Monday, December 31, 2007

Mansfield Park- Almost Perfect

I would have gone into raptures over Mansfield Park, but for the fact that marriage between cousins reminds me of the ancient Egyptian custom where siblings in royal families married each other so that the blood of the offspring remained pure, unpolluted by external influences. In every other way, Mansfield Park is a lovely picture of English society and the disparities that plagued it in the nineteenth century.

Fanny Price is removed from poverty and brought up in comfort among her cousins, but she remains grounded. She remembers the beloved brother of her childhood, and is thrilled when offered a chance, after years of separation, to visit her family in Portsmouth. She takes this opportunity to wield a good influence on her less fortunate siblings, taking care not to offend her parents in the process. She resists the advances of the irrepressible Mr. Crawford after witnessing his flirtatious behaviour towards her cousins Maria and Julia. Fanny’s heart almost breaks when her kindest, most sensible cousin Edmund falls prey to Mary Crawford’s charms, Mary being one of those women who can never really prefer nobility of character to wealth. In every aspect, Fanny is the ideal young woman- never doing anything wrong, sticking to her principles and standing her ground even when everybody around her tries to push her into a financially favourable relationship. Perfect Fanny Price. The only part of Mansfield Park that doesn’t appeal to me, as I mentioned in the beginning, is the marriage of Fanny to Edmund, who were initially brought up as sister and brother.

I enjoyed Mansfield Park because of the variety of characters and scenes. It is not restricted to middle class or affluent society, like Pride and Prejudice, and doesn’t have endless conversations as Emma does. It is an extremely interesting mixture of the different sort of people and circumstances that society is made up of. Austen conjures up some memorable characters: Mrs. Norris, the regular shrew, who leads the girls of the Bertram family astray with her misplaced concern and detests Fanny for her poverty; selfish, indolent Lady Bertram, to whom appearance and propriety matter more than affection; the sisters Maria and Julia Bertram, who are only interested in being wooed, and turn against each other in their quest for the same man.

Mansfield Park also seems to me less sedate and prim than the other Austen novels. Perhaps because it tells the story of a girl who comes from a humble background and has no pretence in her manner, it comes out warm and pleasant. As of now, it is my favourite Austen novel- a rung above Sense and Sensibility.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Frigid? Not Really.

I detest cliched phrases. The one I dislike most is ‘Last but not least’, closely followed by a few others, one of which is ‘Man is a social animal’.

How do you like first-time visitors? Imagine you are out sauntering on the road, no purpose in mind, enjoying a tranquil, moonlit winter evening and hoping to come back to a warm house, to immerse yourself in a book you are eager to finish. You are in no mood for other company but your own thoughts, and rather look forward to one of these rare, carefree evenings of uninterrupted bliss.

Alas! When you approach the door to your house, you hear voices. Female voices you’ve never heard before. Slightly curious, but not enthusiastic, you enter to find a neighbour all eagerness to meet you and forward the acquaintance that developed in the course of an earlier introduction. She is accompanied by her college-going daughter.

And now I relieve you of the burden of imagination, because the people I mention are not likely to arouse everybody’s resentment (strong word, I seek a milder); indeed, I am probably making you wonder what you are in for, and if my manners towards people I hardly know are as frigid as an iceberg in the Arctic Circle.

Not really. I am warm and hospitable when in my best moods. But I wish you luck if you happen to visit me, for the first time, when my indolence is at its height, and there are other things I would much rather be doing than entertaining company. Coming back to these neighbours of mine, I was forced to smile and be polite much against my inclination that evening, for I was waiting to get back to my book. So this girl started talking to me, having been brought by her mother with kind intentions, so she could know me and we could be friends, being of the same age. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong day.

Anything that she said was likely to get on my nerves. I couldn’t help replying in monosyllables, and then, after a few sentences, there was nothing more to be said. My mother and hers, who had been keeping up some kind of conversation, also seemed at a loss to know what to talk about. Now such periods of silent inactivity often make the participants in the ‘conversation’ look foolish, and I have had a friend bursting into intermittent giggles when such a pause once happened in her presence. Aware that we would look extremely funny to any by-standers (not that there was anyone (un)lucky enough to witness our lively party), I tried to say something, and this time she replied in monosyllables.

