Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Epic to Romance in British Literature: Role of Kingship and the Feminine

Epic to Romance in British Literature: Role of Kingship and the Feminine
(Notes prepared from  Paul Poplawski's English Literature in Context)

Epic is otherwise known as heroic poetry in Old English terminology. Strict definition of heroic poetry says it ended in 1066 with the battle of Hastings. But a loose definition of epic poetry says they are long narrative celebration of military ethos and courageous individuals who risk life and limb for honour of themselves or of others. This longer, loose definition of epic fits well for Middle English Romantic poetry as well. The only difference would be that the scene shifts from chivalry on the battle field to the internal, private, psychological arena. This way Romance is a continuation of OE heroic poetry or they both are similar. But for some they are separate and different. Romance comes from the Old French romans which meant a story told in French. Therefore, the initial difference was in language, not in structure, theme, etc.

Beowulf is considered the best epic poem. Many OE poems are hybrids with religious or elegiac elements in them. They would be short as well sometimes. These examples outside the definition indicate problems and limitations of self contained genres. Over centuries when times change along with language, we have evidences of OE stories changing genre to become Romantic poems during ME.

For Normans and Anglo Saxons heroic poetry was a living tradition. They lived their lives fighting and singing those poems. Warriors dreamt of becoming the characters they celebrated in their songs. They felt they were also making history and songs by being brave in the face of odds.

Place of Women in Epics and Romance
Without elaborating if one wants an answer, this is it: there was no place for women in epics. Heroic poetry was deeply masculinated. The nature of activities described in there excludes women. Comitatus of Tacitus talks about the retinue for fighting elite. There was shared accommodation for them where they delighted in each others' company- all male fighters. If one is an outstanding fighter and proves his mettle, he will be awarded land, home, estate and facilitated marriage. Even after becoming rich and settled such would continue to serve the king whenever the king needs them on a retainer basis. These elite fighters also had their own gang of fighters to keep. All male companies!

Women bore children and brought them up. Nothing else is prominently mentioned in epics. But if we look at Beowulf, one of his main enemies is a woman. Woman's political role becomes evident in marriages which seal pacts between tribes. Women carried physical evidences of pacts in their own bodies. These can be considered exceptions.

Kingship and rulership
Medieval kings were fighters. Royal lineage was strictly kept. The family kept authority and land to themselves strictly. But in Anglo Saxon tradition, kingship was a flexible affair. It depended on need and claims of blood. When there was a need, they could consider men out of the clan to be kings. King was the center of the nation, but king was not the nation itself.

Powerful kings did not limit themselves to their little kingdoms. They ruled trans-tribe. Still their authority had limits. This is evident in Beowulf’s story. Beowulf went to serve Hrothgar of Denmark despite King Hygelac's wish to remain in Geats. King Hygelac did not have the authority to prevent Beowulf from going to Hrothgar. Beowulf was disregarded in Geats. But he built repute through his exploits at Heorot. He represented a nation- like medieval knights of romance. Heroic poetry of Old English is ‘equal’ to chivalric romance of Middle English.

Late heroic poetry, historic chronicle and early English romance overlap. Chronicle was used to fix dates and years to fix movable feasts, etc. But chronicle also gave us heroic poetry, historic commentary, critique and commemorations.

Beowulf, Chronicle and Brut are about kingship between the lines. Brut by Lazamon is between heroic narrative and metrical chronicle. It is also romance in its motif. It was influenced by Insular French. Interaction between Insular French and English brought forth a new identity. This enabled writing about King Arthur. So far such writings were about Romans (Trojans, Alexander, etc.) or about the French (Charlemagne, Roland, etc.). Brut has OE alliterations but also has rhyme, syllabic rhythm and assonance. It lacks presence of distressed damsels like OE heroic poetry.

Treachery has central role in poems like Song of Roland which are influenced by French. Treachery was a cardinal sin and honour was a cardinal chivalric virtue. Honour is celebrated in oath taking on relics. These scenes are picturesquely described in many such poems.

Descriptions of arming scenes, fights, tournaments, etc. show martial rituals of cultural importance. These show the importance of good rulership. King should be as good as best of his men and more. King should be the epitome of justice, administer of law, mediator, peace maker, etc. Such ideal kingship is detailed in short reign of Aurelie who build halls, churches, restored buildings, administered laws, etc. well.

