Oct 252015

I have been reading, marking and re reading bits of Orwell’s essays, that form part of a collection i got for next to nothing, in one of the amazon sales.

The essay I really enjoyed was on the author and social commentator, Charles Dickens. I haven’t read of all Dicken’s works. Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield – i remember having read. Of these, the only one’s that have left a mark are the Tale of Two Cities – Madam Defarge gave me nightmares; Oliver Twist – Faggin and Sikes were memorable characters; and i remember crying for Nancy; and Great Expectations – Ms.Haversham was the single spookiest character in English literature of that era. I have seen a number of adaptations of Dickens’ works, when i was a student. And, i really never thought too much beyond the fact that it was a good narrative.

Reading Orwell on Dickens, kind of slightly shifted my reading of Dickens. All authors tend to be recorders of their era. Even if the book is a love story, the milieu and social mores become very evident in the background information about the characters or the settings. And, given Dickens’ themes – the question asked is – what were his politics? Did he have any? Given that Orwell was writing in an era where socialist ideals, and Dickens wrote in an era when labour reform had already begun – could Dickens have been a socialist ? Orwell doesn’t think so

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as “human nature.” It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a sytem. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power.

However, it was an era when the slightest criticism of the class structure was seen as being pro-socialist. So much so that Macaulay refused to review a book by Dickens. (yes, the very same Macaulay)

 “It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its “sullen Socialism.” Obviously Macaulay is here using the word “Socialism” in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as “Bolshevism.” There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious, ”

Dickens, was not a revolutionary. rather, he believed in the innate goodness of people and their ability to do the right thing.

“It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s “as good is from evil.” Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a “change of heart”—that, essentially, is what he is always saying”

For Orwell, the clash between those who want to change society inside out, and those who believe in gradual change through the changing of individual minds, is  like an ongoing fight. Unlike Hegel’s dialectic this one is rather more violent

“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old—generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.

Once again, as in his essay on his rather brutal boarding school, Orwell makes some biting observations about the irresponsible rich of that era

“What now strikes us as remarkable about the new moneyed class of the nineteenth century is their complete irresponsibility; they see everything in terms of individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community exists”

And, finally on Dickens’ writing

“I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his “message,” and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a “message,” whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. ……D. H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was “a gigantic dwarf,” and in a sense the same is true of Dickens. There are whole worlds which he either knows nothing about or does not wish to mention. Except in a rather roundabout way, one cannot learn very much from Dickens. And to say this is to think almost immediately of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s—why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect……In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Pierre Bezoukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy’s greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to—Bloom, for instance, or Pécuchet, or even Wells’s Mr. Polly. It is because Dickens’s characters have no mental life.

And, finally on what Dickens was going to be remembered for – the ability to voice that sense of outrage, at injustice that leads to the idea of freedom and equality being curtailed. Orwell believes that it is because

 since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slaveowner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

 Worth buying the book

George Orwell - A Collection of Essays

George Orwell – A Collection of Essays

Oct 152015

Every year, for the media studies programme that I have been teaching for the last decade or so, i try and set assignments that get students thinking. The course, in addition to the syllabus, has documentary viewing, reading of select articles and projects.

This year students had to read one of the following – V for Vendetta, 1984. Fahrenheit 451 – and discuss it’s relevance in the modern world in general, and India in particular.

Many students quoted ISIS propaganda, or Chinese censorship, or censorship in the middle east as examples. Also discussed were the two girls from Palghar who got arrested under the IT act, post their facebook post on mumbai shutting down after Bal Thackeray’s death. But, the majority of them spoke about Facebook and Google being able to track them, know their preferences and monitor what they do.

For them, it is less about government, because government is not a part of their lives. Except once in 5 years. But, google and FB are. The average 22 year spends  increasingly larger chunks of  time and energy online. They are pouring out their lives on these sites. And, now they are worried about what the faceless corporation knows, and can do with that knowledge.

I seriously get spooked out, when i search for a book on google (or a film or anything else) and when i access my gmail, an ad for that product pops up. I know i can disable it (i.e., not see it) but that data is still being collected and collated. Sooner or later, it will be used – most likely against your best interests. And no, going incognito is not going to help.

What was interesting is that this generation (mind you the sample size is small – one class in one college in one city) seems to find the giant, faceless corporation far scarier than the government

the crow
why a crow picture, i couldn’t find anything else :) and, i kind of like crows

Oct 102015

Currently reading, Gail Omvedt on Ambedkar : Toward’s an enlightened India . Began reading it on the flight, back to Mumbai.

The military then, as now, seems to bea  non-discriminatory haven.

Bhiva and his brothers had never experienced untouchability in their earlier military homes, but in Satara they got their first experience of caste discrimination. Bhiva and one other untouchable student were forced to sit separately; no barber could be found to cut their hair; and when he wanted to study Sanskrit, he learned it was banned to untouchables. He could only choose between English and Persian.

When Ambedkar finally joined college – Elphinstone college, and graduated – he did so in English and Persian.

