Book – How to Write …

Posted on May 17, 2019. Filed under: Books |

Excerpted from an Article in The Wire –

She might be the world’s most famous romance writer, nay the highest selling living author bar none, but there’s little room for flowers and chocolates in Danielle Steel’s writing regime. In a recent interview she laughed at the idea of young people insisting on a worl life balance, and has claimed she reguarly writing for 20 t0 22 hours a day, and sometimes 24.

The result: 179 books in under 50 years, selling about 800 million copies.

Here’s How some Others See it –

Liam Murray Bell, University of Stirling. Steel’s claim reminds me of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who was known to write a novel over the course of a long weekend. He’d retire to his study on a Friday evening and not emerge until Monday morning, dictating his words to a secretary and stopping only for half-hourly cups of tea. Poor secretary..

Sarah Corbett, University of Lancaster. I’m sorry to say there isn’t a formula for how to write a novel (so don’t buy those “how to” books) – only hard graft, staying power, blinding self belief (rescued every morning from the teeth of doubt), and the willingness to meet the devil at the crossroads and outwit him. And to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, write, rewrite…

Edward Hogan, Open UniversityFor his 2016 book Rest, the writer and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang collected the routines of creative people throughout history. From the habits of writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Alice Munro, he concluded that four hours a day is optimum, and you need to wake up early. .

 David Bishop, Edinburgh Napier University. Steel’s regime sounds extreme, but if that works for her – so be it. Every writer has their own unique sweet spot, a time and place where they can produce words that will be ready for reading one day. The trick is finding your personal approach, and also recognising it might not suit every project.

Bottom Line – If you want to be a writer, you have to write – however you do it. That much is inescapable.

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Book on 21st Century India …

Posted on May 15, 2019. Filed under: Books |

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Road trod by all Tyrants …

Posted on April 26, 2019. Filed under: Books |

Book Review by Pramod K Nayar who teaches at the University of Hyderabad – Courtesy The Wire

Stephen Greenblatt, Pulitzer winner and Harvard professor, returns to his oldest hunting ground in a highly readable account of the Shakespeare’s most enduring theme: Power.

But, and this is the catch, it is not (just) a Shakespeare book. It is a book about our times: its totalitarian regimes, its demagogues, its dictators and, horrifyingly, its democratically elected tyrants. 

The case Greenblatt makes for tyranny is emphatically not restricted to Henry VI, Richard III, Lear, Macbeth, Leontes – the ostensible subjects of his study, but can be applied to the people who occupy positions of power, institutional, state, corporate.

Greenblatt begins with Henry VI (Part II), where he shows how a perceived weakness at the centre of a state enables a less-than-able person to occupy the throne, and acquire the power that comes with it. 

Chaos is also engineered – there is always the bogeyman of ‘national security’ – so that what Greenblatt calls ‘fraudulent populism’ drives the successful bid for the throne. The leader-in-waiting has only contempt for the underclass: ‘he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and stupid’ but ‘they can be made to further his ambitions’. 

Appeals to various segments of the society with promises of their welfare if elected, but underwritten by contempt and issuance of threats, are instances Greenblatt’s analysis of Shakespeare directs us to, and from our own time.  

There is a promise, in one case, Greenblatt says, to ‘make England great again’ and appeals made to the people on the basis of parochially inflected jingoism about ‘us’ and ‘them’.

It is the break down of basic values – respect for order, civility, and human decency – that enables a tyrant to capture power. 

But Greenblatt shows how political propaganda in terms that would have ‘provoked charges of treason’ and outrage at some point in the past – hate speech, exclusionary and discriminatory language, unverifiable accusations, implied threats from within, the attack on established national values enshrined in the constitution – become acceptable as a build up to the demagogue’s ascent.

In another case Greenblatt maps the psychological make up of tyrants: ‘barking orders’, ‘has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency’, and ‘the feelings of others mean nothing to him’. 

A tyrant divides the world into winners and losers alone. More worryingly, Greenblatt notes, ‘the public good is something only losers like to talk about’, and what a tyrant likes to talk about is only winning. 