Good rulership is always a concern or theme in this era. It reflects the political circumstances of the period.

Place of the Feminine
All these establish the continuity between heroic poetry and ME Romance. But for romance, at the centre there is a more feminine preoccupation with courtliness, love and marriage unlike epic's masculine interests. These though speaks of love doesn't give up the characteristics of epics like centrality of kingship and courtly integrity. We also find that the line between a saint's life and romance is blurred. Thus romance stories could stand comfortably adjacent to rather than in opposition to religious material. The separation of sacred and secular is slowly beginning to disappear in medieval literature.

Virgin Mary
Feudalism as an economy was so unfriendly to female agency and autonomy. But we see that in Romance, it portrays the lady as pre-eminent and the knight as her vassal. This looks quite strange because of the eroticized and analogized model of feudal homage! Devotion to Mary is at the root of and enhances this portrayal of woman. Historically we see that women were the audience to Romance, apart from providing content to romantic poems (marriage). Narrators identify with women's perspective! Let us put it these way- women were alienated from real political power, but were necessary for the genetic line in order to maintain power and reign. She was therefore offered an alternative world- that of arts and letters where she could reign and be patrons.

By the end of 15th century, romance was not about military function and was fast becoming an icon of social prestige available to whoever could afford it. But before that happened, it was the ultimate expression of chivalry. Though we mentioned the role of women above, we should not hesitate in stating that the owners of English romances were most likely to be men. The class of men who could have it was widened. Lesser knights, provincial men, burghers and the mercantile class could consume romance by 15th century. It was offered to anyone who was free and gentle (Note that free and gentle excluded serfs and commoners!).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Scope of Liberal Arts education in Indian Universities

Scope of Liberal Arts education in Indian Universities
Sajit M Mathews
A recent article in The Hindu (February 10, 2014) made me think of the importance and effects of Liberal Arts education in a country like India.
Liberal arts or artes liberales are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a citizen to know in order to take an active part in civic life. Grammar, rhetoric and logic were the core liberal arts subjects. Arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy were also added to the list later. Today's notion categorizes these subjects as literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. There are many universities that offer undergraduate and post graduate degrees in liberal arts. (Source: www.wikipedia.org)

The idea of learning Liberal Arts is becoming strange to Indian students. It is slowly becoming unheard of in Indian classrooms these days. Indian parents choose ‘job oriented’ courses for their kids at an early stage. This is at the expense of the inclinations and tastes of their children. That is why we see a mushrooming of engineering colleges and other professional colleges even as the industry does not require those many engineers/professionals. This kind of education without a vision in fact spoils our future generation. According to many educationalists, we create a generation that is capable of nothing but despair and deviance. Over-flooding of the market with homogeneous professionals diminish the employability of youngsters and create a generation of idlers who can endanger societal harmony. That is where Liberal Arts has a say.
Liberal Arts as a broad field of study encourages students to have a look at diverse areas of learning without bothering too much about specialization at an early stage. It is like having a foretaste of items on a menu card before deciding what to order. Instead of deciding to specialize in a discipline at a very early stage which stunts the possibilities and scopes of students, Liberal Arts provides students with a world view so wide that they would be able to diversify beyond traditional boundaries. Thus a student might be enabled to consider broader career areas to venture into. It is nothing but an empowering element that trains the students’ minds to think and learn beyond text books. Once a student goes through liberal arts education, he/she can choose area of specialization.
At Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies’ (RGUKT) RK Valley campus, I coordinate the Liberal Arts section. We have many courses ranging from Shakespeare to English Grammar and Big History. These are great courses that wouldn’t be available to engineering students in ordinary Universities. This engineering university gives students an opportunity to graduate with a minor degree in Liberal Arts if they secure sufficient number of credits through their BTech years. Courses like Big History are of international repute and extreme relevance in the development of one’s understanding of the world and everything around. So along with an engineering degree the young professional also has awareness and knowledge of very different fields of learning that could greatly help in his/her future decisions and choices. At present there are only a few courses. If expanded properly with wide variety of subjects RGUKT's curriculum could be a guiding light for other universities to follow suit.
If students at early stage are given an opportunity to explore wide range of options available, they would be at a better position to judge what is compatible with their aptitude. I have often heard my students say that they are here by chance or by compulsion or because of lack of options. This is not the best scenario one can imagine. Universities like RGUKT that educate mass student bodies have to offer Liberal Arts before letting students commit to one particular branch of study. It is not enough that one earns well. It is important that one becomes what one actually desires and what one is fit for.
Indian parents have to learn to consider the choices and aspirations of their children before making decisions about their future careers. Proxy decision making has to take a back seat. Let the youngsters make decisions about their careers. Liberal Arts education would be a great help in enabling them to do so. Let us wish that our universities promote liberal arts education for the good of our young generation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Book Thief (Film Review)

