Saturday, March 17, 2012


Heinrich Heine, 1822

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt,
Im Abendsonnenschein. 

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar;
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar,

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei. 

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen,
Die Lore-ley getan. 

For those of us who love rivers, there is always that one special river, one which we have never visited, but ever since we learnt to dream, dreamed about riding a little boat on it. It is usually unruly, and feared by men, but we have always ridden on the crests, and made it tranquil. Der Rhein, or the Rhine happened to me when I was very young; at a time when another river, the Teesta, flowed a kilometer away from my house; and on long weekends, we would go to the hills, which were forty minutes from my old house, and standing on the Coronation Bridge, watch the river. It was then, years ago, that I learnt which rivers were sad, and which weren't. Nearly two decades later I would be able to compare notes with the Thames and the Seine. In keeping with what I had first learnt from the Teesta and the Mahananda, did I realise that the Arno and the Tiber are sad rivers. I saw the Tiber meander through Rome on a dusty, hot afternoon, and realised how no one cared about it. I nearly cried when I saw the Arno for the first time at Florence, and couldn't believe that this narrow, shallow, rather untidy river, was the very same one, conspicuous by its invisible presence in Dante's Divine Comedy. And though over the years, my heart has wept with sorrow or leapt with joy at the thought of many a river, there is one river which occupies a special part, and goes beyond mere emotions of joy and sadness - the Rhine.

I began dreaming about the Rhine around the same time I discovered the Seine and the Volga. For a few days, it was a battle between the rivers. The glorious Seine flowing through Paris, along whose banks Maupassant's hapless Mathide Loisel had gone minutes after losing the borrowed necklace, and was stung by the cold; or was it the Volga, a river which was always mistakenly associated in my mind with the Cossacks of the Don river valley; or the Rhein, subject of folklore, romance, and stuff that dreams are made of - except at a time when I wasn't very aware of these elements.

It so happened, that the Rhine remained. 

I first learnt about the Lorelei way back in the A2 level of German. The course had just begun, and the various batches were combined leading to a moderate group with a number of intriguing members of the male sex. That, of course wasn't important... eventually. But during those early days of the classes, we were all very conscious, and discovering the legend of the Lorelei while reading about the states of Germany, made the situation very literal. Our young charming teacher told us about the legend, and our book bore a tiny picture of a maiden on a rock with flowing golden hair. The Lorelei (or Loreley) is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine as it flows through Rheinland-Pfalz. The river is at its narrowest point when flowing past the rock; and the strong current, and the sharp rocks below the waterline (from which it has got its name) has caused many boat accidents over the centuries. Legend has it, that a siren sits atop the rocks, and while combing her luscious locks, and singing a song, she distracts the shipmen below causing them to crash on the rocks. The Lorelei has given way to the entire gamut of the Rheinromantik literature.

In the early nineteenth century, the German writer Clemens Brentano documented the oral legend, and gave many personal touches to it. He writes about the beautiful maiden, Lorelei, who was betrayed by her lover, and like most beautiful and brave women through the ages, was accused of enchanting men with her beauty and causing their death. Although she was saved from the gallows for her heinous crime, she was consigned to the nunnery, where the Habit and the veil would make sure to nip the evil (of beauty) in the bud. Along the way, she was accompanied by three knights, and as she passed the rock, she begged to view the Rhine for the last time. She climbed over it, but fell to her death among the rocks. The rocks retain the echo of her name. My favourite Lorelei lore, however, is written by Heinrich Heine, in his poignant poem which I have reproduced above. I found the book at the MMB library, complete with beautiful illustrations, and I read it late one night. It is haunting, even as one reads it. One can only imagine the effect when it is sung.

My German teacher, aware of my love for rivers and lores, gave me a book to read which she had herself won as a prize when she went to study in (then, West) Germany in the early 1960s. The book traces the journey of the river through the ages, and through the lands, and has breath-taking black-and-white pictures. It is in German, and I suspect is out of print now. Ever since I read the poem, I like to spend my afternoons in bed with this book, looking at the pictures, brooding over the time that goes by, and the romance a river in a far-off continent can instill in one. The book has taught me about the story of survival for a thousand years, through the Roman settlement, the age of emperors, the travails of modernity, the horrors of the Holocaust, and finally through the indifferent age of technology. But my favourite story is the story of the pretty woman sitting on a steep cliff, combing her hair, and singing songs, as many feet below, doomed shipmen cruise violently to their death among the rocks. 

I have attempted a weak translation of Heine's lovely poem:

I cannot determine the meaning,
Of the sorrow that fills my breast;
A fable from very old times,
Offers my mind no rest.

The air is cold and it gets dark,
And peacefully flows the Rhine;
The summit of the peak sparkles
In the evening sunshine.

The most beautiful of maiden sits,
Up there , one so wondrous;
Her golden jewellery glistens,
She combs her golden hair.

She combs with a golden comb
And sings a song along;
One that has an appealing,
Powerful melody.

The sailor of the little vessel
Moved with a wild pain;
Sees not the rocky reef,
But looks only at the heights above.

I believe, the waves devoured
The boatman and his barge at the end;
And that, with her notes
Was done by the Lore-ley.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My dear and kind Slavko

I received the letter you sent me on the 7th of February, on this Wednesday, the 16th. I read your lovely letter again and again, and I kiss you dearly. I also received the beautiful packet of liver-sausage, butter etc on the same day. I thank you heartily for the beautiful and kind things. I could not really recognize the liver-sausage when I ate it. Only when I read your letter did I learn what it was. It isn’t a wonder that I haven’t eaten such things for nearly five years now. There is however one thing which annoys me. You received six pieces, out of which you sent me four, and left only two for yourself. It was possible to halve it and have three each for you and me. I will, under no circumstances, have more than you. The peas, lentils and the doughnuts in the first packet were very good and I liked them immensely. From your last letters I could make out that you were slightly cold to me. Perhaps you were annoyed with me. Please don’t be angry. You know that I am not an evil and a bad man. I love only you, and I live only for you. You will understand that once I return. You haven’t written anything about your health; and I am always enthusiastic to know about the relatives. I am sorry that you will lose your best friend Mitenka soon, once she gets married. I hope I will come back home again, and will be a kind friend to you. Will you be one to me? I am very happy that you go often to the theater and the cinema. I have never been to a cinema or a concert myself. Please write to me in details what you do every day. You can describe a day of yours in every letter you write to me. Also write more about mother and father. I am looking forward to your lovely letter from the 13th; to our reconciliation. I kiss you, your dear forehead; I live only for you and remain your sincere burden.
                                                                 Sedlacek Ladislov
                                                                 No. 6517 – Block 20/B
                                                                 K.L. Buchenwald at Weimar
                                                                 Deutsches Reich

My friend, who's trying to build a collection on the Second World War, sent me a link yesterday, wondering if I would translate this letter. It was a letter from an inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp to his wife. It is part of a series of letters written during the Holocaust, and is currently up for auction. I had never translated something serious before; but once I started reading the letter, from a person who'd written it nearly seventy years ago, in a different continent, in a language utterly foreign to me, during a critical phase of his life, I couldn't help, but be moved by it. It is something very intimate and personal, and I feel as if I am prying into one's privacy. Nevertheless, once I had read it several times, and decided to translate it for my friend, I wanted other (sensitive) people to know about it too. The translation leaves much to be desired, and I apologise for having made it sound so prosaic. The original German isn't the least bit so. But if the reader of this post knows German, he/she will agree that what sounds beautiful in German, loses its poetry and vigour when translated verbatim into English. I didn't want to make any changes to the original text during the translation, and nevertheless I hope the reader will be able to imbibe the purity, the sincerity, and the beauty of the emotions shared by these two people. I do not know if Slavko and Sedlacek got reconciled, if Sedlacek survived the Holocaust. I very much hope he did.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Lost Book

As we grow older, in life's surprising little epiphanies, we are reminded of those little things from our childhood which made all those years pleasant. If one had an outdoorsy kind of upbringing, a mangled toy or a deflated football discovered years later while cleaning out the old cupboard, would set the reminiscencing into action. For people like us who spent a rather lonely childhood reading books and building elaborate dreams out of them, coming across that one special book years later will bring back the memories fresh, in a rush of torrent.

