06 November 2008

Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories

Bertolt Brecht has also written short fiction. Not much is written about this (after all Brecht is mostly known as a playwright and a poet), but this facet of Brecht’s talent came to my attention when, a week ago, I picked up a copy of his Collected Short Stories. Brecht’s collection contains 37 short stories in the main section of the book, plus a ‘fragment’ of a novel in the Appendix. The short stories are grouped in three sections, in a linear fashion, pertaining to critical literary periods in Brecht’s life.

The first group, called The Bavarian stories (1920-24), contains 11 stories and represents his early writings. The second group, called The Berlin stories (1924-33), contains 14 stories and probably represents Brecht’s most productive years in Germany before WW2 – thanks mainly to Elisabeth Hauptmann, whom Brecht’s publishers had sent to help him complete a book of poems. The third group, called Stories Written in Exile, contains 12 stories and mainly represents the period of his fight against Fascism (which dominated Germany at the time) from the outside.

I loved the stories for their purity and non-political nature. For, it seems to me that, while Brecht was establishing himself as a playwright and a poet, he used his short stories to experiment with the plots and the parables he used so effectively later in his plays. Brecht’s stories, particularly those from his years spent in exile (when he fled Germany during Nazi rule and moved from one country to another before returning to East Germany after the War), some of them with their remote historical settings, are perhaps his most accomplished.

What is common in all these stories, and what makes them good reads, is Brecht’s story-telling ability. He uses a straight-forward narrative prose, telling the story as it is, without adding any undue artifice to stimulate the reader’s attention. It’s as if Brecht is trying to say, “this is what happened and that is exactly what I’ve reported here.” Hence, the stories are crisp and to the point. There are no overt political messages as there are in his plays. Yet, the stories are engaging, and a few, quite entertaining.

[Citation: Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, translated by Yvonne Kapp, Hugh Rorrison and Antony Tatlow; Methuen 1999 paperback edition.]

04 November 2008

The politics of the auditorium

Bertolt Brecht’s theatre was intellectual. He believed that, to induce social and political change, the audience needed to be incited and aroused intellectually. In other words, theatre had to appeal to the audience’s powers of reason rather than to its emotions – which is what the earlier schools of theatre (for instance, Shakespearean theatre) depended on.

Whereas, in a Shakespearean play, people in the audience would feel for the fortunes or misfortunes of the characters because they identified themselves with the characters on stage, Brecht would find ways to alienate the actors from the characters they played, stirring up audience consciousness through techniques and practices such as songs, talking to the audience through the actors, projecting messages on screens, or actors carrying placards with messages.

Brecht laid bare a situation – usually a social ill – on stage, inciting the audience into thinking about the problem, unemotionally (i.e. by developing a critical attitude), and formulating their own solutions in their minds. He believed that people, essentially, were capable of thinking their way out of problems and improving their lives – which is what, he believed, was needed to induce social change and fight capitalism.

“Brecht thus sought to alter not only theatre’s representation of reality but also the politics of the auditorium, encouraging in the spectator an active, interrogative attitude to what is presented.”

[Citation: Quote from The Politics of Performance, Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook, edited by Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf, Routledge, 2001.]

01 November 2008

Keeping the audience tuned in

Bertolt Brecht is considered to be one of the greatest playwrights and dramatists of the 20th century. So highly is he rated in the literary world that some intellectuals and scholars have described him as “a literary-theatrical equivalent to Picasso.”

Brecht’s dramatic style was somewhat unique. He relied more on the actors and their performance, switching their roles from time to time, testing the audience, forcing them to stay alert, almost as if he was asking the audience to participate in his plays along with the actors.

I remember several such trying moments while watching Brecht’s plays. If I were to take my mind off the stage, I missed a lot. And, if I hadn’t read the play earlier (which was usually the case) and, therefore, weren’t privy to Brecht’s treatment notes and scene descriptions, I really needed to stay alert.

That’s probably why, in order to keep the audience tuned in, Brecht’s plays have a lot of action on stage. With actors moving about, singing, choreography and text messages like newspaper headlines projected on screens as backdrops (there are very few stage-props), the audience just can’t take its mind off the stage.

Fortunately, directors of Brecht’s plays still follow his dramatic style today, keeping their audiences conscious of – and committed to – what is happening and what is being said on stage. Considering the fact that Brecht’s plays also force its audience into thinking during the play, the mind does wander, thereby requiring considerable effort on the audience’s part to stay tuned.

30 October 2008

Bertolt Brecht: still socially relevant

If not anywhere else, you can be certain that German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays have a place in Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal in eastern India. There, I remember my college days spent watching Brecht’s plays staged (usually) at the Max Muller Bhavan, as well as in other theatres, both in English and in the Bengali vernacular, with various contemporary interpretations.

Of all of Brecht’s plays, his The Threepenny Opera was the most popular, with Galileo coming in a reasonably-sound second place, both of which had us thinking in our seats during the play and on our feet while walking back home. For, such were – and still are – typical responses to Brecht’s plays. Brecht didn’t just entertain you, he set you thinking about what’s happening around you.

Even his greatest detractors couldn’t deny the fact that Bertolt Brecht delivered a balance of entertainment and instruction. Because, at the heart of every Brecht play and/or production was the belief that the audience had to be entertained (using ‘devices’ such as songs and humour), as well as moved to thinking about the theatre on one hand and, on the other, the society people were living in there and then – making his plays socially relevant with the times.

Commenting on European drama in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in an essay titled On Experimental Theatre, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote:

“For at least two generations the serious European drama has been passing through a period of experiment. So far the various experiments conducted have not led to any definite and clearly established result, nor is the period itself over. In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction: that is to say that the theatre organized experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”

Bertolt Brecht believed these two functions of entertainment and instruction can – and need to – be married to produce the perfect play. But even more, Brecht believed that theatre had to make sense to people – to be relevant and contemporary to its audience.

To achieve this, Brecht wrote copious notes on his plays, giving directions to himself, the actors and directors, and even rewriting his plays, introducing his thinking, his responses to and his beliefs about the social and political happenings of the time. For instance, although he had written Galileo (one of his most famous plays) prior to the Second World War, he changed the ending and several other sections of the play after the United States dropped the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

So, in reality, there is a Galileo I (Galileo Galilei written in 1937-38) and a Galileo II (Galileo re-written in 1945-46); although, today, what is accepted and staged as Galileo is actually Galileo II, Brecht’s later version. The effort Brecht put in to make his plays socially and politically relevant to the present times is a practice that is still followed by producers and directors who stage his plays today.

[Citation: 1. On Experimental Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, quoted from The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 2. The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht by Eric Bentley in the Introduction to Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, English version by Charles Laughton, Grove Press, 1966.]

23 October 2008

The Great Dictator, Arturo Ui

Adolf Hitler has fascinated many people – not only during his rise to leadership in Nazi Germany, but over the years. He has been, and still is, at the centre of much research and talk… and even filmmaking. Everyone from people who suffered during WW2 in Europe to historians, sociologists, psychologists, military strategists, management gurus to school children have heard of and discussed Hitler sometime or the other.

A niece of mine who had worked at a bookstore in Mumbai once told me that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was one of the highest-selling books at the store. What explains this? No idea. Except that, perhaps, in spite of his delusion, autocracy and cruelty, Adolf Hitler is a fascinating subject for many people. Some may revere him even today.

From all of this, and keeping aside my recent foray into Laurence Rees’ work (see my previous posts), two works of creativity stand out in my mind. First, The Great Dictator, a film by Charlie Chaplin released in 1940. And the other, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play by Bertholt Brecht written in 1941. While Chaplin’s film is an all-time great work of art and acting, winning favour from adults and children all over the world, Brecht’s play is less well-known, particularly among Indian audiences.

It’s a coincidence that both Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were born in April 1889 (a few days of each other); Hitler in what was then Austria-Hungary and Chaplin in London, UK. The two men did not meet each other. A story suggests that Chaplin decided to work on The Great Dictator when a friend of his, Alexander Korda, remarked on the physical similarities between the two men and, upon doing some research, Chaplin found that both Hitler and he had both struggled to achieve what they had attained in their respective fields.

The Great Dictator is a parody of Adolf Hitler. The film’s hero, played by Chaplin, is a dictator called Adenoid Hynkel; but the resemblance to the real Hitler is indeed fantastic. In fact, many of the other characters in the film bear resemblance to actual men in Hitler’s coterie. Although Chaplin deals with many of the issues from Hitler’s life and the history around that time, the focus in The Great Dictator is on the delusional mind of Adenoid Hynkel.

