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 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 Books, Hinduism, Philosophy, Spirituality, Upanishads

The 108 Upanishads

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The deep and extraordinary philosophy of Hinduism is often ignored and among the great philosophical texts are the Upanishads. This article was written in response to a question on why I wrote the book.

The main concept in the Upanishads is that of Brahman, which is both the ultimate goal of all existence, and the common aspect of all life forms. Brahman can be defined as the substratum of the world. The Upanishads agree that everything originates from Brahman, which is uncreated and always existed. It is eternal, infinite, and has no form or shape. It is beyond time and space. Its nature is sat-chit-ananda, that is ‘truth or true being, consciousness and bliss’. Even though  Brahman is responsible for the creation of the world, and is identical with or part of the soul in every living being, Brahman retains its original, unchangeable, eternal, nature. Brahman is beyond thought and words, which is why no description can ever reveal it. Only  through a knowledge of it, would one know its reality. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the rishi Yajnavalkya explains Brahman in many ways. He says that just as different types of smoke come from  fire, in the same way everything including the Vedas comes from a limitless reality  which can be equated with Brahman. And everything merges with it, just as all sorts of water merge in the sea, as all sounds merge in the ear, all thoughts in the mind,  and as salt in water pervades all of it. He also explained  that when everything is Brahman, there can be no duality. Brahman is best explained in the Upanishads, though this idea is also known in other religions where different terms are used. A true understanding of this concept would remove all divisions and inequalities in society and would lead to respect and compassion, for if every person is of the same essence, there could be no awareness of differences based on religion, caste or even on economic status. Further, this same essence exists in every living being, which would lead to the protection of trees, plants, insects and animals.

India is a vast storehouse of sacred texts, belonging to many different religions, and ranging in date from the ancient to the modern and contemporary, and the Upanishads can be considered among the most interesting and valuable of these. This group of Sanskrit texts form part of Vedic literature, the most sacred texts of Hinduism. Veda comes from the Sanskrit root ‘vid’ to know, and the word Veda implies ‘divine knowledge’.  The main texts of Vedic literature are the four Vedic Samhitas,  that is,  the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, along with the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. All these texts are said to be ‘shruti’ or ‘ heard’, and are believed to be directly revealed from a divine source. The Upanishads, attached to one or the other  of the Vedic Samhitas are the definitive texts expounding the wisdom of the Vedas.

Though a number of people are aware of the Upanishads, there are many more who are not. Even those who know about them are familiar with one or two, while there are actually almost 300 Upanishads, some very ancient, and others more recent. Out of these, a group of 108 Upanishads, listed in the 17th century Muktika Upanishad, are considered  the most important. These  Upanishads are of different types, including early and late Upanishads, Upanishads focusing on a deity, or on the paths of sannyasa or yoga. These Upanishads include  numerous topics, such as  the source of all creation, the atman or soul, the jiva, or individual soul, the nature of consciousness, the different worlds, reincarnation, the body, the chakras and inner power centres, as well as meditations on deities, and a lot more, but the concept of Brahman can be said to be the most important aspect of these texts, and the main theme, that of ultimate realization and transcendence. Long ago, this common and main aspect was recognised and compressed into a single text, the Brahma Sutra, composed before the first century CE.

There are very few books dealing with all 108 Upanishads. Signe Cohen’s recent book looks at several of them, but is meant for academicians. T.M.P. Mahadevan’s book on the 108 Upanishads, does list them all, and provides a brief introduction and a translation of one or two verses of each, but my aim in this book is to go beyond this and  present a comprehensive overview of all 108 and of the Brahma Sutra, while at the same time  situating these texts in the context of Indian philosophy. As all 108 are described, each person can focus on the one that suits them. It is not necessary to alter one’s way of worship or of devotion to a particular deity, but only to recognise, that at the highest level, every deity is Brahman.

The 108 Upanishads, thus provides an introduction to the texts, a starting point to delve deeper into the profound philosophy contained in them. It is an attempt to make the Upanishads along with the concept of Brahman, better known. The book is also a sequel to my book on the Vedic Samhitas (The Vedas, An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Texts), which places the Vedas in a historical context, and examines questions regarding their date and origin..

