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.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them"
There are two possible reactions to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time : people either love it, or people hate the fact that other people love it. Mark Haddon's debut novel has been compared by many to Catcher in the Rye, and both books are similar in at least this respect. Additionally, both Catcher in the Rye and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time do not dwell on emotions. But I believe the comparison ends there, for the latter has a genuine reason for being emotionally indifferent. The story is narrated in first person by Christopher, who has an unusual thought process. There is clearly a psychological condition he suffers from, and apparently the psychological condition was named in the cover of the initial versions of the book, but the later versions do not specify it. The crux is that Christopher lacks emotional intelligence ("I find people confusing"), but makes up for it with his photographic memory ("I see everything") and his mathematical and analytical abilities. Christopher hates most people  (“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I'm not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are”), but he loves dogs (“I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk”). He hates novels, but loves detective fiction of the Sherlock Holmes kind. He hates metaphors ("metaphors are lies"), but is willing to suffer similes and even use a few of them. Christopher equates his own mind to a computer. And like a computer, he behaves unpredictably when he finds himself facing the unfamiliar or the disorderly.

When he finds that his neighbor's dog is dead and that the accusation of the murder falls on him, Christopher takes it upon himself to do some "detecting" and find the murderer. In what follows, we learn about the emotional turbulence of people around him, and we develop a special attachment to Christopher. The narrative technique is unusual, and things are not described as how a normal person sees them. For instance, instead of describing people's faces, Christopher describes the kind of shoes and socks they are wearing (for he does not look them in the eye). At times, he just doodles out what he wishes to describe with a "it looked like this". There are numerous digressions with puzzles, mathematical calculations, maps, and listicles. Some readers would find the meandering narrative to be novel and attractive, whereas others would dismiss it as a distracting gimmick.

The general accusations against Mark Haddon are two-fold : that the plot does not have much apart from the gimmicky writing and that he portrays a mental condition inaccurately. I did not feel either of these to be a major turn-off. The narrative technique held me till the end, and I am not going to take a fictional depiction as a model to judge people with special abilities. Personally, I was more interested in the character arc of Christopher's flawed parents. Probably Haddon's larger point is that the people considered to be normal by societal standards are not in complete emotional control too. Of course, I felt it strange that except for the parents and an intriguing teacher we never get to meet in present tense, all other characters were glossed over, some of them becoming just caricatures. However in my personal opinion the book is engaging and short enough to read quickly, and one can ignore such minor flaws. That puts me among the first group of people who love The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And I love this simplified explanation of love from the book :
"loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth"
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of human societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1532, 168 Spanish men faced nearly 80000 men of the Inca empire at Peru. What was supposed to be a parlay between the Incas and the visiting Spanish men was actually a subterfuge by Spanish Conquistador Francisso Pizzaro, and in the ensuing battle, around 5 Spanish men lost their lives. They won the battle though, having killed approximately 7000 Inca army men. How was this possible? Jared Diamond's answer is "Guns, Germs and Steel". In his Pulitzer winning "Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of humans societies", Jared Diamond attempts to answer a question by a New Guinean politician Yali on why there is a fundamental wealth inequality in the World. At first glance, the inequality seems to arise from an intellectual and cultural difference - after all, most major modern inventions were centred at Europe, the cradle of Industrial revolution. Jared Diamond wants to explore deeper though and arrive at the "ultimate causes" rather than the "proximate causes". To do this, he attempts to re-look at human societies since the Ice Age around 13000 years ago (approx. 11000 B.C) to get to the bottom of Yali's question. In fact, he actually starts 7 million years ago ever since human beings are understood to have walked the earth in Africa (though the history until 11000 BC is compressed into a single chapter of nearly 20 pages).