When The Great Dictator was released in 1940, or when Chaplin had started work on the film two years earlier, Hitler’s atrocities were not so well known. Apparently, Chaplin had later said that, had he known about the real atrocities of the Nazis, he may not have introduced so much comedy in the film. Needless to say, Hitler had banned The Great Dictator from being screened in all German-occupied territories. But, a rumour exists that Hitler had seen a screening of The Great Dictator once.

Unlike Chaplin, who had the freedom of making films in Hollywood, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, born nine years after Hitler and Chaplin, and a Marxist to boot, lived in fear of Nazi persecution. In 1933, when Hitler came into power, Brecht fled Germany, first to Denmark and then to Sweden, Finland and finally to the United States. It was in Finland in 1941 that Brecht wrote the play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. However, the play was not staged in English for another 20 years.

My introduction to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was 20-odd years ago in Kolkata, when the play was staged simply as Arturo Ui. Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is about a small-time gangster in Chicago, called Arturo Ui, who takes control of the cauliflower business in Chicago by getting rid of his opponents one by one. The play, and the characters within it, all have a strong resemblance to Hitler and his cronies, and the setting describes Germany just prior to Nazi rule.

Like The Great Dictator, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a parody of Hitler and the Nazis, staged in a larger-than-life style, highlighting not just the evil ways that Hitler/Ui adopted in his rise to power, banning all opposition, but also the sense of the dramatic that he (both Hitler and Ui) seemed to possess and use to win his audience over. Of course, unlike Chaplin’s film, Brecht’s play has strong Marxist or anti-Fascist undertones, drawing parallels between actual German history and the scenes in his fictional play.

20 October 2008

The Mind of Adolf Hitler

“The Nazi regime was one that practised what one historian [most likely Martin Broszat] famously called ‘cumulative radicalism’, whereby each decision often led to a crisis that led to a still more radical decision… All the leading Nazis knew their Führer prized one quality in policy-making above all others: radicalism. Hitler once said that he wanted his generals to be like ‘dogs straining on a leash’ (and in this they most often failed him). His love of radicalism, plus his technique of encouraging massive competition within the Nazi leadership often by appointing two people to do more or less the same job, meant that there was intense dynamism in the political and administrative system – plus intense inherent instability.”

[Quoted from Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005.]

“[Hitler] does not think things out in a logical and consistent fashion, gathering all available information pertinent to the problem, mapping out alternative courses of action, and then weighing the evidence pro and con for each of them before reaching a decision. His mental processes operate in reverse. Instead of studying the problem as an intellectual would do, he avoids it and occupies himself with other things until unconscious processes furnish him with a solution. Having the solution, he then begins to look for facts that will prove it is correct. In this procedure he is very clever, and by the time he presents it to his associates, it has the appearance of a rational judgment… His orientation is that of an artist and not that of a statesman.”

[Quoted from The Mind of Adolf Hitler by Walter C Langer, as stated in Michael S Wade’s management book Leadership’s Adversary: Winning the War between Leadership and Management, Nova Publishers, 2002.]

14 October 2008


Why did no one fight back?

If over six million Jews were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945 – over a million of them in Auschwitz concentration camp itself – surely some of these Jews could have formed resistance groups and risen up against the Nazis? But, why didn’t they? Why did they meekly surrender to the Nazis when the Nazis came marching into their towns and went knocking on their doors?

Was the might of the Nazis so overpowering that the Jews were paralysed by fear? Were the Jews so religious in principle and practice that they decided not to pick up arms against the Nazis, even to protect themselves and their loved ones? Were the Jews so widespread in Europe that they couldn’t come together in time to form a line of defence, or even sabotage Nazi initiatives against them?

What could explain the inconceivable passivity with which the Jews across Europe surrendered to the Nazis? Is this some giant mystery of the twentieth century?

In his autobiographical writing, Night, Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, gives an example of the ‘blindness’ with which the people from his small town of Sighet, in Transylvania, responded to the Nazi aggression during WW2. He suggests that it was a sort of blindness – the inability of the people of Sighet to take cognisance of Nazi aggression and atrocities against the Jews around them – that drove the Jews to their horrible fate.

Here’s an excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s Night:

“Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian Front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated. It was only a matter of time, months or weeks, perhaps.

The trees were in bloom. It was a year like so many others, with its spring, its engagements, its weddings, and its births.

The people were saying, ‘The Red Army is advancing with giant strides… Hitler will not be able to harm us, even if he wants to…’

Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us.

Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of twentieth century!

And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of things – strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism – but not with their own fate.”

[Citation: Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel, Hill and Wang publishers, 2006.]

10 October 2008

To forget would…

“Why did I write it?

Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?

Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?

Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?”


“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

[Quoted from Night by Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, author, winner of The Nobel Peace Prize (1986); from the Preface to the new 2006 translation (from the French) by his wife Marion Wiesel.]

08 October 2008


I’m reading Laurence Rees’ book Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ and watching his BBC TV series at the same time. Of course, the book provides details the TV series cannot, keeping in mind the time-frame in which the video format had to be packaged. Still, the colour ‘enactments’ in the TV series are well-directed. Some of the old and hazy B&W video footages of Auschwitz (and elsewhere) in the TV series are heart-wrenching.

A December 2004 BBC press release has this to say about the TV series:

“The name Auschwitz is quite rightly a byword for horror,” says series producer Laurence Rees. “But the problem with thinking about horror is that we naturally turn away from it. Our series is not only about the shocking, almost unimaginable pain of those who died, or survived, Auschwitz. It’s about how the Nazis came to do what they did. I feel passionately that being horrified is not enough. We need to make an attempt to understand how and why such horrors happened if we are ever to be able to stop them occurring again.”

[Citation: BBC TWO press release – BBC Two unravels the secrets of Auschwitz, 3 December 2004. Auschwitz plaque photo courtesy Sunil Bahl.]

07 October 2008

War against the weak

The belief that human stock could be improved by careful breeding is not something devised by the Nazis alone. Much before the Nazis got onto it, eugenics, or the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding, was practiced in the United States of America.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, frustrated by the influx of immigrants from various parts of the world (particularly from Asia and southern and eastern Europe), America had become quite concerned with the racial composition of the immigrants, and, in turn, its own population.

In response to this growing problem, a group of eugenics practitioners in America had decided to take serious measures in limiting immigration. What is of greater importance is that some of these measures actually led to a sort of ethnic cleansing of the American population.

In his 2003 book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, American investigative author Edwin Black states that “eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in ‘colonies’, and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning.”

According to Black’s November 2003 article in the History News Network titled The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics, from which I’ve quoted above,

“Elitists, utopians, and so-called ‘progressives’ fused their smoldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better world. They reinvented [Sir Francis] Galton’s eugenics into a repressive and racist ideology. The intent: populate the earth with vastly more of their own socio-economic and biological kind – and less or none of everyone else.

The superior species the eugenics movement sought was populated not merely by tall, strong, talented people. Eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the earth.”

[Citation: The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics by Edwin Black, History News Network, 24 November 2003.]

You can also read a previous post of mine Eugenics, an American point of view.

30 September 2008

A collective enterprise

Hitler’s hatred for Jews was hinted at and later communicated freely in his speeches. He blamed them for Germany losing WW1 and for draining his country economically, which he believed led to the suffering of the German people. For these reasons, in 1939, Hitler had been contemplating expulsion of Jews from Germany. Then, why did he, by mid-1941, change his mind to order the extermination of Jews? Wouldn’t a simple expulsion of the Jews from Germany have been enough? Why death?

Some people suggest, and some even insist that there is proof to show, that Hitler and the Nazis were greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. That, Darwin’s theories of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ were behind the Nazi ideal of a master race – a pure(r) ‘Aryan’ race. That, Hitler and the Nazis had used Darwin’s theory to brainwash millions of Germans into believing that they were radically superior to other human beings in the world.

Apparently, though speaking against slavery, Darwin himself believed that some races like the blacks from Africa were genetically inferior to the white Caucasians. Hitler had built upon this theory to attack the Jews as a genetically inferior race. And, the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews during WW2 was a direct derivative of the German ideal of a superior race based upon Darwin’s theory. But the interesting thing is that, this belief was so widespread and so deep in the minds of the German people, the Jews simply had no chance.

And, that’s what’s so shocking about the extermination of the Jews!