The Book Thief

Film Review

Sajit M Mathews

“One small fact. You are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever.” Unique perspective of death personified. The Book Thief goes beyond the confines of glamorous rutty Hollywood films and challengingly presents a sweet story in a very different and interesting manner. Set in Hitler’s NAZI Germany, the film imbibes the heat of wartime while preserving the aroma of a young girl’s experience of life in its rawest and roughest forms. What strikes me the most about the film is the way literature is lauded in the mellowest possible manner through the inner struggles of a young girl.

Liesel, the protagonist is introduced to the audience by Death (personified in voice). Liesel appears on screen noticing the death of her young brother. Soon she would lose her communist mother to NAZIs. She reaches her new parents’ home on Heaven Street (a paradox). They adopted her not only because of Hitler’s law, but also for the little allowance that it brought along. They were poor painters and did not have work those years. Her new father Hans Hubermann instantly reveals his lovely nature calling her ‘your majesty’ while her new mother Rosa Hubermann as always hides behind her rough husk and rumbles on. Liesel soon adjusts and begins to live happily at her new home. She learns many things there. She learns that her mother was a Communist and would never see her again. She also learns that Hitler takes communists and Jews away to unknown places.

In the grave dryness of Heaven Street, she finds Rudy Steiner, a friend. They speak, play and learn about each other. For Liesel, Rudy becomes a genuine friend to bank upon in the course of the story. We learn that she is unlettered from the first day at school. Along with Franz Deutscher we also find out that Leizel Meminger is not a sugar doll, but that her fists can deliver powerful punches.

Inside her home she goes back to memories of her mother and brother. She holds on the undertaker’s manual that she found at her brother’s burial. Hans grows very fond of her and helps her to learn to read the undertaker’s manual. He being a painter also makes her tablets on the wall where she could write new words that she learned- a dictionary of her own. Liesel learns new words and widens her inner world even as the world outside rushed into an unequal war under Hitler’s insane egotism. In Liesel we find a ray of sunshine- the promise of a better generation with a humane heart.

Liesel with Max
As the octopus hands of NAZIs reach inside houses for racial cleansing, Max is forced to leave his mother and go in hiding (which he regrets ever after). Later Max will turn up at Hubermann’s house one night seeking refuge. The Hubermann family which is infinitely indebted to Max’s father takes hides him in their basement. For Liesel Max’s presence is her little secret and a great relief at the same time. Max as a wonderful young man who loves everything around him teaches Liesel the art of seeing. He tells her that Jews believe in the secrets of words. Everyday Max would ask Liesel for a weather report. Liesel would give a picturesque description of what she sees. Without her knowledge she becomes a wonderful writer and story teller capable of wooing others with her words. By the time Max leaves the Hubermanns’ home Liesel becomes a brave young woman of character despite her age.

Life as a phenomenon is depicted as a process of meaning making in this film. While enemy planes carpet bomb them, they have a defined enemy. But when their own government sends agents to raid their homes and takes them away to concentration camps, the paradox of rule and anarchy stares at their faces. One who has not experienced the insecurity and cruelties of wars may not be able to understand the lives of those people who lived it. It would have been some challenge to be able to happy during those times. The happiness of Hans Hubermann in this tumult is a wonderful thing thus. He teaches his Liesel to be happy like him.

Probably it is the enthusiasm and joy of Liesel that gave Liesel courage to get into the NAZI commander’s house to steal books. In her own words, she doesn’t steal, but only borrows them. Still the gravity of her act is immensely huge and could lose her life for it. But she continues to ‘borrow’ books from the commander’s house for Max. She liked Max dearly and wanted to keep him alive. The only way she thought she could do so was by reading to him. Max had told her that word is life. After days when Max comes back to normal life, he acknowledges that it was her reading that brought him back to life.

Interestingly the title of the film brings us back to the ‘boy whose hair remained lemon colour’- Rudy Steiner. He is a bright boy chosen for Hitler’s elite training. But for him, life is about simpler things- love, parents, relationships, soccer, etc. It is important to note that the simplicity of life on Heaven street is often interrupted by bombs and ideology- both dangerous. Rudy shared secrets with Liesel. He knew Hubermanns were hiding a Jew. But he kept it a secret because the young boy knew that his relationship with Liesel was more important than anything else. Friendship comes naturally to him- he didn’t have to make extra efforts. He wanted Liesel’s kiss from the very first day they met. He asked for it later too. But death didn’t allow him to flower. After the deathly air raid on Heaven street when he was taken out of the debris, Liesel runs to his side. He begins to say he loves her, but death steals him away from her. Like Hans Hubermann always told Liesel, ‘may be it had to be so’.

She becomes the book thief to save Max’s life. She did so. But she lost everyone else she loved. Parents, step parents, brother, Rudy… The list remains unfilled. The narrator tells us that Liesel lived 90 years happily making others happy. That is what is important. That is what she learned from the Heaven street- that life goes on despite death. That life is hidden in the secret of words.

Director: Brian Percival

Original Novel written by: Markus Zusak

Adaptation: Michael Petroni


Roger Allam: Narrator / Death (voice)

Sophie Nélisse: Liesel Meminger

Geoffrey Rush: Hans Hubermann

Emily Watson: Rosa Hubermann

Nico Liersch: Rudy Steiner

Ben Schnetzer: Max Vandenburg


Wednesday, March 19, 2014



Roots- What every life form searches for and hooks to. Finding one's roots is akin to the Dynamism of life that strives to survive fighting against all odds.

Walking away is also walking together if you have roots. One is never alone. But it is difficult to realize that one has roots. More difficult is to find them out!

Medium: Crayons

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Colours: A colourful reflection on Holi

How good would you feel if someone intrudes into your house and forcefully feeds you with the most tasteless dish you dislike the most?

I remember a TV commercial that spoke on the similar lines. An elderly couple sitting in a park is disturbed by an insensitive smoker who sits next to them and drags on. When the elderly man understands that the smoker won’t either go away or stop smoking, he gets up, buys a plate of some eatable and stuffs the mouth of the smoker. The smoker is knocked for a six and asks for an explanation. The elderly man says, ‘you stuffed our noses and lungs with the cigar smoke without our permission. We are also doing just the same’. An eye for an eye! The smoker in the ad understands the message and apologizes to the couple and leaves. But not everyone is at least as level-headed as the smoker in the ad.

This morning when I heard wild screams and horrifying laughter of a group of youngsters, I realized that the festival of Holi is once again here to agonize me and my family. It brought memories of previous year back alive. Last year on the day of Holi the campus was literally terrorized. A group of my colleagues was patrolling the living quarters of lecturers in appallingly dirty, scanty (for a lecturer) clothing, hooting, poking fun at and howling at their victims. They carried buckets of synthetic colours dissolved in water, eggs (rotten?), tomatoes, bags of mud, etc. to bathe their victims with. At around 7 in the morning you would hear a knock at your door. If you opened unawares, you would be bathed in the most disgusting sticky, coloured liquids. Your house you keep clean would be dirtied. Your clothes you care for would instantly become useless for future use. Your skin would be stained for days with synthetic colours. Your mood would be spoiled for the day by the time the extreme negative rambunctious campaign left your house. By the grace of god and the vigilant help of my neighbours I was saved from the ordeal of being abused colourfully last year. But the offensive in front of my house continued for hours and the soldiers of colour waited outside my door for many hours to forcefully make me enjoy the festival of colours!

