Sunday, 28 December 2014

Taken at the Flood. By Agatha Christie

Taken at the Flood

Agatha Christie

William Morrow. First published 1948.

This Hercule Poirot mystery is set in London and a suburb just at the end of World War II. A 'blast', resulting from 'enemy action', at the London home of the wealthy Gordon Cloade leaves his extended and dependent family bereft of all support, and his newly wed young wife, now his widow, in possession of all his money. In fact, Mrs Cloade was already a widow when she married Gordon, and when her first husband turns up, the family is suddenly infused with new hope that the second wedding is null and void, and the money would come to them after all. The death of the putative first husband is the first of three deaths, murders or suicides, that Poirot finds himself investigating. 

Not one of her best - too many coincidences, and too many new facts and characters introduced too late into the story. An easy read though. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

No Orchids for Miss Blandish. By James Hadley Chase

No Orchids for Miss Blandish

James Hadley Chase

Mastermind Books. First Published 1939.

Chase (along with Alistair Maclean, and others of that ilk) was among my first 'adult' authors when I began to graduate from Enid Blyton and Frank Richards. I did not then realize that in many ways he was a subversive author, in the company of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though the latter are much better regarded by the literati. All their books are crime novels dealing with the black underbelly of America and its essential lawlessness. The characters are mostly cowboys without horses, carrying out all their rustling and horse-thievery and other crimes in cities, with roads and cars and factories, rather than in the open range. There is a name for this type of fiction - 'noir'. But the work of Chase sometimes also falls into another category - 'pulp fiction'. In writing style, 'No Orchids...' is pulp fiction. The characters are almost all the same, everybody is a crook, the women are atrociously treated, and so on. The redeeming feature is that the story is well plotted, and races along till the rather expected, but tragic denouement.  

Friday, 28 November 2014

Blandings Castle. By P.G. Wodehouse

Blandings Castle

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1935.

Twelve wonderfully funny short stories, including the two outstanding Emsworth short tales - Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey and Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend, the latter dubbed 'the perfect short story' by, I think, Alan Coren, formerly of Punch magazine. Also five stories about the Mulliners of Hollywood, in which we are made acquainted with the Hollywood bureaucracy, comprising, among others, Yes-men, Vice-Yessers, Nodders and Assistant Nodders. As described in various biographies of PGW, these stories are obviously based on his own experiences in Hollywood, where he was paid large sums of money to do virtually nothing but write and rewrite scripts for movies that were never produced. And though he considered this dishonest on his part, and it made him restive, his contract did not allow him to leave. And typically of him, he channeled all his anger and frustration into these hilarious stories (sharp satires really) and into several novels and maybe a couple of plays. 

Analysing the politics of PGW would, in Evelyn Waugh's words, be like taking a spade to a souffle. But it is hard not to note his frequent characterisations of the 'proletariat' as somehow slightly incomplete people as compared to the aristocracy, especially in terms of their beliefs, their modes of speech, the topics they discuss, and their chief everyday concerns. In one of the present stories, the gardens and grounds of Blandings Castle are made open to the village public, most of whom are Lord Emsworth's tenants. This tradition irks him, and makes him bitterly complain about why strangers should make merry on his private grounds. There is however no consciousness of the fact that neither he nor his ancestors probably did very little to actually earn ownership of the Castle and the lands all around, and that in fact the whole situation is a hold-over from the unjust and feudal medieval times. 

Anyway,as I said, one should not really criticize PGW for such lapses, if indeed they are lapses. The British Government and the British public made this mistake of being overly self-righteous, when, after World War II, they more or less blackballed him and 'cut him' and sent him into virtual exile in America. All this because he made a few funny broadcasts about his treatment by the Germans. And so, having got out of my system some 'perilous stuff weighing on my bosom' (to quote PGW quoting Shakespeare), I will now say that these stories, like about 90% of his writing, are wonderful, well worth reading again and again. And again.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

An Instance of the Fingerpost. By Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears

Jonathan Cape. First published 1997.

I read an electronic Epub version which I converted for Kindle. At first I guessed Iain Pears to be an Umberto Eco wannabe, but, on second thoughts, that seems unlikely. He is a well educated art historian, and novelist since 1991. His first series of books featured a detective who investigated crime in the world of art - maybe like the books of Dick Francis on horse racing. 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' was apparently the first of a series of historical thrillers, the most recent being 'Arcadia', in 2014. 

The title is taken from the writings of Francis Bacon, who first laid out what we now call and practice as the scientific method, stressing empirical evidence over deduction from 'first principles'. In his book of aphorisms 'Novum Organum Scientarum' (The New Method of Science) he recommends that 'Instances of the Fingerpost', or empirical clues, I suppose we would call them now, should point the way forward whenever any discussion about the truth of some occurrence cannot be resolved by pure reason. In the book, the occurrence in question is the death of a Don at Oxford. And the events, set in the decades following Bacon's demise, i.e. during the years of the English revolution, Oliver Cromwell's rule, and the restoration of Charles II on the throne, are related by four different people. The first three of these records - by a Venetian businessman/scientist/medical man/diplomat, by the ne'er-do-well son of a landed gent who found himself on the wrong side of the royalist/republican divide, and by a senior clergyman and academic at Oxford - are pompous and self-serving, and occasionally brutal. The last record, by one of the minor clergymen at Oxford, apparently approximates the truth. These characterisations are, of course, as meant by the author, and in that respect they are skillfully written. Most of the prominent characters are historical, as explained in the appended index of 'Dramatis Personae'. But the central character in all the stories, Sarah Blundy, the daughter of one the chief revolutionaries of Cromwell, is apparently based only partially on a historical woman. She is portrayed sympathetically, and it seems that the author wanted to give her story a kinder conclusion, but was held back by the requirements of literature.

I found Eco much deeper, and much better written, though the translation from Italian is probably responsible for the language in his books being less fluid than here. However in matters of plot and the narrative construction, Pears is closer to Dick Francis (though far superior), than to Eco. All the same Pears is an author to look out for, and I will try and find other books by him.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Birds Without Wings. By Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 2004.

After being overwhelmed by the sweet brilliance of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', and then a bit disappointed by 'The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman', I find this de Bernieres book - the third I have read - once again lovely, perhaps more so even that the first. Once again the book is populated by a large number of very human characters, simple and complex, good, bad and ugly, black and white, but mostly different shades of grey, each with his or her completely believable idiosyncrasies. Once again the writing style is detailed and descriptive, open-eyed, unapologetic and unashamed, non-judgmental and non-manipulative. And once again, the narration is linear and straightforward. Unlike as in 'The Troublesome Offspring...' de Bernieres makes no attempt at magic realism in this book. This much-abused writing style could perhaps have pushed it into more rarefied literary company, but would probably have made it less easily comprehensible to me. I was reminded very much of the books of John Steinbeck, such as 'Cannery Row'.

The story is set in the same part of the world as 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. While that book followed the vicissitudes of the populace of one of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea before, during, and after World War II, this one moves its location a bit further east in geography, into Anatolia, what is now the Turkish mainland, and a bit further back in history, before, during, and after World War I. The narrative follows the sad but inevitable disintegration of a rather primitive and contradictory, but fully functional and largely peaceful village community, as the modern state of Turkey rises from the ruins of the Ottoman empire. 