British TV producer and author Laurence Rees brings this fact out in the open in his book and his BBC TV series, Auschwitz: The Nazis & ‘The Final Solution’. Rees’ book and films reinforce the fact that, although it’s true Hitler had given the order to exterminate the Jews, the actual killings were carried out by ordinary men (and women) collectively, without any remorse.

Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Introduction’ of Laurence Rees’ book:

“Tracing how Hitler, [his Chief of SS, Heinrich] Himmler, [Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard] Heydrich and other leading Nazis created both their ‘Final Solution’ and Auschwitz offers us the chance to see in action a dynamic and radical decision-making process of great complexity. There was no blueprint for the crime imposed from above, nor one devised from below and simply acknowledged from the top. Individual Nazis were not coerced by crude threats to commit murders themselves. No, this was a collective enterprise owned by thousands of people, who made the decision themselves not just to take part but to contribute initiatives in order to solve the problem of how to kill human beings and dispose of their bodies on a scale never attempted before.”

[Citation: Auschwitz: The Nazis & ‘The Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees, a BBC Book, 2005.]

25 September 2008

The Jewish Problem

The Holocaust or mass slaughter of Jewish people by the Nazis is a subject that cannot be ignored when we think of WW2 and its aftermath. At least from the European experience – i.e. keeping Asia and the Pacific aside. Although no one seems to know the facts exactly, historical records suggest that Adolf Hitler had given the order to annihilate the Jews himself, sometime towards the end of 1941. Perhaps a few months earlier.

Historical records also suggest that Hitler was working on an ideology of a pure race – a Nordic race, a master race of Scandanavians and Germans who were believed to be the fittest and most capable of leadership. Hence, it is believed, he ‘had it in’ for the Jews, the Gypsies, the Slavs, the homosexuals and a few other minor ethnic groups. The reason stated for the Holocaust was ethnic cleansing. In other words, it was a racial issue.

However, when we read about Germany during Hitler’s time, we learn that the country – and most of Europe – was in an economic recession. The context of films such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (see my previous post) or more recent ones from Hollywood such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Steven Soderberg’s The Good German are, by no means, untrue. And worth noting, if we wish to understand what may (also) have led to the Holocaust.

During the recession, when much of Europe was recovering after WW1, a polarisation had taken place dividing the rich and the poor, and the German people ‘believed’ that the Jews had cornered all the money in their country. The entire commerce of Germany was in the hands of the Jews and, therefore, the Jews were responsible for their poor economic state and well-being. These sentiments were so strong that, when Hitler and the Nazis had proposed getting rid of the Jews, very few Germans had protested.

While surfing the internet recently, I found a document titled The Jewish Problem from Calvin College in Michigan, USA, which gives a pretty clear picture of the Jewish Problem in pre-Nazi Germany through the words of one Max Eichler from the German Propaganda Archive. Here are some excerpts:

“Background: The book from which this section is taken was intended to provide a citizen's handbook to the Third Reich, with many pictures illustrating the way Nazi Germany worked. This section presents the "Jewish Question" from a Nazi viewpoint. Citizens are told that Nazis measures against the Jews are reasonable and defensive — but there are also hints of what was to come.

The source: Max Eichler, Du bist sofort im Bilde (Erfurt: J. G. Cramer's Verlag, 1939) pp. 139-142…

…Yet after six years of a National Socialist government, the 700,000 Jews in Germany were worth 8 billion marks, while the nearly 80 million German citizens were worth only 200 billion marks. Each Jew on average had 4.57, or four-and-a-half times, as much as the average German. Jewish net worth, which had been 4 billion marks in 1918, had doubled, at the expense of the German people. Jews also owned substantial property (for example, more than half — about 60% — of Berlin belonged to the Jews, although they were only 3.8% of the population). That proves the extent to which Jewish parasites had exploited the German people.”

These facts could be true. For, not too long ago, I had heard similar sentiments expressed by an elderly Parsi lady I had met in Mumbai who (passed away several years ago but) had grown up in Germany prior to WW2. She was categorical in stating that the Jews had controlled all the businesses, had made huge sums of money charging astronomical amounts for the products and services they delivered (even the basic necessities), and had made the lives of ordinary German people (including her) miserable.

In her view – and, so it seems, in the views of millions of Germans ‘suffering’ at that time – Adolf Hitler may have come as their saviour.

[Citation: The Jewish Problem, a document from the German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College, Michigan, USA. And, in remembrance of TS – may her soul rest in peace.]

20 September 2008


Rachel Seiffert and Bernhard Schlink (see my previous post) aren’t the only ones to embed their sentiments of post-WW2 Germany in my mind. Long before I read Seiffert and Schlink, I remember seeing an outstanding film on the same subject by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder called The Marriage of Maria Braun.

The Marriage of Maria Braun centres on a woman in Germany in the final years of WW2 and during its reconstruction. It’s about a young woman, Maria, who finds her country and her life in ruins, but still tries to make something of it single-handedly, using her brains and her charm (sexuality). Through various turns of fate and determination, she succeeds and prospers, only to lose everything in the end.

The film begins in a bleak winter Germany during WW2 where men are stealing planks of wood to build fires to stay warm, and women are selling themselves to earn a few marks to provide food for the family. In this desperation, Maria marries the love of her life, a soldier, Hermann Braun, only to lose him to the Russian Front.

Not long after, while she’s working in a bar for American soldiers to earn her keep, Maria receives word that Hermann is reported missing in action. Lonely and out of her mind, she takes up a kind Black American soldier as her lover. One night, while they are together, Hermann lands up unexpectedly and, in a heated struggle between them, the American soldier is killed. Hermann takes the blame and is jailed.

Finding her true love again, Maria vows to create a life for both of them when Hermann returns from jail. With the English she has learnt from the American soldier, Maria takes up a job as the secretary to the owner of a textile mill. Using her intelligence, hard work, perseverance and her sexuality to charm the owner, she rises from the rank of a secretary to become a prosperous businesswoman, accumulating wealth and power.

Just when she feels she has succeeded in reconstructing her life from its ruins and is ready to start a new life with Hermann, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who had drawn out the story for screenplay) brings in a twist in the tale. And, in classic Fassbinder style, everything comes crashing down.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is Fassbinder’s parable of reconstruction… of life, love and the soul of not just Maria Braun in the film, but also of his beloved country Germany after WW2. What Fassbinder tries to say in the film is that, in life and love, as it is in war and economics, reconstruction and prosperity come at a huge price.

17 September 2008

Trials of the ordinary

I feel ashamed that I know so little about the aftermath of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. No other nation has experienced such tragedy. No other people have experienced the agonies of living with their dead, their injured and their sick for so many years until reconstruction.

Yet, I’ve read so little about it – even in fiction. Tales of post-WW2 Japan, at least in English, seem hard to come by. Most of what I’ve read about WW2 and its after-effects has been British or American – narrating, decidedly, a victor’s point of view of war, suffering and reconstruction. This has made me wonder about the vanquished! Surely, they have tales of their own!

Fortunately, two books of fiction had caught my eye. Both were about Germany and, unquestionably, enlightening to read! Specifically, because they presented a perspective I’ve often overlooked: that the trials of the ordinary people, caught in war, are, inescapably, an integral part of the killings, the invasions, the espionage, the heroism, the sorrows and the romances.

The first book was Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, and the second was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room was not really a novel, but three novellas distinct in their narratives. The first narrated the life of a handicapped boy who felt isolated as he was unable to take part in the action due to a physical deformity and, therefore, turned to photography and chronicled the war until his disillusionment when the Allies attacked Berlin.

The second narrated a journey by an adolescent girl who, stoically, took responsibility of travelling through war-torn Germany to reach her younger brothers and sister safely to her grandmother’s place. The third novella narrated the story of a schoolteacher in present-day Germany trying to absolve himself from the guilt of his grandfather’s war crimes.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader was different from Seiffert’s novellas. It was a unique story of a teenager’s relationship with an older woman who disappeared from his life one day, and then, many years later, when he was a law student, turned out to be a war criminal on trial. The story presented the young man’s confusion and, then, his slow understanding of the older woman’s need to keep secret a personal disability – even at the cost of punishment and personal grief, leading to a tragic end.

The Dark Room and The Reader were both sensitive and disturbing; and yet, two of the best books I’ve read on war.

12 September 2008

Evil for the sake of good

“The decision to use evil for the sake of good requires that the decision-maker be willing to bear the brunt of evil.”
[Quote from Bernhard Schlink’s novel Homecoming.]

