Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Leo Tolstoy and his great epic War and Peace
Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge - MD

At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonable says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not a man’s power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally yields to the first voice; in society to the second.

Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace) According to E.M Forster, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace” (Voyna I Mir) has been the greatest novel ever written. It’s a novel that runs through time and space.

Over four hundred fictional and historical characters are illustrated in this unique novel. War and Peace narrates Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the post war period. In War and Peace

Tolstoy argued his own idiosyncratic theory of life. He was struggling between with his Christian ideals and his conflicts with lust and the hypocrisies.

War and Peace is a question paper submitted to the reader.

Tolstoy puts a question how to lead a perfect life in an imperfect world. His struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts made him to write the greatest book in the history of literature.

Character analysis is exceptional in this great novel. There are several central characters that keep the narrative live and distinctive. Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky two fictional characters appear throughout the novel are remarkable for their static nature. They often regarded as being reflections of Tolstoy himself.

Leo Tolstoy’s life was full of contradictions. He wanted to renounce wealth but until his old age he could not make a precise decision. He preached that the money was evil yet he enjoyed luxuries, he said people should detach from their wealth and look after the poor.

However in real life he had to arrest three poor peasants who illegally cut timber in his state and later to prosecute them. He was trapped in an unhappy marriage for a long time. At a time he was an egoless lover and the next time he was jealous of his wife. Leo Tolstoy’s shifting emotions are well documented in his novels and many are reflected in his masterpiece War and Peace.

Tolstoy lost both of his parents at the small age. But their warmth and spiritual touch lived with him. He immortalised their memory by creating two fictional characters in War and Peace.

Nikolai Rostov (young brave Army officer who is a passionate lover fond of gambling and leads a reckless life later turns in to a responsible man) and Maria Bolkonskaya (who is a loving and a religious woman) were based on Tolstoy’s own memories of his father and mother. Pierre and Prince Andrei bear much resemblance to Tolstoy himself.

Tolstoy was struggling with his passions and his spiritual conflicts were expressed via Pierre Bezukhov’s character. According to the novel Pierre Bezukhov is an illegitimate son of Count Kirill Bezukhov. Pierre is described as an ill-mannered non attractive socially awkward man who is fond of women, wine and gambling. This portrait is much similar to young Tolstoy.

Young Tolstoy had a passion for gambling and had exhausted the family wealth. Like Pierre Bezukhov he found it difficult to integrate into the Petersburg high society. Tolstoy admitted himself as a non attractive ugly man.

Likewise Pierre Bezukhov is narrated as a huge bear like person. Pierre was ignored and rejected by the high society until he inherits his father’s fortune. Once he becomes rich and famous Pierre was forced to get married to a woman named Helen. Consequently he was trapped in an unhappy marriage and searching for meaning in his life. One time debauch now becomes a philosopher. Pierre Bezuhov represents much of Tolstoy’s philosophy.

The character of Platòn Karataev is relatively small but very inspiring. As the book describes Platòn Karataev is a peasant with simple and true qualities which Tolstoy admired most. The author becomes a prophet and a moral reformer who speaks to the reader directly.

Platòn Karatheave becomes his mouthpiece. One time Leo Tolstoy was an ambitious young officer who served in the Crimean War. There he witnessed horror and despair and as a result of battle stress he gradually experienced a personality change.

The climax of this personality change occurred many years after the war when he was travelling to buy an estate. He had to stay in a motel and in the middle of the night he walked up with a mortal fear.

This could have been a sever anxiety attack and this incident made distinct changes in him.

He experienced persistent sorrow and emptiness which he described in his autobiographical book Confession.

I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain.

I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat.

Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder - there was not a crime I did not commit...Thus I lived for ten years.”

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky mostly represent Tolstoy’s military period. Prince Andrei was a cynical man tired of his wealth and family glory goes in search of a new life adventure. He wants to make history and to be a large part of it. He was looking forward to find his

greatness in the Battle of Austerlitz. When Andrei was wounded in the battle he sees the blue sky which implies the emptiness. Andrei’s NDE (Near Death Experience) makes him more matured and finally he realizes military glory, encounter with his former hero Napoleon, making history etc all were insignificant empty attempts. He realized the true meaning of human suffering. But he becomes more syndical and alienated.