The Anatolian coastal village of Eskibahce is populated, almost half and half, by Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims (probably Sunni). There are also Armenians, Jews and other identities in the mix. But despite distinct religious and cultural practices, at the beginning of the story's timeline the groups are almost inseparably integrated. [Such social groupings are probably the norm in most parts of the world, and are, of course, not at all unfamiliar in India. Just today (23 Nov 2014) T. M. Krishna wrote the following in his column in The Hindu. 'Recently a friend of mine from a fishing village said: "My mother, who is a Hindu, finds peace only if she spends at least three hours in the Dargah, and every Muslim fisherman prays to the goddess before venturing into the sea and the whole village worships Mary." '] By the early part of the twentieth century, however, the influence of European-style nationalism and colonialism started making inroads into such a world view. It was disruptive in the extreme, pitting friend against childhood friend, and tearing lovers apart. World War I, which in that part of the world was a response to and a consequence of the decay of the six-century old Ottoman empire, exacerbated the effects and brought events to a sharp focus. Massacres, genocides, mass displacements of populations happened all around - Armenians driven out of Anatolia, Muslims out of Greek regions, Christians out of Turkish regions, and so on. The book details these effects on the individuals of the village - Iskander the Muslim potter, his son, his son's Christian friend, the friend's father, his daughter, the priest and the mullah, Rustam Bey the landlord and rich man of the village, his wife, his mistress, and a host of other characters, all so well and so sympathetically - but never sentimentally - portrayed that we feel for and along with each one of them. The horrors are lightly described, but the descriptions make us think, without revulsion, and contemplate the way history - any national history - appears to be one long tale of violent and mostly unjustifiable, unnecessary challenge, and equally stupid and horrific response. 'Where does it all begin?' asks De Bernieres. 'History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the paleolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of the race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by the other'. 

There are three or four major fictional threads in story, interwoven with historical events. Karavatuk and Mehmetcik are two boys, Muslim and Christian respectively, who grow up unaware of any difference, until the war sends the former to Gallipoli as the part of the Ottoman army (where he experiences trench warfare in all its brutal horror), and the latter to a forced labour camp. When they meet many years later, Karavatuk tragically and unwittingly becomes responsible for the death of his friend. 

Philothei is a lovely Christian girl. She and Ibrahim, the goatherd, are childhood sweethearts. By the time they reach adolescence, and it's time for their families to think of the marriage they have all been looking forward to, the war and the other events intrude. Christians are deported to Greece, in terrible symmetry with Muslims in Greece deported to Turkey, and the two innocent lovers are destined for separation. Unable to acquiesce quietly in their fate, Philothei dies and Ibrahim goes mad. 

The story of Rustam Bey is perhaps the most moving of all. He is the richest man in the village, a feudal lord, respected and well thought of by all his tenants and by the rest of the villagers. He does not hesitate to help the Christians, just as much as he does the Muslims. He takes a young wife, whom he loves, but who is unfaithful to him. But when he discovers her infidelity, he kills her lover, drags her to the village maidan, and, in keeping with the tenets of sharia law, invites all and sundry to stone her to death. In this medieval punishment, everyone present, Christian and Muslim, starts to participate, until the village maulvi (of all people) rescues her and takes her home. A few months later, Rustam Bey makes a beautifully described trip to Istanbul in search of a Circassian mistress. [During the 18th and 19th centuries, girls from Circassia were reputed the most beautiful of all, and much sought after as harem inmates. However, if the Wikipedia entry on this subject is to be believed, there is a touch of 'Orientalism' in this description by de Bernieres of Rustam Bey's choice. That is to say, while it is true that Europeans thought that Circassian girls were preferred by everyone for such purposes, and apparently sought them out for their own uses as well, this notion was not prevalent among the native residents of Anatolia and among the Lords of the Ottoman empire.] Bey eventually finds a girl of his choice, Leyla, who is actually Greek, but pretends to be Circassian. He brings her home to Eskibhace, and over time, they grow to love and cherish one another - until the war and its aftermath induces a sudden longing in Leyla to run away to the newly formed nation of Greece, leaving behind a bewildered, lonely and grieving Rustam Bey. 

Running through the book as a narrative thread apart from these and other personal stories is the factual account of the rise of Kemal Ataturk, the maker of modern, secular, socialist Turkey from the core Anatolian regions of the empire. Ataturk is a well known historical figure. The way he drew 'the tides of men' into his hands, invented a new nation, and almost single-handedly created it, probably inspired post-colonial nation builders such as Nehru. India, of course, moved from being a British colony with a notionally secular government to being a sovereign democratic republic with an uneasily egalitarian and secular dispensation, while Turkey moved from being a Muslim empire to a secular democracy. However the displacement of large populations in opposite, religiously determined directions, with all the attendant inhuman ghastliness, accompanied the birth of both countries. We may note, as an aside, that present-day Turkey, at the beginning of the 21st century, is ruled by a political party that is avowedly anti-secular. And the colour of the polity in India has only a few months ago turned a distinctly Hindu saffron.

De Bernieres has a fluid and easy writing style, with an almost Wodehousian command over the language. An example: '[Rustam Bey] once had entertained hopes that their marriage might become more than the usual formal dance of strangers that only grows into something better with the slow passage of time and the mutual concern for children.' And another: 'He had that sense of personal superiority that automatically puts people's backs up.' There are many obscure words he uses precisely and well, some of these are not even found in many dictionaries. A few examples: 'These immanitious [very strong] men were capable of carrying pianos single-handedly on their necks.' 'All this mommoxity and foorfaraw [confusion and disorder] were compressed into a street [in Istanbul] no more than three paces wide.' 'He makes phatic observations [expressions that only a social purpose, and not one of communication] about the weather and the state of the sea...' 'She finds priests and imams equally otiose [serving no practical purpose or use].' '... he arrived fresh each morning despite his long nocturnal bouts of crapulence [great intemperance, especially drinking].'

All in all, a wonderful book, worth several long and lingering reads.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring. By Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Tracy Chevalier

A Plume Book. First published 1999.

Jan (or Johannes) Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter, who lived in Delft, and who is counted among the Great Masters of Western art. He painted indoor scenes, representing people and activities from his own middle-class life. All his paintings, except one, appear to have been painted in his upper-story studio, most of the light coming in through a window on the left of painting. (The exception is the painting of a general view of Delft, which, too, may have been painted looking out of his studio window). 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (1665) is reckoned as one of his masterpieces. It depicts a young girl from shoulder up, facing the window (not seen) and looking over her left shoulder at the painter. She has an entreating look in her large eyes, and on her clear and lovely face, as if surprised in some forbidden act. She is dressed in a rather drab coat of dull gold, and has a blue and cream turban wrapped around her head, completely covering her hair. At the center of the portrait is the eponymous pearl earring, consisting of a large, droplet-shaped pearl hanging by a nearly invisible hook from her left ear. The background is plain black, nothing to distract the viewer from the face, no clues on which to build a speculative story.

And this very fact allows Chevalier to construct the basic premise of her novel. The girl in the portrait, says Chevalier, is Griet, the sixteen-year old daughter of a maker of tiles. Her father has gone blind, and to supplement the dwindling family income, she is farmed out as a servant to the large Vermeer family in his rambling, poorly-heated house. One of her particular tasks there is to carefully clean the painter's studio, without in any way disturbing the layout of the paints, the still-life objects, the brushes, or the easel and canvas with its current half-finished painting. Over time, she attracts the attention of the painter to her more-than-ordinary sense of light and colour, and the painter appears to grow emotionally closer to her. Eventually he asks her to model for the painting that becomes 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. This causes disquiet in the family. The earring is in fact a gift from Vermeer to his wife. It is painted in last, when Griet realizes that there is something crucial missing in the composition, and is unable to resist putting the earring on and posing for the final version of the painting. The story ends with Griet leaving the household, and marrying her childhood beau, the fishmonger Pieter. 

