Laying Eco-Friendly Eggs

Ministhy Dileep | September 29,2010 05:54 pm IST

"What shall I give Mr. Otter for his birthday?" wondered Squirrel Junior.

"Why don't you lay him an egg?" asked Father Squirrel, smiling.
Junior did not deign to comment on that suggestion.
My child toppled over with laughter. You see, three pages before, Junior Squirrel had decided early one morning that he was going to lay an egg. For himself.
If the silly birds could do it all the time, what about him, huh?


My attempt today, is to lay some eggs. To make some converts from an increasingly technical world, to try and read things which have no connection with their line of work. This campaign I undertake in the name of all those enthusiastic fellow bibliophiles who consume anything from Tejpal's libidinous overdose of the alchemy of desire to a magical Mario Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat to the mesmerizing Isabel Allende's Eva Luna to Amar Chitra Katha and Noddy's head swelling too big for his hat.


Without being able to answer the sardonic question, "What is the use of reading all this drivel?" (My strongest repartee till now has been "Because it will wire more of your neurons together.")


Functional question - "What is the use of reading something, which does not produce results by translating itself into a technical skill? Why read a nursery rhyme when one can do mental maths?"


For a reason. Or many.


Now, listen to the Master1 for the answer. Umberto Eco is a Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna.

(How can one man know so much, for Chris sake? Anything from Semiotics to Casablanca, Rosicrucians, Manzoni, Chinese Arithmetic, Architecture, of fakes and forgeries, to sketching intricate abbeys, translating obscure Latin texts to a commentary on violence and Sunday football. Analyzing literature with the same ease as that of deciphering the code of Babel. With such precision, with such penetrating intelligence. And writing best sellers in between. Umberto Eco's erudition2 is something no self-respecting egg-layer should ever miss. It teaches one the art of humility. Of how much one does not know of, in this great and magnificent world.)


Eco's essay on the functions of literature starts thus:

"Legend has it, and if it is not true it is still a good story, that Stalin once asked how many divisions the Pope had. Subsequent events have proved to us that while divisions are indeed important in certain circumstances, they are not everything. There are non-material forces, which cannot be measured precisely, but which nonetheless carry weight."


The intangible power we call literature, says Eco, serves purposes beyond the obvious - of being consumed for its own sake. Literature keeps language alive as our collective heritage. By helping to create language, literature creates a sense of identity and community. "...we might think also of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther's translation of the Bible, Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics."3


In a powerful statement, Eco makes a case for teaching literature to lessen the evils of the world. "...nor am I idealistic enough to believe that literature can offer relief to the vast number of people who lack basic food and medicine. But I would like to make one point: the wretches who roam around aimlessly in gangs and kill people by throwing stones from a highway bridge or setting fire to a child - whoever these people are - turn out this way not because they have been corrupted by computer new-speak (they don't even have access to a computer) but rather because they are excluded from the universe of literature and from those places where, through education and discussion, they might be reached by a glimmer from the world of values that stems from and sends us back again to books."


The next point of the master is that "...reading works of literature forces on us, an exercise of fidelity and respect, albeit within a certain freedom of interpretation." You see, one might argue one's head out whether Jesus was the son of God, but one wouldn't question the assumption that Sherlock Holmes was a bachelor! With subtle humour, Eco proves through many such examples that "literature offers us a model, however fictitious of truth".

Eco speaks of the emotional investments we have made in literary characters, to such an extent that we choose them as role models for our life, and for the life of others... so that we are clear about what we mean when we say that someone has an Oedipus Complex or a Gargantuan Appetite... Besides these, there is the educative power of literature - which goes beyond transmission of moral ideas or the formation of an aesthetic sense. It teaches us a sense of the power of destiny. When Prince Andrej dies in War and Peace or the whale wins in Moby Dick.


The ending arguments are powerful enough to shake the strongest skeptics:

"The function of unchangeable stories is precisely this: against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them. We need their severe, 'repressive' lesson... Stories that are 'already made' also teach us how to die. I believe that one of the principal functions of literature lies in these lessons about fate and death."


I am grinning ear to ear. Now I need no more intellectual excuses to indulge myself in an Amy Tan, who tells me in a very enchanting novel about women, of the game of chess: "It is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell... Never announce CHECK with vanity, lest someone with an unseen sword, slit your throat..."4

Much more pleasurable than learning it from a computer or a guide. That I can happily learn about Rommel's battle plan of Code Rebecca, based on Daphne Du Maurier's classic romance, from yet another little gem called 'The English Patient". And not necessarily from a strategy text.



Ministhy S. is PG (PM&IR) from XLRI-Jamshedpur, and currently, an IAS officer working in the UP cadre. She has written five books - 'Unequal Equations', 'Learning with Tippy Tortoise: Tales for Kids', 'Happy Birthday: Poems for Kids' and a novel published by Dronequill Publishers, Bangalore....