O Tolstoy!

by | Oct 15, 2021

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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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16 Comments

  1. Loved your blog sir. If you find time also please read A Gentleman in Moscow. I have just finished with it and what a read it has been.

  2. Sir, I am writing my comment a little late this time. Your beautifully written article O Tolstoy forced me to ponder upon which novel can be called “great.” Is it a novel with beautiful, captivating figurative language? Or one with gritty realism? A novel that has had an immense social impact ? Or one that has more subtly affected the world ?

    Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is very often seen as the best novel written ever. It deals with juicy subjects like adultery, gambling, marriage plots, and, well, social divide, with such a finesse that it becomes impossible not to feel the pain of the people who did wrong in their lives and also got wronged.

    I would put F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on the equal pedestal. The novel is told from the perspective of a young man named Nick Carraway who has recently moved to New York City and is befriended by his eccentric nouveau riche neighbor with mysterious origins, Jay Gatsby. The portrayal of the 1920s in United States history and critiquing the idea of the “American Dream” is most fascinating.

    Both the novels have been made into great films. Greta Garbo in 1935 and Keira Knightley in 2012 lived Anna Karenina on screen with great aplomb. Leonardo DiCaprio brought to life Jay Gatsby in a 2013 film. On War and Peace, India is the best example of how it is not allowed to live in peace for a thousand year. Perhaps a war is needed to achieve it. May I add a famous statement of Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky here, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

    Please keep writing about literature. It is dangerously going out of fashion and the trend must be reversed.

  3. Sir, I agree on the variability of human attributes, but what about our primal instincts?. Shouldn’t we explore, elaborate and build upon the “something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail?”.

    The covid is not gone yet and the other climate change-related issues require the deep humanism of Tolstoy to emerge as a default human condition.

  4. Leo Tolstoy is more to be remembered not as a story writer, but a person who brings out the traits in different persons and the exhibition of different forms within the same persons, largely influenced by the social environment one lives in. In fact
    to read to entertain oneself- read Tolstoy once..
    to read to understand, read twice
    to appreciate the feelings of different characters and the nuances of the human traits read it a number times – but each time ‘ruminate’ what Tolstoy is trying to tell or bring out.
    Best wishes to all for the ensuing festivities.

  5. Novels are the best medium to study life. I read mostly Telugu novels and many of them make me ponder upon certain facts of life. “Asamarthuni Jeeva Yaatra” of Gopichand is so profound.

    I wish someone would write about how migrant labourers suffer during COVID. Also, who is making the Indian share market rise without any corresponding wealth creation activity and when the bubble will burst who will suffer most.

  6. The Alchemist, of Paulo Coelho was the first novel I read and I find it a full pack of lessons! The chief essence of the book is to follow your dreams and that your journey is far more important than your destination. Very subtly the book presented the contrast between the lives of people who realise and fulfil their purpose with those who allow themselves to be sidetracked and never achieve their goals. You have written so many easy reading books on difficult themes, why not write a novel about people living fake lives and what happens when reality bites them.

  7. Sir honestly, I am not a reader of novels but I read your blogs regularly and of course newspaper attentively. It helps me feel the larger picture. What is shown in electronic media is highly biased, staged and even fake. Written words their own sanctity.

    I feel that good writers must define reality. Any body can observe facts but a good writer can see the truth behind these facts. Novels like “Half Girl Friend” may be telling facts of a part of urban society but the truth is that overall standards of women in Indian society have improved significantly.

    I hope someone will write how Indian women got empowered, are joining army, flying airplanes and even sailing on ships. They are art every workplace and are winning Olympic medals. Where are their stories? I am from Amethi and I know how people have voted for a woman leader.

  8. Immensely enjoyed each bit of your blog, Sir – the descriptions from Tolstoy’s books; your commentary bits on each, and then your Ponderings.

    “Where are the writers?” — this and the lines that follow created an impact, a timely jolt to the conscience. I take it as a definite Message, conveyed through you, and I pray for willpower and for right thinking and right action for all writers, me included!

    We tend to get bogged down by our issues, but that’s when someone like you truly inspires — on how to turn all kinds of adversity into great opportunity(s)! Opportunity to serve and to do good in every possible way.

    I had heard of a principle that works in nature, which roughly is: “So long as the larger good is at heart and put into action, the God of Dharma takes care of us, saves us.’ And I remembered it as I read this blog of yours. Thank you for sharing so much at every level and in such detail. There are many, many takeaways for us!
    Warm regards

  9. “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness”.
    This is one of Tolstoy’s famous quotes and mirrors what you said about the duality and sometimes even the plurality of human nature. We are all both reflections and refractions of what makes us, and we glint and shine accordingly.

    I think I mentioned in one of your earlier blogs my ever lasting fascination with two Russian greats, Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabokov. I feel great sorrow to this day that in spite of Nobel Prize nominations for both Peace (3 times) and Literature (4 times) but never won any, a controversy that was never addressed conclusively.

    Yes, “Resurrection” was a direct product of his new found philosophy of Georgism ; and his sublime “The Kingdome within you”, an eulogy on non-violent resistance, laid the foundation of those lofty doctrines in great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King . ” Anna Kareina”, the tragic heroine forever embedded in our hearts was one of the greatest piece of fiction ever written as is his war memories in “Sevastopol Sketches.”

