Category: literary review – the hindu

this simple pleasure that could make me feel strange and sad and light at the same time was something I can call freedom. And in this ‘freedom’ rested the beginnings of faith, of an inexplicable lightness which was like the spreading glow from a lamp, moving away, carrying one away, as it were, from everything else, something which fails to measure the expanse of one’s life. For me, today, a good poem probably does just that.

A couple of coconut trees spiral up into the blue sky. This is the square canvas with the ‘nature painting’ that my window affords — assuredly a sight for the sore eyes of this city-dweller wearied by quotidian cares. And so, many an hour on Sunday mornings is spent lazily focussing and defocussing on this work of art, embellished by a gentle breeze and bird-calls of various tones.

Water-brushed hues

And then comes the monsoon. Same time, same place. But the painting is now getting ‘water-brushed’. ………..The hitherto still-life painting seems to have taken on a life of its own. The tone and texture of its green components seem to alter as the raindrops descend on them. I watch in fascination as the green carpet below winks and glints at me. These are the hundreds of small leaves, of varying shades of green, doing flip-flops as they give in to the pressure of the droplets. The rapid change of surfaces creates an overall shimmering effect, maintaining a true rhythm with the steady rain.

Meanwhile, a little above the ground, the large taro leaves sway like elephant ears. Hardly under any pressure from this rain, they coolly flash and flaunt their water-droplet pearls. At eye-level is a staid wall of green in the background, formed by the closely packed, unremarkable leaves of a clump of trees. The rain seems to just disappear into this wall, leaving no trace of moisture. Shifting my gaze, I look up to see the unruffled leaves of the coconut palm shirking off this precipitation in the form of drops dripping from the tip of each leaflet. And so this painting gets embellished for those magical moments. Missing in action are the butterflies and dragonflies, subdued out of their flight by the rain.

And so, the minutes stretch to an hour or so as nature does its stuff, uplifting the mundane to the ethereal. Myriad film song lines pass through the mind, describing gentle rain. Time passes, fleetingly, unknowingly; the spell is usually broken by the lunch call or some guests. Reluctantly, I peel myself from the window, thankful to both circumstance and nature, for the serendipitous gift. And, a line from another poem (by John Updike) comes to mind: Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

Singing of trampled grass  Jayanta Mahapatra

I remember one of those simple pleasures that seemed to provide me with a new beginning or give a new meaning to my days. This was when I would let my feet hang still in the waters of a flowing stream and feel the water flow past past me. Or, climbing up the old mango tree, lying on a low branch, I appeared to be in another world, perhaps giving me a glimpse of the world inside of me.

Who will cry the cry of the dropping leaf? Who will whisper the whisper of the summer breeze? The politician or the poet? Or the silent pain of the pebble kicked by a child? Or the sob of the rose plucked off its stem? Who will mourn the moan of the trampled grass? Only the poet.

Perhaps poetry shall always remain an attempt to remove the burden of time from this world, and poems will continue to do this through images, metaphors, symbols. Time, ever present, ever passing, making us wakeful while we are asleep, making us hear our pulse in the silence of the night. I quote a line from the Atharva Veda XIX: 53.

Time drives as a horse with seven reins,

thousand-eyed, unaging

possessing much seed;

him the inspired poets mount;

his wheels are all beings.

And one asks: Does a poet use time to get away from time? Does he surrender to this rite, capturing in time a fragile moment of meaning? Merely for the sake of the feeling of freedom?

…..write through my anguish and the awareness of my presence, and in the process reveal myself, perhaps going out of myself, leaping into blindness or light.

Call it freedom. For what we dream can well enter the realm of undream, causing something to come out of it, something like a quiet self-discovery or even prayer, that brings a joy in the recognition of ourselves against the fear of time. Call it freedom.

………… not bother about the conscience of the world — simply be the water that flows, finding its own level, even if it is soaked away by the earth, with no trace left behind. In this, in such a poetry of today, committed to the many worlds we live and believe in — the human, the historical and the moral — can one touch the heart of freedom.

freedom? Is it the path through unknown places of the heart, a path that is both unreal and of a transcendent nature and yet is something that foresees the event of death? ……

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.Albert Camus  

Iconoclast till the end – The Hindu.

………………. carved out a place for himself in the intellectual history of the modern world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and became a world icon with a lasting legacy.  Camus left behind an impressive crop of writings comprising fiction, plays, non-fiction, letters and essays that still continue to be read and widely admired. He pioneered a new literary-philosophical movement with a fresh idiom and a remarkable style of narration whose parentage he disowned. He introduced a new world view that was avidly picked up by the members of the counter culture everywhere, encompassing the conscientious objectors to the beat generation. He was inspiration to a whole generation of writers and translators in the postcolonial societies who saw in him and his art an effective antidote to the establishment.


Camus broke every stereotype and rule of the game. He survived an early attack of tuberculosis in 1930, and fought under the name of Beauchard (as the novelists George Orwell and André Gide did during the Spanish Civil War) for the underground Resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. He opposed the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and was against the two power blocs during the Cold War. He gave up a lucrative association with the UNESCO in the 1950s for the world body granting membership to Franco’s Spain.

Charismatic and ebullient both in life and letters, Camus led a chequered life. Married twice, he was friend to some of the most illustrious men and women of his times including Jean Paul Sartre. It is with Sartre that he is generally associated for the literary philosophical movement best known as existentialism. In some quarters, Camus is also known as a major exponent of the Absurd Movement in literature and drama. Both claims have a ring of truth, and yet both must be open to necessary caveats.


On different occasions, both Camus and Sartre denied their affiliation to existentialism as it has come to mean in the literary-philosophical circles, while Camus shows a qualified and nuanced approach to the notion of the absurd in his literary works. The best treatment of the theme of the absurd in Camus is seen in his iconic works such as L’Etranger (The Outsider), 1942, La Peste (The Plague), 1947, L’Homme Revolte (The Rebel), 1951, the play Caligula, written in 1938 and performed in 1945, and several essays such as ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ and the collection of essays posthumously published in 1961, entitled Resistance, Rebellion and Death.


