Sunday, May 24, 2009

Selected Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, reviewed by Arun Kumar

"Selected Poems", by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by William Radice, is an excellent and powerful translation as well as a representative selection of the Tagore's poems. Tagore has carved a place for him in the World Literature. He is one of the greatest poets of India and a leading Indian literary figure of the world literature.

It is really exciting for an Indian reader to see Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore in translation and that also by an European scholar and doing proper justice to him in his translations.

An excellent example worth emulating for any translator of world literature - worth a salt . He has conveyed both the feelings of Tagore as well as his literary craftsmanship to his readers even in translations. The title is published by International publisher - Penguin India, under its classics initiative.

The erudite translator has exemplified that one who knows his subject and his works well could convey the feelings and literary craftsmanship to the readers in translation. The book deserve to recommended for anyone who has a musical ear and a real love and appreciation for poetry.

As one knows that the poems of Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore are most delicate in Indian as well as world literature. His literature convey passionate human yearning.

His subjects deals with the interplay between the God and mortals, a changing universe in tune with unchanging harmony. Poems titled "Earth" and " In the Eyes of a Peacock" depict picture of natural processes untouched by human concerns. In his poem "Recovery — 14," the poet discusses his place in this world. Likewise the poems "New Rain" and "Grandfather's Holiday" convey the poet's amusement to the creation of nature.

William Radice explains that Unending Love ‘is a lyric poem which it takes us into the world of Tagore’s songs.

" In life after life, in age after age forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain, Its ancient tale of being apart or together, As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge Clad in the light of a pole-star peiercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever."

Translating the poem "Unending Love" the translator has done a wonderful job treating Bengali culture and its folklore in his translation. Amazing translation of the words and phrases used in bengali society and that also by an European scholar amuse the readers.

Detailed 16-page glossary given at the end of the book accompanied with the notes, listing Bengali/Indian words used in the poems i.e proper names of mythological characters, places, plants, mountains and rivers, palaces so on and so forth makes it intelligible even to those readers who are either not Indian and also to those Indians who know little about the Bengali society. It makes it a great translation.

Worth Reading. Recommended for Connosieur of Poetry.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Narayana's Hitopadesa, reviewed by Nagalakshmi Balakrishnan

Close your eyes and open the book. Read the story you find on the page, or find the beginning. This would perhaps be the easiest way to read Narayana's Hitopadesa. Or read one or two at a time, else an entire section in one go.

Most of the stories take you back to the storytellers of your childhood. Who told me a version of this story, or where have I heard it before? We may also remember a story from the panchatantra or a fable from Aesop.

The combination of prose and verse could take a little time to get used to. Remember our oral tradition, and the advantage rhyme has in committing anything to memory.

The verses seem to hide prophesies for the contemporary world.The following stanza brought the Satyam downfall to my mind.

In finance the evils are:
Excesses in expenditure
And lack of proper inspection;
Injustices in tax collection;
Fraud, which is like robbery;
And a remote authority. (93) page 104

Here's a Talibanic view of women in ancient times as well.

The name of 'wife' should be denied
To one who can't her husband please
The latter being satisfied
The gods with women are at ease. (198) page 66

To drink and keep bad company
To roam about excessively
In others' homes to sleep, feel free
From husbands staying separately:
Six blemishes of women be.(115) page 46

Amusing or infuriating? Whoever accused 'westernisation' as a bad influence on women - the multifarious sena(senae?) please take note. Unless these 'evils' existed in our culture, they would not have been mentioned! Now eat your words, protectors of Indian culture!

Read in sequence, it is interesting to find one story woven into another. A parrot or a crane narrate many set in the world of birds, animals and humans.

The translator's introduction and the notes will help understand the nuances of the work. Many students of sanskrit read the original as a textbook. They would be able to use this translation for reference.

Go ahead, grab a copy, and enliven a boring summer day. Better still, read it and charm a listening child.

