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Odysseus’ epic story has birthed many more down the ages

Unfazed John William Waterhouse’s 1891 oil, ‘Ulysses and the sirens’. Wiki Commons

The Odyssey is the story of a warrior who survives the Trojan War and seeks to return home. It takes him a decade to reach Ithaca, and his wife Penelope.

The narrative and its characters are cruder in the writing than those in the Iliad. Because of this, though it is sequentially and chronologically after the Iliad, many think that ‘Homer’ wrote the Odyssey before the Iliad. Homer is like our Ved Vyas: an elusive figure with no fixed history. It is believed now that the works attributed to him are actually those of the many bards who chanted in the lyric tradition of Greece.

I have written here before about how the American scholar Milman Parry studied the Yugoslav bardic poets. He established in the early 20th century that ‘Homer’ was actually a tradition of generations of poetic narrators who used fixed meter and stock phrases (like “Hector, breaker of horses” and “rose-fingered dawn”) to communicate the epics to mostly illiterate audiences. The classically-educated 19th century European and American was familiar with the Odyssey in ancient Greek.

Cunning hero

The English-speaking world was introduced to Homer in translation in the early 20th century through the Odyssey. E.V. Rieu translated the Odyssey in 1946 for Penguin, for the first time making the classic widely accessible in simplified language.

In the Iliad, Odysseus is shown as a wise individual who influences things in the right way. Some see him as cunning and deceitful but there is no doubt that he moves the plot along.

For the modern reader of both the Iliad and its sequel, Odysseus is a patriarchal and conservative figure. He stands for tradition, and in a warrior society he also stands for honour and the old ways.

American journalist Ira F. Stone takes up one episode in the Iliad featuring Odysseus to demonstrate this. This relates to the story of Thersites who stands up to the tyrant Agamemnon and resists the Trojan war. For this insolence he is beaten up by Odysseus. Stone points out that Homer describes Thersites as hunch-backed and broken-bodied (the ancient Greeks had the same loathing of disabilities that we Indians do) and, therefore, imperfect.

After the war, which is won by the besiegers though their hero Achilles dies, the Greeks begin their journey home. This is also full of adventures, during one of which Odysseus’s ship is the only one to escape. At this point, he visits the witch Circe, who turns half his men into pigs. Odysseus has taken a potion to resist her wiles. Attracted by his resistance, Circe falls in love with him and releases his men.

Ulysses around the world

Circe instructs Odysseus and his crew to cross the ocean and sail to a harbour at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus summons the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias for advice. Next, Odysseus meets the spirit of his mother who had died of grief during his long absence.

From her, he learns news for the first time of his household, threatened by the greed of Penelope’s suitors. As can be imagined, Odysseus arrives home just in time to reveal himself and all is well.

For the literal minded, this work contains the original references to the distracting sirens and being caught between Scylla and Charybdis. In 1965, Nirad C. Chaudhuri wrote a strange work named The Continent of Circe in which he speculated that Indians are all originally Europeans or of European descent, and we were mysteriously seduced into becoming barbarians by Circe, played by India.

Odysseus in Latin is Ulysses. There are at least two stories related to that name. The first is of the American warrior Ulysses S. Grant. He was the man whom Abraham Lincoln trusted, after a series of failures, to deliver victory in the American Civil War. Grant later went on to come president himself, though he was disgraced by scandal.

The second reference is to the novel Ulysses by James Joyce, one of the great modern works. Its writer reimagines Odysseus as a cuckold and sets his travels around the city of Dublin. The novel, thought to be impenetrable, examines the patience and desires of a woman in a sexless relationship.

It looks delicious and it makes you want more. What else can you ask for from a collection of stories and essays on love and lust?

Passion, desolation ‘The Lovers’ by René Magritte. Wiki Commons

Love and Lust

Various authors

Aleph Book Company

₹399

An ‘olio’, I believe, is a Spanish-origin stew of meats and vegetables spiced, if you please, with pepper, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. An ‘olio’ is also, as the book’s back cover helpfully tells you, a ‘miscellany’. Having thus established both an Indian connection through the spice route and a connection with the idea of ‘variety’, I settle down to reading with a comfortable sense of accomplishment.

