The Home & The World Read Along – Indian History Part II

Continuing from my last post, as part of my August Read Along Event – The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore, I come to part 2 of my snapshot of Indian History, in an effort to better understand the socio-economic backdrop of the novel and therefore better understand the nuances of this classic.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama successfully discovered a direct sea route from Europe to India, which eliminated the need for Arab brokers and put Europe in direct touch with India. The Dutch and the French soon followed, but the most impact full of all these merchant ventures had a nascent beginning in 1617, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, impressed, by the ability of a European physician to cure his ailing son, granted a charter for trade to the physician’s company; the Company was called The British East India Company and this was the start of something which Jahangir could have little forseen! Soon, little by little, the British began to expand their commercial empire and the venture recieved a significant impetus, when the then Mughal Emperor  Farrukh Siyar granted them permits for duty-free trade in Bengal in 1717. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Dula, the de-facto Governor, naturally opposed these permits and this brought him in direct conflict with the British powers. However, he had not counted on the greed and treachery of many, including Mir Jafar, his commander in chief and Jagath Seth, his chief banker, who plotted with the British for overthrow of the Nawab in exchange of additional trading rights. If there had been any other company clerk at that time, perhaps this initiative would not have worked or fallen through; but Mir Jafar and Jagath Seth connived with one of the most brilliant and daring Britisher of that time – a little known ensign who would become the Governor of the Presidency of Bengal, Robert Clive. On on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive and the British Company Army under the command of Clive, defeated the Sirj-ud Dula and established the first foothold in India.

Following the colonization of Bengal, the British East India company adopted a series of expansionist policies, which began with open war and later incorporated any and every arbitrary policy from mis-rule as defined by the British to the hated Doctrine of Lapse to increase their colony.The first series of conquests happened in South of India, where the East India company defeated the French to conquer the Madras Presidency. They further consolidated their rule after the Anglo Maratha Wars ((1772–1818) which gave them supremacy over Bombay and conquered and annexed Punjab and Kashmir, following their decisive victory in the Anglo Sikh Wars in 1849. The British Colonial policy gained more territory, when they adopted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, devised by Lord Dalhousie (1848 -1856). Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter  clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family.In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. They also initiated the  Divide and Rule policy, exploiting the age old religious rivaliries to further their aims, the results of which would be felt more than 100+ years later, when India gained her independence by losing much of its territory to the formation of the state of Pakistan.

The British East India Company not only bought English rule, but also English governance with them.  They introduced a land taxation system called the Permanent Settlement which introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with zamindars set in place, who lorded over the poor peasants for ungodly taxes. They also tried to “modernize” India by introducing the railways, the telegraph and the English education system. The latter especially would have far reaching results, as suddenly India, gripped in the miasma of medieval barbaric traditions was exposed to the works of Kant and Rousseau and Mill and re-discovered their Vedic roots. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance. This movement argued  by many historians began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore(1861–1941). This was social, cultural and intellectual movement that would force India into the modern nation states, and change the way Indians thought! The movement began by the questioning the then prevailing social evils in India – it argued for the ban of Sati (immolation of Hindu women on the cremation pyre of their husbands), fought against child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows,  both an anathema to then Indian Society.The movement received support of some of the more enlightened Governor Generals, with Sati being outlawed under Lord William Bentinck in 1829 and the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act being passed in 1856, legalizing marriage of widows. It was also under Lord Bentinck, under the misguided advise of Lord Macaulay, who believed that the Orient had nothing to educate its people, introduced many “modern” schools and universities in the country. The Hare School (1818), Scottish Church College (1830), Wilson College (1832), Madras Christian College (1837), and Elphinstone College (1856) and the founding of the first English style universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).

While the social reform from the current point of view seems a movement in the right directions, the middle 19th century India, did not seem to think so. Most of the common men, thought that a group of educated Indian elites were seeking to breakdown the Indian culture and tradition and most importantly their religion to gain complete control over the country. While the end was not completely inaccurate, and there were enough missionaries trying to convert “heathen” Indians, the education and the railways, were only to serve the British commercial needs. The changing rules in the British Indian Army, a much coveted post for Indians, also added to the growing disquiet. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.The grease used on these cartridges include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. Such practices, along with social reforms that seemed to break down the Indian society  along with unlawful conquest of Jhansi, Saugar and Oudh, states which had stayed loyal to the East India company, under the uniformly abhorred Doctrine of Lapse , finally led to the eruption of the First War of Independence or The Rebellion of 1857, depending on the perspective of the historian narrating the event. The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army on 10 May 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the Northern and Central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, the then state of Oudh, northern Madhya Pradesh, especially around Jhansi, Indore and Saugar and the Delhi region. The Rebellion was a horrific event in Indian history and atrocities that belie imagination was committed by both races. The only two factors that came through this event was the British Crown took over the rule of India, ending the unique monopoly of a company and Indian National Congress was founded under the patronage of a British man names A.O. Hume, who thought this would provide a forum for the Indians to present their cause and therefore prevent any such events like the 1857 mutiny.

