Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Once prominent in Tehran

Azar Nafisi's first book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," is a scathing reprobation of the Iranian regime that came into place after the revolution of 1979. As a teacher at the University of Tehran, Miss Nafisi had to undergo several humiliations for refusing to follow the diktats of the mullahs. When the situation threatened to go out of control, she decided to emigrate to the United States. She is now a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, and resides in Washington with her family.

Her second outing, the book under review, is a more autobiographical work than her first, since it charts the Nafisis' family life, right from Azar's childhood, to the point where she lost both her parents.

Born into a prominent Tehran family, Azar was the apple of her father's eye. But her relationship with her mother was fraught. Nezhat was an opinionated woman whose marriage to Ahmad Khan, Azar's father, was not her first. All her life, she pined for the love of her first husband, Saifi, who had passed away.

Miss Nafisi's portrait of her mother is mixed, intermingling the matriarch's sense of responsibility towards her children with bitterness about her missed opportunities. She comes across as a powerful character who could mold things in her image and get her way with people and circumstances.

Ahmad Khan was an upright civil servant who rose to become the mayor of Tehran. He enjoyed the trust of the shah, but that was insufficient to protect him from political intrigues. He was sent to jail when Azar was an adolescent, an experience that changed his life, and his family's too.

After returning from prison, Khan, having lost all will to serve the government, also had to battle the ghosts at home. His wife had by now become a member of Parliament, and this shifted the dynamics on the home turf. Gradually, he slipped away from her and into the arms of another woman.

The author's own journey is closely intertwined with her family's. Always craving the affection of her mother, Miss Nafisi portrays herself as a precocious child who from very early on sensed the growing discord between her parents. She is particularly disturbed by the elaborate fictions her mother wrought to gain sympathy.

However, there were fleeting moments of real affection between mother and daughter. As a teenager, Azar was sent to school in England, and her mother accompanied her to settle her in. This trip is burnt in Azar's memory, for her mother went to great pains to ensure her comfort. Miss Nafisi includes a photograph of the two standing at a railway platform before her mother returned to Tehran. It is a wonderfully intimate portrait.

Later, when her father was in jail, Miss Nafisi entered into a brief marriage with a man she met at the University of Oklahoma. It was an unfit alliance from the start: a controlling man versus an independent-minded woman. After a brief affair with an American ("When Ted and I broke up I had fully matured into believing that relationships do not, perhaps should not, last"), Miss Nafisi did discover commitment with Bijan, an open-minded student leader.

This was the late 1970s, a time of unfettered freedom for the young woman. She discovered the joys of scholarship, which had been denied her in the repressive Iranian society. She writes fondly of youthful transgressions, discovering the seductive beauty of poetry, and the call of love. In 1979, the year the revolution occurred in Iran, Azar and Bijan married in Washington.

The book then retraces the territory of Miss Nafisi's first book, discussing her return to Tehran to teach and her growing disenchantment with the way the mullahs overtook every aspect of the common man's life. To the author, this is shocking especially because the mullahs successfully reversed the painfully won battles of equality for women in public spaces (as her mother's ascension to Parliament had testified).

However, the real beauty of this book lies not in the political but the personal. Toward the book's end, Miss Nafisi captures with poignant clarity her worries about her parents, who were now living separately in Tehran, while she was exiled in the United States. As old age started to take its toll, first on her mother, and later on her father, the author, racked by guilt, was left to consider her parents' pain from a distance.

Written in clear prose, "Things I've Been Silent About" is an endearing chronicle of a family that was in several ways, both part of, and distant from, Iran's tumultuous history.

=====

This review appeared in Washington Times.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008's best books

Chicago Sun Times has an eclectic collection of this year's best reads, including my choice. Scroll down on this page...

Read the book's review here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Corporate Blogging in India

While corporate blogging has been gaining momentum in the West for some time now, it is a fairly recent phenomenon in India. The book under review is, therefore, a timely chronicle of the nascent stage of development of this rising communication tool.

Early on in the book, the authors clarify that they do not promote corporate blogging solely for its own sake: "[W]e don't think organizations should be blogging for the sake of blogging. No one should. But then if blogging furthers your organization's strategic or operational objectives, it should be gone ahead with."

Corporate blogging, the authors say, is an efficient tool for organizations to narrow the gap between themselves and their target population, be it employees, customers or the media. They cite the example of Daimler Chrysler which (in its pre-meltdown days) ran a successful by-invitation-only blog for journalists, "where a couple of senior executives share the inside story about the company and the auto industry with reporters."

The real benefit of corporate blogging, or for that matter any form of blogging, lies in its ability to build trust by providing a readily accessible, direct form of communication. This has several advantages, not the least of which is what the authors call the "X Factor" of executive blogs. Not only is a CEO blog a "potent leadership tool," it can also turn out to be a massive source of collective intelligence and idea generation.

Looking at the India story on this front, the book lists a veritable who's who of the corporate world, people who have taken up blogging with relish. There is Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, Ajit Balakrishnan of Rediff, Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Naukri and Vineet Nayar of HCL. One factor that distinguishes blogging from other aspects of communication is the ready availability of instant feedback, both good and the not-so-good. Sample a comment left on the very first post of Think Flat, the blog run by Nilekani:

"What a terrible waste of time and storage space! Is that the best thing you can write on your blog? You have bah-blah'd about your company and the tripe you serve your minions. That's not what we want to read. It's a blog. Don't you know what a blog is?"

To readers wondering if the comment was from a disgruntled former employee, it ends with the identity of the writer spelt out: The owner of a small design firm in Sharjah. Be as it may, the authors warn companies against falling for repression on their corporate blogs. It is essential to let readers let the bile out — as long as it is not unparliamentary, of course. "Blogs have a very dynamic internal equilibrium which offers self-correction if their inherent transparency is not interfered with."

The most interesting chapter in the book is the one on SME internet start-ups, such as MakeMyTrip.com and the MouthShut community. These and many other e-commerce-driven sites have capitalized on blogging to provide a complete user interface, including special offers, discounts and subject-specific blog posts.

Because of their ability to enable consumers to join the conversation, corporate blogs can also serve as brand-building agents. Consider the corporate blog of FritoLay India, managed by the company's HR Director. It contains everything from the river rafting expeditions of the employees to the new ad campaign for Kurkure, and serves as a one-point port of call for anything brand-related.

The authors concede that blogging, as new-age as it may seem, is only the most basic Web 2.0 application that companies can count on. They need to diversify and target the Facebook generation. Imagine the brand recall that a successful campaign on a social networking site might bring. Blogging then is only the first in a long list of possible new media interventions. As they say, "The answer is YouTube, MySpace, Second Life, Flickr and Consumer Generated Content. Now what's the question?"

Sunday, December 21, 2008

America's DNA laid out in 13 volumes

Writer and academic Jay Parini's latest effort is a delightful assortment of books that, he believes, capture the essence of American society and history. Some of Parini's choices may seem eccentric, but none of the 13 books in this collection can be called a lightweight against the rather tough standards the author measures them.

The title, referring to Mary Antin's The Promised Land, harks to the immigrant's experience in America, a society where "except for native Americans, everyone is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants." Continuing in this vein, Parini also includes William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, a founding text about the original Pilgrims, "one of those primal stories that have shaped our sense of who we are."

The other major American issue that Parini sees fit to tackle is race. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Souls of Black Folk find mention. While Parini is not entirely enthusiastic about the talents of Harriet Beecher Stowe, he nevertheless pays hearty tribute to the seminal contribution that Uncle Tom's Cabin made on race relations in America.

Part of the charm of this well-written collection is Parini's inclusion of such non-literary works as the global bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Parini's reason to include the latter is as much cultural as it is sociological. Dr Spock's treatise on baby care, he says, "became the sourcebook of choice for parents in the postwar years; as such, it helped to shape the baby-boom generation, and its effects still reverberate."

Parini's well-rounded collection also includes Walden, Thoreau's vivid account of the pleasures of nature, Betty Friedan's anti-patriarchy polemic, The Feminine Mystique, and yes, an immediately recognizable literary title as well, On the Road.

Parini has a special gift to somehow locate common strands in the disparate works that make this collection. "Reading these books," he says, "I have felt our visibly personal connection to the traditions of spirituality." He goes on to express his delight at discovering the mystical quality in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, whose "independent, even rebellious, spirit" resonates in the writings of Mary Antin, Benjamin Spock, Jack Kerouac, and even in the defiance of Betty Friedan.

