By Kumar David –
The trouble started with Mr Vinasithamby, our Tamil master in school, always attired in vetti and saalvai and in a pair of slippers, while the other Tamil master Mr Shaithananthan – when I last heard he was in Canada – wore white trousers a shirt and closed shoes. I must have been about fourteen when Vinasi decided to unload a line from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies that got me into a bit of a panic, before he returned his attention to Silapathikram or its antithesis Manimehali or whatever he was trying to drum into our thick skulls. I cannot locate the line but it seems Ruskin spoke of “Books of the moment and books of all time”. I was a decent enough reader for a teenager but mostly ‘instantaneous’ stuff and it struck me that there were hundreds of books I would have to know before pretending to be educated. Later, adding the monumental array in other languages that I had not even heard of as a fourteen year old, the task seemed to have multiplied to thousands of volumes to be spread over many lifetimes.
It was only much later, near the end of my allotted span of three score and ten that I came to see that no way did I need to read it all. First, there is a lot stuff that others think great but I dislike. I loathe the Bagavad Geetha, Paradise Lost bores me to tears and when Milton visited the lost-and-found office and Regained his Lost property it put me to sleep every five lines. Some of his sonnets though are beautiful. I also dislike Eliot, who is pretentious; his “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular” game. I say be open, don’t be intimated by big names; if a big name bores you, say so and avoid him.
The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Remembrance of Things Past, the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Analects; it’s quite enough if you read a greatly abridged version or summary stories. The same goes, except Psalms 23 and 121, some Isiah and juicy bits of Deuteronomy, for the Old Testament. And except the Gospels and bits of Paul, the same applies to the New Testament. And please always the Authorised Version; the modern versions are garbage as literature. (Imagine this: And Jesus said to Mathew “Machang, let’s go to the junction and put a plain tea and a beedi”!). Similarly you only need to be familiar with a few Jathaka Stories, to get the hang. I have not tried my hand at the Koran, or full versions of Faust, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Spinoza or Hegel in translation – I am basically monolingual – but I have taken the trouble to learn the basics from essays and summaries. You see, I am realistic; this is the only way. Don’t be shy, use this approach to the majority of Ruskin’s “books of all time”; you have only one life. The important thing is to commit diligently to this abridged task as per the spare time life’s chores of doing a job and feeding the brood allows. And oh, I am speaking of reading enjoyment, not your religion or what you need to know about this or that faith.
War & Peace is classic even for teenager but why in pluperfect purgatory did Tolstoy stick a 40-page philosophical critique of then existing (pre-Marxist) theories of history at the end of the book? Old history said great events issue from the actions of great persons. Tolstoy said ‘No’. He said that in a world full of events the interaction between necessity and free-will are decisive. They add up to frame history. A hard Marxist even in my youth this suited me fine but why Tolstoy’s long a rigmarole epilogue? Anyway it’s all better stated in the first part of the German Ideology and in the scintillating prose of the Manifesto. The latter was available to Tolstoy but the former, a collection of writings, was published by David Riazanov only in 1932.
There are dozens of non-English works I have enjoyed in translation – Don Quixote, Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, the Arabian Nights, the Rubaiyat, some Chekov, I loved Gogol’s Dead Souls and Voltaire’s Candide. Readers of this column, obviously English literate are familiar with Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Sons and Lovers, Grapes of Wrath, Heart of Darkness, and so the compulsory list goes on. However, I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet read the acclaimed Chinese challenger to Tolstoy’s great epic, Cao Xueqin’s (1724-1764) Dream of the Red Chamber.
And then there’s Shakespeare. No one will disagree that the Bard of Strafford-on-Avon is numero uno among English poets, and there’s no point hiding that in my view the finest in all literature, the Greek, Sanskrit and Persian epics which I know about in translation, included. Not everyone is aware that the plays are poetry, not prose; blank verse in iambic pentameter (a line of verse with five metrical steps of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long stressed syllable, making up ten rhythmic syllables). Intoning in iambic pentameter is key to enjoying the poetic in Shakespeare. Here are a few unsurpassed purple passages. I have highlighted a few of the stressed steps though some of you with a more musical ear may partition it otherwise.
Macbeth, dismayed by his blood stained hand after he murdered Duncan, mummers;
“This my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”
Othello, preparing to blow out the candle and then strangle Desdemona who he dearly loves groans;
“Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy light restore if I repent me.
But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy former light restore.”
Cleopatra on the Nile;
“The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; its poop was beaten gold”.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”
Twelfth Night, everyone knows this one.
“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die”.
Hamlet – in the cardinal work in all the English tongue – is sick of life;
“O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew”.
Of course not everything Shakespeare wrote is my cup of tea. Of the four great tragedies I am not excited by Lear, for which delinquency I have earned the enduring disdain of Tissa Jayatilaka. To be honest I don’t care for the comedies except As You Like It. (I can even improve on Shakespeare: “Sermons in books; and stones in the running brooks!”). What’s the big deal; Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t resonate with modern audiences. I am one of few Lankan fans of the Histories, especially Henry V and Richard III. Suriya Wicks, Dr SA Wicks’ daughter calls my pontification on two-part Henry IV, Henry V, three-part Henry VI and two-part Henry VII, my “Romp with the Henrys”. Blah!
Reading must be pleasure and this brings me to modern writing. There is an explosion in all languages. English readers are lucky to get the largest share of translations. The number of good, bad and indifferent novels is amazing but many novelists make their tomes fat and boring. Twentieth Century English poetry too does not excite me. Maybe I am old-fashioned; in my notepad the last great English poet was Gerald Manley Hopkins, certainly the finest of the Victorians. “Glory be to God for dappled things: For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow: For rose-mole all on stipple upon trout that swim: Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings: Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough: And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim”.
Wit and a photographic memory help in the enjoyment. Churchill’s skit on Scot’s line when Labour left office is memorable; they departed “unwept, unhonoured, unloved” and unhanged! Bernard Soysa was gifted with a remarkable photographic memory and could declaim entire speeches of great historical merit – Frederick Douglas’s ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ (1852); Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863); Chief Joseph’s ‘Surrender Speech’ (1877); Churchill’s ‘Their finest hour’ (1940); Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ (1947), and a fine declamation about Toussaint Louverture that I cannot now trace.
There is such a range of other material apart from snooty stuff – Stephen Jay Gould, Gerald Durrell, Richard Dawkins, Edward O Wilson in one corner, Stephen Hawing, John Gribbin, Fritjof Capra and hundreds more in another corner, and more corners to make science, ecology, cosmology, anthropology and much else interesting to everyman. Maybe I am overdoing it trying to sell the pleasures of reading to you adults, so it’s time to change track to a more difficult challenge. What to do about young people? Should one try to do anything at all? Shouldn’t one leave them to craft their own lives and imagination with their digital screens, amazing graphics and fancy joysticks? You see they’re damn good at it. Microsoft or some such outfit advises that when you have a problem with your iPhone or laptop “Try this, then try that, then try the help menu, then look up the manual, then go online for help, and finally if all else fails, send for a teenager”.
I have four grand-brats, three are very young and not relevant to today’s column. But one, Yasmin, just turned 14. She is a voracious reader and still finding her way around. Perhaps she needs a little guidance but not obnoxious intrusion. Young people need to find their own way around but they also need a bit of steering. It’s a matter of putting all sorts of fodder in front of the horse and letting it pick what suits its palate. This is true of adults like this columnist as well.