Sunday, 2 December 2012

Schindler's List. By Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List

Thomas Keneally

A Touchstone Book. First published 1982.

Oskar Schindler was a Czech-Polish-German businessman, who gave sanctuary to more than one thousand Jews, otherwise destined for starvation, unspeakable horrors and death at the hands of the German SS during World War II. Schindler did this under the pretext of employing them in his enamel-ware and armament factories as slave labour, labelling their efforts as essential for the German war efforts, and supporting this classification by outrageous bribes of rare liquor, jewels and cash to all the SS officers and bureaucrats involved. He was able to bring his flock of 'Schindlerjuden' safely through the War, and was properly acknowledged for his brave and heroic efforts by post-war Jewish organisations. 

Keneally writes wonderfully, using somewhat sparse material to not only describe Schindler and his deeds, but also understand his possible motivation. In the latter endeavour he is not very successful, and we are left bewildered by the apparently random heroism exhibited in a milieu of apparently random evil. The book is not a dry documentation of what Schindler did, neither is it a hagiography. Keneally describes quite of lot of events not directly related to the Schindler narrative, but which serve to highlight the sheer madness of the entire SS operation, which sought to wipe out more than 10 million people from the face of the earth. In the event it succeeded in eliminating about 6 million. 

The Nazi quest for 'the Final Solution' has since served as the epitome of organised political evil. What distinguished it, and continues to distinguish it, from the hundreds of mass murders and genocides that continue to happen throughout the world is the following: a) It was systematically and efficiently organised with its own macabre bureaucracy and with technology specifically invented for the purpose. b) It lasted much longer than similar crimes throughout history. c) It had no economic or strategic value from the point of view of the war. d) It was not something perpetrated by people in the grip of violent and unreasonable passion. Thus while it may be specious to equate the current actions of the Israeli army against the Palestinians with those of the Nazis, the equality does not hold. The latter actions are a result of Israeli insecurity, those of the Germans were not. Israel's crimes against the Palestinians is of a different nature, and that's why they are so ill-informed by the country's own history. 

After Spielberg made the movie based on it, this book (originally called 'Schindler's Ark', but released in the US with 'List' substituting 'Ark') is among the best known examples of Holocaust literature. It is as moving and shocking as I remember William Styron's 'Sophie's Choice' to have been. But unlike the latter, Keneally's book is a celebration of goodness, not just a stark portrayal of evil.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Damsel in Distress. By P.G. Wodehouse

A Damsel in Distress

P.G. Wodehouse

E-book downloaded from the Internet. First published 1919.

This is a romantic comedy, not a part of any series (Jeeves, Blandings...) though some of the characters in this book foreshadow people like Lord Emsworth and Lady Constance from the later books. George Bevan, a successful composer of music for comic plays, falls in love with an Earl's daughter, who is herself in love with someone else. How he successfully woos her forms the main story, such as it is. There is a lot of snappy conversation, many well-sketched characters and a couple of hilarious scenes. Though the writing had not yet, in 1919, reached the heights attained in later books like 'Right Ho, Jeeves', and there are no 'nifties' I can quote, yet it is certainly better than that of PGW's ostensible rivals, such as Richard Gordon or Henry Cecil. The plot though, has none of the intricacies of the 'golden age' stories. All the same, a good book to read - again and again, though each time after a lapse of a few years.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Psmith in the City. By P.G. Wodehouse

Psmith in the City

P.G. Wodehouse

E-book. Downloaded from the web. First published 1910.

This is a continuation of the adventures of Psmith and Mike after they leave school. Mike's plans to attend University (Cambridge) are dashed when his father looses money. Consequently he is employed in the New Asiatic Bank in London as a beginner clerk. His initial gloom at his sudden loss of all the chances to play cricket is lightened when Psmith also joins the bank. The two combine to continue their career of ragging all and sundry, in particular the pompous, self-important and slightly (only slightly) nasty manager of the bank. Great writing, though not yet reaching the heights attained by PGW a decade or two later. The book is apparently based on PGW's own initial experiences after school. It also contains a fair bit of writing on cricket. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Pastorale and four other stories. By James M. Cain

The Baby in the Icebox
Dead Man
Brush Fire
The Girl in the Storm

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First published 1928, 1932, 1936, 1936 and 1939.

The first two stories of planned crime. The next two are of accidental murders. The last one describes a violent, but not criminal, event. All are set in California, during the depression. All involve drifters, young, homeless, jobless and hungry. The setting and the characters, and the incidents, particularly in the third and fourth stories, are reminiscent of Steinbeck - 'The Grapes of Wrath', 'Of Mice and Men', and the characters, though not the spirit, of 'Cannery Row'. 

Mildred Pierce. By James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First Published 1941.

Mildred Pierce is a Southern California housewife who develops her pie-making skills into a decent, mid-level, restaurant business and uses that to get over her desertion by her nice, but feckless husband, who has lost his comfortable fortune, and leaves her and her two daughters, the elder of them just approaching teenage. This is the first part of the story, and is full of details of the making food and serving it and financing the venture. The next, more interesting part of the story is her effort to retain the love and respect of her classy, but cold, elder daughter, Veda, after loosing the younger one to a sudden, fatal disease. She scrounges and sacrifices to get an expensive piano and more expensive lessons for Veda because she believes her daughter is a genius with the instrument. Veda thinks so too, until a professional musician disabuses them both of that idea. Veda doesn't give up, but cold-bloodedly keeps using her mother's money, friends and contacts to further her own career in music, now as a singer, while all the while despising her parent for her middle class background and lack of sophistication. At the end of the story, Veda elopes with Mildred's high class lover to pursue a career in commercial singing, and Mildred is back where she started, having lost her business, and remarried her first husband. 

Not a crime story, and different in focus from the previous two stories in the collection (see previous blog), this one is not even a morality tale. But I liked this better than the other two. The focal point of the book is the psychological tension between mother and daughter. Their characters are well etched, though somewhat exaggerated. The writing style is sparse, except when its about music (or about the food). It's not a book that makes you feel good about anybody, and in that sense it is not a satisfying read. But I would still call it a good book because it the characters  and the story (minus the dramatic exaggerations) are so believable.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Postman Always Rings Twice. By James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice


Double Indemnity

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First published 1934 and 1936.

These two stories appear in volume of collected stories by Cain. Of the 8 stories in the book, the above two are novelettes, of about 100 pages each. In addition there is a long novel of about 300 pages (to be dealt with in the next post) and then five short stories about 10 to 15 pages each. 

Both the above tales describe insurance related crime. In the first, a drifter gets a job at a lonely petrol filling station run by a husband and wife team. The drifter then teams up with the wife to kill the husband for his insurance money. But the crime goes wrong, involving him in further murders, until he is convicted and sentence to be hanged. The story is narrated by him in the first person as he waits for the sentence to be carried out.

The second story describes an insurance agent who visits a house to sell automobile insurance, and then is seduced by (or seduces) the wife, and then, together with her, hatches a plot to sell accident insurance to the husband and then stage an accident for him. Again the plot goes wrong, leading to all sorts of complications, and finally conviction and the death sentence.

