second world war Posts

Christina Lamb, “Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women”

In 2005, I had worked as part of a global team on a seminal report published by UNRISD called Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. The particular section that I had researched was “Gender, armed conflict and the search for peace”. It was an extraordinary eye-opener for it highlighted the horrendous levels of violence perpetrated upon women and girls, across the world. Somehow conflict situations become an arena where the wild lawlessness thrives and the stark reality of the violence women experience is gut-wrenching. The women are treated worse than animals. Just flesh  They are easily dispensed with once the women outlive their utility which in most cases is that of being sex slaves. The UNRISD report went a step further than merely discussing the violence but also documented the various methods of peace that were initiated by women or with the establishment of institutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and of course, the International Court of Justice.

Award-winning war reporter Christina Lamb in her book, Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women reports from various war zones around the world. She travels far and wide meeting women who have been victimised, abducted, raped, sold by one soldier to the next, etc. She met people like the Beekeeper of Aleppo, Abdullah Shrim, and Dr Miracle or Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Denis Mukwege, who have helped women. Or the incredible Bakira Hasecic, Association of Women Victims of War, who said her hobbies were smoking and “hunting war criminals” and she was not joking, having tracked down well over a hundred. Of these, twenty-nine were prosecuted in The Hague and eighty in Bosnia. Abdullah Shrim has rescued hundreds of women who were kidnapped by the ISIS and reunited them with their families. He has run extremely dangerous operations and created a vast network of safe houses and carriers who would help bring the women to safety. It has been at great economic  cost to the women’s families, who at times have had to fork out sums as large as US $70,000. Dr. Mukwege, meanwhile, has helped reconstruct and fix women victims of sexual violence.

…either suffered pelvic prolapsed or other damage giving birth, or were victims of serial violence so extreme that that genitals had been torn apart and they had suffered fistulas — holes in the sphincter muscle through to the bladder or rectum, which led to leaking of urine or faeces or both.

In twenty years of existence, the [Punzi] hospital had treated more than 55,000 victims of rape.

He is recognised as having treated more rape victims than anyone else on earth. As a trained gynaecologist, he had set up multiple maternal hospitals around Congo so as to tackle the growing menace of maternal mortality, where women uttered their last words before going into labour as they were never sure if they would live. Once the Rwandan genocide occurred, Dr Mukwege, he began to help women victims.

Each group seemed to have its own signature torture and the rates were so violent that often a fistula or hole has been torn in the bladders or rectums.

‘It’s not a sexual thing, it’s a way to destroy one another, to take from inside the victim the sense of being a human, and show you don’t exist, you are nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s a deliberate strategy: raping a woman in front of her husband to humiliate him so he leaves and shame falls on the victim and it’s impossible to live with the reality so the first reaction is to leave the area and then is totla destruction of the community. I’ve seen entire villages deserted.

‘It’s about making people feel powerless and destroying the social fabric. I’ve seen a case where the wife of a pastor was raped in front of the whole congregation so everyone fled. Because if God does not protect the wife of a pastor how would he protect them?

‘Rape as a weapon of war can displace a whole.demigraohic and have the same effect as a conventional weapon but at a much lower cost.

The accounts in this book are meticulously documented. Christina Lamb even manages to speak to some of the victims. One of them, Naima, who had been abducted by the ISIS recalled the name of every single abductor she was sold to. It even astonished Christina Lamb that Naima was able to recall in such detail. ‘The one thing that I could do was know all their names so what they did would not be forgotten,’ she explained. ‘Now I am out I am writing everyting in a book with everyone’s name.’ Lamb travels and meets people in Argentina ( the Lost Generation and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), Nigeria and the Boko Haram, Bangladesh and the birangonas or brave/war heroine, the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in Bosnia, the Rohingya camps of those who fled Myanmar, the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and the Tutsis, the women abducted and kept by the ISIS, the former sex slaves of Japan or the rape of the German women by the Red Army during the Second World War etc. The list is endless and exhausting.

