual to her own countrymen,their faces invariably wore a look of sly distrust.
Every man nowadays was a spy on fellows…

Has this not been the story of revolutions and freedom movements worldwide? Do common people really profit by changes in the form of governance ? I remember reading similar things in Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre famed Freedom at Midnight. Neighbours and friends fought for differences they had lived with amicably for hundreds of years for satisfying the political need of having borders. Every person is depicted as interpreting Indian independence in their own terms, the beggar dreams of food and home and politicians dream of a socialist democracy…were any of them fully satisfied? Can the millions killed in the name of borders of religion and countries ever be justified? Or, in China, could the Red Army violence against a social system (as depicted in Ping Pong Diplomacy) be justified? Similarly, could the hate-filled mobs during the reign of terror be condoned as decent, educated perpetrators of justice?

I absolutely think reading this book is a must in context of the world developments of today. Perhaps, we need a number of Scarlet Pimpernels to rescue those in need and to instill a feeling of bon homie among the different races created by borders drawn by mankind.

Book of the week


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?