Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Hindus. By Wendy Doniger

The Hindus
An Alternate History

Wendy Doniger

Published in 2009 by Penguin Press

  Wendy Doniger is an American Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, with PhDs in Sanskrit and in Indian Studies. This book is her attempt to reinterpret, or more accurately to re-narrate 'Hinduism' from stories, folk tales, 'subaltern' literature, etc. Thus, though she does not ignore them, she does not pay exclusive or even very deep attention to the texts one would normally consider to be at the core of the religion, i.e. the Vedas, the epics and the Upanishads, or other Vedanta texts. Even when she does consider these, she concentrates more on the brief stories (within the Story) they contain, than either the main story or the philosophical arguments. 
   The material is arranged in roughly chronological order, starting with the Indus valley and ending almost at the Babri masjid demolition, and that justifies calling the book a 'history'. But rather than a narrative of 'first this, then that, and that lead to this....', and so on, she tries to show the various strands of thought, especially folk thoughts, women's thoughts, and the thoughts of tribals and 'lower' castes that contributed to the Hindu religion and shaped it into the various forms it took over the ages, and the various forms it takes today. The book is very well written, and clearly her grasp of Indian culture, even everyday, common culture, as lived in 21st century India, is deep and well-rounded. There is not a single faux-pas, anachronism or shallowness that I could see, none of the sort that I occasionally observed even in AK Ramanujan's essays. She writes in an easy and light style, making several references to popular culture, as for example to Harry Potter or the Beatles, etc. These references however appear to be intended for a Western audience, and this is confirmed when she says, towards the end of the book (Chapter 24, last few lines) '...I believe that the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices, and an American interlocutor is often the best person to build that bridge. Hence this book.'
   Clear enough. Except that if that statement had appeared in the beginning of the book, maybe in the preface, instead of towards the end, the context would have been better set. But despite this and despite the light style, this is a book well worth reading. Doniger's scholarly credentials are in no doubt whatsoever, and though some of her statements and interpretations appear to be without support, she appends a large bibliography, and huge list of references, including, of course to several original Sanskrit texts that she has herself translated. But enough defense of Doniger. Let me summarize what I am taking away from the book.
    Hinduism, as a religion, is a set of beliefs, theories, practices and rituals to be found largely among the millions (a billion, actually) people who live in India. In rough historical order, the beliefs began mostly about 4000 years ago, when the Vedas began to be composed, though these might have incorporated beliefs and ideas from even earlier times, i.e. the Indus civilization, and those of the non-Sanskrit speaking indigenous peoples. What the Vedas propounded is a kind of pre-brahminical religion, based upon animal (and perhaps human) sacrifices. Of course this is when you take away all the lofty philosophy expressed in it, or rather not take it away, but consider just how it played out in practice. There were no temples, since the people who composed the Vedas were nomadic, and there were probably no castes, or at least only mild versions of it, with a large amount of to and fro movement between the various strata of society. Caste, a kind of signature practice of Hinduism, was codified and then solidified during the next stages of the development, i.e. the stages when the epics were written, and then the Brahmanas, and then the Puranas, roughly coincident first with the pre-Buddhist Hindu kingdoms of the Ganges plains, and then, in a kind of reaction to Buddhism and Jainism, in the 'golden age of the Guptas'. There was of course, throughout, a lot of exchange of ideas and practices, and also it was during this time that the Kamasutra was written and the temples at Khajuraho built, but brahminical Hinduism had its origins here and now. The Bhakti movement followed, and then there was Islam, followed by Christianity, and these also contributed in many ways to different strands of Hinduism, sometimes as a reaction. The idea of Hinduism, as it is today, is therefore as a mixture of many, many beliefs and practices, some common to large groups of people, some pan-Indian, some localized, some contradictory to one another, all of them valid, but with no strong central core beliefs. 
    My problem with this thesis is the following. Firstly it is certainly not what a large and vocal (and increasingly powerful) group of people seem to think. This group of people, represented by, but not consisting solely of, people who belong to the RSS (and are Brahmins, most of them), are many of them reasonable people, well read and accomplished, and do sometimes make points that need to be answered. Secondly, Doniger's book does nothing to explain the all-pervasive hold of caste in India. This is uniquely Hindu invention, but of course adopted also fairly largely by Christians and Muslims in India. Thirdly, despite Doniger's best efforts to show otherwise, much of Hinduism remains defined by the Vedas, etc. i.e.  Brahminism. At least this is my own estimate from what I see around me, and has not really been altered after reading the book. Finally, there are large chunks of the book addressed to the hard Hindutva gang, but it talks at them, not to them. Well, maybe it's OK, since anyway they are not going to listen!
    To summarize, the last few weeks have been well spent reading this book.  

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Gem Collector. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Gem Collector

P.G. Wodehouse

Project Gutenberg EBook #8931

First published 1910

  The book has also been revised and published as 'A Gentleman of Leisure', which I have read, but remember only vaguely. The Gem Collector is about a gentleman-thief who falls in love with a crooked policeman's daughter, comes into money through a legacy, reforms, and marries the girl. The book has no set pieces, but some easy language and writing. These are when PGW was just flexing and trying out his awesome literary muscles.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Rest of the Robots. By Isaac Asimov

The Rest of the Robots

Isaac Asimov

Published in 1967 by Panther Books

    A collection of short stories (as usual) - eight of the robot short stories that did not find a place in 'I, Robot', but had been published, most of them anyway, in Sci-Fi magazines in the 1940s. The stories are mainly explorations of possible variants and deviations of Asimov's famous three laws of robotics, esp. the first law. The stories are not heavy, very light in fact, but ingenious and make good reading. There are several prescient observations and descriptions - video phones for example. And I could not find a single instance of any grossly stupid or wrong forecast. Also in the great American (e.g. Tom Clancy today) tradition, the heroes (and heroines) are 'All-American' types, full of rugged self-reliance and Yankee can-do. The one meta-message that comes through loud and clear is about the goodness and greatness of the American way of life. The most prominent example of this is that the robots are all researched, produced and owned by a private corporation called United States Robots and Mechanical Men Inc., and all heroes and heroines (actually one heroine called Dr. Susan Calvin) are employees of the company.