Both stories are reminiscent, to me, of James Hadley Chase, books like 'The World in my Pocket' or 'No Orchids for Miss Blandish'. But Cain just about predates Chase, and according to Wikipedia, the latter was inspired by the former. Cain's stories are set in Southern California, in Los Angeles and its environs, during the great depression in America. I was steered to Cain by Internet articles on Chandler, and in general, the 'noir' detective fiction of Hammett, Chandler, et al. Unlike Chandler, Cain has a sparse, direct and only very slightly ironic writing style. He does not spend time describing the setting or building up character. All the same, the reader is very quickly able to build up a clear idea of the people. The stories however are straightforward, linear and simple, and to me at least, mostly predictable. Thus I was not impressed, and do not find any larger meaning in these two stories.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Collaborator. By Mirza Waheed

The Collaborator

Mirza Waheed

Penguin/Viking. First published 2011.

The matter of Kashmir arouses fierce passions among people of the sub-continent, most of whom are far away from the action and the anger. I have heard and read clear, logical, meaningful and passionate arguments on why the erstwhile princely state should be a part of India and not of Pakistan (it had a Hindu ruler), or vice versa (it had and has a Muslim majority), or why it should be an independent country (the Kashmiris themselves appear to want this), or not (the state would be unviable). This book does not engage with any of those arguments. Though it reserves most of its venom for the Indian army, in particular as embodied by a foul-mouthed, hard drinking Captain Kadian, it does not show itself particularly enamoured of either Pakistan and its army, or the jehadis, or the indigenous native Kashmiri 'freedom fighters' and politicians. The main narrative, set in the years 1989-1992 at the beginning of the current 'insurgency', comes from the mouth (or pen) of a teenage boy in a village very close to the LoC. As he grows up from childhood to boyhood and then young adulthood, he sees his closest friends disappear, presumably crossing the line into 'Azad Kashmir', there to be trained by the Pakistani establishment, and then to be re-infiltrated as jehadis into India. The large-scale disappearance is followed by brutal crackdowns and curfews by the Indian army, which appears to revel in cold-bloodedly establishing its authority over the local populace through the use of humiliation, murder, torture, rape..., all the well-recognized instruments of raw political and administrative power. One particular description of a meeting of all the villagers organised by Jagmohan (though not named as such), the then Governor of Kashmir, is so full of hatred and anger, it leaps off the page and punches the reader, especially an Indian reader, in the face. The army, in the person of Kadian, recruits the un-named narrator as a collaborator, peremptorily assigning him the unpleasant and humiliating task of collecting IDs and weapons from the dead bodies of young men who have been gunned down as they attempt to cross the border into India after training in Pakistan. But, as the collaborator notices towards the end of the book, the bodies could equally well be those of possibly innocent young men arrested in Kashmir, tortured and then killed, maybe to extract information, maybe as a preventive measure, maybe to just serve as chilling warning. It is left to the collaborator to finally give the bodies a funeral, though he is forced to cremate them en masse, instead of burying them the Muslim way. 

The book largely steers clear of the politics and the history of the conflict, but it does present the Indian Government, especially from about 1990, in a very bad light. Since the story is located on the Indian side of the border, the interactions of the local populace with the Indian Army and the Government are the main focus, with all opprobrium being heaped on the latter two entities. The Kashmiris (or at least those featured in this story) are portrayed mainly as a simple, innocent, and not particularly religious community, torn by the conflicting pulls of the desire to be left alone, to fight for azaadi, and to revenge the atrocities committed by India on their villages and their coreligionists elsewhere in Kashmir. The Pakistanis, their army, the ISI, and the Afghan mercenaries also come for abuse, but in passing.

The book is well written, and reasonably objective, given the subject. It expresses a great deal of anger and frustration, but does not actually blame any specific 'other'.  Of course, all such books only reiterate Man's utter inhumanity to Man, in the name of religion, freedom, or whatever. The story could have equally well been that of the American South before the civil war, or of Rwanda, or of China in Vietnam, or Japan in much of South Asia during World War II, or Stalinist Russia, or the Tamils in Sri Lanka, or a thousand other times and places. That in itself does not excuse the inhuman behaviour of the Indian Army (or the jehadis, for that matter). More importantly it is necessary, at the very least, to document such instances and bring them to the notice of the world. In this book, Mirza Waheed has presented with clarity and sensitivity one horrific aspect of the 'Masla-e-Kashmir'.               

Sunday, 21 October 2012

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. By Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey

Penguin Books. First published 1962.

This book is reckoned a classic description of some aspects of American society in the 1960's, particularly the way their mentally weak citizens were treated. McMurphy is a new entrant into the mental asylum in Oregon. He has a history of violence and conviction for some criminal act, in penitence for which he was serving a term at a work farm, when he 'got into a couple of hassles', was declared a psychopath, and transferred to the asylum for evaluation and treatment. McMurphy is a cool cat who takes on the establishment, or the 'Combine' in the words of the American Indian narrator Bromden, with the connotation of a Combine harvester, scything down everything in its way. McMurphy tries to liven things up, repeatedly winning more freedom and personal space for all the inmates, and often breaking through the implacable defensive walls most have built around themselves. But every time he does so, he comes up against the Combine, represented most starkly by Nurse Ratched, a severe, sexless Nasty (with a capital 'N'), though her assistants, 'the black boys', and the spineless doctors also contribute to the overall nastiness. McMurphy gets away with more and more outrageous actions, including a wild fishing trip, until, during a climactic extreme party, some of the 'black boys' are assaulted and injured. This leads to a confirmation of his status as a psychopath, and the consequent treatment - lobotomy. 

The book and the author take the sides of the patients (or inmates), treating them for most part as harmless deviants who are really not much different from the normal people outside, except perhaps a little more weak, and a little less able to stand the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. Viewed as the story of the happenings in a mental asylum, the story has one major flaw, and probably several minor ones. The major flaw is the depiction of Nurse Ratched as a kind of Nazi, without any proper motivation. The minor flaw running through the book, is somehow the expectation that things inside the asylum should be arranged to provide a nice long holiday for the inmates, for as long as they want. There is a clear insinuation that many are inside voluntarily, and have not been committed. Perhaps there could have been greater efforts at cure, but given the state of psychiatric knowledge, it's hard to see, even today, what better could be done. Certainly things could be worse, much worse. The other minor flaws include some racism and a big dose of sexism - with a strong woman depicted as the evil force, and soft, silly whores depicted as good people. 

If, however, we view the book as commentary on the way society is organized, it rises to the level of a classic. American society, especially in the 1960's, is so full of itself, it believes everything in it is the best in the best of all possible worlds. This extremely well-written book points to some of the ways in which that apparently egalitarian, but actually hierarchical set up is not the last word in social evolution. A sub theme is the deprivation and alienation that Bromden undergoes when his Indian tribe is 'civilized' by contact with the white man. Their traditional tribal lands are taken away at throw-away prices to build a hydro-electric project to serve a nearby city. This scene is well described, and is of course entirely topical - the newspapers and television channels today (20th Oct 2012) are full of farm lands beings alienated by various political and business personalities, usually against the wishes of the farmers.