“Knock knock”: there they are! This year’s offensive is begun. I am angered. My blood boils. The mere memory of last year’s ordeal infuriates me. But I have decided not to open my door. I have decided to shut out the limiting forces. Let them jeer at their own meaninglessness at my door. I won’t answer my doorbell because there is an ideology beyond that door that is not open for dialogue.
The multicultural society we live in demands us to be more tolerant to our fraternity. If someone needs some free space, we are bound to give that space. When we stop giving that space, we call ourselves racist, xenophobic, intolerant, totalitarian, autocratic, despotic, dictatorial and jingoistic. These tendencies come out of every drop of colour we spray on someone who doesn’t want to be coloured.

I demand my space in this society. I need my space where I can open my door to your celebrations and participate in the way I want to participate. I don’t want to be forced to celebrate the way you want because we live in a democracy. Respect my freedom. If you don’t, I will demand for my rights as well. If you dirty my house I will need you to come in and clean my house. If you dirty my clothes I will need you to buy new clothes for me. If you spoil my mood I will need you to compensate for my loss.

We began with a question- How good would you feel if someone intrudes into your house and forcefully feeds you with the most tasteless dish you dislike the most? You answer for me. Oh boy! We live in a strange world. A celebration can be many things on the same day! Wish you all a very happy holi. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The man who was silent

He was always there. For everything, for everyone. No one felt his presence, because he was there, everywhere, for every need and reason. He turned a deaf ear to his own needs, so he could be available for those of others. A man of all seasons. A man who joked, laughed, smiled, wept, sat by, hugged, begged, loved and lived. No one noticed him because he was always there.

Then one day, suddenly, he stopped being there. Everyone who were used to his presence soon felt him- that he was absent, that he was not there by their side, that he was no more. He made his presence felt, with his absence. But while he could have, he didn't care to make himself prominent.

This truly is what a man can be. To be remembered is what one can achieve the most with one's life. He did it. Through silence. Through suffering. Through smiles that covered up tears. Through laughter that overshadowed sorrows. A man for others. My father- O M Mathews. 'MY' father.

O M Mathews
09.09.1948 - 31.12.2013

When he went away, I was left alone, standing on a cliff in the middle of an ocean of unknown faces. I felt the fall, but didn't care. The shock that crawled into my bones remained till the ocean waves screeched into my ears. Soaked in salty moisture on the cheeks I headed towards the shore, to see if he was still there, waiting with the usual warm hug and smile.

I couldn't see him. He wasn't there on the shore. There were only a few faces with no souls behind. Walking shadows. All of us, walking shadows. Soon we realized that the persons that we were, were not completely ours. Something was missing from our beings. Something was missing now. As for me, the fact that he is not there has not sunk into my understanding. My father, cannot not be. He should 'be'. There is no alternative.

Then I saw him. He was motionless. The radiance of his face had faded, but not the power of that smile that hid sorrows behind. The smile was kept behind a glass cage and it would never fade. Symbolism has to tell us that he cannot not be. And that, that being is not similar to my being now. So far, his presence was present, but from now on, his presence will be his absence. How strange! Life has to play all these scenes to me!

Later when that smile was taken down under the earth and I too threw a handful of frankincense and sand down into his grave. I found another fact- that the self that I have is not mine as I thought. I am a part of him. The way I speak, walk, react, think, live... Everything. My tears told me again and again that he is still here. And I realized that this is how he could still BE. Through me. I am him now.

I pray that I can embody what he was, so that he never dies. May god bless his soul.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Smiles that matter

Walk the road you always walk
Kick the same tin can, you always kick
Wear the same looks that mark you as you
But smile all the while if you want to be different.

Smile is all that matters- want to know why?
Come with me to the city; look at the slum and huts
Poor; still you see joy- fizzing life, bubbling fun
All they have is smiles; and joy is born of smiles.

Try wearing a smile from wake to sleep
Try giving everyone a smile every time you look
Try a smile when all attempts fail in procedure
Smile into joy; see what you get in return.

Smile is an ID card- gives you access everywhere
Acceptance guaranteed if you give one of your smiles
Keep a few always in your heart; so you can give one
to the needy; believe me its contagious.

Smile away as you walk in and away
Smile while you can, 'cos you can't once you are away
'Cos Smile is what matters.