Monday, November 02, 2009

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, written when the author was 19 and published in 1818, was so ponderous a departure from traditional Victorian fare that it shocked not just the nerves but also the sensibilities of staid British society. The outrageous tale of a monster sprung from inanimate matter-- and capable of quoting Milton and Goethe--who then turns against his creator, heralded a brave new voice.

From there to the 1931 cinematic adaptation by James Whale, in which a menacing, unforgettable simulacrum of our nightmares is brought to haunting life by Boris Karloff, Frankenstein has, through the ages, plumbed the familiar God-versus-science divide to argue against technology ruining our best instincts...read more>>>

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Not to Write a Dead Novel

Sarah Hall’s second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and that brush of encouragement has carried her though to her fourth work now, How to Paint a Dead Man. At best an uneven book, How to Paint a Dead Man tips its hat to Hall’s well-regarded ability to craft sentences of near-perfect beauty, without really being a novel in the conventional sense.

Four chapters that recur through the book recount the lives of four artists. There are the Italians in the 1960s: Annette Tambroni, a blind florist who once harbored dreams of becoming an artist, and Signor Giorgio, a world-renowned painter of bottles who is dying of cancer. Respectively called “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni” and “Translated from the Bottle Journals” Annette’s and Giorgio’s tales are filled not with “life”, but with wistful reminiscences of lived moments and stolen delights.

Annette’s mother, for instance, is intensely protective of her, crafting elaborate fictions to scare Annette into submission, in a bid to protect her from any harm. This lends Annette’s narration a dream-like quality, gently carrying pain within it. Every Sunday, she visits the cemetery where her father is buried and contemplates the long life, still unlived, that she must pass without a template on how to go about it.

Giorgio’s testimony is largely philosophical musings, and while reading it, I sincerely came to question its inclusion in a novel. These are the last cries of a dying artist, one who must accept his lost vitality and emergence into a sort of tragic figure for his admirers. A heavy sadness lingers over this narrative, punctuated by rather abstruse sermons on life and the meaninglessness of it:

“My visitors indulge me. They are charmed by my antiquity and my devotion to this place. Later they walk back to the station along the road, and perhaps halfway they kneel with an ear to the ground. And perhaps they hear their own blood, and then the traffic in the town, and then a deeper rhythm. They get up, and brush the dust from their knees, and they continue walking. If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.”

Such heavy sentences when the reader has been provided only the slight background of their creator dying of cancer load the book with a seriousness it has not earned. This may have something to do with the time that these two fragments are set in—perhaps Hall just imagined her characters from a pre-consumerist era to deal with pain and loneliness in subtle, gentle ways, and not indulge in unclean behavior of any sort. Whatever the reason, there is a sense of something not being whole in these narratives.

How to Paint a Dead Man comes closer to a novel in the other two strands: of a father-daughter artist duo in contemporary Britain. In “The Fool on the Hill” Peter Caldicutt (who used to write letters to Giorgio as a student) is a noted landscape painter who bases his drawings on real scenes that he harnesses from walks in the countryside. On one such excursion, his leg gets trapped inside a mountain crevice and Peter spends the night waiting for help. This launches a series of memories that carry him through the night, but thankfully, here the force of life and vigor flows through the narrative, and pain and resilience are evoked in life-affirming ways.

The most interesting and also the central fragment, “The Mirror Crisis”, concerns Sue Caldicutt, the young daughter of Peter, who is trying to find success as a photographer. Sue is grappling with the death of her twin Danny in a bicycle accident. Allowing her to grieve over a twin lets Hall develop her penchant for fine sentences with real felicity, since here, the emotion comes across as real:

“You’re not crazy. You must emphasis this point and remind yourself of it. You are not crazy. And you’re not being coy, or difficult. This isn’t about fashionable social detachment, the current trend for woe-is-me, or wanting to be the cool detached outsider. You can’t quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life, that’s all. Your body doesn’t contain its spirit, just as the mirror has relinquished your portrait. You are elsewhere.”

Narrated in the second person, this is the most effective part of the novel, as Sue starts on a self-destructive affair with the husband of a friend to drown her grief. The writing is raw, frequently sexual, and also—in a novel that once threatened to lose itself in philosophical meanderings—satisfyingly fictional.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The life and times of Thomas Cromwell

Tudor England has always made for great yarns. The mix of lustiness and unpredictability about the reign of Henry VIII has inspired countless artists to make the period their muse. Over the centuries, plays, novels and paintings have tried to evoke the ineffable spirit of the age. What is it that drives this fascination with the Tudors? Is it an instinct to capture the thirst for power that characterized the period, or is it something deeper — a search for the very roots of modern English life?

Hillary Mantel, who has tackled subjects as diverse as the French Revolution in "A Place of Greater Safety" (1995) to her own dysfunctional past in "Giving Up the Ghost" (2003), is an ideal choice for a project of such breathtaking scale. Henry VIII's was a quicksilver monarchy, underscored by the fact of his six wives in rather quick succession. Henry is routinely portrayed as the lascivious royal who, in his quest to get a male heir, went to war with the pope — a definitive break that led to the separation of the English Church from Rome.

Setting out to capture the nub of this era, Ms. Mantel has done something outstanding — she has achieved a genuine voice for the time. And that voice tells us the life of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who grew up to become Henry's chief minister. Born into humble and violent beginnings (in the book's first scene, a young Thomas is beaten to a pulp by his drunk father), Cromwell came to rule England by proxy, such was his power.

Ms. Mantel shifts her narration back and forth in time, so that we never learn the correct chronology of events, and this may create problems for a reader who is not in the know. Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she was unable to give him a male heir. He then married one Anne Boleyn, who was also incapable of fulfilling that particular wish. Henry would go on to marry four more times.

Irrespective of the need to know this background to appreciate "Wolf Hall," the story of Cromwell's rise shimmers in Ms. Mantel's spry, intelligent prose. By the book's second scene, for instance, Cromwell has morphed from the gangly abused youngster to the slick lawyer for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's confidant who later fell out with him over his failure to get Henry's marriage to Catherine annulled. The relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey is that of hunter and prey. Initially a leonine figure wielding absolute power, Wolsey loses everything, including his life, to Cromwell, who uses the opportunity to endear himself to Henry.

It is in capturing such twists and turns of fate — so common to the Tudors — that Ms. Mantel shines. She leaches out the bones of the story as it is traditionally known, and presents to us a phantasmagoric extravaganza of the characters' plans and ploys, toils and tactics. There is rich dialogue here, removed from its datedness and assigned a very contemporary charge.

Beyond this, however, there is also a certain aim to Ms. Mantel's art. Regardless of the reasons behind the drift, Ms. Mantel is, and makes her reader be, appreciative of the English break from papal authority. England under Henry VIII is grateful for finally having its own church and being allowed to read the Bible in English. And by keeping Cromwell at the center of the drama, Ms. Mantel celebrates the intelligence and generosity of spirit too often denied Cromwell (most notably in Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons").

Such is the vastness of Ms. Mantel's project that there is the fear at some points that she will not be able to pull it off. The novel, after flitting from one mise en scène to the next, abruptly closes on Cromwell planning a trip to Wolf Hall to arrange an alliance between Henry and Jane Seymour, his third wife who will finally yield the dynasty a male heir — Edward VI. Is Ms. Mantel pointing us to a possible sequel?

Be that as it may, the crackling energy of her narration, the eternal spark of her subject, and her assiduous determination to rescue the reputation of Thomas Cromwell — all these make "Wolf Hall" quite perfect an enterprise by itself.

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This review appeared in Washington Times. "Wolf Hall" has been shortlisted for this year's Booker. Read more about the Booker Prize by clicking on the "Booker" tag below this post.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reliquary of nostalgia and pain

AS Byatt’s last major work was the 1990 Booker Prize-winning Possession, a tale of romance set in the highbrow London academia. She has been a major writer of our age, churning out novels, short stories and poems with commendable fecundity. Her quartet about members of a Yorkshire family, begun in 1978 with The Virgin in the Garden, and completed in 2002 with A Whistling Woman, is a sprawling account of mainstream British life in mid-20th century.

