Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A titan on the rise

There is a particular peril in compiling a history of contemporary events, and Ramachandra Guha defines it neatly when he says that, “Those who write contemporary history know that they are not addressing a passive reader of the text placed in front of him. The reader is also a citizen, a critical citizen, with his own political and ideological preferences.”

And yet, in spite of his own warning, Guha has chosen to write India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, an informed account of what has transpired in his country since World War II. Contemporary India is not an easy nut to crack. From 1950 up through at least 1980, the country was bogged down by what was disparagingly referred to as “the Hindu rate of growth” (a sluggish 3.5 percent annual increase that some economists blamed on Hindu ideas of fatalism and contentment with one’s lot in life.)

But since the late 1980s, the country has undergone a remarkable transformation. In 1991, the Narsimha Rao government launched wide-scale economic reforms that ended the license-quota-permit raj (a complex patronage system set in place in the early years of India’s civil service) that had shackled the economy for four decades. Today, India is looked upon as a major global economic player with rising clout in world affairs.

But what brought about this transformation? And how inclusive has it been? Guha, a noted Indian historian who has covered issues as diverse as environment and cricket in the past, takes a cautious approach in examining this meteoric rise, preferring to focus mostly on the good and the bad in policy that preceded it.

The beginnings of Indian democracy

He is an unmitigated admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a global statesman. Committed to secularism and equality, Nehru was instrumental in ensuring that every Indian adult, regardless of educational qualification or gender, had the right to vote in India’s first parliamentary election in 1952.

Whether such a goal was desirable is almost beside the point. It boggles the mind to think of the scale on which this project was carried out. Even today, India’s electoral experiment, conducted entirely on electronic voting machines, can provide lessons in operations and logistics to many other countries (including the US, as evidenced by its 2001 ballot blunder). Guha writes admiringly of the 1952 exercise, including profiles of various pan-Indian leaders and how they cast their votes.

He also devotes close attention to the framing of the Indian Constitution. He delves into the long hours of confabulation that members of the Constituent Assembly indulged in to arrive at a charter that has come to be regarded as among the best and most equitable in the world.

Enamored as Guha is of Nehru, he gives space to the latter¹s political failures as well, most notably, his blind faith in China’s ostensible friendship with India. Nehru was brutally shaken by the Chinese invasion of 1962 and he never truly came to grips with it. He died a broken man in 1964.

Nehru’s death left a gaping hole in Indian politics, and it took some years before this could be filled by none other than his daughter, the fiery Indira Gandhi. While Nehru was a sagacious leader, his daughter proved to be one of India’s most ruthless and shrewd politicians. Gandhi was responsible for imposing the dreaded “Emergency”, ­ a state of emergency during which she suspended elections and civil rights for 21 months between 1975 and 1977.

The Emergency was a transparent effort to consolidate Gandhi’s position amid perceived threats to her leadership. Thousands of her political rivals were jailed during this time and several democratic conventions were suspended. Gandhi ruled the Congress with an iron fist and pushed forward the political career of her son Sanjay, who is today remembered for egregious abuses of state power, including forced sterilizations. (Sanjay’s political career ended with his death in a plane crash in 1980.)

The legacy of the Nehru-Gandhis

The history of modern India, in many ways, is the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It was Indira Gandhi’s bloody death in 1984 that caused the political rise of her naive older son, Rajiv. He, in turn, was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991, and after a self-imposed political exile, his widow, Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born woman, took control of the Congress party in 1998.

One of the many incidents that marked Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership was the Shah Bano case, which Guha examines in depth. Shah Bano was a Muslim divorcée who approached the Indian courts hoping to secure alimony from her husband. The case went all the way to India’s Supreme Court, which, in 1986, took the side of Shah Bano.

This angered several sections of the Muslim community who urged Rajiv Gandhi to overrule the court order through legislation. Gandhi complied. That launched a divisive phase in Indian politics and led to the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups, all of which angrily decried Congress’s policy of appeasement toward Muslims. So vituperative have the charges and countercharges been that Indian politics today remain virtually split down the middle over the cause of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism).

This, Guha maintains, is the paradox of India. On the one hand, shiny malls sporting the latest brands jostle for attention. On the other, dehumanizing poverty and social ills are still shockingly evident. While the rise of an enlightened middle class has helped much to raise India’s profile, much remains to be done to lift the country from the throes of religious intolerance and casteism.

