Books · World

5 Books On My Mind This Week

Delhi By Heart

By Raza Rumi

Delhi: The Eternal Capital.

I have visited Delhi a couple of times, but it still feels like we have unfinished business. There’s too much history to cram into a single trip! With a friend’s wedding coming up in Delhi this year, I want to take time off to roam through the different eras of the endlessly fascinating ancient city that seem to blend together seamlessly. I’m really looking forward to stocking up on my endless book collection at Bahrisons, wandering aimlessly through patli-galis and visiting Mirza Ghalib’s haveli (a man who until recently was just a name – more on that in a different post). I chose Rumi’s Delhi By Heart out of all the Delhi books that I want to read because there unfortunately don’t seem to be a lot of experiential books on the city by a local! William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns was a contender, but the perspective of someone from the same culture but the other side of the border piqued my curiosity much more.


Burning Country

By Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

Images from Syria over the past week have been seared into my memory. Any time the news is on, I hastily (ashamedly) avert my eyes from the chemical attack on the civilians in Douma because it’s too traumatic to watch. While world leaders argue about whether or not Assad really did use “chemical” weapons, I wonder what got the Muslim-majority Syrians into the mess of being caught between their Muslim dictator and an Islamist terrorist group. I underline that most of the citizens are Muslims because it seems like these days people need to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of the victims of terror attacks are Muslim and that the majority of the places where ISIS attacks have taken place are Muslim countries even if popular media goes out of its way to ignore this information since it doesn’t sit very well with fanning the Islamophobia flames.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 4.45.21 PM
As of February 12th 2018 from CNN

For instance, I do enjoy watching Trevor Noah and think that he’s quite funny, but was unamused that he (and CNN) were shocked that Buddhists could be violent, since it’s the “most peaceful religion of the major religions”. Does the religion of a government really matter when it is persecuting its ethnic minority? Does a faith that one chooses to adhere to (or more often, is born into) make them an inherently better or worse person? Isn’t glorifying a religion just as bad as vilifying another as it creates fertile ground for religious stereotyping and discrimination? Would the tone have been different if the Rohingyas were not a Muslim-majority minority? Where will we be if even liberal news can’t seem to tell the difference?

Answer: At a place where there’s been a 7 year long war involving Syria, Russia, USA, Iran, Iraq, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia et al and the Shining City On A Hill slams its doors on the victims’ faces because they are purported to share the same faith as their murderers. Peachy.

I need to read a book on this war, as hard and disturbing as I find it.


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – And The New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

By Angela Saini

On the coattails of righteous anger comes another pet peeve: having to constantly educate, reason with, cajole and snap at the human population (mostly male, I’m afraid) about how women aren’t “also there” in the human story. (While being told off for getting “too worked up”, “too loud”, “calm down” for snapping). Just because history was written by people in power who refused to allow or even identify other stories as history, and just because scientific research has historically dropped the ball on gender (among others) and just because we live steeped in gender (and other) stereotypes today, doesn’t mean that it’s always been like this and that it always has to be. The Secret History of Mongol Queens will be happy to set the record straight, and it’s about the 13th century – not so long ago really.

Inferior has been excellent so far and I do like that the title has an optimistic note to it: “And The New Research That’s Rewriting the Story”.


Calling Sehmat: A Novel

By Harinder Sikka

Alia Bhatt is my favourite new actor and I can’t wait to watch her next movie! The trailer was released earlier this week and is the story of an Indian Kashmiri woman who infiltrated Pakistan as a spy in the war of 1971. Not only am I looking forward to another masterful performance by Alia, I also think that this film comes at a very interesting and trying time in domestic politics. To have a Kashmiri Muslim woman portrayed onscreen as putting her life on the line for her country, her watan, is a reminder to the ruling faction that she too is Indian – though I don’t have high expectations of introspection from adherents of an ideology that abets inequality. The movie, Raazi, is based on the book Calling Sehmat and while I would like to read the book, in an uncharacteristic turn of events, I’m not sure if I want to risk ruining the movie… I’ll probably pick it up later because I am curious. Also, I probably need a crash course in the war of 1971 first anyway.