Byatt’s work has tended to jump around the edges of fiction, melding commentary on the age — its culture and passions, its secrets and darkness — with the storyline. In The Children’s Book, her latest work on which she worked the last few years, her gaze turns to the Edwardian era, evoked recently in Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover and David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk.

Olive Wellwood is the writer of children’s books and mother to a large brood, not all of whom may be her own. With her Fabian husband Humphry and sister Violet, she presides over Todefright, their house in Kent. At the novel’s beginning, Tom Wellwood, Olive’s son, and Julian Cain, the son of a museum curator, discover an indigent boy, Philip Warren, hiding in the basement of the South Kensington Museum. Philip is brought home and later sent to work with Benedict Fludd, famed potter under whose tutelage Philip will find great fame.

The story revolves around the three families: the Wellwoods, the Fludds and the Cains, and is set in the period from 1895 to just after the First World War. Byatt dips in and out of their lives even as she draws an elaborate portrait of the age—that innocent pre-war period, when artists discovered new modes of thinking and being. The Fabians, including poet Rupert Brooke, tried to usher in a gentler world, where socialism would be the guiding force of life. Women campaigned for equal voting rights and for the right to earn degrees at university, and artists tried to live in new, dangerous ways.

The characters in The Children’s Book all grapple with these momentous political changes, even as they discover dark truths about their identities. Benedict Fludd may be a world-renowned potter but he is also a sullen father with an untoward attraction for his daughters. Dorothy, the daughter of Olive and Humphry, discovers that she is not Humphry’s daughter after all, but of a German puppeteer. Tom, most gifted of the Wellwood siblings, discovers that he is ill-suited to life in the real world, and spends his time in the marshes and greenery surrounding Todefright.

But really, the novel is about Olive. She writes stories for each of her children, and keeps them in a case, to be picked and read and added to at random. The stories are supposedly for the reading pleasure of the children, but the writer in Olive frequently uses them as starting points for more elaborate fictions. This ploy of a story within a story allows Byatt to showcase the wickedness of all art. The stories that Olive writes are about monsters and fairies, dark corners and sudden joys—all childhood territories. Yet, in their evocation of a perfect time, the stories are also reliquaries of nostalgia and pain.

The one for Tom, concerning a young boy who has lost his shadow, is developed by Olive into a critically and commercially acclaimed play, Tom Underground. Tom, having confined himself to his pastoral paradise, cannot bear the publicising of his most cherished story, with devastating consequences for the Wellwoods’ personal happiness.

Byatt’s writing is so well-researched that The Children’s Book could well have been a consummate history of the era. Since the characters are potters, writers and general art enthusiasts, the book brims in rich pictorial description, which includes a guided tour of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. But more than that, Byatt’s book is an astute moral lesson. Amidst the confetti of fame and glory that is liberally sprinkled on the characters—who wander in search of an anchor, one can’t help wonder what price a place in history books?

By the end, Todefright has become a ghost of its former self, and even though Byatt, given as she is to breaking stereotypes, may not like it, nostalgia for an unquantifiable past has taken over the novel. Most men have been lost to the War, and most women carry on forth, but lacking the lustre that imbued their former lives. There is something satisfying, but also tragic about the best hopes for retaining something, as it were, always ending up as just hopes. The Children’s Book, then, is about that: our failed tendency to believe that anything, anything at all, can be preserved.

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The Children's Book has been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bombay blues

Since Vikas Swarup’s Q&A found global success through its adaptation in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai has been in the news for its seedy underworld life and the interesting characters that populate it. James A Levine, a medical doctor by profession, hops on to the bandwagon and draws a convincing portrait of the city’s red-light districts.

Levine’s tale flows from personal observation. As an internationally renowned medical practitioner, he was invited by the UN to tour the slums of Mumbai to witness first-hand the rampant disease and illicit trafficking that mark the metropolis’ Cages Street. The street derives its name from the cage-like structures that are kept outside each house on the street and which are used to “display” underage girls to prospective clients.

Fifteen-year-old Batuk is one such girl, sold to sexual slavery by her father when she was nine. Writing her experiences as an underage prostitute in a diary, she comes to pen what will become “the blue notebook”. The trope of having an uneducated person narrate their own experience has recently been used, to successful effect, in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Levine explains this convincingly by having Batuk nursed out of tuberculosis by a caretaker who encouraged her to learn to read and write.

The novel is an often uncomfortable read, describe as it does, in spare prose, the broken dreams and the physical and mental defiling of Batuk. Levine does not preach and writes his story from Batuk’s clear-eyed perspective. There is a clear hierarchy when it comes to prostitutes, Batuk explains at one point, with girls like her from the Cages Street being at the bottom.

Yet, there are glimmers of hope that Batuk locates in her writing, a refuge from the harsh reality of her world. Filling up her notebook after servicing a customer, she says: “He may have taken my light and extinguished it, but now within me can hide an army of whispering syllables, rhythms, and sounds. All you may see is a black cavity that fills a tiny girl, but trust me, the words are there, alive and fine.”

The book scores as a prostitute’s personal testimony, but Levine goes overboard in mixing up Batuk’s story with the side plot of a carnage at a five-star hotel where she was present. While this may have been done to finish the story on a suitably climactic scale, the novel risks falling into pulp territory. No neat endings in this story as Batuk, lying in hospital and a prime suspect in the carnage, finishes off with: “There is only a little ink left.” Perhaps that is how all blue notebooks end.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poppy terror

Gretchen Peters’ interesting new book, Seeds of Terror, points the reader to America’s misguided efforts to locate the crux of terror emanating from the “Af-Pak” region. Peters, who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan as a reporter for over a decade, stresses the importance of probing how opium trade has become a ready source of income for the al-Qaeda’s rise and continued relevance.

What gives heft to Peters’ analysis is her extensive travels through the heart of opium country, primarily the Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan. She also visits other countries that connect the dots of the global drug network, and speaks to several US military strategists who are fighting the war against the Taliban on the ground.

The first myth that Peters busts is the hackneyed cry that the fight against Islamic terrorism should start with addressing the genuine grievances of those who are attracted by its seductive appeal. Peters elaborates the economics of the opium trade to show how dependent the Afghan economy is on poppy cultivation, and how the Taliban and al-Qaeda run their global enterprise of hate on the back of billions of dollars that drug trafficking generates.

The trouble with Afghanistan’s drug problem is accentuated by the easy conduit for drugs that countries in its neighbourhood provide. Intelligence agencies in Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and others work in cahoots to transfer drug shipments to the West in exchange for funds or even weapons. As Peters elaborates, “From the fields of Helmand to the hawala stands of Dubai, elaborate mechanisms filter drug money through the Taliban hierarchy...On the district level, each farmer will receive a handwritten receipt for 10 percent tax paid to the local Taliban subcommander...Each district commander has to kick a percentage of the taxes he collects up to his regional commander; then it goes to the provincial commander, and so on up the food chain.”

Peters delineates in shocking detail the trajectory of drug flow from the tribal regions of Afghanistan to all parts of the globe, including western Europe and the US. If there has been a singular failure on the part of the international community, it is not the unexpected outcome of the ideology-driven wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that the West has still not been able to nip the byzantine money laundering channels the traffickers plug with impunity.

Peters is not one to push ideology in her own text. While deriding the West, especially the US, for failing to contain drug trafficking, she also, reasonably, chides the US for being short-sighted in its pursuit of larger geostrategic goals. This is brought out most starkly in the US’ patronage of Afghan fighters who fought the might of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s. It is the ghost of that Cold War era conflict against communism that is haunting the US is a different disguise today.

Peters shows how the US policy to “itemize and prioritize” the various issues has failed to create a holistic approach that would be conducive to victory in Afghanistan. She cites a conversation between an official of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Ambassador to Pakistan in 1986, where the Ambassador listed drugs as the third-biggest priority, after “fighting the Soviets” and nuclear proliferation.

It is a measure of the time warp that the US administration has been caught in that 20 years on, as the US faces a renewed crisis in the region, it is still too fixated, this time on the threat from radical Islam, to worry about addressing the region’s drug problem holistically.

Peters’ final assertion concerns the growing appetite among US policymakers for an aggressive aerial spraying campaign to wipe out Afghanistan’s poppy crop. This is the perfect way, the argument goes, to deny the insurgents and terrorists much-needed funding.