The book was bought by Chitra and was on my shelves a long time. I did not read it because I thought it would be too depressing. The DVD of the movie starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy is also on my shelves. I have watched the movie a long time ago (1976 or so) in the theatres, and vaguely remember it as a downer, and therefore did not play the DVD. But having read the book now, I find it well-written, easy to read, and mostly good fun, though tragic at the end. I will play and watch the DVD soon.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Cloud Atlas. By David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell

Random House Trade Paperbacks. First published 2004.

A very interesting book, it is actually six novelettes, connected in 'spirit', and by some common themes, occurring at six different points in human evolution, and arranged in a clever nested fashion as follows:
             1st story 1st half
                   2nd story 1st half
                         3rd story 1st half
                              4th story 1st half
                                    5th story 1st half
                                          6th story
                                     5th story 2nd half
                                4th story 2nd half
                          3rd story 2nd half
                   2nd story 2nd half 
              1st story 2nd half
This arrangement gives drama and suspense to the entire novel and also serves to illustrate the author's idea of the nature of human evolution as cyclical (or 'rise and fall'), rather than linearly progressive. The language, and indeed style, of the novelettes vary widely from one another, according the time period in which each is set, and its purported author. This is a remarkable feat of writing. 

The first story is set in about 1850, and is a compilation of some pages from the diary (journal) of an American traveler Adam Ewing in the South Pacific. It is a tale of the meeting of the fairly 'advanced' Western civilisation, which is at the beginning of the kind of corporate culture that has now come to represent it, with the backward and 'savage' culture of the local Polynesian population. The westerners treat the Polynesians abominably, enslaving them for profit while all the while pretending to civilise them. But this treatment only repeats in a magnified way how one set of Polynesians - the Maoris - enslave another tribe - the Mororis. The story (i.e. the diary) is torn (literally) into two halves, and each half is positioned at either end of the second story.

This second story is a series of letters written in 1931 by a young, talented composer Robert Frobisher, to his friend in Cambridge, UK, called Sixsmith. Frobisher is fleeing his debts, his misdeeds and his family, and runs to Belgium, where he takes up an assistant's job with a well-known musical genius. Whether Frobisher makes a fool of his patron, or vice versa, is never clear, but the letters describe, among other things, Frobisher's composition of a piece he calls 'Cloud Atlas', his affair with his patron's wife, his falling in unrequited love with the patron's daughter, and his discovery of first one half of Ewing's journal, and then the other half. The second story is also divided into two halves, and is again positioned at either end of the next, third, story.

In the third story, the letters Frobisher writes are discovered in two batches by Luisa Rey, a journalist in a fictitious Californian city called Buenas Yerbas that is modeled probably on San Francisco. (According to Wikipedia, Yerbas Buenas is a town in Chile. Also Yerba Buena was the original name of San Francisco). The year is 1975, and Sixsmith is now a nuclear physicist with a nuclear power company and has come across a terrible cover up of potentially catastrophic engineering defects in the new power plant his company is about to inaugurate. He tries to make these defects public, but hired goons of the power company kill him. Luisa Rey has already met him and, after his murder, she herself undergoes terrible ordeals at the hands of the company's 'security' personnel in her quest to publish the expose. This portion is written in the fast thrilling manner of, say, John Grisham. Again the two halves of the story are positioned at either end of the next novelette.

In the fourth story, set in 2003, Timothy Cavendish, a small-time publisher, suddenly makes it rich by publishing the work of a previously unknown author. However he has cheated the author in the matter of royalties, and is visited by the gangster brothers of the author, forcing him to run away. Timothy's brother, who is tried of constantly supporting him and pulling him out of trouble, directs him to a country house which Timothy believes is a resort hotel, but is fact a mental institution for the 'undead'. Timothy is trapped, until with a great deal of effort he breaks out, or tries to. During all these happenings he receives, in two parts, a manuscript written by Hilary V. Hush, comprising the story of Luisa Rey, i.e. the third story. Timothy's ordeal is made into a movie, that is watched in two parts, by Sonmi-451 at either end of the next story.

The fifth story is in pure sci-fi style, written as a recorded narration (an 'orison' - defined as a 'fervent petition to a deity', i.e. a prayer) of a clone sometime in the future. At this time the world is completely corporatized, with AirCorp selling the air people breathe and WaterCorp the water people drink, and so on. Sonmi-451 is clone no. 451 of the original Sonmi, who is a drastically genetically modified human, engineered to work 18 hours a day at a McDonald's-like fast food outlet called Papa Song's (like Papa John's?), without tiring, without any food except a kind of Soylent Green, reconstituted from clones that have reached the end of their usefulness and die (or are killed). It is a description of a Ayn Randian society taken to extremes, and incorporating scientific advances unknown in Rand's time. Sonmi-451 attains an intelligence beyond what is prescribed for clones, and is therefore set up to take part in an elaborate charade in which she is first recruited as a fighter in what she believes is a freedom struggle, and then arrested and sent to her death, to be recycled as food. All this is to provide some excitement to the general public as well as emphasize the requirement for control and security, reasons familiar already in today's world. As she waits, she watches the second part of the fourth story. The story is set in a futuristic Korea. Some nice touches in this part include calling all cars fords, TVs or similar gadgets sonys, and so on.  Sonmi-451's story is itself set on either side of the next story. 

The final story, at the apex, is set hundreds of years after the above 'corporate' time, after what Mitchell calls 'the fall', which is obviously some kind of catastrophe, either nuclear or climate or something similar. The people in Hawaii, where this story is set, and perhaps in most of the rest of the world (though this is not explicitly mentioned), have reverted to a primitive life style, where the stronger tribes hunt down and enslave the weaker, gentler ones. One such gentler tribe is visited by a student from a different place - probably the mainland America, which still retains some of the advanced technology, though the people who could use that technology are all dying out, and only a few hundreds survive. The student brings along with her a recording of Sonmi-451's orison from the  previous story which is watched by some of the members of the tribe.

Apart from being set as a narration, in six stories, of a kind of rise and fall of human society, there are some common elements that connect the six stories in the book. First, there is one leading character in each who, it is suggested, is the same soul reincarnated six times. A kind of birthmark in the shape of a comet that occasionally throbs at times of excitement is an indication of this, though there are also other indications. There is also Hawaii, which is where the characters of both the outermost story (no. 1 in the list above) and the innermost story (no. 6) end up. Also both California (no. 3) and  Korea (no. 5) are on the Pacific rim. The other two stories are in England and Belgium.

