Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has been continuously losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and there seems to be no doubt among experts that it will be comprehensively defeated in just a matter of time. There is even an unverified claim by the Russian Government that the chief of ISIS, the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed. Will we soon, thankfully, see the end of the Islamic State (IS)? Or will we have another version of the horror and terror that was unleashed in the Middle East? Graeme Wood thinks this is not the end, and to comprehend why, he takes us into the minds of a few of ISIS's supporters in his brilliant book The Way of Strangers : Encounters with the Islamic State. Apart from understanding the motives of ISIS, we get a fair idea of Islam as a religion, and the various divisions within it.

We start before the advent of Islamic State in the current form with Hesham Elashry, an Egyptian tailor who lived in Brooklyn and grew up without much of an interest towards religion, until he stumbled upon the Blind Sheik's (The Blind Sheik is a prominent Iman currently under arrest in the USA for jihadist propaganda) sermons. Having converted to Salafism, one of the strictest forms of Islam, Hesham meets Graeme Wood in Egypt and attempts to seduce him into the religion. Hesham is not technically a part of the Islamic State as far as we know, but he exemplifies perfectly the mindset that would lead people to support the IS once the Caliphate is declared. Graeme Wood's narration during this episode is so gripping that this could be a John Le Carre novel, complete with a victim in the form of a non-suspecting Japanese woman caught in unfathomable circumstances. We then travel to Australia to meet Musa Cerantino, the centerpiece of the book as well as of an earlier long form article by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic. Musa Cerantino was, at one point of time, among the three most prolific online recruiters for the IS, apart from doubling up as their unofficial English language spokesperson. Astonishingly, Musa is normal in most ways, so much so that Wood forms a sort of friendship with him. Through the longest chapter in the book, we learn Musa's views on why a Bay'a, or fealty, to the Islamic State is the duty of every true Muslim.

Some investigative journalism leads Wood to Yahya, an American who is just a loser in the eyes of his parents, but turns out to be one of the most influential characters within the IS. Though we do not get to meet Yahya, we get a complete character sketch by meeting people around him and exploring the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he made. Yahya's case proves that the Islamic State attracts many despite their being from geopolitically and economically stable backgrounds. Apart from a few other characters, Graeme Wood then meets a couple of prominent American Muslim scholars who, despite their fierce disagreement with each other, vehemently condemn the Islamic State.

Contrary to the perception of most outsiders, Islam is a religion of logical reasoning, or Qiyas. Reading Graeme Wood's books made me realize that Islam is one of the few religions with really devout followers in current day society. A lot of time is spent on interpreting the religious texts and deriving the right way to live. If you buy into a certain premise, you can reach a conclusion that may sound horrifying to outsiders, but is still logically sound. The premise on which the logic is derived is often what causes factionalism within Islam, and through Graeme Wood's book we get to meet Salafis, Wahabbis, Sufis, Dhahiris and Quiet Salafis, among others. Wood's contention is that if you follow the premise of a devout Salafi who thinks Jihad is okay, it would be extremely tough to not end up supporting the Islamic State. Of course, Graeme Wood is conscious that this is not the only reason for people to join Islamic State. There is always a geopolitical angle, an economic angle, a psychological reason. There is also an apocalyptic perspective, luring people by prophesying that in the near-future, "The earth will suffer a drought - a third of the planet will go without rain one year, and two-thirds the next. We will live in a age of miracles, both counterfeit and real; of inconceivable suffering, bloodshed, and tribulations; of global war waged with tools ranging from sabers to thermonuclear weapons. Those who survive - Muslims and not - will wish for death." However, Graeme Wood strongly disagrees with the view that the IS is just "an army of psychopaths and self-dramatizing losers.", pointing out that many followers of Islamic State are more well-versed in the reading of the religious texts than the average Muslim.

There is also a commentary on research focused on religion. While Wood appreciates Princeton University for their extensive research on Jihad, he laments the lack of such work elsewhere. He disagrees with Karl Marx's opinion that "Religion is always reducible to a material explanation", and argues that religion itself is a prime motive in many cases. ISIS, he implies, is not the exploitation of religion to meet political ends. It is rather the exploitation of politics to meet religious ends. And he adds that a secular outlook would inhibit us from seeing this truth. This is not to imply that Graeme Wood is anti-Islamic at any point of time. He seems to have an extensive knowledge of Islamic texts, and seems to be respected enough by Muslim scholars (at least the ones portrayed in the book). His point is simply that a lot ideological arguments of an entity like ISIS can only be answered with ideological debate, and this can be done only once we concede that ISIS is an Islamic group. In his own words, "Since 2012, tens of thousands of men, women and children have migrated to a theocratic state, under the belief that migration is a sacred obligation and that the state's leader is the worldly successor of the last and greatest of prophets. If religious scholars see no role for religion in a mass movement like this, then they see no role for religion in the world."