Love and Lust is the fourth book from Aleph’s Olio series, which seeks to present a selection of the best writings on a selected theme, in order to “present India in ways that it has seldom been seen before”. The latter is a slightly over-ambitious claim, seeing that reading all of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is likely to be a vastly deeper dive into India than just one part of one chapter, but the idea behind the series is laudable. Like a master chef’s menu dégustation, the books in this series are a brief tasting exercise of a particular literary theme; in this case, love and lust.

Excellent travel read

Beautifully produced, black jacket embossed with the title in royal blue, with the first page of each piece set in reverse type, the size is perfect for a handbag, making it an excellent travel read in a lazy armchair in some hotel room overlooking oceans or green lawns or whatever people overlook when they are not reading a book for purposes of reviewing it.

The pieces are mostly excellent, some indifferent, some a bit inexplicable. Following up Amrita Narayanan’s ‘Stolen’ with Ira Trivedi’s ‘Love Revolution’ is like pushing an aroused teenager into a cold shower. The former is a wildly, improbably erotic story that first appeared in A Pleasant Kind of Heavy, with three housemaids and their mistress in a state of constant arousal, while the latter is a long and dry piece about arranged marriages, strewn with statistics and case studies. Maybe the editors did it deliberately?

Another slightly strange inclusion is the extract from Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints. One imagines it is there because of Goody and Xavier’s failing marriage, but it makes nary an impact as it washes over you in a dispirited, disconnected sort of way.

Fiery women, dry men

Nothing, however, takes away from the perfection of the book’s introduction: Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Objects’. ‘Who needs as much as the naked breast? Lust is aroused by a wrist…’ The path from here to Manto’s ‘Bu’ (translated here as ‘Tang’ rather than ‘Smell’ or ‘Odour’) filled with the languor of a Bombay monsoon and the forbidden lust of rainy afternoons and wet armpits is a beautifully interconnected one.

On the way, we stop briefly to savour an extract from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which too deals with forbidden love, in this case that most taboo of loves, that between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. It reminded me of my own adolescence when mother used to wail, ‘Marry anyone, anyone, but not a Muslim!’ And we used to wonder who else we could scare her with. Thieves? Pickpockets? Here, too, Lata’s mother moans, ‘Never, never, never…. Dirty, violent, cruel, lecherous.’ A litany that now resides unbidden in the nation’s psyche, too late perhaps to unlearn.

Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Laajwanti’ (translated from Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon) is one of the gems in this book. Set in a frontier village just after Partition, when India and Pakistan are returning the women abducted from both sides, it is the tender, sad love story of Sundar Lal and his abducted wife Laajwanti, of his endless wait, of her return, and of how she transforms in his eyes from Lajju to Lajju Devi.

The book’s strongest asset is its selection of women’s writings. Kamala Das, of course, with ‘A Little Kitten’, but also a magnificent K.R. Meera with ‘The Deepest Blue’ (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika), a rich and intimate depiction of a woman crazed with lust for an ascetic.

Meera’s prose is incandescent: ‘It throbbed in my chest and loins… Piercing, stabbing desire. Desire smouldering, like flecks of flame… I want to bear a child in my womb… The hermit’s sperm; the slut’s ovum. Renunciation and desire, in equal measure.’ Meera’s writing treats female desire in a way that is at once familiar and fierce.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the men falter. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘Desolation, Lust’ is a bit too self-consciously languid and aimless to please entirely; while Amitava Kumar’s ‘The Lovers’ is an all-too common retelling of young men and masturbation and their rather desperate letters to Dr. Watsa. There is no desire here or ardour, only dry men in dry places.

Two historical retellings also feature: Timeri N. Murari’s ‘Taj’ and Ira Mukhoty’s ‘Dildar Begum and a Marriage Proposal’, the former stilted and the latter intriguing, enlivened by details from real memoirs.

Inevitably, of course, tasting platters will have some luscious morsels and some bland and odd bits. What matters is that the book indeed does what it set out to do: it whets the appetite and it looks delicious.

William Dalrymple tears apart the Empire’s colonial project saying the subcontinent was conquered by violent, ruthless corporate predators

Backed by bankers Robert Clive. Wiki Commons

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury

₹699

In this encyclopaedic volume, possibly the crowning glory of William Dalrymple’s oeuvre, his trademark raconteur style has been toned down in favour of viewing history from a somewhat subaltern perspective.

