Book Review
Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Pages 544, 2010
Profile  Books, London, RM 106, Kuala Lampur

A book that could change your life!

Yes, Leo Tolstoy, usually called by his Russian name, Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), is perhaps the greatest Russian  ever born and lived, he came to be recognised as greater than the Tsar kings, he was known as Russia’s Homer, why even as the Second Christ in the Western world.

Such is his name and fame it is anybody’s guess how to understand the great Russian artist, the great soul, as we call of Gandhiji in India.
I had had read most of the Tolstoy’s books all through my life. I bought his biography, the longest first biography by Aylmer aMaude, A Britisher who lived long in Russia and knew Tolstory personally well and he along with his Russian wife produced a very lengthy biography that had come out in the Oxford World Classics series. It ran for over 1,000 pages and I remember that I bought this biography as soon as I went to Oxford and I read it, I distinctly remember. One Sunday I sat all alone  at the Oxford Park and when I came to the chapter where Tolstoy one night leaves his home, along with his daughter for the last time in 1912, the very scene the very description  left me with no option but to cry silently. I noticed the walkers in the Park noticed me and so I hurriedly wiped my  tears so that they dint notice  my deep  emotions.

It is a bit ironical this time, while recently in Malaysia I visited the famous bookshop, Kinokunia, perhaps the largest bookshop outside USA and England. I was  waiting for over a year to buy the latest biogrpahy of Tolstoy (Tolstoy:  A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett, a massive volume some 550 pages and a thoroughly researched detailed account. The author lives  in Oxford and it was great opportunity I thought.

I may visit her next time When I am in Oxford for there also lives another of my Russian connection, namely, the family of the Russian poet, Boris Pasternak. I became a friend of Boris sister, Lydia Pasternak, whom I knew during the Sixties of the last century. It is a rather saddening thought for me, I was in England  in 1989 and that very day I read in The Times that Lydia’s passing away! How sad !But I learn now from my contacts with Oxford that Boris Pasternak’s sister’s daughter lives there still and they run a Pasternak museum. This too I must visit, I told myself as I was  reading through this biography.

I should confess I haven’t yet fully read the biography.
The first five pages of introduction sums up admorably the basic  character of Tolstoy who was widely an independent personality and a tendency, a typical Russian tendency, says the author towards the grad scale. Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian king to conquer and consolidate the Mongols, the, “the three Mogol Khanates” and  build the largest  multi-ethnic empire in the 16th century and to Peter the Great who built the St.Pterburg capital in recent history on the Finnish marshes.

So, Tolstory ultimately became what we all know, the most famous Russian name, greater than all of the Russian kings and others.
There are so many things about Tolstory, he always disagreed all that was held sacred in Russia, he opposed the Russian Orthodox Chruch and final the church ex-communicated him in 1901 and the subject still, right now, lingers on, unresolved to the satisfaction of all, in the post-Communist Russian state where the church is once again in the ascendent.

Tolstoy  today has come to symbolise diverse movements, from vegetarianism, to anti-war movements, to peace promotion, peace in the world, non-resistance to  evil, non-resistances to violence and much of the modern anti-capiatalism movements can draw inspiration from Tolstoy, even environment, the Greens movements and many other strands of thought.

Says the author in the introduction: “There is something touching about his untiring zest for life, however wrong headed many of his ideas were “(page 9). The two if his very successful books, War and Peace (started in 1863 and completed in 1869) and Anna Karenina (started in 1863 and completed in 1877) and  his output is too much to sum up briefly.

There is also the definitive hundred volume edition of Tolstoy’s  Complete Collected Works (which as I can see still remains unfinished). There is the basic  distinction between Tolstoy, the artist and Tolstory the thinker, and shall we say there are other Tolstoys: the great humanitarian who undertook several practical affairs like helping ,one thionic group to migrate to Canada to escape discrimination in the Russia of his times, there is of course the enternal, it seems, conflict of his own version of religion and Christianit and the organised Russian orthodox church and also against the state vs his own ideas of a perfect and moral living.
So, Tolstoy is likely to be perpetually  a personality of great inspiration for diverse kinds of people, in his own life time and even now, after a century of his passing away.

Tolstoy received over 50,000 letters during his life time, 9,000 of which came from abroad, 8,500 letters are printed in his collected works, he replied to most of his correspondents, including Gandhi and many others abroad.

I am still reading the book and it would take quite some time before I can do justice to write a full-length criticism of this highly commendable touch job!

