Sunday, 29 December 2013

On Hinduism. By Wendy Doniger

On Hinduism

Wendy Doniger

Aleph Book Company. First published 2013.

This is a collection of essays on Hindus and Hinduism, some highlighting cultural aspects, some the more religious ones, some scholarly, others less so, all of them written sympathetically. Doniger is a well established and respected scholar on India, particularly Hinduism, deeply knowledgeable about Sanskrit texts and with an obvious love for the subject to which she has devoted her life. The only aspects of Hinduism she appears to dislike, or at least find exasperating, are the ones propagated so shrilly by modern-day defenders of 'Hindutva', the political right in India. Her essays, always well referenced and closely argued, are on a wide range of topics - Hindu identity, or the practices and beliefs that can be called 'Hindu'; political Hinduism; Kamasutra and the treatment of sex in Sanskrit/Hindu texts; the laws of Manu; the treatment of women; some repeating motifs in Hindu mythology and its sacred texts; Hindu symbols and symbolism; and Western attitudes to Hinduism. 

She does not too deeply differentiate between Sanskrit texts, some of which may or may not be religious - Kamasutra, Manusmriti and Arthashastra could be more properly regarded as secular texts. She also does not consider the contexts - historical, cultural, geographic, economic or political - of these texts, and the beliefs and practices they embody, at least not in the essays collected in this book. These features make some of the articles in the collection a bit one-dimensional and, at times, boring, perhaps more suitable to the academic journals and books in which most were first published. But despite these drawbacks, they make interesting reading. There are explications of some general ideas that were new to me.

I have always believed that the sivalingam is a phallic symbol, perhaps even crudely phallic, an obvious representation of fertility, as stupidly obvious as the symbolism found in the films of K. Balachander. This seems, even now, to be a self-evident truth, when we consider the form and name of the deity as found in saivite temples. There are also other fertility symbols in Hindu rituals, that have, what seems to me, to have obvious sexual connotations. Thus for example, in 'pongal' the pot of rice (with milk added to make a frothy white foam) boils over to cries of 'pongalo-pongal'. In her essays, Doniger glosses over the sexual aspect of the lingam and, while not rejecting it outright, talks about a deeper symbolism, which I only vaguely understand. She talks of the lingam as a symbol for a body part of God, not necessarily a sexual body part, much like wine and a wafer in the church, which represent the blood and flesh, respectively, of Jesus Christ, and have no sexual connotations. Doniger quotes numerous mythological texts and everyday religious practices to support her view.

The aswamedha yagna is an overtly sexual ritual that once had great political and economic significance in Hindu kingdoms of ancient India. Though I had heard of it, or read mention of it, even earlier, I first came across a detailed description of it in Gore Vidal's 'Creation'. I thought that Vidal had given exaggerated significance to something perhaps mentioned peripherally in some obscure text. Apparently not. Doniger quotes a description from the Rig Veda that matches Vidal's. So obviously the ritual was central to Hindu polity. Considering what is to modernistic sensibility the rather ghastly goings-on between the queen and the ritually sacrificed horse, reading about the yagna being performed both by Dasaratha and later by Rama in the Ramayana, makes it necessary to revisit our attitudes to the epic, to the personalities in it, and to ancient Indian/Hindu practices.

Doniger also writes about the Kamasutra in two or three essays. She talks about the relaxed attitude to sex that that text implies, also the freedom generally enjoyed by women. This book of course must be counterpoised with Manusmriti, which posits much more rigid and what we would today call 'regressive' attitudes. One sexual orientation Doniger does not state as being mentioned approvingly, or at least with tolerance, in that text is homosexuality. Though there are distinct indications in many different sources that all types of sexual relationships, including same-sex ones, were practiced and tolerated in India of those times, there is, as far as I know, no explicit evidence for homosexuality in the texts. Certainly, in temple sculptures, which can be startlingly explicit, and which depict almost every other form of sex, including bestiality, cunnilingus and fellatio, I have not seen any depiction of homosexuality. [Incidentally, sexually explicit sculpture is found in the most unexpected temples - in the gopuram and the wooden panels in Tirunelveli Nellaippar temple, the recent (built in the last decade) gopuram of Tenkasi Kasi Viswanathan, in the gopuram of Madurai Kal Azhagar, and in the bas-relief figures on pillars of the Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple in Tiruvanandapuram.] So claims by the Hindu right of today that same-sex relations are against 'Hindu culture' may be generally correct. That, of course, is, or should be, absolutely irrelevant to making criminal laws for today.

The essays in Doniger's book are not limited to sexual topics, nor are these even the most prominent ones. The articles also deal with a variety of other topics, generally serious ones such ethical attitudes, as well as more scholastic topics such as the role of rings in various myths.

But all told, despite the editing by the author in 2013, many of the essays show their age. And because different essay are addressed to different audiences, reading all of them in one book is a somewhat uneven experience, though not tedious or unrewarding.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Biggles in France. By Captain W.E. Johns

Biggles in France

Captain W.E. Johns

Red Fox. First published 1935.

These are juvenile stories about air warfare on the 'Western Front' in World War I. The whole atmosphere is described like an extension of school life. The book is mostly a series of anecdotes describing Biggles outwitting his fellow RAF pilots from another squadron in boyish rivalry. Any kind of reference to reality is missing, except when talking about some technical stuff about the aircraft. The stories were meant for school boys, true, but so are, for example, the Harry Potter books, which are much more serious. This book is very, very light reading. A few of the air battles are excitingly described, but not as many and as well as I would have liked.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Ancient Ship. By Zhang Wei (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)

The Ancient Ship

Zhang Wei
Translated by Howard Goldblatt

First published 1987. Translation 2008.

The year of first publication of this book in Chinese was about a decade along the Deng Xiaoping capitalist road taken by China after the demise of Mao and Maoism. The narrative spans about four or five decades, with references to  the 'glorious' past of Zheng He. Zheng was a great 15th century admiral of the Chinese navy, who explored and established trade links in many countries, as far afield as Africa and America, and including, of course, much of South Asia. In this book he is used to invoke some visions of a stable, comfortable, reasonably prosperous past in the small town of Wali on the banks of the river Luqing. Wali is famous for its production of 'White Dragon' glass noodles (made of starch extracted from mung beans), made traditionally since, perhaps, the time of Zheng He, and sold all over the country. The factory, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is communal property, though mainly controlled by the Sui family. Two other prominent families, the Zhao and the Li, wrestle intermittently for control. With the advent of Mao and Maoism, the equations change. The traditionally more powerful family finds itself jockeyed out and the upstart Zhao family takes hold of the levers of political power, i.e. of the local branches and twigs of the Communist Party of China. But, despite the change in the equations of power, initally at least, some of the centuries-old feudal structures remain, and the populace does not deviate from its ancient traditions of inter-personal relationships. Slowly, however there is corruption, and the erstwhile landlords and their families start being treated cruelly. There is brief period in which the landlords return to power and visit unspeakable horrors on their recent masters and their minions. But the tables turn once more, and more permanently. Now it is the turn of the landlord families, including the Sui, to suffer torture and cruelty. Soon the communist party cadre from the urban centres descend on Wali, shaking up and remaking the hierarchies entirely. Everyone goes through the famine and the drought brought about by the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, and the other idiocies of Mao. Large swathes of the population of Wali join the millions of Chinese who die during this period. After a few decades of this, the capitalist road beckons. Wali is not itself much affected or changed directly by this new economic philiosphy, but young men from the town go to one of the large urban centres to set up some small business and make a living, coming back occasionally to thier home town to lord it over the local populace.

This tale of recent Chinese history is not told linearly. The timeline goes back and forth with no clear indication of the transitions, so we will be reading about the 1980s and in the next few pages the story will shift back to the cultural revolution, and a few page later shift to the pre-Mao times, before leaping back to modern times, and so on. This, taken together with the fact that I needed some time to get used to Chinese names, meant that often I had to reread portions ofthe novel to keep track of what was going on. The novel cannot be called gripping – at least it is not so without considerable concentration and effort. For all that, it is a good read, and worth all that work. The history I have described above is not explicitly narrated as such, but takes place in the background. The focus is on three generations of individual people in the town of Wali, and the way in which their inter-relationships are affected by the larger happenings in the country.

