cut down to size: nerdy reflections on war and peace

cut down to size: nerdy reflections on war and peace

I have been reading so much online about the release of the BBC’s production of War and Peace that I cannot wait too long to see it. But as I do wait, I am filled with both excitement and curiosity. War and Peace, I think, was the first serious novel with which I embarked on the journey that is literature. I remember long dusty afternoons in my grandparents’ home when I would lose myself in its pages. It was my refuge especially when the electricity would go off and it was too hot to do anything but read. I found it surprisingly easy to read despite its length and the fact that it is set in the culturally alien landscape of nineteenth century Russia.

I think one of the reasons why War and Peace is such a gripping novel is that it is full of of the rich descriptions of the inner lives of its characters, told with great attention to detail. Despite the deep and lasting friendship between Pierre Bezukhov and Andre Bolkonski, each of them is on a quest that is uniquely their own. And despite the fact that there are love stories woven into the novel, they are not its main concerns. The novel’s gentle realism reminds you over and over that it is not concerned with happily ever afters, or who gets together with whom. Natasha, Pierre and Andre live and search with intensity; it is their often their very poignant yearnings and glimmers of insight that breathe life into the pages.

These facts are a source of worry as I think of the six-hour production soon to be aired on the BBC. I myself have been an eager viewer of Pride and Prejudice (1995), the mini-series that brought screen-writer Andrew Davies so many accolades. But in this and other productions of Jane Austen, I feel that Davies has tried too hard to inveigle a sense of the erotic from the novels’ sub-plots. Some of his productions therefore, are reminiscent of Nabokov perhaps, or even Hardy. To be sure, War and Peace is not squeamish about the vagaries of human nature, or its seamier aspects. But to emphasize them for the sake of ‘drama,’ would, I believe, be a misrepresentation of the novel.

I am not sure which parts of the novel or which dialogues Davies has chosen to highlight.I am certain he would have had to make some difficult choices. Tolstoy’s own lengthy exegeses on history have, I have read from various sources, been dropped.

To return to the ‘inner searchings’ of Pierre and Andre. One of the most powerful of them is when Prince Andre lies wounded and almost dying during the battle of Austerlitz, and sees the vast, infinite, compassionate sky above him, as if for the first time.

How can such an experience be captured on film?

“Above him there was now nothing but the sky — the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,” thought Prince Andrew—”not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace.”

As the bizarre and fascinating collision of death and memory when Andre finally does die despite Natasha’s ministerings…They are hardly the experiences of a mere ‘romantic hero,’ as Davies is wont to describe him.

“But at the instant he died, Prince Andrew remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.

Yes, it was death! I died – and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!”

Perhaps then, I have to conclude that War and Peace is a novel that is eminently unsuitable for dramatization.The series might do just a little for the book to be better known. It has always baffled me why War and Peace is not better known or referred to more often in literary criticism; even among students of literature Anna Karenina is a more popular choice. Sadly, at this moment, I doubt very much that War and Peace will make its way into the shelves of readers for the right reasons after they have seen the BBC’s production. But I will be sure to post a review when I have watched the series, who knows, I might have changed my mind!

 

 

 

Advertisements

The flowers on my

apricot blossoms

neighbour’s hedge were laughing as I walked down to the shop yesterday morning. Small fragrant white things, splashed with sunlight. There was something about the skies too – pale blue and wide, and filled with laughter. Maybe it was moment when my brain lapsed into one of its neurological peculiarities. But it was a joyful moment.

When I reached the shop, though, I had to focus my mind on a more mundane matter – buying salt. After looking for it for a bit, it became apparent that there was no salt on the shelves. I asked one of the shop assistants. He looked quizzical at first, and then laughed, uncomprehending. Soon a little group of people gathered and I tried to explain what I wanted. They didn’t understand either, and they all began to laugh. It was most annoying. They ought to have been helping me.

It is a reaction I have often found when people don’t understand English. And since I do not speak any Thai, the only option left is for me to join in. Which can be a surprisingly easy thing to do, once I let go of feeling tetchy. Perhaps it is something to do with being an outsider that makes it easier to laugh with them. It is easier to give in to the urge to conform to norms you are not familiar with.

At home, it hasn’t always been so easy. One time at University I was roundly ticked off by a colleague for being vegetarian. It was totally unexpected. There I was chatting away about what I had had for lunch and before I knew it I was listening to a barrage of accusations. I couldn’t get a word in edge wise. Vegetarians, they said, always took the moral high ground – and how could they? It could well be that plants felt a lot of pain when they were ‘slaughtered.’ They were right of course, but I could not laugh at it.

