A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”

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Dream On…

Can it be really true?

That every face from your dream has crossed your path in real life – sometime, somewhere…?? Ok that thought now gives me the shivers! What about the skeletal person I encountered at an empty circus ground in my last dream? Or the old crony from a familiar nightmare? Is it possible that I have actually come across them in my waking hours.

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This time at the Feeling Bookerish workshop, the theme was “Dreams” and looking for some trivia about dreaming, I came across this page. We also discussed a few more interesting  tid-bits like how people who are born blind can also dream, one cannot read or tell the time in a dream and especially the phenomenon of sleep paralysis when you most wish to escape your pursuer in a dream, you find yourself unable to move.

But how strongly are these fun ‘facts’ backed by science? Not much – I could not find any news or institutional source on the internet where these have been proved by  systematic research. That my workshop participants and I had a lot of fun, imagining fictional situations bearing out such ‘facts’, was another matter!

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Additionally we discussed books where dreams play a crucial part in the theme or plot like Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, The Mummy’s Foot and, of course, the inevitable Interpretation of Dreams. Personally I came away delighted having made my acquaintance of a new word, “oneirology,” – the study of dreams – and loving the roll of the word in my mouth – “oneiron” !

This House of Wine

“Here I am, within the House of Wine, holding a cup

Which in turn holds the nectar, reflecting this place.

Such is the mystery I have spent my life working out –

Am I within the tavern or is it within my soul?”

-Translated from Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachhan

After a long while, today I played my CD of award-winning Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s classic verse collection, Madhushala, rendered in famous singer Manna Dey’s finely nuanced voice. The title loosely translates to a tavern, a place where lovers of wine gather, drink, sing and love. Indeed it functions as a rich, multi-faceted symbol – sometimes standing for the final destination of the earthly journey and at other times, representing the ideal universe that celebrates equality, humanity, creativity and love.

 

“The one whose inner fire has burnt away all books of religion,

The one who has broken down the walls of all temples, mosques and churches

The one who has left behind the calls of all priests and pundits,

Only such a one can be welcomed in this house of Wine”

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A central figure in the poem and the Tavern is the ‘Saki’ – the Pourer of Wine. Usually an idealized feminine figure, she is also the Beloved and represents beauty and creativity. But not always. The complexity of the symbol is evident in a stanza where the poet says,

The God of Death will come one day as the Pourer of Wine, bearing a black cup;

Drink now this pure nectar, for then my friend, you will never regain your senses.

That will be the final Bearer, the final cup and the final oblivion;

Thus traveller, drink now with love, for you may not pass again by this House of Wine

 

What a deeply humane and richly poetic vision!

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Poet Harishvansh Rai Bachhan. Photo Courtesy: Amar Ujala

Mythology with Kids

 

This time the topic of my Feeling Bookerish workshop was ‘Mythology’. Almost all my young participants fell back upon the familiar and turned up to discuss the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two epics of ancient India.

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From ‘Mahabharata’ – Draupadi’s humiliation

Of course these texts are an endless source of delight and entertainment for Indian kids – with myriad stories within stories but in the end the good winning over the evil. Thus Mahabharata unravels the genesis of the Great War between two families – the Kauravas and Pandavas – while Ramayana is all about the victory of heroism and the just over treachery and the unjust.

Somewhere along the way, we also got discussing gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts – Athena/Minerva with her wisdom and quiet courage turned out to be a particular favourite of the older girls in my workshop, especially in comparison to her brawny, vain brother Ares/Mars. Zeus and Poseidon were the subject of numerous anecdotes – thanks to teen fantasy fiction and movie representations which seem to have become more popular than the original mythological stories.

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Egyptian Sun-god Ra travelling through the Underworld

 

But where were the fascinating tales of Arabian adventure from 1000 and I Nights, brooding heroes  like Odin and Thor from Norse mythology, the complex facets of Egyptian gods like Ra, Isis and Osiris and fascinating Native American creation stories? I wish the participants had taken a bit more effort and ranged a bit further in their reading. But as the session continued beyond its scheduled two hours, I realized that at least a spark had been lit and the next time the kids would find themselves in a bookstore or a library – virtual or real – they just might reach out for that book on mythology that is unfamiliar, remote and strange…

 

Ooty Literary Festival 2017

On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.

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As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.

I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.

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What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.

As bell hooks, says

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What Michael Found In The Garage…

I feel a bit embarrassed to admit now but before the name was suggested by one of our book club members, I had never come across David Almond. The slender copy I decided to pick up was titled, intriguingly, Skellig. The book jacket informed me that it was the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year as well as the Carnegie Medal and comforted by such assurances of its worth, I dived in.

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Skellig turned out to be a heart-warming story of the power of love and acceptance to bring about miracles. A lonely boy makes unusual friends in a new neighbourhood which eventually brings about more than one kind of blessing. It is also about how much humans can learn from Nature and how we are all part of the one universal soul that he beats within every heart.

The simple yet powerful theme is perfectly complemented by Arnold’s deeply symbolic style. One instance is his use of metaphors of birds and flying to unite his main characters and express the ability of love and innocence to lift an individual to a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. His sparse syntax and use of repetitions make his fiction read like a parable – almost Biblical, in fact.

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In times of increasing cynicism and hopelessness about human bonds and environment, Skellig reads like an affirmation of faith in a child’s ability to give and believe – values which can yet make the world a better place.

 

ALL ABOUT ROALD DAHL

Here is what another sixth grader of our Feeling Bookerish workshop, the cherubic Ishita, has to say about her favourite author…

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Roald Dahl

“Did you ever ponder on how Roald Dahl got ideas for his books ? And before becoming an author , what was his life like? Well, all his ideas  for books came from real-life incidents or stories he heard from his grandparents. Before becoming an author, he:

  • Wrote a James Bond film
  • Was utterly hopeless at English in school
  • Was a champion boxer
  • Loved practical jokes-the nastier the better
  • Was a Fighter Pilot in the Second World War and
  • Was a spy

Here are some more interesting facts about Roald Dahl :

  • Buckingham Palace once rang up Roald to ask him if he’d like to become Roald Dahl OBE (Order of the British Empire). He refused it because he wanted a knighthood so he could be called Sir Roald.
  • His love of Chocolate led him to write his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

 

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THE BFG
  • Remembering his wife, Patricia Neal’s stroke , he wrote his book The BFG . It was because his wife usually spoke nonsense during her time of recovery. The BFG also spoke in such a way. In the book, for example, Scrumdidlyumptious meant tasty, while Chiddlers meant small children and so on
  • During his school days, Roald though that the next door sweetshop owner, Mrs. Prattchett was a witch. So, one day he took a dead mouse and put in the jar of Gobstoppers when she looked away. This was the inspiration for his book, The Witches”
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