Non-fiction Posts

Fostering a reading culture / Happy Mother’s Day!

(C) Sudhanva Deshpande

(An extended version of this article was published on Bibliobibuli, my blog on Times of India, on Saturday 12 May 2018. Bibliobibuli focuses on publishing and literature.) 

Every Labour Day, the May Day Bookstore & Café holds a big book sale. It consists mostly of second-hand books being sold at reasonable prices and customers flock to the store. This year was no different. Later Sudhanva Deshpande, Managing Editor, LeftWord Books, posted a picture on social media platforms he had taken of a mother holding a tiny pile of books while her daughter stood by watching expectantly. It is a very powerful picture as it works at multiple levels. It is obvious the mother is in charge of her daughter’s education and is keen she learns further. She is the primary force. She is determined to buy the books for her child even though she can ill-afford the small number of books in her hand. The mother had only Rs 10 to pay for the books. She was short of money and unable to pay the billed amount. The unfortunate seemingly admonishing finger in the picture is not really doing what it seems to be doing according to the photographer. The bookshop attendants were telling the mother to take the books away and pay later, whenever she could!

(C) Mayank Austen Soofi

Books are respected all over the world but in India they are revered. Few can afford them and those who can, treasure what they possess. This picture by The Delhi Walla, epitomises it splendidly where the few books owned by the security guard are placed on the same shelf as the portrait of the god. It is understandable that the mother in the picture wishes her daughter to be literate as with it comes respect. For her to be in a bookstore is a path breaking moment. It symbolises the crumbling of a notional barrier of what is traditionally perceived as a popular middle class cultural space — the bookstore. Brick and mortar stores by their very definition tend to be exclusive even if some owners do not desire it to be so. Whereas the reality is that footfalls are restricted to those who are comfortable in these elitist spaces.

This is a sad truth because a thriving reading culture is critical for the well-being of a community and by extension the society. The Scholastic India Kids and Family Reading Report ( KFRR) found that “Parents and children agree by a wide margin that

John Travolta’s house with the airplane parked in it. (Image taken off the internet)

strong reading skills are among the most important skills children should have.” Undoubtedly reading opens a world of possibilities. When Hollywood actor John Travolta gave an interview to magazine editor Priya Kumari Rana ( Outlook Splurge, November 2015, Vol 6) he recalled reading Gordon’s Jet Flight (1961) as a child. It was about a little boy who took his first flight on a 707. At the time the 707 was the last word in aviation. It triggered an ambition and a dream. Today, Travolta not only is a trained pilot but owns a 707!

Buying books continues to be a dream for many individuals and families across the globe. American country singer Dolly Parton likes to give away books with her Imagination Library. In Feb 2018 she crossed the 100 millionth book. Writer Jojo Myes has pledged to save UK Charity Quick Reads ( Reading Agency ) from closure by funding its adult literacy programme for the next three years. Outreach community programmes are critical for fostering a reading culture particularly if access to existing cultural spaces are restricted.

Recently HarperCollins India organised an innovative book launch for children’s author Deepa Agarwal’s Sacked:Folktales You Can Carry Around. It involved a reading for children with hearing loss. So  while the author spoke there was a person standing next to her using sign language to translate what was being said. Recognising this need to foster reading, the nearly 100-year-old firm Scholastic  ran a very successful Twitter campaign in India (Sept 2017) where every retweet ensured a book donation to a community library. The publishing firm donated approximately 2000 books. Now they are running a similar campaign for Mother’s Day 2018 (Sunday, 13 May 2018) where a picture uploaded of a mother and a child reading will get one lucky family a book hamper.

Reading is a social activity. New readers need role models and encouragement. This is captured beautifully in feminist Kamla Bhasin’s nursery rhyme ( available in Hindi and English).

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

 

No mad rush to get to school

No timetable, no strict rule.

Mother’s home and so is father

All of us are here together.

 

Father’s like a busy bee

Making us hot cups of tea.

Mother sits and reads the news

Now and then she gives her views.

 

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

Kamla Bhasin, “It’s Sunday”

Noted Karnatik vocalist T. M Krishna in his book Reshaping Art makes an important point where he argues art has to break its casteist, classist and gender barriers and be welcoming to all particularly if cultural landscape has to expand. He asks for the inner workings of the art form to be infused with social and aesthetic sensitivity.

T. M. Krishna practices what he preaches. In December 2017 he sang a Tamil sufi song of Nagoor Hanifa which T.M. Krishna performed in a British-era Afghan Church in Colaba, Mumbai. He ended his performance with an invocation to allah in the church. Since then he has done other such performances.

Breaking cultural barriers and making books readily accessible and contributing to the growth of readers is exactly what the publishing ecosystem has to strive for. And as Kamla Bhasin rightly says the personal is political. There is nothing purely private or public. Every personal act of ours affects society. The act of reading and encouraging their children to read by mothers is not always welcomed in households, even today. Literacy empowers women with ideas, the ability to think and question for themselves, an act that is most often seen as defiance especially within very strongly patriarchal families. This act was captured beautifully in a wordless poster designed many years ago by a Hyderabad-based NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman with her feet up, reading a book, a television set in front of her and the floor littered with open books. Majority of women who see the poster laugh with happiness at the image for the peace it radiates but also at the impossibility of ever having such a situation at home.