To put the question simply: How does the individual deal with the sense of meaninglessness and the sense of the absurd in life? In his pivotal work, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus shows that ‘the total absence of hope’ has ‘nothing to do with despair’. It must not be ‘confused with renouncement and a conscious dissatisfaction’. And thus, Meursault, the protagonist of The Outsider who faces imminent execution for manslaughter and is offered the prospect of salvation by the Christian priest in the prison, makes a paradoxical affirmation of life as evidenced towards the end of the novel in Part Two. Similarly, Dr. Rieux in The Plague must serve the citizens of Oran afflicted with the dreaded disease and the ensuing horror. …………….. It is the need for personal responsibility that can finally redeem our life and add meaning to our actions.



Camus lived as he wrote — on his own terms. An iconoclast till the very end, he saw the need for action in a world beset by horror and the spectre of war. He believed in the need to change the world, but rejected the doctrinaire approach. Camus’ protagonist may have remained an ‘outsider’ to his world, but he remained true to his individual conscience. As Camus wrote in typically Blakean terms: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t , and die to find that there is.”


Prose over verse 

At Shantiniketan, 1932.

The Hindu Archives At Shantiniketan, 1932.



The year 1913 was important for Rabindranath Tagore. It was the year four important works (including Gitanjali) were published in translation. His output during this period — innovative works in diverse genres (poetry, drama, novel, essays) — invites reflection, as does his contribution to the shaping of the modern Indian literary tradition. Tagore’s poetry has become the dominant lens through which we remember him. The Nobel citation spoke of “his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, and acknowledged the “consummate skill (by which) he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”

This is why he was appreciated by modernist poets such as Yeats and Pound. But    But many of these poets eventually grew disillusioned with him. Often, they diplomatically blamed the translations. Perhaps it was always a little odd that some of these modernist poets lauded a poet writing in an openly spiritual register in the old lyric mode. Even if the beauty of some of these spiritual ideas could not be denied, this alone does not make great poetry. In poetry, there needs to be a closer marriage of the sound of words and the ideas they carry. The problem is compounded when poems travel between languages.

His prose, however, poses no such problem. And though there were extraordinary achievements in many prose forms (letters, memoir, essays, drama), Tagore’s most comprehensive achievement was, perhaps, his novels.

Tagore wrote around 12 novels, ranging from large, sweeping works such as Gora (1910) to miniature novellas such as Chaturanga (1916, translated as Quartet) and Dui Bon (1933, translated as Two Sisters). His novels span the period of the coming of age of the Indian novelistic tradition, which had its earliest beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, and reached maturity in the first half of the 20th in almost all the major Indian languages.

The influence of Tagore’s novels is evident in the oeuvre of writers not only in Bengali, but also in languages such as Hindi. Premchand’s correspondence with Jainendra, another great Hindi novelist, is full of admiration (and some competitive envy) for Tagore’s imagination of the feminine voice. The novels are arguably Tagore’s greater legacy. They have too often been sidelined by the immediate beauty of his poems and songs. However, the novels travel further, unencumbered by Tagore’s brand of 19th century Advaitic spiritualism, which is not always intelligible or accessible to contemporary readers

  ………………..the more sublime Tagorean qualities — the facile creation and shifts of mood, the light touch with which he paints a world, the kaleidoscopic quality of his novelistic architecture.

Breaking free of the shackles of lyric spirituality, Tagore emerges a more lithe-limbed, incense-free contemporary novelist, with more concrete, more useful, more modest, and thus ultimately more powerful things to say to us today.

Slow food – Asia

  • Knead the dough. Photo: Shonali Muthalaly
    The Hindu Knead the dough. Photo: Shonali Muthalaly
  • Asia’s first big Slow Food gathering focussed on introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours that will change their perception of food.


…………………Namyangju, in South Korea, may have been chosen to host Asia’s first big Slow Food gathering – AsiO Gusto — because of their organisational skills and exhibition space. However, over the six days that the festival runs, drawing more than 5,30,000 visitors, the locals also show the Slow Food movement the simplest way forward: Create a generation that cares about what they eat by introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours.

Slow Food, an international member-supported non-profit organisation, which began in Rome in the 1980s has grown far beyond its original mandate, a simple opposition to fast food. Now this eco-gastronomic movement — once criticised for being Europe-centred and elitist — works with grassroots organisations around the world to fight for food that is “good, clean and fair,” and promote biodiversity.

………………………..“Think of your favourite food. Then think about eating it every day — breakfast, lunch, dinner. We need diversity. We love tasting something new.” Reade suggests that teaching people to appreciate quality food “removes much of the need to learn about sustainability, ecology, nutrition, distribution and food systems.” He adds, “People have to learn to taste. Learn to listen to the components to food. Taste enables you to recognise nutrients and toxins.” We are a generation biased towards sweet and salty flavours, thanks to a lifetime of processed food, layered with sugar, salt and fat. As a result our taste buds are so over-stimulated that we crave exaggerated and familiar flavours constantly. The market responds with dumbed-down food, creating a vicious cycle.

Former lawyer Heliante Heman, who supports Indonesian artisanal ingredients, talks of how her country once had 7,000 types of rice in purple, pink, black and white, all nurtured by indigenous wisdom-based agriculture. Discussing how she brought up her baby on food from her garden, she states, “You don’t need to be rich to bring your baby up on a healthy diet; you just need to be informed.” Then adds, “This is not just poetry… We need to go directly to the communities.  Build alliances and organic organisations. Demonstrate that sustainable agriculture on a small scale has a future. It’s the only way to ensure that everybody has access to food that is good and healthy.”

It’s worthwhile to remember that most farmers don’t eat what they grow for the market, because they know how pesticide-laden crops theirs are, choosing instead to keep a separate organic garden for their families’ food.

A Japanese farmer at the conference talks of how he realised the chemicals were making him sick, and then switched to organic farming, committing to protect and preserve native seeds. Seed-banks like these are an insurance against a future of flat flavours. Which brings us back to the children. Benedict Reade suggests it’s time to focus on educating them. And expanding their palates. “Teach them what a good carrot is. When you taste a carrot from the ground it can be an epiphany. I can tell when it was picked and where it was grown.” Introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours will change their perception of food. “It will change what they like eating,” says Reade, adding, “And what future generations will eat. It will change what’s available in stores. If we have good taste we have a healthy ecology… Because the markets will respond as they always do.”

