Darkness Within

Called as a critique of colonialism, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ by Joseph Conrad gives a profound, horrific and terrible account of human nature and the darkness within.

The nameless narrator of the novel recounts Marlow’s adventure in the Congo as a steamboat captain and how his experiences in the various colonial outposts over there and with Mistah Kurtz deepened his understanding of the world around him. Marlow narrates his own story on ‘a cruising yawl,’ Nellie on the river Thames. Critics have noted that ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ is based on Conrad’s own travels in the Congo and that Marlow is Conrad himself. Marlow does come across as the vehicle through which Conrad gives voice to his own worldviews. The novella too has a touch of being a travelogue as it consists predominantly of a journey-Marlow’s journey up the the snakelike river. Consequently it is replete with anecdotes-how Marlow made the journey, the steamers he hopped on, the stations he stopped at where he met a wide range of colonialists whose sole purpose seemed to be ivory and domination and  who brought him closer to the idea of Kurtz and his ‘unsound’ methods. He eventually gets wrapped in a mission to get Kurtz out of the way as he, despite being a ‘universal genius’ and a ‘remarkable man,’ got carried away and was doing more harm than good in providing the ivory to the Company. Yet at the end, Marlow realises through his talks with Kurtz that there is no proper right and wrong in this place (Congo), that there is darkness in every soul, in every human being, in every civilization. This profound knowledge that he gains leaves him scarred and as they sail away into Thames that sense of the inherent nature of evil in man imbues all who listened to Marlow’s story.

The novel is hailed for its revolutionary ideas and for its questioning of not just British Imperialism but also European Imperialism on the whole. Throughout the novel, the reader sees Marlow hesitatingly exploring the disadvantages of colonialism and how power and greed can blind men/ women to unthinkable cruelty and oppression. Conrad very subtly presents such complex notions on this theme. There is a constant juxtaposition and even mocking of the greatness of the white people with the wildness and the mess around them. Kurtz himself went to absurd lengths to acquire the ivory and even commanded a bunch of tribes to do his bidding to get more ivory but he in the end realised the horror of his deeds while the the authorities simply don’t. What they call Kurtz’s ‘unsound’ methods is also what they themselves are perpetuating throughout the world. Thus the novel takes a hard hitting look at the politics of power, greed as well as territorial, racial and ideological supremacy that is relevant in today’s global world where we are subject to a capitalistic or corporate colonialism

However, despite, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ being an attack on the imperial powers, it is thoroughly grounded in those very ideologies. Thus, Marlow may have gained enlightenment about the darkness of  the human heart, he still is very much a product of that very imperial superpower. Many of his ideas and views adhere to imperialistic ideologies.  He seems to journey in his own contradiction of being questioning as well as open minded. This makes the novella very ambiguous as to whether ‘The horror! The horror!’ that Kurtz talks about is in fact a meditation of his own deeds or of the way of the ‘savages,’ and whether Marlow is indeed talking of ‘the heart of darkness’ of humans in general or of an ‘uncivilized’ place that creates this kind of greed and horror in them. The novel is racist, sexist and reiterates colonial notions undoubtedly. There is a tinge of racial superiority in Marlow and the others who constantly believe about the rightness of their actions. This was possibly the dominant way of thinking at that time and Conrad seems to have been influenced by it despite the ‘reality’ of the human nature he encountered there.

Heart Of Darkness‘ therefore provides a mix of two different attitudes. Conrad is trying to be liberal, transgress his colonial upbringing and throughout the novel, the reader does see the way he illuminates colonialism’s downside, yet that upbringing seems to be ingrained in him.

A powerful and profound read. Don’t let the size fool you. Its not a book for time pass. It will move you, hurt you and shock you and enlighten you as well.

P.S. : ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ was also transformed into a cinematic spectacle in the movie, ‘Apocalypse Now'(1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring the famous Marlon Brando and the not so famous, Martin Sheen, who has given a brilliant performance nonetheless! What Coppola has done however is that he has used similar ideas and applied it to a different context all together. From the European imperialism he has used it to comment on the American high handedness during the Vietnam war. Its a splendid movie that captures the ‘essence’ of the book in a completely different context. It has the same sense of unreal, lunatic and dreamy, haunting feel that shocks the viewer doubly because it is now visual and accentuated by the breathtaking music that blends so well with the story from the Doors’ songs to the Wagner track. The movie can be a task to watch because it is 3 hours long but a complete cinematic treat to watch nonetheless. Reading the book and watching this movie will deepen one’s understanding even further about the message and moral of the book. The movie however is more political and clear in its stance.

A Natural Tragedy

The Victorian Era (roughly from 1830s to 1901) is renowned for producing several great novelists. In fact it is known as the Great Age of The Novel. Thomas Hardy is one of the many greats of this period who was not only a prolific novelist but also a poet. He has to his credit several novels and poetry collections.

The Return Of The Native‘ is one of his lesser known novels; ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ and ‘Tess Of D’Urbervilles’ being his other more well known works. Yet ‘Return Of The Native’ has a charm of its own and provides the quintessential Hardy outlook on English rural life. Set against the ubiquitous, unchanging Egdon Heath, the novel is preoccupied (like most of his novels) with the workings of Fate and the interference of misfortune and chance in human life. Like his other novels, it has a predominantly pessimistic tone.

The novel begins with pages of the heath’s descriptions which immediately establishes its importance in the story. It is November fifth-Guy Fawkes Day-and the inhabitants of the heath light bonfires all across illuminating it and thus giving it a diabolical look. Eustacia Wye-the queen of the night as Hardy calls her- sends a signal to Wildeve through the bonfire at Mistover Kapp and they have a clandestine meeting. Wildeve was just that morning set to marry Thomasin Yeobright but some trouble with the marriage license prevented it. Poor Thomasin was heartbroken and returned home in Diggory Venn’s -the reddleman’s- van much to the consternation of her aunt-Mrs. Susan Yeobright. Wildeve on the other hand had an ambivalent relationship with Eustacia and Thomasin. He had passionately loved the former and adored the latter. It is in such circumstances that Clym Yeobright-Susan’s only son and Thomasin’s cousin-returns home from Paris after a long time. He is the native that comes back to his beloved heath after being fed up of the materialistic life of Paris. He comes back for good to do some selfless service here- namely to start a school for the heath’s inhabitants. Its a move disapproved by his mother and creates an unfortunate gulf in their intimate relation. Clym also falls passionately in love with Eustacia and her divine beauty after they meet each other in unusual circumstances. Many complications arise thereafter due to Fate’s constant intervention that turn the lives of the heath’s inhabitants upside down. It is obvious that it ends on a tragic note(being a Hardy novel nothing else can be expected) with Clym bereft and philosophical.

The tragic end should not be a deterrent for avoiding this novel as it includes features that give it a status of a masterpiece. The genius is in the fact it provides a microcosm of Fate. The beauty of novel lies in the celebration of the power of nature, of heath’s power and resistance to change. It is a formidable entity in the novel that wraps its inhabitants in its godlike hold. The Edgon Heath is in itself a character of the novel. Being godlike, it has a supreme power to shape the destinies of the characters in the novel. Hardy not only celebrates nature but also the simple, rustic life, its people, its customs, traditions, its idealism, its simple life, and its superstitions. The novel is suffused with certain rustic, pagan customs that became rare in Hardy’s time such as the Guy Fawkes Day, the Mummer’s Plays, the Maypole dance etc.. This aspect manifest Hardy’s own belief in the rural way of life and attests his scorn for the industrial life.

The characters too are robust rustic individuals (except Eustacia) who adore the heath and accept its overwhelming presence boldly. The most unique sketches that Hardy gives are that of the furze cutters-Timothy Fairway, Christian. Grandfather Cankle etc. who embody the quintessential English countryside qualities such as friendliness, hominess, strength, politeness that better their lives in contrast to the townsfolk. The various characters’ personalities, their dominating passions and emotions define their lives and the events that occur to them. Eustacia is a melancholic, powerful active not to mention a divinely beautiful woman whereas Thomasin is on the quieter side and much more passive. There is a shade of delicacy to her character. Clym on the other hand is an upright, selfless man whose optimism helps him face any adversity. Whereas the reddleman is a gentle soul, a product of the heath itself and the character through whom Fate works. The story also has unique, peculiar characters such as Susan Nunsuch, her son-Charley, Captain Wye etc.

All in all, ‘Return Of The Native‘ is an excellent tragic novel modeled on Greek tragedy that is sprinkled with pure, untouched rural life and permeated with a wild, heath which in turn permeates its inhabitants even Eustacia. It is an absorbing read that will re-ignite anyone’s interest in classics.

Go ahead immerse yourself in the beauty and power of Egdon and leave everything to Fate!

Love Across The Salt Desert

Wistful, melancholic, historical and isolated stories that cherish hope at times or relinquish  it completely is what characterizes the 20 selected short stories of Keki Daruwalla’s magnificent new book titled, ‘Love Across The Salt Desert.’ These 20 short stories have no thematic similarities as they portray a wide range of characters and surroundings from a disconcerted British officer during Quit India movement to the religious, intellectual and insightful Parsee father, from a sensationalist journalist to a deceitful doctor, from a loving granddaughter to a jilted yet content wife etc and from Rann of Kutch to the lofty, ethereal mountains of Niti valley, from the cultured pre-independence to the sleepy Gorakhpur, from the ancient India of Porous to the ancient Aegean regions etc.

Yet despite this disparity, each story has a perfect Aristotelian beginning, middle and end. Each story has ordinary humans (and even animals at times) at its core, dealing with their worries, hopes and problems, which may seem purely mundane but Daruwalla imbues than with a soft magnitude that touches the chord of every reader’s heart. This makes the insignificant details of daily life come alive and when told while focusing on only one issue, one hope, one worry, they achieve an importance that everyone can identify with. Thus we see in ‘the jahangir syndrome’, Kunwar Tejbhan Singh moving out of Lucknow and reflecting on the feudal system, the irony of a granddaughter not being there when her grandmother passes away in the story, ‘going’, the tender relationship between a mute and a cook who finds the former’s mimes fascinating in the ‘retired panther’, the warm, delicate, young love of Fatima and Najab across the bristling desert of the Kutch in the title story and many such more stories that delight the readers with its lucidity and clarity of places, insights, people and emotions.

From one story to another, the reader is treated to new images of India whether of the present, the recent past or its ancient past. The stories’ charm lies in the characterization of Indians( although there are exceptions) across all age groups, historical times, class and gender that underline their idiosyncrasies that proffer more information on Indian people than any erudite book could ever do.

‘Love Across The Salt Desert’ is a captivating and engaging collection of short stories that asserts Daruwalla’s status as a compelling short story writer. It is a book highly recommended that won’t be a waste of time or money but rather a journey all across India and its many moods and the world.