Here, his typical raciness is offset by scathing pronouncements on Britain’s colonial project which he deconstructs with élan. “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality,” he observes and points out how this was done not by competent authorities, “but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator — Clive.”

Advanced capitalism

This book then is a prequel to Dalrymple’s earlier masterpiece The Last Mughal: The End of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, which dealt with the twilight years of the Mughal Empire. He has produced a wide-ranging study of how the East India Company — a small stock joint venture fuelled by petty greed and from the outset managed less professionally than the competing Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French overseas trading companies — turned itself into a humongous world power, dethroning rulers with its armies and running puppet governments, “the most advanced capitalist organisation in the world”.

At the core of the story we meet Robert Clive, an emblematic character who from being a juvenile delinquent and suicidal lunatic rose to rule India, eventually killing himself in the aftermath of a corruption scandal.

Other significant colonials too come alive — Warren Hastings, Charles Cornwallis and the Wellesley brothers to name a few — as well as many of their primary Indian counterparts like Siraj ud-Daula and Tipu Sultan.

We also learn how Clive’s ascension was backed not so much by London but by bankers from Bengal to engineer a coup. Dalrymple describes in great detail how the Battle of Plassey was bankrolled in an attempt to improve the Indian business climate of the day, only to result in the eventual colonisation of the entire country.

Mere decades later, under Cornwallis, an increasingly racist regime was put into place, followed by Wellesley’s policy of divide and rule — bringing India to its knees.

It is here that the true genius of this book lies: in its setting events in context by opening out fresh perspectives via meticulous sifting through auxiliary data and presenting the findings in a well-argued narrative to show how business companies transformed “from trading concerns to increasingly belligerent and militarised entities, part-textile exporters, part-pepper traders, part-revenue-collecting land-holding businesses, and now, most profitably of all, state-of-the-art mercenary outfits.” This then was what ended the Islamic rule, but while other colonials such as the Dutch “degenerated into base, avaricious toads squatting on their heaps of gold and spices” and the French acted “as if drunk”, squandering money in “mad undertakings”, the Britons grabbed their chance and made India the jewel in their crown.

Brimming with anecdotes

These pages are also brimming with anecdotes retold with Dalrymple’s distinctive delight in the piquant, equivoque and gory: we have historical moments when “it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it” (quoted from a report c1740 regarding events that preceded Nadir Shah’s infamous looting of the peacock throne) as well as duels between Company officials so busy with their in-fighting that it’s a miracle they could perform their work at all; there’s also homosexuality, homophobia, sexual torture, castrations, cannibalism, brothels and gonorrhoea.

The principal protagonists of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” incident are both, naturally, certified pervs: Siraj ud-Daula is a “serial bisexual rapist” while his opponent Governor Drake is having an “affair with his sister”.

And one particular Mughal governor liked to throw tax defaulters in pits of rotting shit (“the stench was so offensive, that it almost suffocated anyone who came near it”). All this gives one a rough idea of what historically important people were up to according to Dalrymple.

But all things considered, Dalrymple’s research is solid and heavily annotated (footnotes etc. add some 35% surplus weight and size to the book).

Given his long engagement with Indian culture and history, combined with the Briton’s eye for seeing the East India Company in a just light (which brings out both the troubling aspects of it without being unfair to its contributions or lack thereof to civilisation), the partially Anglo-Indian Dalrymple is possibly best placed to write the ultimate report on the birth of British colonialism. Readers may disagree with the more radical views presented, but it is about time that a Briton completely took apart the imperialist project and showed it for what it was — not about civilising savages, but about brutally exploiting civilised humans by treating them as savages.

Very bad NRI advice

Respected Madam/ Sir,

Nonstop cold. Nonstop fever. Cough means sound like hippopotamus is doing pranayam. This is the life of Mr. Mathrubootham for days and days.

And for what? For what I am suffering like this? Did I eat some bad food items? Did I have 15 litres Arun ice-cream in AC room sitting in underwear? Is it ebola type? No. No. Thousand times no.

