being brown

Posts tagged “dichotomies

‘Please Sir, I want some more.’

Sometimes the impact of the first sentence in a story or a novel is breathtaking. It just sets such a tone to the novel that it seems unlikely the story should drag. And sometimes the beginning alone sustains the rest of the story. Since I write, I read about writing. There are hundreds of prescriptive websites that instruct you on how to write and what to write. I don’t find their instruction particularly helpful with respect to my writing; but the prescriptions are great for reading. For example, when I read somewhere that it helps to have a beginning that is full of impact, my attention immediately turned to observing and noticing beautiful and momentous beginnings in all that I read ( I also notice not so great beginnings). So here are three of my favourite beginnings for novels and, incidentally, they are all written by the same author. These beginnings make you want to say, “please, sir, I want some more.”

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green islets and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…Fog in theeyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.


–       Bleak House by Charles Dickens

In this paragraph, Dickens has already introduced us to the bleakness. Fog is bleak. The second element of genius is the relevance of the description across time and space. Parts of 21st century industrialising India can also be described in those words. In fact, I was reminded of the paragraph as I walked to work in the morning; as I walked in the smog. And the enveloping ways of the fog is full of constraint, limitations, despair, hopelessness – bleak. The atmosphere is set. Our social strata is set what with ‘shivering little ‘prentice boy’ and ‘ ancient Greenwich pensioners’. We know it is a ‘great(and dirty) city’ that has ‘tiers of shipping’ and ‘waterside pollutions’. We know that this is a story that is set among the working class of a newly industrialised. We know its newly industrialised because ‘people on the bridges (are) peeping over….as if they were up in a balloon hanging in the misty clouds’. An analogy like that demonstrates that this ‘fog’ is new and unexpected much like that balloon in the clouds. There is enough reiteration for the concept to sink in but not too much.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch ofincredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–       A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After the first sentence, we know this is a historically momentous time; a time of contradictions, of polarisations, of dichotomies. Such turbulence can only be brought about by some kind of macro political, social and/or economic upheaval. And again, it is a description that transcends space and time. Parts of 21st century India could be described this way. And the author knows about this universal significance as he says ‘in short, the period was so far like the present period’.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”


–       Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is my favourite Dickens novel. And this is why. The paragraph describes the post-renaisance era’s preoccupation with ‘objective, cold, scientific, rational facts’ (a preoccupation that continues to this day!) So again it describes a situation that transcends time and space. Dickens also lays the foundation for a critique of a system of education that seeks to ‘form minds of reasoning animals’ by ‘plant(ing) nothing else, and root(ing) out everything else (other than facts)’.

The major themes that Dickens introduces in the first paragraphs of each of these novels pervade through the entirety of the novel much like the fog in “Bleak House”. This consistency of genius is what makes books like these read time and again over centuries. Crucial as beginnings are to stories and narratives, it takes genius to see it through in the entire novel. So as a prescriptive for writing, it is useless, atleast for beginners.

Deadly Dichotomies

A smartass once asked my mother, “ oh you read for entertainment too? I thought you only read for edification”. Apart from being obnoxious-bordering-on-the-rude, ridiculous-bordering-on-the-hilarious and patronizing-bordering-on-the-supercilious, that comment is also one of the most meaningless-bordering-on-the-absurd ones I have come across. Speculating on what she meant wouldn’t interest me and is beyond the scope of this article. But I am going to look at this and some other similarly futile distinctions because it entertains me to the hilt, not to mention its edifying side effects 😀

One such is the parallel cinema-commercial cinema dichotomy. The dichotomy includes a certain disdain for commercial cinema as being without content and stupid. A friend once told me that parallel cinema was boring and depressing; he would much rather a bollywood commercial cinema for entertainment. Bheja Fry, which was a big hit at the box office, one that easily could be called a commercial success, was also critically acclaimed. Using political satire and humour as tools, it had a sophisticated plot and script. And whats more, the acting did justice to the story. Bheja Fry was also far from depressing. Dev D, a rather stinging criticism of society, its double standards, patriarchy and more, had its share of songs and dance sequences that made it a commercial success. Dor, not much of a commercial success but one of the most thought provoking (and gently instructive) films made in Indian cinema. It deals with dilemmas, so it keeps the audience restive but in no way depressing. For filmmakers, the dichotomy only serves the purpose of justifying making stupid movies under the commercial cinema banner. And for movie goers, it helps in justifying the lowering of their own standards in cinema.

Another dichotomy is the traditional- innovative. Unlike the parallel-commercial cinema dichotomy, this actually exists and is not as absurd. The ‘traditionalists’ pride themselves because their art form is ‘pure’ and ‘unsullied’. The’ innovativists’ look down upon the other because they have broken the time warp that the ‘traditionalists’ are in. Now, my own insight into this dichotomy comes from my little dabbling with Bharatanatyam. Obviously, the raging debate has some significantly persuasive orators on both sides, but I am going to give my, what might seem rather, raw view of this dichotomy. My previous teachers (and I with them) performed an innovative piece called Shyam Sakhi. The innovation was in the way they approached the subject matter- the relationship between Lord Krishna and Draupadi- and also in form because they had a mixture of Kathak and Bharatanatyam in their dance drama. The innovation in content- this relatively unexplored aspect of the relationship between, not brother and sister as the as is traditionally taken, but between loyal friends- was, in one word, SUPER. The innovation in form, though, left much to be desired. Jhelum Paranjpey’s Leelavati is a brilliant exercise both in innovating content and innovating form. What I gather from these experiences is that one needs to be sufficiently steeped in tradition to make the kind of innovation that is deep enough, in both form and content, for it to be included in the greater knowledge base of the art form. And that’s the only kind of lasting innovation that makes sense in any art form.

Similarly, the dichotomy of entertaining reading- edifying reading is meaningless for the simple reason that everything that’s entertaining is edifying. For something to be edifying, it has to be engaging first; for something to be engaging, it has to be entertaining first. If it isn’t entertaining, it won’t edify. I remember my mother banning some books for us, not because she was concerned about content or anything, she just thought it was necessary to ban them in order to help form a good reading habit. It is true we never since developed any taste for that kind of literature. But I don’t necessarily subscribe to my mother’s view. I think we would have read and dismissed such books on our own. Enid Blyton, for example, we used to read all the time and I loved every bit of it. But now, I cant stand her books. Her books are racist, intolerant to the ‘different’, perpetrates patriarchy and written, many times, with wrong grammar. I have realized these shortcomings albeit late but I have done so irrespective of the fact that I lived and breathed Enid Blyton. Finally, edification ( I hate the word; it sounds so pompous) is something that has more to do with the individual. The individual either learns and improves from whatever it is he is reading ( even deciding to avoid certain kind of literature because it is stupid is an edifying process) or he learns nothing at all. It is possible, after all, to read Crime and Punishment or The Discovery of India and come out with no improvement whatsoever in oneself.

I have just figured that if there is one single thing I really hate in this world it would be dichotomies because most of them are meaningless but, sadly, catching.

P.S Apologies to my readers following the adventures of PC for this grand delay in the appearance of the 4th Chapter. It can be attributed to my relocating woes. But I am sure to update it coming Tuesday. So watch out for it!