Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Poetry Session – August 4, 2017

Pamela, Ankush
The poetry session began with a surprise phone call from Kumkum in Boston, wishing the group a great session. She was sad she could not participate and her health issues did not permit her to submit poems in the Dropbox via a voice file, as Joe managed.

Onion Bhajjis for refreshment

Priya took the notes for this post and administered the session, and Hemjit contributed many of the live pictures of the readers during the sessions. Ankush showed up having missed the previous one on Pnin for family reasons. Onion fritters, tea and coffee were served.


Thommo informed the members that the tea and onion bhajis would be his treat for his belated birthday, which he shares with George Bernard Shaw! Saras suggested that KRG should have a birthday list of its members and we could celebrate birthdays at the reading sessions. Pamela made a note of the birthdays of members present – many of whom share theirs with literary personalities: Shoba with Shakespeare, Thommo with GBS, Hemjit with Muhammad Ali, but Priya would like to hide hers for it’s an infamous date in modern times.

Thommo, Priya, Zakia, Pamela, Saras, Ankush, &  Hemjit (seated)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Independence Came Seventy Years Ago

I belong to the generation born just before World War II, who arrived at the age of awareness around the time of India’s Independence. I was in the school bus being ferried to San Thome Convent when I first heard the word ‘Dominion Status’ applied to India (it was splashed in huge font on the front page of the newspaper a teacher was holding). The term conveyed little to me beyond the sense of a new era beginning. I didn’t know yet that I had been living in a subjugated country all my life. Lord Mountbatten, and then C. Rajagopalachari, were to be the Governors General before India became a Republic.

Lord & Lady Mountbatten with Gandhi

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari

Uncle Louis, in whose house we stayed in Madras, had spent time in Alipore jail in Calcutta as a political prisoner after he was a student at Scottish Church College. The morning routine for the warders was to call out to the inmates, “Sarkar ko salaam bolo!” to which they would defiantly respond in unison “Jail ka darwaza kholo!

From his house we all bundled into his cream Chevrolet to go to the Island Grounds in Madras, because Gandhiji was coming to speak. There wasn’t enough seating for my uncle, and aunt Kuttiamma, my mother and sister, my portly ayah, Dhanammal, our man Friday, Munuswamy, and our erudite driver, Damodaran. So my sister and I sat on stools at the back. I remember nothing of the speech or the voice, but can see the posts on which the loudspeakers were mounted, and the bamboo partitions to corral the crowds. It was a sea of vermilion and green, with white Gandhi caps on nearly every head. I don’t remember what songs were played, but there was music relayed to the furthest expanse of the grounds.

When Independence actually arrived there was a celebration at school. I was clad in white shorts, a collarless shirt and Gandhi cap and stood somewhere along the West Coast of the outline of India painted white on the long sloping flight of black granite steps rising from the playground to the Form classes (Forms I to VI) above. We had little paper flags pinned to our chest and a rousing chant of the Jana-Gana-Mana arose as we held candles in our hand — there on the steps, we enclosed the virtual extent of Bharat, that is India, metaphorically uniting the whole country.

Deep in the south we knew nothing as children of what went on at the borders. The vast population migration, and the towns and villages being cleansed of the people who had been living there for centuries was unimagined, unknown. Being children we were insulated from the savage surgical pain by which two countries came into being, cast adrift by a feckless colonial power.

Of all that I came to know only later when we transited to Calcutta in the summer of 1948 and witnessed the tail-end of the bloody riots in that city. The internecine killings were only doused when the army came out in flag marches with infantry and armoured cars. Periodically there would be an eruption, but never again on a thousandth of the scale that happened at Partition.

Much literature has been contributed by those who experienced the birth pangs of India (and Pakistan) — from Pakistani writers like Manto and Indian writers like Khushwant Singh. Later, others who grew up with no consciousness of Independence have brilliantly imagined aspects of it: Salman Rushdie, for example.

In South India there was joy and a blissful distance from the tragedy up North and in the East. Independence was only good news for the millions south of the Vindhyas. There was a rebellion by the razakars in Hyderabad (Deccan) attempting to make the province accede to Pakistan. It was quickly put down by a ‘police action.’ But we heard nothing of the massacres, and I do not recall any shadow cast on Independence Day by the hatred and pogroms that convulsed the Punjab and Bengal. Later in my youth I learned Partition caused the largest migration known to humans in recent times, perhaps ever.

But even in the South we experienced loss, the terrible loss which came so soon after freedom, when Gandhi was assassinated. At this distance of sixty-nine years in time I can see Uncle Louis sitting forlorn, head bowed, hand over forehead, in the living room of our Mowbrays Road house. All India Radio was announcing the death of Bapu, as he was called. From Nehru’s lips, in words more moving even than his Tryst with Destiny speech, issued the words: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”

The difficult days of Independence lay ahead.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin, July 7, 2017

Pnin - first edition cover, 1957

Pnin is the novel that most nearly reflects the life experiences of Nabokov: as an émigré from Russia living in Europe, an immigrant to America, and a professor at an upstate New York college. Pnin and Nabokov are both possessed by an intense nostalgia for the Russia and St Petersburg of their youth, and a revulsion for the totalitarian regime that followed.

Vladimir Nabokov, lepidopterist

The novel also allows Nabokov room to indulge some of his pet peeves, such as psychiatry (Pnin‘s first wife is a psychiatrist). He lampoons the ridiculous investigations that go by the name of research in academia. This novel belongs to the campus genre, but its unique feature is the character of Pnin. The reader will sympathise; Pnin is not a fool but a victim, partly of his own eccentricities and obsessions, and partly of the strange land in which nothing comports with prior expectation.

Thommo & Pamela

There is a rich vein of humour, accompanied by a quiet sadness, and relieved by an optimism nowhere revealed as well as when Pnin meets Victor, the son of his ex-wife. Pnin delicately welcomes him with a football. Without any obligation he is going to take care of Victor's pocket money at the expensive prep school.

Hemjith & KumKum

This novel which Nabokov wrote as a sequence of stories for the New Yorker magazine, beginning in 1953, became a successful English novel when published by Doubleday in 1957. He was writing Lolita during this time, and when that novel came out, Nabokov could give up his teaching at Cornell (aka Waindell) and retire to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Geneva to devote himself to writing, lepidoptery, and composing chess problems, for the rest of his life.

Hemjith & Shoba

 There are many memorable quotes:
Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam.

There is an old American saying ‘He who lives in a glass house should not try to kill two birds with one stone.’

Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?

No jewels, save my eyes, do I own, but I have a rose which is even softer than my rosy lips.

The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.

I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.

Joe, Pamela, Priya, Thommo, Hemjith (seated) Sunil, KumKum, Shoba, Zakia