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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Frederick Forsyth on the Unpleasantness in Guinea-Bissau

Posted by anandrr on March 3, 2009

Thanks to a happy concatenation of circumstances, I was in the car today when the BBC was talking about all the recent unpleasantness in Guinea-Bissau1. And who should they have found to talk about it but Frederick Forsyth who just happened to be visiting there on the day of the coup. This led to the best foreign-journalist reporting that I’ve ever heard on the radio. I recorded it for posterity and archived it off here. It’s equal parts wordsmith talking about the events, for instance,

As [the General] sat down at his desk, someone with a doohickey pressed the appropriate button and a bomb went off, creating out of the general, an ex-general.

and also traditional British stiff upper-lip:

I was due to fly out tomorrow afternoon, and I rather think they’re going to keep the airport closed which is very inconvenient.

Listen to the whole thing of course, it’s rife with entertainment as he talks about the President that would not die and the forensic pathologist in charge who helped him piece it together and on and on.

————–

Fn 1: For those who do not wish to click through and read it all, the President of Guinea Bissau had the General of his Army killed,  the Army not taking too kindly to this interference had their President killed right back and now the country is without a President as well as a General. All quite unfortunate of course.

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Posted in Army, Foreign Policy, Funny, Literature, Politics, Sports, wtf | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

What Would Google Do Indeed?

Posted by anandrr on February 20, 2009

Me emailing the moment to JP, Editor, Bookmarks magazine: With any luck the reviews on [What Would Google Do] are coming in at around 1 star.  Walked in to the bookstore and this douche of an author is standing here and being himself. God what a load.

But  more interesting  than the author and his speech was the audience itself. The bookstore in question was Books Inc in downtown Mountain View, hometown of the aforementioned Google. I was emailing on the (supposedly citywide) free public Wifi provided by Google to the fine denizens of that fine town. The last time I had seen a Google-related talk at Books Inc was when Battelle was there flogging his Search book. Back then, Google was the new darling and everybody wanted to fawn on the Google. This time, it was very different. This book might have top-picked the Google phenomenon. For a Mountain View audience, they were distinctly hostile to the ideas that the author was flogging, they pooh-poohed transparency, calling Google the most secretive company on earth (when the author challenged that, they gave in a little and admitted that perhaps the CIA and FBI were more secretive), they questioned whether the concept of beta products extended to much more than free web offerings and brandished bug-ridden Android phones as proof, they didn’t think Google would exist at all without vast Government expenditures and so where did we get off belittling other Government initiatives (the specific topic being global warming)?

This turn in sentiment is curious, very curious.

Posted in Advertising, Book Review, Business, Capitalism, Communism, Economics, Internet, Literature | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Posted by anandrr on January 27, 2009

My relationship with Vikram Chandra goes way back. Back when he was a young novelist who had just completed his debut novel and I a callow youth, I read about Red Earth and Pouring Rain and knew that I had to read it. Unfortunately I was but a college student low on funds, so I had to wait around until I won a gift certificate to the local book store and then I pounced. My expectations were sky high, the reviews had been glowing, they were sent higher still by the fact that I was spending precious book store gift coupon currency for which I had had to win an inter-college quiz competition or some such and they were sent into the stratosphere by the fact that I count among my prized possessions a copy of the Panchatantra (translated by Ryder) gifted to my brother and I by our parents and that translation of the Panchatantra had taught me that the Amar Chitra Katha variant of the Panchatantra was a sham, a mere trifle, and the Panchatantra far from being a mere Indian version of Aesop’s fables were much much more, a massive work of art and literature. From those sky high expectations, there was only one direction: down. And Red Earth disappointed me. It had started off strong, I had loved the way it moved, but somewhere along the way he lost me and I lost him. And that was that as far as Chandra and I were concerned.

Until 2007, when he wrote Sacred Games. This time I had a secret weapon. Bookmarks magazine (Bookmarks review of Sacred Games) gets truck-loads of books every year and surely this had to be among them. It was, and I was saved. Risk-free Vikram Chandra enjoyment. I started in on it right away, but my return to India interrupted my reading. At 900 pages, a hardbound edition took up too much valuable space and weight to make the top list of things that returned with me. So it sat (marked at page 150 or so by a sad letter from State Farm telling me that it was my fault not their customer’s that my car had a dent (it was entirely his fault, you jerks, and you can’t even spell my name right, so what kind of investigation did you do anyway?)) in storage patiently awaiting its turn. Which turn came on my last trip stateside, so as soon as I was done with our new President, I was ready to continue where I left off.

