Posted in Books, Chekhov, Literature, Sri Aurobindo

Living in solitude

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A man lives in a room for 15 years, without contact with the outside world. He gets his food, and he  can ask for other items, and he stocks up on books. This is part of a story written by Anton Chekhov [1860-1904], the noted Russian writer. The story is called The Bet, and it begins with a discussion on the death penalty, an argument between a lawyer and a banker. The banker feels it is better to die then live a life in prison, but the lawyer disagrees. Next the bet takes place–the banker offers him 2 million rubles if he will endure a life alone in one room for fifteen years. The lawyer takes up the challenge. Initially, as he settles into the room, he is unhappy, but then he begins to read. As he reads, he starts to understand the futility of money, and gets a glimpse of the true meaning of life. The fifteen years has almost come to an end, the banker meanwhile has lost all his money. He thinks of killing the lawyer, and creeps into his room, where he finds the lawyer asleep, with a note written to him, stating that he has understood life, and does not want the money. The banker silently leaves the room, and the lawyer escapes from there before the fifteen years have quite ended, thus freeing the banker from his pledge.

I read this powerful story long ago as a teenager, and the memory of it remained with me. I loved the idea of spending fifteen years in a room, with everything taken care of, reading and reading. I think the story is just a device, used to indicate the power of words, and of the true meaning of life.

And there was one person, who actually lived like this through his own choice, and that was Sri Aurobindo. More on him later.

Posted in Books, History, world history

Books on North Korea

This week  I have read a number of books on North Korea. For those who are interested, here is a brief summary.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is a work of fiction, with a historical background. The story covers about eight decades, set in both Korea and Japan, and its aim is really to depict the complexities of the lives of ordinary Koreans, first under Japanese occupation, and then after the division into North and South Korea. The negative Japanese attitude to Koreans is clearly brought out.
  2. Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. An incredible book by someone high up in the hierarchy of North Korea, who then escaped to the South. The predictive reality of Orwell’s 1984 is clear in this book, as while working for the government the author had to take on a fake South Korean name, and write in praise of the North as if he was writing from the South.
  3. A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa. An apt title for a really dark book about the poor conditions in North Korea, a life of deprivation and starvation. The author finally escapes, but it is not exactly a happy ending. Being half-Japanese, he was accepted neither in Korean nor in Japanese society.
  4. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. Another harrowing escape story from North Korea. However, life in North Korea was much better for a Korean, rather than a half-Japanese. She writes of a close knit society, good neighbours, and prosperity during the 1960s and 1970s when the North was well-funded by China and the USSR.
  5. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park. Another escape story, and a description of life in North Korea.

All these books also provide descriptions of the typical way of life in North Korea.

 

 

Posted in Books, Writers, Writing

When I met Alan Sillitoe

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Apart from Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a few others, one of my favourite writers, though very different from them, is Alan Sillitoe [1928-2010]. It was after I read his brilliant short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that I began reading his other books, among which my favourite is The Storyteller. A working class boy, Sillitoe started work at the age of 14 in a bicycle factory, but went on to become a world famous writer.

I thought of him today because of a question posed on social media, have you ever met a famous writer and what effect did this have on your writing? Of course, I have met many well-known Indian writers, my mother being one of them! But among international writers, the one I remember is Alan Sillitoe.

It was 1979 or 80 perhaps. He came to India, and then to JNU in New Delhi. I don’t remember if he gave any public talks, but he spoke specifically to a small group at the history centre. He was simple and informal, and during the interactive talk, he said that he loved maps. Those were pre-digital days, and after the talk I took him to see our collection of 1 inch to 1 mile Survey of India maps. They were not easily available and could not be accessed by the public. Acquired for a special project, a form had to be filled and signed every year stating that the maps were safe and secure.

Sillitoe spent some time looking at them and seemed fascinated. We discussed his books, he was surprised that I had read them all and was such a fan. What effect did the meeting have on me as a writer? None, as I wasn’t a writer then, and had no idea I would become one. But his books, and the simplicity of his writing, certainly influenced me.

 

Posted in History, India, Mahatma Gandhi, Writers, Writing

Writers and nationalism

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There must be innumerable writers who are, in some sense nationalists, or who write about their own country.  The Russian writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to mind. However, nationalism which leads to hatred of the ‘other’ seems unacceptable in a writer. The best writing, one that is long lasting, can include details of a place or country, and yet have a universal theme. Writers are rooted in the land where they live, or where they were born, and that forms the theme or background of much writing. I too write on India, and from an Indian perspective, about its history, culture, religion and its natural beauty, its wonderful arts and crafts. At the same time, one can still appreciate other countries and their histories and traditions.