That memory of tetchiness comes back to me with articles on the beef ban in some states resurfacing on the social media. I also wonder if I had had an experience involving microagression. Except, at the time, it didn’t seem so ‘micro.’ Perhaps I need not have been so surprised – ‘ragging’ is a pervasive enough phenomenon on Indian campuses, and I ought to have expected a smidgen of hostile behaviour.

The uncomfortable question of cultural acceptance was made simpler and lighter for me when I rediscovered George Mikes’s How to be an alien. I say rediscovered because I had read it a long time back and it popped back in a very timely manner into my reading orbit again. Mikes (pronounced Mik-esh) was Hungarian but lived in England –  long enough to write a (mostly) affectionate, ribbing account of the English and their ways of doing things. It is divided into short chapters – sometimes only a few paragraphs – on different subjects such as ‘Tea,’  ‘How not to be clever,’ ‘About simple joys’ and so on. This makes the book very dip-worthy. You can read chapters without reading previous ones. Mikes makes broad brush strokes across the nation, but also pointillistically observes its oddities. You have to be an insider to understand all the references but you will get carried away because it is so funny.

One reader,Mikes says in the introduction, threw the book into the fire because the writing was sheer ‘impertinence.’ But that response I think, was an exception. The book was, for the most part, embraced by the reading public.

Some pieces are sardonic, like ‘How to be a hypocrite.’ It almost seems as if Mikes is turning into a native himself, with images of violence used with nonchalance! He begins to unconsciously mimic the English tendency to understatement.

I chuckled over his description of ‘The bloomsbury intellectual’:

“…they all hate uniforms so much that they all wear a special uniform of their own: brown velvet trousers, canary yellow pullover, green jacket with sky-blue checks. The suit of clothes has to be chosen with the utmost care and is intended to prove that its wearer does not care for suits and other petty, worldly things…A golden chain around the ankle, purple velvet shoes and a half-wild angora cat on the shoulders are strongly recommended as they much increase the appearance of arresting casualness.”

There are also little whimsical gems like “An Englishman, if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”And “if you go for a walk with a friend, don’t say a word for hours; if you go out for a walk with your dog, keep chatting to him.” They had me breaking into a smile as I read.

If the chapters, or sections in ‘How to be an alien’ are short, the number of themes Mikes writes about makes up for it. My favourite of the many off-beat themes is ‘How to plan a city.’ “An English town is a vast conspiracy to mislead foreigners.” Its lay-out is eminently higgledy-piggledy, and you could easilty get lost. And, it resembles Toyland!

“First of all, never build a street straight. The English love privacy and do not want to see one end of the street from the other end. Make sudden curves in the streets and build them S-shaped too; the letters L, T, V, Y, W and O are also becoming increasingly popular. It would be a fine tribute to the Greeks to build a few П¤ and Н�shaped streets; it would be an ingenious compliment to the Russians to favour the shape ПЇ…”

And so on and on. For the most part, the humour is gentle and ironic. I am equally puzzled and thankful as to why he does not he does not comment on the famed scatalogical humour of the English. That sort of humour has never quite appealed to my sensibilities.

Arguably you have to be a little bit of a lover of England to appreciate the book fully. That is  not an easy thing to have in the current global scenario. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with was one of lightness. And the realization that it takes a certain kind of freedom of thought to laugh at one’s own ways of existing. To not allow a random remark to bring all that tetchiness bubbling back.

How to be an alien was published in the 1940s, at a time when race and culture were not ferociously current topics as they are today, and social media did not exist. Had he written in the current  context, Mikes might well have had his very own Je suis Charlie moment…

“Violence, like a bug-infested rag…”

DSCN0879

This fragment of a line by the poet Dennis Brutus from Nightsong: City – a poem about a South African city has never quite left my mind since I first read it many years ago. It is now just over two weeks since a bomb went off at the Erawan shrine at Chidlom, and the line keeps ringing right back at me. I have crossed the shrine many times, either by the Sky train or on foot.

It is weird how that incident woke me up to violence in a way that I never have experienced before. First of all, I had always assumed that violence always happens elsewhere, never in my own vicinity. It is always out there, affecting others, never me. But this time it was different. It had happened at a place I’ve stopped by to watch and admire. I particularly remember one evening when I had stopped on a crowded overhead walkway to watch a dance recital.

But on the night of the blast, for a long long time, fear was “immanent as sound from a wind-swung bell.”

