Re-reading History

Viswanathan Anand released Sanjeev Sanyal’s new book, The Ocean of Churn, at Odyssey (Chennai) last evening. This post is a mix of conversations from the event and my own experiences of studying history from CBSE textbooks. (This was also my first time at a book launch and I’m tremendously excited about it, which explains my prompt posting.)

Ocean of Churn

Anand prepares to discuss the book with Sanyal

***

Six years ago, on a sultry summer afternoon, my parents and I travelled along the coast of Odisha, taking in the beautiful lake-dappled countryside as we made our way through Puri, Pipli, Konark, and Dhauli. The last of these was an unscheduled stop, but how could I have resisted the detour when I learnt that this was purportedly where Ashoka fought his large major battle before, in a fit of compunction, renouncing war for Buddhist pacifism?

I wrote this in 2010 after my visit: “Dhauli Giri houses the Shanti Stupa – a dedication to the Buddha, overlooking the vast, picturesque, river-watered plains of Kalinga. Could this fertile, life-giving land really have been the site of bitter battle, where the blood of thousands was shed before Ashoka realized the futility of war? Legend goes that the waters of the river Daya turned red as a result of the merciless killing – now, it is a placid blue stream that flows gently through green fields, a vista of incredible beauty when looked upon from the heights of the Stupa. Four serene statues of the Buddha look out at the countryside, the bearers of the truth of peace which finally convinced a remorseful Emperor to lay down his arms and kill no more.

“By the foot of the hill is a park preserved by the Archaeological Society of India, which protects a piece of rock in a glass case- the rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts, the rules by which he wanted his people to live so there would be no more war.”

Kalinga

The battlefields of Kalinga as viewed from the hilltop

When I was told that Akbar and Ashoka were benevolent emperors and that they were great proponents of peace, I accepted it unquestioningly. I never asked why the Satavahanas, the Chozhas, the Pallavas and the Cheras were fit into a short paragraph or two, or why the Northeast was barely mentioned, if at all. Studying history at school was all about knowing dates and the succession lines of the Mughals. Questioning something that was in an NCERT textbook was akin to heresy. (To be fair, in the Indian education system, questioning anything in general is to be heretical.) In the process, we have successfully consumed massive quantities of skewed history, with limited exploration of indigenous sources and enormous dependence on theories proposed by the West. As Sanyal points out, it is our own laziness that makes us consume Eurocentric views of our history in heavy doses, with the result that we take pride in having Chanakya’s strategy called Machiavellian because it equates our own genius with a European one. Studying International Relations in England, I was conscious of how Realist Theory started off with Machiavelli: Sun Tzu and Chanakya didn’t feature anywhere, and surely their lines of thought were similar?

Sanjeev Sanyal aims to provide a departure from this tradition through his writing, and his latest book, The Ocean of Churn, is an effort in that direction. Stripping our perception of world events of its postcolonial trappings is bound to be an arduous task, and Sanyal attempts to do this using a framework usually applied to other disciplines: Complex Adaptive Systems. According to this framework, events are a product of chance and derive from various factors including people, climate change, terrain, etc. (My first thought on reading about this methodology was to equate it to the framework of anarchy in IR; I’ll have to finish the book before I can actually attempt any reasonable comparison.) Sanyal relies not just on secondary research, but visits the sites of his subjects to piece stories together. That said, he is emphatic about the resources provided by the Internet, and expresses surprise at how little we care about unravelling our own history from materials so widely and readily available, instead choosing to rely on versions that depict it in a manner that suits certain interests. And so it is that myths like the Aryan Invasion Theory are propagated. Returning to where I started, Sanyal explains that Ashoka’s edicts could in fact have been a propaganda tool, not very different from the posturing of leaders around the world today.

