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.