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Hermann Hesse, Knulp

Knulp- writers of the past are still relevant today

Herman Hesse has always been one of my favourite writers, if not the most favourite. But most people, if they have read him at all, are only familiar with Siddhartha, that was made into a movie. Recently I read a blog written by a young Facebook friend. The ideas in it had some similarity to one of the works of Knut Hamsun, and to Knulp by Herman Hesse. On my recommendation, the young friend read Knulp and loved it. I hope that after reading the summary below, some more people will read and appreciate Knulp, written over a hundred years ago.

Knulp by Hermann Hesse was first published in German in 1915 during the first World War.
Knulp has three integrated stories. The first is narrated by Knulp himself. He is a wanderer, with no steady job or income, no wife, though he reveals that he does have a child, one whom he can never meet. He has no fixed abode, and walks or travels from one place to another. Yet he likes to dress well, to look neat and presentable, is a good dancer and singer, and can whistle a good tune. He writes poems, has his own ethics, and a soft corner in his heart, specially for women. But above all he values his freedom and space.
Knulp has been ill, and now on a cold and windy night, he reaches the house of his friend Emil Rothfuss, who welcomes him, and offers him food and shelter. Rothfuss has recently married, and after a few days rest there, Knulp moves on. He is unhappy as Rothfuss’s wife desires him, and once again rejoices in his own freedom from the pretences of family life. Before leaving he befriends a lonely young maid, who has recently been employed in a house next door, takes her dancing one night, and through the brief friendship, makes her forget her loneliness for a while.
The second story is by a fellow wanderer, who reveals some other aspects of Knulp, who was always fastidious in his habits, and did not like to drink much, or be in the company of those who did. After a brief period of travelling together, Knulp quietly left his travelling companion, after the latter drank too much one night.
In the third story, Knulp, though only forty years old, has consumption and is dying. Still travelling on the road, he meets a doctor friend, who takes him to his house, gives him food and shelter, and finds him a place in a hospital, with the hope that he could possibly be cured there. Knulp knows that he cannot be cured, but agrees to everything. He only requests that he be sent to a hospital in his hometown of Gerbersau, a place he longs to see again before he dies.
After reaching Gerbersau he does not go to the hospital, instead visiting the places familiar to him, recreating the ‘mysterious days of his boyhood’, when life was full of potential. His illness is consuming him, and he climbs a hill knowing his end is near. The winter sets in, and he thinks of going to the hospital, but finally does not do so. A snowstorm begins, and as he begins to lose consciousness his past flows before him, and he feels he is having a conversation with God. ‘He was not afraid; he knew that God can do us no harm.’ But, he wonders, couldn’t he have lived differently? Was there a certain point in time when he could have chosen a less futile direction? But God assured him that everything he had done, the way his whole life had been, was fine.
‘ “Look”, said God. “I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom.” ’
And soon, life was over for Knulp. ‘He felt the snow lying heavily on his hands, and wanted to shake it off, but the desire to sleep had grown stronger than any other desire.’

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

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.

 

E

 

 

Posted in Books

The benefits of reading: some points for young people

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With books as one’s lifelong companions, there is not much else that one needs. Once while inaugurating a book fair at a school I gave a talk on the benefits of reading, and was thinking about the many benefits again today. So a few points for youngsters, on how reading can change and improve your life. What books you read do not matter, and nor does the media through which you choose to read it. But do make sure you are reading books by authentic authors, and not fake news on the internet.

Some of the benefits:

  1. Improves the imagination. Books like Harry Potter create a make-believe world and your imagination is fired when you read these. This increases your intelligence as your right and left brain begin to work together.
  2. Reading is an escape and a safety valve. Everyone had problems in life, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, very often reading a book can temporarily take you away from the problem so that you can look at it in a more balanced way.
  3. You gain knowledge by reading. If you read non-fiction, the knowledge gained is obvious, but you also gain knowledge by reading fiction. In non-fiction, you can start with memoirs and biographies which are easy to read and interesting. In fiction, each book has a background, of a country, a place, or time, which provides you with knowledge that is absorbed without you being aware of it.
  4. Reading makes you an independent thinker. This is perhaps the most important benefit. You learn to think for yourself, and thus are no longer influenced by what others say or do not say. You become a critical thinker, and don’t believe everything you read or hear. You stand apart from the world, with confidence and self-esteem.