Odd people and what we owe to them (Book Review)

Title: The Odditorium; Author: David Bramwell & Jo Keeling; Publisher: Brewer’s/Hachette India; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 599

Who was the first ‘prominent’ American to publicly support Asian immigrants to the US, the British ‘politician’ who first demanded votes for 18-year-olds, the Tibetan ‘lama’ who popularised the region and its religion in the western world and the drug-experimenting academician who became “the most-dangerous man in America” in the 1970s and was forcibly extradited from Kabul?

The answers might not be what you expect – as you will find out in this book.

The answers in the same order are the ‘Emperor of the United States’ Norton I, (and his strange antecedents, impact and legacy); rockstar-turned-politician Screaming Lord Sutch, who went on to find the Monster Raving Loony Party; T. Lobsang Rampa, who actually turned out to be the unemployed son of a British plumber but successfully hoaxed many, and ‘LSD Guru’ Timothy Leary, whose alarming description was given by then President Richard Nixon.

They are joined here by over two score uniquely eccentric benefactors of human society, science and culture – well, almost all – whom we remember for the wrong reasons, if at all, but Bramwell, a radio presenter and author, and Keeling, a journalist-cum-author, bring to vivid life in all their quirks.

The authors divide their subjects into five categories – “tricksters and subversives” (though some’s mischievous contributions had surprising conclusions and outcomes), “creative mavericks” (some of whose exploits might make your heads spin – and some males wince), “the wild at heart”, “pioneers and inventors” and “explorers of the mind”.

Some of them defy easy categorisation – the British soldier who went into World War II with a broadsword and a wooden longbow, and in peace, alarmed fellow train commuters by hurling his briefcase out of the window each evening, the Victorian naturalist who made it his life’s pursuit to chomp through the animal kingdom and inform us of the tastes, or the accountant who played pranks with the post office all his life, including posting a range of articles, his dog and finally himself.

But this is no mere collection of trivia or amusing collection of mavericks, hoaxers or eccentrics, for the authors make a compelling case to show how these people “driven by obsession, curiousity, trickery and gumption” in their varied pursuits and achievements, changed our world for the better – or occasionally worse.

Those featured, they say, “are not merely celebrated for their eccentricity” with many facing persecution, social exclusion and even imprisonment but bearing testimony to the “idea that following our passions – no matter how at odds with society – can transform our lives and the lives of those around us”.

Most of these 48, they show, are those who fought for such rights – political, religious and sexual – we now take for granted, pioneered new trends in art, culture, language and science, or made breakthrough discoveries into our internal and external worlds.

On the other hand, human nature being what it is, the authors also include the world’s “worst inventor”, responsible for two key discoveries hailed at that time but later found to pollute the air we breathe and damage our atmosphere, the Russian writer behind the hedonistic, empathy-less selfish “American way of life” and some other less than salubrious contributors.

In another highlight, the selection “also unearths a number of remarkable but little-known women’s stories” including of “a ‘social pariah’ who published a communist manifesto five years before Marx and Engels, and a plucky 19th century American reporter who had herself committed to a lunatic asylum to get the inside details of its abuses, and then broke Phileas Fogg’s record for circumnavigating the world (she met Jules Verne on the way).

The key word here is “obsession”, which these four dozen cases, go on to show is not always bad in itself, provided it is channelised properly, and the abiding lesson is that it is the maverick and the non-conformists that further the cause of humans than those who just go by received wisdom or stick to daily routines.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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