Saturday, September 2, 2017

Review of Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants : An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern IndiaAnts Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Your life is your caste, your caste is your life."
Sujatha Gidla was born a Dalit-Christian - an untouchable. She had to move to a different country, the USA, to realize the unfairness of her life in India. Her opening lines in Ants Among Elephants are "My stories, my family's stories, were not stories in India. They were just life". I can relate to this; moving to Qatar taught me that I had been on the nicer side of the unfairness. This acceptance does not come easily though, and -- to use a phrase favoured by Sujatha Gidla -- "even to this day", I have the tendency to get riled up or turn defensive on this topic. There is no surprise in the fact then that when Sujatha Gidla remarks "all Christians in India were untouchables, as far as I knew"  and adds that "I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu", my immediate reaction was to deny the exaggeration. But then, my unawareness of the caste system is by itself a manifestation of my privilege, and it is time that people like me listen to voices like Sujatha Gidla's. After all, "even to this day", caste plays a significant, life-changing role in large parts of India.

The two principal characters of Ants Among Elephants are Satyam and Manjula; the writer's maternal-uncle and mother respectively. Satyam is K.G. Satyamurthy, a revolutionary, an intellectual, an acclaimed poet (going by the pen name Sivasagar),  and a founding member of the left-extremist People's War Group ("the most notorious, famous and successful Naxalite party, a thorn in the side of Indian rulers"). Manjula is a woman growing up in India as an untouchable. Their struggles are equally dramatic and arresting.

Ants Among Elephants begins before the independence of India. While Sujatha Gidla promises us a tale of the cruelty of caste system, Ants Among Elephants is much more. The tales of Gidla's maternal family is actually a testament to the complexity of India as a country, where people are so abundant and lives so cheap that inhumanity does not take a single form. Lives are drastically affected by myriad macro-events - a flooding of the Godavari river; the Japansese bombing of Vizag; the presence of Razakars, a brutal army of Islamic militants serving the Nizam of Hyderabad; the suppression of this brutality by and the subsequent cruelty of the equally ruthless Indian Army; the Chattel system, which the Gidla refers to as "a modern product of the capitalist world market"; the vetti (forced labour) system; the struggle for the separate state of Telangana and much more. We see that casteism was omnipotent, with members of every caste (including the Untouchables) mistreating what they considered as the lower castes. The historical context is also educational in many ways. For instance, one of the many things I learnt was how the country began to get divided by linguistic barriers thanks to relentless protests in Andhra.

I felt that in her introduction to the book Sujatha Gidla came across as unemotional to the point of seeming cold. At one point, she remarks that "as of this writing, I do not know if this book's principal subject is alive or dead" (Satyamurthy died in 2012). But this detachment becomes an advantage, as she does not balk from the flaws of her subjects. So much so that the subjects become characters and we forget that these were actual people doing their best in troubled circumstances. All of us commit mistakes, but when you are at the bottom of the social ladder, your mistakes become irreversible. Sujatha Gidla is so impersonal that she even refers to her own birth in third person. This quality gives Ants Among Elephants an objectivity, allowing her to unflinchingly examine moments like her father's domestic abuse of her mother. On the flip-side, the fact that there are so many threads within the tapestry of Sujatha Gidla's work cause it to seem rushed at times. I wonder if the relatively shortness book (a little more than 300 pages) contributes to this feeling.

One of the many caste names Sujatha Gidla keeps referring to is "paki", which sounds very similar to a derogatory word in Tamil. I have a strong suspicion that the origin of the word is caste-based. The effects of caste system is not always explicit. Casteism has seeped into us in ways we can not even imagine.  Like Arundathi Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Ants Among Elephants is a significant work that forces us to take an unflinching look at the past and present of India. After a low profile release in the USA, the book still managed to gather rave reviews and is being released in India now. I highly recommend this book, especially to the Indians who feel that historical injustice does not affect the present.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Prodigy

"Thalangu thaka thimi thalangu thaka thimi thakathari kitta thom…”
"Stop it!", shouted TVR sir, and waited for the percussionist Shree Haravahanan's Mridangam to stop. He allowed a couple of minutes silence and said,
"Darling, I asked you to use the complete stage!"