Discover more about Hitopadesa here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas, reviewed by Diptakirti Chaudhuri

Reviewing books published under the ‘Penguin India Classic’ can be fraught with a lot of risks. Especially since the novel at hand has been published to tremendous reception three decades back, translated into English by the author himself to great success, filmed into a critically acclaimed television series by a renowned director and generally acknowledged as one of the seminal works on Partition.

What follows is not a ‘review’ of Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas but more of my observations after reading the classic for the first time.

Kites (and vultures) shall fly (over this town)… This recurring line from the book – Kites shall fly – was the alternative title of an earlier English translation of Tamas. Indeed, it is this deep sense of foreboding that permeates almost two-thirds of the book – where there is hardly any depiction of violence.

The ‘expectation’ of a Partition story is the recounting of the orgy of violence that is enacted by the two communities. Authors have often been rather graphic in this respect (probably to bring about a sense of revulsion among the readers). Saadat Hassan Manto’s short stories and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan are two such examples that come to mind.

Tamas, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. For the majority of the story, there are only stray acts of inconsequential violence that make up the narrative. And to accentuate the impending acts of hatred, neighbours of different communities recount their several years of living in harmony. People who have spent their entire lives together remember most details as they succumb to baser instincts.

In this respect, Tamas resembles the Bengali classic Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) written by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (author of Pather Panchali) and filmed by Satyajit Ray. That novel ends with the first death of the Great Bengal Famine (a horrific event, that left literally thousands people dead from starvation) and the narrative is built around the cast of characters in a small Bengal village living in the shadow of an imminent food crisis.

In some ways, Tamas is also the exact antithesis of Manto’s short stories. Most of those short stories never stretched beyond a page or two and had an act of swift – but imaginative (for the want of a better word) – violence at its center like a tableau. Tamas – on the other hand – builds tension through the unlikely route of a conversation between the British Deputy Commissioner and his wife, which tries to explain why the Government should not interfere in the ‘religious matters’ of the Indian people.

Another thing Tamas does exceptionally well is the decoding of the psychology of riots.
A riot is the outcome of an attempt by an ethnic group to ‘take revenge’. A large number of people who form a rioting mob are doing so for the first time and through a series of stray events, Sahni does a sketch of the rioters’ minds brilliantly.

One has to identify with distant deaths as one’s own.

Rumours of killings in far-off villages spread – with embellishments on each hearing – among the young and excitable. This creates a supposedly moral energy and that leads to a mission for vendetta.

One has to distance oneself from the victims to remove the emotion.

With the Partition riots happening in small towns of Northwestern India, this was particularly tricky because the people baying for each other’s blood knew each other too well for comfort.

In one particularly ironic incident, a Sikh couple seeks refuge in a Muslim household. The womenfolk – unsure of the reaction of the absent men – hide them in a barn, from where the Sikh couple sees the men return. They have returned from the riots, with the spoils. And the heavy trunk they have collected is actually from the Sikh couple’s home. When they are trying to break the lock, the Sikh gentleman reveals himself and offers the key. Suddenly, the tables are turned and the head of the refuge-providing household is shamed by his deed. Shamed enough to let the Sikh couple leave unharmed. Though not enough to return the trunk.

Tamas derives its reputation – like most classics – from the timelessness of its message.
Neighbours go at each other’s throats, because a ‘leader’ asks them to. Cultural similarities are ignored at their insistence. Political leaders take advantage of mob mentality, always for material gains. And government turns a blind eye.

Despite knowing fully well that a token gesture would put an end to the bloodletting, the British administration follows the book to let the populace sort out their religious differences and paves way for the impending transfer of power.

Six decades on, politicians and government have merged into one apocalyptic body and now wreak the same unspeakable havoc on the people, described so vividly in Tamas. We, the populace – unfortunately – have not learnt anything from history and continue to do the dirty work on ourselves.

As the British Deputy Commissioner says in a prophetic moment – “Most people have no knowledge of their history. They only live it.”

We are still suffering from the same curse.

Find out more about Tamas here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Minakshi Jaswal

The book is a story of a family, a priest by vocation but still the headman of the family seems to have maintained his silence on a lot of wrong around him, the ill-treatment of his sister by his wife for instance.