===

This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Making 'foreign' one's own

Sadia Shepard came to India in 2001 on a Fulbright grant to study the history of the Bene Israel community. Her trip was driven not so much by scholarship as by her need to pluck a very personal strand of history. Sadia’s grandmother had been a Jew until she married into a Muslim family. As a child growing up in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Sadia often heard her grandmother recount her past: “A very long time ago, your ancestors left Israel in a ship—a big, wide wooden ship—and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck, they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion.”

As Sadia will come to learn, her grandmother, affectionately called Nana, did not quite forget her religion. When she discovers a pin inside a tiny wooden box, on which the words “Rachel Jacobs” are inscribed, Sadia finds herself in a nebulous territory of shifting religious allegiances and multiple identities, all belonging to one enigmatic person, her Nana.

The daughter of a white Protestant man and a brown-skinned Muslim woman, Sadia grew up first in Denver and later in Chestnut Hill, under the watchful care of Nana. Hers was a privileged childhood—her parents ran a successful architecture firm, and her mother belonged to one of Pakistan’s most prosperous families. It was in this genteel backdrop that Sadia learnt new, and initially frightening, things about Nana.

Nana narrates to Sadia, in a curious mélange of memory and fiction, the story of the Bene Israel community, who set out from Israel over 2,000 years ago, and came to settle on the Konkan coast. This communal history soon gives way to the personal, including the taboo topic of Nana’s marriage to a Muslim man, the shift from Bombay to Karachi after marriage, and what that entailed for the families. To Sadia, herself the product of mixed parentage, Nana’s stories are both immediate and distant, and she cannot bring herself to accept Nana’s incomplete splaying of the past.

When Nana dies, Sadia decides to make a trip to India and Pakistan and explore the tenuous links that connect her to the subcontinent. Armed with a Fulbright grant, she lands in Pune, at the Film and Television Institute of India, and begins her journey of discovery.

In Bombay, this “girl from foreign” comes across the familiar sights and sounds of the metropolis, and her account vacillates between the fatuous and the hilarious. When she is groped by a bunch of scoundrels in the second-class compartment of a local train, she starts cursing loudly in English, to the general amusement of all. Horrified, she recollects being told what to do in a situation like this, and she shouts, “Don’t you have a sister?” One by one, the hands drop.

The real delight of this book, however, comes from the little-known facets of the Jewish community in India, a community even more in need of preservation than the Parsis, whose travails are regularly chronicled in the media. How many of us knew about the Chabad House in Bombay until terrorists attacked it on 26/11? Sadia takes us into the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, and explains how the Baghdadi Jewish community that built it, did not associate themselves with the Bene Israel for a good part of their history. Only in recent decades, due to the dwindling population of both communities, they have come closer and now share synagogues.

At Nana’s old flat in Karachi, Sadia chances upon a cache of letters that reveal a different side of Nana’s to the one she has known. These papers capture, in sweet clumsiness, the long courtship between Nana and her husband, and the marital troubles they faced later. Delving into them accustoms Sadia to a new aspect of Nana’s life, a fuller picture of which begins taking shape. To the reader, besides, the letters bring a much-needed relief from the fact-laden history that goes before.

Ultimately, The Girl From Foreign scores because of the happy matrimony of the anthropological and the personal. Sadia’s consummate writing contains ample pointers to her profession (she is a filmmaker). Given her multiracial background, the book is a well-deserved ode to the reality of hyphenated identities.

=======

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The inner man

Graham Greene was a deeply Catholic writer who may have battled bipolar disorder all his life. His Catholic trilogy, "The Power and the Glory," "The Heart of the Matter" and "The End of the Affair" — serious books that made him proud — is the expression of a writer in full command of his talent. But his private life was less sanguine, as brought out in this excellent collection of his letters from the time he was 17 (in 1921) to his death in 1991.

Few people know that before he found success, Graham worked as a sub-editor at The Times in London. It was around this time that he began corresponding with Vivienne Dayrell-Browning (later Vivien Greene), a deeply religious woman who had taken offense at what she thought were blasphemous remarks Graham had made against the Virgin Mary. Graham wrote back a letter of apology to her, and so began a courtship that would end in Graham's conversion to Catholicism and later marriage to Vivien.

But this alliance was not meant to be. Graham had serial affairs with a number of women and all his life battled the guilt that accompanied his liaisons. After his death, Vivien said in an interview that his lifestyle took a heavy toll on him because his deeply ingrained religiosity equated infidelity with sin. Richard Greene, the author of this collection (no relation to Graham), includes here a cache of letters that Graham wrote to Catherine Walston. Ironically, their affair started after Graham's books inspired her to convert to Catholicism.

There are other aspects to Graham's multifarious personality that these letters reveal. He could be a generous fellow writer, for instance. The assistance he rendered to R.K. Narayan, who had been unable to get a single novel published until Graham intervened, is legendary. The collection includes correspondence with a host of other writers as well, including warm letters to Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh.

An inveterate traveler, Graham sent home dispatches from his journeys in Mexico, Vietnam and Sierra Leone. Much of what he saw in these places became the template for new work, such as "The Lawless Roads" and "The Power and the Glory" (Mexico). He encountered death and destruction, and the very near possibility of annihilation, but he journeyed on, firm in the belief that only through travel, "you get an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions, almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances."

Graham Greene was a prolific writer of letters (he is said to have once guessed that he wrote about 2,000 every year), some of which have been revealed only recently. As Richard Greene says in the introduction, every new letter of Graham's takes him further from the set notions that we hold of him. In assembling a complicated, tasteful, diverse portrait of Graham Greene's life, Richard Greene has paid a most sincere tribute to his subject.

======

This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

When monsters fall in love

This is a story of love, the love that a man and woman marked by history shared. Winnie, the daughter-in-law of German composer Richard Wagner, and Adolf Hitler, the world's most hated villain, are said to have had an indiscreet affair for several years prior to the Second World War. Wilson fictionalizes this story and washes it in renewed ardor.

The narrator is a secretary to the Wagners, a man who so passionately lusts for Winnie that he agrees to adopt the illegitimate child that she and Wolf, as Hitler is referred to in the Wagner household, sire. The novel is an account that this unnamed secretary writes to his adopted daughter, explaining her genealogy.

Wilson's craft is a curious blend of his decidedly conservative politics and his adept skills as a novelist. When the novel sticks to characterization and story, he shines. From the sly Cosima, Winnie's mother-in-law, to Siegfried, her homosexual husband, the Wagner clan, in spite of Wilson's best efforts, emerges as a deeply flawed family that was fortunate to cash in on its patriarch's genius. Winnie is the beautiful, dutiful daughter-in-law who dons the mantle of returning the Bayreuth Festival — which Richard Wagner founded as a permanent destination for opera enthusiasts — to its former glory. To her, the Fuherer is the geekish opera-loving charmer she gives her heart to, even as she maintains the semblance of matrimony with Siegfried.

However, Wilson's politics lords it over the novel in very apparent ways, and his genial defence of Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism places serious demands on the reader's sympathy. Even Hitler is different things to different people. When the narrator meets him one evening, "it was not Uncle Wolf, the confident, jolly family friend; still less was it the leader appointed by Providence to save our nation. It was an outsider of outsiders, awkward, fearful, even, with his highly polished shoes and blue suit, slightly deferential towards the society which had chucked him out..."

Indeed, it is the childhood deprivation of the Fuhrer, as depicted in his memoirs to the narrator, which most starkly comes close to providing an explanation for his later political ideology. Thankfully, Wilson stops short of exculpating the man whose brand of genocide scarred the soul of Germany.

Overall an admirable effort,
Winnie and Wolf will be a most satisfying read if approached with a fair amount of discretion and while giving its writer the benefit of the doubt.

=======
Winnie and Wolf was on the 2007 Booker longlist.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A walk along the banks of history

The writer of London: The Biography has added another chapter to his prodigious output with Thames. This, in some ways, completes the picture Peter Ackroyd set out to create of the city of his birth and continuous fascination. If London was a meticulous study of land, Thames is its twin, a groundbreaking portrait of the waters that run beneath.

