Saturday, May 31, 2008

A new form of war in Asia

Fareed Zakaria, in his latest book, The Post-American World, denounces the rising American fear of power shifting away from the US to other centres. He maintains that the "rise of the rest" — the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia — should not be looked as a threat to American hegemony, rather "as a multi-polar force that will re-tool the world." In other words, it's not that America is losing its position, it's just that others are gaining theirs.

Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, and the author of the book under review, would both agree and disagree with Zakaria's contention. So, while he looks at the rise of three Asian countries -- giants, erstwhile and emerging — China, India and Japan, he is categorical about global power shifting away from the West to the rest.

Emmott's inclusion of Japan in considering the rise of Asia rankles. After having wowed the world with its technical prowess over much of the last half century, the asset price bubble of the late eighties exposed the rotten credit policies of Japanese banks.

However, he is fascinated by China's rise, which has contributed to a proliferation of cheap goods in the global marketplace. Even so, he sensibly cautions against the Chinese government's ironic, and dangerous, cocktail of economic reform coupled with political repression. Presciently, he mentions Tibet as a possible flashpoint that may cost China its rightful place in the global pecking order.

Of the trio, the country that Emmott is most intrigued by is India, the most recent star on the global firmament. India's meteoric rise in the post-1991 period is attributed to the rise of an assertive middle class which, attuned to the best that the world has to offer, is demanding more and more from the political class. The governance structure, however, continues to be the albatross around the country's neck.

Emmott's book is of special interest because, unlike other recent tomes on the subject, it also deals with how likely conflicts between these powers may derail the prospect of an "Asian century". It is heartening that the recent visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan focussed on working out an arrangement to resolve the dispute surrounding the exploration of natural gas in the East China Sea. This is in marked contrast to the visit of Jiang Zemin in 1998, when the former Chinese President raised a hornet's nest by accusing Japan of not properly apologising for invading China in the 1930s.

China's relationship with India has been equally uneasy. Apart from the long-standing border dispute between the two nations, China's unquestioned support of Pakistan and its growing military might are permanent dangers to India. Emmott also broaches the North Korean angle to the Sino-Indian relationship, with regard to the communist state's underground nuclear activity.

The weakest part of the book pertains to the environmental damage wreaked by the rise of China and India, and what countries must do to contain global warming. To his credit, Emmott is against any binding restrictions on developing countries which may impinge on their growth, and supports US involvement in and contribution to the success of climate treaties. But all this talk rests on the premise that global warming exists and is preventable. Climate, such is its nature, is dynamic and cannot be predicted. What is one to make of recent announcements that globally, temperatures will remain stable for another decade? Emmott will do well not to join the league of apocalypse hunters.

Rivals is an entertaining read, thanks to Emmott's propensity to offer direct, no-words-minced solutions. However, not all his premises are palatable.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Compassion blossoms in unexpected situations

The Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for four years between 1992 and 1996, was fought between the Bosnian Serbs who had occupied the hills surrounding Sarajevo and the largely Muslim local population. One of the bloodiest periods in recent memory, it resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people.

Not long after the siege began in 1992, 22 people were killed by a mortar shell as they queued outside a bakery in central Sarajevo. Deeply perturbed by this random act of violence, Vedran Smilovic, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera, played a composition by Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni for 22 consecutive days to honor the memory of the dead.

In The Cellist of Sarajevo (Riverhead, 256 pages, $21.95), author Steven Galloway uses the story of Smilovic to construct a moving portrayal of the survival of the human spirit in times of conflict. Smilovic's gesture ties the different strands of the book, involving three people who come to recognize both the futility of war and the insidious ways in which it threatens our shared humanity.

We are first introduced to Arrow, a female sniper who works as an undercover operator for the resistance being mounted by the local army. Arrow's father died a soldier, but was against Arrow's involvement in the military. It is this realization that weighs on Arrow's every move, as she is assigned to guard the cellist's life against enemy fire. What starts as doubt about the use of force turns into a certainty that violence is no way to eliminate the "other."

Then there is Kenan, who, like others, lives the life of a fugitive. Every few days he undertakes a journey across town to a brewery to collect fresh water supplies for his family and his neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski. The third story is of Dragan, who lives with his sister and her husband. His wife and son were sent away to safety when the war started, and he walks every other day to get free food at the bakery he works at.

Through the perilous journeys that Kenan and Dragan undertake across the strife-torn city, Galloway gifts us valuable insights into how compassion can blossom, unexpectedly, during mindless atrocities. The Cellist of Sarajevo is an accomplished, important work.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, curiously, under someone else's byline.

