Friday, 16 September 2016

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? By Mindy Kaling.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling

Three Rivers Press. First published 2011

Mindy Kaling is a very successful and famous writer/actor in American TV. She is born in US, I think, to Indian parents, and her second name is an abbreviation of Chokalingam, her father's name, who happens to be distantly related to me. So that, in fact, is my real interest in this book, which is addressed to American young-adult women, and not to Indian old men. Mindy is not physically a stereotypical stage, TV or movie heroine, and would be difficult to think of as a natural for her chosen career. But with her immense writing and acting talent, and her confident personality she has defined an attractive role for herself, one which does not require her to, presumably, change her physique or her personality. (This can happen only in America, I think. It would have been impossible in India. M. S. Subbalakshmi is a case in point. Despite her terrific musical talent, she had to completely suppress her personality and her background in order to be successful.)  

This book is vaguely biographical, and something in the nature of PGW's 'Bring on the Girls'. There are less anecdotes, however, and there things like the list of her favourite moments in TV comedy - things that would be interesting or funny only to a young American audience. Her writing is breezy and never very deep, but one can always sense the clarity and firmness of purpose with which she went about achieving her success. But except for this meta-story the book does not have much substance. It's not even very funny. 

Cities of Salt. By Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt

Abdelrehman Munif
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux 

Vintage International. First published in Arabic in 1984.

This is a brilliant epic narration of the effect of the discovery of oil in the sands of Arabia on the pre-modern tribes that lived there. The story begins in a Wadi, an oasis, where exists a bucolic and pastoral lifestyle in harmony with the changing seasons, the availability of water and the regular arrival and departure of transiting caravans. The village social hierarchies are rigidly set, as they have been for centuries, comfortable, even if inequitable. The first faint inclination that everything is about to change comes from reports of foreigners, Americans, going from place to place in the desert, making mysterious measurements. A small bunch of these men also lands up in the Wadi, but soon departs. Their departure does not entirely soothe the dark fears that some of the elders have of what is portended. Their representations to the Emir, the local representative of the sultan, are met with only soothing platitudes. Soon the Americans return, and start setting up the oil extraction facilities. In the process they destroy the social system and the ecology of the place, displace hundreds of Bedouin tribesman from their ancestral lands, and annihilate a whole way of life. They find use for the skills of some of the tribesmen, who now become their servants and recruiting agents, inducting many of their fellow-tribesmen into unskilled, poorly paid labour on what was formerly their own land. A new hierarchy arises, and those who were once at the top are now with the rest at the bottom. Some rebel, and vanish into the desert to live nomadic slightly unlawful lives. Others migrate to the nearest towns and cities as refugees of an onrushing modernity. New forms of marginal employment arise. A port city is newly built, to serve as an oil trans-shipment facility. This necessitates the construction of plush quarters for the American, complete with air conditioned club houses and swimming pools. And not far away, but on a distant point in space-time, workers quarters are built - hot, airless sheds with tin roofs and cramped beds. A town grows up to serve the port, and some Western-educated Arabs start medical, legal and other professional services, leading to another point of contention and friction between the old and the new. The Emir, meanwhile, totally neglects his responsibilities to his people. He is well and thoroughly bribed, not just with money and services, but also with modern gadgets - a radio, a telescope, a camera. The story concludes at about this point, when one by one, the hold-outs of the old civilization pass away, and their way of life ends with them.

The book tells a tale that is full of echoes from around the world and from all times, that of a new civilization, a new way of life, not necessarily a better one, replacing the old. The story fits what is happening even now, for example in the hills and forests of Orissa or in Kudankulam. An ironic version of a part of the story is seen in the present day happenings in the Arabian Gulf countries - the Arabs are the new Americans, and Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians are cast in the role of the exploited Bedouins. 

The writing is observant and fluid, as is the translation. There is some humour, especially in the confrontations of the Emir with modernity. The emotions are generally underplayed, and the rage and the depression that probably agitated the writer are not displayed. Though the narration is quite powerful for all that, it is difficult to understand why this book, and others by this writer, are banned (as noted in the blurb) in various Arabian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.    

Monday, 12 September 2016

Sparkling Cyanide. By Agatha Christie

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie

St. Martin's Paperbacks. First published 1944.

A nicely told mystery about a young woman who apparently took her own life, rather bizarrely in the course of a dinner party. The story begins about a year later when there are premonitions of a similar repeat killing. Turns out, obviously, that the first death was murder, and the second is prevented. But how this happens, and how it is detected, is cleverly and charmingly related. The detective is not any of Christie's usuals - not Poirot or Marple, or even Tommy Tuppence. I doubt if the rather staid and colourless Chief Inspector Kemp appears in any other of her stories. 

William The Fourth. By Richmal Crompton

William The Fourth

Richmal Crompton

Macmillan Children's Books. First published 1924.

Fourteen rather brief stories describing William up to his usual shenanigans. Enjoyable reading, despite being repetitive. The first story pays passing heed to the left-wing political reaction to the gilded age. William's teenage brother and his friends set out to distribute wealth more fairly, but quickly change their minds when William, and his friends, redistribute their brothers' possessions. I have come across the same tired argument several times, both in comic settings, e.g. in PGW, as well in in more serious ones, e.g. in discussions with friends. It always fails to convince. Here of course, it is only a peg on which to hang a comic story, and may not actually reflect Crompton's politics. The other stories follow the standard hilarious templates. William has his photograph taken; helps unite a pair of lovers; has fun in the costume of a bear; takes his prim and proper aunt out to the fair, with surprising results; kidnaps a pretty and friendly little girl, who is quite willing to join in the fun; has a briefly riotous time in London; advertises and helps one of the local 'mom and pop' sweet shops over its corporate rival; manages to saddle a cat with two owners; arranges a show; and so on. Nice. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

For Bread Alone. By Mohamed Choukri

For Bread Alone

Mohamed Choukri. Translated from Arabic by Paul Bowles.

Telegram. First published 1973

This is a clear-eyed, unsentimental narration of the pre-teen to teenage years of the author as he was growing up desperately poor in Morocco in the early 1950s. His father was a brutal man who killed one of the author's brothers and allowed many more of his siblings to die by neglect. Desperate for food, for bare survival, Choukri roamed the streets of Tangiers and other towns. He stole, cheated, did odd jobs, sold drugs, tried his hand at pimping, everything. He had many encounters with the police, and once during a jail term, was introduced to Arabic poetry. That struck a spark in him, igniting a fire to learn to read and write, to become literate and to become a litterateur eventually.

The book is brief and sparse. There is no attempt to philosophize or to apologize. There is no exaggeration of the troubles, no sentimental navel-gazing of how things might have been different, better. There is not much idea of the political struggle for independence from France that was then ongoing. The book has an intellectual force that is belied both by its size and by the lack of widespread recognition for the author and his works.     