If I were to quote one sentence from the book to serve as a leitmotif it would be the following: '..human hunger birthed the Civ'lize (civilisation), but human hunger killed it too.' Another quote, this time an ironical description of corporate philosophy: 'A Soul's value is the dollars therein'

I was induced to buy and read the book because I read in an article in the New Yorker that Lana (Larry before he/she changed gender) and Andy Wachowski, the makers of 'Matrix' have made this book into a movie. Tom Hanks is acting in it. It will be interesting to see how the complexities of the book are translated on to the screen.  

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

From the Ruins of Empire. By Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Pankaj Mishra

Allen Lane. First published 2012

Though more scholarly than his previous works, this book is as good and satisfying a read as I expect from Mishra. It makes an excellent attempt to identify and explain the major intellectuals in Asia who tackled the obvious asymmetry in the interactions of the West with the East in the last few centuries. This asymmetry continues to this day, though it appears to be gradually, very gradually, running out of steam. All the same the intellectual, economic and political superiority that the white man has built up over all the other races (South Asian, Chinese, African, Native American, Polynesian...) is unlikely to disappear any time soon into the kind of rough equality that existed about a millennium ago. The asymmetry is not directly addressed by Mishra. He talks about the Asian (not African or Native American) thought leaders of the last 150 years or so, who wrestled with, and tried to understand and rationalize the vast cultural differences, and their apparently unfortunate consequences for the East. I say 'apparently' because it sometimes seems to me that some of the things we take for granted as good and necessary - democracy, egalitarianism, freedom of speech, human rights - have just been imported from the West. Would they have developed here in the East, in India and China, if the white man had not borne 'his burden'? I can say nothing about other cultures, but when I look at the havoc that the caste system (that great indigenous contribution to sociology) continues to play in India, I confess I find it difficult to imagine that without the Raj, and without the example of USA and France, we would have had as progressive a constitution as we do now.       

Mishra however steers clear of direct engagement with these considerations. He does discuss them occasionally, and mostly in the context of how they were addressed by his protagonists. He picks out three main figures, two of whom I had not heard of previous to reading this book. The first is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was born in Persia in 1858,  lived, preached, wrote and held forth in Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Europe, Persia and Turkey.  In all these places and wherever he traveled and thought, he spoke about a pan-Islamic response to the West, trying to formulate a religious response to a political problem. He was initially a votary of Westernisation, and believed that the Eastern, in particular Islamic society should modernize, and adopt scientific, rational and secular thought as the foundation of its policies. As he came against European resistance to the application of their own ideas of essential human equality to non-white peoples, he tended more and more towards a response based totally on the culture of the Islamic people. He began to preach that society could be arranged around the principles enunciated in the Koran and the Shariat. His ideas did not lead directly to any strong resistance or overthrow of the West, and the first independent nations, Turkey (which replaced the decrepit but once-powerful Ottoman empire with democracy), Persia, India were organised on secular, democratic principles. It is only later, with the Iranian revolution in 1979, and then with Zia in Pakistan, that Islam began to be considered a system of social organisation equal to, or better than, liberal Western ideas. The Taliban in Afghanistan took it to extremes, and threatens to do so again, despite fierce American intervention, but even Malaysia and Indonesia, and now the countries undergoing the 'Arab Spring' (Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia...) are all turning towards what may be called 'Islamic democracy'. The underlying rhetoric and formulations of these revolutions can, according to Mishra, be traced to the enunciations of Al-Afghani, by the way of several intermediary philosophers, polemicists, statesmen and just plain rabble rousers (like Osama Bin Laden). 

Mishra then considers the ideas put forth by Liang Qichao, who is introduced as China's first iconic modern intellectual. Reacting to Japanese reformation, westernisation and modernisation, and to the European domination of China, Liang harks back to China's ancient, continuous and well-ordered society. Even recent China, in the 17th and 18th centuries, was economically powerful, with a robust culture of small industries and trade. However a century of economic and cultural humiliations followed the opium wars, and Chinese intellectuals, with Liang among the foremost, re-evaluated their own ancient civilisation and began to formulate appropriate responses. Initially they put forth ideas of building a modern society around Confucian principles. But soon Liang argued for a more vigorous and westernised response, based on his view of social Darwinism being the chief organizing principle of the world. He was in part driven to such view by his travels to America, where he became disillusioned with 'democracy' and 'western civilisation'. He wrote: 'The American Declaration of Independence says that people are born free and equal. Are blacks alone not people?' This famous Declaration, I might add, was formulated and signed, with breathtaking hypocrisy, by a group of white men, of whom many, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners. Liang suggested that a benign autocracy, and not the republican revolution that Sun Yat-sen was organising, was the way to build a strong unified Chinese state, which could confront the West on equal terms. Though the Koumintang tried to establish a liberal democratic state on western principles, in the process sweeping away all the ancient Chinese cultural ideas - Confucianism, Taosim - this experiment was short-lived, and the intellectual and political leaders, led by Mao, moved to the adaptation of another idea that originated in the West - communism - that also rejected ancient China in building a modern nation-state in the European mould.

The third major intellectual that Mishra describes is Rabindranath Tagore. Like Gandhi, Tagore did not think much of European civilisation, and again like Gandhi, rejected the militarism and violence that appeared inherent in Western idea of a nation-state.  His pan-Asian ideals, and his advocacy of a gentle, humanistic, non-violent response to the thrusts of the West, and of the establishment of nations without state power, were rejected out of hand by Chinese, Japanese and even Indian leaders, who believed that such reaching back to an imagined past would only serve to repeat the cycle of subjugation Asia was slowly coming out of. 

Mishra does not write only about these three. He describes the varied responses to the West from Asia. (He does not talk about African or about Native American responses.) He sees a common thread in the struggle to formulate an indigenous answer that would at the same time incorporate the clearly desirable principles of egalitarianism and freedom which the white man had established so strongly within his own race, though denying it to other races.   Such denial, as by Woodrow Wilson after WWI, and the British Empire in South Africa and India, was frequently the beginning of a formulation of ideas that often lead to a complete rejection and overthrow of Western rule. 

This book, unlike Mishra's others, is written not as a personal memoir, but as a scholarly thesis. It is illuminating, and adds a great deal to my own intellectual furniture. It is easy to read, and Mishra's language is smooth and fluent. It deserves a closer and more thorough reading, and better note-taking than I have given it here.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Meet Mr. Mulliner. By P.G. Wodehouse

Meet Mr. Mulliner

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First Published 1927.

We are introduced to the sage of Angler's Rest, telling charming tall tales about his extended family. The very first story is a corker, and features George, the crossword puzzle aficionado with a speech deficiency (he stammers), who 'knows more about Eli the prophet, Ra, the Sun God and the bird Emu than anyone else in the county'. [I remember a gang of us seated at the  dinner table in C mess, IISc, discussing the day's crossword puzzle in The Indian Express, and Atre with the paper in his hand, pretended to read out one of the unsolved clues - 'Sun God (2)', and Amarnath immediately and proudly shouted out 'Ra'. How we laughed!] George's story is followed by three tales involving the inventions of the chemist Wilfred Mulliner, who  'revolutionized the world of chemistry'...'by proving that H2O + b3g4z7 - m9z8 = g6f5p3x' . He also 'electrified the world of Science by proving that if you mix a stiffish oxygen and potassium and and add a splash of trinitrotoluol and a spot of brandy you got something that could be sold in (prohibition ruled) America as champagne'.  The invention that features in two stories is 'Buck-U-Uppo', a nerve tonic for elephants that is imbibed by a curate and two bishops to hilarious effect. Five more stories in a similar vein, with several nifties on each page, reveal Wodehouse at the top of his form, where he stayed about four decades. A thoroughly enjoyable book, no matter how many times you read it.

