Tuesday, June 01, 2010

sobel, chughtai

#60 Longitude, Dava Sobel

Sobel recounts the story of how Britain won the race to solve the problem of how to calculate longitude at sea for popular rather than scholarly reading, and so produces this high-spirited, fun book that makes not only Britain's seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science, but also its history, wonderfully accessible. The solution to this problem unlocked the seas for Britain, and was an important step towards the era of British dominion over the waves. How one self-taught clockmaker spent his life to creating the perfect longitudinal clock [or chronometer] becomes a look at a whole web of political skullduggery - Royal Society v/s Longitude Board [oh yeah, for real]! Lunar tables v/s precision watch movement! And the most epic battle of them all, Flamsteed v/s Halley! - egoism, and pure sterling nerdiness. The amazing thing about the clock, of course, is that it was only one of the routes pursued in the race to win the 20K-pound bounty offered by Britain to the person who stabilised longitude calculation to the greatest degree. John Harrison, the man to whom the chronometer owes its existence, was a supremely unlikely contender in this battle: a carpenter's apprentice from Yorkshire with no connections and no influence whatsoever in those days when both science and sailing was governed by committee, and in this case the same committee. Yet, by the end of his life, he had defeated all his naysayers, competitors, jealous rivals and the best, brightest and bitterest of his doubters in the rarefied intellectual circles who felt themselves entitled to the prize, by the simple expedient of having created a perfect piece of technology.

A lovely story, and if anyone reading this does decide to pick it up too, I hope you have already read, or will read, Lisa Jardine's Ingenious Pursuits as well. Sobel's easy style, and her ability to strike the right notes while contextualising personality, morality and horological geekery in the tumult of the age go well with Jardine's portrait of an age where the intellectual pursuits of art and science were inextricably wedded, rather than separated. Plus, Flamsteed and Halley really demand more attention.

#61 A Very Strange Man, Ismat Chughtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi

Many years after this book was written, Javed Akhtar wrote an elegy for his father-in-law and fellow poet, Kaifi Azmi, which was also called Ajeeb Aadmi - a very strange man. It is an elegant, generous piece, befitting the personality for whom it was composed. The novel from which it borrows its name, written by Azmi's own colleague in the Progressive Writers' Movement, could not be more different. Chughtai was not only a central figure in the development of Urdu literature in newly independent India, but also [like Azmi, and Manto, Abbas, Sultanpuri -- right down to Akhtar himself] vastly influential throughout the subcontinent through her involvement in Hindi cinema. The biting sardonism of A Very Strange Man suggests a total lack of illusion about its ability to corrupt individuals and relationships, and induce a sort of moral paralysis. This is a cultural suspicion that any Indian familiar with our early decades of urban freedom will recognise - the zara hat ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bambai meri jaan spirit. Actually it's a cultural suspicion that any Indian who watched Luck By Chance two years ago will probably recognise too.

Chughtai tells the messy and hugely uncomfortable story at the centre of her novel with a sort of exasperated tenderness for her characters -- and I don't wonder, since the story is one that is instantly recognisable as picked straight out of the real-life tragedy of Guru Dutt and Geeta Dutt: he the brilliant and self-absorbed director and actor, she the angel-voiced playback singer; his obsession with someone else, her slow descent into alcoholism, and his eventual suicide. Chughtai changes the names of her principal characters, but retains a setting in which Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar and other Bollywood legends form a living, speaking background to the drama spiralling out of control. The tenderness is not forgiveness, though. It is a painfully sharp novel, and the sharpness certainly comes at the expense of that marked, particularly poignant characteristic of so much great Progressive writing, which is a broad, fair-minded human compassion. But Chughtai's impatience with the lapses of human integrity, too, are characteristic -- and the Chughtai piquancy shines, and sometimes burns, through every line of this melancholy book.

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