Vairamuthu Sirukathaigal

Varimuthu Sirukathaigal


Surya Literature (P) Ltd. First published as a collection 2015.

The book is a collection of short stories that Vairamuthu, the Tamil film lyricist and poet, first published in the weekly 'Kumudum'. There are forty stories in all, each of about 10 pages in length. They deal with a set of human emotions, in a range of backgrounds. The first story, for example, talks about a man working in the US, unable to attend his mother's lonely funeral in an Indian old age home. Other stories are of a similar nature. Some take place in urban settings, others in distinctly rural areas, apparently untouched by 'civilization'. Some are about the very poor and destitute, others about wealthy aristocrats, many about the middle class. There are a scattering of love stories, mostly with unhappy endings. There are few rather raw descriptions of sex. Some descriptions almost seem deliberately designed to disgust -  but that too is a human emotion, after all. One story is set in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. It describes a man, trapped in the rubble with his love, keeping her alive by feeding her his urine! The story seems based on a real life occurrence during a building collapse in Bangalore, when two men kept alive by drinking each other's urine - or so it was reported. 

Altogether, the stories themselves are unimpressive, pushing banal and rather reactionary ideas about human relationships - though I am sure many fans of Vairamuthu, and the author himself, would strongly contest the use of these adjectives. Nevertheless, that's how I saw the work, suitable only to offer the middle class reader of the 'Kumudum' minor titillation as well as the momentary false comfort of being a consumer of 'literature'. The language is inventive and, as may be expected, lyrical. Many of the images Vairamuthu creates with his words are startlingly original. Also, the rural dialects of Tamil seem well-represented - though, not being much of a reader in Tamil, I hesitate to say too much about this. There are however too many puns, detracting from the seriousness of the story. In fact, often, even his serious images do not contribute to the flow, but seem to exist only to demonstrate the author's literary virtuosity.     

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Superforecasting. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Superforecasting. The Art and Science of Prediction

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Penguin Random House. First published 2015.

Philip Tetlock is a professor at the Wharton School of Management in USA. So right away we have an idea what the target audience is. I don't, I hope, fit the profile of a typical member of that audience, but all the same the book made interesting reading, even if the take-away lessons (a book of this sort is obviously built around such take-away lessons) were not particularly exciting. 

Tetlock and his collaborators ran a series of sociological experiments over a period of many years. They recruited thousands of volunteers from all walks and stations of life - well, not all; surely the uppermost and the very lowest branches of society would be vastly under-represented - and asked them to make predictions about all sorts of real-world events, such as the situation in West Asia, or the price of oil, or the possibility of conflict in Africa, or North Korea going nuclear, etc., etc. The events were tracked, and the predictions were matched against the actual outcomes. As far as I could make out from the book, the questions were formulated as binaries - yes or no. But the answers, especially in the later, more sophisticated rounds, had probabilities attached to them. The experimenters devised ways of rigorously and quantitatively evaluating the answers and could score each of the participants, on how well their predictions differed from random. They could thus identify some participants who did very well, over a period of time. They went back to these people, whom they dubbed 'superforecasters', studied their habits and came up with a list of common characteristics that could help anyone, so they say, make more meaningful predictions about anything at all. 

As would be expected in such a book, each rule is given a chapter to itself. One or two personal anecdotes, sometimes involving a superforecaster, introduces each chapter. Then the rule is stated and explained, with a great deal of padding. (After all, without the stories and the repetitive explanations, this would not be a book, only a rather extended review article in a scientific journal.) At the end of the book, authors helpfully summarize the take-away lessons, which I quote below.

1. 'Triage', i.e. work only on questions that you think are possible to answer.
2. 'Break seemingly impossible problems into tractable sub-problems'.
3. 'Strike the right balance between inside and outside views', i.e. those of experts in the field and those of complete lay-persons. Note the key word here is 'right', and each question will have its own 'right balance'.
4. 'Strike the right balance between under-reacting and over-reacting to evidence'.
5. 'Look for clashing causal forces at work for each problem'.
6. 'Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits, but no more'.
7. 'Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness'.
8. 'Look for errors behind your mistakes, but beware of rear-view mirror hindsight biases'.
9. 'Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you'.
10. 'Master the error-balancing bicycle', i.e. practice predictions by using errors to correct just the right amount.
11. 'Don't treat commandments as commandments', i.e. know when to go beyond these rules.

These eleven rules or commandments are almost all of them pure management-speak. There is however some truth in them, and while following them is unlikely to dramatically improve one's personal or professional life, or one's finances, reading this book is not a bad way to spend a day or two. 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Partisan's Daughter. By Louis de Bernieres

A Partisan's Daughter

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 2008.

This is another very sweet book by de Bernieres. It is much simpler than his other novels such as 'Birds Without Wings'. The story is straightforward. It is London in the mid 1970s. Roza is the daughter of a Serbian partisan who fought against the Nazis alongside Marshall Tito. Chris is a boring, and bored, English middle class medical representative, making painfully self-conscious efforts to escape his dead-end home, inhabited by a stodgy wife whom he calls 'the great white loaf'. One day, in an uncharacteristically adventurous mood, he sees Roza on the road, thinks she is prostitute, and tries to pick her up. She turns down his offer, but allows him to take her home - a broken down apartment in a building marked for demolition. Here, over the next few weeks or months, during repeated visits by Chris, Roza narrates her story, from early teenage in a united Yugoslavia, just breaking up into its various tribal components, to the streets of London and her current position. 

Alternating in narration between Roza and Chris, the book describes how Roza learnt the first facts of life at her home and at the University, her first love, her first heartbreak, her flight over the border to Trieste, how she got a job as a cook and lover on a sailing boat, her illegal entry into England, her experiences as a hostess in London, and her current status as a reasonably well-off layabout. Chris falls in love with her, but is unable to take it forward. He figures she may also be in love with him, but is not sure. Finally, high on drink, he tries to make love to her, with disastrous consequences.

As I said, a very sweet book, but more novella than novel. The book is set in a large typeface allowing it to go to 280 pages. But even without these publishing tricks, even as a slim novelette, the book is very much worth reading, enjoyable, with the de Bernieres trademark of lovely flowing language and sweetness and light.      

Farthing. By Jo Walton


Jo Walton

TOR: Tom Doherty Associates. First published 2006.