   I read the book a few days after watching the Rajnikanth movie 'Enthiran' and see that many ideas have been lifted from Asimov, including the central one of the Robot developing seemingly human emotions and feelings. Of course there is, in the movie, more than one specific reference to Asimov, including to the first law. Though the story and screenplay (and direction) are credited to Shanker, I understand that the short story writer 'Sujatha' (S. Rangarajan) contributed, maybe informally, by way of ideas, bits of dialogue, etc. 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Pigs in Heaven. By Barbara Kingsolver

Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver

Published in 1993 by HarperCollins

Nice book! Well written story, set I think in the late 80s (Oprah Winfrey and her show are prominently featured at the start of the story), that deals with a serious moral issue. A child is adopted at the age of say three, when it's old enough to remember its pre-adoption life. Several years later, when it is completely integrated and loved in its new life, people from the past want to reclaim it - they are also decent people, and the child has some loving memories of them too. In this book, further complications arise because the child is from the American Indian Cherokee tribe, the adoptive single mother is white, and there are laws which say that the Indian tribe has a decisive say in matters of adoption of Indian children - this in order that Indian culture be preserved and that the Indian tribes don't loose children to whites - also of course, the well being of the child itself will be linked to a clear understanding by it of its identity, especially because of its facial features and skin colour. The argument is not fully convincing -  yes, adopted children would have these kinds of problems, but no more that natural children have other types of problems. Every child has some problem, some lack of privilege or the other, and this particular burden would be that of the adopted child.  Anyway, Kingsolver doesn't spend too much time or effort arguing back and forth, but goes ahead with the story. There are some interesting characters throughout the book, some important, some peripheral, some nice, and a few nasty. There is some description of Cherokee customs, but I would get the feeling now and then that she was writing about blacks - not Indians. Maybe the two groups had/have similar experiences and reacted in similar ways. The book resolves all these issues in a kind of movie style ending, with the child's adoptive grandmother and natural grandfather falling in love and marrying. The writing is terrific, very readable, though slightly uneven. Oh yes, it's completely in the present tense, but though I usually don't like that, in this case I did not mind, and most of the time did not notice it. Some quotes --
" But the kids don't stay with you if you do it [bringing them up] right. It's one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run"
" Everybody else on the plane is behaving as though they are simply sitting in chairs a little too close together. But Turtle [the adopted 7 year-old girl on her first flight] is a child in a winged tin box seven miles above Planet earth."
" 'I don't have children,' she says finally. 'I suppose I don't know that kind of love.' 'I suppose I don't either,[he says.] To put yourself second, every  time,  no questions  asked?  Sounds  like  holy communion.' "
"[And a man is] somebody that won't go out of his way for you. I bet it says that in the dictionary"

Nightmare in Pink. By John D. MacDonald

Nightmare in Pink

John D. MacDonald

Published in 1964 by Gold Medal Books, Fawcett Publications.

Bad Book! I remembered the two or three Travis McGee books I had read earlier as being  suspenseful and full of action for at least the second half. This one isn't like that. There is some tepid action - but not satisfying. The rest of the book is taken up with some shallow social comment. No more John D. for me! But I got this one for just Rs 10.00, so no big loss, at least not money!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

God's Pauper. By Nikos Kazantzakis

God's Pauper
St. Francis of Assisi

Nikos Kazantzakis
Translated from the Greek by P.A. Bien

Faber and Faber, 1999; First published 1962

  From the blurb: '... an imaginative retelling of the life of St. Francis'. Wikipedia has a less imaginative brief 'history' of this saint, but even that piece gives enough indication that this was a good man out of the ordinary. Kanzantzakis' retelling makes him saint in the same mould as people like Purandara Dasa/ Manickvasagar/ Kabir/ Ramana Maharishi and many many others in many other religious traditions, perhaps ALL other religious traditions. The book is not simply hagiography - it is a sympathetic rendering of Francis' life, and Kazantzakis has obviously projected many of his own tortured questionings on to Francis. For example, Francis starts off by emphasizing poverty as the way to God, but then is told by the local Bishop that the small town of Assisi cannot support, with alms, so many of his followers. Francis then has to modify his rules somewhat to allow the brothers to work and earn enough to look after themselves. Absolute poverty then is possible only for a few - a kind of inverse Pareto effect! There are several such encounters between the flesh and the spirit, and repeatedly we are shown that  a life of purely the spirit is not possible or even desirable for all. As a counterpoint, almost, Kazantzakis makes the narrator one Frate Leone (Brother Leo) who clearly loves Francis and respects him immensely but cannot understand all that he does, and cannot of course offer that kind of renunciation himself. The book is lovely to read. It could potentially make  profound impact, but in an understated, natural kind of way that cannot easily be intellectualized. It's effects, if any, on my thinking (and feeling) will be known only later - or not at all. Anyway I want to read other books by Kazantzakis, but not just yet. 

 A quote: Once he said to me 'As long as there are flowers and children and birds in the world, have no fears, Brother Leo; everything will be fine'.  (Page 191)

The Doomsters. By Ross Macdonald

The Doomsters

Ross Macdonald

Bantam Books, 1983; First Published 1958.

   A Lew Archer novel. Archer is one version of the California detective, whose prototype is Dashiell Hammet's Sam Spade, and whose best example, in my opinion, is Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. This particular story is about a family whose members keep dying violently, suicide accident or murder? That's what Archer finds out. Not a great read, but OK. No Marlowe style nifties, though a few sentences come close. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

A Man of Means. By P.G. Wodehouse

A Man of Means:
A Series of Six Stories

P. G. Wodehouse (and C.H. Bovill)

First published in 'The Pictorial Review' May-October 1916
Published as Project Gutenberg E Book #8713

   The stories trace the rise and the subsequent adventures of Roland Bleke. He is a small time clerk to begin with, and then by sheer luck, becomes a man of means (with a fortune of about 250,000 pounds - a huge amount when as a clerk he made 140 pounds per year). Lottery tickets and unexpected gold strikes play a role in his ascent. Rather boring, excepting for the language, which, while not as great as vintage PGW, is still good. I suspect the storyline is Bovill's and the writing is PGW, though the latter could have done both, and good-naturedly could have just accommodated CHB out of charity.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Black Swan. By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan 
The Impact of the Highly Improbable
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
 Penguin Books (2008)

  A pretentious book about extreme events, their impact on economic trading, and how to take care (or even advantage) of them when indulging in such activity. Basically Taleb's advice boils down to: 'Invest small amounts in a large number of highly risky ventures and large amounts in a few not so risky ventures' with the corollary that 'be careful on how you define "safe" and "risky" - take into consideration that many phenomena do not follow Gaussian distributions'.  But to get this rather simple, reasonable and probably self-evident message across Taleb firstly spews venom at a whole lot of economists and philosophers, about whom I have only the faintest knowledge, so the only point that gets across is 'Taleb is the greatest'. Secondly he drops names left right and centre, again  to prove the above point. Thirdly he unnecessarily defines new terms for concepts and ideas (e.g. mediocristan and extremistan) that could have been much easier described by accepted terminology.  Finally the book is too long, with a lot of side-tracks, none of which are properly followed up. It has a breathless style, too common in such popular science books, is mono-maniacal, and given to wide statements with almost no supporting evidence. But I'd like to quote the following.