So mothers like the one in the photograph are excellent role models and must be celebrated!

Happy Mother’s Day!

11 May 2018 

An extract from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( transl: Rana Safvi)

Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume.  Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”

Dastan-e-Ghadar  is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).

Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.

Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.

 

****

The Surprise Attack

Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.

One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.

When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.

Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores 

All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated

These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.

The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’

One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.

They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.

The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.

Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.

It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.

The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.

Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.

A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.

The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.

The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.

At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.

In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.

The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these  weapons for two days.

I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.

( Extract from pgs. 119-122)

Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599 

 

William Fiennes “The Snow Geese” and “The Music Room”

Best selling author William Fiennes The Snow Geese and The Music Room are two incredibly stunning pieces of literature. They are both meditative in quality.  The Snow Geese was written soon after he had been convalescing from a then unnamed disease but in his later book he reveals as Crohn’s Disease. While staying with his parents and taking long walks with his father, an avid birdwatcher, William Fiennes develops this urge to follow the snow geese on their migration to the Tundra. There is a slow, methodical and precise quality to the book which is extremely peaceful and restorative. It is as if the tiredness and exhaustion of this noisy daily existence slowly drains itself from one and is replaced by calmness, peace and quiet.

A similar reflective quality is found in The Music Room except that it is a very personal account of his family particularly of his brother Richard who has epilepsy. Richard is eleven years older to William.  Richard finally succumbs to it at the age of 41 when he is unable to breathe during an epileptic fit at night. William is overseas and receives a short message from his brother Martin to inform him of Richard’s death.  It is a deeply moving book about living with an epileptic patient. Anyone who has lived with an epileptic patient knows how to deal with the episodes of absence attacks and convulsions although Richard’s form of epilepsy was particularly violent and abusive. Despite the strong medication consisting mostly of sedatives Richard managed to be violent. In one instance he physically attacked a nurse at his epilepsy centre and a case had to be filed. When Richard and his mother went to the police station for the interview and was asked for details of the incident, Richard said truthfully he could not remember.  The Music Room is a moving testimony to having an epileptic brother while trying to live together as a family. Constantly the love and caring for the brother is what comes through in the book. Although they live in a medieval castle with plenty of rooms at times the family has to hide from Richard especially when is on a violent spree. Once William recalls he was locked up in a bathroom with his mother while Richard was on the other side of the door. Another time William spotted his father leaning against the wall of the house and when asked what he was doing, the older Fiennes said “seeking strength”.

After the success of these two magnificent books William Fiennes co-founded a charity with Katie Waldegrave — First Story: Changing lives through writing.

The charity runs writing workshops in schools across UK, hoping to encourage that revelatory process of ‘finding one’s own voice.’ Fiennes thinks that we all have our own unique voice, and he quotes Philip Pullman on the importance of discovering it: “Real writing can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.”

So true!

Both the books have been published by Picador and continue to be available years after their publication.

7 May 2018 

Allen Say “Silent Days, Silent Dreams”

Caldecott medalist Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreamis a biography of self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977).  It is a “memoir” as narrated by a fictionalized nephew of Castle who shares details about his deaf, mute, autistic and dyslexic uncle who was completely closed in himself and yet learned how to draw. Castle’s father was the postmaster for a small community they lived in Idaho. The family’s drawing room doubled up as the postmaster’s official space so it was cluttered with parcels, catalogues, paper etc. The little James Castle probably taught himself to draw while whiling away his time in this room. Over time he was found to be of absolutely no help to his family on their farm or other household chores so he was left to himself. He slowly found quiet in the attic of an old barn which he converted into his “studio” which in subsequent shifts was the chicken coop in an empty barn. He drew and drew and drew. For lack of sophisticated art materials he drew using the soot of wood combined with spit and used junk paper. When he was about seven his parents sent him off along with his older sister to the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind. There too he tried to draw in secret ( only girls were permitted to learn drawing, not boys) and punished if discovered. He never did learn to read and write and was sent home when he was fifteen years old. While at the school he did discover the joy of being in the library, surrounded by books and watching his teachers “create and stitch new books for their students. Years later his drawings were “discovered” and he did one-man shows. Upon his death he left more than 15,000 pieces of work that are estimated to be less than one-third of his productivity during his lifetime, as every time Castle’s family moved, all his paintings were left behind and lost.

The research Allen Say did for this book was intensive. He even tried to recreate the illustrations for Silent Days, Silent Dreams using the soot from the wood fireplace in his home. He tried to emulate the drawing style of James Castle to create as “authentic” an account of Castle’s life. Most of Castle’s drawings were made from reclaimed trash he found on the property such as junk paper, construction materials, and rags. Allen Say was assisted by his wife in creating the toys in a similar fashion for this book.

