Booksellers, Books, and Dreams

The bearded man sits at his desk against the wall on the left, looking a bit like Uncle Alm himself, as I bring up a copy of Heidi. This will be my last book purchase in England, and I want to take away something I know I’ve loved and will continue to adore. Around him, the rooms are packed to the rafters with used books, bursting with the energy of wanting to be taken away and read; he is the placid core, typing on an ancient desktop computer, somehow making sense of the order or chaos within.

He is quite unlike the bookseller with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who stands under the portico on rainy Tuesdays, watching quietly as the odd browser fingers the spines of the used books laid out on wooden stands. His is a limited collection – but I’ve bought quite a few books from him, the most precious one being a lovely dark green-and-gold copy of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. The most nondescript book I bought from him, one last purchase for memory’s sake, was The Bodysurfers. All I recollect is that it has a faded cover and lies deep in one of my several to-read stacks.

***

At The Lantern, a sweet old woman volunteers at the cashier’s desk. Wizened and pushing arthritically at the buttons of a calculator, she asks me to pick a bag from the motley bundle beside her. A younger woman in glasses steps up and helps us pack the books. This is our last visit to the shop, and I have searched painstakingly for the authors I rarely saw on bookshop shelves or in online stores in India. I grin for a while as we walk back, thinking of the Hart Crane, Bryher, and Rumer Godden in my bag. I look forward to the Europe trip we are planning and dream of Paris.

***

I have just finished The Paris Wife, a reasonable page-turner written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Read it if you like the nostalgia of names and places – if you want to be reminded of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, of the settings and characters of The Sun Also Rises, of grey evenings and endless absinthe drunk in the cafés of Paris. Read it if you want a piece of Hadley, a bit of Hemingway, and the heady delights of jazz and indulgence in post-war Paris. Break your heart over the complicated relationships and the unfaithfulness that hangs heavy over the café tables and in Riviera villas. Don’t expect much in the form of words that seep into your head and emerge deliciously at the least expected moments; for that, you have Fitzgerald. (Incidentally, it is one year since I visited Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville.)

I have gobbled up books about 1920s Paris over the last year, and have at least three others lined up. The one I’m most looking forward to is Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, for reasons I’m unaware of. I want to pace these Paris books well, though, and I’m taking a break with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on Fleet Street and the English aristocracy. And it is this that has reminded me of booksellers and churchyards in England. Five years on, I look back longingly at the walks down damp, narrow paths, leaves crunching underfoot. I miss the garden gnomes and the painted doors that remained mysteriously shut all the time. As the sun blazes down on Chennai’s sleepy streets where not a breath of wind stirs, I want to be spirited to the Downs, or to the exit of Heathrow or Dulles Airport, stepping into the open for the first time to be confronted by a sharp wind that pierces through my thin coat – utterly unsuited to the season – and chills me to the bone.

Then, when I’m there, I’ll dream of the tropics.

Advertisements

On Myanmar/Burma

A year and a half ago, I met a man from Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called then. V. was one of several students who had fled the country after the uprising of 1988, when a demonstration against military rule was brutally quashed. He told me stories of being watched every time he went back, of having to be on his guard even as he walked through his town. He would like to return for good at some point, he said. However, the way things were, he didn’t even go for a visit very often. V. was buried under the weight of his memories, speaking wistfully of afternoons by the river, spicy food shared with Indian neighbours, and the gaiety of the Water Festival. He was also deeply affected by the months he spent in prison after the revolt, fearful and uncertain of his fate. When he finally had the chance, he moved to a new country and rebuilt his life.

V. now celebrates Buddhist festivals in a foreign setting. He misses the summer breeze of his hometown and the gentle rustle of leaves in the courtyard. He takes solace in the close-knit expatriate Burmese community; festivals at the local monastery are an important part of his life, as are visits from family. He struggles to understand his daughter’s career choices and her desire to move to a different town for university. He lives two lives: one in his adopted country, the other in his head.