By the next morning, there was a dramatic shift in my perception of the city. I wanted to look at it more deeply, beyond the impressions I had formed through a pale-view lens; the neat little houses and gardens and the cutesy aesthetics of teddy bears and hello kitties – so far from the ‘rag’ it had become for those brief moments. I was rudely awakened to the fact that small everyday violences had always existed and I had chosen to ignore them. The look in men’s eyes on the sky train, the swear word muttered when jostled at rush hour.

Tip of the iceberg. Rather, the heap of silken weaves that the city is in the outsider’s imagination. There are deeper, darker forces that we cannot, will not touch in our quotidian lives. I am now more aware than ever of these vast pockets of darkness.

Television channels spoke almost admiringly of the way the city went back to normal in a few days. But in strangers’ eyes something seemed to linger on, even though the eyes almost always darted away. In a bookstore I scribbled down these lines …

…the look of yesterday/clings to the eyes of passers-by/moments slip by/it’s more important to hurry/looking nowhere/looking nowhere.

the wellness meme

20150605_110611

I never imagined I would ever write about ‘wellness.’Ah, what a meme! Although the word ‘personalized’ appears in many definitions, I find its tropes in the media standardized, even stereotypical. I’m thinking of images of joggers looking flushed and pink-cheeked, slender young things striking yoga poses against the sunrise, or images of colourful, healthful food.So far from the struggle it can be!

My own tryst with wellness began fairly recently, but it all goes back more than a decade ago.Every few years I had to move out of home for various purposes – to other cities. First Bangalore, then it was Pune and Hyderabad. By ‘various purposes’ I mean studies, and work. Much as it was fun to travel, explore new places and make new friends, all that moving around began to take a toll on my health. At that time, it was easy enough to subsist on pizzas (easy to make) a couple of hastily made chapatis and lots of snack food. All this, coupled with the joys of exploring street-food – think vada pav, papdi chat, mysore bondas and samosas.

But soon, I began to get signs from my body that all was not well. Headaches and sore stomachs became more frequent when I ate processed foods like white bread, white rice and pizza. Not surprisingly, they also made me feel low and a bit crabby.Since I have made these discoveries, it has been an enjoyable process looking for alternatives that work for me. I’ve loved exploring the fuller, more nourishing, and yes, calming tastes of whole grains. it has been fun trying out whole grain breads and organic fruit. I make it a point to eschew exotica like Apples and Kiwi fruit from Australia, or blueberries from California. Instead I load up on indigenous fruit like Guavas, Sitaphal, Litchis; all beloved tastes from home anyway. Although perhaps I have been guilty of the odd eco-sin! Nobody likes a puritan.When I am at home in Madras, it’s been fun cooking with organic Veragu (foxtail millet) Ragi and red or brown rice.

The one item that has been a bit of a battle to cut back on is tea. Although a die-hard Chennai-ite for the most part, I have never been much of a filter-coffee drinker. It has always been tea. And that too, the Bertie Wooster hot-water-and-a-spot-of-milk variety. It has to be that way, else give me sweetened kulhad chai from Itarsi. Tea ostensibly calms the nerves, but with me it only sets up a pleasure-fatigue loop that has me craving for more. On the days I have not had tea I sleep better and function better. But so strong is its lure, it may be the one habit that endures – to the butt-end of my days and ways!

Writing about my explorations has made me aware of my underlying thoughts. I started off with hesitations about the term ‘wellness’. I think I prefer an approach of ‘wholeness’ as it relies on sensitivity to one’s responses of mind and body. In my search for wholeness, I have had to look deeper at my disatisfactions, and the ways of habit. And to say no, and mean it! This is why I love it when Neruda says “don’t sell yourself/ don’t be channeled/ don’t be entubed/don’t be boxed/ compressed/ don’t be stamped out in pills/don’t be bottled/ be careful!”

the wellness meme

I never imagined I would ever write about ‘wellness.’ Ah, what a meme! Although the word ‘personalized’ appears in many definitions, I find its tropes in the media standardized, even stereotypical. I’m thinking of images of joggers looking flushed and pink-cheeked, slender young things striking yoga poses against the sunrise, or images of colourful, healthful food.So far from the struggle it can be!

My own tryst with wellness began fairly recently, but it all goes back more than a decade ago.Every few years I had to move out of home for various purposes – to other cities. First Bangalore, then it was Pune and Hyderabad. By ‘various purposes’ I mean studies, and work. Much as it was fun to travel, explore new places and make new friends, all that moving around began to take a toll on my health. At that time, it was easy enough to subsist on pizzas (easy to make) a couple of hastily made chapatis and lots of snack food. All this, coupled with the joys of exploring street-food – think vada pav, papdi chat, mysore bondas and samosas.

