Posted in book review., Books, Education

Education–Not Just Grades

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School education has so many variations, and across India there are schools that are trying to educate differently. Rajeev Sharma puts together the stories of some of these schools in this book, Not Just Grades.

Here we come across schools that have done away with exams and textbooks in the lower classes, and schools that specialise in admitting failures! There is a principal who makes a difference by first trying to get a good relationship with the students, and does this by sitting outside the school greeting the students who enter. This simple move was the beginning of an improvement in all aspects of the school. The book covers both urban and rural schools, as well as schools for first-generation learners.

Worth reading for anyone interested in education.

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Posted in book review., Books, Writers, Writing

Writers and book reviews

Times have certainly changed. In the past there was no self-promotion. Writers spent their lives writing, some were recognised, some excellent authors faded away, hardly known.

Recently, I read a short review of a book [I am not  sharing its name or that of the reviewer], that said something to the effect that it was written by undoubtedly the best writer of the 21st century–a brilliant new voice. How is it I had never heard of this book or author? I downloaded a sample. In the very first paragraph there were grammatical errors. Proceeding further, the story meandered in a meaningless way. Unable to continue I deleted the sample. The author was self-published and had paid a new small publisher, first for publishing it, and then for promoting the book.

I am not against self-publishing, in fact I believe it is the best way for an author to retain control over her work. But I am against fake reviews that people are paid to write. I have received several offers myself, Rs 4000 for four good reviews of your latest book, etc. , which of course I would never take up. If the book is good, or if it is controversial, people will review it themselves, without any encouragement or inducement.

Then there are those reviewers who are not paid, but rush to write critical reviews online, of books they have hardly understood–reviews that are again full of errors.

In today’s world, it is okay to advertise, perhaps it is essential, but shouldn’t a reviewer be honest, whether paid or unpaid? And shouldn’t they at least have basic writing skills, and some background knowledge?

Posted in book review., Books, Hiroshima, History

Learning from history: Hiroshima and memories of the bomb

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What is the point of knowing about the past? This was a question often put to me as a teacher. Why do we need to know about it at all? Considering how different versions of the past are put forward and misused to prove some  point or the other, one can sympathise with the is question. Still, one hopes that by knowing about the past at least some of its terrible tragedies would not be repeated. And among the greatest tragedies was that created by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 6 August 1945, the first ever nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan by  an American plane at 8.15 am. Eighty thousand people were killed that day, and many more thousand died over the years of sickness caused by radiation. Three days later, on 9 August, another bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, killing between 60,000-80,000 people. Most of the deaths were of civilians. The bombing brought an end to World War II, with the surrender of Japan, but the USA continues to be criticised for this till today.

There are historical, as well as survivors accounts of this horrific event. Yet one of the best accounts, clearly depicting in detail the aftermath of the bomb, can be read in a book by a Japanese novelist, which focuses on Hiroshima.

Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), by Masuji Ibuse, though classified as fiction, reads like a memoir. It is an account of that day and subsequent events, and at the same time brings us vignettes of Japanese life. These are not based on Ibuse’s own experiences, but as he was born in Hiroshima prefecture,  obviously  what happened there affected him deeply, and he later wrote the book using the accounts of survivors. His story Kakitsubata (Crazy Iris) was published earlier, also with the theme of the atomic bomb, about an iris that changes after radiation.

Black Rain was first published in Japanese in 1966.  Paul Brians, who has written on the atomic war in fiction, calls it, ‘the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written.’ The book opens with Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, more than a 100 miles east of Hiroshima, wondering how to get his niece  Yasuko married. It  was difficult as there were rumours that she was the victim of radiation sickness. At the  time the bomb was dropped, the Shizumas, Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko, were living in Hiroshima, and Yasuko lived with them, as she was working in a factory at nearby Furuichi. She and Shigematsu took the same train to work every day. The book begins  four years later .

Shigematsu was suffering from radiation sickness. He could still manage his daily life, he explains, as those who had a mild sickness could stay alive by eating nutritious food and not doing anything strenuous. Unable to work, Shigematsu and his two friends in a similar situation decided to try fish farming, and to rear carp. How was he to get Yasuko married? He thought that her would-be suitor could be convinced that she was healthy, if he was provided with her diary, which showed she was not affected by the bomb, and was not even in Hiroshima on that day. But Yasuko also records, that even if only for a minute, black rain had fallen on her.

About that day Yasuko wrote: ‘At Furue there was a great flash and boom. Black smoke rose up over the city of Hiroshima  like a volcanic eruption.’

‘It must have been about 10 am. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks, the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.’  Yasuko found her skin and clothes had marks like splashes of mud all over. They were impossible to wash off. She adds in her diary, ‘As a dye, I thought, it would be an unqualified success.’

Shigematsu decided to copy his diary out too, to preserve for posterity. He wrote: 6 August. ‘On my way to work, I entered Yokogawa station as usual to board the Kabe train’.  Kabe was just 14 km away.

‘At a point three metres to the left of the waiting train, I saw a ball of blindingly intense light, and simultaneously I was plunged into total unseeing darkness’. Then he describes the resulting confusion, as the black veil was pierced by screams and cries, and Shigematsu was pushed out as people struggled to escape, and bodies piled up. Shigematsu clung to a pillar, using all his strength. When he finally opened his eyes, ‘Everything within my field of vision seemed to be obscured with a light brown haze, and a white, chalky powder, was falling from the sky.’ He describes the sights, the wounded and the dead, he himself being slightly injured, the skin peeling off his left cheek. The Yukogawa shrine and all else around was destroyed. Then he describes the mushroom cloud. ‘The head of the mushroom would billow  out, first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever-changing shades of red, purple, lapis lazuli or green. And all the time it went on boiling out unceasingly from within….The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce…’.

He continues to copy out his diary, recording  the terrible sights and endless deaths, in between describing their quiet life in later years in the Japanese countryside. One farmers’ festival follows another, including one where prayers are said for dead insects, those that are killed while ploughing the land. And this peaceful Japanese life is contrasted with details of the terrible destruction, the dead bodies everywhere, teaming with maggots and flies, the weeds that somehow seemed to grow when everything else was a barren waste, the endless mass cremations that had to take place.

It seemed that Yasuko’s suitor was convinced that she was fine, and marriage became more likely. But though Yasuko remained apparently healthy for many years, the black rain or some other contamination had seeped into her, causing her to finally get radiation sickness, and details of this terrible illness too are provided. They could only hope for a miracle, but it seemed unlikely, she was just one more casualty of the all-round destruction.

Black Rain was made into a film by Shohei Imamura in 1989.

Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), a well-known Japanese writer, had written several books and won a number of awards, yet as far as possible he tried to remain away from the limelight.

Memoirs of the effects of the bomb include the recently published, Hiroshima: Memoirs of a Survivor by Sachi Komura Rummel, who was a young 8-year old girl at the time. Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) wrote down his experiences in a notebook, but committed suicide in 1951. His nephew Tokihiko Hara gained the copyright to his notebook and included it in his book, Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) also to be made into a movie. Sankuchi Toge (1917-1953) wrote poems on the terrible event. He died at the age of 36. There are also several eyewitness accounts which can be accessed online (for  instance www.hiroshima-remembered.com), as well as a number of books, both historical and personal accounts.

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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 book review., Books, India

Book review: A good book on wrestling!

I was looking up details on the food wrestlers eat [in India], and came across a fascinating book, The Wrestlers Body, by Joseph Alter.

This was published in 1992, so it doesn’t include the female wrestlers, and the recent movies, Sultan or Dangal, but it explores all aspects of a wrestler’s life in an akhara.

What do they eat? Most are vegetarian. Ghee, almonds, and milk are essential along with normal vegetarian food. No alcohol or tobacco, no drugs. No sex, they are supposed to be celibate. There are a lot of guidelines on how they should maintain this.

Their daily routine, worship of Hanuman, celebration of Nag Panchami, and a lot more is part of this book.

‘This is a study of wrestling as a system of meaning, and it must be made clear at the outset that I have not undertaken to study the technical aspects of the sport.’ says the author in his preface.

There are chapters on the akhara, the guru-chela system, patrons, and the discipline a wrestler requires.

The book is well-researched. I am not interested in wrestling or outdoor sports, nevertheless I really appreciated the book, and its insights into the philosophy and spirituality behind a sport, and how it transforms the individual.

Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6n39p104/

 

 

Posted in book review., Books, History, Literature

Red Scarf Girl

 A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  by Ji-Li Jiang [Harper Collins, 1998].

Many years ago I was involved in a project on post-Mao China. Reading through copies of the Beijing Review, I was captivated by the Chinese method of encapsulating long statements and concepts in a couple of words. Of course, the ‘double hundred’, was easy to understand, it was Mao’s policy stating ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,’ but several others were not so simple. The ‘two whatevers’  referred to following whatever policy Mao laid down, and whatever instructions he gave, which in the post-Mao period was not recommended.  ‘Eating from the same pot’, meant that everyone got the same payment, regardless of the amount and quality of the work done, while ‘the iron rice bowl’ was a term for a permanent job, which could not be terminated on any grounds.  Even some longer phrases were intriguing, for instance, ‘The Kremlin wants to pluck the ripe apple and put it in the basket.’ In this case, the ‘ripe apple’ was a reference to Iran.

I was reminded of all this when I read Red Scarf Girl, and the key phrases, the‘Four Olds’ and the ‘Four News’. Red Scarf Girl by  Ji-Li Jiang, is actually a book for young people, describing Ji-Li’s life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. The red scarf they proudly wore was a symbol representing communism and Mao. The name ‘Ji-Li’ means ‘lucky and beautiful’, and Ji-Li was a happy young girl till she was twelve. In the prologue to the book she says, ‘I never doubted what I was told: “Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.”’

Ji-Li’s family lived in Shanghai. Her father was a theatre actor, who also loved reading and was knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Her mother worked in a sports store, and her grandmother had been the vice-principal of a school.  The family included Ji-Li’s younger brother and sister, as well as a housekeeper, who had been their nanny and was was like a family member. There was also a pet cat, to complete the household.

Chairman Mao’s picture adorned her classroom, and was respected and revered. Ji-Li was a bright and confident girl, who excelled in school and had many friends. Her life began to change when a Liberation Army member from the Arts Academy, visited their class and chose Ji-Li as one of the students to audition for entry into this Academy. When an excited Ji-Li shared this news with her parents and grandmother, they asked her not to go for the audition, and explained that she would not be selected, because of a wrong background. Later, Ji-li learnt that her father was the son of a landlord. In the new China landlords were criticised,  yet  tradition mingled with the new, as the background and ancestors of a family were still considered important. Every day the people of China listened to Chairman Mao on the importance of removing the ‘Four Olds’, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits, but did not seem to realise that  looking at a family through its background, could also be one of the ‘four olds’, an inability to break with the past.

As the Cultural Revolution set in, the names of shops reflecting old culture had to be changed, for instance ‘Great Prosperity Market.’ ‘Prosperity’, ‘good fortune’, ‘innocent’ and even ‘peace’ were among names considered part of old culture. ‘Prosperity’, for instance, could only be achieved by exploitation, and ‘good fortune’ indicated superstition. Clothes too reflected the old, such as pointed shoes and  pants with narrow legs. At first Ji-li and her siblings felt proud and excited to contribute to the new way of life and wondered why their parents and grandmother were not as enthusiastic, when initially they had been staunch supporters of Chairman Mao. Gradually Ji-li felt increasingly confused, as the ‘Four Olds’ were extended to all walks of life, and youngsters gained the right  to torment others. Respecting parents, teachers and elders, long hair worn in braids, the prevailing educational system, protecting one’s own property, storing old clothes of the pre-revolutionary period, reading stories from other lands, were all among the ‘four olds’. Even pictures of people of the past wearing long gowns or mandarin jackets, were burnt. Weak students used the opportunity to criticise those who did well . Getting good marks in school was a hazard. Youngsters became Red Guards while those even younger were named Red Successors. Final exams were abolished in Ji-li’s school. She could not go to the high school of her choice. Red Guards approaching with gongs and drums ransacked houses looking for ‘four olds’. Punishments began to be meted out to older people by these young Red Guards. When Ji-li’s house was searched even her stamp album was taken away. Her father was detained, her mother and grandmother suffered.

Confused by what was going on, Ji-li even thought of changing her name and repudiating her family, something she was encouraged to do. But finally the love for her family prevailed. One thing that stands out in this book, is that there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. Ji-li and her family were Muslims, and there were very few in Shanghai, but among all the problems they faced, this was not one of them.

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasized equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to  illogical extremes. Behind this revolution were  political struggles  and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. Many were killed by Red Guards, others committed suicide. Fighting among Red Guard factions, killed some more. Did this phase in China’s history have long-term effects? Was eliminating aspects of the past a contributing factor in making China an economic super power? Today China once again has huge inequalities.

Ji-li  moved to the USA in 1984, where she wrote this book. Though there are several books on the Cultural Revolution, this memoir is among those that provide the details of everyday life at the time,  the difficulties that so many ordinary people faced, and the insanity of those times. Other memoirs include Ji Xianlin’s, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, and several more.