Sunday, April 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of Franz Kafka's The Trial

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hair experts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chronicles of Narayana - The Punch

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

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

(Might be continued)

Do let me know what you think..