Friday, 16 September 2016

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? By Mindy Kaling.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling

Three Rivers Press. First published 2011

Mindy Kaling is a very successful and famous writer/actor in American TV. She is born in US, I think, to Indian parents, and her second name is an abbreviation of Chokalingam, her father's name, who happens to be distantly related to me. So that, in fact, is my real interest in this book, which is addressed to American young-adult women, and not to Indian old men. Mindy is not physically a stereotypical stage, TV or movie heroine, and would be difficult to think of as a natural for her chosen career. But with her immense writing and acting talent, and her confident personality she has defined an attractive role for herself, one which does not require her to, presumably, change her physique or her personality. (This can happen only in America, I think. It would have been impossible in India. M. S. Subbalakshmi is a case in point. Despite her terrific musical talent, she had to completely suppress her personality and her background in order to be successful.)  

This book is vaguely biographical, and something in the nature of PGW's 'Bring on the Girls'. There are less anecdotes, however, and there things like the list of her favourite moments in TV comedy - things that would be interesting or funny only to a young American audience. Her writing is breezy and never very deep, but one can always sense the clarity and firmness of purpose with which she went about achieving her success. But except for this meta-story the book does not have much substance. It's not even very funny. 

Cities of Salt. By Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt

Abdelrehman Munif
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux 

Vintage International. First published in Arabic in 1984.

This is a brilliant epic narration of the effect of the discovery of oil in the sands of Arabia on the pre-modern tribes that lived there. The story begins in a Wadi, an oasis, where exists a bucolic and pastoral lifestyle in harmony with the changing seasons, the availability of water and the regular arrival and departure of transiting caravans. The village social hierarchies are rigidly set, as they have been for centuries, comfortable, even if inequitable. The first faint inclination that everything is about to change comes from reports of foreigners, Americans, going from place to place in the desert, making mysterious measurements. A small bunch of these men also lands up in the Wadi, but soon departs. Their departure does not entirely soothe the dark fears that some of the elders have of what is portended. Their representations to the Emir, the local representative of the sultan, are met with only soothing platitudes. Soon the Americans return, and start setting up the oil extraction facilities. In the process they destroy the social system and the ecology of the place, displace hundreds of Bedouin tribesman from their ancestral lands, and annihilate a whole way of life. They find use for the skills of some of the tribesmen, who now become their servants and recruiting agents, inducting many of their fellow-tribesmen into unskilled, poorly paid labour on what was formerly their own land. A new hierarchy arises, and those who were once at the top are now with the rest at the bottom. Some rebel, and vanish into the desert to live nomadic slightly unlawful lives. Others migrate to the nearest towns and cities as refugees of an onrushing modernity. New forms of marginal employment arise. A port city is newly built, to serve as an oil trans-shipment facility. This necessitates the construction of plush quarters for the American, complete with air conditioned club houses and swimming pools. And not far away, but on a distant point in space-time, workers quarters are built - hot, airless sheds with tin roofs and cramped beds. A town grows up to serve the port, and some Western-educated Arabs start medical, legal and other professional services, leading to another point of contention and friction between the old and the new. The Emir, meanwhile, totally neglects his responsibilities to his people. He is well and thoroughly bribed, not just with money and services, but also with modern gadgets - a radio, a telescope, a camera. The story concludes at about this point, when one by one, the hold-outs of the old civilization pass away, and their way of life ends with them.

The book tells a tale that is full of echoes from around the world and from all times, that of a new civilization, a new way of life, not necessarily a better one, replacing the old. The story fits what is happening even now, for example in the hills and forests of Orissa or in Kudankulam. An ironic version of a part of the story is seen in the present day happenings in the Arabian Gulf countries - the Arabs are the new Americans, and Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians are cast in the role of the exploited Bedouins. 

The writing is observant and fluid, as is the translation. There is some humour, especially in the confrontations of the Emir with modernity. The emotions are generally underplayed, and the rage and the depression that probably agitated the writer are not displayed. Though the narration is quite powerful for all that, it is difficult to understand why this book, and others by this writer, are banned (as noted in the blurb) in various Arabian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.    

Monday, 12 September 2016

Sparkling Cyanide. By Agatha Christie

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie

St. Martin's Paperbacks. First published 1944.

A nicely told mystery about a young woman who apparently took her own life, rather bizarrely in the course of a dinner party. The story begins about a year later when there are premonitions of a similar repeat killing. Turns out, obviously, that the first death was murder, and the second is prevented. But how this happens, and how it is detected, is cleverly and charmingly related. The detective is not any of Christie's usuals - not Poirot or Marple, or even Tommy Tuppence. I doubt if the rather staid and colourless Chief Inspector Kemp appears in any other of her stories. 

William The Fourth. By Richmal Crompton

William The Fourth

Richmal Crompton

Macmillan Children's Books. First published 1924.

Fourteen rather brief stories describing William up to his usual shenanigans. Enjoyable reading, despite being repetitive. The first story pays passing heed to the left-wing political reaction to the gilded age. William's teenage brother and his friends set out to distribute wealth more fairly, but quickly change their minds when William, and his friends, redistribute their brothers' possessions. I have come across the same tired argument several times, both in comic settings, e.g. in PGW, as well in in more serious ones, e.g. in discussions with friends. It always fails to convince. Here of course, it is only a peg on which to hang a comic story, and may not actually reflect Crompton's politics. The other stories follow the standard hilarious templates. William has his photograph taken; helps unite a pair of lovers; has fun in the costume of a bear; takes his prim and proper aunt out to the fair, with surprising results; kidnaps a pretty and friendly little girl, who is quite willing to join in the fun; has a briefly riotous time in London; advertises and helps one of the local 'mom and pop' sweet shops over its corporate rival; manages to saddle a cat with two owners; arranges a show; and so on. Nice. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

For Bread Alone. By Mohamed Choukri

For Bread Alone

Mohamed Choukri. Translated from Arabic by Paul Bowles.