Much shorter than the other great rivers of the world, such as the Nile and the Danube, the Thames, at just over 250 miles from source to sea, is nevertheless one of the most written about and painted rivers in the world. Over a period of six months, Ackroyd reserved his weekends to walk by the river, starting from its source near Cirencester in Gloucestershire right up to the estuary, where the river meets the waters of the North Sea.

The most fascinating thing about the Thames, in Ackroyd's view, is the varied nature of civilization that has existed on its shores for thousands of years. Whether it is the quiet of country, memorialized in the pastoral idyll of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, or the filth-ridden repository of Victorian London's dark secrets, as brought out by Dickens, the Thames is the confluence of diverse cultures.

In England, Thames was released last year with the curious subtitle Sacred River. To Londoners who are wont to see it as a functional river, with a mercenary — even seedy — past, the subtitle was strange, if not outright shocking. Ackroyd challenges this view, saying the river has been an object of worship since time immemorial. During the Tudor period, it was a site of elaborate rituals; monasteries and abbeys on its banks point to a rich heritage of religious life.

There is an interesting YouTube video of Ackroyd promoting his book as he boats down the river. If you are still unsure of buying it, viewing the video (search YouTube for "Peter Ackroyd Thames") and hearing Ackroyd's stentorian voice will induce you to rush to the nearest bookstore.

====

This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Friday, November 14, 2008

When leviathans rise

At a time when the world is teetering on the brink of recession, a book chronicling the familiar story of China and India’s collective rise may seem out of place. Particularly when it also promises to show what this rise “means for all of us,” meaning, primarily, the USA. Given it’s celebration time there just now, I am unsure whether a rather sermonizing tone will find many takers.

Jairam Ramesh’s egregious-sounding catchphrase “Chindia” is routinely quoted in world capitals and by well-informed commentators to denote the rise of the two Asian powers — in fact, so frequently is it cited that one may well get the impression that the two countries are a joint entity hurtling past former giants, hungering to remove them from their pedestals.

Robyn Meredith, Forbes’ Hong Kong-based foreign affairs correspondent, adds her two cents in The Elephant and the Dragon. She begins by citing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, during which the former prime minister came face-to-face with the shockingly fast-paced rise of China’s capital city. “As the prime minister and his delegation drove into Beijing on a smooth new highway,” Meredith writes, “shiny cars zoomed past endless construction sites as the silhouettes of hundreds of cranes loomed over the cityscape.” China, she imagines Vajpayee noting, had left India behind.

Meredith’s explanation is the lazy refrain of India opening its economy a decade and a half after China, and the valid one of India’s system of governance forestalling the sort of projects that China, with its no-questions-asked government fiat, can implement. As evidence, Meredith adduces the resounding success of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Just the scale of displacement at Three Gorges — 1.2 million people — boggles the mind of an Indian commentator, accustomed as he is to protracted, and often failed, negotiations at rehabilitation.

To her credit, Meredith is balanced in her reproach of India’s crumbling infrastructure, taking pains to point out that China’s much-vaunted model of growth is not all that desirable. We may lambast the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Medha Patkar all we want, but the success of their agitations testifies to their resonance with the poor. It is this consensus seeking from various constituencies in India that frustrates the most well-laid out plans of government at all levels.

Meredith’s training as a journalist stands her in good stead — such as in coining eye-catching phrases to drive home her point. Speaking of the seminal contribution of globalization, she attributes the rise of India and China to the “disassembly line”. As against Henry Ford’s assembly line for automobile manufacturing, modern economies have perfected the art of disassembly; in other words, companies “rushing to break up their products into specialized subassemblies to drive down costs, ratchet up quality, and reduce the time it takes to get the product to the market.”

Meredith articulately puts forth her opposition to that great bugbear of international commerce — protectionism. China’s recent readiness to let the renminbi rise against the dollar has, at any rate, diluted the protectionist canard that the undervaluation of the Chinese currency was responsible for filling the world’s coffers with cheap Chinese exports.

Even so, continental Europe, especially France, continues to delay the finalization of the Doha round. Meredith says this is in spite of evidence that legislation to protect jobs can inadvertently contribute to unemployment. Thanks to government efforts to protect jobs, companies are reluctant to hire new workers for fear of trouble when they are no longer needed and so fired.

Meredith’s argument is the most robust when she broaches the similarities between India and China in their pursual of economic interests in preference to human rights concerns. It is no secret that the foreign policies of both countries have come to be dictated by their energy needs. China’s indulgence of Tehran, and support of the Sudanese government even as the latter perpetrates genocide in Darfur, closely mirror India’s refusal last year to reprimand the Myanmar junta for its treatment of pro-democracy Buddhist monks.

Written ostensibly to portray the effects of India and China’s rise on the West, The Elephant and the Dragon ends up clubbing the two and comparing and contrasting one against the other. So, who wins? The Elephant or the Dragon? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s quote is instructive: “We are a relatively slow-moving elephant economy, but when the elephant does move, it makes a sizable difference.” Perhaps in that hope lies our redemption.

=======

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Disney magic

Lee Cockerell, who rose from a humble background to become the executive vice-president of operations at Walt Disney, is an emphatic proponent of leadership virtues. He narrates here the secrets behind the global success of the Disney enterprise, with people from all over the world partaking in the joy of entertainment resorts, theme parks, cruise lines etc.

Cockerell grew up on farm in Oklahoma. He recounts fondly how he used to milk cows and then haul the milk across the neighbourhood in return for 50 cents and some peaches from a kind couple. This, he says, instilled in him a solid work ethic. Later he moved to Washington and worked as a banquet waiter at the Hilton. This was his first real job and he attributes learning the importance of diversity to the time spent there—he had co-workers from all over the world.

In 1970, he became the personal assistant to Eugene Scanlon, the food and beverage controller at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Scanlon made him attend countless banquets and paid for several rounds of wine tasting to enable Cockerell to see the importance of good service. Each of such tiny lessons, he says, stands him in good stead to this day.

Cockerell also relates incidents when he was directly confrontational with junior members of the staff, and surprisingly, for which he suffered physical injuries at times (one humiliated waiter smashed a Budweiser bottle into his face). However, it is his attitude that stands out. Rather than nurse grudges, Cockerell chose to learn, and committed himself to treating all his employees, irrespective of rank, with respect.

More importantly, he started searching for solutions to his workplace crises, and discovered that nearly each of them could be traced to a leadership failure on his part. He realized that “great leaders always focus on others, not on themselves. They hire the right people, train them, trust them, respect them, listen to them, and make sure to be there for them when needed.”

At Disney, Cockerell incorporated the principles that he enumerates in this book. One of his prime strategies is the concept of equality. He stresses on the importance of every job in the office hierarchy. In this regard, he does well to cite an early job as the grease man at a Nevada restaurant. It involved pushing a little cart around the kitchens and emptying grease from the griddles. He was, of course, treated with disdain, or just plain indifference, as though he didn’t exist. Only he seemed to appreciate how crucial keeping the griddles grease-free was to the running of the kitchen, and in turn, the restaurant.

This lesson stayed with Cockerell. As he rose to become an executive vice-president at Disney, he came to propagate the notion that everyone, from the cleaning staff to the ticket seller, had an equal role in the Disney success story. Towards this goal, he put in place a nomenclature system under which all Disney employees were called “cast members”. Laundry, for instance, was handled by “textile services”.

In a world bustling with brands, Cockerell is of the view that people are the real face of an organization’s success. If you don’t have good people, he says, no amount of PR, marketing, branding will make up for it. Successful organizations know this and nourish their human resources. He suggests a variety of ways to bring this about, one of which is training. Training employees vigorously and purposefully inspires them to reach excellence in their work, which in turn, optimizes the organization’s profitability.

Another is appreciation. Cockerell reminisces how, during a visit to the house of a senior employee, he came across a letter of appreciation he had written him, “handsomely framed and hanging in a prominent place in the foyer.” Battling embarrassment and curiosity, Cockerell was nonetheless genuinely moved.

Cockerell’s strategizing also touches upon an organization’s structure, which, he says, is as important as the structure of a building. He believes that structure isn’t a constant, rather it is a fluid entity which is modified regularly. This is especially relevant in today’s times, when advancements in technology are redefining work spaces. This is a direct upshot of his view that delegating authority is an important step towards accountability, since authority is a cornerstone in the exercising of responsibility.

Cockerell finishes the book with some deft self-promotion, giving out the details of programmes conducted at the Disney Institute, a management training centre in Florida. A book can only take you so far, he says, attend the programme for full benefit—as you imagine the oracle, until now charming and hilarious, ending his monologue on a rather unsavoury note.