This is an honest book, somewhat anti-communist, but not tendentiously so. The sincereity of the author is palpable, and as I said before, it is a good and satisfying read.

Heavy Weather. By P.G. Wodehouse

Heavy Weather

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1933.

This is a tale of Blandings Castle from PGW's golden period, involving Ronnie Fish, Sue Brown, Monty Bodkin, 'Stinker' Pyke a.k.a. Lord Tilbury, Sir Gregory Parsloe, Lady Julia Fish, Lady Constance Keeble, Percy Pilbeam the detective, Pirbright the pig-man, Beach the butler, Lord Emsworth, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, and of course the Empress of Blandings. There are no impostors, though. I give the cast almost in its entirety, since, from this list, the complicated and superbly etched plot can be imagined in outline by any PGW fan. Lady Fish, who does not appear elsewhere in the canon, is a delightful antagonist, unlike her sister Lady Constance, who is always painted as a stuffy bore. But Galahad, and later Ronnie, get the better of them both, and Ronnie gets Sue. I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times earlier, but it retains its freshness and delightfulness. PGW's descriptions of summer nights in the castle gardens, of one or two oppressive summer afternoons (the Heavy Weather of the title, along with Ronnie's jealousy, his making 'heavy weather' of trifles), of the sentimental feelings of Galahad when he has occasion to recall the love affair in his youth, of the perfect English town of Market Blandings, and so on, are marvellously lyrical. Here's a description which conveys its meaning perfectly, but at same time does so with great humour.

'...of all the admirable hosteleries in the town, [the Emsworth Arms] possesses the largest and shadiest garden. Green and inviting, and dotted about with rustic tables and snug summerhouses, it stretches all the way down to the banks of the river; so that the happy drinker, already pleasantly in need of beer, may acquire a new and deeper thirst from watching family parties toil past in row-boats. On a really sultry day, a single father, labouring at the oars of a craft loaded down below the Plimsoll mark by a wife, a wife's sister, a cousin by marriage, four children, a dog and a picnic basket, has sometimes led to such a rush of business at the Emsworth Arms that seasoned barmaids have staggered beneath the strain.'

Serious Men. By Manu Joseph

Serious Men

Manu Joseph

First Published 2010. Harper Collins Publishers, India.

I do not see why the book won 'The Hindu Best Fiction Award, 2010' or the 'American PEN Open Book Award, 2011', maybe because its competitors were worse. It is a pretentious, fairly inauthentic, and mostly pointless story about the goings-on in and around a scientific research institute, called the Institute of Theory and Research (modelled after TIFR, obviously). There are two story strands in the novel.

One is about a Tamil dalit clerk at the Institute, called Ayyan Mani, who is PA to the Director. When the novel begins, he is in the process of setting up an elaborate fraud, projecting his 10 year old son as a prodigy, a child genius, able at that age to talk about the Fibonacci series and Supernovae. The boy Adi is actually only parroting words and sentences as tutored by his father. This is however sufficent to astonish and delight his school teachers. The effect is then enhanced by a fake 'paid news' item Ayyan places in a local Marathi newspaper, and by other such tricks. The fraud culminates in Adi being allowed to write the entrance exam to the Institute, at which, again by the fraudulent machinations of his father, he scores quite well, in the top five, much to the disbelief of the brahmin professors at the Institute. This storyline in the novel is based, as Manu Joseph himself admits (, on the story of Tathagat Avatar Tulsi. It is also cast as a tale of Brahmin-Dalit conflict in academia, and, more generally, in the power structures of Indian society. But, though intense caste conflicts are perhaps the defining reality in most such organisations, there are several problems with the narration here. Some of these problems are mere irritations: Ayyan Mani, Oja and Aditya are more Malayalee names, than Tamil; his boss is described as a Tamil Brahmin, named Arvind Acharya – this is more a Kannidiga/UP name, a TamBrahm would be called Gopalakrishnan or Subramanian or...; Malayalee (Nair, not Dalit), and Tamil Brahmin (or at least upper caste) clerks are commonly seen in Mumbai offices – Tamil Dalits almost never; a clerk in Mumbai, especially one senior enough to be PA to the Director of TIFR, would not have to live in a chawl designed for mill-workers – the Institute would have assigned him quarters, or would pay him enough to buy/rent a small self-contained apartment in the suburbs; etc. But there are other more serious problems with this storyline, which indicate that the author has bestowed only superficially sympathetic attention to the caste conflict. To state this crudely, he seems to imply that a Dalit could get into the academic programme of the Institute only by fraud. Not only because the organisation is structured against them (this made clear in the novel), but also because Dalits lack the werewithal, the intelligence and (perhaps) the integrity to get in on academic merits alone. This latter point is not made explicitly, but Ayyan Mani clearly justifies his elaborate fraud to himself (and motivates himself to go through with it) on the grounds that he is a Dalit, pulling the legs (but, he thinks, only pulling the legs) of an oppressive system run by and for the Brahmins. His son, he appears to think, is too stupid to actually learn the necessary Physics and Maths, ever, and by his prank, Mani sets out to show that his Brahmin bosses are actually stupid too. They got in simply because they are Brahmins. Maybe the author want to show, through Ayyan Mani, that there is no such thing as actually 'knowing Physics and Maths', thus displaying a streak of anti-intellectualism, or at least imputing it to the Dalit clerk. This however may be stretching my interpretation of the novel too far.

The second narrative thread deals with gender discrimination – again a very distinct reality in Indian organisations, in Indian research institutions. And again, it's superficially dealt with here. The protagonist in this case is a Bengali woman, named Oparna Goshmaulik. I do not know enough about Bengali social interactions to understand the full ramifications of this name. However Oparna is described as an attractive, even sexy, young woman, and the only female member of the faculty. It is therefore not surprising that she attracts all the male faculty members, young and old. She falls in love with Arvind Acharya, who, considering their different positions in the organisation, must be about 20 years older than her, and who returns her love only tepidly. This love affair rather undermines the 'gender discrimination' angle, especially since it is she who goes after him aggressively, with the subtle implication that she does so in order to unfairly advance her career.

Manu Joseph thus comes down on the conservative (actually right-wing) side on both political issues that he deals with in the book – inverse caste and gender discrimination are actually the problem now, he appears to say.

When considered shorn of all pretences to depth and meaning, the novel is reasonably well-written and readable, but only just so. The cynical tone Manu Joseph adopts throughout, dissing almost everyone and everything, is probably meant to make him look 'cool', but ends up being boring. He has a way with words, and some of his observations on modern Indian life are neat – 'The country has become a video game', says one of the characters while driving through Mumbai traffic. But most of his 'nifties', though nice, are meaningless. They do not take the story forward, but contribute only to the air of superciliousness the author maintains throughout. Apart from the two main storylines I describe above, the novel also talks about intra-institute politics and the jockeying for power and grants. It does this however in a disappointingly shallow way, and in these situations the writing is far cry from the likes of John Le Carre who describes such meetings so well.