Mr. Mathrubootham is suffering because despite brain and Mrs. Mathrubootham saying again and again ‘No Mathrubootham no, no, no. Advice from abroad living Indian is danger bayankara danger.’ Did I listen? No.

Story started two weeks back. Dr. Shankaramenon put one phone call and said, “Hello Mathrubootham I am in the clinic whether you are free for two or three hours?”

I said, “Shankaramenon, whether you are in the clinic or doing chicanery secretly watching Magamuni noonshow?”

He said, “How dare you, Mathrubootham, this very moment one lady with complaint of kidney is sitting in front of me and I am doing treatment.”

I said, “Is it, then why you are whispering?”

He said, “Mathrubootham, whether you know any culture of doctors or no? Doctors should always talk in low volume with dignity.”

At that moment I heard one sound in the background of phone call. One lady is saying hello sir, please don’t do phone call in the theatre, it is disturbing other people. I said, “Eureka! Shankaramenon you are watching film I knew from beginning itself.”

He said, “What lies and fabrications, Mathrubootham. That is nurse from the operating theatre.”

I said, “Oh my god, nasty fellow, don’t use one full lifetime quota of lies in one phone call itself, now tell me what it is.”

He said, “Mathrubootham, my daughter in U.S. is having one friend from Jamshedpur. She is visiting Chennai for one day and coming for dinner in my house. Can you please keep her in your flat until I am returning from clinic?”

I said, “Ok, no problem I am in the house.” At that moment ‘Magamuni’ song started playing in background. Immediately Shankaramenon said, “Ok, bye, Mathrubootham, one patient has come with emergency.”

I said, “What is the emergency?”

He said, “It is very complicated you will not understand,” and immediately cut the phone.

After some time, a lady came to our flat. She is from Jamshedpur but living in U.S. We had tea and tiffin items and all. And then she said, “Uncle, why all Indian retired people just sit at home like pot plant instead of enjoying free time.”

I said, “What nonsense you are talking. I am reading novels, watching films, doing Seniors Intermediate Yoga. So many activities are there.”

She said, “But uncle these are old people activities. Why you are not going for trekking, tourism, world tour?” I wanted to say young lady I don’t know about United States and all but in Anna Nagar on tree only jackfruit is growing, not currency note.

Madam/ Sir, at that moment it started raining and raining like anything. American lady said, “Oh it is so beautiful to see the rain in India, shall we go to the balcony. When was last time you played in the rain?”

I said, “I have no idea, maybe in 1960s.”

She said, “Please go and stand in rain for two minutes, enjoy the life please.” Mrs. Traitor Mathrubootham said, “Yes, yes you please go, I have to go to the kitchen.”

Madam/ Sir, I thought ok fine 2-3 minutes in the rain what will happen. So I spent 10 minutes enjoying like anything. Memories of childhood came and came. Then Mrs. M came running with turkey towel and said enough. People are looking and putting on Facebook.

Then what happened? Cold and cough and fever and miserable life for two weeks. American lady has gone back to America. For her any problem? Nothing.

Madam/ Sir, please publish this advice in your newspaper. If you ask people in India for advice at least 50% will be nonsense. If you ask abroad Indian, then 95% nonsense. Be careful.

Yours in misery,

J. Mathrubootham

Agla Station Adulthood meanders through thorny issues — from parental expectations, to figuring out taxes and budgets, mental health, beauty and more

Friendly chat Rytasha Rathore and Ayushi Amin tackle many issues, from parental expectations to taxes and budgets to dating and more, on their show.Special Arrangement

The novel Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney is eye-opening in many ways. As literary experiment, it pushes the idea of voice. As perspective, it opens up a different way of looking into the minds of a new generation. As social commentary, it upends what we might think of friendship, parenting and love.

Listening to IVM’s new podcast series, Agla Station Adulthood, is similar. The show is a conversation between two young women, who are best friends (yes, in real life too), about the rocky journey from late adolescence to early adulthood. You are invited to “listen in” on this loosely structured exchange of ideas, experiences, confessions, hopes and fears as the alliteratively named co-hosts Rytasha Rathore and Ayushi Amin course on for a good half hour or more.

They meander through many thorny issues along the path, from parental expectations, to figuring out taxes and budgets, to dating, mental health, standards of beauty and more.

“The origin story goes back to when Kavita Rajwade, the co-founder of IVM, asked me to host a show after I had appeared on Cyrus Broacha’s podcast and I was, like, I don’t know how to do this,” recalls Rathore, an actor who has appeared on several television soaps.

Creative dreams

“I suggested that we try a format where there was a co-host,” she continues, adding that it had “been a dream since the ninth grade” to do something creative with Amin. The theme of the podcast — adulting — seemed to naturally suggest itself. “Kavita wanted us to be able to address these trials and tribulations... in this new kind of ‘middle adult phase’ that we all seem to be going through,” explains Amin.

It’s in this phase of not-quite-adult that young people these days deal with the complexities of life, outside the sheltered confines of an educational institution or parental homes. “A lot of the challenges that we deal with in the show are what we talk about with our friends... they are all issues that we all feel some connect with,” says Amin.

In Episode 3, for instance, Rathore and Amin explore the problematics of dating, the fraught world of swiping left or right, of hooking up, being dumped and letting go, and arrive at the realisation that there are fundamentally five tropes that characterise most dating situations. Their accounts — laced liberally with personal anecdotes both funny and poignant — give the young listener the sense that everyone is dealing with the same issues, while possibly giving the older audience a way to understand the bumpy ride that today’s young adults are on.

Niche market

Granted, Rathore and Amin belong to a narrow slice of Indian society that is privileged in multiple ways, and the show speaks mostly to an urban, upper class, somewhat westernised audience. The hosts are conscious of that. “I recognise that we are reaching a niche market [for now],” says Rathore, and Amin adds, “I don’t think either of us wants to pretend to know everyone’s experience from either end of the financial or social spectrum that exists in this country... we can only talk about our own experience with honesty... and it’s possible that it would resonate with a different kind of listener too.”

This honesty, reflexivity and spontaneity come through quite clearly in the exchanges between Rathore and Amin, who, despite being podcast newbies, are able to generate an audio presence that is both entertaining and endearing. Whether you’re adulting — or are done with it — you might find something to take away from Agla Station, which has been dropping weekly since late August.

(A fortnightly series on podcasts.)

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

Sheeja is the only woman toddy tapper in Kerala and her family’s sole breadwinner

The grind Sheeja preparing thaali (mud paste) used in tapping, in her home in Panniyode in Kannur district.

Homeward On her way home after a day of tapping.

Woman’s best friend Sheeja’s pet dog accompanies her every day to work.

To market Pouring toddy from a collection pot into cans for sale.

Manoeuvres Sheeja places a mud pot on a coconut flower after tapping.

Step by step C. Sheeja, 33, climbs a coconut tree to tap toddy in Panniyode in Kannur district. She is the only woman toddy tapper in Kerala.

She climbs eight palm trees a day to earn ₹350. C. Sheeja, 33, is from Panniyode in Kannur district, and today Kerala’s only woman toddy tapper. A physically strenuous job done at dizzying heights, Sheeja had to learn how to climb the coconut tree and how to tap the sap from the flower to extract toddy.

It was Sheeja’s husband Jayakumar who was the toddy tapper, but when he was injured in a road accident and could no longer climb trees, the family found it hard to make ends meet. Finally, Sheeja decided that she would take over her husband’s vocation.

Her brother had died after falling from a coconut tree. And Jayakumar worried about her safety and about what society would say. Sheeja, however, was confident. After all, she said, she had toddy tapping in her blood.

Jayakumar eventually came around. Now the challenge was to teach her the technique of climbing. He first chose the younger, shorter trees to train her. “It was difficult. We often thought of abandoning the idea because it seemed impossible. But there was no other option,” says Jayakumar. And sure enough, there came a day when Sheeja climbed a tree fairly effortlessly.

There was some initial social stigma, but the couple persevered. Today, Sheeja is quite the expert. “Climate change has reduced the toddy from a tree from eight to five litres,” she says.

She leaves for work each morning with Chemban, their dog, trotting behind her. After the day’s tapping is done, Sheeja takes on other jobs, sometimes rubber tapping, sometimes work under the job guarantee scheme. One taboo remains: Sheeja doesn’t climb during her menstrual period. “It’s out of respect for Muthappan,” she says, referring to the local deity for whom toddy is the main offering.

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