Boating On the River, With Lemonade and The Wind in the Willows!

In 1906, the charismatic 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between Japan and Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. It is difficult to imagine that such a politician who was once a kingpin of global politics read, re-read and fell in love with a so-called “children’s” story about talking animals living by an English River. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest admirers of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In 1908, while still in office, he wrote to Grahame how Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad had become his companions. He loved it so much that he convinced a publishing house to take on the book, whereas England’s initial response to this endearing book had been rather dismal.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, the concept of childhood and its portrayal in literature underwent a significant change. The socio-political milieu contributed. Labour laws were rectified, more children began to attend school, literacy improved, and reading material became cheaper to print. In such a time in history, corresponding to the Golden Age of Children’s Literature and the Edwardian Era in England (1901-1910), The Wind in the Willows was a landmark publication in the literary tradition of anthropomorphic animal characters. They compete with AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh universe to be the most famous human-like animals in literature. During this time, children’s fiction moved away from its instructional, pedagogic leanings. Narratives became about compassion, fun and frolic, domesticity, subtly expressed ideas of morality, and a romantic way of British living. For children, this is an adorable tale of four animals enjoying each other’s eccentric and warm company while exploring life as it passes them by, like the gleaming River around which space grows and blossoms.

For an adult in their 20s, what can The Wind in the Willows possibly signify? If one is to overcome the infantile nostalgia attached to Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad, what literary merit does this spectacular piece of animal fantasy contain within itself? As a child learning the art of finishing a book and understanding complex sentences, The Wind in the Willows was fantastical living at its best. It offered young minds the dual stimulation of thrill escape. As children, it makes us wonder, “Can animals talk?”, “Where is the hidden world where they have picnics with sardines and beer?” and “How do animals drive cars, paddle boats and dispense justice?” As children, books such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book imbue animals with charm and authority. So, when kids notice a rabbit lounging lazily in a pet store, there’s a chance that in the parallel reality of children, that hare is wearing a waistcoat.

Last week, I had the privilege (yes, I believe that is the term) to read the unabridged version of The Wind in the Willows for this article, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. Before, I had only read the Ladybird Classics version. Remember their graceful illustrations, soft fonts and smooth pages? The complete version is exactly 200 pages. It is a story of four friends; their species’ names becoming the names of their characters: Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad.

They live around a River, which is the centre of their lives and the focus of the surrounding landscape. Each is different from the other; their personalities, preferences, backgrounds, role in the group and yes, even financial standing! It is incredible how Grahame has built a world of animals where a Rat and a Mole sit by the fire and discuss how the latter gathered the funds to purchase his burrow. When the book is adapted for children, such aspects are left out because they are not too relevant. However, when you read it as an adult, these little details about wealth, inheritance, and Animal Etiquette add such a loveable layer of realism to the narrative.

A fascinating feature that I enjoyed reading was Grahame’s conversion of the geographical setting into full-scale characters. In the book, the English countryside is more than just a descriptive element, its purpose goes beyond beautification. Grahame injects each location with a distinct personality, mirroring its owner. The primary destinations are the River, The Wild Woods, Toad’s Hall, Rat’s Home, Mole’s Home and Badger’s Underground Burrow. While Toad Hall is large and showy, Badger has a hidden, functional, and practical burrow reflecting his paternal and reserved personality. One of the most unforgettable parts is The Wild Wood, where Mole loses his way in the fabled woods that Rat had forbidden him from entering alone. Grahame conveys the terror of the space through the gleaming eyes of unknown animals, the rustle of trees and the pitter-patter of footsteps. We don’t know who is following Mole or what those eyes are that shine at him through the dark stillness of a winter night. It is the sharp acoustic quality of the words that does the trick. It is a reminder of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, where we never get a perfect visual image, but its idea is terrifying enough. The way Grahame expresses the terror hidden in The Wild Wood is both frightening and amazing. 

Grahame’s writing echoes his love for the countryside. He exhibits a clear bias towards nature and living in a rustic setting than in industrial cities. The detailed, idyllic descriptions of the River, meadows, woods, and every little berry and bush convey the soothing rural atmosphere. The possibilities of thrills and fun are much more in a pastoral setting. So, we have charming anecdotes of boat rides, walks, carol singers, picnics and road trips. Grahame’s disdain towards the uglier side of industrialisation is evident in how he writes about motor cars, a common motif for trouble and the source of unfortunate happenings in the story.

Two recurrent cultural symbols are food and home. Both are interconnected and important to the narrative, especially home. While adventure is important, Grahame believes that there is always unbound joy returning to the place you belong. The essential contribution of an animal/person’s home to their happiness is highlighted, connecting it to virtues like domesticity. Food is a part of that setup. So, the author spends a lot of time laying out an elaborate table for his animals and readers. Quintessential English treats function both as a connecting device and a symbol of stability after a distressing episode. Beer, lemonade, sardine, sandwiches, ham, cold tongue, gherkins and French Rolls are passed around to initiate friendship. In fact, I came across a blog by a lady who created an entire picnic menu inspired by the Rat and Mole’s picnic!