Taking this idea forward in The Ocean of Churn, Sanyal presents the history of the Indian Ocean region from a perspective that seeks to look beyond stories of spice routes and wealth-laden ships.  His objective is to study history from the coastal viewpoint and to address the distortion stemming from the overt inland focus in our narrative. During his conversation with Anand, Sanyal gave the example of the Battle of Colachel, which was one of the earliest defeats of a European power in Asia, the Dutch losing to Marthanda Varma’s forces. This was at a time when the Dutch East India Company (VOC), considered the world’s first multinational corporation, was a powerful force. According to Sanyal, this could have paved the way for the entry of other colonial powers in the region. While he mentions at the start of his book that he isn’t fond of alternative history and what-ifs, as a lay reader, I’m tempted to wonder about the fate of India had the Dutch got a strong foothold in the country and marched along unvanquished. Of course, other factors such as the Anglo-Dutch War and the rise of competing imperial powers would have influenced the course of events, but it is important to note that this was by no means a small victory.

Indian Ocean

A blurry picture of a map depicting Indian Ocean trade routes at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, DC.

Why do incidents of this kind never find a mention in our textbooks? Growing up in Vizag, I never bothered to learn about the various dynasties that ruled over the city or to explore the transition to European colonisation. I never visited the famous Dutch Cemetery in Bheemili, a major coastal 17th century Dutch settlement, even though I went to college there. I might have displayed some curiosity had I been encouraged to think about history as an important subject, rather than one that had to be endured for the sake of studying more “lucrative” ones.

The good thing is that it isn’t too late: half-baked theories continue to abound, and there is plenty of scope for amateur and professional historians to sift through mounds of material. The purpose of evaluating history from a new perspective isn’t to accept blindly what is proposed, but to think critically about what we’ve been taught or fed and understand which of these claims might be dubious. The idea isn’t to claim that everything great emerged in India, but to explore alternatives to the imperialist ideas we’ve continued to hold in thrall. Enjoying Kipling’s Kim and venerating AL Basham’s notions of Aryan invasion aren’t the same, even though they are products of their colonial times. What we need to do is to separate fact from fiction, and discourage the lionisation of certain individuals and periods at the expense of others. It is for this reason that I look forward to reading Sanyal’s interpretation of the history of the Indian Ocean region.

 

Notes from the Library of Congress

We are in the hallowed Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, having come through a serpentine tunnel nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” after its pleasant yellow walls. The hushed cool of the circular room is punctuated by distant voices, the jangle of coins, and the occasional cough or sniffle. A stream of tourists flows in and out of the Gallery on an upper floor from which I’ve seen the Main Reading Room on previous visits, wondering what it must feel like to work in such an immense, solemn atmosphere. I have been exasperated by selfie-obsessed tourists who press themselves against the glass and attempt to photograph themselves with goodness knows what. I am at peace now.

The spectacular room is the centrepiece of the Jefferson Building, which draws hordes of tourists for glimpses at its opulent interiors, exhibitions, and importantly, the Gutenberg Bible. The Library of Congress itself, while open to the public, permits loans only to government officials. Members of the public can register for researcher cards and gain access to materials and reading rooms. There are several subject-specific reading rooms, but the Main Reading Room is the sanctum sanctorum. It is impressive, strong Greek and Roman influences defining its architecture like that of the rest of the building, portraying the gravitas and old-worldly charm I have automatically come to associate with scholarship. As I look carefully, however, I realise that the room isn’t perfect: vast collections and technological aids notwithstanding, it is a product of its times in some ways.

The tasteful dome, decorated in blue and gold, depicts 1897 America’s idea of who the gatekeepers of western civilisation are; America, Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, the Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, and France make the cut. In the times of Empire, it probably wasn’t the fashion to consider the foundations laid by the Eastern Hemisphere. The statues atop the pedestals are of men who have made significant contributions to learning: Saint Paul, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc. – however, this Eurocentrism neglects to acknowledge the contributions of, say, Panini or Sun Tzu.

