Sunday, 8 April 2018

In Memoriam Bobby Paul George

Bobby, the founder and host of the Kochi Reading Group for many years died by his own hand on Apr 4, 2018. He had been suffering for some time, estranged from his lovely wife Gracy of many years, and taxed by multiple problems, including a mental complication.

When he welcomed KRG readers in the early days (2006) he was a bright and exuberant presence. His enthusiasm for literature and respect for great authors and their thoughts brought life to the discussions. Academics would often read into a poem meanings that are not there, but Bobby would reaffirm the saying of Robert Frost that a poem should not mean but be.

Who else but Bobby with his extended studies in Germany, would introduce KRG readers to Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the great modern poets who died in 1926? He read the poem Lament by Rilke about abandoning ordinary life for the sake of a spiritual quest on Oct 22, 2007 . The central prayer at the heart of this poem is
Ich möchte aus meinem Herzen hinaus 
unter den großen Himmel treten.
Ich möchten beten

That is to say: I would like to step out of my heart / And go walking beneath the enormous sky. / I would like to pray.

Bobby as it happened, also quoted the epitaph Rilke wrote for himself.
Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire 
to be no one's sleep beneath  
your many eyelids.

— a beautiful way of closing one’s eyes to this world.

In a similar vein Bobby never tired of his hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, polymath,  and supreme genius of modern German literature. Introducing Goethe’s Faust, Bobby narrated how Mephistopheles (representing the devil) tries to seize Faust's soul when he dies after a moment of happiness, but is frustrated and enraged when the angels intervene owing to God's grace. This grace can only occur because of Faust's unending striving and results from the intercession of his forgiving lover, Gretchen.

One of the earliest recorded discussions of KRG appears in this photo taken on July 17, 2006:

The late Manjoo Menon of blessed memory is in the picture, and they are discussing A House for Mr Biswas by Naipaul; Indira Outcalt, Thomas Chacko (Thommo), Manjoo Menon, Jeena Thomas, KumKum (hidden), Joe and Bobby Paul George with back to the camera.

Here's another early picture when Bobby's wife Grace was also present. It was the poetry session on Aug 9, 2006.

Bobby Paul George, Joe, Grace George, Rajeev, Indira, KumKum, Gopa David, Salim David listen as Joe discusses Seamus Heaney's translation Beowulf

As always at Just Fiction book store, Bobby gave over the walls to artists who wanted to exhibit at no charge. Few photos in the archive do as much justice to his evident pleasure in the company of those who value literature and thinking than this early shot; he is looking directly at the camera:

This was Bobby sitting with Nina Nayar, Jeena Mathew and KumKum during a discussion of the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk on Feb 16, 2007. In another picture the readers will be thrilled to see themselves nine years ago on June 5, 2009 when we were all younger and wiser:

 This is Priya, Bobby, Indira, KumKum, Talitha, and Amita after the reading of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Later Bobby told us that a poetry Olympiad was held alongside the Olympics in ancient times. In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming bodies covered with olive oil. Accordingly, he read from an ode of Pindar, one of the great lyric poets of Greece:
If ever a man strives
With all his soul's endeavour, sparing himself
Neither expense nor labour to attain
True excellence, then must we give to those
Who have achieved the goal, a proud tribute
Of lordly praise, and shun

All thoughts of envious jealousy.

To a poet's mind the gift is slight, to speak
A kind word for unnumbered toils, and build
For all to share a monument of beauty.

Reading Pindar's Ode

It was appropriate because the poetry reading on July 13, 2012 was two weeks before the London Olympics. However, the athlete's fame is short-lived, Bobby said, quoting Dickinson’s cheery line, which he enjoyed:
Fame is a bee.
It has a song —
It has a sting —
Ah, too, it has a wing.

After we left Just Fiction premises and before we moved to the Yacht Club library, KRG used to meet at DC Books on Chittoor Road. At one such gathering we met to read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh on Nov 28, 2008 and here are the readers:

Thommo, Indira, Jeena, KumKum, Amita, Talitha, Bobby

On Mar 8, 2010 we read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré and the group picture shows one of our former readers, Pavithra, standing next to Bobby. She left Kochi for a job in Bengaluru. The others are Priya, Amita, Talitha, KumKum, Indira and Joe.

On Oct 8, 2011 we read Animal Farm by George Orwell and Bobby was at the centre of things:

The readers were Thommo, Talitha, Soma, KumKum, Priya, Gopa, Bobby, Samuel, Sunil, Mathew, and Sivaram. It was at this session Bobby exclaimed “The men have taken over now!”, for he had been long discomfited by the customary preponderance of women at KRG. KumKum replied, “At last, the men have become literate!” There was laughter all round at the changed balance, and cheers for the record attendance.

With Bobby around humour was never far. In the context of Animal Farm he merrily started off: “All readers are equal but some readers are more equal than others.” Presumably, he meant himself jokingly, since he was the one to start the group that has now become the KRG. But later in a comment he added: “Joe, Thank you for all the work. By ‘some readers are more equal’, I meant you! It is important to read with passion. thanks again – Bobby Paul George”

At the Poetry session of July 15, 2011 Bobby had an interesting idea about how KRG could gather funds for future ventures. There is a tradition of the Raja of Travancore visiting the Padmanabhaswamy temple every day, and if he does not show up he has to pay a fine of Rs 166; that is the equivalent value of the silver coin by which he paid the fine in the old days. Bobby suggested that no-shows at our KRG should also pay an appropriate fine. There was general laughter at the suggestion.

When we read the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams on Nov 26, 2010 Bobby observed that often “love starts as lust.”Indeed, there is an ambivalence in the word’s meaning in German, for “lust”in German can stand for “fun” as well as “lust.” Now lust is taking over in  Facebook, he said presciently. 

Bobby quoted from an essay, The Catastrophe of Success by Tennessee Williams about art and the artist's role in society:
Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive ... purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life—live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

At the reading of the splendid novel The Stranger by Albert Camus, which was chosen by Bobby, we are here ranged to bear witness to our delight in the book:

Talitha, Zakia, Priya, KumKum, Bobby, Joe

Talitha wondered if Meursault, the chief character, was capable of love. Bobby quoted from Camus’ Nobel banquet speech in response:
Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. ... artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.

Bobby quoted another phrase from the novel, ‘this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.’ Meursault wonders why the chaplain, as a man who is also condemned to death ultimately, cannot sense ‘the dark wind from the future that had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.’

Bobby remarked that in the end Meursault does not want to be left alone in death. Bobby defined the Meursaultian man “as one who calls a spade a spade. His reluctance to judge and be judged has a Christian echo. Camus is able to portray the man as a man living for the day ... give us this day our daily bread ... The prose is minimalistic and yet searing , full of sarcasm at the bourgeois practices of society ... Meursault has no idea of the "afterlife" and is not interested. He is interested in today.”

Ave atque vale we may say along with Catullus: We salute you ... and goodbye.

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