Today, I can see why it is such a popular book amongst children. It is a very different book. It has no human characters but a variety of animals that behave exactly like them. Moreover, they are not regular domestic animals like kittens, puppies or farm animals you find in nursery rhymes or television shows. Every aspect of the book is novel. For parents, Grahame’s inclination towards teaching children etiquettes, camaraderie, and acceptance is a benefit. Something that comes up repeatedly is Animal Etiquette, which talks about things like the correct time to visit someone or how to judge the situation before asking a favour. We are taught to be accepting of differences and make one another feel included. Badger’s character, who appears to be stern and anti-social, is a loveable paternal figure who is always around to mentor and help. It’s an invaluable lesson; do not judge someone at the first go.

Compared to a child’s imagination, The Wind in the Willows offers something entirely different for adult readers. It represents a charmed, simple life sprinkled with adventures, food, friends and coming back to cosy fireplaces and well-made beds for a good night’s sleep. It is a book you can read on days when the commute is too noisy, the traffic unbearable, and monotony raises its ugly head. The language has an elegant, transportive quality that practically airlifts one to the countryside. Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad’s realm is devoid of things that weigh us down; competition, complexes, and even romantic challenges. It is interesting to note how all the characters are bachelors, living a very standalone life with only their dearest friends!

If you are looking for comfort, The Wind in the Willows is a reliable choice. Remember when Mary Poppins, Michael and Jane jumped into Burt’s paintings and enjoyed a day in the country? The Wind in the Willows is its literary equivalent! 

Take a trip down the River. Smell the sandwiches and lemonade.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Wild Gujarat Prods You to Plan Your Next Trip to Gujarat’s Rich Biodiversity

Co-created by Biswajit Roy Chowdhury and Shiladitya Chaudhury, supported by Gujarat Tourism, and published by Rupa Publications, Wild Gujarat takes you on a jungle safari through the rich biodiversity of Gujarat. The book covers the Gir National Park, Blackbuck National Park, Little Rann of Kutch, Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Marine National Park, Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, and finally the Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary. There is special focus on the Gir and quite deservingly, lions get the lion’s share of the book.

The book has been composed in the coffee table style and boasts of breathtaking pictures of the wildlife of Gujarat. The pages and prints are lavishly done and the brief notes that go with these pictures provide ample context without losing focus of the subjects. While it is a must have collection for the wildlife enthusiasts, for people new to the study of wildlife, it introduces several new species not commonly known or spoken about.

From the pages of the book – Wild Gujarat

An important aspect of the book is how the authors have provided the details of how several of these species have been endangered for a long time, how their population came to paltry figures due to poaching and game shooting, and how a preservation and protection movement was effected over time. When we get to read that the number of Asiatic lions grew up to 674 last year from 287 in 1936, a realization that while a region’s biodiversity can be destroyed in no time due to our callousness, the recovery can take up to several centuries, hits us.

While the book begins with Gir, it does not limit itself to Gir and takes us to several other hotspots of biodiversity in the state. The visages of the majestic Gir Lion, richly produced images of the leopards and endangered blackbucks, strikingly captured pictures of the innumerable birds, both native and migratory, the vast stretches of forests and wetlands, the expansive salt wasteland of Rann of Kutch are put in front of the readers as an open invitation to pack their bags and explore all the biodiversity Gujarat has to offer. I am about to do just that.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Sunita Dwivedi’s Buddha in Gandhara Is a Relentless Pursuit of the Story and Spread of Buddhism

I spent most of my last two weeks cuddled with a notebook, a pen, and Sunita Dwidevi’s Buddha in Gandhara. I gave up on my favourite reading corner at home and sat at the study desk. It was almost as if it was exam mode on, except I was reading and making notes from Buddha in Gandhara. Even though I wasn’t giving an exam, the book was nothing less than a refresher in history, geography, art, culture and whatnot.

Sunita Dwivedi is a silk road traveller, author, and independent researcher. She has been passionately following the trails of Buddha and has published four books based on her travel and research. Buddha in Gandhara is her fourth and recent book in which she takes the Uttarapath or the Northern Highroad of Buddhaland and ventures into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sunita calls this book of hers ‘a humble effort towards recreating a journey on the Buddha’s trail along the Lahore – Peshawar and Kabul – Samangan routes to the once-thriving cities of Gandhara’. Having spent more than fifteen days poring over the pages of this book, I can assure it isn’t humble, but it is humongous. Starting with her Pakistani visa to the multiple footnotes that adorn almost every page of this book, this is a work of relentless passion and meticulous dedication. Even though it is called a travelogue, it reads more academic to me. The chapters are so laden with information that those instances where Sunita talks of her experiences as a traveller become a breath of fresh air for lesser readers like me. Nevertheless, the amount of information is awe-inspiring.

I must thank whoever came up with the idea of attaching a map to the book. It came in handy as I tried hard to keep up with Sunita while she kept travelling from monasteries to dheris to heritage sites. She introduces to you the glorious past of these seemingly less significant places and the various historical and cultural treasures unearthed from these places. Not only does she travel to these sites on the Uttarapath, documenting the remnants at these sites in the current times, she also sheds light on the observations made by pilgrims like Xuanzang, Faxian and Hye Ch’o during their travel along the same corridor.