Chevalier's imagination is rather limited, and while her tale is apparently an authentic portrait of upper and lower middle class life in that place, at that time, it fails to grip, and is actually boring in parts. The promise of the exciting back story that a concentrated study of the painting promises is belied. I was left with a feeling of the author reaching out for more than she could grasp.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Stupid Guy Goes to India. By Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Stupid Guy Goes to India

Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Blaft Publications Pvt. Ltd. First published 2008.

This is a graphic novel, what I would have called a ‘comic’ about 20 years ago. But this not just ultra-light entertainment like Mickey Mouse or even Spiderman. It is a serious attempt at narration, an example of a genre I am coming to regard increasingly well. This particular book is the story of the author, who ‘modestly’ calls himself a ‘stupid guy’ and his sojourn in Delhi a few years ago. He is a ‘manga’ artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese graphic novels. They narrate a variety of different stories – fiction, history, biography and even science. They may be considered equivalent to novels for those who, like Alice, want to see a lot of pictures in the books they read. But they can be serious stuff, and take, I suppose, as much effort and creative imagination as ‘regular’ novels.

Yukichi wants to sell his manga in India. He does not know anything about India, and knows neither English nor any Indian language. Yet he has this crazy, and, yes, stupid idea that he will find a large market for his stuff here, if only he can get it translated into Hindi. So he catches a flight to Delhi, and goes around trying to find first a room, then a translater, next a printer, and finally customers. He has some luck with the first three, but almost none with the last. In between he gets used to spicy Indian food, sort-of-learns to bargain, learns the meaning of the different types of Indian head shakes, experiences Indian toilets (describing his bowel movements in disgusting detail), and makes an unsatisfactory visit to a brothel. In the intervals of  work on his translation, he notices that the cello tape sold here are not easy to peel off from the reels, and to cut and stick. He invents a simple and cheap tin device to help in this, but cannot find customers for it, anymore than for his manga. Finally he catches a flight back to Japan, where I suppose he salvaged something, maybe a lot, from the trip by writing his experience up as Japanese manga, later translated into this volume. Perhaps that was his whole idea from the beginning.

His artwork, in black and white, is neat and nice, but rather static, with none of the dynamism one seems in, for example, Calvin and Hobbes. His dialogue is also just passable, no real jokes, at least not in the translation. The entire effort, I think is aimed at a Japanese audience, and though he strives very hard to be objective, an Indian cannot miss the prejudice. For example, almost the very first ‘fact’ about India he mentions is that the population is 1 billion, with 250 million unemployed. We are left with the idea this is a huge portion of the population as compared to the situation in Japan, perhaps, where the number, and percentage, may be much smaller. We are not told whether the number he quotes for India includes children and old people and other sections of the population who are usually not counted as ‘unemployed’ even if they are not formally in employment. There are other such prejudices sprinkled across the book. Especially irritating is his frustration at not being able to find people to translate Japanese cheaply for him and to help him carry out his crazy idea. Some of his observations, about toilets, and  the general uncleanliness of India, strikes true. These aspects, after all, have attracted the attention of no less a person than Prime Minister Modi.

The Laws of Manu. Translated by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith

The Laws of Manu

Translated by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith

Translation first published 1991

Manu smriti or Manav dharma sastra is a compilation of laws – personal laws, laws for a criminal justice system, and GSP (or ‘Good Social Practices’) norms – that were compiled about 2000 years ago. They are attrbuted to a single author, namely Manu, who, it is also claimed, is the founder of the human race – a Hindu Adam. The text begins with a group of sages approachng Manu and asking him to tell them the duties of all the four classes –  and in this introductory verse two impotant points are made rightaway. The first is about the existence of the four classes – the chatur varna – more commonly translated as the four castes. This horizontal quartering of society is taken for granted, never questioned. The only justification for it is given in one of the verses in the first section, which paraphrases the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda, and describes the creation of the four castes of humans from the mouth (brahmin), the arms (kshatriya), the thighs (vaisya) and the feet (sudra) of the Lord (Brahman, Narayana, Brahma…). This happened, the vedic sloka states, in order that the worlds and people would prosper and increase. There is no other attempt at reasoning why this should be so. The more than 2500 verses that follow, then, comprise a detailed statement of the duties and the laws of the four castes. And this brings us to the second point evident in the opening verse. The laws are laid down by Manu, and brook no questioning or reasoning. There is no attempt at jurisprudence, nor any argument to justify why the laws should be so, and not otherwise. No, that is not entirely true – the one constant justification that underlies all the laws is that action contrary to what is stated in the smriti would end up producing a ‘confusion of the classes’, which is presented, without any reasoning, as the supreme evil. (Note that, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna used exactly the same justification when he urged Arjuna to do his duty as a kshatriya and fight the Kaurava.) Thus, according to Manu, society can either organize itself on the basis of the four castes, or it cannot be organized at all – it would continue to exist in savagery. Much the same sort of justification, or lack of it, underlie many of the other statements of law that inspire some of the major religions of the world – the Bible, the Koran, the laws of Moses, and even the ‘secular’ laws of Hammurabi. One may be tempted to consider The Laws of Manu, therefore, as probably the closest that Hinduism has to a foundational revealed text, one on which the entire religion is based. Indian society, however has always been extremely complex and diverse, and if at all Manu smriti should be considered tantamount to God’s word, just as the Koran and the Bible are so considered, it is for a limited form of Hinduism, i.e. Brahminism, and not for all of it.

The first chapter in Manu smriti is the story of the genesis of the Universe, and of everything in it. Out of nothing, Brahman mediated and produced light and matter, and ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. A lot of different life forms are mentioned, but obviously not all. The list, of course, includes the creation of the four castes of humans. The subsequent chapters list, in excruciating detail, all the duties that devolve upon these four groups of people, duties to each other, as well as to the state and society. The focus, though, is mainly on the brahmins, which Doniger coyly translates as ‘the priestly class’. (Kshatriyas are translated as the ‘rulers’, vaishyas as ‘commoners’ and sudras as ‘servants’.) This class is given specific, and sometimes contrary, instructions about what to do, and how to do it, during almost every second of their lives, from birth to death. The king, too, is prescribed his royal duties, especially how he should behave towards the brahmins and how he should punish those who transgress against them. The vaishyas and the sudras are not given any detailed prescriptions. Sudras, in fact, are only instructed that their karma is simply to serve the ‘twice-born’, without resentment!  Many laws are prescribed generally for the ‘twice-born’. Doniger implies that this term means all the three ‘upper’ castes, and only excepting the sudras. However, a ‘twice-born’ is born for the second time when he performs the thread ceremony. Since this is a particularly brahmin ritual – at least as far as I know – ‘twice born’ must mean ‘brahmin’. But, contrary to this understanding of mine, Manu says specifically in Chapter 10, that ‘the brahmin, the kshatriya and the vaishya are the three twice-born classes’. Of course he also says, immediately before this verse, that ‘the priest is the lord of the other castes because he is pre-eminent, because he maintains the restraints, and because of the pre-eminnece of his transformative rituals’. So I guess, though Manu may have meant the general prescriptions, except when specifically stated otherwise, for the three ‘upper’ castes, today the word ‘twice-born’ has come to mean ‘brahmins’, i.e. the priestly caste.

A large number of situations, mainly domestic, are envisaged, and rules prescribed for each of them, along with exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, and so on. A kind of criminal justice system is also prescribed, mainly for the education of the king, for example on what are the laws of property, and how theft should be punished. In some of the prescriptions, cows are rated higher than sudras or women. There are several hundred verses given over to sexual transgressions, and how to prevent or punish them. The thrust of most of these are “cherchez la femme” – the woman is always at fault. ‘It is the very nature of women’, says Manu, ‘to corrupt men here on earth.’ This is simply one example of his rampant misogyny, handed down over the centuries, apparently to influence and inform attitudes to women in present-day India. Elsewhere he says, ‘A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in her own house.’ And again, ‘A virtous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behave badly, freely indulges his lust, and is devoid of any good qualities’. I could quote many more verses to illustrate this point. But to be fair, there are also a few verses – very few, though – where Manu urges greater respect for women. ‘The deities delight’, he says, ‘where women are revered, but where women are not revered all rites are fruitless’. Also, more obscurely, ‘A woman’s mouth is always unpolluted, as is a bird that knocks a fruit’. Presumably this means it is OK to eat the left-over food of a women.

Food – what, how, when and by whom it is to be eaten – is a major preoccupation of the Manu smriti, and a couple of chapters are given over to it. Again all prescriptions and prohibitions are aimed at the ‘twice-born’. Given that ‘brahmin’ and ‘vegetarian’ are almost synonymous in most of present-day India, and in fact that the latter word is used as code for the former in housing ads, for example, it is surprising that there is so much description of what meat can and cannot be eaten and when and how, by priests (brahmins) as much as by other ‘twice-born’. (Sudras, of course, according to Manu, eat anything at all – that’s one of things that makes them sudras.) In one verse, along with mushrooms and onions and garlic, ‘meat that is not consecrated’ is prohibited – implying that consecrated meat is OK. Elsewhere, ‘Someone who eats meat, after honouring the gods and ancestors, when he has bought it, or killed it himself, or has been given it by someone, does nothing bad’. But though there are no prohibitions on eating meat, there are some strong exhortations not to do so. ‘A man who does not … eat meat becomes dear to people …’

There is chapter on the duties of a king – providing security and meting out justice. There are prescriptions on how to build forts, how to move the army from one place to another, and on the architecture of the administrative system. These are impractical from a modern view-point, but do give a lot of historical data to reconstruct the political and administrative science of those times. There is also a chapter of prescriptions for a criminal justice system and a penal code. This is very detailed and includes descriptions of the nature of acceptable evidence. ‘One single man, who is not greedy may be a witness, but not several women, even if they are unpolluted, because a women’s understanding is unreliable.’ The penal system is, of course, loaded heavily in favour of the brahmins, less so the kshatriya and the vaishya. It is heavily against the sudra, and women. Interestingly, there are no specifications on which takes priority – gender or caste. For example, there is no discussion on whether a brahmin woman is more privileged than a kshatriya man. I suppose the answer to this question is maybe yes, because the woman is the property of the man and as such may have the kind of privileges he himself has.

Most, if not all, of the laws and instructions are meaningless in today’s world, if not actually retrograde. Many of them find echoes in other regressive social systems such as that of the Taliban, for example. Apparently, a great deal of the Hindu Personal Law in India was based on Manu smriti until large scale reform in the last many decades. (Such reform, unfortunately, is even slower in visiting Muslim and Christian Personal laws). However not all of Manu is silly or downright bad. Chapter 6, in particular, seems to be written by a more philosophical sage – ‘…he should be controlled, friendly and mentally composed; he should always be a giver and a non-taker, compassionate to all living beings’. And, ‘If a twice-born man has not caused even an atom of danger to any living creatures, when he is freed from his body there will be no danger to him from anything at all’. And here’s something that resonates well with present-day management-ese, ‘…success is for the man who is alone, he neither deserts nor is deserted’. There are echoes in this chapter of Jainism and of Samkhya philosophy. There are also a slender fore-shadowing of Advaita.

But these are meagre counterweights to the overall negative thrust of the Manu smirti. I would summarize these as follows.
·        Men are born into one of the four varnas. The system is heirarchical, with brahmin being morally and spiritually superior to the kshatriya, who is likewise superior to the vaishya, all of these being far above the sudra.
·        Each varna has its own set of duties, obligations, practices and professions (karma and dharma)
·        These are listed out in extensive and absurd detail for brahmin and kshatriya, and also to some extent for vaishya. Sudra is imperiously ordered to serve the other three varna.
·        The brahmin is associated with knowledge (the veda, and other texts, the rituals, the mantras, everything spiritual, eternal and really ‘important’); the kshatriya with valour, administration, security and justice; the vashiya with business, agriculture, manufacture and trade. The sudra are servants, only slightly more privileged than slaves. Not-mentioned, I think, are people entirely outside this chatur varna, outcasts such as tribals – the chandala, perhaps?.
·        It is better to perform your ‘own’ dharma (i.e. that of the varna into which you are born) badly, than another’s dharma well.
·        Women are property and to be treated as such.

Doniger’s translation is easy to read and comprehensive. Even words like karma and dharma are translated into English, in many different, context-dependent ways. Of course, not knowing Sanskrit, I have to depend on her reputation to judge how true to the ‘original’ this version is. One indication of its integrity and her sincerity is that I do not see any gratuitous remarks against either the text or its authors, or those who still find everyday relevance in it. She in fact quotes A.K. Ramanujan negative statement [‘One has only to read Manu after a bit of Kant to be struck by the former’s extraordinary lack of universality’] only to try and redeem Manu by trying to analyse him, and find meaning and profundity in his work, purely in terms of his own context.

The translation, as I said was easy to read, probably because I just skimmed over large chunks of it. These were the mind-numbing lists of things to do and not to do in various situations. About these lists, Doniger remarks: ‘Beginning in the Veda, persisting through the technical literature of India (including Manu’s text), and still characteristic of much of modern Indian scholarship, is the attempt to reach universality through inclusion, listing, and ordering of all relevant particulars’. I think of my own attempts (lectures, articles, books) at explaining, for example, crystallography, and say; ‘Amen to that!’

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Flash Boys. By Michael Lewis

Flash Boys

Michael Lewis

Allen Lane. First Published 2014.

The economic crisis of 2008, which brought to a crashing halt the exuberant expansion of the previous decade, with effects felt in India, as in the rest of the world, was apparently caused by over-smart ‘rocket scientists’ (such as, for example, maybe an IIT graduate, with post-graduate qualifications from Harvard) who were lured into finance by hyper-capitalist Wall Street. There they operated without any sense of the real world, building ever more complicated financial instruments, until they were selling for enormous aggregate amounts of money, worthless stuff dressed up to look extremely attractive to greedy investors who couldn’t understand any of it, but who slavered at the thought of becoming wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of any human. The crash, the failure of several large investment firms, and the general aftermath brought a degree of sanity to one aspect of this technological transformation of the financial markets, namely to the idea of ‘derivatives’ and ‘sub-prime’ loans and mortgages. But there were other innovations that were made at this time that continue to be in use, misuse and abuse. And as information and communication technology advances, more and more such tools continue to be made, enabling rapacious, amoral and barely legal predators (a word which occurs frequently in ‘Flash Boys’) in the financial markets to continue to prey upon the unsuspecting ordinary investor – the pension funds, the insurance companies, the charitable trusts and, of course, the retail investor.

Financial markets – stock exchanges; bond, derivatives and currency markets; futures markets – these have always been the archetypical and essential components of a capitalist system. They have however never been paragons of virtue or shining examples of the good in human societies. Consider, for example, the savage characterisation to which they are subjected in many of Charles Dickens’ works. (Dickens does not talk about any actual stock market – he does deal at length with capitalist strategies to raise money for risky, and mostly fraudulent, enterprises.) ‘Flash boys’ describes in some detail one more way by which crooked traders use advanced technology to cheat ordinary investors.

