23 January 2013

Notes on Dostoevsky

For long I thought Dostoyevsky was a philosopher; this could be because of the kind of books he wrote. He wasn’t a philosopher, not like Socrates or Kant.  Although, he did influence many philosophers, writers, and thinkers: Freud, Kafka, and Nietzsche for example. Nietzsche was so impressed he claimed that Dostoevsky was the only writer from whom he had learned anything new.

Philosopher or not, Dostoevsky is the only writer who came very close to understand the mysteries of human behavior.

Early in in his writing career, he was imprisoned for his association with a socialist group; He was charged for reading banned literature, and was to be executed with a firing squad; however, at the last moment, the tsar pardoned him and the sentence was converted to a 4 year hard labor in the prison.

This near-death experience made a profound experience on him. In the prison he was not allowed to read any books, except the New Testament.

Four years of bible study made him a strong believer. Christ became a role model. So much so that, he once said, if he had to choose between ‘Christ’ and ‘Truth’, he would opt for the former. He also created a Christ-like character, Prince Myshkin,  for his book The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is probably the noblest character created in the history of literature. Though a noble person, he was unfit to live in the contemporary society--hence an Idiot. Like Christ, even Prince Myshkin fails in his efforts to save his friends.

Christ like themes appear in Other books as well. In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a parable of Christ's second coming. As soon as the Christ comes second time, he’s imprisoned by a ninety year old man, who asks a lot of questions, but Christ chooses to remain silent. In the end, Christ is released, on condition that he won’t come back again.
(In a similar situation Howard Roark [Fountainhead, Ayn Rand] chooses to remain silent, when questioned by the authorities.)

Dostoyevsky, although a staunch follower of Christ, didn’t like church's interference in politics and other mundane activities. According to him, religion had no business than that of the soul.

Over the period, he got addicted to gambling, and often found short of funds. As a result he had to work on multiple books in parallel. (Unlike Tolstoy, who was quite wealthy, and had the luxury of revising War and Peace a few times over the years.)

Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy as well. The seizures occurred frequently and severely affected his health. However, once he said that these seizures, though painful, served as  epiphany and enlightened him.

Though a strong believer, his books often challenged the religious beliefs. In Crime and Punishment, he asks: Is any person morally superior (Raskolnikov) to kill a fellow human being? Even when the victim (the pawnbroker) is harming the society. And, then the greater question: Is such a crime pardonable?

In The Idiot, we find even the noblest person (Prince Myshkin) is unable to save his friends, inspite of all his goodness.

In The Brothers Karamazov, a small time character questions: whether faith can really move mountains? Yes, says bible, maybe it was a metaphoric statement. Nevertheless Dostoyevsky’s character challenges the reader.

Of other things, Dostoevsky is the first writer to employ First Person Point-of-View in writing (Crime and Punishment), which is the favorite writing style of contemporary writers. (Tolstoy employed Omniscient Third Person Point-of-View for War and Peace, which is not a popular choice these days. )
Nabokov (Lolita), criticized that Dostoyevsky’s characters don’t grow. They are fully developed at the beginning of the story itself and don’t change over the period.

And, some have criticized his characters talk a lot of philosophy unlike people in real life.

Also, Dostoyevsky’s solution for human problems is salvation through suffering. Many are not convinced by this solution.

Some of the initial Russian books were translated by Constance Garnett. She neither had Tolstoy’s sense of beauty nor the depth of Dostoevsky.

Nabokov, famously criticised that the english speaking world is neither reading Tolstoy nor Dostoevsky, but they are just reading Constance Garnett!

Luckily the translations by the husband and wife Duo, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, are the best available in the market. Anyone interested in Reading russian literature in English should first look for a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, with the exception of Gogol. The couple somehow failed to capture Gogol’s humor.

Contemporary writing
In current times, if someone writes like Dostoyevsky, he probably won’t find a publisher. Such writing is no more in vogue.

A new writer, trying to learn the craft, may not find much in Dostoyevsky. Novice writers should go elsewhere.

Among the readers, there’s always a debate on who’s the greatest writer: Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky. Both are great writers, uncomparable. And, yet, I am a bit biased to Dostoyevsky knowing his background and the circumstances in which he wrote his books.

War and Peace is all about Beauty. Tolstoy is a gifted writer. No other writer has written a better picturesque prose than Tolstoy. But what he lacks is the depth of Dostoevsky. Every time you read Dostoyevsky you understand him at a different level. You notice things that you didn’t in the earlier reading, which is not true for Tolstoy, and that makes Dostoevsky a better writer.

01 January 2013

Parallel Worlds

Syri i kaltër 4

On the fifth day of my rounds in the park, I realized that the woman sits at the same place everyday; she shows up at the play-area just after the children start their games and leaves before the sunset. And In these five days, I haven’t seen anyone else with her. But that doesn’t seem to bother her; she’s occupied with something else. At one time she might have been pretty, but in recent past she had certainly ignored herself. Other things change at the park. One child absent a day or two; a few mothers show up irregularly.  Not this woman; she has a precise routine like a clock.

Working most of my life with students, I have developed a keen sense for such small details, or probably because I don’t have much to do these days. I got retired last year, soon after my wife passed away. I had a few more months of service left, but the management at the university hastened the process, though, I would have preferred to be at work than in the lonely house.

In the past few months, I was not really doing anything of significance. That’s when my daughter invited me for a short visit; they had moved to a new apartment. My past visits to Mumbai have been short——I make a point to return to native Mangalore at the earliest. I am not very comfortable with crowds, narrow lanes, and the constant buzz of city life; I feel like an outsider.

Manish, my son-in-law, gave a few remotes on the first day, before leaving for the office; each one for TV, music system, AC etc. I get confused with gadgets having so many small buttons, many of them with multiple purposes. So, I started my idling in the park and noticed this woman. Today I walked up and sat next to her.

“I see you here everyday at the same time,” I said.
She looked at me. Then she looked at the children playing at distance. She seemed like pondering over my observation. Although, when she didn’t respond for some time, I thought she had ignored my question.

“My son sleeps at this time,” she said eventually, “This is the only time I get to relax.”
“How old is he?”
“Hope he’s not alone.”
“No. My mother-in-law is at home, If he gets up early.”
“Is he your only child?”
The woman hesitated.
“Pardon my curiosity,” I said, “I am of a different time, where such personal questions were not considered offensive. I myself have a daughter of your age.”
“Does she have children?”
“Not yet. Neelu has some time before people start pestering her.”
“I think couples should not make any haste in these things,” she said. “After all, having a child changes your world. Although, I got pregnant right after the wedding. It was unplanned. I must agree, I was somewhat dejected——I wanted to spend some quiet time with my husband. I would have loved to have one more child. But Guddu tires me so much; he’s equal to 10 kids.”

At first, I was little surprised of her openness. The difference in our ages might have triggered this candid response.

“My daughter would sleep at odd hours,” I said. That was many years ago. I have fond memories of those days. “One of us——I or my wife——was needed when she woke up. Eventually, my wife was so sleep deprived, she started sleeping when the baby slept.” These memories bring back a warm feeling in me.

In those days, though at night we had to take care of the baby, during the day there were many people around to help. Ours was a big family. Now that I think about it, I realize, what a big sacrifice they made taking care of Neelu. Childcare really didn’t affect my work. I used to spend long hours at the university: youth and idealism. Students flocked at the library to discus variety of subjects. I was young with radical views. I wanted to change the system. Later, during Neelu’s teen years, I also wrote a couple of text books, against the syllabus.  

“I need to leave now,” said the woman. Her words cut off my thoughts.

The new apartment is on the seventh floor——must have cost Neelu and Manish a fortune. I am not very comfortable living above the ground; I fear I might fall off sleepwalking.

In the little home, everything is neatly organized: flat TV on the wall, bonsai plants, shelf with a few important books. Everything has its place. Near the window stands a fish tank with four silent gold fish. The tank has green water-plants. It’s a small ecosystem.

Neelu works for an IT firm. Everyday morning, she attends a US call from the guestroom. She came and sat on the opposite sofa, with a bowl of cereal——she had just finished her call.

“Is it true that they have a short memory?” I asked pointing to the fish.
“No,” she said, “it’s a myth. What’s interesting though, is that they have never seen the sea.” She’s good at such little facts.
“Were they not caught in a sea?”
“No. they were bred artificially on land. They will never know the sea.”

The thought that there is a larger aquatic world unknown to this fish, amused me.

Her cell phone rang. She saw the number. “I am married to this company.” she sighed. “I’ll call back on my way,” she disconnected without giving the caller a choice. She finished the cereals on her way to the kitchen. “Don’t forget to feed the fish,” she waved at me before closing the front door.

Her schedule alarms me. In our time, once you were out of office, you would forget office work. No one would disturb you at home. Nowadays with the gadgets you are connected all the time. No personal time.

Manish, her husband, has flexible hours. He goes to office later in the day. He is an event coordinator. His job allows him to keep long hair and informal dress code. Many a times, he works from home.

He saw me with the cereal bowl. “Don’t eat that thing,” he said. Then he ordered breakfast from the nearby restaurant before going for a shower. The doorbell rang in a few minutes. A boy delivered the breakfast on a tray and tea in steel cups. “I’ll come back later for the plates,” he said.

After the breakfast, Manish showed me his vast collection of CDs——taught me how to operate the projector.

Before leaving for the office, he gave me his cell phone.
“Neelu’s number is on the contact list.” He wrote the home address on a chit and gave it to me. A couple of day ago, I had lost my way on one of my walks. I spent some time roaming in circles, and then one kind person helped me finding the way back.

“What if someone calls you?”
“Talk to them,” he said. I sometime forget he is my son-in-law and Neelu is my daughter. I switch their roles. I wanted to ask him about his parents, who are still not in talking terms with him. They didn’t approve his marriage. I decided to ask about them at a later time——didn’t want to ruin his day.

After he left, I came to his stuffy work room to browse his collection of CDs. I had never heard of such movies. They looked contemporary. I think at one point in our life we stop interest in contemporary art, and appreciate things only of the past; read books whose authors are long dead.

It seemed to me that he lives in a different world, for which I don’t have any liking. I no more keep myself up-to-date with current events. My world had stopped a few years ago.


Everyday, after my walks, I stopped for a few minutes to chat with the woman in the park, Anamika. 

“Do you ever bring your son to the park?”
“Guddu doesn’t like it here. He’s mostly an in-house child. I don’t think he will ever show an interest in sports or outdoor activities.”

I would rather prefer children to spend some time, daily on the playground. But didn’t feel like enforcing my views on her. Young mothers are notoriously reluctant to take any advice on parenting.

“He pronounces some words incorrectly.”
“It’s a nice feeling to watch children speak like that. Don’t correct him,” I said, “It’ll go away in years.”

“A few days ago he locked himself in the bedroom. We had a tough time breaking the door, as well as keeping him calm, all the time. We have removed the latches of the doors inside the house.”
“He keeps you busy.”
“True. Before Guddu my life was stagnant. Now I don’t have time for anything. He’s glued to the TV all the time, watching cartoons. Some cartoons are so… am I boring you?”
“No. no.”
“I can talk for hours. Sometimes I notice that it is a burden on listeners, who show interest only out of politeness.”
“Not me.”
“Soon you’ll have to hear such stories from your daughter.”
“Yes. Yes. I cannot imagine not-listening Neelu’s stories. So I better be prepared.” I could visualize those days.
“I don’t understand some of his talk. He makes words that don’t have meaning. He is such imaginative. He has an imaginary friend too——Laika.”
“Is it not the name of the dog that was sent to the Moon?”
She nodded. I was surprised that such a young child came up with that. She must have influenced him.
“What is common between them? I mean Laika and your son?”
“Should they have anything in common?”
“You said they are friends. Friends do have common likings.”
“Interesting. I didn’t think in that angle. I need to ask him.”

She fetched a picture from her purse——little Guddu with parents. I imagined Neelu and Manish in a similar picture. She showed some more pictures of Guddu and herself. If I had seen the pictures any other time, I wouldn’t have recognized Anamika.
“You look very different in the picture.”
She nodded.
“Your son looks like you.”
“Thank you,” she said. She must have heard that compliment hundreds of times.
“What’s your husband doing?”
She hesitated.
“He died last year in an accident.”
“I am sorry. I——”
I felt a sudden pain in my heart. I had always imagined her in a happy family. Then the cell phone rang. I waited for her to take the call, then realized it was my cell phone ringing——the one which Manish had given.

“Manish, could you pick me up?”
“Neelu it’s me.”
“Oh! Appa. Where’s Manish?”
“He’s not come from office. He left the phone with me.”
“Wait a sec.” I heard her giving instructions to a colleague. Anamika was looking somewhere at the distance. It seemed like an infinitely long wait.
“Sorry about that,” she eventually came back. “Did you feed the fish?” I had forgotten the whole thing.
“I forgot——”
“Appa they are very sensitive. If you don’t feed them on time, they’ll die.”
“I know. I know. Listen I am outside now. When I go back home, I’ll feed them right-away.”
“Are you busy with something important?”
“It’s not that——”
“Can you go home right now and do it?”
“Listen Neelu——”
“Please do it.”
“OK. I am going right now.”
She disconnected.
“It’s fine,” Anamika said, “I need to leave too.”
I didn’t get a chance to pay my condolences. I am not very good at these things.


Neelu comes home late on weekdays. Once she is home, she locks herself in her room, finishing days pending work.

I cooked dinner last two days. After my wife passed away, I had kept a maid for a few months. Her cooking didn’t suit me. I decided to learn cooking. Prior to that, I didn’t know anything about cooking. I could hardly make tea.

Manish helped with the chores. It’s interesting to find two men in the kitchen. In my younger days, during my Father’s time, men were not allowed in the kitchen, where so many women crowded. There was always a lot of noise and giggling. And, if a man stumbled into the kitchen by mistake, there would be an awkward pause. Hushed voices. And all kind of anxiety till the intruder left.

I updated my day’s activity to Manish. He is a good listener. I told him about Anamika and Guddu; but spared the details of her husband’s demise.

