Friday, September 4, 2009

Only in Sleep

Yesterday I got this poem from and found it simply beautiful. The unforgettable memories of a childhood. So here it is.
I have left the original formatting in place. It looks rather eye catching.
Well, at least, so I think.

"Only in Sleep"

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Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.

Only in sleep Time is forgotten --
What may have come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
And the doll-house stood at the turn of the stair.

The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
I met their eyes and found them mild --
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder,
And for them am I too a child?

Sarah Teasdale

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Neipayasam : A Malayalam short story by Kamala Das : Translated as Sweet milk by Sindhu V. Nair with TLM

I happened to come cross a notice about the death of Kamala Das
in a newspaper. Since
she was mainly a writer in Malayalam, or so I thought, I was not surprised that I had never heard of her before and was not acquainted with any of her writings. Since, however, the notice of her passing away was widely published I thought she must have been sufficiently well known to justify this much attention. I should add though, that I did not know of her and of her writing was essentially a matter of my own ignorance for Kamala Das has written both in English and Malayalam. Some of her Malayalam work has been translated in other languages including English and numerous scholarly papers and books have been published on her work. Her autobiography, My Story, though controverisal, is critically and widely accalimed. She was a poet and an author of international renown, a fact that is amply witnessed by the glowing tributes paid to her in her many obituaries.

Her poetry is mainly in English and her work in Malayalam consists of short stories and a number of novels. Just to have some idea of the style and content of her writing I downloaded one of her short stories Neipayasam which is available as Sweet milk in an English translation in the little magazine. I was not expecting to find what I read. With some 1023 words in the English translation it is literally a short story but it is like a hurt, trivial when sustained but enormous in its delayed impact. No distracting imagery and no superficial verbiage. A touching tale beautifully and sensitively told.

The story appears as if it is based on a true life occurrence and the emotions of a grieving husband and a distressed father are superbly portrayed. It is a tribute to the insight and skill of the author that she could look into the soul of her character and describe it so perceptively.

I wanted to keep this blog strictly impersonal but this story has moved me so much that an episode from my own life experience will not be out of place here since there is some congruence between the two.

My wife complained of chest pains and was taken to hospital.
I visited her in the afternoon. She was in good cheer and I saw no reason for me to feel concerned about her illness.

The next day we received a call from the hospital that her condition had worsened, that we should reach there without delay. She was in a coma.

When I read these lines in the story:

Sitting in the bus amongst strangers, he went over every second of the day.

Woke up in the morning to her voice. "Unniye, don't go on sleeping covered like that. Its Monday." She was calling the eldest son. She then moved to the kitchen, her white sari crumpled. Brought me a big glass of coffee. Then? What happened then? Did she say anything that should not be forgotten? However much he tried, he could not remember. "Don't go on sleeping covered up like that. It is Monday." Only that line lingered. He chanted it to himself as if it was a prayer. If he forgot it, the loss would be unbearable

I vividly recalled the emotions which went through me.
Sitting by her bedside in a state of confusion compounded by sheer helplessness I kept on thinking about the sequence of events that had brought us to that pass but my mind had gone completely numb as if all memory had been wiped out from it.

I envied Achhan for he had the consolation of the one sentence memory that he could chant like a mantra of life and death - Unniye, don't go on sleeping covered like that. Its Monday.

At that point in time I could give anything to hear her speak a few parting words which I could treasure or briefly open her eyes and cast a last look.

The anguish of that moment still lingers with me.

But there was nothing, a tangle of wires and tubes supporting her belaboured breathing, a fading suggestion of life on a robotic screen, running erratic curves of a quasi existence, which some forty eight hours later turned into straight lines and the machine emitted shrill noises of death.

I had never done serious cooking before, at best, Spanish omelette, baked potatoes, boiled rice and red lentils. Though emotionally drained and physically exhausted I opened the freezer door to see what could be done.

It was with great difficulty that I suppressed a desire to cry but my eyes were filled with tears which started flowing down my face.

There was enough cooked food in the freezer to last us for weeks.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

It is not an unforgettable story but there seems to be one within it and I have yet to see a more emotive and touching use of the two interjections of ah and oh in a poetic context.

In a dictionary there is not much difference in their meanings but the manner in which they have been used here they come over with completely different nuances. These are perhaps the limits beyond which Epicureanism cannot be taken and where pain and pleasure become so intertwined that they lose their separateness.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light.

I am living a more than full life that will cut short the natural span of my being but ah my enemies you have no reason to be happy in it and oh my friends do not be sorry for me. Look at the lovely light that I am shedding around me for it is a source of envy for my foes and an occasion for my well-wishers to rejoice.

  • Postscript

Although I had interpreted 'But ah, my foes' in relation to envy but my subconscious self was somehow less than happy with it and in a half awake state in my bed I kept on thinking about it and the more I thought I felt that the 'source of envy' was not an appropriate and adequate expression to describe it for it negated the inherent joy, sadness, and compassion which envelope these verses - the joy at the beautiful light she radiates within her and all around her, sadness that it will not last the night, compassion for her enemies who are blind to it and she tells her friends to celebrate it rather than be sorry for her.

The Invisible Man (1911) by G K Chesterton

On Wednesdays it is the fruit market day although to be honest with three stalls hardly visible in the plethora of other stalls, it is not much of a fruit market especially since I have seen six days a week fruit markets - the whole area covered with stalls bulging with fruit from all over the world at prices well, let me leave it there. And if you stuck to one stall, occasionally you got special deals, once I got a load of strawberries complete with plastic containers at a price which in a local supermarket would have set me back by quite a large amount.
Since it is only on one day of the week there is no rapport between the sellers and the buyers. There is no recognition, not even an inkling of a fleet
ing welcome. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, something is better than nothing although my enthusiasm has considerably waned for the place. Initially when I moved to this area I used to visit it regularly although now I find it almost a chore.

On Thursdays
it is the farmers' market which also duplicates as an antiques market. There are more antiques stall there than other stalls and they have a wide range of offerings - stamps, coins, old prints, books, old envelopes and postcards old crockery and cutlery and so on. It is really amazing the range of items people collect. Once I started collecting carrier bags but had to give it up because of the insoluble logistic problem that the bags storage posed

I go there for old books and honey, genuinely fresh honey. On some days squeezed out of the beehive only a day earlier and the person minding the stall is an old style gentleman. The trading is unhurried and free from commercial pressure. He is well informed on the subject and talking to him to which he is not averse adds to information about the product you are going to consume. Last time when I remarked about a 'best before date' on a bottle, he told me, that it was following regulations although honey discovered in Egypt believed to be ancient was still found to be edible. It is not always available but when it is I try to buy a few jars of acacia honey. It has mild flowery taste and it does not crystallise although we never have it long enough to see whether it does or not. And I was really surprised to learn from him that the bee farm does not have acacia trees in its immediate vicinity and it therefore takes its bees to an area where these trees grow and that is how the farm produces acacia honey and hence a somewhat higher price.
I could add perhaps as an aside here, there are such noticeable differences in the behaviour of different stall holders in an open market tha
t it could be a meaningful area of study for a doctoral dissertation in Sociology. Perhaps one of the correlates could be the nature of the wares that they sell. The sellers of perishable goods, fruit and vegetables, are propelled by an urgency and deal with their customers accordingly. The booksellers on the other hand sit there reading and would attend to you when addressed directly. One may stand there browsing for as long as one wishes without eliciting any visible reaction from them

There are usually four bookstalls, two are mostly old books and the others carry an amalgam of the new and the old. Occasionally, one can find small assortments of books with other bric-a-brac on other stalls as well.

I am not a regular collector of the first or early editions but have bought a few in the past after reading an article on the subject.

On one of the stalls I saw a copy of The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was not a collectors' edition since the first edition was published in 1884 and this one, issued in December 1893 was the eighteenth reprint. But we had a collection of poems, the Victorian Narrative Verse, in our undergraduate years and one of the poems that I have never forgotten is Morte d'Arthur because of the following lines and so I bought it. In spite of its age it is a beautiful book reminiscent of a time when books were the prerogative of a privileged few. Paperbacks were unknown and the authors did not have to rely on marketing departments to get famous.

These lines are part of a dialogue between Sir Bedivere and King Arthur after the knight has flung the Excalibur far into the middle mere and has helped fatally wounded Arthur to the barge.

Then loudly cried bold Sir Bedivere
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, w
hither shall I
Where shall I hide my forehead and my
And slowly answer
ed Arthur from the

The old order changeth, yielding place
to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the

I have often thought about the last line as to when a good custom turns into an instrument of corruption.
he proposition in this context is not general for the poet has not used a but one because he has a specific custom in mind. It is the dissolution of the Round Table and the end of Camelot. Had they continued they would have exercised a corrupting influence on the community at large and would have constrained the development of society making it debased and corrupt.
But on a global level the question remains, is it possible for a good custom to corrupt the world? Or should we look at it as poetic imagination?

There is a newspaper cutting pasted on the inner back cover of this boo
k where one W. S. Lily in the Fortnightly Review thus interprets these lines. In his citation the words 'yielding place to new' appear as 'giving place to the new'.

His poetry is a perpetual "Sursum Corda" -ever elevating our thoughts to what is noble and pure, and the Eternal Source of all nobleness and purity. He has told us in lines unsurpassed, as Taine thought, by any writer since Goethe for calm and majesty, how "the old order changeth, giving place to the new." Yes, the old order changeth. We live amid a "dust of system and creeds." Much has gone during the last hundred years that men once thought durable as the world itself.

In his commentary Lily has not even touched upon the core assertion "Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.' He has continued in the same vein propelled by the force of his own wor
ds but enough of these philosophical musings. If a visitor to this blog has something pertinent to say on the subject perhaps they would illuminate us by sharing their thoughts through a comment.

There is another Tennyson poem from my undergraduate years which has been lurking in the shadows of my mind - The Beggar Maid.

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say;

Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua

I am not at all sure why I remembered this poem for no pictures we
re published with the poem in our course book but there it was so I looked it up on the internet and found two great paintings, one by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the other by Edward Blair Leighton. The Leighton painting is fresh bright and colourful and it is extremely beautiful in all its detail but the one by Burne-Jones in primary colours with a dusky sheen has an oneiric quality about it and the beggar maid in her meagre clothing, a pleasing countenance and expressive eyes is a more endearing portrayal of the Tennyson lyrics.

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her po
or attire was seen:
One praised
her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark
hair and lovesome mien.

On the oth
er stall I saw the same collection in The Globe Edition. Originally published in 1889, this reprint was dated 1908 and the book with an age of over one hundred years was in excellent condition and was definitely a bargain for the price. Moreover it had an index which is missing in the 1893 reprint. Incidentally, if you wish to preserve a book you also buy a cheaper edition, say, a paperback for reading. But one thing that made up my mind was a sticker on the inside cover. It is a copy awarded to a pupil as a prize for gymnastics. The inscription by the headmistress is a fine example of penmanship and the ink used has only slightly dimmed after the passage of so many years. The school is no more possibly merged with some other institution in later years. I wondered whether the prize was presented in a school assembly or it was a more open affair when parents and perhaps grandparents and other relatives were also invited where they were sitting basking in the glory of their offspring's public recognition and no doubt the experience would have been a topic of conversation in the larger family and the neighbourhood for quite a while.

While browsing through the books at the stall I spotted a paperback edition of The Penguin Complete Father Brown (1981) by G. K. Chesterton. Since I was thinking of including The Invisible Man in my blog I offered to buy it and that is a bookseller for you, he halved the marked price without me asking only because a while earlier I had bought a collectors' edition of a Kipling from him.

The Invisible Man is one of the stories from The Innocence of Father Brown.

It is a detective story with a difference. The detective is a priest and his companion a
reformed criminal. The priest-detective carries no baggage - he does not preach religion, cannot be regarded as glamorous nor does he have a quirk or idiosyncrasy of behaviour to make him remarkable. Nor does he have a physical characteristic to distinguish him from his fellow humans. The person committing the crime is not invisible in science fictional terms. He is seen by four pairs of eyes yet still remains invisible. It is where lateral thinking comes into play and makes this story memorable.

The story can be read at a number of sites. Here is one of them.

Note: The above Leighton painting is picture of a reproduction made by, copied above subject to permission. The Burne-Jones painting I have taken from where the full text of The Beggar Maid can also be read.
There are other paintings as well depicting the beggar maid and and king
Cophetua but these two appear to be far better known.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Urashima Taro and the turtle

Urashima Taro and the turtle

I had read this story in translation while I was at school. When I thought of putting this blog together I wanted very much to include it which like other stories had etched a permanent marker in my brain. Since I had only read it in translation a long time ago I was very doubtful if I'll ever be able to find it especially without any knowledge of the Japanese language. But I kept on surfing the web hoping that somehow somewhere I will find a clue and as the chance would have it I found this site: Old Stories of Japan

The website has an extensive collection of Old Stories of Japan together with Japanese popular Songs, Children's Songs, Japanese Famous Songs and Japanese Lullabies. Here was a ray of hope so I emailed Mr. Masahiro Kudo a summary of what I remembered from the story and lo and behold in less than a half hour I received the name of the story - 'Urashima Taro' - and this was indeed the story I had fondly cherished for all these years.

It is an old old story which has withstood the test of time and has survived the passage of many many centuries. It is a famous and charming tale from the Japanese folklore told to countless children in the Japanese households, enacted in many theatres and posted in videos on the web.
There are a number of variations on the story.
A young fisherman rescues a turtle/tortoise from some children or releases it after it is caught in his net. In return the young man is helped in a storm or he is otherwise invited to go to the palace of the sea-god/dragon who is variously named as rin-jin or rin-gin, Ryūgū-, Ringu and so on. In some versions it is a turtle and in others a tortoise who is the sea princess herself or a maid of the princess.
Similarly, the story ends differently in different versions.
In one he turns into a crane. In another he takes a pill and acquires the ability to breathe underwater and in the third the age of 300 years takes its toll and he is reduced to ashes.
But the core of the story remains unchanged whatever the variation.

He is taken to the palace of the sea-god/dragon where he lives for a few days by his reckoning but on returning to his village he finds that three hundred years have passed.

The theme where a person lives for hundreds of years is found in folklores all over the world in many countries and cultures. However, there are simply too many of them to be recounted here and in any case it has not been my intention to shift the focus from the story itself and to turn this write up into a comparative study of all those myths and legends.

I toyed with the idea of introducing "The Picture of Dorian Gray" as an example which is not too distant in the past. The point of convergence between the two is the containment of the ageing process, in case of Urashima Taro his passing years are stored in a Tamatebako and for Dorian Gray his painting carries the burden of his style and manner of living. But the resemblance ends there. The Picture of Dorian Gray lapses into the eternal struggle between the good and the evil, the devil and the divine whilst Urashima Taro is a sweetly tragic fantasy where a man gives up an almost immortality and a beautiful and joyous life to answer the call of his filial obligations.

In preference to other versions I have chosen the one where he opens the box and suffers the consequences - changes instantaneously from a young to a very old man and this metamorphosis is followed by death.. Why have I chosen this version? In my view the end brings a closure to the story and gives it a modicum of reality. It is also a carry over from what I read so many years ago and it is still the version that I like best.

THERE was once a worthy old couple who lived on the coast, and supported themselves by fishing. They had only one child, a son, who was their pride and joy, and for his sake they were ready to work hard all day long, and never felt tired or discontented with their lot. This son s name was Taro, which means in Japanese, ‘Son of the island,’ and he was a fine well-grown youth and a good fisherman, minding neither wind nor weather. Not the bravest sailor in the whole village dared venture so far out to sea as Urashima Taro, and many a time the neighbours used to shake their heads and say to his parents, ‘If your son goes on being so rash, one day he will try his luck once too often, and the waves will end by swallowing him up.’ But Urashima Taro paid no heed to these remarks, and as he was really very clever in managing a boat, the old people were very seldom anxious about him.

One beautiful bright morning, as he was hauling his well-filled nets into the boat, he saw lying among the fishes a tiny little turtle. He was delighted with his prize, and threw it into a wooden vessel to keep till he got home, when suddenly the turtle found its voice, and tremblingly begged for its life. ‘After all,’ it said, ‘what good can I do you? I am so young and small, and I would so gladly live a little longer. Be merciful and set me free, and I shall know how to prove my gratitude.’

Now Urashima Taro was very good-natured, and besides, he could never bear to say no, so he picked up the turtle, and put it back into the sea.

Years flew by, and every morning Urashima Taro sailed his boat into the deep sea. But one day as he was making for a little bay between some rocks, there arose a fierce whirlwind, which shattered his boat to pieces, and she was sucked under by the waves. Urashima Taro himself very nearly shared the same fate. But he was a powerful swimmer, and struggled hard to reach the shore. Then he saw a large turtle coming towards him, and above the howling of the storm he heard what it said: ‘I am the turtle whose life you once saved. I will now pay my debt and show my gratitude. The land is still far distant, and without my help you would never get there. Climb on my back, and I will take you where you will.’ Urashima Taro did not wait to be asked twice, and thankfully accepted his friend’s help. But scarcely was he seated firmly on the shell, when the turtle proposed that they should not return to the shore at once, but go under the sea, and look at some of the wonders that lay hidden there.

Urashima Taro agreed willingly, and in another moment they were deep, deep down, with fathoms of blue water above their heads. Oh, how quickly they darted through the still, warm sea! The young man held tight, and marveled where they were going and how long they were to travel, but for three days they rushed on, till at last the turtle stopped before a splendid palace, shining with gold and silver, crystal and precious stones, and decked here and there with branches of pale pink coral and glittering pearls. But if Urashima Taro was astonished at the beauty of the outside, he was struck dumb at the sight of the hall within, which was lighted by the blaze of fish scales.

'Where have you brought me?" he asked his guide in a low voice.

'To the palace of Ringu, the house of the sea god, whose subjects we all are,' answered the turtle. 'I am the first waiting maid of his daughter, the lovely princess Otohime, who you will shortly see.'

Urashima Taro was still so puzzled with the adventures that had befallen him, that he waited in a dazed condition for what would happen next. But the turtle, who had talked so much of him to the princess that she had expressed a wish to see him, went at once to make known his arrival. And directly the princess beheld him her heart was set on him, and she begged him to stay with her, and in return promised that he should never grow old, neither should his beauty fade. ‘Is not that reward enough?’ she asked, smiling, looking all the while as fair as the sun itself. And Urashima Taro said 'Yes,’ and so he stayed there. For how long? That he only knew later.

His life passed by, and each hour seemed happier than the last, when one day there rushed over him a terrible longing to see his parents. He fought against it hard, knowing how it would grieve the princess, but it grew on him stronger and stronger, till at length he became so sad that the princess inquired what was wrong. Then he told her of the longing he had to visit his old home, and that he must see his parents once more. The princess was almost frozen with horror, and implored him to stay with her, or something dreadful would be sure to happen. ‘You will never come back, and we shall meet again no more,’ she moaned bitterly. But Urashima Taro stood firm and repeated, ‘Only this once will I leave you, and then will I return to your side for ever.’ Sadly the princess shook her head, but she answered slowly, ‘One way there is to bring you safely back, but I fear you will never agree to the conditions of the bargain.

‘I will do anything that will bring me back to you,’ exclaimed Urashima Taro, looking at her tenderly, but the princess was silent: she knew too well that when he left her she would see his face no more. Then she took from a shelf a tiny golden box, and gave it to Urashima Taro, praying him to keep it carefully, and above all things never to open it. ‘If you can do this,’ she said as she bade him farewell, ‘your friend the turtle will meet you at the shore, and will carry you back to me.’

Urashima Taro thanked her from his heart, and swore solemnly to do her bidding. He hid the box safely in his garments, seated himself on the back of the turtle, and vanished in the ocean path, waving his hand to the princess. Three days and three nights they swam through the sea, and at length Urashima Taro arrived at the beach, which lay before his old home. The turtle bade him farewell, and was gone in a moment.

Urashima Taro drew near to the village with quick and joyful steps. He saw the smoke curling through the roof, and the thatch where green plants had thickly sprouted. He heard the children shouting and calling, and from a window that he passed came the twang of the koto, and everything seemed to cry a welcome for his return. Yet suddenly he felt a pang at his heart as he wandered down the street. After all, everything was changed. Neither men nor houses were those he once knew. Quickly he saw his old home; yes, it was still there, but it had a strange look. Anxiously he knocked at the door, and asked the woman who opened it after his parents. But she did not know their names, and could give him no news of them.

Still more disturbed, he rushed to the burying ground, the only place that could tell him what he wished to know. Here at any rate he would find out what it all meant. And he was right. In a moment he stood before the grave of his parents, and the date written on the stone was almost exactly the date when they had lost their son, and he had forsaken them for the Daughter of the Sea. And so he found that since he had left his home, three hundred years had passed by.

Shuddering with horror at his discovery he turned back into the village street, hoping to meet some one who could tell him of the days of old. But when the man spoke, he knew he was not dreaming, though he felt as if he had lost his senses.

In despair he bethought him of the box which was the gift of the princess. Perhaps, after all, this dreadful thing was not true. He might be the victim of some enchanter's spell, and in his hand lay the countercharm. Almost unconsciously he opened it, and a purple vapor came pouring out. He held the empty box in his hand, and as he looked he saw that the fresh hand of youth had suddenly gone shriveled, like the hand of an old, old man. He ran to the brook, which flowed in a clear stream down from the mountain, and saw himself reflected as in a mirror. It was the face of a mummy, which looked back at him. Wounded to death, he crept back through the village, and no man knew the old, old man to be the strong handsome youth who had run down the street an hour before. So he toiled wearily back, till he reached the shore, and here he sat sadly on a rock, and called loudly on the turtle. But she never came back any more, but instead, death came soon, and set him free. But before that happened, the people who saw him sitting lonely on the shore had heard his story, and when their children were restless they used to tell them of the good son who from love to his parents had given up for their sakes the splendour and wonders of the palace in the sea, and the most beautiful woman in the world besides.

Notes on Sources:

The text is taken
From the Japanische Marchen und Sagen, von David Brauns (Leipzig: Wilhelm Friedrich). In Andrew Lang's Pink Fairy Book.
Images: Urashima was so enchanted that he could not speak a word. Gutenberg eBooks::

Kagawa | Urashima Taro | Bronze statues
Toto-tarou's file with permission
Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Station 38, 1852. The print depicts Urashima Taro beneath a pine tree on the shore; he is accompanied by a tortoise, from whose mouth issues a vision of Horai.
The four Lake Saromarko pictures
To Ringu's Palace, Princess Otohime, The Tiny Gold Box and He gets old.
are reproduced from
The video is reproduced with permission from rogue28theatre.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Sunday by Ted Hughes

I went out shopping for a few items of groceries. The pavement outside the co-op is fairly wide. Occasionally, people set up shop there to sell non-food merchandise. The next door cafe lays out tables and chairs weather permitting in the continental style. It is I think a branch of a Greek restaurant chain. There are some benches scattered about to rest the tired feet donated in memory of a dear departed or perhaps courtesy of the local council. The raised flower beds look pretty in season. During the term time around three thirtyish when the schools in the area close for the day the place hums with adolescent energy and the inside of the co-op turns into a beehive of peckish activity until they are lifted by buses and taken to their various destinations.