Graeme Wood is a terrific writer. The writing has a journalistic economy of words, and The Way of Strangers is engaging throughout. Apart from a command of English that made me reach for the dictionary every few minutes to look up  meanings, he seems to be versed in Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, and probably other languages he has not revealed to us about. This mastery of languages probably plays a large role in the fact that Graeme Wood is able to connect with a variety of people and get their unencumbered views. He also has a good sense of humour, and inappropriately for such a book, I laughed out loud a few times. Especially when he describes how a Japanese propensity to punctuality irritated a potential ISIS supporter enough to move out of ISIS region. The one complaint I had with the book is of a typographical nature. The notes and references which provide essential insights are placed at the end of the book and it was extremely inconvenient shifting from the main narrative to the notes section. I would personally prefer these in the form of  foot-notes. On the other popular complaint that Graeme Wood does not visit the ISIS territory at all, I wouldn't say I missed it a lot.

Islam is the most popular religion in the World, and it is still the least understood among the non-practitioners. The two major narratives surrounding the religion are, to use Graeme Wood's words, that "Islam is essentially  harsh and murderous", or that "Islam is a religion of peace". Graeme Wood convinces us that both these views are wrong, and when major global decisions are made with either of these view-points, it would turn counter-productive and act as fodder for groups such as the Islamic State. And the sad thing is that, as an idea, Islamic State is probably not dead yet, at least in the minds of many Muslims. He points out regions which are ripe for another Islamic State (prominent among them is Mindano in Philippines). "Wherever there is grievance, savagery can be sown. Wherever there is savagery, it can be used and exploited. Wherever it can be exploited, the nightmare can endure", he says. Humanity should work towards reducing grievances on one hand. On the other hand, as one Islamic State advocate puts, "the fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason to hate you will not case to exist until you embrace Islam". This can be curtailed only by the scholars of Islam. It is not a fight the outsiders, the infidels, can win.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of Arundhathi Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We're jackals who feed on other people's happiness, we're Happiness Hunters."

In a thought provoking 1973 short story titled "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (which you can read here), Ursula Le Guin describes the Utopian city of Omelas where there is no crime, no police, and enough resources to feed every citizen keeping them happy. However, this city's splendour is contingent on the fact that a single child is kept imprisoned in a basement cell in constant misery. Would you chose to live in such a city, where the "greatest good" is at the cost of a single unfortunate human's misery? Can a society even aim to become something other than Omelas. India is accused of many things; but never of being Utopia. At least not in the present (some maintain that ancient India was the greatest-everything ever). India is not Omelas. However India, like probably every other country, has a basement cell. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhathi Roy doggedly focuses on this basement cell, where we have imprisoned more, many more, than one single child.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in Delhi and Kashmir for the most part, and deals with the fringes of our society. A transgender woman caught in a man's body; a woman who swears, smokes beedis and refuses to wear make-up; a Kashmiri who has crossed over to the other side and takes arms against India; and an enterprising Dalit who thinks one fringe is better than another, and thereby calls himself Saddaam Hussein. The canvas is epic, as Arundhathi Roy attempts to deal with multiple issues and to tie them up with the modern history of India. She succeeds at times, but falters at most. Her politics and anger seep through her writing, even at the rare moments when she seems to be attempting to subdue them. As a fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is underwhelming. As a call for our empathy, it will polarize people, but needs to be read by Indians who are too proud of their country to not see its many flaws.

