Book of the Week

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Title: Rip Van Winkle and other stories
Author: Washington Irving

First published in 1819, Rip Van Winkle is a story about a man who fell asleep for many years and woke up to find the world had changed. The other stories in this collection, like the title story, are characterised by a tongue-in-cheek humour and a touch of the macabre. They are all stories of migrants from different cultures to a land that gave them a new home.

Rip Van Winkle is a story of a man who helped everyone except himself. To avoid his wife’s haranguing, he escaped to the Catskill mountains (New York), fell asleep under the effect of some moonshine made by Dutch faerie folk playing ninepins (bowling)and woke up after a couple of decades to find a changed world, where his wife had died, his son had replaced him as the village lounger and the American war of independence had been fought. He finds shelter in his married daughter’s home.

The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow is the story of Ichabod Crane, the tall, lanky crane-like village school master, with a strong belief in the supernatural. He disappears in the Sleepy Hollow while returning home from a party where his proposal had been rejected by his sweetheart. The New England village folk believed that he has been killed by the headless horseman who is supposed to haunt that area. The horseman, who carried his own head under his arm , threw it at the school teacher. The next day they find a broken pumpkin where Crane had disappeared with all his effects. In the epilogue, the author says Crane’s rival married his sweetheart and could not help smiling everytime anyone spoke of Crane. A suggestion has also been made that Crane left the village and became a lawyer!

The Spectre Bridegroom is set in Germany where a bridegroom is killed on the way to his wedding. His friend, who tries to tell the bride’s party of his friend’s death, is mistaken for a ghost of his friend! It is a comedy of errors and the friend carries away the bride at the end.

The Pride of the Village is story set in a small English village, the story of a girl disappointed in love. Like in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, the affair starts with the girl being the may queen. She does not suffer as much as Tess. When she is dying is the arms of her parents, her loved one comes back to her.

The last story, Mountjoy, seems to be a comment on private education where learning is unmonitored and sometimes aimless. This is again set in New England and talks of a family that lived in France. Though three of the five stories are set in America, by the banks of the Hudson river, the current day New York, they capture the hope of the multi-cultural migrant community that created a new world in America.

I found the first three stories very gripping. It reminded me of some of Roald Dahl’s stories in a collection called Kiss Kiss, only the horror is less horrific. The stories have a macabre humour and a tongue in cheek suggestion in the epilogue to rationalise the legends.

Irving’s description of the characters are sketched with few words and incidents which leave a strong imprint in ones mind. His characterisation of Crane with his lanky appearance, green eyes, belief in ghosts and spirits and fondness of food and women’s company is very realistic as are his other characters. You can almost hear his thin voice and laugh at his housewifish outlook. He wants to propose to a girl not only over her own worth but on the worth of her father who has a prosperous farm and a good spread at the table.

The flavour of the times are well captured by Irving. When Rip returns to his village, he is still a loyal subject of the King of England but the people he encounters have lived through the American revolution! Rip changes his world view to suit the needs of the times as he had never had strong political affiliations and lives out his life as a well-loved legendary figure.

Irving has woven Red Indian lore into his stories too to add authenticity to his legends. Catskill mountain. Historically, Catskill mountain was named after either Dutch or Mohican traditions or persons. It is not very clear. Irving has played with these legends to create a misty aura around the story. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle in a park in New York. Irving did create a legend!

These are stories about common people anywhere in the world. You can see multicultural values built into these legends. They absorbed traditions of cross-continental cultures and created a new myth from them. That many Americans, unless they were native Indians, emigrated with their own cultures to find acceptance in the wilds of America is borne out by the multi-cultural flavour of the legends created by Irving.

I enjoyed these stories very much and would say they make an excellent weekend read with their one world outlook. After all, they have created new legends.

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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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Peace

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Harmony?

Do you see that distant wave?

I see it rise incarnadine with blood.
A great tsunami that threatens to flood
The world with gore born of hate.
Fear and violence open the gate
Of living, vivid hell
In which garb dwell
Differences drawn by men
They say for kin and ken…

Do you see that distant wave?

I see it lave and soothe
With it’s lulling tune.
I see it calm and blue
Reflecting the golden hue
Of the bright sun ray.
People are happy at work and play.
They say the world is but one land
And, united, we all akin stand.

Do you see that distant wave?

The incarnadine sea with it’s violent grave?

Or,

The calm blue ocean with it’s sunshiny face?