But soon, I began to get signs from my body that all was not well. Headaches and sore stomachs became more frequent when I ate processed foods like white bread, white rice and pizza. Not surprisingly, they also made me feel low and a bit crabby.Since I have made these discoveries, it has been an enjoyable process looking for alternatives that work for me. I’ve loved exploring the fuller, more nourishing, and yes, calming tastes of whole grains. it has been fun trying out whole grain breads and organic fruit. I make it a point to eschew exotica like Apples and Kiwi fruit from Australia, or blueberries from California. Instead I load up on indigenous fruit like Guavas, Sitaphal, Litchis; all beloved tastes from home anyway. Although perhaps I have been guilty of the odd eco-sin! Nobody likes a puritan.When I am at home in Madras, it’s been fun cooking with organic Veragu (foxtail millet) Ragi and red or brown rice.

The one item that has been a bit of a battle to cut back on is tea. Although a die-hard Chennai-ite for the most part, I have never been much of a filter-coffee drinker. It has always been tea. And that too, the Bertie Wooster hot-water-and-a-spot-of-milk variety. It has to be that way, else give me sweetened kulhad chai from Itarsi. Tea ostensibly calms the nerves, but with me it only sets up a pleasure-fatigue loop that has me craving for more. On the days I have not had tea I sleep better and function better. But so strong is its lure, it may be the one habit that endures – to the butt-end of my days and ways!

Writing about my explorations has made me aware of my underlying thoughts. I started off with hesitations about the term ‘wellness’. I think I prefer an approach of ‘wholeness’ as it relies on sensitivity to one’s responses of mind and body. In my search for wholeness, I have had to look deeper at my disatisfactions, and the ways of habit. And to say no, and mean it! This is why I love it when Neruda says “don’t sell yourself/ don’t be channeled/ don’t be entubed/don’t be boxed/ compressed/ don’t be stamped out in pills/don’t be bottled/ be careful!”

the abandoned book route

the abandoned book route

If you have not come across an essay called the Unread book route by John Updike, I would recommend that you try and find it, especially if you live, or have lived, in a book-filled house. I grew up in one and could immediately relate with all the descriptions of new books left on television tops and sideboards before they were read, only to mysteriously reappear on the shelf where they belonged in the first place. Pretty much everyone at home is a reader, and can, I think relate to this phenomenon of books having a life of their own. But my Mum, who likes to read, also has a healthy skepticism for too much reading. “One day you will wake up and find that you’ve turned into a book” she would say to us bookworms with a sort of dark Kafkaesque humour. “Go do some gardening, it’s much healthier for your soul.”  I wish I had heeded her advice back then. I might have at least turned out to be a decent gardener, considering the number of books I’ve left partly unread. Rather, abandoned. Which is why I have titled this piece after Updike. The route I am talking about now is more to do with how I have read over the years — not an actual, physical trail, but the routes that the mind takes with the pleasures and tribulations of reading. I can remember lying on the cool floor one afternoon when I was about ten years old, reading Great Expectations, and thoroughly enjoying the descriptions of Pip’s escapade. And then,at some point — I think it was when Mrs. Havisham began to make a more regular appearance that my interest began to fade, and the book was — yes — abandoned. I suppose I could be forgiven, since I was only ten. Perhaps she was too scary, or Victorian England was too removed from my world. Kidnapped by R.L. Stevenson also met with the same fate. And Huckleberry Finn. It strikes me now that these are all books with little boy protagonists. All abandoned a few hundred pages in. A little knoll seems to have appeared in this particular trail when I switched schools and reading took a back seat over tests and exams. No more leisurely browsing or grazing in neighbouring pastures. Results were everything. Plus, there were the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books that rob you of challenge. (Thank god there was no Harry Potter back then.) Definitely a downward slide. Then, a miracle in the form of a bout of chicken-pox, (yay, no school) which could also be called the Return of the classic.The Mill on the floss, Childhood, boyhood and youth, Pride and prejudice. Clearly I was back on track. Books themselves were as tasty as the enormous sandwiches that Enid Blyton described with such mouth-watering and brain-stultifying regularity.

By this time, there were many more twists and turns to be navigated. Books had to be abandoned almost for good in the pursuit of other rigours; a degree in Maths. But they returned, when that subject lost its lure — with all of the sensual allure that Updike describes — fragrant bindings and trim edges and all. I think they will stay.