--------

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

'Poppies' set before Opium Wars

Amitav Ghosh's anthropological incursions into the migrants of yore have resulted in fine specimens of both fiction and non-fiction. In his bestselling novel, The Glass Palace, Ghosh wove a rich tapestry of a precocious 11-year-old Indian boy's adventures in Burma. In The Hungry Tide, an Indian-American biologist explores the lush beauty of the Sunderban delta, only to discover the terrible secrets that the mangroves hide.

Now, his latest, Sea of Poppies, the first in a proposed trilogy, dabbles in the seldom explored consequences of the British opium trade on Indian colonials. The East India company, a trading enterprise that morphed into the British crown in the late 19th century, was the world's chief opium trader at the time. The novel is set on the eve of the Opium Wars -- occasioned by the British smuggling of opium from British India into China and the Chinese government's efforts to ban this illegal trade.

After the outlawing of slavery in British India in 1833, British merchants took to transporting "coolies" or indentured labor to nearby islands, most notably Mauritius, to continue work on their plantations. Along with coolies, criminals, too, were transported across the Bay of Bengal to be sent to island prisons.

Ghosh brings these disparate strands together in crafting a story of rapacious greed and its inhuman aftermath. Benjamin Burnham, a sexually deviant merchant, is the owner of the Ibis, a giant vessel formerly meant to carry slaves. By a quirk of fate orchestrated consummately by Ghosh, a motley set of people converge on the Ibis. A heartbroken zemindar-turned-convict, the widow of a poppy grower, the runaway daughter of a French biologist -- many a life discovery is played out on the Ibis.

Ghosh does many things to the art of novel-writing here. Not only does his exact historical inquiry blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also the intricacy with which he meshes diverse tongues to come up with an eccentric pidgin is truly ingenious. From genuine languages (Bhojpuri) to workers' lingo (Laskari), Ghosh dispenses with convention in not including a glossary at the end, leaving his readers to derive meaning from context. Sea of Poppies is a veritable cauldron of energy intermingling with craft.

====

This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times. Sea of Poppies was a finalist for this year's Booker.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Nazi experiment lives on for generations

Nancy Huston, an intelligent and perceptive writer, has scored handsomely with her 11th novel, which has garnered wide praise in her adopted country of France. There it has won the Prix Femina and sold more than 400,000 copies.

Narrated backward by 6-year-olds in four generations of the same family, Fault Lines attempts to meld writerly confidence with an acute eye for historical injustice. It begins in California circa 2004, with the scarily distant voice of Sol, a precocious boy who surfs the Internet for porn and plays along with his mother's delusion that he is too young to watch Bridget Jones's Diary.

We are taken into the crux of the story with the visit of Sol's grandmother Sadie, a world-renowned authority on Jewish affairs. We learn that Sadie is a passionate advocate of the Jewish cause, but Huston keeps delaying the reason, until two chapters down the line, when we hear Sadie's childhood voice from 1962.

Sol's father, Randall, whose voice we hear in the second chapter, was raised in a devout Jewish household. His parents take him to Israel in 1982, where Sadie collects material for her work. Even as the First Lebanon War gathers momentum in the background, little Randall struggles to make sense of a new, frightening place.

The central theme of the novel is the effects of the Lebensborn ("fountain of life"), a Nazi organization set up by Hitler to provide families for "racially suitable" kids from occupied territories and raise them as Germans. Sadie's mother, Kristina — the narrator of the final chapter — was one such child, taken from Ukraine as an infant and raised by a loving German woman. Kristina, however, was "rescued" and relocated to a Ukrainian family in Toronto after 1945.

Huston writes movingly of the role of history in our lives — how the past is not just a memory, but an affliction that seeps into the blood and gets passed on to subsequent generations, its effects unpredictable and unquantifiable.

=====

This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Christian Science Monitor to go online-only

Read it here.

The model that they are proposing is an email Monday to Friday that delivers content on a PDF file (for a price, of course). And a weekly print magazine on high-gloss paper.

Sounds reasonable, and given that CSM is not your usual paper (it is subsidized by the Christian Science Church), the success or otherwise of this model will have lessons for mainstream newspapers.

Here and here are my reviews for CSM.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Inscrutable Indians

The Indian middle class is the subject of much introspection. If, as Dipankar Gupta says, it is a model of “mistaken modernity”, it is also the engine that drives the great Indian economic wagon. Journalist Alam Srinivas’s interest in studying the Indian middle class was piqued by its heterogeneous character. In fact, a good part of this book is devoted to outlining the varied subsets of this segment.

Srinivas starts with the rise of what he terms the Neo Middle Class (NMC), a class of conspicuous consumers that came into the spotlight after the opening up of the economy in the early 1990s. The NMC, says Srinivas, constitutes those who have directly benefited from the growth in sunrise sectors such as BPO, event management and IT & communication. New avenues have enabled a generation of youngsters to earn and spend much more than did earlier generations.

Further, Srinivas speaks about the Other Middle Class (OMC), “the outer and larger layer of the NMC nucleus”. The OMC isn’t a fixed entity, rather a Rorschach, a dispersed array of people that varies with the prism through which it is viewed. Viewed from an economic lens, the OMC will include bureaucrats, senior Indian railway officers, CEOs of large PSUs, and senior officers of the Indian military. Likewise, political and social perspectives yield different constituents of the OMC. To wit, the rise of Dalits in the hierarchy of political power has contributed to a burgeoning layer in the middle class.

Srinivas’s excursions into history are less enthusing. The rise of a middle class consciousness in India is attributed to the willingness of Brahmins to educate their progeny and join the Raj’s administrative framework. The rise of a Brahminical political consciousness — the Congress was accused in those days of being a Brahmin-dominated claque — is only cursorily dealt by Srinivas.

Post-Independence, Nehru’s stress on building institutions of academic excellence had the unlikely consequence of contributing to class consciousness. The IITs and IIMs launched a most powerful segment of the Indian middle class. The alumni of these elite institutes were able to command hitherto unheard of salaries, and thanks to reservation, economic well-being spread to the lower rungs of society as well.

Returning to the NMC, Srinivas divides the young into three distinct groups: Spenderati, Seenerati and Smootherati. Spenderati are unabashed spenders, reveling in the heady sensation that shopping gives (them). Seenerati like to be seen at “happening” joints — malls et al — not to spend but to build connections. Smootherati are the more conservative section of the young middle class, who traverse the middle ground between the Spenderati and the Seenerati. These tongue-twisters are Srinivas’s creation, and they do not leave the reader any wiser about spending patterns in today’s India.

Except perhaps when he delves into the economics of beer drinking in the capital, citing his own shift from the Press Club to go pub-hopping in search of groovy music and interesting company. He concedes that he is part of the curious metro crowd that likes to drink at home before going to the pub merely to socialise.

Srinivas comes close to building a cogent argument in tracing Bollywood’s portrayal of the changing habits of the Indian consumer. From the socialist self-denial of Manoj Bharat Kumar to the lush settings of marital discord in Karan Johar’s popcorn entertainment, Bollywood has closely followed the rise of the new India. Srinivas is an emphatic admirer of Dil Chahta Hai, Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 film that instituted an informal, urbane storytelling style.

In “Retail’s Short Tail”, the book’s fifth chapter, Srinivas compares the mall culture in the west to India’s, and points to major differences. Malls in the west took off after the postwar economic boom resulted in both parents working, so that the idea of a place where one could shop for everything was a blessing for time-pressed couples. In India, on the other hand, malls are an extension of the kirana stores, as pioneered by Kishore Biyani’s Big Bazaar format. People jostle with one another to get the best bargains — Indian malls can hardly be thought of as islands of prosperous calm in a sea of deprivation, which description they may be expected to fit.

An interesting account of the rise of the Indian middle class, The Indian Consumer’s most telling takeaway is the new-age motto, “I can spend, so I will.”

====

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

'Wasted Vigil' puts spectator at tension's center

In his new novel, The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam, the writer of two previous novels, one of which, Maps for Lost Lovers, won the prestigious Kiriyama Prize, delves into the conflict-ridden reality of modern Afghanistan.

From the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the U.S. war effort in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Afghanistan has been a battleground of opposing ideologies for several decades now.