Overall, Guha is optimistic about India’s future. Backed by the rising popularity of native cultural products,­ including Indian movies and literature,­ Guha sees India as well on its way to finding its rightful place in the sun.

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This review appeared in Christian Science Monitor.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The man who tried to kill Hitler

Before you start reading Justin Cartwright's latest, The Song Before It Is Sung, it may be beneficial to browse through the afterword. For it is here that you come to know that Cartwright's book is his version of the friendship between philosopher Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott, who was part of the unsuccessful plot of July 20, 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Von Trott was arrested, placed on trial and found guilty, as a result of which he was hanged to death in a Berlin prison.

The novel begins with one Conrad Senior flying from England to Berlin. Senior, a disciple of Oxford professor, Elya Mendel, has been left a cache of papers and letters relating to Axel von Gottberg. "It is true that you were not my most brilliant student, but I think, my dear boy, that you are the most human. You know that I took a position against Axel, and you know the reasons why, but perhaps you don’t know that many people blamed me in some way for his death. It has been a terrible burden to live with this," Elya writes Conrad, and we realize who plays who in Cartwright’s roman à clef. Conrad must discover soon enough that the inheritance comes with a tremendous responsibility.

The chink in the armor of Berlin and von Trott's friendship came in the form of a letter that the latter wrote to the Manchester Guardian in which he said that he had seen no anti-Jewish acts while working as a prosecutor in Kassel. Many believe the letter was an attempt to hide his anti-Nazi beliefs. But to Berlin, a Jew, the letter provided confirmation of what he had suspected von Trott of being all along: a Nazi sympathizer, given to grand ideals of aristocracy.

Cartwright weaves these incongruencies effectively. On March 5, 1939, Axel visits Elya at Oxford and the two discuss their antithetical views on dealing with Hitler. "Germans are not a flock of sheep. Everything has a cause. Germany felt trapped, humiliated until this lunatic offered them a way out. But there is another Germany, Elya, which only needs encouragement. You are going to sneer, but there is a decent, a noble Germany," says Axel. When he requests Elya to help him arrange a meeting with Michael Hamburger, the President's counsel and supreme court judge, Elya writes Hamburger:

"His friends at Oxford, and I am one, believe that he is at heart—I mean ideologically—a Nazi, although he is far too intelligent and complex a person to accept that as a simple fact. At best he is a German patriot of the old school, a fact that makes him antipathetic to Hitler, if not to all of the ideas behind Hitler."

Even as Mendel goes on to become an internationally renowned philosopher, von Gottberg, who could have easily found pride of place among the Nazi elite, gets enmeshed in a failed assassination attempt. Who was chasing what, one wonders. Was von Gottberg's supreme sacrifice a way of redeeming himself in Mendel's eyes? And if so, did Mendel set Senior on the trail of von Gottberg's life to atone for his sins of omission and commission?

In following the lives of two historical figures, there is always the danger of the present losing its way somewhat. What scope do the trappings of history leave Conrad Senior? That his three-year old research into von Gottberg’s life has turned into an obsession is apparent when in the beginning, he admits that “it is true that he thinks von Gottberg, at thirty-five, looks just like him”. Conrad’s marriage to the mercurial Francine is breaking down. She has decided to move in with her boss, a man “known and admired for his pioneering work on the incontinence in women caused by childbirth”. In fact, concedes Conrad, Francine is too much a scientist to be comfortable with the life of the mind.

In a story burdened with the weight of so much narrative, it is to Cartwright’s credit that he is able to successfully integrate another motif relating to Adam von Trott’s garroting. The executions of the July 20 conspirators were filmed on Hitler’s orders and Conrad must seek that film to complete the story of Axel von Gottberg. This is how he comes in contact with Fritsch, a Jew and an assistant cameraman at von Gottberg’s funeral, who has kept the secret buried with him for sixty years. He gives Conrad the reel of the execution and also a letter—a crushing, unbearable ode to love and friendship that von Gottberg wrote to Mendel moments before his death.

This is a deeply moving and well-researched work from a first-class writer.

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From Washington Times

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Upcoming interesting titles

Hotel De Dream by Edmund White
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


She's a sister, a stranger: A story untold

When journalist and writer Mary Loudon heard of her sister Catherine's death in 2001, she had not seen her in a dozen years. Catherine had been schizophrenic and had averted any familial company in her last years. Intrigued and grieved by the news, Mary set out to chart her life story by interviewing people who knew her.

