Category Archives: Fiction

Is the water real?

In a town, there stood a dam. For more than twenty years, the dam just stood there, and no water came downstream. Suddenly one day, a bucket of water flowed downstream, as if shouting, “I came from the dam! I came from the dam!”

The first passerby looked at it and said with utter surprise: “We have known that dam for a long time, we didn’t know there was water behind that dam.”

Another one with better memory mentioned that indeed there had been some talk about water behind the dam about ten twelve years prior also, but the matter had not been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

A few days later, a couple of more buckets of water streamed. More cries of “there is water in the dam” were heard.

The first passerby remained unconvinced. “How is it possible that there has been water behind that dam for such a long time, and it has never said anything, never shown up, never mentioned it to anyone else? Clearly, this water must not be from the dam but just a conspiracy to malign the dam. Anyone with half a brain can see that.”

In the few days that followed, a few more buckets of water streamed in. Buckets told of how they had been behind that dam for so many years. It took courage to come out of it. After all, it had been a very sound dam, well respected by all. Some buckets were really unsure. Perhaps it was their own fault after all that they were behind the dam to begin with. How did they get there? Surely, they must have gone there of their own accord. Was it even dam’s fault?

The first passerby remarked, even if at the risk of sounding repetitious that it makes no sense for so many buckets to have not said anything for so many years. Putting his legal background and training to good use, he added the phrases such as “in the strongest possible terms” and warned against repeating the story of the water, which he called “an outrageous defamatory lie.”

Another passersby also commented: “Well, that is how dams are. There is water behind them. We cannot say any crime has been committed, if the water went there by itself. The buckets of water have not said that they were unlawfully detained. Surely, they could have come out sooner. There is no point in coming downstream so many years later and then blaming the dam for it.”

Yet another passerby questioned if there was a schedule that the buckets were following just to get media attention and if it had now become fashionable to say that yes, we too were behind that famous dam. The buckets’ response remained only that they had long ago moved on from the dam, but having heard the story of other buckets that came down the dam, it gave them courage to do so as well.

The people of the town have been hearing that argument for many days and many weeks now. They deserve to know now. Is the water real?

Flava and Albius (and Neruda)

All deserts lead to RomeOnce upon a time, there was an emperor in Rome.  He was an emperor, but he was also a person, and a father of sons and daughters.  His youngest daughter Flava got sick one day and (as these stories go) only got sicker and sicker.  The young Flava was also very dear to the chief poet Albius, who would often take the child on his walks around the palace.

When it was apparent that her end was near, the emperor made a plea to all his poets to create a poem so sweet and so real that the memory of Flava would live forever.  The chief poet Albius was the one who knew her so well and was so in love with the child, that he was able to quickly write a poem in his sorrow.  He wrote about how Flava would run around the palace, how Albius would often spot the sunlight in her hair from a distance, and how she would play mischief with her mother and the important visitors and sometimes torment the birds and sometimes hide some important papers belonging to this or that person.  That afternoon when Albius first read alound his poem, the clouds appeared suddenly and transformed the sunny afternoon into the darkest cloudy rainless day.

The emperor didn’t like the poem at all and immediately instructed Albius to remove all the unfavorable mentions of Flava (playing mischief!) and focus more on the sunshine in the hair of her princess.  But Albius’ poem was written and his sorrow had seen the outlet and it wasn’t going back.  Emperors are usually just, but more so, they are just decisive, and in this particular case, he decided that Albius would hang for the transgressions against his dying child, and die before Flava.  So Albius died, and  all the poets were asked to keep the good portions and remove the bad references to Flava in Albius’ poem.  The congress of the poets worked together for four days, breaking only for small durations until they all decided that there was no way to improve on Albius’ poem since no one could agree on what part was flattering and what part was a transgression.

So, as these stories go, they buried Albius’ poem with Flava and no one remembered her after a few years.

*******

Essential NerudaIn reality though, Pablo Neruda is not Albius and there is no emperor, and he can write anything he wants.

[Original in Spanish]:
Tú estás de pie sobre la tierra, llena
de dientes y relámpagos.
Tú propagas los besos y matas las hormigas.
Tú lloras de salud, de cebolla, de abeja,
de abecedario ardiendo.
Tú eres como una espada azul y verde
y ondulas al tocarte, como un río.

[English Translation:]
You stand your ground, chock full
of teeth and lightening.
You propagate kisses and clobber the ants.
You cry from vitality, from an onion, a bee,
from your burning abecedary.

[From”Oda Con un Lamento” in “Essential Neruda“]
You can read the full poem in Spanish here, and in English here.

Book (non) Review – The Alchemist

"The Alchemist" by Paulo CoelhoThat anything remains to be said about “The Alchemist” is highly debatable.  That anything remains to be said by me is touching upon ridiculous, since I am pretty much the last person to read the book that has sold over 300 million copies.  I am sure there are people who have not read this book yet, but let us not talk about the 3 year olds, people who only communicate using whistling language, beautiful spice girls married to football stars and US vice presidential candidates right now.

Suppose all your friends went to the National Museum of Natural History, and saw this beautiful Hope Diamond and came back and told you all about it.  But for years you didn’t go there, until more of your friends went and saw it and told you about it.  And then your aunts and uncles and everyone else saw it and told you about it.  And then finally your FedEx delivery guy told you about it.  And then you went and saw the Hope Diamond.  Who would you write the review for?

"The Hope Diamond" at NMNH
“The Hope Diamond” – Click here to buy now

[Picture courtesy Ken Lund]

Romanov Bride (Robert Alexander): A review

The Romanov Bride, by Robert AlexanderJust finished “The Romanov Bride“, which I really liked.  The book is written from two voices that alternate by chapters: the female voice of Ella, the eponymous princess and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna; and the male voice of Pavel, a peasant who moves from the countryside to St. Petersburg and becomes a revolutionary.

Ella was born a princess, grand daughter of Queen Victoria and while the chapter opens by saying that she was not raised in a life of luxury as the duchy was not a rich one, that appears to be just a simple relativism at play.   But when diphtheria struck her family, killing her younger sister and her mother, then her words of not living a life of luxury have more impact.  When she is twenty years old, Ella is married to the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and becomes Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia.  As the strikes and demands for political reforms grew stronger in Russia, the Grand Duke Sergei, who is the Governor General of Moscow, became very unpopular, and is ultimately killed by a terrorist bomb inside Kremlin at the hands of revolutionary Kalyayev.  At the time of this tragedy, Ella chooses to start her hospital and ultimately becomes a nun at a convent that is established by the Tsar in an imperial decree.  She sells off all her personal riches and jewels to support her mission and the chosen path of religion and spirituality.  As the country deteriorates into mayhem and revolution, she rises in her spiritual endeavors, and is able to love everyone and everything, and is able to serve those in need.

Pavel’s story generally flows in quite a different direction.  After her wife and unborn child are killed in a bloody Sunday when the peasants wanted to give a petition to the Tsar, Pavel is consumed with the fire of revenge, and this fire slowly corrodes his conscience until he finally becomes a shell of a man who no longer recognizes himself or his purpose in the revolution.

One of the fascinating elements of this story is to discern what is fact and what is fiction.  The princess’ background, the grand duke and the politics is of course all factual, so is Sergei’s murder by Kalyayev.  Even the episode in which Grand Duke escapes when a revolutionary hesitates upon seeing him in company of his wife and two children is factual.  All that said, the very existence of the narrator Pavel may be fictional, as a human face of the peasants.  His persona is an exaggerated version of the well accepted premise that the peasants rose in arms to the revolution, without realizing that the violent revolution and communism was very unlikely to improve their lives.  The exaggeration in case of Pavel of course is that he himself is killed by communists for speaking out against his superior, an act very similar to the one that killed his beloved wife Shoura.Sergei and Ella

The book begins and ends in a Russian gulag near the white sea, where Pavel is awaiting his death sentence and in a way joins the lives of the two narrators in terms of the finality of death and the judgment that awaits them.  From Pavel’s own perspective, he has lived a life of sin, while the grand duchess has lived a saintly life.  He owes her a confession, but while she is gone, a priest “Father Vladimir” listens to his confession.