In Allen Say’s graphic novel memoir The Inker’s Shadow Kyusuke, Allen Say’s cartoon double, advises him to draw what’s around you”; much like what James Castle later become famous for too. Allen Say like James Castle had a room to call his own, a retreat, a studio, that was given to him first by his mother in Japan and later when he moved to America by his guardian Major Bill at the American military school he was studying at.  In his part memoir, part graphic novel Drawing From Memory which is about his relationship with his sensei, spiritual father, and well-known cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Allen Say says about his childhood “I drew what I saw and what I imagined,  and I copied from comic books. When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t toys or friends or parents.’

The story of James Castle probably resonated with Allen Say who too became an artist against all odds as his father was convinced his son had to learn English to “become a success in life” and was shunned for his artistic leanings. Both the artists’ artistic temperament was not appreciated by their families and they were shunned; so they “withdrew” to draw in makeshift studios. For Allen Say “Art is like translating my dream world, put that on paper”, much as it was for James Castle who drew all that he wished for. No wonder Allen Say says “my discovery about Castle’s art was that the act of drawing was an act of possession”.

What a treat it is to discover these books! Biographies as picture books are a fine art form. It is an excellent way to introduce an eminent person to a younger generation. It is not an easy form to tackle but if done well it is purely magical. In the case of Silent Days, Silent Dreams there is something extra special for one artist describing another’s life and discovering the many similarities.

Dream books to possess!

Allen Say Silent Days, Silent Dreams Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2017. Hb. 

Allen Say Drawing From Memory Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. Hb. 

Allen Say The Inker’s Shadow Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. 

6 May 2018 

 

Lidia Yuknavitch “The Misfit’s Manifesto”

No one is perfect. No one got where they are without occasionally falling to pieces. Maybe it’s time we admit that we need all of us for any of us to make it. 

Lidia Yuknavitch is a successful author now. Well-respected in literary circles. But there was a time in her past when she was a misfit.

I’d say I’m a misfit partly because of the things that happened to me, and partly from things that come from the inside out.

Hardwiring, if you will. 

She had had a tough life. Stormy childhood with an abusive father and bickering parents. Two bad marriages of her own. My her own admission her life took a nosedive when her daughter was a stillborn. She began substance abuse. Rehab. Was arrested. Incarcerated. Slowly and steadily she put her life back together again.

Her dream of becoming a writer slowly began to come true when she was in her early thirties. Lidia sent a short story “The Chronology of Water” about how her daughter’s death nearly killed her and saving her father from drowning even though he had abused her sister and her. She sent the story for admission to an MFA course at Columbia University, to the hiring committee at a tenure-track teaching position in writing at San Diego State University; to Literary Arts in Oregon as a writing sample for a grant; and to Poets & Writers as a writing sample for the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. Lidia struck gold. She won all four. She had to reject the MFA as a job is what she needed.

I swallowed the desire to name myself as a writer who would go to Columbia. Prestige was not my name. Get a job was my name. 

The Poets & Writers Award gave her the opportunity to go to NYC to meet editors and writers. Lidia chose to meet Carole Maso, Peggy Phelan, Lynne Tillman, and Eurydice.

These now over fifty-year-old women writers were so intelligent, so creative, so gorgeous and present in their own minds and bodies. …These women were so alive in their minds. Maybe it sounds weird but I’d never experienced that before. 

Since then she has gone on to win awards and publish many notable books of her own such as The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan. She returned to school and studied for her PhD. She began teaching once more. She also got married once more and has a son.

It was almost as if my life was moving to that foreign word, successful.

Lidia Yuknavitch gave a TED Talk in February 2016 on “The Beauty of Being a Misfit”. It was later converted into a book, published by Simon & Schuster — The Misfit’s Manifesto. It includes testimonies of other people whom society would consider as “misfits” but Lidia discovers live life on the edge but in their own wacky way are fulfilling and rewarding.

A conversation between Kit De Waal and Lidia Yuknavitch  would be promising. There are so many points of common interest apart from which they too come across as women who are “so alive in their minds”.

The Misfit’s Manifesto is an absorbing book, at times terrifying for the experiences Lidia Yuknavitch shares, while filled with hope and  optimism.

Lidia Yuknavitch The Misfit’s Manifesto  TEDBooks, Simon & Schuster UK, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 350 

29 April 2018 

 

 

 

Patti Smith “Devotion”

In 2016 Patti Smith was invited to deliver the Windham-Campbell Lecture, delivered annually to commemorate the awarding of the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. It has now been published in an expanded form, Devotion, by Yale University Press with an essay on writing, an unsettling short story ( which in a way illustrates her musings of the opening essay) and finally, her lecture. Here is an extract: 

****

Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. the words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. The words that formed LolitaThe Lover, Our Lady of the Flowers.

There are stacks of notebooks that speak of years of aborted efforts, deflated euphoria, a relentless pacing of the boards. We must write, engaging in a myriad of struggles, as if breaking in a willful foal. We must write, but not without consistent effort and a measure of sacrifice: to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of the imagination for a pulsating race of readers.

Things are slow moving. There is a pencil stub in my pocket.

What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.

Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air.  A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside.

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply love.

Patti Smith Devotion: The 2016 Windham-Campbell Lecture Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. Hb. pp.