India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, but forgets his words. Gandhi, lived, worked, and died for India, but his views were never narrow or limited.

Here is a quote from him.
I would like to see India free and strong so that she may offer herself as a willing and pure sacrifice for the betterment of the world. The individual, being pure, sacrifices himself for the family, the latter for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, the nation for all. (YI, 17-9-1925, p. 321)

 

Posted in History, India, Religion

Looking at the history of religion

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Each religion has both positive and negative aspects, as they change over time and are added to and interpreted by innumerable people. Even those immersed in faith, belief and spirituality, may like to also trace the history of their own religion, to understand how it developed.

The sources for the study of the history of religion are immense. Apart from texts, sources  include artefacts and material remains discovered through archaeological explorations and excavations;   coins, seals and inscriptions; sculptures, images, and various extant structures.

There are several different approaches to the history of religion, including the sociological, Marxist, and psychoanalytical approaches, as well as the anthropological, historical and phenomenological approaches.

One can either ignore religion entirely, or maintain some beliefs and practices. For people who believe in or practice religion and move from outer beliefs to an inner spirituality, tolerance, understanding and knowledge, expand and grow.  From the sages of the Upanishads, to the Bhakti saints, the Sufi mystics, and the spiritual gurus of more recent times,  all religions emphasise  the Oneness of life and the sense of universal love that underlies every spiritual experience.

The quotes given below are a few examples of thousands of similar sayings:

‘God has no country, dress, form, limit or hue. God is omnipresent, his universal love is everywhere.’ (Guru Gobind Singh, Jap Sahib)

‘In every age and dispensation all Divine Ordinances are changed and transformed according to the requirements of time, except the law of love.’ (Bahaullah).

‘I have come to light the lamp of Love in your hearts, to see that it shines day by day with added lustre. I have not come on behalf of any religion.’ (Sathya Sai Baba, 4 July 1968).

However, there is no one religion that is the sole representative of Truth, or that has all the answers.

‘Truth cannot be shut up in a single book, Bible or Veda or Quran, or in a single religion. The Divine Being is eternal and universal and infinite’, says  Sri Aurobindo, and adds, ‘All religions have some truth in them, but none has the whole truth; all are created in time and finally decline and perish.’ (The Integral Yoga, Selected letters p.352). This can clearly be seen in India, where so many religious beliefs coalesce, and where religions change over time, and are re-created, emerging in different forms.

Long ago the emperor Ashoka [ruled 269-232 BCE] wrote in his Twelfth Major Rock Edict: ‘One should honour another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other…Concord is to be commended, so than men may hear one another’s principles and obey them’.

[This  is based on extracts from  my book,

Religions of India: A Concise Guide to Nine Major Faiths [Penguin India, 2006, 2010, 2014]].

 

 

Posted in Books, Hermann Hesse, Magic Mountain, The Glass Bead Game, Thomas Mann

Favourite books–a random list

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Over the years I have made different lists of favourite books, though the first two would be in every list. Re-posting a list from 2015

1.The Glass Bead Game by HermannHesse.
2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
3. Most other books by Hesse and Mann [but not Siddhartha].
4. The Morning and the Evening by Joan Williams.
5. A Multitude of Sins by J A Cuddon.
6. Dibs—in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.
7. Place Mill by Barbara Softly [a children’s book]
8. The Synthesis of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
10. Europe: A History, by Norman Davies.
11. Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; also The First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by the same author.
12. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.
13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
14. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
15. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
16. All the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
17. The Mahabharata.
18. The Ramayana of Tulasidasa.
19. Manimekhalai
2o. The Golden Treasury [F.T. Palgrave]

Posted in dog, Zoroastrianism

The dog in Zoroastrianism

A recent post on Facebook depicts a graphic in which a dog allows its owner/carer into heaven. And this actually is a tradition in Zoroastrianism, where we find both cows and dogs given a lot of importance. In fact one could say the dog is really the most important animal as indicated by several passages in Zoroastrian texts. For instance,  the Vendidad states, that the dog is one of the creatures of the good spirit (Spenta Mainyu), which always serves man and should be cared for. Another passage points out its usefulness. ‘The dog, O Spitama Zarathushtra! I, Ahura Mazda have made self-clothed and self-shod, watchful, wakeful and sharp-toothed, born to take his food from man and watch over man’s goods.. Whosoever shall wake at his voice, neither shall the thief nor the wolf steal anything from his house..’ (xiii.106-7). Much of the Vendidad also lists punishments for ill-treating a dog, or not feeding it properly.

