Monday, March 26, 2012

UK Road Trip: Blenheim Palace and Churchill

I left Amsterdam at 7 AM and arrived in Heathrow Terminal 5. My brother, being UK citizen, zipped through immigration. I, holding an American passport, was clubbed with all others including many Indians in an interminably long queue. Luckily for me a Texan Republican and small business owner stood in front for the next hour. We chatted away about the primary elections, Obama etc. He had come as chaperone for his daughter's school tour to Europe. I wish the Brits had separated out US passport holders along with at least theEU passport holders thus avoiding an hour+ wait. In any airport in any country the aged and disabled have a tough time in these queues.

Our bus ride from Heathrow to Oxford was made lively by a young, attractive North Indian girl. This girl, out of the blue, turned to my brother and asked about visiting the Oxford university to gather details for her sister. My brother who until then was listening to my lecture (yawn) on American politics jumped at the escape route and engaged in animated discussion, in British accent, about how Oxford is actually a collection of colleges, how there is no central information center, how she could check out another University (for which he helpfully suggested he could drop her at) and on it went. I spent the rest of the journey staring at English countryside. When we got down at Oxford park and ride the girl joined us and eagerly took the front seat. My brother just glanced sideways at me and I settled in the rear. Well after all everything has to come to an end so it did in 15 minutes. I was surprised though that this girl would hitch a ride with two guys just because we were Indians. Lucky for her we were gentlemen.

I am a big fan of Winston Churchill. Relating to Churchill as an Indian is a bit tricky. Here is a man who called history's greatest liberator a 'half-naked fakir'. While all of England, including the King, were eager to meet Gandhi Churchill refused to meet him. FDR's insistence of freeing India after the war irritated Churchill who thundered in the house of commons "I've not become his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire". To a citizen of British colony hearing Churchill describe how potentates shiver at free speech is quite an experience in bald faced hypocrisy. Churchill's aphorisms and clairvoyance on not just Hitler but Communism remain his enduring legacy outweighing the imperialist. Speaking in USA he saw that  "from Trieste in the Adriatic to Stettin in the Baltic an iron curtain has descended across the continent".

In our home in Tanjore we had two books one, a collection of Churchill's famous war speeches to ravaged Britain and another was "My Darling Clementine". Like any man who was a hero to the world he too was docile with his wife. Churchill first Clementine at a ball dance. Churchill and his friend stood at the entrance and played a game taking Marlowe's classic line describing Helen of Troy's beauty, "the face that launched a thousand ships". Churchill and his friend ranked each lady as they passed by,  "a canoe", "one battleship" so on. When Clementine came Churchill's friend looked to see what he would say but Churchill was not to be found he had gone behind Clementine.

Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace, quite by accident. Though descended from the family tree of the Duke of Marlborough Churchill's birth at Blenheim was not by design. Blenheim is 45 minutes drive from Oxford. The day we went we could purchase tickets for visiting even the private apartments of the current Duke. The current Duke earns money for upkeep of palace by letting the commoners see where he sleeps!!! 

The Palace now draws visitors by proudly proclaiming itself as "birth place of Winston Churchill". Churchill did not live there. Churchill was a true renaissance man of many talents. He was avid painter. Hallmark Cards, USA, used Churchill paintings on its cards with his permission. An entire wall was devoted to such paintings.

The state rooms were opulent and grand as one would expect from European castles. Gold plated cavernous roofs, ornate chairs, delicately hand crafted French furnitures. French influences and French imported furniture surprised me given that England and France were perpetually at war in every possible place across centuries and England had defeated and imprisoned Napoleon. 

The current Duke's living room was well appointed. The table and magazine racks had some books, few magazines neatly stacked. Neither the books nor the magazines were anything close to intellectual and showed a man interested in knowing nothing beyond horses. This despite a large library in the famed long hall (the longest room in UK with the largest pipe organ, picture below). That library was neatly and securely closed. The books appear untouched for ages except by curators.