For one whole hour, we kept up this sham of a conversation. She told me she liked to read, but we couldn’t find any common ground there as her tastes and mine seemed almost diametrically opposite. I broached the topic of ragging in college. She said something which seemed to advocate the ‘sport’ as a mandatory ice-breaker (rubbish!), and as I am totally against ragging in any form, I replied rather tersely, making my stand on the subject very clear. A moment later, I began wondering if I should have spoken so strongly to a guest, to a girl I hardly knew. I can’t say I repented it, but my temporarily-dormant niceness did come to the fore after much struggle against the demons that were tormenting me that day, and I was more cordial the rest of the evening.

After much floundering, mother and daughter finally left- to nobody’s regret, I should say. They invited us very cordially to visit them sometime. Please don’t remind my mother that she promised she would, because the invitation includes me. There is some truth in the theory of first impressions being the best (to use a cliché). The girl might be a paragon of virtue, a most agreeable companion, but I am not destined to know if she is. I have never really felt like trying to cultivate my acquaintance with her. Blame it on my disagreeableness, but when you feel a fit of perversity coming on, you have to succumb to it. Do I hear you grumbling at my nature? I assure you, most of the time I am as angelic as can be. But I believe there are these untamed demons inside all of us that unleash their power when they oughtn’t to, and curbing them requires superhuman self-restraint, which perhaps only the most forbearing and experienced can achieve.

To repeat what everybody probably knows: Just in case you happen to come across inexplicable behaviour, do remember that it might just be a passing fit. In all probability, if you are disgruntled by somebody’s conduct, you will be treated beyond your best expectations by the same person another time, perversity having long been replaced by repentance. Clichés are not always entirely true.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Getting Whimsical

Oh, to be 11 or 12 or 13 again!

Or even 10. Any age before 14, because after this the board exams, the entrance exams etc. come along and ruin the peace that has reigns long over the period of innocent happiness- childhood. Whenever I read books featuring young girls, I feel like going back to those times. I’m not so grown-up now that I cannot imagine what it was like when I was a little girl, but I do miss those carefree days of playing in the park till dusk and doing homework. School was often fun, though holidays, of course, were welcome. I actually liked writing examinations because of the challenge they posed, and the delicious days when the report cards were given away.

Much has changed. Exams are no longer as charming as they were, and I think the word ‘homework’ is blasphemy when used in the context of college. Responsibility grows with age, and so does confusion. Life gets complicated, and while certain joys can be felt with a greater degree of satisfaction than they once were, some others have to be given up.

What triggered these thoughts in my mind was my third reading of the book Little Women. I was in school the last two times I read it, and so this session brought back vivid memories of those days. Meg and Jo March are now younger than I, and I found it a wee bit difficult, to my astonishment, to look at them as the grown-up, responsible girls I once believed them to be. I have always liked the protagonists of a book to be older than I- just an irrational, crazy thought. But that’s the way things were (and are, I guess), and I worshipped these characters born out of some brilliant people’s imagination. I still do. I know they’re all fictional, but I have the same fervent faith in them that I once did. I used to fancy I was Jo March, while my friends took the parts of Meg, Beth and Amy. I enjoyed writing, I got into tiffs with the boys, I took on the seniors at school. I sorely longed for a brother-friend like Laurie, and to use the ‘slang’ (words that would be considered rather respectful if compared to the slang of today) that Jo did. Now, sadly, I am more sensible, but I do have this little world tucked away somewhere in my heart, peopled by the kinds that everybody wants for friends and family but doesn’t really have. A good imagination is an extremely useful thing to have, as Anne Shirley might have said.

When we read What Katy Did, we were seized by the desire to play the ‘Game of Rivers’. So there we were, thirteen-year-old girls, running up and down the aisles of the classroom during recess, looking like absolute geese (to use one of the bookish words). But what chance does pretentious dignity stand against harmless girlish fun? We turned a deaf ear to the sarcasm of our classmates and played our silly games, even after the boys got tired of us and made a childish complaint to our class teacher. Such ninnies! (Okay, the complaint might have been made to retaliate to an equally preposterous complaint that we girls made- but why rake up past differences now!) I wanted to be a tomboy and tear my clothes. Never was, and never did. This comes of being born with an innate sense of orderliness.