In an age when the public good has been subsumed under the target of corporate good (and corporate greed), and anybody defending the former is a ‘loser’ (read: liberals!), we understand Richard III, the immediate subject of analysis. Such tyrants are supported and encouraged by ‘enablers’.

First, there are those who cannot accept and see the tyrant for what he is and what he will do to the nation: ‘they have a strange penchant for forgetting … just how awful he is… they are drawn irresistibly to normalise what is not normal’. 

Then there are those who feel ‘frightened and impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence’. Then there is a group that hopes to benefit from the rise of the tyrant. Finally, there is a crowd that simply carries out orders, ‘hoping to seize something along the way for themselves, still others enjoying the cruel game of making his targets … suffer and die’. 

Greenblatt makes it clear that all these are persistent ‘types’, and each one, in their own way is complicit with the tyrant. This is lived experience, transformed into theatre, emphasises Greenblatt.

But uneasy lies the head that wears the undeserving crown – the tyrant having reached his goal is solely obsessed with loyalty and suspects everybody around him, there is growing fear and frustration at not being able to keep the confidence of his ‘trusted’ people. 

He only seeks ‘flattery, confirmation, and obedience’. Naturally, there is no appeal to the general populace, who never count in his scheme of things: he only seeks to secure his position, further.

When signs and portents – or accusations, dissent, public opinion – appear, finally, the tyrant lashes out. He ensures the exit of anybody, from within his party/inner circle, or even his older mentors, through any means. 

In Shakespeare they are killed, of course, as is the case with the Stalins and the Pol Pots, but Greenblatt’s reading allows us to see how even in democracies the former more-moderate comrades and mentors are erased, marginalised, sent away. 

Those with a vestige of self-reflexivity – a rare thing in any tyrant – discover what they have brought upon themselves. 

Greenblatt cites Macbeth as an instance here, and his ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy.

When the tyrant makes absurd promises or indulges in crazy rituals or unwarranted exercise of power, few recognise them as a deteriorating mind and personality, evidenced for Greenblatt in Lear’s actions that precipitate the crisis in the kingdom eventually. 

As Greenblatt argues, even in systems with ‘multiple moderating institutions, the chief executive almost always has considerable power’, but the question is: is he fit to employ it? ‘What if he begins to make decisions that threaten the well-being and security of the realm?’ 

This is a question that resonates throughout history, as Greenblatt makes clear. Those who object are summarily dismissed, counter-opinions are discounted. Those who stay silent, are complicit and commit the wrong  with the tyrant (Gandhi is reported to have said, ‘I serve the empire by not partaking in its wrong’).

Greenblatt explores resistance, such as it is, from courtiers, insiders, and well-wishers of the realm, but acknowledges that it is hard to fight a tyrant. 

However, there are unlikely possibles: such as the very minor servant who says ‘hold your hand, my lord’ when Cornwall is about to gouge out Gloucestor’s eye in King Lear. Then there is a courtier’s wife, Paulina, who stands up to the tyrant-king, Leontes, in A Winter’s Tale

Greenblatt reads the former as an unforgettable moment when ‘someone in the ruler’s service feels compelled to stop what he is witnessing’. 

Although the common people, ‘easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by trivial gifts’ do not resist, ‘tyrannicides are drawn … from the same elite whose members generate the unjust rulers they oppose and eventually kill’. 

But even the small voice of dissent, Greenblatt seems to suggest, is a blow against the tyrant.

Greenblatt gives pride of place to two lines in A Winter’s Tale when Paulina, threatened with death by burning by the king, Leontes, retorts:

It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.

Greenblatt calls this ‘some of the most magnificent words of defiance in all of Shakespeare’.

As early as 2016, soon after Donald Trump came to be elected, Greenblatt had formulated a question in a NY Times piece that went astronomically viral:

In the early 1590s, Shakespeare sat down to write a play that addressed a problem: How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?AThis is the book in which he sets out the answers.

More worrying, Greenblatt shows, is the complicity from many sources that enables the tyrant to seize, reinforce and iterate the power endlessly. Look around, says Greenblatt and we see tyrants practise power (but not necessarily authority) over the people they claim to govern and guard. 

They expect loyalty, quash even a minor difference of opinion, are megalomaniacal as they are fed, like tweets, flattery, fake news, rumours and shallow promises by their inner circle, which alone stands to gain. 

