Saturday, January 11, 2014

' a comma in a sentence '- Book Review

Book Review : “a comma in a sentence” : ‘ Extraordinary Change in an Ordinary Family over Six Generations ’ : R.Gopalakrishnan : RAINLIGHT RUPA : Pages : 164 : Price : Rs 295/-

"Back on its golden hinges
The gate of Memory swings,
And my heart goes into the garden
And walks with the olden things."- Ella Wheeler Wilcox
This is the author’s fourth book. The earlier three belonged to the management genre. In this book which is in the form of a narrative, it is a long walk down memory lane for author Gopalakrishnan who covers more than two hundred years of history of his family starting from early 19th century. His ancestors lived in Villakudi- a small village near Thanjavur, the rice bowl of South India. Known for his sharp intellect and perceptiveness, Gopalakrishnan shows another facet of his personality in this book- that of a person who is sentimental, emotional and one who attaches great importance to traditional values or ‘samskaras’ as he refers to them. Written lucidly with interesting and humorous anecdotes, the book though aimed essentially at the younger generation in the family, is outreaching and will surely attract readers of all age groups.

Starting with Ranganathan, the author’s great great grandfather, the author describes the setting at Villakudi, Ranganathan’s frugal life, his earnings arising out of the agricultural crops, the austere Brahminical way of living and community service in the form of conducting religious functions and also taking on the role of the ‘purohit’ of the Sri Kasturi Ranga temple of the village. Ranganathan and the other villagers lived happily in their own world of Villakudi almost totally insulated from the goings-on outside the village borders. It was a peaceful and contended life.

But then, there were sweeping changes which were taking place outside Villakudi. The Great Madras Famine of 1877, the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the introduction of trains powered by steam engines around the same time, the arrival of the vernacular newspaper and the beginning of the Indian Postal Service. These were far reaching changes; each change dramatically altering the existing scenario and impacting the ‘frog in the well’ approach adopted by the elders of the village. Winds of change leave behind a transformation in the social milieu and its impact can only be judged by future generations. Each generation was apprehensive of how the next generation would manage these major changes. The author assures the readers that the next generation did quite well in coping with the changes.

The author discusses the caste system in the then Madras Residency and how Brahmin hegemony was brought down by E V Ramaswami Naicker, founder of the Justice Party. He propagated the principles of self-respect and removal of the caste system. He also he espoused the cause of women’s rights and the principles of rationalism. He endorsed violence against Brahmins and under his leadership Brahmins were harassed and ridiculed for their rituals and their Gods. Naicker who preached atheism succeeded in marginalizing the Brahmin community. Young educated Brahmins started leaving the Madras Presidency in droves as they did not find job opportunities. It was an irony that Naicker’s anti-caste movement resulted in a different form of casteism which manifested among the non-Brahmins and got accentuated and failed to serve the purpose of equalizing the social status of all people as Naicker had visualised.

In this backdrop of sweeping changes, new pastures outside Madras Presidency had to be sought by the educated Brahmin youth. Three youngsters from the Ranganathan family decided to venture out and take advantage of the job opportunities which Calcutta as a mercantile city provided. The author’s father Rajam followed his two cousins with the blessings of the elders. To permit the younger generation to leave the village for employment outside was a great change in the mindset of Ranganathan. Calcutta with its bustling business activities provided the right stepping stone for a professional career. All the three took up low salary jobs in Calcutta, a city totally alien to their cultural background at low salaries and built up their professional careers and simultaneously saved money to send back home. Rajam’s children studied in Calcutta in the best schools and colleges and equipped themselves with sound education and good values which acted as a strong foundation for their professional careers.

The author remembers with humour and fondness many incidents during his formative years and in his career with Hindustan Lever where he rose from a management trainee to the Board level and later his career with the Tata group in its highest echelons. These nostalgic reminiscences and interactions with outstanding personalities make the book very valuable and fascinating.

The book is entertaining, educative, witty, insightful and written with a sense of values and in a thoroughly lively manner. The book is part history, part biography, part autobiography all effortlessly blended and elegantly crafted as a narrative to make it a compelling read. Any negatives? None whatsoever. Anything that could have been added? Yes. Pictures of Vellikudi, the photographs of the family deity and the Kasturi Ranga temple and some family pictures would have enhanced the attractiveness of the book and given it a more personal touch.

We have a rich heritage and culture and philosophy which is multi-millenial and there is no incongruency between scientific temper and our cultural moorings. Gopalakrishnan has finely balanced the clash between modernity, rational thinking and culture in his own personality and that is what the younger generation has to learn. While retaining the best of our traditions, the younger generation must learn to adapt to the changing situations in a fast moving world. ‘Sanskaras’ will undoubtedly help the younger generation as a sheet anchor in their quest for excellence in their chosen fields and to face the world with courage and equanimity.