The book talks about the various patrons of Buddhism from Pataliputra to Gandhara, their historical connections to one another as well as these heritage sites and more. Through the stupas, their inscriptions, and the scripts used in these inscriptions, we try and comprehend the politics of the Buddhist era. The nature of the various artworks excavated from these sites and the depictions on these artworks helps you understand the cultural and religious amalgamation that had happened over time in these places.

The book captures some anecdotes from the life of Buddha, his ancestors and some of the bodhisattvas. I loved that Sunita indulged her readers in some Jataka tales too. I for one enjoyed learning about the’ Miracle of Sravasti’, the Festival of Buddha, the relics trade, the culture of story-telling over tea in the caravanserais of Peshawar and more. The book has a handful of beautiful pictures from both Pakistan and Afghanistan tempting you to set out on a journey to witness them all in person.

I found some information repeated across different chapters more than a couple of times. These repetitions can tend to tire readers. In retrospection, those are parts I remember better. Yet, I am convinced that those repetitions could have been avoided. I am also convinced that this is a treasured addition to my home library.

Facts apart, I relate to Sunita’s undamped spirit as she climbed the stepped hilly path of Jaulian in the rain, her childlike excitement about the balakhanas, her pensiveness at the holy site of the great Kanishka Stupa and her disappointments over illegal mining, encroachment and trafficking of precious antiquities. She reminds me of my year in Europe and how overwhelming it was to stand on the same ground that once bore many people who changed the face of history. Time, that way is a great equaliser.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

K.C. Ajayakumar’s Sankaracharya Explains and Summarizes Advaita and Adi Sankara’s Life

Even though it is an arduous task to talk about Adi Sankara’s intellect authoritatively, there is no dearth of books on Adi Sankaracharya. While the historicity of his life and events have been dealt differently by different authors in these books, the best means to understand his darshan (philosophy is the closest word in English) of Advaita (Non-Duality) are his own works, appended by the works of his disciples who wrote commentaries on his creations. However, even with all the available resources, not many tend to go deep into his philosophy while writing a book about him and end up writing a few peripheral and more miraculous details of his life and time. Through time, this has rendered his thoughts more obscure or complex.

K.C. Ajayakumar differentiates his work on this aspect. He does not entirely skip the biographical details but they only work to advance the story that is essentially about Advaita and its chief preceptor. The author has probed deep into Adi Sankara’s life, his experiences and experiments, the inner working of his mind, and his universal philosophy. All this, with the simplicity and clarity of a child, the author brings Sankaracharya (published by Rupa Publications) to us in simple and engaging prose without losing the essence of that ocean of knowledge the great philosopher has left behind for us.

The story begins with the story of Sankara’s birth and his intellectual prowess even as a child. As Sankara learns all that is there to learn with and around him, his longing for a Guru, a teacher who would help him realize the absolute truth grows stronger every passing day. His pleadings with his mother to let him take Sanyaasa and leave home to find a Guru make for an interesting section in the book. Once he leaves his home, the author retraces all the routes he took across the length and breadth of Aryavarta (India) with all the major events taking place during this journey.

The descriptions of all these places come with brilliant imagery and without any compromise on essential details. Hence, many a time, the author is successful in putting the reader right beside Sankara, following him with his disciples. There are a few disputable facts or events, for example – Sankara’s contemporary scholar Mandan Mishra is shown to be living at a place near the river Narmada. There are other accounts that locate Mandan Mishra’s place to be in the Mithila region of India. However, since scholars have differing views on this subject, these conflicts can be safely ignored. The soul of the book remains intact and without a blemish. As it is difficult to ascertain several facts of his life with pinpoint accuracy, there are parts where a few events have to be recreated with imagination and logic. K.C. Ajayakumar does a fine job there as none of these explanations feels out of place. The author also does a great job in explaining a few miraculous elements or events in Sankara’s life with the help of logic and reasoning.

The most evocative part of this book is the author’s deep dive into Adi Sankara’s darshan. He recreates the most prominent debates the great thinker was involved in without shying away from details. Sometimes, the best way to say something is to say it as it is. K.C. Ajayakumar cites from the most notable works of Adi Sankara (Vivek Chudamani, Commentaries on Upanisads, etc.), and provides us with detailed minutes of his meetings with thinkers and influencers of his time. These minutes have a lot of questions, their answers, counter arguments, refutations, and explanations (including his debates with a couple of Buddhist monks).

It would have been easier to keep floating on the surface but that would have made this an ordinary book. On the contrary, because of its deep indulgence with the philosophy itself, this book acts like a primer which you can read before you begin to explore Adi Sankara’s original works.

Special Mention – If you want to know why the head priest of Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand has to be from the southernmost state of India i.e. Kerala, give this book a read!

