Posted in book review., Books, Poems

The Golden Treasury of Poetry–Favourite Books-2

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About a month ago I was a judge at an elocution contest at a local school. Twenty-nine schools participated, and one from each school, from each of the classes 3,4, 5, had to recite a poem. Listening to and giving marks to around 85-90 children was quite a task!

All had perfect memory and confidence, despite mispronouncing some words. Many poems were repeated, perhaps they were in their textbooks? For some reason ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was a favourite with class five.

I wished at that time they had access to this wonderful book, The Golden Treasury of Poetry, selected by Louis Untermeyer, and with the beautiful drawings of Joan Walsh Anglund.

This book was gifted to me when I was nine years old, and it is still a prized possession. As the Foreword says: ‘This is a book to grow on, this is a book to grow with…’ It has funny poems, short poems, long serious poems, and others of all kinds that would appeal to a growing child. They are by poets well-known, less known, and even by those who are anonymous.

Some have remained in my head over the years, for instance: ‘Speak gently spring, and make no sudden sound,/For in my windy valley, yesterday I found/ New-born foxes, squirming on the ground./ Speak gently.’ [Four Little Foxes, by Lew Sarett]. There is T.S. Eliot on cats, William Cowper on a snail, Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember, I remember’, extracts from Shakespeare, poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, classic poems such as The Pied Piper and The Inchcape Rock, Kentucky Belle, and an entire section called ‘Laughter Holding Both Its Sides’, as well as so many more. Rosalie Grayer’s ‘Altar Smoke’ too, comes to mind, beginning with the words: ‘Somewhere inside of me/There must have always been/ A tenderness/ For the little, lived with things/ A man crowds upon his worn fistful of earth….’

The book is still available and I thought of recommending it to schools till I saw its exorbitant price of Rs. 74,000! Certainly, a valuable book to have!

I have other wonderful poetry collections too–will write more on them sometime.

 

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Posted in Books, India, History

Why is 2008 an Unforgettable Year for India?: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

Author Roshen Dalal in her new book, ‘India at 70’, explores the journey of India through its 70 years since Independence in the minutest details. The enthralling read is not just a dive into the rich history of the country, but also a celebration of the major milestones in every aspect and field of society.

In the following excerpt from the book, Roshen Dalal takes a deeper look into why the year 2008 will always be considered unforgettable in the history of modern India.

The year 2008 had some unforgettable moments.

Floods are not uncommon in the monsoon season, but in August that year, the floods in Bihar were exceptionally severe. River Kosi changed course, and over 2.3 million people were affected.

In October, the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement was signed and was considered a landmark treaty. According to this, the US would provide India with nuclear fuel and technology…

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Posted in Books, Bookshop

A basement full of books

As I woke this morning a memory surfaced of being in a basement full of books. Not sure why I remembered it but gradually all the details of that day surfaced.

I had gone to a bookshop in Delhi, and was browsing through books on religion in ancient India. A young woman came up to me. ‘I have a lot of such books’, she said, ‘and I want to give them away. They belonged to my father-in-law, he has died, and I don’t want them, I want to clear the basement where they are stored.’

‘Ask a second-hand bookshop’, I suggested. But, she said her father-in-law loved those books. She wanted to give them to someone who would love them too. Won’t you come and see them?, she asked. ‘I’ll come some time’, I said, trying to put her off, but, ‘Why not come now?’, she insisted. ‘I’ll take you there in my car and drop you back.’ For some reason, I agreed, got into this unknown woman’s car and went to her house. As we entered, she locked, bolted, and triple locked the door. I began to have some doubts. There was no one else in the house. Soon, she led me to the basement, and I saw it certainly was full of books. As I moved forward to look at them, the electricity went off. There was a faint light from a high-up window. ‘Oh’, said the woman, ‘let me check’, and she left, locking the door behind her. Now here I was, stuck in a dimly lit basement, surrounded by books that I  hardly wanted to look at. To add to it, somehow I had left my handbag upstairs. Those were the days before mobile phones, but still I began to regret everything I had done that morning. Was I going to end my days in a basement, and if so why?