In my understanding, a stock market exists to channelize money from hundreds of sources, each of which may be a small amount, but which in the aggregate adds up to the large sum required to undertake a large, and presumably socially useful enterprise. (It is another point altogether whether any such large enterprise - dams, factories, even bridges - can actually be characterized as socially useful in the long run to humanity and to life on earth.) In return, the contributors of the small sums are promised proportional shares of the benefits, i.e. the profits. Done well (in all senses - economic, ethical, social), and as indeed it has been many times, the result of this process is often of greater value to society than just the profits (or capital gains) generated for the shareholders. For example the benefits accruing to everyone from the activities of a company like Larsen and Tubro is probably greater than that represented by just profits and gains to the shareholders of the company. Done honestly but badly, as it is happening more and more, the stock market process may generate gains for the shareholders, but not necessarily for all of society – Pepsi and Coke are prime examples of this type of enterprise. Done dishonestly, the stock market benefits the cheats, not the investors, and certainly not the general public.

The fact that a stock exchange is required for this purpose, i.e. to channelize small sums and build a large amount, makes it a truism that such an institution adds value to society, and obviously, the people associated with the institution will have to be paid for generating this value. Thus stockbrokers and investment banks make money, as does the exchange itself, and all the people who run it. In an ideal world, of course, no such middlemen would be needed, and the large number of small people with small amounts of money would join together, automatically, to set up large enterprises. Ants do it, and so do bees, but humans are autonomous, and its hard to get them to act together. Attempts have been made and are made still to get everyone to do the same thing – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, maybe even modern-day China – but these attempts have either ended in failure or are objectionable on other, non-economic grounds. So stock exchanges, if run honestly for the purpose stated above, are a common good.

But not all that happens in the exchange, in the financial market, and not all that the traders and the brokers and the bankers do, is good. Far from it. Among the more pernicious activities we have insider trading, artificial bull runs, synthetic bear runs, artificially created market sentiment, and so on, none of which can be considered, without argument, as good for society, or sound reasons for the existence of the stock exchange. All the same, the brokers and the traders and the bankers make money, huge amounts of it from such activities. And a lot of it is legal, even though the nature of their ‘services’ is very hard to understand, and their true value even more difficult to estimate. [It needs to be pointed out that ‘legal’ is not necessarily ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’. Consider, for example the following passage that occurs in the book, describing a perfectly legal, and according to the author, a morally and ethically sound set of events. ‘After a big buyer enters the market and drives up the prices of Brent crude oil, for example, it’s healthy and good (!) when speculators jump in and drive up the price of North Texas crude, too. It’s healthy and good (!) when traders see the relationship between the price of crude oil and the price of oil company stocks, and drive these stocks higher. It’s even healthy and good (!) when some clever trader divines a necessary relationship between the share prices of Chevron and Exxon, and responds when it gets out of whack’ (the ironical exclamations are mine). I really can’t see anything ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ in the situations described. All of them appear to me to be gambling, which may not be morally bad, but belongs in casinos, and is not what a market that exists for the good of society as a whole should be doing.] The long term consequences for society of a lot of what the traders and the brokers do are bad, bad even for capitalism. Society, through various institutions such as the Government, or the courts, or the Press, sees the ill effects and tries to prevent them by changing the laws and maybe bringing in additional regulations. But, as pointed out in the book, every change in the laws brings in a fresh set of loopholes, ready for exploitation by the traders and their ‘running dogs’. According to ‘Flash Boys’, precisely one such set of regulations, and the consequent loopholes, is responsible for nurturing the bizzare phenomena of High Frequency Trading.

According to the book, the US Government mandated that all buying and selling of stock should be carried out electronically, thus offering the retail investor direct control of his transactions. Well, it didn’t do any such thing. High frequency trading is only one of the ways in which this particular regulation allows amoral traders to forcibly come in between the buyer and the seller of shares, and make billions of dollars while adding zero (actually negative) value to the basic economic processes underlying those transactions. Here’s a brief summary of how HFT works (as I understood from the book).

First, we have to know that there is not just one market where we can buy or sell shares, but many. (As we shall see, more is better for the HFT companies.) Think of a seller who sits at a computer at home (or office) and makes a bid to sell X shares of some company at a price between Y and Y+dY (dY is a small amount compared to Y). He (most of the people doing this are white males) sends his request to markets A, B, C and D. Now let’s assume there a buyer who wants to buy at price between Y+dY and Y+2dY. For simplicity of explanation, let’s further assume that the buyer is only in market D. Now this is where advanced technology comes in. Because of the difference in location of the markets, the time it takes for the sell request to travel from the seller to market D is a few milliseconds more than it takes to go to market A. A HFT company has invested in buying superfast connections between the markets A and D – connections which are exclusive to it. These lines (OFC, sometimes line-of-sight microwave, and, more recently, line-of-sight laser, connected by the fastest switches and routers available) are only a few tens of microseconds faster than those of the ordinary investor (the ‘buyer’ and the ‘seller’ mentioned above), but these unbelievably small fractions of time are enough. The HFT company sees the sell request on market A the instant it gets there, rushes around the markets a few tens of microseconds before the request itself can get around, sees the buy request on market D, and now it knows the existence of the two complementary requests before they can match up in a normal way. The company buys from the seller at price Y and sells to the buyer at price Y+2DY, and makes a profit of 2DY for doing nothing of value to anyone. The seller has lost DY, and so has the buyer. For, left to themselves, the sale would have gone through at the mid range of Y+DY. This high frequency chicanery is apparently legal.

This is just the simplest of the possibilities. Michael Lewis describes several others, and hints at still others, even more complicated. We have ‘dark pools’ and complicated varieties of buy and sell orders and ‘co-location’ of computer hardware, and other jargon, all of which tries to hide the fact that the most sophisticated financial market in the world is now so far removed from the simple high-minded purpose I described in the beginning, that nobody understands just what it does that allows it to claim that it deserves the tons of money it is making. It is highly doubtful if a casino would be allowed to operate in such an opaque manner. Note that the high frequency trading, or in fact even the simple one-on-one trade between the buyer and seller, I described in the previous paragraph is impossible with human intervention. Computer programs talk to other computer programs, do all the deals at blinding speeds counted in microseconds and maybe even nanoseconds. The stock exchange is now just an ecosystem of computer programs (or algorithms) talking to each other, and reacting to each other. Sudden and inexplicable crashes therefore can (and do) come about by the unmeant creation of feedback loops. The lack of clarity is precisely the opportunity for a brilliant but unscrupulous technical wizard to make money, unethically, but just within the law.    

Lewis is generally down on the HFT companies. He is careful not to mention any particular company as illegal or even unethical. But his disapproval of them, in general, comes through. The book has heroes, in particular a group of idealistic (or so he says) young techies who get together and set up their own exchange, IEX, which they claim is fair to everybody, and offers the HFT companies no particular advantage. He also mentions Goldman Sachs with some approval. The book is an illuminating and interesting read. But Lewis is not the best of writers for one such as me who is reading about all of this for the first time, and who has, apparently, a constitutional disinclination to spend too much time and effort in trying to understand all the machinations. His language is sometime unnecessarily profane – though he claims to be just quoting his protagonists and his heroes. He makes several important points about technology and the markets. One of them is that the world is no longer 'flat', at least not for online trading. The closer you are to the stock exchange - which is now just a huge computer - the better. Even a few tens of meters will make a difference. 