  

Sapiens

By Yuval Noah Harari

I’m cheating by adding Sapiens to this list because I have been reading the book on and off for the past several months. It’s well-written and authoritative, or at least accessible, and the story of humans on the planet, how we came to be and spread out across the globe, living in climes that our monkey exterior isn’t suited for is mind-boggling! Another facet of the book that struck me especially is that while I have had to study and read about human evolution quite thoroughly, I felt, no one had bothered to tell me about how evolution affected women and consequently the entire species! The background is that baby mammals are remarkably advanced, for instance a foal can start walking mere hours after birth. A baby on the other hand takes several months to learn the same. Turns out when early humans stood erect, uteruses shrank. By the nature of natural selection, premature births were favoured since those babies were smaller and could be pushed out more easily without, for the most part, harming mother or child. This meant that human children were unprecedented in known mammal history: they were malleable enough to be given a deep and diverse education, and after all, if intelligence is a measure of how much one can learn, humans win in the animal kingdom! All because we stood erect and women’s child-bearing organs shrunk – fascinating! And note to other authors: this (unless it disappoints me down the line) is how you write human history and evolutionary biology, not by ignoring half the population of humans.


My book choices this week all seem to be about current events, history, minority rights and science. It was really fun to create this list and I hope that the next time I do one,  I have more variety!

Advertisements
Books · World

Books 2017 – Pages From History

Last year I tried reading books from countries around the world – The World in Books. It made me realize how little I knew of the world; most importantly how similar our human stories were. L.P. Hartley said, “The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Douglas Adams describing time travel in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy emphasizes the notion with:

The Campaigners for Real Time claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. “The past,” they say, “is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.”

I’m inclined to agree whole-heartedly with Adams. In the past couple of years of reading and travelling, I have realized that the differences that I drew between countries and their inhabitants are really rather superficial boundaries, though after reading Sapiens I understand why it is necessary to buy into the fiction of nations and patriotism. It’s how we survive and swear allegiance to millions of strangers who we have never and shall never meet.

This year was meant to be a continuation of the quest for the human story, but instead of continuing my journey through (mostly) world fiction, my instincts seemed to have veered towards a specific kind of fiction: history.

The lesson for 2017?

History doesn’t provide answers. It provides context. – John Green

If I had to trace the beginning of this year’s journey, it probably began with Partitioned Histories. It is a book that juxtaposes Indian and Pakistani narratives of our shared history, and it is breathtaking when realization dawns at how the same incidents are viewed so differently to further the political agenda on either side of the border. Worse, when I met Pakistanis to discuss the book, I couldn’t tell them apart from Indians. Even when we cracked bilingual jokes, we understood one another perfectly, without the need to explain cultural context.

In the quest to further my adventures in anarchy, here are my favourite books from last year:

Honourable Mention: The Palace of Illusions

The Mahabharata told from the point of view of Draupadi, maybe the most memorable female character of the epic, unfortunately memorable for being gambled away by Yudhishtra and being stripped in the royal assembly by the “winner” Duryodhana. The Palace of Illusions greatly expands Draupadi’s narrative by collecting her mentions from various versions of the Mahabharata and filling in the gaps. It’s interesting to read about the great battle from a woman’s point of view and Banerjee spins an amusing yarn of historical-mythological-fiction.

15. Dreams From My Father

Barack Obama’s autobiography, much like the man himself, is thoughtful, intimate and surprising. I wish I had followed him more closely in the time before The Election. For the immense respect that I have for him, and especially, perhaps more, Michelle Obama, this book was revelatory in exactly what odds Obama was up against when he became the President.

14. The Mahabharata, R. K. Narayan

A retelling of a classic. It’s impossible to grow up in India without growing up with the epics: The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Layla Majnu, Heer Ranjha, Panchatantra, the Shahnama, Jataka Tales, The Arabian Nights… R. K. Narayan is one of my favourite authors as the writer of Malgudi Schooldays. His writing is simple and succinct with clever twists of language to elicit frequent laughs. He narrates an old tale in his distinctive style, illustrated by his brother, the equally famous R. K. Laxman, creator of The Common Man.