Should the United States have dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was it morally right to kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people with a single command? Was this wanton murder any different from Hitler’s Nazi Germany? After dropping the first one on Hiroshima to prove the point, was the second bomb on Nagasaki necessary?

These questions have been debated since August 1945 to no conclusive end. If we are to go by the fact that the United States has, till date, refused to apologise to the people of Japan for dropping the atom bombs, then we can be sure that the United States feels that they were justified in their action. It was, after all, to shorten the war and save thousands of lives!

It’s interesting to note that the atom bomb was actually intended for Hitler’s Germany. Hitler was evil and had to be stopped. Hitler’s own atomic programme had to be stopped. Even Albert Einstein – an advocate of peace – had urged the United States in their atomic-bomb research by writing to President Franklin D Roosevelt himself.

But Germany lost the war in Europe and surrendered to the Allied Forces in May 1945 – three months before the atom bomb was ready for use. So, Japan became the obvious target.

The United States still claims – as they did back in 1945 – that the dropping of the two atom bombs compelled Japan to surrender and bring World War 2 to its end. And so it did. On 15 August 1945, in his acceptance of surrender speech, Emperor Hirohito of Japan said, “The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage.”

09 September 2008

On a clear day…

63 years ago, on a clear day, history was created. On that day, 6 August 1945, at 7:42 a.m., an atom bomb was dropped on a city called Hiroshima in Japan, killing more than 150,000 people – half of them on that day itself. All civilians. Thousands more died from injuries and radiation illnesses over the years.

The next day, US military officials had confirmed publicly that Hiroshima was devastated: at least 60% of the city was wiped off the map. An eyewitness account on Tokyo Radio had described the victim’s bodies as bloated and scorched, burned with huge blisters.

At least four Japanese cities were targeted by the United States: Kokura, Niigata, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The one chosen as target – ‘bomb primary’ – depended on weather conditions, as the pilot on the plane carrying the bomb needed clear visibility to drop its load. As Hiroshima was experiencing clear sunshine that morning, the luck of the draw went against its people. And, history was created.

On hearing the news of the attack on Hiroshima, US President Harry S Truman, returning home from Europe on board USS Augusta, had apparently announced that, “The experiment was an overwhelming success.” It is rumoured that President Truman had also said, “It is the greatest thing in history!” But this comment seems to have been deleted from most US records.

Japan had challenged that the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima was inhuman, an atrocity, a crime against God and man, a violation of international law, specifically Article 22 of the Hague Convention which outlawed attacks on defenseless civilians. President Truman, of course, defended himself, announcing on national radio that the bomb had been dropped on a “military base, not a large city.”

And then, on 9 August 1945, at 11:02 a.m., the United States dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000 people – with, possibly, an equal number succumbing to injuries from “blistering blast winds, heat rays and radiation” over the years. On 9 August 1945, Nagasaki, too, was experiencing a clear day with sunshine and, therefore, became ‘bomb primary’ (apparently, Kokura was primary target, but a moderate cloud had covered and obscured the city).

[Citation: The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History by Erik Durschmied; 63 Years Ago: Media Distortions Set Tone for Nuclear Age by Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, 6 August 2008; and various sources from the internet.]

NOTE: On further research I find that the bomb on Hiroshima was dropped at 8:15 a.m. Hiroshima time (not at 7:42 a.m. as indicated in Erik Durschmied's book The Hinge Factor. There is photographic evidence to show that several clocks in Hiroshima had stopped at 8:15 a.m. - presumably when the bomb was activated on ground.

06 September 2008

The Hinge Factor

We’ve grown up reading about wars in history books, with narratives of how great kings and great generals have been responsible for victories against all odds. We’ve read tales about their conquests, their courage and their heroism. We’ve accepted their courage, their commitment, their skill, their strategic decision-making capabilities and their leadership as the realities of battles they’ve fought and won. We’ve taken these factors for granted.

But, what really decides the outcome of a battle? What decides the fate and lives of thousands – sometimes millions – of people in a battle, during war, or even after?

In his book, The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, Erik Durschmied presents an antithesis to the factors we often take for granted: that men with brilliance and courage and determination and leadership win battles. He suggests that, often, it is the unexpected and the unpredictable and the absurd in a battle that swings victory in favour of the opposition – changing the outcome of events and the course of history.

Durschmied suggests that the outcome of a battle and the fate of millions of people are not always determined by great men and their heroic qualities (as we tend to read in history books and believe), but more often, by improbable and unexpected happenings. In the prologue of The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, he writes:

“Some chroniclers wish us to believe that battles are won by valor and the brilliance of war lords, on whom they bestow the accolade of ‘genius’ when they are triumphant. They record the victor as being brilliant and the loser as not. And yet, there is no secret formula to the victorious outcome of a battle – except that much depends on who commits the bigger blunder. Or, to put no finger point on it, many battles have been decided by the caprice of weather, bad (or good) intelligence, unexpected heroism or individual incompetence – in other words, the unpredictable. In military terms, this phenomenon is known as: The Hinge Factor.”

03 September 2008

Changing the course of history – by chance

In a film as recent and as mediocre as Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, actor Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Sloan’ talks of taking control and changing the course of history forever. For, the ability to do so is the ultimate show, and possession, of power.

If nothing else, history has been, and still is, about change. However, not all changes in history have been brought on by people – from their desires and their deeds. Much of it has happened by ‘existence’. Some of it has been accidental. Some of it has happened due to a combination of factors which were outside human control.

In his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, semiotics professor and author Umberto Eco mentions an instance in history when history has not been entirely in human control – that of Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas – in the chapter ‘The Force of Falsity’ from which I’ve quoted in another blog:

“And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right – thanks to serendipity.”

This fact, that Columbus discovered the Americas by chance, is not an isolated example but seems to be a common occurrence in history.

For instance, the Stone Age cave paintings in Altamira, Northern Spain – one of the greatest historical discoveries – were found accidentally when, in 1879, a 9-year-old girl crawled into a cave while exploring her father’s estate. The Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, Southern France, were found in 1940 by a teenager (and his friends) when he followed his dog into the cave.

Similar examples of chance discoveries are quoted by war journalist and author Erik Durschmied in his 1999 book The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Has Changed History, and by British mathematics professor Jacob Bronowski in his famous 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man, which was later published as a book in 1974. They make interesting reading (or viewing), for both academics and laymen, about how history is shaped through the years.

If we are to believe great scholars like Eco, Durschmied and Bronowski, be it exploring the new world or war upon nations or man’s scientific and technological achievements, much of the course of history may have changed simply by chance, and not because of great strategies by powerful and ambitious men.

29 August 2008

10 ideas that changed the course of history

What we see, and act upon, is more a product of what is inside our heads rather than what’s out there. We think we see the real world but, actually, we see what we want to see. Often, we tune out big chunks of the environment; either because we are not comfortable with it, or because we are too fixated on something else.

All through history, we have shown a reluctance to accept new ideas or adopt new lifestyles. We have tended to stay with what we are comfortable with… even if it has caused us problems, limited our growth, or invited danger. Because, we believe, changing our view of the world opens us up to uncertainty and risk.

However, all has not been lost. There have been enlightening moments – even movements – in history which have ensured that we have evolved, and progressed, as the human race.

A couple of months ago, The Observer in the UK (now part of Guardian) published a series of interviews announcing what they felt were ideas that changed the course of history. The ideas were listed as
1. Plato’s Philosophy
2. Sun-centred (Copernican) Theory of the Universe
3. Cartesian Cogito
4. Theory of Universal Gravitation
5. Adam Smith’s Laissez-Faire Economics
6. Women’s Liberation
7. Marxist Analysis of Capitalism
8. Theory of the Unconscious
9. Theory of Relativity
10. World Wide Web.

An article on these ideas titled, Blue sky thinking: 10 ideas that changed the course of history, is available online on the Guardian website and makes interesting reading.

[Citation: Blue sky thinking: 10 ideas that changed the course of history – interviews by Ally Carnwath, Lucy Halfhead and Katie Toms, The Observer, 22 June 2008, article from the Guardian website.]

27 August 2008

Minority status

The issue of ‘background books’ that Umberto Eco raises in his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (see my earlier post ‘Travellers’) is not confined only to those who travel outside their countries. It is, rather, a notion – a concept, a view – that governs our attitudes and behaviour towards others, other situations and other things.

It is a notion that shapes, and is shaped by, convention. It is a notion that dictates what is thought to be true – in spite of emerging evidence to the contrary. It is a notion that hinders our ability, as perfectly normal human beings, to act rationally.