I ask a librarian about this. He is immensely apologetic, and describes how the decoration reflects the age when the building was constructed; of the limited appreciation back then of Eastern cultures and contributions. It was also a time when women didn’t even have voting rights, not to mention representation in the public space (after all, the US is yet to elect its first female President). However, Islam was acknowledged out of respect for various reasons such as Muslims’ role as protectors of Greek knowledge, for their navigation skills, and for the influence of the Moors. He mentions that some people who notice the mention of Islam are sadly astonished. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we live in an age when calculus can be misconstrued as an evil plot written down in a foreign language.  On a more positive note, the librarian assures me that if the structure of the library was being decided today, it would be done differently.

I do not let these omissions take away from my joy in the book-soaked atmosphere. The librarian has been working here for a long time, and admits to a sense of awe each time he steps in. I completely understand that. The ceiling soars gloriously high, with a soft light bringing out the tints on the stained glass windows. Spines of various colours stand out on dark wooden shelves set in alcoves with vivid pink walls. The overall effect is rich without being extravagant.

I’ve often wondered about the neoclassical influences in DC’s architecture and the omnipresence of colonnaded porches and pediments; in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the heavy Greek and Roman inspiration is evident in statues and paintings within, bearing little ostensible resemblance to everyday lives or recent discoveries and inventions. Are these structures a reflection of America’s ambitions, and was it hoped that these would be achieved by wielding knowledge as an instrument of power? Taking the underground path from the Madison Building to Jefferson, the dull metallic roar of overhead pipes and visible bunches of wires giving it an industrial, spy-novel feeling, I felt a tingle run through my spine. I was all too aware that the Capitol building was only a short walk away through another tunnel, but I wasn’t convinced that the people in it were more keen on knowledge than on realist theory to proclaim their power. I draw your attention to recent history to buttress my claims. I’m happy to be corrected and to learn about the role the Library of Congress, next door to the country’s seat of power, plays in its decisions.

I plan to return to the Main Reading Room next week and spend some time actually reading, for I must admit I was too much in awe of the occasion today to actually pay attention to the collections or my book (which, incidentally, happened to have been first published in Sussex, where I went to university for an MA degree that most people in my family assume is a “useful” MBA). The depiction of major influences of learning in the architecture isn’t perfect, but as a thing of beauty and as a repository of knowledge, it is utterly remarkable.

 

 

Notes from Manhattan

New York City has a propensity to take a vice-like grip on your head and not let go easily. When you’ve done the touristy things the first time – walked down Brooklyn Bridge, craned your neck up at the grey/brown skyscrapers, marvelled at people’s fascination for the statue of the bull on Wall Street, and lain under a tree in Central Park – you return with a piece of the city lodged inside, so that on your second trip, it is like resuming where you left off.

The roads were stirring awake at six in the morning as our bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into the boxed-in confines of Manhattan’s streets. How did the sun ever reach some of these roads? The people scurrying to work wore preoccupied expressions to match the dreariness of some of the streets; there were no smiles for strangers, no time to stop and stare. In stark contrast were the wondering, relaxed tourists, strolling into Times Square to sit on the red steps and watch life flow by. Shimmering lights danced along Broadway, epitomising all the excesses of our time.

Glittering lights, manicured lawns and slick movie reinforcements of a shining Manhattan notwithstanding, step into Canal Street, into the density of Chinatown, and you clearly see what a meld of cultures and classes New York is. As I stood on the pavement, contemplating the metal fire-escapes on closely packed apartments reminiscent of Calcutta, the ubiquitous red-and-gold of most Chinese quarters abroad, and the odours of unknown food, I felt for a moment that I was back in Singapore, walking from the glass-and-concrete business districts to the more quaint, less postcard-friendly parts of town. Very different from DC’s Chinatown – which, in all honesty, seems like any other upmarket section of the city with an intricate arch and Chinese lettering thrown in – it almost breathed stories of the dreams that had gone into building a community in this foreign land. Some of the aspirants have grown up and moved out; the rest have remained to expand their new home, spilling into the streets of another immigrant community across the road that seems to be on its last legs here.

