Saturday, 30 July 2011

Arrow in the Blue...

Early 1970s… the heady days as a medical student when ‘extracurricular’ reading was as important as medical studies  – at times more so J. My favourite haunt in Bombay, the British Council Library… One afternoon I saw a book titled “The Case of the Midwife Toad” by an author I had not heard of before, Arthur Koestler. In retrospect I might say that my ignorance was deplorable, because Koestler had been a well-known writer since the 1930s. But this book was new then in the early 70s. I was curious… the title sounded Erle-Stanley-Gardnerish, but the jacket has a picture of – what else – a toad. Biology…? I read the back cover. Looked interesting… I picked the book up.
Arthur Koestler was soon one of my top favourites as a writer. The Case of the Midwife Toad was a strange book – it tried to support a theory of evolution long discarded by Darwinian and neo-Darwinian biologists – the inheritance of acquired characters, or, in short, Lamarckism. Molecular Biology had almost come of age then, close to 21 years after the structure of DNA was proposed by Crick and Watson in 1953. In the intervening years, the refreshed understanding of inheritance had supported evolution by natural selection. Why would someone defend Lamarckism? The book ends in a rather inconclusive manner. Yet, it launched me into a journey of exploration with the author, Arthur Koestler.
Very soon I was reading Koestler like a man possessed. My early reading of Koestler included his essay collections with exotic names like “The Trail of the Dinosaur” and “The Yogi and the Commissar”. “Darkness at Noon” soon followed, and so did “The Sleepwalkers”.  My father often made fun of me for my admiration. But I never was – and still am not – a blind ‘follower’ of Koestler.  In fact, I read “The Roots of coincidence” with some degree of scepticism, though I must admit that I still found it interesting. His writing style in English was spellbinding – especially so when one considers that he was born in Hungary, spent a part of his early life in Austria and Germany and wrote in German before adopting England as his home and English as his language.
Koestler is arguably best known for his novel Darkness at Noon – the anti-totalitarian novel written in 1940. But then that again is an injustice to the writer. In the words of the US journalist Anne Applebaum, "It is difficult to think of a single important twentieth-century intellectual who did not cross paths with Arthur Koestler, or a single important twentieth-century intellectual movement that Koestler did not either join or oppose.” Koestler belonged to a generation that witnessed momentous events in science, politics and history. Koestler wrote about most of this.
Born of Jewish parents of mixed Russian-Hungarian ancestry in Hungary in 1905, Koestler went to school in Vienna. He gave up his engineering education just before graduation and went to Palestine, Back in Europe, he worked as a journalist based in Berlin, soon to be the science editor for a prestigious group of publications. He joined the Communist Party in 1931 and in 1938 left it, disillusioned. During this period, he went to Spain in the days of the Spanish Civil War, was arrested and sentenced to death. Released in an ‘exchange’, he returned to France, was imprisoned when France was at war and in 1940 landed in England.
It is not my intention to give a detailed biography or bibliography of Koestler. Suffice it to say that he wrote fiction, he wrote about science and philosophy, politics, on innumerable ‘causes’ and movements and even entered the field of extrasensory perception, coincidences and parapsychology. His writing on science and creativity make somewhat heavy reading, but is absorbing in the extreme. As a science person, I find his “Sleepwalkers” an enormous work – it is a study of mankind’s understanding of the universe as it evolved from the Renaissance.
“Arrow in the Blue” is the title of one of his autobiographical writings, covering the first twenty-six years of his life. Koestler’s own explanation of the concept of the arrow in the blue is engaging. I would not spoil the joy of discovery of any prospective readers – suffice it to say that I have borrowed the phrase for the title of my blog to express my fondness for this “Twentieth Century Skeptic” as a biographer has called him.
Among the ‘causes’ Koestler campaigned for were abolition of capital punishment and euthanasia. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia and on 1 March 1983, he and his wife committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates.
In Bombay, I was very pleasantly surprised by an editorial in full praise of Koestler, a day after his death. The editorial was in Maharashtra Times, written by another one of my favourite journalists – none other than Govind Talwalkar. I was thrilled at finding the eminent Marathi-speaking journalist to be a fan of Koestler. I went unannounced to the offices of Maharashtra Times. I was then just a young lecturer – I explained the purpose of my visit to the receptionist and timidly knocked at Govindrao’s door. He received me graciously – perhaps he was mildly surprised that his visitor, a young Maharashtrian man had even heard of Koestler! We exchanged notes of our admiration of the just departed writer.
The opening post of this blog is, then, a tribute to Arthur Koestler and an acknowledgment of my debt to him for the title of my blog.

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