'If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in "prestigious" publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences' -Chapter 7, section 'Peer Cruelty'. 

Slay Ride. By Dick Francis

 Slay Ride 
 Dick Francis (1973)
 Published by Fawcett Crest (paperback) 1987
     Not the best of his books. An investigator from the English Jockey club goes to Norway to investigate the disappearance of an English jockey riding part time in Norway. Does not have any of Francis's trademark set scenes of incredible violence. I picked up this book cheap along with a Ross Macdonald and John D. Macdonald for a total of about 150 rupees at a second hand book exhibition in Anna Nagar - more about the other books as I read them.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Swoop. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Swoop! or How Clarence saved England.

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1909

Project Gutenberg Ebook #7050

    Another early Wodehouse. Another farcical tale of how England was invaded by 9 foreign nations simultaneously (including Germans, Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Moors....). Comical, but severely reinforcing sterotypes, i.e. stereotypes of the early 1900s, presumably. Clarence is a Boy Scout who saves England by inducing a jealous quarrel between the Russian leader and the German leader, both of whom become performers on the music hall stage after completing  the conquest, and together driving off the other invaders. It seems PGW was also taking a swipe at the entertainment industry of that time.   

Monday, 18 October 2010

William Tell Told Again. By P.G. Wodehouse

William Tell Told Again

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1904

Project Gutenberg E-book #7298

A story for children, about William Tell, in a slightly farcical tone. It starts off with 'Once upon a time, more years ago than anybody can remember, before the first hotel had been built or the first Englishman had taken a photograph of Mont Blanc and brought it home to be pasted in an album and shown after tea to his envious friends, Switzerland belonged to the Emperor of Austria....', and continues in the same tone. An interesting example of early PGW, much better than 'Not George Washington'.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Pirate Queen. By Diana Norman

The Pirate Queen

Diana Norman

Published in 1991 by Headline Book Publishing PLC.

A 'historical romance', it follows the life and the rather complex and wildly varying adventures of Barbary Clampett, an Irish child, first in castle tower prison in Ireland, and then growing up alone in Elizabethan London, then at Elizabeth's court, then back to Ireland to meet her grandmother, who is the pirate queen of the title, then back to Elizabeth's court, etc. etc. Set against the attempted colonisation of Ireland by England and the rebellions arising therefrom, there are a lot of historical characters and events that are woven into the novel, as also brief descriptions of presumably actual historical events, such as battles, massacres, famines and the like. Some of the descriptions of the murders and the massacres, by Englishmen, English armies, Irish rebels, Irish people, Irish clans, etc. have a strong resonance not only with some contemporary events (Rwanda, the 2002 Gujarat massacres...) but also with what I read in the 'The Last Mughal', esp. since the English are involved, again. However there is too much detail, and I had to skip through the book to sustain my interest. I think it is not meant for serious reading but is more like a Georgette Heyer novel or a Mills and Boon romance.

Not George Washington - An Autobiographical Novel. By P.G. Wodehouse and Herbert Westbrook

Not George Washington - an autobiographical novel

P.G. Wodehouse and Herbert Westbrook

Project Gutenberg E-book #7230 released 2005

First published in 1907

The story is pretty bad - about a writer who becomes successful after plenty of initial failures. The only potentially comic aspect is that he falls in love with Margaret when he's still struggling, out of love with her and in love with Eve when he is successful, and to get out of his engagement to Margaret, tries to hide his success, but then has to declare it, and then runs into some trouble before going back to Margaret. The handling though is pretty bad, and the story is not just not funny, but positively boring, with a hero you cannot sympathize with at any stage, nor actually hate - you only feel a mild and bored dislike. I suspect the story idea is that of PGW originally, but later expanded full length by Westbrook, apparently his co-author. The writing seems to be mostly PGW, but there are not enough 'nifties' to be entirely his. Only of historical relevance to the true PGW fan.

There was an article in last week's Hindu magazine about Raymond Chandler. Considering both he and PGW are from Dulwich college, is it just a coincidence that both have a wonderful set of similies, though used in different contexts? Considering this: Raymond Chandler 'She was the kind of girl who could make a Bishop kick a hole in a picture window'. PGW 'She had an eye that could split oaks at twenty paces'.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Multiple Facets of My Madurai. By Manohar Devadoss

Multiple facets of my Madurai

Manohar Devadoss

Published in 2007 by EastWest, an imprint of Westland Limited

This book was gifted to me by Usha, Krishnaswamy and Amudhan. A coffee table memoir by Manohar Devadoss, consisting of nearly 70 pen-and-ink drawings, supplemented by text written by him, describing either the circumstances under which the drawings were made, or the history of the building, or the technical aspects of the drawing, and so on. It is an excellent collection, a truly 'heritage' work. The drawings are fabulous, even without considering that Devadoss was/is nearly blind when he made them. The street scenes remind me of Madurai maama's house as I remember it in the 60's and 70's. A book worth preserving.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Death at the Excelsior. By P.G. Wodehouse

Death at the Excelsior

P.G. Wodehouse

Project Gutenberg E-Book #8176. Released 2005.

This is a selection of seven early Wodehouse short stories assembled for Project Gutenberg. The stories and their publications years are: Death at the Excelsior [1914]; Misunderstood [1910]; The best sauce [1911]; Jeeves and the chump Cyril [1918]; Jeeves in the springtime [1921]; Concealed art [1915]; The test case [1915]. The stories are unremarkable. The two Jeeves stories have been included in other collections and I have read them before, but not the others. Of these the first, Death at the Excelsior, is apparently PGW's attempt at writing a detective story - it fails. Variations of the others occur in other collections of his early stories such as 'The man with two left feet'. The stories are interesting because they show the development of his distinct style over 10 years - from vapid and dull stories from 1910 to 1915 to the two marvellous Jeeves stories (not the best though) in 1918 and 1921. But even the early stories have a general turn of phrase that is nice to read and the occasional 'nifty'. The last two stories ('Concealed art' and 'The test case') are about Reggie Pepper, a kind of early Wooster, indeed a weak imitation of him, and without Jeeves.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Last Mughal. By William Dalrymple

The Last Mughal - The fall of a dynasty. Delhi. 1857

William Dalrymple

Published in 2006 by Penguin Books.