On this occasion I found some tables loaded with books. At the first glance they appeared to be heaped together unsorted but on a closer examination they were displayed, divided in different categories - science fiction, art, poetry, architecture and so on.

The sale was overseered by three petite elderly ladies who were familiar with the books they were offering. Perhaps it was their own personal collection or may be it was benign indulgence in profitable tai chi chuan.

I do not like reading foul words or abusive language in a writing. It is generally the refuge of semi literates to hide the paucity of their skill and to conceal the inadequacy of vocabulary at their command. Or possibly an embedded streak of whatever, demands a public display of coarseness and vulgarity and the urge is not satisfied until the muck is spread far and wide. But there is one instance, in my knowledge, when heavy invectives have been used when I felt the sentiments and emotions needed to be expressed on the occasion could not otherwise be expressed.

It was or is the poem V by Tony Harrison. The poem created a great stir when it was published in 1985. It is likely to remain an outstanding example of contemporary narrative poetry. He has reproduced the foul words of the graffiti daubed on the graves of his parents and on other graves in the cemetery. If these vituperations are removed from the poem it loses all its depth and intensity and the vivid portrayal of a vandalised graveyard turns into a lifeless necropolis of dead verses.

On one of the tables I saw some poetic titles and started rummaging through them looking for a book by Harrison to reacquaint myself with V. I did not find any but chanced upon Wodwo by Ted Hughes. I had never read him before so I paid the sum pencilled in on the inner cover and took it home.

This is not the kind of book which you begin at the beginning and put it down after reaching the last page. It is the kind of book which needs to be savoured. Read it when you want to enter a world of enigma and imagination and put it down to return to a seemingly sane world.

It contains some stories, a play and several poems of which perhaps Wodwo is better known for it provides the title of the book.

There are altogether six short stories in the collection, most of them enigmatic surrealistic and hallucinatory all of them with a haunting quality. The Rain Horse for example leaves the reader with an uncertain feeling whether there was really a horse or a creation of the visitor's troubled imagination. He returns to a place which he remembers with love and affection but finds instead an inclement weather which takes the shape of a frightening horse.

Rain was dissolving land and sky together like a wet water colour as the afternoon darkened. He concentrated raising his head, searching the skyline from end to end. The horse had vanished. The hill looked lifeless and desolate, an island lifting out of the sea, awash with every tide.......
The ordeal with the horse had already sunk from reality. It hung under the surface of his mind, an obscure confusion of fright and shame, as after a narrowly-escaped street accident.
{From Ted Hughes, Wodwo: Faber and Faber: 1985}

There is probably not a single village or urban neighbourhood in Britain which is not served by a public house commonly known as a pub. It is a place where alcoholic drinks are sold and consumed. However, it is not only a purveyor of inebriation but also a place for social interaction. The pub circuit patronises artistes, musicians and novelty performers and entertainers. In fact it is seen as one of the places where artistic talent is tested and groomed. It is also an established venue for the game of darts.

Since the main actors in Sunday are two rats I felt that I could not do justice to them in my overview of the story and it is better read without third party intervention. But after a great deal of soul searching I thought perhaps I should attempt it as an exercise in search of meaning and as an endeavour to look behind the metaphor.

It is in a pub that the story unfolds itself. It is multi-layered replete with a collage of symbolism.
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{N.B. The story is not in the public domain. So there appear to be no links to it on the web.}

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Three Strangers (1883) by Thomas Hardy

I don't remember when I first came across this story but - despite its grim and sombre underlay - its graphic description and implied humour have left an indelible mark on my memory.

I will not summarise it lest the element of surprise which is at the core of this narrative is taken away. However, I found the scene at the shepherd's cottage so enticingly realistic as if I was transported in time to that dwelling to experience the events in person and to empathise with the lady of the house in her concern for the relentless depletion of her stock of mead.

The story - The Three Strangers - can be read here.