To continue with my (self-congratulatory at best and vain at worst) series of Coursera essays, here is the 340-word essay on H.G.Wells I wrote for my free online ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course.
One of the major elements of science-fiction literature is to attempt to predict or speculate about possible future events which might come to pass if mankind traverses a certain scientific and moral path. Wells, however, forces us to stop on the way and consider the journey itself—what happens when we presume to being enlightened, as the masses in ‘The Star’, but in fact, are as blind as the people of ‘The Country of the Blind’.
“Common-sense was sturdy everywhere” , Wells writes sarcastically. In the face of catastrophe, nine out of ten men on earth are “scornful, jesting, […] inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful” . He even equates common-sense to “barbarism and savagery”; the men, with “unalterable convictions”, scorn the respectable mathematician and go about their businesses unheeding the star. Similarly, the blind men mock Nunez and steadfastly stick to their beliefs—”it was an article of faith with them” . So much so that in order to cure Nunez of what they think are delusions, they decide to surgically remove his eyes and thus make him “perfectly sane” . “Thank Heaven for science”, Yacob says , and again Wells hints at the dangers of vainglory.
In both the stories, Wells warns us against intolerance and self-aggrandizement. Science enlightens mankind so that at any point in time we know more than we did in the past, but we should also realize that knowledge is illimitable, that there are many things we haven’t yet discovered. Just as the blind men lived in a world of their own making and limitations, so can we live either in a blind valley of a world or choose to open our eyes to truth and wisdom. Like the mathematician, we can hold “all the universe […] in the grip of this small brain” , the only requirements are acceptance and humility. Otherwise, one day someone will truthfully say that “Man has lived in vain.” 
 The Star, by H.G Wells
 The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells
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Audiences, as a general rule, dislike stereotypes. See what I did there? I stereotyped ‘audience’. Stereotypes are a part of life, whether we like them or not. Somewhat like cliches (and I just found out that cliches and stereotypes are etymologically related, being terms associated with printing).
Most of the times I can’t decide whether I mind it when people classify and categorize others. For example, some of my friends hated ‘Raj’ from ‘The big bang theory’ during the first few seasons because Indians (as we think of and know ourselves) are not like him. His accent for one is weird. But I always found him very cute in a self-deprecating way. Another time, I read a blog post about Indian weddings which advised the Indian woman to stay away from the guy she loves, because she won’t get to marry him anyway! (It was supposed to be a comment on arranged marriages, that Indian girls are not allowed to marry guys they love; but that’s for the most part misinformation perpetuated by bollywood movies). It was a very well-written paragraph, and of course it’s possible things like that happen in such a greatly populated country like India, but I know a lot of Indian girls (single and married, arranged and otherwise) and none of them have experienced this dilemma. So I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should be offended by that blog post or not.
I assume the bad feeling associated with cliches in general, and in literature and movies in particular is because a cliche is evidence of unoriginality. And I believe my ambiguous attitude towards cliches is because my original creations (as well as speech) abound with them, and towards stereotypes is because I consider myself one. That is to say, I seem to fit into many categories: the stereotypical woman, the Indian girl, the novice blogger, the amateur/wannabe poet, the female driver, the bride.
We don’t like stereotypes because they make us feel average; the background artists of the blockbuster called life. They take away our illusions of uniqueness, of being one of a kind.
One should still avoid cliches like the plague, especially while writing, even though they are as old as hills and we may be rushed for time. However, all’s well that ends well.
My 300-word essay on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ for my course, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, our Modern World’ provided by coursera.org.
Anthropomorphism is one of the many interesting literary devices seen in the “Alice” books. In ‘Through the looking glass’ especially, the humanized chess-men and the chess-set world are an analogy for real people and the real world respectively. “It’s a great huge game of chess being played all over the world”, Alice says.