I was very much looking forward to  read this book. As I said I was waiting for the book for more than a year. It wasn’t  available in India and my Ebay site also didn’t list the book in its website for its availability and delivery. So, I was delighted that laid my hand on this volume as I sight the very name in the massive Kinokunia bookshop in the famous Suria  mall in Kuala Lumpur!

On my return flight to Bangalore the whole of the four hour flying time was fogotten as I got immersed in the book on my greatest literary hero!

This massive book would take many more days for me to read and finish.

On the flight I just read the later half od the book. What left me bewildered is the new findings that how Tolstoy’s flight from home took place. This time, the new details left me against wiping my tears! The past 50 years havent left me changed, it seems.

Or the great man’s such a tragic final days couldn’t but leave even the current new readers with no other choice but to grieve at the sad ending of such a great life.

I can tell more things here but lack of space leaves me only few remarks. Tolstoy daughter had to pay a heavy price for fighting for saving her father’s legacy. Lenin paid a higher pension for Tolstoy’s widow. That is the only pleasant news. But Lenin too couldnt overcome bureaucracy. First, Lenin, next Stalin and next Brezenw and all the party committees and writers committees, everyone added to Tolstory daughter’s troubles. She had to spend time in jails, the details would break the hearts of anyone who loves the name of Tolstory.

Such is the state of Russian bureaucracy, even today, after collapse of the Russian Communism in 1989.

Now, there is a school revived at Tolstoy farm, Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s great, great ganrdson runs the museum and the school. A sort of Tolstoyism is being promoted and pursued as a school ideology based of the saint’s ideas and writings. In 1991, after the fall of  the Soviet Union one “spiritual unity”( the Church of Lev Tolstoy was registered in Moscow. In 1996 Tolstoy’s Spiritual Heritage with 8 faculty members was opened at the L.N.Tolstoy Tula State Pedagogical Institute.Tula is the district where Tolstoy’s farm in located.

Tolstoy’s gradson,Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy who manages the meuseum at Yasnapolyana  has organised many meets between Russian Orthodox Church and Tolstoty;s estate over the 101 ex-cummincation of Tolstory and this conflict still a live issue in Russia. 1n 2001,2006,2009 these discussions continue!

It is just a dreary routine for a dreary routine government!

For Indians to understand Tagore’ contribution to India, they have to read Indian history. In particular, Indians should read the British rule, the rule of Lord Curzon, who appointed as Viceroy in 1899, Curzon and his old Estonian friends reached India with a mission to civilize Indians. They were mere natives and puppets. The imperial high noon was such that Indians felt helpless. So came the many evil deeds of Curzon and the partition of Bengal was the last straw. It woke up the slumbering Indian “natives’, Curzon no less insulted educated Indians, almost Indians were denied their souls, though one person Dr.Welldon, the new Bishop of Calcutta and Curzon’s old Estonian friend and also incidentally he was also the Headmaster of Winston Churchill at Harrow, the new bishop didn’t deny the Indians their souls! Though the bishop’s mission was recruit the Indians in the service of Jesus Christ!

So came the Bengal Renaissance and also with it the new awakened India.
It is this new awakening that is reflected in the Geetanjali in which the poet invokes the awakening of “let my country awake” in freedom!
Alas, to this day, yes, in all our years of an Independent India, we still seem to be in search our true worth, our true identity and find our own feet! To stand as an independent people and call the shots in this much changed world than what was in Tagore’s time.

Prime Minister is the chancellor of Visva Bharati!
He must do something more in concrete terms!

The Tagore 150th anniversary came and went. Just like that! There are reports, one by a Tagore expert, William Radice, the long-time Tagore translator and in a way his current flag-bearer, writes in a latest article in a national newspaper with a rhetoric question: what makes a writer relevant? Radice by the way teaches Bengali and writes poetry in English and translated the latest time a new version of Geeetanjali which bro8ught Tagore the Nobel.

A good question given the fact that Tagore had been over-played and over-portrayed as the answer to all our ills!
Yes, the present generation leaders, the present generation Indians in particular, doesn’t know a thing and much more than that, they don’t know what Tagore really was like, except for the long-forgotten fact that he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.

That, if recalled with adequate mental preparedness, was something unique, now we can call it as a freak accident!

Yes, Asian literature, in particular, the Indian literature at the heyday of British imperialism, more so in the immediate events of Lord Curzon’s coming and dividing Bengal and creating a Swadeshi stir in the minds of the then Indians, all coached to obey and surrender, Curzon made the Indian maharajas to travel all the way to the New Delhi durbar and made them to kneel and lift their hands in imperial salute to the king in absentia and the poor maharajas, all mental wrecks, if not worse still more, they were a class, god knows how they all came along and what we know, as we read in the biography of Curzon. A Superior Person, A Portrait of Curzon and his circle in late Victorian England by Kenneth Rose, Phoenix Press,1969). This we did while holidaying in Ooty and where there are many references to the visit of Curzon as Viceroy in 1905.The route he took first by visiting Mysore where he installed the Maharaja (for that visit the Maharaja built a costly palace at such high cost in those times!

Curzon later took the more narrow and long winding Segur Ghat road and in Ooty he was given much partying, went for Shikari and as a farewell meet was convened at the current Charing Cross junction. All these thoughts gathered strength when the time also coincided with the news reports on his 150th birth anniversary celebrations in Dhaka in Bangladesh, then in New Delhi and much more an international meeting of sorts at Drtington Hall (where many may not know lived Tagore longtime English co-worker, Leonardh Elmhurst and his American wife and a philanthropist, the duo gave large funding to Tagore for setting up Sriniketan, near Santiniketan for rural development. We have seen the couple once visiting Santiniketan when I was a student there long after Tagore passed away.

It is a long story told many times how Tagore was given the Nobel Prize in the first place. In my opinion, the Nobel Prize is recognition of the Indian genius, against the much propaganda of the Brits led by such imperialists, first by Curzon, later by Churchill. This, our generation of Indians and the outside world must understand. This is how history must be seen by the Indians who, shockingly, still don’t have a sense of history. They have for long lived in an unhistorical sense of much mysterious spiritualism. Today, it much worse. It is sheer senseless slavish life of sheer insensitivity and gross materialism!

Tagore had friends from England to Bengal and to his home at Jorasanko. William Rothenstein, the great artist and the Rothenstein circle was large and influential at that time. Sturge Moore, the poet recommended his name for the Nobel Committee. W.B.Yeats, the then very competent poet wrote a long introduction to the Geetanjali translations. It is also reported that Yeats, being the best English poet had had a hand in correcting the English translation of Tagore who was not as competent in his English translations. So, now Radice’s translation of Geetanjali would be read with great interest by all Tagore lovers.
Now, how Tagore is relevant today?

This question, Radice has asked in his article and we believe in his lecture at the Darting Hall Tagore festival.

Dartington Hall has now emerged as a New Age Capital, where there are so many multiple new initiatives, ecology, peace and progressive education. At Dartington Hall there is a progressive education movement. Whatever it means, it is in line with Tagore the educator.
So, we have so many new age movements have coalsed with the Tagore centenary.

Now as William Radice notes Tagore, the saintly figure, with his long beard and his pan-Asian flowing dress, is seen ,rightly or wrongly, as the saint from the Wast to preach to the West. That was how he was lionised in the then world and now, he is almost as forgetten, by his countrymen as any leader of such long flowing idealism and universalism.

Yes, Nehru said many time he was influenced by Tagore’s anti-Nationalism lectures as he saw in Japan at that time(with fierce nationalism after Japan defeated the first Western country, Russia and as it went about driving the Chinese to the wall, so to say).So Tagore was seen as an internationalist. He was in fact, as he called his university, Visva-Bharati.

So too his very many last of his few writings. These Radice mentions in his article.

Now, the Dhaka celebration announcing an international price in the name of the poet. So too Indian government named a Rs.one crore prize, perhaps to award to writers or peace workers.

Already criticism has come as to what the Indian government is doing with its rest of the many “international prizes, in the name of Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi?

The Indian government is not able to name the many deserving candidates from within India or from outside. So, these high profile prizes remain unawarded!

In the meantime, the Indian government announced a grant of Rs.95 crores for Visva Bharati for infrastructure development. Also one crore every year for conducting the Tagore festivals.

In this context and the right occasion we like to draw the attention of everyone to the fact that the Indian Prime Minister is the chancellor of Visva Bharati. And what he has done so far?

Practically nothing! Some years ago we visited Visva Bharti and saw the deterioration. We wrote to the chancellor, the President of India (who is the visitor to the university), the governor of W.Bengal (then Mr.Gopal Gandhi).Only the governor acknowledged the letter. The chancellor and the visitor almost ignored our lett6ers and the write-up in this very same journal.

Even Prof.Amartya Sen, the bright star to come out of Visva Bharati, though he comes to live there often, didnt bother to say anything about improving the university.

