Archive for January, 2012

I haven’t read a play in a while – I think the last play I read was ‘Homecoming’ by Harold Pinter a few years back. So, I decided to read a few plays this year. The first one I got hold of was ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde. I have always admired Oscar Wilde’s wit and humour and so I was really looking forward to reading his most famous play. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.



What I think


‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is about two friends John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Worthing loves Moncrieff’s cousin Gwendolen, and proposes to her and she accepts it. But Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell refuses to approve their match, because John was adopted and doesn’t know anything about his biological parents. Algernon falls in love with John’s ward Cecily and proposes to her and she accepts it. Lady Bracknell has a problem with that too, till she discovers that Cecily has good investments in her name. But there is a catch in all this. John calls himself Ernest Worthing when he comes to the city. Gwendolen knows him as Ernest. John also tells his ward Cecily that he has a brother called Ernest in the city who is not a good guy and who is whiling away his time. Algernon, when he meets Cecily for the first time, takes advantage of the situation and introduces himself as Ernest Worthing. So Cecily thinks that he is Ernest. Then comes a situation when John, Earnest, Gwendolen and Cecily all end up in John’s home in the countryside, and both Gwendolen and Cecily think that they are engaged to Ernest. This leads to some funny situations and when the truth is finally revealed, that neither John nor Algernon is Ernest, Gwendolen asks John :


“Where is your brother Ernest? We are both engaged to be married to your brother Ernest, so it is a matter of some importance to us to know where you brother Ernest is at present.”


John replies :


“I will tell you quite frankly that I have no brother Ernest. I have no brother at all. I never had a brother in my life, and I certainly have not the smallest intention of ever having one in the future.”


On hearing this, Gwendolen tells Cecily :


“I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to anyone.”


Gwendolen and Cecily walk off into the house after this conversation. Do John and Algernon manage to win back the trust of Gwendolen and Cecily? What does Lady Bracknell say to all this subterfuge? What happens in the end? The answer to all these form the rest of the story.


I enjoyed reading ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. It made me remember some of old Hollywood / Bollywood / Tamil movies that I have seen, which had similar plots. It looks like Oscar Wilde inspired many filmmakers. I loved the way ‘earnest’ is interpreted in different ways throughout the play taking on multiple meanings. I was also surprised to discover that Oscar Wilde was Irish. I didn’t know that before.


The play had many of my favourite Oscar Wilde lines, like these.


“it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”


“That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.”


“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”


“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”


“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”


Cecily : That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?

Gwendolen : Yes, dear, if you can believe him.

Cecily : I don’t. But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.

Gwendolen : True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.


Lady Bracknell : Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?

Chasuble : She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.

Lady Bracknell : It is obviously the same person.


One of my favourite Oscar Wilde lines was not there in the play – or rather it was there in its original form, which in my opinion, didn’t have the same effect. The notes to the play said that this line was modified later. The modified line, which I like, goes like this:


To lose one parent, Mr.Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.


Algernon has a manservant called Lane, who is smart and intelligent, and who reminded me of Jeeves from the P.G.Wodehouse books. Here is one scene which I liked.


Algernon : I hope tomorrow will be a fine day, Lane.

Lane : It never is, sir.

Algernon : Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist.

Lane : I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.


I have seen a movie version of the play, which had Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench. I remember the movie having a twist-in-the-tail kind of surprising ending, which the play didn’t have. I liked the movie but now after reading the play, I want to watch it again. I also have a movie version starring Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans and others, and I want to watch that too.


There are also four other Oscar Wilde plays in the collection I have. I want to read them next.


Have you read ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ or seen it performed or seen a movie version? What do you think about it?

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I have been feeling for a while that I am ignoring some great literature from my own language, Tamil, and so I thought I will read more Tamil books this year. I also thought that I will read more Indian literature in the original (if I know the language in which it is written) or in translation. Sometime back when I was having a conversation with one of my friends, she said that Sujatha’s ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’ was one of her alltime favourite books. When I had a discussion on this book with another friend of mine, who is a connoisseur of Sujatha books, he told me that it is a wonderful book. After two strong recommendations, I couldn’t resist reading this book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.



What I think


Before sharing my thoughts on the book, a few words on Sujatha himself. (Yes, it is a ‘he’). Sujatha is one of the leading authors in Tamil. In these days, when writers stick to writing books in one genre, he was a real allrounder. He wrote crime novels, murder mysteries, literary fiction, science fiction, plays, feminist novels, screen plays, historical novels, short stories, essays on diverse topics, nonfiction books on science, modern translations of classical Tamil literature – in other words, the works. He was an inspiration for generations of young men and women. I have read some of his crime novels and murder mysteries and books and essays on science when I was a student. I didn’t know then that his work was so diverse. All thanks to my friend, the Sujatha connoisseur, for introducing me to Sujatha’s diverse works.