Lewis does not deviate too far from the mainstream capitalist line, but the book makes it clear there is no such thing as a free market, so beloved of all those on the ideological right who misquote Adam Smith.

Cheaper By The Dozen. By Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Cheaper By The Dozen

Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

A Yearling Book. First published 1948.

This is a story from Main Street, America - very Reader’s Digest-y. It is a series of humourous, ‘heart-warming’ anecdotes strung together in roughly historical sequence, about a family of twelve children, six girls and six boys, and their parents, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. According to the book, these two pioneered ‘motion study’, or what may today be called ergonomics – the science, and maybe art, of performing tasks, especially industrial tasks in a factory, most efficiently, with no unnecessary effort or time. Considering that their researches were conducted and their theories were developed in the early part of the twentieth century, when Henry Ford had just built the production line to manufacture his cars, it would just perfectly fit in with the ‘zeitgeist’. One could probably place the couple among the earliest industrial engineers.

But the book is only marginally about industrial engineering. It is mainly about the father, Frank Gilbreth, and how he impressed his forceful, if benevolent personality on his family. Probably of necessity, he introduced a large degree of regimentation into their life at home, with some of the measures producing hilarious and unforeseen consequences. By and large this a very readable book, with obvious, but harmless, exagerrations, mostly for dramatic effect. Of course only those stories that can be lead to an overall pleasant effect find place in the book. Surely there must have been many nasty and terrible things that happened, as happens in any family, but these are not even mentioned. Thus, it is not a serious book about a large family growing up in an America that was just then flexing its newly-found muscles as the economic, military, and even cultural, superpower. It is forcibly a ‘happy’ book, with happy stories about a happy white upper-middle class American family. The version I read now is complemented by a Norman Rockwell-like painting of the family on the cover. This is very appropriate, considering that the book is an expression of the light, happy, conservative emotions seen in Rockwell’s paintings.

The Book Thief. By Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Black Swan. First published 2005.

It is less about books and theft, than about a little girl growing up into young adulthood in Nazi Germany. Liesl is virtually orphaned when only about six, her communist father is imprisoned and probably killed by the newly 'elected' Nazi government; her mother, also a communist, is driven to give up little Liesl and her littler brother for adoption (The political opinions of the parents is implied, never explicitly stated). The brother, however, dies on the way to his foster parents, who live in a suburb of Munich. This event traumatizes Liesl and hangs over her every action and thought for the duration of the book. Liesl's new parents are a kindly old man and his tough and abrasive, but ultimately soft-hearted wife - a harsher version of Marilla Cuthbert of 'Anne of Green Gables'. As Liesl grows up she joins school, makes friends, especially Rudi - a boy who keeps pestering her for a kiss - and slowly learns to read. She steals a few books, though the acts described as thefts are not so really, they are more the taking of what no one needs, or, in one occasion, grabbing a book from the bonfire to which it has been consigned in a communal book-burning. 

Such events form the background of the story - the rise of Nazi Germany, Kristallnacht, book-burning, 'Heil Hitler', Hitler Jugend (into which Rudi and Liesl are conscripted without really knowing much about it), rationing and hunger, the 1936 Olympics and Jesse Owens (who unbelievably and exaggeratedly becomes Rudi's hero), World War II, Jew hunting, Jew killing and the Holocaust. Liesl herself is not Jewish, neither are her foster parents. They are bewildered by the discovery of the hatred borne by some of their neighbours and fellow-citizens towards others. They try their mite to stop it, but they are not heroes, and what they can do is very little. Until, one day, the son of an old acquaintance of theirs, a Jew, seeks shelter in their home as he flees the Gestapo. A major part of the book describes the consequent tensions and anxieties. For Liesl this is a strange and frightening, but also wonderful experience, as she learns to care for the refugee and make his cramped basement quarters as comfortable as possible. In the course of time, the Jewish refugee decides he cannot continue to be a dangerous burden on the family and simply goes away, only to be captured sometime later and sent to concentration camp. Rudi and Leisl’s parents die in the bombing of Munich. The war ends. Liesl and everyone else slowly pick up and re-knot the dropped and torn threads of their lives.

The book is soft teenage or young adult literature and the language is gentle. It uses the device of a personified ‘Death’ as the narrator. This is occasionally intrusive and irritating, but not enough to turn the reader off entirely. The language is ‘English’ English, though the characters, of course, would ‘actually’ speak German. There are occasional words (especially mild curse words) and sentences in German to embellish the ambience. The effect, on the whole, is quite pleasing.

The book falls squarely in the category of ‘Holocaust Literature’. There is now so much of this genre, not only books, but essays, movies, plays, and all varieties of media, that these descriptions do not any more evoke the same particular sense of shock and horror they did when I first read about them as a schoolboy. One of the problems in reading it in the context of present-day politics is that I am constantly brought up against the fact that most present-day Jews are rich and prosperous, and some them, the Zionists, visit upon others much the same evil that was visited upon them – consider the way Israel treats the Palestinians. There is also the fact that other genocides at other places and other, later, times have occurred and keep happening – Pol Pot in Cambodia, Stalinist Russia, Rwanda, Gujarat, Bangladesh, Iraq, Afghanistan, and on and on and on. And we now learn more and more about the horrors of American slavery, and the virtual extermination of the native peoples in America and Australia. So, while the Holocaust still remains for me the primary evil event in the world, it only just occupies the top spot. In any case, it cannot serve as any kind of reason or excuse for what Israel is doing. Zionist propaganda has however mostly succeeded in using this horror in just that way. The world is constantly exhorted ‘never to forget’ the Holocaust. We are allowed, even encouraged, however, to forget, and even forgive, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, for example.

‘The Book Thief’ is too slender a reed on which to lay the weighty charges of Zionist blindness to the sufferings of non-European people. However I do have the slight feeling that one of the unstated motives of the book is to expatiate some of the guilt of non-Jewish Germans, and to say, ‘Not all Germans were bad, or whole-hearted supporters of Hitler’s madness’. And while this undoubtedly true, this line of argument could eventually lead to the world forgetting the actual Holocaust, and re-imagining it as evil perpetrated by liberals and communists, who in the present day happen to be dark-skinned.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A Game with Sharpened Knives. By Neil Belton

A Game with Sharpened Knives

Neil Belton

Phoenix Paperback. First published 2005.

Belton takes the facts from a couple of years Erwin Schrodinger's life in the early 1940's and weaves a fascinating tale with it, equally of history, politics, diplomacy, psychology, social drama and human relations.

Schrodinger is best known among students of science, particularly physics, for his equation. This equation reconciles the wave nature of elementary particles such as electrons and protons, with their simultaneous particle nature. Until this equation came along, physicists were floundering to make sense of the experimental observations of numerous phenomena, each of which could be explained only with a different set of equations. Schrodinger's 'wave equation' as it is called, makes it possible to set up a single set of equations, the solutions of which yield predictive descriptions of all manner of physical phenomena, ranging from the subatomic to the macroscopic scales. (Newton's equations, commonly used to make calculations at 'human' scales have been shown to be a special case of Schrodinger's equations.)

The equation makes it possible to calculate all the measurable physical properties of a subatomic particle, or a set of subatomic particles. However, the physical interpretation of the descriptor, called the wave function, of such a particle that occurs in the equation is, even today, a matter of controversy, much more so immediately following the publication, in 1926, of the equation. Schrodinger himself did not much like the popular statistical interpretation of the wave function as a probability wave. In the book, his struggle to find a satisfactory explanation, and at the same time extend the validity of the equation to explain relativistic phenomena, as well as phenomena at the largest scales of the Universe, forms a strong, though minor, vein. Described in the same vein are his struggling thoughts on the nature of Life and the possible physical principles that underlie Biology. These were clarified and finally published by Schrodinger in a truly seminal and widely influential work 'What is Life?', published in 1944, some years after 'A Game with Sharpened Knives' ends.