Set in the background of a country sliding rapidly into fascism, the book is a murder mystery novel, and at the same time perceptive commentary on the present-day political situation around the world. It's  only grimmer now than it was a decade ago, when the book was published, and Walton's perceptions are now so much more relevant, in 'Modi-fied' India as much as in post-Brexit UK and in Trumpist USA. 'Farthing' is a country house in England, which, in this alternate history, is the seat and the name of the political faction which deposed Churchill and made peace with Germany just after Hitler had occupied France and the rest of Europe. The family party for that weekend at Farthing includes the man who conducted the negotiations with the Third Reich and signed the peace treaty. He is found dead in his bed, murdered, with dramatic marks indicating that it may have been a Jewish conspiracy to repay the man who betrayed them. Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. In the manner of the classic detective novel, he calls in all the various inhabitants of the manor, one by one, and interviews them. Among them are the owner of the manor, his wife and daughters, and their husbands and lovers. One the husbands is the murdered man. And another is a Jew, who has married the youngest daughter. He is the first and obvious suspect. As the investigation proceeds, there are a couple of attempted murders, and suspicion is cast on each of the inhabitants, in turn. The final solution, when it comes, is satisfying, but the denouement is overtaken by political events, and the book ends on an uncertain and melancholy note.

The story is narrated by two voices. There is the attractive voice of Lucy Kahn, nee Lady Eversley, youngest daughter of Lord Eversley, who owns Farthing. Against family tradition and its politics, indeed against the wishes of all its members, she falls in love with, and marries, the Jew David Kahn. She and her husband are now only barely and grudgingly accepted by the family, and never admitted into the inner circles of confidence. Lucy fears that her innocent husband would be framed for the murder, something which would be all too easy, given the intense discrimination which that race faces in a Britain that has compromised with Hitler. The alternate chapters of the book, written by Lucy, are attractively breathless and deliberately bordering on the silly sometimes. The steel that lies beneath this fluffy exterior however is made apparent in her defense of her husband, especially in the final moments of the book. Altogether, Lucy is a charming character. The other chapters are in third person, mostly describing events from the point of view of Inspector Carmichael. These are straightforward, and most of the police procedures - the interviews, the collecting of clues, the follow-up investigation, the airing of theories - all these take place in these chapters.

The English aristocracy is described to be utterly corrupt and power mad. And the murder is mixed up with politics at the highest level. The men and women are shown to hop in and out of each other's beds almost at will. Lucy and David are exceptions, with their love genuine and strong. Lucy has her own code names for these couplings - 'bognor' for adultery; 'athenian' for a gay relationship; 'roman' for a straight relationship; and 'macedonian' for bisexual. There are other such amusing observations Lucy makes from time to time.

This is a wonderful book, much more than a murder mystery, and yet capable of satisfying on that level too. Walton ostensibly writes in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D.James and others of that ilk. But while all those writers, no matter how deep (PDJ) or shallow (AC) psychologically, were adoring in their descriptions of the British upper classes, Walton is like Le Carre, contemptuous of the aristocracy, and firmly left-of-centre. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Numero Zero. By Umberto Eco

Numero Zero

Umberto Eco

Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Harvill Secker. First published 2015

After 'Foucault's Pendulum' and 'The Prague Cemetery', this is the third of Umberto Eco's novels that deals with a deep, imaginary but widely believed conspiracy. The writing is far more lighthearted than the other two. Eco always writes with a mischievous sense of humour, spinning wild stories with a straight face, and making connections between virtually all events of importance. In this book, he is explicit about that, going so far as to choose E.M. Forster's words 'Only connect!' for the epigraph. And then proceeds to connect up current Italian politics with, first, the possibly faked death of Mussolini, and then with his possibly real death. 

The framing device is also a conspiracy. It introduces a media magnate - probably a Silvio Berlusconi surrogate - who wishes to publish a fake paper in order to scare and blackmail various celebrities, most of whom would have something to hide. He finances a small team of failed journalists to put together twelve issues of a paper with fake news. These first set of issues would be, he says, a model, and they would contain made-up news, based on events of the previous years. Thus they would be numbered issue 1 volume 0, issue 2 volume 0, and so on, leading to the title of the book. In describing the editorial conferences, Eco clearly savages actual modern day media practices, and not only of outlets like Fox News or Times Now. 

One of the team, slightly less cynical than the others, comes with the story of Mussolini's faked death. He says the dictator was not shot in 1945, as is officially held, but escaped to Argentina. He connects this episode with secretive fascist factions in many respectable institutions, even the Vatican. He builds a convincing narrative of these groups biding their time, building up their strength, and finally attempting a fascist coup in Italy to restore the dictatorship of 'Il Duce' (who is all while hidden in Argentine), only to be thwarted in their attempts by his sudden and importune actual death. He plans to investigate and gather evidence for his story, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances. At this the rest of the team panics, and goes into hiding from the conspirators. At the end of the story, the narrator, who is one of failed journalists, starts to believe that in fact there is and was no conspiracy, and his fears are products of his own mind to connect up and try to find a common explanation for random coincidences. 

The book is funny, but not farcical. It can be, and is probably meant to be read as a serious but cynical indictment of the state of affairs in the media and politics, especially in Italy. Of course, with some essentially cosmetic changes of name, place and time, the stories would fit India, the US, and perhaps other countries as well. The book, in any case, is a brief, but accurate representation of the zeitgeist around the world. Umberto Eco includes as part of the conspiracy the possible murder of Pope John Paul I after only a month in office. He hints that this happened to save some of the officials of the Vatican Bank from having their embezzlement of the bank money exposed. The exact same theme connected to the Pope's death also occurs in the movie 'The Godfather Part III'. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

They Do It With Mirrors. By Agatha Christie.

They Do It With Mirrors

Agatha Christie

HarperCollins Publishers. First published 1952

Another murder set in a rich country house, with a fairly large cast of conventional AC characters. The owner of the house also runs an institution to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents on the same grounds, and that leads to some tensions that are exploited to lend weight to the story. Once again, I could guess, fairly early on, who the murderer is. So that makes it four times in the last four AC books. I hope that at least the next couple are less predictable. 

The narrative is full of British right-wing views and casual racism, which are unacceptable now, six decades later. But again, I should not take 'a spade to a souffle'.

Love and Math. By Edward Frenkel

Love and Math. The Heart of Hidden Reality

Edward Frenkel

Basic Books. First published 2013.

The book traces the early career path of the author, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is well-respected for his mathematics, and popular due to this book, which made it to the New York Times bestseller list, as well due to a movie about art and maths that he produced, directed and acted in. He is the collaborator of the well-known physicist-mathematician Edward Witten. 