The 9th Duke of Marlborough facing financial ruin married a very rich American, Consuelo Vanderbilt, a descendant Cornelius Vanderbilt. Anderson Cooper, TV host, is a Vanderbilt descendant too. Consuelo brought $67 Million dollars in dowry. Later the Duke told her that he did not love "anything that is not British", apparently the money she brought was loved though. They later divorced. Much later the Duke's descendant Winston Churchill would plead FDR to help save his empire. FDR launched the famous 'lend-lease' program which was in reality nothing but US taxpayer doles. Churchill had nothing to be loaned against. He would, with relish, declare "give us the tools and we will finish the job". Thanks to Japan US would enter the war and truly finish the job.

As we strolled through the living quarter our guide pointed with some pride that the Duke's child went to Harrow "as was customary". Little did she know that an Indian, Nehru, too went there. Nehru went on his father's hard earned money and not on doles from the crown. I asked the guide if the Duke's son is judged on merit for entrance to Harrow. She laughed gaily and said "no". I sensed a tinge of pride in her voice that the Duke's son need not score as high as the commoners. The British are indeed strange when it comes to their reverence to the monarchy. Only the Ecole Nationale in France has a 100% merit based admission. Even the Ivy League's of USA fail on that score. I am referring to the 'legacy based admission' where a student gets an advantage if his/her parent had been an alumnus. In the contentious affirmative action debate afro-American commentators refer to that drily as "white man's affirmative action".

The gift shop had a smattering of books on and by Churchill. Amongst the many books by Churchill only his World War-II memoirs were there. Churchill won the Nobel prize for literature for his "History of the English speaking peoples". The prize was more a sign of gratitude to Churchill than an indicator of literary merit. Churchill could not attend the ceremony and in a departure from custom his wife Clementine, in recognition of her stature, received the prize in his behalf. Usually the ambassador to Norway of the country from which the awardee hails gets the prize if the awardee is absent. Surprisingly I could not find either that collection or even Churchill's biography "Duke of Marlborough".

With all his failings regarding India, including the Bengal famine that he did nothing to mitigate, the world and Indians remain indebted to Churchill. We all are better off for Churchill was the only man standing between Hitler and the civilized world. After France fell for two years while USA dithered and Stalin cut deals with HItler to plunder Eastern Europe Churchill stood alone facing, what he aptly described, "a long ordeal of the most grievous kind". 

I live in an age when the vacuous bromides of Barack Obama is hailed as oratory. Let Obama and his starry eyed American worshippers learn from Churchill what it is to stand up to Hitler and rally a nation when no sane man saw hope. Here, below, are those immortal words that defended an island and a civilization so we might be here today:

"I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "come then, let us go forward together with our united strength." 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Amsterdam: Anne Frank's home and Torture Museum

Tragedy struck a Jewish school in South France today when an unidentified gunman killed four an adult, 13 year old girl,a 7 year old and a 3 year old, six others were wounded. They had been shot at close quarters. They were shot because they were Jews and the school was a Jewish school. In 2008 Pakistani terrorist thugs who terrorized Mumbai specifically targeted a Jewish chabad for their killing spree. I shall reserve my comment on Israel's critics for a following blog but this provides a backdrop for my visit to the home of Holocaust's most famous victim, Anne Frank. Before that a brief on the Torture Museum.

A museum focusing on torture was very inviting. Though I am broadly familiar with the themes of torture, especially the use of torture by the Christian Church seeing the instruments of torture along with helpful notes was chilling. The Spanish Inquisition made a name for itself with Torquemada and the inquisition chair (below)

The accused has to sit on that chair and the screws would be tightened to maximize pain. This was mostly used on women accused of being witches. The rack pictured below ( is another instrument the very sight of which is painful.

Religious minorities (mostly Jews), dissenters, minorities, gays, political prisoners and lots of women bore the brunt of these punishments. The museum, in European tradition, had the usual US bashing. Fleeting mention was made of Guantanamo. Guantanamo is picnic compared to the above.