History is replete with examples of such notions impeding human progress: from Galileo being condemned for championing the Copernican model of the universe (which puts the Sun at the centre and the Earth in orbit around it), to Darwin’s theory of ‘natural selection’ being interpreted as anti-Christian, to modern-day feminists being ridiculed for challenging the subordinated role of women in our societies.

In each case, our background books have been overbearing, reducing new ideas and discoveries, which spring forth every now and then, to minority status.

26 August 2008

Melbourne is UNESCO City of Literature

Well, I’ll be damned! Last week – on 20 August 2008 – Melbourne (Australia) was declared UNESCO City of Literature.

The happy news was reported in an article, Melbourne hooks the books by Jason Steger, in Australian newspaper The Age, flaunting Melbourne’s rightful place as the second UNESCO City of Literature – the first being Edinburgh (Scotland) in 2004. [UNESCO’s website hasn’t been updated with the information on Melbourne yet.]

According to The Age, “The timing could hardly have been better had it appeared in the final chapters of a best-selling thriller. Three days before the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival, UNESCO has named Melbourne as its second City of Literature.”

The newspaper went on to state that, “[Victoria’s] Arts Minister Lynne Kosky said the decision was confirmation of the value of a lot of people who have been working in the literature industry – writers and publishers and those who support writing and publishing.”

Furthermore, reported The Age, “Ms Kosky said there were not many places internationally, and nowhere in Australia, that had a comparable space for literature and ideas. Melbourne’s status as a City of Literature would have cultural and economic benefits for Melbourne and Victoria.”

Couldn’t India’s New Delhi or Kolkata or Chennai qualify just as easily as Melbourne or Edinburgh? What qualifies a city as a UNESCO City of Literature anyway?

According to UNESCO (as indicated on its website),

“The following list of criteria and characteristics serves as a guide for cities interested in joining the network as a City of Literature:
• Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
• Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
• Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
• Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
• Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
• Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
• Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.”

Read The Age article on Melbourne, the second UNESCO City of Literature here.

Visit the UNESCO Culture Literature page here.

[Citation: Melbourne hooks the books by Jason Steger, The Age; UNESCO City of Literature webpage.]

25 August 2008


“We (in the sense of human beings) travel and explore the world, carrying with us some ‘background books’. These need not accompany us physically; the point is that we travel with preconceived notions of the world, derived from our cultural tradition. In a curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovery, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travellers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books.”

– Umberto Eco in Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (translated by William Weaver)

26 July 2008

Recognising Indian authors

“The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world’s most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and even publishers.”

Authors of Indian origin who have won the Man Booker Prize are Salman Rushdie (1981 – Midnight’s Children), Arundhati Roy (1997 – The God of Small Thins), and Kiran Desai (2006 – The Inheritance of Loss). There is also V S Naipaul (1971 – In A Free State) – for those of you who consider V S Naipaul to be an author of Indian origin. Salman Rushdie, of course, won the 'Best of the Booker' this year.

Would any of these authors have won the Man Booker Prize if they had written their books in an Indian vernacular language? I think not.

What encouragement can we provide Indian writers to write in their own vernacular languages? How can we transform their fortunes (as The Man Booker Prize promises) by recognising and rewarding their talent?

[Citation: Quote from The Man Booker Prize website.]

24 July 2008

A nation and its literature are closely tied

A new book award has been announced in India. It’s the Golden Quill Book Award from www.indiaplaza.in. I learnt about it a couple of days ago when a blogger, named Stephen, wrote a comment on my blog and provided some relevant information about the award. On inquiring about the Golden Quill Book Award, I found that this year’s shortlist contains five books, all written in English, by writers who are domiciled in India.

This made me wonder about another recently-held award ceremony… about Salman Rushdie winning the ‘Best of the Booker’ prize. I wondered what this may mean to us in India. Would we feel elated because Rushdie and his ‘Midnight’s Children’ have championed the Indian nation? Would we feel it’s a great achievement for the Indian people and Indian literature? After all, though born in India, Rushdie is a British author, writing in English.

To quote from a quote in my previous post (with a little modification), does “It thus ably represent the excellence and diversity of narrative traditions and literary approaches in a multilingual, multiconfessional country” that India truly is? Or, does Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ reflect a globalised India where everyone speaks English?

I raise this point for two reasons: One, people across the world have begun to view Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ as the quintessential Indian novel, ignoring many more-suitable examples from Indian literature (such as the earlier Bengali novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay or the more-recent novels of R K Narayan). And two, Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ seems to have drowned out the rich, as well as complex, heritage and repertoire of Indian literature in her 20-odd regional languages.

Don’t you think, to appreciate Indian literature, one has to understand her people – a great many of whom aren’t Midnight’s children – and her culture – which is steeped in thousands of years of traditions, superstitions, myths, philosophy, logic and social structures? Perhaps, as a nation, we need to impress upon the world what Indian literature truly is. After all, a nation and its literature are closely tied.

The shortlist of books and authors in the Golden Quill Book Awards 2008 can be found here.

22 July 2008

English language, Indian literature

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, was published in 1997, (possibly) to celebrate Indian literature produced during the first 50 years of India’s Independence. This seemed to be true as the collection featured ‘contemporary’ Indian writers – the oldest, I think, was Jawaharlal Nehru – most of whom you would have heard of and, perhaps, read in the last 20 years.

The collection was edited by Salman Rushdie and Elisabeth West, and contained both fiction and non-fiction from 32 Indian authors, some of whom are no longer alive, but all, except one, writing in English. The exception was Saadat Hasan Manto, whose narrative was the only inclusion of a translated work of an Indian vernacular language (in this case, Urdu).

Rushdie, in his enthusiasm no doubt, or perhaps to justify his own inclusion in the collection, had stated that the reason for focusing on Indian writing in English and not including translations of Indian vernacular writing was because (a) Indian writing in English had proven itself to be a force to reckon with globally, and (b) no great work of Indian vernacular writing had appeared during this period.

Like many readers and writers of Indian literature, author Amit Chaudhuri, though included in the Vintage 1947-1997 collection, may have felt that Indian vernacular writing needed greater appreciation and recognition. He, therefore, ended up editing The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature in 2004, putting together a collection of Indian writing which included a fairly even representation of Indian vernacular writing.

Much to the delight of many readers, and going back 150 years into Indian literature, this ‘modern’ collection included 20 (out of 38) writers who wrote in Indian vernacular languages, including Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay. Alas, Amit Chaudhuri, being Bengali, may have favoured Bengali literature a little more than other Indian vernacular literatures.

Whatever be the editor’s bias, a review of this collection in Amazon.com states, “It thus ably represents the excellence and diversity of narrative traditions and literary approaches in a multilingual, multiconfessional country.” [Ali Houissa, Library Journal, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY – reproduced from Amazon.com.]

From this perspective, The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri, seems to be a perfect marriage of English language and Indian literature. Its success made possible by the use of one language, English. And so, I’m reminded of Pascale Casanova’s words again: some languages carry more weight than others.

21 July 2008

Disappearance of languages and literature

With more and more globalisation and with English language’s dominance the world over, specifically in terms of markets for published literature, would Indian regional-language writers be tempted to adopt English as their language to achieve prominence? I mean, what really is the future of, say, Bengali (my mother tongue) writers and literature twenty years from now?

After all, if you look around you, you’ll see more and more publishing companies are becoming globalised, and a few large global publishing houses are beginning to dominate the industry. In fact, some publishers are being bought over by entertainment companies and a phenomenal media consolidation is taking place globally.

What does this mean to language, to literature and to writers? As larger publishers – or media houses – start dominating the publishing industry, would some regional and smaller languages and literatures disappear? Would conforming to globalisation through writing, or translations, in one or a few dominating languages be their only hope of survival?

If writers are forced to write, or translate their writing, in another language because (a) they are dominated by another language, and/or (b) another language offers a much wider readership for their writing (than their own), what would it mean to a specific country’s or region’s language and literature? What would it mean to that country’s or that region’s or that people’s culture?

19 July 2008


It is reported that Irish author James Joyce had taken exile in France because he didn’t want to fight between choosing English or Gaelic as his language of expression in his motherland. Czech writer Milan Kundera, on the other hand, moved to France for political reasons – when Czechoslovakia came under Russian communist rule – and, later, chose to write in French rather than in his mother tongue Czech.

I find Kundera’s case interesting. Perhaps Kundera wrote in French to save himself the trouble of translating his Czech into French before publishing in France for a ready French audience. Or, perhaps, he wrote in French because the French literary ethos, and the French audience, did not welcome literature in a language other than French.