 

13. Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Later in the list is my love letter to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here is her talk on “We Should All Be Feminists” instead. It’s a book too.

12. The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone

Shashi Tharoor is my favourite author-politician. He’s erudite and eloquent and he writes for public consumption (unlike many Indian historians) and understands the ethos of India (unlike many Western historians). Also, he quit his awesome job at the UN to make a difference to his country.

DXxtCLfU8AAqzfq

I’ll put the translation here.

11. No God But God

“La ilaha illallah” – No God But God. As the name suggests, it’s a book about Islam by Reza Aslan. As preconceived notions might not suggest, as they didn’t for me, this is a book about the history of Muhammad’s message, and that’s it. I downloaded the Kindle sample on a whim, not intending to ever read it but mildly curious about the title since I had seen another book by Aslan at a bookstore (“God: A Human History”). On perhaps a non-wifi-enabled-stalled-subway-ride, I don’t exactly remember, I started reading the sample and was quite astonished to find myself waiting to be connected to the internet again so I could buy the book. Muhammad’s story is truly compelling, the history is exciting and as a lover of stories bred from a childhood of the chaotic intertwining tales that is The Mahabharata, I found myself quite drawn to this journey of a man, just a man, and his very real, very human struggle. It also gave me greater ammunition to counter whatever nonsense one finds the Protectors of the Purity of Islam spouting (not to mention the Racist Haters of Islam also echoing). As John Green so succinctly puts it, much of the hadis really reads like “middle school gossip”. I’m glad I read this book if for nothing else but the next time someone dares to annoy me with misguided notions of sanctity, segregation and intolerance.

10. I, Robot

Isaac Asimov. For a child who grew up on fantasy and science fiction, it took me a long time to come around to this luminary of the field. I’m usually quite wary of classical science fiction because so much of it is so sexist and distasteful. And Asimov is a startling, pleasant surprise. Brilliant, engaging, polished short stories that give us the legendary Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

9. Born a Crime

I love Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. I never watched the show when Jon Stewart was the host, so I don’t have that point of reference, though I know his replacement is why several people resisted and perhaps still resist Noah’s charms. He brings a refreshing often non-mainstream-American and sometimes non-American perspective to the news and one might not expect his personal story to be so interesting! While Adichie’s middle class Nigerian background is very similar to an Indian middle class background, Trevor Noah’s poor, apartheid-fraught upbringing is not and yet, again, I find a human story and a shared history and empathy and laughter in his work that very easily overcomes the distances of continents and cultures.

8. In Spite of the Gods

I really can’t honestly say that I place “In Spite of the Gods” higher than “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone” for content. In content, Tharoor has a far greater fundamental understanding of India. But the book, which a collection of Tharoor’s essays, is often repetitive. Luce’s “In Spite of the Gods” is much narrower in scope: it doesn’t talk about either cricket or Bollywood, without which a modern Indian narrative is woefully incomplete, nor does he talk about the West (Bombay), South, East or North-East regions of India as much, choosing instead to focus on the seat of political power – Delhi and the culture of North India. This again paints an incomplete picture of India, because the many of non-North parts of India are the more literate, less corrupt, and often it’s people from these regions that find themselves in seats of power, even in and especially Delhi (Tharoor is an example).

That said, what Luce does focus on is superb. Tharoor, as much as I do admire him, has a mild case of the common Indian affliction of brushing its most unsavoury bits under the carpet or making them seem not-so-bad-after-all. Edward Luce has no such qualms. As the South Asian bureau chief of the Financial Times at the time and married to an Indian, his is not a typical outsider’s view. His book is well-structured and unabashedly political. He interviews several interesting characters, and some of them are truly “antique pieces” as one would say. He talks about Hindu nationalism, the plight of India’s Muslims, India’s place in the world and how the 21st century is India’s to lose. His perspicacity is biting and brilliant. Though he does sometimes take the traditional British (or American or Pakistani) view sometimes of seeing this part of the world as a clash of civilizations, when it is much more a melting pot, it does not invalidate his opinions. Also, I do like the tongue-in-cheek title of the book. This is a Tharoor recommendation by the way.