The book starts on how a little girl Dugga is so deeply attached to her father's sister whom she lovingly calls 'pishima' and how the wife ridicules and pushes the old lady out of the house more than once. The girl is shown to be bold and in love with nature, a free spirit. The mother seems to have an indifferent attitude in the beginning of the book, or so it seems which gradually softens a little towards the middle of the story.

When pishima dies the story seems to move on without too many bumps but when there is another loss of life in the later half of the book, the story seems to come to a sad and abrupt point. The birth of Dugga's brother Koka comes as a whiff of fresh air in the story. The author has described him as one of the most beautiful children.

Koka's innocence, his running after hare in the jungle, his rushing to his mother and being scared of her and having his food without a demur for the fact that he might get scolded, yet his taking a stand when his mother thrashed Dugga for a theft she was accused of shows that though he is young, he has an understanding which sometimes even people of a ripe age lack. His coyness and inhibitions in making friends initially in school , yet his being able to make conversation with people much older than his father leaves the reader thinking that the child is gifted with knowledge in abundance. The thirst for reading that the child has in him and the way he goes in the jungle practicing the scenes of Mahabharata all by himself go on to show how like any other child he also lives in a make believe world for the major part of his childhood.

The relation between Dugga and Koka is the highlight of the story. She wanders all by herself all day long but at the end of the day, she makes it a point to share the booty of the fruits she gathers from people's gardens. The story is compassionate as each member of the poverty striken family, does not feel bad for themselves or ask for anything, rather they feel sad for others of the family being deprived of a certain thing, eg books for koka, clothes for the wife or Dugga or rich food on occasions for the family.

The major part of the story is light and though the family goes through rough patches the writer makes up by filling in adequate incidents of the playful childhood of the children which prevents the story from going sombre.

The part where the village is flooded and Dugga's father is away looking for work but not finding any, the family in the village not having money for two square meals, Koka's mother selling off articles for the sustainance of the children to buy rice and feed them, Dugga suffering malaria and her wish to see trains and Kokas assurance that they would all go to bathe in the Ganges when she became better is heart wrenching. Dugga's death leaves the reader cheated who while reading the book has been wishing all along for her to get well and that the children would be fine.

The last part where the family, now only consisting of the parents and Koka, is a sort of detachment from the village and shows how the little boy is promising his sister that he is being forcibly taken away from her but that he would never forget her - definitely moves the readers heart.

The book on the whole would get a rating of 7/10 and it is addictive if one wants to be a part of the idiosyncracies of the children's lives as it puts you back in time and makes you forget your daily worries. Not a mandatory read but yes if given a chance, and having the time, one must read the book.

A Tale of Four Dervishes by Mir Amman, translated by Mohammed Zakir, reviewed by Roma Jaspara Nair

Don’t look for rich Urdu literature in Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar translated as A Tale of Four Dervishes! The book is not as much a literary fiction as is an interesting tale of five men having suffered through the hands of fate from their women.

A Tale of Four Dervishes was originally written in Persian sometime in the fourteenth century as Qissa Chahar Darvesh by Amir Khusrau. Its first translation (1775) was in chaste Urdu; hence it was later commissioned to Mir Amman to translate the original Persian script in a language that that was simple and easy to read. Interestingly, Mir Amman’s Urdu translation, completed in 1803, made Bagh-o-Bahar popular and also his most celebrated work.

The book is an interesting collection of five main stories of each of its protagonist and several intertwined stories. The underlying theme of Bagh-o-Bahar is romance. The principal characters are four dervishes—three rich princes and a rich merchant—who have renounced the world because of lost love. The central character is Azad Bakht, the middle-age king of Turkey desiring a son to succeed him. Unable to cope up with his grief, he leaves his palace one night and meets the four wandering dervishes who recount their adventurous odyssey to Turkey.

The stories are typically medieval with all the ingredients of a traditional Oriental epic—beauty, valor, love, adventure, and fantasy. The men though brave and strong, are portrayed emotionally weak compared to their women. Each of their stories portray a colorful depiction of the life and times of an era gone by, and its customs and traditions. At times frivolous, the characters nonetheless draw you to their lives and beliefs in their quest to win over their women.

