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.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cooking up a tasty tale

British-Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali achieved international fame with the 2003 publication of "Brick Lane," her Booker-shortlisted novel about the lives of immigrant Bangladeshis in London's East End.

She followed it up with "Alentejo Blue" in 2006, a much quieter book than her first, set among a multi-ethnic community in a Polish small town. A significant departure from her first, widely appreciated book, "Alentejo Blue" received at best lukewarm reviews.

Now Ali returns to original form with "In the Kitchen," her meditation on the goings-on at the fictional Imperial Hotel in London's Piccadilly. Her pet themes - migration, multiculturalism, racism, settling in - are in full display, and the prose crackles with verve and vivacity.

The story revolves around Gabriel "Gabe" Lightfoot, the executive chef at the Imperial, who oversees operations at a place run by the U.N. of cooks: nearly every nationality is represented in his kitchen, legally or otherwise. When at the book's beginning, the body of a porter, Yuri, is discovered in the basement, the investigating officer's first instruction to the staff is clear: "I'm not interested in your papers. I'm not here for that."

Ali is a "straddler" in the clearest sense of the term. Born in Dhaka, she grew up in Bolton, a north English textile town, and finally attended Oxford University. She therefore has firsthand knowledge of the devastation wrought on textile towns across England and how immigration only deepens already existing social fissures.

Her character, Gabe, too, is a straddler. Working in the metropolitan heart of London, he is nevertheless aware of the racism that runs like dark blood through Blantwistle, his hometown in north England.

When he learns from his sister that his father is dying of cancer, Gabe travels north to visit. In touching sequences, Ali builds upon the changed landscape of Gabe's boyhood against his real worries at work in London.

Gabe's romantic life is as complicated. While he has a healthy relationship with Charlie, a nightclub singer, he begins an obsessive affair with Lena, one of his employees, after he discovers that she has nowhere to live after Yuri's death. Originally from Belarus, Lena had become tangled in a prostitution ring and had sought refuge with Yuri to escape her assailants.

Ali writes with wit and sympathy about the many twists and turns that define our lives. Gabe's increasing sympathy for his employees after he hears Lena's story allows Ali to chart harrowing accounts of what less privileged people in other parts of the world undergo before they have a chance at migrating to a developed country and improving their lot. As a follow-up to "Brick Lane", "In the Kitchen" is a far more mature work.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The vanishing of Mona Lisa

She has mystified and captivated generations of onlookers, yet nothing seems to diminish the enigma of Mona Lisa. What exactly does she feel, is a question artists and scientists have explored for centuries. Is she sad, reflective, happy, disgusted…what? Leonardo da Vinci’s epic creation invites any number of interpretations depending on the state of mind of the observer. Whatever you may be thinking, Mona Lisa seems to empathise. It’s not just that the contours of the painting are brilliant; it is also the mischief, the “I-know-what-you-don’t-want-me-to-know” look in the eyes that confounds.

Such is the cult surrounding her that in 2005, Dutch researchers tried dwelling into the mind, rather face, of history’s perennial treasure trove by using a software that recognises a person’s emotions by examining the face. They concluded that Mona Lisa is 83 per cent happy, 9 per cent disgusted, 6 per cent fearful, and 2 per cent angry. Well...

In Vanished Smile, RA Scotti deftly uncovers the mysterious theft of the art world’s prima donna, close to a century ago to this day. Thanks to Scotti’s meticulous research and atmospheric writing, a crime that had all the trappings of insanity, national prestige and obsession is brought to light marvellously.

The book begins in 1911, with Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno luring gullible American millionaires with the bucks to buy—but not the eye to discern—the original Mona Lisa. This, when all de Valfierno had were six fakes. How did this tie with the theft of the real Mona Lisa from the Louvre in France? Scotti keeps the mystery crackling for a good 200 more pages.

Later that year, on a languorous Sunday — August 20 to be precise — the Mona Lisa vanished. Her loss was not discovered upto 48 hours later, since the museum was closed on Mondays. The crime was beyond comprehension in its cheek and neatness, launching a pan-global hunt for Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless creation.

Scotti brilliantly captures the farcical aftermath of the theft, with the French government pinning the blame on the Louvre’s authorities, newspapers having a field day with the scandal, and a clueless public trying to make sense of the Byzantine ways of the art world.

With no certainty on the criminal’s identity in sight, suspicion fell on writer Guillaume Apollinaire, enfant terrible of the Belle Époque, who had published inflammatory literature demanding the Louvre be burned down. Matters came to a head when Apollinaire was betrayed by his friend, the painter Pablo Picasso, resulting in a ludicrous court trial, allowing Scotti to show them both as wretched, though innocent, victims of an extremely sophisticated fraud.

Vincenzo Peruggia it was, an Italian employee at the Louvre, who was finally discovered to be the Mona Lisa’s thief—more than two years after the lady’s disappearance. On that fateful Sunday night, Vincenzo completed his shift and hid in a room inside the museum. At some point in the early hours of Monday, he snuck out, walked up to where the Mona Lisa hung, took her down with the precision of an expert, hid her under his coat, and walked out.

When caught (he tried selling the painting to the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence), Vincenzo attributed his crime to his obsessive love for the painting and to the restoration of Italian pride by returning it to its roots (da Vinci was Italian).

However, the ghost of the Argentine conman hung over Vincenzo’s head, as the latter’s jingoistic lamentations were alleged to have distinctly commercial origins. It was speculated that Vincenzo stole the Mona Lisa at the insistence of de Valfierno, who only wanted the painting to disappear from the Louvre so as to convince his buyers that each of their individual Mona Lisas was an original.

De Valfierno is believed to have commissioned French art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting so he could sell them as the missing original, and leave Vincenzo stranded with the real Mona Lisa since he had no use for it anymore. Which is why, it was said, Vincenzo tried selling it and got caught in the process.

But was any of this true? Had Vincenzo and de Valfierno indeed collaborated, making the theft a blindingly well-executed crime? Nothing was ever established, Vincenzo was hailed as a hero in Italy and let off after serving a mild sentence.

All’s well that ends well. The Mona Lisa returned to her place in the Louvre—with a completely revamped security apparatus. A theft that shook the art world to its foundations had been overturned, even though its contours were still not entirely clear—and remain so to this day. RA Scotti has given us an account that captures this uncertainty with remarkable precision — an apt tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious muse.
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This review will appear in the June 4, 2009 edition of Business Standard.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Dripping with psychological suspense

Sarah Waters made her name as the writer of erotic "lesbo-Victorian romps" that effortlessly straddle the worlds of literary and genre fiction. Set in rural Warwickshire just after the Second World War, The Little Stranger is her fifth novel, the first with a male narrator, Dr. Faraday. We meet the doctor at Hundreds Hall, a former grand structure now wasting away, and home to the Ayreses for close to two centuries. Members of the landed gentry now fallen to ruin, the Ayreses -- Mrs. Ayres and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick -- seem steeped in a bygone, gentler age. ...Read more>>>

Also read Teasing the velvet.