The week in reading 50/14

As the guests departed one by one, and the house settled back to its familiar rhythms, my reading picked up again. I finished “Oscar and Lucinda” early in the week (was due back at the library). But it was a difficult read – the first 300 pages of the book develops the common weakness of the protagonists for gambling  which finally leads to the wager that is the central focus of the story.  The wager is for Oscar to successfully transport a glass church from Sydney to a distant town, by a specified date. Since Oscar has a horror of water, the overland transport through the the Australian outback of the mid-19th century, is an onerous task.  This journey is described in some detail. I found difficult to relate to the host of characters who form the supporting cast.  And then the climax is a bit of a let down with Lucinda petering out of the tale and as for Oscar – his  final action is totally unexpected!! What does come through is his faith and his realization that although he had thought that he had betrayed his father and his God by his many misdemeanors, his faith was intact and what he had to the end.

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This was not the first Peter Carey I have read. Characters in his other books – Granny Catchprice and the pregnant ‘Tax Inspector’ of the book of that name and  Parrot and Olivier of the book named after them –  are all ‘a bit off the routine’ types. And like Oscar and Lucinda, Carey has a way of putting these characters, in  fairly unique and complex situations – be it transporting a glass church through the Australian outback, trying to salvage a declining outdated business in a modernizing world or traveling through East cost of America in the the eighteenth century – that are funny and sometimes sad. For me though, the combinations did  not work in any of the books!! He has written a few others, but I doubt if I will be reading them.

I got around to completing “Makers of Modern India” – I had read the sections on ‘The opening of the Indian Mind’, ‘Reformers and radicals’ earlier  and  had written about the format and what I enjoyed about this book in an earlier blog.  I completed the section “Nurturing a nation’ , and read the sections on ‘debating democracy’ and ‘A tradition reaffirmed’. This included the writings of Gandhi 0n a variety of issues, Ambedkar’s frustrations on caste based discrimination as well as his thoughts on the Constitution, the pro-muslim stand of Jinnah, the pro-feminist writings of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the secular, world view of Nehru, the Hindu leanings of Gowalkar, the socialist views of Lohia and Jayprakash Narayan and the liberal views of  Rajaji – all of whom I was familiar with as personalities and in the context of their role in India’s independence or after. But except for Gandhi, Nehru and Rajaji, I had never read any writings by these persons. So, it was good to have these pre-selected pieces with Guha’s background commentary. ‘The housewife is as much of a working woman as a factory worker’ Kamaldevi wrote in 1944. In fact, what struck me was that so much time has passed, since these thoughts were penned and how little has changed on the ground – be it discrimination based on caste or gender.

I also finished the Mathiessen book (The snow leopard) this week. And this one is right up there for me – a 5 starrer!! It is a book on travel through my favorite part of the world ‘the Himalayas’ and through parts of it that I will never be able to see. The language in this book is so powerful, that you can even hear the silence of those regions and see the “lake that has never known paddle or sail” with him.  The flora, fauana, the lack of it – the sightings of the bharal ( sheep or goat?)  and the failure to sight the elusive snow leopard, the highs and lows, the cold, the clarity of the sky – you live every step of the way with Mathiessen up to one of the most difficult and inaccessible parts of the world. A few thousand kilometers along the upper Himalayas, straddling India/Nepal and Tibet, these are regions where getting to anywhere involves trekking over one or more passes, which could range in height from 15 to 18,000 ft, sometimes maybe more.  It is astounding to learn of the local tribes, their life of unimaginable hardships, probably unchanged for millenia!

These regions have had many hundreds of years of unbroken Buddhist influence and Mathiessen provides interesting insights into the various sub-sects of Buddhism as they developed in parts of Tibet and elsewhere. Part of his motivation for the journey was to visit a  remote monastry at Shey (at 15000+ feet) which was home to a  Lama, who was considered to be the reincarnation of  a great lineage of lamas. His encounters with Buddhism, both in people and in  its iconography are well recounted.

Mathiessen’s personal and private journey is the most fascinating part of this book. His partner, George is a naturalist and a loner, the two spend more time in  silence than in conversation. Their sherpas, porters, the  residents of these parts whom they meet, the traders and herders whom they cross (it is amazing the amount of trade that goes on) have no common language with him. So for 10 weeks he is alone, except for the few words shared by the fireside with George in the evenings. He spends long days, watching and recording the activities of the bharal –  “I stay motionless, and they do not flare. The creatures are so very tense that even the heavy horns bristle with life. No muscle moves. For minute after minute I watch the ruffling of their coats by the mountain wind”. He constantly is on the look out for signs of the snow leopard (one of the objectives of the trip), sights its prints on the snow, sees fresh turd, but never sights the animal itself. But he finds in himself an acceptance, with himself and with being, that even not sighting the leopard is as it should be, he recounts. He is so comfortable in this state that when he gets a packet of mail from home he puts it way in his rucksack unread – he did not want the outside world to intrude.

Of course all this happened in 1969, and I wonder even if these parts are as untouched as then. When I did the Kailash yatra 2 years ago, the upper Himalayas in the Indian side were fairly cut off, but on the Chinese side, there was cell phone signals everywhere except maybe at the top of the Dolma pass which was at 18,300 ft. So, I wonder where Mathiessen would have gone in today’s world?

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