Chinatown

I must confess that part of my fascination for this other community – that of Little Italy – comes from the Godfather movies. The Internet tells me Little Italy is now just a façade for a much larger community from Italy that once thronged the area, though it was never the largest settlement from that country in New York. Most of these streets are home to Chinese businesses today, with a few streets fighting to carry the Italian legacy forward with eateries and gelato carts, Italian flags, and harmonica music floating out of the odd restaurant. The ‘Little Italy’ signs help keep up appearances and continue to draw tourists in with promises of showing them the Italian quarter the immigrants built so far from home (and, in our case, where Puzo’s mafia thrived). Dismal buildings abound, but on a sunny morning, it was quite hard to pick out the almost Dickensian gloom of the past century; it was much easier to buy into the hype and sail in for a peek at the flag-bearers of Italian glory.

Little Italy

Accordingly lured in, we stopped by a cart for pistachio ice cream and went in search of the Mietz Building on Mott Street, which was where Vito Corleone established his olive oil business in Coppola’s movie. The building as it stands now isn’t dingy, cobwebbed, or soot-blackened; it isn’t even Italian any longer (if it ever was), because we found that most of the street was occupied by Chinese stores and looked very much like neighbourhood markets back home in India. With several Italian settlements in the city, it is likely that the original settlers and their children grew richer and moved to better areas. For, to put it harshly, the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy are far removed from the sanitised pictures of New York we are fed, with soapy water from pavements running onto the streets and pieces of paper conveniently missing dustbins.

Mietz

Moving on to Nolita, we dropped in at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street, inside which Coppola shot the baptism scene in the first Godfather movie. The main entrance was blocked due to construction work and we were momentarily disappointed, when we noticed a stream of people making their exit through a side-door next to the churchyard. We went inside and sat down in one of the pews, watching a family praying at the altar, the priest guiding them. The other members of the congregation had broken off into little groups, laughing and talking in Spanish. A strong fragrance of incense pervaded the air; a sense of geniality filled the hall. Sunday service over, the congregation was probably looking forward to lunch and a well-deserved rest. We admired the interiors and the stained-glass windows, trying to note the differences in the appearance of this Catholic church from that of the Episcopal Trinity Church on Wall Street that we had visited earlier in the morning. I couldn’t really tell, though, except that there was a statue of Mary in the Catholic church, and this plaque in the Episcopal:

Elizabeth

China and Italy done, we went to lunch at a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant, feasting on aloo khatsa and bean noodles with a variety of vegetables, accompanied by soft white rice. Instantly, it was like being back in Sikkim, eating hot home-cooked food in the modest hotel at Lachung, where the doors had no locks and even bathroom windows opened on to vistas of the snow-capped Himalayas. I felt at home in these nostalgic indulgences, in that sense of familiarity that springs forth in a strange place, from a memory that itself comes from experiences that were once new and strange.

To end the afternoon, we took the train to Washington Square – I had suddenly recollected a few hours ago that there was a Henry James novel by this name. Being a sucker for all things literary, it was only natural that I should drag poor G. to the park and to the road where James’ grandmother was supposed to have lived. I assume James must have visited often and been inspired to write the book, and even though he didn’t consider it one of his good works, I’ve started reading it and enjoyed it so far. He received a fair bit of criticism for his style, but I will reserve my judgement until I have read The Portrait of a Lady (a Reader’s Digest joke called it “unputdownable”, because it was so easy to lose track of the proceedings every time you put it down). That could have been because the entertainment in his time was different from that in the picture here.

Washington Square Park

And so did our morning come full circle in Manhattan – from Wall Street’s riches to the visible earthiness of recent immigrant settlements, and back to the neighbourhoods of the gentry. If Little Italy doesn’t exist in twenty years’ time, I will be grateful to have had a chance to take a peep at the world that might have inspired Puzo and Coppola.

