Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Family Life. By Akhil Sharma

Family Life

Akhil Sharma

Hamish Hamilton. First published 2014.

The story of a first generation Indian-American family - yes, yet another sub-continental immigrant's tale. But not 'Ho hum'. It is extremely well-written, though the story, perhaps semi-autobiographical, is not anything special. The narrator, Ajay Mishra, is a young boy, growing up from about seven to about seventeen. The family is middle-middle class North Indian (usually considered representative of all of India), from Delhi. His father immigrates from a clerical job in India to a clerical job in New Jersey, and takes his family along with him. His first son Birju, elder to Ajay by a few years, does well in school, as Asian immigrants are expected to. On the verge of entering a school that will set him up on the path to American upper middle class prosperity, he suffers an accident that renders him a vegetable. The happy family starts to break up under the pressure of trying to find the money, the love and the energy to look after him and, simultaneously, live normal lives. Ajay takes over the mantle of achiever, and enters Princeton, but not before learning to cope with a increasingly drunken father, and a more and more shrewish mother. 

The writing, as I said, is smooth and brilliant. Sharply observed details of immigrant family life fill the pages, but are subtle and do not thrust themselves upon the reader. There almost none of the false notes one usually finds in such writing, writing that talks about Indian culture to a Western audience. The social and behavioural differences are not exoticized, or subjected to parenthetical explanations, except very occasionally. Almost every page has some sentence or phrase that makes one appreciate Sharma's writing prowess. There is humour, some pathos, melancholy, and finally, satisfaction - satisfaction that despite the apparent odds, Ajay is able to access the American dream. Descriptions of the horrors associated with taking care of a patient like Birju are unsentimentally given. Likewise his father's drinking habit and his mother's reaction to it are observed with clear, unclouded eyes.

Let me end with a more or less randomly chosen quote to illustrate what I have written above.

   I stood at the foot of the bed. Birju's pubic hair was shaved to stubble. His stomach was a dome, and his G-tube, bound in a figure eight, resembled a ribbon on the side of a girl's head. 'Brother,' I said, 'I have never met anyone as lazy as you. Making people bathe you'.
   My mother, finishing with the towel, straightened herself. 'Tell him, "I'm not lazy. I'm a king"'.
   My father slipped his arms through Birju's underarms. He pulled him up until Birju was half sitting. My father grinned. He leaned down and said into Birju's ear. 'Why are you so heavy? Are you getting up at night and eating? You are, aren't you? Admit it. I see crumbs on your chin.' 


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Beyond a Boundary. By C.L.R. James

Beyond a Boundary

C.L.R. James

Yellow Jersey Press. First published 1963.

C.L.R. James was a black intellectual from Trinidad, born at the turn of the 19th-20th century - a leftist scholar, a commentator, an essayist, a newspaper-editor and a cricket-lover. He was involved in the West Indian struggle for freedom from British imperialism. But despite this, going by the evidence of this book, he had thoroughly internalized many of the values of Empire, in particular those that pertained to the game of cricket. 'Beyond a Boundary' is a much-celebrated book, mentioned with respect and even awe, whenever sports books are discussed. James has written other books, some with titles, such as 'The Black Jacobeans', that make obvious their subject matter. But none of these have been so widely read as this one, especially by the readership in the cricket playing nations of the commonwealth. 