28 April 2018 

Appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court of India: Transparency, Accountability, and Independence

On the day when there is furore in India about the appointment of Indu Malhotra to the Supreme Court of India and not issuing a similar warrant of appointment for Justice Joseph , Oxford University Press of India has released Appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court of India: Transparency, Accountability, and Independence ( Eds. Arghya Sengupta and Ritwika Sharma) .

According to the AIS circulated it says:

The National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) judgment, on the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, has been the subject of a deeply polarized debate in the public sphere and academia.

This volume analyses the NJAC judgment, and provides a rich context to it, in terms of philosophical, comparative, and constitutional issues that underpin it. The work traces the history of judicial appointments in India; examines the constitutional principles behind selecting judges and their application in the NJAC judgment; and comparatively looks at the judicial appointments process in six select countries—United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal—enquiring into what makes a good judge and an effective appointments process.

With wide-ranging essays by leading lawyers, political scientists, and academics from India and abroad, the volume is a deep dive into the constitutional concepts of judicial independence and separation of powers as discussed in the NJAC judgment.

26 April 2018 

Lindsey Fitzharris “The Butchering Art”

Lister came to the vital realization that he couldn’t prevent a wound from having contact with germs in the atmosphere. So he turned his attention to finding a means of destroying microorganisms within the wound itself, before infection could set in. Pasteur had conducted a number of experiments that demonstrated that germs could be destroyed in three ways: by heat, by filtration, or by antiseptics. Lister ruled out the first two because neither were applicable to the treatment of wounds. Instead, he focused on finding the most effective antiseptic for killing germs without causing injury: When I read Pasteur’s article, I said to myself: just as we can destroy lice on the nit-filled head of a child by applying a poison that causes a lesion to the scalp, so I believe that we can apply to a patient’s wounds toxic products that will destroy the bacteria without harming the soft parts of this tissue.” 

British surgeon Joseph Lister ( 5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912) was a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. He was born in a devout Quaker family. Simplicity was the Quaker way of life. Lister was not allowed to hunt, participate in sports, or attend the theater. “Life was a gift to be employed in honoring God and helping one’s neighbor, not in the pursuit of frivolities. Because of this, many Quakers turned to scientific endeavors, one of the few past times allowed by their faith.” His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, managed the centuries old family business of being wine merchants  but it was his discovery of the achromatic lens to eliminate the distracting halo in the compound microscope that earned him worldwide fame. This lens was showcased in 1830. His son, Joseph Lister, grew up in such a home where the spirit of inquiry was encouraged as was exploring miniature worlds with the microscope.

The very first time he looked down the barrel of a microscope, Lister marveled at the intricate world that had previously been hidden from his sight. He delighted in the fact that the objects he could observe under the magnifying lens were seemingly infinite. Once, he plucked a shrimp from the sea and watched in awe at “the heart beating very rapidly” and “the aorta pulsating.” He noticed how the blood slowly circulated through the surface of the limbs and over the back of the heart as the creature wriggled under his gaze. 

Yet Lister’s decision to become a surgeon was met with surprise by his family as it was a job that involved physically intervening in God’s handiwork.

And surgery, in particular, carried with a certain social stigma even for those outside the Quaker community. The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual laborer who used his hands to make his living, much like a key cutter or plumber of today. Nothing better demonstrated the inferiority of surgeons than their relative poverty. Before 1848, no major hospital had a salaried surgeon on its staff, and most surgeons ( with the exception of a notable few) made very little money from their private practices. 

Lister had an insatiable curiosity about the world and was forever creating slides to view under his microscope. Later in Edinburgh he would convert a portion of his study at home into a laboratory where there were always perched tubes filled with different materials, plugged with balls of cotton. Next to it would be his microscope and slides he made. He was also a proficient artist — a skill that would help him document in startling detail his observations made during his medical career. Yet all through his life Lister also battled depression, a “garment of darkness”, which would often descend upon him. Despite these odds he would work in the hospital and later return home to do his research. Many would marvel at his dedication and diligence.

The early training to use a microscope was to stand Joseph Lister in good stead throughout his career as he pondered over the crucial question as to why wounds that were open inevitably festered and proved fatal for the patient whereas internal injuries such as broken bones healed and the patient recovered normally. Years later his supervisor would recall that while working together at the University College Hospital in 1851, Lister “had a better microscope than any man in college”. It was the microscope that would eventually help Lister unlock the medical mystery that had been plaguing his profession for centuries. This was at a time in the nineteenth century when surgeons believed pus was a natural part of the healing process rather than a sinister sign of sepsis, so most deaths were due to postoperative infections. Operation theaters were gateways to death. Infections were frequent in hospitals. They were filthy institutions as exemplified by an anecdote where a patient lay on a hospital bed completely unaware that the mushrooms growing on his damp bed sheet was not normal. The four major infections to plague hospitals in the nineteenth century were erysipelas or St. Anthony’s Fire ( an acute skin infection which turned the skin bright red and shiny), hospital gangrene ( ulcers that lead to decay of flesh, muscle, and bone), septicemia ( blood poisoning), and pyemia ( development of pus-filled abscesses). the increase in infection and suppuration brought on by the “big four” later became known as hospitalism.

