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T. S. Eliot: A response to Kumar David’s “dislike”

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by H. L. D. Mahindapala

I like reading Prof. Kumar David’s (KD) column in the Sunday Island, even though the contents lean heavily towards Marxist mantras which have passed its use-by-date long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What grabbed my  attention was the Jan. 3 column which was a foray into English literature. As a bibliophile I agree wholeheartedly with his love of  classics and even with some of his likes and dislikes. For instance, one can’t expect everyone  to enjoy James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, let alone  read it. If I remember correct, Regi Siriwardena took great pride in reading it though Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk, the Grand Master of English Lit at Peradeniya, did not like the text.

 KD’s column indicates that he has very strong  likes and dislikes, vibrating sometimes with visceral hate. He says he “loathes” the Bagavad Gita. A modest word like “dislike”, “disagree”, I can understand. But “loathe”? Isn’t that a bit too harsh a word for someone like KD? In any case, how can one “loathe” the  Gita – one of the  world’s greatest spiritual songs that debates the profound moral issue faced by man in the battlefield: to kill or not to kill. I can understand Prabhakaran loathing it. But KD???  Incredible!

 The central issue in the Gita is to define the moral duty of man. Finding that, particularly in times of crises, causes mind-bending agonies. It is the same question posed by Shakespeare in Hamlet : to  be or not to be. Arjuna and Hamlet are both morally disturbed individuals standing confused in the middle of a rotten state, not knowing what form their action should take to meet the challenges facing them. Arjuna agonizing over the duty facing him – the duty of  killing – asks Krishna how can he kill his kith and kin. Hamlet too is agonizing over a similar issue. He has to clean  up the rotten, the incestuous, the chaotic state which means eliminating  his kith and  kin in power, with killing  if necessary. It is a duty cast upon him by his father’s ghost who seeks revenge. He is tortured and paralyzed by his own doubts and questions. Should he allow the rotten status quo to continue, or should he take up the sword and go into action wherever it may lead? What is his moral duty? That is the question.  

 KD, however, does not give any reason for loathing the Gita. It sounded somewhat like a personal reaction as if he was  a Jew reacting  to the sight of a Muslim, or vice versa in the Middle East. If he doesn’t like the text, may I request him to read the introduction to  the version edited by the Indian philosopher S. Radhakrishna, who was also the President of India later. He illuminates it  with his brilliant intellect so lucidly that in the end you will remember his introduction better  than the Gita. His thought-provoking insights are memorable. For instance, he surveys the religious field broadly and points  out  that neither Jesus nor Buddha gave answers to questions  about some of the core issues that had baffled philosophers, religious leaders, scientists etc., down the ages. Buddha discouraged those who went  in search of the origins and the ends of  the universe  or life. He dismissed them as irrelevant to the existential crises faced by man in  his cycle in samsara. Jesus too, he points  out, was silent when Pontius Pilate asked: What is truth? If KD doesn’t want to read the text I am sure he would enjoy Radhakrishna’s introduction. 

 Now I come to his literary criticism of T. S. Eliot. I concede that he is entitled to his tastes and I must respect his choices. But when he came to Eliot he went beyond expressing  his “dislike.” He accused Eliot of being “pretentious”.  It amounts to a literary criticism which means it is open for criticism. Here KD steps into an area which, I think, is not his domain. Neither in his personal life nor in writing the poetic masterpieces of the 20th century did Eliot show any signs of “pretentiousness.” He became a very fastidious Englishman, with a bowler hat and umbrella, after he abandoned the  loud  and brash  American culture into which he was born. He was very Catholic in his literary tastes, though he  did not go that far in his religion. He ended up in the Anglican High Church which was the nearest to the Catholic church.

 I value Eliot as the most intellectual of all English poets. No other poet has gone down the path of giving the emotional equivalent of thought, of deep philosophical thought, as Eliot. He could fill hard, recondite thoughts with feelings and lead you to meaning  and understanding  his vision and his meditations. But I am getting  far ahead of the issue at hand. I have to first deal with KD dismissing entire body of Eliot’s work as  “pretentious”. He  does  this  by taking the last words in Eliot’s Naming of  a Cat, a poem that plays with words which eventually became a musical sensation  after Andrew Lloyd Webber took those words and gave it a lyrical lift that entertained millions. But KD dismisses it somewhat superciliously in one line which goes like this : “I also dislike Eliot, who  is pretentious: his “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular” game. Period.

 Here Eliot is deliberately playing with words. There is no pretentiousness here. Besides, what was the necessity for a Nobel Laureate to be pretentious? Whom was he going to impress? He wrote like all great writers to give meaning to lives. Eliot was not the kind  of poet who would use words to be  “pretentious”.  Eliot played with these words as if he was playing with a kitten: lightly, gently, fondly and delicately. To get a feel of the words let’s view the full poem before going any further. Here it is: 

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot

 The Naming of Cats is difficult matter,It isn’t just one of your holiday games;You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatterWhen I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–All of them sensible everyday names.There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–But all of them sensible everyday names.But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-Names that never belong to more than one cat.But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,And that is the name that you never will guess;The name that no human research can discover–But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.When you notice a cat in profound meditation,The reason, I tell you, is always the same:His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplationOf the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:His ineffable effableEffanineffableDeep and inscrutable singular Name.

 

Cat lovers (I’m one of them) can relate to the “cat in profound meditation”  and that

“His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable

Effanineffable

Deep and inscrutable  singular Name.”

 In all seriousness, I tried my best to understand how KD could view Eliot as being “pretentious” purely on his aversion  to the last lines. I was eager to understand  his thinking, First thing  that struck me was that it is unfair to judge anyone on a few lines excluding the corpus of Eliot’s writings. Perhaps, he could explain it in his response. Though I tried from various angles I failed to see any “pretentiousness” in these playful lines.  “The staccato beat of the names – e.g., Plato, Admetus, Electra – alone suggests the whimsicality of the poem. The musicality in the syllabic rhythms was captured in several dramatic and cinematic versions, starting from Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1981. It was not meant to be serious poem like The Waste Land where he took the stentorian tone. In  it he was looking  down  upon humanity and asking:

 What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow  out of this stony rubbish?

 What he saw from his Olympian heights was

 “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And dry stone no sound of water.”

He was the Dante of the 20th century guiding humanity through the modern purgatory. He was dissecting their souls and exposing the diseased, worm-eaten core. To him the 20th century was the arid waste land. Even the grim scene he paints of the modern metropolis is awesome.

 Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many

 A version of these lines is found in Dante’s text. Eliot borrowed  it and made it is his own.

It is clear that in this  poem he is using words playfully, as if he  was playing with a cat. Those who saw the adaptation in the movie CATS will realize  how the rhythmic words  tripped off the tongues fluidly. The words were chosen to play around with sound. Eliot was toying with each word and name of cats. Eliot touched a chord in me when he spoke of the “cat’s meditative” thoughts. I have been fascinated by the mysterious, meditative moods of cats. They are such soothing, calming, relaxing pets to have around. When they leap like a feather into bed and sleep, snoring, next to you the whole world seems to be at rest. The soothing sound of peace comes down with each gentle snore. My wife and I still cry for “Bubby” (I wonder what Eliot would think of that name?) we lost in Melbourne a few years ago. Parting was so unbearable that I am determined never to adopt a cat ever.

 I think I’ve said enough about Eliot and cats. I shall now await KD’s response to understand why Eliot is “pretentious” according to him.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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