Hometowns

I’ve always struggled to answer questions about my “hometown”, because many people do not comprehend that a person can speak one language at home and live in a city that speaks another. I carry memories that are composed of different childhood haunts, landscapes and languages. Though I’ve lived in a bunch of different places, I choose to call the one I’ve spent the longest amount of time in my hometown, knowing very well that I have few reasons to go back there now and in the rest of my life, may spend just a handful of days there. It is a painful thought, but I have moved often and know that this is the way of towns.

What is a hometown? I’ve often associated a hometown with a physical space where we spend our childhood, a place that conjures images of innocence and safety and being taken care of for most of us. However, limiting a hometown to childhood might negate the present and put us in a floating space that doesn’t exist. Where I live now is my home if I identify with it enough to elevate it from being merely a house or a camping ground on a long journey, and if I live here for a considerable amount of time and put out mid-life roots, surely this can be my hometown.

Those of us who have not grown up in one city cannot be condemned to eternal rootlessness. I’ve lived in a different city every year since 2008. I have accepted the knowledge that much as you try to ignore a place simply because you know that severing an attachment is agonising, a piece of the city seeps in and nestles in your head, sometimes without your knowledge. Then, when you lie on your bed on a blue night and look out of the window, rendered sleepless with the splendour of it all, you are reminded of the shafts of moonlight that slipped through the branches of the banyan tree next door and soothed you to sleep in a different time, in a different city. So, you see, a hometown is more than just a physical entity: it is also a psychological shelter.

These thoughts were inspired by the first chapter of Exile’s Return by Malcolm Cowley. I have just begun the book, but I am already deeply in love with his warm, accessible writing: it makes you feel like you’ve known him for a while. He writes very touchingly about childhood homes, and if I, despite (or because of) my vague roots, identify with this excerpt, I know there are a lot of you who will appreciate it better than I do. I’ll leave you here with Cowley’s words:

This is your home…but does it exist outside your memory? On reaching the hilltop or the bend in the road, will you find the people gone, the landscape altered, the hemlock trees cut down and only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been? Or, if the country remains the same, will you find yourself so changed and uprooted that it refuses to take you back, to reincorporate you into its common life? No matter: the country of our childhood survives, if only in our minds, and retains our loyalty even when casting us into exile; we carry its image from city to city as our most essential baggage:

Wanderers outside the gates, in hollow
landscapes without memory, we carry
each of us an urn of native soil,
of not impalpable dust a double handful
 
anciently gathered – was it garden mold
or wood soil fresh with hemlock needles, pine
and princess pine, this little earth we bore
in silence, blindly, over the frontier?
 
– a parcel of the soil not wide enough
or firm enough to build a dwelling on,
or deep enough to dig a grave, but cool
and sweet enough to sink the nostrils in
and find the smell of home, or in the ears,
rumors of home, like oceans in a shell.

And one thing led to another

Since my last post on Hemingway a month and a half ago, I have found myself increasingly drawn to writing on and by the literary set in Paris of the 1920s. I read Men without Women, which isn’t about Paris but, as a collection of short stories by Hemingway, was intended to keep me close to ‘the Crowd’ – and not the Lost Generation – as Sylvia Beach refers to her literary (and musical) friends in her memoirs Shakespeare and Company. Loath to part with them, I am currently reading HD’s End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound – and oh, how beautifully she writes! You feel the heartbreak, the confusion, the passion of her relationship with Pound; it sears and puts a lump in your throat.

HD writes of her discovery of Pound’s previous loves as they walk through snowy Pennsylvania forests: “No need, then, to ask the question. First kisses? In the woods, in the winter – what did one expect? Not this. Electric, magnetic, they do not so much warm, they magnetize, vitalize. We need never go back. Lie down under the trees. Die here. We are past feeling cold; isn’t that the first symptom of rigor mortis?” Achingly beautiful. HD went on to have several other relationships, but nothing seems to have surpassed that first love of her youth.