Overall, excellent book, and especially for people such as myself who were not so familiar with the Russian history during the 1905-1917 years, this book is very interesting.  Highly recommended.

Indifference to the ideals of the bourgeois

“His (Steppenwolf’s) tendency is to explain Mozart’s perfected being, just as a schoolmaster would, as a supreme and special gift rather than as the outcome of his immense powers of surrender, and suffering, of his indifference to the ideals of the bourgeois,..”

Indifference to the ideals of the bourgeois – good stuff, isn’t it?

PS: Elements of metafiction in Steppenwolf

Hesse slides in somethings with such subtlety that you can easily miss them, and you don’t want to blame him for that (Ha!). For you believe in the truest of your heart that he meant no guile in you missing that point – this isn’t a master story teller running a suspense job, but a fair person having a fair conversation.

The said element of interest here is metafiction. In the extended stage setting preface, the narrator describes Haller and then laments that he got too carried away in the description, and ended up disclosing more than he wanted to the reader, thus, subtly confessing to the reader that there is a reader and there is a writer, and such is the frankness and the directness of the communication between them that the writer is not willing to go back and tear away a page which he has written contrary to his plan. To quote Haller’s words from a bit later, “Is that not witty?”.

This reminds me of frequently written “PS” note in an email. Of course it was very meaningful in the olden paper times – if you thought of something after writing (post script) the main portion, it was easier to address the additional thought as a post script rather than rewriting. In electronic times, its utility is more doubtful, so it is almost never seen in electronic documents, but occasionally makes its appearance in emails. Now, if the sender thought of something before sending it, why don’t they go ahead and change the content anyway, rather than using a PS construct? Or perhaps the sender means it as “Post Sending”? 🙂 The answer clearly lies in a metafictional sense as well – the sender of the email would really like to convey that this additional point is merely a PS, perhaps in an attempt to deemphasize it, even if it is the most important point the writer makes.

No Axe To Grind

Hesse remains my favorite author of all times. Here is one of the many lines from his writings that put me in an immediate trance.

“He had thought more than other men, and in matters of intellect, he had that calm objectivity,that certainty of thought and knowledge, such as only really intellectual men have, who have no axe to grind, who never wish to shine, or to talk others down, or to appear always in the right.”

From Hesse’s Steppenwolf
– page 9.

Book Review: Red Tent

I have had the book for a long time, just never got around to reading it, until I just got this book on tape! So, I heard the book, then read the book again, so some of my comments may be reflecting the voice that I heard as I “read” the book.

Red Tent is a book about the clan of Jacob, who presumably lived about 2000 years before Christ. Thus, this book captures an era that was four thousand years ago. One of the biggest things that stands out is the timelessness of the story and that of the story telling. I am yet to make up my mind as to whether that is a strength or a weakness of the book. If the book’s articulation is correct, we can conclude that lovers’ games, their nervous first contacts, love and rivalries between siblings, interaction between cousins, loss felt by a mother when children grow up, none of those emotions are any different now than they were four thousand years ago.

About the only thing that seems to be different four thousand years ago and now is the ability to travel. Due to limited means, people traveled less far back then, and it used to take longer (Duh!) . Another thing that has changed is the apparent lack of jealousy of husband’s desires in those times by the multiple wives.

Author Anita Diamant writes incredibly poetically, and the book written in Dinah’s mellifluous first person voice is a delight to read as well as to hear.

One of the criticisms I heard of this book was a rabbi’s angry tirade about how this book is trying to distort history since the concept of the red tent does not exist in Jewish tradition. When I read this book, I did not get the hint that this concept exists in Jewish tradition, only that it was in this particular family as a small family tradition, and the entire family story is a piece of fiction anyway. There is no way to please an orthodox religious person.

A significant portion of the book is about child bearing and midwifery, and those sections are handled very delicately by the author.

All in all, a great book – highly recommended.