Buddha's Gold. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

A post shared by Girish Bharadwaj (@girishpd) on

Around the time that V. told me his story, I chanced upon two books set in Burma: Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles (a graphic novel) and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Both of them gave me Western perspectives of the country, one from that of the spouse of an aid worker, the other from a journalist’s. Larkin wanted to trace Orwell’s five years in Burma, and to see if his days there actually sowed the seeds for 1984 in his head. She met people who read the book and discussed it furtively, believing that he had indeed been prophetic.

However, neither Delisle nor Larkin managed to get too far in understanding the problems that plagued the country. While Delisle was evidently not trying to go beyond superficial observations, Larkin’s attempts were limited by the difficulty of eliciting information from her interviewees, an effect of the constant supervision she was under. G. was in Myanmar for a couple of weeks this year, and told me that the few people he had a chance to speak to were courteous, but a little inflexible, unwilling to make small changes to set patterns. This closed-off attitude could be a result of years of conditioning and fear: for people weary of seeing their families disintegrate and disperse, is silence one of the natural choices?

Myanmar’s political troubles are far from over, as the Rohingya refugee crisis shows. V. suggests that the current government isn’t exactly independent, and that the military still exerts an enormous amount of influence. However, despite the criticism and the sanctions, Yangon is vibrant and thriving. As G. puts it, the city is a “testimony to the fact that the foundations of progress are civilizational rather than religious or political”. Does the history of Burma, viewed in terms of civilizational progress, contain solutions to the challenges it has to contend with?

This brings me to the book on my nightstand: The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. The book describes Burma’s history from 1885, seeking to understand the present situation through past events, including British occupation, Chinese invasion, and the onset of military rule. I tried reading it when I first bought it a few years ago, but I just wasn’t ready for it. I put it aside for a more propitious time, which has now hopefully arrived. (As some of you might know, I strongly believe that some books wait patiently to be read – they know when you are ready for them and quietly sneak into your life – and I try to use this theory to justify my hoarding tendencies.)

I have started the book again, this time with the hope of finishing it. I am counting on V.’s account and G.’s visit to enrich my experience. Accounts from friends and family from two generations ago, when Burma was home to a large Tamil population, add to the mix. These include stories about people fleeing the country during the Second World War and walking for days on end to reach India, some dying on the way. I am learning to appreciate the scars that people carry, but do not display. I am reminding myself that studying history – anyone’s history – can go a long way in bringing some much-needed understanding into our lives.

 

A Bus Journey in the Himalayas

I wrote a portion of this on one of the bumpiest bus rides there ever was. My memory supplies the other bits. I’ve written a fair bit about bus journeys at night but I never tire of doing so. There is something to discover in every new tea stall, hamlet, or railway crossing on these trips.

***

A yellow half-moon hangs over the valley with a generous sprinkling of stars to keep it company. Lights speckle the mountainsides and beam at passersby through their Himalayan tree cover. Sleep evades me as the bus hugs the tight bends of the narrow road and seems to brush against the oncoming trucks, their creaking bodies matching the rattletrapness (why isn’t this a word?) of our own groaning monster. The driver honks with gusto whenever an opportunity presents itself – and also when one doesn’t. He hawks and spits with great relish at frequent intervals, keeping his window open for the purpose and bestowing upon those of us in the front seats a benevolent portion of wintry mountain air. He keeps himself and us awake with Hindi film music from the 90s. Despite having been an avid consumer of trash during that period, I can barely recognise any of the songs, most of which are sad and obscure and whose lyrics deserve a prize for inanity.