As a deep admirer of Israel and Jewish history the holocaust remains an obsessive topic for me. In 2010 when I toured Amsterdam for a few hours I glimpsed the home of Anne Frank during a canal cruise. This year I made what can be called a pilgrimage to her home. Anne Frank's family and another family of 3, 8 Jews totally, hid in a secret annexe in a factory for 2 years during the war fearing deportation to extermination camps. The families were betrayed on 8th August 1944 and were deported first to Auschwitz. Anne Frank and her sister were later deported to Bergen Belsen. One has to really pause and digest this. Jews arrested in Amsterdam were transported to Auschwitz in Poland. Then two of them get transported halfway back into Bergen-Belsen in Germany. I visited a Gestapo jail in Cologne where a prisoner from Ukraine (!!!) had scrawled on the walls. Imagine the logistics needed for all these transports that had no strategic goal except hate. By the time the family was arrested Hitler's Third Reich was crumbling and his army was being beaten back by the equally murderous Red Army to the East and by the American and British forces from the West.

Anne and her sister Margot perished in the typhus epidemic that swept Bergen-Belsen. The sisters died a few days apart next to each other sometime in March 1945. Allied armies liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Only Otto Frank, Anne's father, survived from Auschwitz. Anne's mother had died too. Otto made his way back to Amsterdam and searched for his darling children. Finally he learnt that they were dead.

When the Frank family went into hiding Anne was 13. Anne received a diary as gift. While in hiding this girl, just entering her teens, wrote a journal of all that happened for two years. The last entry is on 1st August 1944. She has interest in movies, the helpers who hid the family get her movie magazines, Otto marks the growth of his daughters with a pencil mark (it is still there), a map is stuck to follow the progress of Allied army since Normandy landings, a radio keeps them connected, Margot still takes Latin lessons and sends her work for correction pretending  to be somebody else, a 16 year old boy (from the other family) kindles love in Anne, Anne has her first kiss, she writes of Gandhi too hearing from radio reports.

Otto Frank discovers the diary and publishes it to universal acclaim. The diary has been translated into tens of languages and has sold millions. Otto, with help, converted the annexe into a museum. A very touching photo is below. Here is Otto Frank, just before the museum is opened to public, looking alone and pensive at the floor where his children played and his wife walked. The pain is palpable and sorrow engulfs the viewer in an emotional embrace across time and space.

The photographer Arnold Newman who took the photo reminisced, "how could I ask this man to pose? I couldn't. Instead I just waited and Otto went into a deeply pensive mood. It was then I took the photograph". They cried and embraced after the photo shoot ended.

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, "One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when will be people again and not just Jews!".

Whether it is Jeremiah Wright or Al Sharpton spewing explicit and implicit anti-semitism or this madman today today who killed children just because they are Jews the sad answer is Anne Frank's hope only lives on as hope.

I'll take this opportunity to answer in my next blog a few questions on Israel, Holocaust and Jews. Anne Frank was 15 when she died. And she died because she was a Jew. And only because she was a Jew did she and her family die.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Amsterdam: Jewish Historical Museum

Before I knew Amsterdam's most famous Jew, Anne Frank, I had studied about it's second most famous Jew, Baruch Spinoza in Will Durant's "The story of philosophy". Spinoza ranks alongside Immanuel Kant as possibly the greatest modern philosopher. In two pages, that only Will Durant can write, Durant traces the arc of Jewish diaspora from its expulsion by the Romans unto the day Jews settled in Amsterdam and the birth of Spinoza. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community for his philosophy fearing that it angered their Christian hosts in the city.

Failing to find a home or museum of Spinoza I visited the "Jewish Historical Museum". Durant writes that Jews persecuted in Spain by Ferdinand , during Spanish Inquisition, fled in search of safety. "A large number of them embarked in the frail vessels of that day and sailed up the Atlantic, between hostile England and hostile France, to find at last some measure of welcome in little big souled Holland. Among these was a family of Portuguese Jews named Espinoza. Thereafter Spain decayed, and Holland prospered. The Jews built their first synagogue in 1598; and when, seventy five years later, they built another, the most magnificent in Europe, their Christian neighbors helped them to finance the enterprise. The Jews were happy now, if we may judge from the stout content of the merchants and rabbis whom Rembrandt had given immortality". Only Will Durant could write a passage that compresses so many meanings within a few lines. I had missed seeing Rembrandt's home in Amsterdam due to lack of time.