Arundhathi Roy's political position is well-known, and she has been praised, awarded, hounded, abused and threatened for her views. The God of Small Things, which brought her to limelight, is a political book too. However beneath the politics it had an emotional story that we could empathize with. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness though, Arundhathi Roy's stance is clear - fiction is an excuse to get across her ideas. The attack on political right is relentless. On Brahmins, the upper class of India (and one to which I belong), she says they "wear their sacred threads inside their safari suits, and their sacred ponytails dangling down the inside of their vegetarian skulls." With her powerful narration, she makes a Ram-Leela celebration feel like a horrific congregation of right-wing goons. India feels like Afghanistan under the Taliban in Khaled Hosseni's A Thosand Splendid Suns. She attacks Indira Gandhi by name, and goes on ridicule and mock modern politicians and contemporary figures by symbolism. Vajpayee (the"lisping poet"), Advani, Anna Hazare ("newest show in the town"), Arvind Kejriwal ("raging, almost uncontrollable, tornado of terrifying righteousness"), Manmohan Singh ("puppet"), and even Chetan Bhagath (through a reference to a book titled "What young India really wants") - no one's safe. The most choicest insults are of course reserved to Narendra Modi ("Lala"). Arundhathi Roy picks on most forms of activism in a scene set in the Delhi Anti-Corruption protests with a tone conveying that every form of activism other than hers is inferior.

She almost spares Muslims. At one point, one of the lead characters says that "We Muslims are motherfuckers too, just like everyone else.. our name is in mud already", but in general she sympathizes with the conditions of Muslims in India. It is probably because Arundhathi Roy feels that Muslims are already disgraced enough in the current climate. What we get instead is a first hand glimpse of Muslim culture and Urdu language. We learn about the equanimity of the Mughal King Muhammad Shah Rangila. Even dead Muslims are better than dead Hindus in her World ("If they were recognizably Muslim they were buried in unmarked graves that disappeared over time and contributed to the richness of the soil and the unusual lushness of the old trees"). She refers to Kashmir as outside India. We do get a bit of an opposing perspective through the character of Biplab Dasgupta (who thinks, "We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes, but these are only aberrations. I feel a rush of anger at those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country. Frankly, they can do it only because they are allowed to. And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy."), but the narrative is overwhelmingly against this view. Now, I am not saying that these are problems that need not be discussed. The rise of the far-right in India is a dangerous sign. Dalits are still ill-treated and rarely considered as equals. We have destroyed our environment to favour corporates and cities. Kashmir is a glaring mess which is becoming worse, and most of the Indians outside Kashmir are frightfully happy to ignore the brutality of Indian Army. However, Arundhathi Roy's views are completely unsympathetic to the idea of India as a country. She refers to the violence in India as the "Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to." She feels that "Normality in our part of the World is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence."   I sat-up when we see things (for a very brief while) from the perspective of a Tamil soldier. We learn that this soldier is a Dalit too, and we witness the cruelty with which the upper caste treat him back home.

As a work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness falters often. The two main narratives of Anjum and Tilotamma do not connect seamlessly. There are some glaring logical oversights. A wanted activist (or terrorist, depending on the way you look at it) moving around in disguise carries a photograph of his family with him. Miss Jeban the second stays in a house with Tilotemma which is conveniently "sound-proofed", so that the neighbors do not suspect anything. The whole episode of Anjum's travel to Gujarat is obviously force-fitted so that Arundhathi Roy can describe the 2002 riots (which she does very effectively). Anjum's struggle as a trans-gender is dealt with extremely well, for a while. Once Anjum grows up, she just becomes another character and we do not see much of the practical difficulties such a person faces in India. The God of Small Things had a small element of magical realism. Such moments are present in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness too ("Clouds stopped drifting in the sky, birds froze in mid-flight"), but are few and far between. The book still works despite all this because Arundhathi Roy is a phenomenal writer. She is one of those rare writers who can afford to break all structural rules of fiction, and still ably engage the readers. Her writing is dreamy and trippy at her best, and borders on absurd, but almost always stops on genius. There is no structure to her narration, but this unpredictability adds to the fun.

The politics of Arundhathi Roy is the politics of Tilotemma, who even remarks that "I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's a lot to write about. That can't be done in Kashmir. It's not sophisticated; what happens here. There's too much blood for good literature." Arundhathi Roy has clearly not set out to create great literature. She just wants to get her messages across. In many an Indian's minds, Kashmir is a black-and-white issue with terrorists and patriotic soldiers. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness inverses this, with the black being the white and the white being the black - a war between innocent civilians forced to defend themselves and cruel, psychotic fascists. The truth is most definitely a mixture of both narratives - a shade of gray. If India were a woman, Roy does not consider her to be an attractive one. She writes on India's modernization, "Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore." Bleak and pessimistic. Arundhathi Roy's work would be appreciated far and widely in the Western World where human rights activists would forget that the platform they speak from is one of unparalleled imperialistic and colonial crimes. That is not to say that Arundhathi Roy's views can be ignored at home. She is one of the greatest writers of this generation, and her political views are based on a lot of truth. However it is up to us to gleam the empathy from her writing with a holistic understanding. After all, each country has its own Omelas-basement, and each of us need to work towards eliminating the misery of the people trapped in this basement. 