A detailed description of about six months in Delhi centred on the 'Uprising' (or 'First Indian War of Independence' or 'the Sepoy Mutiny') of May 11 1857. There is an extensive list of references, showing the enormous amount of research that Dalrymple has put in. In particular, he makes references to the 'mutiny papers' apparently a large amount of material in the National Archives in New Delhi, which, however, had not so far been made familiar to the public because much of it was written in a difficult-to-read Urdu script. Anyway Dalrymple spins a well written, extremely readable story, sympathetic in the main to India and Indians, and in particular to Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal of the title. Dalrymple makes several points, not all of them immediately acceptable - but that could because his writing style is so gripping, the book reads like a novel, rather a sad novel, though. The points he makes are as follows: The uprising, which is what he calls the event throughout, was not a well-thought out or planned political rebellion against the British, but more in nature of a temporary, immediate, religious battle against Christianity, chiefly by Muslims, though the Hindus did join in initially. Zafar was coopted as the head of the rebellion, not because of any of his qualities, or because of anything he did, or said, but simply because there was no other focal point. Zafar himself would have been content to recite poetry and lead the life of a dilletante, rather than lead a rebellion, but was forced to do the latter. The uprising failed because there was no leadership, no organisation, and because the people of Delhi themselves, more or less, were unhappy with the rebels, and wanted them to go. These feelings, however, did not save them from the wrath of the British, who after they put down the rebellion, put down (hanged actually) all the rebels, and then shot or hanged all the people of Delhi, even the women and children. Two or three Britishers come to the special attention of Dalrymple for their extreme cruelty, but also for their clear strategic thinking and firmness of purpose - Nicholson, Hodson and Theo Metcalfe. But he does not balance that out with cruel Indians, though there must have been a few - perhaps he did not have specific names.

As I have said, the book is an excellent read. But it is not a complete history of the events of 1857. It concentrates on the events in Delhi and ignores what happened elsewhere. A less sympathetic view of Zafar's role could have described him as a cowardly old fool, who unfortunately happened to be still alive at that time. If the throne had been occupied by someone younger, with more energy, perhaps the British could have been driven out, or at least made to stay on only in a kind of uneasy co-existence with the 'natives'. The point then comes to one's mind - were the British seen by the 'ordinary' people of India as any more 'foreign' than the Turks, or the Afghans, or the Mughals (Timurids) or the hundreds of other conquering races before them. One gets the sense that the real reason the rebellion failed, was because the common 'teeming millions' did not really care whether Rama ruled or Ravana. [A disclaimer: By this, of course, I do not subscribe to the view, that the only 'truly native' Indians were the Hindus of the Gupta period- about 300 - 500 AD].

The final chapter of the book describes a sad, old Zafar in exile in Rangoon (Yangon, now), maintained by the British in near destitution. I remember visiting his 'Mazar' there in 2005, and standing by respectfully while my fellow professor from Delhi recited some Urdu couplets, apparently written by Zafar himself. The tomb was a sorry place, but that may have been because most of Yangon was anyway in a sorry state. This last chapter also mirrors the exile of the Burmese King in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, as described (but more pompously, and with less detail and authenticity than this book) by Amitav Ghosh in 'The Glass Palace'.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Frozen assets. By P.G. Wodehouse

Frozen assets

P.G. Wodehouse

First published in 1964. This edition published by Pan Books in 1969.

The 4th or 5th time I am reading this book. Not one of Wodehouse's best, and doesn't feature any of the regulars (Jeeves, Galahad, Mulliner...). It is one of his romantic comedies, and if made into a movie today, would be categorized as a 'chick flick'. It is memorable for the first scene in the French police station where Jerry Shoesmith learns that 'he is up against French red tape, compared to which that of Britain or US is only a pale pink'.

The Catcher in The Rye. By J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in The Rye

J.D. Salinger

First published 1951. This edition published in 1991

A well known work of American fiction but I had never gotten around to reading it, till now. (Chitra brought it when she came in July, and left it back for me to read, though she had not finished it). Salinger tells about a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, a 17 or 18 year old boy in New York, who is expelled from his pricey private school for bad grades. He doesn't go home straight away, but spends a few days in a hotel (and a couple of bars) in the city, before he finally does go home. The book reminded me of some of the extentialist novels, like the one by Wim Wenders (The anxiety of the goalie before the penalty shot) or the one by Kazuo Ishiguro, except the sense of the anxiety in the later two books is palpable, while this one is somewhat lighter. The title refers to a dream Holden has about some kids, whom he likes, playing in a field of rye at the edge of a cliff. Holden is responsible for them, and sees himself as a catcher, standing in the field to head off the kids from falling over the cliff. Holden is a cynical boy, who sees almost nothing good in anyone, except kids, and finally it his kid sister who prevents him from staying away from home altogether. Salinger's writing is designed to imitate the speech patterns of his protagonaist, and thus gets repetitive and boring, with 'it kills me' and 'crazy' appearing at least three times on each page. All the same a nice book, well worth one read but maybe not another.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Idea of Justice. By Amartya Sen

The Idea of Justice

Amartya Sen

Published in 2010 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

This was a present from Amritha, when she was leaving for the US. She gave it to me in April or so, but I got around to reading it only in July and finished it now (August middle, actually).

A good book, heavy, text-bookish, but still fairly easy to read for most part. However, I think, to really get the best out of it, one should be a serious reader of economics and jurisprudence. Most of the book is an attempt by Sen to show that John Rawls was not completely correct in what he said about justice in his seminal work 'The Theory of Justice'. It is difficult to summarize here what Sen actually says, but let me try.

First of all, what did Rawls say about 'justice'? As an aside, let me add that when I was studying law for those 2 or 3 months in 1977, I remember my lecturer in jurisprudence suggesting that we read Rawls - of course I didn't then, but I did intend to, I wrote that name down in my list of authors to read, but I never got around to reading any of his writing. So what I say here is sourced second-hand from Sen's work. Rawls says that 'justice is fairness'. So then the natural question is, can one define fairness, in some fundamental axiomatic way? The answer to that is, well, maybe not, but if we set up some procedures on how to decide what is fair, and therefore what is just, we should be able to get a firm handle on the idea of justice. So then, what are these procedures? Well, one of them is to set up a group of people, a kind of a club, drawn from a particular society (or nation - i.e. some kind of closed group) who will decide what is fair and just, and then make the laws and so on to implement these ideas. Well how do you ensure fairness and justice by this process? The thing is, the group of people that decides is actually an imaginary construct - and the group are screened by a 'veil of ignorance' from the society they are creating. They will be eventually part of it, but when they make the rules and the laws and set up the institutions, they do not know what roles they are actually going to play in that society and that way they are not biased towards any one particular viewpoint, or in promoting the interests of any one particular group of people.