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Ratan Sharda’s RSS Retraces the Organization’s Footprints on India’s Social and Political Journey in the Last 100 Years

There are ideas that are widely understood and widely disliked, and there are ideas that are hardly understood but widely liked. The phenomenal rise and popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the decades that culminated into BJP’s rise and ascent to power for the first time in 1998 and then (on its own) in 2014 have been discussed on several occasions through op-eds and prime time debates. However, most of such deliberations have failed to set the premise properly. As a result, even though the offspring has now come to power for a consecutive second term, the parent organization is not adequately understood. Part of the blame lies with the organization itself as it kept a conscious distance from the media for a long time. Much of the blame though lies with the chroniclers of our time who according to their self-interests, painted the organization either completely black or entirely white whenever they spoke or wrote about it. All such pursuits only resulted in a glacier of misinformation and a contagious borrowing of opinions to ‘fit in’ with the popular opinions.

Noted public intellectual and an RSS member who has also worked with most of the affiliate organizations of the Sangh, Ratan Sharda has authored RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement in his attempt to do a course correction. He has chronicled the history of this massive organization from an interestingly chosen vantage point – Sangh’s Sarsanghchaalaks (Head of the organization). By looking at their lives and their time in the organization, the author successfully encircles the birth and rise of the Sangh.

Starting from Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who was a Congressman before starting the RSS to its current day chief – Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, Ratan Sharda touches upon the most defining moments of this organization. As this movement began to take shape in the year 1925 and continues from strength to strength till today even in the face of tremendous hostility from the Congress party and the Left, the book also gives us a peek into modern Indian history. The repercussions of Congress’s support to the Khilafat movement, the makings and results of the Quit India movement, the partition and the freedom, China’s expansionism and the 1962 war, the freedom of Bangladesh, the corruption charges on Indira Gandhi, the emergency years, first elections post emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the riots that followed, the liberalization years – the author takes us on a journey through all these events and also RSS’s position as well as response to these milestones of the last 100 years.

A subtle but important element of the book is the detailing of the working style of each of its Sarsanghchaalaks and the Sangh’s policies during their tenure. It is interesting to see how even though the unique personality of each of these chiefs influences and inspires the general working of the Sangh, the underlying vision of the organization as espoused by its founder remains the same. It’s not that there have been no departures in its working style. However, most of these tweaks have only helped the organization reach out to more people with its message and meaning.

The book is not intended for the followers or the converts who know everything there is to know about the Sangh. On the contrary, this book is intended for the readers who predominantly read in English and have a ton of questions in their minds about the Sangh while forming their opinions on any debate of national, religious, or social importance. It is also for the people who have always taken a tinted view of the organization, thanks to the negative press it has been given over the decades. When you read about how many congress leaders took RSS’s help or cooperated with the Sangh in different times, you also realize how much politics goes into winning the perception war in public view. The book is also a counter-attack on this perception war being waged by one faction within the Congress party that was once spearheaded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and his blind followers.

I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratan Sharda for leaving a few debates open ended. For example, there is a constant reference to the question of Hindu versus Bharat for the nomenclature purposes in RSS’s vision. The author conveys that the word Hindu is not antithetical to the word Bharat and they are, in fact, interchangeable because of the meaning and origin of the two words. He also weighs in on the possibility of the word Bharat getting adopted by the Sangh instead of Hindutva in future for greater reach and acceptability but puts it on time to answer the question in future.

The book is not without its flaws. First and foremost, the book needs better editing. There are spelling typos as well as several repetitions. Although these repetitions are perhaps placed to reinforce the message, at times, they sound like a resume desperately trying to impress. These repetitions could have been avoided. There is one more error that this book makes. While the book sets out to clear misconceptions about the RSS, it ends up creating a few of its own for other organizations that are doing some great work and have empowered millions of individuals and thousands of smaller organizations in the social and spiritual domains. While the author takes Swami Vivekananda’s and the Ramakrishna Mission’s help to explain a few misgivings about the Sangh as well as explaining its core concepts, it also makes some sweeping observations about the Mission (page-340, RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement). While there is a scarcity of books in English about the Sangh from the Sangh, the Ramakrishna Mission has plenty of books, reports, and journals in the language for readers to understand their vision or scale of their activities. So, a bit of due diligence there would have helped the author avoid the mistake he doesn’t want others to commit while assessing the Sangh.

When we are discussing the RSS, it is important to remember that we are talking about a group of people who are some of the firsts to reach any part of the country needing support in the face of any calamity. It is the ideology that gave birth to a viable alternative to the Indian polity after the Congress. It is an organization that has constantly shunned caste divisions and discrimination in the Hindu community. They have also consciously evolved their position on matters of social importance, the latest one being on Homosexuality.

For us to understand the social and political path our country has taken in all these years before and after independence, and the RSS’s deep footprints on it, this book is an indispensable read for all Indians irrespective of their religious, social, or political beliefs. RSS has been an idea widely popular in one section of the society and largely misunderstood in other sections of the same society. Mr. Ratan Sharda hopes to change that and this book is a successful attempt at setting the context right. I’m sure there are more books coming up.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Tinted, Foggy, Sparkling in Parts: Maugham’s Ideas on China Is a Confusing Concoction.

Compared to the Great Mughals or the European Wars for nation-states, Chinese history is often relegated to one semester of a central university’s syllabus. The other is devoted to the Japanese. Together, they adjust themselves into a single module titled History of Modern Asia. As academic papers, students even face a significant adjustment period because of the complicated names, the utterly alien culture of the regions and the general lack of knowledge about their societies. In this scenario, Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen is a part-foggy and part-pretty mirror reflecting European nationals’ lives vis-a-vis the native Chinese population. It is a fascinating yet flawed account – a peek into the frustrations, lifestyle, and emotional ethos of foreign nationals in China.

In 1919, immediately after the First World War, Maugham spent his winter travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Along this journey, he met a motley of people – missionaries, ex-pats, managers, government officials, and bankers, who were culturally and philosophically out of their depths in China. He also brushed shoulders with the more impoverished Chinese population sections such as steersmen, farmers, coolies and rickshaw-pullers.  

However, for most of this journal-like collection of 58 vignettes, we see China through the eyes of majorly European (British and French) characters. They are people who have not visited their home countries in a long time, up to nearly 50 years. Do they love China? Do they hate China? Do they want to return or have their lives been moulded in the quaint Chinese urns till the day they die? Have they managed to adapt themselves or still live under a garb of being the better ones in an outlandish civilization? Maugham’s astute observations attempt to shed light on each kind of outsider who has supposedly made their homes and fortune in China. An unmistakable tinge of superiority tints the narrative.

For me, On a Chinese Screen is an inconsistent experience. Just like any other anthology of short works, I thoroughly enjoyed select stories. Whether it was Maugham’s descriptions of the rain in the countryside or his notes on traits like hypocrisy, adjustment, and longing, they create a lasting impact. However, some others felt tepid. Sadly, a few did not elicit a reaction at all and felt out of place. The book was a mixed experience, and my thoughts remain divided. First, I’ll describe the pieces that I admired the most.

Servants of God is a conversation between an old French missionary and a younger English one. While they are not similar, the author describes them as sharing a common attribute of goodness. They speak for a while and prepare to leave. The Englishman and Frenchmen are both heading home. However, each is unaware of what home means for the other. The Frenchman, living in China for half a century, is leaving for his town that he never plans to leave. The British missionary is thinking about his home in Cheshire, where his family have dwelled for three centuries.

Henderson is a commentary on western hypocrisy in China. Henderson is a pompous junior partner who upon his arrival in China was revolted by the rickshaws. As a socialist, it aggravated his sense of personal dignity that another human would be carrying him around in a vehicle. But as he began to encounter the scorching Shanghai heat, Henderson frequently uses the rickshaw. However, he maintains that the puller is like his brother and friend. On a particular ride, when the author accompanied Henderson, the latter remarked how their rickshaw-puller was sweating profusely and they ought to let him go for the heat will only get worse. Henderson answered that one must not pay attention to the Chinese for the British were the ruling race. As the rickshaw-puller missed the turn he ought to have taken, Henderson kicked him and called him a bloody fool. All while discussing Bertrand Russell’s Road to Freedom.

The Opium Den is a unique take on the nature of opium addiction in the country. China had been in the midst of massive and illegal opium trade that destroyed vast segments of their population and caused two major wars in the 17th and 18th century. The author always imagined opium dens to be dingy, squalid places. His idea is like a set from a play where young men driven by addiction behave like frenzied lunatics while the poorer lot begs the evil owner to let them enjoy a smoke for free. Finally, when he is taken to an opium den, the real picture is entirely different. The property was neat, brightly-lit and divided into cubicles where people were experiencing a quiet time with their long pipes, chessboards and newspapers. The den was like a Berlin bar that men visited after work. Studying the scenario, Maugham remarks, “Fiction is stranger than fact.” 

The Nun is a short conversation between a nun and the author. Mother Superior has been in China for 20 years and dearly misses watching the Pyrenes mountains from her window. However, she is fond of the Chinese whom she believes to be hardworking and understanding. She remembers when a few soldiers she nursed to health transported her heavy bags in their car. The author asks why the men did not give her a lift instead of only carrying her bags. The nun’s reply is poignant. She says, “A nun in their eyes is only a woman. You must not ask people more than they are capable of giving.”

The Consul is the funniest of the lot. It’s about Mr. Pete, a man who is employed in the consular service. In his long career, the only case that eluded a solution was Mrs Yu. A British citizen who married a Chinese man against her mother’s wishes, Mrs Yu arrived in China only to find out that her husband has a wife, and she was his second. Since the revelation, she regularly harasses Mr Pete by seeking legal remedies but disregards his suggestion to return to England. In a fit of rage at her stubbornness, he asks her why she refuses to leave her husband. Mrs Yu answers, “Theres something in his way his hair grows on his forehead that I cant help liking.”

Maugham’s writing has a strangely mixed quality. He can make searing statements but simultaneously, dazzle the reader with his fluid and poetical descriptions of the smallest moments. The latter is evident in Night has Fallen, Arabesque, The Painting and A Game of Billiard. They are not rich in material. Only wonderfully writte, a drawback shared by many more stories in the collection.