The world Wodehouse describes disappeared a century ago, if it ever actually existed. And certainly I (and my contemporaries)  have never experienced any of it first hand. And yet the stories continue to appeal to us, as demonstrated by the prominent display of ever-new editions in bookshops. Obviously successive generations keep falling under his spell. Of all the authors I avidly read in my youth, Wodehouse alone survives. I don't see new editions of Alistair Maclean or Desmond Bagley or Eric Ambler or Irving Wallace or Max Brand or Len Deighton or ... How long will PGW survive? Is he already a classic? Is he great literature,  in the same class as Dickens (or even Shakespeare!)? The difference is, of course, Wodehouse has no message for the world, except the insidious one of mild tolerance of all the stupidities and injustices of Life. 

1984. By George Orwell


George Orwell

Signet Classic. First published 1949.

I finally got around to reading this famous book, with its continuing contributions to political discourse and the language of such discourse - 'Big Brother is watching you!' A novelized description of a dystopia, it is narrates a sort of love story set in an exaggerated version of the then-contemporary state of Stalinist Russia, and many countries behind the 'iron curtain'. One such state also formed the geography of the book 'Rates of Exchange' which I described earlier in this blog. Of the countries today, North Korea, presumably, and Myanmar when I visited it in 2005 (and until recently) probably come closest to the grey socialist world described in this book. The country in the book is Britain, or rather Oceania, a kind of amalgamation of what is termed the 'free world' in contemporary western media. The state is ruled by a mysterious and anonymous oligarchy, which disciplines the middle class to a frightening extreme, and uses it to rule over the 'proles', a large underclass than lives in a firmly controlled state of wretched poverty. The aim of the discipline is to control the very thoughts of the middle class so that it really believes as absolutely true all the contradictions it is fed. The very language is mutated (Newspeak) so that the political and social contradictions cannot be recognized or described as such. Thus a hero one day could in an an instant be classified as an enemy, and the 'people' would not only accept that, but see no contradiction at all. The way this state of mind is achieved is by indoctrination of the young and torture of the older population, many among whom would remember the difference between the 'truth' yesterday and the 'truth' the next day. To me, this particular mechanism appears inefficient and wasteful. A far better way of achieving such thought control is practiced in many parts of the so-called 'free world' today. Consider, for example, Israel. History is being rewritten there on a daily basis, and, on the back of the enormous military power of USA and the rest of victors of World War II, the Palestinians, who are actually the victims of a systematic, six-decade long effort to deny them basic human rights, are being cast as the villains of global politics. Or consider the following very mild critique of capitalism. (

"...who decides what is of real value? The capitalist system’s own answer is consumers, free to buy whatever they want in an open market. I call this capitalism’s own answer because it is the one that keeps the system operating autonomously, a law unto itself. It especially appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in the system. But the answer is disingenuous. From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing."

I suppose this very reasonable analysis would raise howls of protest from capitalists and their 'running dogs'. Or consider many of essays by Noam Chomsky on this very issue. Chomsky has been largely neutralized by the simple process of designating him an 'extreme leftist'. In an afterword to the book, written in 1961, Erich Fromm presents a much more detailed argument why '1984' has current (even in the sixties!) application not just to Soviet Russia, but perhaps even more so to America and Western Europe, except that here the brain-washing is not carried out by torture, but something more pleasant and much more insidious - Reader's Digest, Hollywood, Walt Disney, et al.

Orwell himself is described as a socialist, so presumably he was attacking totalitarianism, as represented by Stalinism (and perhaps the then-recent memory of Hitler's Germany) rather than the principles of socialism, which he appears to support. Funnily enough, I found the atmosphere described in Ayn Rand's 'Fountainhead' and, especially, 'Atlas Shrugged' very similar to the one described in '1984'. Of course Rand pretends to describe a economic-political system far different from Stalinist Russia. I suppose, since the world is round, if you go far enough to the right, you actually land up on the left, and vice versa.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Long Goodbye. By Raymond Chandler

The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler

Chancellor Press. First published 1953.

This is one of seven Philip Marlowe novels in an omnibus collection, and in my opinion, the best of them, showcasing all the essential Chandler skills. Marlowe is a 'hard-boiled' detective, to the extent he is almost a parody of himself - recall, for example the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic strips in which Calvin is a fedora-clad private eye. Marlowe drinks and smokes incessantly, gets beaten frequently, and has no family or even firm friends. He makes very little money from his profession of detection, just enough to pay his rent, and buy his drinks, his cigarettes and an occasional sandwich. His job takes him to the weirdest of places and puts him in contact with the most corrupt of people. But he remains pure and heroic, a strong, handsome knight, clad in rusted but serviceable armour, mounted on a broken-down but faithful steed, forever riding against  nasty giants who constantly threaten his integrity. 

Chandler is in my opinion the finest exponent of this school of fiction. Dashiel Hammett was among the first, and there have been many others - the two MacDonalds (John D. and Ross) also come to mind. But though some of the others may have better plots, Chandler's books have the best writing, at least of those I have read. 

The story at first appears to be actually two stories. In the first part Marlowe resists stiff police pressure and remains loyal to a friend. In the second part, he is employed to investigate the reasons why a famous author has suddenly taken to becoming far more drunk than usual, symptomatic of deep psychological stress. About three-quarters of the way into the book, the two story lines are brought together, and the book ends in some satisfactory melancholy. The writing is superb, with a whole lot of 'nifties'. As I have remarked earlier, both Chandler and Wodehouse are students of Dulwich College in London, and perhaps it was there that both learnt a similar writing style, though, of course, they have employed it in widely different genres - Chandler more seriously, Wodehouse lightheartedly. Here are some examples from Chandler to illustrate what I mean. 

'You're just a little cop-hater, friend. That's all you are.'
'There are places where cops are not hated, Captain. But in those places you wouldn't be a cop.'

'In my book, you're a nickel's worth of nothing.'

'Next time bring a gun.'
'I got a guy to carry the gun.'

'A man doesn't make your kind of money in any way I can understand'.