Sen has many criticisms about this idea of justice. The most prominent among them, the one that stays most in my mind, is that, this idea may work for a closed group of people, such as a nation, but what happens when you have to see something as 'absolutely just', applicable to all peoples. Can we think of a group drawn from ALL the people in the world, who will then decide about what is just? Sen's answer is No. Obviously, as he himself says, he is thinking about the current situation where the US decides on what is just for itself, and assumes that this is some kind of absolute way of arriving at justice for everybody. Think Iraq, think Afghanistan, etc., etc. Sen also criticizes Rawls idea that what we need is an absolute idea of justice that will work for all, and that does not allow for any kind of diversity in culture, history or geography. The third point that Sen says is wrong about Rawls' theory is that all Rawls does is say how to set up institutions that will ensure this absolute idea of justice, e.g. elections, courts, free press, etc. Sen is concerned that the way these institutions actual work in practice may turn out to be different from the ideas with which they were set up. Sen has a few more criticisms, but these are somewhat technical, and I don't really follow them all.

After (and while) making these criticisms, Sen tries to present his own idea of justice. Actually he does not give any set of rules of ideas about what justice is and how it could be achieved. He does give a lot of ideas on what should be done to arrive at justice. He admits that democracy is essential (though he does not either subscribe to the view that electoral democracy as practiced in the West (USA, UK, etc.) now is the only true democracy, nor does he admit that democracy is a Western idea tracing its orgins solely to the Greeks and later to the Magna Carta, and the French and American revolutions. He gives a lot of examples from other civilisations (chiefly Indian) to show that the idea of democracy is somewhat broader that what the neo-cons would say. He also says that freedom of speech is essential to ensure justice, but only so that everybody may make his choice clear. Here, and also in the context of democracy, he talks about 'social choice theory'. He points to Kenneth Arrow's theorem that one vote for everyone would lead often to no choice at all, and therefore not necessarily to justice, but says that further developments in social choice theory, including his own and those of Rawls and his school, have shown that one can weight the choices to arrive at just decisions, and one chief way of weighting is to give a larger weight to the choice of what one may call the 'most deprived'. Sen also gives a detailed exposition of 'capability theory' which he has apparently played a big role in developing, where a person's freedom is not decided by what he can do, but by the choices in front of him, these choices being not controlled by anything other than his own will. The example he gives is of a person who is forced by others to stay at home, when he wanted to anyway stay at home. This would be imperfect freedom, since he is limited in his choices, or in his freedom of choice to exercise his capabilities, even though this limitation does not actually come in the way of his particular choice, anyway. Sen argues that a true system of justice would try to make way for every person to exercise all his capabilities. Again there are many technical and closely argued points about these ideas which I found difficult to follow.

My own reponse to the book has two parts to it. First, I expected some kind of scientific or mathematical theory of justice, where a few self-evident truths are laid out, and then these are developed by argument into practical principles that could be applied to various real life situations. Apparently this is what Rawls tries to do, but Sen rejects this in favour of a more amorphous idea of justice, where certain truths are affirmed, but these truths are not absolute, and then are not developed into some idea of justice that is written in stone. Second, after reading this book I expected to be able to answer a specific set of questions regarding what is happening in the tribal areas of India. What for example would be the policy to follow or the attitude to have when thinking about or dealing with a tribe such as the Jarawas, who may live primitive lives, without even having the knowledge about what and how to choose. Suppose we have tribe that practices human sacrifice, with the person sacrificed willingly and happily accepting his role - what then? Would it be 'just' to not expose them to 'development' or 'education' or other thought processes, which may end the human sacrifice, but also end up in their exchanging their relative innocence for all the ills of 'civilisation'? Of course human sacrifice is extreme, but there are several such less extreme examples one comes across in everyday life. One of them is the argument by people like Rajan, that after all since the PhD programme requires a lot of sacrifice (time, effort, money), which some of the people (women, 'lower' castes, etc.) can't afford, and which does not anyway lead either to jobs or to good careers, therefore such people should be advised against it. Clearly this would be unjust (and highly partronising). Anyway the book does not answer such doubts in my mind, except to vaguely support the kind of leftist, and the kinder and more gentle and more inclusive view of justice, which I have anyway - but maybe that's what I am reading into the book. Maybe Sen means something else altogether.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Tall Short Stories. Edited by Eric Duthie

Tall Short Stories

edited by Eric Duthie

Published by Ace Star, New York, 1959.

This is a lovely collection of short stories that I first, serendipitously, laid my hands on nearly 30 years ago. The book then disappeared from my shelf. When I wanted to re-read it, it was out of print. Recently I located a second-hand copy on and got Chitra to get it for me. On the second (actually nth) reading it is still as lovely as ever. The book collects together about 50 short stories,all of them, as the book title says, 'tall' stories. It has a nice introduction by Duthie (who apparently is/was a kind of compulsive editor of various collections of short stories). Let me list some of my favourites, that I remember from the previous, 30-year old, reading as well - The open window, 'Saki'; The unicorn in the garden, James Thurber; Earth to earth, Robert Graves; Two bottles of relish, Lord Dunsany; Guest of the Redshields, Christina Stead; Pigs is pigs, Ellis Parker Butler; The awful fate of Melpomenous Jones, Stephen Leacock; The Golden Scilens, Sir John Squire; God and the machine, Nigel Balchain; I'll always call you Schnorrer, my African explorer, S.J. Perelman; Love is a fallacy, Max Shulman.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Appointment with Death. By Agatha Christie

Appointment with Death

Agatha Christie

Harper Edition (2001) First published 1938

A Hercule Poirot mystery set in what is now Israel/West Bank/Jordan. The story is not so good, though I could not guess the criminal. The background however is interesting. Though Christie pays no special attention to it, the politics that was going on (and which eventually led to the current extremely complicated situation in that region) comes through even with the cursory descriptions of the local people and what they say and do. The entire main cast of characters consists of a British and American tourist party (except, of course, for the Belgian Poirot), the figures of authority are all British, the servants (inefficient, unreliable and having to be 'firmly' dealt with) are all local Arabs and Palestinians who grumble incessantly and, to the tourist party, irritatingly, about the 'Jews'. Christie's husband was an archaeologist who worked in Palestine, and she often accompanied him there. Which explains her rather authentic, though superficial, descriptions of the background.

Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

Penguin Popular Classics (1994).
First published 1837-39

I re-read this book maybe for the fourth or fifth time, having first read it, to my memory, in about 1968, when I was about 13 years old. I remember it was the Blackie edition then, maybe abridged, with very small (8 point?) print and a hardcover. The impressions that remained with me from that time include the famous 'Some more' scene, the Artful Dodger and friend confusing Oliver when they practice their pickpocketing with Fagin, the scene when Oliver is first cared for by Mr. Brownlow, and, most of all, the climactic scene where Bill Sikes murders Nancy and then later hangs himself accidently in trying to escape. Rereading the book after many years (I don't remember when I last read it, but it must have been about 20 years ago, when I used to visit the British Council library regularly) brought back these scenes with renewed vividity. They were as good as I ever remembered them. Being an very early work (Dickens must have written it when he was 25!) some of the maturity of his later work is missing, though his 'leftist' ideas are already visible. Also he has not yet developed into a very competent storyteller, so many of the connections between the characters are hard to follow and there are too many coincindences invoked to tie up the story. The other thing which struck me about this book, as, in retrospect, about all his other novels, is that though outwardly 'leftist' he does not go too far away from the basic feudalism of his times, times populated by 'gentlemen' and 'common folk' and the good ones among the former patronising the latter, but not really mixing with them. These class differences, of course, persist very strongly to this day in many of the ancient civilisations, including India, but are less apparent, for example, in America, where anyone with money is respected. Thus Dickens' protagonist is usually a child with an upper class (or upper middle-class) origin and background, who by circumstance, falls into the lower class, and then by fortune or hardwork, regains his upper class status. Pip, David, Oliver, Nicholas all go through roughly through such a process. (Only, Pip in Great Expectations, among the four, does not have a upper-middle background to start with).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

In Cold Blood. By Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote

Penguin Books, 2008; First published 1965

A book that I always wanted to read, having heard so much about it. It's a factual account (written almost like a novel) of the brutal murder of an ordinary rural upper middle-class farmer family of four in Kansas by two men, whose initial motive is robbery. They are convinced the farmer has a safe full of money, they find it's not so, they kill all four, including two teenagers. The killing however seems completely random, not really connected to their frustration at not finding the money. Capote paints a good picture of the psyches of the two killers, though there is some psycho-babble, trying to 'explain' their personalities as a result of their childhood. However, the account is honest enough to admit Capote's defeat even after six years of research trying very hard to understand why the killings occurred, before he wrote the book. Capote also links up, if only tangentially, the randomness and meaninglessness of these killings to others of a similar nature that kept occuring while he was writing the book (and presumably keep occuring into the present day, maybe also here in India). A lot of the motive, means, characters, their actions, background, etc. seems essentially American, though some parts of it, especially characters, remind me of John Wainwright's novels set in England. A good, and, on the whole, honest book about a couple of very bad people (though Capote does not thrust his judgments such as 'good' or 'bad' on us).

Friday, 4 June 2010

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. By Michael Chabon

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Michael Chabon

Harper Perennial Olive Edition (2008)

I bought this book because Chitra's in Pittburgh. Apparently, Chabon wrote this book when he was 23 years old - his first novel, and apparently written as an assignment for one of the courses he was taking at UC, Irvine. It shows! Described as a 'bildungsroman' on the blurb, it a very American coming-of-age tale - so a lot of navel gazing, with shades of 'Summer of '42' (The entire story happens one summer!). And a 100 other books, I suppose. Including, as admitted by the author, 'The Great Gatsby'. Chabon writes well, except for a tendency to make only tangential allusions to the real action and the real thread of the story, and instead spend his time describing surroundings, people, etc. He also keeps pulling out words and expressions that one has to Google for (or look up in the dictionary), which might, I think, have been substituted easily with something simpler. Just showing off!

The protagonist is torn between love for his boyfriend and for his girlfriend. He has a great deal of admiration for a crooked mutual friend, who's does the collection for a loan shark before he trains to be jewel thief, and gets killed after his first heist. He also is trying to run away from his father who's some kind of jewish mafia boss, and who's opponent is the one who trains the jewel thief. Ultimately there is very little you can take away from the book, except maybe a sense of tolerance to all sorts of people and personalities. But that is far better (far, far better) done by Graham Greene ('Travels with my Aunt') or even sentimental old Steinbeck ('Cannery Row'). There are homosexual as well as hetrosexual sex scenes which are mildly pornographic, and also, to me, mildly off-putting. If I had known the book would be like this, I would not have bought it. However, the 300 or so pages did not actually bore me, and the last 50 or so pages actually make you want to keep reading. And how about the Pittsburgh connection? Well it's there, some descriptions of some of the roads and localities in the city, but there's nothing in the book that could not have been placed in any other medium sized city in the US - Seattle, e.g. or Phoenix or some such - I don't know.

Chabon apparently won the Pulitzer prize for another later book of his (he wrote '...Pittsburgh' in 1988), but I'm not sure I would buy any other book by him.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Wordsworth Classics (This edition published in 1993)
It does not say who's the translator, except to mention on the blurb that 'this translation is the one that recieved Tolstoy's approval'.

There is also a brief introduction to the book, and a very brief biography of Tolstoy.

In a piece 'Some words about War and Peace', written in 1868 (after publication of the novel) and appended to this book, Tolstoy himself does not classify the book as history, epic or novel. In truth, it is all of these. Napolean's Russian campaign forms not just the backdrop to the events described but also merits a great deal of specific description from Tolstoy, together with large doses of historical theory. There are a huge number of characters, a huge number of events, viewpoints, philosphical discussions, etc., etc. Russian society (the very upper class Russian society) is depicted in great detail, mostly sympathetically, but some of the characters do come in for criticism. It is difficult to summarize the book (980 closely printed - 8 point type! - pages of it!), and to discuss it in detail. Anyway a Google search will fetch more than 43 million references. What I add here is only some impressions the book has left behind in me.