Let me begin from the beginning, though. You probably know that I was set on my ‘Lost Generation’ trail by Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Hemingway followed, and some research uncovered a very important piece of information – F Scott Fitzgerald’s grave lies in the cemetery of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, about an hour from where I live. Sunday before last, a sunny, blue-skied afternoon, we took the train to Rockville. In what at first sight seems to be the unlikeliest of places, next to a busy highway and within sight of utilitarian buildings, are buried Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. However, as I knelt beside the grave and heard the leaves rustle, I felt like he couldn’t have been buried in a more suitable place, in the serene family plot. I forgot that there were cars and trains passing by. I just saw his name etched on the tombstone and the spring flowers and thought back to his friends, to the larks they must be having, wherever they are. This place is as good as any other for his mortal remains. I left him a little love-note, but because I forgot to ask him to say hello to his friends for me, I think I should go back there some day. (I also thought guiltily of my half-finished copy of Tender is the Night back home – why is life so short?)

The Fitzgeralds

The Fitzgeralds’ grave at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Rockville, Maryland.

I was reading Sylvia Beach at the time of this visit, and had also borrowed a copy of Pound’s Literary Essays in preparation for my exploration of his enigmatic life. I am still to unravel the mystery of his Mussolini leanings and will leave out my half-baked opinions for now, but I must mention that, having now begun this book, I am quite prepared to separate the writer from the controversy-courter. His essays sparkle with clarity, and he does not seem disposed to misuse his powers as a critic. Sample this from the essay ‘The Prose Tradition in Verse’: “But it is the function of criticism to find what a given work is, rather than what it is not. It is also the faculty of a capital or of high civilization to value a man for some rare ability, to make use of him and not hinder him or itself by asking of him faculties which he does not possess.” For all his flamboyance and eccentricities, he was well-loved by the people he met and helped, and I am interested to learn how his anti-Semitic leanings took root and what led him on the dangerous path that led to twelve years of incarceration in a mental hospital. I hope to begin reading his poetry soon.

And not just Pound’s – Beach’s memoirs told me about a host of writers from the 1920s, and having received such a fitting introduction to them, I must naturally explore them further. The book is named after the American bookshop she set up in Paris. It spends a good deal of time on the long battle she undertook to have James Joyce’s Ulysses published (she cannot praise him enough and I feel like I might summon up enough courage soon to give it a try). She talks of the French poets and American expatriates who frequented her shop, including a number of lesbian writers such as Bryher and Djuna Barnes. She shares several photographs, among them a delightful one of George Antheil climbing up to his rooms above her shop, having forgotten his keys. She describes the fight to keep her bookshop afloat during the German occupation of Paris – and finishes up in a most memorable manner by talking of Hemingway’s ‘liberation’ of rue de l’Odéon, where it stood.

Beach also talks of George and Ira Gershwin, which prompted me to turn up at the Library of Congress on Saturday to see the Gershwin Room and marvel at their letters, scores and the splendid piano. In a strange coincidence, I’ve found out today that my local library in Virginia celebrates its 90th birthday in a couple of weeks, and has some Gershwin music on display along with books about the twenties in America. You see, the signs continue to manifest themselves. In obedience, I have a massive pile of books on my bedside table. I think I finally know what to do with my life.

PS. I write this on a stormy night, so help yourself to some of the atmosphere with Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

 

Hemingway of the Lost Generation

When I chanced upon Tobias Wolff’s Old School at the library, I had no idea that it was going to have a remarkable effect on my reading this year. Emerging from a fog of confused days and nights rolling into one another in the two darkest months of the year, I was more than prepared to be set down firmly on what promises to be a long, rewarding literary trail. I became enamoured of the Lost Generation in the way that I fell for Jack Kerouac, a famous thorn in tradition’s flesh, a few years ago.