The story takes place in the house of Marcus Caldwell, a British doctor who has made Usha, a town near Jalalabad, his home since marrying an Afghan doctor. Both Qatrina, his wife, and Zameen, their daughter, have been lost to the tyranny of the Taliban, yet Marcus continues to live there like "a prophet in wreckage."

Over the course of the story, several people will visit his house: a Russian from St. Petersburg searching for her soldier brother, a young Islamic fundamentalist taking cover for a few days, a former CIA man much disillusioned with his role as spy, and others. Marcus is the benevolent patriarch who shelters them all under the intent gaze of a Buddha head that was discovered during the building of the house and the perfume factory adjacent to it.

Aslam's writing gradually unravels the histories of the cast of characters and takes us into a civilization that, even though we learn more and more about it with every passing day, is still inscrutable to the Western eye. The presence of a Buddha in Marcus' house, given the actual destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, is employed aptly by Aslam as a connecting thread.

A pragmatist, Aslam takes no sides in the fight between Islam and the West, even as he approaches a rigid stance against terrorism. The softly gleaming beauty of his prose is immediately reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, and the moral clarity of his concerns heralds a brave new voice in the mold of Salman Rushdie.

====

From St Petersburg Times.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Not your usual travel memoir

What the Daily Telegraph’s former Africa correspondent, Tim Butcher, set out to do in 2004 is something even the doughtiest will be loath to try. Enamoured by the legendary adventure of Henry Morton Stanley and buoyed by his mother’s pleasant experience as a young traveller in the Congo, he set out to retrace Stanley’s journey along the mighty Congo River.

Stanley also happened to be a Telegraph correspondent who, in 1874, had undertaken a rigorous trek along the Congo River, the first of its kind, which revealed to Europe the hidden treasures that lay buried in Africa’s heart. Butcher is of the arguable view that it was Stanley’s report of the richness of the Congo basin that inspired King Leopold of Belgium to launch his colonial designs in Africa, followed, of course, by other European powers.

All this provides sufficient ground to Butcher to contemplate a similar journey, not just for purely personal reasons, which he carefully enumerates, but also to document the sheer scale of change that has set in the Congo since the first colonialists arrived at its doorstep in the nineteenth century. Since gaining independence from the Belgians in 1964, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has witnessed relentless instability. After the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the country plunged into anarchy, with the Mai-Mai rebels unleashing looting, rioting, rape and random violence.

Nearly everyone, from UN aid officials to local administrators, discourage Butcher’s travel plans. The areas that the Mai-Mai are the most active in — Kindu and Kalemie — form a major part of his travel itinerary. Yet, in August 2004, Butcher books a flight from Johannesburg to the Congo, and writes his first will. His phantasmagoric journey, starting from Lake Tanganyika on the DRC’s eastern border with Tanzania, is aided and abetted by a diverse array of people — volunteer bikers, pygmy leaders, English missionaries and so on.

The Africa Butcher criss-crosses is one where past glories have given way to a hollowed-out reality. Countless villages on his route have no semblance of normal life. Once smooth roads are now potholed and uneven. There is no power, or intermittent bouts of it. No water supply, leaving locals to use the river for drinking, washing and sewage. Dysentery and malaria are widespread, and Butcher spends several nights in areas where the threat of epidemics is very real. Most days he wakes up feeling groggy and feverish. His anti-malaria pills make him nauseous, and he must ensure adequate supplies of boiled water are at hand.

Even so, health and hygiene aren’t the least of his concerns. Always on the move so as not to arouse suspicion, Butcher stretches himself to the extremity of endurance. He encounters Mai-Mai rebels and mass graves on his way, and begins to realise that he can easily be caught in the crossfire of rival factions. Once in Kindu, he is advised by a naval commander to discontinue his journey. Cdr Wilson explains to him that the rebel commander is angry about some of his men not receiving well-paid promotions, and is therefore, threatening to pull out of the peace process.

But Butcher, nudged forth by the almost hallucinatory thrust of his ambition, keeps moving. Somewhere in the backdrop of this fragile peace, he reaches the Congo River, a most unimpressive sighting:

“The moment came during another long day of motorbiking as we picked our way along a section of track not noticeably different from the 600 kilometers that went before. We simply turned the corner and there, unheralded, in front of me, lay one of the natural wonders of the world. The object of so much mystery for generations of outsiders, and the thing that had fired my imagination through years of research, oozed lazily downstream between two thickly forested banks almost a kilometer apart.”

Butcher’s high scholarship makes this a compelling read. He sprinkles his account with references to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and to cinematic adaptations of The African Queen. But through it all, the grimness of central Africa and its lost potential hang heavy. Butcher, who is now the Middle East correspondent of the Telegraph, has done yeoman’s service to his former beat by being not only an intrepid adventurer but also an entertaining writer.

=====

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

John le Carre's son's prodigious debut

Nick Harkaway is the son of espionage writer John le Carre, and this association undoubtedly had some role to play in the huge advance that The Gone-Away World collected internationally. Having said that, it is important to note the worthy gifts of this debutant.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world, a milieu that's attained renewed interest since Cormac McCarthy took home the 2006 Pulitzer for The Road. Harkaway's book is science fiction with a literary bent, a break away from his father's decidedly mass market "pulp" predilections.

We begin the novel some years into a worldwide conflict -- the Go Away War -- that was so brutal it has rendered vast tracts of the earth inhospitable. A massive pipeline, indestructible as the Titanic was unsinkable, has caught fire and threatens the lives of those it guards within its confines.

This is because the pipeline must dispense a chemical -- mysteriously labeled "FOX" -- that nullifies the effect of the deleterious fumes that the Go Away War pumped into the atmosphere. The unnamed narrator, along with his best friends Gonzo Lubitsch and Jim Hepsobah -- all members of an emergency trucking service -- have been deployed to put out the fire and restore the pipeline.

From here, Harkaway takes the reader into the past, detailing the narrator's childhood and the origins of the Go Away War, his fiction borrowing heavily from the absurdity of the present-day world. The narrator is suitably versatile, from training in kung fu as a youngster to later joining a top secret military project aimed at developing the ultimate weapon.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and the only tribute Harkaway pays to his father's craft is the sudden twists the plot takes to nudge the story forward. Harkaway is a humorist, so don't expect a grim tale of crime and redemption. Rather, The Gone-Away World is a fast-paced and intelligent work from a writer one needs to watch out for.

=======

This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In memoir, novelist faces his mortality

Julian Barnes is best known as a writer of fiction. He has written 10 novels, the most recent of which is Arthur & George. Based on the Great Wyrley Outrages — a series of mutilations of farm animals that took place in the county of Staffordshire at the beginning of the 20th century — that book was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, but lost out to John Banville's The Sea.

Barnes' latest book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, is part family memoir, part conversation with himself on death and dying. Barnes is a great conversationalist, and this is a humorous book in spite of its serious subject matter.

Barnes introduces us to his quiet, God-fearing father and his rather domineering mother, whose Communist beliefs took her away not only from God but also from her husband. The portrait of family life that Barnes draws is not a charming one, affected as it was by the wide gap between his parents' outlooks and the uncomfortable truce between Barnes and his elder brother, the British philosopher Jonathan Barnes. Jonathan and Julian think variously on almost every major point, and Julian concedes that Jonathan's being older and remote negatively affects the dynamics of their relationship.

Be that as it may, Nothing is really a book about Barnes' fear of dying and how the questioning novelist in him tackles this fear against an overpowering wish to be comforted by the knowledge of God. One man Barnes quotes repeatedly is French author Jules Renard, who wrote movingly about witnessing the death of his father and brother. Barnes is a satirist, so his treatment often verges on the deprecatory, yet in putting forth the wide range of his scholarship, he points to the seriousness of his intention.

Perhaps Nothing is merely a prelude to a more complete book on Barnes' life — a trailer to a comprehensive autobiography. Given his exquisite literary talents, such a book will be eagerly awaited.

======

Also read The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Memoir writing at its finest

Julia Blackburn is a well-known writer of non-fiction, but it is this, the memoir of her growing up years, that will likely go down as the definitive work in her oeuvre.

The daughter of a poet father and painter mother, Julia grew up in a Bohemian household that comes across as horrific for the scant regard it paid to the conventions of family. Her father Thomas was an alcoholic addicted to sodium amytal. In his madness, he turned into a violent beast who would come close to snuffing the life out of Julia's mother Rosalie.

