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The draw of the Gothic

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

To understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410 A.D. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. “The city which had taken the whole world,” he writes, “was itself taken.” The old order—of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty—has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.

The term gothic was first used as an insult, and writers of the genre have always had a reckless disregard for either praise or blame. At first, however, the insult was leveled not at a work of literature, but at the brutally ornate architecture of gargoyles and buttresses which distinguish the great cathedrals of the medieval age. During the renaissance, Giorgio Vasari—an Italian scholar with a taste for the white facades and polite proportions of Classical architecture—found himself within a vaulted cathedral, and was appalled. It was, he said, all confusion and disorder, a “deformed malediction” that “polluted the world.” It was as barbarous an act of social and aesthetic rebellion as the work of the Germanic tribes that tore down the last of the Roman Empire. It was, in fact, Gothic.

Read more at the Paris Review link here

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Wall of great Tajik writers

(From Atlas Obscura. Link to the complete article given below)

The “Wall” is the facade of the Writers’ Union building in Dushanbe, home to an association of novelists, poets, playwrights, and other writers. The large wall is carved with nine niches containing eleven life-size statues of famous Tajik writers, a tribute to Tajikistan’s Persian and Soviet history.

The 8th-century “Adam of Poets,” Rudaki, justifiably takes the centre stage. He is considered a father of classical Persian literature, though sadly only a small portion of his work has survived the test of time. Other notable writers on the wall include poet Ferdowsi (940-1020); poet, mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam (1048-1131); writer and intellectual Sadriddin Ayni (1878-1954); and poet Mirzo Tursunzoda (1911-1977). In the garden next to the building is a large statue of Ayni and famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorky sitting around a table, absorbed in conversation.

The Writers’ Union building was designed by renowned architect E. Salikhov and constructed in the early 1980s. The structure immediately became an exemplary manifestation of Soviet Modernist architecture, a trend that incorporated local sensibilities within the Soviet architectural tradition, which emphasized social purposefulness, grandiosity (regarding size), and frugality (regarding construction materials). All these features are clearly seen in Salikhov’s creation in Dushanbe.

Read more at the Atlas Obscura link here


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Book Excerpt: From Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty

Daughterrs of the Sun

From the chapter Ambitious Siblings and a Shahzadi’s Dream

Roshanara is now forty years old. She has lived a muted life in the shadow of her glorious sister, whose every action is celebrated. Jahanara is so universally loved and personally discreet that Roshanara knows she is beyond rumour and scandal. But there is one person who is not so faultless, and who can be brought low—Dara Shikoh. From the zenana of Shahjahanabad, Roshanara observes and forwards to Aurangzeb Dara’s many transgressions. She knows he has slowly but steadily antagonized the Ulema and even many of the nobles because of his fascination with mysticism and eclectic Hinduism. He is accused of being ‘constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis, and he used to regard these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom’. She learns of his scandalous friendship with the naked mystic Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who has converted to Islam, lives with a young Hindu man and taunts the orthodox clerics with his heretical verses. Roshanara is also aware of the fact that Dara Shikoh has made powerful enemies within the nobility due to his arrogance. ‘If Dara had a failing’, agrees Manucci, it was that he ‘scorned the nobles, both in word and deed, making no account of them’. Nor does Dara endear himself to the Ulema when he declares that ‘paradise is there where no mullah exists’. Dara himself is ill-advised, being contemptuous of the opinion of others. ‘He spoke disdainfully to all those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers.’ Roshanara notes all these things about Dara and she bides her time carefully. Amidst the gaunt topography of her life, Roshanara is waiting for her destiny to reveal itself. And few at court suspect the extent of her rancour or the depth of her ambition. Roshanara is ‘very clever, capable of dissimulation, bright, mirthful, fond of jokes and amusement, much more so than her sister begum sahib’. Dissimulation, at least, is a trait Roshanara shares with Aurangzeb and ‘all was done in great secrecy’, says Manucci, of their long-range communications, ‘with much craft, so that his brothers could neither know nor suspect anything’. And so, following Shah Jahan’s illness, while Shah Shuja and Murad Baksh impetuously declare themselves padshah, Aurangzeb waits. And then in January 1658, he marches north, towards Agra, where Shah Jahan has been moved to, with the purported and pious aim of ‘liberating’ the old padshah from the noxious influence of the apostate and idolater Dara and establish peace in the empire.