Now about ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I am finding it difficult to translate the title precisely – it roughly translates to Magnolias fill the bank’. The story is about a young man named Kalyanaraman who is different from the average young person. While everyone around him is trying to study engineering and medicine and law and get a good job and get married, he studies literature and music. Then he goes to a village to do research on folk music. While in the village he meets a beautiful, dark village belle called Velli, and falls in love with her. Unfortunately, she is engaged to a handsome young man from the village called Marudhamuthu. Kalyanaraman meets children, old women and different kinds of people in the village and he finds poetry in their everyday conversations – the way they use poetic language to describe everyday things fascinates him. When children play hide-and-seek, they use poetry to decide who will hide and who will seek. When gossiping about neighbours and telling old stories, people of the village use poetry. While Kalyanaraman soaks in the atmosphere of the village and its culture and its folk traditions, a new person arrives in the village. She is a beautiful, young city girl called Snehalatha. She says that she is the local Zamindar’s grand daughter. She has come to see her grandfather’s house and stay over for a few days. Kalyanaraman becomes friends with her. But he also discovers that there is more to her than meets the eye. He finds that she is hiding something from him and is also indulging in mysterious activities with Marudhamuthu. An affair seems to be developing between Snehalatha and Marudhamuthu, which gives Velli a lot of anguish. Then Kalyanaraman discovers a secret diary of the dead Zamindar’s dead wife which seems to talk about a secret treasure. Then the annual village festival happens and the ‘Villu Paatu’ concert, which is about an avenging angel, stretches till the middle of the night. Then there is a murder and all hell breaks loose. Who is killed and why and the identity of the murderer and whether the treasure is real and what is the part magnolias play in the story are revealed in the rest of the book.


It is difficult to classify ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. From one perspective it is about folk music and village culture and the contrast between the village and the city. From another perspective it is a murder-mystery. I loved the cultural references Sujatha makes in the story and the way he paints a picture of small-town South India of a particular time. For example, in one sentence at the beginning of the book, Sujatha describes how Kalyanaraman pays Velli, for carrying his luggage from the station, ‘without knowing about the local economy’ – in the sense he pays an amount which is not much for him but which is far more than what a village person would expect. In other places, Sujatha describes how a black swallow’s voice seems to be in F-sharp, how all village street dogs are called Mani, how an old village lady’s sharp nose and toothless smile were attractive. There are other such interesting fine observations sprinkled throughout the book which bring joy to someone who has lived in the India of the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The book is also sprinkled throughout with folk songs. Sujatha has done his research and fills the book with actual folk songs, depending on the context. There are songs for every occasion – love, betrayal, revenge, adultery, family life, the harvest season and every other topic under the sun. I wish the publishers had recorded these songs with folk musicians and sold it along with the book. One of the interesting things that I found in the book was the description of the paradoxical sensibilities in villages, how people are conservative and liberal at the same time. For example, how people value money and power and technology a lot, but they are also very superstitious, how they are liberal about man-woman relations but they are also conservative about women’s clothing.


I liked ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I liked the first part, which is about folk music, more than the second part, which transforms the story into a murder mystery. But I liked the book overall. I wish I had read this book when it came out in serial form.


If you want to buy this book, you can do that here. Unfortunately, it is available only in Tamil.


Have you read ‘Karaiyellam Senbagapoo’ or any other books by Sujatha? What do you think about this book or about other Sujatha books?

