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.