The best that can be said about Victorian hospitals is that they were a slight improvement over their Georgian predecessors. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement when one considers that a hospital’s “Chief Bug-Catcher” — whose job it was to rid the mattresses of lice—was paid more than its surgeons. 

Nineteenth century doctors had multiple theories for why infections occurred although they were clueless about how infectious diseases spread. Many surgeons believed pus was a natural part of the healing process rather than a sinister sign of sepsis. Another theory was that patients were infected by miasma arising from corrupt wounds. Between the 1850s and 1860s there was a shift from miasma being the root cause of infections towards contagion theories. Some doctors believed that contagious diseases were transmitted via a chemical or even small “invisible bullets”. Others thought it might be transmitted via an “animalcule”, a catchall term for small organisms.

The Butchering Art’s  graphic descriptions of surgical procedures in nineteenth century are horrific. They were a spectacle with the surgery taking place in a theatre packed to the gills mostly with students, physicians and few curious onlookers. Most surgeries before the discovery of choloroform were conducted with the patient wide awake through the painful procedure. The crude surgical instruments used were by today’s standards basic such as a saw. ( See image) Unfortunately most patients died in post-operative care inevitable due to infection setting in. Popular belief held it was due to the bad air in the vicinity of patient resulting in infection and ultimately death.

With the discovery of chloroform by the Scottish obstetrician James Y. Simpson and advent of anesthesia in 1846 the number of operations increased as surgeons were more comfortable operating knowing that their patients would no longer feel the pain of the knife cutting through them.  Although hospitals in Victorian England were being rebuilt with more wards the high rate of mortality continued to grow as number of patients also increased and it became near impossible to keep hospitals clean and contain the infections. Primarily also because infection control was unheard of and hospitals were known by the public as “Houses of Death”. In Victorian England population also grew dramatically from one million to over six million with at times more than thirty people living in one room. There was dirt and filth with absolute no sense of public hygiene; infections were bound to spread.

Completing his education in London, Lister moved to Edinburgh, the city which had established itself as the city of surgery. He went to work with Professor James Syme, surgeon at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. Syme’s colleagues called him “the Napoleon of Surgery”. He was lightning fast as was his equally legendary cousin in London, Robert Liston, whose surgeries too Lister had witnessed. In fact Liston designed an amputation knife with a blade fourteen inches long and and a quarter inches wide. The dagger’s point, the last two inches of which were razor-sharp, was created to cut through the skin, thick muscles, tendons, and tissues of the thigh with a single slice. The “Liston knife” was Jack the Ripper’s weapon of choice for gutting his victims when he went on his killing spree in 1888.

While working in Edinburgh Lister realized his patients continued to die due to hospitalism. Frustrated Lister began taking tissue samples of his patients to study under the lens of his microscope so he could better understand what was happening at the cellular level. He was determined to understand the mechanisms behind inflammation trying to figure out the connection between inflammation and hospital gangrene. He and other surgeons tried many “solutions” such as using vellum to cover the wound to control inflammation and “water dressings” or wet bandages which they believed counteracted the heat of inflammation by keeping the wound cool. But there was no consensus as to why this occurred in the first place.

In the 1860s Lister was convinced cleanliness would help reduce mortality rates in hospitals due to hospitalism. Prior to this three doctors — Scotsman Alexander Gordon ( 1789), American essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes ( 1843) and Ignaz Semmelweis in Vienna (1847) — had tried making a similar connection between transmission of morbid substances from doctor to patient. Lister was so obsessed by this puzzle that his house surgeon said of him that a “divine discontent” possessed him.

His mind, he said, “worked ceaselessly in an effort to see clearly the nature of the problem to be solved.” Lister’s exasperation spilled over into the classroom, where he turned to his students with the question that had been haunting him for some time: “It is a common observation that, when some injury is received without the skin being broken, the patient inevitably recovers and that without any severe illness. On the other hand trouble of the gravest kind is always apt to follow, even in trivial injuries, when a wound of the skin is present. How is this? The man who is able to explain this problem will gain undying fame.” 

It was the behest of his colleague and chemistry professor, Thomas Anderson, that Lister became familiar with the research on fermentation and putrefaction  of French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur. Upon reading Pasteur’s publications on the decomposition of organic material Lister began replicating the French scientist’s experiments in his laboratory at home. Pasteur’s experiments confirmed that fermentation was a biological process and that the yeast that helped produce wine was a living organism. His experiments established what is now considered a cornerstone of biology: Only life begets life. Soon the word “germ” was being used to describe these protean microbes. Pasteur began making the connection between putrefaction and fermentation as he was convinced both processes were caused by the growth of minute microorganisms. Lister too was now of the opinion that it was not the air as such but its constituent of microbial life that was the source of hospital infection.

Lister came to the vital realization that he couldn’t prevent a wound from having contact with germs in the atmosphere. So he turned his attention to finding a means of destroying microorganisms within the wound itself, before infection could set in. Pasteur had conducted a number of experiments that demonstrated that germs could be destroyed in three ways: by heat, by filtration, or by antiseptics. Lister ruled out the first two since neither were applicable to the treatment of wounds. Instead he focused on finding the most effective antiseptic for killing germs without causing further injury. 

Many substances considered to be antiseptic such as wine, quinine, iodine and turpentine, had proved ineffective or caused further damage to the tissue, making the wound vulnerable to infection. Lister tried many solutions including the popular Condy’s fluid or potassium permanganate. None worked. Then Lister remembered reading that engineers at a sewage works in Carlisle had used carbolic acid to counteract the smell of rotting garbage and to render odorless nearby pastures that were irrigated with liquid waste. An unexpected benefit of the carbolic acid was that it also killed the protozoan parasites that had caused outbreaks of cattle plague in the livestock that grazed in these fields.  Carbolic acid, also known as phenol, is a derivative of coal tar and was first discovered in 1834. Lister obtained samples of crude acid and observed its properties under the microscope. Soon he began experimenting with it on his patients but realized he needed to be a little more disciplined and methodical in his approach. So after a few trials he suspended using carbolic acid as a disinfectant for wounds in hospitals and waited for a patient with a compound fracture to show up.

…compound fractures [are] injuries in which splintered bone lacerated the skin. This particular kind of break had a high rate of infection and frequently led to amputation. From an ethical standpoint, testing carbolic acid on compound fractures was sound. If the antiseptic failed, the leg could still be amputated — something that would have likely occurred anyway. But if the carbolic acid worked, then the parent’s limb would be saved. 

In early August 1865 Lister had the opportunity to work upon the compound fracture of eleven-year-old James Greenlees whose leg had been crushed by a the metal-rimmed wheels of a cart. Lister tended to the wound by creating a space in the putty cast in to which he poured carbolic acid. He looked after the boy himself for the next few days. After the initial few days inflammation began to set in and no amount of diluted carbolic acid could stem the redness. It was then Lister created a new solution of carbolic acid with olive oil. It worked. Six weeks and two days after the cart had shattered his lower leg, James Greenlees walked out of the Royal Infirmary.

Although Lister was evangelical about antiseptic methods there were few adopters of this method. In fact his critics were greater in number and began to write even in respected medical journals like The Lancet. For a while Lister was caught in a terrible wrangle with his contemporaries about the benefits of using antiseptics and it was proving impossible for hospitals to consider using carbolic acid despite statistics proving the dramatic fall of mortality rates in which Lister had enforced antiseptics be used. That is until 4 September 1871 when Lister was summoned to Balmoral Castle to attend to Queen Victoria who was gravelly ill with an abscess in her armpit that had grown to the size of an orange. Lister chose to lance the boil and used carbolic spray to disinfect the room. The next day when he came to dress the wound he realized that pus was forming once more. He needed to quickly stem the spread of infection. Spotting the atomizer he removed the rubber tubing of the apparatus, soaked it overnight in carbolic acid, and inserted it into the wound the following morning in order to drain the pus. It worked. Queen Victoria recovered.

With the royal stamp of approval to Lister’s antiseptic system the surgeon’s fame spread far and wide. His methods were accepted as far as in London. In 1876 Joseph Lister was invited to defend his methods at the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia. The American tour was a success. It also resulted in spreading awareness as well as popularizing personal hygiene products. One of these was  Listerine invented by Dr. Joseph Joshua Lawrence in 1879 who had attended Lister’s lecture in Philadelphia, “which inspired him to begin manufacturing his own antiseptic concoction in the back of an old cigar factory in St. Louis shortly thereafter. ” Other products that sprang up were carbolic soap and toothpaste. Astonishingly one of the most surprising offshoots of this tour was the establishment of a corporation recognizable even today — Johnson & Johnson. Robert Wood Johnson upon hearing Lister speak joined forces with his two brothers, James and Edward, and founded a company to manufacture the first sterile surgical dressings and sutures mass-produced according to Lister’s methods. Lister died in 1912 after having been knighted by Queen Victoria and winning many other awards and recognition for his work.

Dr. Lindsay Fitzharris who received her doctorate in the history of medicine, science and technology from the University of Oxford embarked upon educating and engaging with the public during her post-doctoral research. She was fatigued by academia and tenure-track and was far more keen to maintain her blog The Chirurgeons Apprentice and later her videos — Under the Knife .

The Butchering Art is a fantastic history of surgery in the Victorian Age. It is a perfect balance between facts and storytelling without making the subject dull. Dr Fitzharris’s love for the subject shines through. She uses the methodology and discipline of writing academic works in presenting a highly technical subject for the lay reader. The text is well annotated with end notes for every single chapter but not disturbing the design of every page. In fact she has been accused of “bastardizing” the discipline.  To which she replies:

I think there is a misconception that writing popular history is easier than writing academic history. Both have their challenges, and just because a person can write one doesn’t necessarily mean that same person can write the other. I’m a storyteller first and foremost, and an historian second. I don’t apologize for this. Unfortunately, some academics don’t see a value in what I do. But the past doesn’t belong to scholars alone. It belongs to everyone. My hope is that I can bridge the gap between academia and popular history, and open up new and interesting subjects to a curious public.