They were in classroom 28 of Rajaji Girls Primary school, whose principal had generously offered to host their practice sessions after school hours, provided that they would not litter the campus. The room was packed with eager students and teachers who had stayed late to watch the practice, but it was clearly not dense enough to contain TVR sir's loud and angry baritone -- a voice which had permanently frightened away many of his erstwhile disciples. 
"And there are going to be more than 500 heads watching you on your big day. With your Pralokita, make eye contact with each and every person in the audience."
TVR sir was the most sought after Bharatanatyam teacher in Thenkudi. A proud winner of the Natiya Arthakovida award presented by his state, he had a famous temper. Students feared him, but their parents would do anything to get him teach their daughters and sons. His attention today was solely on 13-year-old Radha. 
Start again!", he continued as his voice pierced a silence no one else had seen fit to break, "and this will be the last time." His tone turned to a warning as he completed, "No more mistakes."
"Thalangu thakathimi.." he sang abruptly, and Haravahanan -- who had lifted a water bottle to quench his thirst during -- hurriedly placed it down and attempted to catch-up with the booming voice. No one would have noticed if he had missed a beat or two though, for every pair of eyes in the room was focussed on Radha's Shabda. Radha quickly adopted a hourglass-like stance, and started moving to her master's chants. Gradually, as the pace quickened, she began to crouch, leap, swirl, skip, spring, dart, and zip around the stage. Miming the story of Lord Krishna, she deftly transformed herself from the mischievous child God to the village maidens charmed by his pranks. For the next four minutes, the audience was transfixed by the grace and ease with which she performed the complicated movements, and they felt transported to Vrindavanam - the birth place of Krishna. They started applauding spontaneously towards the end of her performance when Krishna had killed the demon-king Kamsa. Radha completed her final motions and stood looking expectantly at her teacher, waiting for his verdict. One of the spectators shushed as TVR sir cleared his throat to speak and waited for absolute silence. 
"You need to concentrate on your Lasya", he said when his silence was granted. "You have a little more than a month. Practice hard, and get it perfected before I come back".
Having said so, he strode out hastily without waiting for an acknowledgement. With a collective sigh of relief, the audience continued their applause. Radha thanked the crowd perfunctorily, but her eyes were fixed on a lady rushing out of the class. The lady stopped near the classroom door, acknowledged Radha with a quick smile and ran behind TVR sir. 
"Sir, how did she..", she began before being interrupted. "
Madam, I have been teaching students for 27 years now, and I have never seen anyone like your daughter. She is a natural. She is a prodigy. Do not worry, but do not let her get complacent."
"Thank you very much sir. Her talent is a divine blessing. But we would feel less anxious if you were here to oversee her training before the event."
"I would very much like to, but my mother is not well. I need to visit her."
"Of course sir, I am sorry. We understand."
She will be fine." Saying so, he opened the door of his sedan, hesitated a little, and spoke again -- this time in an uncharacteristically soft and faraway voice -- "I will retire from teaching dance once her Arengetram is over. She will be my last student. She will be the best."



Radha stood with Meera and Jennifer on the veranda of her school building taking shelter from the unexpected February rains. A few other children waiting to be picked up by their parents stood around them in multiple pockets. Raja anna, the school watchman who sometimes doubled up as the back-up peon, stood with an umbrella on the now-sludgy mud that connected with the single lane tar road just outside the veranda. He was having a torrid time trying to direct the parents, with each of them wanting to park their cars as close as possible to the school building so as to not get their children’s shoes and their cars dirty. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating. Meera and Jennifer were discussing the school excursion to the town museum planned for next week. Jenny would be bringing some home baked cakes, while Meera had requested her mother to make bissibella bath. The children around them were chattering about the trip, and there was a cacophony of excited screechy voices. The most active of the lot had cast aside their bags at the veranda and were playing on the playgrounds across the road. Radha mentally replayed the conversation she had had with her parents last night during dinner, soon after her 3 hour dance practise. 

"Amma", she had remarked hesitantly, and raised her voice a little more,
Amma!".
"Yes dear?"
"They are taking us to an excursion at school.."
"Really? Where to? And when?"
"Next Tuesday. To the museum at Nallur." "Oh, that's wonderful. You can have a whole day's practice." "But amma, I want to go with them.."
"Darling, what do you mean? You have only 3 weeks left. Be serious!"
Her father looked up at his wife's raised voice and joined in.
"Radha dear, you need to concentrate on what is important to you, and you should not exert yourself unnecessarily."
"But Meera and Jenny are going."
"Let them. The museum is not worth a visit at all. If you want, I will take the three of you there after your Arengetram. For now, you should only be thinking of dance"

