Posted in book review., Books, India, J Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, Theosophy

Letters of Wisdom by B. Sanjiva Rao

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While writing one book, one comes across a thousand others. This is one of the books only peripherally related to J Krishnamurti. B Sanjiva Rao  was employed in the Indian Education Service [retired 1938] and was married to Padma, who shared his world view of working for others rather than oneself. A close associate of Annie Besant, he was entrusted with the task of buying 400 acres of land around the Ganga river near Varanasi. Krishnamurti asked him to do this, but provided neither funds nor support. Having promised Mrs Besant to help, support and follow Krishnamurti, Sanjiva Rao set out to do this, not matter how daunting the task. But this book only touches on the problems he faced, and how Rabindranath Tagore helped out, providing his own architect, Surendranath Kar, and coming himself for the inauguration of the Montessori section of the Rajghat Besant School in 1934.

The book actually is a series of letters written to a young friend and relative, Vasanti Rao, who at the age of 17 settled in Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry [Puducherry], having renounced the world. On a visit there Sanjiva met her and found in her a spiritual friend. His letters to her, from 1958 to the time of his death in 1965, are part spiritual musings and part autobiography. They reveal the endless conflicts among Theosophists, and also among Krishnamurti supporters. How does one reach and understand the true Self?  Sanjiva Rao continuously tried to understand himself and the world around him, while working incessantly on the tasks given to him.

We don’t have Vasanti’s replies to him, so the book is one-sided. Nevertheless, it makes interesting reading, with some beautiful passages.

 

 

 

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Posted in book review., Books, Philosophy

Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity and Science

The physicist David Bohm and the artist Charles Biederman wrote letters to each other on relationships between art and science, amounting to 4000 pages! This book presents some of these letters, edited by Paavo Pylkkanen. The letters are fascinating, brimming with ideas, and even opening the book at random and reading a few lines provides something to think about. Bohm, as seen earlier in a review of his biography, sought to find the universal principles of life, the inner reflecting the outer, and vice versa. Biederman, a structurist in his artistic style, tried to represent the structure of reality through geometric planes. Among the aspects they discussed was how the past existed in the present, each moment therefore, representing an inexhaustible totality. They discussed art, physics, nature, time, relativity, identity, and a lot more. A refreshing book to delve into, to look at two intellectuals exploring the nuances of life.

Posted in book review., Books, Short stories, Theosophy

Madame Blavatsky–fiction

Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, well known for her works on the occult, including The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled, also wrote some horror stories. These were evidently based on her nightmares. I just read The Ensouled Violin, expecting something mysterious and beautiful, but  found a gruesome story of violinists achieving heights by using the intestines of loved ones as violin strings!

The story narrates that it was rumoured that Paganini’s brilliant playing was due to this. ‘Exaggerated as this idea may seem to some, it has nothing impossible in it.’ How the young violinist Franz Stenio, emulates this rumour, and how it ends in disaster, forms the rest of this horror story, which evidently draws on another, The Violin of Cremona.

The Ensouled Violin is available online, though I don’t recommend it.

Posted in book review., Books

Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm

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David Bohm [1917-92] was something of a genius, a physicist always searching for parallels between theories of physics and the functioning of the universe. This biography by F. David Peat, is one of the best books I have read for a long time. Bohm delved into quantum physics with innovative theories that were not always appreciated by other physicists at the time. He should have won the Nobel Prize but somehow he was overlooked. From childhood he thought about the cosmos and created a world of imagination, imagining  a light that could penetrate matter.

Among Bohm’s significant theories was that of implicate order. Explicate order that we see around us reflects something that cannot be seen, that is, implicate order. Thus the dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and consciousness, could be resolved. He also proposed that information, like matter and energy, is a basic principle of nature.

On the whole he had a difficult and in some ways a tragic life. But he was lucky that his wife Saral was always there to support him. At first a communist, Bohm, born to an immigrant family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, had to leave the US during the McCarthy years. He was teaching at Princeton, but even that elite university succumbed to political pressure. He went to Brazil, later to Israel, and finally settled in Birkbeck College in England.

Bohm, says his biographer, ‘took the world on his shoulders and agonised about what should be done. Corruption, political mistakes, and military actions he believed, were all evidence of deep errors in human thought and society. And since Bohm believed in the wholeness of the world and consciousness, these errors were also enfolded within his own thinking.’

Einstein had referred to Bohm as his ‘intellectual son’, and intervened several times to help him get a job, difficult because of Bohm’s communist past.

I came across Bohm through his Dialogues with J Krishnamurti. Bohm’s ideas were similar to those of Krishnamurti even before meeting him, and thus these dialogues are among the most profound. Yet  the relationship with Krishnamurti did not work out well. After many years of close association, one day Krishnamurti criticised him fiercely. Bohm, who had had episodes of depression earlier, sank into depression. He recovered from this, and even gave talks on Krishnamurti after the latter’s death, but heart problems and depression continued to haunt him.

This brilliant biography is for anyone interested in the world of physics, particularly new developments in quantum physics, and in the life of a man who suffered a lot, yet made immense contributions to the world.

 

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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.

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/