Later in life Count Tolstoy formulated a stereotype unique philosophy. Although he was criticised by the clergy and even excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church Tolstoy believed that philosophic principles can only be understood in their concrete expression in history.

Tolstoy discussed the free will in War and Peace. War and Peace reflects Tolstoy’s view that all is predestined.. He writes no one controls events not even Napoleon or Kutuzov Commander-in-chief of the Russian forces or the Tsar Alexander I.

In his own words Leo Tolstoy states

“In historical events great men - so-called - are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself.

Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.”

This philosophy was later grasped by many novelists and film directors. For instance in the movie Wind and the Lion (Starring Sean Connery) the nomad leader of the desert Raisuli compares his place in the universe as a pawn in the chess board which he has no control .

Tolstoy once said man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


‘Learning to Fly’


When young, it is not uncommon to see a young girl/boy of school-going age scribbling on the back page of their notebook. In fact, it seems to make a satisfying and enriching little exercise that makes the ticking of the wall clock seem more endurable. But when Shehani Gomes, author of the recently launched book ‘Learning to Fly’ began the story behind her novel and her life, mere doodling on exercise books took on another meaning and form. Little did anyone know, inclusive of Shehani herself, that the same hands that scribbled bits of poetry on pages of a book (that was supposed to hold homework notes instead!), would pen pages of creativity and imagination, at such a young age, soon to be launched as her very own novel.

The last strands of the month of November 2008 held that great day and recalling the event which was held at the Barefoot Gallery, Shehani displayed an excited grin. Working as Management Consultant at Carbon Asia, a pioneering firm in the climate change industry, she admitted that ‘Learning to Fly’ is her first attempt at penning a novel, as opposed to the countless number of poetry that spans her life, and her first attempt at launching one. The leap seemed to have followed another grand occurrence in her life, when the novel was short listed for the Gratiaen of 2006. “I was very pleasantly stunned and happy…” reminisced she adding that she had genuinely caring people around her who encouraged her to pursue writing, “because they took my writing seriously, they deserve the most thanks.”

A vivified account

‘Tell me about your family...’ was the invitation rendered to the young lady to which she cocked her head to one side and said, “There’s my sister who is older than me and my niece who is very very pretty. My dad used to be an accountant and my mom is completely obsessed with her garden!” Shehani’s sister is abroad but she recounted that it almost feels like she’s home most of the time owing to the facility of web chat. Born in Kandana and having been housed there as a child, Shehani was educated at St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo; thus she feels that although she grew up “technically” in Kandana, most of her childhood and thereafter was spent in Colombo where she occupied late hours in school almost every day of the week. Having a very close knit bunch of friends in school, Shehani remembers a happy journey through her educational domains. “Schooling years are the best; they are the moulding years. We had a lot of interschool activities and got to know a lot of talented kids. It was like we built our own community.”

Chess and debating were the two main arenas of interest for her in school and she feels that the exposure in the latter gave her the benefit of gaining knowledge of various issues in the world that she would otherwise have been ignorant of until she reached a certain age. “I was into chess and I still love it; I play when I want to.” Choosing a combination of Commerce and Arts (Economic, Business Studies and English) for her Advanced Level’s, Shehani passed out of school and completed her CIMA. She began but gave up her degree in law after a short spell as a journalist.


Her personal thought processes depicted in the shape of poems, began when she was an early teenager. Not really coming from a family of ‘writers’, she admits however that her dad always encouraged her by gifting her books to read. “It’s not something I consciously do,” she explained referring to her poetry, which evolved as a talent, a pastime, which she gradually grew into.

While voyaging through her short spell as a journalist, she recalls having to learn how to type news at express speed which in a way led her to experiment with Microsoft Word on her first computer. “Then I started writing a story and showed it to my Literature teacher who suggested that I enter it to the Gratiaen,” which she did; thus was the origin of ‘Learning to Fly’.

Learning to Fly

‘Do you remember when you first fell in love? Do you remember the unrestrained joys and plummeting sorrows of adolescence?....’ reads the back cover of Shehani’s book ‘Learning to Fly’, which is a title that arises from the fact that the book is one about adolescence.

“Flying is a huge step and the book is a reflection of adolescents’ transition from adolescence to youth; and the way they go about the bends and bumps on the way,” explained the young author. Described as a very short novel, ‘Learning to Fly’ holds essential stories of love and life, which are very unique to such times in life; the characters in the book are eccentric and constantly in search of happiness; the book depicts Sri Lankan youth in a fresh way.

“What’s different about the book is that there are lots of episodes and lots of conversations,” sketched Shehani adding that the three main characters in the novel, Kala, Dylan and Nadia, are very dramatic individuals. However, although at times, their dramatic nature reaches a climax of unusualness, the author feels that most adolescents would at least have such extreme adolescent thoughts running through their minds occasionally.

“The book is a cross section of a dark adolescence. Certain friendships introduced in the book are universal like the way two girl friends would talk and the secrets they share…” offered Shehani who feels that although the characters in her novel are most certainly fictitious, they complement real life people. Having started writing the story when she began experimenting with the computer, she never intended for it to be a novel back then.

“Novels take more effort than poetry,” smiled she adding that having to organize her thoughts and penning in sequential links was the biggest challenge she faced while putting together her maiden novel, “my publisher/editor Ameena Hussein, really helped me out.”

Building the characters within a novel, is an exercise that Shehani enjoys a lot as she feels that one can experiment with the characters, mould them, bend and even destroy them if one likes! “You don’t have to feel upset or guilty about it because they are fictitious!” she laughed.

Novel writing came naturally for Shehani and she does not count it a big shift from writing poetry. Penning the novel, she said, allowed the mind to wander more; while building fictional characters for her story had been immensely interesting, poetry to her, is far more personal in nature.

“I love writing and it makes me really happy.” Bubbly and chatty in nature, Shehani seemed to have a personality vibrant with innovative thought and talent.

The interview which spanned more than an hour, was more on the lines of a friendly conversation as she animatedly and humorously detailed the many stories in her life which she found amusing! She enjoys listening to music and does a lot of that and laughed when saying that she talks a lot too! Reading too is a frequent exercise in her life both for professional reasons and otherwise. “I like South Asian writers mostly. I love writers like Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahir, Rohinton Mistry and Nihal de Silva. I think their books have an amazing local quality; but my favourite book is by the author Douglas Kennedy.”

Carbon Asia

Carbon Asia Pacific (Pvt) Ltd is a member of the Asia Capital Group. Shehani, having worked in the apparel sector before, has been with Carbon Asia for a period of four months now and she’s enjoying her work. “It’s an exciting field to be in.

It brings sense to all those things you read about in your childhood stories…” Owing to the fact that carbon trading is a relatively new subject in our country, Shehani finds fulfillment in knowing that she has a direct part she’s playing in helping to safeguard the planet through her profession. Also, having been trained as a financial analyst, the work she does at Carbon Asia is complementary to her training.

When asked about her future, she smiled coyly admitting that she is indeed a little ‘hazy’ on that but she does want to concentrate on her career. Has the pen stop moving? No, not exactly, Shehani is currently in the process of penning another work but is not sure how far it’ll go.

“It’s sometimes okay to share what you doodle in secret. It turns out that it’s not a crime. And some might think it’s a good thing – this whole writing thing…” she advices other budding writers.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Novel as discovery. For Canadian-born Padma Viswanathan, writing her debut novel led her back to a culture and milieu that went back over a 100 years. Excerpts from an interview…

Remember the days when grandma used to start her tales of yore, "in my day…" Nine out of 10 people would have rolled their eyes and gently slipped out before grandma realised that no one was listening to her. But the one who stayed back to listen may have actually cottoned on to something that led somewhere.

Meet Padma Viswanathan, a Canadian-born Indian origin playwright and author, who transformed her grandmother’s stories into an extraordinary first novel, The Toss of a Lemon. Set in the heart of a traditional Tamil Brahmin household at the turn of the 19th century, the book documents the effects of the momentous changes of that time on one family.

Viswanthan has quite a few short stories and plays to her credit. Now add a 600+ pages novel to that list. Asked what she felt like writing the first scene of her first play, Viswanathan says, "It’s hard to describe, but it felt as though this was something I firmly, intuitively, knew how to do. As soon as I wrote it, I knew there was nothing else, in theatre or otherwise, that I would be able to do as well." Given that books "had always been paramount in my life", she sees writing as a way of giving back, of communicating her learning experiences from books.

Though this one took her 10 years, she didn’t anticipate such a big book. "I don’t think I would have had the courage to begin if I had known it would be so long," she says. Beginning with writing episodes or chapters as they occurred, "and trying to figure out what the narrative arc might be given what was emerging," she even considered a trilogy. Then took it to the chopping board; when it first reached the publisher it was around 900 pages. Back to the chopping board for the final product. "In the process of writing The Toss of a Lemon, I learned, in a way, how to write."

Asked about which writers were looking over her shoulder while she worked, she mentions Salman Rushdie and Ann Marie MacDonald. "It was Rushdie’s novels that I thought about most as I was writing, though Canadian writer Ann Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees also hovered. My prose doesn’t sound anything like Rushdie’s, but I was inspired by the particularity of his voice to find my own. "

For someone who grew up abroad, Viswanathan has managed to recreate an almost-extinct Tamil Brahmin household that has nothing to do with today’s NRI Tam-Bram software culture. "Thirty years ago many of our relatives still lived in households in villages much like the ones I describe in my book. Increasingly, they have moved to the cities and even overseas, but I continued to visit them and, when I was doing research for the book, I stayed with the few relatives who still live in a way that resembles the Brahmin way of life of a 100 years ago."

Without being a diatribe, the focus on the daily minutiae of Brahmin rituals does drive home the injustice of the caste system without the author’s voice intruding or telling the reader so. "My intention was to implicate the reader, to make them feel how seductive the caste system is… and so give a sense of why it persists, even today, if in mutated forms. The book is the product of a lifetime of observing and thinking about this culture and of my stumbling efforts to show respect by conforming to the rules while staying with relatives, even while loudly voicing my objections!"

Some others obviously don’t think so. One Netizen says, "One expects The Toss of a Lemon to seize the issue of caste relations in its teeth, because there is simply so much to say about the recognition of caste injustice in Tamil Nadu… However, Viswanathan… glides over the larger issues of the day, quite a feat in 600 odd pages." Put this one to her and the author asks if she should "have made some declaration: ‘In case you don’t know, the caste system is unfair and cruel and we must all work to dismantle it’. It’s a novel; not a political speech." Negative reactions don’t faze her. "There will be those who don’t find it to their taste; literature is an idiosyncratic enterprise. I have written the book I needed and wanted to write and I’m very grateful it has found its readers," she seems satisfied.

Considering that the book is based on stories told by Viswanathan’s grandmother about her own grandmother, one does wonder about reactions within the family. Her grandmother was "deeply, emotionally affected because she so closely identified with the story. At one point in my book, the children who are being raised by their grandmother, Sivakami, are taken back by their father who, after a week, sends them right back again. Although this incident never happened in "real life", it brought back to my grandmother the feelings of rejection and neglect she had suffered as a child. She is very proud of the book (and its writer), and is now revelling in its success."

Speaking of family, how was her intention to be a writer received by her parents? At first, "they thought it was the most recent in a series of declared professional ambitions that had changed every year since I was 10! They started taking it a little more seriously when my play was produced and I started getting some awards and prizes, but they were still, understandably, troubled by the long, lean years of financial uncertainty. Now, they feel my gamble was worthwhile." The process of publication itself, she says, was "bizarrely easy". The book went to Toronto-based agent Bruce Westwood courtesy another Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. From Canada to the U.S. and it has moved on since: to Spain, Italy, Holland, Brazil and Australia.

And what of inputs from her writer husband? Apart from reading the manuscript and giving suggestions, his role was a generally supportive one. Echoing other working couples, Viswanathan says, "The concerns of artists are often practical ones: income, childcare, a place to work." Unless these are taken care off, she says, one won’t have the "peace of mind" to "enter the realms of imagination". "So we work hard to take care of these things for one another. Our parents have also helped a lot… "

With the first novel flying high, she’s working on her next project for Random House Canada. Losing Farther, Losing Faster focuses on the dilemma of a devotee whose guru (both being Indian) has been accused of a sexual misdeed. The novel centres on how Seth comes to terms with his faith given these accusations. From the end of the 19th century to the 21st century is a fast move indeed.

(The Hindu)