Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reading and references

Finished reading Lolita and picked up ‘The Kite Runner’ (Intend to finish it before movie releases). Lolita, though exceptionally well-written; was at times difficult to read since Nabokov liberally uses French sentences and expressions and not commonly used words in English. Top it with the references made to Russian dancers and French authors; and you are left with the choice of either searching online dictionaries and wikipedia or plowing through undaunted with the strange unsettling feeling that something important has been left out. I won’t go as far as in saying that it is annoying [akin to one you feel when you know that someone is trying to hide something from you or just considers you not smart enough to understand it]; but it does leave me with an after-taste of mild dissatisfaction.

Reading ‘The Kite Runner’ after Lolita could not have been pleasanter. Most of the Farsi words are explained, but there are still quite a few (like pari, mard) which the author does not bother to explain. Apart from the words, being an Indian I think I understand the way the Afghans lived twenty five years ago; their customs like respecting the elders and festivals like kite-flying; the social hierarchy, the way people think and talk – better than say, an average western reader.

The pictures that are formed subconsciously in my mind as I read it are far clearer than reading Lolita. (As a crude example; I can envisage a Mumbai train station far more clearly than say, a London tube station – assuming that both the descriptions are equally well-written.) Of course, not a small part of this is due to the fact that the book is written in flowing, captivating style; but the familiarity of the background and characters plays more important role.

By extension, I can say same thing about reading in Marathi as opposed to English. The references, the descriptions – at least most of the times, form so clear-cut images that there is little gap between reading and comprehending. (I fail to think of a better example, but it is like regular intake of medicine vs. injecting it through IV.)

This fact also seems to affect my speed of reading and ability to concentrate/ read through the pages without any distraction for these two languages. It is a well known fact that when we read, our eyes don’t try to take in each and every alphabet. Moreover, a group of three-four words is read at a time in a kind of hopping fashion. It is my conjecture, that one reason I can read faster in Marathi is the ability of my mind – of course due to longer exposure to the language – is better developed to fill in the gaps between the alphabets (or syllables in case of Indian languages), guesstimate the word or group of words, take in their meaning and form pictures before the mind’s eye after comparing with the feelings, places, things, references stored somewhere on the brain’s hard-drive.

Now that I have written it down; it appears to me that it is too obvious to state it :). However, it prompted me to think in another direction – when can one say that he/she has command over a particular language? The usual criterion is the ability to read/write/speak that language well. But, there might be more to it. Even if you are confidently able to read/write/speak a language other than your mother-tongue; it still takes some more time to develop an ability to start thinking in that language. So far, I believed that would be the last step in mastering a language. It is in fact true for all practical purposes.

Still, there is that tiny part – the unfamiliarity of the culture that language is part of. (Example of English is not much useful in this case, since it has ceased to be language spoken only by the natives of England long back) which does not allow you to get complete ‘feel’ of the language. It is not a major hindrance but it will prevent you from understanding at least some things completely since you will miss out on the references which are quintessentially part of that culture and hence, of that language. This is the most challenging part when you attempt a translation – especially between two culturally unrelated languages.

This, of course is just an observation [and it sounds sillier and more obvious to me each time I write it :(] and this limitation should not prevent us taking up a book in a different language. However, we should brace ourselves to accept the fact that there might be at least a very tiny fraction of it which would remain unclear to us.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


currently reading Lolita. Controversial topic, but brilliant word-play and story-telling by Nabokov. One such striking sentence -

There was in the fiery phantasm a perfection which made my wild delight also perfect, just because the vision was out of reach, with no possibility of
attainment to spoil it by the awareness of an appended taboo; indeed, it may well be
that the very attraction immaturity has for me lies not so much in the limpidity of
pure young forbidden fairy child beauty as in the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised--the great rosegray never-to-be-had.

Monday, July 02, 2007

To the City of Bombay

"The Cities are full of pride,
Challenging each to each—
This from her mountain-side,
That from her burthened beach.
They count their ships full tale—
Their corn and oil and wine,
Derrick and loom and bale,
And rampart’s gun-flecked line;
City by City they hail:
“Hast aught to match with mine?”

And the men that breed from them
They traffic up and down,
But cling to their cities’ hem
As a child to their mother’s gown.

When they talk with the stranger bands,
Dazed and newly alone;
When they walk in the stranger lands,
By roaring streets unknown;
Blessing her where she stands
For strength above their own.

(On high to hold her fame
That stands all fame beyond,
By oath to back the same,
Most faithful-foolish-fond;
Making her mere-breathed name
Their bond upon their bond.)