Peters lambasts this proposal and exposes its short-sightedness. “Wiping out poppy fields,” she says, “would actually drive up poppy prices and put more money in the pockets of drug dealers and terrorists.” Moreover, she cautions, such an approach would be economically devastating for Afghanistan, since income from poppy cultivation contributes 30 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Seeds of Terror is an eye-opening account for the lay reader, accustomed as he is to fire-and-brimstone pronouncements by administrations past of the need to “smoke ’em out”. The book cautions against the easy route of one-size-fits-all solutions. Afghanistan, an ancient society driven by strong tribal links, is a puzzle waiting to be cracked. Hubris won’t do, Peters seems to say, and a concerted strategy, separate from America’s larger middle eastern interests, will have to be employed if America is to have any hope of exiting the battleground in the foreseeable future.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession

A direct descendant of indentured labour who had moved to Trinidad from India, rising from humble beginnings to go on scholarship to Oxford, finding his calling in the written word, and scorching the literary scene with incisive forays into hitherto unexplored territories. That is the life historian Patrick French set out to chronicle.

It was an unexpected thing to do for a writer. V S Naipaul, narrator par excellence of the agony of the immigrant, a writer who had built a career describing the diverse ways in which identities shift in foreign lands, let his biographer Patrick French unrestricted access to his private correspondence and to the diaries of his wife, Patricia Hale (Pat), kept at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

It was to be a mixed blessing, arrived at after much introspection. For Naipaul is not an easy man, least of all, an easy husband. His hankering for truth is his fiction may have extended to an unnatural striving for a brutally honest account of his own life, a wish granted by his biographer.

Meeting Naipaul as a fellow student at Oxford, Pat disregarded her family's doubts about him to enter an alliance that would, ultimately, become the death of her. Over the course of several decades, Naipaul reduced her to a pale effigy of her former self. He forced her to become his cook and typist — so thorough was his indoctrination in hate that Pat, the silent gullible wife, felt honoured in surrendering to his genius.

Later, Naipaul began a torrid affair with Margaret Gooding, an Argentine woman from Buenos Aires. French's biography is the most damaging to Naipaul's reputation in portraying the monster that he could turn into with the women in his life. When Margaret revealed a one-night stand to him, he beat her repeatedly for two days, relishing in her acquiescence.

While Pat knew about Margaret, she was embittered by Naipaul's proud assertions that he had started visiting brothels three years into their marriage. Pat was weak with cancer, and Naipaul concedes to French that his verbal volleys may have hastened her death.

Naipaul's bad behaviour did not stop there. He fell for a third woman, Pakistani journalist Nadira, after Pat's death, and asked his agent Gillon Aitken "to sort out the mess" with Margaret. "I feel that in all of this, Margaret was very badly treated. But you know there is nothing I can do. I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady," he says.

Naipaul's corrosive gaze extended to large swathes of his life, including his writing. As a journalist, he was a scathing, original chronicler of the social pitfalls in the lands he visited: India, the home of his ancestors, in "An Area of Darkness"; and Trinidad, the land his ancestors adopted, in "The Middle Passage". Further, "Among the Believers" was the result of his excursions into the heart of radical Islam, much before such writing gained widespread readership.

A one-time friend and fellow Trinidad writer (Naipaul hates this label), Derek Walcott was also not spared the famed acerbic tongue. In "A Writer's People", Naipaul slammed the veteran's writing as being symptomatic of Trinidad's cultural barrenness. Naipaul's dismissive attitude toward friends and agents completes a portrait of brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession.

"The World Is What It Is" is an apt title for Naipaul's biography, for little that happened in this man's life played to convention. French must be congratulated for undertaking an intimidating task that involved poring over hundreds of documents and spending time in the august company of a man who must have seemed, with every passing day, less and less deserving of the attention.

Real to the touch

The Sherpa and other fictions is a collection of nine short stories by first-time writer Nila Gupta. Gupta is a a second-generation Canadian. She was born in Montreal, spent a part of her childhood in Jammu, and then went back to Canada.

Each of the stories is the collection is about people who are part-Canadian and part-Indian. But the stories are not strictly about the immigrant experience. While the characters wrestle with the pull of "home", there are larger undercurrents driving their returns to India. Gupta captures these undercurrents with humanity and insight.

In the title story, the daughter of a Canadian immigrant returns to Jammu to meet her Indian relatives. The father has had no truck with India since he left, for his own reasons. The daughter though welcomes India and India welcomes her with open arms. "It seems to me that I am related to everyone by blood or marriage and my head is spinning to keep up with the complex relations and unfamiliar terms," she tells the reader at one point.

But there is a certain reason for her visit—to meet Madam Jaune, an unmarried woman who had once wished to adopt her. Is she able to accomplish her motive or does the weight of the past, her father's, make her decide against it?

Lonely ladies battling circumstances is a major theme in this collection. In "The Mouser", Mala Lalla is believed to be losing her mind, as she watches over an army of mice in her kitchen. Her son Ahmed is a gay man who stays in faraway Toronto (there is another tale about homosexuals in the collection, where gayness is a central theme). Sadia, a cousin of Ahmed's, is sent to look after her. We learn that Mala Lalla has been scarred by Partition and Sadia, meeting two young people in the neighbourhood, awakens to her own sexual blossoming. Their lives intersect (over mice), and slowly revealing the burdensome past of one and the jumpy future of the other, Gupta scripts the best story of the collection.

Miss Kamla Vati cares for children of refugees and people on the run in conflict-scarred Kashmir in "In the House of Broken Things". One of the children she educated has grown up and visits her with his wife at a time when her house has been attacked by those who believe that Miss Vati is a "sympathiser". (The Kashmir conflict provides a nostalgic and political setting to the collection.) Torn between Miss Vati's troubles and his wife's demands to move on, the man will decide if he must let go of the past for the future or vice-versa.

Nila Gupta's debut collection flits between India and Canada and crosses boundaries at every instance: boundaries of religion, gender, sexuality and nation. Which is why her characters and stories are so real to the touch.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Crying for deconstruction

At a time when Barack Obama is the US President, it may take some effort to remember a time when blacks were not allowed to share the same seats as whites in buses or live in the same neighbourhoods. However, the rights that blacks enjoy have come after much struggle. Kathryn Stockett's The Help showcases one such struggle—of black women who worked as maids in white households, who raised white babies and who, once those babies grew up and the poison of racism made it impossible to tend to the grown-up children, left to tend to new families.

Stockett assumes the voices of three narrators, who tell their stories in alternating chapters. The setting is 1960s' Jackson, Mississippi, when the old walls of segregation are being weakened little by little by news from the outside world. There's Aibileen Clark, a maternal black maid who works at Miss Leefolt and looks after Mae Mobley, Miss Leefolt's daughter. Minny Jackson is Aibileen's friend, with a reputation, apart from being the best cook in the town, of having a mouth loud enough to get her kicked out of her jobs. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a young white woman who dreams of finding a job in the New York publishing world. (Her story closely resembles Stockett's own, who also moved from Mississippi to New York to work for a magazine.)

Their stories come together when Skeeter is advised by a stern New York publisher that she ought to write not about lazy subjects but "about what disturbs you." Having grown up in a town where racism swings from the outright "activism" of her childhood friend Hilly Holbrooke to the insidious hate of her own mother, Skeeter decides to undertake a secret project chronicling the experiences of black maids, that is, the details of spending their lives working for white families.

The Help is the story of how Aibileen, Minny and several other maids come to share their stories of love and bitterness with Skeeter over coffee in Aibileen's house, a project of such secrecy that Skeeter has to tell her mother she is working on a life of Jesus Christ. Mississippi in the 1960s is the zenith of segregation, made all the more apparent for the voices raised against it. At a crucial point in the book, an NAACP member is shot in the head in front of his family. Libraries don't allow blacks to enter and a black man's tongue is taken out for speaking to an "outsider" about the "situation".

In such a scenario, Skeeter drives up to Aibileen's every other day and— after a false start— begins taking diligent notes on her typewriter. The women talk about everything, from being made to pay for the silver they never stole to being helped unexpectedly in a moment of sudden misfortune. Stockett makes the stories the central theme of the book (even though, unsatisfyingly, we never hear most of them) but she also allows minor distractions in the form of Skeeter's on-now-off-now alliance with a handsome young man, or the sidelined story of Minny's abusive husband.

