Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Childhood Books

From the sublime to the...

From poetry, when we went book shopping over the weekend, I descended to the good old books of my childhood and bought 2 sets of Famous Five books. There is a new edition, priced at Rs. 200, which contains 3 stories in each volume. I've really been enjoying re-reading these though the FF are not my favourite Blyton characters. I do have several bones to pick and always did, with the rather bossy Julian who seems to call all the shots, and Anne who is a typically 'girly' girl which didn;t appeal to tomboy me. I also thought the gender-stereotyping was quite unfair, with the boys getting to do all the fun and dangerous things, while George, who was pretty adventurous herself, had to stay back to babysit Anne who was always scared of the adventure.

Oh, well, I still hugely enjoy the books, especially the spirit of adventure and daring, all the weird places they discover and the way the kids go off by themselves. Those must have been much safer times than these, when we wouldn't let Chubbocks so much as go cycling by himself if we didn't live in a gated community. I was reading one where they go off in a caravan and I immediately thought what fun it would be for us to do something like that, or a driving holiday, in England sometime. The countryside there is really gorgeous in the summer.

The other thing I love is all the mention of food - the kids always have a slab of chocolate on hand - and for those of us who grew up in India in the 70s, a slab of chocolate was unheard of - at best we had 5 star bars or those skinny Cadbury's Dairy Milk bars and even those were few and far between. The kids always used to exclaim at things like tomatoes, potatoes boiled in their jackets and fresh radish and lettuce - how healthy! Wherever they went, they hauled copious amounts of food - sandwiches, plums and the like - and drink - gingerbeer for choice. Farmer's wives use dto be super-generous and hand out 'a jar of brawn' - which I don't know what it is, or cold tongue or scones with lashings of butter or cream...I can't read a FF book without something to munch on.

What I appreciate is also how self-sufficient the kids seem to be - no running about to daddy when the problems appear; they just take charge and solve it for themselves. They wander all over the countryside by themselves and don't get intimidated by random, rude grown-ups.

I'm really enjoying my time capsule, and am pretty sure my kids will like the series too, apart from the girl/ boy divide. The values are great - honesty, loyalty, being brave and standing up for oneself, carrying on when things get tough, helping others...

Sunday, April 13, 2008


There is something about good poetry - the careful editing, the exact juxtaposition of one right word next to another, the cadence and rhythm - which makes it so much more evocative than the best prose. I used to be a poetry buff when I was younger - both reading and writing it - and even now find great delight in dipping into it from time to time. Many years ago, i came across this poem by Rabindranath Tagore which I fell in love with. For some reason, most anthologies of his poetry don't have it and when I look for a poem called The Gift, a different poem pops up. I recently re-located it through Google ( Google ki Jai) and had to share it here.

O my love, what gift of mine
Shall I give you this dawn?
A morning song?
But morning does not last long -
The heat of the sun
Wilts like a flower
And songs that tire
Are done.

O friend, when you come to my gate.
At dusk
What is it you ask?
What shall I bring you?
A light?

A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?
But will you want to take it with you
Down the crowded street?
The wind will blow it out.

Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,
Be they flowers,
Be they gems for your neck
How can they please you
If in time they must surely wilt,
Lose lustre?
All that my hands can place in yours
Will slip through your fingers
And fall forgotten to the dust
To turn into dust.

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower's scent startle you
Into sudden wondering-
Let that displaced moment
Be my gift.
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly, spilled
From the thick gathered tresses of evening
A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent

Truest treasure is fleeting;
It sparkles for a moment, then goes.
It does not tell its name; its tune
Stops us in our tracks, its dance disappears
At the toss of an anklet
I know no way to it-
No hand, nor word can reach it.
Friend, whatever you take of it,
On your own,
Without asking, without knowing, let that
Be yours.
Anything I can give you is trifling -
Be it a flower, or a song.

Then there is Invictus, which has always sent shivers down my spine for its indomitable spirit and inspirational theme. In some ways, it reminds me of Beethoven's 5th Symphony which is my favourite - that is the one in which the composer rails against the malign fates that made him deaf; starts out by rebelling, slips into despair briefly and then thunders back his defiance at the Gods and concludes with the triumph of his will over fate.

The poet, Henley, went through a similar fate - he had TB of the bone and one leg had to be amputated at the knee. Doctors suggested amputating the other one too but he persevered and kept that and lived on till the age of 54. Invictus was written from his hospital bed.

William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of Circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of Chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Key To Rebecca

We've been doing a lot of WWII at home, what with watching The Battle of Britain and The Battle of the Bulge, and that prompteed me to dig out my well-worn copy of The Key to Rebecca. I always think this and The Eye of the Needle are amongst the best things that Follett has ever done. Many of his later books seem to tread a well-worn territory and wear a been-there-done-that look.

But 'Rebecca is really interesting - believably set in Egypt, which at the time was struggling for independence - and with an interesting cast of characters. Unlike many later and American thriller writers, Follet spends a lot of time detailing the background of each character and actually shows character development through the book - in a way that affects the denouement of the novel, which is always interesting.

'Rebecca is a really interesting spy novel, with its twists and turns and many points of suspense - Hitchcock would have loved filming it, and I can almost imagine it, with Ava Gardner playing Elene. I was reflecting later on the reason why many people are such WWII buffs and came to the conclusion that it was rather mythological in its construct - you knew who the good guys and the baddies were, the baddies got their come-uppance, and there were many Homeric heroes and tragedies enroute to the final victory.

The current situation with terrorists is much harder to engage in - firstly because there's no end in sight. In a way, terrorism can be likened to the Hindu demon, Raktabeejasura. Any time anyone fought him, with each drop of his blood that was spilled, a thousand more Raktabeejasuras sprang up, finally requiring a Bhadra Kali who came, fought him and drank up all his lifeblood.

Am tempted to read something comforting again, like Eye of the Needle!