Rather than being about one focused theme, the book uses cricket as a leitmotif to discuss a set of disparate topics - personal history, West Indian politics and the aesthetics of sport. Thus it is a series of essays on these topics. Several are about specific cricketers - George John, Wilton St.Hill, Learie Constantine, George Headley and W.G. Grace. Others explain the background politics and the social scene. One or two talk about cricket as Art. At the time of his youth, the 1920s, the islands of the Caribbean were all ruled by one or the other of the European colonial powers. This meant that the majority population, black and 'coloured', would be treated as second class citizens, lorded over by the white expats. But rather than a binary division into black and white, James talks about an almost continuous class hierarchy, correlated with skin colour, that pervaded every aspect of life in the islands, including cricket. In a chapter titled 'The Light and the Dark' James quotes from his own political writings as follows. "The Negroid population of the West Indies is composed of a large percentage of actually black people and about fifteen or twenty percent of people who are a varying combination of white and black. From the days of slavery these have always claimed superiority to the ordinary black, and a substantial majority of them still do (though resenting as bitterly as the black assumptions of white superiority)....Where so many crosses and colours meet and mingle the shades are naturally difficult to determine and the resulting confusion is immense. There are the nearly white...Then there are the browns...And so on and so on. Associations are formed of brown people who will not admit into their number those too much darker than themselves..." All very familiar from Indian society!
Cricket was at that time played in clubs. In Trinidad there were three main ones, with the most prominent and the richest of them being the Queen's Park club. A working class black man such as George John could not aspire to that club, no matter how good a cricketer he was (and he was a wonderful fast bowler). So he joined one of the others. And when a team was chosen to represent all the West Indies, he was overlooked to favour a less talented white man. This was the fate, approximately, of some of James's other heroes as well. St. Hill did not make it to the WI team, despite being a terrific bat. Constantine gave up all attempts to play useful cricket in WI, and migrated instead to English county cricket, where he did very well, though not perhaps to his actually great ability. It was only after independence that WI cricket was fully relieved of prejudices of colour. Frank Worrell, a black man, became captain of the WI team, but only after a sustained campaign in his favour by James and others.

James makes much of the British 'public school spirit' fostered by cricket. He is a through believer that battles such as Waterloo are won on playing fields such as those of Eton. His main grouse is that black people were not allowed to fully participate in all the rituals of that way of life. He is full of respect for the rituals themselves. In a section to introduce W.G. Grace, he places him among the three pre-eminent Victorians, and then talks about the other two, Charles Dickens and Thomas Arnold, the great headmaster of Rugby public school. While James has great admiration for the values set down by Arnold for his students, he says he disagrees with Arnold in the relative lack of importance that the headmaster set on games, and in particular cricket. This, James says, is where W.G. Grace showed the importance of being a great sportsman, as much as being a great scholar. James here labours to make a point which was no doubt important for him, but is rather abstruse in today's context. He tries to establish that W.G. Grace served to bring the spirit of agrarian, pre-industrial England into the more democratic era of Victorian England. Concepts such as 'stiff upper lip' and 'playing the game' and so on, that make cricket a gentleman's game (as opposed to football, I suppose), were, according to James, almost entirely due to W.G. Grace.  In this section especially, there are a lot of lovely descriptions of cricket, not complete matches or even innings so much, but specific strokes and particular overs. 

Rather curiously for a self-confessed Marxist, James is full of admiration for all these feudal rituals in cricket. The concept of 'gentlemen' (i.e. amateurs) for example, as opposed to professionals, being in some sense better sportsman, is a concept carried over from the time when men with no need to do the slightest work for their luxurious living could spend all their time becoming good at games. But, to my mind contrarily, James disdains purely defensive cricket, which, as demonstrated only last week by the South Africans in India, can be as exciting, and as much of a joy to watch. He prefers the quick scoring and fast bowling of most West Indian cricketers. He also argues for shorter games and praises the half-day versions of county-cricket that were then in vogue. I might have thought an author like James might curl his lip at T20 cricket. Perhaps he would hate the commercialism, but the concept of reducing the game to a better version of baseball surprisingly finds favour with him.

He is rather ambivalent about Bradman. he recognizes his great talent, but does not consider him to be all alone in the 'Bradman Class'. George Headley, he considers, and maybe Constantine as well, were in the same class, except they had less opportunity to display their talents. He is however full of praise for the way Bradman faced up to bodyline bowling, but is contemptuous of the Englishmen for using such 'ungentlemanly' tactics. 