We stop for dinner not at a rickety little eatery with questionable hygiene, but at a roadside restaurant with a large “AC hall” that has two air conditioners which may not be of much use in summer. (Hygiene here is still questionable, but the kitchen is out of sight.) In November weather, we seek shelter from the cold in the hall with its non-functioning ACs. Baskets of hot rotis and dishes of paneer and dal are placed on our tables with great dispatch. They don’t fuss with menu cards or cutlery or napkins. They accept debit cards, which is all we ask for. A Tom and Jerry cartoon is painted incongruously on one of the walls; elsewhere, a sign in Hindi warns people that they are responsible for their own luggage, in case they had any misgivings about the services on offer. We finish our meal and return to our bus – there is nothing here to linger over, no promise of stories or laughter, just efficient business. There is none of the warmth that Ruskin Bond encountered at a teashop on the Tehri road (Rain in the Mountains):

I find a couple of mules tethered to a  pine tree. The mule drivers, handsome men in tattered clothes, sit on a bench in the shade of the tree, drinking tea from brass tumblers. The shopkeeper, a man of indeterminate age – the cold dry winds from the mountain passes having crinkled his face like a walnut – greets me enthusiastically, as he always does. He even produces a chair, which looks like a survivor from the Savoy’s 1890 ballroom. Fortunately the Mussoorie antique-dealers haven’t seen it, or it would have been carried away long ago. In any case, the stuffing has come out of the seat. The shopkeeper apologizes for its condition: ‘The rats were nesting in it.’ And then, to reassure me: ‘But they have gone now.’

After sunset, there are no mules or good-natured elderly storytellers where we are. We have left the glorious monastery, the busy shops, and the lone gardener behind.

***

Considering the number of trucks and buses that jostle pell-mell on this road, that any of them completes its journey unscathed is a miracle. The roadside shrines to Durga (draped in finery of red-and-gold) and austere Shiva are clearly there for a purpose. If you’ve read H Rider Haggard’s She and remember the protagonists walking across the chasm to get to the caves, you know what I’m talking about.

I clung to the saddle of rock, and looked round, while, like a living thing, the great spur vibrated with a humming sound beneath us. The sight was a truly awesome one. There we were poised in the gloom between earth and heaven. Beneath us were hundreds upon hundreds of feet of emptiness that gradually grew darker, till at last it was absolutely black, and at what depth it ended is more than I can guess. Above was space upon space of giddy air, and far, far away a line of blue sky. And down this vast gulf upon which we were pinnacled the great draught dashed and roared, driving clouds and misty wreaths of vapour before it, till we were nearly blinded, and utterly confused.

It iintense. There is no draught, but the pitching and rolling bus is a good substitute.

We round a bend and the lights disappear. The rugged mountain wall appears to my right, its lower flanks overgrown with scrub. A few houses nestle in hollows in the rock, shrouded in darkness, showing their green and yellow walls when they catch the headlights. Piles of loose rock lie on the edge of the road, and it is in this accumulation that these mountains appear more sinister than the Western Ghats. They are capable of immense beauty, but also of wrath. Once again, I have to pinch myself to believe that I am in the Himalayas, far from the disappointingly flat coastline of Chennai. These mountains have been a part of me since long before I ever set eyes on them.

I miss the Beas. I will wake up tomorrow not to the rush of the grey river, but to the thick smog and dust of the city. There will be no birdsong, but the harsh sounds of humanity reluctantly facing another day of hardship. I already miss the bonfire and the voices warm with  companionship that carry far in the clear night air. I feel a little bit like Bisnu in Dust on the Mountain. I’m glad that I’ve been in what could be Ruskin Bond territory, only it was in Himachal Pradesh. However, the Himalayas are grand wherever they are, and I’m supplied with an imagination active enough to turn my modest city bedroom into a precariously-perched study overlooking snow-clad peaks and rushing grey-green rivers. Thank you, Mr Bond.

 

November Reading

This month has delivered some outstanding reading – and that is saying a lot, given the amount I have discovered this year. I started the month with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, followed it up with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and finished Stefan Zweig’s Confusion this morning. Having gravitated towards German writing since my visit to Munich and Salzburg last month, I also have Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, and Arthur Schnitzler’s The Dead Are Silent lined up for the next couple of weeks (thanks to book bloggers from the Guardian for these recommendations).