In all of this, the public good – after all, as many respected government servants in India declare ‘I don’t care if public money goes waste’ – is not even in shouting distance.

Greenblatt makes Shakespeare speak to us, always a contemporary even to non-fans (I am one) for the relevance and the sheer topicality of his characterisation and plots. 

Pop cultural references might be not be too inappropriate as analogies to Greenblatt’s reading.

Everybody kneels to Loki in The Avengers when he screams, ‘kneel’ at them. After hearing a couple of insults directed at the human race (kneeling to power, says Loki, is ‘the natural state’ of humans), one old man stands up. ‘Not to men like you’, says the old man. ‘There are no men like me’, retorts the supremely arrogant Loki. 

‘There are always men like you’, the old man responds. 

Greenblatt calls attention to such craven obeisance and the minor figures of dissent in a world populated by tyrants, or incipient tyrants. 

The ones who start the fire are the heretics, not the ones who burn in them, Greenblatt asks us to remember this, for ourselves, in a world given to tyrants.

Stephen Greenblatt. Credit: Facebook/Brattleboro Literary Festival

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Anjan Basu on Satyajit Ray Stories …

Posted on April 20, 2019. Filed under: Books, Movies |

The Tales of Little Men That Satyajit Ray Told

On what would have been his 97th birthday, a look at how Ray effortlessly weaves tales of perfectly ordinary, indeed insignificant, women and men whose lives are a testimony to the triumph of simplicity and basic goodness over arrogance and selfishness.  

 ‘Patolbabu, Film Star’ is very near its end, and Patol is done with his share of the film shoot. 

He “jostled  his way through the crowd as he wiped the sweat off his brow, walked over to where the paan shop stood, and stopped in its shade. Clouds had covered the sun, lowering the heat somewhat, but he took off his jacket nevertheless. Ah, what relief! A sense of deep satisfaction, of happiness, took hold of his mind.”

Patol had been an amateur stage actor a long time ago. He was young then, and hoped to make a name for himself one day. Now, very much on the wrong side of 50, short, balding and always hard up, he had not held a steady job in years and felt very grateful when Naresh, the production manager of a film company who had known Patol for many years, offered him a bit role in a movie. 

Patol was dismayed, however, when he was given the script: his role, that of a pedestrian on a busy street, consisted of a single grunt –an irritated ‘Ah!’—when the hero  carelessly bumped into him and moved on without so much as a look back at him. 

Unsure at first if Naresh was pulling his leg, Patol yet managed to put his heart and soul in the ‘part’, and when he knew he had played it well, he walked off from the scene at a languid pace, a happy man.

When Naresh, the production manager, came looking for Patol near the paan shop, he was surprised not to find him anywhere. “What a strange man! And how very forgetful! Didn’t even wait for his payment!” Meanwhile, Patolbabu walked on cheerfully. “…

Today his work was quite satisfying. Even though nobody had given him a part all these years, his artistic sense had luckily not blunted yet… Well, these film people! All that concerned them was getting some hands together to somehow get the job done. And then pay them off. 

Well, how much do they pay: five, ten, twenty bucks? Of course he needed money, needed it quite desperately, but after all what is five or ten rupees compared to the happiness he found today?”

An attentive reader of Satyajit Ray stories – and he published nearly 90, not counting his incredibly popular ‘Feluda’ stories in the whodunit genre and the sci-fi ‘Shonku’ stories – comes across the Patolbabus of the world every now and then. 

These are truly ordinary men. There is nothing of note in either their appearance or their occupation, or even in the way they go about their lives. 

These lives are lived at the far edge of the city’s lower-middle class quarters, dull, shabby lives as uneventful as a muddy pool of stagnant water whose surface barely a ripple ever touches. 

Their future as much as their present is destined to be vapid, colourless. And yet once in a long while, something quite out of the ordinary happens that lights up these lives. From somewhere comes a sense of fulfilment, of a day passed meaningfully. The wretchedness of the quotidian life is forgotten in a trice. The stagnant pool comes alive suddenly.

