I am into the third year of my confinement to my home. My coronary arteries have dealt with all possible interventions – a bypass surgery in 2004, rotablation and stenting in 2017 and after another angiogram a year later, I am on optimal medical management of stable angina. In between, the lockdown spell came and everyone was confined to home for a while. But then, although things turned normal, for me, staying at home is the new normal.
Lately, I began reading literature classics and took up Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the ultimate novelist who could write 1000-pages of a story, captivating readers in his world and making them emotionally involved with his imaginary characters. I am an avid reader and must have read all good novels in the last 20 years or so but the expanse of the stories in Tolstoy’s big books offered me solace in times of my physical discomfort and mental uncertainty.
Earlier this year (2021), I read three of Tolstoy’s tomes – Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Resurrection – in that order. All three are filmed and I could watch them later, on OTT. All the films are beautifully made and yet, the written novels stand out for their feel and the spell they cast upon the readers in the silence and privacy of their reading. No actors, no photography, no music, no sets, just the writer and the reader and what magic is created, what an experience!
Anna Karenina is a complex novel in eight parts. There are about a dozen major characters living in the Imperial Russian society of the 18th century and the rural versus urban life is a constant theme where the personal dramas unfold. The heroine, Anna Karenina, is the mother of an eight-year-old boy and the wife of a senior government official. When she falls in love with a Calvary officer, this creates turmoil in her family and she ends up committing suicide by jumping in front of a moving train on a railway platform. Tolstoy takes no sides. There are no justifications and no judgements. The novel continues one full chapter after Anna Karenina is gone and it is only in the last scene that you realize that the Calvary officer was the lynchpin of the tragedy.
War and Peace is even bigger than Anna Karenina. It weaves the stories of five Russian aristocratic families during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia, covering the period from 1805 to 1820. The novel begins in July 1805 describing a party hosted by a socialite in Saint Petersburg and ends with a precursor of the part of the Decembrist Uprising that would happen later in 1825, following the sudden death of Emperor Alexander I. Through the character of Prince Nikolai who is present throughout the novel, Tolstoy presents the spirit of the Russian nation, something no history book can ever capture or communicate. I wish that someone would write about the Indian freedom struggle with this honesty and without painting people as good and bad but as they had been living through their times.
But the final jolt I received came from Resurrection, the last novel of Tolstoy published in 1899. It is a straightforward story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov, who wrongs a young girl out of momentary passion and goes away. Years later, the Prince finds her in the courtroom where he has been invited as a jury member and realizes that it was that one-night stand of his that has ruined the girl’s life and brought her to the punishment of a murder and he, the real culprit who spoiled her life is now an honorable jury. His awakening is described as the resurrection. Although he proposes to marry the lady now, she refuses, calling him a cheap man still out to justify his crime by becoming her savior. Honesty, I have not read anything that has such a powerful effect. I was dumbfounded by the way Tolstoy exposed human conscience – everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing oneself.
Tolstoy offered an unromantic view of religion and government as structures of controlling people. By the simple narrative in his novels, Tolstoy ridiculed the hollowness of religious rituals and showed governments as essentially violent forces controlling national resources for their own profits. He advocated a simplified economy, a lesser need for the exchange of goods, and as such, factories and cities, and showed cities as parasitic over villages, and politics as the engines of corruption.
But it is while examining human nature where Tolstoy turns peerless. Leo Tolstoy sensitively describes the feelings and emotions of the characters, making readers not only understand why they act as they do but also enabling them to identify with them and live their feelings in themselves and in others around them. Even the negative characters in Tolstoy’s novels have their own reasons for their acts. A die-hard humanist, Tolstoy had famously said, “There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light burning in the heart of man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.”
It hurts when every evening, the TV channels paint a picture of the world on fire. Like in some video game, leaders have been divided into heroes and villains depending upon who owns the channel. It is all propaganda with no attempt to report the facts; forget about analyzing them to arrive at the truth. And why blame TV, which is unabashedly a commercial platform, where are the writers? Where is a book on Afghanistan? How come the great integration of the NE people with mainstream India has not captured any author’s imagination? Why are we in denial of the aspirations of a capitalist India? Tolstoy was not only writing about his times, he was sharing with his readers the timeless truth about human nature, society and governments.
For me, reading Resurrection has been transformative. I am weary of seeing people as kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. They keep changing from time to time and according to the people they are surrounded by. I can be kind and cruel, wise and stupid, energetic or apathetic depending upon whom I am dealing with, at which point of time and station in my life. So, never call anyone kind or wise, or wicked or stupid. Each one is all. Ravana had ten heads, which could be seen and counted. Modern man has morphing heads – they keep changing from frame to frame.
Tolstoy writes so beautifully, “Human beings are like rivers; the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another, and frequently is quite unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”
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