I’ll begin with Confusion, the book that is freshest in my mind. I couldn’t sleep this morning and decided to use the quiet early hours to finish the 40 pages or so I had left. I have been quite slow with this novella, reading and re-reading, charmed by Zweig’s power to put into words the unsaid. He lays bare deep and dark thoughts, brings in an intensity that I last remember being really moved by in The Outsider by Albert Camus. In today’s times, the story of the relationship between a teacher and his student may not be pathbreaking; but it is in the execution that Zweig amazes with his skill. He speaks unabashedly of the follies of youth, the inconsistencies of the heart and the mind, and the layers of embarrassment that are unhappily folded away, even though the damming up of these feelings may cause untold anguish and pain. He doesn’t offer any easy solutions. But this is the world we live in, these are the strictures we place on ourselves in deference to propriety, and so we continue to fight our battles or capitulate. (Thanks, H., for the recommendation.)

An excerpt from Confusion:

Changeable as he was, he kept confusing my feelings, and I do not exaggerate when I say that in my overexcited state I often came close to committing some thoughtless act just because his indifferent hand pushed away a book to which I had drawn his attention, or because suddenly, when we were deep in conversation in the evening and I was absorbing his ideas, breathing them all in, he would suddenly rise – having only just laid an affectionate hand on my shoulder – and say brusquely: “Off you go, now! It’s late. Good night.” Such trivialities were enough to upset me for hours, indeed for days. Perhaps my exacerbated feelings, constantly overstretched, saw insults where none were intended – although what use are explanations thought up to soothe oneself when the mind is so disturbed?’

***

We now move on to Anderson’s masterpiece. Anderson was a key American writer of the 20s, an influential figure of the Lost Generation. Why he isn’t more widely known, I am at a loss to understand. His writing isn’t glamorous: it is straightforward and raw, and he doesn’t flinch from stating the truth. Winesburg, Ohio talks of the lives of ordinary men and women in a village whose life revolves around a Main Street and the farms yonder. I went in expecting something similar to Willa Cather or Sinclair Lewis, but if I remember them correctly, Anderson is less inclined towards building stories and more keen on portraying the struggles we go through in our efforts to please ourselves and others. Like Zweig, he is a realist and does not shun the ugly or the mundane. His characters from midwestern America grapple with the same fears and insecurities that people anywhere, at any point in time, do. Sample this:

‘There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.’

I stumbled upon Winesburg at a Virginia library, picked it up a few times, read the blurb, read the opening lines, and put it back because I felt that it might exacerbate the despair of the dark winter months. On the contrary, I now think it might have been bracing for its acknowledgement of the messiness of life and its inconstancy, making me come to terms with the long, endless nights.

***

Miss Lonelyhearts is my second West. I read The Day of the Locust last year with some admiration. Lonelyhearts took my appreciation of West a level higher. Both these books are solemn – his brilliance comes to the fore in his ability to see through life. He delivers his wisdom in frank, pithy sentences; no drama or exaggeration. In describing the life of a newspaper agony aunt, he mirrors our own concerns and confusion. He had so much to give to those of us incapable of setting our thoughts down coherently. Unfortunately, West was killed in a car crash the day after F Scott Fitzgerald died. Life can be really perverse at times.

An excerpt from Miss Lonelyhearts:

‘Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.’

I don’t write about my reading every month, but November has been exceptionally good to me. I have rediscovered the kind of writing I used to revel in, and hopefully moved away from the phase when most things had to be sunshine and dancing snowflakes. I maintain that you read a certain book only when the time for it is right, when you will be able to fully appreciate its ability to influence. I hope that I’ll make my peace with The Magic Mountain and Middlemarch soon.