I could not like or identify with any of the characters. From my own experience of these places, I could however see that Manu Joseph has first hand knowledge of TIFR and the Mumbai chawls. There are no dissonances here, except perhaps an exaggeration, following 'Slumdog Millionaire', of the squalor of the chawls. My experience of these latter however dates from the sixties when I visited the homes of friends and relatives in chawls in Matunga (the Shankaralingam Pillai family) and in Chembur (the home of my classmate Moses). Things are almost certainly worse now.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The hundred-foot journey. By Richard C. Morais

The hundred-foot journey

Richard C. Morais

First published 2008. Harper Collins Publishers, India

Hassan Haji, the protagonist of the story, makes the titular 100-foot journey in the French village of Lumiere on the Alpine foothills, from his position as the chef in his father's loud and garish Indian restaurant 'Maison Mumbai', across the road to 'The Weeping Willow', a 'haute cuisine' French restaurant, where he is appointed sous-chef by the owner, a curmudgeonly old Frenchwomen named Mallory. This is the crucial journey in the book, and is framed by longer journeys before and after. His father has moved with family from Mumbai, where he had expanded the family's small time food business into a successful gourmet restaurant, unlike one day his wife, Hassan's mother, is murdered in Hindu-Muslim riots. Unable to stand this 'betrayal' by his countrymen, Abbas, the father, moves first to London, and then, after a kind of grand European tour, to Lumiere. This whole series of moves is rather improbable, and it ignores all the practical difficulties that would come in the way of any such undertaking - visas, immigration papers, money, etc. In Lumiere, Abbas, again improbably, establishes immediate rapport with the village folks, though he is looked at suspiciously, and with disgust, by Madam Mallory. The disgust turns first into jealousy, and then into a depressing admiration when she realizes that Hassan has cooking skills far above anything she can aspire to. She undertakes a hunger strike, that the author terms 'Gandhian', in order to persuade Abbas to let Hassan make the 100-foot journey. [The hunger strike is actually not at all Gandhian - it is simply blackmail. Gandhi's hunger strikes were much more profoundly thought out, and never for anything selfish or trivial, never just blackmail.] After a few years at 'The Weeping Willow', Hassan makes the longer journey to Paris, where he sets up a restaurant, that eventually, towards the end of the book, attains great success.

The book is amusing, lighthearted and easy to read, being less than 200 pages long. The inter-racial interactions are sensitively dealt with throughout. Descriptions of Bombay of the 60's and 70's are familiar, if somewhat exaggerated. There is a great deal of descriptions of food, sometime just verging on the tedious, but never actually falling into that mode. Descriptions of the butcher's and the fish-monger's shops, and Crawford Market in Mumbai are sometimes almost scatological. Food, as an art form, is implied as being practiced only in the West, especially in France. Other cuisines, even when they are very good could never rate a Michelin 3-star. Though there is a lot about India and Indian food, the book would, I think, would have worked equally well if the immigrants had been from, say, Algeria, or Vietnam, instead of India. France, however, could not have been substituted. 

Morais has a job with the Forbes group of publications that allows him to write on whatever topic he wishes and go anywhere in the world he pleases. Lucky guy! He's used that freedom to write this nice book.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Wuthering Heights. By Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte

PDF e-book on Kindle. First published 1847.

This is a psychological study of how one man, 'to whom evil is done, does evil in return' (to quote W.H. Auden). The elderly Earnshaw lives in 'Wuthering Heights' with his son Hindley and daughter Catherine. Returning from a business trip, he brings home the orphan Heathcliff, who is badly treated by Hindley, though befriended by Catherine, when their father/guardian dies. In an earnest, though misguided attempt to attain a position where she could free Heathcliff from Hindley's authority, Catherine marries her neighbour Edward Linton of Thrushcross Grange. Outraged by his love becoming someone else's wife, Heathcliff disappears. He reappears after some years a rich man, marries Isabella, sister of Edward Linton, takes her to Wuthering Heights, where he first takes residency as a guest. He slowly gains ascendancy over Hindley, whose gambling habits drive him to yielding all his wealth to his hated, adopted brother. He has in the meanwhile married and has had a son, called Hareton Earnshaw after his father. He looses his wife to tuberculosis. Catherine, meanwhile has grown tired of Edward, though she has a daughter by him, also called Catherine. She supports Heathcliff when her husband and her friend confront each other. In the meantime Heathcliff has a son by Isabella, who runs away from him and raises her son, Linton, as a physically and psychologically weak boy. Now come a series of deaths, first Hindley, then Isabella, thus giving Heathcliff complete control of his son and the estate at Wuthering Heights. Unable to stand separation from her childhood friend and lover, Catherine dies. Heathcliff uses his great physically strength, his harsh temper and the financial powers he has acquired to make life miserable for the widower Edward, as well for Hareton, and to some extent for Linton his son. To further gratify his thirst for revenge, and his desire to gain control of the estate of the Grange as well, he maneuvers and gets the young Catherine to fall in love with, and marry his son Linton. He makes the two lead a miserable life at the Heights. Edward dies, and then Linton. Though he has now completely attained his crooked ambitions, Heathcliff dies a miserable death, tortured by the memory of his love Catherine, and the consciousness of his failure to attain her. The young widow Catherine now marries Hareton, who, despite the best efforts of Heathcliff to make him a brute, turns out well under her influence.

The entire action takes place in the two estates, which are about 5 miles apart. The setting of Wuthering Heights, especially as described in winter time, is a kind of 'House of Usher' (as described by Edgar Allen Poe), a gloomy complement to the personality of Heathcliff. There is very little description of any place outside these, bare references to a nearby village of Gimmerton, and some mention of the far-off town, which is where Heathcliff was found, and where he later made his fortune. There is however no description at all of the circumstances under which he was found. Why did the elderly Earnshaw adopt him? Was he his illegitimate son? There is not a even a hint to explain this background. Heathcliff, though, is always the 'other', a tough, unhappy, ill-tempered, physically powerful, uncultured man. He is presented however as essentially honest, and the others around him are presented as cultured, but dishonest, and weak, psychologically and physically. 

The book has powerful characterizations, but is somewhat limited in its scope and imagination. It is essentially a study of the ruin of two landed families for a quarter of a century due to the thoughtlessness, it is implied, of a sentimental old man who brought home a devil.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Darwin's Dangerous Idea. By Daniel C. Dennett

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Daniel C. Dennett

Penguin Books. First published 1995.

The 'dangerous idea' is set out by Dennett as follows. '...evolution by natural selection occurs whenever the following conditions exist: (1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements. (2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves. (3) differential "fitness": the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on the interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists.'

As far as it goes, this is alright, and fits in exactly with what I know of the rather subtle theory of evolution propounded by Darwin. The theory needs reiteration, because the simplified, Twitter-style 'handle'  that is often used to describe it - 'survival of the fittest' - does not sufficiently protect the theory from misrepresentations and accusations of circular argument. Though the statements in paragraph above are deliberately not formulated as specific to biological systems, Darwin, of course, devised his theory to explain the origin of the myriad species of life forms on earth. Restated in the light of subsequent discoveries in genetics and molecular biology, the theory could start with DNA undergoing random mutations, one of which could increase the 'fitness' of the parent organism to exist and procreate in its environment. This results in a greater number of replicates of the fitter mutant in the succeeding generations. When this algorithm, as Dennet calls it, is iterated over millions of generations, it leads eventually to today's billions of different species, bacteria and bugs and worms and frogs and birds and cockroaches and snakes and whales and sharks and apes and humans and elephants and ...., all starting from very elementary life forms, i.e. single celled organisms. Or something even simpler, but here we go into the somewhat murky realms of prebiotic evolution. More on this later, trying to examine whether the idea can actually be applied 'downwards', towards molecules and atoms and subatomic particles - and 'upwards', to social organisation, to human self awareness and consciousness, and to the arts, artifacts and creativity. Dennet appears to think it can, and hence gives it the appellation 'dangerous'.