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review of R.K.Narayan's The Guide

The GuideThe Guide by R.K. Narayan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

R.K.Narayan is the direction I would like to take in my own writing. Concise, clear and unobtrusive language that tells simple, timeless stories. In The Guide, we meet Raju who -- fresh from serving a two-year jail term -- is mistaken to be a wise and learned sadhu. This third person narrative interweaves with a first person narrative of Raju's past, where he tells us the story of his life leading to him being jailed. As the two narratives progress, we recognize that there is a pattern to everything Raju does, and that his nature makes him eternally a Guide.

Raju is an instrument whose purpose is to serve other people and to give others something they lack. As he remarks, "It is written on the brow of some that they shall not be left alone. I am one such". This giving is literal when Raju is a shopkeeper catering to the passengers who use the Malgudi railway station. However it takes an abstract turn as he progresses to a guide and earns the moniker 'Railway Raju'. His purpose now is to give information, and he does not hesitate to make them up when he is not sure. As he remarks, 'If I had the inclination to say "I don't know what you are talking about", my life would  have taken a different turn'. Later on, he would be required to give Rosie the freedom to enjoy her art. And finally, he is a giver of spiritual peace and comfort to the villagers around an abandoned temple. Twice, Raju deviates from his purpose and succumbs to selfish motives driven by lust and money. And he falters each time.

The edition I read has an added bonus in the form of a wonderful introduction by Michael Gora who seems well-versed in R.K.Narayan's works. As Gora puts it, he has a "language that seems mastered, but not fought with". The focus is always on what is happening. Physical descriptions are rare. Even when Raju lusts after Rosie, we learn less about her features than about her dancer's pose. His style is a major factor in making The Guide a gripping read. Apart from Raju; Rosie, Marco, Raju's mother are all well-etched characters. Most of R.K.Narayan's humour is derived from caricatures of other characters, especially of the society as a whole. The general public in The Guide are simpletons with hilarious quirks.

Unlike many Indian novels, the tribulations this protagonist faces are his own doing. There is no effect of the prevailing political situation or macro-level factors on Raju. He is clearly born in a family that is not very well-off, as we can see from the descriptions of their simple and barely functional house. However R.K.Narayan never mentions this explicitly, and the lack of wealth in Raju's household does not limit his potential to achieve what he sets out to do. There is a school of thought that argues that this apolitical nature of fiction does not do justice to the real backdrop. Compare this style of writing with that of Salmaan Rushdie or Arundathi Roy, where the settings cause chaotic effects of the lives of the characters. In my personal opinion though, both kinds of writers are necessary, and add their own value to literature. P.G.Wodehouse wrote more than a hundred books without a political backdrop, and he even committed a political gaucherie that resulted in him being accused of being a Nazi spy. The timelessness of R.K.Narayan's stories enable us to focus more on the characters themselves, and why they act the way they do. Reading The Guide, I was once again reminded that R.K.Narayan's simplicity is a facade hiding complex thoughts and emotions.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review of Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind, just like it was impossible for humans to lift off the earth by pulling up their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside human race."

Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin's first book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy -- The Three-Body Problem -- begins with a bang. In the height of the cultural revolution in China (around the late 1960s), most of Ye Wenjie's family is hounded by the students of The Red Guard for being intellectuals. A dazed and damaged Ye is offered an opportunity to redeem herself in the eyes of the communist decision makers by contributing to a top-secret Governmental science project. What she discovers there can potentially change the fate of humanity. Forty years later, Wang Miao, a scientist working on cutting edge nanotechnology is contacted by the police to help solve the mysterious deaths and suicides of renowned scientists all over the country. Meanwhile in a third narrative, Wang Miao discovers an immersive Virtual Reality game called The Three-Body Problem that is strangely addictive, and somehow seems connected to the bizarre happenings all around.

