For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss
Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.
Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.
The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story. She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?
Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!
As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.
Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.
Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.
Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!
I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.
A stranger than fiction book that starts with a limerick and ends with a rhyme, supposed to be a scholarly and playful work on perhaps the first Australian novelist-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist who sold cheap paperbacks for women readers traveling by train in India in the nineteenth century — probably British readership — fought a case for Rani of Jhansi – wrote for Charles Dickens’s Household Words – This can be the description of Amit Ranjan’s John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (Niyogi Books). Why would one do a book on a maverick like this Australian journalist-cum-writer of the nineteenth century who opposed the British? What led to such a book? The quest for a ghostly ‘Alice Richman’ who lived in Pune in the 1800s, says Ranjan. And the author’s quest continues…spanning the shores of Australia, ‘Hindoostan’ and America…
The other most interesting thing about this book is the way the story is told – Ranjan says he is deeply influenced by the genre of magic realism and this, perhaps, reflects in his writing. While the research input is awesome, the style is non-academic and even flamboyant at times. It is a book that brings a smile to your face with its obvious cheekiness. But this is also the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and pull out when you have time to mull over a discussion on historic links and syncretism – for that is the sap that flows through the book concealed behind a laid-back narrative style of a nineteenth-century writer. Who is this Ranjan who has tried to re-invent pedantry and scholarship, treat the serious business of research and academia with such friskiness?
Ranjan is a Visiting Fellow at UNSW [University of New South Wales], Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence at Miami, an assistant Professor at NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training, India] — with eye to the sky, and ear to the ocean. His poetry collection, Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’mAlmost Thirty, came out two years ago, and his biography of Dara Shukoh is due out soon. His poetry collection came out 4 years ago, and a new collection of poems The Knot of Juggernaut was just released in Miami in March. Without more ado, as John Lang would have it, we present to you Amit Ranjan –
What was it that made you map your journey of unearthing Lang in the form of his writings instead of writing about his life directly? You have used the forms of limerick, poetry and the epistolary technique along with essays and Lang’s own writing to build your case. An amazing amalgam — Why? It is rather an unusual form of storytelling.
This is an interesting question, or a set of questions. I think poetry is a powerful medium. At a certain time, it was supposed to regale and break tedium; now it seems to create tedium – the trajectory of human taste is interesting indeed. So, unable to write a book in verse (Vikram Seth debuted with a novel in verse a little more than three decades ago, with elan), the least I could do (and generally do with prose) is having poetic invocations at the beginning and the end. I’ve also tried to maintain a certain poeticity through the book – it does add some funk and spunk, I believe.
About the form of writing – what was available to me was writings about Lang, and writings by Lang. Lang’s own voice is richer and wittier than his contemporaries and commentators, and therefore it came naturally to speak about his voice, rather than speak about what has been spoken about his voice. Unfortunately, the personal papers and artefacts of Lang have all been lost – it would certainly have been a riot to peruse his letters. And since letters by him are missing, I decided to write a letter to him (which is the first chapter) much in the way he’d have liked to write or receive a letter.
Also, about the form of writing – history writing and academic writing is caught in its self-referential niche writing – and needs to be freed from that cage, or that page in the history of stylistics of writing. Much influenced by the Latin American novelists, as also the frame narratives like Bocaccio’s Decameron and Alif Laila – I thought it would be an interesting to approach non-fiction and/or history like a novel of the “lo real maravilloso” genre (well, almost). So one could call it creative non-fiction (this work is completely and heavily annotated, so there’s nothing ‘fictitious’ in the work – just to add that disclaimer). I think these experiments are exciting, much like ficto-criticism as a foil of this form.
You have an interesting tone of narration which is half flippant, but it delves deep into research. Tell us a bit about your research.
The tone is what one makes of it. It is also very Victorian in its language, to keep in sync with Lang’s age. The alleged flippancy is a deliberate device I guess – as a tribute to Lang’s own voice that is playful and yet serious, as also to demonstrate that playful writing can be effective and serious.