This book is the result, and it's an excellent premise for a book on schizophrenia. But you can't help feeling Mary might have done better with a greater emphasis on facts and less on garnishing her sister's story with narrative high jinks.

This is not to suggest that Mary is insincere. Far from it. She has chatted incessantly with Catherine's caretakers and acquaintances. But what are these conversations meant to convey? Mostly the views of others, which border on a colorless similarity. Yes, Catherine was a gifted piano player. Indeed, her alternate identity was not a cover for lesbianism. But if these revelations are so new to Mary herself, one wonders which way the reader is supposed to be headed. If the book is a treatise on schizophrenia, we have had much better-written and more informative ones. If this is a personal memoir, it uncovers a frightening lack of knowledge of one's sibling, however ill she may have been.

There is a diary excerpt from their father's journey to India in 1973 to locate his daughter, who had purportedly "gone missing" in the drug-fueled haunts near the border with Tibet. Here too, one gets the impression of an impatient man railing against the poor conditions ("I want to get out of this bloody country") he has been forced into by a recalcitrant daughter.

Catherine is smart and saucy, but she is also lonely and withdrawn. Do we get to know her better toward the end? Not really. There is an empty feel to the book, as if Mary had a lot of data to invest in the project but no real emotion. So is this an ode to Catherine? No. It's a skillful delusion of love that Mary has readily fallen into.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Random nuggets

Via Books Inq comes this video of a day in the life of an English undergrad at the University of Wales.

Via Critical Mass comes this piece on which major American newspaper should be the first to close print.

Authentic, atmospheric prose thrills

When Stef Penney (pictured) revealed that her Costa prize-winning The Tenderness of Wolves, set in nineteenth century Canada, had been written without a visit to the country, it caused a minor uproar in international literary circles. People wondered how could a writer, who had never set foot on the landmass, position her novel in the snowy wilderness of the Canadian high plains? "As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there," said one critic in the Guardian.

Well, you needn't be so bothered. Penny's prose is so authentic, so very atmospheric in capturing the angels and demons of the country that it is hard to imagine that she wrote this book after doing all her research in the British Library.

The novel is a first-class murder mystery, which must be doubly commended considering the setting and the time (1867) leave no chance to employ any urban noirish trappings. After Mrs. Ross discovers the dead body of her neighbour Laurent Jammet in his hut, the sleepy village of Caulfield wakes to the presence of a killer in its midst. Mrs. Ross's brooding son, Francis is found to have disappeared on the day of the murder, and the community must look within to seek answers to a brutal mishap.

Yet, things are not what they seem on the surface, as a Pandora's Box of missing people and puzzling goings-on is opened, into which Penny takes us headlong with her shimmering prose. Corporate politics and the lucrative fur trade provide the intriguing backdrop against which the mystery gets resolved. Besides weaving a smart storyline, Penny draws out well-delineated characters. From Mrs. Ross who decides to follow the trail of the murderer to another important character who attempts to break a secret code, the women in the novel are strong-willed and fierce. The men, while being the main perpetrators of the actions, are, at best, puppets in their hands. There is also a luminous take on a gay relationship the description of whose first sexual escapade burns the page.

In fact, one could even say that there are far too many strands to the book than are necessary, especially the doomed escape of one woman whose presence seems restricted to convincing the reader of Francis's sensitive side. Penny, in that sense, has paid service to her other profession as screenwriter. She perhaps hopes for the various threads to provide a cinematic blend for an interesting script.

Given the depth and breadth of this wonderful work, that shouldn't be much work.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Picture Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

A craftsman at his best

A book of short stories by a writer as gifted as David Malouf is an unrivaled delight. This assiduous writer is a novelist (his Remembering Babylon was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1993), poet, playwright and librettist. Here, all his short story collections, including the previously unpublished Every Move You Make, are collated in what is easily one of the more potent literary displays this summer.

There is a pre-occupation in Malouf's work with exploring the spiritual. His stories, such as The Sun in Winter, are steeped in Biblical imagery. Yet, it is not the religious that the prism of his writing distills. He works such wonders with the language that his tales reach beyond into a sphere of heightened subtlety. In Every Move You Make, a woman grieving the death of her boyfriend returns to everyday life with the simple act of picking up a fallen matchstick:

Shocked that it weighed so little. So little that she might not recall, later, the effort it had cost her , this first move towards taking up again, bit by bit, the weight of her life.