The Prime Minister can do a signal service, if he raises Visva Bharati to an international university, keeping the Tagore spirit of a new freedom for Indians and the very academic community which, alas, still are caught up in a mindset of slavish unthinking lot!

Elusive Terrain: culture and literary memory
By Meenakshi Mukherjee, 200 pages, OUP, 2008

Now and then, it is nice to read a book by specialist on topics like literature and culture. Meenakshi Mukherjee is a veteran academic specialising in contemporary Indian literature. Both in the Indian languages and that is more important than just talking about the Indians writing in English. This is what she has done and enjoyed reading the essays compiled into a book.

Some of the topics might interest many readers. Indian films in English, Internal Diaspora, Hindi to Bangla, Literary debates in India in the last half century, Narrating a nation and history and imagined history etc.

The book stirs our thoughts and kindles our imagination. A very pleasant read, indeed.
Almost all the topics interested me, English in an uneven land, that is the way the English language  has come to occupy a central place in the lives of the privileged and the less privileged. There is now widespread learning and the use of this language and now a new India, those living in the USA and UK and making a new life of comfort and exile, yes, the word exile catches the reality, though the use of the word, Diaspora, I found repelling! At least for me! So, readers would find my use of English a bit old-fashioned, old-fashioned I remain in many other aspects as well, in holding on to my own views of  what English language means to me and also how I hold others who write and make a living  abroad.

As I live in India and committed to the success and failure of what India means and I still see the exiles as a class apart from the native Indians.

I give weight more for the native Indians than for others like V.S.Naipaul who have their own bees in their bonnets.

I am not going into the very specific points raised by the author and that is interesting but the point I want to make here is that still, that is even now, after Britain had departed from the Indian shores, there is this perception that in Britain they don’t seem to have come to recognise the Indian literary successes, like Salmon Rushdie and Naipaul as mainstream writers, there is the classifications and categories as black literature, colonial literature etc. There is this racial perception and it seems it is hard to go. She quotes Susan Sontang for writing in the Times Literary Supplement (13 June 2003) saying that English had contributed to the disappearance of many “lesser” languages of the world. I am glad to find Ms.Mukherjee criticises this view. Slave trade first, (for 3 centuries) then, the indentured labour migration saw, Africans and Indians migrate in large numbers and the result is the current race and religious intolerance we noticed in UK and France, to cite just the two advanced countries. There is also the shift in the use of English in India by the new generation to displace jobs in the USA and elsewhere and also the English publishing that sees more English books published in India but not bought by the West but mainly for the domestic readers. She cites a book by Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (2004) which profiles the racial and other factors that discriminate against writers and literary activities taking three forms, linguistic, literary and political, the last taking on an economic cast.
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Autobiographies are often highly subjective and therefore only partially true in many respects.While biographies are likely to be more reliable and might give a full account of one’s life.

We seem to live at a time when there is an unprecedented change in our lives.Globally it is so.Globalisation is  now almost a cliche.
Our life on the planet has become enriched and I look up life today with full of new optimism.Yes,there are causes for worry.If you are a historian or  champion of international  peace or   disarmament or an environmentalist you have reasons to be worried.There are such great souls.I count Jimmy Carter one such.Then,I also has to contend with Bill Clinton who is anything but a pessimist! He is also on the agenda of  promoting international good with his Clinton Global Initiative.So,there is much to cheer about.
But as any  serious thinker would be  a troubled soul.There is much to decry.There is what I would call as the trivialisation of  truth.
Has reason triumphed?As hoped for Enlightenment thinkers?It hasn’t.
So,anyone who tries to write about himself  or about one’s own times has to first give an outline of what he or she thinks as the core issues of the times.

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Poets and philosophers! When you think of them, what thoughts immediately spring to mind?

They seem to give much life and light to society.Much of our sense of culture and pure aesthetic pleasures, it m is poets and writers seem to be capable of providing.A society without some intellectual strength cant be a society and cant even survive.It is the intellectual backbone,the philosophers,the thinkers and intellectuals bring to bear.
Yet think of their individual and collective lives.How unstable and often so insecure and isolated they live their lives.

Not many genuine poets or writers or philosophers are fortunate enough to get recognition or material rewards in their life times.Most often,the fame and name ,at all,comes too late or too little to be of any use for them or for their families.The posthumous fame,if and when it comes,it is for the society and not for the families concerned.
Yet,how sad and often tragic, their lives!

I have always been interested in poetry. Reading poetry came long after I started writing poetry.This pursuit and passion remained with me all all along.

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