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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Winnie and Wolf was on the 2007 Booker longlist.