The villain of the piece is Hilly, a stock racist who, at the novel's beginning, is championing the building of separate toilets for black maids. From here to her final humiliation (an exciting sub-plot relating to the eccentric but golden-hearted Minny), The Help moves through several nerve-wracking twists before coming to a — what can only be called — rather hastily-arrived finale.

The Help has its heart at the right place, and in its imagining of the black women's voice, it lends an authenticity which only a personal experience could have supplied. In a moving afterword, Stockett reveals how she never understood the silent suffering of her own black maid until long after her death which happened when Stockett was only 16.

However, the book must be accused of borrowed characterisation. Consider Aibileen who matches every stereotype that one may harbour about black people, not seeing the irony of her own observation on meeting one of her white kids, now grown up:

"And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine."

This description, and many such, made me a little uncomfortable, because they played into the long-suffering image of black people that has been mythologised by popular culture—the gentle sacrifice, the immense capacity for self-denial. Why are black characters so devoid of ill will in novels about racism? How do they stand being good to the children they raise, knowing fully well that they will grow up to become dyed-in-the-wool racists? It completely boggles the mind. It actually reminds me of how prostitutes are mostly shown to have hearts of gold, like the reader would be uncomfortable with any other description, lest it accentuates the reader's imagined discomfort with her morally compromised position.

The Help is a well-written, imaginatively peopled (in fact, too imaginatively) novel. But in a post-racial world, I would like to read about characters that are real and don't fit such easy patterns as the long-suffering black maid, the evil white woman who meets her comeuppance, and so on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All you who toil tonight

When Alain de Botton received a rather uncomplimentary review for this book in the New York Times, he went ballistic: “Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value... I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

Leave aside the qualities of the review itself, de Botton’s outburst suggests that in spite of the huge amounts of research he poured into this book — which purports to divulge the pleasures and sorrows we derive from the monotony that defines one-third of our lives — he clearly hasn’t understood the rules of his own work. You shout at the reviewer and you expose yourself to be the self-centred crybaby that you are.

Be that as it may, the book is, strictly speaking, undeserving of the viciousness that characterised the NYT review. De Botton, pop-philosopher extraordinaire, travels far and wide in his quest to offer “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”

He covers ten professions broadly, as diverse as aviation and biscuit manufacture, and accompanies his analyses with photographs straight out of a coffee table book. In each case where it’s possible, he travels from source to sea, making this a book of reportage the likes of which one encounters in New Yorker and Granta—10,000-word pieces offering a personal take on an issue of importance.

De Botton’s smooth flow, which he demonstrated in such wide-ranging books as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006), stands him in good stead here too. Chapters on staid subjects like “Logistics” gently hum with the glow of his language. Writing about warehouses that dot the English landscape, he says: “One looks up at their cathedral-like ceilings and finds, instead of angels, workaday, economical spans of steel punctuated by fluorescent strips, which guide the onlooker’s eyes back to rows of symmetrical shelving and the hurried motions of forklift trucks.”

He finds teeming ocean life—all dead, of course—in one section of the warehouse and this prompts him to find out how a tuna fished in Maldives makes it to a Northamptonshire warehouse in a matter of hours. As he journeys, this time from sea to source, he begins to realise that his leisurely project may not be so easy after all. Sea food exporters are reluctant to speak to an outsider, least of all a writer sneaking around for trouble. De Botton visits Male, the capital of Maldives, where he encounters silence until the country’s minister of fish makes a few phone calls and launches him on his trail. Really, the book is as much about pleasures and sorrows as the pulls and pressures of work.

One thing de Botton is especially attuned to is bursting bubbles. The chapter on “Rocket Science”, which term we associate with IQ scores of 140-plus, is a subtle exploration of the disillusionment of bright young minds who enter this field to make a lasting contribution to humanity’s body of knowledge. Yet, in de Botton’s chapter, we come across the painstaking work on a satellite which will merely beam signals for a children’s TV station in Japan. Routine, humdrum work—much too removed from intimations of glory.

De Botton tackles such brick-and-mortar topics in other chapters, notably “Transmission Engineering” and “Aviation”. But the real thrust of the book comes with “Career Counselling” which goes to the heart of de Botton’s Holy Grail: Is work meaningful?

The spotlight shifts to Robert Symons, a fifty-five-year-old psychotherapist who is less counsellor and more motivational speaker. The irony of Symons’ job is not lost on de Botton: to help, with an archaeologist’s precision, people to decide which job would suit them the best, only for them to subsequently realise that the world of work does not ease into such unguarded cheeriness. It is no picnic that can be chosen, altered and left at will.

In a roundabout way, this applies to de Botton’s project as well. Having set out to discover the details of work life as a detached outsider, he discovers that his posh accent and head-in-the-clouds ideas about real work are often at odds with the vast majority of toiling humanity. Hailing from an affluent background that allows him the luxury to go on such wild goose chases, de Botton’s rich language and slight concerns sit uncomfortably in a book about drudgery and endless hopelessness.

And yes, there is also the little matter of his reaction to unkind reviews.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Stories imbued with a master's touch

The title of Maile Meloy's new collection of stories comes from a poem by A R Ammons: "One can't have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it." Serving both as epigraph for the book and a certain moral revelation in one of the stories, this artless line runs like blood through most stories in this collection. Meloy's characters are stuck in a world of choices — moral, psychological et al — and they can't seem to decide which one to go for.

The first story in the book is called "Travis B", about a loner ranch head in rural Montana, who walks with a limp due to a bout of childhood polio. A Native American, Chet tends horses for a living when, on a boring evening, he chances upon a class on school law. The teacher there is Beth Travis, a white lawyer who drives nine hours to take the class. There is such a wide chasm between Chet and Beth that when Meloy introduces longing, first in the air and then in Chet, it gives the story a raw frisson, reminiscent of Annie Proulx Of course, love in such a case must be unrequited, weighted down as it is by gender and class and race, yet the menacing silence of Chet is a thing unto itself—a self-contained, restrained sparseness of the soul.

The trauma of lost love is also the theme of "Augustin", in which an ageing Argentine widower discovers meaning in his staid life when he finds that his paramour of long ago has returned to town due to straitened circumstances. His daughter informs him that she is now working as a maid in one of the houses he has rented out. When things don't work out as planned, and the lady refuses to accept his help, Augustin "cursed his daughter for bringing the world and its attractions back to his door."

In an interview, Meloy has quoted Ann Patchett on how a short story collection "was like a mall: it needed a few big stories with broad horizons, like the big anchor stores, to make a space in which the smaller, quirkier stories could survive." Indeed, there is wide variety in the collection and Meloy places stories in quite their proper places.

So, in "The Girlfriend", a father meets the girlfriend of his daughter's killer to find out the exact turn of events. The killer has already been prosecuted and there is nothing to be had from this conversation, yet Leo cannot bring himself to let go. The girl, a bundle of contradictions who threatens charges of rape, ultimately reveals a truth about the killing that will leave Leo worse off than when he started.

This story — threatening to drown the entire collection in a gale of grief — is thankfully followed by "Liliana", a light-hearted story about a former Nazi era actress, presumed dead, returning to her grandson's house. The grandson, passing through a protracted spot of financial bother, hopes that her substantial financial assets, now open to redistribution, will land his way, if only he is able to discover a connection he never had with her. But, the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.

Each of the eleven stories in the collection chooses a moment in its characters' lives when the lines between what one wants and what one can have blur. Steven loses his best mate in a factory accident in "Lovely Rita" and finds his friend's girlfriend seeking his help to stage a raffle for providing sexual services. When Steven refuses, the girl threatens to anyway go ahead with it, with or without his help. Caught in a bind, Steven cannot sort his own feelings, a whirlwind of desire and guilt—and decides to help her. Sex is an ever-present hook in Meloy's stories, working its insidious way into luring characters who show tremendous restraint and come out clean, though ridden with loss and emptiness. The story ends on an anti-climactic note, yet in its evocation of Steven's discombobulated self, it shines.