"MEERA! MEERA!" The girls looked around recognizing the voice of Kumar anna, the school peon. "Your father called. He said he is caught in traffic and that he will be here soon. He asked you three to wait near the veranda and.."
He was cut off midsentence by the shrill shriek. A girl with double-braided hair had fallen face down in the ground and she looked as if she was about to cry. As Kumar anna dashed into the rain to help her up, other girls around her laughed heartily at the awkwardness of the fall. The fallen girl hesitated, but quickly joined in the laughter as she helped herself up. Now that she was fine, Kumar anna rushed back to the shelter of the veranda cursing the little devils under his breath. But he was already drenched. 
"Shit! I forgot dad didn't go to office today!!", said Meera excitedly.
The girls lived in the same locality, and their mothers took turns picking the three of them up in their cars. It was Meera's mother's turn today, and apparently her father was filling in. Rajendran was the coolest of all their parents, and the girls loved to be driven around by him. He even let them choose their favourite songs in his car's stereo. 
"Yay! Your dad wouldn't mind his car getting wet!" remarked Jenny, as she rushed to the ground. Meera joined too. They both motioned at Radha to join them. Radha took a step forward, but then remembered the Arengetram. Mother would be mad if she got drenched in the rain and fell ill. She stood alone, looking at the playing children. Meera and Jenny had now broken into an impromptu jig, and a few other children joined them. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating.


As if rain was not enough, the night was accompanied by strong winds too. And darkness. The only source of light was a distant island, illuminating a bunch of children running around happily. Closer examination showed that the light was atop a hill -- a dark brown hill completely made of chocolate. The kids stopped frequently to bite a slice off the hill, and amazingly, the hill seemed to replenish itself. Radha could spot a few more children lying around idly. This island did not have schools, or teachers, or parents; and she was wading through the waters towards it. 
"Come back, Radha!" Her mother's voice.
Radha turned around and in the darkness behind her, over an embankment, she identified her mother's silhouette. She could not make out her mother's face, but she could intuitively feel the anxiety in it. Mom’s hands were stretched out as if it could conquer the distance and hold Radha's. She hesitated, but continued walking towards the island. The winds were strong, the waves were pushing her backwards, and the rains blocked her vision. It was freezing too. She shivered. 
"She is boiling hot!" her mother exclaimed.
"Sssh!! Do not wake her up. She needs rest. Does she need to go today?", her father's voice shouted over the rain.
"Poor girl! She must be so tired. Let her take rest"
"I will call Balki from the car and inform him".
She looked behind her once more. Balki sir, her class-teacher, was standing on the embankment now. He too was frantically motioning at her to come back. She remembered that she had not completed her science assignment ("collect ten varieties of leaves, stick them on a chart paper and label their parts"). She glanced at her mother and still could not make out her face. But she sensed her mother crying. Tears that were being washed away by the rains, only to be replenished immediately; like the chocolaty hill. She hesitated once more, but turned around this time and started walking back slowly. She could instantly feel the smile in her mother's eyes. Something made her stop, and she stood undecided. As she stood there, she realized that she had been dreaming. She stirred a little and her mother who happened to be passing by her bedroom rushed in. 
"What's the time, mommy?"
"Never mind that. It's late for school baby. You are staying home tonight."
"But.."
"No buts! You have been working hard for the past few days. You need to get some rest. How does it feel now?"
Without waiting for a response she pressed Radha's forehead, and let out a satisfied sigh of relief. "Better. Get up and brush your teeth. Let me get something for you to eat. I will give you a Crocin after your breakfast, and you can sleep again"

The sun shone brightly through the windows and there was silence all around; the silence of working day afternoons. Radha woke up tired having slept for the larger part of the morning. As she lay down for some more time, she could hear soft conversations from the TV in the living room. She stood up and lumbered towards it. Her mother was slumped on the floor, cutting vegetables for lunch. 
"Why are you up so soon? Go get some sleep", she asked, turning around at the noise.
"I want to sit here" "Come here. Let's see if you still have a temperature."
Having convinced herself that Radha was fine, Radha's mother suggested a compromise.
"All right, bring your pillow and lie down on the sofa".
Radha huddled on the couch. Her mother reached for the remote control and increased the volume, which had apparently been kept low so as to not disturb her sleep. Radha tried watching the movie for a few minutes. A teenage daughter and her mother were having a conversation at the back seat of a car while on a journey down a picturesque hill. It was a Bengali movie. Radha's mother didn't know Bengali, but she liked to watch movies of all languages. Nothing seemed to happen in this movie, and people kept on talking. A little bored with it, Radha turned to watch her mother. She was briskly cutting carrots. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. The sharp knife was brought down at a steady pace, and the cut pieces were so uniform that they could have been made by a machine. Radha's mother had once confessed that she didn't exactly love cooking. Having to decide what to cook each and every day was the most difficult part, she had said. Radha hadn't believed her. How could someone not love something and still be so good at it? Or can they? 
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
"Amma"
Clunk. Clunk. Pause.
"Yes dear?"
"Why don't you dance these days?"
When Radha had visited her grandparents’ ancestral home for her summer vacation last year, her Grandpa had shown her some childhood photos of Radha's mother. She had been surprised to find an album with photos of her mother in a traditional dancer's costume. Mother had never talked about it, and always found a way to wriggle out of conversations involving the album. Clunk. Clunk. "Amma?" 
"Sigh! You keep persevering, don't you? Just like your mother. Sleep. You need all the rest you can get. You will be going to school tomorrow, and you need to resume practicing. We don't have much time."