Frenkel was born in Russia during the late 1960s. He showed precocious mathematical skills, but was unable to have a clear upward trajectory in Russian academia owing to rampant antisemitism. In this book he describes his encounters with the academic bureaucracy in Russia as he came of mathematical age at the time of Glasnost and Perestroika. Interspersed with the inspiring tales of heroic dedication to maths are his wonderful descriptions of the mathematics. He does not shy away from complete and detailed descriptions of the most abstruse mathematical ideas and theorems, offering many detailed proofs, which, however, are largely consigned to the footnotes - not given at the foot of the pages, but collected together at the back. (I wish he had followed a slightly different format - for example setting these more technical portions in smaller type, but along with the main text.) So he starts with the symmetry of numbers, goes on from there to talk about symmetry groups, and different objects that belong to the same symmetry groups - integers, real numbers, rational numbers, irrational numbers and imaginary numbers - before going on to braids, which are also represented by the same symmetry operations. He talks about the Langlands program, about Galois groups and finite fields, about the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture and its connection to Fermat's last theorem, about modular forms and automorphic functions, about Riemann surfaces, manifolds, Lie groups, Kac-Moody algebras, automorphic sheaves, gauge theories, quantum duality, fiber bundles and branes. Obviously, in a book read over a week or so, it is impossible to convey anything but the most superficial acquaintance with these ideas. But even with this limitation, Frenkel conveys the beauty, the majesty and the mystery of modern mathematics. The best thing about this book is that excites the reader. It made me confident that the ideas described, while difficult, are not entirely in a different world of understanding, and that with a few years of effort, I, too, could access the concepts in satisfactory depth. Whether I will expend that kind of effort, of course, is an entirely different question. 

Frenkel is a modernist through and through, and has no time to consider, except disparagingly, the idea that the theorems constructed by mathematicians may be one version of the underlying nature of reality. He dismisses post-modernist ideas of the cultural relativism of maths (or of science, in general). In my admittedly extremely humble opinion the Wignerian unreasonable effectiveness of maths is just that - unreasonable. Is maths discovery, or invention?  Frenkel unequivocally calls it discovery. He describes the work mainly of white men (and a few Japanese), but neither acknowledges that fact, nor stops to consider the possible cultural biases that may introduce. 

Frenkel, as a Jew in Russia, had to fight a lot against the kind of prejudice seen, say, by 'lower' castes in India. And while he does not explicitly address politics in this book, his ideas clearly fall into the Universe of the Right. Maybe with good personal reason. 

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. By Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins Publishers. First published 1962.

The large manor in Miss Marple's village is taken by a famous actress, her husband and her retinue. At a party given by her in aid of a local charity one of the guests is murdered. And Miss Marple solves the murder. The title comes from Tennyson's poem 'The Lady of Shalott', about a lady who is cursed to look at the outside world only by its reflection in a large mirror facing the window. Once, Sir Lancelot passes by, and she sees his image in the mirror. Unable to resist a glance at the original, she turns around. And, 'out flew the web and floated wide, the mirror crack'd from side to side, the curse is upon me, cried, the Lady of Shalott'. I remember this poem from school. In this book, it refers to the indescribable look of near-horror, as though the curse has come upon her, that suddenly comes on the actress's face while receiving some guests, one of whom is eventually murdered. 

I think I have now cracked the AC code. About halfway through the book, I could guess the murderer, though of course, the actual motive, and the modus operandi remain unclear till the end. Those are usually rather contrived in her books, anyway. After my initial guess, I could follow, and appreciate AC's technique of misdirection. Shoals of red herrings are drawn across the reader's path, and each one on the main list of characters is presented as the possible culprit. But to me, these complications only served to solidify my guess more and more, finally to have it shown to be correct.

The first couple of chapters of this book are delightful. Miss Marple is now an old lady, being assisted to live, and resenting it. She shows a wicked sense of humour, missing hitherto in AC's characterisations of her. She also shows a slight come-down from her upper-middle class British bulldog views, and ends up making friends with a proletarian couple. She also teases and is in turn teased, but gently, by the detective policemen who bring the facts of the case to her, and seek her help in solving the murder mystery.    

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Girl in the Spider's Web. By David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider's Web

David Lagercrantz

Based on the characters created by Stieg Larsson

Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding

Maclehose Press. First published 2015

This book is fan fiction. Poor fan fiction, at that. There is very little original in it, except, perhaps, the lack of quality. We meet Michael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander for the fourth time, (after The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, and the two other books) as they try to rescue and look after an autistic savant boy called August, who helps Salander decrypt a file she has downloaded from the NSA server after hacking it. She uncovers a conspiracy by NSA officials and some Russian gangsters to steal industrial secrets and sell them. The story meanders back and forth between Salandar, Blomkvist, various crooks, the police, and the NSA. All characterizations are halfhearted and stereotyped (computer experts are slobs, autistic children are geniuses...), the conversations are boring, and the action sequences are tepid. Only the character of Lisbeth Salander (which Lagercrantz has degraded, but not completely) keeps the interest alive till the end. The first three books in the Millenium series were not great, but at least we had Lisbeth, and we had some great action.  

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A Pocket Full of Rye. By Agatha Christie

A Pocket Full of Rye

Agatha Christie

From the Miss Marple Omnibus, HarperCollins Publishers. First published 1953.

A crooked businessman is administered poison along with his breakfast in his country home, and dies in his London office a few hours later. All his family members are suspects. The case is investigated by an Inspector Neele. There are two more deaths - another family member, and one of the maids. The maid's death establishes a tenuous link to Miss Marple who invites herself to the household, makes her own investigation, with some exchange of information with Neele, and solves the case. The narrative mainly follows Neele, but his doings and findings are apparently meant to round out the story, and make a few misdirections. I guessed the murderer about a third of the way into the book, and the motive sometime later. Of course, these books are not mathematical puzzles, so you cannot guess everything. Still, as I remarked elsewhere in this blog, half the fun of reading AC comes from taking a bet with oneself regarding the criminal, and then carefully following the storytelling to try and sniff out the red herrings. Not a bad book, but not one of her best.  

A Caribbean Mystery. By Agatha Christie.

A Caribbean Mystery

Agatha Christie

From Miss Marple Omnibus, Volume II. Harper Collins. First published 1964.

The story is set in a fictional resort island called St Honore in the Caribbean. The resort is run by a British couple, with a background cast of local islanders, some of them blacks. The guests all are white, British, American, a couple of Spanish to provide the exotic suspects, and include Miss Marple. A series of three murders is finally, as usual, solved by the ostensibly goofy Miss Marple. This book is firmly in the middle of the bell curve of AC stories. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

William. By Richmal Crompton


Richmal Crompton

Macmillan Children's Books. First published in 1929.

Ten stories in which William detects a murder, organizes greyhound racing, substitutes himself for a wax statue of a little prince, sets up a waxwork show... I laughed out loud, or wanted to but had to control myself, at more than one place in the book. For example: The headmaster of William's school asks the pupils to help collect money for a new wing to be added to the school building. On the last day of the fund-raising drive the headmaster announces the sums collected by various boys. Crompton writes: 'The youngest boy in school - aged seven - alone and unaided collected ten shillings. He had gone round to his friends and relatives asking them all in good faith for money for new wings for the headmaster and so had met with a better response than he probably would have done had he had a clearer conception of the object of the fund'.

One of the stories is about a prize fat pig. Considering that the Empress of Blandings made her literary appearance at about the same time, perhaps there was a rash of fat pigs contest going on in England in those decades.

