Saturday, 10 October 2015

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 2000.

The fourth book in the series, this is definitely now for older children (and adults, of course). It starts with a death, and ends with another. And while there are many jokes in between, the story line becomes grimmer, and Harry becomes more angry, frustrated and anxious. Draco Malfoy is now less just a nasty young boy, and more an evil object-to-hand, a kind of small scale model of the distant supervillain Voldemort. Malfoy, in fact, reminds me of the stereo-typical TV soap opera villain - a mother-in-law, usually - whom the audience is compelled to hate. 

There are a couple of jokes in the book clearly aimed at adults - the Uranus one, of course, but also another I missed in my first reading 15 years ago. Dumbledore consoles Hagrid on his disreputable family by pointing out that he himself had a brother who'd been in serious trouble for performing unacceptable magic on a goat! Not a joke that many readers might get, but it was probably Rowling having a bit of private fun. There are other such surprising turns of phrase, which leads one to think that Rowling was really enjoying herself, teasing the reader, the publisher and maybe the critic. There are also some expressions I thought were rather old-fashioned, not used anymore in 21st century Britain. When Ron is asked if he did something or the other, he exclaims, 'As if!'. By this he implies that he was not capable of even thinking about doing such a deed. This phrase, meaning just such a thing, was common about four or five decades ago among the middle class children in India, educated in English medium schools. I can imagine my mother using it. I thought it had kind of fallen out of favour, and when I saw it now in this book, I was surprised. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it is very much in use now in India too, as much as in Britain.    

Rowling is inventive as usual - Quidditich world cup, portkeys, the triwizard tournament, gillyweed, SPEW, and best of all, the pensieve. Again, as in the earlier books, the names are very well chosen - Drumstrang, Fleur and Krum are some of the more obviously good ones. It was about this time that the first of Harry Potter movies began to be made. The influence is clear - with the scenes becoming more cinematic. The description of the Beauxbaton carriage and the Drumstrang ship are so obviously made for CGI. The climactic duel in the graveyard is so full of red, white, green and golden beams of light, that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that when these portions were written by Rowling, the film technicians were looking over her shoulder - metaphorically, if not literally.

As an extension to the HP series it does not disappoint. But it's not just a book anymore - it is at this point that it starts to become the phenomenon it has eventually turned out to be. 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Valley of Masks. By Tarun Tejpal

The Valley of Masks

Tarun Tejpal

Harper Collins Publishers India. First published 2011

Tejpal conveys a message in the book, which he summarizes right at the end - 'Doubt.' he says. 'That should forever alternate with faith...' In leading up to this, he describes an idealistic group of people who gather around a visionary leader called Aum, and build a disciplined, self-sacrificing cult. Located in a secluded valley in the Himalayas, the followers of the cult seek to eliminate the self, the ego, and become pure followers of the spirit according to the teachings of Aum. After the passing of the leader and, soon thereafter, of his immediate disciples, the sect is run by successive anonymous groups of elders. At the time of the narrative, the elders are a set of men who have deposed of the previous leaders in a bloody coup, after accusing them of deviating from the true path of Aum. The sect is hierarchical. At the top, of course, are the leaders. The next layer consists of a band of warriors who fiercely school their bodies to be perfect fighting and killing machines. Then come those who serve these groups - the farmers, the artisans, the working class. Women have no place in the first two levels, except to sexually serve the warriors and the elders, and to bear their children. The boys are brought up communally with no attachments to father or mother being allowed to form; the girls are trained, again communally, to serve the men in their turn. 

The story is narrated by one of the best warriors of the group, who suddenly realizes the corruption and the rottenness into which the ideals of the sect have gradually transmuted. He deserts the sect and descends from the valley into the plains. He now waits for the inevitable, to be followed and killed. And he tells his story as he waits.

The writing is taut and gripping, though at times overblown and breathless. The description of the cult is as a mixture of the Hindu fundamentalist sects, groups like the Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Nazis, and the Maoist extremists. The book becomes somewhat preachy, especially at the end, and much of the gruesomeness described at various points in the narrative seem exaggerated for sensation. (Tejpal is after all the founder of Tehelka the 'investigative' journal.) The overall impression I have of the book is that it is somewhat superficial, not really serious, but a reasonable read over a couple of days.  

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Impossible Indian. By Faisal Devji

The Impossible Indian
Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence

Faisal Devji

Harvard University Press. First published 2012.

Mahatma Gandhi is not known for his intellectualism. Indeed, what he did and what he said, and what most people think he thought, demonstrate the opposite of intellectualism. Like Jesus Christ or St. Francis of Assisi, he preached love as logic, and sentiment as sense. In this book, based on an extensive, but possibly selective, possibly even tendentious, reading of the enormous corpus of writing by and about Gandhi, Devji presents a different, robustly logical and coldly intellectual dimension to the character of the Mahatma.

Devji starts by analyzing the formative background to Gandhi's thought. He begins with the violent happenings of 1857, when both the Hindu and Muslim soldiers of the East India Company rebelled against their British masters. Both groups of 'sepoys' had the same fears and grievances, but separately. The Muslim soldiers feared that the ammunition cartridges, which they were asked to bite off to open each time they loaded their rifles, were greased with pig fat, and thus forbidden by their religion. In addition, as belonging to the nominal and/or erstwhile ruling religion, they resented having to serve Christian masters. The Hindu soldiers had religious scruples against putting any kind of animal fat into their mouths. Additionally, they feared loss of caste. Rational demonstrations either that there was no grease on the cartridges, or that it was not animal fat, were of no avail in quelling the fears of both religionists. Devji indicates that these two sets of soldiers found a common enemy, not due to any awakening of common nationalism, but because of a coincidentally convergent threat to the diverse religious sentiments. The fact that both Hindu soldiers and Muslim soldiers (and indeed the Christian British soldiers, both before the rebellion, in instigating it, and after the revolt, in retaliation) visited unspeakable violence upon their antagonists demonstrated that claims of the inherently peaceful or tolerant nature of any of the religions were not substantial. Mahatma Gandhi's own inspiration for a non-violent method of civil disobedience had its roots elsewhere. Violence, he saw, when visited upon the other, did not lead to the desired results over the long term. But he did not reject violence as such. Instead, he argued, when it is turned upon oneself, or one's own group, it leads to lasting results for the community. This insight, then, lay at the foundation of his willingness to not only undergo any kind of punishment for his disobedience, without any retaliation or even attempt at defense, but also to order his followers to accept violent injuries to body and spirit, even to die, happily and willingly for the greater cause. It also lay at the base of frequent and punishing fasts, designed not to blackmail the opponent into submission, but as a form of inviting violence and injury to one's own person for a cause one believed in, without reprisal. 

Not directly related to Gandhi's use of ahimsa, but also indicative of his logical thought processes, is his insistence in his early political years, especially in South Africa, that India and Indians should find a solution to their problems within the framework of the British Empire. The laws of the Empire, its resources, its philosophies, its cultures and its benefits should be shared equally by white man and brown man alike (- there is no mention of the black man). He was willing to accept that Indians would form a minority, just as, indeed, the whites themselves would form another, equal minority. And he worked for such a situation. Thus while Indians, Hindu Indians, were an overwhelming majority in India, nevertheless they were a minority in the British Empire, with perhaps the Muslim Indians, Arabs, the Irish, the Canadians, the Africans and the Englishmen themselves forming the other minorities, all of whom would have an equal stake, equal rights and respect in the world-spanning British Empire. He truly believed in the enlightened ideals of the British and believed that the British also believed them.   

The third point Devji makes is the one about Gandhi's idea of India. Apart from being happy to consider the nation as not an independent entity, economically, culturally and politically, but more a province of the British Empire, Gandhi also discerned that Hindu India and Muslim India would necessarily have to have separate, though equal status within the Empire. The task of nation-building would thus require that the two groups work in close coordination, but not necessarily as one single amorphous group. Again, to seek the status of dignified and respected minorities within a larger political formation would resolve many of the issues that independence would throw up, and indeed did throw up, and keeps throwing up to this day.

Devji substantiates the points he makes by quoting the literature surrounding some of the important happenings in the political life of Gandhi and in India's (and Pakistan's) march to eventual independence. These include the South African campaign of Gandhi, the Khilafat movement, his letters to Hitler, his appeal to the Jews to undertake Satyagraha against the Nazis, his fasts in response to events of violence by the British, by his followers, and by the lay people, and his final call to the British to quit India and leave her to her own devices.

It is not clear why Devji thinks that Gandhi was ever tempted by violence, as indicated in the title. I suspect it may be just hyperbole, thought up perhaps by the marketing men at the publishers. I cannot see how the discussion in the book does actually justify the title. The arguments are elliptical and the writing dense. It is only by close reading and re-reading that I am able to arrive at the above summary comments. The book may have been written for the academic reader, not a dilettante in history like me. All the same it does open up some new avenues of thought, even though the destinations they lead to are only vaguely discernible.