Sunday, 31 July 2016

Book Review - "Volga se Ganga" by Rahul Sankrityayan

Oh! What a book! The writer is brilliant! Simply brilliant! This idea of presenting the history of Indian civilization coming from Aryans, then getting mixed with the 'Asuras' and finally maturing into a more contemporary outlook in the form of twenty short stories is just genius, brilliant, all superlatives! I read this book 'Volga se Ganga' by Rahul Sankrityayan in Hindi, the language it was originally written in 1942; the hindi being purer, our 'hinglish' generation, alas, will be a bit slow in reading. This is a book that unfolds more and you read it again. It is a cult and its eminence is a history in itself. It has been translated to English, Bengali, Russian, Malayalam, Telugu, Polish, Chinese and so many other languages. So the review is going to be heavy and lengthy one and this time I will not apologize for that. :)

The book specializes in presenting "point of views". Rahul Sankrityayan basically paints various timelines and landscapes while drawing the graph of the development of Indian civilization. He does it from the aspects of various characters true to their race, class, creed, sex and their time. The ideas of equality, justice, the conflict in judgement arising from how what is shown differs from what actually is, how politics of lust and power frames the history, where it wins and when and how it looses make the central theme of this book. And we practically see how ideals, notions, superstitions evolve over time to become a much stronger part of the civilization, completely detached from its roots but still retaining a touch if you scratch the surface.

Rahul Sankrityayan was famous for being an excellent scholar of languages, histories and mythologies; an ardent traveller whose aim of travel was understanding and knowledge. His writings are said to be well researched. Even though I haven't verified its authenticity completely, but when there is imagination in the very art of presenting history, personal opinion may abut the content and tinge the glass we are looking through. True! But still, for novices and history-insinceres (like me), and so I have heard for many elites of the history culture as well, this book a gem. You will, if you are an Indian or know of the Indian culture, will visibly see the past carnivals hold the seed of the society as it is today.

The thing I like about this book is that even though it talks through perspectives and opinions, its characters are not always anti-slavery, anti-racism but real, true to their ideas, intentions and necessities as people in a dynamic society are. Through them, you get to know how religion shaped the society, how brahmins-kshatriyas came to be 'gau-mata-poojak's from downright carnivorous society who consumed even pigs and horses, how races got mixed and what were the dynamics of that, how slavery from being a well hated concept came to be accepted and why that happened and how. I have read this book in Hindi which makes me sad as to why our so ferocious Hindu 'gau-hatya' haters have not read this book yet (Well most of them claim to be learned 'ved-pandits')!

It starts with blue-eyed, blonde haired Aryans settled near Volga in Caucasia in about 6000 BC. People were living in small clans, the society was matriarchal and hunting and incest were the basis of a family or a clan. Then sizes of nomadic clans began to grow, and the oldest blueprint of a human society was formed. Going back to 4500 years before, I think imagination plays a major role in drafting these stories. But the research is attributed to the "Origin of family private property and State" by Engels. Then we move towards the Himalayan mountain ranges. A bigger fraternity was a stronger alternative for survival, but along with came the vices as well. We see the birth of a position called 'indra'- the chosen leader, the strongest fighter and the supreme judge who acted for the people. Perhaps the idea of the Hindu god 'indra' was inspired from this!

The next stories trace the complete dynamics of how the reluctant diffusion of Aryans, Asuras(brown-skinned Northern Indians) and 'Solas'(the dark-skinned Southern Indians) created the race we Indians are today. This part of the book is said to be relying on the information from vedas, upanishads, ramayana, mahabharata, puranas and writings of some well known ancient names like Kalidasa, Banbhatta and so on. The 'brahmin' and 'a-brahmin' difference was once based on color. Then 'brahmin's used to be the educated and the fighter class. Further, the upper strata disintegrated into 'kshatriyas' and 'brahmins', the fighters and the 'acharyas'- the so called intellectual elite, the power holders. Slavery, untouchability whose 'authenticity' is claimed by 'hindu pandits' to be rooted in the great Indian 'mahakavya's were basically ideas drafted on payment by an "ashthan kavi"(poet of the court) of a king's or a rich man's court with the interest of glorifying the payer and keeping his power within his grip. The strata of women was now gutted down the drains and they were now mere objects of pleasure and no more than that. Slaves were traded as objects. Women slaves of a household were also part time pleasure objects along with being a servant, and their trade, inspite of the so-revered marital or birth status otherwise, remained unaffected by that.

While reading this part I was wondering if the present acharyas of Banaras or elsewhere even know of this history? Once, as these were being done, people perhaps knew the origins of these hypocrisies. But today, these are so well dissolved in our veins in terms of our 'reet-rivaaz' that damage conspired a thousand years ago still refuses to loosen its grip in the name of religion.

Then we arrive at the pre-contemporary and contemporary time lines of the history. Here we can easily judge the author for we are more aware of this part of the history than the previous ones. These last six stories start with prodding the time of the Mughals We see how Akbar and his ideology framed what is modern India today. Our constitution is based on one of his prime ideas- the panchayat raj. The stir in hearts to abolish slavery was helped by his old idea of equality and the notion of the success of an empire stemming from the content of its people first took place in the Indian subcontinent. This part is much more connectible to the present day reader. Then came the British and not only the panchayat raj suffered but the outline of a revolutions began taking shape. It took a long time, given our caste divisions, for a united voice to rise and ultimately win. With Mangal Singh's story we come to know that how even among the united one side of the rebellion, the driving factors can vary so much, and how that effects the course of the act. Rahul Sankrityayan was a communist. And the last two stories border on the ideology and its differences with Gandhi followers. Now, with the British in India the shape of our history was also attached to the ongoings of Europe and they were one important point that influenced our notions and reasons of revolt and revolution. The opinion about fascism, communism, socialism, nationalism started forming in the mind of the average Indian. Here we can almost hear what the writer believed in as the book draws to a close in 1942, the year it was published. Of the aftermath we know the basics. So, now its time to think!

Two of my seniors, Shauri di and Monalisa di, say you achieve a 'paradigm shift' after having read this book. I don't know about that but once you have read this book, you will have a certain understanding. Though of course not complete, you will have a basic and well-formed idea of how things work, how human greed, lust shapes religions, beliefs, superstitions and they civilizations. How power play is central to the growth of the civilisations, and perspectives matter. And you will almost feel sad seeing that so vigorous a society still thriving, not understanding, and your ideas just being one of the many perspectives as was Rahul Sankrityayan's among many.

The book ends with "satya se badhkar koi dharma nahi hai". It implies that no religion is greater than the truth. And that is what throughout this journey the writer has successfully tried to establish perhaps though what is the truth, differs from time to time and varies with the need of those who somehow become very important for various reason in shaping the history. How this happen and what are the reason? Well, the ball is in your court now! Play well.

I give Rahul Sankrityayan's “Volga se Ganga” full 5 stars.

So what are you thinking now?

Don't think much.

Over-thinking leads to stress.

Go and buy this book.

Then let me know in the comments if you can gently share some of your

(so-called) precious time (I know how much time you waste!).

Happy reading! :)

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Book Review - "Tales of the Open Road" by Ruskin Bond

  There are great writers in this world who have given something new to the world in the form of their writings. Among them there are two classes : one whom you can't help but admire for their beautiful penmanship, and the second with whom you, unconsciously, fall in love. For the second class, admiration comes after love. The speciality of writers like J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkein is that you can't help but fall in love with their writings, the worlds that they have created, beautifully crafted and designed. You marvel at their ingenuity and their ability to grasp your soul with a brilliant involvement.

Ruskin Bond
Picture Courtesy : Rusty's Photo
Among them in my list there is another guy who isn't a fantasy writer but who is so much in love with his own world that you must also fall in love with the world that he pens down and the view that helps him and you, through him, access the vista of that world. That guy is none other that our dear old Rusty or Ruskin Bond. His writings soothe your soul when you are down and give you a hope that apart from all the bad, there is another aspect of life which is always going to remain beautiful and pleasant no matter what. Those things are nature's bounties, its people, their general goodness, animals in the wild, rhododendrons of the mountainous valley, glitters of dew on them with the freshness they bring, a little girl who is very happy to see all this and an old soul who has found himself after being lost in these. When you read a Ruskin Bond, in all there experiences perhaps you have never been there, but you find yourself becoming a Ruskin Bond.  I have been in love with whatever he pens down from the time I have started to appreciate the small things in life amidst all the crisis we face everyday. The bad thing in this love, as in any other love, is that I can't find a flaw in him which as a book critic, that I am trying to be on this blog, I should be, as the tradition dictates. But I generally don't do that well in presence of a dictatorship. SO, please pardon me if you find lack of criticism boring or un-deserving but such is my love for Rusty. I apologize for the length as well! With your forgiveness, lets move forward. :)

This post is dedicated to 'Tales of the Open Road' by, yes, our dear old Ruskin Bond. As would be anyone for to guess, this book is a collection of travel pieces. It has been written over a time line of fifty years, and hence is as rich and as varied in point of view as fifty years of experience may entail one to, but united in the essence. The spirit is that of a wanderer who is in love with his wanderings and his places and peoples of wanderings...

The book starts with tales of highways and the GT Road, and Rusty takes us to those silent corners of the well trodden dusty road where he just spotted a cheetal, or just missed a leopard who was supposed to be there as per his driver. He, then, narrates his own story of running away from school with his friend Daljit, how they posed as tourists to avoid detection once and some long lost sikh relative of a friendly truck driver another time to make that journey which will just be a start to their grand voyages to Rome, New York, Dubai, London and so many exotic places in the world. He discovers in his journey the people of India and added to the cunning they let grow in you, he realizes some soft but some bitter truths about the roads , less or more but, travelled and unforeseeable surprises when the supposed and real ends do not meet. There are splashes of joy, spatters of disappointment, marvellous young ideas of adventurous school boys and a simple innocence that bind you to the tale. Rusty's roads are more about the bliss of travel rather than the ecstasy of the destination which not many times end in joie de vivre.

Picture Courtesy : Book Cover

Then follows the plain tales of the plain towns. Beer at Chutmalpur or the Rose Rum Factory of Shahjahanpur which brings back the forgotten nostalgia of Bond grandfather on his fore-passed road tales before 1857, and a cheer(s)-ful remembrance to the to the famous Solan Brewery in Simla. He talks about the lesser known Monsoon in Meerut in a crummy guest-house that belongs to sole survivor of the forgotten tribes of lost Englishmen in independent India. He talks about his summer road rages in Delhi. How he could never fall in love with Delhi but found a temporary respite in scorching summer walks in the city and how he always yearned for the hills while being there. Then he goes to Agra, but remembers more of the kites and the kite-makers and the endangered species of kite-fliers; not the Taj Mahal and its grand tribute to 'love'; but a lazy afternoon conversation with a young boy he met while searching for a shade beside. Then he ascribes the pilgrims' of Ganga, the devotees of Rhishikesh and Haridwar, his inquisitive friend Kamal and the Delphic sadhus they met on their travel. Oh so much of India! Can you take it any more?

Finally he comes back to the hills. He is at peace there. He reflects full of nostalgia on the changes that have hugged the high himalayan hills of India. Once sitting on an erstwhile rat infested royal chair in a wayside teashop, he tries to understand its owner whose life, health plans are all dependent on a road that will be build in god knows how many years and a few buses that will pass through that road; and how there is still hope till there are a few bank managers in unknown villages who get all excited about a freshly blossomed flower. Passing along a moonlit dark alley in his city he comes to tryst with one of the profound truths about humanity and succumbs to his Hillel-ian ethics that say,
“If I am not for myself
who will be for me?
If I am not for others
what am I?
If not now, when?”

Now coming to it, what do you think of Ganga? A holy river revered by Hindus, embraced by Indian customs and beliefs of rituals and purity although ecological reports differ! But how does Rusty's Ganga looks? She is not just a river, but almost a character full of fun and frolic, dangerous and lovable. She almost imbibes the personality of the path it traverses ('or is it vice-versa?') before pouring herself down at the Bay of Bengal. The gradient of her character and transformations, somewhere smooth and somewhere abrupt, amazes the reader. Alaknanda geographically the true-born one is the more atrocious one. She moves with an unrest and roars as the thunder on her way to Devprayag. She is as scary as she is temperamental. Whereas Bhagirathi, traditionally the more respected one due to her patience and control and choice of the path that reflects her beauty and greenery, is as if the elder sister, the calmer one, who finally meets Alaknanda and both assume the character that the plains' devotee worship as mother Ganga. You can almost feel his love and admiration for the attractive Mandakini ('the river, not the actress though both lovely beauties to look at and admire!' ;) ).

Living in the aftermath of the 2013 Uttarakhand tragedy, you can relate to how the characters of these rivers, just as Rusty described, were fateful in deciding the destiny of the devotees. That is the genius of the writer and the prowess of his observation. The description of the deodars, silver-firs, spruces along the coasts, the silky rocks polished by the raging river, and a writer's judgment on her character, the usual Indian tourist trivialities and so on are what attracts you to this trail of Ganges, and you will always feel that connection re-establish when either Rusty or you return there one day.

You can read Mr. Ruskin Bond's tales as if you were there, beside him, as a silent observer on these trails, and then the wanderlust strikes you. If you once fall in love with Bond, there will always be a part of his character that will live inside you no matter where life takes you.

I give Ruskin Bond's “Tales of the Open Road” full 5 stars.

So, you are packing your bags now, right?

Happy reading! :)