ஒளிர்நிழல் / OlirNizhal

Just completed reading the novel, I just wanted to write the immediate thoughts that rise in my head after finishing it. The greatest strength of the novel is the razor sharp language of the writer, hard to believe it is his first novel in Tamil. Such clarity and seamlessness in writing. The portions in the novel where he captures the darker emotional turmoil are brilliant. Especially the multilayered emotions underpinning any act. There is an underlying darkness in the novel, especially the way the emotions are deconstructed to really show the starker realities. But it is no way shocking, as you read it you only feel the truthness of it. That is a real hallmark of any literary work to bring it to our own notice the things we always knew.
The strength of the novel is in the ease with which the writer has effortlessly traveled into the many layers of the character’s subconscious.

The novel is a metafiction about the writer’s novel OlirNizhal, like a novel within another novel. This creates this confusion of which is real and which is fictional, in a way life itself is a fiction we create for ourself is the underlying premise of the novel. We are constantly creating a fictional account of ourself, it is only through our stories we say ourself we come to know who we are. Also the stories we don’t even acknowledge also reveal much more about who we really are. This duality and fictional nature of our life come out really well due to the metafiction form of the novel.

Although it has a dalit social life as its platform, it is a novel of the individual, it has very little substance to read it as a social novel.

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Sool (சூல் in tamil) – Some Words

So.Dharman is an important tamil writer, who has documented the lives of the Dalit community in his previous works such as Koogai. He is a natural successor to the writings of Ki.Rajanarayanan , Poomani who captured the rural lives of tamilnadu. Their stories are rooted in realistic portrayal of rural lives in tamil literature. They are masters in capturing reality in a photographic natural free flowing style. So.Dharman has captured the dalit life, the odds faced by them in rural life even today in his previous works. His previous novel Koogai captures the conflict and oppression faced by Dalits. சூல் his latest work which was awarded the best novel of year 2016 by Vikatan in their yearly awards, is a slight shift from his Dalit forte. It still is the rural life that Dharman explores but its in its entirety not just the Dalit but the whole of the rural life.

Sool has an interesting form as a novel, for eighty percentage of the novel the rural life exists in a timeless expanse. Timeless in the sense there is no clear indication of the time of the novel, still one can guess the time through incidents coming from outside. It gives us a feel that the rural life, its customs and traditions exist in a manner which is timeless, that has not changed from a long time. There is a certain rhythmic circularity and order about the rural life like that of the rains which bestow it with all the wealth. Rain is crucial to the rural life, every prosperity of the village stems from it. Hence we are introduced to the rural life with the NeerPachi ( Neer in tamil is water, pachi is the one who regulates the flow of water to the farms) who manages the Kanmaai(the tank in which water is stored), and regulates the flow of water to the village farms owned by the families. The management of Kanmaai is central to the rural life as it ensures the availability of water for farming. Every year before the rains arrive the excess silt deposited is cleared of from the kanmaai so that the capacity is not diminished. This silt as it is mineral rich is equally distributed to the farm families to be used in their land. The Neerpachi also monitors the Kanmaai for places of weakness and ensures that the trees and bushes around the Kanmaai are not destroyed because they act as natural fences to the Kanmaai. This integral management of the resources is well documented in the novel. The rural life captured by So.Dharaman is highly interdependent not just among the people living also the birds and animals which depend on the farm for survival. The agriculture as the first form of economic activity also creates ancillary work for carpenters, ironsmith, potters whom depend on the farm family for their life. The village is well contained and managed autonomously, we see very little impact from outside.

The rural life is highly religious and mythical and firmly believes in the idea of karma, especially the repercussions of bad karma. The novel also shows the formation of rural deities, a way in which the village attone’s for collective mistakes or how it remembers the great sacrifices people made for the village.
These deities live and protect the life of people in rural life. The novel is full of amazing stories on heroic sacrifices especially the life of Koppulaai who being chid-less manages to become the loving of the mother of the entire village.