I cried over books. I felt terrible when Beth died. I felt quite a void in my life when Anne Shirley grew up and got ready to go to college, as Marilla realised her beloved Anne would never be a little girl again. I sympathised with Katy Carr when she had to spend years in bed after hurting herself in a fall from a swing, and when Aunt Izzie died. When Captain Crewe died, I was upset for Sarah. Is it silly to cry over books? I don’t know.

Every one of us can probably write a whole book on the memories of childhood. However, I must make sure I enjoy every moment as it comes and not spend all my time thinking of the days gone by. Who knows, one day I might wish I were in college again!

Friday, December 21, 2007


Now I am going to be prim, proper, old-fashioned and very girlish all at once, in keeping with the book I am reading and the mood it has put me in.

I first read Little Women when I was eight or nine, and soon it was forgotten, for I was probably not old enough to understand it completely. The only thing I remembered in it was a party- full of stuck-up, vain girls- that one of the girls went to. The second time I read the book I was thirteen. My English teacher happened to ask us girls one day in class if we’d read Little Women, and while everybody else replied in the negative, the memories started coming back to me, and I was very eager to read it all over again. A classmate bagged the only copy in the school library before I did, and I struck a deal with her to make sure I got my hands on it the next week.

Some weeks ago, when I walked into Crossword, there was this little green volume with the name Little Women on it in white, all beguiling and enticing, and I knew I had to get to know the March family and the "Laurence boy" all over again. So here I am, reading this bright, sunshiny story for the third time. This time, I know what’s coming in the book, for I have seen the movie quite a few times. Now I know it wasn’t a perfect interpretation of the book, but I enjoyed it. Of course, there’s nothing quite like reading the book, and it’s sure to become one of my most-thumbed books alongside Anne of Green Gables and the three Katy volumes. Much as I enjoy books of almost all kinds, I can never outgrow these delightful tales of innocent girlhood. These are classic stories, full of goodness and warmth and fun, and can never be replaced by chick-lit or any other pretentious, decked-up, sometimes nonsensical, girl stuff that’s written now.

I don’t think I’m imagining it when I feel American women writers were more informal and easy in their prose than their British counterparts. I’m talking of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here, and I know things have changed now. My limited knowledge perhaps deceives me, but there is more warmth and cheer in the styles of Susan Coolidge, Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery (a Canadian writer) than in those of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. The American women wrote of and for young girls; the British women were more formal and sober in their choice of subjects, sometimes imparting an overall gloomy effect to their works. I have no idea whom the critics appreciated better; but if I were a writer and had to choose my subject, I do think I’d decide on something that made my readers happy about their lives. We do need serious writing and books that make us think, but it’s books that are simple with familiar-seeming characters that are most inviting. (Frivolity at work?)

Digressing a bit, the first winter rain fell a couple of days ago. It started off as a drizzle, and as I went out for a walk, fell more heavily. The raindrops were light and soft and caressing, but never stinging. It was dark, no stars were to be seen, and the rain-kissed breeze was delicately scented by the damp earth. I wanted a few days of rain, to make the straggly, yellowish scrub on the mostly rocky face of the nearby hill a refreshing green again; to beat a rhythm on the fronds of the lonely palm tree. That was not to be, as the next morning, the sun shone bright in a clear sky streaked with the whitest clouds. (Today, the sky is irreproachably blue again, with not even a speck of cloud to mar its glory.) But I am being selfish, aren’t I, in praying for rain, when even the smallest hint of a chill in the air is sending pavement-dwellers scurrying for cover? It is all very well for people sheltered in expensive homes to talk about the weather, but what of the poor living in slums or by the roadside, who are always at the mercy of the elements or of other people? So I have decided to leave the weather alone for a bit, and appreciate whatever I’m given.

I must go back to the March sisters again, for I have spent quite a lot of time away from this much-beloved book. I shall not know peace until I finish it, even if I know the story. I am dying to know what scrape Jo is going to get herself into, next.

Friday, December 14, 2007


It took me quite a few aborted attempts to finally find the words I was looking for. Yet, they are not really what I want. They are just makeshift sentences to describe the alternate periods of thrill and gloom that I felt during my journey through one of the most amazing stories ever written. I shall not call this a review, because it does not even pretend to be one. I am just trying to express my incredulity and admiration of the talent and the research that must have gone into this creation.