The new jungle drums


CGNetSwara Calling. Photo: Purushottam Thakur

A unique cell phone-based networking system in Chhattisgarh helps Adivasi Gonds share local news and air grievances.

The phone call that Bunkar made is part of a unique cell phone-based social media networking system called CGNetSwara, which operates inside sensitive territory termed ‘Maoist areas’. Set up by former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNetSwara gives the Adivasi Gonds of central India a voice that reflects their interests, their local news and events.

CGNetSwara’s Bangalore-based server was set up by Bill Thies, a researcher in Microsoft and a self-confessed IT geek whose interest in user-generated technology aligned with Choudhary’s ideas. Using open-source code and a simple desktop computer with a modem, Thies built a piece of software with 10 voice lines that automatically call the caller back and record his or her message. “It’s going to sound very strange for a computer nerd to tell you, however, that technology is not the secret ingredient here,” says Thies. “The secret ingredients are Choudhary’s social contacts and the community itself.”

CGNetSwara now gets up to 400 calls daily. The callers talk about local happenings, a lot of it related to their interaction with government schemes. Bunkar is very happy with CGNetSwara’s sphere of influence. He says that earlier efforts like dharnas in front of the Assembly in Raipur, agitating for land rights for Adivasis, had not worked,

“There is no need for a newsroom”, says Choudhary. “Geography is now history.”

In another instance of the government taking notice of CGNetSwara, Thies talks of CGNetSwara’s recorded reports of malaria cases in the villages. “CGNetSwara had more malaria incidents in a single year than what the government reported in a decade; we even had reports of government health workers dying of malaria”. The Swara reports made the government machinery pay attention to the malaria cases, and the reported figures rose more realistically thereafter.

But CGNetSwara appears to have taken root in tribal Chhattisgarh. Choudhary calls it citizen journalism of a different kind. In an area neglected by mainstream media (unless the news concerns Maoism), there is now a system to get across local Adivasi news to others in the community. CGNetSwara has spread, purely by word of mouth, to Adivasis in the central Gondwana belt in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh — an expanse that Choudhary calls the ‘media dark zone’. “We are trying to create another paradigm in the term ‘development,” he says. “This communication system could well become the ‘Google of the poor’.”   The area’s ‘Maoists’ have taken note, issuing threats to Choudhary, but he feels they are threatened by the concept of self-empowerment that CGNetSwara brings to its users. Bunkar, though, thinks the system works better in areas that are ‘Naxal free’, away from Chhattisgarh’s borders with AP and Jharkhand. He says, “Naxals gather strength from cross-border infiltration.”

Any wonder, then, that CGNetSwara is fast becoming India’s new ‘jungle drums’?

Inside the Tagore home

  Inside the Tagore home – The Hindu.

 Excerpt :-

In North Kolkata, big gates lead into Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home, Jorasanko. Staircases lead up to wide verandas that skirt rooms with high ceilings, cold black and white marble floors and arched doorways with green louvered shutters. They all overlook a courtyard downstairs. Once, the big rooms were filled with men in their crinkly dhotis and kurtas holding animated discussions and debates on art, literature and politics. In the abarodh or the women’s quarters, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law held sway.

Like Tara of Gone with the Wind , or Manderly of Rebecca , Jorasanko drips atmosphere. The great house was packed to the rafters with people, yet there was always loneliness, fear and despair. Within its walls lurked insanity, abuse, infidelity and politics. Aruna Chakravarti gathers all these details and turns out a novel in which she recreates the world of 18th century Bengal, especially the privileged yet cloistered world of women.

Chakravarti’s heroes are the Tagore women. They step into Jorasanko as child brides knowing they will leave it only when they die. Yet, confined as they are, they influence, instigate and shape their famous husbands and each other. As the Tagore men plunge into the heart of the Bengal Renaissance, the women also grapple with the changes. While some of them slide into bewildered despair as the sacrosanct rules of the abarodh shift and slacken, others grab the opportunity to step out of their husbands’ shadows and become women of importance in their own right. But they are no gilded lilies, and Chakravarti describes them warts and all.

Of course, there are the milestone moments of Rabindranath Tagore’s life — his muse and his sister-in-law the melancholic Kadambari; his first composition; his relationship with his father, his struggle with western education; his marriage to Mrinalini…

Jorasanko spans the years between 1859 and 1902 and is a haunting narrative. It speaks of a luxurious lifestyle, but it also raises questions about the status of women, even those married to the Tagores. The Tagore women were complex. The bous or daughters-in-law, whose days were spent between their boudoirs and the kitchens were not above intrigue and politics. Some of them were devious and spiteful. They were also strong-willed and stubborn, like Digambari who refused to accept Western ways, even if her husband flirted with them; Jogmaya who took on the men and split the Tagore family; Jnanadanandini who entered Jorasanko as a child bride but who dared to step out and set up an independent household with her husband and children. She also set a fashion trend and showed the Bengali women a new way of wearing the sari! And, of course, Swarnakumari, acknowledged as a pioneer of women’s writing in India.

Then there were those who suffered. Some silently, others like Tripura vocally, and others like Kadambari who unable to bear the terrible loneliness and pain preferred to die.

She didn’t belong here; had never belonged here. She had left her parents at the age of seven and made this house her home. She had embraced her husband’s family and given it all she had. She had thought it was hers. But it wasn’t… No one would shed a genuine tear if she died tomorrow.


‘It was not urban, or cool, or sexy’ – The HinduExcerpt from an Interview

  Indonesian author Andrea Hirata never dreamt that his debut novel would continue to make waves years after it was first published.


   In Indonesia, merely mentioning the name Andrea Hirata seems to transform everyone, from posh society ladies to taxi drivers, into shiny-eyed eulogists.

 ……….Hirata is certainly “nice,” but his greater claim to fame is as the best selling writer of all time in Indonesia, and the only one in recent history to enjoy international success. His 2005 debut novel, Laskar Pelangi (the Rainbow Troops ) has sold over five million copies and was made into a much-awarded movie in 2008, which became the biggest ever box office-hit in the country. Translated into 21 languages, the book is now available in 87 countries, including India.