The Three-Body Problem is translated to English by Ken Liu (who himself is a science fiction author based out of the US), and won the coveted Hugo award in 2015. Even with the lack of experience with the genre, I could sense that the Three-Body Problem does a lot of justice to Science Fiction. The science is at times tough to follow, dealing with a variety of subjects such as astrophysics, theoretical physics, nanotechnology, and maths to name a few. There are some fascinating scientific concepts, and we can feel the excitement when the characters find a scientific solution to a problem. The USP of the book is its setting. For an international audience not too exposed to novels in Chinese settings, this is a fascinating read. After all, as Liu says through the book, "In China, any idea that dared to take flight will only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong." It is refreshing to see an apocalyptic story where a country other than USA takes the centre stage.

However, I felt that the writing itself was not consistently great. There were parts where I felt emotionally connected, and there were others where the plot was more of a driver than the emotions beneath. I attribute this to the genre itself. It is probably the complexity of the plot that necessitates the lessened focus on character development. As it so often happens in such books, I could connect really well with the happenings of the past, and not so much with the present. Also, most characters in the novel are scientists of some kind, and even if they are not, they are able to quickly grasp arcane scientific concepts. Take the Princeps or Da Shi, who are able to make important decisions based on scientific facts despite not being involved in scientific research. I was amused to that even some of the metaphors used to convey emotions are scientific in nature, such as "She could no longer feel grief. She was now like a Geiger counter that had been subjected to too much radiation, no longer capable of giving any reaction, noiselessly displaying a reading of Zero." Liu Cixin is able to convey emotions very well when they involve individual characters, however when it comes to conveying emotions through dialogue, I personally didn't get the same effect. There is a hint that Liu Cixin has a good diversity in style : I enjoyed the hilarious story of a maths prodigy who is too lazy to act on anything, but still ends up solving an underlying scientific riddle. But this book by itself does not give Liu Cixin much scope to expose the diversity in terms of style. Ken Liu deserves a lot of appreciation too for setting the Chinese context and back-drop well enough without sounding pedagogical.

The common theme running throughout the story is the selfishness of humanity. Take lines like "How many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil?" or "These are the rules of the game of civilization: the first priority is to guarantee the existence of the human race and their comfortable life. Everything else is secondary". Cixin is harsh on our destruction of environment, and gives the impression of someone who has lost hope on humanity (as do many of his characters). However reading his afterword (which has been specially added to the English translation), we get a better idea on Liu Cixin's fundamental philosophy that probably defines his works. On the whole, The Three-Body Problem, like a good book should, has made me contemplate on a variety of questions. And considering that the first book has been largely a build up for things to come, I can't wait to get my hands on the second book of this trilogy.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Review of Virginia Woolf's Mrs.Dalloway

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment."

There is a word that we usually do not associate with classics. Science-fiction? Sure. A thriller with a convoluted plot? Probably. A classic? Surely not. But then, Virginia Woolf's most famous classic, describing a single day's dusk-to-dawn in early 20th century London, can be accurately described with the word mind-boggling. I have a strange and inexplicable habit of pacing the mundane activities of my life to suit the rhythm of the book I am currently reading. As a child, I remember being asked to go to the grocery store while reading a Perry Mason and literally running to the shop until I realized that my life isn't as fast-paced as Gardner's courtroom thrillers and forced myself to slow down. After Dumbledore and Voldemart came face-to-face in Harry Potter and The Order of Phoenix, I couldn't sit down for a long time until my excitement subsided. Reading Mrs.Dalloway, I frequently found myself breathless trying to keep pace with the narrative.

There is not much in terms of plot in Mrs.Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is hosting a party, while unconnectdly, a soldier fresh out of World War 1 is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The threads intersect as characters wander through the streets of London often coming across one another. The general rule of fiction writing is to take an ordinary character and put them in an extra-ordinary situation. Mrs.Dalloway is an extra-ordinary woman in ordinary circumstances, and this is not the first rule of writing that Virginia Woolf breaks. Mrs.Dalloway is humble though, imagining that "her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct". On the said day, she looks back at her life and reflects on what she has become. Her husband is normal in most senses of the word, but "with twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes - one of the tragedies of married life". Her reminiscences take her back to the days of her youth, and her friends Sally and Peter, making her wonder how her life would have turned out if she had married Peter.

There are two parallel philosophies in Mrs.Dalloway both of which are existential in nature and recognize the futility of human life. "One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that", says one strand, while the other strand counters this with "As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship, as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeons with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possible can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan't have it all their own way".

