Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book: Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad

Recently I completed reading Jawaharlal Nehru's autobiography called Towards Freedom. The autobiography, which inevitably is also an account of the events in the nation's struggle for independence, ends at the year 1935. There is also a section at the end of the book, subsequently added, that briefly mentions the events of the next five years.  Nehru mentions about the start of the second world war and the demand of Indian National Congress for self-determination in exchange for cooperation in the war. He also records the fact that the British did not agree to this. Here is what happened to the demand, in his own words-

"...imperialism thinks otherwise and imagines that it can continue to function and to coerce people to do its will. Even when danger threatens, it is not prepared to get this very substantial help, if this involves a giving up of political and economic control over India. It does not care even for the tremendous moral prestige which could come to it, if it did the right thing in India and the rest of the Empire."

That is how the autobiography ends. The question of what happens in the intervening period, before India finally got Independence in 1947 is of great interest. By some happy coincidence, soon after reading the auto-biography I came across this amazing "forensic non-fiction" work called Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.

Written by the promising young Indian writer Raghu Karnad, this book is a result of the author's pursuit to trace the story of his grandfather and a couple of other relatives who had fought in the second world war with the Indian army.

Reconstructing the events of the past with painstaking research, what he has gifted us is a rare account of the important years 1939-45 in Indian history.

In the prologue, the author points out how personal and institutional memories go through revising and reshaping. The interviews he conducted with the Indian veterans illustrated this, he says. Well, that must be true to some extent of any history. People remembering differently. Remembering some facts and forgetting others to suit a narrative. The author puts it nicely- "In general , their memories, like all memories, were smoothed and polished by time, as pebbles in a stream."

Perfect or not, memory of the nation's history is definitely important. What are we without a memory of our history? As Nietzsche said, it is only the beast that lives unhistorically.

The second world war must be one of the most recounted events in modern history. While ably providing the missing Indian context in the war, Farthest Field also helped me recall some great novels and movies made on the subject of the Second World War. All these works on the war usually have focused on just one aspect of or one location in the war.

Farthest Field holds your attention from page one. Divided into three parts, the action on the Indian mainland as well as on the western and the eastern parts of India are covered.

In the first chapter there is a description of  the Parsi household from where the protagonist Bobby hails. At once ribbing and respectful, the definition runs like this: " The Parsis: pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page. They were devoutly civilised, consummately lawful...".
The author certainly has a little license on the community, as his own grandmother, an important character in the book, Nurgesh (Nugs) hails from it. While reading this chapter I remembered Rohinton Mistry's fine novel, the Booker nominated Such a Long Journey, which is entirely the story of a Parsi family. There is difference in the writing styles and there is no war in Such a Long Journey.

After setting down the backgrounds of the main protagonists Bobby and his brothers-in-law, Ganny and Manek in Part One, the action firmly shifts in Part Two to the war front on India's West. 

Reading about the North African campaign and about the action in El Alamein brought to mind another Booker nominated novel The English Patient. A lyrical, evocative novel by Michael Ondatje. Although that novel has the North African campaign of the Second World War as its backdrop, the major part of the story is set in an Italian villa. There is also an Indian character in The English Patient, named as Kip, a Sikh soldier, also a sapper like Bobby in Farthest Field.

Farthest Field impresses in terms of descriptions of actions in the war fronts. The actors being Indian soldiers also makes it even more interesting considering that there aren't many great war books involving Indians.

History only informs what happened. It takes fiction, or "forensic non-fiction" to really make it nuanced and relatable. The long list in the Bibliography indicates the attention paid by the author to get accurate details and accounts of fighting. Even so, as the story is built around collected facts, that too after so many years, there may be some imperfections. But, as the author notes in the prologue, this story is one "in which the lives of a few might stand in for many others."

Hemingway wrote two wonderful novels based on wars, weaving in poignant drama involving people caught in the wars. In the novel A Farewell to Arms, the author used his own experience of working as an American ambulance driver in the Italian campaign of the World War One. And the other novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was again based on the experiences of the author in the Spanish Civil War. It certainly helps to understand the human angles of the wars too in addition to the much heralded political angles.

Farthest Field too skillfully combines personal lives that get dramatically altered on account of war. Ganny and Nugs being one such couple that gets caught up in the whirlwind of war.

In part three, the action shifts to the war front on India's East. Reading about the Japanese advance through Burma and the surrender and retreat of the British, brought to mind images from the fascinating David Lean movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  In that movie set in Burma in 1943, a Japanese colonel puts a group of British war prisoners to work to build a bridge over the Kwai river. Reading about Bobby and his Bengal Sappers moving into coastal Burma, the imagery to me was strengthened by the recollection of the great movie.

