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 Books, Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton–Life ends at Y.

 

As readers eagerly await the publication of Sue Grafton’s last novel in her alphabet series of murder mysteries, they learn of a tragedy–Sue has died of cancer at the age of 77. Her last book to be published was Y, and  now Z will never be written.There are 25 books in the series, beginning with A is for Alibi, and here we look at some of the books and themes. What is remarkable in her mysteries, is not just her fast-paced plot, but her psychological insight into her characters,  particularly the character of her detective, Kinsey Millhone. Twice divorced Kinsey is a private detective and a single woman, who likes being single. Kinsey doesn’t cook, eats largely junk food and loves burgers, fries and coke. She knows how to laugh at herself, when she gets into absurd situations,  such as when she illegally enters a house by pushing her way in through a doggy door, only to be greeted by a dog who growls if she tries to stand up, so that Kinsey explores the house crawling on all fours. She is often inapproprately dressed and doesn’t really care. She rarely, if ever, gets involved in a relationship, and lives life on her own terms, with few possessions or ties.

Yet Kinsey is concerned and empathetic. She makes sure she gets paid, as she has to live, but at the same time she cares about those who employ her, about the victims and their families. In Q is for Quarry, an unsolved real murder of an unidentified seventeen year-old girl, forms the base for the fictional plot.  Like Kinsey, Sue cares enough for the real-life victim to get involved in giving her a proper burial, and puts a reconstructed picture of her in the book, hoping that some day she would be indentified.

The other books have purely fictional characters. In some, the focus is mainly on the plot, with Kinsey’s life being secondary, while in most there is a parallel focus on Kinsey and the mysteries she solves. G is for Gumshoe is one of those with long passages on Kinsey, and on her newly reconstructed apartment, which was blown up by a bomb, an incident that is described  in  the previous book, F is for Fugitive. Ms. Grafton’s descriptive passages and attention to small details, enable one to picture what she describes. “The entire apartment had the feel of a ship’s interior. The walls were highly polished teak and oak, with shelves and cubbyholes on every side….. In the ceiling above the bed, there was a round shaft extending through the roof, capped by a clear Plexiglass skylight that seemed to fling light down on the blue-and-white patchwork coverlet. Loft windows looked out to the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other….”.

Sue Grafton’s books have been published in twenty-eight countries in twenty-six different languages. In her introduction to her books,she writes, “ For months I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I’d bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead.” Whether this is true or not, it certainly adds interest to her books!

So far I have read all her books up to X, mainly because I like Kinsey’s character. R was somewhat disappointing, but I liked the rest. Many wondered what Ms Grafton would do after Z, would she start a new series? Unfortunately her life ended too soon.

Posted in Books, Literature, Russian literaure

“No Day Without a Line”

Roshen Dalal

[I had written this article earlier and it was published in the Garhwal Post, a different version in Hindustantimes.com]

“In everything I want to reach
The innermost kernel
In work, in life’s constant quest
In the heart’s trouble;”
(Boris Pasternak)

Literature of the former Soviet Union was once popular, but has now largely been forgotten. Though ‘Soviet literature’ is perhaps too wide a term, the great writers of the USSR, had something in common – like Boris Pasternak in his poem above, their writing had a certain intensity, reflecting that ‘constant quest’ to reach ‘the innermost kernel’ of everything. Their greatness was recognised in the West, and some of them– Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky– were Nobel Prize winners. Other brilliant writers included Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Sinyavsky, and many more.

Several of the Soviet writers were imprisoned or faced problems of some kind with the authorities in…

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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 Books, History, India

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 Books, History, India, stories

The Peshawar Express

Rereading a book of Partition stories, I began to wonder whether there were any happy stories? Every story is this volume seems depressing. And once again one begins to ask that unanswerable question, why did it take place? Could it have been avoided? One million deaths would have been averted. Ten million would not have lost their homes. And India and Pakistan would not be constantly in a state of hostility. The book, Stories about the Partition of India, ed by Alok Bhalla, is one I have had for many years. It includes Manto’s famous story, Toba Tek Singh, and many more.

The Peshawar Express by Krishan Chander [translated from Urdu by Jai Ratan] is perhaps one of the lesser known stories, yet it is extremely poignant, a typical story of one of the many refugee trains. Here it is the train, the Peshawar Express, which tells its story, as it sets out from Peshawar loaded with refugees bound for India. The Hindu passengers looked like Pathans, says the train, fair and hefty, speaking Pushto or rugged Punjabi. Each coach was guarded by Baluchi guards. The passengers ‘ were bidding goodbye to their homeland with heavy hearts…I felt so weighed down under their cataclysmic grief that it slowed my speed.’

The first station was Hasan Abdal, where a number of Sikhs got on the train. But by the next station, Taxila, the carnage started. Taxila, once a great centre of learning, with a wonderful museum, where the Buddha preached….

The tracks were covered in blood and ‘I feared I would derail…’. Corpses piled up along the way, till finally the express reached Amritsar. ‘When I arrived at Amritsar, the joyous cries of the Hindus and Sikhs  shook the earth. Corpses of the Muslims were  piled high.’ Killings continued as the train crossed through Punjab. Even a young girl college student, reading ‘Socialism, Theory and Practice’ was not spared.

