Friday, June 24, 2011

Reader, Writer, Reviewer: Mahatma Gandhi

I quite believe in judging people by the books they read. And when it comes to great personalities, understanding their reading tastes and the books that inspired them, goes a long way in helping us understand these men and women.

I'm now reading Rajmohan Gandhi's brilliant biography of Mahatma Gandhi: Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. Of all the many remarkable things about this great man's life, what strikes me is the importance that he gave to books and how much they influenced his life and ideas. Gandhi was a great reader whenever he found the time for it: for instance especially when he was imprisoned (He read thirty books in the three months he was jailed in Pretoria, South Africa)

Mohandas Gandhi's first trip abroad was to study in London and the young man was anxious to understand himself and what he actually believed in, when confronted by those of different cultures and habits. Books helped him immensely in this pursuit. Henry Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism, which Gandhi says he read 'from cover to cover' helped him become a vegetarian by choice. [Remember here that the teenager Gandhi had once believed that the puny, vegetarian Indian couldn't stand up to the meat-eating British man]

A Gandhi toying between atheism and all religions, Hinduism in particular, read Helena Blavatsky's Key to Theosophy, Edwin Arnold's translation of the Bhagavad Gita, The Song Celestial (a book he would recommend all his life as the best English translation of the Gita) and Arnold's book on the Buddha, The Light of Asia. Ever-fascinated to get to know different religions, Gandhi also read the Bible and George Sale's translation of the Quran.

His love and respect for Leo Tolstoy's writings, that would influence him enough to name his 'ashram' in South Africa Tolstoy Farm, began with reading  'The Kingdom of God is Within You' which Gandhi says overwhelmed him.

Sometimes, Gandhi sought refuge in books and great writers to see the arguments against and approval for some of his ideas. His interest in the works of Henry David Thoreau who he called 'one of the greatest and most moral men America has ever produced' is a case in point. Thoreau's statements on civil disobedience seemed to Gandhi to confirm and approve of his belief in satyagraha.

In a prison reading spree that would be a recurrent feature of his reading life, Gandhi read the following books during a two month imprisonment in South Africa: Thomas Carlyle's Lives of Robert Burns, Samuel Johnson and Walter Scott, Francis Bacon's Essays, Plato's Socrates. He later read Edward Carpenter's 'very illuminating' book Civilization: Its Cause and Care and also read Charles Dickens' David Copperfield 'with avidity'.

Perhaps no book captivated him as much as John Ruskin's Unto This Last. He resolved to put to practice the 'social equality and simple life' presented by the book, and bought a farm in Phoenix to reside with his family, friends and other members of the Indian community in South Africa.

Gandhi's own book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), put into words his long-held ideas of self-rule, civilization and how Indian civilisation is embedded with the concept of non-violence. He acknowledges in his preface to the book the inspiration that he received from reading Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau and Emerson. Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi was now corresponding, wrote back having reading Hind Swaraj, that the book was 'of great importance not only for India, but for the whole of humanity.'

In a rather remarkable trial in India (that deserves a post of its own), Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison for 'inciting disaffection towards His Majesty's Government' in 1922 in the aftermath of the tragedy of Chauri Chaura. In Yeravda jail, Gandhi read a brilliantly diverse set of books sent by friends or from the jail library, devoting six hours a day for reading.  

He read Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Kipling's songs of Empire, the Mahabharata, Plato, Jules Verne, Macaulay, Shaw, Walter Scott, Faust, Tagore, Wells, Woodroffe, Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; histories of Scotland, of the Sikhs, of India, of birds, of cities; biographies of Pitt, Columbus, Wilberforce, Paul of Tarsus, Kabir; several Christian, Muslim and Buddhist books and a series of Hindu texts; writings of Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Aurobindo and Tilak.

Writes Rajmohan Gandhi of the Mahatma's varied reading list: 'The Empire's Challenger is thus also, in his mid -fifties, a scholar with an appetite'. Gandhi sometimes also reviewed books for his newspapers, notably Katherine Mayo's controversial book Mother India about India's 'insanitation and other defects' where she claimed 'The drains are India'. Gandhi notes that the book was 'cleverly and powerfully written' and that it is 'a book that every Indian can read with some degree of profit'.

India's 'Father of the Nation' was a reader, writer and a book reviewer too; always open to understanding different, even extreme, opinions and weighing them with his beliefs, never afraid to learn from them. The books he read influenced his ideas, his policies, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say they ended up influencing the nation and the world. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Library Tales - The Incomplete Reader

After the library of which I have been a member for more than 5 years decided they could not only be petty, but also remain unapologetic to a long-time customer regarding a mistake made by their staff, I thought I had had enough.

Libraries are far more personal to me than the 'it's just business, we don't really care about you' staff of my previous library can imagine. Going to the library is a trip I always look forward to, making lists in my mind of what books I should look for, saying a little prayer that the book I had long awaited would finally be there for me to take home. And when people make it an unpleasant interaction, well, it's not worth my money.