The other sections that impress in this part of the book are the stark description of the great Bengal famine of 1943 and the gripping battle for Kohima that the Indian army fights with the Japanese.

In the afterword, the author provides a lucid summary of the events and the role of various agencies in India during the crucial period of 1939-45. One also gets a greater clarity on the background and role of the Indian National Army formed by Subhas Chandra Bose. Neither Nehru's Congress nor Bose's INA are depicted as game changers. The former comes across as largely ineffective, while the latter as almost insignificant. And the third set of people, neither left nor right leaning, were not so much concerned about either sides of the war - the fascists or the imperialists. The ones that joined the British Indian army mostly came from this group. Even if it was merely self-interest or a sense of adventure that drove them to join the military, they too deserve a place in the nation's memory. Farthest Field succeeds in reviving that memory. Whatever be their motivations or political views, these Indians fought so valiantly that they changed forever the perception about the Indian military force. 

Hope this excellent book rekindles interest in our modern history. Somehow, the textbooks don't do an adequate job of drawing young minds deeper into the study of history. Vested political interests conniving to present a selective or an incomplete version of history through the school curriculum also doesn't help improve the situation.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book: The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

This novel published last year is certainly one of the best books by an Indian novelist that I have read. When some recent events in the country are part of the narrative, one is naturally curious to see the author's perspective. Important events like the Emergency in 1975, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, and the demolition of the mosque in 1992,- all these form a backdrop to the story in this novel.

The Way Things Were takes an honest and intelligent look at the political and social aspects of the country through the window of the Toby family. The novel begins with Skanda tasked with returning the body of his father Toby to India. In the process he comes in touch with his family. The history of his family is interwoven with that of the post-independence India. Another important element in the novel is Toby being deeply interested in Sanskrit and his son also carrying the same passion for the language.

I have a habit of noting down the page numbers whenever I come across passages or a quote that I find interesting. In this book there was so much that was interesting that I had to pause every few pages to take in the beauty of a turn of phrase, an observation, an interesting cognate of a Sanskrit word, and so on.

Look at the way the author presents the persona of Toby in just a couple of well chosen details-

"...there was an innocence, a naivety in his face that gave away as someone who could not have grown up in India. Not, at least, in north India, where even the stray dogs had a knowing and watchful look. It was strange: there was never a man who knew more about India and, yet, knew India less, than Toby. He was like one of those men who fall in love with the idea of a woman, while all the time insulating themselves from her reality." - pg 54

As Skanda discovers the story of his parents and other family members, we get to get to see the story of a family that goes through turmoil and change over each succeeding generation. Along with the family story, the author portrays the changes the country has gone through. In the process, a lot of insights are provided on the changing dynamics in terms of gender, class, caste and so on. Taseer is never sparing in his portrayal of the contradictions seen in the conduct of some sections of society. Here is a sample, where the author flashes his critical torchlight on the elite society of Delhi-

" both be in India and to stand at a distance from it. The members of this class, who were already set apart from the rest of the country by the loss of language, by privilege, of course, and by what had come to seem almost like racial differences, had no desire to shed their distinctiveness. They clung to it, in fact, wanting nothing so much as to remain inviolable and distinct: foreigners in their own country.

And yet - strange as it must seem- they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian - their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty - they concealed very well." - pg 56;

Important historical events in modern India like the Emergency also get a perceptive view in the backdrop of the travails of people caught in the storm. A couple of characters in the novel, called Vijaipaul and Gayatri Mann, prove handy for the author to come up with some strong views on the politics of the time.

On Emergency-

"...all it will do, this Emergency, is allow Indians to see themselves a little more clearly."
" shattering the illusion of liberal democracy. It's very bad, you know, when you're such a third-rate place, to parade around high notions of liberalism and democracy, which is, as you know, developed at the height of another civilization's achievement; and which, in a place like India, only mask the reality. Hide the decay. Much better the end come fast."- pg 79;

And, about the demolition of the Babri mosque-

"This new order - they will use the epics, the poets, Manu, Ayodhya, whatever - and they will hollow them out of meaning. They will make slogans of them. That is what they want them for, as symbols of their rise, and nothing more. They don't want an intellectual rebirth; that requires hard work and labour; that, if taken all the way, can be a frightening thing. It can force you to confront things about your past that are uncomfortable." - pg 424;

References to Sanskrit language appear throughout the novel. Through the characters of Toby and Skanda, who never fail to find cognates (words of the same origin) to Sanskrit words they come across. For word lovers (I am one too!), the book is a treasure house. Every other page has some interesting reference to some word or the other.

Some examples of the glowing praise the Sanskrit language receives in the book are-

" a country where so little was planned, everything haphazard and shoddy, here, at least, was an example of the most exquisite planning."

"If we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing- the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting - we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language. Not so much the use of it as the study of it: their grammars were peerless, easily the most profound meditation on language in pre-modern times." - pg 83;

"My great love was always this language, which I found as a young man. It seemed to me at the time to contain a whole universe of thought and feeling and sensibility. I believed it to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
This I believed must be what the poets of old had meant when they spoke of language as a deathless thing and gave to its most basic unit - the syllable - the work aksara: that which does not decay." - pg 540;

Lastly, more than anything else this novel is about history.  The title itself is a translation of the Sanskrit word iti-ha-asa. The reality is that there does not seem to be much awareness or interest in the study of history in our country. Often, what little knowledge there is of history is also quite skewed.

The following lines from the novel bemoan the same in the form of Gayatri Mann remembering Toby thus-
"..His whole approach to things, to history, to memory, to place, to civilization: it was of another time. He used to think people couldn't do without an idea of their past, without an idea of who and what they were.
That perhaps people can get by with a lot less than we thought. That perhaps this thin overlay of global culture, a few malls, a few movies, a mobile phone or two, is more than enough for most people. Enough to get them through.. - pg 510

Taseer quotes Coatzee to make the point that a historical understanding must, in the end, be an understanding of the past as a shaping force upon the present. - pg 339

Again, the need for history is reiterated by the following quote from V S Naipaul- "Men need history. It helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there" - pg 550

For someone interested in contemporary writings on the recent past in India, a novel like The Way Things Were is definitely a good choice.  The world of Sanskrit language, brought alive through the character of Toby and then his son Skanda, becomes a metaphor for the richness of the ancient culture and serves as a reminder that the things we truly ought to feel proud are often lost in the noise generated by the slogans of the new order.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Book: The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial is certainly one of the darkest novels I have read. A haunting account of a citizen's travails at the hands of an unjust government and its institutions. Hailed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century, this novel was completed exactly hundred years ago (1915), although published a few years later (1925) after the death of the author Franz Kafka.

Leaving aside the deeper philosophical concepts for which the novel is often cited, like Absurdism, and Existentialism, even to a lay reader the narrative raises questions about justice, violence, and authority. Through the story of a man unjustly persecuted, the novel provides a satirical, ironical view of the system.

There are several themes that run through the novel but the theme of justice and judgment particularly appealed to me. It is possible that some of the descriptions of the Court and related things could be metaphors for something other than law. Yet, you cannot but marvel at the eerie depiction of a modern citizen trapped in a bureaucracy controlled by shadowy procedures.

The events described unfold in a European city, a hundred years ago. The political system, the court system, it is all obviously different back then. Yet, what is universal is that 'law is an abstract thing' and  'the Court is the human embodiment' of the law. As a system run by human beings, law becomes subject to corruption. Kafka portrays that corruption of the courts quite brilliantly in Chapter 7. This definitely is the chapter that I liked best.

Here are some excerpts from the Chapter 7. In these sections, Titorelli the painter who has some inside connections with the courts, advises Joseph K. the novel's protagonist on the court proceedings-

"...There are three possibilities, that is, definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. Definite acquittal is, of course the best, but I haven't the slightest influence on that kind of verdict. As far as I know, there is no single person who could influence the verdict of definite acquittal. The only deciding factor seems to be the innocence of the accused..."(page 167)

" We must distinguish between two things: what is written in the Law, and what I have discovered through personal experience; you must not confuse the two. In the code of the Law, which admittedly I have not read, it is of course laid down on the one hand that the innocent shall be acquitted, but it is not stated on the other hand that the Judges are open to influence. Now, my experience is diametrically opposed to that. I have not met one case of definite acquittal, and I have met many cases of influential intervention..." (page 168)

"Ostensible acquittal and indefinite postponement" said the painter. "...the difference between them is that ostensible acquittal demands temporary concentration, while postponement taxes your strength less but means a steady strain. First, then, let us take ostensible acquittal. If you decide on that, I shall write down on a sheet of paper an affidavit of your innocence."
" is not in the least certain that every Judge will believe me; some Judges, for instance will ask to see you in the person. And then I should have to take you with me to call on them. Though when that happens the battle is already half won, particularly as I should tell you beforehand, of course, exactly what line to take with each Judge."
"...I shall then deliver it to the Judge who is actually conducting your trial. Possibly I may have secured his signature too, then everything will be settled fairly soon..." (page 172)

"...The Judge is covered by the guarantees of the other Judges subscribing to the affidavit, and so he can grant an acquittal with an easy mind, and though some formalities will remain to be settled, he will undoubtedly grant the acquittal to please me and his other friends.Then you can walk out of the Court a free man."

"...but only ostensibly free, or more exactly, provisionally free. For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven't the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, and to all of us."