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One of my favourite friends during my college days told me about ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ first. I never got around to reading it at that time. My friend told me a little bit about the plot and it looked sad. So, when I got the chance to read the book recently, I decided to take it. I did a readathon a couple of days back and finished reading it. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ is about a young woman called Tess who is from a poor family. Tess’ father is a haggler – someone who takes a cart out everyday morning and buys and sells goods. One day the village parson tells Tess’ father that he is a descendant of an old family and his family tree is renowned. Tess’ father is delighted. Tess’ parents discover that there is a rich family by the second name of d’Urberville nearby. They send their daughter there to get in touch with their family roots. They also hope that their daughter can become part of this rich family and maybe get a rich husband. Unfortunately this family has a young man called Alec d’Urberville, who is a rascal. He seduces Tess and gets her pregnant. She gets back to her parents’ place and soon gives birth to a baby. Unfortunately, the baby dies after a few months. Tess continues to live in her parents’ house, but this time as a woman with a questionable past. Then one day she decides to go and work in a distant farm as a milkmaid. She starts from scratch and becomes a competent milkmaid there. She meets a gentleman called Angel Clare, there, who is from a cleric family, but who has decided to get himself trained in different farms and become a farmer by profession. Tess and Angel fall in love with each other. Angel proposes to Tess. Tess is worried that her past makes her unworthy of Angel’s love and she declines his proposal. Angel continues wooing her. Finally, Tess gives in to him and accepts his proposal. Tess and Angel get married. Then on the wedding night, Angel confesses to Tess about his past, on how his past is not spotless, but how he is a changed man now. Tess too confesses to Angel about her past. But Angel is shocked at what he hears. He becomes distant from her and then tells her that they need to be away from each other for a while. Tess is heartbroken. She goes back to her parents’ place a second time. Angel decides to go to Brazil to take his mind off things and also to find out the practicalities of starting a farm in Brazil. Tess goes to work in a different farm, where the work is harder. By this time, Alec d’Urberville has mended his old ways and has become a Christian preacher. But he sees Tess again and he is attracted to her again. He meets her and proposes to her. When she tells him that she is married, he continues wooing her. Does Tess succumb to Alec’s advances? Does Angel forget his wife’s past and return back to her? Does Tess find happiness in the end? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.


I liked ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ very much. It depicts quite beautifully life in a farm in Victorian England and asks questions on love and morals and on how society judges people unfairly. I liked very much the part of the story which talks about life in a milk farm. It takes the reader inside the farm and one can hear the cows, smell the milk, the hay and the grass and hear the milk being churned and the butter coming out. Hardy seems to be a master at bringing village life in front of the eyes of the reader. It was also interesting to read about the superstitions in a farm – for example the fact that butter won’t come out when the milk is churned, if someone working in the farm has fallen in love.


I also found most of the characters in the story interesting. I liked Tess very much. I found Alec d’Urberville quite interesting – he seems to be a villain in the beginning, but in the latter part of the story he seems to have reformed and is genuinely concerned for Tess. In the end he is again portrayed as a villain. I was in two minds about Angel Clare – in the initial part of the story, till he gets married to Tess, he comes through as a modern, liberal man, who is ready to stand up for his ideas, even if they are at odds with the world. But when he abandons Tess, I felt that he was quite weak and didn’t stand up, especially when she had trusted him enough to tell him all her secrets. His vacillations continue for the rest of the story and he never regained my affection as a reader. After reading the book, I read the introduction to the book – I always read the introduction after finishing the book, because I want to avoid spoilers – I discovered an interesting sentence there. It went like this : “There are some readers who prefer Alec’s directness and honest amorality to Angel’s fastidious emotions, his hypocritical liberal views, and his peculiar nastiness to Tess when he finds that she is not a virgin.” It looks like this line was written about me – I felt exactly like this!


While reading the book, one thing that struck me was that for a Victorian writer, Hardy had really flirted with danger and had annoyed the moral police of his era. I had read earlier that some of his novels were controversial, and when I read this book, I knew why. There is a scene in the initial part of the book, where Tess is walking back with her fellow farmworkers after spending an evening of festivities in another village, and she gets into argument with another milkmaid, who after getting annoyed strips herself and stands there trying to upset Tess. Hardy, of course, couches it in vague language, describing the maid as a Praxitelean sculpture. I can’t imagine, for example, George Eliot, writing such a scene. In another place, Tess kisses Angel passionately. The note to this scene says this – “Hardy is well ahead of his time in allowing a woman to be passionate.” However, Hardy only flirts with danger, but doesn’t cross the line. When Alec seduces Tess, it is implied and everything is left to the reader’s imagination. It reminded me of how Theodor Fontane does something similar in ‘Effi Briest’. I also read in the introduction that Hardy had to repeatedly cut such scenes out of the book, before it could be published in a magazine in serial form. Then when it was published in book form, the less ‘wild’ scenes were inserted and in each further edition of the novel, more and more deleted scenes were reincorporated and in the final edition published during Hardy’s time, the ‘Praxitelean’ scene was also incorporated into the book. One can imagine how complex, life must have been for a novelist, those days.