So thank I God my birth
Fell not in isles aside—
Waste headlands of the earth,
Or warring tribes untried—
But that she lent me worth
And gave me right to pride.

Surely in toil or fray
Under an alien sky,
Comfort it is to say:
“Of no mean city am I!”

(Neither by service nor fee
Come I to mine estate—
Mother of Cities to me,
For I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.)

Now for this debt I owe,
And for her far-borne cheer
Must I make haste and go
With tribute to her pier.

And she shall touch and remit
After the use of kings
(Orderly, ancient, fit)
My deep-sea plunderings,
And purchase in all lands.
And this we do for a sign
Her power is over mine,
And mine I hold at her hands!"

-- Rudyard Kipling, 1894

Now, would he be deemed as an outsider today?

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Religiousness of Science

The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear in earlier stages of development—e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learnt from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer especially, contains a much stronger element of it.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with the highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as Atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.


How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are capable of it...A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear and punishment and hope of reward after death.


But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

Chapter: The Religiousness of Science
Title: The World As I See It
Author: Albert Einstein
Complete text here.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Writers and the first hand experience

"As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions," said the prince. "I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison --I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating - but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience." About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live."

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to believing, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions--one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good-bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them." The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, 'What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!' He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it."

The prince paused and all waited, expecting him to go on again and finish the story.
"Is that all?" asked Aglaya.
"All? Yes," said the prince, emerging from a momentary reverie.
"And why did you tell us this?"
"Oh, I happened to recall it, that's all! It fitted into the conversation--"
"You probably wish to deduce, prince," said Alexandra, "that moments of time cannot be reckoned by money value, and that sometimes five minutes are worth priceless treasures. All this is very praiseworthy; but may I ask about this friend of yours, who told you the terrible experience of his life? He was reprieved, you say; in other words, they did restore to him that 'eternity of days.' What did he do with these riches of time? Did he keep careful account of his minutes?"
"Oh no, he didn't! I asked him myself. He said that he had not lived a bit as he had intended, and had wasted many, and many a minute."
"Very well, then there's an experiment, and the thing is proved; one cannot live and count each moment; say what you like, but one cannot."
"That is true," said the prince, "I have thought so myself. And yet, why shouldn't one do it?"

-- Taken from 'The Idiot' by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is considered as one of the greatest writers of 19th century, himself was such a man, having experienced the mock execution arranged by Nicholas I to punish 'Petrashevsky Circle'.

I guess this could very well be considered as the turning point of Dostoevsky’s literary career. After this harrowing experience, he wrote master-pieces like ‘Crime and punishment’, ‘The idiot’ and ‘The brothers Karamazov’; no doubt thoroughly moved by it.

It is a matter of debate whether to write extra-ordinarily, your life should be eventful or whether it is the genius of his mind that can recreate any emotion without experiencing it (somewhat similar to the debate whether the circumstances shape a person or his intrinsic/innate qualities) ; but I am pretty sure the second category is the rarest of the rare. It is, in fact, very difficult to catch the emotions experienced by you effectively in the first place and very few can achieve that.

In that sense, we see why the English literature is so rich as compared to almost any other language, barring perhaps French and Russian. English speaking people went to all the corners of the world, and expressed it through their writings. Indian writers, on the contrary, are woefully short of such ‘happening’ lives. Do we have a Hemingway or Sartre who fought actually in the war, a Dostoevsky whose writings have such a conceivable shadow of death, or even someone less illustrious like Jared Diamond who roamed around the world researching the evolutionary biology?

Of course, I don’t think there is anything to feel ashamed about it. As a society starting to wake up late from its slumber and daunting problems like poverty and foreign rule, we are at disadvantage in this regard. However, things are changing for sure. As Indians – or for that matter, people from the third world countries are getting used to the globalization, living a more complex life – it is getting reflected in their works. Recent example would be Kiran Desai’s ‘Inheritance of loss’ or Orhan Pamuk – whose works portraying the identity crisis felt by the Turkish people in the struggle between western and age old principles, getting recognition at the highest level.

A look at the Nobel Prize winners for literature shows almost total domination of English and few other European languages. But, considering the recent trends, we can safely say that the new century, belongs to the third world that was unable to find its voice hitherto.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saddam, Nithari and UP

Here is a video of Samajwadi party workers attacking their own country-men to protest Saddam's execution. I wonder, why they are not protesting against the Nithari incident or for that matter callous remarks such as these.