On a Chinese Screen is not a compassionate account of Maugham’s travel in China. Neither is it harsh. It is a cross between matter-of-fact observations and free-flowing ruminations. Moreover, the stories do betray a considerable white man’s lens. There is casual racism. Maugham is more interested in the life of Europeans and how they battle or adjust to China. The indigenous population works as the backdrop, but that backdrop is rather dull in itself. He paints a much brighter picture in front of the grey curtain. It is incredible how the same man can paint a sensitive word-picture of a plum-blossom (The Picture) and in another story, describe a Chinese woman as a “little yellow wife” (Sullivan).

Maugham is part aggressive, part beautiful. However, to his credit, Maugham sufficiently reveals European ignorance. He remarks how high-ranking officials can barely understand a Chinese word for they consider the language to be beneath them. In fact, Maugham’s idea of China is best received by readers who share the same socio-economic background. For example, the Los Angeles Times described the book as “Evokes a nostalgic China replete with rickshaws and sing sing girls.” This is a simplistic statement, borderline cliched. It is like Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video where India was represented with peacocks and Holi.

Coming to the principal question: Do I recommend On a Chinese Screen? There are two ways to look at it. I will not suggest the book to be a reader’s first brush with Somerset Maugham. He has far more powerful and memorable works. However, if you are a seasoned Maugham admirer, you will enjoy the travelogue as “another Maugham down.” As a reader in the first category, I think of my experience as a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a specific niche of the population in a far-off land. But I read On a Chinese Screen knowing that it is imperfect.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Si. Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal Takes You on a Guided Tour of Jallikattu

One night, during January 2017, I woke up with a nightmare and wrote this- The Rights & Wrongs around Jallikattu. The endless debates on social media and all the restlessness in the whole of Marina and TamilNadu wouldn’t let me sleep until I wrote about all that I had to say. One of the oft-repeated suggestions during those times was to pick up and read Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. Strangely these recommendations came from both the pro and anti-Jallikattu activists. After four years, I have finally heeded their advice and I am beginning to wonder if they ever read it before recommending.

I, for one, have never witnessed a Jallikattu in person. However, I have seen and known the pampering the bulls receive as they prepare for their big day. I always looked forward to the newspapers, the mornings after Jallikattu. Even as the stories carried the details of the number of people dead or injured, I loved looking at the pictures of these beautiful bulls in the middle of the arena. It was all magnificent and fascinating until I graduated to live telecast in later years. On live television, all I saw was madness.

Imagine being picked from the comforts of your home and dropped in the middle of one such maddening crowd on a sultry afternoon. That was what was done to me when I began reading Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. The book was a short read. Yet, the whole hour I spent with the book was the most adventurous I have ever felt while reading a book. You are convinced not to move a limb, bat an eye, or even take a breath because anything could happen in the arena in a flash of a second.

Picchi and Maruthan arrive at Chellayi Jallikattu hoping to avenge the death of Picchi’s father, Ambuli. Ambuli is killed in the arena by one ‘Kaari’ and Picchi believes only the defeat of Kaari in the arena would comfort his father’s brave soul. As he awaits his moment of truth, the duo finds themselves in the entertaining company of ‘Pattaya‘, the grand old man. Just like Picchi and Maruthan, I too have my Pattaya – Si. Su. Chellappa, who takes me on a detour while we wait for the contest to begin.

He shows me around the village, the long train of men walking towards the arena, the sheds brimming with the best of the bulls from all over and the festive spirit that fills the air. He introduces me to the various kinds of bulls and educates me in the nuances of Jallikattu. And together we eavesdrop into the conversations in the crowd.

My heart brimmed with emotions as Picchi’s Pattaya talked about the bravery of Ambuli. I felt it all over again when Picchi and Maruthan came face to face with Kaari. The familiarity of the language, the merriment all around, and the nostalgia in the whole set-up gave me a moment of respite. I then watched the whole village follow Kaari to the river and my heart sank. Once again I felt torn between the rights and wrongs of Jallikattu. I felt like that shepherd who voluntarily sacrificed his dearest goat to honour his traditions and then wailed in grief holding its lifeless body.

There at the arena, all conflicts converge into a strange sense of equality. It did not matter where you came from or who your ancestors were. It did not matter if you are rich or poor. It did not even matter if you were a man or an animal. All that mattered was if you had it in you to face the ordeal and survive it. It is also a field of transformation. You see a man become the beast that he was trying to tame and the beast display a human-like intelligence. And whoever emerges victorious shall have the privilege of being the Zamindar’s decorated plaything.