The Jewish museum had a permanent exhibition detailing the history of the first synagogue, Jewish rituals, artifacts that gave a vivid picture of one of the world's most ancient culture. One plaque mentioned the loyalty of Jews in Amsterdam to the Dutch royalty for the relative peace with which Jews could live in Holland unlike the rest of Europe. When Spinoza, like Uriel a Costa before him, had expounded beliefs that angered their Christian hosts the Jewish community excommunicated him as a price for their peaceful existence.

In what could happen only in Western museums typical of Western attitudes the Jewish museum had an exhibition titled "My name is Cohen". Cohen is the priestly name referring to Aaron, brother of Moses, who is considered the first priest for Israel. The exhibition is about people whose last name is 'cohen' ( and what it means for them to have the most famous Jewish surname. One Cohen, not a resident of Israel, said that he bears a burden that people who come to know his surname ask him about each and everything Israel did. A Jew, anywhere in the world, is considered a representative of Israel and has to bear the brunt of that association said he. Another Cohen bristled that just because he is a Jew he does not have to support all that Israel does (sadly no Palestinian would say that of Al-Fatah or Hamas, at least not publicly). One Cohen recounted sadly how a customer ate at his restaurant and left saying "I will not pay a Jew". To one Cohen it is a badge of pride, to another it is a "losing brand value", another is sheepish about her Jewish identity.

The exhibition brings to the fore that this race has suffered uniquely amongst all races in history. Centuries of persecution, in every single corner of the world, reaching its climax, if one call it so, in the Holocaust has left its imprint on every member young and old. Durant waxes eloquent in his introduction to Spinoza, "what drama could rival the grandeur of these sufferings, the variety of of these scenes, and the glory and the justice of this fulfillment?" (the fulfillment Durant refers is the creation of Israel)

As I exited the museum, as always, I browsed the gift shop. I was very surprised to see books by Spinoza. The community that excommunicated him in different situation 400 years ago has now embraced its greatest genius amongst the so many geniuses produced by that race.

All was not well for Jews of Amsterdam. That no host country is ever safe for Jews was illustrated in Holland. Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940. The Dutch initially protested deportation of Jews by organizing a strike. Virtually unheard of in any other state under Nazi occupation but it later morphed into tragic and cruel co-operation. Between 1940-1944 in just 4 years nearly 75% of Holland's Jews were exterminated with the active co-operation of many Dutch citizens. The Holocaust's most famous victim Anne Frank is a searing tragedy for another day. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amsterdam: An Afternoon With Van Gogh

I spent 2 days in Amsterdam and a week on a road trip in UK from March 2nd-10th. Travels always widen our understanding of the world and provide a perspective too. I spent an afternoon in Amsterdam visiting the Van Gogh museum.

Coming from a provincial town in South India I've only a nominal familiarity with painting as an art form. The only paintings that an Indian gets to see mostly are fetishistic expression of male fantasies of courtesans and kings. Study of human anatomy to depict human form, portraying common men and women, expressing philosophical points etc are almost non-existent on the Indian tradition. Learning to appreciate Salvador Dali's surrealism or appreciating why a Monet picture could start the impressionist movement or why is Michelangelo's David revered is all a conscious learning process. Here is Monet's famous painting that launched an era.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and could not understand a single thing. Even for a layman like me the Van Gogh museum is an easily accessible one, intellectually. Van Gogh is considered to belong to post-impressionism. I'd not be pretending to understand the nuances of those terms. In another sign of technology wiping out jobs now museums offer audio-guides. No need of a person to standby and explain.