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In new textbook, the story of Singapore begins 500 years earlier

(From the New York Times. Link to the complete article given below)

 

Singapore has rewritten the history taught in secondary school to expand the story of the island state’s birth.

While earlier generations learned a narrative that essentially started in 1819 with the British colonial administrator, Sir Stamford Raffles, stumbling upon a sleepy Malay fishing village, 13-year-olds now learn of a golden age that started 500 years earlier.

The new story, introduced in January, brings into focus a 300-year period, from 1300 to 1600, when Singapore was a thriving multinational trading hub, with an estimated population of 10,000.

An education ministry official who declined to be named, in line with government policy, called the change a “shift” rather than a rewrite, saying it allowed students to “explore Singapore’s origin as a port of call and her connections to the region and the world.”

Behind the revision is the work of John N. Miksic, an American archaeology professor at the National University of Singapore, or N.U.S., who advised the government on the new school text, “Singapore: The Making of a Nation-State, 1300-1975.”

Professor Miksic has led major archaeological excavations across Southeast Asia, including a dozen in Singapore over the past 30 years that have yielded eight tons of artifacts — evidence of a precolonial history that was largely neglected until now.

Read more at the New York Times link here


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Book Review: The Scorpion by Kim Won-il

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

scorpion_cvr

Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
Pages: 445
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There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.

The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.

Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.

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Novel on Rajani Thiranagama gets ready for English readers

(From The Hindu. Link to the complete article given below)

Twenty-nine years after the brutal murder of Tamil human rights activist and feminist Rajani Thiranagama in Jaffna by an assassin allegedly deputed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a powerful Malayalam literary work chronicling her struggle is breaking the language barrier to reach readers across the globe who continue to remain concerned about the cascading effect of the decades-long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka.

T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Malayalam work Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki created a sensation when it was published three years ago. Now, HarperCollins is bringing out its English version on July 25, targeting a wider audience outside Kerala.

Crusader for justice

The novel is a powerful account of the life and times of the then head of the department of anatomy at the University of Jaffna, who broke religious and ethnic barriers to marry a social activist with Sinhala Buddhist background, and dared to become a distinct human rights activist in Sri Lanka by criticising both Sinhala chauvinism and the narrow nationalism of the LTTE as well as the alleged brutalities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force.

Read more at The Hindu link here


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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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Book Review: A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

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The ancient poem that will put your life in perspective

In the wake of his “conscious uncoupling” from fellow mega-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow in 2014, Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin found solace from his failed marriage in a somewhat surprising source: 13th-century Persian love poetry, notably a poem known as “The Guest House,” by the Sufi mystic Rumi. “That one Rumi poem changes everything,” Martin recounted to The Sunday Times in March. “It says that even when you’re unhappy, it’s good for you.”

Now, even if you’re not in the habit of adopting the self-help tips propounded by your favorite celebrity idols, you could do a lot worse than listening to Martin sing the praises of Sufi mysticism — Alec Baldwin’s advice on dealing with divorce and Jessica Simpson’s thoughts on planning the perfect wedding come to mind.

“This being human is a guest house,” Rumi’s beloved poem begins in the English translation by 79-year-old American poet Coleman Barks, who reads from the poem on the “Kaleidoscope” track on Coldplay’s latest album, A Head Full of Dreams. “Every morning a new arrival.”

Those arrivals may include unexpected visitors like depression, sorrow or meanness, but we must “welcome and entertain them all,” says Rumi. Indeed, if the 13th-century mystic’s broad body of love poetry was about anything, it was quite conscious coupling, from the intense passion felt for a lover to the ecstasy of immersion in the divine. “Rumi was an enlightened lover, a true human being,” Barks writes in Rumi: The Book of Love; his “love poetry is meant to obliterate you lovers. Rumi wants us to surrender.”

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