A Beginning…

Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.

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And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us.  What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.

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Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!

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Monsoon Musings

With the monsoon clouds gradually spreading their welcome shadows over the length and breadth of India, I felt like searching for poems which would make apt reading as it gently drizzled outside.

And while I browsed through a few classic verses on rains, it occurred to me how different cultures feel about this natural phenomenon. For the European landscape, where rains usually intensify the cold and bleak weather conditions, it can mean misery and suffering while in a country like India where the fields and its people wilt under the blazing summer, the arrival of the rain-bearing monsoon winds – ‘from the Arabic word ‘mausim’, meaning seasonal – spells relief and prosperity.

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Here is a poem by renowned American poet Emily Dickinson, which depicts the transformative beauty of the rains – its arrival is celebrated almost as a festival, something that Indian folk culture can relate to !

Summer Shower

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

-Emily Dickinson

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Literature and Setting

On a day when The Hindu carried an interview with the Booker-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, my mind turned to what really goes into writing fiction. When the interviewer Zac O Yeah asks her about how much autobiographical detail goes into her book, she responds with a question of her own – “…where does your imagination end and experience begin?”

As I began to ponder over the question, my eyes swept over the misty blue hills visible from my front veranda and my attempted intellectual exercise took an unscheduled turn. So then, could a physical setting – the colours, sounds, smells and even the mood of a place affect your writing? I began to wonder…

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There are accounts that writers look for a peaceful and evocative places to compose poetry – certainly the Nobel Laureate Tagore did that! He not only visited naturally exquisite places in India like Ranikhet and Shillong where he wrote some of his best works but travelled to far-flung places like Japan, Turkey and South America which provided the impetus for his essays and letters on a range of topics like culture, nationalism and history. Then there are the famous English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth who found inspiration in the serenity and beauty of the Lake District.

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On the other extreme are women writers – no surprises there! – like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen who barely left their immediate surroundings and yet left a mark on the history of English literature.

How about dirt, pollution, conflict, violence – can one write in a place marked by such intense negativity? Even though a writer could be writing about experiences like riots and forced migrations, but can he/she do it while all around the landscape burns and smokes?

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These are questions to which there are no simple answers and which take me to entirely different time periods and settings – far, far away from my bit of paradise in the hills where my dog sits softly curled up at my feet and nuzzles me for her breakfast.

In Silence, Thy Voice will be Heard…

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

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Today – on the 156th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore – these words of the Nobel Laureate’s deeply moving song is a reminder of the continuing relevance of his poetry and other writings. He was the first Non-European to receive a Nobel Prize when in 1913, his collection of poems titled, Gitanjali was awarded the coveted prize for Literature in recognition for having “written the finest poems of an idealistic tendency”.

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And yet his global reputation has not always been even.

When W.B Years, Ezra Pound and others tried to make the world aware of Tagore’s works, they heavily depended on the popularity of contemporary schools of mysticism, Theosophical Society and other spiritualist groups. This led to the image of Tagore as a Mystic of the East, the Bard who was the keeper of timeless fountains of spirituality and through his poetry was now spreading its precious waters across the world. Indeed Rabindranath’s physical appearance—handsome, bearded, dressed in Oriental robes—may, to some extent, have encouraged his being seen as a carrier of exotic wisdom. The problem with this image was that instead of encouraging people to evaluate Tagore’s works in actual literary terms, made them seem merely spiritualist, and as time went on, he and his writings began to be seen as repetitive and distant.

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The truth on the other hand was that his short stories, novels, plays, essays and letters show a keen engagement with the real world. He had practical and clearly thought out views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness – and did not just concern himself with mystical and religious experiences as the West would have liked to believe.

Tagore’s essays particularly traverse a wide range of topics, beginning from literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs to philosophical analysis and international relations. Co-inciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, a selection of Tagore’s letters by Cambridge University Press was published which has helped readers and critics to rediscover Tagore’s ideas and reflections and made them extremely relevant to the modern world. Apart from being a literary genius, Tagore was a talented painter as well whose pictures, with their mixture of representation and abstraction, have started to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved.

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While the rest of the world has now only started rediscovering the beauty and power of his writings, Rabindranath Tagore has always remained a towering figure in the Bengali literary tradition which goes back to more than a thousand years. Not surprisingly in 1971, the newly independent country of Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs—the “Amar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal”—as its national anthem. Tagore had already composed the music and lyrics of Jana Gana Mana or “Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds” which had been chosen as India’s national anthem way back in 1947. This makes Tagore the only poet in the world to have been the composer of the national anthems in two countries – surely as significant a measure of his lasting relevance and greatness among the authors of history as any.

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– Excerpt from 20 GREATEST AUTHORS OF THE WORLD Kalyani Mookherji, Prabhat Prakashan, 2016. ISBN: 9788184303599, 8184303599