In "The Children", a man prepares the ground for disclosing to his wife that he has been cheating on her, but when the moment arrives, he is so completely caught up in it — its innocent, regular bliss — that he cannot believe that he, this same person, can feel this way at home and another, bordering on thrill and danger, when with his mistress. And so, "both ways..."

Raised in Montana, Meloy's stories reflect the quietude of her childhood landscape, and a self-assurance that living in the country bestows. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is her second short story collection, after her 2002 debut, Half in Love. Having written two novels in the mean time, Meloy gifts us conflicted characters in short, bite-sized stories that are imbued with a master's touch.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A gentle, firm attack on national mythologizing

When President Obama reached out to the global Muslim population in Cairo in June, his speech was littered with references to non-Christian Gods and stressed that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam."

But the real subtext of the speech, as subsequently shown by members of both the American left and right -- to different aims, of course -- was to denounce the notion that America is a Christian nation chosen by God to spread the message of goodness and attack evil in its various guises.

It is this national mythologizing of a "chosen people" that Richard T. Hughes, distinguished professor of religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., sets out to attack in his serious inquiry, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 232 pages, $29.95).

Hughes busts the myth of America as a Christian nation by quoting widely from the Bible and showing how American actions since the founding of the republic have often contradicted the central scriptural teaching of peace on earth and goodwill to man.

From the earliest westward expansion that subjugated the Native Americans to the most recent "Axis of Evil" rhetoric of George W. Bush, Hughes shows that the seductive charm of the term "Kingdom of God" has mostly been misused to carry out actions that are against the Bible's spirit.

As a professor of religion, Hughes is ideally placed to bolster his claims with passages from the Bible. Nearly every page in the book has extensive quotes from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Hughes lays special importance on demonstrating how the Bible references "Kingdom of God" to mean an Arcadian paradise filled with love and justice, and not, as history as shown, a divinely ordained tool to justify the militaristic ambitions of those in power.

Such us-against-them rhetoric, Hughes laments, has gotten more strident in the aftermath of 9/11, even as American society becomes evermore culturally diverse. A proud Christian himself, Hughes is emphatic that true Christianity is removed from hubris and Jesus is best served by acceptance of, rather than discrimination against, the other.

A genuinely thought-provoking read, Christian America and the Kingdom of God makes one wonder if those who wage wars and bloodshed in the name of God do really know the holy canon.

===

This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Monday, August 03, 2009

MJS' Geeta Sharma-Jensen says goodbye

Geeta Sharma-Jensen, the book editor at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is accepting a buyout offer from the newspaper to pursue other forms of writing and spend "time with neglected gardens."

In a moving farewell piece on the MJS website, Geeta recounts her 35-year journey at the paper, the changes that have come about in the newspaper business and what she will most miss about her job.

It has been a journey of sorts for me too. Geeta was the first book editor outside Philadelphia Inquirer to give me work, with Tarun Tejpal's The Alchemy of Desire. That initial encouragement was vital for someone from New Delhi trying to make a foothold in the American newspaper book sections. When I was unreasonable and got upset about her cutting a well-loved review of mine (The Indian Clerk), she was patient with me, allowing me to see my mistake, and when I apologised, she accepted it without issue and continued to give me work. I remember she said she used to be like that at my age, and so understood. Geeta, thank you for your kindness and maturity.

I wish Geeta all success in whatever she decides to pursue now on. I hope the free time allows her to indulge her interests in other forms of writing. And yes, I will be looking out for her freelance work every now and then—that particular muscular way of putting things she possesses that brings the page alive.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Innocence and intrigue in a bygone age

Saadat Hasan Manto is most well known for his Partition-era magnum opus, “Toba Tek Singh”. However, like many other writers albratrossed by just one of their several outstanding works, Manto's other short stories have been confined to relative obscurity. This is a travesty since all of them combine his atypical wit with a stark tendency to unveil double standards.

Aatish Taseer brings forth several of Manto’s little-known gems in a fine new translation. Since Manto, before moving to Lahore, was a film journalist in Bombay, not a few of the stories in this collection are based in the city of dreams, especially what can be called an early prototype of today's Bollywood. While technical finesse may be a distant destination, scandal is very much the order of the day. In "My Name is Radha", a wildly popular superstar, known in the industry as the epitome of high morals (he even addresses his co-stars as "sisters") is shown by Manto's acerbic narrator to have feet of clay.

Manto's world is a curious mix of innocence and intrigue, so that Hindus and Muslims in his stories are friends and well-wishers, still untouched by the poison of Partition. In such a politically fecund setting, Manto yet manages to throw the human element in sharp relief, showcasing the warts-and-all mortal lurking inside the seemingly divine. "For Freedom" is about a Muslim freedom fighter who, in the thrill of the moment at the historic Jallianwalan Bagh, forswears sex and pledges at his wedding to not have "slave children" unless India gains independence. The story is clearly a dig at Mahatma Gandhi, who appears as a high-minded Babaji here. Narrated over many years by a friend of the freedom fighter, it a scathing attack on the pulls of self-righteousness and the havoc it can unleash.

For a writer of his time, there is a strong feminist streak running through these works. Manto’s women are sharply etched characters who persevere with their choices, at times to tragic consequences. In “Licence”, a woman must resort to selling her body because it is easier to get a licence for that than one for driving her dead husband’s horse carriage.

Manto's brilliant touch is visible in all these stories, hop as they do from a moment of child-like, unadulterated joy to the sudden onset of tragedy. Rooted in a certain setting, these stories nevertheless whisper to us across time and space.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hare and hounds

Nicholas Schmidle arrived in Pakistan in 2006 as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. He was first spotted on the Pakistani intelligence's radar when he wrote a piece on the Pakistani Taliban for the New York Times Magazine. To Live or to Perish Forever is an account of his two years in a country where another foreign journalist, Daniel Pearl, met with a bitter end.

Hillary Clinton told reporters during her recent India visit that while she agreed that America faced challenges on Af-Pak, there was no doubt that the Pakistani authorities were working to root out terror. Schmidle's book reminds us how hollow that claim is and how self-destructive America's optimism on this score.

As he roams the streets of Karachi, Gwadar and Quetta, Schmidle meets locals and elites who personify the stark contradictions of Pakistani society. So, while "ninety-nine point ninety-nine" per cent of Pakistanis rub their hands in glee at America's troubles in Afghanistan, as quoted by one local, a full one hundred per cent don't want to have anything to do with the Taliban on Pakistani soil.

To India, the chapter on Pakistan's repression of Balochistan is the most revealing, as also the most relevant. As the Manmohan Singh government frantically douses all-round fire at the wording of the joint statement signed at Sharm el-Sheikh, Schmidle exonerates India of any involvement, laying the blame squarely on Pakistan and China for co-operating to smother the genuine Baloch demand for autonomy.

Timely and provocative, Schmidle's book perfectly captures the schizophrenic nature of a society where policymakers are always buying time to diffuse crises and run a little more with the hare even as they hunt with the hounds.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Still searching for God’s dice

The battle between quantum theory and relativity to be the most definitive discovery of the 20th century seemed to have ended with the Time magazine naming Albert Einstein the man of the century. Yet, doubts persist. In the real world, the quantum continues to have greater applicability than relativity. Most modern appliances employ quantum principles. Some, such as the electron microscope, operate at a scale where quantum effects score over classical phenomena.

Such was the extraordinariness of its precepts that when quantum theory first gained prominence at the beginning of the 20th century, Niels Bohr, one of its chief architects, proclaimed: “Those who are not shocked when they come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”

Manjit Kumar’s Quantum revisits an era where cutting-edge research (at the time) yielded new ideas about the nature of reality. 1905, Einstein’s annus mirabilis, brought forth the first stirrings of what would become his Special Theory of Relativity, forever changing man’s views on space and time.

However, around the same time, an arguably more earth-shaking theory was about to take root, and it busied itself not with the motion of large objects but with the spin of the tiniest particle known to man—the humble electron. Experiments at the sub-atomic level conducted by the holy trinity of Bohr, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg showed that electrons do not follow the same rules of behaviour that had come to be gospel truth since Newton first propounded his laws in the seventeenth century. Rather, they seemed to show dual characteristics of wave and particle, depending on the mode of observation.