I was intrigued when I read of the fascination for Hemingway – almost bordering on worship – among the boys in Wolff’s book, and the incredible manner in which it drove them to uncharacteristic behaviour. While Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, as visiting writers, spurred them on to an extent, the imminent arrival of Hemingway and the opportunity of winning an hour with him drew them out in a wholly different fashion. I knew little of Hemingway’s work or life when I read the book; apart from reading The Old Man and the Sea and the short story The Killers, I had never even attempted to read Hemingway. I put his books on my mental to-read lists, but never came around to actually buying or borrowing any. My interest was piqued by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and I believe it brought me a step closer, but I give most credit to Wolff for making me pick up A Moveable Feast at the library (perhaps you shouldn’t start with the memoirs, but oh well) and I now want to read everything Hemingway ever wrote – even, perhaps, his work on hunting.

A Moveable Feast is very sincere in its tone. Hemingway talks of his life in Paris of the 1920s: his friendship with Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald, his devotion to his wife, Hadley, and his ambition to write and be influenced by all that was great and beautiful in the city. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Baron von Blixen are briefly mentioned, as are the cafés , walks and bookshops he frequented; he describes ski holidays in Austria with Hadley and their son Bumby, and just as you begin to picture their bliss, he mentions his affair with another woman, which made the whole experience bittersweet for me. All the dissipation and abandon of Paris, then, had come to this and not to joyous, enduring years of writing and friendship. Disillusioning.

While I read, I didn’t realise that Hadley was the first of four wives, and that he had had to divorce her because of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. I don’t judge Hemingway, but I was saddened to learn that a love that he spoke so achingly and fondly of didn’t last. He rued it himself in very clear terms: “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” What was it that caused him to be so unhappy in his marriages, and to eventually take his own life? Why was marriage so important to him when he kept falling in and out of love so often – did it need that legal sanction that seemed to stifle him beyond a point?

Hemingway did come across as a very good friend, though. He seemed fiercely protective of Fitzgerald, and had no love lost for Zelda Fitzgerald, who he felt was driving her husband to drink and to lose interest in his work. He valued Pound’s opinions and respected Beach’s generosity and Stein’s authority. However, he did not exactly agree with the epithet of Lost Generation, a génération perdue, one that had served in the war and was now somehow given to dissolution: “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?…I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be…”

I can only attempt to piece together from different sources this life that intrigues me so, and I think the best place to start would be from the books of this expatriate circle that thrived in Paris and lived a culturally rich, if troubled, life. I always thought Paris would be an interesting city to visit, but now I have a real reason to see it. Uncannily enough, the signs are right here in Washington, DC, where I’m spending a few months. Pound, the poet with the rakish reputation and questionable political views, spent several years in St Elizabeths Hospital in the city before he was released after frantic lobbying from friends and supporters. Fitzgerald and Zelda lie buried in a churchyard at Rockville, Maryland, about an hour’s train ride away. It also turns out that Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key, a cousin on his father’s side and writer of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, who lived in the wonderfully quaint Georgetown area of DC. And finally, what to me is the most interesting connection – Hadley was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, which receives support from the proceeds of my favourite used book-store in DC. I’ll take these signs with pleasure and use them as an excuse (not that I really need one) to delve further into Hemingway’s books. This circle attracts me in a way that, I regret to say, even the Bloomsbury Group didn’t: I might save that for my later, more mature years.

I’ll leave you now with a picturesque description of Paris and the seasons – Hemingway writing in his typical pared-down style – that rings true in all its glorious simplicity: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river. With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only true sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.”

Winter Tales

A spell of winter worth its salt can teach you a lot. For one, it shows you what a good conductor of electricity the human body is: a lesson learnt by the frequent twitchy withdrawal of your hand from a surface as innocuous as a doorknob when you are jolted by a tiny spark of current, eventually leading to a fear of all things metallic. Winter also teaches you patience – through long cold nights, through eager days spent waiting for the snow to fall and then for it to melt.