 

Paris: In Search of the Writers

I wrote earlier this year about my fascination with Paris of the 1920s, and if you’re still sticking with me despite my obsession, I hope you’re just a little bit smitten as well and that we’ll some day have long discussions on the paradox that was Ezra Pound. However, I first have much to learn about him and his friends who fled to Paris to find inspiration away from Prohibition Era America, Ireland, or elsewhere, in the process creating works and movements that profoundly influence our lives to this day. Paris seems to have provided them with the freedom they craved. On the other hand, more than ninety years on, we are still fighting some of the battles that existed back then, such as those for the acceptance of women, religious equality, and homosexuality.

Shakespeare and Company

shakespeare-and-company
George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company by the Seine

While I had heard of Paris’s propensity for grey, cold days, I never took the warning to heart, what with London having shown itself as one of the most perverse places in the world in terms of weather. I was rewarded for my blind faith in Paris’s good nature by a shower on my first morning in the city. G., K., and I hastily rearranged our rather flexible plans: we feasted on pastries at Blé Sucré by Square Trousseau while we waited for the rain to turn into a drizzle, did a quick spot of fruit shopping at the market nearby, and hauled ourselves off to Shakespeare and Company. With the Notre Dame and the Seine within shouting distance, the bookshop is in one of the dreamiest areas of Paris. This wasn’t the site of Sylvia Beach’s original shop and actually started out as Le Mistral, but its proprietor George Whitman eventually received her blessings and named it after her store that failed to reopen after the Second World War.

To me, Shakespeare and Company was as much a pilgrimage site as a bookshop. I wanted to be close to the place that had published Ulysses at a time when it was considered risqué. I hoped to eavesdrop on HD’s love-whispers to Pound and Stein’s  harangues against the Lost Generation. These Jazz Age artistes celebrated life and plunged themselves into despair all at once. They drank themselves to bliss and penury. How did these contradictions exist simultaneously? What made Hemingway, who was seemingly devoted to Hadley, abandon her for her friend? Why were the Fitzgeralds unhappy? Why was Pound, known for his kindness to young, aspiring writers, an ardent supporter of Fascism?

I don’t have answers to these questions – one visit to Shakespeare and Company, which has come a long way from its roots, cannot provide them. Perhaps a lifetime of research will. I wanted a physical reminder of the stacked bookshelves, Sylvia’s library with its musty old curiosities, and visitors’ fond notes – for we live in a time when material possessions serve better than fleeting memories that are constantly being trampled by the weight of new information. I purchased a used book from the shelf outside and had it stamped.

From here we walked to the rue de l’Odéon to see the place where Sylvia’s store flourished after she moved from rue Dupuytren, choosing to settle across the road from her lover Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. The road that once must have swarmed with men and women conversing about Imagism or the Charleston lay drugged in a Sunday stupor. The sun had just managed to win its battle with the clouds, so we took advantage of the improving weather and moved on to the Luxembourg Gardens to rest our legs.

***

Cemeteries

Around four, we walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery, a sea of grey criss-crossed by tree-lined avenues. The tombs, some simple, others elaborate, jostle against one another on tightly packed plots. The first graves we saw were those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I read Sartre’s Nausea years ago and didn’t understand much of it. Thus, the purpose of these literary visits in Paris, especially to the graves of people I’ve never read, was to imbibe some of their ethereal energy in the hope that it would nestle in a corner of my being and aid my understanding of their work when I got around to it. It was with this aspiration that I visited Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac at Père Lachaise, and Samuel Beckett at Montparnasse. I also tried to find Guy de Maupassant at the latter – for who among us hasn’t been left heartbroken by The Necklace – and in a twist of fate, failed to do so. (If you haven’t read the story, here it is.)

Père Lachaise wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when we returned to Paris after our travels to take the plane home, we decided to make a quick stop there to pay our respects to Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most haunting books I’ve read, and even though I could look at the elaborately designed tomb only through a glass wall, I was stirred by the inscription on the headstone. It is an excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote after his release from the prison where he served time for homosexuality.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.