To summarize the history of the whole of humanity, that too in just a little more than 400 pages, is no mean feat. It becomes harder considering the amount of subjects Jared Diamond attempts to deal with - archaeology, epidemiology, biology, geography, linguistics, botany, and much more. The author largely pulls it off though. He does this because he identifies broad patterns throughout human history. The broad pattern is simple - humans were initially hunters and gatherers, but some regions were blessed with edible, nutritious wild plants and domesticable animals. Some plants are easier to cultivate than others, some animals are easier to domesticate than others (or as Diamond puts is, The Anna Karenina principle). These regions favoured food production, leading to a sedentary society with large population density and a centralized decision-body, which in turn led to people with specialized skills and occupation. As a side-effect, the societies also developed immunity to various diseases by being in close contact with animals. These were hence the societies that had the time and labour to invent things. Also, geographic factors such as connectivity, climate, topology, the orientation of the landmass, and presence of similar societies around hastened the whole progression. He concludes that Eurasia was blessed in this regard, and hence European countries came out on top. The inequality, Jarod Diamond repeatedly stresses throughout the book, has nothing to do with the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race over another.

The range of subjects Diamond deals with is insane. As a lay reader with almost zero knowledge on most of the subjects being dealt with, I found this book to be highly informative and educative. That is not to say that the book was not entertaining - Guns, Germs and Steel is written in an accessible and engaging style, encouraging lay audience to read it. I was mildly dissapointed about a few things that are not personally convincing to me, despite the fact that Jared Diamond touches upon these concerns towards the end of the book (and in an afterword written 6 years after the book's publication). The most happening place in the World in Jared Diamond's epic work is the Fertile Crescent, which is, I understand, roughly in the middle east surrounded by countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria. This is still the most happening place today, but for all the wrong reasons. Diamond seems to attribute this to the the geographical features being reversed, probably due to excessive deforestation; which seems to me to be a very simplistic explanation. A similar personal disappointment was with the fact that not much of the book deals with India, which finds only passing mention throughout the book. The epilogue and the afterword attributes India's current state to "caste system" and too much "fragmentation" between various regions within the country (prior to independence) and leaves it at that. In general, Diamond seems to concentrate on historical events that fit his pattern and quickly gloss over those which might not fit in easily. Also I felt that the humorous tone Diamond puts on at times did not work out. This was particularly true for me while Diamond describes why certain animals were not domesticated, making the chapter morose.

I looked at a few other reviews of the book, and the negative ones point out that the book endorses "Geographical determinism" and does not give importance to individual brilliance or cultural characteristics that may have determined many critical moments in history. I do not find this to be an issue with the book though. In fact, science already looks at humanity impersonally as a biological accident. I don't find it far fetched to think that geography has as much influence on us as, say, genetics (Jared Diamond thinks it has much much more influence than genetics). The caveat with such a thinking is that it supports determinism, and removes moral responsibility. When Jared Diamond implies that if Indian Americans from Mesoamerica and Europeans from Europe had geographically exchanged places in some sort of mass Freaky Friday scenario, the Indian Americans would have invented the motor car. And further more, they would have gone on to brutally kill millions of Europeans. He basically absolves Europeans of their ingeniousness as well as inhumanity. This is a tricky slope, and one needs to be careful of what the conclusions are. The impunity with which Europeans exterminated societies throughout the World is worthy of our disgust, and nothing should make us forget that.

Despite the minor disappointments, I am very grateful I picked this book and persisted till the end. I now know a lot more about human societies than I did. For example, I know now that the people in New Zeland and Hawai actually originated in China, probably Taiwan. I also know that the same people developed into a race that conquered Madagascar, which is all extremely fascinating. Most importantly, my interest to learn more history has been kindled. Do give this book a try, and you are unlikely to regret it.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review of V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River

A Bend in the RiverA Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River begins with Salim, a muslim in Africa with Indian ancestry, moving from the eastern coast of Africa to an unnamed town situated at the bend of an unidentified river in Central Africa. There has been a revolution we learn; Europeans have taken control of large parts of Africa from the Arabs, and Africans from the "bush" -- natives who feel they have had enough -- unleash violent reactions on Europians and all other kinds of foreigners. Considering that I know very little about African history, and lesser about most of the demographics in question, I had to read through many interpretations of the book to confirm my understanding of my book. I agree with some of the interpretations, and disagree with a few others, but like the book itself, all of them are worthy of considerable thought.