The striking thing about Mrs. Dalloway is the narrative technique. The famed climatic scene from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was my first exposure to the power of a stream-of-conscious narration. Mrs.Dalloway uses this technique throughout. The genius of Virginia Woolf lies in how one scene segues to the next, seamlessly transporting us from the mind from one narrator to the mind of another. Her descriptions are heavy, and her sentences are long, often extending to complete paragraphs. For example, consider these lines which describe the humble experience of a guy falling asleep in a public park : "A great brush swept smooth across his mind, sweeping across it moving branches, children's voices, the shuffle of feet, and people passing, and humming traffic, raising and falling traffic. Down, down he sank into the plumes and feathers of sleep, sank, and was muffled over". There is also a hint of rationality, feminism and a critique on how society views mental illness, all of which were much ahead of the time when the book was published (1925).

The narration of Mrs.Dalloway is an immense feat in itself, and to be honest, I felt it very hard to keep up at times. I struggled for the first few pages to dig into the story, and kept struggling each time I went back to the book after a break. But once I succeeded in digging into the narration, I couldn't come out of it. Mrs.Dalloway is a beautiful book. I regret that I didn't read it as carefully as I should have, but I will forever remember the wonderful experience of reading it. And I would probably revisit this book multiple times over the years to get more of the nuances.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Manu Joseph's Serious Men

Serious MenSerious Men by Manu Joseph
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical"
"Of all deformities, genius is the most useful"

If there is any doubt about the tone Manu Joseph's debut novel Serious Men would take, the book's opening lines -- "Ayyan Mani's thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours" -- clear it up for us. Manu Joseph's wit and cynicism are in full display in Serious Men, which is set in Mumbai ("the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor"). Hidden beneath the clever one-liners is an intertwined tale of two vastly different men in dissimilar circumstances trying to break free from the stereotypes on them.

Ayyan Mani is a son of a sweeper, a Dalit - among the lowest of castes in Indian caste hierarchy. He is extremely well versed in the ways of the World, deeply cynical, and is capable of getting things done. His anger is Manu Joseph's anger, his perversions are our perversions. However he is not where he wants to be in his life, and he has a strong sense that this is due to his caste. "If you only had the fathers that these men had, you would have had a room of your own today with your own secretary", a character tells him, and one can only agree. Ayyan Mani lives with his wife Oja and 11-year old son Adi in a densely populated tenement for the poor. "In a way, this was the easiest place to be a man. To be alive was enough. To be sober and employed was fantastically impressive. Ayyan Mani was something of a legend". Ayyan Mani has one opportunity to use his cruel sense of humour and get back at the World. The risks are immense, especially to his partially deaf son Adi. But Ayyan senses that he may not be able to stop himself before it is too late.

Arvind Acharya is the director of Indian Institute of Theory and Research. He is a Tamil Brahmin, and has a "newsworthy rage and tragic brilliance". Tall, good looking, arrogant, incisive, but past his prime. His reputation is spotless, and his words carry respect through-out the scientific community everywhere. Acharya is not a man bothered with the practicalities of the World, and he is in pursuit of higher truths (whereas Ayyan believes that there is "no such thing as truth." There is "only pursuit of truth and it was a pursuit that would always go on. It was a form of employment"). He loves his wife Lavanya in the per-functionary way a couple whose marriage has been arranged love each other. He laments that scientists are more focused at research in "time reversal, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, invisibility, intelligent civilisations", or what he terms as "Exciting rubbish". He has his own eccentric theories on life. However he faces an institutional opposition, and a threat to his own sense of morality.

Having read Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People earlier (review here), I felt that there are some commonalities in his work. A bit of science in the plot, and a memory that cannot be explained away by Science; a random set of facts that are memorized and repeated; a disregard for male friendships ("That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men" in Serious Men and "that any two men in the world have real affection between them is itself a myth, chiefly of the two men" in the Illicit Happiness of Other People) and much more. Needless to say, I enjoyed both his works thoroughly. Serious Men is largely funny, and is littered with unexpectedly poignant moments. Manu Joseph is the ultimate troll, and he is endurable because his wrath is not directed towards a single idealogy or group of people. Dalits, Brahmins, Christians, Tamils ("Most Tamilians so tiny and genetically predisposed to believing something is wrong with others"), the rich ("Rich people have a name for everything. They even have word for the time a man spends with his family.. they call it 'Quality Time'"), the poor, the random motorist ("After riding like a moron all over the place, observe the face of an Indian when he crashes. He is stunned."), the educated and the irresponsible - no one is safe from Manu Joseph's vitriol. In my review of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, I had compared him with Oscar Wilde and written that "he throws up aphorisms which sound attractive but are not necessarily true". The same pattern is evident in Serious Men too, which is littered with witty one-liners such as "The fate of every love story, he knew very well, is in the rot of togetherness, or in the misery of separation" which are not falsifiable.

