Sunday, 23 August 2015

Notwithstanding. By Louis de Bernieres


Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 2009.

The book is subtitled 'Stories from an English Village'. There are 20 short stories, concerning 20 eccentric people, or the occasional eccentricities of 20 people, all in the south English village of Notwithstanding in the 1960's and the 1970's. As always with de Bernieres, the writing is sweet and gentle. It flows smoothly from idea to idea, from description to description, without a single wrinkle or misstep. The characters are all lovable, and even the worst ones are shown only in their all too human aspects. This again is standard for de Bernieres, the complete lack of hateful villains in his books. (Well, there is one, a nouveau riche and nasty businessman called Royston Chittock, who however soon gets his comeuppance for his meanness.) The book starts with Archie gluing birdseed his drawing room window, and the rest of that story explains why. There are stories about 'all the lonely people', about young triumph, young love, very young love, old death and very old death. In fact almost half the stories are about death, but the narration robs them of any real sorrow, leaving behind sometimes only a feeling of melancholic nostalgia for a life, I for one, never knew first hand but only through books. Towards the end of the book, reality intrudes in the form of neoliberalism, and funnily enough it is Margaret Thatcher's conservative economics that is held responsible for the 'progressive' destruction of village life. In an afterword, de Bernieres describes how many of the village institutions and establishments described in the stories were taken from his own life as a child and young man in an English village that served as a model for Notwithstanding. Some of them still remain now in 2009, but many are gone. Most of all, with increasing urbanisation, the special relationships between the people that can only exist in a rural milieu is gone.

De Bernieres, however, clearly skips over all the ugliness that must necessarily exist in such settings - the small mindedness, the insularity, the intolerance, and the racism. The 60s and 70s were a period of increasing multiculturalism in Great Britain, when the colonies struck back at the Empire, by flocking to it in ever-larger numbers, to enjoy the prosperity their ancestors had willy-nilly contributed to build. It is hard to imagine that Notwithstanding could remain aloof, a kind of isolated idyll, not having to confront its own darknesses. But de Bernieres does not say he set out give a true journalistic report of the life in those times and those places. In any case, his writing is so good that much can be forgiven of him. There are of course many such collections of stories of village (or town or city) life in various countries - think 'Swami and Friends'. That however does diminish in any way the pleasure of reading this particular collection of slices of Life with a capital 'L'. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 1998.

In this second installment of the series, a few new ideas are introduced. We have the whomping tree and the flying car - a brilliant touch to make it a Ford Anglia. We are also introduced to polyjuice potion and house elves and so on. The structure of the story is the same as in the first book. Summer holidays with the Dursleys, off to Hogwarts, run-in with various teachers, high jinks, fights with the bully, and the final face-off against Voldemort, after which Harry and the readers learn more about the 'history' of the magical world. J.K. Rowling made her books darker and darker as the series progressed, and as her initial set of child fans grew to be teenagers. This volume, however, is written with much the same atmosphere of the first one.    

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 1997

Obviously this is not the first time I am reading this book. Gauri worked her way through six of the seven books of the series over a period of about 10 days a couple of weeks ago (for maybe the fifth time - and the seventh book was not included only because we don't have it here - I wonder where it has gone, after all the fuss getting it). That has inspired me to go through the series again.

The book has aged very well. All the hype came later, and even in this reading, this book retains the freshness and sweetness that came before. And this despite all the deliberately designed tropes of children's books from England - an orphan hero, hidden brilliance suddenly revealed, public school life including fierce inter-house rivalry, a game (like football or cricket). We have seen this in Enid Blyton, in Frank Richards, in P.G. Wodehouse (his early books) and even in Anthony Buckeridge. J.K. Rowling, of course added her own very clever flavours to this and served up a delicious story, for kids of 6 as well as old people of 60. I look forward to going through the rest of the series in the next few weeks. 

This Blinding Absence of Light. By Tahar Ben Jelloun

This Blinding Absence of Light

Tahar Ben Jalloun. Translated from French by Linda Coverdale.

Penguin Books. First published 2001.

This book is based on the true life experiences of a Moroccan student soldier, here called Salim, who, in 1971, almost innocently (in that he did as ordered, and had no part in the decision to rebel or in the planning of the rebellion), took part in a failed coup again King Hassan II. Along with many others, he was condemned to living burial for 18 years in an underground prison situated in the Moroccan desert. No light was allowed into the cells, day or night. The food was meager, barely enough for sustenance. The water foul, and in quantity just sufficient to assuage thirst, with very little left over for any washing. There were no drugs and no medical help even for the common ailments. The place was vermin infested, sometimes deliberately introduced by the guards as a measure of control or punishment. There was no way to clean oneself, and the cells, and the prisoners themselves, were soon stinking of human refuse. In these circumstances, some, a few, a very few of the prisoners managed to keep their minds intact and survive, until they were released nearly twenty years later. This is the fictionalized story of one of them.

Salim is the son of one of the King's courtiers. As the father bows and scrapes his way to positions of greater and greater privilege in the palace, he abandons his family, consisting of a wife and a few children. Salim joins the army as a cadet soldier, and is ordered into an attack on the palace. The attack fails, most of the attackers are killed, and the surviving officers captured and executed. The captured soldiers are imprisoned, first overground, in the prison in the desert, and then, when, presumably, the political heat becomes too much for the monarchy to bear, underground in dungeons completely devoid of light, the existence of which are entirely deniable to the country and to the world. Now begins the eighteen-year ordeal under conditions that rats would find difficult to survive. Salim is put in a cell block containing 13 others, in separate cells. The prisoners can communicate by shouting to each other, and a weird fellowship grows. Each of the prisoners has his own idiosyncrasy, and expresses a personality, inasmuch as any such individuality is possible in that literal hell-hole. One of them, for example, keeps the time, and announces it at regular intervals. Another is desperately scared of scorpions, and the guards frequently threaten to introduce them into his cell. A third is a snitch. And Salim himself remembers books he has read and narrates them to his block-mates, or recites passages from the Koran. Over the years, the prisoners die, one after the other, to unimaginably horrible deaths. One of them, for instance, is disgusted with fouling his own cell and decides to hold back. In a few days he becomes so terribly constipated that he tries to get relief by poking a metal rod up his anus. He punctures himself and bleeds to death. Another is brought in with a gangrenous arm. But before he can be killed by the gangrene, he is eaten alive by cockroaches attracted to the wound. With each death, the others in the cell block are put to work. At the best of times, the guards make them prepare the corpse for burial with all religious rites and recitations, and the prisoners are allowed a few brief minutes outside in the yard, where the burial takes place. The empty cell is then cleaned out. In many cases, the corpse is just dragged away, and thrown into an unmarked grave, thereby adding the horror and scandal of irreligion to the ordeals of the believers among the survivors. Of the thirteen in the cell-block, just three survive to the end, when after twenty years, in an unexplained act of random mercy, hinted as being due to international pressure, the prisoners are 'pardoned' and set free. Just three of thirteen, only twenty-eight out of fifty-eight in the entire prison. The prison is razed to the ground, and denied as ever having been there. The survivors are given some time to recuperate under medical care, and sent back to their families, many of whom had given them up for dead.

A brilliant book, it recalls to my mind a few other such prison narratives, both fictional and political that I have read - 'The Count of Monte Cristo', 'Shantaram'. In spirit, narrative style and integrity it is closer to 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch', as well the briefer pieces  'In the Penal Colony' by Kafka and 'A Hanging' by George Orwell. 'This Blinding Absence of Light' is well-written. It certainly is not entertaining light reading, nor is it meant to be such. But the narrative flows well, and though the events described are by turns depressing, disgusting or just plain horrible, the book itself is not so. It is easy, and even 'good' to read. It demonstrates that it may be possible to survive even the worst of fates, though it does not make a song and dance about the greatness of the human spirit, or such banalities. The horrible deaths of more than half the prisoners, and the emptiness of the lives to which the survivors return, these realities overshadow any triumphant feelings at having undergone the ordeal without succumbing.

There are many quotable passages. Here's one of them: 'Passing the time! That was our main occupation, apparently. Time, however, did not move. This amused me and made no sense. Like boredom. We had become creatures of boredom, packages stuffed with boredom. Boredom smelled like cemeteries when the stones are wet. It skulked around us, chewed on our eyelids, scratched our skin and burrowed into our bellies.' The thing about the book is that the description this 20 years of 'boredom' is anything but boring.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Mystery of the Blue Train. By Agatha Christie

The Mystery of the Blue Train

Agatha Christie

Harper. First published 1928.

Set in the Europe of the 'Belle Epoque', this is an unremarkable Hercule Poirot novel. An American millionaire's daughter is murdered on her way to Nice on the Blue Train from London. Poirot just happens to be on the same train and offers to assist the police. Apart from the usual intrigues and laundry list of suspects, there are some elements of international crime, including a criminal master-mind who is also a master of disguise, a couple of mysterious Russian emigres in Paris, and so on. Half-way through the book, I kind of guessed who the murderer was, though the exact solution, which Poirot produces out of his hat, eluded me. This is not a very well constructed novel. There is some interest in noting the class relations depicted, but these are by-the-way, and arise only as a result of having read Piketty and others. Christie's writing itself, of course, is entirely oblivious to any actual politics, being content to borrow cliches and stereotypes from social history. However, I got this book as a kind of reaction to the previous one - 'One False Move'. And I must say, despite being a mediocre Christie, I found more satisfaction in this book than in that.

One False Move. By Harlan Coben

One False Move

Harlan Coben

Hodder and Stoughton. First published 1998.

I was looking for a good crime novel in the noir tradition of Raymond Chandler when I got this book (as a present from Usha, Krishna and Amudhan). Harlen Coben is no Chandler - not even close. His hero, Myron Boltair, is no Philip Marlowe. Boltair is not a detective, he's a sports agent, but he somehow gets involved in crime detection. He spends so much time and money on it, that one wonders how he gets to keep his sports agent business going. His detection consists mostly of making phone calls to his contacts who get him information. He's got a tough, smart and rich friend called Win, whose very name scares the shit out of even hard mobsters. To summarize, he's got a friend who takes care of the physical stuff, another friend/associate who takes care of his business, friends in the police, phone companies and so on, who take care of the actual information gathering. So what is his role? To be cool all the time, make the wise cracks and keep going from one place to another, arriving too late to do any real good, like stopping a murder or suicide. Coben makes some attempt at social comment - race relations, gender equality, sexual freedom. But these are tepid at best, and mostly contradictory. All-in-all, a disappointment.

Oh well, back to re-reading Chandler. Or maybe I can hunt down some of the Ross Macdonalds I have not read.

The Rig Veda. Translated by Wendy Doniger

The Rig Veda

Selected, translated and annotated by Wendy Doniger

Penguin Books. Translation and annotation first published 1981.

There are four commonly acknowledged vedic compilations of hymns - the Rig, the Atharva, the Ayur and the Sama vedas. Of these the Rig veda is held to be the oldest of all and the most philosophic - the others are said to deal with more prosaic matters such as rituals and prayers and medicines and life practices. Doniger selects 108 from the over 1000 hymns in the Rig veda. The number 108 occurs frequently in Hinduism, in ritual practice and in everyday life, though its precise significance is obscure. Doniger must have chosen that particular number of hymns to translate as a nod to the practice. The Rig vedas addresses a variety of topics, and her selection spans this variety, though surely not fully. There are only a few hymns in this selection that can be called deeply philosophical - as ruminations on Life, the Universe and Everything. Others are ritual invocations to the Gods - Indra, mainly, but also Varuna, Agni and a few others. Vishnu and Rudra (Siva) are among these, but not with the prime positions in the pantheon they have since come to occupy. There are also hymns that describe rituals, that set up and repeat myths, or refer to myths that were probably well known at that time. Some of these stories may be interpreted to have psychological or philosophical meaning, but such interpretations have to be carried out carefully, and should be read by the lay reader with even more care.

The translation is scholarly and profusely annotated, though, perhaps for that very reason, dry. In the present day and age most of the vedas, I think, can have only religious or ritual significance. It may be nice to understand what the priests actually say at a Hindu wedding or a Grahapravesam or other ritual of passing. But apart from that, these poems, except for a few them, would be of interest only to Hindu ritualists, and to scholars of ancient literature, religion and philosophy. But there are few of general interest, and I will mention the ones that struck me as such from this collection.

The well-known and frequently quoted creation hymn (no. 10.129 in the system of enumeration of the hymns used by Doniger) is the first one in this book. It alludes to a space-time, outside of space and time, whence these two fundamentals were created, or sprang into existence. This was followed by the creation of matter and energy, and the Gods, and everything else. The last sloka is a stunner: 'Whence this creation has arisen - perhaps it formed itself, perhaps it did not - the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows - or perhaps he does not know.' 

The Purusa sukta (no. 10.90) describes the creation of the castes when Purusa, or the primeval man, was sacrificed. His mouth became the brahmins, his feet the sudras, and his thighs the kshatriyas. Other parts of his body became, including stuff like fat, all other parts of creation were derived - plants, animals, verses, chants, rhymes and metres, ritual formulas, everything.

Hymn 10.72 describes Aditi, the mother of the Gods, and of men. Sloka 4 is translated as: 'The earth was born from her who crouched with legs spread, and from the earth the quarters of the sky was born. From Aditi Daksa was born, and from Daksa Aditi was born' - in cyclical act of creation.

Hymn 10.135 is a moving and complex song about death. A boy watches his father die, and yearns for him to come back from the land of death - 'Beneath the tree with beautiful leaves where Yama drinks with the Gods, there our father, the head of the family, turns with longing to the ancient ones. Reluctantly I looked upon him as he turned with longing to the ancient ones, as he moved on that evil way. I longed to have him back again'. 

Hymn 10.117 contains this probable fore-runner to the riddle of the Sphinx: 'One-foot (the sun) surpasses Two-foot (human); and Two-foot leaves Three-foot (old man with a cane) behind. Four-foot (a dog) comes at the call of Two-foot, watching over his herds and serving him.'

Hymn 6.70 has an obvious interpretation. It is translated unexplained by Doniger: 'The two full of butter, beautiful masters of all creatures, broad and wide, milked of honey, beautifully adorned...'

Hymn 7.103 describes frogs croaking just after the first rains, and simultaneously brahmins chanting the slokas: 'After lying still for a year, brahmins keeping their vows, the frogs have raised their voice that Parjanya (the God of the Rain-storm) has inspired.'

Hymn 10.34 is a gambler's lament: 'The dice seemed to me like a drink of Soma from Mount Mujavant, keeping me awake and excited.'

Perhaps a more imaginative translation, while less authentic, would be easier to read, maybe even more inspirational. However I intent to revisit this collection several times.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. By Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot

Pan Books. First published 2010

HeLa cells are used by biologists worldwide to investigate biological processes, to test drugs and other interventions, and more generally in basic research in molecular biology. They are perhaps the most important human cell line, and serve as a model system that can used to prove or disprove theories. Especially in drug discovery, they are used as the first line of investigation when the new compound is ready to be tested on actual animal or human systems, after trying it out by computer modelling, and then on bare proteins in the lab, and before it is tested on live animals, and finally clinical trials on human subjects. What does 'a cell line' mean? It means a bunch of cells that can be infinitely grown and reproduced, and in which the current day versions are very little different from the original few cells that started it all. Bacterial cells do this all the time, i.e. reproduce infinitely. One cell splits into two, and then these two split into four and so on, and on. And the current versions of the cell are almost the same as the original ones. There are many other cell lines which are immortal, some derived from animal cells, some from plants. Plant tissue culture, as cell culture is sometimes called, is also a common way of generating multiple copies of a commercially or otherwise useful plant that can then be grown in large quantities, e.g. in fields, and harvested for whatever useful material. Cell lines from higher animals are very difficult to cultivate and maintain, and there are only a few of them. Human cell lines are the most difficult of all. The value of the HeLa cells is therefore immense, since it is a human cell line relatively easy to maintain, and 'immortal'.

'HeLa' stands for Henrietta Lacks, the cancer patient from whom, in 1951, in a hospital in Pittsburgh, the cells were first isolated from a cervical tumour. According to the book, as part of a long running experiment conducted by George Gey, the cells were then tested to see if they would multiply in a testube, as were cells removed from all cancer patients. Since medical research ethics were in a primitive state, it is doubtful if any 'informed consent' was obtained either from the patient herself or from her family. In any case, when, after some experimentation and adjustment of growth conditions and so on, the cells proved to be immortal, and eminently suitable for laboratory work, they were first announced and then distributed to all the world, whoever asked for it, essentially for free. A few years later, though, as happens often in science, a field of activity dominated by white men, white Americans in particular, the cells were commercialized. Today any researcher can still obtain HeLa cells for his research, but has to pay for them. Not much, but nevertheless a payment has to be made. 

Henrietta Lacks herself died of her cancer less than a year after the cells were harvested. Neither she, nor the family she left behind, including a husband and several children, were officially informed about her cells, and how immensely useful they were and continue to be for medical research. HeLa cells have been crucial for the discovery of many, many drugs and treatments, including the polio vaccine. They are found in laboratories around the world, including, of course, here in Madras University. But Henrietta's family never benefited from it. They remained poor, and are disadvantaged to this day. Indeed, when they were finally informed about the cells, mainly on the individual initiative of one or two of the scientists involved, and not as a consequence of any institutional decision, the information given was confusing and, to some of the children, even terrifying. To think their mother's cells were around! To think that their mother's spirit, her ghost was in institutions and laboratories the world over! To think that somehow, someone else, white males chiefly, had taken ownership of a piece, an immortal piece, of their mother! These thoughts angered, saddened and terrified them, though it also made them proud, when, now and then, some one, some journalist or student or scientist, from 'the other side', took the trouble to explain to them just what the cells were and why they were useful.

Skloot's book narrates some of the science behind the discovery, at least its 'human' aspects. But it is largely about the Lacks family. It describes the tribulations of black men and women, descendants of slaves, growing up in Jim Crow America, the legal racism they faced - and continue to face in the 21st century. In the movie 'The Color Purple', based on the book by Alice Walker and directed by Steven Spielberg, the protagonist Celie is told that there is utterly no hope at all of any happiness for her, that she's 'nothing at all, because she is black, poor, ugly and a woman. To judge from the photographs in the book, Henrietta was not ugly, but she was black and poor and a woman, and that would have placed her at nearly the lowermost rung of American society. However, I think that too much should not be made of the fact that she or her family was not informed before the cells were taken - since a white, rich, handsome male would have probably been treated almost the same, as far as this particular aspect is concerned. Of course, what happened after the cells were shown to be infinitely reproducible, that would almost certainly have been different. Given the fact that the cells actually started making money only many years later, and even then only because of the development of maintenance and delivery methodologies, it is unlikely that the person who originally 'donated' the cells, whatever race or social class he or she belonged to, would have benefited monetarily. However a rich white man, and his family, would certainly have been treated with greater respect and honour, with perhaps a wing of the hospital named after him, and so on. Also, though this is not connected to the immortality and utility of the cells, he would probably have been given far better medical treatment and would probably have lived comfortably a few more years.