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.