Schrodinger had a peripatetic career, spending time in many European Universities. In 1936 he came back to an Austria threatened by Hitler. When the country was annexed by Nazi Germany, Schrodinger had to flee, and after a few years in Oxford and Ghent, he was offered, and accepted a position at the Institute of Advanced Studies, newly set up by the Irish Government headed by the nationalist De Valera, one of the first prime ministers (or Taoiseach - pronounced 'tee schach') of a fully independent Ireland. European politics, Nazi Germany, Irish politics, its uneasy neutrality during the war, and its internal strife, the struggles in Northern Ireland, all these form another interesting and sometimes mysterious thread in the book. There are spies, smugglers and perhaps militant rebels who wander in and out of Schrodinger's life in Dublin, making for a fair amount of dread and anxiety for him personally, for his family and friends, as well as for the reader. 

The main narrative, however, concerns the psychology of Schrodinger as a brilliant, Nobel prize-winning scientist brought to straightened circumstances by historical events, and, perhaps even more so, by his amorous adventures. He is constantly battling what he perceives as his increasing scientific irrelevance - a state of mind that I have personally seen in many of my senior colleagues. At the same time his uncontrollable libido leads him into love affairs with which pleasurably satisfy his immediate urges, but soon degenerate into dilemmas, especially when his lover becomes pregnant by him, in a place - catholic Ireland - and time when abortion, even contraception, and divorce are taboo. Not all his women are as undemanding as his wife, Annemarie, whom he brings to Dublin from Austria, along with his mistress, Hilde. Both these women are friends, and bring up their children together, Hilde representing herself as Annemarie's friend in a fig leaf camouflage. A third woman comes into the story as Schrodinger's Irish lover. She is Sinead, a stage actress, who has a deep, involved relationship with Schrodinger, but gives up on him when she realizes she is pregnant and that the relationship is going nowhere. (This character is apparently modeled on Sheila May, Schrodinger's real life Irish lover.) Throughout, Schrodinger is painfully aware of all his flaws, but unable to correct them, and do the right thing by all his women. It soon becomes an impossible task anyway, considering the contrary demands each relationship makes on him, and Schrodinger, now in his early fifties, is psychologically, if not physically, much the worse for it. The book itself ends with Sinead going away, and Schrodinger going back to his wife and his mistress.

This is a brilliantly written book, dense with characterization and description, with a seamless weaving together of the various elements of Schrodinger's life, science, love, sex and politics. Sometimes it is like listening to jazz music, though with none of the lightness. The writing style is reminiscent of Graham Greene and John Le Carre, more like the former than the latter, in that there is none of the characteristic patterns of speech and dialogue found in Le Carre. Like Greene, Belton writes in a understated, grey and depressed manner, and, like Le Carre, he invokes a 'perpetually drizzling' world in Dublin. Even when he describes a trek undertaken by Schrodinger and Sinead, he describes the earth and the rocks, rather than the sky and the sea, and one gets the impression of dirty rain, though that feature is never actually mentioned.

I wanted to read this book ever since I saw the review by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books. She calls it 'austere authoritative fiction, a fine melancholy novel...' I cannot state it better. I wish someone could write a similar novel about GNR.


Friday, 15 August 2014

The Sceptical Patriot. By Sidin Vadukut

The Sceptical Patriot

Sidin Vadukut

Rupa Publications. First published 2014.

Vadukut starts off with a nervous disclaimer, more abject apology, really. He clearly anticipates violent reactions from all the non-sceptical patriots who have recently come out of the woodwork and are constantly and agressively casting around for things to take competitive umbrage to. Well, he need not really have been so fearful. For he finds a degree of truth in all the seven great Indian truths that he investigates, sufficient truth to allow even the mildest brown-shorted, black-capped, mustachioed patriot to satisfactorily silence the most voluble, khadi kurta-clad JNU-educated jholawala. 

He finds that plastic surgery (nose jobs in particular) was practiced in India several centuries, even millennia, before it found mention in European records; Chola kings did invade South Asian nations (though this is contrary to the given wisdom that 'peaceful' India was always the invadee, never invader); the zero, the mathematical zero, that is, was first used in India - probably; India's per capita GDP at the time the British first colonized this country was on par, though not much superior to, the richest nations of that time; JC Bose did perform the first experiments that demonstrated wireless radio transmission over a few hundred metres and across intervening walls; Sanskrit is a pretty logical language, well worth investigating by researchers in sub-field of computer science called natural language processing; and finally, something like a university did in fact exist in Takshashila (in what is now Pakistan) about two and a half thousand years ago. 

In my opinion the discoveries, while interesting in themselves, and leading to a deepened appreciation of Indian culture and history, are pointless from the point of view modern-day politics, the point of view that Vadukut apparently takes. He writes well, if a bit too elaborately, padding out the relatively slim returns he obtained from what must have been about eighteen months research, with anecdotes, both personal and historical, that only tangentially bear upon the subject at hand. Minus these, the book would have been no more than a pamphlet of some 20 odd pages. As it stand, it is a light, easily readable and amusing book, which did actually end up enlightening me. However, I remain not entirely convinced about some of his 'history'.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish. By Douglas Adams

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

Douglas Adams

Ballantine Books. First published 1980.

This is the fourth book in a 'trilogy' of five books. Arthur Dent returns to an England he thought had been destroyed (in the first book 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy') to build an inter-galactic superway. 'So Long...' is chiefly a collection of reruns of jokes from the earlier books ('Don't Panic', 'Mostly Harmless', '42'...) along with sarcastic potshots at life in contemporary Britain, and other parts of the Western world. For example, the following lines about democracy: '"No", said Ford, "...On its world the people are people, the leaders are lizards". "Odd", said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy....Why don't the people get rid of the lizards?....You mean the people actually vote for the lizards?... Why?". "Because if they didn't", said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."'

There is a loose 'story' that attempts (and mostly fails) to give some direction to the book. After Creation, God has left behind a Final Message in flaming letters on a remote planet in the Galaxy. Arthur and his girlfriend, and the readers, get to read it in the last few pages - it's again a joke, of course, in the same vein the others in the trilogy, but not as quotable as the best ones.

'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' had jokes and ideas which really pointed out social injustices and logical flaws in our thinking. It attempted to deflate many of our pompous assumptions about ourselves. This book is a weak follow up, and appears to be just an attempt to do exactly the kind of thing Adams himself criticizes so frequently - extend the money-milking ability of an earlier success. It is Mostly Boring.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Four Stories. By Alan Bennett

Four Stories

Alan Bennett

Profile Books. First published 2006.

Four thick slices of contemporary English life. Each story is a well composed and well written novelette, easy to read, straightforward, descriptive, with somewhat ironic language. The first story is especially humorous. It is about the memorial service for a masseur, actually an extremely promiscuous young man who dies in Peru, far away from the scene of his 'action' in England. Most of his lovers, male and female, gather for the service; some are surprised to find that their spouse was also his lover. But of course no one actually admits, except to themselves, how intimately they knew the dead man, Clive. Even the priest conducting the service was Clive's lover. They all sickeningly and silently fear that Clive has died of AIDS, with possibly fearful consequences for themselves, until a young man in the audience gets up and announces that he was at the scene of Clive's death in Peru, and that Clive's death was caused by an accident. 

