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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Solitude of Emperors

Having read Davidar's first book, it was only natural to pick up his second book, “ The Solitude of Emperors”; to read. It is so different from his first book, yet there are similarities. If caste and racial issues were intertwined in  the earlier plot, communal violence dominates this plot.

The narrator of the story, young Vijay is a budding journalist who , due to sheer boredom of life in a small town in South India, breaks out his cocoon to take up a job with a magazine in Mumbai. Mr Sorabji's magazine, "The Secularist",  has a small but dedicated readership of people who share his vision of a secular India.

Mr Sorabji becomes a  father figure for Vijay and he just soaks up the ideas and vision expounded by his mentor. But for Vijay, it is all just abstarct ideas till the time communal violence breaks out in mumbai, following the demolition of Babri masjid. He gets caught up in the violence on the streets and is a mute witness to riots and killings in all the gory details. His magazine runs a major story on the riots and riot victims as part of the campaign for a secular India.

The second part of the book covers Vijay's experience at the Nilgiris where another disputed Shrine is under attack by the right wing activists. It is here that Sorabji's manuscript is introduced, from which the title of the book is derived.  The artcle is addressed to the young people of the country for instilling of secular values through a study of the lives of Asoka, the emperor of renunciation, Akbar, the emperor of faith and Gandhi, the emperor of truth.

There are two imposing , well defined characters to cover the two main divergent view points, viz, Mr Sorabji, the editor of 'The secularist' and Rajan, the entrepreneur-politician. While Mr Sorabji, believes in convergence of religions for the good of the mankind, Rajan convincingly argues that a strong Hindu rashtra alone can bring in peace and prosperity for all including the minorities.

The most lovable character in the novel, is the  vagabond called Noah, who has seen it  all, done it all , in his 'ripe' age of 36 and is now content to live in the local cemetry with his dope, flowers, a dog called' godless' and his great collection of contemporary european poetry. While all other characters move on predictable lines, it is this loose canon that adds life to the narration in the second part of the book.

The first part of the novel covering Vijay's escapades in mumbai is highlighted by a gripping narration with a meticulous eye for details. In the second part, the narration is more like a tourist guide book, with long interruptions by  sermons in history, ie Sorabji's manuscript on the 'emperors'. Yet there is enough momentum to keep the readers' interest in the ultimate fate of the shrine. Will it also go the Babri Masjid way and if so with what consequences ?

An immensely readable book, if only for the excellent characterization of Mr Sorabji and Noah.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Meal at Gurudwara, Mhow

It was not the first time I was going to a Gurudwara. During the days when we were co-located with a unit of the Sikh Regiment, I have attended many functions at Gurudwara, but more often than not it used to be just another 'Parade'.

Last week a retired army officer, invited us; insisted that I should bring my mother along; to a Gurudwara at Mhow for a keertan followed by lunch, to celebrate the wedding anniversaries of his son and daughter. We were a little surprised, since the gentlemen was from south of Vindhyas and so were his son-in-law and daughter in law.

A word about the places of worship in army; in most of the places including at College of Military Engineering (MCTE) , Mhow, portions of a military barrack are used as 'Mandir' Masjid, Gurudwara or Church. Very often it happens that when a Jat unit takes over a barrack from a Sikh unit, the Gurudwara is converted to a Mandir overnight. The flag is changed from yellow to red and the Guru Granth Sahib is replaced by  idols of Radha and Krishna. In the units having mixed troops , they have what we call an MMG (Mandir-Masjid-Gurudwara) functioning under the same roof.

Anyway, we did attend the function in full strength. The Gurudwara in the army area was clean, well maintained and very well organized. Most of the people attending were from 'The Signals Vihar' a colony of retired officers. One could sense a general atmosphere of peace and contentedness. After the Ardhas (Arati for Hindus) , which was attended by the pundit from the Mandir next door, among others, lunch was served outside the main hall. Everyone was seated on the floor on a long 'chatai' (a carpet) and food was served by volunteers . The meal was simple and wholesome. I was glad I could sit cross legged on the floor (though not as much at ease as I wished) and many of the guests were sitting on the edge of the verandah , with legs half strecthed, half folded, to ease the creaking joints . There was a distinct feeling of fraternity, though there people from all ranks, including a couple of Lieutinent generals.