The Australian outback is central to Malouf's work. The stories in this collection, which comprises four sub-collections – Every Move You Make, Dream Stuff, Antipodes and Child's Play – discuss a variety of subjects, from homophobia in Closer to the depredations of celebrity in A Traveller's Tale.

Yet, Australia is a central theme that unifies them all –the lure of the bush running across the pages like an invisible connecting thread. For instance, in The Valley of Lagoons, as a hunting party gathers in north Queensland, ties of friendship are tested against the imposing unfamiliarity of the wilderness.

Malouf's stories teem with climactic revelations so that there is a sense of wonder and horror at what may come. In Great Day, a former civil servant is gladdened at the burning of a local museum: the flaming of a slice of personal history. Malouf makes it an inquiry into historical guilt:

What we dare not do ourselves, he found himself thinking, they do for us, the muggers, the smashers, the grab merchants. When we punish them it is to hide our secret guilt.

As these stories suggest, Malouf is a master at making us fall for characters that appear and disappear within the span of a few pages. His character-driven writings are nevertheless accomplished forays into history and the Australian landscape.

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From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

C&F closure a travesty

I had not heard of Avalon being sold off to Purseus and the resultant closure of Carroll & Graf. I wrote Senior Editor Don Weise a mail on his avalon id earlier this week to ask for a galley of Dale Peck's The Garden of Lost and Found. It was after seeing his auto-reply that I came to know of this development.

This is completely unwarranted. In a market where gay and lesbian fiction does not get enough attention, C&F was doing yeoman's work. Why Avalon decided to take such a step escapes me. Weise's personal contribution to this field makes Avalon's decision all the more saddening.

When I wrote Don on his personal email, he replied saying he too is shocked by the sudden development but is happy that he is now free to follow his course. He added that he would continue to work in the gay genre wherever he lands.

What happens now to all C&F titles? When I wrote a senior publicist at Perseus for the Dale Peck galley, I was informed that the title has been shelved. I presume a similar fate awaits most other C&F titles as well.

It's important that all sane voices get heard at a time when readership is falling and gay and lesbian fiction could actually be a profitable business, considering its devoted readership.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

If God were to die, would life change?

God Is Dead is a brilliant novel. In its exploration of a time when God dies, it is new and noteworthy. In spite of exploring such a farout theme, it succeeds in drawing out a taut tale that captures the importance of faith in our lives.

It begins with the premise that God acquires human form to trawl the burnt and emaciated regions of Africa, where destitution is a way of life. Roaming these arid lands in the garb of a Dinka woman, God is overcome by the futility of his creation which has brought immeasurable grief to so many. Racked by guilt and shame, God dies, literally.

The novel, in truth a collection of inter-linked stories that stand well on their own, then dwells into the aftermath of God's death. One of the most touching segments in the book relates to a feral dog which starts speaking after feasting on God's flesh. The dog becomes a sentient being, but this only brings it unhappiness. Coming to terms with a life where the "basic red" of primal anger has given way to "the scarlet of irritation, the vermilion of resentment, the deep crimson of fury" and where affection can be used to deceive, takes its toll.

Then there is the story of Arnold, right from the moment his parents think of having a child to his ill-fated journey back home after war has ruined his life. In one of the lighter stories, False Idols, Arnold's father is shown to be a CAPP (Child Adulation Prevention Psychiatrist), one of the many professionals asked by the government to work against a typical malaise that has gripped the country since the news of God's death spread. Devoid of the knowledge of a greater good, parents have begun to worship their children as mascots of innocence and purity.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The world has split into two camps, the Postmodern Anthropologists (who advocate free will) and the Evolutionary Psychologists (who submit to fate). Matters come to head after a war for control starts, and one cannot help feeling that God or no God, human beings will find an excuse to erect barriers.

More than anything, at a time when the Richard Dawkinses and Daniel Dennetts of the world are howling into our ears about the problems with theism, God Is Dead comes through as a fresh gust of wind. In imagining what crises may befall humanity if the cushion of faith were snatched from it, Ron Currie, Jr. has paid a gleaming tribute to the collective spirit of believers.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.