I know very little about African history because I gain most of my knowledge from the backdrops of fictional works ("Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies."), and I have not read any books set in Africa. I did try once, and picked up a novel by a famed author. For a long time, the book described the narrator getting high on some African drink, and the language was so confusing that I gave up without finding out if the author was too clever for me or if I was too clever to read this author. There are no such problems with A Bend in the River - the language is simple enough, but V.S.Naipaul is much cleverer than me. The prose flows like a river as we follow a part of Salim's life. He settles down on the said unnamed town and witnesses drastic changes to the anonymous country that affects his life. The country is Congo, say many readers who know about such things. It doesn't matter though, for V.S.Naipaul is driving at the larger picture. Looking at it one way, he seems to say that individuals do not have control over their lives when put in such volatile backdrops. Like Shakespeare remarked, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport". Looking at it from another angle, things become more problematic; for he seems to suggest that Africa was better off under colonial rule. In other words, some people, such as Africans, are incapable of ruling themselves.

As Salim sets down to live life in his own modest ways, he meets a handful of personalities all of whom are struggling like him for their own identity and place in the World. Revolutions come and go, and slowly, an authoritarian dictator referred to as "Big Man" strengthens his hold on his country. The foreigners, the natives, the elites, the uneducated are all pawns in the Big Man's plans, to be elevated and discarded at whim. The Big Man uses patriotism as a glue to try and extend his control. We get a glimpse into the Big Man through an array of characters, prominent among whom is an European historian who is more of an academic. In my opinion, Indar has the best character graph. A couple of monologues from Indar are still relevant to migrants across the World - people stuck between the past, the present and the future; people stuck between here, there and nowhere.

While Naipaul's writing has won him a nobel prize and appreciation from across western press, there are some glitches if you look hard in a certain way. Salim is a problematic narrator. There is a curious passage where he unleashes violence on a woman and and she shrugs it off. Also there seems to be a definite lean towards western civilization, and scorn towards Arabs. An offhand remarks suggests that some slaves like to be slaves, and are better off as slaves. The problem with the book is not these biases alone, for each of us have our own biases. It is rather that Salim seems to think he is much better off than the people of the bush, when there is not much evidence to back this up. We do not see much of Salim's modus operandi. He buys things, he sells it to others. In contrast, certain characters like Nazerudeen have discernible business acumen. Salim seems to think that though fate has its own vagaries, he deserves more than the many unnamed and unrepresented people of the bush. To this, I do not agree. I was surprised that V.S.Naipaul's own views from many of his interviews coincide with Salim's, making the book more autobiographical. Hence, Salim is an endorsement of the author's views, and his actions can not be overlooked as the quips of a fictional character.

On the whole, A Bend in the River is a good starting point for me to explore more on African history, which seems to have a lot to think about. As a novel, it does not have a conventional plot, but V.S.Naipaul is in absolute control of his prose. And the book is short enough. I would definitely suggest A Bend in the River. Chances are that you would love it more than I did.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of Franz Kafka's The Trial

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Trial, Josef K wakes up one morning to find that he has been arrested. "Somebody must have laid false information against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong", says Kafka's first line. For what has he been arrested? We don't know. By whom? We don't know. What next? We don't know. On the surface, this could become a thriller on the lines of any Robert Ludlum novel. But Kafka is not an on-the-surface writer. His strength is to take a totally unlikely situation, and still have the characters react as if nothing is out of ordinary. Just like in Kafka's other famous novel, the Metamorphosis, which starts with the lines "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

Once Josef K. is arrested, he is informed that he can carry on with his life, keep working at his bank, and the only difference from normal life would, at least initially, be that he would be summoned for weekly hearings. K is the sort of person who is successful by normal societal standards - he is respected, has a job where he is his high up in the organization, and is regarded as intellectually capable. However none of these help K. as he tries to navigate the bureaucracy of this puzzling court that has arrested him. He meets a lot of strange characters, talks to a lot of people, but the bleakness of his situation remains. It is like solving a frustrating puzzle where you are destined to lose. Destined is an important word here, for Kafka seems to be making a layered commentary on destiny and the helplessness of an individual while facing life.

To be honest, I found the going a bit difficult at times with The Trial. What kept me at it was Kafka's brilliant sense of humour, all of which is derived from his surrealism. This is not a book for everybody. You can't be sure of what is happening, you can't relate to how the characters react, there is not much of a conclusion, and there is no happiness. If you can look past all of these, you might recognize the brilliance of The Trial.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

"As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us."

"Madam, my father has left me flopping like a flounder at low tide and you say what's the matter."

There is a lesson for me from Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchmen. Do not trust reviews. Books, movies, places, people and most things else are subjective, and you miss out when you dismiss things based on someone else's opinion. I almost did. Go Set A Watchman is Harper Lee's second novel, published fifty five years after her legendary, much-beloved debut novel To Kill A Mockingbird which gave us Atticus Finch. Apart from being one of the best ever literary characters ever, Atticus Finch has also had the honour of being my email password at one point of time. No wonder thus that I lapped up news on Go Set A Watchman ever since it was announced, and frantically waited for the first reviews to come out. "Atticus Finch is a racist bigot", declared the reviews and drained away all my interest. I wouldn't have read the book at all, but the book found me.

"Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious", says Doctor Finch, Atticus's eccentric but brilliant younger brother. There is no such thing as collective opinion too. "You're very much like him, except you're a bigot and he's not… Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot", he accuses twenty six year old Jean Louise Finch, or Scout as we knew her when she was six years old. It is a controversial and debatable accusation, for Scout is the only character in this book who is almost not-bigoted. When Scout is as shocked as us -- the readers -- at this accusation, he goes on to justify his statement: "what does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out."

There is a strange sense of irony to Go Set a Watchman. Scout is now an independent woman making a career in New York. She makes occasional visits South to Maycomb, where her home is. On this particular visit home however, she starts noticing things she hadn't before. While being wooed by Henry "Hank" Clinton, Scout realizes that she does not fit into her place of birth. She likes Hank, but does she love him? She also goes on to discover that her own father is against equal rights for "Niggers", feels strongly against a Supreme Court judgment that terms segregation of whites and blacks in schools as illegal, and feels that a citizen should “earn the right to vote”. I am a "Jeffersonian Democrat", he declares, defending his stance. We are Scout, and we feel her confusion. "Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what", she asks her uncle.

Go Set A Watchmen's plot is this confusion. Harper Lee's writing is as attractive as it was in To Kill a Mockingbird (of course, this book was supposed to have been written before To Kill a Mockingbird). There are flashbacks taking us to Scout's school days, and these parts are hilarious and delightful. The dynamics of a family that does not have a feminine figure to guide a daughter is portrayed so well. Two major characters from ".. Mockingbird", Jem and Dill, are absent in "..Watchman". Jem is apparently dead of a heart-attack, and Dill is somewhere in Europe.

Atticus Finch is still a great parent. He bails out his kids so many times out of trouble. “Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch.” Even his fall from grace is not abrupt, and it is consistent with his World view. The grown up Scout is still as tomboyish, but has her moments of self-doubt. After all, convention dictates how a women should be, and every women who fights convention has to fight self-doubt too. Go Set a Watchman is essentially a coming of age novel, where a girl (a woman) learns that her father has flaws and learns to accept it.

Opinions vary on whether this book was really required. After all, the book is a "first draft" which was allegedly set aside, and there was a lot of money to be made in publishing it with or without the author's explicit consent. Opinions also vary on the act of corrupting one of the greatest male characters of all time. In my personal opinion, this is a much needed book. Most of us are content to classify things in binary - we elevated Atticus to God, and we are ready to bring him down as a racist. Go Set A Watchman is at its core against such delineation. To put it crudely, you might say that it asks us to "reason with racists". However, it could also be put differently, as Dr.Finch does when he remarks "the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right

I wouldn't go as far as to recommend this book as a great read; it might disappoint many of you, as it has disappointed cleverer and more practiced readers than me. However I believe that this is not a book to be dismissed. The views of some of the characters in the book may seem regressive, but remember that this was written years back, and as society grows, our idea of what is regressive changes. We will never know Harper Lee's own views on a lot of these topics, but the characters reflect the mindsets of a lot of decent people. From what I make of it, her views can probably be summed up using the words of advice Atticus gives to a suitor of his own daughter on how to woo her: “Don’t push her. Let her go at her own speed. Push her and every mule in the county’d be easier to live with.” To me, Go Set a Watchman was a delightful read that took me to a faraway place, and had characters I could relate to. Give it a try, and you might feel the same too.

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hair experts

I am here to make a confession. I am twenty-seven years old, and I haven't learnt to comb my hair. To those who have seen me for any length of time, this would not be an earth-shattering revelation. However if you were, by any chance, attributing my hairstyle to the fact that I am too cool to care (which I am not), here you have it from the horse's mouth. I do not know how to comb my hair. Worse, I can not differentiate a good hair-style from a bad one. 

Once every month, I get my hair cut so short that combing isn't necessary. It then grows damn fast as I struggle to tame it. After a point I give up, and get it cut again. I am just back from my monthly haircut, this time from one of the posh, professional, air-conditioned parlours which have a receptionist, pay their taxes and force us to do the same, and have English magazines to entertain us - magazines filled with photos of unsmiling male and female models. "Is this what handsome is like?", I ask myself looking at the pictures. "Is THAT a good hairstyle?".  I can't help but get reminded that things are changing too fast. It was different when I was a kid.

As a schoolboy, getting a haircut was a Saturday chore. With three males in the house, my dad would strictly tell us that the three of us should not get our hairs cut on the same day. That would indicate an inauspicious occasion. We would do a cursory visual examination to decide whose haircut can't wait, and split up the Saturdays accordingly. Barber shops were a sort of cultural centers, akin to the cafes and bars of 19th century where great thinkers discussed revolutionary ideas and creativity was born. I would head to the nearest barber, tell him one word -- "short" -- and slip into my own World. The conversations from around me would occasionally penetrate my reverie. "Karunanidhi is a scheming old man", "Jayalalitha is a cruel dictator", "When MGR was alive..". There would be a TV or radio playing melodious songs, and I would drift into a quick and relaxing nap, until the barber wakes me up with an "enough?" After a clueless inspection of the mirror, I would nod approvingly, handover a hundred rupee note, collect the change, and walk home taking care not to meet anyone's eye. Haircuts were a personal thing to me, and I was not too eager to advertise mine to the World.

Once, my mom embarrassed me by barging into an all-male barber shop and threatening the barber to make my hair stylish and modern. "That mushroom thingy, or whatever. Do that. Anything but the bloody short-crop-crap". The barber advised me to come back after the growing the hair some more, and I found another barber to cut my hair short. Another time, a barber asked me if he can use a machine. I gave vague consent without having any idea what he was talking about. When he was done, he had given me the worst haircut ever in a life filled with bad haircuts.

My hair-style, or the lack of it, did not go unnoticed at school. "It looks like you have a helmet on your head", remarked a classmate, who started calling me "helmet". "helmet-ey!", he would shout from across the yard, making girls snigger at me in chorus. I assure you, I do not have any dark powers. But one day, during our PT period, this guy ran straight into a field where a shot-put tournament was being held, and a shot-put ball thrown by a powerful girl landed straight on his head. Eyewitnesses assured us that his head had split open. He was rushed to a hospital, his parents were summoned. Students were whispering that the boy wouldn't survive. As I was rushing towards my class a couple of weeks later, I heard someone yell "helmet-ey!" I turned up to look at a fully plastered face, and retorted with a "shotput-ey!" Rude. Cruel. But effective.