"Here is where people, one frequently finds, lower their voices and raise their minds" 
- Richard Armour

Therefore, a new library with a fantastic collection of books was found. An interesting experiment has begun, because I chose a temporary membership for a couple of months. This means I cannot borrow books and take them home, but I can read any book I want at the library, leisurely, all day long.

I, who is so used to snuggling on to the couch, lying on my bed, book in hand, a cup of tea beside me, have had to learn to sit up straight in those sturdy chairs.

I, who is so used to throwing down my book on my sofa and walking a few paces to take in a major plot twist, has had to sit and stare at the book and utter a sigh, at most.

I, who is so used to picking any book, whenever I want, has had to understand the knack of picking smaller books that can be finished in one sitting. Or choosing huge reference books and taking notes from them.

I have also started learning the art of putting a half-finished book in a shelf where I hope none of the full-time members will find it and take it home. Placing the book in the lowest shelf, in the belief that people will be too lazy to bend down, was a big fiasco. It meant that I had read the charming Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, for, well, just a day.

There's something rather adventurous about this temporary membership; a far cry from the safe predictability of reading at home. Sure, it is incredibly annoying when the book you loved reading yesterday is missing today and your reading experiences are more incomplete than ever.

But having people immersed in books around you, jotting down notes furiously, lips moving silently with a book of Keats' poetry in hand, is a rather wonderful thing to see. I'm ever fascinated to see what everyone around me is reading (which is one of the reasons I love book blogging and Goodreads). Sometimes, seeing a wide smile on a person's face as their eyes drink in the pages of a book, is as lovely as reading a good book myself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Common Man and Partition

Fikr Taunsvi writes of Lahore in the traumatic months leading to Partition. A chilling account of what the common man went through, while life-changing decisions were made in Delhi and London:

'The washerman who lived on the ground floor...had become the father of a tiny baby at three in the morning and..was worried that the bazaars were shut. The sweet-seller who sold milk had locked his shop from inside and was hiding there. He had received no supply today because all milk-vendors are Muslim and this being a Hindu locality, they couldn't step into it. Hospitals were not functioning, neither were doctors, nurses and medicines, and both the mother and the infant were crying. The children were asking, 'Will the curfew never be lifted? Shall we never get milk?'...I wish you had the strength to ask great brains like Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah and other statement and maulvis to wear the guise of this unlettered washerman for a moment. Then you may go request the British to give you freedom. Then demand Pakistan and Hindustan'

These are the real voices of Partition, voices that tell the story of their times, of an event that changed their lives and that of their country, voices that lived through the traumatic possibility of becoming aliens in their own home. It's time we stopped reading only the political and diplomatic version of Partition. The real story of the birth of India and Pakistan lies with the people.

{Taunsvi's quotes are excerpted  from Yasmin Khan's brilliant book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan}

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell

Rating: 9/10

For long I've heard Elizabeth Gaskell mentioned in the same hall of fame as Jane Austen: female writers with an uncanny ability to bring to life the society of their times. Now that I have finally experienced the delight of a Gaskell novel, I can see why. At 60 chapters and 650 odd pages, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is a sprawling read written with seemingly effortless ease. A little patience is always mandatory while reading big fat books and Gaskell rewards patience with some of the most unforgettable characters I've read in a while.

First published in eighteen monthly parts in the Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866, Wives and Daughters is an unfinished novel; Gaskell died before adding the final touches to her masterpiece. The story of the charming community of Hollingford, with its gossiping ladies, snobby yet revered Lords and Ladies and most importantly, our sensible, warm-hearted, loving protagonist Molly Gibson and her father, the much respected doctor.

Mr.Gibson decides to remarry and seventeen year old Molly is faced with a new stepmother and a stepsister Cynthia, who is charming, unpredictable and eternally irresistible to the menfolk. Molly's beautiful relationship with the Hamley family, her love for Squire Hamley and his wonderful wife, and the friendship between her and the two sons of the family - Osborne and Roger, form the crux of the book. 

Like all great novels, Wives and Daughters is very memorable because of a cast of characters, each of whom are masterfully crafted. The new Mrs.Gibson is an absolute delight of a character that Jane Austen would be proud of. Silly, vain, shockingly and embarrassingly insensitive, determined to remove herself from the stereotype of the evil stepmother, Mrs.Gibson and her comic proclamations are bound to keep you entertained. Indeed in an alternate literary universe, I do wish Mrs. Bennet would meet Mrs. Gibson and they would discuss about their daughters.

Mr.Gibson is a loving father and a sarcastic foil to his new wife. Molly is too straight forward a character, but some of the passages where she confronts her feelings about the man she might love, are beautifully written. Cynthia, on the other hand, is such a brilliantly complex character. Many a time you intend to hate her, her ego and vanity, her 'inconstancy' too, but she more than redeems herself through the affection she shows towards those she loves.

The Hamley brothers are fascinating, and I'd say it is hard not to fall in love with Roger Hamley. He is a literary character who is strong, sensible, kind, intelligent, passionate, with a habit of talking of books and recommending the right ones to to the right people, which, needless to say, I find very charming. 

Gaskell's writing is deceptively simple, filled with vivid and witty observations and an eye for irony that doesn't mind mocking societal norms and follies. Some of the several quotes I loved:

'It is odd enough to see how the entrance of a person of the opposite sex into an assemblage of either men or women calms down the little discordances and the disturbance of mood'

"Your husband this morning! Mine tonight! What do you take him for?' 
'A man' smiled Cynthia. 'And therefore, if you won't let me call him changeable, I'll coin a word and call him consolable." 

The text is peppered with several cultural and historical references that would be lost to a reader if not for helpful notes (provided in my excellent Penguin Classics edition). Gaskell's greatest strength is her ability to captivate the reader and transport them to the world of Hollingford, making them emotionally bonded to the characters. Indeed it is quite magical that just at the moment I told myself it was getting dreary without Mr.Roger Hamley appearing often, two characters in the book say the same thing!

The world Gaskell creates is one which any reader can relate to, brilliantly realistic in its depiction of timeless themes such as friendship, tragedy, debts and money, marriage, love, mother-daughter relationships. That is probably why there is more than a twinge of sadness that Mrs.Gaskell did not live to tie the ends and provide a fitting finale that would satisfy readers. But that, in no way, takes away the fact that Gaskell has given the world a classic that captures human nature in a witty, poignant fashion.

It has to be a special book if after being treated to 650 pages of the story, one still wishes it would go on. If you're an Austen fan and love books set in 19th century England, you are almost certain to enjoy reading Wives and Daughters. There are a lot of characters, relationships and themes that are worth discussing, making this book a great choice for readalongs or book clubs. 

There is also the pleasure of knowing that a BBC adaptation is awaiting the reader who has just finished a classic. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Memories of a Booklover

Musty books, worn out covers, brown pages that act as remnants of reading and rereading, a blot of ink here, a careless scribble there: the cast of characters at a second-hand bookstore. The dust in the air is overwhelming and I sneeze. Covering my nose with a handkerchief, I prowl around looking for the books I want to take home. It's a lot like a treasure hunt, except, the clues are hazier and there really is no surety of what I would find.

The best discoveries are truly accidental and so it was when I picked Ketaki Kushari Dyson's translation of Rabindranath Tagore's poems: I Won't Let You Go. An unflattering yellow cover with bright red text; not at all the dainty poetry collection you'd like to display on your shelf. I was hardly a lover of poetry then: I was either confused by it or found it pretentious or was just too thick to understand some celebrated poets. But I knew I had to read Tagore, at least to understand why he was revered as a national treasure.

Discovering Tagore is one of the best things that have ever happened to my life. And that memory of haphazard rows of books, dusty and waiting to fall at the slightest inadvertent nudge, has always stayed with me.


That day began very early. I joined the crowd as people waited for their turn to get into the book shop. Faces: smiling as they stifled the early morning yawn, excited and unafraid of jumping to show it, jokes flying in the air, people who previously had no idea of each other's existence exchanging grins as they marched in to get their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Killjoys who came out with the book, proceeded to open the last page and read from it, immediately leading to angry swear words from the crowd, people shutting their ears to avoid hearing if Harry died or if Ron and Hermione finally got together.

That was the end of a literary experience like no other. Quite remarkable that waiting in a queue is one of the most wonderful bookish memories I have.


And then of course comes what is probably the most annoying habit a booklover is guilty of: Remembering people by the books they read and the books they recommend. The teacher who gifted me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes because she knew I'd love it. The friend who let me read Heidi first and waited till I'm done with the book after which she could get it from the school library. The librarian who gave me a phonecall to let me know that the book I had been waiting for a long time - Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger - was finally available. Bloggers who helped me discover some of my all-time favourite books: The Group, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Agatha Christie book, Death in the Clouds, that my Aunt borrowed from me to help her from being bored, immediately after giving birth. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, gifted by my best friends on my birthday. 

Remembering the prodigious collection of books at Grandpa's house and feeling a little envious. Picking the right book for Mum when she says she needs a feel-good read. Never forgetting all the books Dad recommends when I tell him about a topic, with so much variety and relevance as though he's an automated Goodreads archive. That sinking feeling when I dislike a book he recommended or find it too complicated.

Demanding a friend who is moving to another city to sign the book she is giving me as a farewell gift. Finding Mahatma Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth in Mum's bookshelf and pocketing it for myself to read. Convincing Mum that even though it looks worn out and jaded, Integration of the Indian States by VP Menon is a remarkable treasure of a book that is worth buying. Buying books that I've always wanted to, like Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, thanks to a book voucher gift from my parents. 

That friend who is a Snape fan. The friend who always argues that Charlotte Bronte is better than Jane Austen. The friend who told me with remarkable honesty that she couldn't finish Emma and found it quite boring. The friend who would not let me walk past unless I guessed 'Caput Draconis' or 'Pinefresh'. 

Indeed, almost every book one reads or buys has perhaps an inconsequential or precious story attached to it; remarkable memories for a booklover. Reminisce about your bookish memories and share them!


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