Update: The byline has been corrected.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

'World Before Her' bound by stories of discontent

Deborah Weisgall is a well-known arts journalist whose memoir, A Joyful Noise, recounted with touching humor the role music played in her father's life. The World Before Her is her second novel after Still Point, which was set in the world of ballet.

Like with her previous works, the seduction of art is a theme that runs through this book as well. We are introduced to the lives of two women — one, a famed real-life writer, and the other, a fictitious sculptor. Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot, the author of such great works as Middlemarch, is in Venice in 1880, to spend her honeymoon with Johnnie Cross, an uxorious American banker.

Mary Ann had a long, passionate affair with philosopher and critic George Lewes, who was married to another woman. The two lived together until Lewes's death in 1878. While she always felt the drain of an extramarital relationship, her bond with Lewes was too strong for her to bother about social niceties. Weisgall writes dreamily of the memories and desires that assail Mary Ann even as she tries to be grateful for companionship now that Lewes is dead:

"George was an actor, and if in memory his features had grown vague, it was because they were so mobile; he was a sprite, a mimic, her marvelous lunatic, her lover….Now, married to Johnnie, ardor had atrophied and weariness had taken its place. Their shell, their connection was pretense, but she was cared for, and she was not alone."

The other story is of Caroline Edgar Spingold, who arrives in Venice exactly a century after Evans—in 1980. On a business trip with her husband, Malcolm, Caroline battles the familiar pangs of doubt and distress over her marriage. Her husband is "commerce", taking care of the finances, while she is "art", capricious and impulsive. Her views on marriage are tainted by her father's long-ago desertion of her mother, Margaret, who continues to be a formidable presence in Caroline's life.

Describing the stories of Mary Ann and Caroline in alternate chapters, Weisgall draws parallel portraits of marital dissatisfaction and the attraction of the fleeting past to nullify the dreariness of the present. Her writing is tender, drowning you into its drunken energy, with the city of Venice providing a tasteful backdrop.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Friday, May 23, 2008

An expert disappoints

Apocalypse hunting seems to have become a favoured pastime with learned souls who roam the hallowed portals of western academia. First, we were issued dire warnings of climate change, with no less than Nicholas Stern, the renowned civil servant mandated by the British government to prepare a report, expressing pessimism over the future of humanity if our collective wayward actions were not checked.

Now, Jeffrey Sachs, a well-known American economist who has played adviser to governments in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and who now heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University, joins the debate with his ideas on what the world needs to do if it is to escape annihilation.

Sachs' scope is much broader, however. In his view, rising carbon levels in the earth's atmosphere pose but one challenge to our future. The other clear and present dangers are the demographic challenge, the mind-numbing poverty of millions of people across the globe, and the ineffectiveness of governments to create mechanisms to fight these menaces.

Like with his earlier book, The End of Poverty, which prescribed solutions to eradicate the scourge by 2025, in Common Wealth, Sachs speaks of setting benchmarks and realizing goals with the year 2050 as target. This gives the book an unreal, oracular texture. Right through reading it, I kept wishing Sachs had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, before embarking on this work. In that charming book, Taleb denounces the peculiar academic tendency for grand theorizing by showing that most major, truly ground-shifting, events in history could not have been predicted. The rise of the Internet was one such "black swan".

Much of what Sachs argues is not new. What is one to make of his assertion that "the world's population growth remains too rapid", while simultaneously quoting an Economist article that cautions against giving credence to a "Malthusian catastrophe". He advocates a decline in fertility rates in the developing world by a series of measures, and builds on this to forecast a global population of eight billion or less for 2050.

Sachs' advocacy of certain ideas, like exhorting rich nations to contribute 2-3 per cent of their national incomes towards eradicating global poverty, jars. He posits similar colossal solutions to contain global warming, all the while crystal-gazing from an available— one may add, limited— frame of reference, not paying heed to technological/socio-economic black swans that may soar in the future.

On the economic front, for a one-time proponent of free market reform to say that market forces do not always determine the best outcomes of situations, is less a suicidal volte-face and more an acknowledgment of recent stresses in the global economy. But Sachs fails to further his argument and ends up waving the flag, inexplicably, for a social welfare model.