Telling a “bit” about this research will occupy a bit of space, for dwelling in the haunt of 19th century is a bit of a habit with me now. Those puns aside, the road of this research has been thrilling across space and time. On the home turf, it took me to Meerut, Mussoorie, Agra and Calcutta. We, being good recyclers of papers, the works by or about Lang barely survive here. The copies of his newspaper, The Mofussilite, published from the above-mentioned cities (minus Mussoorie) weren’t available anywhere except London, Canberra, Chicago – and interestingly Islamabad. And so, I went to UNSW at Sydney for my PhD research, courtesy of Endeavour and Inlaks fellowships. There I met a very interesting 86-year-old gentleman, Mr Victor Crittenden, who was a retired librarian, and who had a very keen interest in John Lang. He had republished a lot of Lang’s work, and it was amazing to have conversations with him. The only little problem was that he was such a hopeless Romantic that he had ascribed several anonymous or pseudonymous works to Lang. This, then, became a daunting task, to research about each of these works and see if they could actually be Lang’s. And of course, it also resulted in funny arguments. Meanwhile, I relaxed the scope and the methodology, made it broad and unorthodox, to see where I could get. I met descendants of Lang’s half-brothers; a rabbi in Melbourne who believed Lang was Jewish; a member of Italian nobility in Paris, bitter about the politics in that family, and so on. At one point I emailed one Motee Persaud in hope that he’s a descendant of Jotee Persaud – only to cause him anxiety, for there was some court against him, and he thought my email was a subterfuge for a bigger design! When I returned from Sydney, I lost a pen drive with scans of Lang’s newspaper, for it was in a pretty UNSW backpack that someone took fancy to. I think I met the purloiner for a fleeting minute a few months later! The bit can go on, but I think this bit should be contained before I write a short story about it here.
Was the journey of discovery as interesting as your discovery of Lang?
Oh yes indeed! I think some of that has been revealed in the previous answer. It’s still an open book, an ongoing journey, I am still working with The Mofussilite. In my three fellowships to Miami (none about Lang), I purloined time to peruse Lang’s journal. The journey has been a thriller all through, I would like to believe – including my not being able to find Lang’s grave ever. Once, my friends and I rolled down Mussoorie hills into Camel’s Back Cemetery and the eight of us hunted for Lang at the haunted forest on a rainy afternoon. No luck, and never after in my subsequent visits, though the directions are fairly easy.
One of the most fun discoveries was that a picture of Lala Jotee Persaud, a client of Lang’s, was printed in The Illustrated London News as Nana Sahib’s! I was thrilled to receive that picture from ILN.
Ruskin Bond, a writer many of us deeply admire, found Lang in the Camel Back cemetery in Mussoorie in 1964. Then an Australian scholar investigated him. Lang finally found a way to instigate your pen to take up his cause. What moved you to research and write on him?
I met Mr Bond in 2009 I think, and my friends and I had a great fan moment. His father had some Lang novels, and that is what interested in him. Almost simultaneous, John Earnshaw was interested Lang’s life in Australia, and he wrote a short 30-page account detailing his timeline. And then the interest was lost for 40 years, when Victor Crittenden and Rory Medcalf of Australian High Commission reinvigorated interest in the matter.
All this, unbeknown to me, I was hunting for Alice’s history. Alice Richman, a girl who died at 26 in 1882, is buried in Alice Garden, Pune University, surrounded by a forest and many urban legends. Not knowing how to go about finding anything about her – I followed the Hanuman methodology – pick up the whole mountain if you can’t identify the herb. In reading about Australians in India in 19th century, I stumbled upon Lang, and since then, there’s been no looking back.
So, Alice the ghost sparked your interest in him from her very presence in Pune, what was it about Lang that attracted you to take a decade long journey into his adventures? Tell us a bit about how Alice pushed you to it.
In the pursuit of Alice, I read about the interesting Australian women missionaries in India (they were brought to India to be ‘tamed’); camels and camel drivers that went from India; and several such fascinating stories. The pursuit of Alice prepared my reading list, and that is how I found Lang. A white man fighting a white empire, with a nuanced understanding of India, and with an infective invective – seemed like a natural resonance to me. It is beyond the scope of this interview to get into the thrilling details of discovering things about Alice’s life too throughout this decade you’ve mentioned. Suffice it to say that it is actually the pursuit of Alice I have been on, and she keeps rewarding with some Lang legend and legacy every now and then.
Did you feel there was a need to bring out Lang to the fore? Is he relevant for our times?
Absolutely so. He was the man who took on Lord Hardinge in his newspaper on a daily basis, to the point where the Governor General summoned him. Lang merely said that he made more profit by writing against him, than he could ever by singing paeans to him. He was a rebel, and witty. Today’s journalists across the world from the age of democracy can take a lesson or two from a man from the time of the Empire.
To understand where we are, we need to look at where we come from. The tedious legal system; the workings and trappings of army; racism; casteism; evolution of sciences and belief in pseudosciences – are explained in detail with wit, rigour and humour in Lang’s writings. To understand our postcolonial ontology, it is very important to understand how deeply colonialism affects us.
Please introduce the most interesting fact about the ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ to our readers. Tell us a bit about him concisely, especially as we are told in your preface: “Suddenly, there was an interesting piece of news doing rounds: that the Indian PM gifted his Australian counterpart with John Lang documents to demonstrate how far back the relations between the two countries went. I was not acknowledged. However, it was also a backhanded compliment. Lang had finally found an afterlife.”
