Wikipedia Posts

Sufi books

At a time when international politics is dominated by talks about terrorism — inevitably equated with Islam and influential leaders are spewing hatred, it is heartening to come across two books linked to Sufism —Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love and Ajmer Sharif. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam though all orders trace their origins back to Prophet Mohammed. It is a form of Islam which believes in spreading the message of love. Two of the most famous practitioners were Muinuddin Chishti (1141 – 1236) who established the Chishti order of Sufism in India and the second is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī or Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) as he is more popularly known.

The biography of Rumi by Brad Gooch, New York Times bestselling author is a fascinating blend of  part-memoir, part biographical and a bit of translation. Brad Gooch explains how he became familiar with Rumi and decided to write his biography but only after he had learned Persian well enough to read the original texts. So many of the passages translated into English and published in the book were done by Brad Gooch himself. Rumi got his name as he spent much of his adult life in Turkey which in the 13th century was part of the Byzantium empire. So “Rumi” is a corruption of “Rome”. There is a comfortably gentle style of storytelling that describes Rumi’s childhood, his move from Balkh to Turkey, his poetry, the violence of Chenghiz Khan, his personal life and finally his funeral which was attended by leaders of all other religions. This biography has an equally significant narrative about Brad Gooch’s own engagement with the poet and this beautifully intertwined with the factual account of Rumi’s life. This account highlights how these two lives may be separated by a few centuries but Rumi’s poetry and philosophy remains incredibly relevant in the twenty-first century. It would have probably enriched the book considerably if pictures had been tipped in of paintings, manuscripts and places associated with the poet.

Ajmer Sharif is an illustrated history about the dargah of Muinuddin Chishti written by Reema Abbasi. It is not only an account of the Sufi giant but also consists of accounts of his more prominent disciples such as Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The book is packed with elaborate descriptions of the buildings, the lineage, the rituals and customs, the significant festivals observed and of course, some of the violent history associated with Ajmet at the time of establishing the sect in India. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people visit the shrine every day. It must be quite an administrative achievement to ensure the smooth functioning of such an important shrine. Though the book while focusing on the mysticism and impact the Sufi saint has had upon devotees for centuries it sadly glosses over the administrative structures put in place soon after Independence wherein it is managed by the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955 of the government of India. The book contains more than 200 images but alas they do little to enhance the narrative sufficiently. The pictures are not of very high resolution, clarity or strong compositions and it transpires many have been used from Wikipedia. ( The links are provided.) Despite the shortcomings of not having high quality photographs to accompany the text Ajmer Sharif is a decent introduction to such a significant shrine.

Sufism is a very influential philosophy and people of all faiths gravitate towards it. They approach it in myriad ways — whether by its poetry, music, beliefs etc. Ultimately it is a belief which for its main tenet of preaching love is revered worldwide. It has withstood the test of time over many centuries surviving through some tumultous epochs as well. Maybe its time for contemporary politicans who spread communal hatred to read Sufi literature.

10 February 2017 

The Revenant by Michael Punke

Revenant, book coverThe Revenant ( 2001) written by Michael Punke is tipped to win a few Oscars tonight ( 2016). It has been nominated for 12 Academy Award nominations across all categories including the Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio — probably his first in twenty years of being in the movie business.  ( http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/26/leonardo-dicaprio-the-revenant-oscars-academy-award ). I have not seen the film but the book is brutally magnificent and mesmerising with its focus on one man’s quest for revenge. It is powerful. Set in the American wilderness in the early 1800s, frontiersman Hugh Glass is badly mauled by a grizzly and abandoned by his fellow trappers ( intensely described in the stomach churning opening pages of the novel). Barely surviving his wounds, Glass is driven by thoughts of his family and a desire for revenge as he endures the frigid winter and pursues the men who left him for dead.

The author, Michael Punke, is a serving international trade expert and diplomat. He IMG_20160226_092636 (1)serves as the US Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. The Quartz profiled him: http://qz.com/626726/the-author-behind-the-revenant-is-an-international-trade-expert-and-diplomat/.  This is what they say, “Despite the press frenzy ahead of Sunday’s Academy awards, Michael Punke can’t give interviews about his book or make promotional appearances due to his government position. He skipped the film’s December premiere to negotiate a $1.3 trillion trade deal in Nairobi. He can’t even sign copies of his 2002 novel.”

According to Wikipedia, the word revenant is derived from the Latin word reveniens, “returning” (see also the related French verb revenir, meaning “to come back”). A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that is believed to have returned from the grave to terrorize the living. Revenants share some similarities with zombies in modern fiction. This is a result of contemporary depictions of zombies having evolved from vampire fiction. The original folklore about zombies had less in common with revenant legends. Similarities are also obvious with the aptrgangr (literally ‘again-walker’, meaning one who walks after death) of Norse mythology, although the aptrgangr, or draugr, is usually far more powerful, possessing magical abilities and most notably is not confined to a deathlike sleep during the day – although it does usually stay in its burial mound during the daylight hours – and will resist intruders, which renders the destruction of its body a dangerous affair to be undertaken by individual heroes. Consequently, stories involving the aptrgangr often involve direct confrontations with the creature, in which it often reveals to be immune to conventional weapons. Such elements are absent from the revenant lore, where the body is engaged in its inert state in daylight, and rendered harmless. Also references of revenant-like beings come from the Caribbean and are often referred to as ‘The soucouyant’ or ‘soucriant’ in Dominica, Trinidadian and Guadeloupean folklore (also known as Ole-Higue or Loogaroo elsewhere in the Caribbean).

The-RevenantThe last time a film based on a book written by a serving diplomat won many Oscars was Slumdog Millionaire (2008), based on Vikas Swarup’s Q&A ( 2005). He is now the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2016).

Michael Punke, The Revenant HarperCollins India, 2016. Pb. 

28 Feb 2016

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

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Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf  Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:

‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’ 

Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.

Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.

“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”

“What are you trying to say?” 

“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”

“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?” 

( p. 292-4)

Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.

It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book  in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.

Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.

However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)

With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.

Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499

31 July 2014 

 

 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!