Firstly, there are several scenes that come to my mind as I think about the book. Here I will list them in no particular order (certainly not chronological).
1. The soiree (a kind of Page 3 party) at Anna Scherer's in Petersburg which opens the book and which introduces many of the characters.
2. At a drunken party Dolokhov gets Pierre (one of the main characters) to tie a policeman to a bear and throw them into the river
3. Dolokhov induces Nicholas Rostov (another important character) to gamble away 40,000 roubles of his father's ill-affordable money
4. Dolokhov and Nicholas have duel, which ends in Nicholas wounding and almost killing Dolokhov.
5. Some scenes from the Battle of Austerlitz, in which the combined Russian and Austrian army is defeated by Napoleon (Tolstoy's villian). A very young Prince Andrew Bolkonski is adjutant to General Kutuzov (Tolstoy's hero) and has his first taste of battle during which he is wounded and left unconscious on the battlefield, and is actually rescued by Napolean and well treated by him.
6. Pierre joins the Freemasons - his induction ceremony is described in detail.
7. The hunt organized by Count Rostov at their estate, in which Nicholas and Natasha Rostov take part.
8. The battle of Borodino, just outside of Moscow, in which Napoleon defeats the Russian army lead by Kutuzov, though Tolstoy presents it as a 'strategic' withdrawal by Kutuzov.
9. Pierre wanders through a burning Moscow, doing what he can to save property and lives. He is arrested by the French army as an arsonist.
10. In prison, Pierre meets an elderly peasant, who is the only sympathetic character of that class in the book.
11. Pierre is an illegitimate son of Prince Bezhukhov who inherits all the wealth against the wishes of the legitimate Princess. The death scene of the Prince, with the anxiety of the rest of the family regarding the inheritance is one of the memorable scenes.
12.Pierre tries to free the serfs on his estate and settle them with farms and jobs of their own, but his efforts come to nought because the feudal system is too strongly woven into the society and many intermediaries (priests and foremen, for example) undermine the project.
13. Andrew Bolkonski's strict, rather nasty father dies.
14. Andrew's love affair with Natasha Rostov, which comes to an abrupt end when she is seduced by Dolokhov and almost succeeds in eloping with him, but is prevented just in time.
15. Andrew is wounded in the Battle of Borodino, is evacuated to Moscow, and then joins the Rostovs who are fleeing to the the provinces before the city is occupied by Napoleon and his army.
16. Andrew dies of his wound. His death scene is marvellous, with a description of how Andrew loses all feeling, but simply speaks and moves in the way expected of him, without any emotions.
17. Young Petya Rostov is killed in a battle, unecessary according to Tolstoy, since the French are fleeing Russia anyway.

Secondly, the entire book pushes two of Tolstoy's closely held beliefs about History in general and the roles of Napoleon and Kutuzov in particular. About History. Tolstoy completely rubbishes the idea that individual heroes/leaders/writers or their ideas are responsible. He does not even agree that social causes such as Feudalism or better education or natural causes such as drought, etc. are responsible for historical events. He seems to substitute all this some kind of mysterious 'destiny' - whatever happens, happens because it had to be so, and not because someone or some idea or some event made those things happen. Personally I cannot accept this. Just consider the following question - if Napoleon had not been born, would there have been some other equivalent leader, and would the events have happened in almost the same way? Also consider for example the 'butterfly effect'.

The other point Tolstoy constantly pushes is that Napoleon is no genius, no great General, just a lucky (presumably very lucky) fool, who got his way until he came up against Kutuzov. According to Tolstoy, Kutuzov has been roundly abused by all historians, and even by most of his contemporaries for losing the battle of Austerlitz, for losing the battle of Borodino, for abandoning Moscow, and a few months later for failing to pursue the fleeing French army and destroying it and capturing Napoleon. Tolstoy makes out that all these events (except maybe Austerlitz, where the probem was the Austrian army, not the Russian one) were actually planned and executed in exactly the way they happened by Kutuzov, who forsaw that any other plan might lead to immense losses for the Russian army and the Russian people. This is not believable. Tolstoy's writing is unfortunately, for some reason not clear to me, tendentious and prejudiced.

Finally, overall I like the book, and am happy I spent about two months reading it. I like the way Tolstoy ignores conventions and writes now about individual people (mainly the Bolkonski, Rostov and Bezhukov families - like a soap opera), now talks about historical figures (like Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I and many of the generals and diplomats), and now just discusses history and the historical significance of the events. He sometimes takes an overall view of history; sometimes a broad view of some historical event, usually a battle, or the burning of Moscow; sometimes gives a ground-level desription of the event; and sometimes a description a individual feelings and hurts and passions. There is immense detail about Russian upper class life, and from the point of view of literature, there is no complaint at all to make - i.e. if the book is seen as a novel.

But as a history, it fails, because Tolstoy is not fair enough to other views of history, and seems to have almost a religious urge to make his readers see his point of view of history as destiny. Another major complaint I personally have against the book is his concentration on the upper class feudal view. He appears to have absolutely no clue about (or at least he doesn't write about) the lives of the peasants, the serfs, the small tradesmen, the govt. officials, the foot soldiers, in fact the vast majority of the population. This despite the fact that he believes that unless all these people act in a certain way, history will not happen, not by the acts of individuals. War and Peace is certainly not a Howard Zinn-like 'A People's History of the Napoleonic campaign", and doesn't set out to be one. But ignoring 99% of the people involved hardly makes the book representational of those times.

Final word: I would like to read the book again, but not for many years, and the next time I hope I get a more comfortable print (maybe Kindle?)

A few quotes:

Page 289, Book V Chap. VI "What was needed for sucess in the service was not effort or work or courage or perserverance, but only the knowledge of how to get on with those who can grant rewards"

Page 425, Book VII Chap. X "...does it ever happen to you feel as if there were nothing more the come - nothing; that everything good is past? And to feel not exactly dull, but sad?" - Natasha Rostov, 16 years old.

Pgae 852 Book XIV Chap. XII "...Pierre had learned...that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but superfluity."

Page 861 Book XIV Chap. XVIII "There is no greatness where simplicity truth and goodness are absent."

Page 888 Book XV Chap. XII "He felt like a man who, after straining his eyes to see into the far distance, finds what he sought at his very feet."

Page 908 Epilogue I Chapter I "If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed."

Page 932 Epilogue I Chapter XII "The most expensive luxury [is] the kind of life that can be changed any moment"

Page 968 Epilogue II Chapter IX "The farther I go back in memory,...the more doubtful becomes my belief in the freedom of my actions."

Friday, 2 April 2010

Under a Monsoon Cloud. By H.R.F. Keating

Under a Monsoon Cloud

H.R.F. Keating

Arrow Books. Published in 1986 in Great Britain.

This is an Inspector Ghote story, the only one I have read. Inspector Ghote is an honest policeman in the Bombay police force in the late 1970s and early 80s. He is the chief character in about 5 or 6 novels written by HRF Keating. This story is unremarkable. Ghote finds himself in a situation where he has to abet in a crime committed by a much-adored senior officer, who later commits a guilty suicide. Ghote then has to battle his conscience and an inquiry committee constituted to investigate Ghote's role in the crime. The conflicts ultimately are resolved unsatisfactorily. However the writing is quite pleasant, and Keating's descriptions of Bombay in the monsoon are quite evocative of my own experiences of them. Keating tries very hard to imitate the speech habits of Indians, including the constant use of the present continuous tense, but overdoes it often. However, the whole effect is not unpleasant, and Ghote and his family come across as quite likeable people, even if somewhat flat. Nice.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Hobbit. By J.R.R. Tolkein

The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien

Harper Collins Publishers. First published in 1937. This edition first published 1995.