This post technically begins with me ordering a copy of Wren and Martin's grammar book online yesterday. But, this post goes back fourteen years earlier, when I was first introduced to the book. Every year from class 5 to class 7, I bought a copy of Wren and Martin's 'High School English Grammar and Composition'. There was an updated edition every year, and I loved comparing the difference in print, the different quality of papers, and the increased number of pages, with not much change in the content. When you are growing up in the nineties in the suburbs of a small town which doesn't have an individual character to boast of, and very few places to "hang around", you inevitably form attachments with the little things of life. There was a bookshop in town, but the owner, who really took an interest in the reading of his customers, had died, and his successors were rather nonchalant. My Baba bought my books from Calcutta every time he would visit the city, and during the intervals between the trips, after I had exhausted reading the last haul, I would look for reading material in the unlikeliest of places - the grammar book.

So, in the year '98, when I was ten years old, I read my first Keats - "Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold" from his 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer'. I didn't know who Chapman was; for that matter I didn't know who Homer was; and I certainly didn't understand the poem completely. But there are moments in life when you do not need to understand every word in the text to know that those words have been written only for you to read. Three years later I would read about Keats, and I would eventually go on to read his Nightingale and Autumn, and then in honours class, attempt a full-fledged section on Keats. But I still believe that I owe it all to that evening of precocious reading. If I had read Shelley that day, I would have been a different person. If I had shut my book and watched the telly that evening, my life would have been different. But I read Keats, and my life has turned out the way it should have been.

I read my first Lucy poem too from Wren and Martin - "She dwelt among the untrodden ways". That was a year before I would read 'The Education of Nature' as part of school work, and by the time the latter happened, I could recite the first one. Then there were names like Milton, and Pope, and Locke, and Johnson, and Dryden, whose poems and prose featured in the paraphrasing section and other sections of the 'Composition' part of the book, and random sentences from their cannon of work in the 'Grammar' part. I had no idea who they were, but I already felt a thrill pass through my twelve year old mind, and I wanted to find out more about them. Those were the pre-Google days, when information wasn't so democratic, and hence patience a commonplace - I patiently waited for years to finally read them (I eventually read Milton's 'Paradise Lost', Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' and Dryden's 'Macflecknoe' in my first year of college). It was again in Wren and Martin, that I read poems by Cowper, numbered and in minuscule prints, two years before I would read Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility' where Elinor would eloquently praise his verses. Under the chapter titled 'Comprehension' I read an excerpt from Hazlitt, then got a book of Hazlitt's essays from my teacher in high school, turned the pages, intimidated and excited at the same time, and then returned the book. It would be years later, in my first year in college that I would learn about him and the other prose writers of the Romantic age. Again, during the winter vacation of my second year in college, which I was spending back in Siliguri reading Goldsmith's 'She Stoops to Conquer', my mind would continually go back to those first lines from 'The Village Schoolmaster' - "Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way".       

It is never possible to put down in writing, every single memory of five years spent with something special. But I know, that as early as April '98, when I was ten years old, and had not bothered to solve the grammar section of the book, but read every sentence, passage, essay, and poem, I had decided that one day I would grow up and study literature. I would read and "study" those beautiful works by those people with the fancy names, harking back to a bygone era of which I knew nothing, but had a romantic passion; I would learn and know everything there was to know about the person who had written something so beautiful as the lines,

"Her mirth the world required;
 She bathed it in smiles of glee
But her heart was tired, tired,
And now they let her be."

After I had moved to Calcutta, and within years of my learning to quote and re-quote "Ah love, let us be true!", Maa gave away my copies of Wren and Martin to random people. I learnt about it after the deed was done, and I didn't create a scene, or appeal to her better senses. I still do not blame her. Nevertheless my lament is manifold. Had she given those books away to needy children, I wouldn't have felt such stark remorse. She gave them away to lazy rich kids who haven't learnt how to respect a book. And with those books, she gave away all my precious memories, the reason for my being. The new copy that I ordered yesterday, and which was delivered today, is hard-bound, slimmer, and has an advert of the key to the exercises on the back cover. At 23, I have neither the age nor the inkling to make it my own. And what hurts me still is, if I ever have children of my own, I would be teaching them from a book, which is similar to the books I had the best adventures of my life with - but the similarity would end there - and in the absence of the real, life-affirming presence of those missing books, I would have to conjure yarns about those times, from faded memories and imagination.

The bookmark that came with this book contains the caption "The pizza is here" as a valid reason to use a bookmark. Sigh. As Picasso said, "It takes a long time to become young."