As I looked around, I painfully realized that except for me and the all-powerful Chellayi, who protects the village and its people, there is not a single female in and around the ‘Vaadivaasal’. So much for what began as a sport to impress one’s lady love.  I am not going to hold Si. Su. Chellappa responsible for this. He only mirrored the society of his times which isn’t much different even today. I must also tell you this. If you ever want to know about Vaadivaasal and Jallikattu, there is no one better than him to tell you all about it. And if you don’t read Tamil, you can pick N. Kalyan Raman’s translation of it. Even after the Jallikattu was over, here is one thought from the book that stayed with me and I want to leave it with you too. “The men in the Vaadivaasal might think of this as a sport. However, that’s not true for the bulls.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Fifty Shades of Feminism in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

In newspapers, news channels, magazines, and social media – we have met these three kinds of people. One is the avowed feminist, as Roxane Gay would have it – the one who sits on the pedestal waiting to be dislodged at the first sign of betrayal of the idea of ‘perfect’ feminism. Second is the anti-feminism who is a self-proclaimed feminist-hunter waiting for the decimation of the ideology itself. Third is the Bad Feminist. This one doesn’t hide the fact that she loves listening to those sexist hit numbers or shaves her legs or that pink is her favourite colour and at the same time, believes in equal opportunity for women and wants them to be represented on par with men in publications, board-room meetings, or the parliament. This one comes with all the little imperfections that we human beings come with. Roxane Gay, the author of a collection of essays, primarily on ‘Feminism’ as well as several other intersectional subjects, is a Bad Feminist.

Roxane Gay is an American writer and professor who has also written Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Ayiti, An Untamed State among other works. She is a New York Times best selling author and is vocal with her pen and speech on issues of feminism, race, sexual violence (rape), immigration, and LGBTQ rights to name a few. Her personal brush with most of these issues lends her an air of sincerity, authenticity, and seriousness that these subjects deserve. This does not mean she is divorced from humour. In fact, Bad Feminist is laden with a wry sense of humour throughout.

The book begins with the author’s constantly evolving understanding of feminism, her struggles to acknowledge the feminist inside her even at the cost of offending the ‘sisterhood’ that wants you to play by the inviolable playbook of feminism. So, even if she does and likes a lot of things that the feminism police would absolutely abhor, she comes to terms with the idea that she can still be a feminist, maybe a bad one at that, but still a feminist! The imperfections of the practitioners doesn’t imply that the idea itself is a dispensable one.

With feminism as the centre point, she moves about the circumference and speaks on a range of issues through her essays. You will find thought provoking critiques of several best selling books, popular films and television shows. As I read through, I realized that a lot of content in the book is focused on American pop culture and its icons. She tells us about the misogyny that comes with most of the Hip Hop lyrics, inadequate or misrepresentation of people of colour in the book as well as the movie The Help, criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, Django Unchained, her likes and dislikes about The Hunger Games in straight-from-the-heart prose without carrying any burden of formal writing. 

“Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal — entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave,”…. “I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.” – Roxane Gay

It’s not that Roxane Gay doesn’t contradict herself in the book but she is acutely aware of these contradictions as well as her personal flaws. At times she can be too harsh and sometimes more forgiving than you would expect her to be. Also, since she is an ardent follower of pop culture, the book is full of examples that readers from other countries may not appreciate. However, because her contexts are well explained, it should not be difficult for a reader in India to replace Yin Yang twins with Honey Singh and understand what the author means. But for someone entirely disinterested in pop culture, a few essays can get weary.

For me, one of the defining parts of the book is when Roxane talks about sexual violence and crimes. Starting from her own horrific experience to reflecting on the way ‘rape culture’ as a phrase is frequently used in media, she explores several facets of the subject. Her own experience is heartbreaking and her deliberations on how popular icons rarely get adequately punished for their sexual crimes are piercing. The essay will remind you of how in our own backyard, a rape joke by Salman Khan could not make a single dent on his box office collections or how Mulayam Singh Yadav remains an Honourable Member of Parliament even after saying something as shameful as “Ladkiyan pehle dosti karti hain. Ladke-ladki mein matbhed ho jata hai. Matbhed hone key baad usey rape ka naam dey deti hain. Ladko sey galti ho jati hai. Kya rape case mein phasi di jayegi?” (First girls develop friendship with boys. Then when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape). He is not alone. Several people have contributed to the cause of defending or glorifying rape at different times.

Roxane Gay’s book is as inward looking as it is outward looking. She keeps creating bridges between the two worlds to draw her observations. She is candid in her narrations, and talks about a lot from her own life and struggles through its different phases. If you are someone who is conflicted between the three types of people I mentioned in the beginning and would like to have some clarity on matters related to feminism, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist makes it easier for you. She is there with her essays sitting right beside you telling, it’s okay not to tick all the mandatory boxes of feminism, you can be a feminist even without applying to the sisterhood.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Edgy, Brilliant, and Complex: Salman Rushdie’s Shame Injects a Fairytale Into Politics

Can you live somewhere without knowing its name? Can you breathe its polity and travel its landscape only relying on letters? Can you grow up in a sealed fortress, watching snow capped mountains and discovering new rooms every night? Can you accept a narrative of a woman so ashamed that it stunts her mental growth until she becomes a monster, ripping apart men and turkeys? It all sounds gibberish until you allow Salman Rushdie’s Shame to consume you. Just like the crippling embarrassment that consumes the life of every tragic character in the novel, Rushdie swallows the reader into an abyss of words, history, allusions, illusions and magic. Open your mind, and Rushdie’s genius will engulf you exactly how Harry fell into the Pensieve and experienced memories that didn’t belong to him.

