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.