Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl with a Pearl Earring was an intereseting read considering the fact that I had seen the film years back and quite liked it. It was a pleasant suprise because I hadn’t quite warmed up to Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn which was my introuction to the author.

It is 1665. The story is told by sixteen year old Griet who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household to support her family. Vermeer, the artist, takes a fancy to her because she understands art.

The house is run by the the matriarch, the wife’s mother who single-handedly managed the household. Although Vermeer was a good artist he was not the best man to provide for his family. Vermeer worked at his own pace. He was moody and temperamental even though the entire house was in debt and his paintings were the only source of income.

Life was tough in a way the population with access to modern healthcare wouldn’t understand. There was no method of contraception and it was one baby on the way after another whether you can afford it or want it.

Griet was a strong character for her the times she lived in. The name Grit would be apt for her because she is gutsy and resilient. She is sharp and observes things which would elude a casual onlooker.

I was delighted to see Antony van Leeuwenhoek in Girl with a Pearl Earring. He was Vermeer’s friend. I was happy to see a microbiologist in a novel about an artist. Seeing Antony van Leeuwenhoek as a character took me back to my student days.

I confess I had never heard the term camera obscura before. Shameful because I call myself an amateur photographer (the amateur bit does take the sting out of it). Of course my grandpa knew what camera obscura was. He was an engineer and a photographer, and unlike me a person who understands technicalities well.

A painting which isn’t a painting. The word photograph is yet to be invented because the camera hasn’t been invented yet. What a world it must have been. Since something cannot be captured there is no choice except to draw or paint what fascinated them.  A while ago I had read Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life where I got a peek into a world where photography was being invented.

It is not new wanting to save memories which have an impact on us. The word nostalgia means a great deal to us humans. Hence the need for keepsakes. When we write we do the same thing. Capturing a moment, a place, a situation, an experience, a time.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring”

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Andrea Barrett’s The English Pupil

Time flies. Staying at home for extended periods of time when I was unwell I could feel the passage of seasons, days going by excruciatingly slow, each day with its own set of struggles and now I cannot believe such a large chunk of time has passed. The descent of time?

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett is a collection of short stories I wanted to reread as soon as I finished the book, and it has taken me nearly two years to do it. I bought The Voyage of Narwhal immediately after finishing it, and recently The Air We Breathe has come into my possession but I still haven’t read them. What am I scared of  – her not meeting my exceeded expectations or idiotically trying to collect all her other books (very hard to find in India) while not reading the ones I do have. Life is too short to wait for a complete collection. You read along and hope for the best.

In The English Pupil, Carolus Linnaeus is nostalgic for the past and remembers his apostles (read pupils), who went about the world carrying forward his legacy, sending him specimens and discovering new species. All of his apostles are dead now, and he’s inching closer towards his own.

Linnaeus and his wife remind me of an old couple, who are in the autumn of their lives and are not at peace with it or with each other. (What is the point of companionship then?) His wife doesn’t care about his work or his legacy. His work fulfilled him but didn’t make him rich. The family’s demands weren’t being met and to her that was what mattered the most. She was the pragmatic sort. A dreamer has to be paired with a realist. It is a question of survival, you see. Continue reading “Andrea Barrett’s The English Pupil”

The incomparable Toru Dutt

Our Casuarina Tree

LIKE a huge Python, winding round and round  
 The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars,  
 Up to its very summit near the stars,  
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound  
 No other tree could live. But gallantly         
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung  
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,  
 Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;  
And oft at nights the garden overflows  
With one sweet song that seems to have no close,          
Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.  
 
When first my casement is wide open thrown  
 At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;  
 Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest  
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone         
 Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs  
His puny offspring leap about and play;  
And far and near kokilas hail the day;  
 And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;  
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast          
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast,  
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.  
 
But not because of its magnificence  
 Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:  
 Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,        
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,  
 For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear.  
Blent with your images, it shall arise  
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!  
 What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear         
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?  
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,  
That haply to the unknown land may reach.  
 
Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!  
 Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away         
 In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,  
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith  
 And the waves gently kissed the classic shore  
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,  
When earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon:       
 And every time the music rose,—before  
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,  
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime  
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.  
 
Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay        
 Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those  
 Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose,—  
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!  
 Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done  
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,         
Under whose awful branches lingered pale  
 “Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,  
And Time the shadow;” and though weak the verse  
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,  

May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse

Toru Dutt

I still remember the teacher who taught us the poem in class and I have saved the tattered old textbook from oblivion. It somehow seems odd to call a literature book a “textbook” because they were always about escape for me. While people slept when Hound of Baskervilles was taught, I came alive. So much so that years later when I saw the entire collected works of Toru Dutt on my first visit to the university library, I instantly checked it out. Exams loomed but I couldn’t leave the book after finding it. You know one of those moments in life when you just have to go for it? This felt like that. And I am a big believer in serendipity! My mind reasoned that her books aren’t easily available so this was the logical next step. (Yes, I know my fear that someone would come looking for her work in the science section was unreasonable, and if I didn’t take it when the opportunity presented itself, I would never get it again.) I devoured the two novels in it, and returned the book unable to read much else. I vowed to come back to it again. Years later I am yet to go back.