However, as I grew up, India grew with me. Middle class households started becoming rich. Corporates started paying people more. Autos were replaced with occasional taxis. Shopping became a thing. The new India was confident, and had an opinion on everything. They knew what they wanted, and how they wanted it done. The new India knew choice, and exercised it at every opportunity. The impact on barbershops was that barbers suddenly started asking too many questions. Somewhere around this time, I realized that my eyes were myopic (there are anecdotes about this too, reserved for another day), and started wearing a spectacles. The first thing I would do before sitting on the barber's chair was to remove the spectacles and place it on a slab. "Short, or medium?", the barber would ask. "short, but not too short". "How short?" "Short, but not too short". "Straight or round". "Dude! You decide on what you think looks good.". At this point, I would realize that there are two kinds of barbers in this World. The first would sigh, do nothing to hide the fact that they considered me to be an useless idiot, and cut my hair with visible disinterest. The worst of this kind would ask me more questions, and secretly laugh as I made a mess of my own hairstyle with my ignorant answers . The other kind, however, suddenly reveal themselves as creatures of brotherly affection. They invest themselves in making my hair look good, and proudly beam at me once their work is done. These kind of barbers are my soulmates. I have often given serious thought to marrying one of them, and carrying them around with me for my monthly haircuts. 

A few years back, I wanted to write about a very small Tamil movie made by a debutante director. Two things struck me about the movie - the liveliness of the colours that were on display, and the fact that the saddest scene in this movie about a roadside romeo who is spurred by about half-a-dozen girls is when he comes out of a barbershop with a bad haircut. The hero is devastated, cries and wails, and covers his head with a cap on his next day to college to hide his hairstyle. There is not much point in writing about Attakathi now, as director Pa.Ranjith is now into the big league and too many people have written about his movies. However, I feel that barbers and the act of getting a haircut have not got enough coverage in literature and movies. Of course, Harry Potter has a famously unruly hair. Many a days I have petted my own hair affectionately as I waited for a letter of admission from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was a rude shock to learn that I will have to suffer my hair in the real World, and not a magical one. 

A few gray hairs are starting to grow on my head these days, and my hair falls at such a rate that I wonder if the rate of fall would exceed the rate of growth soon. Not much has changed in my own expectations out of a haircut though. However, what we have today is a chain of corporate barber shops, or "unisex salons". Expensive, and not worth the money for the short-crop I need. The smaller shops owned by individuals are still around, but they are fighting desperately to hold on and the result is increased price everywhere. My haircut last month was done by one such small time barber, and I had to get it done prematurely. This is a shop my brother frequents, probably as the only customer. After getting a haircut, my brother offered a hundred rupee note to the barber, only to be told that the barbed did not have change. In fact, this barber did not have any money at all. My brother told me that the barber had offered to do another haircut for someone in the family, and so off I went the next day. The barber was sprawled on the floor, taking a nap, and woke up hurriedly to greet his first, and by all signs the only, customer of the day. The water supply lines had been cut off, and there was no power. The bills were not paid. There were people outside shouting at him to return the money he had borrowed. The only good out of all this is that the barber asked me zero questions on how I wanted my hair cut. 

The most irritating thing about the salons, on the other hand, is the confident and assertive guy sitting at the next chair. I saw such a guy today. "This part should be short", he indicated with his hands. "It should be thin here, and thick here". "And this", he concluded, "must go like this", waving his hands around. Throughout the haircut, this guy was offering backseat instructions to the barber. Every time such a thing happens, I am reminded of the legendary actor Vadivel ordering a Uthappam at a hotel. You must definitely watch the scene if you haven't. Even if you don't understand Tamil. Meanwhile, I tried indicating to my own barber that I fare very badly at any sort of questions, but the hints were ignored. "Is this enough", he asked me after a while. I peered at the mirror with my myopic eyes, realized that I couldn't see clearly without my glasses which were safely afar on a slab, pretended to critically inspect his handiwork, and finally nodded as if I was satisfied.

Few hours later, I am still not sure if my hair looks passably good now. The thing I hate most about the modern World is the amount of choice at our hands. In IT parlance, I expect a barber to be a domain expert, knowing what hairstyle would me suit me best. And what would suit me best is something that is neither too shabby not too attractive. Basically, something that is not noticeable at all. What would suit me is less choice on things I don't care much about.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chronicles of Narayana - The Punch

The mental and physical lives of Z.Narayanan, Senior Comrade - Technology , Yetnothersys Technologies Limited ("Moving IT to the cloud and beyond") are often in-congruent. It was no surprise thus that he chose to reflect on his life of twenty-eighth years at the exact moment when a resolute punch was half-a-second shy of landing on his face. He was, more specifically, attempting to identify the turning point of his life, the moment that shifted events to come irreversibly leading to him standing here at the Medavakkam Koot Road traffic signal, bracing for a blow. Was it the day when as a ten-year old, his own meekness denied him his favorite thayir-vadais on a train journey to Madurai with family friends? Or was it the day when he checked-in his location at the J.F.K airport to get 153 likes from his Facebook friends? Was it the day when he decided to quit his job and come back to India for good? Or, was it the day when he concluded that all corporates are equally pathetic, and that he should rejoin IT? Was it much before, even before he was born, when his father had picked up a chit each from two lots of folded papers with the words "Z.Narayanan" and "Z.Malavika"? It was each of them and all of them. Every moment, every decision and every action in a person's life conspire together to make them what they are today.

What was Narayanan today? He was a scrawny guy often mistaken for someone younger. But he had momentarily forgotten his physique on his morning bike ride to his office. When a black Swift Dezire had trotted along the middle of the road, he had zipped past it from the left lane gesturing viciously at the bespectacled driver whose left hand was holding up a mobile phone. Another Project Manager on his way to work. A Yamaha R200 insistently buzzing its horn from behind had evicted from Narayanan the loud curse "what's the hurry, you moron!" And when a Toyota Qualis had harried him with loud horn when the signal was red at Medavakkam junction, Narayanan decided not to budge. He glanced at the rear view mirror to see a driver draped in silk-white shirt frantically yelling at him. He turned his head a full 180 degree, and lip-synced a generic curse word. He would wonder later on if the driver had interpreted his lip moments wrongly, exaggerating the humble cuss word he had uttered. However, his thoughts were presently occupied replaying his life as the driver walked to him, adjusting his silk-white veshti. Scowling, the driver pulled his left hand back. The wrist which landed on Narayanan was as thick as hardened cement. Things were a blur after that, until he woke up a couple of minutes later. He was on the ground. His knees hurt with the pressure of his Bajaj Pulsar on them, and a wetness was slowly beginning to form beneath his left thigh, reddening his jean. "Bloody Indians", he thought, "random hooligans don't punch your face like this in America". They shoot you with their guns.

(Might be continued)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review of A Feast for Crows - Book # 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire series

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Minor Spoilers ahead*
"A Feast For Crows" is a misleading title, as there is not much fodder for the crows here. The war of five kings is at its fag end, and there is an uneasy calm to the South of Westeros as it concentrates on rebuilding the ravaged settlements. Except for the ironmen, scattered bloody mummers and Beric Dondarion's troop of outlaws, there are not many swords out. "An age of wonder and terror will soon be upon us, an age for gods and heros", we are told earlier, and as we expectantly turn through nearly 800 pages of this novel, we realize that "in the game of thrones, even the humblest of pieces have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you've planned for them". George R.R. Martin is a man of detail, and it is his attention to detail that sets him apart from other writers. It also lets him down at times. The Song of Ice and Fire is like a role player computer game, and some characters run out of things to do and end up in loops, repeating the same motions. We have seen it earlier with Bran and Sansa, and we see it now with Briene and Arya. At the end of the book, Martin writes a short, almost apologetic write-up explaining the absence of some of the most interesting characters. What we have as a result is a lot of episodic sub-plots, and POVs from a myriad, not-so-important characters, most of which do not move the larger story forward. We get to know Cersei as she becomes a megalomaniac, and we get to know Jamie, who becomes an unlikely hero. We also learn about a host of other random characters, and a numerous trivia. Why did Illyn Payne lose his tongue? What was Cersei's childhood like? Does Aemon have normal, humane feelings? What are the different harbours in Bravos? How many chains-links to a Maester?

Many of these sub-plots and tidbits are engrossing. Briene's quest through Cracklaw Point, for instance, takes us through a visually marvelous exploration. However when you already know that the object of her trip is not where she is looking for, the pay-off is underwhelming. Another such instance deals with a "Queenmaker", which is an engaging episode but ends up as a dud. Even when things happen, like at Kings Landing, it almost seems farcical with a touch of dark-humour (albeit without the requisite darkness). Which brings us to the thing about A Feast of Crows - without having read the subsequent books in the series, I would not belittle this part at this point of time. For all I know, it could be setting up things for a riveting climax. A calm before the storm. Or maybe, a calm before more calm. But then, how many pages more should I read before I get to find it out? Which brings us to the second thing about A Feast for Crows - did it have to be so damn long?

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Review of The Black Tower by P.D.James

The Black Tower (Adam Dalgliesh, #5)The Black Tower by P.D. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In this job it wasn't the last piece of jigsaw, the easiest of all, that was important. No, it was the neglected, uninteresting small segment which, slotted into place, suddenly made sense of so many other discarded pieces"

'The New Queen of Crime', proclaims the front cover of "The Black Tower" by P.D.James. Having never heard of either the author or the book before, I set my expectations on an Agatha Christie like murder mystery. In what is probably a nod to the detective genre, we even have a character called Moriarty. The hero here, Adam Dalgliesh - commander of Scotland Yard, is recuperating from an misdiagnosed illness (probably something to do with an earlier novel in the series). A letter from a childhood companion, the fatherly figure of a priest, requesting his professional advice takes him to Toynton Village in coastal England. Father Baddeley is the "Chaplain to Toynton Grange, a private home for the young disabled". Dalgelish takes this as an opportunity to convalesce (a word used often in the book) and brood over his decision to quit detective work. However he reaches to find that his 90 year old friend is dead, buried and cremated. The cause is said to be natural, but Daeglish's is not so sure.

Very soon into the book, if you make past the tough first few pages, you realize that P.D.James is no Agatha Christie. This is no procedural crime investigation. We have a protagonist just back from a near death experience, with his own mid-life crisis. And the atmosphere is dark. P.D.James is a solid writer, capturing the darkness so well that this could be a Scandinavian thriller. The characters only add to the goriness. There is no white or black, and every character is grey. A man who was cured of a disease by a divine miracle, but who does charity for self-gratification. An ex-convict, a nurse with a history of violence, a promiscuous woman struggling to get out of the place, an illegitimate couple, an unpredictable rich art-collector and a kleptomaniac. The disabled, helpless characters have their own perversions too, and their emotions are more of spite, hate and envy than love. There are mystery poison letters floating around, and deaths that look natural. There is no evidence of foul-play though, and our protagonist does not want to get too invested. After all, Toynton Grange seems like a place where not much would be out of ordinary. As "The Black Tower" trots to an unpredictable climax, I felt satisfied at having read the work of a wonderful writer. Others may not feel so, for this book lacks most elements expected of a detective novel. But who are we to fit books into genres and determine how it is to be structured? I would recommend this book for the sheer darkness of the atmosphere, with dialogues such as "We all suffer from a progressive incurable disease. We call it life". Go for it, unless you don't like getting a bit scared and depressed.

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