( History of Science Society @Work interview with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, April 2018)

 

Even though some of the academics may be disapproving of her style of making the history of medicine available, Dr. Fitzharris has won the 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. The Butchering Art was also featured in the Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly and the Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian.

Undoubtedly The Butchering Art is not for the faint-hearted for its gory descriptions of Victorian hospitals, operation theatres and death houses. Nevertheless it is an unusual page-turner for it is purely about scientific progress in Victorian England  and the remarkable discovery of Joseph Lister.

Lindsey Fitzharris The Butchering Art Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random  House, UK, 2017. Hb. pp. 

25 April 2018 

On translations of the Bible, Diarmaid MacCulloch

Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s latest book All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation is a fascinating account of the Reformation, a period that was turbulent and very significant in the political history of England and formation of the Anglican Church. All Things Made New is packed with information. There are many aspects discussed but  a truly fascinating one is that of the translation of the Bible being made available in vernacular languages in Europe — exemplifying the critical importance translations held centuries ago! By dwelling on Tyndale’s translation methodology MacCulloch provides insight in to a specialised skill that is a critical combination of a passion for the languages, writing talent, exceptional scholarship and patient dedication to the craft of making a text available in a different destination language. Reward mostly lies in the reception the newly translated text receives. Making important texts available in other local languages also ensures that the information travels across geo-political boundaries. The cross-pollination of ideas in this manner cements their transference across cultures and regions to disseminate discourses, probably bringing socio-political changes in its wake, in different nation states while giving an identity to the main idea enshrined in the text itself — in this case Christianity.

This is well illustrated in the following extract from the opening lines of the chapter on “The Bible before King James” which also mentions the Tyndale translation of the Bible, considered to be an influential text in the making of King James version (KJV) :

In the fifteenth century the official Church in England scored a notable success in destroying the uniquely English dissenting movement known as Lollardy. One of the results of this was that the Church banished the Bible in English; access to the Lollard Bible translation was in theory confined to those who could be trusted to read it without ill consequence – a handful of approved scholars and gentry. After that, England’s lack of provision for vernacular Bibles stood in stark contrast to their presence in the rest of Western Europe, which was quickly expanding, despite the disapproval of individual prelates, notably Pope Leo X. Between 1466 and 1522 there were twenty-two editions of the Bible in High or Low German; the Bible appeared in Italian in 1471, Dutch in 1492. In England, there simply remained the Vulgate, though thanks to printing that was readily available. One hundred and fifty-six complete Latin editions of the Bible had been published across Europe by 1520, and in a well-regulated part of the Western Church like England, it was likely that every priest with any pretence to education would have possessed one. …

The biblical scholarship of Desiderius Erasmus represented a dramatic break with any previous biblical in England: when he translated the Ne Testament afresh into Latin and published it in 1516, he went back to the original Greek. When he commented on scripture, his emphasis was on the early commentators in the first five Christian centuries ( with pride of place going to that most audacious among them, Origen); his work is notable for the absence of much reference to the great medieval commentators. This attitude was fully shared by William Tyndale, the creator of the first and greatest Tudor translation of the Bible, although Tyndale’s judicial murder at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, and indirectly Henry VIII, prevented his work reaching beyond the New Testament and the Pentateuch. Tyndale came from the remote West Country Forest of Dean on the borders of Wales, and it is not fanciful to see his fascination with translation as springing out of the market days of his childhood, listening to the mixed babble of Welsh and English around him. His is the ancestor of all Bibles in the English language, especially the version of 1611; Tyndale’s biographer David Daniell has bluntly pointed out that ‘Nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s.”

There was no reason why this pioneer should have had the talent of an exceptional writer as well as being an exceptional scholar, but the Forest of Dean man was a gourmet of language; it pleased him to discover as he moved into translating the Old Testament that Hebrew and English were so much more compatible than Hebrew and Greek. He was an admirer of what Luther was achieving in Wittenberg in the 1520s, and visited the town during his years of exile at the end of that decade, but he was also his own man. When creating his New Testament translations, he drew generously on Luther’s own introductions to individual books, but as he came to translate the Pentateuch, the Books of the Law, his own estimate of their spiritual worth began to diverge from Luther’s strong contrast between the roles of law and gospel, and the plagiarism of Luther’s German ceased, to be replaced by his own thoughts.

Surreptitiously read and discussed during the 1520s and 1530s, Tyndale’s still incomplete Bible translation worked on the imagination of those whose so far had virtually no access to public evangelical preaching in England. …By the time of Tyndale’s martyrdom in 1536, perhaps 16,000 copies of his translation had passed into England, a country of no more than two and a half million people with, at that stage, a very poorly developed market for books. And this new presence of the vernacular Bible in Henry VIII’s England entwined itself in a complex fashion around the king’s own eccentric agenda for religious change in his realm, as the monarch, his leading churchmen and secular politicians all puzzled over the meaning of the king’s quarrel and break with the pope in Rome, which had begun in matters remote from the passionate theological claims of religious Reformers.