Great, but very light, reading! 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Man With Two Left Feet. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1917

A set of twelve unremarkable, but pleasant stories. They probably had first been published in American magazines in the first one and a half decades of the twentieth century, and later collected together in a book. Though most are soppy and sentimental love stories, the language is smooth and delicious, as is only to be expected from Wodehouse. There are not many 'nifties', though. And no memorable characters. All those came later. The influence of the O.Henry style of writing (or plotting, rather) is apparent in several of the stories. About half of them are set in America, apparently in and around New York, and the others in England. Some of the stories invoked in me a strange kind of nostalgia for a lifestyle and for events I have never actually known or experienced, like the feelings invoked by songs like 'Those were the days' (Mary Hopkin) or 'The day before you came' (Abba) or 'Pussy willow' (Jethro Tull). One of the stories introduces Jeeves and Bertie, but Jeeves is just the valet in the background. However, Bertie's character is almost fully formed already, as is his relationship to Aunt Agatha. Their respective characters and their mutual relationship are hardly changed in the fifty years or so that they continued to appear in PGW's books. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Name of the Rose. By Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco. Translated from Italian by William Weaver.

Warner Books. First published 1980.

Umberto Eco, who passed away a few months ago (February 2016), was a professor of semiotics, primarily at the University of Bologna, Italy. Semiotics is the study of signs, including language, and the meaning they signify. It works at a more basic level than linguistics, taking into consideration all kinds of signs, even those not actually 'intended' to communicate anything by the maker of the sign. Thus, modes of dress, or unconscious hand gestures, are as much within the ambit of the semiotician's study, as written or spoken language, or road signs. Eco has published many academic books and articles that are chiefly accessible to his peers. He has also written about half-a-dozen brilliant and profound novels that are basically elaborations of his thoughts about ideas, concepts, facts, history - and their communication. 'The Name of the Rose' was the first of these. 

The novel operates at several levels. At the most basic and most entertaining level it is a richly detailed detective story set in medieval Italy. The Englishman William of Baskerville, is a Franciscan friar called to investigate the strange death of a young novice at a Benedictine abbey. His arrival is greeted by another death, and each day follows with yet another, until, despite having many clues, he only stumbles upon the answers, and detects the murderer, almost by chance. Apart having a name which evokes Conan Doyle, William has a Watsonian narrator named Adso, and his method of detection is explicitly modeled on Sherlock Holmes. And this is another layer of the book, where the rational is set up against superstition and faith. William occasionally explains his method, in particular in the opening sequence, in which, as he arrives at the abbey, from small signs among the bushes and the trees, he deduces the flight and subsequent capture of the Abbott's favourite horse from the stables. In Sherlockian fashion, he presents the results, only explaining the chain of deduction leading up to them later to Adso. However, later, in the discussions between William and Adso, Eco illustrates how rationalism leads to absurd scholasticism (such as arguments about how many angels can be accommodated on the head of a pin) whenever the premises from which the arguments begin are drawn from faith or superstition. Here Eco evokes both Roger Bacon, who urged that controlled experience (experimental data) must be the foundation of deduction, as well as William of Okham, who laid down the principle that for any phenomena the simplest explanation is the best one. These two medieval scientists are introduced as William of Baskerville's teachers. Yet another thread in the book is the political tension between the Franciscans, who insisted that Christ privileged poverty above riches, and the wealthy Christian establishment that insisted that Jesus himself allowed accumulation of riches in the service of God and the people. These portions of the book describe many historical events and characters from the 13th and 14th centuries. 

There are many ideas that are also frequently found in less serious literature. There is a labyrinth in the abbey which is actually the library stacked with rare, and sometimes forbidden books, hiding a mysterious object at its heart. There is a ossarium (a storage room for human bones) which leads to the labyrinth. There are constant references to the Book of Revelations in the Bible, which describes the fantastic scenes that will occur on the Day of Judgement. And there are conspiracy theories, which lead to catastrophic consequences. These features are superficially like those found, for example, in the novels of Dan Brown. Eco, however is far more of a serious student, and far more ambitious. He does not seek to use his knowledge to merely manipulate the readers' emotions. Overlying the entire novel are his basic concerns as he explores the meanings of words, the influence of context in the interpretation of texts, and the deep and sometimes terrible consequences such interpretations may lead to. He questions the idea of history as an objective, scientifically valid, true sequence of events, some being the cause and some being the effect, that existed in the past. Indeed, towards the end of the book, Eco has William question even his own methodology and his deductive process, doubting if it can always lead to the the truth. The Friar points out that he solved the mystery only by chance, and, even earlier, when he made his deduction about the horse, he could have easily have been wrong, since the signs on which he based his results were equally capable of being interpreted differently.

The translation is marvelous, and though many portions of the book deal with stodgy academic matters, the thrilling pace never flags from the first page to the last. There are several set pieces - the deduction about the horse, an inquisition, an 'auto de fe' - which add to the 'bestseller' atmosphere. Umberto Eco talks deeply and well about medieval Christianity and the philosophical battles that were then waged. But also, there are references, sometime playful, to many other images, names, stories and characters from contemporary  popular culture. The Holmes canon is one example. Another is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges who wrote about labyrinthine libraries. I am sure there are many that I have missed.

All of Eco's works of fiction are profound and popular at the same time. (His non-fiction is profound, but not so popular.) All of them repay several readings and re-readings. This, his first novel, and probably the one most widely read, is certainly no exception to that rule.  

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Wodehouse on Wodehouse. By P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and W. Townend

Wodehouse on Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and W. Townend

Penguin Books. First published 1954, 1953 and 1957.

There are three books in this one volume, all autobiographical. 'Bring on the Girls' (1954) was written by Wodehouse together with Guy Bolton; 'Performing Flea' is a collection of letters written by Wodehouse to his friend W. Townend, the collection was published in 1953; 'Over Seventy' was published in 1957, when PGW was more than 75 years old.