Radha woke up to the sounds of the alarm clock, and pulled up the comforter to muffle her ears. She heard footsteps accompanied by jingling anklets. Her mother was marching into the room.
“Radha, wake up! It is already late. How many more times do you want me to wake you up?”
Radha turned her head sideways, so that one ear would be muffled by the pillow and the other by her comforter. She soon realized that the comforter was being pulled away.
“5 minutes mom, please!”
“RADHA!”, her mother’s voice raised perceptibly, “you are already late for school. You bunked yesterday too. Come on! Let me feel your neck.”
Radha reluctantly let go of the comforter. Her mother placed her hands on Radha’s neck and let out a short scream.
“Look! She’s still got a temperature. I told you to sleep yesterday, and you sat up late night watching taht stupid Hindi movie on TV. Now how will you go to school? You have already bunked a lot, and you need leave for next week too! You have no seriousness at all! You need to perform on 29th and there are hardly enough days left! And you are yet to perfect your Shabdam. Do you have any seriousness at all? Answer me!!”, her mother’s voice kept rising with each breathless word she uttered.
Dad sensed an impending commotion and had hurried into the room. He was now standing at the doorway with a half-buttoned shirt, trying to decide if it was safe to interrupt. Radha just stared back at her mother silently. She was getting anxious and felt hurt. She hated making mother angry, as mom would get completely unpredictable. 
“I said ANSWER me! Is this how you take care of your health before an Arengetram? Do you know how much I am sacrificing so that you can dance? Where did you get the fever from? Did you get drenched in the rains? Mala told me that Meera had come home completely drenched on Thursday! Is that what you three did? Did you get drenched like pigs?”
Her mother was clearly hysterical now, and there was no saying what she would do next. Dad entered the room and tried to interrupt.
“Honey, look. Let her be. Please..”, but he was cut off.
“You stay away from this!”, shouted mother. “You keep spoiling her all the time, and this is how she ends up. Look at her arrogance! She hasn’t answered yet. Did you or did you not get drenched in the rain?”
"What if I had?”, said Radha almost inaudibly.
“What did you say?”, exclaimed her mother.  “What did she just say?”
“I said what if I had!”, replied Radha.
She was louder now, but her voice was trembling.
Why shouldn’t I get drenched, when Meera and Jenny are allowed to do it? Why should I always think about my Arengetram? Everyone else is allowed to go to the excursion, but I should stay home and practise! Why shouldn’t I watch a movie that I like on TV? All you want me to dance, dance, study and dance! Why? So that you can brag about me to your relatives and friends. ‘Wow! Your daughter dances so well. All credit must go to you’. That’s what you want to hear, no? You only think of your happiness! You are so selfish.”
Her parents had never seen Radha raise her voice before. They were too stunned to speak for a couple of minutes. Mother was the first to recover.
Slap!
“How dare you talk back like that?”
Radha had lost all her resolve by now. She slithered out of her bed weeping, and ran away from it. It was dad who reacted now, and tried to stop her. His daughter dodged him, ran into the bathroom, and locked the door in. He turned towards his wife, and she too was wiping out tears of her eyes.
“Hey, why don’t you stay outside for a moment when I try talking to her? She is just getting anxious. Wait, you wanted to meet the caterers, right? Why don’t you go now, while I take care of her for a while?”
“You want me to get out of my own house?”, she starred at him defiantly.
“Please”
 She noticed that he had turned slightly insistent, a tone which he rarely used, and nodded.
“What about your office? You said you had a meeting”.
“Yeah, but I can afford to skip it. I will call up Vinoth and tell him.”

“Hello madam, would you please open the door? How long will you stay in that stinking place?”
No response.
“Hey Radha, come on! Please come out. I have something for you here. Why don’t you see what it is?”
A whimper. That gave him more confidence.
“Hey, come out and I will tell you a nice story.”
The lock was unlatched from inside, and the door opened reluctantly.
“Come on lady! What makes you so angry? Tell me”
“I am sorry, pa! I was just tired, and wanted to sleep for a little while. Is she very angry with me?” He admired her maturity. She would grow up to be a wonderful woman.
“Forget it dear. Come, lie down. Let me toast you some bread with Nuttela!”
By the time he finished toasting, she had moved to the couch and was watching another ‘stupid Hindi’ movie.
“Aren’t you going to office daddy?”
“Nope. I bunked too”, he smiled, “Thanks for giving me a great excuse to not-work today! We are going to watch this movie today. That’s Akshay Kumar, right?”
“Look at you, so happy that at bunking office! Amma thinks you love your job”.
“I do, but not always. One cannot love his work completely. I would like to stay home too. You know, it’s been long since I lay down in the bed for a whole day. I would like to play too, but I can’t. Not until you become a great dancer and start earning for me, allowing me to retire”.
He smile became gentler. She had been smiling too, unaware of where the conversation was being led to. It was too late when she realized, and she could only give him a look of mock anger when she did. “You like dancing, don’t you? You are so good at it. TVR sir called your mom last night, and he couldn’t stop bragging about you”.
“Of course I do, pa. I was just tired”
She turned away her face almost imperceptibly, and her father let it pass.
“Appa! Was amma a dancer too?”
He looked at her with contemplation, and seemed to weigh his options.
“Yes, she was. Long back. At least, that’s what I have heard”
“Why doesn’t she dance these days? And why doesn’t she even talk about it? She always gets angry with me when I ask”
He sighed. “I haven’t seen her dance too dear. But your Grandpa tells me that she was the best in these parts of the town. I believe him, for I have heard stories of how good she was”
“But why does she hide it?”, Radha interrupted.
“Well, it seems she was so passionate about her dance that she left her home and stayed at her dance school for a month before her Arengetram. Just a day before her big day, she lost her mother, your grandma. She blamed herself for not being with her mother when she breathed her last. Her Arengetram didn’t happen. Since then, she just gave up on dancing. Until we discovered that you can dance too, that is. And dance so well. Your Grandpa says that you are better than your mother was.” He realized that he had told her much more than he had intended. But he didn’t mind. Children have an uncanny ability to sense things that are being hidden from them. They are more mature than grown-ups imagine them to be. He was reminded of the occasion when he and her mother had tried to surprise her with a late night celebrations on her 10th birthday, only to realize that she had sensed it, and just played along with them to act surprised. It brought a smile to his face, and he turned towards her affectionately. 
“But, it turns out that you might hate dancing. What a disappointment!”
“Who said that?”, shrieked Radha, and then realized that her father had once again tricked her.
“I like dancing too, pa. As soon as I finish eating this tasty toast, I will start practising”
“What happened to your fever? Come on, show me your neck”, he unsuccessfully mimicked her mother.
“Oh, that’s all right now appa”, she moved away with a sheepish smile of her own, “that went away at 08:40 as soon as the school prayer bell rang!”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Nithya



ONE LITTLE KITTEN, TWO BIG CATS”, wrote Mala ma'am in big, bold letters on the blackboard, reading her words aloud. The letters curled towards the right, in contrast to the upright letters of the words “HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY” written in bigger and bolder letters at the top of the blackboard. Rajaji Primary school was in its first post-lunch session on an unusually hot February day. As the students in class I-B repeated the words after her, Rishi suppressed a yawn and joined in at “..TWO..”, stressing the words in an unnecessarily loud and out-of-tune voice. His hands felt under the desk, grabbing one from the last few toffees left in a plastic cover. He unwrapped it as noiselessly as possible, surreptitiously popped the toffee into his mouth, and pushed back the wrapper under the desk.

Psst! Psst!”. He turned around to the outraged pouts of Karan and Rohit, who were sitting behind him at the next desk. Their palms were outstretched, entreating him to share his toffees. His hesitation lost to their insistence, and he passed on a couple grudgingly. “SIX SAD SEALS, SEVEN SILLY SEAGULLS”, shouted his classmates as his mind wandered to the morning session. Rohit and Karan had taken alternate turns in accompanying him to distribute the toffees all around the school. He remembered nervously entering the fifth standard class room, where Anandhi ma'am was teaching Science.

