There is a sense of deja vu as I write this 7th annual year- end digest. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I decided to put my then primary interest in astronomy and astrophysics on the backburner. A short stay at the Department of Physics at Punjab University combined with a pragmatic look at the job market soon weaned me towards engineering. In those impressionable years, sensitivities towards the life around me turned me to Marxism and literature- as it did for a number of generations of sensitive young men and women in India and other countries. I continued, mysteriously, to pass my engineering exams too, finishing with a degree in 1991.
Since then I have traversed history, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics and literature- anything except astronomy. I cannot but take a long view look at the past 25 years or so spent pursuing fields with with I had no professional relation, as I took up The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene last week. I was invigorated and rejuvenated as my otherwise waning interest in reading seems to have returned. Besides the fact that the book is very well written, explaining recent developments in particle physics and cosmology easily for a layman, I find it interesting the author’s journey proceeded directly opposite to mine. In his teenage years, he read Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, and rejected Camus answer to what he considers to be the most fundamental question- whether to commit suicide or not. Though I read Camus much later, the answer to similar questions in my mind led me away from astronomy. Greene opted for the opposite direction and sought a career in astrophysics.
I am convinced, though, if he had also been subjected to the manner in which I was taught at the department of Physics at the Punjab University, he too would have changed his course of study.
On a different note, my experiment with an e- reader earlier in the year, was short lived, though I will have to return to it at some point or another.
Another change this year was that I borrowed books from the local library. The Mississauga public library is not the best of libraries- its collection in the fiction section is limited and highly overused. Still, some of the books that I found and read were Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Robber by Robert Walser, The Universal History of Infamy and Ficcones– both by Borges, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Garcia Marquez and WG Sebald’s The Emigrants.
The first three were disappointing and I could not finish them. Mrs Dalloway started well but became too didactic- ideas seem to occupy the writer’s attention rather than the characters that became incidental to the story after a while.
The Robber, unlike Walser’s wonderful novel about a small town clerk, The Assistant, dragged on and on without a plot or any particular insights.
Some of the stories in Borge’s Ficonnes, particularly The Circular Ruins and The Garden of Forking Paths, I found fascinating. The others in this collection- equally good, like The Tower of Babel, I seem to have read elsewhere.
The Universl History of Infamy held interest but only for a very short while, as the stories became more and more predictable.
The Gift, a purported translation of Hafiz’s poems by Daniel Ladinsky, was a near disaster. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that the poems are at best a trans- creation and nowhere represent a translation of Hafiz’s poetry.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s, The Heart of a Dog was enjoyable and made me nostalgic about the longer novel that he wrote- the Master and the Margarita. There is no other novella about the early Soviet years, that is as devastating as it is short as The Heart of a Dog.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold was chilling to read, and I could undertand why Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers appeal to me so much- this novel could very well have been written about a village in North India.
WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was very readable and his mix of fiction and non- fiction writing reminiscent of Borges.
The Buddha and His Dhamma by BR Ambedkar and No Freedon with Caste by Swami Dharma Teeratha, both read online, continue to shake my long hitherto ideas about India- much of which I had imbibed from the dominant nationalist and left studies. Ambedkar’s writings continue to provide startling insights that mark him out as a writer who is just being discovered in the 21st century. It needs to be remembered that even till 1990, his works were not available at all, till they were published, I think, by the Maharashtra state government. It helps immensely that many of his works are available online thanks to the small but growing band of adherents that he commands among internet activists.