I was reminded of the community meal , I used to have at Divine Life Society at Hrishikesh , on my way to Harsil where I was posted for two years. A simple meal of daal, rice, roti and vegetables tastes so delicious when partaken, in a warm and friendly atmosphere.

(Photos do not pertain to Mhow, but  random picks from the net)

Tail piece : An anecdote going round in army circles: A young sardar in a unit asked his ustad, "yeh Christmas kya hota hai ? chhuti kyon manate hain ?" and his Ustad, assuming a posture of prayer with bowed head and folded hands, explained "yeh isaayiyon ka Guru purab hota hai" (This day is the Guru purab of Christians)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review : House of Blue mangoes

What drew me to the book was that it was set in rural Tamilnadu and that the author was my class-fellow at school. Firstly, about the author, I shall restrict myself to some trivia, which is not in the public domain, since a simple googling of the name can give you more inputs than you can read.

Roll No 605, Bharathi feeder house in 1968, Chera house and finally passed out from Valluvar house in 1975.  In all likelihood, his writing career started with "Nonsense Rhymes" , published in the school magazine, Amarsainik 1968, If my memory serves me right, it went something like this;

there was Mr cork,
who killed a huge hawk,
with a piece of chalk,

In School, David was a voracious reader and he won prizes for recitation, essay writing and short story writing. 

Coming to the book, the story covers three generations of the Dorai family, set in rural Tamilnadu, in the period from 1899 to 1946. These were very turbulent and eventful years that saw more churning, in the political, economical and social life in India , as compared to any period over 2000 years of history.

The main characters are Solomon Dorai, Daniel Dorai and Kannan Dorai, who respond to the challenges of their own generations in the 'Dorai' spirit. If the first generation was mired in caste wars, the second was affected by nationalist movement. The third, had to tackle the social churning and the uneasy equations between, Indians, white-men and the Anglo-Indians. There is a portrayal of two strong women , Charity and Lily, who free the Dorai men to pursue their eccentric ways and to nurture their inflated egos, while they themselves toil to keep the family together as much as possible.

Narration is simple and easily flowing, particular when Tamil words are easily interposed, with no annotation, brackets or italics.

.....spinster chithis and decrepit thathas were singing along....

The rural beliefs and way of thinking is conveyed through the characters, without any commentary or moderation.

.........Every villager knew that a man didn't find soil that suited his nature would not prosper. Brahmins thrived on sweet soil, like that found in the delta at the mouth of the river, which is why Subramania Sastrigal and his ambitious young son would never thrive on the astringent soil of Chevathar. They might squeak and flail away at the Dorais but one roar from Solomon would send them scurrying for cover. But surely the kunam of the Vedhars matched the soil of the Chevathar, which was neither sweet nor sour, salty or pungent but fairly bitter-the soil of people of the earth, farmers and artisans...............

Right through the book, the blue mangoes are loved, missed, venerated, glorified; well, the blue mango is more than a fruit; it represents love for one's native place, மண் வாசனை , family, clan honour, clan spirit and what not.

There is detailed descriptions of well jumping in rural tamilnadu, shikar and life in a tea estate. There is a vivid description of tadpole catching by a little boy, which took me back to our own tadpole catching sprees in the puddles among the rocks between Chera house and the water tank. David was very sharp and I could never catch a single one.

There are many historical events interpolated in the story, and at time it is difficult to separate facts from fiction. 1899 caste riot at Sivakasi, 'upper-cloth' wars of Travancore, assassination of Ashe Dorai (the collector of Thirunelvali) are the major events described in the novel. DD mentions in the Author's note , that he had to invent three new castes so that he did not add to the caste controversies, in Tamilnadu, Kerala and the country at large. The author also says that these castes share some similarities with some of the non-brahmin casstes in the south. I must say , there is more than just some similarities.  I think, in the land of 'Satyakam' , we should not be shy of speaking a bitter truth.  David's 'Andavar' is so much like nadars and one of the fictitious castes ,' vedhar' sounds so much like 'dhevar'  

The acknowledgement section is exhaustive, which goes to show the kind of background research which had gone into writing of the book.

It is definitely a readable book,