What the Dickens is Burning?

The World Health Organization does not list “Spontaneous Human Combustion” [SHC] in its “International Classification of Diseases.” Also, it is not considered in the Index of the “National Library of Medicine” on Biomedical Literature.
Yet, we are quick to recognise evidence that has come from police and fire authorities, arson specialists, coroners and pathologists. Many doctors and scientists look at what are claimed to be indisputable cases as those that have not been thoroughly investigated.

What I need to say in this regard is that many authors have used SHC to get rid of some of their fictional characters. Take a look at Charles Dicken’s ‘Bleak House’ published in the mid 1800s. We can hardly blame Dickens for getting rid of his character. For one thing, SHC was a well known phenomenon in those times. Furthermore, Dickens must have found it very necessary to get rid of the man he had created: An old, cadaverous gin-soaked rag-and-bottle merchant he had named Krook.

This Krook was a symbol of every social evil and all the iniquities so rampant in England of the day. In his gruesome death by spontaneous combustion, Dickens also prophesised: “The death and self-destruction of all authorities in all places, under all names where false pretences are made and where injustice is done.”
In his chapter on Krook’s burning, he concluded: “Call the death by any name you will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will; it is the same death eternally ¬inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupt humours of the vicious body itself, and that only: Spontaneous Combustion and none other of all the deaths that can be died. “
‘Bleak House’ was first serialised, and when the final instalment was given, it was accompanied by a sketch that showed William Guppy and a friend arriving at Krook’s house, only to find him totally combusted. Nothing of him remained.

This upset a friend of Dickens, literary critic George Henry Lewes, who lashed out at Dickens for bringing in what he called ‘a vulgar and scientific superstition’. Naturally, this needled Dickens. Lewes and he were old friends. Dickens vigorously defended the reality of what he had written. Not only did he defend SHC, but he cited many documented cases as well as his own memories of inquests he had attended as a young reporter. Even when ‘Bleak House’ was reissued in a single volume, he stuck to his guns, defending the authenticity of SHC. In his foreword, he said:

“1 shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony in which human occurrences are usually received!”
As we know, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a sudden bursting into flames, with no known source from outside [and the victims were usually drunkards], was considered a divine retribution. However, by the 19th century, researchers were for more mundane causes and the possibilities as given were that: Intestinal gases are inflammable.

Dead or dying bodies produce flammable gases.
Even compost heaps can build up enough heat to send up fire.
Phosphorus in the human body, when exposed to air, can catch fire.
Some inert chemicals can combine to form compounds that could explode.
There must be internal fire in certain insects and fish.
Fats and oils in the body, when in abundance, are excellent fuels.
Sparks produced by static electricity could set a body on fire.
All this seemed good enough, but none of it could account for how the dickens it could happen. In fact, one German scientist, who liked his brandy very much, sat very close to a fire and did not burn. Things began to sound silly, but fearful too. As many as 200 cases were reported over a span of four centuries.
In his defence, Dickens cited the cases of Mme. Millet of Rheims and the Countess di Bandi. It will be interesting to tell you of these cases in subsequent articles, but readers can find one case covered in ‘Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, 10th Edition, Volume Two, by John B. Bach; as well as in “Fire from Heaven: A Study of Human Combustion in Human Beings” by Michael Harrison.

The second case of the Countess di Bandi is found in copies of ‘American Magazine’ 1905, and ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ 1746. It’s all on internet anyway, if you care to chase them up, but to save you the trouble, allow me to tell you of them as we go along, burning like the dickens for more such fiery stuff.
By the way, Dickens was not the only author to set his characters on fire. We have Charles Blocken Brown; Frederick Marryat; Gogol; Herman Melville; Mark Twain; Thomas de Quincey and Emile Zola. Ho hum! Seems like I’ve got a lot of work on my hands!