To my unaccustomed eyes, the first blizzard I ever saw was a marvel. Even as I went about my chores, I kept hovering by the windows last Friday and Saturday to watch the snowflakes careening into one another and floating to the ground, piling up in thick sheets, burying cars and plants. How could there be so much snow? How could it fall for hours on end without a break, the wind growing stronger every hour? It started carpeting our balcony and we looked forward to building a snowman once the worst of the storm was past us. We couldn’t waste this opportunity though, so we wrapped up and went out on the road to feel the snow fall on our faces. I sank calf-deep into a powdery blanket of snow that I didn’t realise was as thick. A few hardy souls went running, loath to give up their exercise even in this unholy weather. Sadly, we weren’t among them: after a few minutes spent pretending that this was a post-apocalyptic world from Cormac McCarthy, we were driven back indoors by the gritty particles that rushed into our eyes and noses.

The snowstorm was exciting while it lasted, but I cannot deny the pleasure that waking up to blue skies gave me after the blizzard ended. The whole event could almost have been a dream – except, when I looked out from my window, the downy snow was beginning to be gathered up into blackened piles, much like the foam floating out of a few of Bangalore’s polluted lakes. This wasn’t a pretty sight.

However, being cooped up at home meant extra reading time. I read Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters and resumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’d somehow abandoned midway (I cannot imagine why). One thing led to another, and having finished the book last night, I’m prepared to pay Neil Gaiman the high honour of likening his writing to Ruskin Bond’s. Few people understand little boys and girls who spend their childhood with their noses buried in books and write about them so compellingly.

Though my bedside table was already tottering under the weight of unread books, I decided to take myself off to the library for a while. Clearly, I didn’t really need to borrow any more, but I also panic often about a certain mood seizing me and not having something to match it. I wanted the comfort of stacked bookshelves around me. I walked gingerly on the slippery pavements, the melting snow now running in rivulets down them. It wasn’t always unsightly though; it looked invitingly pristine under the trees, a ray of sunshine glinting off its surface through the branches. It reminded me of a certain RK Narayan sentence that I think of whenever I’m attracted by something shiny: “The morning sun came through a glass tile and touched with radiance the little heap of uppumav on his plate-a piece of green chilli and some globules of oil made the stuff sparkle, catching Jagan’s eye insistently for a moment, making him wonder if he had made some strange edible gem-set for his son rather than merely frying semolina and spicing it.” (This is an excerpt from The Vendor of Sweets.)

This little moment made up for the heaps of slushy snow piled up on the roads. I didn’t think of them as “sinister” at all, an adjective I’d used when describing how I felt about melting snow to a Canadian professor at university, leaving him bemused. That, and the red “Open” sign in the library window, took the edge off any vestiges of irritation that might have been simmering deep inside. That my favourite librarian wasn’t at the counter didn’t bother me. I returned my books to the fresh-faced young man who was there instead, and asked him where the graphic novels were.

“Traffic novels?”

Graphic novels.” (Gr-ah-phic. I wasn’t going to change the way I pronounced it.)

“Graphic novels. Oh. Okay. For…adults?”

He clearly likened graphic novels to something out of Vatsyayana.

“Yes.” The tetchiness was returning. But he didn’t ask for my ID and thankfully guided me to the right shelf, where I spent a leisurely ten minutes choosing two books, then went around the other shelves, hoping to be surprised. I agonised over Somerset Maugham and Tobias Wolff, picking the latter in the end. I set off homewards recharged, a filled backpack on my shoulders, the nippy wind nibbling at my nose and ears even as the sun began rapidly dipping into the horizon. I was at peace with the world. A cosy home, a bedside table stacked high with books, the prospect of hot chocolate with marshmallows and cookies to ease the march into February: what else can one ask for?

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