Sacred Games appears to be a companion volume to Maximum City. But that is doing Maximum City too many favours, and Sacred Games a grave disservice. Games is the book that Maximum City should have been, indeed could have been, but thank God for Games, it does Bombay credit. Chandra is still playing with form, half the book moves forward in time, the other half is told in flashback by a man who kills himself in the first chapter, both stories moving forwards of course, but interwoven beautifully without making it seem like a gimmick, and there are insets: little bits of back story, seemingly without much relevance to the story, a little gimmicky but you sense Tarantino beaming in approval.

Ganesh Gaitonde is the mafia don found dead, of apparent suicide, early in the book by police inspector Sartaj Singh (whom Gaitonde has called to his hideout), this death precipitated by Singh’s decision to take Gaitonde’s nuclear-bunker-like building by force. The rest of the book chronicles the story of Gaitonde’s rise from a small-time assistant on a smuggling boat to the man who runs the G-company, Bombay’s biggest mob. This is the first thread, narrated by an omniscient Gaitonde in first person. The second thread is a police procedural as it follows Singh, an unambitious cop in Bombay, investigate Gaitonde’s death (and that of a woman found dead with him) and why he was in the bunker. The investigation is mostly above his pay-grade, there are forces operating here over which he has no control and sometimes even less understanding, but he is diligent and eventually ends up wanting to do the right thing.

Gaitonde appears truthful to a fault, a dead man has nothing to lose; Singh has his vices, he is not above an occasional bribe, and will happily beat up innocent people if it will further his investigation. But between the two of them, Chandra has written up a terrific piece, L.A. Confidential can suck it. It has the grandeur of an epic: the partition and the Indo-China war get a look-in as do the ’93 Bombay riots. It has the elements of a pot-boiler: plenty of sex via aspiring Bollywood starlets, plenty of blood, and sudden and incongruous twists that suddenly tie up loose ends. Religious tensions simmer, the ISI is of course involved, and a sadhu does the Indian rope trick. But like a well-made Bollywood thriller (ha!), when Bombay is your backdrop anything will work!

Every story about Bombay (shout out to Slumdog), has to revel in its extremes and Games gets it just right. But the other finely calibrated thing in Games is the language. When Rushdie writes, he captures a certain English that belongs to the English-speaking classes of India, a Hinglish that is not so much a mixture of Hindi and English as a direct translation from Hindi. When we speak informally among brothers and cousins we affect an English that traslates directly from our mother tongue and yields a language at once funny and inventive, the language comes alive as you listen to it. Chandra goes in a different direction, but it is just as effective. He is also translating, but not with a wink and a nudge, but quite truthfully. And the untranslateable words are, well, not translated. The result is that as you read, you can hear the characters say it in the original Bambaiya Hindi down to the mandatory curse word.

The book isn’t unputdownable: both its size and scope demand that you put it down every now and then and take a rest. From the way the flow sometimes ebbs, one senses that Chandra did the same as he wrote it. And it does have a fault: I was promised the end of the world in the last chapter, I did not get it, what’s worse some villains got their just desserts at the end but by handling that backstage, the climax left one feeling a little limp.

Posted in Book Review, English, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Book Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Posted by anandrr on January 20, 2009

I am famously skeptical of The Messiah. But I can be cynical and skeptical all I want about Obama’s true colors, or whether he really represents a break from the past, but I have to give him this: he displays amazing temperament, and he can write and speak like a champion. And no matter what I think of him, it is still quite an accomplishment for a black man to become President of the US, even in 2008. Most of all, his is an intriguing tale, product of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia (away from his father at all times), a sudden turn from this apparently idyllic boyhood to an adulthood immersed in the south side of Chicago as a community organizer and finally this rapid rise through the ranks from mere state senator to President in the blink of an eye.

When I was done with Maximum City, I was looking for a quick read that would be an easy transit stop on my way to something more hefty, and decided I would honour our new found leader of the free world by reading one of his two tomes. I thought, and Jon at Bookmarks magazine agreed, that Dreams From My Father might be less I-am-running-for-president-so-listen-to-what-I-have-to-say than The Audacity of Hope, so Dreams it was.

Dreams is a good book. It came out of a book deal that Obama landed when he was appointed the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review thus turning him in to the subject of fawning news stories. The book spans Obama’s life from his childhood until the time he went to law school, but it is a story of a young Obama “finding himself.” That is of course an overused phrase, most people looking to find themselves are probably just looking for an opportunity to get high, but Obama truly does find himself, and in so doing understands race relations in the US from a unique perspective. Obama has much to find. The son of a white mother and growing up in an entirely white family in Hawaii, he is never seen as legitimately black while his skin color ensures that he will never be seen as anything else. His father appears to have abandoned his family soon after Obama’s birth leaving him father-less for most of his life.