One problem I had with the book was in the last part called ‘Fulfilment’. There are going to be some spoilers here and so please be forewarned. In this last part, Angel comes back from Brazil to get back together with his wife, Tess. But he discovers that Tess has become Alec’s mistress, because she and her family had been reduced to poverty and Alec helped them out. But when Tess sees him and feels that she still loves her husband and also feels that Alec is the bad guy, she kills Alec, runs away with Angel and they travel everyday through forests to escape the clutches of the law. Then they reach the Stonehenge and the police catch up with them there. The story in this part of the book read like a thriller. It was so fantastic (in the sense, it was not realistic) and it was very different from the rest of the novel. It was difficult to believe and it seemed like Hardy wanted to influence his readers in a particular way and so had ended the book this way. I didn’t like this part much – it was too artificial and defied belief.


Reading ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ made me think about the other three nineteenth century classics which are stories about the ‘fallen’ woman – ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert, ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy and ‘Effi Briest’ by Theodor Fontane. I haven’t read any of them except ‘Effi Briest’ and so it is difficult for me to compare them with ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and see where it stands in comparison to the rest. One way in which it is definitely different from the rest is that the others all talk about women and families which are rich and well-to-do, while Tess is from a poor family. This and the fact that most of the story happens in a farm probably sets apart ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ from the rest.


I would love to watch a movie version of the book. I also want to read more Hardy novels. I will probably read ‘Jude the Obscure’, which one of my friends says is her favourite Hardy novel (and which is the book which created more controversy and made Hardy stop writing novels), ‘Two on a Tower’ (which is about a married woman who falls in love with a younger man, who is a scientist too – who can resist a plot like that J) and ‘The Woodlanders’ (I saw the movie version of this book and loved it).


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book :


It was still early, and though the sun’s lower limb was just free of the hill, his rays, ungenial and peering, addressed the eye rather than the touch as yet.


The only exercise that Tess took at this time was after dark; and it was then, when out in the woods, that she seemed least solitary. She knew how to hit to a hair’s-breadth that moment of evening when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralize each other, leaving absolute mental liberty. It is then that the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions. She had no fear of shadows; her sole idea seemed to be to shun mankind – or rather that cold accretion called the world, which, so terrible in the mass, is so unformidable, even pitiable, in its units.


The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.


The past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. Meanwhile the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, not sickened because of her pain.

      She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly – the thought of the world’s concern at her situation – was founded on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought. If she made herself miserable the livelong night and day it was only this much to them – ‘Ah, she makes herself unhappy.’ If she tried to be cheerful, to dismiss all care, to take pleasure in the daylight, the flowers, the baby, she could only be this idea to them – ‘Ah, she bears it very well.’ Moreover, alone in a desert island would she have been wretched at what had happened to her? Not greatly. If she could have been but just created to discover herself as a spouseless mother, with no experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the position have caused her to despair? No, she would have taken it calmly, and found pleasures therein. Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.


Have you read ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’? What do you think about it?

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Simon Barnes works as the Chief Sportswriter in ‘The Times’, the English newspaper. I enjoy reading his pieces for ‘The Times’. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I read all of his pieces. In his Olympics pieces, there was a slight bias against China and a stronger bias in favour of Barnes’ favourite sports and athletes – 100m sprint, beautiful Russian athletes, gymnastics, British sportspersons at the games – but his pieces were in general a pleasure to read. I got this book by Simon Barnes, one year before the Beijing Olympics. The title, ‘The Meaning of Sport’ intrigued me. I thought that Barnes had taken time off from his journalistic work to write a profound, philosophical book on sport. I was hoping that it will become one of my favourite books on sport. As happens so often with books about which I have high expectations, this book continued to adorn my bookshelf, without me making any attempt to take it down and read it. I decided that I will remedy the situation this year and got it down a few days back and read it. I did a readathon today and finished. Here is what I think.



What I think


The bad news first. The title of the book raised my expectations and made me think in a particular way. I thought that it was a profound, philosophical meditation on sport. I thought Barnes was going to look at the history of sport, going into ancient Greek times and tracing how sport evolved into its modern form. I also thought that he was going to trace the history of how sporting achievements were judged – how during ancient Greek times the athlete who finished first was not necessarily given the first prize, but the athlete who ran the race more elegantly, more beautifully from an aesthetic perspective and who showed wonderful technique, won the first prize, and how the modern way of judging a sporting performance has evolved from this start. I also thought that he would write about how the ancient Greek poet Pindar celebrated the victory of athletes at the ancient Olympics through his poetry, and touch upon how the modern sport correspondent might be an extension of Pindar. I thought he would write about the modern Olympic movement and how Baron Pierre de Coubertin said that it was more important to take part in sport than to win. I thought that he was going to meditate on how sport is a microcosm of life. I thought that he would look at the phenomenon on why people follow sport with a lot of passion when it would be better off to spend that time and energy and passion in things that we value in the real world – like the people we love, our career, our interests. I thought he will answer the question – ‘What is the meaning of sport?‘ – in the way philosophers try to answer the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’


Unfortunately, though the book discussed some of these topics, it was not what I expected. The title was misleading. The main intention of the title seemed to be to grab the reader’s attention and suck him / her in. The book has 158 chapters, each of which is around one or two pages long. The chapters of the book look like newspaper articles. In some places, two or more articles are continuous. In other places, they are standalone. It would be safe to say that one can look at any page of the book and read a chapter without losing continuity. My own conclusion is that the book is a compendium of newspaper articles that Barnes wrote for ‘The Times’ suitably modified so that they could hang together. Unfortunately, they don’t. The first article starts with the English football team’s World Cup qualifying match in Portugal in 2004 and ends with the English football team’s exit in the 2006 World Cup. Simon Barnes writes about specific sporting events and victories and defeats in these two years. In some places he tries to provide insight into everyday sporting happenings, which is the stuff of his newspaper articles. When I was halfway through the book, I was extremely disappointed, because I expected it to be a book, but it was a compendium of articles masquerading as a book. Also, the articles were set in a place and time and so they were dated – they had lost their freshness. But I didn’t want to give-up the first book that I started reading this year and so chugged on and completed it.


So much for the bad news. Now it is time for the good news.


Each of those articles is quite well written. It is a pleasure to read most of them. Barnes tries to see deeper into everyday sporting events and defeats and victories. This was one of the reasons I followed his pieces during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He covers his favourite sports –  football (most of the time), Olympics (especially athletics, gymnastics and rowing), tennis, horse riding and cricket. He mentions basketball and Formula 1 racing in passing. There is a mention of Snooker in one of the sentences. Most of the North American sports – baseball, American football, ice hockey – are ignored. I was hoping that he will write about Snooker too – because of its rich history and epic matches and because of Jimmy White – but Barnes disappointed me. I was also hoping that he will write about chess – such a beautiful intellectual game. And Badminton – with the All England chamionships, being held in London every year, with its rich history. But Barnes doesn’t do that. There is also only a passing mention of hockey where Great Britain is one of the strong teams. But I am not really complaining about that. Barnes is entitled to write about his favourite sports. The important events Barnes covers in the book are those which happened between 2004 and 2006 – the Athens Olympics, the 2005 Ashes series, the 2006 Football World Cup. And other events which probably didn’t have as big an impact in England, but which are equally important from the sporting perspective. During the course of the book, Barnes looks at many issues related to sport – including the role of women in sport (and how they are sidelined) and racism in sport.


I didn’t agree with Barnes on some of the things that he said. For example, in one place he says that John McEnroe wasn’t the same player he was earlier, after his great rival Bjorn Borg retired. This is one of the great tennis myths and though it is true that the Borg-McEnroe rivalry was great, it is not true that McEnroe wasn’t the same player after Borg’s retirement. McEnroe won three of his grand slam titles after Borg retired. Though many tennis connoisseurs rate McEnroe’s match with Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final as one of the great matches, many connoisseurs also say that McEnroe’s finest performance was at the Wimbledon final in 1984 when he imposed his will on Jimmy Connors and lost just four games on the way to the title. Old-timers say that it was a masterclass on grasscourt tennis by a genius. It happened three years after Borg retired. McEnroe was also one of the alltime great doubles players and he kept winning grand slam tournaments in doubles even into the 1990s.


Another thing I didn’t agree with Barnes was his description of Ayrton Senna as a ‘saint’ and a ‘mystic’. Well, Senna was a ruthless racer who was ready to do anything to win. His death at Imola was a tragedy, but he wasn’t a nice person either. He and his own teammate Alain Prost didn’t get along well. He once drove Prost off the track, so that he could win the race. That was how ruthless he was. In another context, Barnes says this :


A few lines of a lost great poem, a fragment of a sculpture : these things have a perfection that not even the greatest finished piece of work can ever rival. The reason is that we can fill in the gaps with ourselves. We can elevate the promise into an imagined perfection that can never, in the harshness of the real world, actually exist.


I think this is the reason why Senna has become a mythical hero today. Because he was an unfinished piece of art. Which racing fans can imagine to be perfect.