French literary scholar Pascale Casanova, citing the Man Booker Prize and its many non-British recipients, had stated in an interview with Charles Ruas in 2005 that, unlike the English who welcome writers from their ‘colonies’, the French are rather arrogant and practically despise writers from their ‘colonies’ (typically countries in West and North Africa, Algeria being an ideal example – besides Canada).

This makes me wonder how closely literature is connected to politics. If we look at history, we find that many writers were forced to write in, as well as translate their works into, another language simply because they were dominated by another culture and its language at that time. To some writers, this can mean another form of exile – an exile in one’s own land.

16 July 2008

Paris’ literary superiority

French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova believes there’s no such thing as ‘global literature’. However, in her groundbreaking book The World Republic of Letters, published originally in French in 1999 but which became famous in 2005 when it was published in English by Harvard University Press, Casanova puts forth a model for a literary world system which is indeed intriguing – and rather flattering of Casanova’s own country.

In an interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, going back to 2005, Casanova states that, just like the political and economic world before us, there is a parallel literary world. This literary world is dominated by two literary languages: French and English. In fact, this has been so thanks to the history of European language and literature, and specifically since the 19th century when Paris and London were fighting for dominance as the world’s capital.

Paris, naturally, won; with the greatest writers from across the world – Edgar Allen Poe, Mark twain, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and many more – flocking to Paris to establish themselves. There was a belief that Paris recognised genius. To be a writer and to be published in Paris was to be canonised.

Paris was the literary capital of the world. It was the place that all great writers visited. It was the place where writers were declared ‘real’ writers. Interestingly, more than the French, Paris was made into this legend by foreign writers like Poe and Faulkner and Joyce. Many writers – such as Edward Gibbons (memoirs), Oscar Wilde (Salomé) and August Strindberg (plays) – even wrote in French just for this recognition.

The ‘Paris’ myth grew and offered prestige to many writers. More and more writers congregated in Paris, further reinforcing Paris’ dominance in world literature. Apart from English which became its greatest rival from across the shores, other languages like Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian… all bowed down to Paris’ literary superiority.

[Citation: Pascale Casanova interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, 28 February 2005.]

14 July 2008

The literary world system

In my previous post, I had suggested that, perhaps, there is a large international market for translations of Indian regional-language writing. If such a market really exists, it opens up opportunities not only for Indian-language writers, but also for Indian-language translators. This proposal, of course, makes sense if there really is an international literary space where Indian-language writing translated into English (or other languages) can snugly fit in.

While dwelling on this possibility of an international literary space for Indian-language writing, I came upon William Deresiewicz’ 2005 review of French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova’s book La République mondiale des lettres (The World Republic of Letters). Here’s an excerpt from that review which appeared in The Nation:

…it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about – or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions – English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers ‘come from’? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren’t.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don’t. (But ‘better’ according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we’ve bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova’s words, “the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality...the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal.”

[Citation: The literary world system, by William Deresiewicz, The Nation, 3 January 2005.]

10 July 2008

Indian writing for the global market

[No, I’m not talking about the Kama Sutra]

If Indian translators aren’t recognised and rewarded for their contribution by the industry (readers and publishers included), perhaps, relying on India as their only literary marketplace is a dead end. In that case, could Indian translators not look upon the world as a larger market for their services?

When I think of some of my favourites, such as Michael Hoffman (famous for translations of Joseph Roth, Patrick Suskind, Wolfgang Koeppen) or Gregory Rabassa (famous for translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar), and the recognition and awards they have received, I’m inclined to think that the global market may provide a much-needed break for Indian translators.

Of course, Indian authors and their publishers – both Indian and international – have to accept the idea and make headway. I understand that Penguin, Picador and Harper Collins have already initiated programmes to put Indian authors (i.e. those who reside and write in India) on the global literary map, but their efforts have largely focused on Indian authors writing in English.

When it comes to translations, my kudos goes to a little-known publisher from Kolkata called Seagull Books – started in the early 1980s by Naveen Kishore – which has taken the initiative to publish English translations of Indian regional language books (mainly Bengali, but there’s more) and market them internationally. My collection of Mahasweta Devi’s writing couldn’t have been possible without Seagull Books.

08 July 2008

The translator’s dilemma

Translators aren’t rewarded as well as they ought to be. Apparently, the economics of translated titles is not promising. The logic is something like this:

A higher fee for translation increases the cost of production and, in turn, the price at which the title is sold at the bookstore. A high price deters readers from buying the title and reduces its demand, adversely affecting its sale. With low sales, publishers can’t recover their investment and lose interest in publishing translated titles.

Moreover, in India, with her 20-odd regional languages, the universe of readers for translated titles is fragmented. Publishers can’t take the risk of printing a large number of copies for a single title. A small print run, once again, increases the unit cost of the title and its price, deterring readers from buying the book.

With fewer readers buying translated titles, fewer translated titles are published… further reducing the translator’s opportunities.

05 July 2008

Book translations are disappearing on the open market

“The success of a few internationally acclaimed titles, however, masks the wider paradox of how free interchange between markets, cultures and languages is drying up. With the decline of translations of books, a centrepiece of book culture, namely their universality and diversity, is at risk. A turf war between publishers and translators can’t resolve the fundamental riddle of the current implosion of the translation market. We probably need to acknowledge that for a growing number of books, we may have a potentially interested reading audience, but no viable business model in a purely market-driven book economy. Thus, the traditional rights markets alone are not enough to organize a universal network of books and ideas through translation. And the public funding offered by many countries for translations is not enough either to bridge the widening gap between cultural expectations and the economic obstacles.”

[Quoted from an article, titled Cultural diversity? A pipe dream, by Rüdiger Wischenbart, in www.sightandsound.com, 22 March 2007.]

02 July 2008

Indian writing in English translation

There is a market within India for Indian regional language books translated into English. That’s because there is a rich treasury of literature in every Indian regional language. Yet, a person of, say, Bengali origin is unable to read and appreciate Hindi or Tamil or Marathi literature since he or she is unlikely to be proficient in other Indian regional languages.

Given the fact that only a small portion of Indians are proficient in more than one Indian language, proficiency in English, apart from Hindi, is a resource we can rely on. Moreover, as the market for books in English language is growing rapidly (see my previous blogs on the Indian publishing industry), translating regional language works into English is an option we can consider.

Of course, it’s easily said than done. Several issues need to be resolved. The first of which is arranging quality translation services through qualified translators. Some of this is available already, usually centred at universities as literary translation is considered an academic endeavour. Publishers need to find ways to engage the academia in this enterprise and make translation into English worthy and remunerative.

Second, universities, councils and boards of education need to prescribe such translated texts in their syllabus/curriculum, as well as reading material for research projects. This will increase readership and ensure these books are available in their libraries.

Third, publishers and distributors need to make certain that such books are available in bookshops across the country, in towns big and small. Furthermore, the books must be available at affordable prices to attract a larger audience. These issues together are a big challenge as English literacy levels are very low across India. Publishers and distributors are unlikely to find this a profitable marketplace for their books.

Fourth, although prices of books need to be affordable, publishers need to find economies of scale in order to publish books in good print quality. Normally, it is expected that cheaper books mean poor presentation in terms of paper, printing, binding, etc. Publishers need to explore paper quality, and printing and binding technologies that allow production and distribution of a ‘value for money’ product to the consumer.

Fifth, copyrights and deterring piracy.

However, there is an upside. Since the Western world has an interest in getting to know India, specifically in/with Indian points of view, there is a chance that several Western markets will open up for Indian writing in English translation. Since, thanks to award-winning authors of Indian origin like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian writing in English has captured a high-ground in the international literary market as well as in India, English translations of writing in Indian regional languages can now make a break-through internationally and in India.

28 June 2008

The art of the translator

“As a translator I know that there is a fascination in living at such close quarters with a writer, engaging with every word they wrote, trying to make another text which is worthy of the original. But there is also a melancholy of translation. Compared with other writers, translators feel undervalued. It is not so much that they are badly paid (this is a problem they often share with those they translate) as that they are downgraded, damned with faint praise, criticized in passing and, unkindest of all, ignored. All are aware, and if they weren’t critics would remind them, of the inadequacy of their efforts – ‘the translator is a betrayer’ goes the old refrain, unthinkingly.”

