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Anton Chekhov: The Tsar of Russian Literature

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During my school days in the eighties there was a lot of Russian literature that I had easy access to courtesy Progress Publishers and one of my uncles. My uncle is an avid reader and those days his library was flush with Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and also innumerable folk tales from Russia. Some 5-odd first cousins and I grew up in a small hill town surrounded by Russian folk tales. Aldar Kose and Shigai-Bai were household names and we were all too familiar with the laziness and the charm of the youngest son Ivan.

The first time I read ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov it was a Hindi translation called Vyatha Ka Bhar. The story of Iona Potapov, a sledge-driver in Petersburg, takes just over 2000 words to capture crushing grief. Chekhov is brilliant in using the settings of Russian rural life; lived under the weight and silence of snow. The primary purpose of this post is just to provide a link to the story for an interested reader. In ‘Misery’ death ‘came for the father’ but took the son instead; and Chekhov, in the most beautiful manner, captured the stone deafness of the living.

Author J.D. Salinger referred to Chekhov in his book Franny and Zooey. ‘At ten-thirty on a Monday morning in November of 1955, Zooey Glass, a young man of twenty-five, was seated in a very full bath, reading a four-year-old letter. It was an almost endless-looking letter, typewritten on several pages of second-sheet yellow paper, and he was having some little trouble keeping it propped up against the two dry islands of his knees.’

The letter is addressed to Zooey and written by his eldest alive brother Buddy Glass and it deals with, among other things, the acting career of the recipient.

“And if you go into the theatre, will you have any illusions about that? Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, The Cherry Orchard? Don’t say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen ‘inspired’ productions, ‘competent’ productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul on-stage. You worry hell out of me, Zooey. Forgive the pessimism, if not the sonority. But I know how much you demand from a thing, you little bastard. And I’ve had the hellish experience of sitting next to you at the theatre. I can so clearly see you demanding something from the performing arts that just isn’t residual there. For heaven’s sake, be careful.”

Salinger gets it so right; it is near impossible to match Chekhov’s talent nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy. The Wordsworth Classics edition of selected stories of Anton Chekhov carries an introduction by Joe Andrew, Professor of Russian Literature, Keele University, and some information in this piece is distilled from it. From being a writer partly to earn money to train to be a doctor and partly to amuse himself Chekhov drifted into literature seriously in the mid-1880s when he moved to St. Petersburg and met a number of famous writers who praised the great talent they saw semi-submerged beneath the hackwork. In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist.

One of the works, The Robbers, appeared in Suvorin’s New Times in 1890 and the publisher reproached Chekhov for his ‘objectivity’ (that is, lack of ‘message’), and Chekhov responded with a tired irony: ‘You tell me off for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil … When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has been long known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.’

Yet there was a shift in Chekhov’s own approach as shown in a few of his last works and just two years later he wrote to the same correspondent that the best writers ‘are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.’

The twentieth-century Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg sums this up well: ‘Chekhov’s sympathies and antagonisms are clear, but he does not touch up the people he likes and he finds human traits in those he dislikes or even hates. As a result of these tendencies, it would be no exaggeration to say that Chekhov was perhaps the most human, liberal, and basically decent man in Russian literature.’

This understanding of what the artist needed to do at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia arose in part from his deepening consciousness as an artist, but also because, as a man who had risen from very humble origins, and who continued to work (for free) as a doctor well into the 1890s, Chekhov knew life ‘in the lower depths’ better than any of his predecessors. Perhaps that is the reason why this profound line came from him: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Notes: Misery and Grief by Anton Chekhov; Wordsworth Classics, Selected Stories, Anton Chekhov, 1996. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger.

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Written by Deepan Joshi

May 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Tendulkar And The Zen Masters

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The Master, in most of the mystic religious sects around the world is a man that can be described as the finite form of the infinite. The word is used in most of the religions of the East; like in Japan, where an ‘enlightened’ Zen monk is referred to as a Master. The 20th Century American writer J.D. Salinger, known largely for his ‘unusually brilliant’ and ‘controversial’ book The Catcher In The Rye used a Japanese ‘haiku’ (poem) in his book Franny and Zooey, first published as a story in two parts in The New Yorker magazine as Franny in 1955 and Zooey in 1957. The haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) translated in English goes:

O Snail,
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

There are many interpretations of the haiku and one way of looking at it is that man can reach the summit by having the endurance to overcome adversity. Forgive me for digressing but this is the closest that I can come to describing the mastery of the man who is popularly known as the Little Master around the cricketing world. An old Japanese proverb says that a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life and only a fool climbs it again; the implied meaning for the fool here is that it is so tough and has such inclement weather that only the really-daring would go again.

If Mount Fuji had a cricketing equivalent then Tendulkar is the man who has been living at the summit for just a few days less than 20 years now. There is no typhoon greater than the one he can still generate and there is no one from his time who has survived the hostile weather of international cricket with such elegance that even the violence that flows from his blade looks like the serene poise of a Zen monk.

On the eve of the fifth game in Hyderabad, the Indian captain MS Dhoni said, “Top order batsmen need to bat well and not rely on the lower order. If you are playing with seven batsmen, it’s better to get a big score from six of them rather than use the seventh, who we call as a backup batsman, especially when you are chasing. If one among the top order gets a big score it becomes easy for us as the others can rotate around him.”

The man on top of everything heeded the captain’s call and apart from another one at number six, no one else found it easy to rotate around him. Australia had belted 350, riding on the momentum they had picked when India had dropped it in the second-half of the ODI in Mohali.

For Australia just the top order came out to bat and everyone scored above a run a ball. Shaun Marsh and Watson scored 112 and 97 respectively. Ponting made a run-a-ball 45 and White and Hussey gave the finishing kick.

No matter what the conditions and the trueness of the wicket, chasing 350 is the cricketing equivalent of climbing Mount Fuji; and it was too stiff a climb for one man to pull the weight of 9 others. Apart from Tendulkar—who made a sparkling 175 in 141 balls studded with 19 square jewels and four large-sized pearls—the other significant contribution in the chase came in the form of a 59 from Raina at number 6. The 38 from Sehwag and the 23 from Jadeja had the possibility of becoming significant but Sehwag played one shot too many and Jadeja for the second time in the series ran as if his run out was essential to India’s victory.

If I look at the top 5 then it was just one man who made it possible that the game came down to holding one’s nerve in the end. At the stage where 19 runs were needed in 18 balls with four wickets in hand and a set Tendulkar batting as good as he ever had; the match was India’s to lose.

Tendulkar single-handedly kept India in the hunt; he played the booming drives, the lofted on the rise strokes clearing the inner circle, the delicate and the furious square cuts. He used the pace of the bowlers, when his deft touch was needed to place the ball behind the wicket on either side. Tendulkar danced down the wicket to hit the spinners out of the attack. He played perfect chip shots and the pulls that went along the ground. The Master bisected the boundary raiders using his wrists as if they were meant to solve a geometric problem. He dusted his cupboard to bring out a pull shot that sailed for a six over midwicket. He played with a fearless flamboyance so that the newcomers could adjust to the wicket without worrying about the run-rate.

Earlier, as Australia had preserved wickets, their late charge added 90 runs in 48 balls for the team. The way the Little Master had calculated and scored from the beginning and then in a big partnership with Raina; his team needed just 52 runs in the last 48 balls. The Aussie bowling had been thrashed, mainly by Tendulkar and to an extent by Sehwag and Raina. Two overs changed the game after Tendulkar and Raina had put India completely in front. The first of the two overs was the 43rd and the second was the 48th. In the 43rd over bowled by Watson, one run came for the loss of Raina and Harbhajan.

It has been such a series for Australia that it would not be surprising if an Aussie tourist is picked and brought to the ground in case Ponting suddenly finds that he is left with only 10 fit men for a game. The score-line says 3-2 in Australia’s favour and that is a massive achievement by an inexperienced as well as an injury-hit team that Ponting leads. I don’t think I’ll see a headline that says ‘India out to hit injury-hit Australia’ again in this series at least.

In the 48th over again two wickets fell for 3 runs. A crestfallen Tendulkar departed to a rising ovation off the first ball of the over. From the beginning he knew how to climb this summit; he created and shaped the reply knowing exactly where and how to take a risk and to keep his companions steady. There was nothing that could stop him in Hyderabad and even after the dismissal of Raina and Harbhajan; 32 more runs were added between Jadeja and Tendulkar.

And then the Master came down from the peak and made an error of judgement; as in that form no bowler could have taken his wicket had he kept his shot selection on the cautious side. After the dismissal he saw his work of art falling short just like it did in Chennai 1999. He had been phenomenal in Hyderabad but in the presentation ceremony he looked the most-disappointed and the-most forlorn man. Tendulkar knows it very well that the infinite is expected of the Master. And he knows that people forgive everyone but they never forgive a genius.

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