The unassuming man, sitting in front of me sipping green tea, is thus responsible for having transformed Indonesia’s literary scene. His success has given succour to struggling local publishing houses and hope to other aspiring writers who have long been ignored by the wider world.  But even after seven years of triumph and acclaim, Hirata appears genuinely surprised by the literary twist his life — he was formerly a financial analyst for a telecommunications company — has taken. The Indonesian writer’s personal story — the early years of which form the basis for the autobiographical The Rainbow Troops — has the fairy-tale bookends of rags and riches, and is littered with inspirational characters and unexpected pivots.

Hirata was born in an obscure village on an island called Belitong, off the east coast of Sumatra. His family worked as labourers for the state-owned tin mining company that ruled the local roost and were too poor to send him to any school, save a free one, run by an Islamic charity. This school lacked even a toilet and its roof had leaks so large that students studied under umbrellas on rainy days. But it was here that Hirata became a member of the Rainbow Troops, a group of impoverished young village boys (and one girl) who were introduced to the pleasures of education by two dedicated teachers: the veteran Pak Harfan and the 15-year-old Ibu Muslimah.

Unlike his other classmates, most of whom never made it past elementary school, a combination of hard work and luck saw Hirata escape the poverty he was born into. He made it to university where he studied economics. A European Union scholarship led to further opportunities for study in France and the U.K.By 2005, Andrea was living in the city of Bandung, having made good with a middle-level job at a telecommunications company. He was largely satisfied with the direction of his life. But, then one day he heard from a former classmate that his teacher, the inspirational Ibu Muslimah, was very sick and childhood memories came flooding back. Amongst these was a promise that he’d made to his teacher as a fifth-grader, to one day write a book dedicated to her.Hirata began writing that very night and “before I knew it” he had 600 pages worth of memories down on paper. Bentang, an obscure publishing house on the brink of closure, decided to publish the manuscript. The editor liked the story, although he doubted it would sell.

“It was not urban, or cool, or sexy,” explains Hirata, “but about a 15-year-old teacher, the kind of students who had to cycle 80 kilometres every day, to make it to school and set in a place that no one could identify on a map.” For the publishers, the project was meant as a last hurrah. Their previous book, an Indonesian translation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , had sold a sum total of 500 copies.

Two weeks after the initial 2,000 copy print run of The Rainbow Troops was in bookstores, Hirata received a late-night call from his editor. Against every expectation, the book had sold out. “That was the moment that my life changed forever,” he smiles. Another 2,000 copies sold out within a week. And on it went; the book a seemingly unstoppable force.

The Rainbow Troops is written simply with a straight-from-the-heart feel. As a result it is unpolished in places, but the rough edges almost enhance its emotional appeal. There are several important social and political themes that infuse its narrative but the book carries them lightly, never descending into the pedantic.These themes have a particular resonance for a country like India dealing as they do with a gamut of familiar issues from inequality and corporate rapaciousness, to diversity and syncretism. Hirata writes most touchingly about hope even in the midst of poverty and the tragedy of wasted talent.

The book’s most compelling character is the brilliant Lintang, the son of an illiterate fisherman whose passion for education sees him cycling an 80 kilometre-round trip journey to school every day, past crocodile-infested swamps. Despite his obvious mathematical genius, Lintang is forced to give up his education and take over the role as his family’s breadwinner when his father dies in an accident.

I ask Hirata what had become of Lintang in later life. He sighs, “Lintang is a truck driver. He was a genius, but this is life. This is life.”

Lintang’s story may not end on a happy note, but Hirata’s success has changed the fortunes of many others for the better. His once-nearly-bankrupt publishing company is now flourishing. His teacher, the indomitable Ibu Muslimah, has been awarded one of the Indonesian state’s highest honours for her service to education. As for the village of Belitong, the number of tourists visiting the place shot up by 1,800 per cent the year after the movie based on Hirata’s book was released in 2008.

Since The Rainbow Troops , Hirata has written several more novels, including three sequels to his debut. But it was only in 2011 that he finally quit his job as financial analyst to become a full-time writer. “It took me six novels before I felt confident of my voice as a writer,” he says earnestly and takes another sip of his tea.

Broadcasters of silence – The Hindu.

Malayalam poet Veerankutty’s book in English, Always in Bloom is a reminder that some truths can only be whispered in intimacy, in silence.

Here is a voice so quiet that it could almost be a passing murmur in the mind. A voice that is hushed because that is the only way to talk about an undocumented verandah in a family home or an anonymous old woman with a sack of potatoes walking into a Kerala dusk.What does one say about a voice that doesn’t defend, proclaim, flaunt, attack, chest-thump? What does one say about a voice of conscious vulnerability, a voice that chooses not to raise its voice? To speak softly here is choice — radical choice, not cowardice, not incapability. This is a voice that reminds us that fragility can be its own reward. To underscore some insights, to shout them from the rooftops, to belt them out in a stadium is to distort their integrity. Nothing wrong with rooftops – or stadia. But what of truths that demand other modes of articulation?

The book is modestly produced, as books of poetry usually are. Additionally, as with so many works of translation, there are several bumpy moments — gauche constructions, awkward syntax, proof-reading blunders. But through all the clunkiness, something blazes through: the presence of a poet.

One realises yet again the power of that verbal resource in a poet’s arsenal: the image. For only a poet can tether to the page moments that could otherwise so easily turn into statistic or slogan, headline or homily. Veerankutty reminds you, for instance, that justice and injustice are not abstruse concepts for parliamentary (and News at Nine) debate, but this particular old woman hobbling along with her half kilo of potatoes, hoping to buy her ragi and her eye-drops before sunset.

And it is only a poet who can document a sense of wonder at the ‘precision’ of creation (‘ light staying light/and not slipping into/something else ’); the tenderness one feels at watching two people in love (‘ The world isn’t going to end soon ’); a mother leaving the door unlocked ‘ lest the verandah feel/left out, cold and lonely ’; a forgotten Bisleri bottle capable of producing an entire landscape replete with ‘ birds with sprouted wings…/trees with branches/leaning into the river ’; the need to stand witness to a tree — its grammar of defencelessness and dignity, its fragility and wisdom.

The poet Rilke talked of ‘the news that is always arriving out of silence’. Veerankutty’s volume is one more reminder of the value of that news — and how indispensable its broadcasters are to our lives.