Also, because the book is set in a particular point in time, things might have changed with respect to some of the things that it talks about. For example, Barnes says that the second most important sporting moment that he has ever witnessed is Ben Johnson’s 100m run in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in 9.79 seconds. It was definitely a great moment, till Johnson tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Ignoring the drug part for the time being, Johnson’s 9.79 seconds has since been surpassed by Usain Bolt, whose current record stands at 9.58 seconds. Barnes himself wrote beautifully about Bolt’s record breaking race in the Beijing Olympics. On the cricket front, Barnes glows about Andrew Flintoff’s captaincy – saying that he stayed as on of the lads but still captained his team well. Flintoff’s captaincy has since been exposed and ended in disaster during the 2006-07 Ashes. Andrew Strauss is the one who is making the England flag fly high now. These are some of the problems in making universal judgements and generalizations on topical issues – they get dated as soon as the book is published.


I loved many passages throughout the book. I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages. One of my favourite passages was this :


      The Luangwa River changes its mind and its course every season. It is not a tame river. There is nothing tame about the place at all. And I was parked on an abandoned bit of riverbed, a place whhere the river no longer flowed : a stretch of sand and beyond the short sheer cliffs of a Luangwa riverbank. Watching sport. No humans for miles around, save the two or three in the Toyota Land Cruiser with me. I was standing behind the driver holding a powerful spotlight, and I had the sporting athletes right in the middle of the beam.

      Lion. No, not hunting. Hunting is not sport for a lion : it is a job and a passion. They were playing. And what they were playing was sport. It was a group we called the Fubsy Cubs : three cubs, generally found with two or three adult females, one their mother, the others either aunties or older sisters. A pride is a female system with an attendant obstreperous sperm bank.

      And when we were lucky, the Fubsy Cubs did sport for us. They sported themselves. They played. The games were Scrag Your Brother, Pounce on Your Sister, Stalk Your Mother’s Tail, and an endless variety and fusion of these three basic themes. Fighting games, hunting games, roughing and tumbling games. And it was clearly sport, because it was a metaphorical version of the real thing. It was pretend hunting and pretend fighting, just as tennis is a pretend duel and football is a pretend battle. No one was going to get hurt, save the odd bang. That was not the idea. The idea was a deeply serious kind of fun. Sport, as I said.

      On one occasion, I saw one of the adults initiate play : rolling over onto her back to grab a passing cub and toss him into the air. The cub, delighted, landed heavily on a furry chest and batted at the whiskered face before him with paws like little sledgehammers, then fell over and was pounced on by brothers. Play is for the young, but not only for the young. At times of contentment, repletion, safety, adults too can indulge in sport.

      For those lions, sport was fun, and sports was frivolous. It was also deadly serious : preparation for a lion’s life ahead, when stalking, pouncing and scragging would become not sport but survival skills. But during this very young, very safe time, there was a feeling in the air that sport could also be pursued for its own sake. It seemed then, to me, as it no doubt seemed to the lions, that sport was an end in itself.


Another of my favourite passages is where Barnes describes the beauty of Federer’s game to make a point. It goes like this :


      Roger Federer is not an artist. He is a businessman. He does not seek to beguile our senses or to make us sigh with pleasure. He is just a man looking for the best method to win tennis matches. Yet for some reason this method is sublimely beautiful.

      Federer is no more seeking to create beauty when he plays tennis than a cheetah is trying to create beauty when he pursues a gazelle. Federer is not seeking to create anything. Like the cheetah, he is seeking to destroy. His job on Friday was not pleasing me : it was displeasing Sebastien Grosjean. Tennis is not an art form : it is a stylised or metaphorical duel. It is the opposition of one will and another. But, when Federer plays, he creates a strange illusion, that he is creating a spontaneous work of art for our particular delight.

      I suspect that this is because there is an illusion within the illusion. When Federer becomes the boy with the racket of fire, creating the illusion of art, he also creates an additional illusion : that his opponent is not, in fact, opposing him. That his opponent is in fact co-operating with him : conspiring with Federer to create these patterns of angle and trajectory, of curves and straight lines, of criss-crossing white-clad bodies, of singing stris made, at one moment, from cobweb, the next, piano-wire. It becomes a pas de deux choreographed by Federer, dancing with a man who is partner, stooge, straight man and butt : a partner who is cherished, ravished, made much of and humiliated before our eyes.

      And it looks so pretty, so devoid of anger, so devoid of malice, so devoid of intention : it looks as if Federer were trying to create something pure in a naughty world. And it lifts our spirits as we watch, even while we see through the illusion and we know that all that is really (but what is really?) happening is that two millionaires are hitting a furry ball back and forth, and that one of them has a mouth that is filled with the bile of frustration.


Some other passages I liked were :


      Falling in love is also something that gives you a very high chance of disappointment. Having children brings you a certainty of anxiety. A lifelong marriage gives you a 50-50 chance of bereavement. It seems to me that the human condition is based around things that give you a very high chance of pain, misery, distress, anxiety. We do not seek to avoid them at all : on the contrary. We seek them out, avidly, voraciously, incontinently. We do this in the name of nothing less than love. We all know that the joys of loving make pain inevitable; but we do not ever seek to avoid love. And, after all, there is only one truly efficient way of avoiding love, and that is dying.


      Humans are contradictory creatures. This matter is familiar to us all. We want at the same time to be married, to be free; to be wildly promiscuous, to be forever faithful; to travel, to stay at home; to see adventures, to remain in safety; to be idle, to be rewardingly busy; to revel in company, to be contentedly alone. And sport, being a human pursuit, is naturally filled with contradictions. We relish the brilliance of a great opponent; we delight in the fact that he has trodden on a cricket ball and can’t play; we want to see genius in action; we want the team we support to render genius ineffectual.


      You do not have to experience what you are writing about in order to write about it meaningfully. Marcel Proust wrote Swann in Love without being fully heterosexual. Anthony Burgess wrote Earthly Powers without being homosexual. James Joyce wrote the Molly Bloom soliloquy without being a woman; Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment without being a murderer; Homer wrote The Odyssey without being a god.

      Writing does not depend on direct experience, it depends on the imaginative strength of the writer. I don’t mean imagination as in the ability to make things up : I mean imagination as in the ability to understand what something is like for somebody else. The entirety of human society depends on the ability to imagine what it is like for another person : we tend to avoid situations in which we imagine that another person will feel pain, discomfort and distress : we tend to create circumstances in which another person feels content.


When I started ‘The Meaning of Sport’, I wanted to like it like I did my favourite sport books. I wanted it to find a home in the exalted part of my bookshelf which houses my favourite books. I wanted it to be like CLR James’ ‘Beyond a Boundary’, Mike Brearley’s ‘The Art of Captaincy’ and Ed Smith’s ‘On and Off the Field’. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t like it as much. It didn’t belong in the company of these other great masterpieces. But it is a good book. It is light and is a pleasure to read. It is a good book to read during a summer afternoon, while one is lying lazily on a hammock. Or during a winter afternoon, alongwith a hot cup of tea.


Have you read ‘The Meaning of Sport’? What do you think about it?

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It is the dawn of a new year and it is time to take stock of the old year – in my case to think back on books and reading. 2011 was an interesting reading year for me. I wanted to read 60 books. I read around 67 books. I say ‘around’ because I am not sure. I might have missed out a few books that I read at the beginning of the year. This is the highest number of books that I have read in any year 🙂 Numbers don’t mean much in terms of reading – I will come back to this topic in a while – but it still made me happy to read more than what I had planned.


The breakup of my reading was as follows :


Abridged Classics – 2

Biography / Memoir – 4

Books about Books – 1

Classics – 8

Comics – 2

Essay Collections – 3

Fairytales / Mythology – 2

Graphic Novels – 2

Literary Fiction – 11

Mystery – 7

Romance / Love stories – 3

Philosophy – 1

Poetry – 1

Short Story Collections – 3

Thrillers – 4

YA (Young Adult) literature – 13


I seem to have read a lot of literary fiction, YA, mysteries and classics. Interesting!


I read 41 books written by male authors, 25 books written by women authors and 1 book jointly written by a male and a woman author. I read 48 books written in English and 20 which were translations.


I participated in one reading challenge – ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I also participated in two read-alongs – ‘The End of Mr.Y’ readalong hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’, and the Effi Briest readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I also took part in German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Those were a lot of challenges and read-alongs for me. I normally try to do one in a year, because when I am under pressure, my reading goes south. But luckily this year, the read-alongs and challenges inspired me to read more. I loved German Literature Month, especially, because it introduced me to a lot of fascinating new writers and wonderful works of literature.


I liked most of the books that I read. I am one of those readers who likes all the books he reads – the way children like all sweets 🙂 There were only two exceptions. I was disappointed by ‘River of Death’ by Alistair Maclean and ‘Those in Peril’ by Wilbur Smith. Maclean is one of my favourite thriller writers, but ‘River of Death’ is one of his later books and he seemed to have written it casually and the storytelling was formulaic. The same could be said of Wilbur Smith’s ‘Those in Peril’, though the premise of the novel was quite interesting.