He discusses cricket as an art form, considering it on par with classical Greek theatre in engaging the common man with high ideals. He describes many of the batting strokes and bowling actions explicitly in comparison with sculpture and painting of human forms. He opines that other sports lack such grace of body movement. My own appreciation of cricketing action was heightened after I read this book, so clear and lyrical are his descriptions. 

The final few chapters talk about his time back in Trinidad, after a couple of decades away in UK and USA, editing a newspaper and fighting for independence. One form this fight took was the fierce and finally successful lobbying that he carried out to have Frank Worrell appointed as the first black, indeed non-white, captain of the West Indian cricket team. This was the late 1950s and the beginning of the subsequent nearly four decade long dominance of world cricket by the West Indian team. Sobers, Kanhai, Griffths, Hall and Gibbs are mentioned in the book, but Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Roberts, Garner, Holding, Marshall, Lara, all these came later. The present day West Indian team presents not even a pale imitation of that greatness - one can think only of Chris Gayle as a batsman who might have found a place in the teams of the sixties, the seventies and the eighties. One wishes there was another James now to write and revive cricket in the Caribbean.      

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. By Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Mark Haddon

Red Fox. First published 2003.

Cursory research on the Internet shows that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a set of symptoms (difficulty with social communication; difficulty with social interaction; difficulty with social imagination), the intensity of which extends over a range (or 'spectrum'). When they are present, these symptoms are recognizable, even in very young children (less than a year old), and surely by the time they are 3 or 4. Though the entire range is classified as disability, the actual extent and intensity of such disability depends on the position of the patient on this range. There is some debate on whether some of the milder forms of ASD may in fact be simply behavioural traits, not related to any pathology and not requiring any treatment. On the other hand, a child with a severe forms of ASD, could require specially trained teachers and other social helpers. One particular form of ASD is called Asperger's Syndrome, in which the patient may have heightened intellectual abilities - mathematics or music or art. However the majority of people with ASD (or indeed Asperger's) do not possess any extra talents, and this condition should not be romanticized. I now know four fictional heroes with  Asperger's syndrome - explicitly stated, or implied (but no heroine, to my knowledge) - Raymond in the movie 'Rainman', Simon in the movie 'Mercury Rising', Sherlock Holmes (though this is debated, and there is no evidence this was ever Arthur Conan Doyle's intention), and now Christopher, the hero of this book. The trouble with these four characterizations is that all of them stress the great and exceptional intellectual abilities of the hero, rather than the downsides of the condition. While this makes for very good entertainment, it is hardly a true portrayal. It shows the condition as something desirable, which it is not. I have heard someone rather proudly claiming that he is autistic. Autism, of course is nothing to be sneered at, but it is not just unconventional behaviour, accompanied by great intellectual skills. It can seriously interfere with a happy life, and it is not always accompanied by what we might consider the compensations - those exceptional skills.  

This sense of what a pain autism can really be is missing in the present book as well. The book is written by Christopher, a fifteen year boy with ASD. He presents all the textbook (or rather, Wikipedia) symptoms of this condition - his inability to understand language and signs except literally, his inability to trust people and make friends, his love of solitude, his strictly repetitive behaviour, his love of order and hatred of even slight changes from routine, his inability to communicate what he wants, and so on. He has very good mathematical abilities, and is able to do very well in examinations far above the level of other children in his age-group.

Christopher narrates the series of incidents that happen to him over a few weeks. He discovers that his neighbour's dog has been killed with a pitch fork, and sets out, Holmes style, to solve the mystery. But doesn't actually get far with his detection. He keeps quoting from the Holmesian canon, and tries to follow the Great Detective's principles, but without much effect. He has a run-in with almost everybody he meets, including the local policemen. He runs away to London in order to escape his father, but is finally reunited with him. The background to his story, which involves his parents' relationship breaking down under the strain of having to look after him, is narrated at a remove, through Christopher's eyes.

I ordered the book under the impression that it was a detective story. It is not. It is in fact quite a different book, but one which is very interesting to read. I am glad I made the mistake.