Lang died in 1864; his name and works survived until. About 1910. For the afterlife of a writer, critics are important. Shakespeare, for example, was resurrected by the Romantics in the 19th century. After 19th century, Lang was lost until John Earnshaw’s minor interest in the 1960s; and then Victor – as already stated. My research was awarded as a PhD thesis in 2012. Interestingly, in 2014 he was showcased in this prime ministerial meeting. The rest you have told in your question – sometimes one has to take backhanded compliments with high spirits! Of course, it was an anxious time for me, for the cat was out of the bag, and I had to hunt for a publisher fast. However, as stated in the book – Stories forgotten or lying in the cold, find their own time to be told – and therefore finally a book, half in size of the original, in 2021. The advantage of including Lang is of course pushing India-Australia ties to mid-19th century, an idea which has never really been thought of.
Was the John Charnock you mentioned in your book related to Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta? Was Lang related to him and did that impact his choices? Job Charnock was after all a rebel too in a manner of speaking.
That’s a difficult connection to figure out, which I will try to, on some idle day when curiosity gets the better of me. Job Charnock, the alleged founder of Calcutta, died in 1693; and the reference in the Lang book about John Charnock is from 1843 (p362). Lucy, wife of John Lang, had a sister, Mary, a poet who was married to John Henry Charnock. Mary’s book Legendary Rhymes (1843) was published posthumously, and her husband wrote a preface to this book. This Charnock was Lang’s brother-in-law, so they would have known each other well. John Charnock himself was an agriculturalist and a drainage expert and wrote books on this matter. To answer the last part of the question, in my opinion, Job Charnock and John Lang are as different as chalk and cheese – the former being a thorough imperialist and the latter, the opposite.
In the start of a chapter, you have said: “Lang had foreseen Google.” Elucidate.
Oh, that’s a joke to complement and compliment one of Lang jokes. The novel Ex-Wife revolves around the predicament of a Eva Merrydale, divorced by her husband for “criminal familiarity with another man.” (p370) Eva’s brother tells that this case has been mentioned 114,227 times in the media, with 107 times in the Times alone. These kind of figures are something one would see in a google search result – 114,227 results for “Eva Merrydale divorce”
That is Lang lampooning the British media for its obsessing over a poor divorcee through the exaggerated figures. However, one wonders, if there were people employed to keep track of a particular news appearing in the media.
As a digression to this essay, Lang indeed was looking into the future of journalism – sensational headlines, scandals and so on. In one lead article about the Gorham case, which had been talked about to death, Lang just wrote –‘Damn the Gorham Case!’ – and captured the public sentiment!
What was the purpose of this book? What kind of readership did you expect?
I guess the purpose of a prose book, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell a good story. However, my purpose was to fulfil a calling – I had at hand, the figure of a character lost for a century. It then becomes one’s responsibility to resurrect the figure as one has been entrusted by destiny, too. And of the course, the more general idea holds – the keys to the present lie in the past, as has already been discussed.
In terms of readership, I was looking at anyone who is interested in an interesting story of a maverick figure. This is why the language is jargon free, the stylistics are that of a novel. However, of course, one is also looking at the countries Lang is lost to – India, Australia and UK – and to have them remember an important critic and figure of their past. I expect students of literature and colonial/ postcolonial histories to pick this work up; but I’d love it much more that it appeals to the general reader of fiction and non-fiction.
John Lang had encounters with Dickens, Rani of Jhansi — a very wide range of historic personalities and influenced, you have claimed even George Bernard Shaw. Yet, all these personalities lived on while he faded to obscurity. Why do you think that happened?
Lang fought the British imperial sword with his pen, was declared a “hospital bed novelist” by the critics and buried to the British posterity. He wrote in Australia with convicts as heroes, which of course, didn’t go down well with the convict settlement. For Indians, who he had so much adulation for, he still got lost to history. Probably his interest in wine and women did not go down well with Indian historians too; or he was difficult to slot, being an interloper.
One of the things that does come across is Lang faded to obscurity as no one knew of him. Do you feel the role of historians and critics critical to the survival of an author? Or do you feel the colonials he often wrote against were happy to bury his writings?
Both aspects are at work. As already pointed out, the colonial press gave him bad reviews all the time. Subsequent critics were not kind either. This goes on to suggest how deeply ideological and long drawn out the colonial project was.
How was Lang a rebel in his times? Do you feel your own journey has been a rebellion against pedagogical practices of the current times? After all, can a book based on this much research start with a limerick and end with a tongue-in-cheek rhyme?
Two leitmotifs would suffice to settle the matter about being a rebel. It is said, in Lang’s multiple novels, about the white British protagonists – “India he loved, England he despised.” The second motif is strong women characters, some of them very deliberately parodying Victorian women and Victorian novels.