Ray’s first-published short story was ‘Bonkubabu’s Friend’ in 1961. Bonkubehari Dutta teaches Bengali and Geography at a suburban primary school. His poor pay makes sure that he lives from hand to mouth all the year round, and his mild, almost timid, manner makes sure that he is the butt of everyone’s jokes everywhere, including at the evening get-togethers at friend Sripatibabu’s. 

Sripati, a prosperous lawyer owning an imposing house and pots of money, is the town’s only opinion maker. Neither Sripati nor his many flunkeys ever let go of an opportunity of hectoring Bonku, or pinning him down with the most vicious joke. 

They ‘sweeten’ his tea with salt, make his paan with chalk-dust, hide his umbrella or his slippers, and relish calling him ‘bnyaka’ (or, ‘twisted-face’, a play upon ‘Bonku’).

Their heartlessness often brings Bonkubabu to the verge of bitter tears, and he toys with the idea of giving these evening parties a miss. But he does not dare. After all, Sripati’s money gives him enormous influence, and he could if he wished make night day. Besides, Sripati would not dream of letting Bonku absent himself; for what is a party without someone really funny, someone you could do what you wished with? 

So Bonkubabu has to be in attendance every night, gritting his teeth as he sat through these interminably long, tiring sessions.

Such a man, of all men, one day runs into Ang, denizen of the planet Cranius from another galaxy. Ang speaks 14,000 languages, can thought-read at will, shows Bonku an arctic seal through his magic glasses one moment, and a Brazilian piranha the next. With his rugged hands, Ang touches Bonku’s sunken cheeks and says, “Even though you are from an inferior species, you don’t seem to be a bad man. Your problem is you are way too timid, so you don’t make any headway in life….. Anyway, I am glad to have met you.” 

As Ang shook his hand and got into his space-craft, Bonku suddenly realised what an extraordinary piece of luck he had just had; he a nobody from a place nobody had heard of was perhaps the only man in the whole world to meet this visitor from another planet. 

As the realisation began to sink in, Bonkubabu walked to Sripati’s house for his evening ordeal. But it was a different day today, and Bonkubabu a different man. He burst into Sripati’s room like a  Nor’wester, laughed a long, ringing laugh that swept across the room, taking in all those present in the room and stunning them into silence.

He then proceeded to address his friends thus: ‘…”Friends, I have the pleasure of announcing that I am here at your adda for the last time today. But before I leave your company for good, let me tell you a few home truths. First, all of you talk a lot of rubbish all the time. You should know that when you don’t know what you are blabbering about, people call you dumb. 

Number two, and this is meant for Nidhibabu, at your age fooling around with someone else’s umbrella or shoes is grotesque. Please send my brown canvas shoes and my umbrella to my house by tomorrow. 

Nidhibabu, mind you, if you any more call me bnyaka, I will call you chhnyada (the crack-bottomed) and that’s that. 

As for you Sripatibabu, you are a rich man and I can see you will need flunkeys all the time. But I am no more available for that kind of thing. I can send you my tomcat, if you want. It licks one’s feet quite well…”. 

Having said this, Bonkubabu with his left hand slapped Bhairab Chakraborty soundly on his back, making him sit up with a start, and then walked out of the room with a neat bow.’

At that moment something rare touched Bonkubabu, much as it had touched Patolbabu on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The shy, nervous Bonku, the poor, pitiable primary school teacher, of a sudden rose above his miserable existence, walking with his head held high. The quintessential Little Man had had his day, and we readers exulted with him.

Such little men dot the landscape of Ray stories. These are simple, uncomplicated stories. Ray tells them unselfconsciously, in the familiar idiom of the Bengali middle class city-dweller. Nothing very clever or exceptional here, very little is designed to startle you. The willing suspension of disbelief, the stock-in-trade of every master story-teller, works so well with these tales because they are imbued with a deep, simple humanism with which  the reader can identify naturally, unobtrusively.

Thus, you have Asamanjobabu, in ‘Asamanjobabu’s Dog’, who refuses to part with his pet, an otherwise undistinguished mongrel who laughs like a human, even when the fabulously rich William Moody, a tourist from distant Cincinnati, makes him a stunning offer of 20,000 dollars. 

Asamanjo, a modest clerk in a little office, knows that his life could change dramatically if he were only to say yes to the exchange. But he says no, says so quite simply, much to the chagrin and bewilderment of the visiting American and his Indian lackey. 