At first sight, it appears like a confounding maze of unearthly names and maps of places that do not exist. However, the characters soon become familiar and their world opens up, revealing ambitions and traits much like ours.

This is the world of Middle Earth, immortalised by JRR Tolkien in the three volumes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’- The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Perhaps the entire story can be summed up as the traditional fight between good and evil, but there is something in its execution and charm that sets it apart from other tales of fantasy. I must mention that I have not read the Harry Potter books, and so there is no room for comparison here between Tolkien and JK Rowling, or their works, as is probably expected when talk veers around books involving magic and wizardry.

The Lord of the Rings is believed to have been influenced by Norse mythology. It follows the story of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, as he sets out to destroy the Ring that threatens the existence of Middle Earth, should it fall into the hands of the evil Sauron. Frodo is accompanied by eight others: hobbits, men, a dwarf, an elf, and a wizard. They stand by one another during their arduous journey to carry the Ring to its destruction. They are stalked by evil in the shape of the nine ring wraiths, Sauron’s slaves who fell victim to his designs, and the wicked Saruman. Over-ambition also claims the life of one of the Company, splitting it apart and sending the travellers in different directions, but all with a purpose. All ends well, with the Ring meeting its doom in the fire, burning away Sauron’s dreams and restoring peace to the inhabitants of Middle Earth.

That is the gist of the story, but it’s not just the plot that matters. Tolkien weaves beautifully the characters of the various ‘people’ that the Company meets on the way. They all play a role in their own way, helping or hindering the progress of the travellers. My favourite part in the book? Hard to say. The appearance of the Nazgul, shrieking eerily in the dead of the night, forming shadows across the moon, was creepy. I greatly enjoyed reading about the Company’s walk through the forests, over hills, meeting wonderful characters like Treebeard and Tom Bombadil. The Battle at Pelennor was thrilling, while Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dead Marshes with Gollum sent a shiver down my spine.

I cannot say which character I liked best. Galadriel is mysterious and Eowyn intrepid; Sam is loyalty personified; Gandalf is all wisdom, Aragorn a mix of courage and tenderness. Endearing or loathsome, they all stay in the mind for quite a while after the last volume is done. It is like a journey coming to an end, and while there is a sense of relief that everything is over at last, it is accompanied by the inevitable feeling of regret that comes with the closure of a good, solid story. I must confess that there were moments when I thought the book got a little too slow for comfort. When I came to the part about Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom, accompanied by Gollum, it really became extremely gloomy (which says much for Tolkien’s powers of expression, and the magic he creates). And as the exams were upon me then, I couldn’t quite take the dual tension, so I decided to give it a break (and read Jane Austen instead; what a difference!).

I am glad I was talked into reading LOTR by a friend of mine (thanks!), and I definitely would like to read it again. I haven’t attempted the movies as yet, but I mean to. The journey through Middle Earth sure is one incredible experience, crafted with much ingenuity by a splendidly talented writer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Life Without Sports (Is Anyone Listening?)

Not entirely, perhaps...with the ICC working overtime, life cannot really be without sports. (I am strictly talking about television here, any suggestion of active sport is out.) Debates are on about the timing of Anil Kumble's declaration and the poor fellow will now be persecuted. But with action on the motorsport circuit, in my view, having long ended for the season, the weekends are pretty dreary. There is no hint of scarlet to brighten my Sunday evenings, no fluorescent '46' borne to the top step of the podium by 'The Doctor' to drive away the pre-Monday morning blues.

Why can't the F1 season be longer? What makes the FIA limit the calendar to eighteen or nineteen races? The winter break is necessary, of course, but it surely can be shortened, given that most of the testing begins well in advance. The teams are adept at multitasking, and should definitely be able to carry out testing within the season without much trouble. Think of the poor fans for a change! Posters and newspaper articles of a few measly lines don't quite make up for the absence of live action. This is one complaint I have with our newspapers- very little space is given to motorsport, especially F1 and the MotoGP. I don’t know what has happened to Heikki Kovalainen and why Nelson Piquet Jr. has been brought in to replace him. There is absolutely no news of Valentino Rossi. If we’re looking to make India a hub for motorsport, the print media will definitely have to play a bigger role. Sure I have the Internet at my disposal, but it’s not quite the same thing as fresh newsprint with the feel and the smell, first thing in the morning.