In the beginning, Alice receives instructions from the Red Queen, like we receive instructions from our elders before setting out into the world. On her journey she meets many people and learns many things: the White Queen tells Alice to keep an open mind (“I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”), from Humpty Dumpty she learns semantics and that a word means “what (you) choose it to mean–neither more nor less”, she learns self-belief in the face of doubt when Tweedledum tells her “you’re not real” and she realizes that he’s “talking nonsense”. The chess pieces themselves stand for the various types of people in our world. Some, like the queens, go “running wildly” hither and thither; they have great power which they may or may not use wisely (e.g., the White Queen is powerful but helpless and rambling). Some, like the Red King, stay on just one square all their lives. There are the White Knights, kind and helpful; and finally there are people like Alice who sometimes go where fate takes them, and sometimes make their own way, but always have their goal in mind and humility in heart.
We wonder whether the author is telling us to live as though we really were in a chess game. There are specific rules by which we have to play (or live); as a pawn one can only move forward, for one “certainly won’t go back”, and always there is the ultimate goal: that of reaching the eighth square; of fulfilling one’s destiny.
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Nothing Beats a Fountain Pen (Photo credit: kartikay.sahay)
It doesn’t matter which century we live in, or in which country. It doesn’t even matter that we write on our laptops and PDAs rather than on paper. Fountain pens are eternal; forever.
I needn’t mention that I love to write with my fountain pen. They are so elegant, regal almost. Writing something–anything, even a to-do list–with a fountain pen somehow makes me feel like a real writer. As if I’m leaving something valuable for posterity; even though I know said posterity will sooner throw away my scribbles than publish them, and even though paper and ink are destructible whereas electronic storage is almost immortal.
I go so far as to buy hand-made journals for the specific purpose of filling them up with my genius literary work (well, genius in my head), inked with a fountain pen of course. It’s a tale for another day that I haven’t yet written a word in any of the four such journals that I own. But although the journals are blank, and my blog posts are typed directly on my laptop, I do have this habit of writing down stuff with a fountain pen in my ordinary notebook at least once a week. Makes me feel important; as though somehow I’m fit to be within twenty feet of Edgar Allan Poe or Douglas Adams.
“You couldn’t (doubt yourself) with eyebrows like yours”
–Jonathan Harker to Van Helsing
I wrote sometime back about this online course I took last year, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’. You can find my post here. Each week, we were supposed to read a book and write a 270-320 word essay which would “enrich the reading of a fellow intelligent student”. The essay shouldn’t read like a review, but should be somewhat analytic and definitely informative. So today I present to you my essay on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, assuming there are very few book-lovers who haven’t read it. I started with the quote I’ve placed at the beginning of this post.
Physiognomy is the art of judging an individual’s character by studying their facial features. Though considered a pseudoscience now, it was widely popular in the author’s time. In the novel too, it plays an especially important role. Not only does the description of a character’s facial features paint a vivid picture of the character in our minds, it also tells us from the outset whether that particular character is good or evil, which is of paramount importance in this novel.
Thus, the driver who transported Jonathan to Castle Dracula has red eyes; the devil has red eyes, and so as soon as we read this description we know that the driver is somehow dangerous. The Count has “a very strong, aquiline, [..] thin nose [..] lofty domed forehead”, signifying his strength of body and character, and his pride. But more noteworthy are his “fixed and rather cruel-looking” mouth and his “peculiarly sharp white teeth”. Even his coarse, broad, hairy hands with the long, sharp fingernails further the impression that the Count is more beast-like than human. Although during the first few hours of Jonathan’s visit we have no concrete reason to doubt the Count, his physical description is enough for us to beware of him. Similarly, Dr. Seward’s “strong jaw and the good forehead” tell us of his courage and intelligence. Van Helsing is a “kindly, strong-faced old man”, which tells us that he is mature and experienced, brave and forceful.
Physiognomy is also a valuable literary device in signifying the change in the characters’ personalities. Jonathan’s gray hair not only symbolize his shock and terrible ordeal, but also emphasize the fact that he is an old soul; he has experience and knowledge way beyond his years. Similarly, the startling change in Lucy’s features (eyes that were “dull and hard at once”, “voluptuous lips”) warn the reader of her conversion into an Undead. Mina too, bears the scar on her forehead as a reminder of her “unclean” status.
Thus, although much criticized now, the art of Physiognomy proves to be a most advantageous tool in the hands of the author; it helps us in identifying the undercurrent of the novel–the basic theme of the story–the triumph of good over evil.