There are long descriptive scenes of Julia's mother using her as a shield against her husband, confident in the knowledge that Thomas would not harm his daughter. Which he didn't, physically that is. It's another matter what effect this sort of experience would have on the psychology of a little girl.

The real thrust of Julia's memoir, however, is not the violence perpetrated by her father (whose love she was always certain of), but the strange jealousies that her growing up aroused in Rosalie. Soon after her parents separated, Julia moved in with her mother, and so began the process of renting out the spare room to eligible male lodgers, all of them potential mates for a ravenous Rosalie.

What follows is a disgust-inducing account of Rosalie competing with her daughter to win the affections of the lodgers, even as she is preternaturally interested in introducing her daughter to the vocabulary of adulthood — fellatio, masturbation, lesbians, dildoes. A stung Julia, desperate to make sense of Rosalie's vanishing motherhood, falls deeper into the vortex of self-destruction.

Matters come to a head with Geoffrey, a divorced artist, who seems as interested in Rosalie as Julia, at least in the beginning. Mother and daughter must go their separate ways in trying to win his charms, even as their collective story builds to grief, ending in crime and guilt.

Each chapter in the book ends with a footnote from the present (1999), as a dying Rosalie comes to stay with an adult Julia. Finally, with the smell of death hovering in the air, the duo are able to reconcile their bitter past and make peace.

Julia is a gifted writer, a consequence perhaps of the experiences life has handed her. Which is why, in spite of its grimly cautionary tone, The Three of Us is memoir writing at its finest.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Yoga Teacher

Alexandra Gray, yoga teacher to celebrities and author of one previous book, explores the Western fascination for this ancient Indian exercise form. The story revolves around Grace, a pharmaceutical saleswoman whose lifelong fascination with yoga, combined with the gentle initiation of her yoga instructor, gives her the confidence to chuck her dull job and head to California to take lessons at the Bodhi Tree, a disciplinarian yoga camp...Read more>>>

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A mellow Muslim everyman

Hanif Kureishi's books, from The Buddha of Suburbia to My Beautiful Laundrette, have explored the lives of British Muslims in the crossfire of tradition vs. modernity. Combine this with his ever-present gaze on the paradoxes of sexuality, and you have a writer who does not shy from the veiled and the thinly revealed.

His latest, Something to Tell You, is a mature work, transforming his classic fiery young Muslim hero into a mellower middle-aged man. Jamal is battling midlife demons, particularly sex and identity. A psychoanalyst, he shares a comfortable relationship with his ex-wife and adores his teenage son, Rafi. However, the memory of Ajita, the love of his younger self, haunts Jamal, in a surprising aftershock of his profession. Too used to analyzing others' problems, he tries to believe, in vain, that his problems are products of his imagination that can be wished away by pep talk. Sadly and thankfully, that's not the case.

The novel plots Jamal's journey toward Ajita, interspersed with his interactions with a cast of characters as interesting as it is diverse. Jamal's sister, Miriam, is a no-nonsense woman who single-handedly raised her children and plies a lucrative drug smuggling trade. His friend Henry is a theater director sick of the rarefied traditions of intellectualism. And there is Karen, a television producer with whom Jamal has enjoyed intermittent spells of intimacy.

Something to Tell You is interesting also for the narrative thrust of Jamal's younger years, in which Kureishi speaks, autobiographically it seems, of the utter strangeness of the Thatcher era, dipping into pop culture references. From trying Ecstasy for the first time to discovering the charms of Tina Turner and The Police, Kureishi explores, vicariously through Jamal, the dissipation of those years.

Back to the present, and no prizes for guessing the hero's disenchantment with Tony Blair. The novel is at its polemical best in speaking of Iraq and the London tube bombings. As it draws to a close, we are satisfied with having been in the company of a fine writer, who, while speaking for a certain community, targets universal themes of loss and the desire to be desired.

-------

This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. Also read Personal accounts of racism.

A charcoal sketch of despair

A tiny collection of seven short stories, Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields may be among the best books you will read this year. Set in rural Ireland, where time stands still and passions run deep, these stories remind us of the universality of despair and deprivation.

In the first story, The Parting Gift, a young woman is being sent to the United States to escape a lifetime of abuse from her father. As her mother and brother prepare to send her off at the airport, Keegan builds on the silences and the dispersal of precious, meaningless advice ("Watch out for pickpockets in New York") to draft a story of considerable emotional heft.

In the quirky The Long and Painful Death, a female author checks into a residence (formerly the house of writer Heinrich Boll) to overcome a disabling writer's block, only to be disturbed by a persistent stranger who seems intent on visiting her. The meeting, when it happens, fizzles out after little more than the exchange of pleasantries, yet it comes to provide the template of a new, dark tale that the writer pens, about a lonesome man dying of a terminal illness.

Rural Ireland, viewed through Keegan's eyes, is a place brimming with marital discord and unhappy alliances. In The Forester's Daughter, a woman gets revenge for having married the wrong person by narrating the shared sadness of their lives to the entire village, many years after the wedding, on her husband's birthday. Martha's dissatisfaction with Victor, while always tending toward something tangible, is delayed until secrets begin to unravel on one shocking evening.

Keegan is partial to women in her tales. In Night of the Quicken Trees, a woman gifted with the power to heal walks away from the promise of happiness, unreasonably. Even as Keegan tries to tie this up with the weight of an oppressive past, Margaret does not quite come across as the heroic figure the author would have us believe she is.

Yet Keegan's writing offers stark, intelligent flourishes and a look into the heart of rural Ireland, gurgling with desolate undercurrents.

-------

This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ambitious 'Cure For Grief' a shining debut

A work of great ambition, The Cure For Grief (Scribner, 288 ages, $24) is a shining debut from writer Nellie Hermann. The novel begins with the chance discovery of a gun by the protagonist Ruby Bronstein. Ruby, the youngest of the Bronsteins, must share the thrill and horror of landing upon a weapon with her three elder brothers, Nathan, Aaron and Abe. This opening sequence is a gentle initiation into the bonds that tie the Bronsteins and also the fear and loathing that the family patriarch holds for weapons of any sort.

Ruby's father is a Holocaust survivor who maintains incomprehensible spells of silence and holds steadfast to his Jewish identity. As Ruby slips into adolescence, tragedies begin to strike the family. Both her father and Nathan, to whom Ruby is especially close, die, and Abe, always distant, gradually slips into madness. The slide from happiness to sadness to rage is evoked with restrained passion, not just in Ruby's response to the crumbling family around her, but also in Hermann's portrayal of it.

With the deaths in the family chasing her like friendly ghosts, Ruby's life acquires an altogether new dimension in that she is forced to constantly watch her place through a hitherto absent third eye. Whether it is attending kerem (Jewish camp) or recounting her traumas to potential love interests, or even just commenting on the banal idiocy of network TV, an unbreakable cycle of depressed homogeneity stalks Ruby -- which is why even though there is a tendency to repeat what the reader will get tired of acknowledging, the book never falls into dull territory.

The similar nature of tragedies (both father and Nathan die of brain tumors) and the springing of sudden madness (Abe's violent revolts are blameless forays into making sense of a senseless world) lend counterweight to the repetitiveness. One wonders if Hermann meant these as elliptical references to the destructiveness of the Holocaust.

The Cure for Grief is fine writing. In a touching scene, a disturbed Ruby is comforted by Aaron, his pale words bubbling into nothingness. The reader is brought to the point of lashing out on Ruby's part, which she does, and this realization, this stage-setting -- more than anything else -- is the mark of a great writer.

=====

This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Exploring mother's delusion, son's compassion

Matthew Kneale is a stylistic chameleon. His 2000 Booker-shortlisted English Passengers was a swashbuckling account of 20 characters involved in the search for an elusive land. He followed that up with a short story collection and novella. And now, he is back with When We Were Romans, a heartbreaking story of a young boy and his mother's battle with folie a deux.

Folie a deux is a mental disorder that occurs when two people share the same delusion. While one of them is genuinely delusional, the other one simply plays along, at times missing the boundary between fiction and reality.

Lawrence is a 9-year-old astronomy buff who is preparing for a road trip at the beginning of the novel, because his mother, Hannah, wants to take him and his sister Jemima to a place where their father "doesn't follow us . . . somewhere really far away. Somewhere he'd never be able to find us. Somewhere like Rome."