The book is the weakest when Sachs champions greater co-operation among nations to tackle "critical global problems". He calls the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a success: "Global cooperation has dramatically slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and encouraged several dozen countries to abandon their quest for such weapons." Perhaps, Sachs meant "encouraged several dozen non-rogue state actors to abandon their quest for such weapons."

Sachs, facetiously, commits the error of comparing Western aid to poor nations with US military spending. A well-worn complaint of left-leaning intellectuals, this argument is so self-evidently hollow that one is at pains to fathom how it continues to find its way in print. An unabashed critic of George Bush's foreign policy, Sachs nowhere hints at the pressing need to create a "league of democracies", an eye-catching idea that has gained currency since John McCain propounded it on the campaign trail.

In an email exchange with the FT's Martin Wolf, reproduced on Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2186017/), Sachs says, "We are at a time when ideas will count—technical ideas to be sure, but also ideas about cooperation and conflict. The frames of reference of our political leaders will matter greatly. If they view the world as us versus them, we will indeed live in a world of growing conflict….In the end, interestingly, the politicians will be listening and responding to the world public. Perhaps as in all ages, our fate is truly in our hands." This seductive, dreamy way with words is Sachs' special gift. If only the ideas wrapped in them were as attractive!

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Snippets from here and there

Eric Forbes speaks to Clare Wigfall and Nam Le. The two have been shortlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Read interesting short shorts, such as this one, on Wigleaf.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A bloody story, dazzlingly told

Aravind Adiga (in the picture below) attended Columbia University, and followed that up with a high-profile job at the Financial Times. It is surprising then, given his upper class bearings, that he has been able to pen such a remarkably authentic portrayal of the life of the underdog—a representative of the many millions of Indians who are born in, live in, and die in mind-numbing deprivation.

Balram Halwai is born into a family of erstwhile sweet makers in a poor village in the Darkness, a euphemism for Bihar, India's most under-developed state. Balram's father pulls a manual rickshaw for a living, an occupation that takes a toll on his tuberculosis, and ultimately, his life. Balram is accepted as a driver in a land-owning upper class family in Dhanbad, one of Bihar's more prosperous towns (owing to its coal mines). The family's patriarch, referred to as the "Stooge", is a ruthless man who runs a shady coal business.

From here to Balram's "promotion" as driver for Ashok, one of the Stooge's sons, and Pinky, Ashok's wife, we wander through the trials and petty defeats in Balram's life. Ashok and Pinky live in Gurgaon, Delhi's swanky suburb that houses sprawling malls and the glittering offices of American giants. This life, as against the utter, dehumanizing condition of Balram's poverty, is brought out in guilt-inducing contrast by Adiga.

Adiga is so good at imagining the life of the outcast that the novel is an often scary reminder of the pitfalls of overlooking the plight of the underprivileged. When Balram drives his master around Gurgaon, the sight of scantily clad women is a shock to him—not just because women in the Darkness do not dress provocatively, but also because he is humiliated by his inability to have a slice of the "fast life".

Balram, ineluctably altered by the ways of the city, calls himself a "social entrepreneur"— symbolic of the plan he devises to escape the servant's fate. The plan is bloody, and entails permanent damnation for Balram and his family. Realistically though, he executes it and moves to India's other boom town—Bangalore, where as the head of a taxi service company "White Tiger Technology Drivers", he finally makes a name for himself.

Adiga's debut novel is a highly realized work—a dazzling, brutal look at the unsavory side-effects of India's rapidly globalizing economy.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A World of Privilege

Luxury Brand Management
Michel Chevalier, Gerald Mazzalovo
Wiley
400 pages
US$39.95

What is luxury? While the word may evoke an existence marked by languorous leisure, in reality, it is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with strong sociological and historical roots. In the past, luxury was the preserve of the ruling classes, the aristocracy. The sense of a privileged existence among the land-owing gentry symbolized European luxury in the medieval age. It played a demarcating role in society, and in this respect at least, luxury brands continue to battle with the tag of exclusivity.

Which is why, when Orient-Express, the British luxury hotel chain, refused any association with the Tatas' Indian Hotels on the ground that it would result in an erosion of the brand and business value of Orient's global portfolio of luxury hotels, cries of racism wrung the air. Was Orient-Express unjustified in its stand, or was its reaction, while harsh-sounding, grounded in sound business logic?

Michel Chevalier and Gerald Mazzalovo, writers of the book under review, would agree with Orient's decidedly elitist response. According to them, "when a Korean woman enters a Gucci store in Seoul, it is with the expectation that the atmosphere will be evocative of Italy, whether it be through the sophisticated use of colour, the music or the store fit-out. And when she enters an Yves Saint Laurent boutique, she expects to get a subtle whiff of Paris."