The second story is a mystery, but told matter-of-factly, with no creepiness or even suspense. A stodgy middle-aged couple return one day from a visit to the theatre to find all - and this means all, right down to the last little bit of toilet paper - has been stolen. The apartment is completely bare. After a few months of slowly recovering their lives, and buying new stuff with the insurance money, they trace the contents of the apartment to a warehouse, where all the stuff has been arranged exactly as it was in the apartment. They pay to get the stuff back to their apartment, all the while struggling to understand who and why perpetrated the bizarre prank, if that was what it was. The solution, when is comes a few days later, is an anti-climax, and turns out to be a mere case of a mistaken address.

The third story is about the vigil of a middle-aged son at his father's deathbed. The father, who is an coma, is described by all who know him, such as his daughter-in-law, his sister, brother, nephew and so on, as a very kindly man, a kind of saint, almost.  His son has less kindly feelings, but wants to clear his conscience by being beside him until he actually passes away, in the hope that he would regain consciousness for at least a short time. This is what actually happens - the father wakes up briefly, and dies. But the son is absent, making adulterous love to the night nurse in another room.

The final story is based on an actual event that visited upon the author.  An eccentric, actually slightly mad, old lady parks her van just outside his gate, then, after a few months of staying in it, is warned by the police to take it away. She cajoles Bennett to allow her to park the van in his driveway, where she stays for another fifteen years! She lives of the social security pension she gets from the government, but keeps herself and her van absolutely filthy. When she passes away, Bennett finally enters the van to find it a garbage dump, complete with rotten food, broken bottles and half-open tin cans.

Very  nice light reading.  

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

Amazon Kindle e-book. First published 1899

Not "The Heart of Darkness" nor "Heart of the Darkness" nor yet "The Heart of the Darkness". "Darkness" is a place, delineated on a map as a blank, unmarked patch of a different colour from the neighbouring patches. (The colour Conrad uses is yellow, perhaps to indicate that at least the map-maker did not associate dark colours with ignorance. But more likely because marking the patch in, say, black, would have been the 'normal', the banal thing to do.) The title can also be read to mean 'black-hearted', that is, cruel and evil. And the novelette's main character Kurtz can certainly be characterized to have had a 'heart of darkness' in the latter period of his career as the Belgian colonial company's agent deep in the jungle in Congo (presumably, since the countries are never named), what is now called the 'Democratic Republic of Congo'. The jungle itself is a dark place, a 'darkness'. Physically, because the thick foliage does not allow the light in. And metaphorically, because we, the readers, the author, and the characters in the book do not know what actually goes on in that vast impenetrable land. But the darkness that the story actually is all about is the one that exists in a person's psyche, no matter how 'civilized', no matter how educated, no matter how thoughtful, no matter how innocent. It is in this broader, and simultaneously narrower, and more terrifying sense, beyond control, beyond even comprehension, that the word is used repeatedly through the book. And each occurrence is prefixed with a different adjective - 'heart of an impenetrable darkness'; 'heart of a conquering darkness'; 'the triumphant darkness'; 'the stream of darkness'; 'heart of an immense darkness'.

The story is easily summarized. Charles Marlow, a sailor - a captain - is asked by a Belgian company that 'imports' (more accurately, steals) ivory from Africa, to take charge of a small broken-down steamer stuck upriver in the depths of Congo. He travels there by boat and across the land. In a few months he sets the steamer right, and while these repairs are on he hears about Kurtz, who is the company's most successful agent, stationed deep within the darkness. Nothing has been heard of him for months, except weird rumours of sickness and strange rituals. Marlow sets out to Kurtz's station up the river that twists and turns through the dense jungle, with frightening and sickening adventures on the way. When he finally reaches the station, more terrifying sights await him - stakes with human heads spiked on them; a large congregation of African tribesmen, some with weird head-dresses, all chanting and apparently worshiping Kurtz who lies sick in a hut in their midst. Marlow half carries Kurtz to the boat, narrowly escaping having the boat swamped by the tribesmen, and he and all his men, except perhaps Kurtz, being killed. Kurtz lies ill on the return journey and dies halfway through, but not before giving indications of the horrors, the horrors, that he has seen and done and experienced - not before Marlow catches the overpowering smell of evil at the heart of darkness. 

'Apocalypse Now' is a movie based on this story and made by Francis Ford Coppola. In the film, the story has moved to the early 1970's and the darkness is here up the river Mekong in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando is a renegade American army officer, who has set up his own mini kingdom in the heart of darkness. The movie is memorable to me for its music - Jim Morrison and The Doors - and for the lush photography. However, the air of brooding evil, both outside, in the world, and inside, within our souls, that pervades Conrad's book, was missing in the movie. William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' also deals with a somewhat similar theme. It is the story of the darkness within the hearts of a group of adolescent English schoolboys, who regress to primitive savagery in a short time after they are marooned on a deserted island and the constraints of society are removed. 

My own moment of darkness occurred in Mumbai, about 1967 or so when I was about 12 years old. I was left alone at home to supervise the work of a domestic servant boy who was few years younger than me, and who had been 'imported' from Kerala to serve us. For a period of about half-an-hour, I treated him with unconscionable cruelty, hitting him repeatedly for failing to pick up a speck or two of dust from the floor he was cleaning, until he could bear it no longer and ran outside, weeping uncontrollably. (In my own favour, I must say that I immediately came to my senses, and though I did not apologize to the boy, nor ever consciously try to make it up to him, my treatment of him for the rest his stay with us was far more subdued).

I kept remembering this incident as I read the book. How easy it is to act with unspeakable inhumanity when we believe we have no one to control us or to judge us. I suppose the Roman emperors often felt that, as perhaps kings of all ages in all countries. And as, perhaps, Binyamin Netanyahu feels now (in August 2014, as 'Operation Protective Edge' is continuing) - 'I do what I do because I can, because there is no one to stop me.' Corruption of the mind and soul (and not just material corruption - taking bribes, for example) is probably a far better interpretation of the word in Lord Acton's well-known dictum 'All power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely'.

Conrad's book is a chilling narration illustrating the point. But not as I have portrayed it in the couple of paragraphs above. He implies at various points in the book that in normal, 'civilized' surroundings, such a darkness would not be, or would be so deeply embedded that it would not be seen. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as those experienced by Kurtz in Africa, one may regress into the most primitive savagery. He says 'You can't understand, how could you? - with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between butcher and policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums - how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by way of solitude - utter solitude without a policeman - by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion'. Thus the Africans who surround Kurtz at his lonely station are none of them 'kind neighbours' and there is no law, no norms of human behaviour. This of course is an utterly and completely unfair, racist characterization of the local people at Kurtz's station, but I will not explore this thread further.    

Conrad also explores, though incompletely, the genesis of the power that accrues to Kurtz. He is not impressed with the civilizational claims of the European powers, recognizing their interactions with Africa as one primarily of loot and plunder. 'The conquest of the earth', he says, 'which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it'. Calling it 'trade' was farcical at best, for 'a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads and brass-wire [was] sent into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.' In the process of such trade it became necessary to subdue whatever resistance there could have been by a force of arms, and by psychological devices such as those implicitly attributed to Kurtz. The European thus gains absolute power over the African, and absolute corruption follows.

The book is justly famous for its brief but intense study of this psychological darkness. There is however not much evidence to show that Conrad thought about this at all from the point of view of the effects of the European interactions on the Africans. Africans remain characterized as savages, Europeans as civilized, most of them, except those corrupted by the power that comes to them at the heart of Darkness.