The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Always with disastrous results

Indira Gandhi: A Biography (Penguin, Rs 295) by Pupul Jayakar is the fruit of a long and rather adoring personal friendship. Encouraged by Indira herself and by Rajiv, Jayakar wrote this “doomswept story” after its protagonist’s death. The writing is unrelievedly lofty and a tad too passionate, as if she were writing about her mentor, the sage Krishnamurthy. This is particularly disconcerting when she covers the Emergency: the abstractions become evasions. There are beautiful, intriguing passages from Indira’s letters to her father, especially from her early European years. From Switzerland (1939): “Every morning after breakfast I take a small flat boat...take it out towards the middle of the lake and then let it drift while I stretch out in my bathing costume and sunbathe as well as do some reading. Already I have gone a deep sienna brown.” The same year, these haunting lines, to Jawaharlal again, while with Feroze in Lucerne: “I have strange moods and strange ideas come fleeting across my mind; for some time I am like one possessed, and always with disastrous results. But all this too is the outcome of being alone — for I am lonely too — terribly lonely and alone. So dependent on you.”

Surviving the Volcano (Abacus, £ 8.99) by Stanley Williams reveals the fascinating, high-risk realm of volcanology through a very personal account of the Columbian volcano, Galeras, when it erupted in 1993. Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — Williams and his colleagues were standing on top of the Galeras when this happened. Most of them were incinerated, but Williams lived to tell the extraordinary story of his rescue. For Maurice Krafft, volcanoes are “geological beasts, every man should see one up close at least once in a lifetime.”

Metamorphosis (Hesperus, £ 5.99) by Franz Kafka gathers, apart from this work of genius, several brilliant pieces of fiction, thereby significantly extending the range of what is usually evoked by postmodernism’s indispensable epithet, “kafkaesque”. Richard Stokes is the translator, and the British actor, Michael Jarvis, introduces this selection. Actors often bring startling, creatural insights to literary works, drawing from the most ordinary human experience. Jarvis draws the reader’s attention to the little parable, “Give Up!”. The narrator is hurrying towards the station through the streets, “clean and deserted”, of an unfamiliar town. Uncertain of the way, he approaches a policeman breathlessly. “He smiled and said: ‘You are asking me the way'’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give up, give up,’ he said, and turned away with a great sweep, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.”

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