"...The great privilege, then, of absolving from guilt our Judges do not possess, but they do have the right to take the burden of the charge off your shoulders. That is to say, when you are acquitted in this fashion the charge is lifted from your shoulders for the time being, but it continues to hover above you  and can, as soon as an order comes from on high, be laid upon you again."

"...In definite acquittal the documents relating to the case are said to be completely annulled, they simply vanish from sight, not only the charge but also the records of the case and even the acquittal are destroyed, everything is destroyed. That's not the case with ostensible acquittal. The documents remain as they were, except that the affidavit is added to them and a record of the acquittal and the grounds for granting it. The whole dossier continues to circulate, as the regular official routine demands, passing on to the higher Courts, being referred to the lower ones again, and thus swinging backwards and forwards with greater or smaller oscillations, longer or shorter delays. These peregrinations are incalculable."

"...No document is ever lost, the Court never forgets anything. One day - quite unexpectedly - some Judge will take up the documents and look at them attentively, recognize that in this case the charge is still valid, and order an immediate arrest. I have been speaking on the assumption that a long time elapses between the ostensible acquittal and the new arrest; that is possible and I have known of such cases, but it is just possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the Court and find officers already waiting to arrest him again. Then, of course, all his freedom is at an end."

"The case begins all over again, but again it is possible, just as before, to secure an ostensible acquittal. One must again apply all one's energies to the case and never give in." (pages 173-174)

"Ostensible acquittal doesn't seem to appeal to you, said the painter. Perhaps postponement would suit you better..." (page 175)

"Postponement consists in preventing the case from ever getting any further than its first stages. To achieve that it is necessary for the accused and his agent, but more particularly his agent, to remain continuously in personal touch with the Court. Let me point out again that this does not demand such intense concentration of one's energies as an ostensible acquittal, yet on the other hand it does require far greater vigilance. You daren't let the case out of your sight, you visit the Judge at regular intervals as well as in emergencies and must do all that is in your power to keep him friendly; if you don't know the Judge personally, then you must try to influence him through the other Judges whom you do know, but without giving up your efforts to secure a personal interview. If you neglect none of these things, then you can assume with fair certainty that the case will never pass beyond its first stages. Not that the proceedings are quashed, but the accused is almost as likely to escape sentence as if he were free. As against ostensible acquittal postponement has this advantage, that the future of the accused is less uncertain, he is secured from the terrors of sudden arrest and doesn't need to undergo - perhaps at a most inconvenient moment - the strain and agitation which are inevitable in the achievement of ostensible acquittal. Though, postponement, too, has certain drawbacks for the accused, and these must not be minimized. In saying this I am not thinking of the fact that the accused is never free; he isn't free either in any real sense, after the ostensible acquittal. There are the other drawbacks. The case can't be held up indefinitely without at least some plausible grounds being provided. So as a matter of form a certain activity must be shown from time to time, various measured have to be taken, the accused is questioned, evidence is collected, and so on. For the case must be kept going all the time, although only in the small circle to which it has been artificially restricted. This naturally involves the accused in occasional unpleasantness, but you must not think of it as being too unpleasant. For it's all a formality, the interrogations, for instance, are only short ones; if you have neither the time nor the inclination to go, you can excuse yourself; with some Judges you can even plan your interviews a long time ahead, all that it amounts to is a formal recognition of your status as an accused man by regular appearances before your Judge." (pages 175-177)

The novel is available online for free at the following site-
The Online Literature Library

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book: The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

This collection of essays on Indian culture, history and identity was published ten years ago. I remember that at the time of its publication this book had received rave reviews. After purchasing this book I had put it in my bookshelf and forgotten all about it. Recently, while watching Amartya Sen on television, I remembered the book and took it out to read. Surprisingly for a book mostly on history, this one was engrossing.

As the author points out in the preface, the great diversity of our country makes any attempt at defining its culture, history or politics a very complicated task. A task that must involve considerable selection among the innumerable things that one can focus on. The author mentions that the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of a choice.

The long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions are cited by the author as the reasons for selecting this as the focus for this work.

The book is divided into four parts. The essays in "Part I : Voice and Heterodoxy" outline the nature, reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition in India. "Part II :  Culture and Communication" contains essays on the role of communication in the development and understanding of cultures. Insights on the subject from the works of the poet and writer Rabindranth Tagore, and the film director Satyajit Ray are provided in this part. "Part III : Politics and Protest" contains essays on the politics of deprivation and the precariousness of human security in the subcontinent. "Part IV: Reason and Identity" contains essays about the role of reasoning in the identity of Indians.

At a time when any talk on culture and history often turns shrill, where propaganda takes the place of facts, it is crucial that for answers we turn to people with proven credentials and scholarship . With decades of scholarship and rigorous academic research to support him, Amartya Sen makes very convincing arguments. Respecting the very 'tradition of arguments' in our culture that he painstakingly elaborates throughout the book, we ought to pay attention to the cogent case that he presents.