And so begins a trip from England to the Italian capital that is always on the cusp of disaster. Hurtling from one residence to the next with her children, surviving on the mercy of her friends from an earlier time, Hannah is on the perpetual lookout for tiny moments of reprieve. Since Lawrence is the narrator, Kneale satisfyingly defers exploring what monstrosity Hannah's husband has perpetrated for her to fear him so.

Which, of course, is artistic license, for Hannah's husband is no monster, just someone she has differences with. In the garb of a chivalrous son, Hannah has the perfect accomplice to her delusions. Lawrence is ever sensitive to his mother's distress. So touching is his willingness to reassure her at every juncture that one can't help but weep at the sadness of the situation.

If you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, definitely pick up When We Were Romans. It will make you thank God for children in a world made absurd by adults.

========

This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mothers and Sons

This is Colm Toibin’s first book of short stories, and includes a novella in the end, "A Long Winter". Two of the stories here, "A Song", about a chance meeting between an estranged mother-son duo, and "Famous Blue Raincoat", which is the only story that is not about mothers and sons, but two sisters, had previously appeared in the Guardian, where I had read them. I have been reading a lot of Toibin's fiction recently, and Mothers and Sons is easily the best book to emerge from his stable. This, and his last, The Master, indicate a steady progression in the skills of an already deeply gifted observer of human frailty.

In "Three Friends", Fergus has just lost his mother to illness, and the story opens with his preparation for her funeral. Attending the funeral as if in a stupor, Fergus is forced by three of his friends to accompany them to a rave party later that night. Toibin slowly builds the shift in mood, from Fergus's reluctance to attend a pleasure trip to the point when deep in the throes of ecstasy (and Ecstasy), he undertakes an intense sexual experience inside the swimming pool with one of his friends, Mick. With another writer, the switch from grief to pleasure might have turned tacky, but Toibin's development is wholesome, making the reader want Mick to exert his full body weight on Fergus, a scene of mutual masturbation that breathes life into Fergus and the story.

In "A Long Winter", an alcoholic mother walks out on her family one morning only to be caught up in a blanket of snow. Her husband and son must then negotiate a truce with others in the village to help them search for her. The novella develops across several weeks, with ultimately a kitchen boy, an orphan, being brought in to take care of the household. Even as the mother's dead body is never discovered, Toibin, through scenes of conflict and tenderness, denotes the astonishing yet welcome way the orphan comes to displace the lady of the house.

Expectations turned false is a theme that runs through many stories. In "A Summer Job", a woman tries to bring her son to feel something for his grandmother with whom he spends the summers. The old lady is, of course, crazy about her grandson, and there are scenes in which, publicly at least, he seems to return the emotion. However, his mother discovers, later in the story, that his loving exterior may after all be a facade. Similarly, in "A Journey", a mother is driving home her depressed son from the hospital. He, who had bound himself to her as a child, thinking of ways to impress her, has turned distant and refuses even to sit next to her in the front. Toibin declines to discuss the cause of his depression and lets the reader be pained by the heavy silences that have crept in between mother and son.

Mothers and Sons is a truly inspired collection, its pitch perfect. It is so good that one hopes Toibin will, if only sporadically, reserve his pregnant sentences for shorter fiction like he has done here for the first time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Story of the Night

The Story of the Night is inspired by Colm Toibin's own experiences in Argentina during the early 1980s, at the height of the Falklands War. As a journalist sending dispatches from Buenos Aires, he chronicled the suppression that the Generals of the time wreaked on the common populace. The Story of the Night, then, is a novel both of political oppression and US hegemony and ultimately, like in any Toibin novel, the search for the perfect gay love.

The story spans Richard Garay's experiences during the heated political climate of the time. Living with his mother, who dies 50 pages into the novel, Richard is ignorant of "all that is going around me". In hindsight, when he becomes an accomplice of two CIA agents — Susan and Donald, wife and husband — working on privatizing Argentina's national resources, he views those early halcyon days as ones of utter innocence, mixed with a certain lovable foolishness, where the hope of obtaining something was always greater than the pleasure in getting it.

Richard falls in love with Pablo, the son of a local senator, but does not know until later that he too is gay. Pablo's brother, Jorge, who Richard used to teach English at one time, is having a furtive affair with Susan. Toibin builds on the secretiveness of the two relationships — Richard and Pablo's versus Jorge and Susan's — to seek legitimacy for gay love. This is similar to the central conflict in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, where Nick Guest's gay affair is accused of spoiling the party for politician Gerald Fedden, never mind that Gerald is himself having a torrid straight affair. The Line of Beauty beat Toibin's The Master to the 2004 Booker.

All of Toibin's trademarks are present here, including the tactile gloom that pervades his novels. By the end of the novel, both Pablo and Richard have contracted AIDS, and Toibin uses this to develop a measure of beauteous absolution for his characters, from the mere fact of existence. One needs to be of a certain disposition, then, to fully appreciate the longing in these pages.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

'Guernsey' refreshes the art of epistolary writing

The epistolary novel has become a rare form with the advent of e-mail, though e-mails were used to good effect in Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door. More recently, Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli used the epistolary form to popular acclaim.

Now, another novel promises to revive this lost art. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters written to and by Juliet Ashton, close on the heels of World War II. Juliet gained fame as the writer of a syndicated humor column, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War."

Soon after the war, she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, founder of the literary society in Guernsey, a small island off the British coast, and the only English province the Nazis manage to control. Dawsey is an admirer of author Charles Lamb, one of whose books, owned by Juliet, has somehow reached him, a situation that leads her to remark that "perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

This happens amid Juliet's search for matter for her next book, a concern expressed in letters to her publisher and friend, Sidney, and his sister, Sophie. Juliet has known the brother-sister duo since teenage and shares an easy conviviality with them, evoked wonderfully in their letters to one another.

Juliet's interest in the Guernsey Literary Society, which begins with discovering the roots of its eccentric name, soon develops into full-fledged interaction with its many members. There is the reserved but warm Dawsey, the magical potions-churning Isola, the cautious Amelia and many others. Through their letters, Juliet gains a sense of what the Nazi occupation entailed for the tiny island, and how the absence of one member from their midst continues to be a haunting memory.

Drawn to the fascinating story of the islanders, Juliet decides to visit. Written in warm, life-affirming prose by the aunt-niece duo of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (the former died earlier this year), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an ideal choice for book groups, and also for individual readers.

====

This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship, another subtle exploration by writer Colm Toibin, is the story of three women, Mrs Devereux, Lily and Helen — granny, mother and daughter — who are forced to come together to care for Helen's dying brother Declan. Declan is gay and is dying of AIDS, and Toibin uses this eventuality as a backdrop for allowing the three principal characters to bury a lifetime of differences to help Declan spend his last days in peace. The setting is granny's — Mrs Devereux's — house in Cush, an Irish rural outpost.

Toibin playfully sets modern themes in sharp contrast to the the rigidity of life in rural Ireland to deliver a tale that resonates with the palpable tension among the protagonists. Living with her husband and two boys in Dublin, Helen is introduced as someone who leads the simulacrum of a normal existence, but with childhood tensions always bubbling within the surface. One day, she is visited by Paul, a (gay) friend of Declan's, who tells her that her brother is dying. It is up to Helen then to inform her family, in other words, reach out to a successful entrepreneur of a mother and bitter haggard of a granny — and also learn new and surprising things about her brother and his "lifestyle".

Everyone congregates at granny's house in Cush — there's the three women, Paul, and Larry, "another one of those". As the clock ticks away and Declan swings between health and sickness, Helen and Lily are put in situations that demand active investment in emotion, mainly a robust forgetfulness. Paul and Helen, not the most comfortable of couples, become friends forced to share their stories with one another out of a growing sense of desperation and time flying away. Paul shares his coming out travails and Helen the roots of her animosity towards her mother and granny. The latter half is far more important to the story than the former, but because of the unspoken questions that Toibin raises (Why is Declan gay? How did he contract HIV?), the release of gayness from hidden subtext to bold openness is a much needed relief, and also, something of necessity given one can only go so far with subtlety without frustrating the reader.

Declan's health continues to deteriorate and there comes the point when it becomes essential to move him back to hospital in Dublin. This gives another opportunity to Lily and Helen to settle their differences. Since the novel is written from Helen's perspective, we try and empathize with her inability to give in to tenderness with her mother. But it's not easy given how hard Lily is trying to mend fences. There is also the sense of a dual personality hovering over the women, allowing them to be perfectly maternal and supportive when it comes to Declan, yet also equally capable of bitter jibes with one another in private.

The novel ends with Declan still carrying on, and the promise of rapprochement between Lily and Helen. Critics have said this is not Toibin's best book, and I second that with respect to The Master, his 2005 book that fictionalized the life of writer Henry James. Both The Blackwater Lightship and The Master were shortlisted for the Booker, though neither won.

Also read my review of The Master.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mad, Bad and Sad

The history of mental illness is a fascinating subject, and its relation to childhood traumas and sexual abuse gained currency after Freud advocated psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century. Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi is a brave attempt at charting the history of psychological disorders in women since the beginning of the 19th century, and how the development of curative tools has helped mitigate the social disapproval associated with neuroses.

At the outset, Appignanesi develops this work as a feminist tract, clearly identifying the biases that forced misconceptions about women being more prone to mental illnesses than men, even though evidence pointed to the contrary. This may have something to do with the Victorian ideal of a "delicate woman, prone to "nerves". Appignanesi challenges these stereotypes by showing how women over the ages, from Mary Lamb to Alice James, have tried to delineate their suffering, often at the cost of inviting social ridicule.

By including specific cases and the language that female patients used to address their problems, Appignanesi points to the development of a relationship between nascent psychiatry and the courts. She quotes the case of one Henriette Cornier, a Parisian nursemaid who obsessed greatly over the infant daughter of her master. One night in 1825, in a fit of insanity, she sliced off the head of the girl and threw it out the window. Because of the sheer inexplicability of the crime, this was the first case in the history of criminal law when a doctor was called in to testify on the mental health of the accused.

Another case that draws Appignanesi's attention is of Celia Brandon, who requested to be admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 1915. This was the first documented case of a woman expressing a relationship between childhood brutality and sexual perversion. Brandon complained that she often fantasized about pain being inflicted on her during sex, and linked it to the beatings she received as a child from her aunt. The hospital records term her case 'Freudian'.

The best takeaway from Appignanesi's book is the realization that the mentally ill are not all that different from those on the other side of the divide. Thanks to the advancement in psychoanalytic procedures and psychiatry, mental illness has come to encompass a broad array of disorders. Which is why it is surprising that rage combined with hysteria could be the ground for lunacy in the 18th century.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Old Filth

I have been wanting to read Jane Gardam ever since news of her book "Old Filth" making it to the Orange shortlist started doing the rounds. I am an unabashed follower of prize shortlists, and believe that they are often indicators of good fiction/non-fiction, for no other reason than competition. Old Filth fits this description perfectly.

Edward Feathers has retired to Dorset after a booming judicial practice in Hong Kong. Born in Malaya to a British father and a local (who passes away immediately after Edward's birth), Edward's life has revolved around his search for "home". Sent to Britain as a young boy to be raised under the tutelage of his father's sisters (who show no interest in him), Edward finds himself in a boarding school where the personal attention of the benevolent "Sir" and the promise of a family during holidays helps him to define his identity and dissipate the ghosts of his birth and early childhood.


The Filth in the title comes from the acronym :Failed in London, Try Hong Kong, referring to Edward's success as a lawyer and subsequent judge in Hong Kong after trying pennilessly for many years to break into the British law scene. Gardam mentions on the novel's first page that this is not intended as irony given that Edward was very particular about personal hygiene.


Throughout the novel, from Edward's painful childhood to the adolescent journey on water that will transform his life to his later marriage to Betty and professional success, Gardam moves back and forth in time to develop a complete portrait of Filth's isolation. A large part of the novel is set after Betty's death, when Edward, utterly at loss on the ways of living, decides to connect to his past. He visits his cousins and makes trips to places he remembers from his childhood. But none of this can return him to the certainty of life with Betty and ultimately he decides to leave England to make one last trip to the East, where right after getting off the flight,
he passes away in a rush of happiness triggered by the freedom that a willingness to die gives.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sagarika Ghose...

...takes on the Left:

Your opposition to the nuclear deal once again shows your distance from India. Sure, it’s a commercial transaction, but why is anything to do with commerce necessarily evil? Even at the height of the Cold War, 2 million Indians lived in the US. The links between India and America are so massive, that as a leading economist put it, the Indo-US nuclear deal is an offshoot of a long process of civic exchange with America, not the basis of it. You hate America, but do Indians feel the same? There are important reasons to criticise a country that bombs and invades other countries at will, but there is also the need to recognise that anti-Americanism is hardly hardwired into the Indian DNA.

No to nuclear deal, no to reforms, no to change, no to newness, no to price rise, no to America, negativism seems a reflex action. Your contempt for change, your constant lamentation, your moral righteousness are incongruous in a country shouting ‘Chak de India!’

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The square in the circle

Countless books on Mumbai have charted its vast and versatile spaces which have come to signify different things to different people in this bustling metropolis. Zero Point Bombay makes an important addition to that list by homing in on Horniman Circle in the Fort area, a place replete with history and culture.

The zero point in any city is the place from where distances are measured, and in the Bombay of yore, that privilege went to St. Thomas Cathedral in Horniman Circle (it was later shifted to the GPO). Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha, social scientists and confirmed Mumbai-wallahs, pay tribute to this landmark in Mumbai's history.

This collection of 20 essays takes us through the bylanes and open spaces of Horniman Circle, from its economic history to its architectural splendours. In the introductory piece, "The Intangible Heritage of Horniman Circle", Ganesh informs that the idea for the book germinated in a series of heritage walks that the editors took in 2004. Given the "spectrum of work cultures" and "a fecund reading culture", Horniman Circle, she says, makes natural choice for a book of this kind.

In his essay on the genesis of the Bombay Stock Exchange, Neeraj Hatekar recounts the quaint story of twenty-two stock brokers who traded under a banyan tree in the Bombay Green, in 1851. Investing a "not really princely" sum of Re 1 each, they came to form the Native Share and Stock Brokers Association. It's hard to imagine such modest beginnings of an exchange that today has a market cap of close to Rs 50 trillion.

In "Beyond Orientalism", Ganesh traces the roots of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Housed in the majestic Town Hall building, the Asiatic Society was founded by Sir James Mackintosh, a distinguished English public figure, in 1804. Known then as the Literary Society of Bombay, the Asiatic Society went through a series of ownership changes in the Raj era. More democratic in its current avatar, the Society houses over a hundred thousand books, periodicals and scholarly journals.

Prithvi Theatre's Sanjna Kapoor writes lovingly on the chance association that her group came to have with Horniman Circle. In 1998, she was on the lookout for an open space to host the production of a visiting English company. After scouting several locations, her hunt ended "in the happy finding" of the Horniman Circle Garden. Kapoor ends her essay on a plea that the power-that-be recognize the importance of well-managed public spaces in developing a vibrant and dynamic urban cultural life.

My favourite essays in the collection discuss the bookstores and street food of Horniman Circle. In "Going A La Carte", Saroj Merani walks us through such charming avenues as Khau Gully and Street Food Mela. Sample what she says about the famed brun maska chai:

"Sensing that I was a novice at this ancient Yazdani ritual, the owner informed me that the only way to really savour it was to dip the buttered brun in the sweet Irani tea. And while I can't guarantee you that you will hear the music of the heavenly spheres, you will at least leave Yazdani Bakery with the distinct feeling that God's in heaven, and all's right with the world."


Gita Chadha, in "Mirroring the Precinct", dips into the history of the reading corners in the area. From the iconic Strand Book Stall to the newly refurbished The Bookpoint, Horniman Circle must boast the most number of book stores per unit area anywhere in the country. Did you know that the idea of opening a book shop came to TN Shanbhag, the owner of the Strand Book Stall, during the screening of Cheaper by the Dozen at Strand Cinema? Chadha writes:

"Having been humiliated in a reputed bookstore of the time for touching a book, the young Shanbhag wanted to start a bookstore where the access to 'Saraswati' would not be restricted to the elite, but would be open to a wider section of the people. Shanbhag approached Keki Mody, the owner of Strand Cinema with his idea, and that is how the Strand Book Stall came into being on the premises of the cinema hall."


Richly illustrated and artfully packaged, Zero Point Bombay is an essential compendium on the history and ethnography of a cornerstone in Mumbai life.

========

This review appeared in Business Standard.