Read A Tale of Four Dervishes during bedtime. It is one of those books with all the feel good ingredients to end your day—djinn and fairies, princes and their adventures, and love and romance.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Premendra Mitra's Mosquito and Other Stories, reviewed by Dharmaj Soni

A great read.

I was not aware of Premendra Mitra's works till I read this book, and it was a very different experience from the ordinary.

Ghana da takes you to a different world altogether, but you don't realise it when he is at it; it seems so believably true, the tales which he conjures up for the other residents of the boarding house.How weird for the boarding house members, they want Ghana da, despite his peculiar selfish looking habits, perpetual cigarette borrowing being one of them.

The stories, although independent, have a common feel, striking believability and a nice narrative.

Characters such as Ghana da are present among us but none so interesting as him and as expert in telling tall tales that so expertly mix sci-fi with geography, ethnography, seafaring and what not ?

A superb and coherent compilation of short stories.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Srikanta, by Saratchandra Chattopadhya, translated By Aruna Chakravarti and reviewed by Bharathi Prabhu

Srikanta, an important work by Saratchandra, is, by the author’s admission “A series of scattered memories”. What vivid memories they are! They succeed in making the reader reflect on how things have changed and yet how they have remained the same in nearly eight decades since its first publication.

Saratchandra was aware of the novel’s universal appeal and wanted it to reach a larger population through translations. A task that Aruna Chakravarti has ably accomplished through her English translation of this modern classic.

Srikanta tells the story of the eponymous 19th century Bengali Brahmin from the time he is a young boy to the time he settles down into domesticity in his late thirties. Reluctantly or otherwise is left to the reader’s interpretation. The novel covers a period of roughly 20 years in which Srikanta encounters various characters and situations. Srikanta offers his own insights into events, personalities and his actions or lack of them. Contrary to what the novelist and the protagonist (the work is supposedly semi autobiographical) say, Srikanta comes across as a person who takes action when it matters, he goes to assist people when they need him most- accompanying his friend Indranath into the gushing waters, nursing a dying friend at the risk of catching fatal illness, being the pillar of strength for Kamal Lata... our hero gently worms his way into the reader’s specially the female reader’s heart.

The other important characters, Pyari(later known as Rajlakshmi),who is forced into prostitution but who later reclaims her life and love(Srikanta), Kamal Lata, the devout Vaishnavite who sees no contradiction in nursing a musalmaan or falling in love with Srikanta, Ratan, the faithful servant, are well etched with all their human frailties. Even the briefly appearing Gahar and Ananda leave a lasting impression because of the Author’s ability to suffuse them with endearing and credible traits. Srikanta’s inability to resist his life’s steering by Rajlakshmi is the Lei motif of the later half of the novel. Rajlakshmi is beautiful, wealthy and charming and her idolization of Srikanta since childhood binds Srikanta in golden shackles. His brief stint at Burma to earn a living or his considering joining the Vaishnavite akhra and spend his life with the less charming but also less controlling Kamal lata are his half hearted attempts at rebellion.

The novel suits the sensibilities of the time it was written in. There is just the hint of physical proximity between Srikanta and Rajlakshmi. The description of rural Bengal with its flowering plants, the life styles of peasants and the upper class transport you to a by-gone era. The novel reminds the present generation reader very much of Amitav Ghosh’s Booker nominated “Sea of Poppies”. The Bengal setting with its caste hierarchies, the powerful yet traditional women, the languid pace and epic sweep are present in both the works. When one is through with the novel, the feeling is akin to finishing a long nap and you are left wondering…. “Ma go! Is it over?”

Find out more information on Srikanta, by Saratchandra Chattopadhya, here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Folktales from India, by A.K.Ramanujam, reviewed by Kamala Balachandran

How many folktales have you heard, which you can recall and narrate to your children? If you have lived in a Metro all your life (like I have) chances are that your answer is, ‘none’. But as the compiler of this book points out in his introduction, even urban folks have a few stories buried somewhere in our memories. But because we have lost the tradition of narrating them and passing them on to someone, they have remained lost to even us.