Have you read the book? If you have, what do you think of my critique? And if you haven’t, do you want a link where you can download it legally from?
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In today’s world of jet travel and internet, personal boundaries are almost non existent and borders occur only on maps. However, we still like to believe in the old adage of “Good fences make good neighbours”.
The phrase comes from a very well known poem written by Robert Frost, called ‘Mending Wall’. It talks of how the wall that divides the poet’s property from his neighbour’s just won’t stay put. According to the poet, there is something in nature that hates walls. That is why everything from the springtime frost to summer heat to wild animals to their hunters tries to break down the wall; every year various factors, both natural and man-made, persist in trying to bring the wall down. Every year the poet and his neighbour diligently put the wall back up again. Because, the neighbour says, “good fences make good neighbours”.
As a child when I first read this poem, it confused me. Aren’t walls between people bad? Like the Berlin Wall, shouldn’t we be working to pull them down and not put them up? There are enough walls–both real and metaphorical–in this world that divide people. If somehow they are breaking, we should encourage that rather than build them up again. The last few years, in fact, have seen many such walls coming down. I mentioned the Berlin Wall that divided erstwhile East Germany and West Germany and that has now fallen unifying that great country; the cultural wall that divided Northern and Southern USA has come down after the Civil War and with it came down the loathsome practice of slavery, to mention a few.
Sure, some metaphorical walls e.g., those that promote cultural, racial and caste bias between people would be better eating dust. But there are some walls that are necessary; walls that allow people their own personal space, walls that encourage mutual respect are better left in their places.
Specifically in the case of international borders, walls are definitely required in order to make good neighbours. Had India guarded her walls better, Pakistan would have been unable to occupy a piece of Kashmir. That small piece of land now called Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir is a bone of contention between the two countries. We could have avoided this if we, like the poet, had mended our walls in time.
Some walls are good.
Some walls are essential.
This week’s Creative Writing Challenge is to talk about a character in my life; to make this person real for the readers. The post said nothing about pets, but Sherlock is the first person whom I based a fictional character on!
Sherlock is a two-and-almost-half year old yellow Labrador Retriever (yeah, yeah. I know that Sherlock is an awesome name for a Lab!) who first came to us in a cardboard box two years ago. Much training–he has trained me very well to feed him regularly and play with him when he tells me to–and almost 32 Kilos later he has turned out to be a little-too-friendly (according to visitors) and slightly overweight (according to his Vet) but adorable dog. For about 6 hours after getting a bath, Sherlock’s coat is of various shades of cream; he has almost white paws and a camel colored tail, of which body part he is unusually protective, by the way. His weird dark brown-pink nose and his half-cocked right ear set him apart from other Labs.
When Sherlock greets me after being separated from me (whether it’s 5 minutes or 5 hours or 5 days, his enthusiasm is always the same) and wants to be petted, he has this habit of rubbing against my legs. And he has another feline trait: he licks his paws after eating, much like cats clean themselves! I’m not sure if that’s common in most dogs or whether it’s because Sherlock was friends with a kitten when he was 6 months old.
Mealtimes are his favorite times of the day, of course. Except when it’s time for a walk. Or to play catch (his version of catch is where he runs with a ball/toy in his mouth, and I try to ‘catch’ him). When he was 5-6 months old, he thought his name was ‘food’; that’s the word he responded to, instead of ‘Sherlock’. As he grew older, this changed to ‘good boy’ and then to ‘biscuit’. Now he responds to ‘Sherlock’… if he feels like it!
Last year my mother added a small lily pond to her beautiful garden. But we live in a tropical climate and Sherlock loves the water. And lily pond + hot summers + Sherlock = Disaster! No sooner had Sherlock seen the pond that he’d jumped in the muddy water full of pretty flowers. Mom lost both her temper and her precious lilies that day, and Sherlock lost his romp-in-the-yard-without-leash privileges for a couple of weeks.
Sherlock is my best friend, my little brother (you’d think he’s higher in the family hierarchy than me, the way he orders me around!) and absolutely the most favorite person of mine. But I wish I could understand even half the things that he tells me. After all, he understands everything I tell him.
Sometimes I wonder whether we really are the ‘most intelligent life form on Earth’.