The Indian National Congress at this time comprised mostly of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated provincial elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching and journalism, with no clear aims except to act as a debating society that passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government which were submitted to the Viceroy’s government with nothing much to write home about. However by 1900, the the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organisation, especially with the enhanced socio-religious movements. The nationalistic sentiments now coloring the beliefs of  Congress  led to them demanding to be represented in the bodies of government, to have a say in the legislation and administration of India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their own country, albeit as part of the Empire. This trend was personified by Dadabhai Naoroji, who went as far as contesting, successfully, an election to the British House of Commons, becoming its first Indian member. It was under this atmosphere that the Nationalist or the Swaraj movement gripped the country. Bal Gangadhar Tilak  was the Indian statesman who pioneered this movement and  deeply opposed the then British education system that ignored and defamed India’s culture, history and values. In 1907,  the Congress was split into two factions: The radicals, led by Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who wanted reform within the framework of British rule. In July 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899–1905), ordered the partition of the province of Bengal supposedly for improvements in administrative efficiency in the huge and populous region.It also had justifications due to increasing conflicts between Muslims and dominant Hindu regimes in Bengal. However, the Indians viewed the partition as an attempt by the British to disrupt the growing national movement in Bengal and divide the Hindus and Muslims of the region. The partition outraged the now educated and well informed Indians, especially the Bengalis. Not only had the government failed to consult Indian public opinion, but the action appeared to reflect the continued British resolve to divide and rule. This act kicked off what would be The Swadeshi Movement and which formed the background of our novel.

I will conclude this historic overview in my last installment with an insight on the Swadeshi Movement and the end of the British Rule in India.

Again while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

The Lawyer’s Wife

Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House had been one of the oldest TBRs ever. I added it to my list when I was like 17 after attending a special seminar on modern European Drama back in College but for some unexplained reason I did not get around to reading until 16 years later. Why? No idea. All I can say is that I am immensely glad I took part in the 12 Months Classic Challenge, which finally led me to read this drama after all my intellectual and academic fervor that I cannot say has had much tangible results. The brilliance  or lack of it in our modern education system is a theme I rest for discussion another day, and for now move on to The Doll’s House review! Cleo, my partner in all kinds of reading adventures came along for the read and made it a read along – she will be putting up her post soon and you can find it on her website!

The Doll’s House opens on the Christmas Eve with Nora, a young housewife coming back home from a shopping expedition in a happy expectancy of the gaities of the season and the expected good fortune stemming from her husband, Torvald Helemer being appointed a Bank Manager. It is evident that while Nora and Torvald seem to be in a comfortable circumstances, they have reached this status, through much hard work and trimming their expenses and there have been times, when they were in significant financial distress. However they are debt free and while they had to sacrifice much to achieve this status, they have managed to do so without being beholden to anyone, a matter of significant pride for Torvald. The relationship between Torvald and Nora appear to be one of happy contentment; Torvald seems to rule Nora and check her more extravagant tendencies, treating her more like a child, who needs to be alternately petted and disciplined to ensure the smooth functioning of the home and hearth. Nora is completely dedicated to her husband and her home, his opinion of her and her actions are her guiding factors and though there are things which she undertakes secretly from her husband, the primary motive of those actions is to keep Torvald happy. The first act also introduces the audience to the ensemble cast of Dr. Rank a doctor, who is Torvald best friend and has been a companion to the Helemer household for anions. The audience is also introduced to Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora’s, who has come seeking employment from Torvald, since she is now a widow and in financial difficulty and finally Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, whom Torvald seeks to replace and a man who had committed some misdemeanor in the past but is desperate to regain a respectable footing for the sake of his children. The audience soon is made to understand that about 8 years previously when the Helemer’s were just married and extremely poor, Torvald had fallen gravely ill with the only cure being to take him to Italy for the summer. Being extremely poor, they could not undertake this trip and Nora desperate to save her husband’s live was forced to borrow money from the same Krogstad and she since then has been paying him off through odd jobs. Torvald has no idea that his wife has borrowed money from the man he plans to fire and believes that the money came from Nora’s dying father. Act Two reveals that in a desperate bid to save his job, Krogstad blackmails Nora and asks her to use her influence on her husband otherwise he will disclose her monetary dealings with him including the fact that she had forged her father’s signature on the gaurentee papers – an act she undertook because she wanted to spare her then dying father the agony of her financial and personal crisis. When Nora is unable to convince Torvald to retain Krogstad, she shares her story with Mrs. Linde, who in turn offers to persuade and talk to Krogstad and with whom she was engaged previously. This intervention however comes in late and though Krogstad convinced by Mrs. Linde sends another letter to nullify the harm of the first one which had earlier posted revealing all,  Nora is forced to contend with her husband’s displeasure and face far more hard hitting reality than she could have previously fathomed, forcing her to make decisions she could have never forseen or believed herself capable of making!

So much has been written and debated about this play, that I am quite at a loss of what to actually say. When originally published, the play created a furor even to the extent that the German production had to amend the ending to suit the sensibilities of the audience then and uphold the image of women as mothers and centers of the hearth! I can understand why there should have been such angst with its publication in 19th century – many scholars contend that this play was centered on emancipation of women, but I cannot help but feel that it was more than an woman’s empowerment concept; the drama in fact seemed to me to revolutionize the concept of an individual, instead of a collective identity of mother/wife. it recognized Nora as a being  and even in the more individualistic 21st century society, this concept of standing on sole instead of clan identity is difficult for many to adjust! But this very stand, revealed in Act 3 made this play a piece of brilliant work for me and put me in awe. The first two acts, I could not abide by much – Nora seemed like a scatterbrain with the best intentions and least abilities to think through the actions stemming from those interventions. I was sick of what would Torvald think, do, react, – yes Torvald, no Torvald and three bags full Torvald. In creating Torvald’s character however I think, Ibsen’s brilliance came forth; its not like you like him, though he seems like a respectable, self made man devoted to his family and friends (his duplicity is not revealed till the end) but you cannot quite seem to like him  – I am not sure if it is a 21st century phenomena but his “skylaring” “squirelling” Nora put in the mind of men who call their partners “honey/doll” etc, which seems to dehumanize these women to fluffy pink icing pastry! The very fact that he wants Nora to be a perfect wife/mother/hostess, singing/dancing pleasing one and all, gives the audience the first glimpse into the “Doll’s House” and the Doll Master! This slow unraveling of what seems picture perfect, is a testimony to the dramatic capability of Ibsen where in 3 acts he reveals all without really rushing the reader. The ensemble cast is quite as brilliant as well – in Krogstad , the audience readily feels sympathy of a man being tried twice for the same crime, especially when desperately trying to establish his credibility for the future of her children. Mrs. Linde’s character is a foil to Nora’s – a sensible grounded woman who has worked hard all her life and now when emptiness seems to threaten to overtake her, she once again seeks work to keep her balance. In terms of plot, I did feel that Act I  was too prolonged and Act III kind of hurriedly reconciled the end, but the brilliance of Act III overpowers all flaws and left me converted to Ibsen.

I feel like an idiot for not reading this work sooner and will surely look up more of his plays!

The Sisters from the Photoshop

Jane has always always been such a great source of lesser known hidden gems, that I can always rely on her to lead me to books which I would have missed, but in missing them, it would have been a crying shame! She has introduced me to Margaret Kennedy, Hélène Gestern and Margery Sharp and so many others that I can barely begin to enumerate and therefore it was only natural that when she posted about this very little know The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, i would add it to my TBR and wait for a right opportunity to explore more! It was however good 2 years before I could actually get my hands on it and get the time to read it and when I finally finished it, it seemed apt that it should be part of my Women Classic Literature Reading Event!

The Romance of a Shop is set in Victorian England and the novels opens with the death of Mr. Lorimer who has left his estate sadly tangled with mounting debts all of which would have to be paid by the sale of his house and the belongings. This leaves the Lorimer sisters, daughter of the late Mr. Lorimer, Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis extremely poor. They have the option of residing with friends and relatives in ones and twos and go to India as part of fishing fleet in search of eligible husbands, all of which mean separation from each other and dependence on someone else for their welfare! They resolve against all such schemes and under the leadership of Gertrude (the artist and the creative sister) and Lucy ( the clever and pragmatic sister), they decide to open a photography shop, much to the consternation and horror of their noble relations. This is 1880s England and girls from well-to-do gentle background do not become shop girls, even if it is their own shop! Despite all the oppositions, the sisters who had been amateur photographers for a long time, decide to pursue their aims and to that effect find small accommodations at Upper Baker Street, where the ground floor would serve as their workshop and the upper floors as their apartments.Chang in economic situation, brings in new changes in their lives as the sisters cope with making the ends meet and gain a respectable foothold in the new age of artists and writers. While most of their old friends abandon them, some stick through the Lorimers including the Devonshires, Constance the daughter being a particular friend of Gertrude and Fred, her brother who besides having a sympathetic heart for all the sister, also holds a secret love for Lucy. Soon their old friendships are tested and mixed up with new relations as the Lorimer girls from new circles  – Frank Jermyn, an artist who lives across and provides some commission work for the sisters and who becomes a part of their inner circle; Lord Watergate, a brilliant scientist with whom they become acquainted when the he wishes them to take a picture of his dead wife and Sidney Darrell, a member of the Royal Academy, who also commissions some work and makes Gertrude extremely uncomfortable.As the sisters adapt to the new social circle and have to change their traditional mores of interactions, they have to look inside themselves for what they truly want and what they really wish to achieve, especially when threatened by storms that promises to shake the very foundations on which their lives have been built on!

This is not one of the best novels that I have read, the plot while it flows, seems at places to meander and sometimes, there is no logic for sudden actions. The end ties up the lose ends far too easily and the writing seems at times a cross between a Jane Austenish social manner book meets Virginia Woolf. But then why consider it a classic? Because despite all these flaws, it is. The novel published in 1880 clearly calls for empowerment of the women, especially economic empowerment and stands against all masculine mores of “women needing to be looked after”. In the four sisters, we find the perfect examples of modern women , Wikipedia tell me that this concept was called “New Women” – women who were not delicate darlings, who fainted at the very sound of a harsh voice (even Fanny who seems to have been created to form a parody to her non-traditionalist sisters, has more strength of character than what was usually given credo to women of that era!), but rather strong independent women, who were not afraid of hardwork, of keeping their own house and yet managing to maintain a certain about of intellectual culture! The sisters are far from perfect, and at times can come across as selfish in their own needs, but they are constantly striving the better themselves and their lot and when the world comes crashing, instead of finding solace male arms, they band together find strength and battle their demons head on! Considering Ms. Levy wrote about these characters nearly 140 years ago, the modern reader will find much to identify with and that in some significant feat! The society of London is also very well portrayed in the novel and there are characters and events which encourage and provide platform for the girls to explore their talent and build their business, there is enough gossip and malicious whispering to make the portray real and ring in the true nature of the socio-econiomic paradigm of late Victorian England. At the heart of it all, it is a great story. There is wit and a sense of mirth though the book, even at some it darkest passages and the reader is involved and concerned regarding the fate of Lorimers until it plays out to the very end, most to the satisfaction of all. The epilogue is a wonderful touch giving an insight into the lives that carry on and leaves you feeling safe after being hailed by a multitude of storms! Ms. Levy wrote a marvelous work with such promise, and it seems such a shame, that she would die, two years after this book’s publication!

Celebrating Freedom – The Home and The World Read Along

In the year of 1916, exactly 100 years ago, 3 years since he became the first Non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most prolific artistic geniuses to come from India, published his extremely controversial and then much contested “The Home and The World“. It was a book that broke the mold and brought out women from the “anter mahal” (the inner chambers where women led secluded lives in 18th-19th century Bengal, albeit with consequences) and put a spin on on the Indian National Movement by defining and defying at the same time what a true patriot is/was. This novel has been since subjected to countless reviews, researches and critiques and has been subject of several dramas and filming, the most popular version being the one directed by Satyajit Ray, another first, the first Indian to win an Oscar!

On Aug 15th. 2016, India celebrates her 69th year of “Independence”; exactly 69 years ago, India regained her independence from the British rule after more than 200 years of colonization and exploitation. This act of regaining independence was the final culmination of the Indian National Movement, which began after the disastrous failure of the  ill-fated attempt of 1857 Mutiny and would ultimately inspire many world leaders in their efforts gain freedom and equality, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Interestingly 2016, nearly a 100 years after Tagore brought the traditional bengali woman to the man’s world in a startling attempt to emancipate women atleast in literature, the first batch women fighter pilots of Indian Air force, take to the sky, in a revolutionary departure from the historically masculine dominated world of military and warfare!

With such changes and events, colliding, it made sense to host a reading event that celebrated the long way India and her women had come along and “The Home and The World” seemed an apt book to do it with. Therefore with all humility and some pride I present “The Home and The World Read Along” for the month of August! It’s short novella, and does not require much time, but stitched together in those 120 odd pages is a story that speaks both of unique historical moment of time and of relationships that are timeless and abound through the ages!

Batch

I already have the honor of having Stefanie and Cleo join me for the event. Ruth also committed to check in and try and fit in with her schedule, and I am hoping many of you will join as well.( Please feel free to share the button above to share the love!) Like I promised Stefanie, I plan to provide an overview of the socio-political events that formed the background of this novel as well a summary of the position of women in India through centuries to help you better understand the book and provide you crucial clutches to navigate the specifics of the novel!

So come on and join us as we travel through time to the coming of age of an old country and her people!

Some Goblins, Some Songs & A Birthday

For somebody enormously fond of literature and passionate about readings, my adventures in Poetry are next to none. Despite majoring in English Literature for my undergraduate degree, I could not develop a liking for this form of writing. I always felt that it takes a very developed and highly sensitized brain to truly appreciate poetry and somehow, I seemed to lack both in the right measure to really become a connoisseur. So I remained in the margins, reading up what others wrote about the texts assigned to me and managed to get the degree with honors, largely because I loved prose and drama. Anyway since the dismal tryst with poetry, I have usually kept such reading limited and at bay;however this year like I keep harping and I am trying to do things differently, as in reading Woolf and Zola, both of which I had dreaded and ended up loving, that not to venture forth with this other albatross seemed silly and I decided to plunge ahead. Since I was planning to take baby steps in reading poetry, I decided to start with someone whose works I have read in the past and enjoyed and did not not struggle through – Christina Rossetti fitted the bill to a T and her Goblin Market and Other Poems seemed the thing that slid very nicely into my Women’s Classic Literature Reading Event as well The 12 Month Reading Challenge, March theme being, A Classic that has been recommended! Goblin Market has been recommended to me for like FOREVER and now was a good time to start!

The Penguin Edition of Rossetti’s works is a collection of the poet’s 20 poems, the most famous being The Goblin Market. The poem describes the coming of the Goblins to sell their wares – the most delicious and freshest of fruits apples, cranberries, peaches, apricots, pears, grapes, pomegranates etc. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie who live together hear the coming of the Goblins; Laura is tempted by the descriptions of the fruits, but Lizzie cautions against going and purchasing the fruits from the Goblins. Laura however is tempted and one evening lingers around the stream waiting for the Goblins to come and bring their fruits; when the Goblins arrive, she realizes she does not have any money to buy the fruits but the goblins offer to take a piece of her golden hair instead. So Laura gives up some of her hair, gorges herself on goblin fruit, and heads on home to her sister.The next day Laura and Lizzie go about their work in the house, Laura dreamily longs for the coming evening’s meeting with the goblins who will come again with their delicious fruits. But at the stream that evening, as she strains to hear the usual goblin cries of their fruits, she realizes that although Lizzie still hears the goblins’ voices, she no longer can. She slowly begins to fall ill and starts to waste away.  A worried Lizzie has to act soon and decides to confront the Goblins in an effort to save her sister!

This is the primary poem of the collections consisting of 28 stanzas and provides much food for thought! There is of course a vast deal of analysis that is available on this poem and they range from feminism, to sexual freedom to anti-Judaic character treatment etc etc. There is no denying that there is a sexual element to this composition, however, my take is that simply, Rossetti was rebelling against the social mores and restrictions, especially the ending, where the Victorian fallen woman, instead of dying away in oblivion, is resurrected and lives to a ripe old age! There is also the creation of Lizzie as a “hero” noble and brave who goes out to find a cure for her sister – there is no Prince Charming to the rescue here, but rather a theme of how woman must stand by each other! Then there is the aspect of being cautious against things we seem to little understand and letting them be.The poem uses an irregular rhyme scheme and irregular meter and allows some time to pass before the word finds its partner, which makes for a very unique reading experience and is best if read aloud. Apparently this poem was written for children, but I am not quite sure, if that was the only purpose of Ms. Rossetti.

I loved the collection and I completely  “besotted” is the word is guess, by the images and the themes that Ms. Rossetti uses to bring forth in her poems. While I really enjoyed the revolutionary spirit of Goblin Market, I also loved her “Song – When I am dead, my dearest” I cannot help but feel that though this particular poem bespoke of sadness of departing in death, there is also the same element of rebelling that was present in the Goblin Market, where the narrator ironically and iconically points out that the ‘dearest’ will not remember her! Yet another poem, a memorial for Keats called On Keats. Keats was a poet she greatly admired is as beautiful in its lyricism as much as its in its ode to the master poet “Here lies one whose name was writ, In water: while the chilly shadows flit, Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs, His name, in every humble heart that sings, Shall be a fountain of love, verily”. I also loved “A Birthday“, a poem where the narrator celebrates and expresses her joy at the upcoming birthday of her love. I loved the simple innocence of a true love and the brilliant way she weaves the words to create a lasting imagery! There is so much I can say, yet all of it will be insufficient to accurately describe the brilliance of this collection! Therefore, I leave you with only one thought – Please read it yourself!

 

Exceptional Women and More Exceptional Women and Some More Exceptional Women….

A very Happy Women’s Day to all the ladies and a special mention for all the gentlemen across the world who display sensitivity and generosity, supporting equality and standing by us while we fight our battles! While I don’t believe in “particular day” based celebration, but considering we as women, have more than 5000 years of bondage to throw off, a special boost does no harm, I guess!

Naturally, I wanted to a do special post on focusing on woman, and considering I draw all inspiration from books, I decided on strong women characters – I don’t mean to go down the road and list some of the strongest heroines and do a regular cliché cataloging; but rather I wanted to take this moment and identify top 10 women in “supporting cast” across various works of fiction, who are more humane and identifiable than the central heroine ( because most ‘heroines’ have it all – beauty, brains, courage, etc etc) and yet a critical to the plot, without whom the novel would fall apart, pretty much like life. After all life does imitate art…

Here we go then…

  1. March from Little Women – I have mentioned about her in one of my previous posts as well and while the book is about her five daughters, there is no getting away from the fact that Mrs. March is what holds them together; her kindness, fortitude and silent courage in face of extremely distressing circumstances, keeps the March brood together. She is not perfect and she claims to have struggled with her unbiddable temper for a long time, but what makes her stand out is her innate ability to overcome this shortcoming.
  2. Jane Bennett from Pride and Prejudice –True Jane seems to have it all – beauty, kindness and a cheerful disposition; but it cannot be fun constantly living in the shadow of a brilliant and witty sister, who is her father’s favorite and with a mother, who favors her only for her beauty. But Jane Bennett rises above all that is petty; to appreciate the good in all and feel blessed for the love she gets, in whatever form or manner. When Bingley leaves her without a word, she promises Elizabeth that she will not regret or pine over her loss for the sake of all those who love her. In an age of increased awareness about individuality and the “I” factor, it is still worthy to honor sentiments of others and do something for their sake!
  3. Rosa Hubermann from The Book Thief – Outwardly Rosa Hubermann is brash, aggressive, nagging and pretty much a termagant. But she is also the pillar of the Hubermann family, providing food on the table, taking good care of her adopted daughter and standing by Hans no matter how difficult the circumstances. While Liesel has a far more bonded relationship with Hans, there is no denying that Rosa Hubermann acted as good strong surrogate mother to her foster child.
  4. Mellissa Hallam from Lucy Carmichael – The best example of a girl best friend; she describes Lucy as – “She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy.”It’s not just about what she says about Lucy that is significant, but what it says of her own character – strong, devoted, loyal and brave enough to admit her flaws and get past them. Mellissa and Lucy’s friendship endure various test of time and all the natural emotions of knowing that friends see you through when they see you through. Mellissa stands by Lucy through all her ups and downs, with maturity, sensitivity and the everlasting knowledge for the other that she will always be there for her!
  5. Mrs Burden from My Antonia – Generous , kind and supportive, she is there even when she is not wanted, (Remember how the Shimerdas react when she first comes over to their farm to help them) helping in all the little ways so that those whose fortunes are less than hers, can better their lives and become more complete individuals. She knows that her good nature is often exploited but she lets it be, if there is some good in the end. She is the principle person who helps Antonia in attempting to shape a better life for herself beyond the farm. If you ever need a model mentor, Emmeline Burden is a shining example of that!
  6. Molly Weasly from Harry Potters – She is perhaps the most unconventional of the great mom’s literature. She yells at her children when they step out of line; she is generous in her love when she adopts an orphaned Harry in her family, caring for him like her own sons and a roaring tigress when anyone harms her brood! (Remember her battle with Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.) She is one fierce woman demonstrating the best of motherhood – pride, kindness and protectiveness.
  7. Ellen O’Hara from Gone with The Wind – Ellen’s life revolved around Tara and the O’Hara; the perfect mistress, she took care of her family, the plantation and the dependents with kindness, wisdom and determination. She embodied the very best of what was considered the highest standards of a “lady” and seemed absolutely contended with her life, never letting anyone know the very depth of her heartbreak and despair, when she lost Philip, the one man she truly loved.
  8. Cheery Littlebottom from Feet of Clay and other Discworld Novels – No one knows she is a ‘she’ until she decides to step away from the paradigm of what constitutes a female dwarf. What makes her really endearing is that her rebellion is not without angst; she is afraid of breaking away from the mores of traditional societal norms, but she still marches ahead and thumbs the nose to the world, while quaking in her boots! And oh! yes! She is a brilliant chemist, a contradiction in itself – brilliant and a Chemist? Now who would have thought of that???
  9. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables – Marilla is a traditionalist, a conservative and she seems to have absolutely no room for imagination. Yet as the book progresses, we are touched by all that is kind, warm and filial in Marilla as embraces Anne’s unusual look of life with a strong sense of humor and resilience for all the upheavals that life throws at her!
  10. Sita from The Far Pavilions – The iconic Ashton Akbar Pelham Martyn would not be Ashton Akbar Pelham Martyn had it not been for this uneducated, poverty stricken woman. With no resources at her disposal and only her subsuming love for her surrogate son which drives this humble woman to a display of courage, strength and intelligence; the end being only to ensure the survival of young Ashton, through the mayhem of 1857 Mutiny and the intrigue of 19th century indigenous kingdoms, even if it cost her, her own life!

There are so many more I want to include in this list, but space constrains along with time limitations, force me to end here. However before ending, one last virtual toast to all these and other brave women, both in fiction and the  real world, thank you for inspiring us and paving the road for the future generation of women.

A View from the Tent…

I am a big fan of Huffpost Books listings/recommendations, therefore it was only natural that when they twitted about 10 Absolutely Incredible Historical Women, I would sit up and scan through it, for the next set of my must reads. While the list documented some  traditional heroines like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison, there were also some interesting choices like Orlando by Virginia Woolf (I mean Orlando becomes a boy half way through the novel!!!). However the one book that for sure got my attention was “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant and its protagonist Dinah. I mean the book was historical fiction, set in ancient Cannon (Remember my Masters was in Middle Eastern Studies) and it’s narrated by a Jacob’s daughter – Dinnah. Huffpost Books when synopsizing the book stated “To call it provocative and rebellious is an understatement; it pushes against patriarchy and suggests an ancient and empowering role for women and women’s sexuality.” I had to get the book!

The book as I previously mentioned is a first person narration by Dinnah, daughter of Jacob, great-granddaughter to Abraham, of the first covenant with God fame. The book begins with the story of Dinnah’s mother and aunts, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Biliah and their marriage to Jacob. It follows the well documented story of Jacob who worked for 14 years as a slave for Laban so that he could marry Leah and Rachel and the birth of Jacob’s sons and his only daughter – Dinnah. Dinnah describes her childhood as the only girl and her early initiation into the Red Tent where the women spent their 3 days during their menstrual cycle and her closeness with Joseph, Rachel’s son. The narration follows Jacob’s decision to leave Laban’s patriarchy and to make peace with his brother Esau before finally settling on the outskirts of Shechem. In Shechem, Dinnah who had begun assisting her aunt Rachel is summoned to the palace to help in the birth of the new baby by the King’s most recent concubine. In a departure from the Bible which spoke about “defiling” of Dinnah, Dinna talks of her falling in love with the Prince of Shechem and consenting to spend the night with him and agreeing to becoming his bride. This action leads to tumultuous results, including the murder of her husband and all the men of Shechem by Simon and Levi, her brothers, her escape into Egypt and the birth of her son, of finally finding peace and settling down with Bian the carpenter and travelling back to see a dying Jacob, under the protection of Joseph, who is now the Vizier of Egypt, after being sold to slavery by his brothers.

Now for the review – The book begins very well – Dinnah speaks of how a daughter must always talk about the mother to better explain her own history. She also mentions about her fleeting refernce in Bible- her being “defiled” and the vengeance wrecked by her brothers and how that is not the complete or the true story. It grips you right at the start and forces a reader to read on. But I think that is where the promise of the book ends.  While the descriptions of the ancient land are both accurate and well researched, I have to yet find the reason for naming it the “The Red Tent” – the book proposes liberation of women during their menstrual cycle which intrinsically is supposed to mark independence and rebellion for women from patriarchy; but I did not think that the author really emphasized on this spiritual aspect as much as the physical details, which we all could have been well spared off! Nor is the passing of the red tent and its ritual which metaphorically and may in actuality mark the end of liberty that women in pre-modern world enjoyed clearly delineated or expressed. The author talks of Jacob’s growing dislike of the red tent as well how the daughters in law of Leah and Rachel refused to follow the rituals of the red tent, but that is in passing; the reader is left to make or not make his or her own inferences. I felt that the significance of the red tent and the fact that it stood for rebellion and independence from a male dominated society was lost, especially by the end of the book, when we went to Egypt and saw the reconciliation between Dinnah and Joseph etc. Not that the entire book is bad – the characters of Leah, Rachel, Zilaph and Biliah are really well-rounded and their kindness, jealousy and humanity, all of which comes through very well in the narration, making them real and extremely likable. I did not understand Rebecca’s arrogance – I am not a Biblical scholar but I never thought of Rebecca as arrogant. Jacob’s character again I felt was weak, but that’s something I felt even when reading the Bible. My main disappointment was again with Dinnah’s character – she seems to be constantly dependent on others for her fate – the only empowering action was to marry the Prince of Shechem. While I know that historically in patriarchies, women fundamentally had little if any choices, but this is a work of fiction and all the while Dinnah whose voice the novel purports to give stands quietly either because she is scared or in awe or is too enraged. She does not speak!!! She simply narrates and that to my mind is not a sign of empowerment!

Read it as you may feel differently. Again the book had several promises, but they simply did not get fulfilled!

All The Grand Ladies….Please Stand Up!

I know March is the month of well…so many things (Remember Ides of March!!). It is also a month that celebrates Women and their empowerment. Yup! I am talking about March 8th – International Women’s Day. Now I am not a bluestocking feminist, though I have read all my Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem; but I am somebody who is inherently conscious of the fact that all the privileges that I enjoy and things that I take for granted are there for me because, many years ago, many women and a significant number of men stood up and said – hold it! That’s wrong and we need to change it! There were innumerable sacrifices along the way and many suffered so that I and all of us could breathe freely. While the glass ceiling continues to exist and each day a woman has to fight to protect herself – physically, emotionally and mentally; there is no getting away from the fact that we are in much better place than our grandmothers or even mothers! Whether it is education abroad or a tour of duty to a violent war-torn location or even a night out with the girls, we are able to do this and much more because, in our past there were women who stood and fought so that their daughters could have better lives.

Therefore for the month of March, I propose something unique; I would urge all my readers to share with other and me, stories from their families, of men and women who rebelled and went against the then social norms so that our lives would be vastly improved. It could be your grandmother or your teacher or your neighbor or just somebody you had heard off. The unsung heroes who did their share and more, but were never recorded in the history books; yet as their inheritors we know, the battles they must have fought and won!

I would request all my readers to go back and search their family troves for tales which would show us how small actions lead to big results. This is part of our history, our identity and we owe it to all our ancestral warriors to not only keep their memory but also share it to make the world a better place.

Please send your stories to cirtncee01@yahoo.com, along with a brief on yourself and I will publish the same on my blog with your credits the very next day. This is an event that I plan to host through this month, so send me your entries! The idea is to share and make people and ourselves aware of the change that so many had people sought around the world!

Do not worry too much over the length (either long or short) of the entry; the story and not the paragraph is important.

I will kick-start this event by sharing a tale from my own family trove, which I will post in my next post.

Until then, I leave you with anthem from my mother and aunt’s graduate school days, which they said inspired them and which they played for me when I barely of an age to understood what it meant!!!  But now, I have to agree with them is the best anthem ever for all women, all over the world!

 

 

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