Into The Wild

Jack London’s exploration of a dog’s life from being a pet to a sled dog to a ferocious beast in his short novel ‘The Call Of The Wild‘ is immensely intense and delightful. The story is set at the time when gold was discovered in ‘the frozen North’ and there was a great demand for the sled dogs as means of transportation in the Arctic. The protagonist of the novel is a half St. Bernard and half Scotch Shepherd dog named Buck who initially lived a life of ‘a sated aristocrat’ in Judge Miller’s house in Santa Clara Valley. But that was until the treacherous gardener

Manuel stole him and sold him to a couple of dog traders as a result of which Buck ended up as a part of a dog team. It is here that he learnt the rule of the club, knew about what it is to be part of a team and a pack; learnt how to work hard etc. It was for him the first initiative into the wild, the primitive, the instinctual and the uncivilized. He soon adapted to the harsh demands of being a sled dog and gradually there arose within him ‘stirrings of old instincts’ that made him intimately aware of his wild origins. From all the incessant  brutality and cruelty of his world, Buck was fortunately rescued by the gentle yet strict John Thornton who nursed him back to health and to whom Buck became fiercely loyal. With him Buck had a curious relationship-one in which he allowed his primordial instincts to take over and he went hunting for days on at a stretch but always came back to Thornton and his camp. In the end however, the ‘call of the wild’ overwhelmed Buck and he soon plunged into the wild, the forests to meet his ancestral instincts raging within him.

The Call of the Wild‘ is like a bildungsroman of sorts as it traces the progress of Buck. It intricately shows his transformation, from a pet to a primitive ferocious beast. Jack London’s writing is gripping and fascinating. It takes the reader into the mind of Buck (similar was the case with his book, ‘White Fang’). London’s detailing is meticulous to say the least-every other aspect whether its Buck’s anatomy, his primeval thoughts, the cruelty meted out to him, the landscape-is rich in detail. The narrative is pretty straightforward and direct. It is visual, precise and to the point. It is a balanced mix of adventure, action, excitement as well as meditation and interiority. The narrative is replete with bursts of actions and adventure which is interspersed with Buck’s thoughts. The external occurrences are often the cause of Buck’s mental states through different stages of his life.

The Call of the Wild‘ is a short yet powerful and intense novel which is packed with intricate details and multifarious themes-loyalty of animals to man, the primitive instinctual nature of all creatures, the cruel treatment of animals by humans etc. The novel will undoubtedly be a compelling read as it has the pace of a thriller and the intensity of a period piece.

Hanukkah Special

This is a cliche but it is quite true that India is a country of rich diversity despite mainstream media and culture’s fervor to paint India as a monotonous abode of one particular religion, caste, class and gender. While we as Indians may live among a variety of people from different cultural backgrounds, how many of us really know each other well-their backgrounds, their religions, beliefs etc.? Lets leave you to ponder at that while we take a peek into one book that brilliantly etches out details of a community in India that has often been relegated to obscurity yet has made an unparalleled contribution to India’s growth and progress. Well, if you think that you have guessed correctly that I am going to ramble a para or two about the Parsis (who have undoubtedly contributed a lot for India’s progress), then you are absolutely wrong. Its not the Parsis I refer to but the Jewish community of India. And no, Jews don’t just exist in Israel and America, but India as well although their numbers have severely dwindled.

The book, ‘India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life Cycle‘ edited by Shalva Weil and published by Marg Publications provides any curious reader a wonderful insight into Jewish community and their lifestyle as a whole. It is an informative book replete with illustrations and written in simple, lucid language. The book helps to enlighten us about the community we always thought never existed in this country.

India’s Jewish Heritage…’ begins by informing us about the long contact between the Indians and the Jews and how they came on Indian shores. Throughout the 10 chapters the book traces their history citing valid sources, talks of how they assimilated with the Indian culture and adopted some existent customs while still retaining their own this forming a unique Jewish Indian cultural group. The book informs us right at the beginning that there are 3 Jewish communities in India-Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews. Each chapter pours out details about the history, tradition and customs of each of the 3 communities. The last chapter dwells on the important contribution of the Jews in India and names certain eminent personalities describing their contributions. Mumbaikars may be familiar with the name Sassoon as in David Sassoon Library, Sassoon Docks etc.. The Sassoon family was a Baghdadi Jew dynasty that played a major role in the then Bombay’s development. Nissim Ezekiel is another well known Jewish personality (if not for everyone but at least known to literature students) who was a famous poet and professor. There are several others such as Leela Samson, Isaac Kehimkar, Flora Samuel etc who left a indelible mark on this diverse country.

India’s Jewish Heritage…‘ is undoubtedly a hallmark in Indo-Jewish studies. You may not like non-fiction works but stepping into the world that this book portrays is like stepping into an encyclopedia and reliving that feeling of childhood when you would be boggled by your own thirst for knowledge and the facts before you. The book is concise and clear. It acquaints us with a much less talked about community and helps us to know one minuscule patch on a large and varied Indian quilt.

The Quick And The Dead

Nikolai Gogol is usually overshadowed by other great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Chekhov and even Pushkin despite the fact that Gogol was as talented as them. Some well read Indians (and other well read readers) might remember Gogol from the book ‘The Namesake’ which pretty much revolves around Gogol’s most famous short story, ‘The Overcoat.’  Some may as a result have even read this particular story. Gogol is known for his short stories yet some of his other works like ‘ The Inspector General’ are as thematically varied and critical as his short stories.

Dead Souls‘ is one of his ‘other works’, a novel in fact that encompasses Gogol’s vision to depict ‘all of Russia’ in it. Reading the ‘Dead Souls‘ can be difficult as it has layers of meaning that can be unearthed slowly with every other reading. Yet at the same time it is very rewarding  as the novel reveals a clear image of the 19th century Russia and Gogol’s own thoughts about his own country.

Dead Souls‘ was classified by Gogol as a ‘poema’ (a poem) rather than a novel as he believed that a poem and an epic poem to be precise could take in all of life. The novel has two parts. The 2nd part was burnt by Gogol himself and only fragments (which are still comprehensible) are left. The poema’s hero is Chichikov who goes to the fictitious town of N to buy ‘dead souls.’ Souls (dusha) in Russian also meant the serfs. 19th century Russia was still predominantly agricultural which was controlled by landlords who had serfs for themselves. It was in a way a feudal agricultural society. At that point of time, serfs that died were still counted as alive until the next census was taken which would happen every 10 years. Chichikov’s idea was to buy these ‘dead souls’ from the various landowners like Manilov, Korobochka,Nozdrev,Sobakevich and Plyushkin and use them as a mortgage to buy land and then himself become a landowner which would enable him to buy actual living serfs and gradually pay the loan as well. Chichikov’s methods were not entirely legal. Instead, he was taking advantage of the loopholes in the Russian law system to further his own interests.

This plot summary completely oversimplifies the story. The layers of meaning emerge only when one peruses the novel and sees Gogol’s critique of contemporary Russia in a satirical manner, how Chichikov convinces the 5 landlords in part 1 to sell their dead serfs, how hellish the entire legal and bureaucratic system is in provincial Russia, how beautifully Gogol merges this human misery with the vast, endless, limitless landscape of his beloved Russia. One of the major highlights of the novel or the ‘poema’ is the skillful juxtaposition of the wretchedness and corruption of the Russians with the beauty of the Russian landscape. Another major highlight is the numerous similes like that of the ‘troika’, the journey, the road, the unique comparison of the men of the town of N with flies at the governor’s ball in chapter 1 itself. The novel is full of numerous new possibilities that the reader will discover. S/he will discover the Russia of Gogol’s time with all its ugliness and artificial glamour and rich natural beauty . The reader will get acquainted with certain typical Russian character portraits in Chichikov and in the guise of the many landlords.

Dead Souls‘ may not be the easiest to read with a unique narrative style ( the naive narrator which shows Gogol’s use of the skaz), the numerous digressions (the most lyrical of these are addressed to Russia itself), the detailed descriptions etc. but giving up on this novel will be like giving up a chance to experience Russia itself.

The Blue Umbrella

Simplicity personified is one way of describing stories and books penned by Ruskin Bond. ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ is true to this very description. It may be dismissed a little too easily as a simple children’s story but it works at many levels.  The story revolves around a young girl-Binya who lives with her mother and brother-Bijju- in the hills in India. One day she comes across a group of picnickers while she was searching for her grazing cows in the evening. Binya immediately falls in love with a blue umbrella which one of the ladies has and hesitantly exchanges her lucky charm of a leopard’s claw for the pretty blue umbrella. It soon becomes her prized possession and also the envy of the entire village particularly of Ram Bharose who owns a tea stall. He badly wants to own that object for its beauty but fails in all his attempts to acquire it. One of those attempts almost brings him to ruin. Eventually Binya herself gives him the umbrella and Ram Bharose gives her a bear’s claw in return.

The Blue Umbrella‘ has a Blakean feel about it as the story flourishes on innocence, simplicity, childlike wonder and awe and imagination. The story proffers a simple juxtaposition of the ways of the people of the plains and the mountains as well a juxtaposition of children and adults. The people of the plains are greedy and materialistic while the people of the mountains are inherently joined to the nature and appreciate its value and beauty to the fullest. The adults can be fixated only with meaningless objects while children also do feel awe for objects but they realize that other aspects are of more importance and value which is why Binya willingly gives the umbrella away as she believes that people are more important than objects. She is easily able to forfeit the umbrella as if she wasn’t attached to it at all. This may seem to be a very binary and simplistic analysis but this is what Bond does best-takes the simple things and blows on them the kiss of the extraordinary which will perhaps be able to teach us a thing or two about life and its mystery.

The landscape, as always, is an integral part of Ruskin Bond’s stories and is given quite a lot of spotlight even in ‘The Blue Umbrella‘. The beauty, whims and vagaries of nature are all spread out for the reader to enjoy. The purity of the hills is reflected in the purity of Binya and Bijju’s behavior.

The Blue Umbrella‘ may seem very childish to some ‘old’ and ‘erudite’ readers. However Bond’s genius lies in revealing many profound truths in that very simplicity. These profound truths are as useful to children as to adults.  The story is even relevant in today’s overtly materialist  and consumerist society. We can all depend on our gadgets and designer coffees but at the end of it all that is not what makes life. Its the people, the family, nature, our emotions, feelings,our actions and more importantly-our ability to let go- that matters.

Go ahead, pick up ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ and see if you fail to find some meaning within this’ mere simple tale for kids.’ Be adventurous and accept this challenge.

Feel free to comment about your experience of reading the story and if you have watched the 2005 film adaptation of the same story, do let us know how it turned out to be.