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.