Come in, my child”, she said looking up from her book. “Ah Chocolates! Do we have a birthday baby here?”, she asked as he entered alone, unable to persuade Rohit to join him.

I am g..going to have a baby next week, mam”, he stammered, doing his best to avoid eye contact with the tall, big seniors in the class fixated on him.

The complete class sniggered as Anandhi mam looked up in surprise.

I am going to have a baby sister next week, mam”, he hastily corrected himself.

Fantastic. A cute baby sister for a shy boy. What are you going to call her?

Nithya, mam

Nithya. Wonderful name! I believe it means everlasting. God bless her with a long life”, she said as she grabbed a handful of chocolates and stuffed them in her shiny red purse.

---

TWELVE FAT FLEAS” continued Mala mam. Rishi concentrated on chewing the caramel toffee. They didn’t taste as good as those foreign-chocolates his dad had brought from Abu Dhabi a few months back. He missed his father, who stayed with Raju and his mom only for a month every year. He pictured himself riding on the bike with his appa, seated over the petrol tank, pretending as if he was controlling the bike. He longed for the sweaty smell of his father. His father had just left back to Abu for Dhabi work, and Rishi knew that it would be long before his father came back again for the next yearly break.

You would be in second standard. A grown-up. Study well, and take care of your mother and the baby”, appa had told before leaving.

Rishi looked forward to growing up. He would ride around in his own bike, handling the bike with one hand while talking on the phone with the other, just like his father. His father had brought his mother an android phone last time, and he had promptly installed Angry Birds and Subway Surfers. Amma always sought his help to do this or that with the phone. But apparently, he was too young to have his own phone.

Soon, Rishi. Soon!”, he told himself.

---

FIFTEEN DONKEYS WITH FIFTEEN TAILS”, wrote Mala mam and turned around. She was interrupted by a noise from outside. Grateful for the distraction, the children turned towards the door. Rishi let out a short yelp as he recognized the tall bearded man in a blue shirt and jeans outside as his own maternal uncle. “Raghu mama!”, he almost exclaimed, and his face broke into a spontaneous grin. He eagerly watched as his uncle grimly passed on a letter to Mala mam. She glanced at it, and quietly motioned at Rishi to leave with him. Rishi grabbed his bag, stood up, took a step forward, realized he had forgotten something in his excitement, doubled back and pulled out the toffee cover. Half-a-dozen empty wrappers flew out of the desk as Rohit and Karan stifled their laughter. Rishi didn’t mind them though. He had half-a-day off, while Karan and Rohit would have to endure two continuous maths periods followed by an anxious English hour handled by the stern Simion Clark sir.

---

Raghu uncle didn’t like him sitting on the petrol tank; so Rishi had to sit behind his savior-from-drudgery and hug him tight. He momentarily released his hands to wave a goodbye to the friendly watchman anna, and had to quickly hold his uncle’s waist to regain balance as the engine revved up.

Mama, where are we going?”, he shouted above the noise, asking the question for the thirteenth time since they had left the class.

The last time his uncle had relieved him from school this way, they had lied that their mother was unwell and gone to watch a movie starring Vijay in theatre. After the movie, Raghu uncle had treated him to a Softy cone ice cream. It had been great fun.

Are you taking me to a movie?”, he asked hopefully.

His uncle shushed, and rode on silently.

After what seemed like a long time, Raghu uncle parked his bike before a large, concrete, morose looking building. A lot of people were moving in and out of the entrance, and a large number of them were nurses in white gowns. He read the board in front of the hospital with some difficulty: “Jeya Hospitals”.

Rishi hated hospitals. His mother often took him along for check-ups, and he felt uncomfortable seeing people hastening around. He was also scared of doctors, who wouldn’t think twice about using an injection on you if you annoy them. The last thing he wanted was to take half-a-day off from school and spend it in a dreary hospital. They walked past the reception to a waiting lobby, took the stairs to the second floor, and crossed a row of rooms to reach a door marked as “1906”. Raghu uncle knocked once, and opened the door. Rishi was surprised to see his paternal grandparents; his patti half out of the chair to open the door, and his thatha sitting as he always did, indifferent to the surroundings. Mom rarely got along with his grandpa and grandma. His mother herself was in the lying in the patient’s bed, craning her neck out to see the door. As soon as she spotted him, she ignored the protests of Raghu uncle and sat up on the bed with difficulty, extending her arms to him. Rishi held her, and she hugged him fiercely. The visibly embarrassed boy freed himself from her grasp. His features unconsciously started twisting into a frown of annoyance -- he had told her about a thousand times that he didn’t like her showing such affection in public – but he remembered that she was bed-ridden, and softened a little.