7. Indian Summer

In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses.
The first nation was India. The second was England.

I cannot praise Alex von Tunzelmann enough. And it isn’t just because of her stellar opening to the book. Her book is about the British Raj, Indian Independence and Partition, and I loved it because she does something that too few historians do: she puts the people first. The book, which is very firmly history and not historical fiction, reads like a novel. The characters are everyone from Gandhi to Nehru, Jinnah to Mountbatten and Churchill. And even better, she sheds light on Edwina Mountbatten, Betty and Nan Nehru, Ruttie Jinnah, Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru and Indira Gandhi. I like that Tunzelmann devotes equal screen-time, if you will, to the women and men of the drama playing out on the Indian stage and that she doesn’t make gods or demons of any of the characters. They were all human, well-rounded and fallible, and leave you feeling ultimately conflicted about your views of these “great men” and women. If all history could feel this realistic and interconnected and human, it would be truly incredible. Amazingly, this is her debut work.

 

6. Americanah

Life in America would not be the same without Americanah. This book by the immensely talented and wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fantastic and insightful, though I would not be exaggerating if I said that it’s a mere shadow of the intelligent, compassionate, independent and articulate author.

It’s the story of an African in the US, and what it means to be black and what it feels like if you look like an African-American but do not share the legacy of the history as an African, until you realize that you do and we do. The story of some people is really the story of all people, and skin colour cannot divide us as completely as it often does. This book also inadvertently set the stage for Dreams From My Father and put into context the magnitude of his victory, success and humanity.

5. The Shadow Of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish author. His book is set in Barcelona. After reading this book, I wanted to travel to Barcelona immediately but I’m afraid that I will break the spell if I do so.

The book begins at “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. As a book-lover, merely the title of the first chapter sends shivers down my spine. And the book does not disappoint. It is a magical tale of mystery and romance. Not Taylor Swift’s Love Story romance, but Capital-R the headiness of the Romance languages, the symphony of a deep culture, the exhilarating beauty of well-crafted prose and of course, twisted and fatal love Romance. Spellbinding, breathtaking, tear-jerking and please-read-it-already.

4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist

What if a book was written to you, the reader? You are having a conversation with a character, the protagonist of this novella, and he takes you on a journey. From historic Lahore to the hallowed halls of Princeton, from working at a bank to being ostracized when buildings collapse. Do you believe the narrator? Who are you and why are you having this conversation in the first place?

I loved the book. It’s short, but it has stayed with me. The dramatic monologue, identifying with the protagonist’s cultural background, the theme of the persecution at the wake of 9/11. It left me feeling melancholic, thoughtful and hopeful. Needless to say, my optimism assumes Changez’s best intentions. It reminded me of My Name Is Khan, which is a movie that I loved the first and only time that I watched it.

3. The Twentieth Wife (The Taj Trilogy #1)

Noor Jahan was a badass woman. I love her and she’s amazing and I wish that I had understood how truly exceptional she was when studying history. A Mughal Queen who fought and ruled and was the first Indian woman to have coinage made in her name. Wow. Indu Sundaresan stays mostly true to historical events and notes her deviances in the epilogue. The trilogy brought history to life for me and is such a thrilling adventure that I blazed through all three books, loved the historical context and makes me giddy to think about these being the people and moments in history that brought us to where we are today!

2. Exit West

I was at the launch of Exit West at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. Mohsin Hamid read out “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

I wish I could describe this gorgeous book, but the words flow so effortlessly through the pages, that I fear mine cannot compare. A story about leaving home, of a world beset by war and migration, of refugees desperately trying to find a place in the world and in places that are not-home. A more timely and exquisitely crafted book there cannot be.

1. The Great Gatsby

I couldn’t decide how to rank the top five books that I read last year because they were all so compelling and fabulous that I finally settled on arranging them in order of how deeply they affected me. It’s not a great benchmark because the order changes based on my mood, the time of day, and frequently. However, it would be a travesty to rank The Great Gatsby any lower. I’m surprised that I read it only last year because I feel like I read this book ages and ages ago and it has been with me ever since.

I read the classic alongside annotations from Genius, which helped me a great deal in understanding the context of the book and in my connecting with it very deeply. It also opened up awareness into a deep love for New York that I seemed to have imbibed somewhere along the way. It’s a city that grows on you, creeps under your skin and stays in your heart, quite like this book and quite like the country that I still call “back home”.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

 

Art · Language

Light of My Soul

प्यार में जुनून है पर दोस्ती में सुकून है ।

Love is passion but friendship is peace.


Farewell, remember me in your dua as I depart,
Savour the taste of my name on your tongue,
Treasure our moments in the vaults of your heart,
Cherish my salam in every missive that is sprung.

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
My beloved, my beloved.

My absence in your mehfil
Isn’t cause for sadness–
For to the brim it’s filled,
With paeans of our closeness.

How many of my morning suns
Basking in the warmth of your angan,
Did sink below the horizons?

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
Oh my darling, oh my beloved!

From your beautiful face away
My twisted path wends
Many miles must I stray
For now, for us, The End.

Sandal am I,
A fragrance in my wake.
My dearest possessions are last
A lifetime of dreams amassed,
Left under your pillow; your keepsake.

It is time.
I take the cloth.
And leave you behind
My heart, my soul, my beloved.

 

“Unrequited love is different.
It’s a love that isn’t shared.
It is mine. Only mine.”

Books · World

The World in Books, 2016

 

 

2016 is almost long gone but not quite.

Cups of hot adrakwali chai accompanied my quest last year to try to read more books from around the world.

before-2016

The more I read, the more I was chagrined at my surprise at finding similarities among people from countries that were not my own. I was often disillusioned about the news, that tends to focus on the worst of us, and lumps together large tracts of land whose cultures are quite distinct.

countries-after-2016

The highlights of my journey were:

10. The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkey

A book by Elif Shafak, an author so eloquent that she’s featured on this list twice! A beautifully written book that is a personal narrative of two girls and their parents set against the backdrop of Turkish and Armenian relations. The book was in equal parts a joy to read and a treasure trove of historical perspective.

9. Maus

Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a sensitive and personal narrative of Jews in Nazi Germany. The German Jews are characterized as mice and the German Nazis as cats. It is also a biography of Art Spiegelman’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany with a combination of quick-thinking, sheer grit and a healthy dose of luck.

8. The Kite Runner

A heart-wrenching story of two boys and their lives together and apart. If there’s ever a book that I have wept over, it is this one.

7. I am Malala

Who is Malala Yousafzai? Why did she win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why does the Taliban have a death wish for a (then) fourteen-year-old?

“Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”

The story of a brave young girl fighting for education and the peace and the problematic appropriation of her story to continue cultural stereotypes.

6. Wonder

How does one describe Auggie Pullman?
The most real character, the most heartwarming story, the best pick-me-up to convince yourself to Never Give Up, Never Give In.
I got Wonder for my little sister and ended up falling in love with little Auggie too.

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

5. The Forty Rules of Love

Love and history. Elif Shafak masterfully intertwines the two again in parallel stories that mirror each other. And guides you to an appreciation of the great poet and Sufi saint Rumi, not just for his wisdom, but also as a person.

“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”

4. Nehru: The Invention of India

If politicians were meant to be leaders and leaders are people who are meant inspire you, whose actions are meant to be examples, who you look up to and hope to emulate, then both the subject and his biographer would top my list.

A cheeky play on the title Nehru’s autobiography, “The Discovery of India”, Tharoor once again writes an eminently readable book on the history and politics of India.


This is it. The inner sanctum. The top 3. All of them were equally brilliant in different ways and did what a great book is supposed to do: Change one’s life.

3. Palace Walk

Literature is an art and you see why when Mahfouz writes. Every word is a brushstroke, every carefully crafted turn of phrase observed with painstaking precision the edging of detail, and the story blooms into an exquisite masterpiece, a work of art.

The story of Egypt on the brink of forcefully ejecting the ruling squatters.

2. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.”

His words and paintings speak for themselves. Is there anything left to say?

1. Persepolis

The book that started it all. The revolution in Iran, the internal struggle of a liberal population stuck in a conservative country, a love note to a land of immense history and culture, and in the midst of all that, the ecstatic highs and depressing lows of growing up and figuring life out. Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of her memories of her beloved homeland, flaws and all, love and torture, too-quick marriages and political coups, Iranian autocracy and British-American chicanery, is a must-read.

Read one book this year. Make it this one.

Art · Books · World

A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In the morning it was so beautiful on the road to Turnham Green – the chestnut trees and the clear blue sky and the morning sun mirrored in the water of the Thames; the grass was sparkling green and one heard the sound of church bells all around.”

Vincent had been an art dealer in The Hague at 16. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, who was secretly married to the previous lodger. He grew lonely and religious, was transferred to Paris at 22, was fired at 23, moved to England as an unpaid supply teacher, which is where he wrote this letter from to his beloved brother Theo.

Soon after, he followed the proprietor of the boarding school to Middlesex, had a falling out, became a Methodist minister’s assistant, worked at a bookshop where he translated passages from the Bible to English, French and Dutch because he was bored, decided to become a pastor at 24, failed a theology exam in 1878, became a missionary in Belgium at 26 and said wrote this to Theo in 1880:

What the molt is for birds, the time when they change their plumage, is what adversity or misfortune is for us humans, a difficult time.

Does what happens inside show on the outside?
There is such a great fire in one’s soul, and yet nobody ever comes to warm themselves there…

05540ddfc943fd10f329ffdcccc5d18eHe spends much of his time talking about figures, constantly criticizing his own work, practicing and copying great artists, observing the world around his with a keen eye and sharp pencil. He even goes to a local veterinary school “to get hold of the anatomical illustrations” of various animals so he can draw them better.

But I hope that these thorns will produce white blossoms in their day

In 1881, at 28, Vincent proposed to Kee, his recently widowed cousin who was seven years his senior and had an eight year old son.

“nooit, neen, nimmer,” she replied. No, nay, never.

Poor Vincent and his heart filled with passion!

Vincent’s unflinching dedication to his craft is an inspiration.

I feel and know for sure I will make progress. But it is only by working hard; “not a day without a line,” as Gavarni said.

In October 1881, Vincent finally felt like he was getting somewhere with his art. Funnily enough, this is what he says:

The battle with nature sometimes has something of what Shakespeare calls the “taming of the shrew”. In many things, but certainly in drawing, I believe that holding on tight is better than giving up.

Do you ever feel like History is just one big blob of The Past? Like everything before your Watercolors Van Goghlife happened in an almost coexisting parallel whole, so it’s strange to think of a great painter like van Gogh referring to a great playwright who had been dead about two and a half centuries before he was born! Vincent probably regarded Shakespeare like you or I, a famous name, to be read and quoted but not quite flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, emotions and frustrations, exactly like us.

Vincent was spending quite a lot of time at Mauve’s, a cousin who was a successful painter and one whom Vincent hoped to emulate. Mauve seems to have supported Vincent a great deal, encouraging him to experiment with sketching and watercolours.

Mauve says that the sun is beginning to shine for me, but it is still hidden in the mists.

Vincent went to visit his parents for Christmas and argued with them over his continued pursuit of his cousin Kee, to which they said his “persistence is disgusting”. He also fell out with Mauve  over the direction of his work and moved to The Hague by early 1882. There he met Sien, a pregnant alcoholic prostitute with a five-year-old daughter.

Explaining his situation to Theo, Vincent remarked that since he was getting nowhere with Kee and as he wanted to help Sien, he “must set about it more seriously”. He wanted to marry her, but it would seem that Theo talked him out of it.

cradle-18821

What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an eccentric, or a disagreeable fellow… the lowest of the low.

… I would like to show through my work what is in the heart of such an eccentric, such a nonentity.

zeegezicht-bij-scheveningen“There was so much wind that I could hardly keep upright and could barely see anything because of the blowing sands.” – Vincent liked to paint out in the open. A classic impressionist technique.

There is something infinite about painting-

By September 1882, at 29, Vincent was getting himself quite a reputation for being a mad, eccentric painter. I almost imagine him as a mad scientist, attacking the streets armed with pad and pencil, leaving behind a flurry of alarmed onlookers.

I am so covered in paint that some has even got onto this letter.

Whether as an aspiring minister or painter, sensitive Vincent had a soft spot for the poor, the downtrodden. He was attracted to helping people out of their misery, which is perhaps why he took to Sien too. “… as the lottery leaves both of us completely cold. But this little group of people – and their expression of waiting – touched me, and while I drew it began to get a greater, deeper meaning for me than at first.”

In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.

Isn’t that what we are all looking for? Happiness, something to live for.

At 30, Vincent in possibly a strange mood, wrote to his brother saying that he thought his “physical body will last out for a certain number of years… say, between six and ten.”

After wandering through many cities, jobs and loves, Vincent ended up in Drenthe. He seems to have found peace there, if briefly.

Coming events cast their shadows before, says an English proverb.

Living alone, desperately trying to hone his craft to such an extent that he could sell it without stooping to paint portraits for rich patrons indoors, the bread and butter for painters in those days, unlucky in love and dependent on his brother’s goodwill, that was Vincent in the winter of 1883. In the end, his loneliness drove him back to his parents.  Taking care of his mother after she had broken her leg led to somewhat of a reconciliation after their long months of rancour over Kee and Sien.
Theo, as an art dealer, mentioned to Vincent the new-age artists who were taking the Parisian world by storm: The Impressionists.vincent_van_gogh_-_avenue_of_poplars_in_autumn_-_google_art_project

… a lane of poplars with their yellow autumn foliage, where the sun makes occasional bright patches on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows cast by the trunks. At the end of the road, a little farmhouse with the blue sky above shining through the autumn leaves.

By the end of the year, Vincent had moved to Antwerp, when public opinion had turned against the eccentric painter after one of his models, an unmarried girl, had become pregnant. “Antwerp is certainly a very strange and beautiful place for a painter. My studio is quite bearable, particularly because I have pinned a set of Japanese prints on the wall…”

rainHe enrolled in an art school while there but disagreed with the teacher, who was focussed on classical drawing while Vincent preferred to exercise his self-taught creativity. He eventually quit and moved in with Theo. “Don’t be cross with me for arriving so suddenly…”

In Paris Theo introduced Vincent to Impressionists like Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. He seems to have added bright colours to his palette, inspired by brilliant Japanese art.

As for me – I can feel the desire for marriage and children slipping away… And there are times when I already feel old and broken…

I hope to progress to a point where you can show what I do confidently without having to compromise yourself. And then I’ll move away somewhere down South so I can get away from all these painters who disgust me as men.

1888-11-1A year later, Vincent stayed true to his word. He moved to and fell in love with scenic Arles in southern France.

The countryside here seems to me to be as beautiful as Japan in terms of the limpidity of the atmosphere and the brightness of the colours.

“I’m having a lot of trouble painting because of the wind, but I fasten my easel down with pegs knocked into the ground and carry on working; it’s too beautiful not to.”

I must also do a starry night with cypress tress or perhaps over a field of ripe wheat…

4995d8ee-1c75-4c29-a1d7-43c42d90fb9e

“A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with irises with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willow trees, and a strip of blue sky.”

How keenly Vincent observed the world!

A small town surrounded by countryside filled with yellow and purple flowers – you can imagine, very much a Japanese dream.

“I’m totally convinced of the importance of remaining here in the South and of the need to exaggerate colour even more-”

Vincent, when writing to John Russell from Paris talks about the painters that he met in his time there – Manet, Bernard and Gauguin, who are friends and Monet, whose paintings Theo greatly admires and sells. Vincent longs for his friends, especially Paul, to join him in the wondrous South.

The sunflowers are progressing;

Vincent frequented a night café, which was a good place for the homeless to stay warm at night. The “night prowlers” he calls them.

I often think that night is more alive and more richly colored than day.

By the end of 1888, after months of pleading, Vincent had finally got Gauguin to come South to Arles.

“Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a very fine picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase but – he prefers mine.” [Monet’s and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Gauguin’s painting of Vincent painting his sunflowers]

Vincent excitedly set up an extra bed for Gauguin and making his two chair paintings: Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair. Things were off to a solid start when they began painting together, but they soon started quarrelling because Vincent wanted the haughty Gauguin to treat him as an equal. He made matters worse because he feared that Gauguin would desert him.

One rainy night, the two of them were shut up in the Yellow House toget1024px-vincent_van_gogh_-_self-portrait_with_bandaged_ear_2818892c_courtauld_institute29her. Gauguin claims that Vincent grew very agitated at the prospect of his leaving and came at him with a razor. Gauguin left The Yellow House that night, never to return. Vincent mutilated his ear with a razor and had it delivered to a woman at a brothel that the two of them frequented. He was found the next morning by a policeman and taken to the local hospital where in his waking moments he asked to see Gauguin. Gauguin notified Theo and left town, telling the officer that his presence would only agitate Vincent further. Theo, who had just proposed to his future wife, jumped on a train to Arles on Christmas Day, rushing in to see his brother. Vincent didn’t attend Theo’s wedding.

His neighbours wanted “le fou roux” (the mad redhead) out of their vicinity. Suffering further lapses, Vincent decided to go to an asylum in Saint Rémy.

img_0500

I now have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry night.

“The cypresses continue to occupy my thoughts… I’m amazed that they haven’t yet been done in the way that I see them.”

They have beauty of line and proportion like that of an Egyptian obelisk.

In 1889, at 36, Vincent exhibited his art in Paris to favourable reviews from critics and fellow artists, that he couldn’t accept despite Theo’s reassurances. vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossom_-_google_art_projectHe was also getting tired of his time alone and missed his friends from the North.
A few months later, Theo had a son whom the couple named Vincent. The proud uncle immediately set about painting the almond blossoms to commemorate the birth of his namesake. He exhibited his work in Brussels to even greater acclaim and the only painting that he sold in his lifetime. He moved North to Auvers and became good friends with his doctor and amateur painter, Dr. Paul Gachet. He continued to paint his ‘translations’, his reproduction522 of the works of famous painters in oil paints, in his inimitable style. In the seventy days that he stayed in Auvers, Vincent produced seventy paintings.

“Dr. Gachet says that he thinks it very unlikely that it will return and that everything is going very well.”

Sad yet gentle, but clear and intelligent – that’s how many portraits ought to be painted

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-56-19-pm

“The flowers are an avalanche of roses against a green background and a very large bunch of violet-coloured irises against a yellow background and against a pink background.”599px-van_gogh_-_country_road_in_provence_by_night

“I still have a cypress tree with a star from down there, a last attempt – a night sky with a lacklustre moon, a slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque shadow cast by the earth – a star of exaggerated brightness if you like, shining soft pink and green in an ultramarine sky with clouds scurrying across. At the bottom of the road lined with tall yellow canes, behind them the blue foothills of the Alps, an old inn with windows illuminated orange, and a very tall cypress tree, very straight and very sombre.”

His words, like his brush strokes are in full colour, bright, passionate, emotional, frenzied, and poetic.

I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be other than a mere dealer in Corots, that through me you have your part to play in the actual production of certain canvases, which even in the midst of this disaster retain their calm.

– Unfinished draft of a letter from Vincent to Theo found on his body when he shot himself on 27th July 1890.

Heartbroken, Theo followed him to the grave a few months later. The brothers were buried side-by-side.

Vincent van Gogh’s story tugs at my heart strings.

Why care about a man dead over a century ago? Because his story is a familiar one. Van Gogh is perhaps the greatest painter known today. Yet, he died of hopelessness, guilty for living off his brother who loved him beyond measure. A man of great passion who couldn’t find someone to love. His life serves as a reminder that how ever insignificant you may think you are, you make a difference to someone’s world, more than you can possibly imagine.