If my writing is considered rebellious to the current conventions, I would take it as a compliment, and not a back handed one. I wish I wrote the entire book in verse. I hope to pull off that trick successfully someday.
Maybe you will – an upcoming one – Alice’s story…Do you have an upcoming book? What about a novel on the ghostly Alice?
A new poetry book titled The Knot of Juggernaut, Or The Mystery of (Miami Mambo) Vexuality was just released, a day before I left Miami to come back to Delhi. It will be out here soon, too, in a month. This collection has poems written about journeys between the Bay of Bengal and the Bay of Biscayne. The title was suggested by The Right Honourable KB Con, Ducktor Albatross.
A biography of Dara Shukoh is scheduled for the year end.
The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!
I mostly read commercial fiction and novels the first eight to ten years after I started reading. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of genres and didn’t know – much less cared – about them. I was taking my first steps into the world of books and reading a new novel and finishing it was all that mattered. A decade or so later, now much more comfortable in the bibliographic world, I started experimenting with other types of books. Freakonomics (2005) by Steven Levitt was my first foray into non- fiction. Then I experimented with a few more history non-fiction books (history was one of subjects in graduation) mainly by William Dalrymple and Jawaharlal Nehru but also by other writers. Keen on territorial conquests of another kind, I experimented with Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, RK Narayan and a few works by a few more Indian writers. Further from home, I tried out Charles Dickens (had read some abridged versions of his novels in school), Thomas Hardy, EM Forster and more. I read their novels, short stories and essays whatever I found.
I had travelled very far from where I had started many years ago, crisscrossing genres. But my idea of what makes a good read had hardly changed. Whether it came to fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, it still revolved around ‘a story well told’. Of course, some characteristics had changed. I had become more patient with slower narratives, more adept at handling complex narratives, more comfortable with narrative calisthenics and more at ease with diverse types of writing. I had also developed an understanding about the basic differences between literary and commercial works. Even so, my idea of a good read had remained resistant to transformative changes, engendering the question in my mind: “Do genres really matter?”
The answer is both yes and no. Genres help categorise books based on what the reader can expect of them. There are millions and millions of books in the world and just imagine there being no basis to separate one book from another. The reader would have to go from the beginning to end of a book to understand what it was all about or start a journey without knowing what lay ahead. As much as it could be a delightful experience, it would bring in its own challenges. One of them would be to market the book.
Even if we don’t want to overlook the importance of commerce to art, let’s admit that no two things in the world treat each other with as much suspicion. Be that as it may, writers have, from to time, expressed their derision for genre. Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written many genre benders, once said in an interview that genres have no profound literary purpose or any substantial contribution to literature. They are creations of book marketers and their purpose is solely to sell books.
But is literary genre’s relevance to literature only archival and commercial? Maybe a minor digression will bring in a new perspective.
In Hindustani music, genre plays a vital role: it adds variety and richness. There are multiple gharanas (schools) in Hindustani music. Their identity is based on their geographical regions (Lucknow gharana, Carnatic gharana) they come from, the distinct musical heritage and ancestry they represent and the musical form they practice. However, the uniqueness of each gharana is determined by the raga it engineers by combining several suras (pitches). There are seven suras (notes) in Hindustani music.
Film genres contribute to films, of course, in terms of variety but also by creating slots based on audience preferences, social anxieties, aspirations and various other factors which allow filmmakers to address the associated emotions by placing their films in the predefined categories which helps to find a ready audience. Film genres are more fluid than Hindustani music genres. They come and go and also get clubbed creating a hybrid genre where different genres are built into one narrative to appeal to a wider audience.
On the other hand, traditionally, book genres have had rigid boundaries with very minimal or no cross-genre exchanges. In fact, the boundaries have been so rigid that authors of one genre have never shied away from expressing their disdain for their counterparts in another genre. Broadly speaking, the two warring factions have been literary and commercial fiction.
In The Naive And The Sentimental Novelist (2011), Orhan Pamuk says commercial novels (detective, crime, romance, sci fi novels) lack a ‘centre’ – a profound reflection on the meaning of life – which is integral to literary novels. This absence of a centre in commercial novels makes almost all of them same with nothing substantial separating one genre novel from another except their characters, plot twists and the murderer. This lack of substance makes it important for genre novels to always provide excitement to their readers, he alleges. On the contrary, according to Pamuk, a literary novel is a constant quest for the centre not just for the reader but also for the writer.
Some writers may not know the centre to start with discovering it while writing the novel as an act of serendipity. Some may structure their plots such as to illuminate the centre. Tolstoy had to change War and Peace (written in 1869, Translated in 1899) many times to discover its centre. Pamuk informs that Dostoyevsky had suffered epileptic attacks, after writing The Devils (1871-72, translated 1916), when he had realised that he had made a mistake leading to the sudden appearance of a new plan. And he had changed everything radically, Dostoyevsky had claimed.
Howevee, in The Miraculous Years, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer had said Dostoyevsky was exaggerating. The new plan had indeed changed the novel from a mediocre novel with one dimensional characters to a brilliant political one, but Dostoyevsky hadn’t changed more than forty pages of the 250 pages he had written the previous year. Apparently, it’s the ‘centre’ of the novel the great writer had referred to when he had said he had radically changed it, Pamuk concludes.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh blames this obsession of serious literature with daily humdrum, or the ordinariness of life has traditionally kept it away from dealing with subjects which are not considered ‘serious’ leaving them for the humbler genre fiction. Climactic events like a gale flattening a town or massive rains drowning it were considered too incredulous, not making the cut for nineteenth century literary gravitas.
Until 19th century the division between fiction and non-fiction was fuzzy. In the 19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution, there was a profusion of factories – moving workforces from unorganised, ruralized setups to more disciplined and controlled environments. What followed was people constructing their lives around their workplaces. This transformed rural and agricultural societies into orderly and urbanised ones bringing about a new kind of society which was far more cloistered, sober and unexciting than earlier societies which, being agricultural and rural, were far rougher and exposed to vagaries of life and nature. The colourful stories of pre 19th century couldn’t adequately capture this new reality; it needed a new kind of literary tool. In came the serious fiction or what we call today the literary novel.
Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), Shamela by Henry Fielding (1741) and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1760) were the first attempts at literary novel dealing with such solemn themes as social differences, inner conflicts and women’s sexual autonomy. This style of writing travelled far and wide. Among others, it was adopted by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, among the earliest practitioners of the novel in India, digressing from the earlier traditions of storytelling in India, the Jataka tales and so on, informs Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Over a period of time, puritanism around contours of literary fiction set in, and it’s difficult to say when the wall between serious and literary fiction collapsed – in fact one can say it never did. But just as literary novels had emerged to accommodate a new kind of reality in 19th century, breaking away from genre fiction, genre benders have accounted for another kind of changing reality which is presenting challenges hitherto unimagined within the conventional boundaries of human life, like the effects of climate change and technological advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning.
To capture the idiosyncrasies of modern life, many literary writers have flouted the boundary between literary and genre novels by setting their plots in the genre format while retaining the treatment of literary fiction. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), Christopher Banks, now a private detective in London, sets out to investigate how his parents disappeared from Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The novel is about life’s profundities like memory, nostalgia at its heart, although it’s written like a detective novel. The plot constantly moves from one incident to another keeping the reader waiting for the end, even as it draws a detailed picture of Shanghai society during the war. In Ishiguro’s recent book – Klara And The Sun (published in 2021) – he explores what separates human from robot even after the robot has acquired human-like intelligence. The book has a children’s book like element to it which is its main charm.
Many writers have experimented with multiplicity of forms, but among the notable books are Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel, Inter Ice Age 4, which starts as a hardwired sci fi but slowly evolves into a political thriller and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) whose plot bifurcates into two in the middle of the novel. There on, in some chapters, the reader is solving literary mysteries while the other chapters are the first chapters from other novels of varied styles.
The novel like any other art form has survived and moved ahead through adoption from within its various forms or external influences. When a new form arrives as a reaction to a social change or occurrence or an enterprising writer pushing back the boundaries, puritanism sets in to preserve the form in its purest state if it achieves literary acceptance and fame. Novels with magic realism and migration are some examples. When the form outlives its utility or is made obsolete by emerging trends or excessive repetition, it gets subsumed by another form and survives as part of it or slowly dies out. And thus, a new form, a mix of the two or many more, emerges. And the novel lives to fight another day.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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A common concept today about the children portrayed in Victorian literature is that they are innocent in spite of their sufferings and brutalization by the society. One can refer to an apotheosis of childhood innocence through characters like Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop, and Pip in Great Expectations, or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. During the Victorian era morality and didacticism were appended to the Romantic imagination, and these childhood victims of social injustice were redeemed by their inherent sense of goodness and modesty. Consequently, later on in life these victims of tyranny did not turn into tyrants themselves.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, however, treats children and their sufferings in a very different manner. Peter Coveney observes, “the symbol which had such strength and richness in the poetry of Blake and some parts of the novels of Dickens became in time the static and moribund child-figure of the Victorian imagination” (33). Emily Brontë perhaps captures this idea more acutely than any other of her contemporaries.
When it comes to the novel, most people visualize a grand romance on the Yorkshire moors as portrayed in Hollywood movies by the same name. But I wonder how many actually realize that the heroine of that romance died when she was just over eighteen and Heathcliff had left home three years before that. Doesn’t that make it more of a romance of adolescence or even childhood?
The pain and anguish represented through the two characters is more about the loss of a love that belonged to the freedom of childhood and was lost as they encountered social segregation and class-conflicts as they grew older. In this article, I have chosen to look at those troubled children of Wuthering Heights whose childhood was virtually disrupted by the adult figures surrounding them. The sufferings they encountered as teenagers or adults are rooted in the cherished and tortured existence they led as children.
The popular belief today is that the horrors of the World Wars, concentration camps, and other nightmarish situations took away that world of innocence from the modern child. Such an assumption suggests that nineteenth-century children were more innocent than the children of the twentieth century because they did not experience the horrors of the Great Wars. But standing in mid-nineteenth century England, Brontë shows with brutal honesty that a child’s world might be simpler and less complicated than an adult’s but is still far from being innocent and guiltless.
In ‘Le Chat’, one in the collection of The Belgian Essays, she draws an analogy between a cat and a child. When a child comes to his mother with a crushed butterfly in hands, she hugs him praising his efforts. For Emily Bronte, however, the scenario is reminiscent of a cat “with the tail of a half-devoured rat hanging from its mouth” (58). Using the metaphor of a predator she thus brings forth another aspect of “childhood innocence” which can be cruel and terrifying. And hence, the youngsters in Wuthering Heights torture and kill helpless animals on different occasions. They are reported to kill birds by hanging traps over their nests, and to strangle puppies from the back of chairs.
Early in Wuthering Heights the uninvited guest Mr. Lockwood has a nightmare during his stay at the Heights which in crucial ways sets the tone of the novel. He dreams of someone or something knocking on his windowpane, and when he tries to close the window, a cold little hand grabs his wrist and begs for entrance:
Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. (20–21)
The dream, or rather the nightmare is fearful in its realistic description and neither the author nor the narrator attempts to interpret it except in incoherent blabbering. His fear makes him act irrationally and thus the readers are made to enter a world where children are treated unkindly, cruelly even.
While cruelty toward children is not all that unusual in Victorian novels, the problem with Wuthering Heights is that here it seems rampant. The houses in Emily’s novel are not work-houses or orphanages as one can find in the novels of Dickens. And yet the way children are reared and treated here can hardly be described as benevolent or nourishing.
The idea that children are to be treated kindly, a theme repeatedly emphasized by the Victorians, seems to have gone completely awry in Wuthering Heights. Children are mostly treated whimsically by adults as if they are mere playthings. Moreover, because the purveyor of ill-treatment is a parent or guardian, there is nobody to interfere, nobody to question the authority of the wrongdoer.
Old Earnshaw takes a fancy to the foundling Heathcliff but turns against his own son, Hindley. So much so, that in order to have peace in the house after his wife’s death he sends Hindley away to college. Not once does he consider the way he as a father has allowed an outsider to usurp his son’s rightful place. On the contrary, he blames Hindley for unruly behavior. Naturally, when Hindley returns home after his father’s death, he has no compassion for his usurper of a foster brother, Heathcliff.
Then we have old Mr. and Mrs. Linton, generally known as kind and just people. And yet during Catherine and Heathcliff’s nocturnal adventure at the Grange, they are unperturbed by Catherine being bitten by their watchdog, Skulker. It is only later when Edgar identifies her as Miss Earnshaw, they tend to her wound. Mr. Linton allows young Cathy to be welcomed inside, but Heathcliff is turned out because he does not conform to the behavior or appearance of an ideal child as Mr. Linton observes:
“Oh, my dear Mary, look here! Don’t be afraid, it is but a boy—yet, the villain scowls so plainly in his face, would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once, before he shows his nature in acts, as well as features?” (39)
Instead of the angelic golden looks of Oliver Twist, or Edgar Linton, Heathcliff possesses the dark appearance of a gypsy; he swears, and often speaks gibberish instead of clear English. To be welcomed as a cherished child, however, one would have to appear and act as a perfect child, and not just have the size and looks of any child. He is younger than Edgar, is still in his adolescence, yet the Magistrate of the province wants him hanged—Linton’s real feelings here survive his irony—based on his gipsy-like looks.
Oliver with his innocent appearance earns occasional compassion even from the master criminal Fagin, but Heathcliff with his dark countenance fails to gain an iota of sympathy from either Mr. or Mrs. Linton. They never attempt to understand Heathcliff’s plight or Hindley’s tyranny. On the contrary, they also seem to feel that the “little Lascar” deserves that kind of treatment because of his unbecoming appearance and unruly behavior. Such an attitude toward children indicates a problematic aspect about Victorian England. Often characters were decided based on physiognomy, just as Mr. Linton assumes Heathcliff to be a criminal.
Nelly, who presents herself to be better than most in her appreciation of Heathcliff, admits that Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff “was enough to make a fiend of a saint” (51). And yet she too often confides in her audience that Heathcliff might very well have been a devil’s child, as she says, “where did he come from, the little dark thing, harbored by a good man to his bane?” (252). Such concerns against Heathcliff are uttered by almost all characters of the novel on different occasions, throwing light on a very provincial attitude of contemporary England. Even children could not escape the clutches of such convictions, and therefore, were treated accordingly. The problem with Heathcliff is not just that he is a foundling, but also that he is a foundling with non-English physical attributes. Moreover, he often resists social decorum and takes a perverse joy in acting wicked. It matters little, therefore, that he is a child; more important is the fact that he does not fit the criteria set for an adorable child.
Thus, it obviously seems that in spite of promoting innocent childhood, nineteenth-century England could very well have been a challenging sphere for children. Religious beliefs encouraged strict discipline but there was nobody to oversee the tyranny practiced in the name of religious teaching. So, while young Heathcliff and Catherine are bullied into reading the Bible by Joseph in a cold fireless room, Hindley and his wife enjoy themselves in idleness, resting by the fire.
Furthermore, Emily Brontë questions the traditional understanding of a good child and a bad one. Heathcliff tells Nelly that the reason behind his and Catherine’s nocturnal visit to the Grange was to find out if the Linton children are treated as badly as they are. When Nelly sinks into the purely conventional again [and], says that they are good children and therefore do not need punishment, Heathcliff scoffs at her for being partial to the Linton children because she thinks it is acceptable: “‘Don’t you can’t, Nelly,’ he said. ‘Nonsense!’” (38). Soon and often it becomes apparent that there is nothing so extraordinarily good about Edgar and Isabella. They are the children of a local, influential man, and therefore, petted by everybody around them. They are taught to be polite in company and dress well. In spirit, however, they are no better than the children of Wuthering Heights.
Another interesting aspect about the children of this novel is that they are all are left without the care and protection of their mother. Not a single one of them approach adulthood with their mother to protect them.
It indeed seems that Emily Brontë’s world is a place where children are left without the protection of their guardians, and “normal” emotions are reverted (144). In some significant ways, they pose as a commentary on the children of Charles Dickens who are idolized as perfect children. This is how even some of Brontë’s contemporaries looked at her work, and failed to understand the meaning of such random atrocities. The Victorian mind probably expected a kind of pattern of stable life which Emily’s novel refuses to provide.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
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I have always wondered, when I am not at home, do the inhabitants of my bookshelf come alive like those children’s playthings in Toy Story? Apart from what their titles bind them to narrate, do my books have other stories to tell? Is my bookshelf some sort of a universe in itself with each compartment and the contents – an entity of its own? Are there dimensions to a bookshelf that we, humans, are not aware of – something that is beyond our realm?
For a while now (for me, a year since my last job as a journalist), Monday mornings do not come with blues attached. Moreover, since the lockdown, it hardly registers. However, this time I woke up to a message from a friend. She sent me a picture of her bookshelf. Pristine. Clean. I kept looking at the picture and zoomed in to see if I could read the titles of the books. The low-resolution nature of the photograph offered me a little chance to do so. Some I could read, some covers I was familiar with, and a lot many I could not figure out.
However, the shelf stood proud. The big brown square with sixteen shelves held its own against a lighter coloured background. The books despite not being arranged in perfect rows -‑ some standing, some lying flat — presented a scenic contrast and appeared orderly on the whole.
I shifted my gaze to my bookshelf and a quote, I had read a long time ago, came to my mind — “If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves”.
My bookshelf is chaotic. It’s like the city I live in — Mumbai. Each book jostling for space and complaining and, yet, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
But I like it the way it is. I have heard that people who keep pets end up looking like each other after a while, and behave similarly too. Many dog owners have told me this. I don’t know much about it but I have seen it happen with one of my friends. But that is not the point. Drawing an analogy, there is a thought germinating and it asks, after a while, does a bookshelf reflect the mind of its owner? I look at my bookshelf and I seem to know the answer. I am just not sure if I should put it out here.
Going back to that quote — do the books really want to “… unsort themselves?” I’m thinking of a counter narrative here.
What if my books want to be sorted. Will they secretly, when I am not home, rearrange themselves in an order that would make a librarian proud? Or, will they rise in rebellion against me to drive home the point?
Will a book ‘accidentally’ fall on my head and ensure that it drills some sense into me and goad me to impart some sanity to my bookshelf as well. I am relieved that I have kept all the heavy hard cover books on the lowest shelves. Of course, back then I had no inkling of any rebellion by the books. I had done that just to add solidity to the shelf. It is supposed to be a strong foundation.
If the books were to sort themselves, then they must be interacting. I hope they are. For all the disorder that my shelf displays, it aptly houses James Gleick’s Chaos. Does this book try to make sense and explain to others the lack of planning and logic in the way I have maintained the bookshelf?