The dog  is also associated with the other world. In the Arda Viraf Namah, Zerioug Goash is a dog that guards the Chinvat Bridge. Devils quake at his bark, and any soul who on earth has hurt, ill-used or destroyed any of these animals, is prevented from going further.

For those unfamiliar with the religion, Zarathushtra is the prophet who founded the religion, Ahura Mazda is God, and the Chinvat Bridge is the bridge that has to be crossed after death.

Posted in Books, History, Writing

My first published book

I had written this post below four years ago, and thought of re-posting it, as this morning I remembered an incident related to the book. I had read a book called Small Miracles, and this was something that could be categorised as one. Of course, a critique of the book said they were just coincidences, so this is a coincidence I still remember. It was probably 1996, mid summer in Delhi, temperatures around 44 centigrade. There were no mobile phones in those days. Finally, I had been allotted an editor for the book, and as she had a small baby she was working from home. I had her address and set out to visit her in Chittaranjan Park. But once there I could not locate the house. I walked in circles, asked everyone, received directions, but still could not find it. The heat was unbearable. I stopped to breathe, and thought I had better go home. At that moment a sannyasi in orange robes passed me. I hardly noticed him, but suddenly I felt a gust of cold air. In that blazing dry heat, it was cool and moist. Refreshed, I walked on a few steps, and there I was at the gate of the house I had been searching for . A very small incident–only if one had actually experienced the heat and exhaustion, and then that cold air, could one know why I still recollect it.


The earlier post

The Puffin History of India
The Puffin History of India

Perhaps because my mother was a writer, and because the house was always full of books, and I spent most of my time reading, I always believed I was a writer. Somehow, though, I became one only late in life, and almost by chance. After a stint in academics, a PhD, spending years doing research in a musty library, I moved on to become an editor. Then an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti took me to teach in a school in south India run on his philosophy. After a few years there, teaching history and geography to youngsters, I realised there were no books in history that they wanted to read on their own. Teaching there I had begun to understand the kind of books young people required. I approached Penguin India with an idea for several small books on different dynasties, but instead they suggested a single book on Indian history. After sending them a synopsis and sample chapters, I had a contract. I wrote the book in longhand, got it typed, revised it, and got it retyped–I think it was probably the only book for which I kept to the deadline! Meanwhile, Puffin, the children’s division of Penguin, had its own problems, and closed down for some time. Submitted in 1993, the book was finally published in 1997! I had almost given up on it by then, had left the school, and was back to editing. This book, now called The Puffin History of India vol 1, is in its 3rd edition, and continues to have steady sales. A few years later I was pushed by my editor to write its sequel, on India after independence, which is now The Puffin History of India vol 2. After that I went on to write more books.

Posted in Dehradun, India, Nature, wasps

the empty nest…wasps do no harm

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The wasps built their nest in the back garden in the cats’ enclosure and before I noticed it, they had begun to occupy it. That was a few months ago, and soon it grew longer. I knew they wouldn’t harm anyone if they were left alone, but I was worried the cats may leap at it. I kept a watch on the cats for a few days but they and the wasps paid no attention to each other. Then, as winter approached, by the beginning of November, the wasps departed.

Unnecessarily people knock down their nests or smoke them out. They disturb no one, if they are undisturbed, and help the environment too. In Dehradun, India.

Posted in India, J Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti on human rights

During India’s Internal Emergency, 1975-76, many rights were suspended by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In 1975 J Krishnamurti [1895-1986] did not come to India, as he felt he would not be able to speak freely. Then Pupul Jayakar, close to both him and Indira, assured him there would be no problem, and he came in the winter of 1976, giving talks as usual. He met Indira a few times, and Pupul recorded in her biography of him, that it was these meetings that led Indira to rethink, call off the Emergency and hold elections in 1977. Below is an extract of one of his talks in the Rajghat School in Varanasi in 1976.

‘In the world, freedom is gradually being denied to human beings. Human rights are being gradually chipped away; human beings are being made into machines, human beings are now becoming slaves, not only to their gurus with their concentration camps that are called ashramas, but also politically, religiously, the gradual process of squeezing man into what the others or power dictate.’  Public talk 1, Rajghat, India, 3 November 1976.