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.