The only discernible downside is that the conclusion of Serious Men seems a bit forced, with some filmy moments. This is exactly what I felt about the conclusion of "The Illicit Happiness.. " too. But once again, I see that there are not many logical ways the plot could have ended. The supporting characters are all caricatures, and this contributes immensely to the humour. I enjoyed the simple-mindedness of Oja, who keeps throwing folk sayings such as "the end of an ox is beef, the end of a lie is grief". Serious Men is a worthy read, especially for privileged Indians (such as me) who wish to know how easy things have been for them.

I remain a fan of Manu Joseph, both his fictional works and his weekly columns.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review of Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise

This Side of ParadiseThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being"
I picked Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise from my local public library for two reasons : I wanted to read a classic; and having moved to an area not far away from Princeton, I was attracted by the blurb that indicated that a major part of the story takes place in Princeton. It occurred to me a bit later that the place would have changed immensely in the last century and that I might not be able to relate to the geography after all. With Scott Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical debut novel set in early 20th century, not only was I not able to relate to the place, I was not able to relate to the characters too for the most part of the book.

This Side of Paradise is the coming-of-age story of Amory Blaine. Amory's father is dismissed off quickly as "an ineffectual, inarticulate man". We learn that Amory takes after his mother ("But Beatrice Blaine! There was a woman!"). Beatrice comes from an European family of wealth, and ensures that for a good part of Amory's life, he does not have to worry about petty things such as money. She treats her son in a way we could only envy, with advice such as "dear, don't think of getting out of bed yet. I've always suspected that early rising in early life makes one nervous". Amory's initial education consists of private tutoring, until he decides to attend prep school at America. These were different times, and Amory attends a boarding school with the grand motto "To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training  as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences". His teachers think of him as "idle, unreliable and superficially clever", but he does not get the message. Amory completes school thinking highly of himself, and with disenchantment from his first love.

At Princeton University, Amory is in single minded pursuit of his ambition to maintain a high status, as are most of his fellow students. He discovers literature with his friends, and attempts a lot of not-so-ambitious poetry. He is terribly self-concerned (as Fitzgerald points out, he is just a "romantic egotist"). If you are a fan of such things, there are some beautiful lines here that describe the passage of various seasons, and there are many references to other literary works of the time. I am not, so I had through hurry through this phase with as much disinterest as Amory had on his studies. There are some exhilarating sequences, such as the one where a set of students elope for an unplanned vacation and eat a lot of expensive food without paying much. Amory, in the mean time, falls in love, and falls out of it once again. He also comes across Monsignor Darcy, an old friend of Beatrice and a mentor figure to Amory. Darcy is "intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be celibate, and rather liked his neighbor". Monsignor Darcy gives some important advice to Amory, such as "we're not personalities, but personages". However Amory does not seem to be taking much note.

World War 1 intervenes, but we do read much about it. Amory's outlook towards the war is described as "the attitude he might have held toward an amusing melodrama, he hoped it would be long and bloody. If it had not continued he would have felt like an irate ticket holder at a prizefight where the principals refused to mix up". The whole World War passes away as an interlude of a few pages. Amory is a changed man after the war, or so we think. But he falls in love once again with a girl artfully described as "her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others". It takes a few more episodes, and a few more flings with various women before Amory realizes that he has run out of the considerable sum of money he had inherited. Amory turns a new leaf, and even starts to develop an affection to communism ("However the brain and abilities of men may differ, their stomachs are essentially the same"). 

This Side of Paradise has an unpredictable narrative, taking the form of prose, poetry, and even drama. This in itself is extremely innovative. The writing is brilliant at times, and let's just say that I couldn't recognize the brilliance at other times. What kept me going was the fact that Scott Fitzgerald does not pretend that his protagonist is a hero. The writing is self-aware, and is self-critical of Amory's narrow-mindedness. This was after all a generation at the beginning of a new century, a generation that was caught in a war unlike anything else preceding it. The importance of this book, is thus, more contextual than objective. This Side of Paradise makes more sense for students of literature than to the lay reader.

Do let me know what you think..