Utterly insignificant a man though he is, Asamonjo has no qualms about telling an incredibly powerful man just what he thought about the limits of his power, the power of money.

A still from the movie Mahanagar. Credit: Youtube ScreengrabR

In ‘The Pterodactyl’s Egg’, Badanbabu, a humble clerk in a government office, is conned by a glib-talking sorcerer who conjures up images of the Jurassic age for Badanbabu who is perennially looking out for new stories to tell his eight-year-old son, the paralytic Biltu who is confined to his bed. 

As Badan succumbs to the conman’s mesmeric charms, he is neatly relieved of his wallet. It was payday, and Badan loses his precious, but measly, salary in the blink of an eye. “Oh, what a shame! What an ass I made of myself today!”, muses Badanbabu as he trudges his weary way home. 

By the time he reaches home and enters Biltu’s room, however, the father can  bring a carefree tone to his voice: “Today I have a really nice story for you”. 

As he watches Biltu’s face light up with pleasure, the very ordinary Badanbabu – always worried because he is always short on cash – wonders if it was really worth losing sleep over the loss of his pittance of a salary. Wasn’t the smile on his sick son’s face worth at least that much?

The protagonist in most Ray stories is this archetypal little man. His back has been bent by long years of struggle to keep body and soul together. He is a mere foot-soldier, no more, battle-scarred and unsung. But once in a while in the midst of his dreary life, he is brought magnificently alive by a magic wand, maybe only briefly, and he manages in that brief instant to rise above the pettiness, the squalor of his own life. 

The essential humanity of these powerless little men is brought home to the reader with great force.

Is the teller of these stories of a piece with Ray the cinema legend? Yes, without a doubt. 

A deep-running humanism is the common refrain in Ray’s films as well, as any viewer familiar with Ray’s cinematic oeuvre knows. Recall any sequence from Pather Panchali, orThe PostmasterOr think of the demure housewife in Mahanagar who, though she knows she is the sole bread-earner in a largish family, does not think twice before giving up her job for the sake of a colleague’s dignity. 

Recall the King of Halla in Gupi Gain Bagha Bain who, at last free from the evil machinations of his prime minister, erupts in joy and runs along the ramparts of his fortress, threshing his arms about like a child and shouting “I am free”, startling a flight of pigeons that take off from his path with a noisy flutter.

In his stories as in his films, Ray effortlessly weaves tales of perfectly ordinary, indeed insignificant, women and men whose lives are a testimony to the triumph of simplicity and basic goodness over arrogance and selfishness. 

And in his films as in his stories, Ray tells his tales in a brilliantly rich but subdued voice, with great compassion but unsentimentally.

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The Hemingway Style …

Posted on April 3, 2019. Filed under: Books |

Virtually everyone has heard of Ernest Hemingway. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows of Ellen N. La Motte. People should.

She is the extraordinary World War I nurse who wrote like Hemingway before Hemingway. She was arguably the originator of his famous style – the first to write about World War I using spare, understated, declarative prose.

Long before Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms in 1929 – long before he even graduated high school and left home to volunteer as an ambulance driver in Italy – La Motte wrote a collection of interrelated stories titled The Backwash of War.

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Mirza Ghalib …

Posted on March 19, 2019. Filed under: Books, Personalities |

On Ghalib's 150th Death Anniversary, a Visit to His Apartment in Kolkata

1.  ‘Ghalib, beware the hard, cold hearts of prosperous and satisfied people ……….. The hearts and lives which possess anguish and impatience (they are worthy of respect) … How much kindness and favours do these hearts and lives possess’

2. ‘If I envy someone at all, that is the person …. Who travels alone, hungry and thirsty … In the rocky valleys of mountains … …. Not on the satiated hearts of the haram (sacred territory of Mecca) …. Who satisfy themselves with their Aab-e-Zamzam’ (water from Hagar’s well in Mecca) 

3.  ‘When I imagine Paradise and think that if forgiveness is in order and I am rewarded with a palace, as well as a houri, eternal abode and to spend my life with this same lucky woman, my heart is agitated at the thought; and the heart comes to the mouth. …………. He-he that houri will grow weary, why wouldn’t the disposition worry, the same emerald palace, and the same branch of Tooba…’ (a tree of paradise)

4. ‘Seek that joy from the Heavens which was available to Jamshid ……………. Do not desire his splendour (since it is of no worth)…………… If your cup has grape wine, that is the real thing
Which is admirable but not that wine cup …. Even it be made of ruby.’

5. ‘Listen sahib, whatever taste a person has for whichever hobby and he spends his life frankly in it, that is (to be) called pleasure.’

6. ‘If not in the whole world so be it, at least in the city where I live, no one starving or naked should be visible indeed. Punished by God, rejected by mankind, weak, sick, a fakir, imprisoned by adversity, irrespective of myself and my matters of speech and skill, one who cannot see anyone begging, while begging myself from door to door, that person is myself.’  

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‘New Delhi’ – Mark Tully …

Posted on March 16, 2019. Filed under: Books |

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Leadership …

Posted on March 4, 2019. Filed under: Books |

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A Photographers Genius …

Posted on February 13, 2019. Filed under: Books |

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Dostoyevsky …

Posted on February 9, 2019. Filed under: Books, From Russia with Love |

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Bard of a City in Ferment

Excerpted from Anjan Basu’s Write up in the ‘Wire’

The museum is an apartment block where Dostoyevsky lived twice: briefly in 1846, when The Double, which has intrigued and charmed critics in equal measure, made its appearance; and for the last two-and-a-half years of his life (October 1878 to February 1881), when he wrote his last major work, The Brothers Karamazov, – one of the landmarks of 19th century fiction.

The third-floor apartment he lived in last, along with wife Anna Snitkina and two young children, forms the core of the museum which now has three other sections as well – a spacious exhibition hall dedicated to the writer’s life and work, a set of galleries displaying contemporary art, and a theatre that regularly features performances by the museum’s partners including a puppet theatre group.

An extensive library, boasting over 24,000 books and periodicals as well as some original manuscripts, has also been put together over the years. The museum was inaugurated in November, 1971 to mark the 150th anniversary of Dostoyevsky’s birth.

The living quarters were lovingly recreated on the basis of memoirs left behind by wife Anna and some of the writer’s friends and the items displayed here came both from the family heirloom as well as from donors.

An excellent audio guide, available in all major European languages including English, helps the visitor around the museum.

Every year in November, the museum complex hosts an international conference with ‘Dostoyevsky and World Culture’ as its central theme.

Thirty-two years were always going to be a long time in the life of a person who died at 59. But the 32 years that separated Dostoyevsky’s two stints on Kuznechny Lane were as truly transformative for him as they were for Russia.

In April 1849, Dostoyevsky had been arrested by the Tsar’s police for ‘sedition’, his and his friends’ crime being that they were members of some kind of a utopian fraternity that read and discussed the works of Vissarion Belinsky, the great Russian liberal intellectual whose passionate indictment of serfdom had made him persona non grata in his homeland.

Incarcerated in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress for a while, Dostoyevsky faced an elaborate trial, was sentenced to death but was pardoned at literally the last minute when he was being marched out to be executed.

Four years of hard labour in Siberia followed, then a spell of compulsory military service. It was only in 1859 that he could return to Petersburg to pick up the threads of his literary career.

Life was hard, and the writer was often deep in debt, obliging him to move house often enough so as to steer clear of his creditors.

Indeed, Dostoyevsky is believed to have lived in as many as 20 apartments, all within a radius of two miles of Petersburg’s Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Market Square) in the 30 years he lived in the city as an adult. The Kuznechny Perelouk apartment, close to the Griboedov Canal, is also no more than three kilometres from Sennaya.C

Even as Dostoyevsky resumed writing, and turned out, one after another, Notes from the House of the dead, The Injured and the Humiliated, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Gambler, momentous changes were sweeping across Russia.

In March, 1861, Tsar Alexander III passed the historic decree that finally emancipated Russian serfs from hereditary slavery. As the freed, but impoverished, villagers began to pour into the cities in search of a new life, Petersburg’s social structure was turned upside down.

Sennaya Ploshchad, once a sleepy town square, now swarmed with poor locals, petty thieves and prostitutes, ‘with derelicts, drunks and the destitute’ presenting a stark contrast with the elegant crowd promenading around the near-by Palace Square in Russia’s opulent capital city.

A copy of ‘Crime and Punishment’ in the museum gallery, with hand-written notes on the inside cover page.

This is how Dostoyevsky sketches for the reader of Crime and Punishment the locale of its protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov:

Close to the Hay Market, thick with houses of ill repute, the neighbourhood crawled with a population of tradesmen and jacks-of-all-trades who clustered in those central streets and lanes of Petersburg, creating such a panorama of motley characters that almost nothing or nobody could cause surprise any more.

As the city’s population rose steeply, Sennaya Ploshchad grew steadily more chaotic, dirty and discordant while Dostoyevsky hopped from one rented apartment to another in the vicinity. Raskolnikov’s tortured existence so faithfully mirrors the travails of a life lived around Sennaya that Petersburg now has a walking tour built specifically around his narrative.

At 5, Stolyarny Perelouk, a five-story tenement building – Dostoyevsky himself lived in a building across the road when he wrote the novel – bears the following legend on a plaque:

Raskolnikov Building

Here is where Rodion Raskolnikov lived

The tragic fates of the people of this part of Petersburg served Dostoyevsky

As the basis for his pessimistic sermons on good for all humankind

A large bronze relief of the author, with a furrowed forehead and clenched hands, sits above this legend. Indeed, the walking tour is complete with: a peek into the tavern where Raskolnikov is supposed to have first conceived of the idea to kill Alyona Ivanovna, the elderly pawnbroker; a stop in front of the shop where he overheard the pawnbroker’s sister telling somebody that she would (conveniently for our hero) be away from Alyona’s apartment at the hour Raskolnikov had chosen for the murder; and of course a visit to the pawnbroker’s wretched and cramped apartment, the scene of the crime.

The yellow guardhouse, or the Police Bureau, where Raskolnikov is interrogated, exists and is functional till today. Dostoyevsky himself was held for two nights in the same Guardhouse after his arrest in 1849.A

The story of Dostoyevsky’s life bristles with many extraordinary episodes other than his return from death’s door.

For years, he was a compulsive gambler who often teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and yet, when both his (first) wife Maria and brother Mikhail died in 1864, he found himself as a single parent to stepson Pavel as well as the sole provider for his brother’s family.

He was perhaps the first major writer who engaged the services of a stenographer when he found it hard to meet deadlines on commitments made to publishers.

When Anna Snitkina, the able stenographer, became his wife in February, 1867, Dostoyevsky had no money with which to take her on a honeymoon. But eventually, when they did proceed on the honeymoon in Europe in April, they never returned to Russia till more than four years later, in July, 1871. 

The Idiot was published in 1869 when he was still in Europe while Demons (or, The Possessed), another major work, came out in 1872.

Dostoevsky had had epileptic seizures off and on since his youth, and Sigmund Freud later studied the writer’s symptoms in detail from extensive medical and other records.     

The writer’s desk, with the clock stopped at 8.36 pm on January 28 (February 9, by the Gregorian calendar), 1881, when Dostoyevsky died.

The roomy and comfortable apartment contains both usual domestic bric-a-brac and interesting period items such an attractive tea-service, framed photographs of prominent contemporaries, a miniature enamel portrait of Pushkin (in whose memory Dostoyevsky made his remarkable ‘Pushkin Oration’ only a few months before his own death) and some delightful toys which his little children (Lyubova was 11 and son Fyodor 9 when their father died) played with.

Part of the MS of The Brothers Karamazov are also on display here.

One particular detail is bound to stay with the visitor. When Dostoyevsky died in the evening of February 9 (January 28, by the Julian Calendar which was then in vogue in Russia), Lyubova scrawled the words ‘Papa died today’ on a matchbox.

The matchbox, with the child’s scrawl, is still preserved. Also on view is the wall-clock hanging in Dostoyevsky’s study when he died. 

Today, the clock can still be seen on a stool by the side of his writing desk, its hands frozen at 8.36 pm on January 28, the precise time of his passing.

Anjan Basu is a writer, translator and commentator living in Bangalore.

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