The need for quantum theory stemmed from black body radiation. A black body is a hypothetical object that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation that falls on it. According to Wikipedia, “No electromagnetic radiation passes through it and none is reflected. Because no light (visible electromagnetic radiation) is reflected or transmitted, the object appears black when it is cold. However, a black body emits a temperature-dependent spectrum of light. This thermal radiation from a black body is termed black-body radiation.”

In 1862, Gustav Kirchhoff, while studying the spectrum of a laboratory black body emitting radiation, observed the presence of discrete spectral lines that could not be accounted for. The question remained unanswered until 1900, when Planck postulated that electromagnetic radiation was not a uniform wave but a collection of discrete energy particles called quanta. In 1905, Einstein appropriated Planck’s theory to explain the photoelectric effect — the emission of electrons from metals when electromagnetic radiation falls on their surface. Einstein attributed this to the presence of discrete energy particles called photons in light.

But the real strangeness of the quantum theory, which at its basic postulates a wave-particle duality to all matter, was the discovery made by the young Heisenberg in 1927: “It is impossible to measure simultaneously both the position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty.” That is, the measurement of one quantity plays havoc with the measurement of another and vice-versa. What this essentially entailed was a realisation, too shocking to be readily grasped, that reality is not a fixed entity but dependent on its observation.

The discovery of uncertainty caused an uproar in the scientific community, since it shook to the core the deterministic principles on which the entire edifice of physics—and by extension, the patterns of thinking—was based. Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe” and hoped that a still-undiscovered quantity would arrive in due course to resolve the inherent contradictions of the quantum. Bohr and Heisenberg, on the other hand, fashioned the Copenhagen Interpretation that gave credence to the central improbability of quantum mechanics. In their view, quantum mechanics was the best approximation of all motion, since for larger bodies, it approximated the laws of classical physics.

Kumar’s Quantum builds on the many discoveries that launched the world of the quantum and the fraught relationships among the dramatis personae, many of who moved in a rarified circle where talk of force fields and particle physics was common over tea and biscuits. Indeed, Kumar’s real achievement is not in throwing light on quantum mechanics per se, which descriptions are often mired in thick scientific jargon, but on a time when the thrill of discovery was so palpable it could slice through butter like a hot knife.

As for the quantum, the debate continues and Kumar ends his book on the hope that a “Theory of Everything” to resolve the deterministic outlook of Einstein with the thrilling uncertainty of Bohr, will come around in our lifetimes. Except, every new discovery is fraught with opening new vistas and shifting the ever-changing contours of not just science, but epistemology.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gritty portrait marred by lack of coherence

Nami Mun's debut novel is an interesting patchwork quilt of set pieces that stand well on their own. This story of Joon, the daughter of Korean immigrants to New York (much like Mun), has several strengths to its credit. In spite of them, however, it fails to form a complete whole.

At the beginning, Joon has left the house that she and her mother share, because her mother has decided to stop speaking (she is mentally unstable). Before this, the father had abandoned the family, and started living with another woman. Joon's guilt at abandoning her mother is sublimated by her indecision over who really screwed the family.

On the streets, Joon tries a variety of odd jobs, from hustling to becoming an escort. She is befriended by oddball characters, Knowledge and Wink. As the three hop from one place to another, and from one calamity to the next, Joon comes to form real friendships for the first time in her life.

This, however, does not diminish her tiresome view on life. The narrative is peppered with Joon's cynical ditties on the fragility of relationships, the seduction of substance abuse, the possibilities of sexual deviancy, and so on. It does get to you at some point.

Redemption is promised towards the end with the fig leaf of Joon's decision to set her life in order and return to live with her mother. Given her know-it-all bluster, this sudden about-turn comes across as jaded and contrived.

Miles From Nowhere is not a bad book. Mun does possess a distinctive voice and a talent for characterization. However, the budding author needs to work on dovetailing disparate parts into a satisfying whole.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

'The handsomest young man in England'

Jill Dawson's latest, The Great Lover, is a fictionalised account of the latter years of Rupert Brooke's life, the English poet who died tragically of septicemia during the First World War. He is most well-known for his poem "The Soldier", which has the lines:

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England."

The following is a brief biography of Brooke from a website:

Rupert Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, where his father taught classics and was a housemaster at Rugby School. In his childhood Brooke immersed himself in English poetry and twice won the school poetry prize. In 1906 he went to King's college, Cambridge, and became friends with G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, and Leonard Fry, members of the future Bloomsbury Group. In 1910 Brooke's father died suddenly, and Brooke was for a short time in Rugby a deputy housemaster. Thereafter Brooke lived on an allowance from his mother. In 1911 he worked on a thesis on the playwright John Webster and the Elizabethan drama, and travelled in Germany and Italy. In England he was a leader of a group of young 'Neo-pagans', who slept outdoors, embraced a religion of nature, and swam naked - among others Virginia Woolf joined the swimmers in Grantchester. However, sex was something that was not part of the fun - "We don't copulate without marriage, but we do meet in cafes, talk on buses, go on unchaperoned walks, stay with each other, give each other books, without marriage," Brooke once told to his friend.

It is this fertile period of Brooke's life that Dawson fictionalises in The Great Lover. Nell Golightly is a maid at the Old Vicarage in Grantchester. The house is famous for hosting artistic types and one summer, it plays guest to Brooke. To Nell, the upright daughter of a bee-keeper, Brooke and his circle represent the waywardness of artists — a fundamental difference from her staid maidishness — which, while she resents, Nell is also drawn to.

The book pays hearty tribute to Brooke's politics, his many left-leaning causes that ended with a whimper, and yet, which also made him overlook class divides and appreciate the repressed intelligence of Nell. Their romance, never spoken of, is that drip-drip pattter of subdued tension that ends in a night of emotionally charged lovemaking.

But more than anything else, the novel is a tribute to a way of life, a freedom that encompasses magnanimous love yet refuses to be tied town, sometimes to shocking effects. The long line of Brooke's conquests—men and women—are ever-present in the background, hurtling in and out of Brooke's racing conscious. Dawson has exonerated Brooke of any scheming though. As Nell tells him tenderly at one point, yes, there are two kinds of people: those who marry and those who can't.

For, there could have been no scheming. Not from one whose pen emitted these lines:

...Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make

New friends, now strangers...
But the best I've known
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown

About the winds of the world, and fades from brains

Of living men, and dies.

Nothing remains.


O dear my loves, O faithless, once again

This one last gift I give: that after men

Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,

Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say "He loved".

(From "The Great Lover" by Rupert Brooke)

Dawson's book has the pallor of tragedy hanging over it, as the reader accompanies Brooke through his nervous breakdown and his visit to Tahiti where he will find succour in Taatamata, a local woman he will eternalise in his poetry—and his subsequent return to England. But all this is known before-hand and when the book ends with a haunting letter Brooke wrote to a friend a few days before his death, it is all a bit too much to bear.

A playful, highly affecting novel!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A brief history of man

The narrative of human evolution, in spite of Darwin and his Origin of Species, is a discontinuous mishmash that gives us only a broad outline of who we are and where we come from. The evidence for the study of human evolution is derived primarily from fossils, which can give insights into the existence of in-between species — the ones that provide the missing links in the evolution of man.

Hamburg in Germany is the site of an annual fossil fair where scientists, private collectors, dealers and locals converge in December every year to peddle their pre-historic wares. Jorn Hurum, associate professor of paleontology at the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, is a regular at the fair, visiting every year in the hope of adding to the museum’s substantial collection.

In 2006, Hurum and a museum colleague were milling around the table of Thomas Perner, a prominent dealer. Hurum had had a long association with Perner, and so, when the latter asked him to meet up for a drink later that day, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Hurum acceded readily.

Over drinks, Perner explained to Hurum that a private collector seeking anonymity had given him six months to sell a rare find. Perner opened an envelope and showed Hurum a high-resolution colour photograph of a complete fossil skeleton. The photograph was of Ida (so named by Hurum later), fossilised after her death.

Ida is the world-renowned 47-million-year-old primate ancestor whose perfectly fossilised remains were shown to Hurum on that fateful December day. Her discovery is massively important to science because she could provide the crucial missing link in the evolution of primates. It was during the Eocene (56 million years to 34 million years ago) that a spilt in two distinct primate groups had occurred, leading to the existence of humankind.