But the theory as stated above is open to an unwarranted inference, which must here be specifically denied. Evolution does not lead necessarily to life forms that are, in any absolute sense, 'better' with each succeeding generation. The mutant organism is able to multiply better - and it need to do that only marginally better - than the non mutants; this is sufficient to ensure its survival with a slightly greater probability. Many, many such mutations leads to speciation, but the new species so generated cannot be compared to each other on any absolute moral or intellectual grounds to chose one as a higher life form, and the other as a lower. Consider that all - ALL - life forms extant today have evolved from the same primordial single celled creature. Clearly the meanest bacteria we may identify today have evolved - become 'better and better' - over the same period of approximately 4 billions of years, taking as long to reach their current forms as the greatest humans. Thus in evolutionary terms, the Tree of Life does not necessarily reach to greater and greater intellectual or moral heights, becoming narrower as it grows, with humans at the very tip. It spreads as it grows, and though many branches die out (dinosaurs, for example) others are formed, until now, at the very top, we have all these billions of species, all equally evolved, all having gone with equal success through the various fitness filters. (The upward direction in the Tree  of Life corresponds, of course to the Arrow of Time, with the very top representing the present day).  
In fact, a tree is not the correct metaphor. In the light of what  we know about 'jumping genes' and horizontal transfer of genetic information, even from bacteria to the 'higher' organisms, it would be more correct to represent the relationships between the species as a network, the branches of the tree not growing isolated from one another, but establishing contacts with other branches even after a considerable amount of evolutionary time. However, the horizontal connections are, at this point of time, not known to be as strong or extensive as the vertical ones.  

A possible misunderstanding about the nature of evolution also arises from the apparent requirement of greater 'fitness' for each succeeding generation. We may ask - fitness for (or to) what? 'Fitness to (or for) the environment' is the obvious answer. But note firstly that environment does not remain the same with time or with geography. While allopatric speciation (i.e. different species arising in different geographies) may be an indication of the variation of the requisite fitness with geography, how do we explain sympatric speciation (different species arising in the same geography)? Even the smallest micro-environments (a small pond or a puddle, for example, or a small grove of trees) are populated by numbers of different species, all of them having evolved over the same amount of time, and all of them equally fit for the particular environment. The theory of evolution, of course, accommodates this easily by describing how different species occupy different niches within the same environment, or micro-environment, and how mutations which rendered the organism less fit in one geography may be adapted to make it more fit when it moves to a different environment. But note that there are many equally successful, and therefore equally good, ways for an organism to speciate in response to the challenges of a particular environment. There is no absolute scale on which to measure one way as somehow better than another, morally or ethically. On these terms, cockroaches are as 'good' as humans, perhaps better, for, as a species, they have survived longer. 

A second point to note in the context of sympatric evolution is the idea of 'neutral drift' proposed by Kimura. Here the mutations, which of course occur randomly, have no effect on the fitness of the individual, neither good or bad. Speciation occurs simply by a random drift of the genes from a set corresponding to one species to that corresponding to another, both with equal fitness values, and passing through stages which also do not affect the fitness. Of course, mutations which improve the fitness would be selected for, while those that decrease it (by far the largest number of individual mutations) would be selected against. But many that survive and carry on to subsequent generations would have no effect. This idea, too, like the ones above, does not give any special moral or ethical stature to any one species.  

The common feature of all the above arguments (and there are many more, all within the broad umbrella of the theory of evolution originally stated and established by Darwin, and many fiercely contested among scientists) is that we need not postulate any intelligent designer, commonly called God, superior to all life forms, who made the species. Variation, replication and natural selection are sufficient to generate the present day biosphere. (To digress a bit, there are those who claim that, while God may not have actually made the species, he may have made the rules, or the algorithms, that make the species. There is, of course, a clear and logical refutation of this, but that's an argument for another day.)  

Dennett pushes this idea right from the beginning, and makes it clear that when he is critical of one or another theory of evolutionary science, he is not speaking up for religion, or for creationism, or for God. He casts his lot firmly among the atheists, and the one writer on evolution he consistently speaks of approvingly is Richard Dawkins. He is less charitable to many others, and is specially critical of Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky, seeming at times to have written the book just to dis the two.     

Stephen Gould is one my favourite writers on biological topics. His writings are immensely popular and influential among thinking laymen. Some of his essays may be superficially read as being dismissive of Darwinism, and though he himself has always spoken out against creationism, American proponents of 'equal time' in the school syllabus for the Biblical version of creation have used his writings to imply that all is not well with Darwinism. Dennett allows that Gould is not a supporter of an a-Darwinian explanation of creation, but attacks at least two of the main modifications the latter has suggested to the basic theory. One is Gould's contribution to the debate on gradualism versus catastrophism. Simply put, on one side are those who believe that small changes, very small changes, sieved through the process of replication and natural selection, gradually and incrementally lead, over the eons, to speciation. On the other side are those that claim that evolution occurs in sudden and (geologically) rapid spurts that intersperse long, generally quiescent eons, during which little speciation occurs. Gould is on this side and calls his own version of this 'punctuated equilibrium'. He expounds this idea very well in his book 'Wonderful Life'. Dennett, for reasons which are not very clear to me from his book, appears to consider this against the laws of physics. Such an idea, he claims, is akin to postulating what he calls a 'skyhook', an mysterious and unknown device that somehow pushes evolution forward. This is wrong, he says, unscientific, and importantly, unnecessary. The advances in evolution are instead helped on by 'cranes', small changes that make an organism a little better. I suppose an example of cranes, and cranes upon cranes, and so on, leading to complex structures is the description of a possible pathway to the development of an animal eye in 'The Blind Watchmaker' by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins talks about a mutation leading to a primeval eye consisting of just a few cells a little more sensitive to light than the others, which would help the organism with that mutation move in the direction where there is more food (or less predation), and this slowly developing, over hundreds and thousands of generations, into a proper eye. 

But there is no specific evidence against rapid changes, and we know from the study of non-linear systems in physics that sudden and large changes in a system could arise from a small change in the input (as in weather systems, for example). Thus there is nothing wrong, scientifically, in postulating such 'skyhooks'. The sudden disappearance of dinosaurs, over a geologically insignificant period of a few millions of years some 65 million years ago is an example of a rapid turn in the course of evolution, though this is thought to have been triggered by the impact of a large meteroite, not just a 'small input'. Another example of a so-called 'skyhook' postulate that invites Dennett's disparagement is Noam Chomsky's idea that the human anatomy and brain is hard-wired for the faculty of language, as in no other primate, and that this faculty probably arose by some sudden and specific developments (Chomsky doesn't actually say genetic mutations, but doesn't deny them either) maybe a few hundred thousand years ago, when the human line diverged from the other apes. Dennett laughs this off, and claims that slow changes by the basic Darwinian algorithm should be sufficient to lead to language, and further to human culture.

Dennett also takes up cudgels against another proposal made by Gould. Not all features seen in living systems are adaptations that increase the fitness of the organism, said Gould. In many medieval buildings, when a circular dome is placed on a base which is square-shaped, there are roughly triangular portions between the dome and the base that arise as an undesigned extra feature. These are called spandrels. They could be ignored, and simply covered, but are often used to place additional decorations - paintings or statues. Gould proposes that such 'exaptions' are commonly seen also in organisms, in which a feature that may have developed randomly, or as an unavoidable result of the development of some other feature (like spandrels), are made to serve some useful purpose that may increase the fitness, but may not have been part of the original response to the challenge. Again, for reasons not very clear to me, Dennett is against this idea, calling it a 'skyhook', which in his language is a curse word. The idea of spandrels is attractive to me as a possible explanation for the evolution of intelligence and consciousness and culture. Clearly these are not required for mere survival, for, as I pointed out earlier, cockroaches survive better that humans. So maybe they are just spandrels. The issue of Nature dated 8/8/2013 (vol 500, No. 7461) has a research report that describes an exaption. A computational analysis shows that a metabolic network adapted to process and use one type of carbon source could be exapted, without change, to process other sources as well. Dennett, however, believes that the 'Gospel of Darwin according to Dennett', the one that has only cranes and no skyhooks, only allows mutations that specifically increase the fitness. 

Both 'skyhooks' and 'cranes' could play a role in pushing evolution forward. Some of the present day features could have arisen one way, and others, the other way. Some speciation could be due to linear cranes on crane on cranes, and others due to non-linear cranes - i.e. skyhooks. A priori, and logically, there is nothing against either procedure, and neither violates the Darwinian algorithm. Future research may unearth other procedures, or may help decide between one method or another.