Manohar Shetty’s new book of poems, Body Language (published by the indefatigable Poetrywala), speaks in a different register. The dominant tone is irony — a tone often regarded as a limited and overused resource. But the book testifies to just how polychromatic irony can be — ranging from self-deprecation to searing indictment.Generally, however, Shetty’s irony is less a savage Swiftian affair than a dry, dispassionate, mildly despairing amusement. There is a need to archive — with grim relish — the affectations of a new upwardly mobile Indian middle class. There’s no bookshelf here,/Or paintings…/The plush divan sinks/With a hush and leaves no wrinkles, ’ he says in a poem entitled ‘Luxury Home, Goa’, invoking in a few sharp strokes a particular brand of nouveau-riche abode. The last lines are slyly cruel: ‘ The kitchen/Is crystal rich,/Clinical, and the gleaming/Sink reflects an oblong/Face with a triple/Chin. ’

In ‘Dinars’, the satire is directed at another familiar brand of Gulf-returned Mr. Moneybags: with ‘an SUV’ purring ‘in his garage’; a wife with a gold necklace on her ‘sand-dune bosom’ and children whose voices ‘roar over the choir/ like a sandstorm’. ‘New Chic’ is a piercing lampoon of those who ‘speak soundlessly on their/ iPads’, consider ‘the no smoking sign’ to be their ‘last will and manifesto’ and believe (the irony is delicious here) that ‘Paulo Coelho/is deep, real deep.’

‘Colonial Museum’ adopts the imperialist’s gaze to speak in chillingly dulcet tones about ‘ chaprasis/grinning like langurs ’ and a land that was ‘ divided and sliced so delicately/like cucumber sandwiches ’. And ‘Local’ is an unsparing portrait of Goan small town-ism where ‘ a snide remark/made nine years ago/is a slur against/family honour ’ and ‘ the belle of the ball/is the next Miss Universe.

In Shetty’s finest poems, it is the spare and crafted images that give the irony its charge. There is also a satirist’s ability to read the ‘fine print’ (a recurrent phrase in Shetty’s poems) beneath every label and slogan, and show up the yawning chasm between the two.

What rescues this irony from broad strokes (in a couple of poems, including one about ‘Miss America’, one wondered if the cultural critique ran the risk of sexist stereotyping) are the moments of self-implication. And so there are poems that speak of ‘ our ‘diffident, difficult selves…carefully/counting our loose change ’ or ‘ my hunchback walk/and dragging feet ’ which suggest a personal admission of bewilderment.  One realises, then, that this is not the privileged insider parodying the arriviste. The gaze belongs, instead, to one who knows his position is far from secure; that he, in fact, is the endangered species, increasingly out of step with the times, aware that there might not be any campaigns, any dirges to mourn his passing — nothing other than perhaps a fine print obit in a local newspaper.In ‘Template’, Shetty speaks of ‘ the nervy/blue streak in the ice, its scalding clarity ’. It is precisely this ‘nervy blue’ aliveness that is the poet’s strength. It imbues the book with an ability to dart from biting rejection to playfulness and rueful candour in ways that frequently surprise the reader.

Here are two books completely unalike each other in their poetics. Interestingly, however, both are devoid of effusive blurbs and self-congratulatory author bios. And both reveal a preoccupation with silence — as possibility, as erasure.

You will only be heard, ’ says Shetty, ‘ when the noise/ has died down ’. Poetry, of course, is about keeping that faith, the odds notwithstanding.

If a plastic mineral water bottle can produce a universe (as Veerankutty tells us) and an ‘aloof’ book of verse – ‘an outsider, like Humphrey Bogart’ — can linger on in the memory (as Shetty reminds us), perhaps there is hope for the broadcasters of silence, after all.

 unwrittennature:Desert moon by:  Jay Z   Excerpt from Poems on the sand

Clinton Bailey gave himself to the poetry of the Bedouins, which defies the harshness of the desert.

Some half a century ago, Paula Ben-Gurion, wife of Israel’s first Prime Minister looked over the hedge while pottering around her Tel Aviv garden and espied a young man. She invited him in and a chance encounter became a calling. The young man was Clinton Bailey, a Jewish American who had been raised in upstate New York and had come to Israel in search of his destiny. A teaching job at Ben Gurion’s kibbutz at Sde Boker in the Negev soon followed where Bailey came in close touch with the Bedouin of the desert, their ancient culture already fraying under the inexorable influence of the forces of modernism. For the next four decades and more, Bailey has studied the Bedouin of the Negev and the Sinai, lived with them months at a time, become their trusted friend and a devoted witness to the passing of a way of life that has survived in the desert since pre-Biblical times. By the time I met Bailey, he was acknowledged as the foremost expert on Bedouin history, culture, poetry and law. Many enriching encounters ensued, culminating in a day-long tour with him in the Negev desert, eating with the Bedouin from a common platter heaped with rice and chicken and drinking strong bitter coffee cooked over coals in a hole in the sand, never mind that many of the tents were now of cement sheets and ramshackle cars jostled with camels in the compound.

One would presume that an unlettered nomadic culture that devoted its energies to sheer survival in the inhospitable desert would not lend itself naturally to the fine art of poetry. Bailey’s monumental work Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev turns this perception on its head and shows that survival is not only economic but also social, spiritual, psychological and aesthetic. Poetry was for the Bedouin a counter to the stark harshness of the desert: it served as an expression of emotion as well as a practical way of passing a message, easier to remember since it was in rhyme. It was also a vehicle for celebrating traditional Bedouin traits — extreme generosity, hospitality, bravery and honour.

Over two decades, from 1967 to 1988, Bailey recorded 700 Bedouin poems recited around desert campfires. Some of these would be recited by the poet himself (known as shair in Arabic, as in Urdu); others would be those written by revered poets from earlier generations and committed to memory by reciters and travellers, a practice that ensured that a popular poem would travel huge distances from the deserts of Arabia to the Negev and Sinai, or into Iraq and Syria. The present book contains 113 of these poems, chosen primarily for their popularity among the Bedouin. Each poem has a little introductory essay explaining its context and myriad, enlightening footnotes that are testimony to Bailey’s sincerity of commitment and academic discipline.