The essays are written in such clear, convincing and readable manner that they don't demand any great scholarship from the reader to understand. He raises such fundamental and relevant questions that you pause in your reading to ponder over them. For anyone interested in getting a better understanding of our very ancient and diverse history, this book can be a great source.

Reading 'The Argumentative Indian' makes one feel less proud about some things about current politics, and proud about some things from the past that one has generally been ignorant about.

I have listed some observations and arguments in the book on certain topics that I found to be incisive.

On the relevance of the dialogic tradition -
"Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs)."(Preface - page xiii)
"The nature and strength of the dialogic tradition in India is sometimes ignored because of the much championed belief that India is the land of religious, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices. "(Preface - page xiii-xiv)

On the importance of an understanding of Indian heterodoxy-
"This is especially critical because of the relative neglect of the rationalist parts of the Indian heritage in the contemporary accounts of India's past, in favor of concentrating on India's impressive religiosity. That selective attention has, in fact, produced a substantial bias in the interpretation of Indian thought, and through that in the understanding of the intellectual heritage of contemporary India." (Part I, Essay 1 - page 25)

Amartya Sen's grandfather Kshiti Mohan, in his book called Hinduism, on liberality being part and parcel of the basic Hindu approach-
"Hinduism also points out that a difference of metaphysical doctrine need not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is his dharma [roughly, the personal basis of behaviour], not necessarily his religion."
Amartya Sen's comment-
"That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 46)

On Hindus and Muslims in History-
"The main political moves to undermine Indian secularism have tended to focus, not on discussing the broad current of India's social, cultural or intellectual history, but rather on arbitrarily highlighting specially chosen episodes or anecdotes of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus evidently aimed at generating the anti-Muslim and anti-secular sentiments." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 58)
"The history of India does indeed contain many nightmarish elements, but it also includes conversations and discussions, and extensive joint efforts in literature, music, painting, architecture, jurisprudence and a great many other creative activities." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 59)

On Inventing the Past-
"The redrawing of India's history using the Hindutva lens suffers from some deep empirical problems as well as conceptual tensions." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 65)
"The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India's history. The 'Indus valley civilization', dating from the third millennium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, which are typically dated in the middle of the second millennium BCE."
"Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India's ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (some times called Aryans) from the West, most likely in the second millennium BCE."
"The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of the Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the double 'difficulty' of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 66)
"The achievements that are linked to Buddhism include not just the focus on public reasoning and printing, but also accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature, painting, sculpture and even in the presence of public health care."(Part I, Essay 4 - page 82)
"One of the sad features of a narrowly Hinduized view of India's past is that the justifiable pride Indians can take in the achievements of non-Hindu as well as Hindu accomplishments in India is drowned in the sectarianism of seeing India as mainly a vehicle for Hindu thought and practice." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 83)
"The openness of the argumentative tradition militates not only against exclusionary narrowness within the country, but also against cultivated ignorance of the well-frog. We need not agree to be incarcerated in the dinginess of a much diminished India, no matter how hard the political advocates of smallness try to jostle us. There are serious choices to be made." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 86)

On Western Approaches to India: Three Categories-
"Attempts from outside India to understand and interpret the country's traditions can be put into at least three distinct categories, which I shall call exoticist approaches, magisterial approaches and curatorial approaches.
The first (exoticist) category concentrates on the wondrous aspects of India. The focus here is on what is different, what is strange in the country that, as Hegel put it, "has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans."
The second (magisterial) category strongly relates to the exercise of imperial power and sees India as subject territory from the point of view of its British governors.
The third (curatorial) category is the most catholic of the three and includes various attempts at noting, classifying and exhibiting diverse aspects of Indian culture. (Part II, Essay 7 - pages 141-142)
"The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions." (Part II, Essay 7 - page 159)

On Poverty and Social Opportunity-
"The removal of poverty, particularly of extreme poverty, calls for more participatory growth on a wide basis, which is not easy to achieve across the barriers of illiteracy, ill health, uncompleted land reforms and other sources of severe societal inequality. The process of economic advance cannot be divorced from the cultivation and enhancement of social opportunities over a broad front." (Part III, Essay 9 - pages 197-198)

On Cultural Contentions-
"The issue of cultural disharmony is very much alive in many cultural and political investigations, which often sound as if they are reports from battle fronts, written by war correspondents with divergent loyalties: we hear of the 'clash of civilizations', the need to 'fight' Western cultural imperialism, the irresistible victory of 'Asian values', the challenge to Western civilization posed by the militancy of other cultures and so on. The global confrontations have their reflections within the national frontiers as well, since most societies now have diverse cultures, which can appear to some to be very threatening." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 281)

On Tolerance and Reason-
"It is worth recalling that in Akbar's pronouncements of four hundred years ago on the need for religious neutrality on the part of the state, we can identify the foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India or for that matter anywhere else." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 287)
"Indian secularism, which was strongly championed in the twentieth century by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and others, is often taken to be something of a reflection of Western ideas (despite the fact that Britain is a somewhat unlikely choice as a spearhead of secularism). In contrast, there are good reasons to link this aspect of modern India, including its constitutional secularism and judicially guaranteed multiculturalism, to earlier Indian writings and particularly to the ideas of this Muslim emperor of four hundred years ago." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 288)

On the 'Cultural' Critique-
"Even if it were right to see Indian culture as quintessentially Hindu culture, it would be very odd to alienate, on that ground, the right to equal political and legal treatment of minorities." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)
"The cultural inheritance of contemporary India combines Islamic influences with Hindu and other traditions, and the results of the interaction between members of different religious communities can be seen plentifully in literature, music, painting, architecture and many other fields." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Published in 2008 and long-listed for the Man Booker prize that year, this novel by Joseph O’ Neill did create a buzz at that time. The Booker that year was won by the Indian author Aravinda Adiga for his debut novel The White Tiger. I read The White Tiger soon after that novel came out but somehow could get hold of the Netherland only now after six years.

Netherland ticks many of the traits that I like in novels. I like a multi-layered plot compared to a simple and direct one. In this novel the plot operates at different layers. At one level it is about the immigrant experience of belonging and non belonging. At another level it is about a marriage that is going through a crisis. There is also the chronicling of the subtle psychological upheavals brought up by the developments of the day, including and not limited to the 9/11 event. The plot is sufficiently intricate to provide a great platform to the writing skills of the author. Skills that are evidently remarkable. The consistently engaging and admirably fluent writing is one of the standout features of the novel.

Indeed one of the most remarkable things about reading fiction is the great facility it provides to inhabit the varied geographies and societies of the world, and to experience through the writer’s eyes all that those places offer. Written in a stream of consciousness style, the novel takes you to New York, London, Trinidad and to the Netherlands by turns. Joseph O’ Neill amazes with the smooth, vivid and evocative descriptions. Those familiar with New York must find the sections related to that place most familiar. Even for others it is not difficult to imagine the landscapes that the author so meticulously constructs with his descriptions.

There are also passages on the sport of cricket. The references undoubtedly appeal to any cricket aficionado. Well, the aspects about cricket in the novel in no way take anything away from the graceful, balanced, and reflective overall narrative. It is impossible not to be moved throughout by the lyrical and poised prose of the narrative.

There is also a rich bounty available to the word hunter. The prose abounds with words that entail you to look up the dictionary. There are some interesting references to etymologies of words too. For instance, it was useful to learn that the word ‘aftermath’ is derived from after+math(mown)- “grass which grows in meadows that have been mown”. And that the word ‘fathom’ is derived from a word that originally meant ‘the outstretched arms’. Some of the other words in the novel that impressed me are (click to find details about the word): syllogism, promethean, pluvial, morganatic, peroration, lepidopterist.

There are some observations the author makes that are incisive and unsettling.  These are lines that made me catch my breath and read again. Sample these-

“Perhaps the relevant truth…is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble.” - pg 61

“And after Mama’s cremation I could not rid myself of the notion that she had been placed in the furnace of memory even when alive and, by extension, that one’s dealings with other, ostensibly vital, at a certain point become dealings with the dead.” - pg 86

“We had plenty to feel smug about, if so inclined. Smugness, however, requires a certain reflectiveness, which requires perspective, which requires distance” - pg 89

“…trying to shrug off a sharp new sadness…the sadness produced when the mirroring world no longer offers a surface in which one may recognise one’s true likeness.” - pg 111

Also, there are passages that are sure to resonate with any true cricket lover-

“…it’s my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere - longings concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated and in any event lost long ago, tantalisms that touch on the undoing of losses too private and reprehensible to be acknowledged to oneself, let alone to others. I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.” - pg 116

“…conditions may be different from day to day and from ground to ground. Sydney Cricket Ground favours spin, Hedingly, in Leeds, seam bowling. This differentness is not only a question of differing grass batting surfaces. There is the additional question of the varying atmospheric conditions - humidity and cloud cover, in particular - that obtain from time to time and from place to place and can dramatically affect what happens to a cricket ball as it travels from bowler to batsman.” - pg 143

All this may seem like a lot to say about a book that came six years ago. Somehow, the novel has left a strong impression and I wanted to share that with others.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book: Adoor Gopalakrishnan - A Life in Cinema

Adoor Gopalakrishnan - the name instantly brings to mind meaningful Malayalam films. The films by Adoor are very small in number, only eleven so far, but each one of those is like a milestone in the annals of good movies in our country. It is unlikely that any Indian with an interest in good cinema is unaware of the name of this director. Unfortunately, most of us only get to learn about the awards that Adoor's movies win but rarely get a chance to actually view these films. In my case too, except for a couple of his films (Swayamvaram, Anantaram) that I watched in the Eighties, I was not much aware of his other films beyond their titles and knew even less about Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a person. This authorized biography of Adoor by Gautaman Bhaskaran came as a real boon to learn more about this amazing man and his craft.