Dennett's book also explores the application of the algorithm to explain the development of ethics, religion, social organisation and the other special features of our peculiarly human society. He believes that the 'dangerous idea' is sufficient to lead to the development of all this complexity. In an earlier book, called 'The Mind's I', Dennett (and Douglas Hofstadter) made clear their belief in the possibility of the 'hard' version of artificial intelligence. They said that it should be possible to build a machine that would be indistinguishable from a human, not only in its actions, but in the way its 'emotions' and 'psychology' are perceived by the outside world. The reactions of such a machine to any kind of external input would not be different from those of complex human being. This in turn would mean that all our intelligence, our emotions, our creations, and our psyche are a result of complex, but nevertheless 'mere', algorithms running in the machinery of our bodies and brains, algorithms that we should be able to decipher and eventually recreate and run on the machines that we construct. In this book, Dennett first of all suggests that his bare-bones version of Darwinism, with cranes and no skyhooks, is sufficient to lead to intelligence and all the special human characteristics. Secondly, he further believes that application of the dangerous algorithm can also lead to human social organisation, religion, ethics, arts and culture - perhaps wars and slavery and that sort of thing as well. 

I believe that there is some truth in this. The basic algorithm can be used to explain, for example, how certain social systems arise as most favoured ones from a variety of different possibilities. For instance, a Darwinian process, as described by Dennett, may be responsible for the kind of political system we have now in India. Politicians need money to win elections - the more money you have, the better your chances of winning. This leads to a system where, during elections money flows downwards from the parties and the candidates to the voters. In between elections, money will flow upwards, from the people to the police and officers and petty politicians and then on to the parties and the party leaders. Obviously there are 'transaction' costs in the system, and the intermediaries  becomes richer both when the money flows up, as well as when it flows down. Equally obviously this leads to corruption at all levels. But finally we get a stable system of governance, though not a very efficient one, nor one that actually implements all the 'truths' it proclaims. Hegelian and Marxist arguments regarding dialectics and 'historical processes' are also, at their core, Darwinian. 

The so-called 'genetic algorithms' are another expression of Darwinian methods, coded into computer programs and used for optimization in science, technology, industry and commerce. There are also evolutionary methods used in chemistry and molecular biology to create new molecules. However, these are examples of reverse engineering, and not really a natural progression of Darwin's idea into realms far from nature. In fact many of these algorithms are only approximations to the procedure laid out in the beginning of the essay. In particular, decisions regarding how to generate replicates in each succeeding iteration, and what fitness functions to apply, are made solely in order to get the required results faster, with no reference to the situation obtaining in nature.    

Despite these well-known extensions of Darwinian processes to various aspects in human society, some of which are discussed in the book, Dennett does not support the ugly, extreme versions of social Darwinism, which are mostly scientifically false and philosophically sterile. Such versions as may be found in some of Nietzsche's writings are tautological. (Something survives because it is good. But why is it good? Because it survives.) Dennett makes a more limited point that an upward application of the 'dangerous' idea should be able to explain the need for ethics and social organisation, without having to invoke God as a skyhook. This sounds alright. Less acceptable is his strident claim that his version of the theory, and only his version, would explain the existence of all of biology from molecules and cells, all the way to societies and ethics. 

When we consider the application of Darwinian ideas to prebiotic evolution, i.e. to explain the origin of living systems from among non-living matter, it is clear from many, many experiments, and the theories built to explain them, that conditions on early earth were suitable to create most of the basic building blocks of the current biological systems by random chemical reactions, in 'some warm little pond'. These 'Lego' pieces could come together, again at random, to build a variety of systems, among them a self-replicator. Copies of this would obviously multiply, and the Darwinian process could start - variation, replication, natural selection. The experiments and the theories do not establish that this is how it actually happened, but they do point to a way, or ways, by which life could arise naturally, without the need for any supernatural intervention. It would pertinent to repeat here the core idea of the Darwinian process. The variation occurs in the molecules at random, without reference to what would produce greater fitness. Selection occurs among the random variants. Information about which one of the variants has greater fitness does not flow back to the machinery creating the random variants. In other words, information flows from the genotype to the phenotype, and never the other round. The Darwinian process is itself blind, and there is no 'learning mechanism' at that level. This principle was firmly established by Francis Crick (who, together with Watson, Wilkins and Franklin, discovered the structure of DNA) in modern molecular biology when he enunciated it as 'Information flows from DNA to RNA to Protein, and never the other way around' He called it the 'Central Dogma of Molecular Biology' thereby drawing attention to the fact that it is stated in the nature of an axiom or principle, and not as an experimentally established fact. However, there has been as yet no experiment which can be interpreted as violative of this principle, in all of biology and biotechnology before and since.

Dennett's writing style is a bit stodgy. He tries often to lighten the text with jokes. But these are mostly snide attacks on some of his peers, and serve only to irritate. In the first half of the book, he has the annoying habit of repeatedly mentioning some topic and promising to treat it in detail later, or referring to some other book of his, where he implies he has irrefutably proved his point. Maybe he does give a more detailed of the point elsewhere, either in this book or in some other, but who can keep count? The final impression I get from the book is of a commentator on evolution who is on the correct side of the Darwinian/aDarwinian divide, but is wannabe deep thinker, expressing his frustration with the establishment by taking potshots at the more respected analysts. 

However, this is a good and well-written book, well worth reading and thinking about, and following up on.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

A Delicate Truth. By John Le Carre

A Delicate Truth

John le Carre

Penguin Books. First published 2013.

As usual with le Carre, the book is extremely contemporaneous, to the extent that at times one feels one is reading a long newspaper report. The plot involves a minor official of the British foreign office who comes across evidence of a cover-up, at the highest level, of a botched anti-terrorist operation, which was illegal in the first place. He tries to expose it 'through the proper channel', but very soon hits a dead end. He then dangerously tries an alternate route. Le Carre does not mention 'Wikileaks' or 'Edward Snowden', not even covertly. However, the book hit the stands, at least here in India, just a few days before the Snowden affair, and maybe a year after the Wikileaks/Bradley Manning stuff. The connections are obvious. Le Carre is surely vigorously cheering on Assange, Manning, Snowden and that ilk. 

Through his many books, le Carre's writing shows no change in style, tone or politics, though the 'perpetual drizzle' in London seen in the earliest books, has moderated somewhat. Over time, from his first books, he has moved increasingly to the left of the establishment. Though, perhaps, it is more correct to say that the establishment has moved increasingly to the right of his humanistic ideals. The book is a taut thriller that 'entertains as it instructs', to inappropriately quote PGW. It is rather shorter than his usual books, and does not involve as deep an exploration of the individual as, for the example, the best of his efforts in that direction, viz. 'A Perfect Spy'. This is a good book, but not a great one.   

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Little Dorrit. By Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit

Charles Dickens

First published 1857.

Kindle e-book. 

A long and complicated story in the tradition of many of his best novels, but not memorable, at least not in the class of his best - DC, Great Expectations and so on. But it is better than his worst - Hard Times, Bleak House... I completed it about a month ago, but am able to find the time to put in down here only now. And already my recollections of the story are confused.  

Amy 'Little' Dorrit has the distinction to be the first child to have been born in the debtor's prison, Marshalsea, where her father is interred for many decades, together with his family. Her mother dies in childbirth leaving behind two other children, Fanny and Edward. Amy becomes the general support of the entire family, especially of her self-pitying father who pretends, to himself as much as to the rest of the world, to bear the entire weight of the family misfortunes on his shoulders, to ensure that his children continue to lead a genteel, upper-middle class life. In fact, it is Amy, who works both in and outside the prison, and the family's many well-wishers and generally the good folks around, who occasionally advance small sums of money, who bring a degree of physical comfort to the children and the father. When she turns 21, she goes to work for a mysterious lady, Mrs. Clennam, who lives with the grotesque servants Mr. Flintwich and his wife. There are shades here of Miss Havisham from 'Great Expectations'. Mrs Clennam is part of another story thread, that involves her son Arthur Clennam, some nasty 'foreigners' - Italians - and various other characters and story lines that may be summarily described as 'Dickensian'. The plot is more elaborately and more faithfully explained in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the net.