The novel takes dramatic turn after the arrival of the modern democratic government. Indian independence was achieved during the heights of modernity where people genuinely believed that modern science will radically change the world. So post Independence the government initiated steps to reform the agriculture practiced in rural villages and it in excited zeal was not in any mood to study the current practices prevalent in rural india. It completely reverses the holistic water management done by the traditional NeerPachi by appointing a government employee with very little first hand experience.
The rise of atheistic politics and complete disregard for the rural beliefs literally killed any morality. The newly elected rural head chief, who is a native of the same village completely disregards any tradition inspired by the
atheism promoted by his leader is corrupt to the core. He gets Puramboke land which is land belonging to commons written to his name. And he forces the Neerpachi to divert water to this land against practice that water from Kanmaai is used only for the Nanjai land. On Neerpachi’s refusal appoints a government employee to oversee the Kanmaai. The destruction of the Kanmaai is slow and painful it reads like the destruction of all traditional knowledge and life.
The yearly removal of silt is stopped , which reduces the collective capacity of the Kanmaai. The pleas of the people to clean the Kanmaai was mostly ignored saying that things take time in government dealings. The water level in Kanmaai goes down, the non availability of the silt reduces the organic capacity of the farm land. Government ill introduction of Seemai Karuvelam tree from Australia as fences, grow in such breath take pace it sucks the already depleted water table.
The government also introduced the Silpa kendai a type of fish which continues to destroy native fish even today. The scant regard for the environment and the traditional agricultural practices is a classic case of throwing the baby with the bath tub.
It is understandable that our rural life was plagued with issues like caste system, the practice of untouchability etc but it also had years of traditional knowledge. It is unfortunate that we gave scant regard for our ancestors knowledge in agriculture. It is something which continues to impact us even today.

Important work ,

Yayati

Yayati: A Classic Tale of LustYayati: A Classic Tale of Lust by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yayati by V.S Khandekar is the modern retelling of King Yayati’s story from Mahabharatha.
Yayati was the king of Hastinapur who married Devayani the daughter of Sukracharya.
He was the son of Nahusha who was cursed for insulting the sages on his victory over Indra.
Yayati’s life was tormented by his unending desire of women. This novel retells the story as a series of recollections from three main characters in the story, Yayati , Devayani and Sharmishta.

Yayati life is filled with continuous oscillation between desire passion on one side and contemplation, love and understanding. He is introduced to the fascination of love through his childhood relationship with Alka , who is eventually vanished when Yayati’s mother knows her closeness to the king. Yayati sees her dying due to the only fault of being born in a lowly caste and getting closer to Yayati. This creates a lasting impression on Yayati’s young psyche.

Yayati in his young age is introduced to the character of Kacha who is a sage and student of Angiras who is undergoing deep penance and is highly knowledgeable in philosophy and religion. Kacha makes a favorable impression on Yayati as he looks upon Kacha as inspiring friend.
As the feud between the asuras and devas , Kacha is asked to get the sanjeevini from Sukracharya and he joins sukracharya as the disciple and finally learns of the Sanjeevini.
Kacha and Devayani fall in love but Kacha forgoes devayani over duty which completely hurts devayani’s fragile ego.

As it goes Yayati meets Devayani on the fateful day when Sharmishta the daughter of Vrishapavarna insults Devayani and pushes her into the well. Devayani and Yayati fall in love as they seen in each of them the mirror image , beautiful and each of them are passionately in loev with themselves. Devayani hurt by the insinuation of Sharmishta, makes her father ask Vrishapavarna to marry devayani to Yayati and make Sharnishta as her maid.

With this eventful day’s activities lives of these three people Yayati, Devayani and Sharmishta gets entangled in a life of misery. Yayati and Devayani’s conjugal lives eventually falls out mainly due to the extreme egoism of Devayani. Yayati could not feel the love that his soul seems to be yearning for and eventually builds incestuous and secret relationship with Sharnishta.
Sharmishta and Yayati find the lasting happiness and conjugal fulfillment that both of them seem to be yearning. And Yayati for once seems to have find what he seems to be yearning for.

Albeit it is short lived as Devayani finds out this relationship, Sharmishta is forced to fled with her son Puru on one eventful night not to see Yayati for 18 miserable years.

Yayati falls to degenerate levels living by wine and women every day for eighteen years.
His complete degeneration is an act of vengeance, retribution and destruction of one soul.
From this lowly depths he is saved from the meeting of Sharmista and Puru and the curse of Sukracharya. Yayati and Devayani realize the value of loving sacrifice and the essence of love by the action of Puru at the ending when he comes forward and accepts Yayati’s curse and is ready to sacrifice the country to Yadu the son of Devayani.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer Collected Short Stories

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis SingerThe Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Isaac Bashevis Singer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Isac Bashevis Singer Collected Short stories there are such Gems.
There are three broad themes in this collection, three broad stages of Singer’s life himself.

1. Stories on the Jewish Heritage
There are stories which are more like Rabbi folklore as collection of stories which are centered around the theme of Sin, belief and the idea of redemption.
There is just bunch of people talking and telling stories directly typically a Rabbi or Hasidim. These are direct lyrical and include elements of magical elements in them. They are free flowing and capture the Jewish life in Poland.
Stories like the Passion, The Gentleman from Cracow , The last daemon, Moon and Madness etc.

2. Stories set in Poland
There are stories in Poland which are from Singer life as young man in Warsaw his understanding of the Jewish life and his impulses facing modernity.
Stories like the Three Encounters. There is a boyish yearning for the lost life.
There are also tremendous gems like The Spinoza of the Market street and The little shoe makers of Frampool which are amazingly lyrical Jewish life and the modern life.

3. Stories post the holocaust.
These stories are just show the life torn apart by holocaust but never over sentimental in any way. Especially stories are so subtle it just magnifies the impact. Stories like Bus, Job, Cabalist in the East Broadway etc.

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Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony

Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for HarmonyGandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony J. Parel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book Anthony J Parel builds a fundamental philosophical background on the basis of which various ideas of Gandhi can be best understood. Gandhi has been seen in multiple directions, as an exponent of non-violent civil disobedience (sathyagraha) against the British, one who constantly changed his life style like things he wore to what he ate. He was someone who had multiple identities. This book the author tries to understand this complexity of his life and actions using the ancient Purushartha system . Purushartha an ancient Indian thought which attributes four fundamental inspirations or foundation of life for each human being namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Dharma – Its the duty and ethics of any human being.
Artha – Its the money one has to earn through his work.
Kama – Its the part of life associated with pleasure including sexual, aesthetic and related to arts.
Moksa – The part of life through which one attains his salvation.

Any meaningful life should essentially contain all the above purusharthas. All of them should work in harmony for proper life. The author argument is that Gandhi reinvigorated on the fundamental Purushartha system to make it the philosophy driving his life.

Gandhi did multiple innovations to the fundamental system,

1. Over a period of time in India, Moksha took center stage in the philosophical discourse in India.
This tilted the balance against Artha and Dharma resulting in stagnation. This was the discourse even during Gandhi’s time especially on the part of people who wanted to attain Moksha. Life in politics and economics was considered an impediment in the pursuit of Moksha. Infact when Gandhi sent his initial letter containing questions to Raychand Bhai, he was advised not to meddle with the politics of Natal Indians if he really wanted to attain Moksha. Gandhi never could reconcile with the ascetic tradition of renunciation. He fundamentally wanted to bridge this gap between Dharma and Artha on one side and Moksha on the other. For him politics would be completely corrupted if its bereft of spirituality. In a similar vein pursuit of artha without any concern for other Purusharthas would only result in idle consumerism.
Gandhi brought spirituality to the core of worldly pursuit such as Artha and reconciled the pursuit of Moksha with Artha.

2. The dharma of the older cannon was based on the caste system. Unlike many of the conventional Modernists Gandhi thought that initially that the caste system is required. He was initially suggestive that the original system was right but it could have got corrupted over the period of time. But as he evolved he categorically rejected the caste system and called for his complete abolition. In place of the old cannon Gandhi promulgated the dharma of civic nation. Gandhi was not an anarchist as argued by many, in many ways he accepted the idea of modern state albeit a non violent state. But he accepted the nation should have any army to protect against external aggression, he dejected many of his pacifists friends in this regard. But he felt that any law abiding individual should be ready to resort to sathyagraha against the state if unjust things are imposed on him. He was also categorically different in the sense he stressed the importance of duty with rights.

3. Gandhi’s moksha was fundamentally different than the conventional contemplative mode of moksha. He was a man of action, so his path was that of the Karma Yoga which was the chapter in Gita that moved him most. He was also deeply moved by the idea of Saranagathi or complete surrender to attain moksha. He mixed the Karma yoga of action and bhakthi yoga inspired from his Vaishnava theist root.

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Rajaji – Rajmohan Gandhi

Rajaji, a LifeRajaji, a Life by Rajmohan Gandhi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rajaji is one of the personalities who is constantly portrayed as a villain in many of the biopics on other people like the Film on Periyar. One thing everyone in Tamilnadu knows, he was a castiest bhraminical leader who wanted to bring education system based on Varna system.

There is no defender for him in the current scheme of things, by opposing Nehru post independence he cut his links with the Congress. He was bhraminical so never liked by Dravidian politics.

So I had very little opinion or idea about this man’s life. This biography captures the essence of the life of this great man. What stood out of Rajaji,

1. Independent
He is amazingly independent on his thoughts and ideas and till his death was revered as the greatest statesman. Even with the congress he dissented during the independence movement.
He famously opposed the Quit India movement citing the dangers Fascism offers to the independent world. This was suicidal for any leader at that time, and he antagonized the congress cadres base. But he stood by his conviction , as like he did many issues in his long cherished life. He was ready to battle it all alone if required, like the struggle against the License Permit Quota Raj(a line he coined), against the personality worship of Nehru. In these fights of course he did mistakes like aligning with the DMK when he started the Swantantra Party to oppose the Congress.
But he was not the one bogged down by public opinion, and it made him unpopular, loved and hated at the same time.

2. Religious Yet Broad Minded,
We have a template in the liberal circles like any one who espouses the Hindu scriptures like Gita, or one who is a practicing hindu has to be a bigot who supports say things like Untouchability and caste system. Same happened to Rajaji and his bhraminical background not helped in matters.
But in reality he was the first to oppose untouchabilty in tamilnadu. He made his life mission to open Indian temples to untouchable. He famously defended a case on an untouchable entering the Thiruchanoor temple. His ashram inmates comprised of people from different caste backgrounds. He totally believed in the horrors of caste system and untouchability but he didn’t have the standard liberal. So he had to suffer like any independent thinker has to.
So he wrote major works on Gita, Ramayana and his writings were important to the formation of modern tamil prose.

Witty,
Rajaji’s strength was his witty and memorable one liners with which he won many arguments.
He was one of the most successful lawyers of tamilnadu when he decided to quit the profession to participate in the independence movement. He was one of the finest parliamentarians India produced, and he provided a demonstration of his witty tongue in these debates.

Able Administrator
He was part of the lost breed of administrator who wanted to do the right think not always the popular one. A life long supporter of prohibition of liquor, he changed the lives of poor people through his activities regarding prohibition and khadi. Take for instance the much criticized education policy. The idea was clear and simple, he wanted to increase the admission in schools, with the current financial constraints it was not possible to open more schools neither to increase the teachers. Hence he suggested the school time for children will be reduced to 3 hours and the schools can cater to two batches of students in one day. He also suggested in the remaining time the children can learn their family work. This snowballed into a controversy which was totally uncalled for, and was forced to resign his post. He was adamant to such an extent is surprising but he felt it was the right thing to do.

Longevity,
Funny aspect about Rajaji is introduced as the one with a weak frame in the beginning .
He comes about as one who is often sick and tired wanting to retire. But curiously he outlived all of the major leaders of independence Gandhi, Patel, Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Nehru .
In a way he was active in stages of life from the time British Raj was in full force, the independence movement, to around 3 decades in independent India. This made him involved with so much of issues in a wide ranging arc. He was like the conscious keeper of India for three decades post independence.

This book is a phenomenal learning on his life.

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Nine Live

Nine LivesNine Lives by William Dalrymple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have seen the books of William Dalrymple stacked in many book shops.
But somehow never felt so keen to read his books. Always had a thought that this might be one of those books that Western writers come up with about India in a manner that never impresses me.
I was pleasantly proved wrong by this book Nine Lives. Its a travelogue on the live of nine people as the title suggest. It captures the unchanging aspects of Indian life amidst the ever changing modern life. These lives are frozen in a time completely different to the prevailing modernist epoch.
It is just a great strength of our country that we accept so much different lives to flourish and there is no single prescribed path that our tradition mandates. Here are the things that worked for me in this book ,

1. The book is sincere in what it tries to capture, I never felt any tone of condescension to the lives it is capturing which is usually the case. The accounts are thoroughly researched , each life account begins with an incident, captures the historic root of the life and then uncovers the person in a manner we start to feel them real.

2. The lives capture the essence of our tradition, it includes a Jain nun who in her renunciation and sacrifices tries to attain moksha in the other world , to the Bauls of Bengal whose moksha lies in the song and dance and everyday beauty of the life at hands.

3. The conversations that the author has with the characters are one of the high points of the book. Be it the sthapathi in Swamimalai who speaks about the god taking over the artist in the act of sculpture. Or the conversation with the Sufi Saint on the teaching of Sufi Islam and his message of tolerance and peace. They capture the essence of the book and are really poetic.

4. The lives are also conflicting in a way with the epoch of the current times. Everyone who has choose this life are a rebel and in a way are facing the pressure of the times. This is captured well.

5. It captures the underlying humanity of India.

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