Oscar Wilde.jpeg
Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Picture taken by G.)

I’m glad Wilde was buried in Paris because it gave me a chance to spend a few moments by his side. However, as my Irish friend Patrick says, “Paris may have his grave but the Irish have his soul!”

***

Hemingway

We picked up dinner at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, ate it by a public park, and crossed the Seine back into the Latin Quarter. The sun set rapidly as we walked on to our next destination, 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, once home to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. (Lonely Planet informs me that the dancing club that existed below it inspired the one in The Sun Also Rises where Jake meets Brett, and this has me doubly delighted.)

I clutched at G. in delight as we spotted the plaque on the building in the dimly lit street. I’ll take a brief moment here to acknowledge how big a blessing it is to have travelling companions who placate every unreasonable wish of yours (not that wanting to visit a house that Hemingway and Hadley spent more than a year in is unreasonable, of course). I blinked in disbelief, for it was only in March that I read A Moveable Feast, falling utterly in love with the idea of this literary city. Six months on, there I was, standing by the house where its writer had lived, breathed, and loved – and falling for the city itself. And now I am back home in India, still reeling under its spell.

Below it, rather unimaginatively, was a travel agency named Under Hemingway’s: such are the ways of this prosaic world. Further ahead, at Place de la Contrescarpe, bistros were filling up with happy diners making the most of their ending weekend. Music wafted over the laughing voices and the clinking glasses, creating an atmosphere of vitality I tend to associate with Europe, setting the stage for our next stop – the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Digressing slightly before moving on to the pop culture significance of these steps, I must tell you that we peeped in through the open doors from the street and were quite enamoured with the gorgeous sweeping interiors of this church that celebrates the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève. It also houses the tomb of Blaise Pascal whose genius I respect, but who gave me no little grief in Physics.

Midnight in Paris.jpeg
Waiting by the church steps (Picture taken by G.)

The steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont are famous for being the place where Owen Wilson moped over his future in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, before a car arrived to drive him away from his mundane life. I’d like to commend Allen and company on their choice of location, a sheltered road bathed in mellow light, lurking in the shadows of the Panthéon which houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest (Braille, Hugo, Voltaire, and Zola among others). An aura of mystery shrouded the cobbled street even as early as eight o’clock. The church bells rang and we lounged on the steps, half-wishing for some kind of miracle or a dream carriage. Only a few cars passed by and very evidently none of them was even twenty years old. K. told us later that we had unwittingly picked one of Paris’s car-free Sundays for our “adventure” – though I don’t know if Hemingway would have cared about playing by the rules.

And that rounded off our literary trail in Paris. I know that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a splendid way to begin what turned out to be a very memorable trip. I’ve managed to lengthen my to-read list as a result; this surely is a sign of immense success?

Paris Was Mine

paris

I’ve been fighting against the Paris-sized void in my life by reading about the city. It might sound like a silly thing to do, but I assure you it’s entirely involuntary. I began reading Paris was Ours on the plane from Chennai to prepare myself for the wonders of this grand city. As we moved further through Europe, I shelved it to allow the magic of the other countries to seep in; but then we returned to Paris for the flight back home, and its romanticism hit me hard again. I continued reading the book till I finished it a few hours ago, then went to my bookshelf to pick up another to temper the hangover. My fingers hovered over Gogol, Godden, and James, before being pulled against their volition towards that familiar green paperback that I’ve been saving up for a treat – The Sun Also Rises. You see, Paris won’t let go.

My first encounter with Europe took place – through books – when I was around eight. I read Heidi and was immediately smitten by the idea of the mighty Alps. For a long time, I actually nurtured the ambition of being a milkmaid in the Swiss mountains. In my head, it meant wearing billowing skirts and lying in the sunshine on a flower-strewn meadow.  I obviously didn’t account for harsh winters or physical exertion, because what is the imagination for if not to gloss over bitter realities? Years later, when I started watching Formula One and worshipping Michael Schumacher, Germany was the country I wanted to visit. As an added bonus, I would have loved to be employed by an F1 team (Ferrari, to be precise). That I didn’t get an opportunity to set foot on the European mainland until two weeks ago put paid to all my lofty goals. Considering that by mid-2016, I was already deep in the exploits of writers who spent time in Paris in the 1920s, reading Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, and Morley Callaghan, it was only fitting that our trip should start in its mystical boulevards.

And so it was that I arrived in Paris, starry-eyed and determined to channel the spirits of the Lost Generation. Gertrude Stein was undoubtedly harsh towards them, and despite Hemingway and Pound’s dubious reputations with regard to their private lives, I was determined to learn from the streets and the river that had shaped their literature. I wanted to have a conversation with the Seine and drink in the fragrances of the rain-washed nights that added depth and colour to so many dreams. I wanted to see what drew those giants away, in those distant years, from the shores that we so prize today. Failed attempts and wild-goose chases didn’t matter. What was important was that Paris had been a central character in their stories in the years between the two World Wars, keeping the flame of art and literature alive in those troubled times, and continues to be a source of creative inspiration today.

Three heady days in Paris marked the start of our trip to Europe. I espied the twinkling lights of the outskirts from the airport, and took in a deep draught of the air of the Continent. I was soon to learn why so many writers gushed about Paris, why so many film-makers decided that this was the home of undying love and beauty. In the music of the piano being played somewhere near the entrance to the Métro, in the polite “Merci, Madame”, in the utter absence of English, I saw a world I was unaccustomed to, and whose acquaintance I looked forward to making.

With our friend K. for our guide, we did not have to stop to think where we could find the best baguettes or croissants or falafel. She led us expertly down winding streets – even though she had a propensity for getting lost in the streets of her hometown of DC – to her favourite patisseries and restaurants. We ate clumsily on pavements, shrinking under the aristocratic gaze of Parisian passersby who mostly seemed to eschew eating in public spaces (to be fair, one of them did call out “Bon Appetit!” with a kindly, amused glance). We ate at a small pizza place near Moulin Rouge and at a vegetarian restaurant where we feasted on delicious tomatoes stuffed with rice (A., the chef, will disagree with the word “stuffed”, which he said was an inaccurate translation, but I forget the French word). We had the most succulent orange-flavoured tiramisu here, and K. and I drew a picture of it for A., who was also kind enough to bring us samples of some quiche-like pie he had just prepared. We ate quantities of bread, mango jam, cheese, and pain au chocolat. We ate pastries for breakfast: Poire Jasmin (smooth, jasmine-flavoured), Le Carla (succulent dark chocolate), Le Vollon (more dark chocolate with crumbly, crisp caramelly bits). We picnicked at the Luxembourg Gardens and on our last evening in Paris by the Seine, with a glorious sunset painting the sky every conceivable shade of pink and orange. As the colours spread fast, as if an invisible hand were wielding a broad-bristled brush furiously, we packed up the remnants of our picnic and ran to the Pont Alexandre III, joining other onlookers who had flocked to the bridge at the sight of the spectacular show the sky was offering us, accentuated by the electric lights of the Eiffel Tower.

And that sums up about half of what we did in Paris. Most of it was about food, as described, but we also did a few other significant things.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to tell you about our pursuit of literary ghosts and of our travels through three other countries. As we go along, I also mean to continue reading about these places, because resistance is obviously futile. When you read about a city you’ve just been in and identify street names, you feel aware and knowledgeable. You know that the creative impulses it has aroused among countless others have, just for a few hours, touched you as well. For those hours, the city was yours.

I will leave you now with this poem by CK Williams that I’ve been championing aggressively. I hope you like it and feel about it as I do (or otherwise, because what is a world where everyone agrees with everyone else).

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.