Saturday, October 22, 2016


When she was five or six years old, among the books made available to feed her hunger for things to read was one about Hiawatha. It had larger pages than most, and was full of illustrations with clean lines and clear, bright colours. Some of the images and some of the phrases embedded themselves in her memory. But she could hardly be expected, at that age, to keep a record of the title, author, illustrator, publisher and date of publication.

Recent diligent search online yielded a detail here, an image there, and the sum of it is that she discovered the book of her childhood: The Story of Hiawatha retold from Longfellow by Allen Chaffee, illustrated by Armstrong Sperry, and published by Random House in 1951. (The book she had read did not come down to her siblings and may have been borrowed from a family friend.)

The text included many of Longfellow’s verses, which ensured that even if she could, in adulthood, appreciate a witty parody of them, she could never be contemptuous of them. Also, at that age she could not have been capable of historical, literary, anthropological or sociological criticism of this tale nor, indeed, of the many others which profoundly influenced her view of serious things encapsulated in two words: life, and character.

From that early encounter with Hiawatha came memories of his search for his father, the strange, half-sad story of Mondamin, the famine which would kill Minnehaha, and Hiawatha sailing into the West. The search element she found again in many other books she read, in myths and in fairy tales. Mondamin came to mind as she read, with some shock, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Robert Graves’ two volumes, The Greek Myths. (Even as Arthur and his knights paradoxically suffered both diminution and enhancement with the later reading of Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, Vincent Cronin and, of course, Thomas Malory.) But to return to Mondamin, it was a relief that his ending was not gruesome, merely unexpected and a little sad – until she understood a saying of Jesus Christ about the grain of wheat in the ground.

Unequivocally sad was the death of Minnehaha. Famine was a familiar word. Her country could not grow sufficient grain, as things stood, to feed all its people. The rains were fickle. During her father’s term in a particular office, (it was at the same time as her encounter with Hiawatha), he had to deal with drought and famine afflicting the people of his district. It was all too close for comfort.

Hiawatha’s sailing away made an impression reinforced over and over by other tales, from Arthur taken to Avalon to the departure of the Ring-bearers from the Grey Havens. The west is where the sun is seen to set; how natural that heroes who cannot be allowed to die, or to dwindle into decrepitude, should sail into the western sea.

When she was eleven, an LP was bought, of the Berlin Philharmonic under Ferenc Fricsay performing Dvorak’s symphony that he said was “from the New World”. It fixed firmly those fragments of Longfellow’s Hiawatha that her memory had retained.

And shortly after that, her parents were asked by Leena Sarabhai to help her with the current project of her innovative school, Shreyas. (See It was a shadow-play life of Abraham Lincoln and music was required as a background to the spoken commentary and the shadows in motion. The script was supplied by the USIS, translated into classical Hindi, and read by a speaker with a fine voice and excellent diction. Selections from Dvorak’s symphony made the whole a deeply moving performance. So effective was the marriage of music and speech that All India Radio got permission to record it and broadcast it.

Never again could she hear this symphony – one of her favourites – without experiencing many of the feelings that had once been awakened by the Song of Hiawatha, and later, in a much nobler, grander mode by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Memories are laid down, layer upon layer, yet the layers are not quite separate. A spirit infuses them all so that recalling one memory stirs many. Her memories were her treasure, yet almost unbearably painful in a world totally changed, and a life whose planned course was altered by events unforeseen.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

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