As stated in the cover page, the book "traces the ebbs and flows of the life of this enigmatic director. From his birth during the Quit India movement to his lonely childhood at his uncle's house; from life at Gandhigram, where Adoor studied economics and politics, to his days and nights at the Pune Film Institute; and from his first film, Swayamvaram, to his latest, Oru Pennum Randaanum, the narrative tracks the twists and turns of Gopalakrishnan's life, finding an uncommon man and a rare auteur."

While providing the essential details on the life of the director the author has also provided great information on the creative process in the making of the films. There is a chapter in the book on each of the movies made by Gopalakrishnan. The information provided is very helpful in putting the films in context in terms of the story and its relevance. The book also provides some interesting tidbits recounted from the making of the films.  Given the understated, subtle, intricate, multi-layered nature of the films, it is good that Gautaman does not overly analyze the plots. Adoor acknowledges in the Foreword for the book, that Gautaman has done well in not trying to be analytical about the films. Adoor mentions that most of his films do not lend themselves to simple paraphrasing as their ambition extends beyond mere storytelling.

Swayamvaram (One's Own Choice) was Adoor's first film made in 1972. I recently watched this film again. This time I watched it on the internet. Even on the small screen what an experience it was!

Swayamwaram is a conventional narrative. Simple and straightforward. Nowhere in the film is there a dramatic exaggeration. Kerala of the 1970s flashes in front of your eyes, authentic in its sights and sounds. Synchronized sound and outdoor locales were used for filming this movie and apparently these were unheard of till then in Kerala.

I am sure there have been many films of Swayamavaram's theme in different languages. The theme of a young couple defying society and eloping to live in a city and facing trials of life. The theme may have been the same but not many of those other films have had the same amount of sensitivity and subtlety.

From the opening scene of a long bus journey in Swayamvaram, to the last scene where the girl Sita is left with difficult choices, the film takes you through a slew of emotions. No melodrama, no long-drawn-out dialogs, and no overacting. That doesn't mean the film doesn't have it's lively moments. Everything flows so naturally. There is an interesting scene, where the protagonist Viswanathan asks for his salary at the tutorial where he works as a tutor. The principal of the tutorial, and his manager, instead of paying the salary, take Viswanathan to a bar and subject him to their drunken garrulity. The scene is hilarious and tragic. Even someone who doesn't understand the language can understand clearly what is happening.

Talking about Swayamvaram, Gopalakrishnan says that Sita's dilemma reflected his own at that point in time. He says, "It was about my life, my choices...In this film, I was probing in different directions, trying to talk about many things, such as dream and reality, hope and disenchantment, the rot in society and so on."

Throughout the book one gets to read about Adoor's invaluable insights on various aspects related to the making of great cinema. Sample these for a taste of his unique takes-

On modeling some characters in his movies on some real-life characters from his life-
"After all, your work is about yourself, your experiences, your problems, your dilemmas. What you want to tell others depends on your own likes and dislikes, your prejudices and tolerances. Often, you may not be conscious of them, but then that is the truth.’(pg 20)

On the enormous possibilities that cinema offers-
"As much as it offers, cinema also demands. It is a difficult mistress. There are a thousand ways camera lenses, for instance, can be used, but one must be able to make the right choices."

"But lenses are only one part of filming. There is camera movement, composition of a shot or sequence, the role of colour and so on. The camera must move in a way that audiences should not notice it, and there has got to be a good reason for the camera to shift. One must choreograph it in such a way that viewers do not see the movement."

"Audiences want to know what is happening in a character’s mind. They want to know how he or she is responding to a situation or development. So, you have to take these into account while filming a scene."

"Cinema is demanding because it is not just photography. It is not just composition, it is not just colours, it is not even just technology. It is not just sound and effects. But much more than all these."

Cinema is actually one’s experience. One’s vision of life. The film-maker’s. That is his cinema. This is why, I feel, cinema is so demanding that one cannot have one’s attention diverted or distracted." (pg 57)

On the role of an actor in a film-
"A film is not just an actor's performance. He is only one of the several elements. In fact, to a great extent, his presentation is a raw material. In the theatre, the role of an actor is important. He can improvise, and improve with each show. But in cinema his role is restricted. It can be altered, edited, abbreviated, extended, cut to pieces... anything can be done. He is not even playing directly to the audience. He has to perform to the satisfaction and fulfillment of the director's vision of the movie." (pg 95)

On creativity-
"Creativity defies simple definitions and explanations. It is common knowledge that a person without the faculty of memory is incapable of imagination and creativity. Memory is linked to experience. It is stored in images or ideas by combining previous experiences. Imagination is often regarded as the more seriously and deeply creative faculty, which perceives basic resemblances between things, as distinguished from fancy- the lighter and more decorative faculty, which just takes in superficial resemblances."

"Experience is anything observed or lived through. It has many shades and grades. The most important is the individual reaction to things and events where one is directly involved.

At another level, experience is borrowed through empathy. You make the other person’s experience your own in order to understand him and his predicament. A different shade of experience is the one that comes from the appreciation of arts, literature, theater, cinema etc… then, there is also the case of information as experience. Print and electronic media do provide daily information of life around us and elsewhere…

These are what enrich one’s life. It is only such experiences that help a director make a movie that touches the heart and soul of an audience." (pg 145)

It is very important that we stay attentive to a filmmaker like Adoor Gopalakrishnan who is among the most critically acclaimed directors after Satyajit Ray.  His films surely achieve something more than mere storytelling.

At a time when most of the commercial cinema is full of loud and boisterous characters, talking non-stop at high pitch, the space for meaningful cinema is diminishing. Good films hardly run for one or two weeks in our multiplexes.

In  our headlong rush to be amused and entertained by the 'masala' films, many of us have no patience for the good films made with low budgets.   

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Library Class

During my high school days, apart from the regular subjects like the languages, science, mathematics, and social studies, we also had some additional classes on subjects like moral science, physical education, and so on. One such class was the library class. It was probably called that because it was handled by the librarian. It was a class that was completely dedicated to discussions on books. English books, novels in particular, were introduced to us in this class. It was a wonderful escape to the world of imagination.

Our teacher, DNR, was definitely a fervent book lover. He had a very efficient way of introducing a book. I can see him in my mind’s eye now, as he appeared in the class, greying-haired, bespectacled figure moving around in front of the black board. He would start a session by first listing on the blackboard, with a neat hand, the main characters from the book he had chosen for the day. Sometimes, if a break preceded the library class, this story outlining on the blackboard would start even before all the students were seated in the class.

Later on, I have gone on to read some of the books that DNR introduced in those classes. Novels like The Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Airport by Arthur Hailey, a crime thriller titled Not Safe To Be Free by James Hadley Chase, and so on. Each one of those books has left an impression on me, not least because I first heard about them at an impressionable age. The love of books and reading was in me from an early age. The world of English fiction was introduced to me by DNR, and his library class. The selection of the books was also appropriate, as these were stories that could really hold the attention of a high school student. It was obvious that he loved these books. The class listened to him with rapt attention. The stories transported us into another world for the duration.

The books introduced in these classes were mostly from the genre of general fiction and thrillers and not the classics of literature. I think this was a good approach. As we were for the first time getting introduced to the joys of reading, light and entertaining kind of books kept us interested. Obviously, as one gets deeper into the world of books, the magnificent range and variety of reading material presents itself.

Later on, once out of high school, as I got more into the reading habit, I moved from the thrillers genre onto the classic genre.  In spite of not always being very accessible and easy in terms of readability, the classics have offered me a great reading experience nevertheless. When I look back on my reading choices over the years, I find that my list of books includes books from different genres, including a fair number of classics too. In a way though, it all started with the library class.

These days we often hear discussions regarding the importance and relevance of fiction. Internet is making information far more easily accessible but it is also resulting in changes in the way we read. The amount of reading has increased as a result of text-messaging, browsing and so on, but the traditional way of reading books has decreased. Internet has certainly increased the efficiency in generating and distributing information. The question though still remains regarding the impact on the state of reading fiction.

So, why do we need fiction? The answer for that question can never be universal. It is like asking why do we live. For one, maybe it is just the love of a good story. There have been hundreds of witty answers to the question on reading. I liked this anonymous quote- “Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” And this one from Gustave Flaubert,- “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

I do want to believe in literature and its possibilities. 

DNR and his library class definitely helped in instilling the curiosity and enthusiasm for literature. Years later, I had a chance to meet DNR again. In 2010, I was back in my school for a reunion and he had come there too. Now, completely grey haired and long retired, he looked older. I went up to him and introduced myself. He seemed to recognize me but not distinctly. I told him how much I used to like his library class and mentioned some books that he had covered. I think he was pleased that I could remember some of the books he had introduced to us.

More on my favorite books here-