Because of gaps in fossil records, paleontologists have had to hypothesise about what happened after the primitive primate. Their best guess so far had been that by 40 million years ago there were two distinct primate groups: those with wet noses—lemurs and lorises; and those with dry noses—tarsiers, apes, monkeys and humans. It was Ida that could explain the split in primate evolution.

Barely a year old at the time of her death, Ida died while drinking from a lake in what was then a tropical rain forest. A volcanic eruption engulfed the area surrounding the lake and the dense gas it released rendered Ida unconscious. Her limp body fell into the lake, settling in the sediment at the bottom, which over time, congealed into oily shale. A perfect accident had created the conditions for long-term preservation.

The site where this occurred is located near the village of Messel in Germany. Called the Messel Pit, it is a rich source of fossils from the Middle Eocene period. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Messel Pit was chiefly a quarry, mined by coal prospectors looking to convert the shale into raw petroleum.

However, beginning 1966, formal excavations were undertaken by paleontologists and archaeologists in the Messel Pit. “Fossils of horses, fish, bats and crocodiles perfectly frozen in time were unearthed and preserved. In many cases, complete skeletons were preserved, along with bacterial imprints of hair, feathers, scales and even internal organs,” writes Tudge.

By 1971, mining had ceased in the area and it became open hunting ground for scientists and private collectors alike. Sometime in 1982, a private collector from Frankfurt, while splitting the layers of shale, “stumbled on a fossil of what looked like an exotic monkey crushed to the thickness of a silver dollar.” He took it home and preserved it, away from the eyes of science and the public, until twenty-five years later, when advancing age made him approach Perner.

The Link is the gripping account of how Hurum set about meeting the $1 million price tag on Ida—seeking the assistance of the Oslo museum whose director remarked, “We’re not a museum known around the world like the Louvre, but this could be our Mona Lisa”; authenticating the fossil by means of X-rays and CT scans; and clearing legal hurdles to enable the specimen to leave Germany.

Fans of Bill Bryson and Stephen Jay Gould may find the book lacking in flamboyance, but Tudge’s subject matter makes up for any deficit in flair. There are brilliant illustrations in the book, including three-dimensional images of Ida’s skeleton and close shots of her last meal. Tudge builds on the massiveness of the findings to argue about the need for humans to preserve the environment—there is an amusing, yet gravid, comparison of time lines to drive home the magnitude of destruction that human beings have wreaked in their rather minuscule time on earth.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Web-crazed zombies all?

Which is the single largest recruiting ground that terrorists use to lure gullible people into their nefarious dens? Mosques, I hear you say. Only that is wrong. It's websites, hundreds of thousands of them, says James Harkin, Director of Talks at the ICA in London, in this stimulating new book.

Even as we cheer on young Iranian students using Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies for raising their collective voice against Iran's botched electoral outcome, Harkin cautions us to keep in mind the many dangerous side-effects that this openness has entailed.

He does so by pointing us to the visual, albeit very real, domain of Cyburbia — "the place we go when we spend too much time hooked up to other people via a continuous loop of electronic information."

Harkin begins by introducing the concept of cybernetics whose founder was the redoubtable Norbert Wiener of MIT, who famously declined to join the Manhattan Project. Derived from control theory, cybernetics is the study of closed systems, where the feedback from the system is fed into a loop, resulting in the system modifying itself based on the feedback input.

During the Second World War, Wiener was distressed at the failure of British anti-aircraft gunners to shoot down German aircraft hovering the British sky. The problem was the circuitous routes that the German aircraft took to dodge detection. The British tracking system was just not up to the task of factoring in the bomber's zigzag motion in its calculation.

Wiener, working with complex mathematical models, came to the conclusion that the information feedback loop between the Luftwaffe bomber and the anti-aircraft gunner was not fast enough, resulting in rising failures. If only the bomber's movement was suitably estimated, Wiener calculated, the accuracy of the gunner's aim would improve dramatically.

While Wiener's work would have little bearing on the British war effort, his ideas came to be rapidly accepted in the broader social sciences, especially among the countercultural idealists of the 1960s. These pioneers imagined the establishment of a global "electronic village of authentic information and perfect understanding" based on cybernetics.

One such pioneer was Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined the memorable phrase: "The medium is the message." McLuhan, Harkin reminds us, was the progenitor of the idea of the internet, predicting the setting up of a giant electronic loop which will connect things and people in a smorgasbord of anytime connectivity.

Harkin dovetails the rise of the internet to cybernetics by exploring the way Google searches — the search results on the website’s first few pages drive our knowledge/views on any given topic. The more popular a site, the higher its chance of being shown on the first page of search results, resulting in an endless loop where a few, highly-visited sites govern our consumption of ideas.

It is in this vein that Harkin builds his central argument. The internet has engendered a herd-like instinct which dresses up McLuhan's original dictum in a less glamorous interpretation. The content, never much important, is less so today—so long as one feels connected to a wider community. Which is why, Harkin seems to chide, seemingly normal adults can waste hours playing childish games and scoring themselves against one another on Facebook.

Welcome to Cyburbia, where youngsters share music and movies illegally on peer-to-peer networks, even as governments struggle to contain newer, more blatant forms of piracy. "The peer-to-peer architecture started out as a hippie cri de coeur at the conformism of post-war American life, but the layout of Cyburbia encourages us to conform to the opinion of our electronic peers," Harkin laments.

The rise of Cyburbia has entailed the easy availability of porn, much of it free and user-generated. The other tragic manifestation of the internet, in Harkin's view, is the global rise of opinion-making, with sundry blogs bloviating on serious topics with no editorial control.

However, in Harkin's view, none of this compares with the curious case of so-called medieval terrorists using the latest technologies to spread their message of hate, or down-and-out lonely souls exploiting the internet's seductive anonymity to enter suicide pacts.

But is this the whole picture? Clearly not. The rise of the internet has brought about several positive transformations, and the abuse of any technology cannot be reason enough to decry it. If the internet allows terrorists to group, it also lets ordinary citizens in non-democratic societies to get their views across. Why else does China set such great store by banning websites?

Perhaps then, it is enough to take Harkin at his word, and support him on how the ubiquitous use of the internet is playing havoc with not just our attention spans and social lives, but also our freedom to know and choose. Indeed, a new question is already upon us: What next?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Removing old veneers

Is it merely a coincidence that just as Pakistan re-emerges on America’s security map as a nation to watch, its writers are churning out consistently good fiction at a surprisingly fast rate?

The past few months have seen the launch of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam, besides several other notable books by Pakistani writers in the recent past.

To this list can now be added The Wish Maker, the debut work of 24-year-old Ali Sethi. Sethi is the son of renowned Pakistani journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, the couple who have run afoul of Pakistani authorities at several times in the past for running The Friday Times, an independent newsweekly published out of Lahore.

It is the nature of the household that Ali grew up in, perhaps, that provides a ready template for his novel. The story revolves around Zaki Shirazi, a young, free-spirited Pakistani boy who grows up amidst a cast of strong female characters.

There is Zakia, his mother, a crusading journalist who also happens to be the editor of Women’s Journal, a publication which, by its very name, must invite trouble sooner or later in a conservative society. This is especially so when Zakia refuses to “behave” at all like a widow, her husband dead in an air crash when she was pregnant with Zaki.

Contrasted with Zakia’s character is Daadi, Zaki’s grandmother, who only bears Zakia’s many “digressions” because she has given her a grandson. Strong-willed women both, Daadi and Zakia are locked in a permanent battle of wits.

And there is Samar Api, Zaki’s cousin, a girl ill-suited to the conventions imposed by society on how proper Muslim girls must conduct themselves. Zaki and Samar have been inseparable from childhood, but as adolescence approaches, the personal and the political must collide in a society that will not allow the two to remain together.

Sethi writes with real feeling for a Lahore that was cosmopolitan and welcoming. The reader can sense the disquiet that liberal, Western-educated Pakistanis like him must feel at the downward spiral that their country has fallen into. The Wish Maker is a product of love, both for the craft of fiction and for what it lets us remember and keep forever.

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This review is slated to appear in Chicago Sun Times.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pictures of a mundane Pakistan

Given its volatile leadership and questionable contribution to the global war on terror, Pakistan is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet a new breed of writers from that country have quietly but firmly begun to make their presence felt in the English-speaking world. Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam, authors of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Wasted Vigil, respectively, immediately spring to mind.

To this list can now be added Daniyal Mueenuddin. Raised in Pakistan and educated in the United States, he has long regaled readers with short stories in the New Yorker, Zoetrope and other literary magazines. Now they are in this fascinating collection chronicling the everyday ironies and cruelties of a place too used to being in the news for earth-shifting events.

The world of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is as much the feudal hinterland of Pakistan as the cosmopolitan cityscape of Karachi and Lahore. The eight stories revolve, in one way or the other, around K.K. Harouni, landowner of a vast estate in the southern Punjab province. The title story follows Harouni's illicit affair with an impoverished distant relative, in a world where joys transmogrify suddenly into catastrophes. When Harouni dies, the poor woman is thrown out of the estate by his daughters. She, after all, has no locus standi.

In "Saleema", another story that points to the grim state of women in rural Pakistan, a young woman escapes a childhood of deprivation to move into the servants' quarters of the Harouni estate with her husband. But her state in her new home is no better. Reduced to looking after her drug addict spouse and passing her days in menial drudgery, Saleema's life has moved from one calamity to the next.

In the collection's latter half, Mueenuddin moves to the city-bred relatives of Harouni, people who "knew everyone of a certain class in Karachi, went to dinners and to the polo and to all the fashionable weddings, flew often to Lahore and Islamabad, and summered in London." Yet, traditionalism rears its head when matters of life and death — and love — are involved. In Our Lady of Paris, an American in love with a Pakistani man (they met at Yale) must contend with the latter's domineering mother who disapproves of the alliance.

Mueenuddin's prose aptly captures South Asian nuances, not just in dialect and cultural habits, but also in modes of thinking and relating. That is reason enough to pick up this collection from a writer destined to win greater laurels.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The changing nature of threats

Would a sane person abide any commonality in the mindsets of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the strategists of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist outfit? Well, that is the jaw-dropping case that Joshua Cooper Ramo, a former journalist-turned-Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, makes in his new book—and he makes it well.

The Age of the Unthinkable follows the tried and tested Gladwellian territory: set out a grand theory and bolster it with crisp, real-life examples. But it avoids the latter’s worst excesses. While Gladwell is less successful with his attempts at pop-science, Ramo, painting a broader canvas, is a decidedly more muscular writer.

Gladwell tends to base his theories on hunches and wayward analogising, for instance, faulting the higher number of Korean air crashes in the 1990s to a culture of subservience, in Outliers. Consequently, he arrives at conclusions that would not withstand scientific scrutiny. Ramo, on the other hand, relies on chaos theory and disruptive innovation to write a book that’s more Black Swan than Outliers—tipping his hat to the unpredictability of ground-shifting events in geopolitics, economics, sociology and science.

The central idea of the book is the sand pile effect: if you piled sand, grain by grain, into the shape of an inverted cone, sooner or later, the tiny pyramid would give way. The question is when? How does one know at what precise moment the precarious balance that keeps sand grains together in perfect harmony will yield a minor avalanche?

Ramo uses this example to drive home the point that small events (the putting together of sand grains) can lead to momentous consequences (the entire pile destroying)—and if this can be true for a tiny sand pile, imagine the scope of its applicability to real-life phenomena of much greater complexity (Ramo quotes the breakup of the Soviet Union and the pack-of-cards collapse of US financial giants in 2008).

Ramo furthers his case by pointing out the fallacy of the adage: “Democracies do not fight among themselves,” first propounded by American sociologist Dean Babst. Inherent to this statement is the understanding that the idea of democracy is for the greater, common good and its widespread dissemination would usher in everlasting peace.

But this is not always true, says Ramo. Apart from America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan being obvious irritants, he also states: “Without a basis of economic development, without a culture of politics that fits democratic discourse, becoming democratic was often a guarantee of instability. Democratising Arab countries, for instance, might not make them less militant—particularly given cultures that tended to thrive on violent conflict.”

The scales can tip any moment, says Ramo, as on 9/11 when one gigantic, mind-numbing event went on to have protracted consequences. The notion of a “quick fix war”, Ramo asserts, has as little relevance today as at any point in history — violent insurgencies and quixotic hopes of seeding democracy can play havoc with the most fool-proof military strategies.

It is left to global policymakers and heads of government, then, to not fall into the familiar trap of “looking for answers”, when such crises require a complete remapping of how they are approached. For Ramo, China is the only nation that comes close to displaying the mindset that a new-age nation must adopt to survive. Perhaps it’s the split nature of the country’s raison d’être — an undemocratic, yet strong growth driver — that has kept the Middle Kingdom on its toes and kept it prepared for all eventualities. Ramo lavishes encomiums on China’s unstoppable juggernaut.

It is this—the quality to adapt—that makes Ramo liken the Silicon Valley startups to Hezbollah. If Google does not rest on its laurels and constantly innovates to give the world fascinating, new products, Hezbollah too has tapped the inverted glamour of suicide bombing to reinvent itself in its battle with Israel.

Having spent time in a Hezbollah outpost in Lebanon, Ramo returns impressed. “Spend time with Hezbollah, and you see it’s possible to run the most sophisticated cellular network and be willing to blow yourself up. We have to accept that and not think that if we make people modern, we make them Western. That’s not the case at all,” he says in an interview.

A few false notes, however, mar this smooth inquiry. While he is engagingly articulate at enumerating the dangers of our complex new world, Ramo’s remedies read more like nostrums. For a book that directs the reader to appreciate the many pitfalls of falling for stereotypes, Ramo’s prescriptions follow old terrain. Somewhere in there, though, there is an interesting study of how Eastern thought—of addressing problems in context without confrontation—is the way forward.

The Age of the Unthinkable is a stimulating read in the tradition of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which backs up its pessimism with solid facts and, only much later, gossamer stirrings of hope.

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This review will appear in the June 15 edition of Business Standard.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Crime and atonement


Serious Things is one of the most acutely observed psychological thrillers I have come across. It concerns itself with the life of Bruno Jackson, a 30-something gay civil servant who spends his days in a lonely simulacrum of a real life. Initially, Bruno's dissatisfaction with the general scheme of things seems tedious but as the novel progresses, Norminton unravels, with enticing precision, the reasons behind Bruno's apathy.

The novel is divided in "Then" and "Now", alternating chapters/sections meant to give us insights into the two profound elements of Bruno's life—an incident from the past and the present, the all-consuming present, permanently affected by the past.

"Then" deals with the early '90s, when Bruno arrives at a posh school on the South Downs. There he is befriended by Anthony Blunden, a rakish young boy with an interest in poetry. Bruno falls inconceivably in love with Anthony, and Norminton uses the familiar literary trope of the nostalgic English school setting to drip the one-sided affair in intensity.

The two artistically inclined boys are welcomed into the house of Mr Bridge, their English teacher, who serves them poetry and biscuits. The trio has much in common—the boys, their enthusiasm; the teacher, his infectious knowledge. The meetings turn into elongated sessions of merrymaking and laughter, and such a setting must inevitably tip into an embarrassed situation, so critical for a novel of this type.

Anthony writes a novel caricaturising members of the school—its staff, students, wardens, dean. Expecting lavish praise for what he thinks is a work of great precocity, Anthony is aghast to learn Mr Bridge’s uncomplimentary views on his work.

The relationship between the boys and the teacher deteriorates, and with time, the bitterness that Anthony, and adventitiously, Bruno feel for Mr Bridge assumes a character that will only be satiated by something drastic. And so it is.

On to "Now", and the ghost of those school days, meant to be an unforgettable halcyon period, haunts Bruno, even as a chance encounter with Anthony at a common friend's party brings home to him the utter normalcy that envelopes Anthony's life, much against his own. A beautiful wife, a successful career, the works—is it merely a matter of a restless conscience, or does Anthony's return spark in Bruno his unrequited love, besides a smattering of jealousy?

Norminton gradually develops the plot, and his treatment of Bruno as both stalker and victim is careful. The novel builds up to a promising climax, much appreciated under the circumstances, and very definite in its resolution of Bruno's so-far muddled morality.