Van Gogh, barely 37 when he died in 1890, lives an eventful itinerant life that makes his biography a compelling read, not to mention his eventual suicide. Van Gogh as was common to geniuses of that era travels between France, Holland and England. France, the capital of arts, influences Van Gogh with its art and literature. the museum painstakingly has arranged all his paintings chronologically across 4 vast floors also divided according to where he lived in that particular period. Each painting has an explanatory note and most have a head phone symbol with a number to be used on the audio-guide. Press the number and voila you get a succinct summary of the painting. The summary while succinct is not trivial or flaky.

Van Gogh gained fame with his portrayal of a group of peasants eating potatoes around a table, the painting titled "potato eaters" had a note that, in typical Western fashion, unflinchingly said, this masterpiece had flaws and proceeds to specify what the flaw is. This is a museum to celebrate a great genius and in the picture that supposedly gave him fame the museum curator is brutishly honest to note its shortcomings. This is what happens when you celebrate true genius. You can be comfortable in pointing out the flaws.

Spend a few minutes looking at the picture above (or this link for a full resolution "potato eaters"). Its a common scene, the people are unremarkable, the setting is pedestrian, the act is as routine as you can imagine BUT its the painting of the shadows, the light, the portrayal of anatomy that speaks, the details of the room etc.

When I visited the Louvre in 2009 seeing the many Christian themed paintings I thought that without having some familiarity of the Bible one cannot appreciate much of Western civilization. Van Gogh's "Still life with open Bible" reiterated that thought.

At first sight the picture does not tell much. The audio-guide filled in the details that an untrained eye like mine would not see at first sight. The big open book is the Bible, a faint title indicates that the page is open at "Isaiah", an even fainter scribbling tells it is Isaiah 53 which is called the 'Psalm of the suffering servant'. The smaller book next to it is French author Emile Zola's "La Joie de vivre" (Joy of life). The commentary said this was Van Gogh, one time candidate for priesthood, rebelling against his pious father.

Van Gogh was influenced by Emile Zola and Victor Hugo. To know what influences a genius especially beyond his particular area in a cross-disciplinary manner is interesting. Knowing that his painting took clues from another painter is one thing, knowing how Van Gogh drew upon Zola's characterization to inspire a painting is another. This also helps us understand the nature of a man who makes himself a student of all forms of art and imbibes inspiration from other forms to better construct his primary artistic expression.

An even more stunning influence was that of Japanese art on Van Gogh. Japanese art of woodcut blocks with bright colored paintings found its way to Paris. Japan, until 1854 Kanagawa Treaty used to trade almost exclusively with the Dutch. After the treaty Japan opened trade with Europe and USA. Japonaiserie, wikipedia teaches, or Japanese art influenced the French impressionist and then Van Gogh too who produced very brightly colored pictures. Famous amongst his Japanese art are his portraits of bridges

Like any typical Western genius of art Van Gogh travels hither and thither, schools himself, lets himself be open to influences, creates his own oeuvre, enjoys cross disciplinary influences and leads a very eventful life that includes affliction of Gonorrhea. Van Gogh formed a deep friendship with famous painter Paul Gauguin . Gauguin was Somerset Maugham's inspiration for his protagonist in "The moon and six pence". Van Gogh after a fight with Gauguin famously cut off his ear and gave the severed part to a prostitute telling her to 'keep it carefully'. Van Gogh is supposed to have suffered from hypochondria too. Finally, of course, like any museum in this part of the world they have a nice gift shop.

Every now and then I thought wistfully of the Naicker and Maratha paintings in a 1000 year temple in Tanjore, the many other treasures that wilt away without attention. I read that even today reaching the Ajantha caves,  Khajuraho etc is a chore let alone audio-guides and knowledgeable commentary. To celebrate Maratha influence in a state that has been intellectually castrated with empty jingoism and ideological charades is too much to hope for.

Time and again what impresses me most in the West is the celebration of cross-cultural influences. Voltaire admires the English. The English are suckers for anything French as I'd see from my visit to Blenheim Palace near Oxford, UK 2 days later. Bruges in Northern corner of Europe buys a statue by Michelangelo. Trade and commerce coupled with the university system of Europe creates a veritable whirlpool of intellectual atmosphere.