Book of the Week

 

 

Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948

 

Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…

 

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

Advertisements

Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

The Human Dilemma

Prologue

The other day I was sitting in an open space, watching white clouds float in a vibrant blue sky… It was so relaxing…almost therapeutic. Like the erstwhile Wordsworth who felt gleeful when he saw the daffodils, my mood swung to an all time high. I decided to stock up the happy feelings for times when I feel vacant and pensive like good old William did two hundred years ago. Then as I gazed, I saw the clouds float into and away from each other. Watching them change shapes and shadows, I started thinking of the fluidity of all beings and existence.

I suppose currently, we are all perceived to be loose conglomerates of small dots, which scientists like to refer to as atoms, as is a table or a chair…theoretical physics… While we cannot see the molecules, they pretty much behave like the clouds in the sky, except for longer durations…just stay adrift, held together by neutrons…all particles … Do we exist or don’t we? Are we real or aren’t we?

The other day in a TV show, some intellectuals were proposing that we all were a part of a computer game for some kind of creatures we might refer to as aliens in our present state of existence as earthly humans. Our world is the grid they created. So, are we dots or holographs or computer images?

Are we all a part of some game? Omar Khayyam, more than a thousand years ago, had also seen mankind as part of a game. Perhaps, in those days chess would have been equivalent of a computer game.

‘Tis all a chequered board of Nights and Days,
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays.
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays
And one by one in the Closet lays.(translated by Edward Fitzgerald)

Humankind as chess pieces in Destiny’s grip and the chess board being our grid or world…perhaps he was being fatalistic but, on the other hand, Destiny could be a gamer…who knows what the wise old poet-astronomer felt exactly. Perhaps, he was in touch with the game players and helping them develop algorithms. Perhaps, he was telepathic or one of the gamers disguised as us…who knows!?!

In Hinduism, they say mankind is maya or illusion. None of us exist except as a part of Brahma’s dream or as a figment of his imagination…So, is Brahma a creator of games…the Master Creator? Was he created by someone else to cater to the Hindu population of Gods, which amounts to 330 million? Mind you there are those in Hinduism that will say that there is only one God and the vast pantheon are projections of the human imagination so that man can focus better, a form being easier to focus on than an abstraction. Or, is Brahma the only Creator, the only manipulator of divine energy? Now, I have really ended up confusing myself… Is all creation divine? What is divinity? Who is our maker? And if we are projections or part of a game plan, then who are the players and who created them?

One of the latest theory talks of man originating in Africa as clones of giant extra-terrestrials. Adam is seen as the first clone in the Garden of Eden, which is supposed to be somewhere in Zimbabwe, and our creators are projected as gold-hungry tyrants and separate from God. God, they say, is the good one. These aliens are not. They say that groups of aliens came to different parts of the world and created clones that were much smaller in size and not as powerful as them to resolve their labor issues. They needed miners for routine work. So, the first humans were miners and people they saw as God who came with flashes of light were the extra-terrestrials. These are the Gods recorded in ancient Mesopotamian, Mayan, Egyptian, Hindu and other myths, according to this school of thought. They are even trying to build the biblical myth into their proposal. I wonder if these terrifying extra-terrestrials would also have followed or follow our laws of physics and be a loose conglomeration of atoms in motion?

The Christian myth has also been disproven by many as the timeline proposed is perceived as unrealistic among other arguments. Earlier, man turned to religion to figure out the reason for his existence and annihilation. Now, he is extending his frontiers to probe the unknown. In the process, some are rejecting the older myths as hogwash and proposing newer ones which seem more exciting.

The new God is Science. Now there are people who believe in Science and not in God. They are trying to explain our being and existence through science. I myself harbour scientific nerds in my home. However, they believe in God too. They belong to the category that believe in both Science and God. Ultimately, nerds, non-nerds, theists, atheists, gnostics and agnostics, all get stuck at the same question.

How did the energy which was the focal point of all creation come into being? And then how did it all evolve into us…Darwin, metaphysics, physics, astrophysics, history, aliens, religion…

When my confusion is at its utmost, I try to quench it by reading Arthur C Clarke’s science fiction, which does try to make room for divinity in its own ways. My father turns to Upanishads. Isabel turns to the Bible. Steven Hawking turns to Science. Eric Von Daniken turns to alienology. Spencer Wells turns to our DNAs and genomes. Yet, our quests seem to be unending…like the white clouds that keep adrift on vibrant blue skies all over the world. And we will continue probing for answers as will the outer space probes that reach out to places untouched by us earthlings…among the star-studded galaxies.