Does Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace talk to others about why I am oblivious of their realm? Does Milan Kundera’s Joker still sit sulking in a corner because I have only read about seventy to eighty pages and have kept it back with a bookmark sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb? And does Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations complain, “Why on earth have I been placed next to Charles Bukowski’s ThePleasures Of The Damned and what on earth am I supposed to do here?”
I’m quite sure my PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves treats its neighbour Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence like its own butler and comments on its sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. Despite the crowding, there is, however, one hollow space that makes me well up. The emptiness of the space where I had kept my copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I gave away Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece to a friend — a young writer and a book lover himself. I hope to buy another copy soon. I will.
There is no thought behind the way the books are arranged on my bookshelf. Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling is shoulder-to shoulder with Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang. My Kannada books are strewn all over with a couple of them holding their own against Howard Jacobson and John Steinbeck on either side.
There is Rushdie with Hemmingway, Coetzee and Murakami are neighbours filled with warmth. There is my collection of National Geographic Magazine somewhere deep down there and on top of this stack is a potpourri of books including my sketch book.
That’s not all. There are layers I cannot reach. And I don’t know when I will unravel them. Behind the proud frontline are rows of books I bought but never read. It makes me shudder to even guess what they must be thinking. Would they consult J Krishnamurthy’s TheAwakening Of Intelligence to understand and counsel themselves as to why they are the neglected children?
And then there is a book Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. It knows it doesn’t belong here but has somehow been at home among my books for more than a decade. I had borrowed it from a colleague in 2008 and have not returned it so far. I promised him that I would, and I intend to keep that promise. So, this copy knows it is not permanent here. Must be a miserable feeling to be somewhere for that long and yet not belong.
I have often felt like that in between shifting residences in Mumbai. Most of my contracts have ended in eleven months and sometimes maybe twenty two months. But the current place has been my residence for six years now. Do I feel like this copy of Douglas Adams’s work here? Sometimes, I do.
It is a studio apartment. And it doesn’t offer me space for another bookshelf. In fact the top left square of my bookshelf is where I have kept all the photos of Gods and holy books, including Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In the lower squares I have made space for my watches and bottles of cologne. And now in the lockdown, there are bottles of hand sanitisers too. The shelves are so stacked that there is no place for The Shadow Of The Wind, which interestingly (ironically?) is the part one of The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, and it finds itself on top of the bookshelf gupshupping with a straw hat.
It appears that my jostling for space in the apartment is a concurrent and a similar theme to the way my books are stacked. Whenever I am vexed with all this struggle, a walk by the sea rejuvenates me. But what about my books?
It maybe fantastical to think that whenever I step outside, they crib about me. But being privy to the way I live, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to believe that they do. There is an unread copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place Of Greater Safety and a partially read The Second World War by Antony Beevor. And I wonder if these books would put the idea of a revolution and war in the minds of the other books. Maybe I should keep these books in good humour. A transparent polythene cover and proper dusting should do the trick.
I do not want to return to my flat one day and find my books in regimental rows and columns with their guns trained on me. It would break my heart to see my favourite A Farewell To Arms pick up a gun again.
Perhaps before the lockdown ends, I will dust all the books, the bookshelf and rearrange them in a way they might prefer. Perhaps Hemingway wants to be with Alistair McLean. Maybe all my Kannada books want to be together and even share some space with a few Hindi books. I should also make it a point to read all those books sulking behind the front rows.
All this was in my top five things-to-do-in-the-lockdown list and I haven’t come around to doing any of them so far. Despite my counter narrative to the quote, I believe in what Georges Perec wrote in his Thoughts Of Sorts.
Deep down at a subconscious level, I’m happy with the way my bookshelf is. I’m beginning to understand as I write this piece that the state of the bookshelf does indeed reflect my state of mind.
My bookshelf, along with its inhabitants, is a thriving ecosystem. A being of its own with its blood lines and nerve centres. Despite its constant state of ‘unsort’, I gravitate to it whenever I’m in need of a friend or solace. Sometimes I wonder if it owns me instead of the other way round. Perhaps in some dimension, of which I’m unaware, my bookshelf and I are a single entity. I sure do hope so.
K.R. Guruprasad has been associated with the sports pages of several newspapers over the last 16 years, as Sports Editor of DNA and previously the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Guru has developed a finesse at zooming out of the myopic view of any sport, instead looking at sports as a coming together of the players’ lives and struggles, skills and technique and much more. His book ‘Going Places. India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes’ by Penguin is a great testament to this approach. While his professional career has been focused on writing about sports, he is an avid reader and writer of varied subjects. An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, was born in Bellary, Karnataka and later pursued his education in Mumbai.