What is also fascinating is the family and caste (Mahar) tradition :

The Mahars also had religious-cultural traditions that linked them to the wider traditions of rural communities and expressed their equalitarian and liberatory aspirations. Some were Varkaris, followers of the cult of Vithoba, the main bhakti movement of Maharashtra; some were Mahanubhavas, members of an even older equalitarian movement. Out of the community rose wandering mendicants of various kinds, often articulating their own synthesis of the Brahmanic, non-Brahmanic and Muslim traditions found in the country. Ramji was a follower of Kabir and observed the prayers and rituals of the Kabirpanthi sect. He was a vegetarian and teetotaller. Another uncle, a sannyasi of the Gosavi sect, had predicted in a surprise meeting with Ambedkar’s parents in 1879 that their family would produce a great man who would relieve the oppression of their people.


Omvedt, Gail (2008-12-24). Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (Kindle Locations 123-129). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

If you are interested, you can buy the book here .

I am also reading, the collected speeches of Ambedkar, edited by Narendra Jadhav. Again, quite fascinating.

Oct 082015

When i was reading Orwell’s Collection of Essays – i made extensive notes. (and one of the good things about making notes when you are reading an ebook, is that you can mark a book without  feeling guilty). Everytime i used a purple virtual marker, to mark out a phrase or a paragrah, i smiled at the guilty pleasure of marking a book, in a way that can be undone, leaving the book as new. Small joys of life.

Orwell - Collection of Essays

In his very first essay, he talks about his formative years in a boarding school. In today’s day and age, that school would be shut down, and it’s Head Master and wife (aka Mum) would be in prison. Children were put through routine torture. Orwell describes it with a certain incisive wryness. It is also a tale of the times, the swinging years before the first world war. Before 1918, when it all changed.

This was in the context of boys figuring out they had an organ that had a mind of its own, and the first manifestations of sexuality that could only be shared with other boys. In that era, sex was not spoken about. Homosexuality, definitely not.

I HAD learned early in my career that one can do wrong against one’s will, and before long I also learned that one can do wrong without ever discovering what one has done or why it was wrong. There were sins that were too subtle to be explained, and there were others that were too terrible to be clearly mentioned.

Orwell came from a not so well to do family. And, he was always reminded of the fact that but for the benevolence of the Head Master and his wife, he would be nowhere. He was also told not to try and reach beyond his station in life. Most of the children in the school came from either titled families, or families that were rolling in moolah. Orwell describes the rich, and i couldn’t but help thinking that the way the rich consume and behave in India – and by rich I don’t mean those who own or run businesses, but those who earn well and spend well – is very akin to this description.

There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914. …… From the whole decade before 1914, there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kinds of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and crème de menthe and soft-centred chocolates—an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last for ever, and was part of the order of things. After 1918 it was never quite the same again. Snobbishness and expensive habits came back, certainly, but they were self-conscious and on the defensive. Before the war the worship of money was entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue.

For me the sentience reeks of the entitlement that i see around me – the fact that more and more of us are willing to gate ourselves off from all the dust and grime of India, that sharing is limited, and the world is a cocoon. I wonder how long before it bursts .

On football, that he loathed, and the lesson he learned from it (he much preferred cricket)

What counted was football, at which I was a funk. I loathed the game, and since I could see no pleasure or usefulness in it, it was very difficult for me to show courage at it. Football, it seemed to me, is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting. The lovers of football are large, boisterous, nobbly boys who are good at knocking down and trampling on slightly smaller boys. That was the pattern of school life—a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people—in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

And, finally on religion- and, this resonates deeply. And, he writes with such incisive precision, that it just cuts through and makes you go … wow …

Take religion, for instance. You were supposed to love God, and I did not question this. Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs. If I had sympathetic feelings towards any character in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera: in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate. But the whole business of religion seemed to be strewn with psychological impossibilities. The Prayer Book told you, for example, to love God and fear him: but how could you love someone whom you feared

Oct 072015

Revisiting Orwell. Picked up his collected works from amazon, at a princely sum of Rs.49.


In fact, just last week i discovered his collection of essays, that I had got before (for the kindle) and forgotten about. Unlike a traditional book shelf, the kindle bookshelf does not make you feel guilty about unread books. And, sometimes, you (I) forget that you had got them. So, on a over delayed flight, as i was browsing my bookshelf for something easy to read, in non-fiction, i stumbled upon the unopened collection of essays and dived in. It is quite fabulous. The bit i highlighted, about his early days in boarding school in England, was told with such lack of self pity (he had a monster of a school master), and so much wry humour, that i didn’t really miss the plane being late. Here he talks about the exam system

“This business of making a gifted boy’s career depend on a competitive examination, taken when he is only twelve or thirteen, is an evil thing at best, but there do appear to be preparatory schools which send scholars to Eton, Winchester, etc., without teaching them to see everything in terms of marks.”

Obviously, once i polished off the essays, i moved to the rest of his works. And,  1984 is right there at the top of the list. The dystopian world that he creates is quite fascinating. I wonder if that was the inspiration for Watchmen. I found the worlds quite similar.

So here is something from the book – not part of the storyline but the appendix. the principles of newspeak

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought— that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc— should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free,” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

ORWELL, GEORGE (2014-06-25). GEORGE ORWELL PREMIUM COLLECTION: 48 works including all his novels (1984, Animal Farm, etc.); non fiction and dozens of essays (Timeless Wisdom Collection Book 1027) (Kindle Locations 4835-4840). Business and Leadership Publishing. Kindle Edition.

coming up next : Animal Farm.