Of Poetry and Gender @Talking Terrace Book Club in March 2015 (Part 2)



If you haven’t read Part 1, here is the link.

Jaya was immersed in two books as part of her rereading effort. Dr. Zhivago  is a novel that is hard to forget once you’ve experienced Boris Pasteurnak’s lilting prose. I remember reading this book in sheer awe of how the plot could encompass so much of revolution, love and sweeping expanse of country. Jaya, however, made some aspects of the book clearer. The story is a love story—Yuri is married and has an affair with another woman, Lara. Yet his transgressions mean nothing during such hard times when you were unsure if you would live to see those you loved ever again. Uncertainity changes the dynamics of anything socially unacceptable. Right and wrong then become too much of grey. Jaya found many valuable quotes in this tome.

Pasternak’s philosophy is intriguing:

“But what is consciousness? Let’s see. To try consciously to go to sleep is is a sure way to have insomnia, to try to be conscious of one’s own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach. Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves. Consciousness is a beam of light directed outwards, it lights the way ahead of us so that we don’t trip up. It’s like the head lamps on a railway engine – if you turn the beam inwards, there would be a catastrophe.”

And he is pragmatic at times:

“It’s only in bad novels that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up! Don’t you think you’d have to be a hopeless nonentity to play only one role all your life, to have only one place in society, always to stand for the same thing?”

“Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life — they have never felt its breath, its heart — however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material which needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded. If you want to know life, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my theories about it.”

With the flourish of a Russian writer’s quill, he explains the revolution that was the fulcrum of his life:

“History is not made by anyone. You cannot make history; nor can you see history, any more than you can watch the grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kinds and Robespierres, are history’s organic agents, its yeast. But revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. The overturn the old order in a few hours or days; the whole upheaval takes a few weeks or at most years, but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy.”


Another book Jaya is reading is Tagore’s magnificient book Gora. The story is set in a Bengali household when India was in the ferment of change. It is post 1857, when the Indians had engaged in their first war of independence. Change is in the air and while on the one hand you have the Brahmo Samaj with its less conservative version of religion, on the other hand the more Orthodox are rearing their heads to conserve whatever they thought was being lost. A little too familiar in this day and age, don’t you think?

I read Washer of the Dead  by Venita Coelho, an interesting short story collection about a feminist perspective of ghosts. My favorite story was ‘Sealed’ about a little girl victim of child trafficking. Being a screenwriter as well, Coelho is a master of plot. I have a good mind to pick up her book Soap! Writing And Surviving Television.

Shikhandi and other tales they didn’t tell you  is an intelligent book. Devdutt Pattanaik is one of the few writers in India who manage to write so effectively about mythology. What he does is present the tale and then give a short list of facts at the end of the story. He also illustrates the book on his own. This book explores the gender fluidity that existed in so much of Indian literature. The beauty of some tales in Indian epics is just that— man can become woman, woman can become man, woman can have a child without a man, and man can have a child without a woman. Some gods stood in the tribhanga posture (a very feminine posture) – the lines between male and female were very blurred in the story telling.

My favorite story is about a king who is in search of wisdom. Incidentally he marries one of the wisest women in the world. It makes little difference to him as she is a woman and he would never listen to her anyway. He goes out into the forest one day in search of knowledge and she follows him, takes on the form of a sage and teaches him. He listens to her then as she is a man!

So though this is a story about male superiority in matters of the intellect, it involves a gender switch. This makes us look differently at the entire gender debate that has refused to abate.

What books are you reading? Tell us.

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