School of life

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Instead of teaching us geometry and mensuration why were we not taught basic survival skills, when we still had the energy to learn them? How to cope with a bad day or a bad partner (that is if you are lucky to have already chosen one!)? Making a perfect circle with a rounder requires precision but even better is a round roti, if one wants to fit in, I suppose. I don’t know about you but sticking out like a sore thumb is somehow less appealing during the times we are living in. Maybe not better just aesthetically pleasing. Not for me a job well done and all that, but the quiet sound of people other than my mother reaching out for my rotis. Mine turn out to be map-like hence I stick to baking where failure is less easily noticeable (especially if you have a sweet tooth) and you can always blame the elements!

Why weren’t we apprised of the fact that life isn’t neatly divided into past, present and future like the tenses we were so diligently taught in school? Just because you ate tiffin (lunch break it was but lunch it never was) together (okay you ate your friend’s tiffin and your friend ate yours!) and sat together in classes for nearly half a decade doesn’t mean that you will remain friends or even in the periphery of each other’s lives. From seeing each other everyday to now just seeing or liking their posts. If you are lucky that is! Oh yes, hate following is a thing.

Continue reading “School of life”

Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl with a Pearl Earring was an interesting read considering the fact that I had seen the film years back, and quite liked it. It was a pleasant surprise because I hadn’t quite warmed up to Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn which was my introduction 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 matriarch, the wife’s mother. 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 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 the book as 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 of learning how he discovered animalcules.

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 then wanting to save memories which have an impact on us. The word nostalgia means a great deal to us humans. When we write we do the same thing. Capturing a moment, a place, a situation, an experience, a time.

Spoilers ahead for the book and the film.

It was fascinating the way he tried to make Griet a part of his life – in charge of cleaning his studio, making her understand what an image was. He valued her opinion sensing her intelligence. He allowed her near his beloved colours, to make them, to buy them. He trusted her with his art, he took her suggestions into account and respected her opinions. Intellectually he treated her differently from a maid but the class difference remained. He was in a position of power so he did order her about and forced her to do things.

It’s interesting to see the interplay between their characters, Vermeer and Griet, the artist and the observer who later on becomes the subject. Griet is unusually quiet but she challenged Vermeer in her own way. She played many roles – muse, helper, and model. The relationship of the muse with the artist is fraught with complications and has no clear boundaries. Where does feeling stop and art begin? Can one draw in a completely detached manner from the subject? Would the essence be conveyed? The artist moves on. What of the muse who is caught up in the process unknowingly? Is the subject or the muse (in this case the same person) allowed to feel or have a say in how she is going to be portrayed? All these questions came up while reading the book, and I don’t have any answers.

The book gives us a picture of her life after she leaves the Vermeer household unlike the movie, which shows no clear resolution and leaves it to the audience. I confess to having seen the film first because I didn’t know it was based on a book. I would ask you to read the book first (always). The film shows more moments between them, paints a more romantic picture than it really is. Griet’s family makes her a well rounded character in the book but her family barely makes an appearance in the movie. The film also has more dialogue as opposed to the book in which silences abound.

A world of veneers and facades. The beauty of the book and the film is in its restraint, in the things left unsaid.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

 

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.