The book has three general characterizations I enjoyed immensely. The first was the harshly sarcastic description of the goings on at a generic government office, called the 'Circumlocution' Office. 'No business could  possibly be done without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart'. The Office specialized in figuring out ways 'HOW NOT TO DO IT', no matter what was required to be done. It was manned by parasites and hangers-on, whom Dickens called the Barnacles. All the 'officers' in the Circumlocution Department were members, one way or another, of the Barnacle family and attained their respective offices not through any merit or effort, but almost solely because of the rampant nepotism. Dickens describes how Arthur Clennam, the protagonist, goes to this office to seek information about why the father Dorrit was imprisoned. He is sent from one clerk to the other, and one officer to the other, many of whom are not available at that time, and when he does find one present, told to come later, told it is lunchtime or teatime, told that this was not the Office for such information, but not told which was the correct one, and so on. All very familiar! There is of course a major difference to the situation here and today. In Chennai (actually I suppose anywhere in India) in the 21st century the Circumlocution Offices actually DO something, but only and only if properly bribed. Dickens does not mention this particular venality in the Offices of his time and country.

The other characterization I enjoyed, related to that of the Circumlocution Office, was of the political system and the parliament, as it existed in 19th century England, though many of its features are also found today in India (and in the rest of the world). He talks about how 'every new premier and every new government, coming in because they upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it'. Dickens savages the political and parliamentary system, calling it simply a means to keep the Circumlocution Office in existence and defend it fiercely when it was attacked. 

The third aspect that Dickens talks about in this book which I found interesting is about capitalism running wild. Mr. Merdle is a filthy rich man, and is treated with the kind of awe and respect reserved today for Mukesh Ambani or Bill Gates. He is shown to obtain his money by a kind of Ponzi scheme, which suddenly collapses, leading to Mr. Merdle's suicide. What was enjoyable to read was the way Dickens describes the attitude of all round to Mr. Merdle and his wealth. One set of particularly interesting exchanges takes place between Mrs. Merdle and Fanny Dorrit, before and after the latter's family comes into money. Fanny, unlike her sister Amy, is a sharp, tough, young lady. She snares the heart of Mrs Merdle's son, marries him, and then sets about repaying her mother-in-law for all the insults she had to bear before she became rich. 

There are many of the usual Dickens touches in the book, but it does not hold together very well. The story is too confusing and it does not unfold well. And there are no truly memorable characters - no Micawber, no Heep, not even a Joe Gargery.  Both Arthur and Little Dorrit are colourless - pale replicas of David Copperfield and Agnes.  

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Ramayana: A Modern Translation. By Ramesh C. Menon

The Ramayana

A Modern Translation by Ramesh Menon.

First published 2003. Harper Collins India.

The epic was probably first formulated maybe 2500 or 3000 years ago by Valmiki, who may have put together pre-existing tales, histories and myths into a coherent, reasonably linear story that, millennia later, continues to exert such a profound influence on the psyche of so many people, and not just in India. This, of course, is not my first acquaintance with the epic. I have already read three complete translations into English (the only language in which it is fully accessible to me with any ease), some of them more than once - the translation of 'Kambar Ramayana' from Tamil by R.K. Narayanan; C. Rajagopachari's narration, largely based, I think, on the 'original' Valmiki Ramayana; and the somewhat scholarly translation of Valmiki's Ramayana by Arshia Sattar. I have also read the free verse version by R.C Dutt,  which treats only the core story. But apart from these, I, like most 'mainland' Indians, have been exposed to narrations of bits and pieces, or sometimes the complete epic in numerous media - films, TV, dance, song, essays, puppet shows, proverbs, oral narratives and so on, almost since my birth. In the following, I make no attempt therefore to limit my reactions and thoughts to just this version of  the epic.  

Though, I will first get that out of the way. Menon's translation is the best of the four I have read - most readable, sufficiently didactic, yet sufficiently poetic. The influence of some recently written epics is discernible - specifically, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Gandharvas are often translated as Elves, and the Rakshasa armies are described in a way that recalls the Orc armies of the Dark Lord. Menon writes in an open, respectful but 'secular' style. Unlike Rajaji, he does not let his religious beliefs, whatever they might be, come in the way of an apparently faithful translation. He pulls no punches when it comes to describing the rape and adultery that are frequently committed by the characters, both the Gods and the Rakshasas. Ravana is a frankly hyper-libidinous, powerful, scholarly, intelligent and handsome Rakshasa, over whom all women swoon, except Sita, of course. Lanka is described as a kind of Rome when it was declining and falling, and Hanuman on his first visit comes across a sexual orgy, described as such. But with all these ostensible vulgarities, the end result is a profound retelling of this timeless meta-history. Of course, the tale is so powerful, that the greatness of it will come through no matter who presents it and how. 

The core story of the Ramayana, divested of all the numerous digressions and retellings, has two clearly separable parts, each with a different moral thrust. The first part comprises the Bala Kaanda and the Ayodhya Kaanda (and a bit of Aaranya Kaanda), and in my opinion, is the truly great part of the epic, and the reason why it is considered a religious text. Human social organisation was at the very initial stages at the time the epic was composed in the Bronze age. Here was a clearly stated code of honour and behaviour. It taught that no matter what, a promise given must be kept - 'praan jaaye, par vachchan na jaaye'. Rama instantly sees the need for him to suffer banishment and help keep his father's promise, and undertakes to do so without the slightest demur. This is what makes him, and his story, so great, so long-lived, so beloved. The Ramayana, this portion of it, set standards of social interaction essential if a community is to survive. It also formulated guidelines on the respective obligations of the rulers and the ruled. The code of Hammurabi is another such statement of laws necessary to establish a stable state, as are the edicts of Asoka, the analects of Confucius, etc. Of course the Ramayana, is not a statement of principles, but more the statement and emphasis of one overriding principle - of integrity (the one principle to 'rule them all'). Later religious texts and teachings such as those of the Buddha or Christ, or Prophet Mohammed are similar dissertations, though each has its own emphasis - compassion in the case of Gautama Buddha, love in the case of Christ, and and an uncompromising egalitarianism in the case of Prophet Mohammed.

The second part of the Ramayana comprises the other Kaanda - the last half of Aaranya Kaanda, Kishkinda Kaanda and Yudha Kaanda. Again divested of all the accretions, this part talks about the physical (and not psychological or moral) heroism of Rama. Now it becomes a tale that could be thought of the as the ur-story of a quest, roughly mimicked several times in several cultures, even recently by Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. There are numerous, tediously described battles, with opponents who are somewhat unreasonably described, each one of them, as the most powerful ever. The weapons, astra, used by the combatants are described fantastically. Echoing recent scientific theories about the Universe ending in a 'Big Collapse', just like it began in a 'Big Bang', many of them are said to create a fire like the one at the  'end of time'. But the descriptions of their effects and consequences become boringly repetitive after the first few. (Some of Menon's descriptions remind me of the weapons used by the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter books. Also his description of the Pushpaka Vimana recalls the depiction of inter-galactic space craft, as for example in the Star Wars movies.) In every battle the hero, or the most powerful villain of the moment, kills thousands of opposing soldiers. Some of the over-the-top fight descriptions rival the violence in present day Telugu movies, and may have served as inspiration for the latter. This aspect of the Ramayana is no different from the descriptions in the Mahabharata and some of the other tales composed at about the same time (some of the Puranas, for example), that I have read. [It would interesting to know if linguists have compared the Mahabharata, especially, with the Ramayana, in terms of language, and principles of literary construction, and what their findings are.] But if we ignore these exaggerations, probably introduced as the 'special effects action sequences' of those days, this second part is interesting psychologically, and presents many ambiguous aspects of Rama, making him more interesting and believable, and thus making it possible to criticize the actions of the God-like being. Of course, apologies for his various transgressions are offered, both by the original composer (or composers) of the Ramayana, as well as later commentators, but these are unconvincing.