Certainly, the decision of the Orient-Express emerges in a different light when viewed from this psychology, and this is what luxury is about. A luxury brand is not just an entity, it is a state of mind, an object of aspirational value, governed as much by the prejudices of the age as by any real worth. Any surprise then that the Tatas, who have been eyeing a number of global iconic brands, could acquire the Jaguar only at a time when the car maker's global luxury attractiveness is on the wane?

The luxury market has exploded with such ferocity in the past few decades that luxury management is now a well-established academic discipline. And who better to guide us through its inscrutable, yet enthralling, boulevards than Chevalier and Mazzalovo, old timers of the luxury trade? This is their second joint venture after 2003's Pro Logo, an unabashed defence of the social, cultural and economic advantages of brand identity, which, right from its title, is a mirror image, of Naomi Klein's anti-brand diatribe, No Logo, but of course, with the arguments reversed.

Luxury Brand Management is a sprawling work that covers the gamut of the luxury industry. It starts with a description of the trade activities that inhabit this universe—from haute couture and accessories to perfumes and wines. For someone like me who has often wondered about the origin of those luscious-sounding names, the chapter on luxury sectors offers a delightful tour of la vie en luxe.

From here the book moves into the branding of luxury products, focusing on how semiotic tools shape their shopping and consumption patterns. This rests on the premise that "brands are systems that produce meanings." So, a brand is anthropomorphized into an entity that possesses a distinct "physique" and "personality" with a concomitant system of ethics and aesthetics. For instance, the highly successful slogan of Spanish shoe manufacturer Camper, "Walk don't run", promotes not just the product but a way of living, an ethic that is endearing to potential customers.

There is an interesting description of luxury logos that carries forward the discourse initiated by the authors in Pro Logo. Could you have imagined that perceptions about logos vary greatly from one place to another? "While a majority of Europeans refuse to wear a necktie printed with the acronym of a brand, Americans have no problem with it, and the very same necktie might well become a genuine fad in Japan," say the authors.

The book then moves to the managerial aspects of the luxury business, including retailing and logistics. Throughout, the emphasis is on explaining management models by linking them to real-life success and failure stories. This makes it both entertaining and informative. One discussion that had me hooked pertained to outsourcing in the luxury market—how brands such as Louis Vuitton which have made a virtue of maintaining direct control over merchandising and design functions are grappling with the proliferation of cutting tools and cheap labour in China and India.

The initial thrust on the psychology of luxury, which makes for pleasurable reading, is diluted somewhat by the purely academic push of the latter part of the book. In spite of this, it is indispensable for a student/practitioner of luxury management, and also for anyone who wishes to get a behind-the-scenes, nuts-and bolts view of a glamorous trade.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Unfocused story is a bumpy ride

James Meek divides his time between being an award-winning war reporter for the Guardian and pursuing a career as a writer of fiction. While his first novel, The People's Act of Love, was a deservedly acclaimed dip into historical fiction, his latest work does not quite match up to the high standards he has set for himself.

The protagonist is, like Meek, a British war correspondent. Adam Kellas exudes all the world-weariness that comes with being an old-timer of his profession. The story begins just before the 9/11 attacks, when Kellas is planning a novel with a plot identical to the real life tragedy (he is, menacingly, put off by his idea being snatched).

Shift to Kabul, where Kellas is deployed by a newspaper to file daily dispatches on the American invasion of Afghanistan. There he meets Astrid, an American feature writer feted for her sensitive portrayals of people caught up in conflicts. Lust and, seemingly, love grow, until a tragedy involving the Taliban and the Northern Alliance sets back the relationship.

The trouble with We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is the author's lack of focus. We never really know if this is meant to be a story about love developing between two journalists covering a war (an exciting territory for any writer of fiction) or about the self-destructive outpourings of a man burdened with guilt. After flying from one continent to another in search of happiness, Kellas' landing in rural Virginia in search of Astrid stretches one's suspension of disbelief beyond measure.

Too many strands compete for attention. There is a wholly unnecessary subplot about Bastian, Astrid's companion in Virginia, who once taught a creative writing program to young CIA recruits.

This is a pity since Meek is clearly a gifted writer — his first novel and, indeed, even this one in parts are ravishing. If only he had worked on the plot and tightened the edges, this book would have been a meaningful addition to the glorious fiction of war journalism.