Divided into sections based on the basic motives of Bedouin poetry — emotion, communication, instruction and entertainment — the book also contains an exciting selection from the eight- year exchange of poems between Anez Abu Salim and other Bedouin. The free-spirited Anez, besides being the finest living poet in Sinai, was also a leading smuggler bringing income to hundreds of Bedouin and had been locked up by the Egyptians. His poems express his pessimism and despair in prison as well as his pain at finding out that two of his wives had proved to be unfaithful. He is informed of their indiscretions by another poet who writes:Tell Anez that with relish they eat what he’s sown/ A harvest of darkened-eyed girls he’d once known.In the end, Anez divorced all three wives, to avoid further calumny and wrote:And, lest every Zed and Abed laugh at me,/ I’ve set my three non-bearing she-camels free.

Anez also wrote many other types of poems, including one to King Husein when he was not allowed to meet him by Mubarak ( Had the luck of Husein and myself so conspired/ A meeting of worthies would have transpired ). And another, full of gentle flattery, to King Abdullah of Jordan in the hope of being presented a fine camel.

Say: O Sir, how you generously offer the glass,/Filled with tea that poets so commonly praise,

So strong that it leaves in the glass a stain;/Even after it’s washed black markings remain.

Then you pour fresh coffee over cardamom seeds:/Coffee that stains with henna-red beads.

And then when you bring your guests what to eat,/Goat-ghee flows through the rice and the meat.

Say: I want a young camel whose ride is a ‘high’:/Tawny, not whiteness that glares in the eye;

With a saddle and saddle-bags fitted just right,/And tassels that sway between his legs when in flight,

And a thigh-rest new, it’s thongs on his withers,/And reins stitched by hands dyed a henna-red hue.

If the king gave me only a pack camel-Fine!/But speedy young mares set me on fire.

abheysingh:Rest on Flickr.

The poems of instruction are enchanting too, hovering around the recurrent theme of hospitality: the host must be overtly available to his guests, light a fire immediately, roast the coffee beans right and then dispense coffee correctly. He needs a spacious tent, a wife of good breeding, enough goats for fresh meat and enough camels for milk. And for power, that would in turn help him make a good host, a Bedouin needs brave sons, a good rifle and a high reputation. An example of a poem on the making of coffee:

Roast me three handfuls, friend, one after one;/Let the beans in hot ghada-coals waft to the mart.

Take care that they neither be burnt nor undone;/While roasting don’t let yourself dream, but be smart.

The cadence and beat of your grinding should stun,/Even out in the waste, weary travellers will start.

In a coffee-pot, tall by the fire, heap the grains;/Then the pot, like a crane, will go round with a tray.

The coffee, poured, will leave dark reddish stains,/Like the blood of a sheep, heart and lungs cut away.

But for the likes of Clinton Bailey, all this would be lost to us.

Translating or transcending – The Hindu.

We are a polyglot nation, and we have knowledge of at least two languages: we have a mother tongue and a language in which we have been educated at school and college, which is often different from the mother tongue. Often this second is English. Every language you learn has its own sensibilities and its own idiom. It has its own registers, value systems, class distinctions and levels of the acceptable and the unacceptable. Each language that we know sensitises us differently to different things, and develops in us different personalities with different sensibilities.

Each time we switch to another language, we subtly shift to being another person. Our gestures and facial expressions also alter accordingly. A language is not simply about words and sentences, it is also about pauses, emphasis, intonation, cadence, pitch, silences; the appropriate use of these in sentences and words is what creates the meaning of what we say, and conveys nuances.

In translation of texts, the non-verbal aspects of language are hidden until the text reaches the reader. But to get the text to reach the reader in a way that the reader interprets the semantic signals to create the same meaning is the job of the translator. A translator of literary texts especially has to be acutely conscious of the different personalities he/she has developed in different languages. The moment of translation is the moment when the translator’s two personalities in two different languages are in dialogue with each other. It is the moment of interlocution between the two personalities of the same person. Only then can the eternal argument of ‘faithful’ and ‘beautiful’ be resolved in translation, because it is then transcended, and we reach another level of understanding about translations. Faithful and beautiful are no longer opposed to each other and are no longer even players.

In the knowing of another tongue, which maybe indigenous or foreign, in therefore developing of an alternate personality, we create space for the understanding of Another. Translation, comparative literature and writing in a second language all constantly pose the question of rapports with Another.

If we take as a preliminary truth that all societies are based on some Universal Human Values, it becomes extremely limiting. We then narrow ourselves down and choose texts and subjects that we feel represent those universal values which we understand also as our own. In such a case we close doors to understanding the Other. The Other cannot be Another unless he/she has Otherness. If we do not acknowledge the otherness of the other, if we think we know their truths already, then we close our minds and do not go out in search of their otherness. In such a case in translation we are actually just searching for mirror images of our own selves and we are not transcending ourselves or the texts. What would be the value of translation when we do not want to know why someone/something represents or IS another?

Translation and work between languages also fulfils the ambassadorial function of creating empathy and understanding between cultures, but only when we are ready to acknowledge and value the differences, (Otherness) to accept them for what they are, to see how these very differences enrich and strengthen societies.

Repository of memories – The Hindu.

When we revisit favourite songs, books and movies we encounter our earlier selves and experiences.

That episode set me thinking of the role art plays in our lives. As we age, our favourite songs, books and movies become a repository of our memories. When we revisit them, we encounter our earlier selves, the people we knew then, the experiences that shaped us… Since I have spent a good part of my life with books, I have several memories stashed away in them.

When I began the book, I would often speak to my grandfather about it. He hadn’t read it, but the movie was one of his favourites. I remember how he kept referring to Scarlett as Vivien Leigh and to Rhett as Clark Gable. He wanted me to enlighten him about the parts of the book that were edited out of the movie version. As the months passed, however, we stopped talking as tuberculosis took possession of his body. He was bedridden for several months before he died. By the end, he was unable to speak or comprehend, and barely had any flesh on his bones. To this day I retain some of the horror of watching the life seep out of him. You don’t really know death until it happens to a loved one, and there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the experience. ( reminds of my GF )

A character in the Argentinean movie classic The Secret in Their Eyes says: “Memories are all we end up with. At least pick the nice ones.”

A life amid rare books – The Hindu.