– Peter France, The Art of the Translator

[Citation: Peter France on the Art of the Translator, Oxford University Press website, about Peter France’s The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation.]

25 June 2008


“Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For a boy growing up in a Bengali family (from West Bengal, India), the literary works of Rabindrath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and other eminent Bengali writers were prescribed reading. Furthermore, on my parent’s insistence, I was introduced to Bengali translations of English, French and Russian fiction – both novels and short stories – as well as universally-known works such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

As a teenager, ready to make my own choices in literature, writers like Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, O Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky became obvious names on my reading list. Added to that list were hundreds of others; far too many to name here. But, there was one common fact about my reading habit: I had switched entirely to English. I no longer read Bengali translations of any foreign literary work.

This made me wonder: who were those translators from my childhood who had so painstakingly and faithfully translated Homer and Hugo, Dickens and Dostoyevsky for Bengali readers like me? Why did I not remember them? And, even now, why do I not remember who translated into English Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels from Spanish or Milan Kundera’s novels from Czech, and later from French … all of which I read so avidly?

It was with much humiliation that I realised a brutal fact: that, although translators play a critical role in bringing authors and poets and playwrights to prominence in various languages, and in the minds of millions of readers across the world, their talent and enterprise are ignored by the best of us in the most supreme of moments when literature gives us pleasure.

18 June 2008

Some latest info from NBTI

Obtaining data on the Indian book publishing industry is not only difficult, it can also be misleading… with various publishers quoting various figures. However, I’m guessing, data published by the National Book Trust, India can be trusted. So, I’m sharing something I found on their website, released in February this year during the 18th New Delhi World Book Fair 2008.

Here’s a quote from National Book Trust, India’s website:

“Publishing scenario in contemporary India is a conceptually exciting, linguistically rich and quantitatively diverse phenomenon. India is perhaps the only country in the world, which publishes books in more than 24 languages. There are nearly 16,000 publishers producing not less than 80,000 titles in all major Indian languages including English with an annual turnover of Rs.100,000 million. Of these, almost forty per cent titles are published in English language alone. As a result, India ranks third in the publication of English books immediately after the USA and the UK.”

This should put a lot of questions to rest.

Please note that the NBTI figure of Rs.100,000 million (i.e. Rs.10,000 crores) as annual turnover of the book publishing industry is far higher – and more promising – than the ‘Rs.3,500 crores to Rs.7,000 crores’ figure I had presented in my previous post. I stand corrected. However, I wonder if more titles are published in English than in Hindi, as NBTI claims.

[Citation: National Book Trust, India website.]

14 June 2008

Bound and gagged

Searching for information on the book publishing industry in India is a frustrating experience. Internet searches generate miscellaneous and dated information. Publishing industry people never volunteer anything; nor do they come forth with anything specific upon probing. It seems, not only are books bound in India, when it comes to sharing information, their publishers – and their staff – are proverbially gagged.

No one seems to know what the size of the book publishing industry in India really is. Figures vary between Rs.3,500 crores to Rs.7,000 crores – a pretty wide margin. Of this, Hindi books seem to have the biggest share in the number of titles published (followed by English, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi). But, English books seem to have the biggest share of sales in value – i.e. in rupee terms. That’s because English books are more expensive than regional-language books in India.

Even here, the share of English books vary between 22% and 45% of the market – another wide margin – considering a great many English books are imported. However, there is a general belief that the book publishing market in India is growing – and growing fast, considering the improvements in literacy. Here again, the English-language book market is growing the fastest – thanks to India’s globalisation. If we were to consider 2% of India’s population as English-language book readers, that’s a huge potential of 24 million consumers for English books.

This fact has changed the dynamics of the Indian publishing industry. More and more retail brands like Crossword, Landmark and Oxford are opening up bookstores in major cities. More and more Indian publishers are realising the importance of reach and setting up their own distribution channels. More and more foreign English-language publishers are eyeing the Indian market for their books and publications. More and more Indian writers are beginning to write and publish their works in English.

Although these changes are bound to rub off on regional-language publishers sooner or later, at the moment, they’re feeling a little gagged.

[The figures quoted in this post are entirely my own speculation and should not be interpreted as industry figures. The Indian market for books includes school books, academic books, general interest books (fiction, non-fiction), and trade books.]

13 June 2008

In India, print still rules

Western media may be replacing the printed word with the digital, but, in India, print still rules. Contrary to Western media trends, the print media is growing phenomenally in India. In the last five years, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry in India has given approvals for publication of 284 new magazines.

Earlier this month, the Indian I&B Minister, Mr Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, addressed a meeting in New Delhi on the ‘Growth of Print Media in Liberalised Economy’. According to a Press Trust of India (PTI) report on that meeting, titled Print media records dynamic growth: I&B ministry, dated 2 June 2008, and reported in www.outlookindia.com, India’s “print media industry stood at Rs.149 billion in year 2007 and recorded a growth of 16 per cent over previous year.”

What’s more, Mr Dasmunsi had added, “in view of increasing literacy, there is a possibility of more growth and expansion of the print media in future.”

Mr Dasmunsi’s confidence is based on a survey of ‘India Media & Entertainment Scenario’ conducted jointly by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The survey had further pointed out that the “magazine industry size was estimated at Rs.19 billion and registered a growth of 15 per cent during the year 2007.”

“According to the same study,” reported PTI, “Indian Print Media is projected to grow by 14 per cent over the next five years and magazine publishing to grow at a higher rate of 15 per cent. During the same period, newspaper-publishing market would reach Rs.243 billion.”

[Citation: Print media records dynamic growth: I&B ministry, PTI report, 2 June 2008, New Delhi.]

09 June 2008


“Reading in America, as in many rich countries, is down. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, says leisure reading is declining, especially among the young. Since 1985, books’ share of entertainment spending has fallen by seven percentage points… Books have changed very little in half a millennium, but they may now be on the verge of going digital.”
[Quote from Unbound, the Economist, 5 June 2008.]

The latest issue of the Economist has a story on Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos shaking up the entire publishing industry with ‘Kindle’, his e-book reader, and his decision to insist that all POD (‘Publish On Demand’) books sold through Amazon.com be printed by the company at its warehouses.

The Economist story, which really highlights the advent of new technology in the publishing industry and, with it, changes in book buying and book reading, clearly vindicates the fact that less and less people are reading, and even less are going to be reading in the future, the printed word – not just newspapers (see my previous post), but also books.

There are good reasons for this change: “An economic slowdown may play to the new technologies’ strengths. The costs of printing and shipping paper and cardboard are rising… And if consumers become more price-sensitive, e-books may become more appealing.”

But, for the moment, there is some good news for the traditional book publisher. According to the Economist story, “Though they are an improvement on a computer screen, e-book readers remain crude simulacra of books. A poll released by John Zogby at BEA (i.e. Book Expo America) found that 82% of Americans strongly prefer paper to pixels.”

The end note? Says the Economist, “Publishing has only two indispensable participants: authors and readers. As with music (I had blogged about this too), any technology that brings these two groups closer makes the whole industry more efficient — but hurts those who benefit from the distance between them.”

[Citation: Unbound, the Economist, 5 June 2008.]

29 May 2008

Switching to digital media for the news

“There are those of us who no longer read a newspaper’s print edition, and we’re not coming back. It’s now time to consider some options to keep Web readers on the hook – and to even turn them into profits.”
Steve Outing, journalist

I gave up reading newspapers in the early 1990s and switched to TV. My morning ritual was to switch on my TV and watch the news on BBC World and CNN. A mug of steaming coffee in hand, I would switch channels between BBC World and CNN, and compare the news and its treatment by the two news delivery agencies. Much later in the day would I look at the newspapers – mainly to catch up on national and local news.

Today, even this ritual has changed. I, now, rely on the Internet for most of my news: international, national and local. Not to mention gathering news from email alerts I receive every day. Of course, I understand that, in India, with her growing print publications and TV channels attracting more and more readers and viewers every year, I’m in an insignificant minority. But internationally, I seem to belong to a new segment of media consumers.

According to Steve Outing, in his article Serving Those Who Don't Read the Print Edition in Editor & Publisher, “the growing number of people like me – those who used to read print editions of newspapers but have switched to digital media for their news – as well as people who have never read newspapers but still have needs for local news and information” need to be served news differently – most certainly digitally – by news organisations.