This is the prequel to the 'Lord of the Rings'. It tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, uncle to Frodo, the hero of LOTR, who is pulled away by Gandalf and a bunch of dwarfs from his comfortable home in the Shire on an adventure to retrieve dwarf gold and jewellery stolen by the dragon Smaug who now lies on the loot and guards it. The book lacks some of the grandeur of LOTR, and also some of the interest. It appears that the book was written for children, none of the adventures are particularly dangerous and all the deaths and killings take place off-stage. There are however several themes and ideas repeated in LOTR, which of course is a more 'adult' book. Most importantly in this context, the magic ring, the 'one ring to bind them all', central to LOTR is first discovered by Bilbo in this book. In the beginning the ring is benign, helping Bilbo escape various dangers, and it's only towards the end that the evil and compelling nature of the ring is described, albeit only briefly. The chief theme of the book is that a very ordinary and almost lazy person, Bilbo, is able to not only achieve a great thing in the end, but also repeatedly play a key role in overcoming some danger or the other. And in the process, Bilbo does not loose his good natured timidness and laziness - he does not transform into a super hero. A nice read. The first few lines are worth quoting:

' In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort.'

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Private Patient. By P.D. James

The Private Patient

P.D. James

Published by Penguin Books, 2008.

A detective story starring Adam Dalgleish, now a senior Inspector, about to marry Emma, and a lot of that relationship comes in, though not germane to the main detective story. There are similar references to a lot of other details about the lives of the various characters, all building up the atmosphere beautifully, though at the end of the story all of it is not tied together, and this left me somewhat mystified as to why these things were described in such detail in the first place. Anyway the book was a great read. PD James is as unlike Agatha Christie as possible, and her solution to the mystery leaves a lot of questions unanswered, one suspects deliberately. I need to read more PD James before I know whether this is her general style, or whether it's only this book.

Monday, 1 March 2010

A Place to Live. Translated from Tamil by Vasantha Surya. Edited by Dilip Kumar

A Place To Live

Contemporary Tamil short fiction. Translated by Vasantha Surya. Edited by Dilip Kumar

Published in 2004 by Penguin Books, India

A collection of Tamil short stories. Most of them deal with themes that are familiar to me. Perhaps therefore the collection is somewhat tedious. There are a few stories that are good. The first one, 'The Chair' by Ki Rajanarayanan was nice, so was 'The Man in the Terylene Shirt' by G. Nagarajan. The last story in the collection 'The Solution' by the editor, Dilip Kumar was also nice. Another that I liked is 'Curry Leaf' by Vimaladhitha Maamallan. These few I remember, specifically. Others were OK, but maybe they would be better in Tamil. In the translation, though Vasantha Surya does try, they all seem to be written by the same author, at least as far as the language is concerned, though the themes are different.

Mike At Wrykyn. By P.G. Wodehouse

Mike At Wrykyn

P.G. Wodehouse

Originally published in 1910 or thereabouts, I read the Penguin paperback edition published more recently (about 1990)

This , in my opinion, is a transition book for PGW, when he started to move from tales for schoolboys (The Golden Bat, A Prefect's Uncle, etc.) to stories for adults. He has not yet made the transition in this book, and the tale about Mike Jackson, a cricket prodigy like Sachin Tendulkar, is still meant mainly for British schoolboys. But all the same, it is well worth reading, many times, as I have done, especially if you are a cricket fan - there are at least three lovely matches described. In the follow-up to this book (Mike and Psmith), Mike gets taken out from Wrykyn due to bad marks in his lessons and sent to another school, which is not so keen on cricket. It is here that he meets Psmith, who is the first fully 'great' character created by PGW, a forerunner of Galahad, Uncle Fred and maybe even Jeeves.

PS I read this book about a month ago, and have read another book since, so this and the next post come together.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Nicholas Nickleby. By Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens

First published 1838-39. The edition I read was the Penguin Popular Classics edition published by Penguin Books in 1994

Maybe the third or fourth time I am reading this book. One of Dickens' best, but not the very best. It was serialized in weekly or monthly parts when Dickens first published it, and some of the requirement of such serialization shows in the book. There are frequent climaxes, characters are introduced even late into the novel (e.g. Arthur Gride and Madeline Bray), and many stories, apparently unconnected, are interwoven, Nevertheless it's a wonderful book, worth the three or four reads, and maybe worth more. The most memorable is Dotheboys Hall, both the name and the description of the school.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Wolf Hall. By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Published in 2009 by Fourth Estate, London

This historical novel won the Man Booker Prize for 2009. It deals with the mainly political events in the life of Thomas Cromwell, a man who held various offices during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, including that of Chancellor (of the Exchequer?) and Master Secretary to the King. He was responsible for the reformation, i.e. the breaking away of England, especially, from the Roman catholic church and the power of the Pope over all Kings. Henry VIII probably had no real philosophical or larger social motives in wanting this to happen - apparently it was his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, (who comes across as a tough lady, desperate to bear a male child by Henry, but failing ultimately) that made him want to divorce Katherine of Aragon (who in addition, did not bear him a male heir, either). And since the divorce (or annulment of the marriage) was not permitted by the Church, he wanted to break away from it. In the book, Mantel imputes larger motives of good governance, etc., to Cromwell, as underlying all his activities in furthering the reformation. This gives a somewhat pragmatic and sympathetic aspect to his character which other biographies (e.g. Wikipedia) have described more harshly.

An interesting story, but I found the writing irritating in the extreme. Apparently Mantel does not care too much about the reader, and does not work hard enough make it a good read for him. For example, she rarely refers to Cromwell by name, but simply keeps saying 'he' did this, and 'he' did that. And there are so many characters that one has to keep backtracking to figure out who actually is saying what. The characters are not properly identified by the author, and since they have very similar names (Anne, Jane, Thomas, Henry), and since their surnames keep changing according to their positions (e.g. Cromwell himself becomes the Earl of Essex) the book is very difficult to read and understand fully. I suppose Mantel will say 'that's the whole point'. But unless I am particularly a historian, or a student of literary theories and criticism, I do not see why I should spend so much time and effort to have a good read, and to understand some of medieval English politics.

So on the whole, the topic is great, and Mantel has done a great deal of research, but, I think, not enough work at writing the novel. Perhaps enough for the Booker judges, but not enough for me. I bought this book not just because it won the Booker, but because it was a described as a 'historical novel' and it received some good reviews. I think I have to be more careful how I interpret the reviews as well.