Bibliophiles in India will know how truly rare it is to find a rare books shop in this country. I was thrilled beyond words and, when I had finished slavering over the books (restored and shelved with impeccable care), exclaimed that I just had to write about his marvellous antiquarian bookshop, which was two rooms on the terrace of his house in Basavanagudi. With equal intensity, he forbade me to write about him or his East-West Bookshop. He was content, he said, with a customer base drawn from word-of-mouth. “I don’t like too many people coming here,” he added.

…………..I should clarify here that the stock I speak of was not choc-a-bloc with rarities or first editions or even anything like very scarce or expensive editions. Its uniqueness and charm lay in being well-preserved old editions; some genuinely antiquarian, many out of print, all gathered fetchingly in one room. A room full of gilt-edged antiquarian book spines is something to behold. And then there is the smell of leather and fine paper ageing, and the delicate feel of tissue guards over illustrations. Rao managed to make every copy on his shelf desirable and valuable by simply presenting them with antiquarian flair, wrapping them in Mylar sleeves or clear acetate plastic. All of it has gone now, thanks to a quiet deal he made with a longstanding customer, knowing the end was near. Several book dealers made discreet inquiries about the fate of the East-West stock, and were told by the family that the books along with the shelves had been sold en bloc. They are, one hopes, with a collector now and perhaps will be well cared for.

A naturally fine and witty raconteur, Rao could regale you with fantastic and wonderful stories about second-hand booksellers and the used book trade. Mostly self-taught (though more than once he acknowledged Murthy of Select Bookshop as mentoring him in the trade), Madhava Rao had a genius for recognising an interesting edition, spotting uncommon editions, pursuing them relentlessly and then, if the copy required it, restoring it so you, his customer, could hold in your hand an antiquarian edition whose condition was more than just acceptable.

Rao was known for being a skilled restorer of crumbling books. ……….One tiny shelf, in particular in that tiny room, held much fascination for me: it housed literature, mostly late 19th century and early 20th century editions of English and European authors.

Here, on Rao’s little shelf, to my astonishment, were several rows of antiquarian editions in fairly desirable condition. As the antiquarian market mantra goes, ‘Condition is not all, it is everything.’ Among other things, I found an 1894 Gulliver’s Travels , an 1889 Three Men and a Boat , a deluxe 1912 Pilgrim’s Progress , and a 1905 Essays of Elia . I remember my bibliophile friend found a beautiful edition of The Second Jungle Book , a snake embossed in gold on the cover.

His colleagues and customers knew that he began buying interesting, uncommon editions and hoarding them for himself and, only later in the late 1990s, turned from book collector to bookseller. It was also well known that, even as a struggling book dealer, he always kept a low profile, though no one could really say why. Some speculate he had private reasons for not advertising the bookshop.

Knowing the obsessive intensity and passion with which he conducted all his book transactions — from buying, restoring, and selling and coming back for more fervent buying (he book-hunted in every corner of the city, ferrying his loot back in an auto) — I think it was just so he could be left alone to study and play with his antiquarian loot: to savour, enjoy, and take in an edition’s bibliographical qualities, to work his magic on broken copies with those hands, and only after such bibliophilic ritual and intimacy, offer them up to fellow antiquarians for their contemplation, pleasure and possession.

Artfully curated – The Hindu.

Poets hide like seeds/only to return in new forms/At least now their breed is in no danger of extinction

The different retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, love poetry from classical Tamil literature, Bhakti poetry, devotional poems bordering on the erotic, playful poems on gender politics, Urdu and Vedic poems.

Reading the book is like visiting an artfully curated museum of poetry from the Vedas to the present, except that the editors break logic and clichés of time, placing Kalidasa next to Nissim Ezekiel or Auvaiyar next to Ayyappa Paniker. Instead of choosing a chronological or alphabetical order, the editors arrange the poems thematically across 10 sections.

The arrogance and fierce possessiveness of a poet comes through in “ If anyone faults my poetry, even my teacher,/even God himself, I’ll fight back/and win .” The poem is ‘I was born for poetry’ by Chellapilla Venkata Sastri and translated from the Telugu by Velchuru Narayana Rao.

Nara’s ‘White Paper’, Nanne Coda’s ‘On Poetry in Telugu’, Bharthari’s ‘Her Face Is Not The Moon, Nor Are Her Eyes’, the extract from Ezhuthacchan’s ‘Adhyatma Ramayana’, Mona Zote’s ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’ were delightful discoveries.

There is Andal, Purandara Das, Subramania Bharati, Tukaram, Mohammed Iqbal and Mirabai, all rendered in translation, of course.

The Indian landscape grows more ironic in Gopal Honnagere’s ‘How to Tame a Pair of New Chappals’: “ don’t take them to your temple/they may at once come to know you are weak/your god is false and start biting you/ ” he says, in his list of instructions for us.

Alone with other things – The Hindu.

This hermit-poet uses poetry

to negotiate his hermit life

with the other life he is

trying to leave behind.

My kimono sleeves/blossom-scented by the air/under this orange tree/close by the caves, catch and hold/tears falling from the past’s recall .’

As always the moon/night after night after night/will stay on here/at this grass hut I put together/and now myself must leave.

Saigyo’s reclusiveness made him alive to the aloneness of things — trees, birds, animals, streams and, of course, the moon — and equally a sense of how one can be alone with other things.

A Saigyo scholar spoke of it as his “finely sharpened sense of the world’s samsara.” Kubota, another Saigyo scholar, said reading this Buddhist hermit you encounter “a motif of a body-piercing loneliness in these poems.” The moon became illumination, luminosity for the mind; Saigyo was just as preoccupied by cherry blossoms and the scholar Konishi says Saigyo “perceived cherry blossoms and the moon as mandalas .” Like Ryokan, Saigyo’s poems sought to bring the ‘way of poetry’ with ‘the way of the Buddha’, and to talk, in these poems, of the struggles and joys of the Buddhist life. Burton Watson, the gifted translator of Poems of a Mountain Home, tells us in his introduction that there is some writing to show Saigyo felt poetry and its practice was a sacred duty for a Buddhist. But one can’t be certain, points out Watson, that this was Saigyo’s aesthetics since these writings are more legend than an accurate record.

However, it seems to me, when I learn of how much and often Saigyo came out of the forest to the courts to take part in poetry competitions and even teach poetry, it doesn’t seem too far fetched that Saigyo would feel strongly about the place of poetry in Buddhism.

And as soon as he turned monk, he began writing poetry; his theme at once about the struggle to live a Buddhist life, and what it meant. The style of his poetry, his translator informs us, was waka or court poetry, which came even before the haiku and is slightly longer. Four centuries later its influence was felt deeply by Basho who underscores his debt to Saigyo all through his work. “The waka too is best opened with care, close attention, and appreciation for the skill of the person who put so much into so small a container.”

After moving around many places near in and around monasteries and temples, he frequented two mountains, Mount Yoshino and Mount Koya, often overwhelmed by the “astonishing beauty of the sakura (the cherry blossoms) often wanting to linger here, feasting his eyes on them — he was drawn to the physical beauty of the phenomenal world”. But he had to move on deeper into the forest and his mountain home to pursue solitude. He wrote: ‘ Here I huddle alone/in a mountain’s shadow, needing/some companion somehow: the cold, biting rains pass off/and gives me the winter moon.

But the book’s lingering quality — its ability to stay under a reader’s skin long after its secrets had been disclosed — hinged on its portrayal of two characters who match wits: one a brilliant physicist-sleuth named Yukawa (also known as Detective Galileo) and the other a criminal with almost unfathomable, monk-like reserves of personal dedication and forbearance.

When it is revealed, a reader’s instinctive response might be to snort and say “Impossible” (which is what the detectives listening to Yukawa do). I even felt a little cheated at first, as if the author had blindsided me by stepping outside the permissible limits of the genre. But further reflection shifted my perception of what was possible and what wasn’t; I began to see the peculiar internal logic of the denouement in light of the personalities and the lifestyles involved, and the crime no longer appeared unfeasible.

The actual writing has some of the functional woodenness that you find in most commercial fiction of this sort — too many references to a character’s eyes “widening in surprise”, for example, or hands gripping a phone tightly when unexpected news is received — but these are tics of the genre, easy enough to ignore up to a point. (Besides, as has often been observed, when Japanese is translated into English, the results can seem a little stilted and over-formal, especially when the reader is from a culture that doesn’t understand why a detective might remove his shoes outside a house before going in to question a murder suspect.)

This book is about a crime born of very deep passion, but with no sudden bursts of action, no explicit violence or dramatic confrontations, it is unnerving in ways that more conventional thrillers are not. And despite the fact that the setting is a homogenous modern city and the characters are in some ways indistinguishable from upper-middle-class people living anywhere in the world, there is something distinctly Japanese about it, something of the deceptive placidity of the filmmaker Ozu or the novelist Ishiguro. There is a sense of a neat and ordered contemporary world with mystical rumblings beneath its surface, reminiscent of the Sheep Man in Haruki Murakami’s novels, hidden in a forgotten corner of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, or a videotape being employed by supernatural forces in Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. Higashino’s book is set in a world of tidy kitchens with coffee-makers and bottled mineral water, of sophisticated dinners and dating parties, but beneath it all is something more primal. The image one is left with at the end is the indelible one of a predatory spider watching quietly, patiently over her web.

Just one day at the fest could have you seesawing. On the one hand you had Delhi aunties and their designer bags waging seat battles. They went everywhere, anywhere they could get a seat — it didn’t seem to matter whether it was two Dalit writers in Tamil or Prasoon Joshi condemning item numbers or even Amish Tripathi. On the other hand, you had enthralling minds like the young archiver Vikram Sampath, who is struggling to make ancient Indian music free and accessible to all via his website; the quietly dazzling Anjan Sunderam who is being hailed as a young Kapuscinski by Pico Iyer; the insuppressibly witty Howard Jacobson; and the thrill of watching Ashis Nandy and Tarun Tejpal expressively disembowel ill-informed moderators and audacious questioners.

This gets us to the “question rounds between the panellists and authors, after the sessions” — the one way in which JLF flattens the differences. If you somehow manage to finagle the mike, you can also join the elitists in drawing the fundamentals of our society. Or, like I did, watch with horror and bemusement as a young girl in cashmere shawl and horn-rimmed intelligent-looking glasses, actually argue that the Amazon Kindle doesn’t smell like a book.

This year was special as one of my favourite writers, Pico Iyer, spoke about another of my favourite writer, Graham Greene. I have always associated them with the unglamorous side of a writer’s life. Ceaseless media-shy literary warriors, monks among the literary cheerleaders and exhibitionists. Eloquent, dignified with a soft, caring voice they may be, but are/were fast talkers too. They reconnect you with the fantastical world of imagination that is the utmost gift of being a child. And that’s what we love about authors: they are refined out of existence, superbly above it all, and provide no answers beyond the ones hidden in one’s books. But now that Pico Iyer has wrecked my heart by appearing in public consistently (I take solace in the fact that he refused interviews and claimed that he hated travel writing), I am running out of models and icons who will not cave in to the stress of the market or the enticement of taking a little dip in the puddle of celebrity-hood.

That is one big reason, if you ask me, why I ended up spending my evenings with dead writers under the orange and white awning of the Penguin store at the fest: Bronte, Dickens, Kafka, Tolstoy, Greene. They can’t come back from the dead to claim their share of the limelight under that neem tree close to the book stall. Far from the infuriating crowds, buried deep into the earth, they are comfy with their solitude and do not suffer from nervous breakdowns if denied the regular supply of the thrills of the mass media. I go to them, finger the beautiful new embossed collectible covers in bright hues of red, orange and yellow that Penguin has dressed them in, sip nimbu paani in their company and learn to cherish my solitude from them. And as advised by Einstein, look deep inside me, often to find profound shallowness.  So there’s no point fighting it. I will deny it till the day before the festival begins, maybe even book a flight to Goa just to make sure I don’t get there on that day. But there is no point combating what the cosmos intends. I will go back again next year. And listen to Pico Iyer talk about his new journeys around the world.

The clash between the normative or what should be and the realistic or what is remains at the heart of all art. Given the conformist nature of our society, this conflict is especially relevant for an Indian artist.

Yet, for all its greatness, I cannot read Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the beginning of 2013 without being saddened by how relevant it is in today’s India. The Delhi gang rape in December has opened up a groundswell of revulsion. Let us hope that this results in a substantial and lasting change in attitude, ushering in an era where we Indians may read Hardy’s novel the way his fellow Britons read it — as a classic of an era long past.