“And it’s not only because new technology provides an excellent – many would say better – alternative to the old printed form,” says Outing in his article. “There are environmental concerns about supporting a product that consumes precious resources: trees for the product and oil for delivery. Continuing to receive printed newspapers delivered by pollution-spewing delivery vehicles when an environmentally friendly digital alternative is available is also a moral choice that a growing number of people will make in the years ahead, as the Green movement continues to gain momentum.”

Although important, still leaving environmental concerns aside, Outing points out that, “Those of us who’ve given up the newspaper print edition haven’t changed all that much. We still want news – just in a format that’s more relevant to our lives in the age of the broadband Internet and mobile connectivity. We haven’t given up on newspapers; we’ve given up on the traditional platform. Former print-edition readers still want the news delivered to them, so newspaper publishers need to put more effort into developing useful digital delivery services.”

Steve Outing has a great deal more to say on this topic, recommending possible solutions to today’s media companies. If you’re keen on reading Outing’s entire article in Editor & Publisher online, you can find it here.

[Citation: Serving Those Who Don't Read the Print Edition by Steve Outing, Editor & Publisher, Stop The Presses By Steve Outing, 28 May 2008.]

27 May 2008

Books aren’t going to be enough

“But most cultural practices stop at the scale of human collectives: cities, economies, networks. You need to understand how communities now share information online in order to understand the complexity of today’s video games.”

– Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You

The fact that books aren’t going to be enough to keep today’s youngsters occupied, excited and honed on their skills is an argument Steven Johnson has been proposing for a while. In his 2005 book (with a bright pink cover - paperback issue), Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson questions the popular notion that video games, TV and the Internet are responsible for dumbing down our intelligence.

On the contrary, he proposes that popular culture – with video games, TV and the Internet in its forefront – has actually helped increase the IQ levels of Americans in recent years. Johnson’s contention is that today’s video games, TV serials, films and the Internet are so complex that they actually engage our problem-solving faculties. He says that the complexity of these media force us to apply our minds and develop critical thinking skills, which a book never does.

No, Johnson doesn’t throw books by the wayside (in fact, he has written several), but argues that though books have – and add – value, video games force players to make choices, solve problems, keep track of complex situations and, in some cases, cooperate with other players to achieve a personal win. To an extent, suggests Johnson, even TV and films encourage our participation and use of intelligence. But the leader, by far, in the category is the Internet as it also encourages social interaction.

I’m not sure if I can agree with Steven Johnson when he proposes that video games, TV, films and the Internet actually help increase IQ levels. As far as I know, there is no such supporting data available in India. But I do agree with him on the point that non-literary media like video games, TV, films and, definitely, the Internet are important in our lives today. Today’s youngsters, and on occasions we too, thrive on such media and are likely to build their/our futures on them, rather than on books.

[Citation: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.]

26 May 2008

A telling story

The way youngsters consume media today may be a telling story. It may give us a few pointers on the way news, entertainment and even education ought to be designed, packaged and distributed in the future.

In an interview to The Editor’s Weblog recently, Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Associated Press, suggested that, “It no longer is an assumption that text is the default and only way to tell a story.”

Ms Carroll felt, “It’s the best way to get the fast word out.” “Only now,” quotes The Editor’s Weblog from that interview, “AP reporters also think about the most appropriate media to tell a story, which will be of most use to customers.” This thought certainly turns print journalism upside down, eroding its dominant role in the distribution of news.

The point made by the Economist.com article, From literacy to digiracy (see my previous post), on whether “our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed” is also worth considering.

Youngsters today are not only consuming huge amounts of electronic/digital media outside their school/college curriculum, they are actually enjoying the experience far more than they do reading textbooks or attending lectures. In doing so, their skills in handling and experimenting with electronic/digital media are developing more rapidly than what our traditional means of education can impart.

And yet, and especially in India, there’s been very little improvement in the way education is designed, packaged and distributed for consumption by these youngsters. No wonder youngsters are moving away from textbooks and lectures, and getting hooked onto the Internet, video games, mobilephones and the TV. Can we blame them?

[Citation: Associated Press 2.0: 1-2-3 filing for all stories, The Editor’s Weblog, posted by Jean Yves Chainon, 21 May 2008.]

22 May 2008

Young media consumers redefine literacy

The Economist.com article I had quoted from in my previous post, From literacy to digiracy, ends with:

“So, no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest and flunk their literacy tests. They are skilled in making sense not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Teachers must recognise that our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed to survive in a world where people are always connected to everyone and everything. In such a world, learning to think for oneself could well be more important than simply learning to read and write.”

These words are important to us not only as social commentary, but also because of their prophetic value.

When I look at the digital world around me and, particularly, the consumption of digital/electronic media by today’s youngsters, I am certain that the traditional definitions and associations of the term ‘literacy’ need to be reviewed. And, along with it, more appropriate learning/teaching methods – or, what the Economist.com article calls ‘pedagogical tools’ – need to be invented.

In the West, this need is already critically apparent in the world of news consumption. More and more youngsters in the 18-34 years age group are consuming their news digitally, and not from their morning papers. Newspaper readership is on a downward slide as youngsters are choosing Internet news channels and portals, e-newsletters and even emailed news from friends, to source their daily news from.

A recent study by Associated Press, aimed to better understand the behaviours of young readers in the 18-34 years age group, has found that not only is consumption of printed news by this group declining, youngsters today are actually sourcing and sharing news with each other through text messages, emails and social networks… which are popular and powerful media channels today, but discounted by traditional media.

According to a report in The Editor’s Weblog, Jim Kennedy, VP and Director of Strategic Planning at Associated Press, suggests: “These young consumers are looking up to news as a form of social currency.”

[Citation: AP study of young media consumers: “they want the back story”, The Editor’s Weblog, posted by Jean Yves Chainon, 21 May 2008.]

20 May 2008

Technology is changing our perception of literacy

“For anyone under the age of 20, the world being experienced is one where the internet has always existed, and where everyone who matters is only a click, speed dial or text message away. “Tomorrow’s adults,” says Mr [Mark] Federman [of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto], “live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” Their direct experience of the world is wholly different from yours or mine.”

– quote from a recent article From literacy to digiracy on Economist.com

When a friend proposed that, with the advent of computers and the Internet, reading has become a thing of the past, I argued back. I felt that, on the contrary, reading has become popular again – thanks to the Internet. The only difference is that, today, the reading page has become digital – and decidedly vertical. To put it in an old-fashioned way, today, people are sitting up and reading. (My school teachers would have been happy to see this.)

That’s because computers and the Internet bring with them their own charm. To start with, computers and the Internet provide access to volumes and volumes of reading material we never knew existed. And, we are delighted to read them now, as they open our minds and increase our knowledge manifold.

Second, computers and the Internet bring with them still images, audio, animation and video – which means photos, music, movies and video games on our fingertips. It means colour and action. It means participation and interactivity. It means a whole new world of entertainment.

And finally, computers and the Internet bring with them connectivity and openness, encouraging us to create and contribute to the larger communication and socio-cultural processes… and touch each other’s lives.

But, it hasn’t always been this easy. Perhaps, it still isn’t. When I see the detractors of technology come charging at me on their high horses, the best I can do is blog about my thoughts and feelings. Once again, thanks to computers and the Internet. So, I was delighted to read an article on Economist.com, titled From literacy to digiracy, which discusses these same issues.

Here are some excerpts:

“Literacy may be under attack from electronic media, but that’s actually nothing new. In fact, the assault on the written word began not with the Macintosh computer in 1984, but with Samuel Morse’s demonstration of the telegraph in 1844 — an innovation a colleague on The Economist insists, quite correctly, on calling the “Victorian internet”.

In an essay on why Johnny and Janey can’t read (and why Mr and Ms Smith can’t teach), Mark Federman of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, argued that the telegraph was the first to “undo” the effects of the written word.

Where the phonetic alphabet separated the sound of a word from its meaning; and encoded that sound in symbols we call letters; and combined those symbols into hierarchical groupings called words, sentences, paragraphs and, ultimately, books; the telegraph recombined those symbols with sound — enabling the instantaneous transmission of information from person to person across vast distances.

If the telegraph was the starting point, Mr Federman reckons we are probably half way through a 300-year transition out of the world of mass literacy. That world began when Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1455, and gave birth along the way to the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, and finally the Industrial Revolution — not to mention the modern era of newspapers, universal education and, yes, mass literacy.

Why 300 years? Because that’s how long it takes to reform social institutions. It’s the period needed for a generation to cease hearing about the way things used to be done from great-grandparents, who had heard about such things from their own great-grandparents.”

[Citation: From literacy to digiracy, Economist.com, 16 May 2008.]