But just imagine what it must have been some centuries ago. Time was, when anyone who ate too much, drank too much, was producing flammable gases in his or her body. Priests who liked to eat well, were warned not to blow out the altar candles after service, for fear that their breath could be ignited. The “National Fire Protection Organisation’s Manual” said that humans could build up static charges up to 30,000 volts, and although, all this electricity could be discharged harmlessly through the hair, it can be volatile in factories that use combustible gases, and even in the operating rooms of hospitals, where gaseous anaesthetics are used.
Naturally, we blame any such combustion on fireballs, lightning, internal atomic explosions, laser beams, microwave radiation, geomagnetic flux, even high frequency sound - but we still don’t have answers. Dear Charles Dickens... What the hell is burning?


Why Muslims ‘fast’ every year

By Shabna Cader
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become God-fearing.” (The Quran, 2:183)
Ramadan, as every God-fearing Muslim knows, is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. It is a month during which all Muslims say that hell’s gates are closed and the gates of heaven are open. Beyond the physical deprivation, the emphasis is on spiritual enrichment. As Muslims further know, Ramadan also marks the month during which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received the first revelation. The night is marked on the 26th of the month – Lailat al-Qadr.

Though many might wonder why Muslims observe this ‘fast’ every year without fail reasons are simple. As you and I both know, we have come to depend so much on materialistic things and have a love for the world that will someday perish. The objective of fasting is to diminish this love and dependence and instead increase the amount of faith in the Almighty God who controls everything on earth. Some also say that Ramadan is a method of preparing for one’s death bed as all worldly goods are put aside and prayers, good deeds and thoughts become the focus of one’s life.

Daily fasts begin at dawn and end with sunset. Special nightly prayers called, Taraweeh prayers are held at every mosque and even in the confinement of Muslims own homes. The entire Quran is recited in these prayers in mosques all around the world. During the prescribed period of the ‘fast’ nothing may pass the lips; no water, no food, no cigarettes or whatsoever. It is a holy month indeed that provides an opportunity for Muslims to get closer to Almighty God. This is a month when a Muslim should try to:

• See not what displeases Allah
• Speak no evil
• Hear no evil
• Do no evil
• Look to Allah with fear and hope

The Prophet (PBUH) said: “Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. And he who passes Lailat al-Qadr in prayer with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven (Bukhari, Muslim).
In modern Muslim cities the hours of effective work decrease and charitable donations are given at the end of the Ramadan month. Many wealthy individuals set up dining tables on streets at night on all days of the month to feed those with no means. Fasting is way of reminding those with better and greater means to be thankful for what they have and the suffering of the needy.

Fasting began in two AH which further developed during the reign of the Prophet (PBUH). In addition to doing good and speaking no evil, Muslims are encouraged to recite the entire Quran in the 30 days prescribed for Ramadan as well; increase in their knowledge of Islam and become closer to their faith.
As all know, Ramadan ends with a daylong celebration known as Eidul-Fitr. Eidul-Fitr begins with a special morning prayer in grand mosques and open grounds of towns and cities of the world. The prayer is attended by not just men but also women and children with their new or best clothes. A special charity, known as Zakatul-Fitr is given out prior to the prayer. The rest of the day is spent in visiting relatives and friends, giving gifts to children and eating.


Books on Positive Thinking for Students

Two new books authored by veteran writer Menike Sumanasekera will be launched at the BMICH during the Colombo International Book Fair 2010. Ms. Sumanasekera is a well-known author on positive thinking and a counsellor in psychology.

The first book is titled ‘Seba Dakshaya Oba; Duve Puthe (Dear Son and Daughter, you are the Real Champion) targeted at children in Grade 5 and above. This book is written with the dual purpose of making students more knowledgeable and encouraging them in their studies. It contains many fascinating information for children and culminates the knowledge worthy of several books. It covers areas such as nature, life, and universe, and includes important life stories of many outstanding personalities. Written in an extremely simple style, this book can be easily understood by young students.