I too realised this while reading the book. Apart from those that are familiar to most of us as a Panchatantra/ Akbar-Birbal/ Tenali Raman story I was surprised that I was also familiar with a few others. Perhaps it was my grandmother or mother who had narrated them to me sometime in the past. And I wondered why I had always picked either Western fairy tales or Indian Mythology as bedtime stories for the children. And if I carried a handful of stories within me, I can imagine what a repository of folktales, those from the rural background must have.

Thanks to the printing press, Penguin and efforts of folktale enthusiast, A.K.Ramanujam, it has been made possible for all to access the collective memories of all these carriers of folktales, in a language that is now the ‘knowledge mother tongue’ for most urban Indians.

Folktales from India is a selection of oral tales translated from stories in twenty two different, Indian languages! Selected and edited by A.K.Ramanujam this four hundred page paperback contains within its covers, as many as 108 folktales! Delicate floral motifs and small sketches appear scattered through the pages thus breaking the monotony of the printed words.

To break the monotony of reading the same kind of stories, the tales themselves are arranged in eleven cyclic, sessions, with each consisting of eight to eleven tales. Each session has one or more seven kinds of tales that Ramanujam collected. Thus by rotation one gets to read a men/women centred tale, tales of two families at the two ends of the good-bad spectrum, tales about fate, death, gods, demons, ghosts etc., clever-person tales, tales where animals speak, and finally stories about stories!

Ramanujam has mentioned that he had gathered over one thousand stories and selected a tenth for publishing.. But even one hundred odd stories is lot of tales and as such the collection has some good stories, some average and some that don’t appeal to the modern day child/adult. The many, mother-in- law, daughter-in-law tales and most women centric tales are examples of this category of tales. Again there are a few, like the Bengali story, ‘A Plague Story’, the Santali story “one, two, three” which carry profound ideas and leave the adult reader in deep thoughts.

Reading/listening to these simple stories is not just entertainment. Psychologists hold that folktales have an important place in the education of children. They are a potent source of psychoanalytic insights as they concentrate on close family ties and childhood fantasies.
An additional take home for the Indian reader is the awareness that a commonality of traditions and culture connects the different language-regions in the country.

I would recommend a copy of this book in every home. When the children demand a story to be told or when you are in mood for something short and light, reach for the book, pick a title at random and lose yourselves in the simple, timeless tales.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Malarvizhi Jayanth

Making a Mango Whistle by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay hovers between childhood and adulthood, dreams and death, magic and fear. It is a book for adults, young readers, film buffs and the literarily-inclined – many people will find much to appeal to them in this book that is intended for children.

The ghost of Satyajit Ray's Panther Panchali hangs heavily over the book for the contemporary reader. The cover art invokes it with the iconic image of Durga and her mother fussing over Apu on his first day to school. The images that flit through the reader's head are from the film.

Adapted for children from the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, the narrative occasionally zooms in intensely on the emotion of a child. In a sequence where Apu watches a kite soar, he feels strongly the pull of a desire for freedom, followed immediately by a desire for the security of his mother's arms. At other times, it describes adult social politics with an assumed neutrality and distance, though it is always clear where the author's sympathies lie.

The many kinds of fruit and who has access to which, the haunted tree, the politics of who a fallen fruit can belong to – all the intertwined relations of nature and culture of the time animate the childhoods of Durga and Apu, children of an impoverished Brahmin family. The interventions of man seem minimal in this landscape that is circa early 20th century rural Bengal. The railway is a source of exquisite wonder and deferring the dream of seeing it terribly painful for the two children

Spoiler alert:

For someone who has seen Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, the delight of the book is rediscovering Durga. A brave, untamed, much-maligned and much-beloved girl child, well-versed in the lore of the natural world but less sure-footed in negotiating tricky societal structures and adult power games. Her death feels far more traumatic in the book after having followed her through several adventures - gathering forbidden fruit and dragging her unloved elderly relative back home and standing up defiantly to the bossy adult women around her.

Spoiler ends.

This conflicted narrative is presented in all its complexity in the adaptation. The book suddenly seems to talk to young people and suddenly to adults. It blur genres in an interesting manner, though Penguin has clearly demarcated this Puffin Classic for a younger audience. It has also been positioned as a potential textbook with additional information about the author and some truly provocative questions that can spark off crucial discussions on the cultural and natural worlds we inhabit.

Also included is a brief description of how a mango whistle is made. This being a very whimsical book, it hasn't made up it's mind on what it wants to be. It doesn't use the title through the narrative, and the reader is left wondering what it means. The doubt is cleared, thanks to the kind people at Penguin.

The translation by Rimli Bhattacharya mostly works well, retaining several names in Bengali and providing a glossary. The reader is also left wondering if the original Bengali version has the same (delightfully) split personality – wandering between a complex adult world and the child's simple explorations and attempts to come to terms with it – or if this personality has been found in translation.

My suggestion: Read this book with a curious child. It will open up new worlds for both of you.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Upanisads, translated and introduced by V.J.Roebuck, reviewed by Moinak Dutta

The Upanisads, translated and introduced by Valerie J. Roebuck, is indeed a unique publication by Penguin India as a part of its Penguin India Classics project. It is not that for the first time The Upanisads are translated from Sanskrit. The author herself has made quite a few references of earlier efforts like that of Patrick Olivelle. So where does Ms Roebuck score over other similar efforts? Well, principally in her empathetic vision towards the Sanskrit texts-the thirteen texts which form the basis of the Hindu Religion.

Her own experience as a teacher of Indian Religious traditions came in handy as the translator. She never lost her sight of the basic idea of her job as a translator. She always stuck to the originality, ambiguity, perplexity and dichotomy of Sanskrit words and phrases. She even declared with sufficient candidness that certain words like ‘upasana’ are ‘untranslatable…combining the ideas of meditation, worship and contemplation’ (page xx, introduction). She is always aware of the inadequacy or limitations of any translation work. She is also conscious of the fact that while explaining certain ideas presented in the Upanisads, she should avoid the temptation of ‘explaining away’, which many translators, knowingly or unknowingly do.

Many translators tend to interpolate the translation with their own convictions or ideas. In case of this book, one will find an austere practice of restricting oneself to the base i.e.; the Sanskrit text. Yet the readers will be amused by the flexibility, erudition and simplicity of the whole approach. Ms Roebuck has showed her ingenuity and brilliance in presenting before readers, unfamiliar with Sanskrit texts, a complete, accurate and readable version of a kind of vedic literature which distinctly belongs to the tradition of ‘Sruti’. The tradition of ‘Sruti’ of the Upanisads, is never violated. So we come across several uses of ‘This’ and ‘That’ in the work, indicating directions much like that is done in any kind of ‘oral’ literature (a classic example of that could be found in page11 of ‘Brhadaranyaka Upanisad’ where Death was divided into three). She has effectively rendered a translation of the religious text preserving all of its originality-specially the conversational quality.

Another important aspect of the book is the author’s eagerness to represent the flavour of rhyme and rhythm. She keeps 3x8 syllable form while translating the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ to preserve the rhyme and symbolism attached to it. She has included the invocations that begin and end each Upanisad in traditional recitation so as to keep the spirit of the original texts alive.

‘The Introduction’ chapter not only lays down the basic aims and objectives of the book, it also serves as a good indicator of the translator’s free and frank nature to explain complex ideas into easily comprehensible forms. She has discussed quite a few ambiguities in ‘The Introduction’, like those concerning ‘brahman’ and ‘Brahma’; ‘atman’ and the ‘self’; ‘purusa’ and the ‘body’; etc;

She has provided copious notes and footnotes to each and every word, phrase or idea presented in the book so that the readers, unfamiliar with the basic tenets of hindu philosophy or religion or for that matter vedic literature, will find no hassles in understanding ‘The Upanisads’. The bibliography provided at the end of the book can also serve as a good reference and resource material to anyone interested in the ‘Upanisads’-one of the most revered and profound woks of literature of human civilization.

Discover more about The Upanisads here.