The book is well-plotted, though it does get extremely sentimental at times, unrealistically so. In all his stories, and especially in this one, Chandler has an overarching theme running through it, usually of a 'left-liberal' nature. In this book, the main theme is loyalty and friendship, but above both are honesty and integrity. Chandler speaks through Marlowe as a friend of the poor, the underdogs, and especially the honest. He doesn't think too badly of 'honest' thugs, but hates the rich, corrupt upper class that has earned all its money and privilege dishonestly, but pretends very successfully (at least to themselves) to be above such degrading behaviour. The other socio-political theme that runs through the book is one individualism, an almost John Galt-like independence of society. In today's world, these two themes are contradictory. But in 1953, apparently, one could still hold both to be different aspects of the same philosophy. Perhaps this is what adherents of the Tea Party do today. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Please Pass the Guilt. By Rex Stout

Please Pass the Guilt

Rex Stout

Wings Books. First published 1973.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin solve the case of who planted a bomb in the drawer of an executive in offices of a television network, and for whom. The bomb goes off killing someone whose office it is not, but, who, for a reason initially unknown, happens to be in that room, and opens a drawer that explodes. Was the bomb meant for him, or was it meant for his rival, the man whose office it is? Or was it for someone else? Nero Wolfe is the super detective, whose character is fleshed out by descriptions of his bulk (he is very fat), his fetishes (such as the thing he has about chairs), and his hobbies - food, language, literature, orchids, and he is superlatively good at all of them. None of these characteristics are of course germane to the story or his detective skills, but I suppose they are meant to add depth to the narration. He never (or only very very rarely) moves out of his apartment, and all his legwork is carried out by Goodwin, a young, pleasant, smart-alecky thug, who is also very good at various things, especially in charming young ladies into spilling the information he needs. A reasonable read. This story is part of an omnibus collection of seven Nero Wolfe stories. I have read all of them much earlier. Perhaps I'll write about the others in due course, if and when I read them again.

The Ministry of Fear. By Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene

Penguin Books. First Published 1943.

The title page has the name 'Pravin Paul' written on it in ink. Obviously, the book belonged to Pravin, and I must have 'borrowed' it from him, probably the time I was sharing a room (B2) with him in IISc. This as good a place and time as any to memorialize him. Pravin Paul completed his MSc (Physics) at MCC about the same time I finished my MSc at Baroda. He joined for an MS in the ECE dept., IISc, (it was possible at that time) at the same time that I joined for a PhD at the Physics dept. MCC was the common factor, and my BSc classmates from MCC, Satish and PKC Paul, had been his tutors and friends at MCC. Now all of us were together at IISc and thus became friendly. Pravin was a happy-go-lucky chap, not a very strong reader, but he had a favourite author in Graham Greene, and introduced me to him. I had read about Graham Greene in the context of his helping R.K. Narayan to get published, but I had not read any of his books. Pravin talked to me about 'Our Man in Havana'. I liked that when I read it later, but at that time, I first bought, I think, 'Travels With My Aunt', and I remember discussing that, and other books by Greene that we read over the next year or so. In my second year at IISc, I moved into B2 with him, and he was a nice, comfortable, trouble-free room mate. We got along well together. He snored, but I got used to that soon, and he never complained, at least to me, about any of my habits. One of things I remember distinctly is that every Saturday afternoon, at about 5.00 pm, he would bathe, shave, neatly comb his hair, freshen himself with talcum powder, put on his best clothes (often a pale pink shirt), and go out to meet one of the girls in whom he was interested - either Baby, the sister of a common friend of ours, or Sandhya, a girl from a local college he met in the company of some friends. As far I know, he never really got to any level of intimacy with either of these, not even taking them out for tea or dinner, very 'properly' limiting himself to visiting them in their homes, in the presence of their respective families. After he got his degree, there was initially the exciting possibility that he would join Schlumberger, India, at a fabulous salary, but that job did not materialize. About 1984 he joined a computer company in Pondicherry.  A couple of years later, when riding to work on his scooter, he was hit by a three-wheeler. He was thrown off and his back hit a stone, breaking his spine. He was taken, in an auto, to JIPMER, but, though alive, he was paralyzed from neck down. He was shifted to Apollo, Chennai, and then to CMC, Vellore, but the doctors could do nothing to return any function to his limbs. Pravin thus found himself in the position of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of 'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka, who woke up one day to find himself changed into a 'monstrous, verminous bug'. The subsequent sequence of events was remarkably like that described by Kafka - initial deep concern from family and friends, changing in a year or two to resignation and then to benign neglect and even active dislike. He passed away in 2004 or so. My relationship with him followed the 'Metamorphosis' pattern. I was in touch with him on and off when we left IISc. He had attended my wedding, but later I had not much contact with him. I was in Chennai, when I learnt of his accident from his colleagues. Pravin was then already in CMC. I visited him there two or three times, and then, at his home in Perambur when he shifted there. Then no contact for about 10 years, before in an idle moment I googled his name and, to my sorrow (and guilt) his obituary turned up. (Strangely, when I tried Google now, I could not get that reference again - in fact I get no mention of this Pravin Paul at all).

I do not recollect talking about 'The Ministry of Fear' to Pravin. Graham Greene calls it 'An Entertainment', his term for his own books over which, I think, he has not spent much time or effort. But it's really not very entertaining. The story is set in wartime London, constantly under threat of German bombardment. Arthur Rowe, a lonely, self-confessed murderer, who has performed euthanasia on his sick wife, gets involved in a German plot to steal some vaguely-described documents. He has one nightmarish experience after another, sequentially meeting sets of ostensible well-wishers, each of whom turn out to be not as benign as he initially supposes. The denouement is not clear, and, perhaps for that reason, not particularly exciting or interesting. Portions of the book remind me of the writing of Kazuo Ishiguro, e.g.  'The Unconsoled' or 'When we were Orphans'. Probably he was influenced by Greene. There is a sense of fear and mystery, of anxiety really, brooding over the book, which, of course is standard for Greene, but is used with greater purpose in his other books. 

I saw a movie of the book in Paris in the company of Youri Timsit in 1999. Youri very kindly 'invited' me to the movie, which means that he simply refused to allow me to pay. It was one of the few English language movies to which we had easy access, and Youri allowed himself to watch the movie only because I had vague recollections of the book being  a sophisticated read. (This means of course that I have read the book at least once earlier, probably as soon as I got it from Pravin in about 1984.) It turned out to be a bad choice. The movie had nothing of the sense of gloom and fear in the book. And the story, the acting, and the direction seemed downright silly. Reading the book again now, makes me see how it would have well nigh impossible to translate the book faithfully on to the screen. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Pigs Have Wings. By P.G. Wodehouse

Pigs Have Wings

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin. First Published 1952.