    People are people Sir, we can see see flowers or lose ourselves in the ugliness of weeds. Unpredictable and cantankerous, we lose so much time in trivial pursuits and insignificant materialism. I would rather lose myself in great books and content minds.

  10. Hi Arunji. Have heard a lot about Tolstoy but never happened to read his works or about him. Thanks for sharing some of the storylines from his 3 books.

    I loved the below summarization post reading of “Resurrection” from you –

    “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.”

    This sounds so true and relevant. But so difficult to bring it in practice. Hope to be can do this to whatever little extent possible some time down the road.

  11. Thank you for sharing your take on Tolstoy sir.
    What a coincidence sir!
    I just started reading “Anna Karenina” the other day.
    ‘Human beings are like rivers’ and they do change based on circumstances and people around them but I feel what matters is being able to acknowledge and accept what they are.

  12. There is good and evil within all of us. The people who are able to identify these variations in their own character can manage themselves better and in turn are the ones who are able to lead better. I am reminded of Dr Kalam’s words on the occasion of Akshardham Delhi’s opening ceremony- “Only those who are spiritually pure can serve the society.”

  13. Prof, As always, thank you for sharing your feelings and convictions with us.

    Firstly, I wish you strength and courage in your new norm of home confinement. We are blessed to be gaining a lot, not just from the writing you do, but also from the connections and networking you provide. Your life is fruitful and rich. Thank you for your support for India-Rwanda cooperation.

    Secondly, thank you for sharing your reading on Tolstoy. I can only add to your story – man is a work of metamorphosis, with huge capacity to be good, bad and both! Doesn’t the difference lie in our individual choices? We can all choose to be good, bad or both. My 62 years that encompass good medical training and practice revolutionary idealism, diplomacy and pragmatic statecraft tell me that any person should not be given a label (permanent). We all have the fleeting propensity to be good, bad or both. It is a choice at any one point in one’s life’s journey.

  14. Very good take away, “Human beings are like rivers.”

  15. We all love you as a writer first and foremost. The way you wrote “Wings of Fire” about the life of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was something no one could ever do and even after that book, which was published in 1999, no one could write again the story of an ordinary Indian rising to the great heights not by magic but by doing hard work, honestly and living with a feeling of gratitude and compassion.

    Today you revealed the secret of your art by this blog on Tolstoy. What makes you different is that you read the voluminous books not only with honesty and sincerity, but also took pains to share their gist with all of us. His books are there for anyone. They can be downloaded for free from the Internet but the point is to have an intent, to read them, relish them, and then share them with the others.

    What I learnt from your blog today is that even in confinement, with restrictions of all sorts, by reading a great book one can feel the expanse and space. I have read somewhere that life is all about expansion and death is contraction. I have recently retired and the depression was slowly setting in me but this blog came as a mostly timely message. I am from hills and as Mr Sunil Kaul has mentioned, I am going to be with the birds, the bees, the mountains and the rivulets, the beaches and the waves soon.

  16. O Tolstoy! You have yet again made me fall in love with you…….

    The desire, the urge, the longing to meet you again O Tolstoy! Through the pages of your magnanimous creations is what you have rekindled again today Arun ji.

    Have to confess, I did try reading Anna Karenina when I was a teenager – into Hadley Chase, Mario Puzo, Agatha Christie and the likes during those days but couldn’t go beyond say 50 pages. Howsoever hard my father tried to make me read Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and other English classics, I just couldn’t. Several years later the sheer volume of these books was a deterrent. The right time probably is now ….so need to thank you for sowing the seed.

    You’re summarizing and describing each of his three masterpieces is praiseworthy. It’s real difficult to convey the gist of a story, to read the mind and thoughts of the writer while creating his voluminous masterpieces in few words is not every ones cup of tea. It really calls for going on my roof top and clapping hard, hard enough for the echo to reach you at Hyderabad from Delhi.

    The creativity the mind thought, the observations around, the feelings, the desires and the passion of totally immersing self in the character and the place, all clubbed together is what creates an interesting and gripping story. The art of weaving the ingredients into the warp and weft produces the tapestry loved by the connoisseurs.

    There surely is no comparison between leafing through the pages of a book and either hearing or watching same story maybe on radio or TV or theater. The mere fragrance of paper, the turning of the pages, reading at one’s own pace and the thoughts of the reader synchronized with the writer generates a lullaby which at times makes you fall asleep cradling the book. It’s an experience, its heaven.

    Capturing human emotions human thoughts, advising on worldly matters, resolving disputes, complicated issues and finding solutions at umpteen occasions is also where the strength of the author or the writer lies. Many stones have been turned many solutions found and disputes and misunderstandings resolved. Several feelings and emotions are written and sent across from time immemorial – It’s the power of the writer. The pen is mightier than the sword, several fights, disputes and misunderstandings are won not by force but by the writer’s poetry, the creativity and the emotions. If for nothing else, the young at heart during present times revert to penning down their feelings for their beloved be it Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp. But write they do.

    Yes, books are the best healer. Your passion, your involvement, your research and your desire to share your thoughts and feelings with others are the crown which you carry on your head. That you have undergone physical tough times, the mere fact that you are mentally strong to keep the evils of Ravana away is what we wish for you to continue with. We sincerely wish for recovery enough for you to move out of your home, to travel …..The birds the bees, the mountains and the rivulets, the beaches and the waves are waiting for you to pen something on them…..Amen.

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