“You probably are anxious to hear such stories from Neelu.”
“Every father is. Don’t worry about it. You still have time.”
“We have already married for eight years now.”
I regretted talking about Anamika. Years, I have avoided this topic. An awkward silence ensued. I stopped the running water.

“That was Neelu’s condition,” he said.
“What condition?”
“She agreed for the wedding on condition that we don’t go for children.”
“What foolishness.” I had no clue about this.
“We’ll never have children.”
I restrained myself from saying something unintelligent, for I saw Neelu in the hall. She had finished her office work; I don’t know how much she heard us.
“Is it true?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She didn’t ask what the question was. “We don’t want to bring up a child like you did.”
This reply hit me like lightning. For once, I thought I misheard her; I didn’t ask her to repeat, for I didn’t have the strength to hear such words again.
“How did I bring you up?”
“You never had time for me or for mother; you were always busy with your students. Work work work.  All the time. You ignored us. We would wait for you late into nights. But you showed up only after we went to sleep. And your books——”
“What about them?”
“You spent your life to write those text books, they are not even on the syllabus. No one reads them——”

“Neelu please…” Manish said.
For sometime, I lost the courage to face them. I just stared at the tiles on the floor, and tried to search for a pattern in their randomness.

When I finally composed myself, I noticed she was gone to the bedroom. Manish was still there. “She didn’t mean it.”  He said.

The next two days I avoided Anamika. I didn’t have the courage to talk about her husband, when I myself was recovering from what Neelu had said. Once again I had started feeling like an outsider in the city. I had asked Manish to prepone my return tickets. On the third day I met Anamika.

“My daughter thinks I didn’t give her enough attention in her younger years,” I told Anamika.
“Didn’t you?”
“Now that I think of it, maybe she is right. I probably was selfish in pursuing my goals and ignored my family. In those days I was quite ambitious. I fought with the authorities to change the dated syllabus. I wrote 3 text books——mostly what I knew about the subject——it was a demanding task. They were not well received.”
“What happened——did the management banned them?”
“No. no. They didn’t have any authority on such things. They could not dictate such terms. It was my own students. They wanted to get higher scores without learning. They didn’t have the patience to read——they wanted some sort of guide books with answers.”

“Does your daughter know that?”
“Yes. If these books were a success, she would have had some satisfaction for my absence from her life.”
“What do you think about this?”
“Our job is to do whatever we are good at. The success or failure is not in our hands. If we know the outcome ahead of time everyone would take up successful goals.”

I showed my books to her. I take them wherever I go. For some time, I also had plans to revise them and to add a few chapters. I no more harbor any such desire. She browsed a few pages, and then stopped at one page. 
“You dedicated the books to Neelu.”
“Yes aptly. They were written in the time stolen from her life. Anyway, I want you to have them.” I had preserved them for my grandchildren.
“I can’t…Don’t you need them?”
“No. Your son might find them interesting when the time comes. Hopefully, they won’t be outdated by that time. Do you mind if I meet Guddu once?”

I followed her through the narrow lane. In the elevator we were quiet. She pressed the bell of an apartment. After some time, a woman opened the door.

“A visitor for Guddu,” she introduced her mother-in-law. “Is he still sleeping? I’ll go check. Make some tea. You drink tea?” she went inside not waiting for my answer.
“Namaste,” I said.
The woman nodded and pointed to a sofa, before entering the kitchen to make tea.

I looked at the spacious room. I waited some time quietly. A picture frame on the wall got my attention; it had a few pictures of the family. I saw Anamika’s husband and Guddu in a lone garlanded frame. A small light was flickering below the frame.

“Died in an accident last year.” The woman offered tea and biscuits. “They were going to Shirdi. Only Anamika survived.”
“You mean Anamika and Guddu survived.”
“No. Only Anamika——” I think I got confused.
“She showed me pictures of Guddu,” I said.
“They were old pictures.”

Suddenly I felt like the room was moving; I had to hold the sofa to keep balance.
“Do you need some water?”
“No. Thanks.” I said. I had asked what’s common with Guddu and Laika. The dog had died in few hours of the space launch.
“In the hospital, on learning the fate of her husband she slipped into coma.” The woman explained. “It took months for her to come out of it.”

“Who’s in the bedroom?” I asked.
The woman answered after a delay: “She has not come out of the shock. Her world stopped at the fateful day.”

“She needs treatment,” I said.
“Treatment would kill her. She’s is happy as is. Don’t you think we have a right to choose our life?”

I heard some ruffling inside the bedroom. We stopped the conversation. Anamika came to the door threshold. “He’s sleeping,” she shrugged. “Do you want to come inside and have a look?”


Note: This story was published on www.daijiworld.com; Click here to read it on Daiji.