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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My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...