To my surprise, about five minutes later the door opened. ‘I can’t tell what has happened to the electricity’, she said. ‘Would you like to bring some of the books upstairs?’ I picked up two books and ascended the stairs. ‘I’ll  make tea’, she offered. ‘I need to go’, I said.  ‘Please take the books you have chosen’, she said. ‘Take more if you can.’ ‘I’ll come some other time’, I responded.

I picked up my handbag, I could see it had been opened. Somewhat reluctantly she unlocked the triple-locked door, and muttered something about not being able to drop me back. I escaped into the sunshine, and took an auto home.

An anti-climax? A pointless story? Perhaps, but the memory has remained all these years. And those two books are still with me.

Posted in Books

Thinking about books….

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Medieval Indian Literature

A reading group posted about how unhappy they were about people who borrowed books and did not return them, or who returned them stained and tattered.

Perhaps I was like them once. Today, I don’t lend non-fiction for practical reasons. I need to refer to them when I write. But I lend fiction to anyone who requests a book, and if the book is not returned I forget about it.

I used to be an avid book-collector, and to some extent I still am, but that possessiveness of earlier days is gone.

When I went to teach in Rishi Valley, I took with me two suitcases–as so many things had to be packed for a stay that lasted several years, I could take only four or five books with me. The rest were stored in the house of a friend.

As time passed I realized I did not need those books. Those I liked were in my head, in my memories. Rishi Valley had a good enough library, so that I was never short of books to read. By the time I returned from there, half the stored books were lost. I did not mourn them, as their essence remained in me.

Today I once again have a large library as well as many on kindle, but my attitude to books has changed. Nothing is ever lost, even if I never see those books of the past.

Posted in death, Hinduism, India, Religion, Upanishads

Life after death

The Brahma Sutra, a Sanskrit text assigned to various dates between the 5th century BCE and the first Century CE, is one of the most complex texts, impossible to understand without a commentary. What, for instance, can the average reader understand from a one word sutra that says, ‘kampanat’, i.e, ‘trembles’. Only the commentators know what this refers to, and which passages in the Upanishads are connected with this.

After many passages explaining Brahman, the ultimate cause of the world and the only reality, the third chapter begins with  a discussion on reincarnation. Quoting various Upanishads as usual, the commentators explain the terse short statements. When the individual soul departs from the body, they say, it is accompanied by subtle elements, as well as prana, or the breath, and by the eleven indriyas or senses. After spending some time in a heavenly world or in hell, the soul returns to earth to a new body, based on its residual karma, that is those actions that still have not been exhausted by enjoyment or sorrow in heaven or hell.

This brief account is of course, a simplification of the text, but provides some indications on theories of reincarnation.

 

 

Posted in History, India

When the Journey Began: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

In 2017, India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan is orbiting Mars, satellites are regularly sent into space, the economy is growing rapidly and India’s diverse art and culture is appreciated globally. And, most importantly, India is the largest democracy in the world.

The story of India as an independent nation began seventy years ago, in 1947, when the country gained independence after almost 200 years of British rule. For the first time, India became a united political entity, a nation with clearly defined boundaries. What type of country would the new India be? Would it remain united and strong?

At this time, the territory known as India consisted of eleven British provinces and some additional areas directly under British rule as well as 565 Indian states (also called princely states) where the British had overall control. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted a separate state of Pakistan, and finally it…

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Posted in History, India

India: 70 Years of Independence

Penguin India Blog

By Roshen Dalal

India celebrates 70 years of independence on 15 August, and we may wonder why this date is so important. A simple answer is that on this date in 1947, India gained freedom from almost 200 years of British rule. But further questions follow. What was wrong with British rule? How was it different from that of earlier invaders and settlers? Through the narrow passes and river valleys in the high mountains, India had seen many invasions from ancient times. Darius I (522-486 BCE)of Persia (Iran) included part of north-west India in his territories. Alexander, the Macedonian conquerer, too, came to the north-west in 336 BCE, but could not stay long. The Bactrian Greeks (from 200 BCE), the Parthians (1st century CE), Kushanas (1st to 3rd centuries CE), Indo-Sasanians (3rd -4th centuries CE), and Hunas (5th century CE), and were among other invaders. All of them set up…

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Posted in India, J Krishnamurti, president of India, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Theosophy

Rukmini Devi Arundale–the woman who could have been president of India

India’s presidential elections take place next month, with two main candidates, Ram Nath Kovind, who has been an MP and governor of Bihar, and Meira Kumar. It is more or less definite that Kovind, the BJP candidate will win, though Meira Kumar too has excellent credentials–a woman, a Dalit, who had a career in the foreign service before joining politics. She has been a union minister, a speaker of the Lok Sabha, and is the daughter of the late Babu Jagjivan Ram.