Telegram. First published 1973

This is a clear-eyed, unsentimental narration of the pre-teen to teenage years of the author as he was growing up desperately poor in Morocco in the early 1950s. His father was a brutal man who killed one of the author's brothers and allowed many more of his siblings to die by neglect. Desperate for food, for bare survival, Choukri roamed the streets of Tangiers and other towns. He stole, cheated, did odd jobs, sold drugs, tried his hand at pimping, everything. He had many encounters with the police, and once during a jail term, was introduced to Arabic poetry. That struck a spark in him, igniting a fire to learn to read and write, to become literate and to become a litterateur eventually.

The book is brief and sparse. There is no attempt to philosophize or to apologize. There is no exaggeration of the troubles, no sentimental navel-gazing of how things might have been different, better. There is not much idea of the political struggle for independence from France that was then ongoing. The book has an intellectual force that is belied both by its size and by the lack of widespread recognition for the author and his works.     

Vairamuthu Sirukathaigal

Varimuthu Sirukathaigal


Surya Literature (P) Ltd. First published as a collection 2015.

The book is a collection of short stories that Vairamuthu, the Tamil film lyricist and poet, first published in the weekly 'Kumudum'. There are forty stories in all, each of about 10 pages in length. They deal with a set of human emotions, in a range of backgrounds. The first story, for example, talks about a man working in the US, unable to attend his mother's lonely funeral in an Indian old age home. Other stories are of a similar nature. Some take place in urban settings, others in distinctly rural areas, apparently untouched by 'civilization'. Some are about the very poor and destitute, others about wealthy aristocrats, many about the middle class. There are a scattering of love stories, mostly with unhappy endings. There are few rather raw descriptions of sex. Some descriptions almost seem deliberately designed to disgust -  but that too is a human emotion, after all. One story is set in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. It describes a man, trapped in the rubble with his love, keeping her alive by feeding her his urine! The story seems based on a real life occurrence during a building collapse in Bangalore, when two men kept alive by drinking each other's urine - or so it was reported. 

Altogether, the stories themselves are unimpressive, pushing banal and rather reactionary ideas about human relationships - though I am sure many fans of Vairamuthu, and the author himself, would strongly contest the use of these adjectives. Nevertheless, that's how I saw the work, suitable only to offer the middle class reader of the 'Kumudum' minor titillation as well as the momentary false comfort of being a consumer of 'literature'. The language is inventive and, as may be expected, lyrical. Many of the images Vairamuthu creates with his words are startlingly original. Also, the rural dialects of Tamil seem well-represented - though, not being much of a reader in Tamil, I hesitate to say too much about this. There are however too many puns, detracting from the seriousness of the story. In fact, often, even his serious images do not contribute to the flow, but seem to exist only to demonstrate the author's literary virtuosity.     

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Superforecasting. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Superforecasting. The Art and Science of Prediction

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Penguin Random House. First published 2015.

Philip Tetlock is a professor at the Wharton School of Management in USA. So right away we have an idea what the target audience is. I don't, I hope, fit the profile of a typical member of that audience, but all the same the book made interesting reading, even if the take-away lessons (a book of this sort is obviously built around such take-away lessons) were not particularly exciting. 

Tetlock and his collaborators ran a series of sociological experiments over a period of many years. They recruited thousands of volunteers from all walks and stations of life - well, not all; surely the uppermost and the very lowest branches of society would be vastly under-represented - and asked them to make predictions about all sorts of real-world events, such as the situation in West Asia, or the price of oil, or the possibility of conflict in Africa, or North Korea going nuclear, etc., etc. The events were tracked, and the predictions were matched against the actual outcomes. As far as I could make out from the book, the questions were formulated as binaries - yes or no. But the answers, especially in the later, more sophisticated rounds, had probabilities attached to them. The experimenters devised ways of rigorously and quantitatively evaluating the answers and could score each of the participants, on how well their predictions differed from random. They could thus identify some participants who did very well, over a period of time. They went back to these people, whom they dubbed 'superforecasters', studied their habits and came up with a list of common characteristics that could help anyone, so they say, make more meaningful predictions about anything at all. 

As would be expected in such a book, each rule is given a chapter to itself. One or two personal anecdotes, sometimes involving a superforecaster, introduces each chapter. Then the rule is stated and explained, with a great deal of padding. (After all, without the stories and the repetitive explanations, this would not be a book, only a rather extended review article in a scientific journal.) At the end of the book, authors helpfully summarize the take-away lessons, which I quote below.

1. 'Triage', i.e. work only on questions that you think are possible to answer.
2. 'Break seemingly impossible problems into tractable sub-problems'.
3. 'Strike the right balance between inside and outside views', i.e. those of experts in the field and those of complete lay-persons. Note the key word here is 'right', and each question will have its own 'right balance'.
4. 'Strike the right balance between under-reacting and over-reacting to evidence'.
5. 'Look for clashing causal forces at work for each problem'.
6. 'Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits, but no more'.
7. 'Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness'.
8. 'Look for errors behind your mistakes, but beware of rear-view mirror hindsight biases'.
9. 'Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you'.
10. 'Master the error-balancing bicycle', i.e. practice predictions by using errors to correct just the right amount.
11. 'Don't treat commandments as commandments', i.e. know when to go beyond these rules.

These eleven rules or commandments are almost all of them pure management-speak. There is however some truth in them, and while following them is unlikely to dramatically improve one's personal or professional life, or one's finances, reading this book is not a bad way to spend a day or two.