Shame is about many things that constitute life. Families. Marriages. Children. Affairs. Religion. Politics. Dictators. Governments. Rebellions. Scandals. It is about interconnected families against the backdrop of an unnamed, phantasmagoric country and the upheavals in its polity. The book’s family tree will immediately remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. In fact, Rushdie and Marquez share substantial similarities in writing style and elaborate imagination. The worlds they create are brimming with strangeness. Even the tiniest thing is ornate. Whether it is the bitter almonds in Love in the Time of Cholera or the elevator in Shame built to transport goods and commit murder, nothing is ordinary. Yet, all of it is true.

Shame is tough to summarise, but for protocol’s sake, it must be done. Who started Shame? Omar Khayyam Shakil. His matrilineal lineage is questionable. He was born to three mothers, who replicated a pregnancy. Apart from Rushdie, no one knows who among the three Shakil sisters was Omar’s mother. After spending his childhood in a suffocating fortress designed to prohibit human interaction, Omar leaves his home at 12. Eventually, he becomes a debauch but famed doctor before marrying a ridiculously young patient called Sufiya Zinobia.

Sufiya is a symbol of purity and the axis on which shame and shamelessness revolve. Born to a mother who craved a son, she embodied the book’s central philosophy: Shame begets Violence and Violence begets Shame. Suffering from stunted mental growth, Sufiya grows up unloved and prone to constant blushing on account of internalising her family’s dishonour. Her parents are General Raza Hyder and Bilquis Hyder. Raza is a politician par excellence, masking his shrewd barbarism under the well-pressed suits. The second bloc in Shame is General Raza’s political opponent, Iskander Harappa. Once known for his indulgent personality and many affairs, he marries the simple Rani Harappa whose quiet tolerance of her husband’s ways finds expression in the delicate shawls she embroiders. His daughter is Arjumand. Known as Virgin Ironpants for her attempts to suppress her sexuality and reject potential suitors, she is Iskander’s secret weapon. A political mastermind, Arjumand stands by her father throughout his career and even after his execution. Many more characters are crucial. They come and go as per the story’s requirements. 

Shame reads like a secret. It is whispered so often that everyone has a vague idea of what it is hinting at but cannot be brash and say it aloud. A significant portion of Shame’s geographical and psychological landscape may go unnamed, but it has been broadly agreed that Shame is Pakistan’s story. As a writer, the Indian Independence, Partition and Pakistan are very close to Rushdie. Whether he is exploring them full throttle like in Midnights Children or incorporating the zeitgeist of the time in The Ground Beneath her Feet, the two nations’ political health always had a bearing on his characters. With Shame, he delves into the political class of Pakistan and gives us a fairytale.

Scholars (and readers who are tempted to explore the history of Pakistan even at a tertiary level after reading Shame) have found the following, significant allusions:

  • The unnamed city of Q – Quetta
  • Raza Hyder – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
  • Iskandar Harappa – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
  • Arjumand Harappa – Benazir Bhutto

Shame is so layered that you will find hundreds of papers and dissertations, so many different themes explored in the novel; such as nationalism, violence, religion, marriage, motherhood, magical realism, political identity, post-colonialist writing and modernism. Which one will I address? The question puts me in a pickle.

Salman Rushdie’s vision for Shame is far ahead of his times. The observations he made in 1983 through dark humour and fictional situations hold their ground in 2021. For example, Maulana Dawood’s character. He is a fanatic and General Raza’s advisor. His influence steadily draws Raza towards establishing a theocracy. The narrative about faith being rammed into politics and those poisonous politics being forced down people’s throats will resonate today. Shame even answers why the rhetoric of faith is such a fit in governance. It’s because faith as a language is too complicated to oppose. It comes with respect. So much of it that it hushes everybody.

Shame does a great job of reminding us that no matter how much despotism is shrouded with sweet words and mysticism, the masses will rise. In the end, General Raza, his wife and Omar flee the city and take shelter in Omar’s childhood home. The intimidating fortress, a symbol of tyranny, is where they are brutally murdered. Ultimately, commoners storm the house. What can be more symbolic than that?

One of the most poignant and famous lines in Shame is, Beauty and the Beast is simply the tale of arranged marriage. This sentence alone captures the sadness that permeates every marriage in the book, making the reader acutely aware of the feminist discourse underlying the outwardly masculine narrative of men fighting it for power, women, and legitimacy. On the surface, it is all about men. Hyder, Harappa, Omar, Maulana, Babar and Talvar Ulhaq claw and scratch to climb society’s ladders. By the time it ends, the women stand out.

Shame is often overshadowed by the sparkle of The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. However, it must not be missed. Even if one doesn’t enjoy political critique, it can be appreciated as a fairytale about warring families. The book does have drawbacks. For example, those who are not aware of Pakistan’s history may initially miss some of its flavours. It is quite detailed, so you forget portions of initial happenings when the author revisits in the middle of the book. Some amount of going back and forth and googling may be essential.

Shame, just like the emotion itself, is warped and multifaceted. It is about disgrace and as well as its antithesis: shamelessness. Together, they form the basis of violence. As Rushdie says, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

The Color Purple: Understanding Alice Walker’s Womanism

Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.

The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.

The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.

It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)

Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.

Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”

Reference: WHAT’S IN A NAME? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond by Patricia Hill Collins

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!