Obama’s journey takes him to Indonesia, California, Wall Street and Chicago. It is in the south side that Obama finds himself for the first time. For the first time after all the way stations, he is in a place where his skin color is taken for granted and few people know of his exotic background so it allows him to be himself. When he gets to Chicago, it is a heady time. Harold Washington has just been elected mayor and black people feel like the outlook is finally beginning to change for them. (BTW, if you have not listened to This American Life on Washington’s election and tenure, it is well worth a listen. It is quite amazing how racist Chicago was, even as recently as the 80s. And if that was Chicago in the 80s, how about many other parts of the country today?) Of course, it is a chimera, nothing really changes. Being a community organizer brings Obama into people’s homes and families where he learns this first hand. And it’s only getting worse: single parent families were already the norm, racism already pervaded every aspect of black people’s existence, now drugs are beginning to invade the inner city, the kids are “changing,” and most of all jobs are still scarce. More troubling, everybody who is interested in helping them isn’t really interested in helping them but only in helping themselves. Politicians who will participate if it helps them rise higher, school officials if their families get jobs as a result and so on. (Of course, this is all wrapped now with a very post-modern bow. Obama himself could well have been in it for the law school essay/political gain. As Ryan Lizza meticulously laid out in the New Yorker, Obama has always been in the business of “using” people, experiences and contacts to rise rapidly in politics).

The other constant in the African-American experience would appear to be abandonment. Obama himself deals with it in his childhood. His fellow black people face it at every step of their lives. Abandoned by their fathers, by the state, by society, and finally left in perpetual hopelessness.

A couple years later, after Obama has been accepted at Harvard Law School, he visits Kenya for the first time. This is the second time he finds himself. For the first time he meets relatives who “look like him,” and he meets his father’s side of the family. This is an especially moving part of the book, as Obama learns about his family, the Kenyan way of life, and most importantly the sacrifices made by his father and grandfather that set the stage for his comfortable existence in the US. Obama goes from being not just a black man in a white country but also the son of an immigrant.

The book is useful in understanding Obama. He comes across as thoughtful, curious and empathetic. His desire for “change” is obvious from the start. And there are portents of the future. Obama is not a radical by any means, he seeks consensus and works from within the system to bring change. He is also opportunistic, when Washington comes to his neighbourhood to inaugurate a job center, this is not just the culmination of a successful initiative but a chance to get him to commit to something more. Of course, the writing is good. For a person whose daily job does not involve writing, Obama writes really well. In parts it feels a little stunted and trite, but on the whole, I wish more politicians wrote this well. Finally, he covers his “conversion” from what can best be described as don’t-care-ism to Wright-led belief in God. One understands why Obama gravitated to Wright (as apparently do many other black yuppies etc), but for a man of his foresight it is a little incredible that he stuck with it rather than move on to a less “controversial church” when he had decided to take his politics national.

To return to where I started, I picked the book hoping for it to be less politician-preparing-for-a-run-y. I’m not so sure now. There’s one tell: in the book Obama “recounts” many conversations (as best as you can recount conversations that happened over the last twenty-five or so years). People speaking to Obama sometimes curse, use the n-word and so on. Obama never does. I’m thinking he knew that the words he was writing might just come back to haunt him.

Posted in Book Review, English, Literature, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Calvin and Hobbes go to Norway

Posted by anandrr on January 10, 2009

Sitting in the airport, there’s a foreigner sitting across from me reading a comic book whose characters look like Calvin and Hobbes. The only difference is that it’s not titled Calvin and Hobbes, but Tommy og Tigern (or even possibly Tommy ög Tigern).  I’m assuming that it’s Calvin and Hobbes in Norwegian or something. But wait a minute, on the one hand, you have characters named for two influential philosophers who stood for sharply differing views of human nature, and this dichotomy expressed in the characters’ views towards life.  On the other, you have Tommy and the Tiger? Did the creativity well freeze over in Norway?

Posted in Literature, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Book Review: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

Posted by anandrr on January 3, 2009

I first visited Bombay as a young teenager, and it was a case of love at first sight. There is an energy to Bombay that other Indian cities can only aspire to, indeed the only other city anywhere that seems to have a similar energy is New York. There were many other things that were unique and lovable about the city: it never seemed to sleep, people were going about their business and shops and restaurants seemed to stay open late late in to the night; the people I was visiting with lived in (compared to Bangalore) cramped flats but this seemed to foster a much greater sense of community among the families who lived there; the Bhel puri was a revelation; and I didn’t look at the generally run-down condition of the buildings and cringe, like an infatuated teenager I only thought it made it look more beautiful. When I visit Bombay today, almost all of that is still true, of course I continue to love the city, it is still one of a select few that I could imagine living in, the huge piles of garbage do make me cringe, but I’ve learned to ignore that in India, I continue to be amazed by the vast slums, and the most amazing thing about Bombay is that the taxi/auto drivers don’t seem to want to fleece me and people stand in line to get into a bus (but not to get into a local?). There are times of the year when I hate the weather there, but I’m beginning to learn that there are few places in India that a Bangalorean can go to and not complain about the weather.

This general love-affair with Bombay was why I was rather looking forward to reading Maximum City. I was eager to learn a lot more, I had only glimpsed Bombay in brief 1 and 2 day stints, what was I missing? And more importantly, make me love it more. The title aptly captures my concept of Bombay, it is truly a maximum city, not only is every thing bigger and better: they have the largest slums and Ambani’s $1B home, more people migrate there than anywhere else, every form of industry known to man seems to operate in some corner of Bombay, some of the richest Indians live there and certainly some of the poorest, they have more gangs per capita than anywhere else, and more ingredients in their melting pot than the rest of the country.

And so it was that the book itself fell short of my expectations. The biggest problem with the book was that it felt more like a buffet than a banquet. You get to pick and enjoy your dishes, but there is no unifying theme, you don’t come away with any greater appreciation for Bombay and what makes it tick than what you already imagined.

There are three distinct voices in the book: immigrant Mehta, literary journalist Mehta and ironic Mehta. Immigrant Mehta gets us kicked off with a personal note about his return to Bombay after an absence of some 20 years during which time he has lived around the world. This is of course an experience I appreciate myself, and his visceral notes about Bombay (generally true of any where in India, natch) ring very true. He neatly and concisely captures the culture shock of a returning Indian and continuing amazement that the “system” works nevertheless. Bombay (as the rest of India is also) emerges as the city of No, a city where change is the only constant where even the footpath today is not what it was last week, and will never be a usable footpath.

Literary Mehta disappoints. This section of the book comprises long (think New Yorker length and more) essays about different facets of the city: the 93 riots, the beer bar dancers, the gangs and so on. Mehta’s method here is to immerse himself in the lives that he wishes to document and then write about them in mini-novellas. But this leads to three problems: first, and somewhat trivial perhaps, his is not a writing style that lends itself to such long pieces. His writing style feels Economist, his writing length says New Yorker, this often left me tired as I reached the end of a marathon that I had expected to sprint through. Second, this method has an inbuilt shortcoming: there are only so many lives you can document, and you come away feeling that you have not had a complete picture, what about the lives of the local train engineer, the taxi driver, the stock broker, the high flying industrialist, the iron smelter in Dharavi, all of these people contribute to making Bombay maximum also, but they are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, by insinuating himself into their lives what starts as an apparently journalistic investigation of someone’s life and work quickly turns gushingly sympathetic, all Mumbai cops are corrupt and immoral except the one whom Mehta has chosen to portray, all Bombay beer bar dancers are really just looking to swindle their next “boyfriend” except the one Mehta befriends (and I’m so not buying the chastity of that relationship), and on and on.

Finally, we read Ironic Mehta. When he turns a detached (and somewhat snobbish perhaps) eye at Bollywood, his school, the Jains in search of salvation, Mehta turns the irony dial to 11 and doesn’t disappoint. He is unfailingly energetic throughout the book but now he channels it well showing us how few things in India are what they appear to be on the outside. This turns out to be especially true in that city of dhandha, and Mehta documents this exceedingly well. A different Bombay comes together at this point in his book, it might or might not be the real Bombay, but is certainly the most credible portrait, and it is as well that he leaves us with this picture, a little something to wash down the earlier silliness.

Posted in Book Review, Capitalism, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Posted by anandrr on December 28, 2008

I first read an excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence in the New Yorker many months ago, it was the part of the book that describes Akbar, his capital at Fatehpur Sikri, his “invisible wife” Jodha, and Akbar’s battles with his self and his sprituality. The essay represented the Rushdie writing that I love best, his beautiful English describing with loving care an apparently faraway land and time, the characters surprisingly life-like (even Jodha), the writing was fluid and evocative, and most of all it held out a promise of much much more in the real book. Then the book came out and I heard someone (possibly Krasny) on KQED talk about it as East meeting West, and I dismissed it as the book I certainly didn’t want to read. There the matter would have lain, and I would have gone through the rest of my life describing the book as one of Rushdie’s minor works, until on one of my recent trips to the US, I spent a couple days at a friend’s place, and this friend had this book lying around the house. The time that we didn’t spend walking the streets, discussing alternative energy or reliving the Republic of Mysore, I spent reading the book.

Needless to say, Rushdie had me at the dedication. The pages turned quickly and I hated that I was having to leave before I got to finish the book.  Never mind, as soon as I was back in India (always respect the cost arbitrage on books) I got myself a copy and a week’s worth of night-time reading later, I was a happy and contented man.  Enchantress is perhaps not as great as Midnight’s Children but it marks a return to form from Ground Beneath Her Feet which had  rather disappointed me, even Bono couldn’t rescue it. Enchantress is of course very beautifully written, Rushdie has such a remarkable facility for English, he seems to write with such ease that reading his work is extremely pleasurable. His choice of subjects also lend themselves to such description, Akbar, his harem, his court, his city and medieval India; Italy, medieval Florence, great sea voyages, pirates, and more, all of these make for an enchanting backdrop against which to tell his tale.

And what a tale! At one level, it is of course about East meeting West, Machiavelli, master political strategist, meets Akbar, emperor, philosopher, spiritualist. And hovering behind them all, Qara Koz, the “Enchantress,” a lady in the west of incredible and unsurpassed beauty, but as it turns out a not-so-distant cousin of Akbar’s. But these are set in a time when it seems entirely unremarkable that the emperor has an invisible wife, an even more invisible distant cousin, herself constantly accompanied by her “Mirror,” a maid who mirrors her mistresses’ own feelings (and as it turns out plays a non-trivial part in the raison d’etre for the book). Back then, these were common we’re told, the fantastic always mixed with the real unlike our heretical lives now. This is of course a recurring theme in Rushdie’s books, the fantastic always play a part in our reality.

At another level, this is a story about women. The Enchantress is a woman who moves from man to man using her incredible beauty to exercise great power over men and history. Eventually she exercises her power over Akbar entirely remotely, from the great beyond as it happens, and his courtiers look on helplessly. Jodha also holds the emperor in her thrall until Qara Koz arrives in his life, at which point she finds herself relegated. This leads to one of the funnier scenes in the book, where Akbar’s real harem finally find that they can make peace with the imaginary Jodha now that
they are all part of the sisterhood of Akbar’s past affections.

But most of all, it is a book about religion and spirituality. Akbar is searching for an answer to religion’s ills. He believes that God far from providing us a moral anchor, has given us a reason not to create such structures for ourselves.  His quest for this human-created morality dominates his life. It finally fizzles out of course, as does Fatehpur Sikri, and as we’re all aware the Mughal Empire went downhill from then on.

Posted in Book Review, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Story of My Experiments at a Bookstore

Posted by anandrr on December 9, 2008

Mein Kampf and Gandhi sit cheek by jowl at Gangaram's

Mein Kampf and Gandhi sit cheek by jowl at Gangaram's


There aren’t many places in the world where you’d find this incongruous placement of wares. But to most Indians Hitler is just another charismatic military general.

Posted in Bertie Heads to the Photo Shop, Literature, Shutterbug | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Flashback Friday: Pearls Before Swine

Posted by anandrr on October 17, 2008

A colleague recently told me he was visiting Madikeri for the Puja vacation. That immediately reminded me of the song from Mutthina Hara. The Madikeri Sipyee one, the one with the indecipherable Kodava words. And I just spent the last half hour searching Youtube but damned if I can find the song. All the other fine songs from the movie seem to be on there, but this particular one: no dice. So instead, here for your cringing pleasure is another song from 1990, and I hate to say it, at the time I thought it was good. We were all young once, alas.

Posted in Culture, Films, Kannada, Media, Nostalgia, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Just Not Landed Enough

Posted by anandrr on September 28, 2008

In the preface to Summer Lightning, we read

A word about the title. It is related of Thackeray that, hitting upon Vanity Fair after retiring to rest one night, he leaped out of bed and ran seven times round the room, shouting at the top of his voice. Oddly enough, I behaved in exactly the same way when I thought of Summer Lightning. I recognized it immediately as the ideal title for a novel. My exuberance has been a little diminished since by the discovery that I am not the only one who thinks highly of it. Already I have been informed that two novels with the same name have been published in England, and my agent in America cables to say that three have recently been placed on the market in the United States. As my story has appeared in serial form under its present label, it is too late to alter it now. I can only express the modest hope that this story will be considered worthy of inclusion in the list of the Hundred Best Books Called Summer Lightning.

As this Google search for Just Landed shows, not only was our exuberance on running into the name Just Landed a little over done, there are any number of websites out there called Just Landed, and by Google’s lights we are not even in the top hundred websites with that awesome name.

Posted in Funny, Literature | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »