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Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Men are wretched by necessity

THOUGHTS (Hesperus, £ 5.99) by Giacomo Leopardi

translates this great Italian Romantic’s Pensieri — a collection of aphorisms and reflections on the social and metaphysical dimensions of human existence. Leopardi (1797-1837) believed that “men are wretched by necessity, and determined to believe themselves wretched by accident”. This “pessimism” — which is not quite the right word for what, in Leopardi, was a profound intellectual conviction as well as the driving force of his lyric poetry — makes him a rather difficult Romantic for modern readers. For Edoardo Albinati, who has written the foreword to this translation (by J.G. Nichols), Leopardi is a poet “of almost unbearable purity” who transfigures a kind of contrary intellectual energy which is essentially, and gloriously, adolescent. These maxims combine the urbanity of Voltaire and La Rochefoucauld with the rhapsodic “immaturity” of such artists, closer home, as Giovanni Pascoli and Pier Paolo Pasolini. This edition also appends the 1836 poem, “The Broom, or the Flower of the Desert” from the Canti, whose epigraph, from the gospel of John, gets to the heart of Leopardi’s obscure universe: “And men loved darkness rather than light.”

sitagita speaks on corporate etiquette & social graces (Rupa, Rs 50 each) are the first two volumes in the “Women’s Life Enriching Series”. “Don’t grate on the senses”, the former advises, “Slurping, tapping of pens and tinkle of trinkets can also be distracting.” The latter, which takes you for “a stroll along Etiquette Avenue”, is wonderfully particular: “If you have an upper respiratory tract infection, don’t visit.” These are incredible little books, printed in bright mauve and sea-green, mandatory reading for the modern Indian career woman, who must be immunized early to domestic and corporate idiocy. As volume two puts it, in mauve, “Have fun with finesse.”

shahnaz (Penguin, Rs 295) by Hiro Boga is one of those numberless “stunning debut novels” spawned by the Indian-fiction-in-English market which sink into oblivion as effortlessly as they seem to come into existence. There is trauma, empowerment and migration. And there is bad writing, lots of it — erotic, evocative, elegiac, and of course, richly diasporic. “Love. Freedom. Small kernel words that stand for something big enough to encompass the earth, to include India and America in one embrace. Patrick and me. That include (sic) this silky animal stretching and brushing its fur inside my belly. Its sweet breath fills my chest, expands outwards in concentric rings like ripples in a pond.”

walks in the wild (Penguin, Rs 250) by Prosenjit Das Gupta is more than being about “just getting away from it all”. Das Gupta has spent great many years exploring the forests of India, driven by his abiding interest in wildlife, nature and, indeed, human beings. Risk, unpredictability and great, but fleeting, beauty are the stuff of the writer’s pursuits in jungles and sanctuaries as a wildlife photographer. Hazaribagh, Palamau, Kanha, Bharatpur, Manas, the Sunderbans, Corbett National Park and Ranthambhor are some of the locations invoked in these accounts. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, the photographs in this book are rather unremarkable.

Tales of the punjab: folklore of india (Rupa, Rs 150) by Flora Annie Steel was first published in 1894, and collects little stories, addressed to children, from the folklore of the Punjab. This beautiful reprint comes with the original illustrations by J. Lockwood Kipling and annotations by the eminent scholar and ethnographer, R.C. Temple. As a writer of fiction set in the raj, Steel, the wife of a British civil servant, is an interesting subject in her own right.

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