He lied to his mother’s “did you eat your lunch properly?”, whilst inserting both his hands into his pant pockets. His uncle had always chided that gesture as being adult like, and Raju wanted to handle this like an adult would.

And how are you, patti”, he asked turning towards his grandmother.

What did the doctor say?”, Raghu uncle cut in loudly.

The latest scan results have confirmed it. It has been like this for f..four weeks”, his mother’s voice broke.

They have arranged for the operation on 29th, day after tomorrow”, his grandmother added.

The room drifted off into an uneasy silence. Seeing his mother lying dormant on a bed caused an uncomfortable feeling in Rishi’s stomach. Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t remember a day with his mother not standing at the door of their house, anxiously waiting for him as he walked home from the school bus. Her first question would always be, “did you eat your lunch?”. She would then open his Spider-man tiffin box, and berate him when she found the left-overs in it.

She didn’t check his tiffin box today. Instead, she asked him if he wanted to lie down. He protested, but Raghu uncle had already started clearing the spare bed to make space for him. He also made a makeshift pillow using, appropriately, Rishi’s books; covering them with a towel. Rishi lied down, and soon drifted off into a nap.

When he woke up, it felt as if he had slept for many hours. He was surprised to find himself on the hospital bed, and it took a while for him to register why he was there. He slowly sat up. His mother was asleep, his grandfather was reading the latest issue of a Tamil magazine, and his grandmother seemed to be murmuring silent prayers.

Where is Raghu mama?”, he asked.

He had overestimated the strength of his voice, and the words fell flat at the foot of his bed. He tried again.

Patti, where is Raghu mama?

His grandfather opened his eyes wearily. His grandmother starred at him blankly before answering him.

He has gone to the airport.

But why?”.

What why? To pick up your father”, she stated with an air of obviousness.

WHAT!? Is Appa coming home?”, shrieked Rishi.

Forgetting his resolve to act like an adult, he leapt out of the bed and started going around in circles play-acting a bike ride. “Drrr..Drr..dududududu.. Durrrrr”.

The noise woke up his mother.

Rishi!Rishi!

Keen Kin! Keen Kin! Keen kin! Drrr..dudu dud dud du

Rishi, stop!”, his mother had to shout in anguish to make herself heard.

Nithya is dead. Your baby sister died inside my stomach. They are going to operate me tomorrow to take her out”, she said.

Rishi stopped abruptly, without bringing the gears of his bike to neutral. He had looked forward to playing with Nithya. He had imagined showing her off to his friends, teaching her to wear a sticker pottu and protecting her from Rowdies like his favourite movie heros. He had wanted to teach her to play Subway Surfers, and had visualized her watching him with amazement as the high scores tumbled. What will he say to Anandhi madam when she asks him about his cute sister? What will Karan and Rohit say to him? Would they tease him as if it was his mistake? Had he distributed so many chocolates for nothing? That reminded him, and he quickly glanced at the unshaped chocolate cover which protruded out of his backpack, reassuring himself with relief that it was still there.

It then occurred to him that he had bunked his school. Would Clark sir ask him to stand up on the bench tomorrow? He imagined standing up on the bench, when that bespectacled Raji pointed and laughed at him. The idea made him profoundly sad, and tears poured out of his eyes spontaneously. His mother noticed his anguish, and beckoned at him.

Oh, don’t cry dear child! Please don’t. I love you so much. I thank God for you! Please God, don’t let him cry.”, she hugged him once again. This time, he let her.

After being held for a few minutes, he tentatively tugged at her saree.

Mommy!

Yes dear

Can I have your phone?

His mother hesitated, and gave him a weak smile, asking him to carefully take it from her green handbag lying on the spare bed, and not to disturb anything else from the bag. “Or else, better still, bring me the bag and I will get it for you”.

Rishi occupied himself with the mobile phone. He didn’t know how much time passed, before someone knocked the door of their room. Everyone looked up in expectation. The door opened inwards, and a tall muscular figure wearing an old jeans pant and a gray shirt stepped in, its disheveled hair blocking the numerals ‘1906’.

APPA!”, Rishi shouted excitedly, jumping out of the bed and running towards the door. His father responded with a weak smile, and offered his hand as a greeting. Rishi hung on to the hand and tried to climb up. His father almost lost his balance, and his patti reproved him for his mischief.

How are you, my boy?”, Rishi’s father asked tiredly.

I am fine dad. How are you?

Fi..

Did you bring those cracking chocolates for me? And the remote controlled helicopter? Where are your bags?

His father looked at Rishi, and tears welled up in his eyes. Raghu -- who had stepped in behind him -- gripped his shoulders, and patted him on the back, whilst meeting Rishi’s eyes with an admonishing stare.

Rishi was baffled, and his face fell. He understood that he won’t be having a baby sister, and he had wept for it too. But he had never seen his father cry. Was his father not glad to see him? He never understood these adults and their mood-swings. He wished he could grow-up soon, and be like them. Nothing would make him happier.

Or so he thought.

Soon, Rishi. Soon.
-END-

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of Alan Moore's Watchmen

WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling. An' it takes a moron to think that they are small enough for clowns like you to handle"  - The Comedian


I recently came across this engaging Podcast conversation between the controversial author Sam Harris and history buff Dan Carlin. Among other things, Sam Harris brings up the elevated threat levels in today's World thanks to terrorism. In his considered response, Dan Carlin proposes that it is only our perception of threat that has increased, and not the threat itself. He reminisces on growing up during the height of cold war in the USA, where people lived in constant fear of a nuclear showdown between two superpowers. A manufactured fear, implies Dan Carlin.

Imagining this fear helps us understand the bleakness of Alan Moore's Watchmen better. Watchmen is an epic, ambitious attempt, spanning a time period of more than sixty years from the end of the first World War to the fag end of the cold war in the mid 1980s. The backdrop is in an alternate history where the presence of Watchmen seems to have affected events subtly. Richard Nixon continues as the President of the USA, with a mention of a suspicious accident that kills two Washington Post reporters (there is a hint that one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, was involved in this, but it is up to us to draw our own conclusions).

To say Watchmen is dense would be an understatement. The writing and the artwork is crammed with details, and the radical temporal and spatial shifts demand unwavering attention from the readers. Dave Gibbons adds a lot with his art and the arresting visuals enhance the story. Reading the Watchmen is like watching a movie at times. Despite the predominantly dark tone of the actual plot-line ("Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing"), Watchmen comes with a supplementary reading at the end of each chapter where Alan Moore shows off his range of writing styles. The supplements range from an academic report on birds to a staunchly right-wing newspaper account, and these supplements add a lot to the Watchmen universe. There is even a comic-inside-comic about a pirate ship that mirrors the narrative of, and is much darker than, the story.

The primary purpose of Alan Moore in writing the Watchmen was to subvert the superhero genre, and he pulls this off spectacularly. The Watchmen are unlike any set of superheroes we have come across. Most of them are neither super nor heroic. One fights crime to escape from his tormented life, and another to escape from his dreary life. One fights crime for the popularity it entails, and another for reasons no one can fathom. One, the most powerful of them all, is an accidental superhero and would rather be somewhere else (Mars, maybe). Their political positions vary too. Rorschach's journal has an entry that reads "New social evils emerge everyday : promiscuity, drugs, campus subversions"; a stance that is relevant for the far right even today. However the central idea of Watchmen is in elucidating the fascism of a superhero. Will you make decisions that affect millions of people without their consent because you think it is for their own good? What if you are wrong? An additional theme that constantly runs throughout is the incompetence of current political systems to keep people happy. If you think such abstract ideas are irrelevant today, you just have to listen to the very same podcast I mentioned earlier (and I have linked below the post). Sam Harris and Dan Carlin disagree on how injustice in a foreign country must be dealt with by the USA, and the parallels are uncanny (At this point, I must confess that I don't love Sam Harris. I had written about him earlier - Science, Morality and Sam Harris. On the other hand, I like what I have heard by Dan).

On the downside, if you try explaining the plot of Watchmen to someone who hasn't read it (or watched the movie), you are likely to struggle with it. The scope of Watchmen is so big that Moore falters a bit while dealing with the actual central plot-line. Additionally, the characters do not connect with us emotionally. I have never been a big fan of the superhero genre, and the tiny elements of Watchmen that actually deal with the stuff superheros do -- saving people and fighting enemies -- were underwhelming. I would say that these are trivial complaints. Alan Moore is clear on what he sets out to do, and he succeeds. Watchmen was the first graphic novel I read, and I am sold. The narrative technique, the level of detailing, and the moral questions raised by Alan Moore make Watchmen a very satisfying read. The Watchmen is more for the mind that for the heart.

Podcast link : Shouldering the Burden of History

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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..