Which were my favourite books of the year? It is difficult question, when you like most of the books you read. When I looked at the list of books that I read and made some hard decisions and tried to whittle down the list to a list of favourites, the following books came out.


My favourite novels were :


When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant


The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Night Gardening by E.L.Swann


Possession by A.S.Byatt


Suspicion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink


My favourite YA (Young Adult) novels were :


Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma


The Gates by John Connolly


Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes


Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande


Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume


Matched by Ally Condie


My favourite novellas were :


Immensee by Theodor Storm


Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist


My favourite short story collections were :


Nothing But Love : Love Stories from the New Yorker edited by Roger Angell


The Greatest Romance Stories ever Told edited by Nancy Butler


I also loved some of the stories from ‘Great German Short Novels and Stories’ edited by Victor Lange – especially ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm.


I read only one book of poetry – ‘Odes to Common Things’ by Pablo Neruda – which was gifted to me by one of my dear friends. I loved the poems, the sketches accompanying them and the beautiful way the book was produced.


What about my favourite non-fiction books?


I loved ’31 Songs’ by Nick Hornby – it is a beautiful ode sung in the honour of music by a music fan. I loved ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose – especially the books that prose discusses in them. I want to read some of those books. I loved the three cricket memoirs I read. My favourite was ‘What I Love About Cricket : One Man’s vain attempt to explain cricket to a teenager who couldn’t give a toss’ by Sandy Balfour. Unfortunately I haven’t reviewed this book. The description in this book of a catch taken by Paul Collingwood is one of the most beautiful descriptions of a cricket scene that I have ever read. The other two cricket memoirs I read – Malcolm Speed’s ‘Sticky Wicket’ and Matthew Hayden’s ‘Standing My Ground’ were quite interesting too. I also liked Masha Gessen’s ‘Perfect Rigour’ – an account of Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman’s successful attempt to prove the Poincare conjecture.


Some of my favourite parts from other books would include the first 120-odd pages of ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, which was really wonderful, parts of the romance novel ‘Love Letters’ by Katie Fforde because it is a story about books, writers, novels, bookshops and literary festivals, some of the beautiful passages from ‘The Infinities’ by John Banville (can anyone write more beautiful prose?), some of the beautiful passages from ‘Love Virtually’ by Daniel Glattauer, a novel which is wholly made up of emails, some of the powerful prose of Emily Maguire’s ‘Taming the Beast’, which led me to Maguire beautiful essay ‘Solitude is Bliss’ and which made me want to read other novels of hers and the interesting premise of ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ by Marie Corelli, the literary superstar of yesteryears.


One of my favourites which deserves a separate post by itself is the essay ‘Sweets’ by Robert Lynd. I first read this essay in school and loved it. I have since searched for Lynd’s essay collections or this essay but haven’t been able to find them. Even Gutenberg doesn’t seem to have them. Then I found an old anthology called ‘Contemporary English Prose’ (which had extracts and stories which were more than 60 years old – nothing contemporary about it :)) and to my great delight this essay was there. I went home and read it and it gave me as much pleasure as it did when I read it the first time. It was like meeting an old childhood friend after many years and discovering that talking with the friend was as delightful as before and continuing our conversation with this friend from where we left off all those years back.


As a reader, for most of the year, I stuck to the Aristotlean Golden Mean – reading mostly books of 300 pages or less. There were a few exceptions though – ‘Forbidden’ by Tabitha Suzuma, ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ by Marie Corelli, ‘The Book of Lost Things’ John Connolly, ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘Possession‘ by A.S.Byatt, ‘The End of Mr.Y’ by Scarlett Thomas and ‘Nothing But You’ edited by Roger Angell were all 500 pages or above.


During the course of my reading I (armchair) travelled to different countries – America, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Russia,  Taiwan,  South Africa, South Korea. Quite an impressive list, isn’t it 🙂


I hope to read more in 2012. I will try to touch 70 books. I also want to read atleast two chunksters – which according to me are books which are 800 pages above. The chunksters I am looking at are ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy (my fourth attempt), ‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust (my second attempt) and ‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens (my first attempt). I am also hoping that I am not worried about reading more number of books but focus on reading more good books and sometimes choosing a thicker book over a thinner one. I will have to wait and see how my reading pans out this year.


How was your reading year in 2011? I hope you had a wonderful time reading wonderful books and exploring fascinating writers. I can’t wait to hear about your reading year.


Wish you a very Happy and Wonderful New Year! Hope your New Year is filled with lots of wonderful books, delightful stories and luscious prose and gorgeous poetry, and beautiful ‘aha’ reading moments 🙂

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