Finally the train returns to its shed in Bombay… ‘I have been given a thorough wash….I would never go on such a horrible journey again. … I want to pass through a land studded with barns of golden wheat, and swaying mustard fields on both sides of the track. I want to hear the Hindu and Muslim peasants sing the love legends of Punjab, while they sow their fields, while their hearts brim with love for each other and they are even full of reverence for women. I am a lifeless train—But even I hate to carry a cargo of blood and flesh dripping with hatred. I will haul food grain to famine stricken areas. I will carry coal, oil and iron ore…I will carry groups of prosperous peasants and happy workers….Then there will be no Hindus and no Muslims. There will only be workers and human beings.’

Posted in Books, Literature

Reading plans for 2017

I have already read a number of books this year. But my future reading plans are to focus on literature from India. I’d love to read all the Jnanpith award winners, and am hoping to find translations of all, in either Hindi or English. I have read some of the authors, but not many. Next I will focus on the Sahitya Akademi winners–some are common to both.

The Jnanpith Award is given for the best creative literary writing by any
Indian citizen in any of the languages included in the VIII Schedule of the
Indian Constitution.

Here is the list:
Year : Name – Works (Language)
1965 : G. Sankara Kurup – Odakkuzhal [Flute] (Malayalam);

1966 : Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya – Ganadevta (Bengali)
1967 : Kuppali Venkatappagowda Puttappa (Kuvempu) – Sri Ramayana Darshanam
(Kannada)
1967 : Umashankar Joshi – Nishitha (Gujarati)
1968 : Sumitranandan Pant – Chidambara (Hindi)
1969 : Firaq Gorakhpuri – Gul-e-Naghma (Urdu)
1970 : Viswanatha Satyanarayana – Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu [A resourceful
tree:Ramayana] (Telugu)
1971 : Bishnu Dey Smriti – Satta Bhavishyat (Bengali)
1972 : Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ – Urvashi (Hindi)
1973 : Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre – Nakutanti [Naku Thanthi (Four Strings)]
(Kannada)
1973 : Gopinath Mohanty – Paraja (Oriya)
1974 : Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar – Yayati (Marathi)
1975 : P. V. Akilan – Chitttrappavai (Tamil)
1976 : Ashapurna Devi – Pratham Pratisruti (Bengali)
1977 : K. Shivaram Karanth – Mookajjiya Kanasugalu [Mookajjis dreams] (Kannada)
1978 : Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan ‘Ajneya’ – Kitni Navon Men Kitni Bar
[How many times in many boats?] (Hindi)
1979 : Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya – Mrityunjay [Immortal] (Assamese)
1980 : S. K. Pottekkatt – Oru Desathinte Katha [Story of a land] (Malayalam)
1981 : Amrita Pritam – Kagaj te Canvas (Punjabi)
1982 : Mahadevi Varma – Yama (Hindi)
1983 : Maasti Venkatesh Ayengar – Chikkaveera Rajendra [Life and struggle of
Kodava King Chikkaveera Rajendra] (Kannada)
1984 : Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai – Kayar [Coir] (Malayalam)
1985 : Pannalal Patel – Maanavi Ni Bhavaai (Gujarati)
1986 : Sachidananda Rout Roy (Oriya)
1987 : Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar (Kusumagraj) – Natsamrat (Marathi)
1988 : Dr.C. Narayana Reddy – Vishwambhara (Telugu)
1989 : Qurratulain Hyder – Akhire Shab Ke Humsafar (Urdu)
1990 : V. K. Gokak (Vinayaka Krishna Gokak) – Bharatha Sindhu Rashmi (Kannada)
1991 : Subhas Mukhopadhyay – Padati (Bengali)
1992 : Naresh Mehta (Hindi)
1993 : Sitakant Mahapatra – “for outstanding contribution to the enrichment of
Indian literature, 1973-92” (Oriya)
1994 : U. R. Ananthamurthy – for his contributions to (Kannada) literature
(Kannada)
1995 : M. T. Vasudevan Nair – Randamoozham [Second Chance] (Malayalam)
1996 : Mahasweta Devi – Hajar Churashir Ma (Bengali)
1997 : Ali Sardar Jafri (Urdu)
1998 : Girish Karnad – “for his contributions to (Kannada) literature and for
contributions to (Kannada) theater (yayati)” (Kannada)
1999 : Nirmal Verma (Hindi)
1999 : Gurdial Singh (Punjabi)
2000 : Indira Goswami (Assamese)
2001 : Rajendra Keshavlal Shah (Gujarati)
2002 : D. Jayakanthan (Tamil)
2003 : Vinda Karandikar – Ashtadarshana (poetry) (Marathi)
2004 : Rahman Rahi – Subhuk Soda, Kalami Rahi and Siyah Rode Jaren Manz
(Kashmiri)
2005 : Kunwar Narayan (Hindi)
2006 : Ravindra Kelekar (Konkani)
2006 : Satya Vrat Shastri (Sanskrit)
2007 : O. N. V. Kurup (Malayalam)
2008 : Akhlaq Mohammed Khan ‘Shahryar’ (Urdu)
2009 : Amar Kant (Hindi)
2009 : Shrilal Shukla (Hindi)
2010 : Chandrashekhara Kambara – for his contributions to Kannada literature
(Kannada)
2011 : Pratibha Ray – Yajnaseni (Oriya)
2012 : Ravuri Bharadhwaja – Paakudurallu (Telugu)
2013 : Kedarnath Singh – Akaal Mein Saras (Hindi)

2014 : Bhalchandra Nemade – Hindu: Jagnyachi Samrudhha Adgal (Marathi)
2015 : Raghuveer Chaudhari – For his contributions to Gujarati literature
(Gujarati)

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/