Wodehouse was a shy man. He shared the English Public schoolboy hatred of appearing to 'swank'. So, in all three books, nominally about his own life, he talks very little about himself, filling up the pages instead with jokes and anecdotes, some heard, some he experienced himself. The bare facts about his life come through, though. He had a mixed childhood, not lonely, but not richly full of family life, spending most of the time away from his parents who were working in India. He attended Dulwich College, alma mater not only to PGW, Raymond Chandler and C.S. Forester, but also slightly unsavory characters like Nigel Farage and Raj Rajarathinam. PGW himself loved his time at Dulwich, and his early stories are set in schools that are thinly disguised versions. After school, family finances did not allow him to go to University, so he joined a bank as a clerk, writing stories and humorous essays in his free time and selling a few of them. At some point during these initial years, in the early part of the twentieth century, he made a trip to America, where he found a better market for his stories. Soon he quit his bank job and took to writing full time, relocating to New York. Then follows a long period of time, where he completed one piece of writing - a play, or a novel, or a short story, or a lyric - and then another and then another and so on, until he found himself rich and famous. He got married, but no other details are given. He continued this life of reading and writing until his death in 1975. There was only one major incident that disturbed this apparently placid life. When World War II broke out, PGW and his wife were in France. The Germans, when they occupied the country, placed all British and American citizens in internment camps. PGW spent about a year in such prisons, and just before he was due for release owing to his age, he agreed to give a series of very funny radio talks on his prison experiences. The war was still in progress and these talks were seen in Britain as aiding the enemy, i.e. as treason. On closer scrutiny, the British govt. decided that there was nothing to this charge, and he was not formally acted against. The public opinion however was so bad against him that he never went back to England, but spent the rest of his life mostly in New York, where he died in 1975. I remember hearing about his death from a friend while having a cup of coffee at the then-extant Woodlands Drive-in restaurant on Gemini corner. We mourned, but then made up for it by trying to obtain and read everything he had written. That project could be completed only with the help of the Internet, which, through the Gutenberg project, gave access to some of his very early work. (My reactions to those pieces are given elsewhere in this blog). Last year, on a very cold, but sunny, January day, my niece took me to visit his grave in the graveyard of a small, pretty church in Remsenburg, New York.

'Bring on the Girls' is co-written with Guy Bolton, with whom he collaborated on many musicals. It describes the part of his life devoted to theater. PGW mainly wrote the lyrics to the songs, though he also frequently helped in laying out the plot. The dialogue, i.e. the 'book' of the play, was usually written by Bolton, though both PGW and Bolton independently collaborated with others as well. There are a lot of very funny stories, a great deal of name-dropping, but names that mean nothing to me across this distance of time and space. I could see that PGW had reworked many of the plays into books, and perhaps vice versa. By the time this book was written, Wodehouse was fully in his stride, at the top of his form, and the book flows as smoothly, as thickly and as sweetly as honey.

'Performing Flea' shows just how much effort PGW put in to ensure that all his books flowed like honey. From detailed plots, to multiple drafts and corrections, to regular working hours, to avoidance of distractions, in this book, made up of letters to his struggling writer friend, PGW shows just how a professional author works. A method artist, Wodehouse did not just wait for inspiration, but wrote diligently and regularly everyday. He also set time apart for reading, which might explain his easy familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible and contemporary popular culture. Apparently his social skills were rather poor, and that part of his life was managed almost entirely by his wife Ethel. 'Performing Flea' is not only a kind of manual for aspiring writers, but also a portrait of a very talented author who did not overreach himself, but lived wisely and well, enjoying his work, and becoming immensely successful at it. As a kind of bonus, the book also incorporates an edited version of a diary he kept as an internee. Apart from being immensely funny, what strikes a reader is the amount of good humor and goodwill with which he treats what must have been a terrifying year. He's almost sixty, and used for about three decades to a very comfortable life, when suddenly he's treated as a war prisoner, and deprived of almost every necessity to a minimally bearable life. Apparently his only luxury was that he was allowed to continue writing his books, and he completed a few of novels that he was working on when he was taken away. I have read all these books, and none of them show any signs of the stress he must have been under. Two of them especially - 'Joy in the Morning', and 'Full Moon' - I would rate among his top ten.  

'Over Seventy' is again a collection of anecdotes that vaguely compare how it used to be with how it was as an septuagenarian. In the different chapters PGW makes a comparison between then and now of all the aspects of his work, and as much of his personal life as he is willing to allow. Each chapter is only briefly serious, before it smoothly segues into self-deprecatory jokes and humorous stories from around the world, gleaned from friends, from radio and TV and of course the newspapers.

I bought the volume in 1982. This must be the fifth or sixth time I am reading it, but all three books are still great fun.

Flood of Fire. By Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh

Hamish Hamilton. First published 2015

This is the final book of the wonderful 'Ibis' trilogy by Ghosh, the first two being 'Sea of Poppies' and 'River of Smoke'. The opus is fictionalized history of the events leading up to and surrounding the opium wars, which, at least in hindsight, tore the mask off one of the terrible and hypocritical faces of colonialism, and its true motivation, unrestrained capitalism. Briefly, the history is as follows. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Englishmen, or more precisely, the English East India Company, had already established political dominion and commercial control over much of the Indian heartland. India was producing a lot of stuff - tea, spices, cotton - much in demand in Britain. Their export from the subcontinent entailed a large amount of transfer of currency from Europe into India - not remotely commensurate with the value of the stuff going the other way, but substantial nevertheless. The capitalist bosses then hit upon the idea of exporting opium from India to China, and using the profits to pay for all the good stuff going to Britain. This way British money would stay in Britain, and the immense profits of the opium trade would allow the British to still get all the goods they wanted. So they forced the peasants of the Gangetic plains to grow poppies and make opium, which they then bought cheap and shipped to China where they monopolized its distribution and sale. In the process the Indian farmers were immiserated, the Chinese populace became drug-addicted, and the English businessmen accumulated untold riches. In India the Company had a free hand. Not so much in China, where the Emperor and his mandarins exercised political control over the land. In the mid 19th century, they banned the import of the drug, seized and burnt existing stocks, and expelled the Europeans from the trading posts around Canton that had been until then allowed. The British Empire struck back. The East India Company of course had immense political power in Britain, and many of its shareholders held important positions in the government. It is not too far a stretch to say that Company was indistinguishable from the British nation state at this time. So in the name of Free Trade, and to protect 'legitimate' British commercial interests, the British Navy and Army swing into action, destroyed all the Chinese forces in and around Canton, and forced the Chinese Emperor to allow the sale of opium, and in addition cede the island of Hong Kong on a long 'lease' that came to an end only in 1999. [The similarities between these actions and present day international trade and commercial practices not only of America and Europe, but capitalist interests everywhere, are obvious]. 

In the first book of the trilogy, 'Sea of Poppies', Ghosh set the stage mainly in India, in what is now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in Calcutta, and aboard the Ibis, a ship transporting indentured labour displaced from the fields on the banks to the Ganges to the sugarcane plantations on the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. An immense cast of characters was introduced. They included a peasant woman Diti and her lower caste lover Kalua, seeking safety and a modicum of prosperity as indentured labour; Neel, a former Zamindar cheated out of his property and forced to seek employment as a Parsi businessman's clerk; Behram, the Parsi businessman from Bombay, seeking to make a fortune from the few fragments of the opium trade allowed to entrepreneurs outside the Company; Zachary, a Octaroon sailor from Baltimore, passing as a white man to escape American and English racism; Ah Fat, the illegitimate half-Chinese son of Behram; Burnham, a Company man epitomizing a lot of what is wrong about capitalism; and Paulette, a French naturalist's daughter, seeking her father who is hunting rare orchids in China. The second book, 'River of Smoke' was set chiefly in China. It introduced a few more characters, more importantly the historical mandarin Lin, who was chief administrative representative of the Chinese Emperor, and who was responsible for the initial banning of the opium trade. The negotiations and the seizure and destruction of the stocks are vividly described, mainly from the point of view of Neel, who is now working in Canton. The book ends with the Chinese blockade of the opium trade.