Apart from the core-story, there are many tales within tales, some illustrating some specific moral point, others serving as a back story for one of the characters. Many of these are unapologetically sexual or immoral or both. Some them reinforce presumably latter-day Hindu ideas of caste and its role in social organisation, gender discrimination and so on. Some, in fact, make one cringe at the thought of having to treat the epic as the literal truth. Many of these tales are gathered together in the last section of the book, the Uttara Kaanda, which is clearly an afterthought, since the previous book ends with Rama on the throne of Ayodhya, and together with Sita  and his brothers, ruling 'happily ever after'.

Rama is an ambiguous figure, particularly in the second half. He has three great darknesses: firstly his treatment of Surpanakha, secondly the killing of Vali, and thirdly his treatment of Sita, both immediately after her rescue and latter in Ayodhya, some time after his coronation. There is also some smugness and self-satisfaction about him which can be irritating. Menon's translation makes these last characteristics less apparent than Rajaji's rendering, thus making the former more readable, at least for me. His act of renunciation is probably a revolutionary one for those times (and in fact for these times as well), but all through the book Rama is shown as a conservative, even reactionary figure, respectful of tradition and authority, as represented by the Rishis and the Gods. He rarely gets angry, and even when does, his anger is directed at characters who have been set up specifically to draw his anger. When pressed for an explanation of some clearly unethical act performed either by him or by someone he supports, he gives various unconvincing arguments, falling back ultimately on a teleology of fate or Karma. He of course never questions the wisdom of the holy books (the vedas) or of traditions, even such that we would today find repellent. This last  criticism is unfair and the epic should be considered in its historical context. However, the Ramayana is often touted to serve up immensely powerful morality lessons, relevant for all times. There are of course many such lessons, but there are also many that inappropriate and positively harmful for modern times. 

With all its flaws, or because of them, the epic finds place as perhaps the central religious text in Hinduism. The story has warmth and many of the characters - Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Bharata - with their sweetness and selflessness, endear themselves to everybody, believers and non-believers alike. Rama himself is a little more remote, a God, maybe a personal God, but a superior being nonetheless, one who can be obeyed and petitioned and even loved and yearned for, but not emulated. The intellectualism of the Vedas (particularly of the Rig Veda) and of the Bhagavad Gita prevent them from being as widely loved and accepted on a personal level. However, the Ramayana does not and cannot bear the same relationship to Hinduism as the Bible and the Koran do to Christianity and Islam, respectively. It is not considered the 'Word of God', for it was written after all by a 'mere' man - a great sage, but a human being all the same. It was of course recited to him by a God, Narada, but a minor God. In any case it was only the story that was narrated by Narada, the actual verses of the epic are attributed to Valmiki.  

The history of the Ramayana can be considered from two angles - the history of the text, and the actual history of the events described in the epic. As far as the second aspect is considered, there is no independent evidence that any such events actually happened. Maybe they did, and were not considered important enough to be recorded by other commentators contemporaneous to Valmiki. But certainly it is only politico-cultural motives that lead to the present  day identification of the Babri Masjid as the birthplace of Rama, and the Adam's bridge as Ram Sethu. [Incidently, in Menon's translation Hanuman leaps to Lanka from the Western shore of India. If this is how Valmiki actually wrote it, maybe the Lanka of the Ramayana is the Maldives of today.] In any case, the Ramayana existed only in the oral form for several centuries, even millenia, before they were first written down maybe 1500 years ago. As famously catalogued by A.K. Ramanujan, there are at least a few hundred versions of the tale, and some of them may actually predate the first written version. The story is told with love and devotion, but not as a religious tale, beyond the borders of India, in particular in Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other South-East Asian lands.  I myself have seen a version of the story carved in wood in a niche in the Shwe Dagon pagoda, Yangon, the central shrine of Myanmarese Buddhism. In some of these versions even the essential relationships between Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Ravana and completely different. Menon himself briefly narrates in the epilogue a version in which Sita is Ravana's daughter, and his desire for her is incestuous.

The major role the Ramayana plays in contemporary militant political Hinduism is not reflected in the actual practices of Hinduism. Many Gods not related to the epic are loved and feared - Krishna, Siva, Durga, Murugan - with the same or even greater intensity than that which Rama inspires. There is however no denying that the Ramayana contributes in a major way to the core beliefs of the sub-continent, and occupies a large portion of the religious and cultural imagination of Indians. It has engendered immense repertoires of music and dance and painting, and even if one is unimpressed by all else connected with the Ramayana, the  kirtis it inspired Thiyagaraja to compose alone will earn it one's devotion and respect. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

A Child's History of England. By Charles Dickens

A Child's History of England

Charles Dickens

Kindle e-book. First published 1852-1854 (serialized).

This is a bare narrative of one king/queen after another. The series starts with a sketchy description of pre-Roman times, the Roman occupation, and the subsequent battles between and among Angles, Saxons, Celts, Vikings and so on. And so we come to the time of Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King, one of the few for whom Dickens expresses any admiration. The Norman conquest sets in motion of a series of much better documented reigns of kings and queens, in an unbroken line to present. Not that the same family or group rules all the time. Three families, the Plantagenets, the Tudors, and the Stuarts, supplied most of the Kings and Queens over the period from about 1050 to the present. Dickens concentrates exclusively on the personal doings of each and the wars and the battles and the massacres and cruelties that almost all the rulers uniformly perpetrated. He is harsh on most of them, and the writing would be tedious, except that he continuously displays his ironical turn of phrase and is always interesting to read. That is perhaps the only reason to read this book. I would look elsewhere for the actual history.

Tender is the Night. By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Penguin Books. First published 1934.

I loved 'The Great Gatsby',  I didn't like this one as much. The narrative is set in the same time frame, after the first World War, and before the economic Crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed that. It is the setting of a whole lot of fiction that I read, including the early PGW, and the early Agatha Christie stories. Of course the later two authors do not include any serious social comment in their novels. Fitzgerald's novels, at least the two I have read, are almost completely social comment.

For some reason, after I wrote the above pargraph, I hit a 'blogger's block'. I was not able to coherently imagine my reactions to the book. After thinking about it, on and off, over the past month or so, I decided to put down whatever I can, and end this post.

The book is a complex, not easy to assimilate story about a group of rich, not very ethical Americans, and their doings in Paris, Cannes and Zurich. Central to the story are the goings on between a rich, self-made psychiatrist Dick Diver and a young, up-and-coming actress Rosemary Hoyt. Rosemary, egged on by her mother, forms an adulterous relationship with Diver which goes through fairly predictable ups and downs. Superficially, the novel details the moral degeneracy of the American upper classes during the Jazz age, going from a description of one crazy party and its aftermath to another. This hedonistic procession is broken by some back stories, for example, one which shows how Dick Diver became a much sought-after celebrity psychiatrist, educated and trained in Zurich. 

The writing is absolutely lovely, almost every sentence structure demonstrating new ways of using the language. Among these, however, there are some idiotic constructions, particularly idiotic similes that appear to be put in unthinkingly for effect. So much so, some of them seem a parody of themselves. The problem is, such inconsistencies in language, along with some other things, as mentioned below, make me doubt the sincerity of the writer, and therefore consider his social comment superficial. They make me think of Fitzgerald as an immensely talented and intelligent man, but unscrupulous and lacking integrity, using his talent to hide his inability to say anything meaningful about people, and their interactions with each other and with society. He talks badly of the forever-partying rich, appearing to despise his heroes and heroines, but I think he actually admired them. And it's not just the incongruities in his language that I find jarring. Particularly unacceptable was his treatment of the murder of a black attendant in a Paris hotel by one of the characters, and its cover up by the rest, including one or two whom we are called upon to consider admirable. The episode is treated as minor transgression, that needs to be smoothed over, like for example, getting arrested for drunkenly stealing a car.

Fitzgerald and his writings, I think, are much beloved of the neo-cons and the neo-liberals of today, and I can see where that admiration comes from. He is like the protagonist of one of his own stories, and his writings are, I guess, autobiographical.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Psmith Journalist. By P.G. Wodehouse

Psmith Journalist

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1915.

Project Gutenberg Ebook # 2607.

The story takes off from the end of 'Psmith in the City'. Psmith accompanies Mike who is part of an MCC cricketing tour to the US. Psmith stays behind in New York, and to keep himself occupied helps a newly-found friend Billy Windsor, sub-editor of the journal 'Cosy Moments', to run it while the editor is away. The two transform the magazine from one offering mild, boring reading to mild, boring householders into a sensationalist tabloid that takes up public causes, the chief one being to bring  about improvements in a set of wretched slum dwellings, owned by a corrupt politician. Wodehouse's descriptions of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, with its gangs and slums and corrupt policemen and politicians are all too familiar from life as lived in Chennai today (and maybe in New York today too). The writing shows Wodehouse getting into his stride - the mastery over the language is almost complete by now. It is the plotting that becomes better and better in his later books. This is almost the only book by PGW with a theme that may be called serious - namely the sorry state of the slums. I cannot recall any such theme in any of his other books.  

The passage that stuck to my mind is the following:

One of the contributors to 'Cosy Moments' when it was 'the sort of paper which the father of the family is expected to take home with him from his office and read aloud to the chicks before bed-time' is an 'alleged humorist of the name of B. Henderson Asher' who writes 'a "Moments of Mirth" page,which is about the most painful production ever served up to a confiding public'. When the editor goes away and Psmith makes all the changes in the magazine, Asher and the other authors confront Psmith, and this is what takes place.

[Asher says,] "What's he mean by it? That's what I want to know. And that's what these gentlemen want to know--See here--"

"I am addressing--?" said Psmith.

"Asher's my name. B. Henderson Asher. I write 'Moments of Mirth.'"

A look almost of excitement came into Psmith's face, such a look as a visitor to a foreign land might wear when confronted with some great national monument. That he should be privileged to look upon the author of "Moments of Mirth" in the flesh, face to face, was almost too much.

"Comrade Asher," he said reverently, "may I shake your hand?"

The other extended his hand with some suspicion.

"Your 'Moments of Mirth,'" said Psmith, shaking it, "have frequently reconciled me to the toothache."

The Affair. By Lee Child.

The Affair

Lee Child

Bantam Books. First published 2011.

For a long time I had wanted to read a Jack Reacher book, having been attracted by the covers and the blurbs. So finally I got this one. It is an 'airplane' book, best read on a journey. But it costs twice as much at the airport bookshop as at one outside.

Reacher is a military policeman investigating, in this book, murders which may have been committed by the military. The writing is too involved, falsely ironic and often a bit too overbearing. Neither the plot, nor the writing impressed me particularly. Reacher sort of collaborates with a lady sheriff, also ex-army, of the small town adjoining a military base where the murders takes place. This character is initially sympathetically etched, before degenerating into a boring 'tough-guy' type. 

Nowhere near the best (or even the medium best) American detective fiction. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Julius Caesar. By Philip Freeman

Julius Caesar

Philip Freeman

Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. First published 2008.

A one-line summing-up of Caesar, quoting Alexander Hamilton (one of signers of the American Declaration of Independence) occurs right at the end of the book - 'The greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar'. Freeman himself does not appear to subscribe to this extreme view. This biography is fairly balanced. It is not a very detailed, or one with much depth. Freeman appears to have put together various classical accounts of the exploits of Caesar, and does not spend time on any analyses, unlike, for example, the biography of Napoleon that I described earlier in this Blog.

Caesar was born to an aristocratic family fallen on bad times. By reason of his family background he had access to all the politically important men and women of Rome of that period, but without money, that family background may have obtained him a sinecure, but nothing like the fame that was eventually to be his. This he got by his own merits and deeds. Almost as soon as he entered public life, he opposed the then dictator Sulla on a personal matter (he was asked to divorce his wife - he refused), and had to flee to the hills. He was then forgiven by Sulla, and went to serve in Asia Minor, where he won some notable, but minor, victories. Upon the death of Sulla, he returned to Rome and started rising in the political ranks. On one of his trips to the Greek islands, he was kidnapped by pirates and held to ransom, but he was cleverly able to turn the tables, and ended up capturing and crucifying the pirates. He was appointed military tribune, a kind of General/Defense Secretary, and during this time helped crush the slave rebellion lead by Spartacus. He was constantly rising in the political ranks, always espousing what would now be called 'the liberal' or populist cause, positioning himself against the 'optimates', a conservative grouping. He played major roles in some conspiracies. He traveled widely making friends among the folk of various regions of Italy, especially in the north, and thus lay the foundation for recruiting future armies. Along with Pompey and Crassus, he served as part of the triumvirate that ruled Rome for some time. He helped quell rebellions in Roman territories in Spain. He finally went on his most famous and most successful expedition to Gaul, roughly modern-day France. There he used the disciplined power of the Roman army, to defeat much larger but undisciplined armies of the Gaulish tribes, and brought all of Gaul under Roman rule. His tactic always was to do the unexpected thing, rapidly marching his army long distances, and suddenly appearing where he was not expected, quickly building bridges and fords over 'unpassable' rivers, using superior battlefield technology like catapults and siege machines, and always leading from the front and motivating his men to superhuman deeds. [It is easy to suspect Freeman, and perhaps his sources, of great exaggeration in the odds faced by Caesar. The way it is told here, Caesar almost always won his victories with five or ten thousand men against armies with twice or three times that number. This is stated to be so even when he defeated the Roman armies of Pompey with much smaller numbers.] These methods enabled him to even cross the English channel and establish the first Roman colonies in Britain, short-lived though they were. He then defeated a very widespread and potentially dangerous uprising in Gaul, led by Vercingetorix. He was by now such a successful General, that his return to Rome was feared by the senators. Nevertheless, he did return, with his army, 'crossing the Rubicon', a river in the north of Italy, and thus announcing that he was his own man with his own army, and not just a General under the control of the Roman senators. All this while he was also making intricate political maneuvers, trying to ensure control over the Senate. He frequently appealed directly to the people, promising them free food, land and so on. These acts eventually plunged Rome into civil war, with Caesar pitted against his former partner in the triumvirate, Pompey, who was supported by the Roman establishment. Again Caesar was a better general, even though he was now fighting another well-trained Roman army. Eventually he pushed Pompey to Egypt and followed him there. Pompey was killed, and Caesar turned his attention to the conquest of the Egyptian kingdom of Cleopatra. He loved her and wedded her, but still had to fight her brother Ptolemy, who was co-regent. He defeated him, and returned to Rome, via Palestine and the Balkans, conquering all along the way. The rest of the biography is familiar from Shakespeare's play, and the Hollywood movie 'Cleopatra'. He returns to a great triumph, is offered the crown and title of 'Emperor', which he turns down, but republicans, notably his close friend and protege Brutus, who fear his power, assassinate him on the ides of March.

Do these deeds, great though they were, suffice to characterize Caesar as the greatest man who ever lived. Even if we restrict ourselves to conquerors, and only those before Hamilton's time, several others come to mind -  Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya, Genghis Khan, some of the Chinese emperors... One may say that Caesar was not a selfish conqueror in the same mold as the above, but more a general of a Republic. But that was apparently only a veneer. And though Freeman says he was generous and forgiving, he also gives enough instances of his brutality and his genocidal propensities. Of course, if you think about all people, and not just conquerors, there are too many names that could one could claim as the greatest - Jesus Christ being among the topmost of them. Caesar probably helped spread Roman civilization and culture through many parts of the world, but equally he probably destroyed  many, many local cultures. But still and all, Caesar was probably the greatest Roman leader, and I can understand why Hamilton and even contemporary American politicians and statesmen could admire him, especially when they might wish their country to emulate Rome, at least in the way it behaves towards the rest of the world. 

Finally, the description of Caesar's exploits in Gaul, and mention of Vercingetorix, brought to my mind the comically wishful treatment of the same events in the 'Asterix' comics!