The popularity of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible at the time of the Tudors proved how important it was to communicate and be accessible in local languages as it was also used for political gains by Henry VIII. This exercise served the dual purpose of introducing the Anglican Church liturgy to the masses but also promoted the political intent of Henry VIII by viewing royal supremacy as the natural condition of the Church. The intimate symbiotic relationship between politics and culture is a universal truth that has not changed in all these centuries. Even now translations and books are viewed as the softest (also cost-effective) way of making inroads into new territories/cultures/regions, making it easier for foreign governments to piggyback upon the cultural impact for strengthening of political and economic bi-lateral ties via diplomatic channels.

Translating important texts is not a new idea. It is now being revived as evident in the translation movement of significant literary texts that is rapidly gaining traction in world literature today. Texts of all genres from different cultures are being rapidly exchanged and published mostly in English to ensure they travel faster worldwide. Increasing presence of world literature in global publishing is disruptive as illustrated by their significance being recognised by international prizes. For instance the merging of the Independent’s translation prize with that of the Man Booker International Fiction Prize to launch the prestigious The Man Booker International Prize which recognises “quality fiction in translation”. ( The longlist for 2018 ) Or for that matter the newly launched JCB Prize for Literature presented to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. “It has a particular focus on translation, and hopes to introduce readers to many works of Indian literature written in languages other than their own.” The presence of a growing body of translations is bringing a change in literary discourses globally by being inclusive of diverse narratives.

Extra: Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2012 Gifford Lectures on the “Silence in Christian History”. These lectures were later gathered in Silence: A Christian History

Diarmaid MacCulloch All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2016, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. Rs 699

31 March 2018 

 

Ruskin Bond “A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches”

Ruskin Bond’s latest book — A Time For All Things is a collection of his essays and sketches or he would prefer to refer to them as “short prose pieces”.  It is the perfect bedtime reading book. Short, pleasantly written essays, in gentle English, evocative of a period gone by without being wistful. I do not know how to put it except to say that within each essay ( that I have read so far) I find in it resides a wonderful mix of happiness and pure joy. Such a peaceful, meditative quality to the essays that they are the perfect end to a hectic and busy day. I love the manner in which the essays are wonderful reminders of how we must pause and appreciate the beauty around us. Of course not all of us are as fortunate as Mr Bond is to live up in the mountains but even so we can pause and appreciate. I love the way he merges the sacred and the secular without underlining faith crudely as has become fashionable today. It is such a pleasure to experience. Many of these pieces will be familiar as having been anthologised in other collections for young and old, but it does not matter since it is a pleasure to have them gathered in one place.

Here are a few extracts to illustrate:

…the other day, taking a narrow path that left the dry Mussorie ridge to link up with Pari Tibba ( Fairy Hill), I ran across a path of lush green grass, and I knew there had to be water there.

The grass was soft and springy, spotted with the crimson of small, wild strawberries. Delicate maidenhair, my favourite fern, grew from a cluster of moist, glistening rocks. Moving the ferns a little, I discovered the spring, a freshlet of clear sparkling water.

I never cease to wonder at the tenacity of water — its ability to make its way through various strata of rock, zigzagging, back tracking, finding space, cunningly discovering faults and fissures in the mountain, and sometimes travelling underground for great distances before emerging into the open. Of course, there’s no stopping water. for no matter how tiny that little trickle, it has to go somewhere!

“A Marriage of the Waters”

****

In May and June, when the hills were brown and dry, it was always cool and green near the stream, where ferns and maidenhair and long grasses continued to thrive. Downstream I found a small pool where I could bathe, and a cave with water dripping from the roof, the water spangled gold and silver in the shafts of sunlight that pushed through the slits in the cave roof. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.’ Perhaps David had discovered a similar paradise when he wrote those words; perhaps I too would write good words. The hill station’s summer visitors had not discovered this haven of wild and green things, I was beginning to feel that the place belonged to me, that dominion was mine.

“A Time for All Things”

****

When I was a boy I would occasionally visit Hardwar, sometimes in the company of my lost friend Kishen. In my first novel, The Room on the Roof, I have described how we crossed the Ganga in a small boat accompanied by a number of pilgrims, all chanting ‘Ganga-mai ki jai!’ It was a moving experience, both in my story and in reality. And whenever I visited Hardwar, I would sing out ‘Ganga-mai ki jai’ with whoever was with me.

I am not a religious person, but I have always been moved by the devotion of others. Every evening, after Beena ( my grand-daughter) has done her pooja, she brings me prasad, and I accept it humbly and gratefully because it is the symbol of her goodness and devotion. to light a candle is better than to curse the darkness.

And so here I am, in my eighties, trying to gather my thoughts and to see if I have any great thoughts. But none come to me. You must do your own thinking, dear reader.

“Thoughts on Passing Eighty”

( These extracts have been published with permission from Speaking Tiger)

Buy the book. Treasure it. Share it. You will not regret it.

Ruskin Bond A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 400. Rs. 499

26 March 2018