I re-read another Wodehouse, mainly because I have not bought any new books in a while. This is from his brilliant period. It is a Blandings Castle story, with a much loved and much expected cast - impostors, pigs, pigmen, Galahad, Beach, Lord Emsworth, a pretty, spirited 'heroine', an impecunious, pleasant 'hero', and the 'villain' of the piece, Lady Constance. Some of the action I most eagerly looked forward to unfortunately takes place off stage - e.g. Galahad talking to Connie like a 'Dutch Uncle' (in response to which she is stated to have come right back at him talking like a 'Dutch Aunt'!). But despite this sign of the declining powers of Wodehouse, it is a lovely book, and set me laughing out aloud several times. The characters are all shown to be essentially good-natured, even if sometimes a bit silly - like 95% of Wodehouse characters. Thus Gloria Salt, a girl who looks like a 'snake with hips', is introduced to us as a strong, imperious woman who is engaged to the hero, and then breaks up with him. But she turns out to be quite a nice girl, helping the hero in his love affair. Vera Upshaw, in 'The Girl in Blue' has a similar strong character, except that she is shown till the end as a gold-digger who very properly gets her comeuppance. A truly bad character. There are no similar truly bad characters in the books of PGW's golden period (except maybe one or two - Percy Pilbeam comes to the mind), including Pigs Have Wings. There are so many nifties, and on every page, that it's difficult to pick any to quote here. I bought the book in 1983, I must have read it about 5 times. And even though the pages are falling apart, I shall probably be able to read it a few times more. A total of about 50 hours of good fun. Not bad for a book that cost me Rs 30/-. 

Some of PGW's books, including this one, and particularly the Code of the Woosters, are associated in my mind with the taste of Peanut Butter - probably because I read them first (in Bombay, about 1965) at the same time as I was introduced to Peanut Butter sandwiches, and used to gorge myself on them in the afternoons in Deonar, after I got back from school.     

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Girl in Blue. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Girl in Blue

P. G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published in 1970.

Among the last few books of Wodehouse, and it shows. It is a romantic comedy, with many of the his usual types – the poor hero engaged to a girl he does not like, the poor heroine who he falls in love with and eventually marries after coming into money, and so on and so on. Wodehouse recycles characters and plot ideas, and also quite a lot of the language. The broker's man, Chippendale is the most interesting of the lot, and provides the largest amount of amusement. But criticism of Wodehouse always sounds stupid. He's so good that this book appears bad only in comparison with the books of his 'golden age'. Without such comparisons it's a pleasant way of spending a few hours. I first got this book in 1988, as a 'Present from Giridhar Krishna', as it says on the front page. This must be the 5th or 6th time I have read it.   

The Last Theorem. By Arthur C. Clarke and Fredrik Pohl

The Last Theorem

Arthur C. Clarke and Fredrik Pohl

HarperVoyager. First published 2008.

I think the book was written mainly by Pohl, with Clarke doing some editing and contributing many of the ideas. It is set in Sri Lanka and, though the Sinhala-Tamil conflict appears vaguely in the background, there is very little sense of geography or current history in the story. The hero is a Tamil from Triconamalee, the son of a priest. A brilliant student of mathematics, he is facinated by Fermat's Last Theorem – and proves it! This happens along with kidnappings by Somalian pirates, torture in a Pakistani prison, a barely-averted attack of earth by alien super races, travels in space and a final race in space using solar sails. Despite so much happening, the book moves slowly and is a bore for most part. It is just a regurgitation of various thoughts and ideas Clarke has had from time to time (including at least one idea from Robin Cook), loosely tied together by the sory of Ranjit Subramaniam. Clarke has described some of the ideas in other books – e.g. Skyhook, an elevator running on tracks built of carbon fibre (nanotubes in this book, diamond 'fibre' in an earlier version) which carries spaceships into near-earth orbit; the idea of a benign organisation with a super-powerful weapon that does not harm humans, but neutralizes the weapons of the bad guys and brings about world peace; insubstantial beings that rule the galaxy; and spaceships powered by solar wind. The book is probably an attempt to cash in on Clarke's name, though Pohl is well known sci-fi writer himself. (However, I don't think I have read anything by him.)  

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The House of Blue Mangoes. By David Davidar

The House of Blue Mangoes

David Davidar

Penguin Books. First published 2002.

David Davidar attempts a South Indian epic, narrating the story of the Dorai family over three generations, from the late 19th century to the the middle of the 20th. The family has its roots in the upper-class, rural (or quasi-urban/moffusil), recently-converted Christian milieu in the imaginary seaside village of Chevathar, in Kanyakumari district. The story is divided into three parts, one for each generation. The first is set in Chevathar, where the chief protagonist is the village headman, Dorai, who tries to maintain peace between the two major castes, which are in a perpetual state of antagonism that frequently breaks out into open and violent quarrels. Dorai, though, is not above being casteist and fiercely feudal himself, and, when he thinks it necessary, he fights to assert the superiority of his caste over the other. Davidar comments, in passing, on the irony of a Christian community being divided by caste, but seems to accept this as an essentially Indian phenomenon. Davidar himself hails from this milieu, and probably, though perhaps unconsciously, intends Dorai to represent his own caste – which, I guess, is Nadar. The antagonist caste may be Thevars, though they are not so well known to be converts to Christianity. In fact, in current day South Indian politics, the Thevar caste largely supports Hindu right-wing fundamentalist ideologies, and political parties that espouse such policies. Historically, in the late 19th century, the southern regions of Sivakasi and Tenkasi, among others, witnessed large scale clashes between Nadars and Thevars (or Devars), both Hindu castes, as a result of which the Nadars, who were considered low caste, converted to Christianity and Islam. This fact is mentioned by Davidar, but the Dorai family are involved in a caste conflict of their own, with another Christian, not Hindu, community. It is also possible that the Vedhars in the book actually are an amalgam of Thevars, Vellalas and the 'untouchable' castes like Pariahs, among the last two of whom there were large scale conversions. But these questions of caste are only a part of the large range of personal and community interactions in that milieu described by Davidar, I think authentically. He also describes the interactions within the family, and between the family and other members of the community. It happened that I spent a day in Nagercoil even as I was reading the book. I tried to get a sense of the background atmosphere to the book, but I could gather not much more that what I knew from previous visits to Tirunelveli, Tiruchendur, Tenkasi, etc. What I found surprisingly missing in the book are descriptions of the scenic beauty of the place, with rocky mountains, dappled with large, green, forest patches, running down almost to the seashore. Portions of the district are now thickly covered with windmills, generating in a good season, more than half of the total electricity consumed in the state.

The second part of the book describes the establishment of Doraipuram, by the patriarch Dorai's second son, Daniel. Daniel trains as a Siddha doctor, and, in a passage underlain with comment on present-day social practices, Davidar describes him inventing a fairness cream that makes him very rich. His wealth allows him to try and artificially recreate his father's naturally developed community. He buys vast acres of land, which he then resells to members of his greater family, creating a kind of fiefdom with its own set of rules and traditions. This story plays out in the background of the freedom struggle, and there are descriptions of protests, assasinations, prisons, police brutality and so on. Though Daniel is not directly involved in any of these, his elder brother Aaron is, and the latter eventually dies in jail. There are a few set pieces here, including a description of the different types of mangoes found all over India. There are many descriptions of the interactions of the main characters with Englishmen, mostly antagonistic. We are also introduced to Kannan, Daniel's son, who figures largely in the third part of the story.