Coming back to action on TV, I don’t think the A1 GP is a patch on F1. It might be great training for future F1 drivers and be touted as the World Cup of Motorsport, and the similarity of the cars, which supposedly stands for equality, might be harped upon. However, to me, the similarity is a monotonous sameness. Some kind of disparity is good- not to the extent that exists between the top teams and the minnows in F1, of course, but just a little bit. It goes a long way in bringing the scene alive and making the arena competitive. A1 seems to boil down to the quality of the drivers, who are obviously stronger when they come from countries with a tradition in motorsport. So is A1 really fair and equal? We’ll have to look deep into the training systems of the countries to figure that out.

Meanwhile, I shall continue to bemoan about the lack of noisy (as in engine sounds) excitement on television. My suggestion of a longer system is glaringly impracticable and extremely insensible. I shall continue to hope, though- maybe someone is listening.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Understanding Wildfell Hall

The name of the book was intriguing, the blurb fascinating, so I decided to plunge into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall right after I finished Pride and Prejudice. Besides, I wanted to compare the writing style of Jane Austen with Anne Bronte’s. Bronte arrived on the scene a little later, but I did want to know if all British women writers had the same staid way of expressing themselves. They seem, more or less, to be quite formal in their approach, not as easygoing as their American counterparts, perhaps. But I shall have to wait till I finish another reading of Little Women to make the fair comparison that I want to- so that will have to wait. Coming back to Wildfell Hall, I wasn’t a bit disappointed. It was extremely engrossing, a true portrait of what young people had to contend with then, and still do.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen, a young woman who is led into marriage with a dissolute, brash young man on the strength of her innocent passion. Despite warnings from her aunt, Mrs. Maxwell, that Arthur Huntingdon is not the right man for her, Helen marries him with the idea that she can reform him and turn him into the angel he was never destined to be. Mrs. Maxwell’s prophecy comes true, and Helen is left to cope with her ill fortune on her own. Huntingdon turns out to be a philanderer, getting into a relationship with his friend’s wife besides other women. This and other discoveries turn Helen completely against her husband, and she decides to run away to a place where she can be free of his presence and raise their son, Arthur, to be the gentleman his father never could be.

Helen’s arrival in a new parish as a single married woman raises quite a few eyebrows, and gossip spreads like wildfire. She settles down to a quiet life with her son and her maid, painting to earn her living. But society doesn’t leave her alone, and matters grow worse when a young man, Gilbert Markham, the ‘beau of the parish and its vicinity’, as she calls him, gets attracted to her. More challenges beset Helen, and she is forced to take steps to prevent unwanted relationships. Things end happily, however, and Helen is restored to the position of dignity that she deserves.

Anne Bronte published the book under the pseudonym Acton Bell; in the mid-nineteenth century, female writers were not really accepted. The same people who advocate free speech now were detractors of the idea then, and it was quite a progressive story for those times, as the faults of men were not expected to be publicised in such a manner. Some critics claim to have seen through the pseudonym and figured out that Acton was, in fact, a woman. While the liberation of women seems to form the undertone, the book is not exactly about the profligacy of men. It has its share of lascivious female characters, in the shape of Annabella Wilmot; a snobbish woman who cannot put her education to good use, in the form of Jane Wilson, and others who take pleasure in putting down others of their own kind. The book might be called rebellious, but its story is one that takes place in every town, everyday. Many young women fall prey to the designs of people they do not know; young men are victimised by vices best avoided.

Anne Bronte wrote this novel for a purpose. She says in the preface, making references to Huntingdon and his companions, and to Helen, that she wouldn’t consider the book written in vain if ‘one rash youth’ or ‘one thoughtless girl’ had been prevented from making the mistakes these characters had. Instead of sparking off debates over whether Helen had her freedom curbed first by a profligate man and then a more civil one, or if Anne Bronte was influenced too much by her sisters’ writing, I think this book should have been appreciated for what it is. It is not a sunny, sweet romance, but reality. Without being preachy, it has lessons for life.