The graphic descriptions in the book are vile but most likely tamer versions of what was really said, shared or documented since it is impossible to collate it as is for a lay readership. The anger and revulsion that Christina Lamb feels and conveys in her documentation regarding the sexual crimes perpetrated against women is transmitted to the reader very clearly. The mechanical manner in which the women are raped over and over again, leaving the women numb and injured is blood curdling. It is also imbued with a sense of helplessness trying to understand how can this wrong be ever corrected — Why are women pursued in this relentless manner, used and discarded? Or even seen as war trophies. What is truly befuddling is the ease with which men rape women or conduct mass rapes. It is not only the systematic violence that is perpetrated upon the women but the horrifying thought that this attitude probably exists in a daily basis. Men see women as dispensable, as a sex that they have limitless and unquestionable power over and the authority and prerogative to do what they like. War crimes only bring to the fore that which already exists already. It is not a gargantuan leap of imagination by men that requires such methodical violence perpetrated upon so many women in this brutal and agressive manner. What is even more chilling from the facts Lamb unearths is the despicable manner in which the rapists are rarely convicted, and if they ever are convicted it is usually for war crimes. Their convictions are carried out on the strength of the ethnic cleansing that they perpetrated. The absolute lack of respect or value accorded to a woman survivor’s testimony, if some of the victims agree to testify, is atrocious. Instead as Bakira points out that if you do not testify it’s as if it never happened. “Women should be allowed to say things the way she wants, tell the story how she wants.” Unfortunately what emerges is that even the institutions of justice and remedial action are so patriarchal in their nature and construct that they do not wish to acknowledge the ghastly trauma women suffer. Chillingly “in Bosnia it’s better to be a perpetrator than a victim. The perpetrators’s defence are paid by the state while we [the women] have to pay our own legal costs. And there’s still no compensation for victims.”

Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is not easy reading. There is a visceral reaction to reading the accounts. But as Lamb points out  that this is a very dark book but she hopes that the reader too will find the “strength and heroism of many of the women inspiring”. She continues, “I use the expression ‘survivors’ to emphasise the resilience of these women, as after all they have survived, rather than ‘victim’ which has a more helpless connotation and some see as a dirty word. Meeting all these women, the last word I would use about them is passive. However, while I do not want to make ‘victims’ their identity, at the same time they are victims of an appalling brutality and injustice, so I do think the word has some validity. In some languages, such as Spanish, the word ‘survivor’ means survivor of a natural disaster. Colombian and Argentinian women I met told me it made no sense to refer to them as survivors. So I have used both where appropriate. In the same way, Yazidis told me they did not object to being described as sex slaves, as long as that was not seen as their identity.” Gender divisions are an age-old phenomena. Seeing women as loot, especially at times of war is also many centuries old. But the fact that these ugly, ruthless, mindless, violent practices continue to exist despite there being so many conversations about gender equality and sensitivity is extremely painful. It is as if those who believe in the dignity of women and in gender equality are expending energy on a losing battle. When will it stop? Will it ever cease? And surely these are learned behaviours and attitudes towards women, so how and when are the younger generations of men being indoctrinated and encouraged to behave in this abominable fashion? It is true that many men still believe firmly in the idea of masculinity being that when you prove your supremacy as an individual upon women, but seriously, can this old-fashioned attitude not stop? War zones are a stark reminder that these attitudes are not going away in a hurry.  My only objection is to the cover design of this book depicting women wearing head scarves. Thereby signalling that the violent behaviours documented by Lamb exist more or less within one specific community, ie. the Muslims, who are equally conveniently seen as terrorists. This is wrong. The cover design should have been either an illustration depicting conflicts and different scenarios or had a montage of images from different regions and communities. This striking black and white image does a great deal of disservice not only to the community it represents but also to the book.

Nevertheless, please read this extremely powerful book.

25 Feb 2021

Geraldine Schwarz’s “Those Who Forget”

Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.

This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.

It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.

19 Oct 2020

Anuradha Roy’s “All The Lives We Have Never Lived”

I read award-winning writer Anuradha Roy‘s stunning new novel All The Lives We Have Never Lived which is set during the second world war in British India and Bali. The narrator is Abhay Chand or Myshkin Chand Rozario who many years later in 1992 recounts details of his childhood. His mother was a Bengali Hindu and his father part-Anglo Indian. When Myshkin was nine his mother left the Rozario family. Myshkin was left in the care of his grandfather, a doctor,  Bhavani Chand Rozario and his father, a college lecturer, Nek Chand. A couple of years after his wife’s departure Nek Chand left on a pilgrimage. He returned home with another wife, Lipi and a daughter, Ila.

Gayatri Sen left India for Bali with German artist Walter Spies and another friend of his Beryl. While in Bali, Gayatri would write letters to her son but particularly long and detailed ones to her best friend Lisa McNally. Myshkin receives his mother’s correspondence to Lisa from her children upon her death. 

After finishing the novel I wrote Anuradha Roy a long letter. Here are some excerpts. 

*********

Dear Anuradha,

Today I finished reading All the Lives We Never Lived. It is another one of your stories that will be with me for a long, long time to come.

I loved the dramatic opening sentence “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is similar to another novelist I thoroughly enjoy — Nell Zink. I like how you begin as from the present moment, with the boy, now an old man, reflecting back to his childhood. Obviously the opening sentence defined him for years as that is what is crystal clear. He echoes what society says about his mother. Although the rhythm and cadences of the text are so correctly measured with never a word out of place. It is a voice of experience speaking, yet one who is so terribly (and understandably) rattled by his mother’s letters towards the end that he walks through the local marketplace distractedly.

Your descriptions of the women writing letters to each other with every line scrawled upon, as well as in the margins and wherever they could find space transported me back immediately to my days of writing letters. When my friends left India, I would send them letters by snail mail. In those days’ international postage was so expensive for the heavy packets since the letters were long and used a lot of paper. So I devised a method of using an aerogramme and writing as tiny as I could and then writing across the margin and filling up whatever little space I could find on the page.

So you can imagine my delight to discover the letters between Gayatri and Lisa McNally in All the Lives We Never Lived. You had to my mind so effectively managed to make that leap of unearthing memories not only of the characters but also of the reader. So many times I found myself slowing down or grinding to a halt in your descriptions of the plants and trees. The descriptions of the gardener plucking the jasmine and collecting them in a basket of white cloud to later thread them as a gajra for Gayatri brought back a flood of memories. Every morning in the searing summer heat I would go to my grandmother’s garden in Meerut and pluck all the beautiful white blooms off the bushes. Later I would thread the flowers into gajras for the women in the family. It was a daily ritual over summer vacation I loved. The moment I read that passage in your book I got a strong whiff of the sweet fragrance of the flowers –perfect for summer as well as of the needle used to thread would be coated with sticky nectar.

The beauty of nature, the flowering trees whether in the scorching dry heat or in the tropics to the mountain vegetation. The burst of colour in your novel makes its presence felt but what is truly exhilarating is how Gayatri and later her son gets associated with the most vibrantly colourful passages describing nature in the book. The passage where you describe Myshkin filling up his long-unused sketchbooks with studies of trees and plants in the garden while remembering his mother are like the last movement of a symphony, where everything comes together as a whole. It is as if Myshkin is expressing his delight at discovering the joy of who his mother was and experiencing her life through his paintings.

Over the next weeks, my long-unused sketchbooks filled with studies of the trees and plants in the garden that I associated with my mother: the pearly carpet of parijat flowers, Nyctanthes arbortristis, that she loved walking on barefoot; the neem near the bench where she had sat with Beryl listening to the story of Aisha. I barely slept, I forgot meals, I drew and painted her garden as if possessed. I drew the Crepe myrtle and Queen of the Night, the common oleander and hibiscus; the young mangoes on the tree in June, as raw as they had been when Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies first came to our house.

It took me five days to finish my studies of Queen of the Night and then I turned to the garnet blossoms of the Plumeria rubra, the champa. I painted the long, elliptic leaves, the swollen stem tips, the fleshy branches that go from grey to green and ooze milk if bruised or cut. I blended in the ochre at the edges of the petals with the deepening incandescence of the red in the depths of the flower.

Your descriptions of the gulmohar and amaltas trees (though you use the scientific names) are stupendous. One has to live in this ghastly dry heat of the north Indian plans to realise just how much the bright deep rich yellows and fiery reds actually seem pleasant on a hot summer day. Of course the entire sub-plot of the Sundar Nursery and the superintendent of horticulture, Alick Percy-Lancaster, is absolutely fascinating! Years ago I recall you had published the gardening journals of the nursery in a brown hardback with a dustjacket. It is still one of my prized possessions. So I absolutely understood your love for greenery and making a new city green, or the distress at the unnecessary felling of the neem trees in Calcutta and Myshkin’s grief for it was he who had planted the saplings as a young horticulturist.

The characters you create are always so memorable. In a very male household there are only two women – the ayah/cook Banno Didi and Gayatri—who “typically” do not have much of a say in what is happening but the authorial eye gives sufficient clues to the existence of the women and it is not just the tantrums they throw. Or even the religious leader Mukti Devi, head of the Muntazi Seva Gahar, Society for Indian Patriots, whose image in the reader’s mind is created by Nek Chand’s accounts of her. Later even Myshkin’s surprise and then cruel assertion with his stepmother to lord it over in the manner he has seen his father behave, brings into play the sense of patriarchal entitlement men seem to have – even the best of them.  This is exactly why I was so surprised to read the exchange of letters, of which only one set remain, but that is enough to give a great insight into the free spirit Gayatari was. There are so many women in this novel, some prominent (Gayatri, Lisa, Lipi, Banno, Beryl), some absolutely silent (Kadambri, Queen Fatima and Lucille) and others with walk-on parts (Ila’s daughter, Gayatri’s mum, Ni Wayan Arini and many of those in Indonesia). The little interlude with the story of Amrita from Maitreyi Devi’s novel is fantastic too.

The first half of the book is full of men but in the second half the women take over the narrative. You suddenly make visible that is mostly invisible to most eyes, especially male eyes, of the myriad ways in which women manage the daily rhythms of life. It is not just the concerns Gayatri has for her family and mentions it often to Lisa but also the management of it long distance by persuading Lisa to keep a kindly eye on the grandfather and Myshkin. And yet, it is very liberating to see how you make visible the thoughts of the women, their innermost thoughts, their experiences that are usually never made public. Lipi is the only one who upset at her husband’s high-handedness of sending her home instead of allowing her to sit through the musical concert because of her toddler Ila prompts Lipi to create a massive bonfire. She is very direct in her response; almost earthy.

You weave these intricate webs but ever so slightly shift perspectives too. Little Myshkin observes everything, perhaps not always quite understanding it, and yet he absorbs. It becomes a part of who he is and it is best expressed in his writing and later the paintings he draws as an old man. What I truly loved about the novel was how at the beginning the women and men were operating as expected in their socially defined gendered roles despite the magnificent opening line. The prose moves as one would want of a well-structured novel. It lulls one into expecting a good old fashioned story with a few unpredictable twists. Then come the disruptions not just to the domestic setup but also to the prose, the letters make their presence felt and force the reader to engage with the female mind set, even the “common or garden species of readers” is forced to be involved! You reserve many of the tiny details that really evoke the period in the women’s correspondence; later this fine eye for the “thingyness of things” is visible when old Myshkin begins to paint with as much care and attention to detail as his mother may have done.

At another level I felt that Gayatri was trapped yet the manner in which she comes free and you express it so well by changing the text form too. From the “rigidity” of long prose — since it does have a bunch of rules governing it — to the free flowing style of letters. It is not just the breaking of shackles of the form to express herself to Lisa but also the manner in which Gayatri writes. There is a sense of freedom. The correspondence is so much like the intimate conversations women have with each other, whether strangers or friends. They immediately lapse into it.

For someone so one with the elements as Gayatri seems to have been it is does not seem to be out of order to have her engulfed in so many charming stories beginning with Beryl’s own life or her narration of man-woman Aisha, or even Walter Spies himself. The freedom with which they lived; possibly Bohemian but undeniably a very talented group of individuals. Everyone had tremendous “backstories”, some dastardly, all possibly true, and yet their zest for life to explore more and more was so in keeping with character. Through these experiences she meets or hears about different forms of sexualities that exist; Gayatri accepts all these stories and never judges, instead wonders “There must have been a time when love did not have moral guardians saying you may do this but not that – this is how it is in Bali now & how it was in our country hundreds of years ago”.

The parallels that you draw tell another narrative too. For example, referring to Gayatri as “The Indian Painter” and recounting the Amrita story in Maitreyi Devi’s novel is so deftly done as if to silence critics who may be prompted to say that feisty, independent, strong-willed, headstrong women like Gayatri who is “glad to have time to work” could not possibly have existed in British India. The political-historical parallels are unmistakable as well with Arjun’s desire for the country to be governed by a “benign dictatorship” followed by Nek Chand sighing about his students who were locked up for sedition “We are fugitives in our own land.” Gayatri’s statement “I am finding out how limited my world was” seems to resonate at many levels for this story and modern India. Gayatri is ever so magical in the manner in which you create her. She comes across as a modern woman but caught in the wrong time. Sadly though how many women living today can still express themselves or be so confident as to take charge of their own lives as Gayatri did?

The title of the book + the epigraph taken from Tobias Wolff “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell”, only coalesce as significant once the book is finished. I loved the way in which you immerse the reader as if to exist within a Greek chorus, a multitude of voices, giving their often unasked-for opinions, and yet doing a fantastic job of recreating a moment or a “truth” within a community. The vagueness of the town adds to the blurriness of incidents happening in the past. I do not know how to explain it to say that the story exists in the past sufficiently and in the memory of Myshkin to be real and yet, a little hazy. Loss of the finer details are immaterial as long as the period is evoked; and even the importance of that fades away as the story progresses. And yet reading my response to your book I realise this story will trigger many memories for many readers for you tease out the floodgates of memory ever so gently and politely. It worked for me. It is a powerful book.

Yours,

JAYA

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived Hachette India, Gurugram, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 334. Rs 599 

27 May 2018 

“The Photographer” by Meike Zeirvogel

In the wagon there is no space to sit. There are air holes running along the top of the train’s sides. Everyone has turned their face upwards in the hope of catching a fresh breeze. The train jolts and shakes but there is no space to fall. The only thing that is shoved around at their feet is the metal bucket. Initially no one uses it – after all, the journey should only take a couple of hours – but then the train halts for ages in open fields. The doors remain closed in case it begins to move again. First the children use the bucket, afterwards the men and eventually the women too, peeing into it while standing. To begin with Trude is still trying to think of what they will do once they reach Berlin. And she hopes they will return soon: she doesn’t want Albert coming home to an empty place. But even these thoughts eventually stop and all she wants is for them just to endure the journey. Every now and again she quietly asks, ‘Mum?’ Agatha replies with a ‘Hm.’ Peter is standing between the two women, his cheek against his mother’s stomach. Trude feels him breathing. A couple of times she nearly dozes off, but then with a start she regains consciousness. ‘Mum?’ ‘Hm.’ And she feels the breathing of her son.

And so it was that Agatha, Trude and Peter became part of the 11 million Germans who were fleeing westward in the 75 winter of 1945. None of them knew where they were heading. But they all hoped to return home soon. Little did they know that the world was changing behind them and borders were being redrawn. Their homes now belonged to others and they were crossing into a foreign land.

Meike Zeirvogel’s latest novel The Photographer is on the surface of it about Albert, his wife Trude, their son Peter and his mother-in-law Agatha, a seamstress. It is a quietly told tale which opens in 1920 but most of the action is set during the second world war. It revolves around this tiny family which is managing to live peacefully despite the raging war when suddenly Albert is picked up by the police and whisked away. For a while his wife Trude is mystified at his arrest and cannot understand what the matter is till she realises after seeing her ransacked home they were after the hidden radio. Albert and Trude used it to listen to music and dance every night. But to possess a radio during the war was considered a serious offence and Albert is taken away. Agatha had always disapproved of Trude’s marriage to Albert so had conspired to tell the local police. For a long time Trude is unable to fathom who let on to their little secret till she deduces it was her mother.

The Photographer is a seemingly deceptive simple story but is also complicated for the many layers to it. The relationship between the mother and daughter is worse than any imprisonment. It is living with the horrible truth about the mother’s distaste for Albert with Trude caught between that is like a slow death. Ironically it is the wisdom of the mother ( and her savings) that leads Trude and Peter to safety. The saving grace in the hostile environment of the family is Peter who is loved by all the adults in their own way and for whom they will do anything. Meanwhile Peter too has to figure out a way of surviving particularly when his father returns home with his own archaic expectations of how a young boy should behave. Later while setting up a business that slowly begins to flourish Agatha persuades Trude to join her as a seamstress.

Like with any conflict the second world war too was disruptive especially for the family. If people were fortunate to survive they did so with many hidden scars and learned to exist with new arrangements to their established relationships. There were subtle shifts and these hard-to-define transformations that occurred in families is exactly the grey area which Meike Zeirvogel explores. The war torn landscape may be a useful backdrop to the story providing immediate explanations for changing family dynamics. But at another level the war and the changing borders can function as a metaphor for the fluid changes that are constantly happening within a family unit at any point of time — like a slow dance. As Albert discovered as a professional photographer “Taking photographs of families is pretty straightforward – they all look the same, want to look the same.” And yet it is not.

Curiously this slim book lingers in one’s imagination long after one is done with it.

Read it.

The Photographer is published by Salt Publishing, 2017. 

13 March 2017 

 

Alex Bellos, “Alex Through the Looking Glass”

9781408845721I spent the better part of a morning reading bestselling author Alex Bellos’s absolutely delightful book Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life. ( The American edition is called The Grapes of Math.) He uses anecdotes and examples from real life but neatly dovetails it with the history of modern mathematics, interweaving it with accounts of legendary mathematicians. Some of the text is very technical but is still accessible. This book is written for the layperson, not a specialist. But golly, this man is informative. I love the way he has strung together maths trivia with crucial bits of knowledge effortlessly. I admire the way he talk about eminent mathematicians as if they were his buddies but very respectfully places them in context. It could be Newton, Leibniz, Archimedes, Brahmagupta et al. He makes you chuckle when making reference’s to Euclid’s Elements reads like a recipe book.

And then I discovered this tweet. The book has been shortlisted for an award.

Alex Bellos (@alexbellos) tweeted at 3:22 PM on Wed, Aug 05, 2015:
Thrilled to make @royalsociety Winton Prize shortlist w @matthewcobb @WanderingGaia @jimalkhalili @jonmbutterworth +https://t.co/5y2aKNm7VP
(https://twitter.com/alexbellos/status/628866049467940864?s=03)

His previous book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. Alex Bellos writes a blog for The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/alexbellos It is worth browsing through. He makes maths fun!

He helps rearrange one’s muddled significance and timeline of eminent mathematicians through the ages but contextualises them very well, it won’t be easy to dismiss as “boring maths”.  For instance, “Thales is ..the first person to have a specific mathematical discovery named after him: Thale’s Theorem, which states that the triangle inscribed inside a semicircle has a right angle. He also used his deductive powers to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, and improve after a few bad years. He bought all the olive presses he could at rock bottom prices and when the upturn came he got rich. A century later, the comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of the great sage by having him fall in a ditch because he was lost in thought, gazing at the sky. Thales is not just remembered as history’s first mathematician and philosopher, but also as history’s first absent-minded professor.” (p.59)

Or the story about The Scottish Book

Between the First and Second World Wars, a clique of mathematicians in Lwow, Poland, met regularly in a coffee shop, the Scottish Cafe, to discuss mathematical morsels such as the pancake theorem. Hugo Steinhaus, a principal member of the group, wondered whether the theorem could be extended into three dimensions. ‘Can we place a piece of ham under a meat cutter so that meat, bone and fat are cut in halves?’ he asked. His friend Stefan Banach proved that such a cut is possible, using a theorem attributed to two others in a group, Stanislaw Ulam and Karol Borsuk. Banach’s result has subsequently been popularized as the ‘ham sandwich theorem’, because it is equivalent to stating that one can divide a ham sandwich in two with a single slice that cuts each slice of bread and the ham into two equal sizes, no matter how each piece is positioned and whatever is shape.

The mathematicians who gathered in the Scottish Cafe kept a thick notebook of all the questions they asked each other, which they entrusted to the care of the head waiter when they went home. Eventually known as The Scottish Book, it is a unique collaborative work, and not just because of how it was written. ( It was never published as a book, but some of its problems appeared later in journals.) 

(p.236-7)

Ulam later joined the Manhattan Project.

I would strongly recommend buying this book. It is the kind of nonfiction book you dip into and come away feeling time has been well spent. It would also be a useful addition to the reference section of a library, particularly of schools.

Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life Bloomsbury, London, 2014, rpt 2015. Pb. pp. 340 Rs 399.

13 August 2015 

Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?

A book worth reading.

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899 

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