'Flood of Fire' does not exactly begin when the previous book stopped. Instead, a bit confusingly, it backtracks to follow the fortunes of a new character, Kesri Singh, who joins the Company troops and is sent to Assam to maintain the peace in the tea estates. Eventually, along with his commandant Mee, he is shipped to China, there to fight the Chinese and re-establish the holy British right to 'Free Trade'. Meanwhile, Shireen in Mumbai breaks from the cloying clutches of traditional Parsi society to sail to Canton in order to visit the grave of her husband Behram, dead in mysterious circumstances. She is assisted by Zadig, an Armenian and her husband's friend and colleague, eventually to become her new husband. These, a couple of other new characters, and most of those introduced in the previous couple of books, all meet in Canton during the climactic period of the Opium War, in which the Company dealt a crushing blow to the Chinese Empire. The final battles are described in great, sometimes heartbreaking, detail. And though most of the narration is from the British point of view, we are constantly lead to sympathize with the Chinese. 

Amitav Ghosh weaves a great many strands of narrative to create this large and beautifully detailed triptych. One of his constant concerns is language. He explores the birth of different dialects of English. His own voice, the narrator's voice, is in proper modern day English, the kind you find in any Indian writing in English. It is fairly straightforward and bland, lacking even the kind of flourishes you find in the writing of, say, Pankaj Mishra. But his characters all speak to each other mostly in English, and each has a different dialect. These are captured extremely well. Two particular accents are used more than others. When the Englishmen who have long lived in India spoke their native tongue even to each other, they apparently used such a lot of words from Indian languages - Urdu and Hindi, mainly. Ghosh heightens the effect by retaining the archaic spelling of the words: burra/burree, tumasher, larkin... The other language that Ghosh takes delight is delineating is the pidgin English used by lascars, the able-bodied sailors recruited to European ship crews from every South and East Asian country. Apart from this, Ghosh conveys very well the other dialects of English as spoken by other groups of people - Parsi, Chinese, American and French. 

Though there are many stories, and many characters, we remain invested in all of them. They are all interesting, even exciting, and proceed at a good pace, and conclude satisfactorily, if not all of them happily. There is humour in many of the interactions. One particular funny thread deals with the sexual encounters between the young and handsome Zachary Reid, and the beautiful, still young Mrs. Burnham, who has a boor for a husband. Mr. Burnham, and his partner Doughty, are about the only two characters in the book who are treated unsympathetically. The real villains of the triology are of course the British Empire and the greedy capitalists, but Burnham and Doughty, with their cupidity and pomposity, personify this villainy. 

I am unable to decide if this is history masquerading as fiction, of simply fiction with a historical setting. The former, I think. History can be a matter of interpretation. Though there is no heavy-handed moralizing, the 'Ibis' trilogy is an angry view of the events from the colonized countryman's perspective.    

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree. By Thomas Hardy.

Under the Greenwood Tree, or The Melstock Quire

Thomas Hardy

Wordsworth Classics. First published 1872.

The most immediate thing I got from this book was the fact that 'choir' is pronounced 'quire'. I remember being corrected on this by an irritated Chitra when I repeatedly said 'cau-year'. I didn't really believe her then, but have to now admit that she was (and is) right.

Apart from that extremely valuable nugget of information, there is nothing much really in this slim book (146 pages) either entertaining or informative. It is a portrait, more a landscape painting, of a piece of English time and space that certainly can't exist anymore. In the truly rural 'Wessex' village of Melstock, a few simple men assemble with some rudimentary musical instruments on the days before Christmas and go carol singing. In the course of these exercises, a young man from among the carol singers is attracted to a fresh young school teacher who is one of the audience. Love blossoms during the spring and the summer, is mildly beset by some setbacks in the form of relatively rich rival, but finally, by the next winter, finds a way and culminates in marriage.

English people would love this book, as it paints a picture of a quiet and peaceful England, going about its gentle ways and not wishing or doing any harm to anyone. The reality was of course different, but, perhaps, the people Hardy describes had no role in the aggression - unless they were press-ganged into it, as Hardy himself describes in one of his other books. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A Southern Music. By T.M. Krishna

A Southern Music. The Karnatik Story

T.M. Krishna

Harper Collins. First published 2013.

The word is commonly spelled 'Carnatic'. The way Krishna spells it evokes the state of Karnataka, though this genre of music is usually associated with Tamilnadu - chiefly Chennai and Thanjavur. The title includes the indefinite article 'a', implying this is one form (or genre, a more fashionable term) of music in the southern part of the sub-continent. And though, Carnatic (or Karnatik) music is also practiced and sung in Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala, and though many great composers and musicians are natives of these states, its current HQ is Tamilnadu, more particularly Chennai, and even more specifically, Mylapore. Krishna tries to situate this musical ethos in a wider geography - physical, cultural and social. His efforts are well-meaning and laudable, but suffer from being solitary and unsupported by the larger community, both within the club of Carnatic music lovers, and outside it. Carnatic music, as indeed much of 'high' culture in South India, is associated particularly strongly with the brahmin castes - Iyer and Iyengar. With music, especially, a few of the other traditionally 'upper' castes also associated - for example, the 'isai vellala'. There is strong ownership by these castes of everything associated with the music. And, to put it brutally, others are not welcome. Krishna is not only well aware of this caste bias, but works to break it, and make the music more 'open', not only in this book, but by his other activities as well. Whether he has made any significant difference is, however, doubtful. 

Krishna addresses these concerns in a couple of essays out of the twenty-seven that make up the book. These occur in the central section of the book, given mainly to explorations of such contextual topics. The first and the third sections directly address the music - the first is a detailed exposition of its grammar, the last is an exploration of the history. For Krishna, music is art, specifically a performance art, even more specifically, a live performance art. And where he considers other forms, such as recorded music, he is dismissive of them

In the first chapter he discusses the musical experience. The essay is thoughtful, talking about music as essentially a human experience, that constructs human emotions from strings of sounds. Music is then a subjective creation of human beings. 'Music in Nature', he says, 'is not Nature's music'. Elsewhere, 'the idea the bird sings is ours, not the bird's'. [However. A recent paper in PNAS, Songbirds use spectral shape, not pitch, for sound pattern recognition doi: 10.1073/pnas.1515380113, says that songbirds process sounds in a way that is very similar to humans.] Krishna then proceeds to categorize music by its function, by the kind of emotions it is intended to evoke, and by the situations in which such music would be required or appropriate. Thus we have film music, folk music, religious music, ritual music (military bands, e.g.) and so on. Carnatic music, in its purest form, according to Krishna, evokes abstract emotions that cannot be verbalized. In the rest of the book he uses this idea of abstraction as a kind of touchstone of what is best, and keeps coming back to it whenever he wants to say that one way of 'doing' music is preferable to another. As art music, the greatest aspect of Carnatic music is improvisation, the spontaneous and instantaneous creativity of the musician during the performance, a loose translation of the Sanskrit word 'manodharma'. Some features of the music display it more than the others, and some periods of a rendering or a concert are more intensely creative. These are of course, mainly, the abstract portions, and are considered the best parts of the composition. The more concrete features, like the lyrics, are considered less important. 

The next couple of chapters are technical explications of the svara, their relationship to frequency, timbre, tone, pitch and other quasi-scientific ideas. Krishna spends a great deal of time and effort on explaining gamaka, an especially distinguishing characteristic of Carnatic music, or Indian music in general. Western music does not have gamaka. He then talks about raga, tala, laya, spending more time on the latter two ideas. These sections require concentrated reading, perhaps along with aural examples to illustrate differences. I confess that I was unable to comprehend this fully, and I am still, for example, unclear as to what a raga is, and how one tala is different from another. Nevertheless, I believe repeated reading of these sections, along with discussions with other interested individuals, may lead to a stronger understanding. Maybe not. Maybe this is genetically determined. Krishna goes on the describe different compositions and the different portions of compositions. He states some simple formulas. Thus there are three structural forms that can occur during one 'song', namely pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. The last of these can occur multiple times. Different compositional forms - Gita, Varna, Svarajati, Kriti (or Kirtana), Pada, Javali and Thillana - are constructed of different arrangements of these basic elements. On another dimension, each composition can be divided into the defined elements - the specific raga, tala, laya and sahitya - and the creative aspects not rigidly defined previously, comprising those sections of the compositions that allow the free expression of the musical performer's manodharma - alapana, niraval, kalpanasvara, tana. 

In the following chapters Krishna deals with the musician - chiefly the vocalist - and the accompanists on the violin, the tambura and the percussion instruments. He talks about the role of each, and how all of them are lead by the vocalist to interact and create the total musical experience. He leads off into a discussion of the kutcheri or the concert. The modern-day concert is usually structured into 120 or 150 minutes, and consists of many 'light' pieces, in which the lyrics are clearly enunciated and are important, together with one or two long pieces, in which manodharma is given free rein - the lyrics are unimportant, and the meaning of the music is abstract. This first section of the book ends with chapters about the audience, voice training and musical styles or bani.

The second section is titled 'The Context', and is a group of essays, each one of which could stand alone. In these Krishna discusses the relationship between song and dance; the relationship between Carnatic and Hindustani music, where he particularly addressed the sneering criticisms North Indian music connoisseurs have about Carnatic music; Fusion music (he doesn't think much of it); film music, or Carnatic music in films - he throws appreciative and respectful nods to Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman, but is unable to fully fit their music into his framework; lyrics, the lyricists, and the relative importance the great composers gave (or give) to the words as against the tunes; music and religion - 'My faith', he says, 'is not religion. It lies in the aesthetic of art music, in my trust that art music is a living being....' and more such words that sound well, but which I cannot understand as meaning much. Krishna does not treat the deep, strong and perhaps existential links between Carnatic music and Brahminical Hindu religion. Here and in other chapters, he talks about temple music, and music played at religious festivals. He does not however go beyond this to try and understand why Carnatic music has so little to do with other religions, or indeed, with secular events. Other art music forms - jazz for example - are a-religious. Most Western classical music is secular. But not Carnatic music. I can think that staunch Muslims and Christians would find it extremely uncomfortable to partake of Carnatic music, whether as musicians or as audience.

Then there are two bold and brave chapters. The first deals with gender inequality in music. The Carnatic music eco-system is thickly populated with excellent female artistes, more so perhaps than other such closed systems - business, or education, for example. But, as Krishna points out, not only are the women musicians treated patronizingly at best and as 'children of a lesser God' at worst, but are very seldom allowed any agency in the organisation of music. All the bosses are men.

Brahmin men. For, as Krishna discusses in the next essay, and as I remarked above, the Carnatic music scene is overwhelmingly populated by the people from these 'upper' castes, at all levels - organizers, musicians and audience. Perhaps the only way people from other castes participate are in the service categories, as cleaners, ushers, and perhaps sound and stage technicians. Krishna tackles this fact head on. He considers, and dismisses, various arguments why this is not an anomaly, unconnected to any feeling of social superiority among the connoisseurs. He argues fiercely for the current guardians of the music to try and 'annihilate caste' in the appreciation and performance of Carnatic music. To his credit, he has started the Urur-Alcott Kuppam music festival, where for the last few years, in the month of margazhi each year, he and small band of well-meaning musicians set up a stage in a fishing village that exists cheek-by-jowl with the upper-middle class locality of Besant Nagar, and perform Carnatic music. As of now these efforts have borne little by way of any transformation of attitudes. It is very difficult to see how Carnatic music can be detached from all its rich cultural context, that includes religion, caste (especially!) and class, and be made more universally loved. Were that to happen, concerts at the Music Academy would attract as much attention from the people would live in the kuppams as those who live in leafy residential areas. 

In this middle section, Krishna also addresses two other dimensions - musicians and music lovers who live abroad, particularly in the US; and the relationship of technology to the music.

The final third of the book is given over to history, first the history of the concept of  raga, the origins of which he traces to roughly the 7th century CE. He refers copiously to classical texts about music, almost all of them in Sanskrit. He does not seem to be very interested in exploring Tamil origins. I have heard, for example, of Abraham Pandithar, who, according to Wikipedia, systematized many of the currently used musical concepts - but there is no mention of him in this book. In the next few chapters Krishna likewise traces the history of other musical concepts such as tala; the compositional forms such as gita, varna, and so on; the manodharma aspects alapana, niraval, etc.; and the history of the form of the kutcheri. The book ends with a brief epilogue, and an extensive bibliography.

T.M. Krishna has written a truly wonderful book. Some portions of it served me as a kind of introductory textbook of Carnatic music appreciation. Others were thought-provoking exegeses into the cultural contexts, many of which had struck me even in my earlier acquaintances with this musical art form. Krishna insists all through the book that the soul of the music is the manodharma, the abstraction and the spontaneous creativity, demonstrated particularly in the alapana, niraval and so on. I find it hard to separate the music from the religious aspects of it. In talking about the history, Krishna does not give much importance to the Bhakthi cults that considered art and music a pathway to God, specifically Hindu Gods, like Rama and Krishna. A large majority of the present-day audiences of Carnatic music would however consider this association of the music with Hindu religion its raison d'etre.