The other book, titled ‘Vibhagayen Niyatha Jayak’ (Definitive Success in Examinations), is an essential read for all students facing exams. It details out a range of titles including studying, preparing for exams, facing the exams and the follow-up steps after exams. Techniques of effective studying, ways of remembering, recalling memory and answer writing styles are some of the topics covered in this book. It handles many situations that today’s students face on a day-to-day basis, providing advice on how to successfully face each challenge.
Students often face fear and distress before exams. The author has sought to explain this phenomenon and describes the methods and skiUs required to overcome it. The book aims to enable its readers to face exams in a positive and confident manner and thereby achieve success.

These two books highlight the importance of directing children from a young age towards positive thinking, and will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable read for busy present day students. The books will be available at a special price from the Sumanasekera Publisher’s stall (No. 225) at the Corombo Internationaf Book Fair 2010 to be held at BMICH from September 18 to 26.


In essence…

Despite Sri Lanka’s positive Literary reputation, with world respected authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Carl Muller, and the increasingly prestigious Galle Literary Festival, there is not as yet a fictional character of note that has come from these shores.
Via this very competition, which The Nation hopes will become an annual event, it is hoped that this can be put right, and it is the aspect of creating a memorable character (regardless of genre) that provides the main premise for this competition.

The competition will run from August 1 to November 1, with the shortlist of the best three stories announced in December. The competition will be restricted to one entry per participant, with the story being no longer than 3,000 words in length (though it may be shorter than this if so desired by the author) and suitable for family reading. The story should also be typed, double spaced and printed on one side of the paper. The main protagonist must be of Sri Lankan nationality, or Sri Lankan extraction e.g. British-Sri Lankan, American-Sri Lankan etc. The story can be of any genre or none, and does not have to actually take place in Sri Lanka itself.

The three best stories picked by our judges - made up of editors and journalists - at the publication, will each be printed in the newspaper for the people of the island to read, with the three finalists also invited to a winner’s ceremony in January, where the 1st place story will be announced, with the author receiving The Nation On Sunday – Vijitha Yapa Short Story Award, 2010. The authors of the three short listed stories will also be awarded prize money in the form of book vouchers that can be spent at any of the Vijitha Yapa book stores, with the Award Winner and 2nd and 3rd runners up receiving vouchers for Rs 10,000, Rs 5,000 and Rs 3,000 respectively.

So get your imagination’s fired up and your pencils sharpened, and of course, the best of luck to you all.
Please send your stories

(competition opens August 1) to:
The Nation On Sunday Short Story Award,
Rivira Media Corporation (Pvt) Ltd.,
742, Maradana Road,
Colombo 10


CORRECTION – (Hemingway in Africa)

The following paragraphs and courtesy lines were not published in last week’s “Hemingway in Africa” article due to an oversight. The last two paragraphs and the courtesy lines are published this week and it should be read as follows.

Hemingway does not suggest that the artist can reach the summit. Only if he is serious about his art, he should attempt to get closer. It is only when Harry, the dying writer in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” recognizes this truth, however painful, he is rewarded with a vision of the mountain’s peak. Dreaming the rescue plane is carrying him away, Harry looks out and “there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro and then he knew where he was going.”
The linking of artistic pursuit and the search for immortality is hardly a new concept, but Hemmingway’s African context allowed for a fresh development of the theme. Perhaps this is because Africa, above all other places he lived in, was like a crucible in which a new life could be minted and lived to the full. In Africa, absurdly beautiful landscape is an arena for terrifying natural forces. Mount Kilimanjaro epitomizes this, and to contemplate Kilimanjaro is also to contemplate the transience of human life. In a striking passage from Green Hills of Africa, Hemmingway tells us – with a deliberately jarring mixture of mundane and lyrical metaphors – that “the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single lasting thing – the stream,” According to him, art is one human creation that has a chance of resisting the stream.
Waking in the very early morning, waiting for coffee and day to begin, offers Africa at its most sublime. There are few places on earth so idyllic. Africa in the morning promises the world. It is a place and a time where the idea of becoming one’s best self and achieving one’s best work seems attainable.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje is the author of The Man-Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon.
Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada