“Buddy Guy – When I left home” – A review

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“Buddy Guy – When I left home”

A review

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I was eighteen when I first fell in love. It was at a dingy little record store at Fountain Plaza, on Pantheon Road in Egmore, Madras, back in the mid 80’s, where I paid the then princely sum of 62 rupees for a well-preserved vinyl LP – Eric Clapton’s seminal double album, “Just one night”. All afternoon at home, I listened to the four sides, over and over again. If ‘Blues Power’ touched me for its tinkling piano work, then ‘Tulsa time’ electrified me with its grinding beat; if ‘Further on up the road’ seemed heavenly, then ‘Double Trouble’ was divine. By dinner time, I knew I was in love – with the blues. Over the years, my love deepened, and the spectrum of my affections grew to encompass countless greats: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, and…

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Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

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The basis of the Renaissance movement lay in the ‘discovery’ and absorption of natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy, in the 12th and 13th centuries AD in Italy. Onto this was added, in the 15th and 16th c.AD, the question of the true nature of ‘The Word’, and the relative positions of Church and Man to it. The answer to the question was a cultural efflorescence that dazzled the Western world, shook Abrahamic religions out of a millennial stupor, and culminated in the next phase of human evolution – the industrial revolution. To set a key, central date around which these five centuries swung, seems more self-defeating than an infinity of Sisyphean strivings; and yet, there is a date, after which the impetus for a new learning, a new enlightenment, and a new style of trade, gained critical momentum – 1453 AD, the fall of Constantinople. The rush, indeed a veritable…

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The Two Avataras of Romila Thapar

I was first introduced to Romila Thapar by my father, not long after I had exited my teens. On a weekend trip to Stavanger to do my laundry, he handed over his dog-eared copy of Thapar’s seminal work on Ancient India, along with Percival Spear’s companion volume on the medieval and modern periods. Over the next fortnight, I read both volumes with hardly a pause. I was hooked! When I went home a month later for Easter break, he handed me Basham’s equally magnificent ‘Wonder that was India’. “Read it for balance”, he said, somewhat enigmatically. A delightful lesson which sank in only later in my twenties, but which has stayed with me ever since – a lesson which I now employ to Dr. Thapar’s latest work: “The Past as Present” [Aleph Book Co., 2014].

Verdict: I must say I am woefully depressed.

For the ‘Why?”, we must differentiate between Romila Thapar the historian, and Romila Thapar the Marxist historian.The differentiation is nuanced, but both definite and visceral. In her first avatar, she holds claim to having written the most readable book on Ancient India in the past century; it is objective, the prose is delicious, and she makes no foray into the politics of historiography [the study of historical research]. She tells it as it is, and where sources are inadequate, or interpretations fraught with limitations, she states so – clearly and purposefully. This approach she continued successfully into her next marvel – an analysis of Emperor Ashoka, his life, his edicts, and the decline of the Mauryas. It was a time in her life [1950’s to late 1970’s] when she was doing original research, when the source material took greater prominence over their dissemination by others; meaning, she held to her views with the force of logic, and since she was better than most in constructing cogent arguments, the rest fell by the wayside. She was a detective solving the mysteries of time.

But then, after the 1980’s, she was presented with that most awful of situations –she was forced to choose; but choose what? No great thinker should ever be forced to choose between the truth and her beliefs – it cuts to the bone of everything she stands for. Sadly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a nationalist right in India, she chose ideology over logic. Ever since, fuelled by a deep hatred for the Hindu nationalist cause, she chose to remodel her platform from one of research, to one of countering – in her mind – pernicious ideas that sought to disrobe her land of the fabric draped by the freedom struggle. Sad indeed, for an historian to forget history and place faith over logic.

As time passed, into the new millennium, she grew increasingly tetchy – I can find no other word to convey the tone of her works, churning out work after work countering what she believed was a depraved ideology. And when the Babri Masjid was brought down, it was war. What she didn’t realize was that she had unwittingly become caught up in that very process she had devoted a lifetime to deciphering: change. But we, her devotees, nodded to one another in solemn understanding, and continued to chase her publications hot off the press. “Somanatha”,for example, where she went out of her way to prove that the great Shiva temple of Saurashtra – perhaps the richest of its era – was plundered by the Ghaznavid invaders solely for economic reasons; the religious angle of crushing idolatry,she says, is ill-defined, or incidental at best. Look at how the Hindu Kashmiri kings looted temples in the Valley ‘left-and-right’? Well, one might ask what lapse of sanity forces her to ignore innumerable firmans that demanded transformation from dar-ul-harb to dar-ul-islam? Could it be that she fears a flaring of evil passions if she walks further down this path? Or, holds she fears of modern India to be so intellectually stymied, that we – the unwashed we – will not differentiate between that age and ours, instead rising on these disclosures in a barbaric tide of sectarian violence? Or, worse, had she by this argument of differentiating between economic and religious plunder, slipped into the politician’s trap of ‘big-rape-vs-small-rape’? Can her devotees not then ask what her views on the medieval inquisition in Goa are?

But then, just when we feared the worst, she returned to her roots with “The Past Before Us” [HUP, 2013] – a dense, sweeping tome that sought to survey how ancient Indians presented their own history to themselves. Suddenly, it was the good Doctor at her best again, showing thru page after memorable page, how the very tenets of historical consciousness vary from civilization to civilization. I should have known better – especially when her central thesis appeared to have been structured in counter to that old claim: the Indians have no sense of history. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in her amazingly logical, if maddeningly convoluted arguments, to note their incipient tendentiousness.

And what notes she collected in the course of writing that book, she furthered into a set of essays with a far more simplistic aim, which her ideologue-in-arms David Davidar was only too happy to publish. An aim to show up low-brow over-generalizations, and to prevent these shallow revisionist themes from making their way into text books. Yes, a noble aim indeed, and most necessary,but I am unable to shake the feeling that this is someone else – some left-liberal clique – using Dr. Thapar’s name to make a few points heard. After all, I have struck work since noon today to write this piece, haven’t I?

Can it then be laid at her door that her fury stems from having attempted to perceive the post-independence process in Westphalian terms, and that somewhere, deep down in a corner of that remarkable mind, she knows she may have gone too far? Perhaps, for in the process, it appears that she overlooked a simple fact – nationalist movements cannot be countered by argument; they can only be contained by compromise. And the ultimate irony? Ah, it is that the true counter to the half-baked loony-tunes she attacks with such vigor, in “The Past as Present”, will actually be made by those of us who adopt her logic and reject her ideology. Go figure!

Review of Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

The basis of the Renaissance movement lay in the ‘discovery’ and absorption of natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy, in the 12th and 13th centuries AD in Italy. Onto this was added, in the 15th and 16th c.AD, the question of the true nature of ‘The Word’, and the relative positions of Church and Man to it. The answer to the question was a cultural efflorescence that dazzled the Western world, shook Abrahamic religions out of a millennial stupor, and culminated in the next phase of human evolution – the industrial revolution. To set a key, central date around which these five centuries swung, seems more self-defeating than an infinity of Sisyphean strivings; and yet, there is a date, after which the impetus for a new learning, a new enlightenment, and a new style of trade, gained critical momentum – 1453 AD, the fall of Constantinople. The rush, indeed a veritable, permanent exodus of scholars – predominantly lettered in classical Greek – from the clutches of Osman’s dreams, turned into a wave, as they fled from the only refuge they had ever known for centuries, to the closest ports of salvation that their awareness touched: Naples, Siena, Florence, Venice and the many other smaller, mercantile kingdoms that then made up the Italian peninsula.

Into this mélange must we now fit a man – Poggio Bracciolini, and one of the texts he unearthed: Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, written almost 1400 years earlier. A poem, that speaks of free will swerving unrestrained thru time, much as the author’s theorized elemental particles which constituted the Atomists’ universe he drew. As a physical theory, it was neither original, nor demonstrably Roman in origin; but as a subservient constituent of a wider tableau, it served both as firmament and analogy, for the poet’s invocation of a way of life; in fact, to use a tired, defining turn of phrase – a secular way of life, filled with contentment. Perhaps, in a region beset by devastating, periodic outbreaks of the deadly plague, such new paths to happiness might have provided the perfect, and timely, ameliorative ingredient to the mixtures that soothed ‘death anxiety’. And into this backdrop, must we now posit a query: whether, the discovery by Bracciolini of Lucretius’s poem, and its further dissemination, was the central spur to the return of vitality into various spheres of life – or not? Or, is the question itself, as the heavy texts that weigh upon the past that is our racial memory, a thin line between velleity and aporia? A most natural dilemma, since, an answer to that unexpected clinamen, is a little-accepted truth: when it comes to history, the author is as much under scrutiny as the subject he dissects.

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Stephen Greenblatt is a Harvard Professor in the Humanities department, and self-styled progenitor of the literary school called New Historicism. It has its roots in Marxism, and draws for intellectual sustenance upon a number of strands of thought; it submits every text to test, for under-usage, for having been ignored, even to see if it had been willfully sidelined – the epitome of subaltern studies. It permits the generation of new, insulated avenues of historiography – the art of writing history with a priori, or predetermined views. At a philosophical level, it draws upon the best that post-war Existentialism has to offer, and with every page, indirectly pays tribute to the hoary, much-maligned souls of Sartre and Camus. And, at the narrative level, it uses as literary tools, the chunky new script that fills the alphabet of Post-Modernism; for them, in the words of their founding father Jacques Derrida, there is truly, nothing but the text. To many, these multiple, often-differing, at-times-conflicting, strands, have finally anastomosed in the post-Soviet era into the next stage of human intellectual evolution.  Naturally then, for Greenblatt, the urge to tell a tale – and one told well in his book, “The Swerve” – is bolstered by a need to conform with the new enlightenment he subscribes to, while simultaneously bowing at the altar of innocent, unintentional revisionism. You see, he is a believer.

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Poggio Bracciolini was not the sole promoter of the movement now called ‘Renaissance Humanism’ – a delightful phrase describing a centuries’-long movement, which took the grammar out of ‘The Book’ and into vocational curricula. There were others, some just as famous, some even more – Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bruni…the list is literally endless. He was not even the first. Similarly, the poem by Lucretius, however inspiring, was not the sole guide for the return of individualism into humanity. To believe so, is to forget facts, to forget history. Already by the time of Bracciolini’s magnificent discovery in 1417, Dante’s Infernohad made more inroads into the vacuum of thought than any other work; now, to classify the impact of one text over another, to seek justification for that in a diatribe of silence, and to ‘paper-over’ other, equally significant works, is to press an agenda. That is where this reviewer is first forced to cross swords with the author: does a work have to gain significance only by the suppression of another, especially when no extant data may precisely describe either the temporal or geographical spread of De Rerum Natura’s influence? And why force this unsubstantial view? On whom?

History is written by data and re-written by courage; rarely does the established view change in our century, without the emergence of new corroborative evidence for the new standpoint. Still, courage has shown its timid head frequently – in Marxist Historiography, in both sides of the War on Terror, in exceptionalism, majoritarianism, and post-colonial studies. If Nietzsche asked whether God was dead, the answer was National Socialism; if Salafist groups prepped victimhood for motivation, the echo was the search for weapons of mass destruction; if religion was truly the opiate of the masses, then surely, that is what gave Saloth Sar the strength to walk his killing fields. In each case, the revisionist tendency served an insular, insulated purpose. Thus, the question is forced: what is Prof. Greenblatt’s agenda? One may only surmise: an academic nihilism that seeks to shine a lonely, brighter light on one self? Or, the furthering of alternative histories, a la Post-Modernistic trends? It is difficult to say; for just as easily, he may only be interested in telling a tale – one which obviously had an impact indirectly on his childhood. Certainly, whatever his agenda, he is passionate with his subject matter, infusing it with exactly the vitality he believes Lucretius gifted Europe. His narrative is engaging, and he does well to turn fact into readable tale; sadly, he may have cast his net too wide, for while the work of facts reads with the pace of a novel, it sets is basic premise in fiction.

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Venu Gopal Narayanan

http://venuatthewindow.wordpress.com/

When he is not writing unpublishable novels, short stories, reviews and poems; when he is not at the wheel of his SUV, away, lost alone somewhere in the wilderness beside architectural marvels, on another one of his road trips; when he is not frothing at the mouth over political statements made by his pet bugbears, ‘the left-liberal-anarchist-loonie crowd’; when twenty-two men in white step off the battlefield, and the world begins to exist once more; then, you can find him at his workstation consulting on the development of oil or gas reservoirs. Thankfully, the latter part happens only rarely.