The only woman president so far has been Pratibha Devisingh Patil.

But Rukmini Devi Arundale was the one who could have been the first woman president of India. She was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s. In 1977 she was invited by the then prime minister Morarji Desai, to become the president, or at  least to stand for election, but she refused. Perhaps there have been others who have refused over the years?

Rukmini Devi  (29 February 1904- 24 February 1986) was an extraordinary person. Her father, Neelakanta Sastri, an engineer and Sanskrit scholar, joined the Theosophical Society and moved to live near its headquarters at Adyar, Madras [now Chennai], after his retirement. Influenced by Theosophy, she was a beautiful young girl of 16, when she decided to marry George Arundale, an Englishman, a Theosophist, and a man who at 42, was much older than her. Her decision created a furore in the sedate circles of Madras, but she went ahead, and soon became even more closely involved with the world of Theosophy. At the same time she revived and made Indian dance respectable again, founded Kalakshetra, the dance institute in Madras [Chennai] and laid the foundations for  animal welfare in India. In the course of her life she received numerous awards, and wrote and lectured on several topics.

Just as Jiddu Krishnamurti was put forward by the Theosophists as the messiah and world teacher, Rukmini Devi was named the ‘world mother’. [see earlier post: Two Philosophers of Modern India, for more on J Krishnamurti]. In 1925, at the Order of the Star meeting at Ommen, Annie Besant announced: ‘Rukmini of glorious past will be Rishi Agastya’s messenger to the women and young ones In India….Young in body, yet she is old in wisdom and power…’. Rukmini did not openly repudiate her, but gradually moved away from the role.

Was her marriage a happy one? Initially it would seem so, but as George Arundale grew older, he became rather odd.

These are just some snippets of the extraordinary life of Rukmini Devi.

Posted in Hinduism, India, Philosophy, Upanishads

The Upanishads–1

The Upanishads are a series of Sanskrit texts that form part of Vedic literature. As I am writing a book on the Upanishads, a sequel to that on the Vedas, I have been posting a few snippets from them. Here I have put together some of those snippets, with a few additions.

There are 108 classic Upanishads with different themes and varied contents. The main aim of every Upanishad, is however, the realization of Brahman, the ultimate source of all, which some schools of philosophy consider identical with the atman, the soul in each person.

The Brahma Sutra is a text that recognises this central theme, and puts together the main ideas on Brahman from the Upanishads.

The first sutra in this text is ‘athato brahmajijnasa’, ‘now therefore the inquiry into Brahman’. This small word ‘atha’ has been so extensively analyzed by commentators, that the commentaries amount to over a hundred pages. ‘Now’ , implies that there are some prerequisites before one can start such an inquiry, into that immutable and undefinable concept of Brahman. These prerequisites are extensively described, though commentators don’t agree on what they are. Without the commentators it is impossible to understand a sutra, which is a short, terse, minimalist statement.

The Upanishads are of different types. Some form a link between the earlier Vedic  texts and the philosophy of these.
The most important are termed major Upanishads, They have commentaries of the great philosopher Shankara of the 9th century [Adi Shankaracharya].

Studying the Upanishads enables one to understand the identity of the atman with Brahman. One cannot realise this when one is totally immersed in activities in the world.

The Upanishads write about ‘guha’ the cave in the body. This is often qualified as the ‘inner cave’ or ‘the cave within the heart’. It is there that the eternal light of the atman or soul, is to be sought. This special place is called a cave because of its hidden and secret nature.

How does one reach this ‘cave within the heart’, where the eternal light shines? An ethical life and control over the mind and senses, are the first step, according to the Upanishads.

‘This atman, resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasis behold, residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge, and continence.’ Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.7.