Kannan obtains an undergraduate degree from Madras Christian College, in surroundings personally familiar to me, though from a time a few decades earlier than when I was there. Kannan falls in love with an Anglo-Indian girl from the railway colony, and marries her. He gets a job as a very junior officer in a tea estate in a place that's probably Munnar (called Pulimed in the book). Now the story takes of in a different direction, all about life on the tea estate, with the English lords – and especially ladies – and masters slowly coming to terms with having to give up their privileged positions at the top of the heap, as India moves towards freedom. These tensions are well described, though only Kannan and his wife represent the Indians in the interactions. There is also a somewhat boring, but probably realistic description of the tiger hunt. Eventually the tensions get too much. Kannan's wife divorces him and gets back to Madras. Kannan himself sticks around for some more time, before he returns to Doraipuram to try and revive his father's ambitious project of establishing the community.

Davidar writes well, and the book is very readable. It however falls far short of the breathless hyperbole on the blurb, comparing it with 'Midnight's Children'. It does not even compare well with most of Amitav Ghosh. I think the reason I am dissatisfied with it is that it has no real story or message to give. It follows, probably, all the rules of good writing, as taught in 'creative writing' courses, and has also obviously involved a great deal of research, if only in libraries. Futhermore, Davidar apparently knows what he's writing about from personal experience. But the problem is that there are too many threads, too many storylines, none of them explored in depth. None of the characters stand out, and even someone like Helen, Kannan's Anglo-Indian wife, who should have been an clearly etched out creation, turns dull and drab after an exciting introduction. Again my expectations of an exploration of the interface between Christians and other communities, or intra-Christian politics are belied. In a word, the writing is too shallow to be compared favourably with the best of modern Indian writing which I have read – Vikram Chandra or Arundathi Roy, for example. Certainly it is nowhere near books with similar themes such as 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' or even 'The Galsworthy Saga'. But if we do not make such comparisons, the book is good, and worth reading once.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Palace of Illusions. By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Picador. First published 2008.

    This is relatively brief retelling of the Mahabaratha, from Draupadi's point of view. It is interesting to read, but rather light. The author relies almost solely on the fresh viewpoint for any novelty. Thus it can be only called a retelling - it neither a new interpretation, nor an attempt at 'feminist' literature using the epic as peg to hang modernist views. So the emotions are about the same as in the various versions of the epic I have read, and the almost the same set of events are emphasized. It remains faithful to the original in all essential aspects.

   It would probably be unfair to really expect anything else. It would difficult, if not impossible, to impose 21st century sensitivities on literature of about 3000 years ago. However, despite this seeming difficulty, rather surprisingly, some of the cultural values are not really so different, and some interpretations could actually bring at least some of the values of those times closer to recent ones than to those of say a couple of centuries ago. Divakaruni does not try such interpretations and remains largely faithful to the 'standard model' handed down largely by right-leaning scholars.   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Bleak House. By Charles Dickens

Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Wordsworth Classics. First published (serialized) between March 1852 to September 1853

I bought this book as soon as I read on the Internet that Time magazine's critic Radhika Jones rated it the best Dickens novel. 'Can it be really better than David Copperfield (DC)?', I wondered. But no. When I went through all 760 pages of it, I found it good, even great, but not really as good as DC. There are no thrilling passages which one can read again and again, and no characters to match Micawber or Heep or Betsy Trotwood. The story line is a little confused, and there is no properly established motivation for many of the important actions. For example, there is a murder which occupies a good 200 pages of the book, but the solution, when it comes, is unsatisfactory. This book is probably a more 'serious' book than DC, and therefore, perhaps, more beloved of the critics, but is not the better for it.

There are two chief story lines. One deals with Lady Dedlock, her 'dark' secret (i.e. an illegitimate child) and her trials and tribulations due to that. This part of the book has most of the personal stories, and not a great deal of social comment, except for some sarcasm about doings in 'high' society. The other  line is the socially relevant story about a civil law suit, Jarndyce v/s Jarndyce, regarding the terms of a will, which drags on for years and years in the Chancery, which, at that time, was the place where civil suits, mostly regarding wills and the division of property, were decided, or rather, not decided. Dickens heaps abuse upon the entire institution of the Chancery, holding it a rotten, corrupt, self-perpetuating system, responsible for decades of deliberate delay, during which the lawyers, judges and the other officers enriched themselves at the cost of the helpless suitors, who were often seduced by hope to continue with the suits, and ended up losing their all. (Coincidentally, the same week I completed the book, I received a letter from the High Court, Hyderabad, summoning my father, who's been dead 21 years now, as a witness in some civil case! I guess we are 150 years behind UK in this respect). The two story lines intersect mainly in the person of Esther Summerson, who writes some of the book in the first person. She appears a rather exaggerated version of Agnes of DC. But while Agnes was saintly, Esther appears a parody of a saint, if we take her writings about her thoughts and feelings seriously. But if we take, as apparently the critics I mentioned above do, whatever she writes as a study by Dickens into the psychology of an illegitimate child, then the overpowering emotion apparent in the writing is one of guilt, and expatiation of this guilt in trying to be overly servile to all around her, and responding to the slightest kindness with unnatural gratitude. Looked at this way, she comes across not as a very nice girl. However, then that portion of the book can be considered a powerful characterization by Dickens of a complex personality - though I still I prefer his characterization of Heep!

The book of course is filled with all the intricate details and grotesque cartoon characters, some of them nice, some silly and some evil, that we expect in Dickens. There is also a great deal of anger when he describes the inequity of the Chancery and its doings. He is especially hard on the efficient and emotionless lawyers, as also on the insensitive judges, who, according to him, run the courts not to serve justice, but their own interests. He describes the case of a farmer, who, in a dispute with his brother about a sum of 300 pounds, ends up losing his entire estate of 12,000 pounds as 'costs' to the Chancery and the lawyers. I found this however more of an indictment of the farmer - could he not just withdraw the case and hand over the sum at some point when his losses were mounting up? Likewise the suit that forms the core of one of the story lines - Jarndyce v/s Jarndyce. We are never told what the dispute is, but just that it had been going on for a long time and that both parties to the suit well-meaning, even innocent people. But one of them, Mr. John Jarndyce, is shown as a rich man who is willing to do virtually anything to lessen the sufferings of the people he knows. In fact he initially acts as guardian to the other party in the suit, the very young Richard. But though John finds Richard getting more and more obsessed with the suit, he never offers to end it by simply offering Richard whatever he wants, maybe even more than his fair share of the property at issue. But of course, if he had done that the book would not have been written. [If Rama had sensibly not gone to the forest to satisfy a silly whim on part of his stepmother, there would have been no Ramayana!]. The most (re)readable part of the book is the description, over about 50 pages, of a chase, over the deep winter country and town landscape of Lady Dedlock, by Esther and a detective, Mr. Bucket.  

Among the Dickens I have read, Bleak House ranks below DC, of course, but also below Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and perhaps even The Pickwick papers. These are books I would like to read, and have read, again and again. Not Bleak House.     

There are few quotable quotes.

"...a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked  this boastful island together."

"Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject."